We Lie With Death is the action-packed sequel to Devin Madson’s bold and bloody epic fantasy We Ride the Storm.
Time does not pass in darkness. There are no days to count.
No nights to sleep. In darkness you cease to exist as solitude wears your soul to a stub, but nothing could erode the truth in my heart. I was Levanti. A Torin. And this was not how a warrior of the plains died.
“Gideon!” I shouted, pressing my face to the bars. My voice bounced away into the darkness, returning no answer. “Gideon!”
I gripped the bars and, sucking a deep breath through parched lips, began to sing our lament. We sang it for loss. We sang it for pain. We sang it beneath the stars and the scorching summer sun. We sang it when weak and we sang it when strong, but more than anything we sang it when we were alone. Gideon had taught me the words, along with a clutch of other children released from chores at the end of a travelling day. We had sat at his feet, fighting to sit closest as though his worn, sweaty boots were a shrine at which to pray.
“But what does it mean?” one of the others had asked—a child whose face and name had been lost to the haze of time, leaving only gratitude that someone else had asked so I need not look foolish.
“It’s a prayer,” Gideon had said, smiling at the foolish one. “In lifting your voice to the gods you will never be alone, because they will see you. Will hear you. Will honour you.”
He had ruffled the girl’s hair and left us staring after him. He might have been the Torin’s youngest Sword, just a child to the warriors he served with, but he had been like a god to us. To me.
When I finished, the song echoed on, slowly fading into silence.
* * *
Gideon did not come.
I dozed to be woken by my aching gut. Mere minutes might have passed, or whole hours. All I knew was hunger and thirst and darkness. My legs shook as I got to my feet, and I could not but think of our walk south, whipped and starved and shamed by the Chiltaens—Chiltaens later slaughtered by Levanti blades. Had Gideon released their souls? Or burned them like animals, head and all?
“Gideon!” My voice cracked, thirst cutting like razors into my dry throat. “Gideon!”
No answer came and I paced the length of the small cell, touching each of its bars. Seventeen in all, each perfectly smooth, the six that made up the door slightly thicker than the rest. No light. No breeze. No life. Nothing but darkness, and like the gnawing in my gut, fear began to eat at my thoughts. Had I been forgotten?
Only echoes answered.
* * *
I did not hear footsteps, yet when I next opened my eyes I was no longer alone. Bright light pierced the bars and I winced, shuffling back across the floor until my shoulder blades hit stone.
“Sorry. I didn’t think.”
With a metal scrape the light faded from noon-sun to gloaming.
“You look terrible.”
I laughed. Or tried to, but it came out as a wheeze and my stomach cramped. “You should have let me know you were coming so I could bathe,” I said, every word a dry rasp.
“At least being stuck down here hasn’t affected your sense of humour.” Sett’s customary scowl came into focus as my eyes adjusted. “I’m not sure if—”
“I want to see Gideon.”
The only answer was the tink tink of the metal lantern growing hot, magnified by the silence. I let the words hang until at last Sett cleared his throat. “You can’t.”
“He cannot refuse to see me. I am a Sword of the Levanti. Of the Torin. I am—”
“He isn’t here, Rah.”
I stared at Sett’s harsh features like they were lines of script containing answers. “What do you mean he isn’t here? He’s gone home?”
Sett’s explosive laugh echoed along the passage. “No, he hasn’t gone home. He’s an emperor now, but it’s not exactly safe here, is it? The Chiltaens broke the city’s defences, and why bother rebuilding them when your empire is north of the river, not south? This is enemy territory now.”
“No more questions, Rah. You are the one going home.” A key scraped in the lock, and with a grunt of effort, Sett unlocked the door.
Home. I had wanted nothing else since arriving, yet I did not move toward freedom.
Sett folded his arms as best he could while holding the lantern. “Really? After everything that’s happened, you’re still going to be a stubborn ass?”
“We don’t kill. We don’t steal. We don’t conquer.” I raised my voice over his complaints. “And the only way to remove someone from leadership of their Swords is through challenge or death. I am captain of the Second Swords of Torin until one of them challenges me for the responsibility.”
Sett growled, his fingers tightening upon the lantern’s handle. “Just go home, Rah. Go home.”
He turned then and, leaving the cell door wide open, started back along the passage. I followed the retreating light, my legs shaking. “Where are my Swords?”
“With Gideon,” Sett said, not stopping or slowing though I struggled to keep up, my feet dragging on the damp stone floor.
“What about Dishiva?”
Sett stopped, turning so suddenly he almost swung the lantern into my face. “The Chiltaen’s God boy? Dead. You saw him die. His condition hasn’t improved.” Sett sighed. “Don’t do anything stupid, Rah. I know that’s hard for you, but this is your chance to escape this place, to go home, because if you give him trouble again, Gideon won’t have a choice but to—”
“To what?” I said as he started walking again, his swaying lantern leading the way like a drunken star. “To kill me?” I hurried after him. “Is that the new Levanti way? To kill those who question decisions without challenge?”
Giving no answer, Sett started up a flight of stairs, each step a frustrated slam of boot on stone. I paused at the bottom to catch my breath, and nearly leapt from my skin as the fading light of Sett’s lantern lit the cell closest to the stairs. A man stood as close to the bars as he could get, staring at me, unblinking, in the manner of one committing my face to memory. I fought the urge to step back, to look away, glad of the bars between us. Untidy strands of hair hung around his dirty face, but through the shroud of neglect, familiarity nagged.
Sett’s footsteps had halted on the stairs.
“Who is this?” I said, not breaking from the man’s gaze.
“Minister Manshin,” came Sett’s reply from the stairwell. “The man who was sitting on the throne in the empress’s battle armour when we arrived.”
Minister Manshin, who had taken the empress’s place to trick her enemies, now stared at me through the bars of his cell. I wanted to assure him I had never sought Kisia’s ruin, that I was not his enemy, but I had fought with my people against his and no amount of words could change that. Words he wouldn’t even understand.
“Come on,” Sett grumbled, and as his footsteps resumed, the light bled from Minister Manshin’s face. I unpinned myself from his gaze and mounted the stairs.
Sett climbed slowly, yet still I could not keep up, increasingly breathless and aching as each step renewed my body’s demands for food and water and rest. Had pride and anger not kept me stiffly upright, I would have crawled on hands and knees.
When at last I reached the top, I steadied myself with a hand upon the rough-hewn stone and sucked deep, painful breaths. Sett’s footsteps continued on a way, only to stop and return when I didn’t follow.
“I’m sorry I left you down there so long,” he said, his face swimming before me. “I had no choice. You could only slip away unnoticed at night, and I had to wait for Gideon to leave.”
“He doesn’t know you’re doing this?” I’d had no time to wonder why it was Sett releasing me, but whatever his reason, his expression owned no kindness.
“There’s food upstairs so you can eat before you go,” he said. “And I’ve packed your saddlebags. Jinso is waiting in the yard.”
Jinso. I had hardly let myself hope I would see him again, let alone be allowed to ride free, but anger overtook relief on its way to my lips. “You’re smuggling me out of the city like an embarrassment.”
“You could say that, yes.”
“While Gideon isn’t here to stop you.”
He left a beat of silence, before asking, “Can you walk again? Food isn’t much farther.”
It seemed asking about Gideon was not allowed.
The inner palace had changed. Once bright and filled with dead soldiers, it lay blanketed now in silence and shadows, turning its finely carved pillars into twisted creatures that lurked in every corner. Light bloomed behind paper screens and whispers met the scuff of our steps, but we saw no living soul.
Sett led me to a small chamber on the ground floor where a pair of lanterns fought back the night. A spread of dishes covered a low table, but my gaze was drawn to a bowl of shimmering liquid, and not caring if it was water or wine, I poured it into my mouth. It burned my throat like a ball of fire and I dropped the bowl, coughing.
“Kisian wine,” Sett said over my coughs. “I think they make it from rice. Or maybe millet. There’s tea too, but don’t drink it so fast. It’s served hot.”
“Why?” I managed, my voice even more strained than before.
“I don’t know. When I find one that understands me, I’ll ask.”
“Is there water?”
Sett examined the table. “Doesn’t look like it. They aren’t keen on water. They think it’s dirty, and maybe it is here, I don’t know.” He shrugged, before adding in a sullen tone: “They don’t cook the whole animal either, at least not in the palace. Instead they”—he waved his hand at the table—“slice it up and ignore all the best parts. I saw one feeding liver to the dogs.”
Hunger and nausea warred in my stomach as I chose the most recognisable hunk of meat and bit into it. It was heavily spiced and drowned in a strange sauce, but hunger won and I crammed the rest into my mouth followed by another piece, and another. The sudden ingress of food made my stomach ache, but hunger kept me eating until I had filled its every corner.
While I ate and drank, trying not to slop the food down my already stained and stinking clothes, Sett stood by the door like a sentry. He didn’t speak, didn’t move, just stood with his arms folded staring at nothing, a notch cut between his brows.
Once my hunger had been crushed, nausea flared and I crossed my still-shaking arms over my gut. The sickly-sweet smell of the strange food clogged my nose and I sat back, hoping my stomach wouldn’t reject it.
Only when the nausea had subsided a little did I say, “You’re not really going to let me leave, are you?”
“You don’t think so? You think I had Jinso saddled for someone else?”
I grunted and got slowly to my feet, still clutching my stomach. “You’re really smuggling me out of the city in the middle of the night so no one sees me leave? What do you want people to think?That I’m dead? That you killed me?”
“I don’t want people to think of you at all. You’ve caused too much trouble, Rah. Now it’s time you listened. Leave Gideon alone. Leave Yitti alone. They’ve made their choices, as have the rest of the Swords who want a new home and a better life.”
“We already have a home.”
“Then go fight for it!”
Silence hung amid the shadowed screens, a silence choked with dust and spiced food and the lingering scent of incense. I could taste the ghosts of another’s life on every breath, an ever-present reminder of how far I was from the plains.
I eyed Sett. “Do I get my sword back?”
“And your knives if you want them. If you want a replacement for the sword you dropped in Tian, you’ll have to put up with a Kisian blade. Hardly a matched pair, but it’s all we have.”
I wanted a Kisian sword as little as I wanted to eat their food, live on their land, or conquer their cities, but I nodded and a strained smile spread Sett’s lips. “Come, we’ll get you some fresh clothes.”
We met no one on the way out, the inner palace like an empty tomb. The bodies might be gone, but broken screens and railings remained, and many doors were little more than apertures choked with tangled nests of wood and paper.
Stepping in through another door, Sett swung his lantern before him, revealing not an orderly room but a mess of weapons piled by type amid a sea of cloth and leather and chainmail vests.
“Most of it’s too small, but with a few cuts in the right places it’s wearable,” Sett said, sitting the lantern on a ransacked chest and picking up some green silk. “The Imperial Army uniforms weren’t too bad, but most of those have gone.”
I didn’t want to wear Kisian clothes, but my own leathers had seen more filth than I cared to think about. I had worn them into battle many times, and the cooling blood of many severed heads had dribbled down my knees. Here, despite the disorder, everything was clean and crisp.
Sett tossed me the silk robe and its threads caught on my rough skin as it slipped through my fingers. I let it fall, pooling on the floor like the shimmering green waters of Hemet Bay.
Once more Sett stood silent as I made my way around the room, sorting through the scattered garments. The breeches I chose were too tight, the tunic too long, the leather undercoat too thin, and the cloak too heavy. I needed clothes, but it all cut into my flesh in the wrong places and made my skin itch, and the closeness of the collar around my throat was like a choking hand. So many layers would boil one alive beneath the Levanti sun, but if the Kisian rains were half as bad as the Chiltaens believed then I’d be glad of them. The dreaded rains. If the Chiltaens had been less afraid of a little water, they might have noticed the coup brewing beneath their noses. Or not. I hadn’t.
I spread my arms, inviting Sett’s approval. “Well? How do I look?”
“Ridiculous. But clean. Now come on, it’ll be dawn soon.”
Having grabbed a replacement blade and bundled my own clothes into a bag, I once more followed Sett out into the inner palace’s silent shadows.
“Where is everyone?” I said, having to walk quickly to keep up.
“It’s the middle of the night. Where do you think they are?”
He stepped into the entry hall. Sett was a tall man, yet he shrank as the great height of the palace spire stretched away above him. His last words rose to the moonlit heights, and his steps echoed as he crossed toward the open doors. No, not open. Broken. The Chiltaens had smashed the main doors like so many others, leaving Leo to stride through as though they had been opened by the hand of his god.
A stab of guilt silenced further questions. I had sworn to protect him and failed. Just as I had sworn to protect my Swords. And my herd.
Sett stepped through the broken doors. Shallow stairs met us beyond, and but for the smothering night I might have been walking along the colonnade behind Leo once again.
“What happened to Leo’s body?”
Sett didn’t turn. “I don’t know.”
“How do you not know?”
“I didn’t ask.”
He sped up, striding along a colonnade choked with the scent of rotting flowers crushed beneath our feet. Beyond the tangle of vines the gardens spread away, while above the outer palace a shock of lightning lit the night sky. Inside had been airless and oppressive, but this was worse. Heat pressed in like a heavy hand, its damp touch sending sweat dripping down my forehead.
By the time Sett reached the outer palace I had to jog to catch up, an ache twinging my knees. “Sett—”
“Just walk, Rah, I have no more answers for you.”
Thunder rumbled as he hurried beneath a great arch.
“Where are the First Swords?”
Sett walked on, outstripping my cramping gait by half a length each step, leaving me to scramble after him along dark passages and through twisting courtyards. His urgency made his lantern swing sickeningly, its handle creaking as light rocked to and fro upon the walls. Not that Sett seemed to need it. He knew the way. Leo had known the way too.
I tightened my hold on the sack of dirty clothes and caught up. “Sett, tell me the truth,” I said. “What is going on?”
“Nothing. Look, just as I promised.” He gestured as we stepped once more into the night, the rush of his feet descending the outer stairs like the clatter of a rockfall.
Jinso waited in the courtyard, Tor e’Torin holding his reins. With Commander Brutus dead, the young man was as free as the rest of us, yet dark rings hung beneath his eyes and he stood tense.
“You were just supposed to give the instructions, not stay,” Sett said as he approached. “I need you inside to help with the messages. That scribe doesn’t understand half the words I say.”
“Sorry, Captain,” the young man said, pressing his fists together in salute. “I didn’t wish to leave Captain Rah’s horse alone with the weather so wild. He might have fretted.”
Sett grunted. “It’s not ‘Captain’ Rah anymore.”
I set my forehead to Jinso’s neck and tangled my fingers in his well-brushed mane, pretending not to hear the words that cut to my soul. Not a captain. The strange food in my stomach churned, bringing back the nausea.
In silence I checked Jinso over, more through habit than fear he had been poorly tended. Sett stood waiting, his scowl unchanged with each glance I risked his way. Tor remained too, shifting foot to foot. He licked his lips and pressed them into a smile when he found me watching, but the smile didn’t even convince his lips, let alone his eyes.
Thunder rumbled—distant, but threatening. The clouds crowding to blot out the stars made some sense of the Chiltaen fear.
My sword and knives had been stashed in one of the saddlebags—Kisian saddlebags I noted—and though I wondered what had happened to my own, I could not force the question out. It seemed to congeal inside my mouth, glued by the creeping sense that something was very wrong.
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?” I said, thrusting my sack of armour into one of the saddlebags and patting Jinso’s neck.
Sett laughed, the humourless sound sending a shiver through my skin. “Get on your horse, boy.”
I risked another glance at Tor, but the saddleboy stared at the stones. A fork of lightning lit his untidy length of black hair.
“All right,” I said, and saluted him as I would Gideon. “May Nassus guide your steps and watch over your soul.”
He barely seemed to hear me.
My legs twinged as I climbed onto Jinso’s back, but whatever weakness my body owned became nothing in that moment—for I was a rider once more, Jinso’s strength inflating my soul. With his reins in hand I could sit tall and proud despite weakness and doubt, despite guilt and fear and pain. In the saddle I was a Levanti.
“Ride north,” Sett said then, the restless clop of Jinso’s hooves waking him from his trance. “And don’t stop until you reach the Ribbon. When you get back—”
“I’m not going back,” I said. “Not yet. Not until I’ve seen Gideon.”
An animal’s wounded snarl tore from Sett’s lips and he gripped Jinso’s bridle. “Don’t you ever fucking listen, Rah? Go! Get out of here.”
“Not without at least saying goodbye. He’s on a path I can’t follow, but I cannot walk away without seeing him. Without . . .”
Sett leaned in close, pressing my leg to Jinso’s side. “It’s too late for that, Rah. I told you he would need you and you failed him. Failed all of us. I will not let you do it again.”
“Failed him?” The words cut into my heart. “I tried to save him. To save us all. I—”
I bit down a howl as pain tore up my leg like lightning, mimicking the burning trails of fire crazing the night sky. The handle of a hoof pick peeped between Sett’s scarred fingers, its hook piercing my thigh.
“Consider this your last warning,” he said. “Leave. Now. He doesn’t want to see you.”
I tightened my grip upon Jinso’s reins until my hands hurt, but it made no difference to the pain swelling in my leg. “Then he can tell me that himself,” I said through gritted teeth.
Sett dragged the hook across my skin, tearing flesh. I wanted to cry out, to sob like a child and retch my pain upon the stones, but I pressed my lips closed and breathed slowly. Beneath me Jinso tried to step sideways and I fought to keep him still, to keep the pick from being ripped free.
“Leave this place,” Sett said, spitting the words like an angry snake. “You wanted to know where the rest of the First Swords are. Where the Second Swords are? They are all on the walls, waiting to fill your back with arrows if you don’t listen to me. So for the first time in your life, Rah, listen. Ride north. Ride fast. And don’t look back.”
He yanked the pick out and I gasped. The courtyard spun. Hot blood soaked my pants and dribbled down my leg, and smelling it, Jinso backed. Before I could calm him, a slap to his rear sent him plunging forward. His hooves clattered across the courtyard and all I could do was hold tight or fall.
The gates passed in a blur as we picked up speed, the effort of clinging on with my legs growing more painful with every stride. I was losing blood fast. The wound needed to be bound, needed to be sewn, but I had none of Yitti’s skill and he . . . How many of my Swords wanted me dead?
Ride fast. And don’t look back.
Mei’lian passed in a haze of flickering lights and shadows. Unlike the palace the city was still alive and people leapt aside, cries mingling with the clatter of racing hooves.
The road from the palace to the northern gate was straight and broad, and Jinso followed it toward the brewing storm, lightning mirroring the spears of pain flaring behind my eyes. I flew past burned-out shells of once great buildings, past fountains and shrines and piles of the dead, past barricades and great trees that grew amid it all like hands reaching to the sky. Ahead the walls of Mei’lian emerged from the night, their gates gaping open.
Jinso didn’t slow. Blood was pooling in my boot and I needed to bind my leg, but lights flickered atop the wall and I could not stop. Not yet. To die for duty was honourable. To be killed in the saddle by my own blood was not.
Head down, mane whipping, Jinso plunged through the cracked gates and into the night. Darkness swallowed us, but we kept on without slowing. Every thud of hoof upon road seemed to burst more blood from my wound, but I gritted my teeth in anticipation of arrows. My back tingled, sure the silent death would hit at any moment. Dread turned to hope with every racing step along the moonlit road, until at last I dared to look back. A line of flickering torches lit the top of the wall like watching eyes—the watching eyes of every Levanti I had led to this cursed place. Every Levanti I ought to be taking home.
“Let’s start with not bleeding to death and—”
Everything spun as I turned back. The road tilted, and unable to hold on longer, I fell head first to meet it.