Read a sample from THE PARIAH by Anthony Ryan

Anthony Ryan returns with a blockbuster epic fantasy series following the adventures of Alwyn Scribe – an outlaw who will become a champion and shape the fate of the world.

Chapter One

Before killing a man, I always found it calming to regard the trees. Lying on my back in the long grass fringing the King’s Road and gazing at the green and brown matrix above, branches creaking and leaves whispering in the late-morning breeze, brought a welcome serenity. I had found this to be true ever since my first faltering steps into this forest as a boy ten years before. When the heart began to thud and sweat beaded my brow, the simple act of looking up at the trees brought a respite, one made sweeter by the knowledge that it would be short lived.

Hearing the clomp of iron-shod hooves upon earth, accompanied by the grinding squeal of a poorly greased axle, I closed my eyes to the trees and rolled onto my belly. Shorn of the soothing distraction, my heart’s excited labour increased in pitch, but I was well schooled in not letting it show. Also, the sweat dampening my armpits and trickling down my back would only add to my stench, adding garnish for the particular guise I adopted that day. Lamed outcasts are rarely fragrant.

Raising my head just enough to glimpse the approaching party through the grass, I was obliged to take a deep breath at the sight of the two mounted men-at-arms riding at the head of the caravan. More concerning still were the two soldiers perched on the cart that followed, both armed with crossbows, eyes scanning the forest on either side of the road in a worrying display of hard-learned vigilance. Although not within the chartered bounds of the Shavine Forest, this stretch of the King’s Road described a long arc through its northern fringes. Sparse in comparison to the deep forest, it was still a place of bountiful cover and not one to be travelled by the unwary in such troubled times.

As the company drew closer, I saw a tall lance bobbing above the small throng, the pennant affixed beneath its blade fluttering in the breeze with too much energy to make out the crest it bore. However, its gold and red hues told the tale clearly: royal colours. Deckin’s intelligence had, as ever, been proven correct: this lot were the escort for a Crown messenger.

I waited until the full party had revealed itself, counting another four mounted men-at-arms in the rearguard. I took some comfort from the earthy brown and green of their livery. These were not kingsmen but ducal levies from Cordwain, taken far from home by the demands of war and not so well trained or steadfast as Crown soldiery. However, their justified caution and overall impression of martial orderliness was less reassuring. I judged them unlikely to run when the time came, which was unfortunate for all concerned.

I rose when the leading horsemen were a dozen paces off, reaching for the gnarled, rag-wrapped tree branch that served as my crutch and levering myself upright. I was careful to blink a good deal and furrow my brow in the manner of a soul just roused from slumber. As I hobbled towards the verge, keeping the blackened bulb of my bandaged foot clear of the ground, my features slipped easily into the gape-mouthed, emptied-eyed visage of a crippled dullard. Reaching the road, I allowed the foot to brush the churned mud at the edge. Letting out an agonised groan of appropriate volume, I stumbled forwards, collapsing onto all fours in the middle of the rutted fairway.

It should not be imagined that I fully expected the soldiers’ horses to rear, for many a warhorse is trained to trample a prone man. Fortunately, these beasts had not been bred for knightly service and they both came to a gratifyingly untidy halt, much to the profane annoyance of their riders.

“Get out of the fucking road, churl!” the soldier on the right snarled, dragging on his reins as his mount wheeled in alarm. Beyond him, the cart and, more importantly, the bobbing lance of the Crown messenger also stopped. The crossbowmen sank lower on the mound of cargo affixed to the cart-bed, both reaching for the bolts in their quivers. Crossbowmen are always wary of leaving their weapons primed for long intervals, for it wears down the stave and the string. However, failing to do so this day would soon prove a fatal miscalculation.

I didn’t allow my sight to linger on the cart, however, instead gaping up at the mounted soldier with wide, fearful eyes that betrayed little comprehension. It was an expression I had practised extensively, for it is not easy to mask one’s intellect.

“Shift your arse!” his companion instructed, his voice marginally less angry and speaking as if addressing a dull-witted dog. When I continued to stare up at him from the ground he cursed and reached for the whip on his saddle.

“Please!” I whimpered, crutch raised protectively over my head. “Y-your pardon, good sirs!”

I had noticed on many occasions that such cringing will invariably stoke rather than quell the violent urges of the brutishly inclined, and so it proved now. The soldier’s face darkened as he unhooked the whip, letting it unfurl so its barbed tip dangled onto the road a few inches from my cowering form. Looking up, I saw his hand tighten on the diamond-etched pattern of the handle. The leather was well worn, marking this as a man who greatly enjoyed opportunities to use this weapon.

However, as he raised the lash he paused, features bunching in disgust. “Martyrs’ guts, but you’re a stinker!”

“Sorry, sir!” I quailed. “Can’t help it. Me foot, see? It’s gone all rotten since me master’s cart landed on it. I’m on the Trail of Shrines. Going to beseech Martyr Stevanos to put me right. Y’wouldn’t hurt a faithful fellow, would you?”

In fact, my foot was a fine and healthy appendage to an equally healthy leg. The stench that so assailed the soldier’s nose came from a pungent mix of wild garlic, bird shit and mulched-up leaves. For a guise to be convincing, one must never neglect the power of scent. It was important that these two see no threat in me. A lamed youth happened upon while traversing a notoriously treacherous road could well be faking. But one with a face lacking all wit and a foot exuding an odour carefully crafted to match the festering wounds this pair had surely encountered before was another matter.

Closer scrutiny would surely have undone me. Had this pair been more scrupulous in their appraisal they would have seen the mostly unmarked skin beneath the grime and the rangy but sturdy frame of a well-fed lad beneath the rags. Keener eyes and a fraction more time would also have discerned the small bulge of the knife beneath my threadbare jerkin. But these unfortunates lacked the required keenness of vision, and they were out of time. It had only been moments since I had stumbled into their path, but the distraction had been enough to bring their entire party to a halt. Over the course of an eventful and perilous life, I have found that it is in these small, confused interludes that death is most likely to arrive.

For the soldier on the right it arrived in the form of a crow-fletched arrow with a barbed steel head. The shaft came streaking from the trees to enter his neck just behind the ear before erupting from his mouth in a cloud of blood and shredded tongue. As he toppled from the saddle, his whip-bearing comrade proved his veteran status by immediately dropping the whip and reaching for his longsword. He was quick, but so was I. Snatching my knife from its sheath I put my bandaged foot beneath me and launched myself up, latching my free hand to his horse’s bridle. The animal reared in instinctive alarm, raising me the additional foot I required to sink my knife into the soldier’s throat before he could fully draw his sword. I was proud of the thrust, it being something I’d practised as much as my witless expression, the blade opening the required veins at the first slice.

I kept hold of the horse’s reins as my feet met the ground, the beast threatening to tip me over with all its wheeling about. Watching the soldier tumble to the road and gurgle out his last few breaths, I felt a pang of regret for the briefness of his end. Surely this fellow with his well-worn whip had earned a more prolonged passing in his time. However, my regret was muted as one of many lessons in outlaw craft drummed into me over the years came to mind: When the task is a killing, be quick and make sure of it. Torment is an indulgence. Save it for only the most deserving.

It was mostly over by the time I calmed the horse. The first volley of arrows had felled all but two of the guards. Both crossbowmen lay dead on the cart, as did its drover. One man-at-arms had the good sense to turn his horse about and gallop off, not that it saved him from the thrown axe that came spinning out of the trees to take him in the back. The last was made of more admirable, if foolhardy stuff. The brief arrow storm had impaled his thigh and skewered his mount, but still he contrived to roll clear of the thrashing beast and rise, drawing his sword to face the two dozen outlaws running from the treeline.

I have heard versions of this tale that would have you believe that, when confronted by this brave and resolute soul, Deckin Scarl himself forbade his band from cutting him down. Instead he and the stalwart engaged in solitary combat. Having mortally wounded the soldier, the famed outlaw sat with him until nightfall as they shared tales of battles fought and ruminated on the capricious mysteries that determine the fates of all.

These days, similarly nonsensical songs and stories abound regarding Deckin Scarl, renowned Outlaw King of the Shavine Marches and, as some would have it, protector of churl and beggar alike. With one hand he stole and the other he gave, as one particularly execrable ballad would have it. Brave Deckin of the woods, strong and kind he stood.

If, dear reader, you find yourself minded to believe a word of this I have a six-legged donkey to sell you. The Deckin Scarl I knew was certainly strong, standing two inches above six feet with plenty of muscle to match his height, although his belly had begun to swell in recent years. And kind he could be, but it was a rare thing for a man does not rise to the summit of outlawry in the Shavine Forest by dint of kindness.

In fact, the only words I heard Deckin say in regard to that stout soldier was a grunted order to, “Kill that silly fucker and let’s get on.” Neither did Deckin bother to spare a glance for the fellow’s end, sent off to the Martyrs’ embrace by a dozen arrows. I watched the outlaw king come stomping from the shadowed woods with his axe in hand, an ugly weapon with a blackened and misshapen double blade that was rarely far from his reach. He paused to regard my handiwork, shrewd eyes bright beneath his heavy brows as they tracked from the soldier’s corpse to the horse I had managed to capture. Horses were a prize worth claiming for they fetched a good price, especially in times of war. Even if they couldn’t be sold, meat was always welcome in camp.

Grunting in apparent satisfaction, Deckin swiftly turned his attention to the sole survivor of the ambush, an outcome that had not been accidental. “One arrow comes within a yard of the messenger,” he had growled at us all that morning, “and I’ll have the skin off the hand that loosed it, fingers to wrist.” It wasn’t an idle threat, for we had all seen him make good on the promise before.

The royal messenger was a thin-faced man clad in finely tailored jerkin and trews with a long cloak dyed to mirror the royal livery. Seated upon a grey stallion, he maintained an expression of disdainful affront even as Deckin moved to grasp the bridle of his horse. For all his rigid dignity and evident outrage, he was wise enough not to lower the lance he held, the royal pennant continuing to stand tall and flutter above this scene of recent slaughter.

“Any violence or obstruction caused to a messenger in Crown service is considered treason,” the thin-faced fellow stated, his voice betraying a creditably small quaver. He blinked and finally consented to afford Deckin the full force of his imperious gaze. “You should know that, whoever you are.”

“Indeed I do, good sir,” Deckin replied, inclining his head. “And I believe you know full well who I am, do you not?”

The messenger blinked again and shifted his eyes away once more,

not deigning to answer. I had seen Deckin kill for less blatant insults, but now he just laughed. Raising his free hand, he gave a hard, expectant snap of his fingers.

The messenger’s face grew yet more rigid, rage and humiliation flushing his skin red. I saw his nostrils flare and lips twitch, no doubt the result of biting down unwise words. The fact that he didn’t need to be asked twice before reaching for the leather scroll tube on his belt made it plain that he certainly knew the name of the man before him.

“Lorine!” Deckin barked, taking the scroll from the messenger’s reluctant hand and holding it out to the slim, copper-haired woman who strode forwards to take it.

The balladeers would have it that Lorine D’Ambrille was the famously fair daughter of a distant lordling who fled her father’s castle rather than suffer an arranged marriage to a noble of ill repute and vile habits. Via many roads and adventures, she made her way to the dark woods of the Shavine Marches where she had the good fortune to be rescued from a pack of ravening wolves by none other than the kindly rogue Deckin Scarl himself. Love soon blossomed betwixt them, a love that, much to my annoyance, has echoed through the years acquiring ever more ridiculous legend in the process.

As far as I have been able to ascertain there was no more noble blood in Lorine’s veins than mine, although the origin of her comparatively well-spoken tones and evident education are still something of a mystery. She remained a cypher despite the excessive time I would devote to thinking of her. As with all legends, however, a kernel of truth lingers: she was fair. Her features held a smooth handsomeness that had survived years of forest living and she somehow contrived to keep her lustrous copper hair free of grease and burrs. For one suffering the boundless lust of youth, I couldn’t help but stare at her whenever the chance arose.

After removing the cap from the tube to extract the scroll within, Lorine’s smooth, lightly freckled brow creased a little as she read its contents. Captured as always by her face, my fascination was dimmed somewhat by the short but obvious spasm of shock that flickered over her features. She hid it well, of course, for she was my tutor in the arts of disguise and even more practised than I in concealing potentially dangerous emotions.

“You have it all?” Deckin asked her.

“Word for word, my love,” Lorine assured him, white teeth revealed in a smile as she returned the scroll to the tube and replaced the cap. Although her origins would always remain in shadow, I had gleaned occasional mentions of treading stages and girlhood travels with troupes of players, leading me to conclude that Lorine had once been an actress. Perhaps as a consequence, she possessed the uncanny ability to memorise a large amount of text after only a few moments of reading.

“If I might impose upon your good nature, sir,” Deckin told the messenger, taking the tube from Lorine. “I would consider it the greatest favour if you could carry an additional message to King Tomas. As one king to another, please inform him of my deepest and most sincere regrets regarding this unfortunate and unforeseen delay to the journey of his trusted agent, albeit brief.”

The messenger stared at the proffered tube as one might a gifted turd, but took it nonetheless. “Such artifice will not save you,” he said, the words clipped by his clenched teeth. “And you are not a king, Deckin Scarl.”

“Really?” Deckin pursed his lips and raised an eyebrow in apparent surprise. “I am a man who commands armies, guards his borders, punishes transgressions and collects the taxes that are his due. If such a man is not a king, what is he?”

It was clear to me that the messenger had answers aplenty for this question but, being a fellow of wisdom as well as duty, opted to offer no reply.

“And so, I’ll bid you good day and safe travels,” Deckin said, stepping back to slap a brisk hand to the rump of the messenger’s horse. “Keep to the road and don’t stop until nightfall. I can’t guarantee your safety after sunset.”

The messenger’s horse spurred into a trot at the slap, one its rider was quick to transform into a gallop. Soon he was a blur of churned mud, his trailing cloak a red and gold flicker among the trees until he rounded a bend and disappeared from view.

“Don’t stand gawping!” Deckin barked, casting his glare around the band. “We’ve got loot to claim and miles to cover before dusk.”

They all fell to the task with customary enthusiasm, the archers claiming the soldiers they had felled while the others swarmed the cart. Keen to join them, I looked around for a sapling where I could tether my stolen horse but drew up short as Deckin raised a hand to keep me in place.

“Just one cut,” he said, coming closer and nodding his shaggy head at the slain soldier with the whip. “Not bad.”

“Like you taught me, Deckin,” I said, offering a smile. I felt it falter on my lips as he cast an appraising eye over the horse and gestured for me to pass him the reins.

“Think I’ll spare him the stewpot,” he said, smoothing a large hand over the animal’s grey coat. “Still just a youngster. Plenty of use left in him. Like you, eh, Alwyn?”

He laughed one of his short, grating laughs, a sound I was quick to mimic. I noticed Lorine still stood a short way off, eschewing the frenzied looting to observe our conversation with arms crossed and head cocked. I found her expression strange; the slightly pinched mouth bespoke muted amusement while her narrowed gaze and drawn brows told of restrained concern. Deckin tended to speak to me more than the other youngsters in the band, something that aroused a good deal of envy, but not usually on Lorine’s part. Today, however, she apparently saw some additional significance in his favour, making me wonder if it had something to do with the contents of the messenger’s scroll.

“Let’s play our game, eh?” Deckin said, instantly recapturing my attention. I turned back to see him jerk his chin at the bodies of the two soldiers. “What do you see?”

Stepping closer to the corpses, I spent a short interval surveying them before providing an answer. I tried not to speak too quickly, having learned to my cost how much he disliked it when I gabbled.

“Dried blood on their trews and cuffs,” I said. “A day or two old, I’d say. This one—” I pointed at the soldier with the arrowhead jutting from his mouth “—has a fresh-stitched cut on his brow and that one.” My finger shifted to the half-bared blade still clutched in the gloved fist of the one I had stabbed. “His sword has nicks and scratches that haven’t yet been ground out.”

“What’s that tell you?” Deckin enquired.

“They’ve been in a fight, and recently.”

“A fight?” He raised a bushy eyebrow, tone placid as he asked, “You sure it was just that?”

My mind immediately began to race. It was always a worrisome thing when Deckin’s tone grew mild. “A battle more like,” I said, knowing I was speaking too fast but not quite able to slow the words. “Something big enough or important enough for the king to be told of the outcome. Since they were still breathing, until this morn, I’d guess they’d won.”

“What else?” Deckin’s eyes narrowed further in the manner that told of potential disappointment; apparently, I had missed something obvious.

“They’re Cordwainers,” I said, managing not blurt it out. “Riding with a royal messenger, so they were called to the Shavine Marches on Crown business.”

“Yes,” he said, voice coloured by a small sigh that told of restrained exasperation. “And what is the Crown’s principal business in these troubled times?”

“The Pretender’s War.” I swallowed and smiled again in relieved insight. “The king’s host has fought and won a battle with the Pretender’s horde.”

Deckin lowered his eyebrow and regarded me in silence for a second, keeping his unblinking gaze on me just long enough to make me sweat for the second time that morning. Then he blinked and turned to lead the horse away, muttering to Lorine as she moved to his side. The words were softly spoken but I heard them, as I’m sure he intended I would.

“The message?”

Lorine put a neutral tone to her reply, face carefully void of expression. “You were right, as usual, my love. The daft old bastard turned his coat.”

* * *

Deckin ordered the bodies cleared from the road and dumped deeper in the forest where the attentions of wolves, bears or foxes would soon ensure all that remained were anonymous bones. The Shavine Forest is a hungry place and fresh meat rarely lasts long when the wind carries its scent through the trees. It had been dispiritingly inevitable that it would be Erchel who found one of them still alive. He was just as hungry as any forest predator, but it was hunger of a different sort.

“Fucker’s still breathing!” he exclaimed in surprised delight when the crossbowman we had been dragging through the ferns let out a confused, inquisitive groan. Jarred by the unexpectedness of his survival, I instantly let go of his arm, letting him slump to the ground, where he continued to groan before raising his head. Despite the holes torn into his body by no fewer than five arrows, he resembled a man woken from a strange dream as he gazed up at his captors.

“What’s happened, friend?” Erchel enquired, sinking to his haunches, face drawn in an impressive semblance of concern. “Outlaws, was it? My fellows and I found you by the road.” His face became grim, voice taking on a hoarse note of despair. “What a terrible thing. They’re naught but beasts, Scourge take them. Don’t worry—” He set a comforting hand on the crossbowman’s lolling head. “—We’ll see you right.”

“Erchel,” I said, voice edged with a forbidding note. His eyes snapped to meet mine, catching a bright, resentful gleam, sharp, pale features scowling. We were much the same age but I was taller than most lads of seventeen, if that was in fact my age. Even today I can only guess my true span of years, for such is the way with bastards shucked from a whorehouse: birthdays are a mystery and names a gift you make to yourself.

“Got no time for your amusements,” I told Erchel. The aftertaste of murder tended to birth a restless anger in me and the exchange with Deckin had deepened the well, making my patience short. The band had no formal hierarchy as such. Deckin was our unquestioned and unchallenged leader and Lorine his second, but beneath them the pecking order shifted over time. Erchel, by dint of his manners and habits, foul even by the standards of outlaws, currently stood a good few pegs lower than me. Being as much a pragmatic coward as he was a vicious dog, Erchel could usually be counted on to back down when faced with even marginally greater authority. Today, however, the prospect of indulging his inclinations overrode his pragmatism.

“Get fucked, Alwyn,” he muttered, turning back to the crossbowman who, incredibly, had summoned the strength to try and rise. “Don’t tax yourself, friend,” Erchel advised, his hand slipping to the knife on his belt. “Lay down. Rest a while.”

I knew how this would go from here. Erchel would whisper some more comforting endearments to this pitiable man, and then, striking swift like a snake, would stab out one of his eyes. Then there would be more cooing assurances before he took the other. After that it became a game of finding out how long it took the benighted wretch to die as Erchel’s knife sliced ever deeper. I had no stomach for it most days, and certainly not today. Also, he had failed to heed me which was justification enough for the kick I delivered to his jaw.

Erchel’s teeth clacked as his head recoiled from the impact. The kick was placed to cause the most pain without dislocating his jaw, not that he appreciated my consideration. Just a scant second or two spent blinking in shock before his narrow face mottled in rage and he sprang to his feet, bloodied teeth bared, knife drawn back to deliver a reply. My own knife came free of the sheath in a blur and I crouched, ready to receive him.

In all honesty, the matter might have been decided in favour of either of us, for we were about evenly matched when it came to knife work. Although, I like to think my additional bulk would have tipped the scales in my direction. But it all became moot when Raith dropped the body he had been carrying, strode between us and crouched to drive his own knife into the base of the crossbowman’s skull.

“To be wasteful of time is to be wasteful of life,” he told us in his strange, melodious accent, straightening and directing a steady, unblinking stare at each of us in turn. Raith possessed a gaze I found hard to meet at the best of times, the overly bright blue eyes piercing in a way that put one in mind of a hawk. Also, he was big, taller and broader even than Deckin but without any sign of a belly. More off-putting still were the livid red marks that formed two diagonal stripes across the light brown skin of his face. Before clapping eyes on him during my first faltering steps into Deckin’s camp, I hadn’t beheld one of Caerith heritage before. The sense of strangeness and threat he imbued in me that day had never faded.

In those days, tales of the Caerith and their mysterious and reputedly arcane practices abounded. Never a common sight in Albermaine, those who lived among us were subject to the fear and derision common to those viewed as alien or outlandish. Experience would eventually teach us the folly of such denigration, but all that was yet to come. I had heard many a lurid yarn about the Caerith, each filled with allusions to witchy strangeness and dire fates suffered by Covenant missionaries who unwisely crossed the mountains to educate these heathen souls in the Martyrs’ example. So, I was quick to avert my eyes while Erchel, ever cunning but rarely clever, was a little slower, prompting Raith to afford him the benefit of his full attention.

“Wouldn’t you agree, weasel?” he asked in a murmur, leaning closer, the brown skin of his forehead briefly pressing against Erchel’s pale brow. As the bigger man stooped, his charm necklace dangled between them. Although just a simple length of cord adorned with bronze trinkets, each a finely wrought miniature sculpture of some kind, the sight of it unnerved me. I never allowed my gaze to linger on it too long, but my snatched glances revealed facsimiles of the moon, trees and various animals. One in particular always caught my eye more than the others: the bronze skull of a bird I took to be a crow. For reasons unknown, the empty eye sockets of this artefact invoked more fear in me than its owner’s unnaturally bright gaze.

Raith waited until Erchel gave a nod, eyes still lowered. “Put it over there,” the Caerith said, nodding towards a cluster of elm a dozen paces away as he slowly wiped his bloodied blade on Erchel’s jerkin. “And you can carry my bundle on the way back. Best if I don’t find anything missing.”

“Caerith bastard,” Erchel muttered as we heaved the crossbowman’s corpse into the midst of the elm. As was often his way, our confrontation now appeared to have been completely forgotten. Reflecting on his eventual fate all these years later I am forced to the conclusion that Erchel, hideous and dreadful soul that he was, possessed a singular skill that has always eluded me: the ability to forgo a grudge.

“They’re said to worship trees and rocks,” he went on, careful to keep his voice low. “Perform heathen rights in the moonlight and such to bring them to life. My kin would never run with one of his kind. Don’t know what Deckin’s thinking.”

“Mayhap you should ask him,” I suggested. “Or I can ask him for you, if you like.”

This blandly spoken offer had the intended effect of keeping Erchel’s mouth closed for much of the remainder of our journey. However, as we progressed into the closer confines of the deep forest, drawing nearer to camp, his tongue invariably found another reason to wag.

“What did it say?” he asked, once again keeping his voice quiet for Raith and the others weren’t far off. “The scroll?”

“How should I know?” I replied, shifting the uncomfortable weight of the loot-filled sack on my shoulder. The bodies had all been stripped clean before I could join in the scavenging, but the cart had yielded half a meal sack, some carrots and, most prized of all, a pair of well-made boots which would fit me near perfectly with a few minor alterations.

“Deckin talks to you. So does Lorine.” Erchel’s elbow nudged me in demanding insistence. “What could it say that would make him risk so much just to read it?”

I thought of the spasm of shock I had seen on Lorine’s face as she read the scroll, as well as her contradictory expression as she stood and watched Deckin coax deductions from me. The daft old bastard turned his coat, she had said. My years in this band had given me a keen nose for a shift in the varied winds that guided our path, Deckin always being the principal agent. Never fond of sharing his thoughts, he would issue commands that seemed odd or nonsensical only for their true intent to stand revealed later. So far, his guarded leadership had always led us to profit and clear of the duke’s soldiers and sheriffs. The duke . . .

My feet began to slow and my eyes to lose focus as my always-busy mind churned up an insight that should have occurred to me back at the road. The messenger’s guards were not ducal levies from the Shavine Marches but Cordwainers fresh from another battle in the Pretender’s War. Soldiers in service to the king, which begged the question: if his own soldiers couldn’t be trusted with escorting a Crown agent, which side had the Duke of the Shavine Marches been fighting on?


Erchel’s voice returned the focus to my gaze, which inevitably slipped towards Deckin’s bulky form at the head of the column. We had reached the camp now and I watched him wave away the outlaws who came to greet him, instead stomping off to the shelter he shared with Lorine. Instinct told me neither would join us at the communal feast that night, the customary celebration of a successful enterprise. I knew they had much to discuss. I also knew I needed to hear it.

“There’s something I feel you should know, Erchel,” I said, walking off towards my own shelter. “You talk too fucking much.”