Their peace was a fragile thing, but it had endured for seven years, mostly because the people of Darassus and the king of the Naor hordes believed his doom was foretold upon the edge of the great sword hung in the hall of champions. Unruly Naor clans might raid across the border, but the king himself would never lead his people to war so long as the blade remained in the hands of his enemies.
But when squire Elenai’s aging mentor uncovers evidence that the sword in their hall is a forgery she’s forced to flee Darassus for her life, her only ally the reckless, disillusioned Kyrkenall the archer. Framed for murder and treason, pursued by the greatest heroes of the realm, they race to recover the real sword, only to stumble into a conspiracy that leads all the way back to the Darassan queen and her secretive advisors. They must find a way to clear their names and set things right, all while dodging friends determined to kill them – and the Naor hordes, invading at last with a new and deadly weapon.
Howard Andrew Jones’ powerful world-building brings this epic fantasy to life in For The Killing of Kings, the first book of his new adventure-filled trilogy—available February 19th from St. Martin’s Press.
Kyrkenall climbed into his saddle and looked back at her. “Come on. I want to get close to the tower before dark so I can look things over.”
He sighed, as if to clear his thoughts, then led them forward, riding below the hill ridges so they wouldn’t be spotted.
It was a rolling country. Spring might be fully bloomed near Darassus, but here in the highlands winter had but recently, reluctantly, loosened its hold. You could still feel its breath in the wind, and pockets of frost and snow lay in the shadows of the barren trees.
As they rounded the corner of the second hill, they spotted a square obelisk standing upright at the edge of a thick woodland. Kyrkenall called a halt a few horselengths out from it and stared, silent and still for a long while. When he advanced at last it was with arrow nocked.
Elenai wondered why he was so wary. The object didn’t look especially threatening, just incongruous here in the wilderness. It stood as tall as she did in the saddle, and was fashioned of gray stone, completely featureless save for a swirling creamy pattern upon the onyx pyramidal capper.
“Do you know what it is?” Elenai asked.
“I’ve never seen it before. Take a look with your inner sight. Don’t,” he added quickly, “fix on it too hard.” He didn’t relax his aim, but Elenai wasn’t sure what he expected to shoot.
“You think it’s sorcery?”
She saw he was right as soon as she examined it. The problem was that she couldn’t fathom the design choices its builder had made. There was power hidden in the pyramid on top, but it was latent, like a warm charcoal left at a campsite.
“There’s magic,” she said, “but it’s inactive.”
Kyrkenall tipped his head to the right. “Look over there.”
It took Elenai a long while to spot what Kyrkenall meant, for there were a variety of land features beyond that vague gesture, including a hill line, a clump of trees, a rivulet, and a rocky outcrop.
But there was also another onyx-topped obelisk, probably a half mile to their east, planted at the base of a hill.
“What are they?” Elenai asked.
“Offhand,” Kyrkenall said, “I’m guessing they’re fence posts.”
Elenai’s eyebrows rose. “A magical fence? But it’s not working.”
“We haven’t tried to cross it.”
“You think it will come on if we do?”
Kyrkenall frowned, lowered his weapon, and looked off toward the middle distance at a copse of trees.
Another thought struck her. “If it flared on any time something crossed it, wouldn’t there be a line of dead creatures on either side?”
Kyrkenall grinned. “I knew there was a reason I kept you around. Just for laughs, toss a rock past, will you?”
Elenai slid out of her saddle but found no rocks. She clawed up a clump of cold, dry dirt and pitched it underhand just past the obelisk.
It landed without incident a few feet beyond, under a pine bough.
Kyrkenall didn’t move.
“Well?” Elenai asked.
“I’m thinking. Go ahead and look at it with your sight again. I’m going to try something.”
Elenai did as he bade. If nothing else, this trip was giving her a lot of practice in sorcery.
The obelisk continually radiated a faint golden glimmer from the black stone at its height. Beyond it, the living trees presented a tight pattern of golden structures in the shape of boles and branches. “Ready,” she said.
Kyrkenall nudged his mare forward and reached out to the obelisk with his bow. He touched it, deliberately, and held it there.
Elenai didn’t see any change of energy within the black pyramid. “Nothing.”
“I didn’t feel anything, either.” Kyrkenall replaced his bow. “All right. I’m going to ride past. Wait until I’m through. Actually, wait until I’m through and try to ride back again. If I get blasted to ashes, head to The Fragments and find Aradel.”
“Right,” Elenai said. She wasn’t sure how to get to The Fragments from here, but she didn’t want to admit that.
Kyrkenall, back turned, spoke in a falsetto voice. “Oh, don’t worry, Alten, I’m sure you’ll be fine. But your sacrifice is so noble, I’ll cherish it always.”
Elenai couldn’t believe what she’d heard. “I don’t sound like that!”
He chuckled at her and urged his horse forward, stopping just beyond the obelisk. He then backed his horse past, then forward again. She watched tensely.
“Looks like we won’t die here,” Kyrkenall said. “Come on, then.”
Elenai half expected a magical beam to lance out, or to feel some intense emotion generated by the sorcery she knew smoldered there.
Soon, though, the strange contrivance lay behind them. The dark-haired archer kept to the right of the treeline, riding slowly, eyes constantly upon the horizon and bow at the ready. Another ridge lay to their north.
A hawk soared overhead and called out, and Elenai spied a doe watching from the woods.
“Are we close to the tower?” she asked. It looked like a tendril of smoke joined the thin clouds hovering above a distant rise of trees, but she couldn’t be sure.
“It’s on the—” Kyrkenall fell silent in mid-sentence. A gray-and-white furred thing loping on four legs mounted the rim of the nearest hill, at least two bow-shots ahead and to the left.
The distance confused Elenai’s perception of its size until the creature moved past a spindly elm. She had never seen nor heard of any furred Erymyran beast as large as her horse. Kanesh boasted huge animals, like the mighty grass-eaters known as eshlack and the axbeaks that preyed on them, but not Erymyr. This creature was generally catlike in its movements, but the jaw was shovel-heavy, the ears huge and winglike. She saw no eyes of any kind. It had to have been brought here from some distant realm, or maybe even the Shifting Lands. “What is that?”
Kyrkenall lifted an arrow to his bow and was already sighting. “No idea, but I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be friendly.”
Just then the peculiarity turned to snuffle at them with its long black snout. It let out something between a whine and a roar, and charged in their direction.
Kyrkenall fired. The shaft struck the beast’s head, but the arrow seemed to slide through the furry ruff.
“You missed,” Elenai blurted in surprise.
“No,” Kyrkenall objected, “its head is narrower than I thought.” He now had three arrows in hand as he nocked one.
The beast’s roar this time was like a thunderclap. Kyrkenall’s arrow launched, but Elenai knew even as it did that he’d missed again, for the thing leapt left, then right through rough terrain as it bounded toward them. “Gods, it’s bigger than a bear!”
“Less talking, more killing!” Kyrkenall launched the next two arrows one after the other and then grabbed three more. The quiver, which had looked inexhaustible, now was half empty. One arrow took the beast somewhere in the right temple, the other in the center chest. Neither slowed it a jot. Elenai heard it let out one annoyed huff, and it gained speed as it charged.
“Ready your sword!” Kyrkenall barked, even as he fired once more. Elenai muttered under her breath because she’d already drawn her weapon. She’d thought he’d come to expect competency from her.
Aron didn’t like the smell of the thing and shifted beneath her, snorting in relief as she got him under way. He wanted to run.
The next three shots struck again in the head, deep in the shoulder, and through the thick foreleg, but the monster didn’t slow. It let out another roar and Elenai wondered dully if it really could be stopped. As she circled for its right side, pulling against Aron, who wanted to flee, she supposed she might be charging to her death.
Kyrkenall let out a war whoop as he guided his mare to swing left.
Elenai had never grown especially proficient with off-hand blade work and cursed at herself for riding right. So much for competence. There was no good way to challenge the beast with her sword unless she got behind it.
There was magic, though.
As the shaggy hulk pivoted for Kyrkenall, she let Aron take the lead and undid the top hook of her robe so she could touch her necklace talismans. She wasn’t sure she could get an angry monster to fear much of anything, so she found the twisted smile of confusion under her thumb and sent that emotion at the animal through a thread of her design. The spell struck the creature but was swept away by a surge of energy rising from the wide black neck strap decorating the thing’s heavy throat.
Whoever had placed the strap on the beast had expected sorcerous attacks.
Kyrkenall and his mare swung wide away from the creature, which sprang sideways and clawed, just missing Lyria. He swiveled in his saddle and fired over his shoulder. An arrow went straight into what should have been the creature’s brain case, but that, too, had no appreciable result. The beast snarled as it leapt.
Kyrkenall flung himself to roll across the ground to the creature’s left, his horse bolting to the right. He reached his feet, bow in one hand, sword in the other, then leapt to a waist-high boulder further on.
Elenai nudged Aron forward. “Go!”
Aron whinnied gamely and galloped for the beast’s flank. She leaned down and slashed deeply into its rear leg.
The creature spun with a growl, faster than she thought possible, and launched at her. Aron shuddered as the entire bulk slammed into him, and Elenai heard the sickening tearing of flesh and the scream of agony as Aron took a terrible wound. She threw herself from the saddle, landed on one foot, off balance, rolled, and came up still holding her weapon.
A rain of blood and gore spattered from Aron’s shoulder as the beast tore at the screaming horse, ripping open his chest like it was a paper package. Aron managed a frantic kick or two, then Kyrkenall suddenly appeared and plunged his sword deep through the monster’s neck. He drew clear with a triumphant whoop, and the red-mouthed beast followed him, one clawed foot scoring the black earth where Kyrkenall had stood the second before.
Either that wound or the accumulated damage finally finished it. The shaggy horror collapsed, lying with its head buried in the grass, rear legs kicking. Yellowish life-blood from its wounds stained the thick fur and dribbled into the hillside. A half-dozen black-feathered shafts stuck out like random quills.
Elenai looked again at Aron, lying on his side as his breathing shuddered to a stop, and felt her eyes fill with tears. Her breath came raggedly. “Damn.” She’d trained with that beautiful horse for the better part of two years and hadn’t considered she’d be losing him in the midst of everything else.
Kyrkenall came up beside her. He was breathing heavily and his sweaty dark hair clung to his neck. “I take it you tried magic?”
“Yes.” Elenai bit her lower lip. “The neck strap has some kind of protective shielding. I couldn’t affect it.”
“I bet the collar’s keyed to the fence posts. To keep it in.” He didn’t seem angry or even disappointed in her. But she was sure she could have done better. She should have been able to keep Aron from harm.
The beast growled. Its right front leg twitched spasmodically and a plume of dust billowed from beneath the huge paw. It slumped finally into the stillness of death, beside Aron’s steaming remains.
Kyrkenall watched a moment more, then scanned the horizon. He went stock still, and Elenai saw his ring light. “So much for a quiet look up close,” he said.
She discovered a tingling around her finger meant the ring on her own hand blazed, and she understood suddenly what he’d meant.
The exact properties and abilities of an Altenerai ring had never been fully explained to her—she wasn’t Altenerai—but she knew it provided a modicum of protection against magical assaults, and it heightened awareness, although you could also set it to remain inactive. She hadn’t had much of a chance to explore how to operate hers, and Kyrkenall hadn’t explained. Somehow, though, she knew six figures crept into position around them even if she couldn’t see them. Fear drove away regret faster than a fox scatters hens.
Kyrkenall grinned and addressed the air. “Show yourselves.”
A man in ring mail and a black cloak appeared from behind a hillock eight paces out, and then, seconds later, five others came into view from each direction, all armored similarly. Erymyran soldiers. In place of a standard metal helm they wore thick, woolen hats. Every single one had a scabbard at their hip, although only two of them held swords. The others, including one fellow only a few feet from the nose of the dead monster, had arrows nocked to short bows aimed at Kyrkenall and Elenai.
Two of the soldiers were women, and the taller of these, holding a sword, was only a couple of feet from Elenai’s back. “What do we do, sir?” she asked.
“We’re to kill all interlopers.” The man who’d first appeared tipped his sword at them.
“They’re Altenerai,” said the woman, understandably mistaking Elenai’s rank from the khalat and ring she wore.
“Kyrkenall saved my cousin in Kanesh,” said a short fellow on Elenai’s left.
Elenai looked to Kyrkenall for some kind of sign. What should they do?
The archer smiled broadly and addressed their captors. “Let’s not do anything drastic,” he said easily. He sounded eminently reasonable. “I think there’s been a misunderstanding. We’re on a mission vital for the state.”
“If it’s official,” their leader asked, “where’s your sigil?”
“Ah!” Kyrkenall raised the hand holding his sword and all the bowstrings went taut in the hands around them. He chuckled as if he found the whole encounter quite droll.
Their leader seemed unamused. “Drop the sword.”
“Perhaps I should say the same to you,” Kyrkenall returned lightly. “I rank you, soldier.”
“Yes, sir. But no one’s allowed here, on pain of death, unless they have the sigil.”
Ever so slowly, Kyrkenall slid the tip of his sword down and planted it upright in the earth. “Better?” He bowed slightly. “Now I’m just going to open my robe and show you my authorization. So don’t be alarmed.”
Elenai knew very well that there was no sigil under Kyrkenall’s robe, though she briefly wondered if there was something he hadn’t told her. Probably not. Which meant things were going to get very interesting very fast. She glanced at the nearest of the watchers in her line of sight. Most of their attention was directed to Kyrkenall, but they weren’t completely ignoring her, either. And there were two behind her that she couldn’t see.
“It’s a funny thing.” Kyrkenall reached delicately to undo the second hook of his khalat. He shifted his left arm a little, bringing Arzhun to hand as if to steady it. “About the sigil, I mean.”
“Why didn’t you activate it before the beast attacked?” the woman behind them asked.
Kyrkenall chuckled conspiratorially, as though he’d heard a tremendously amusing joke that was somehow offensive or inappropriate and he couldn’t keep back from it. “That’s a story. You see”—he reached into his robe and turned half sideways to face her—“I don’t actually have a sigil.”
At the same moment he uttered the final word he flicked the nearby archer in the face with Arzhun’s black horn tip then spun as the man cried out. Kyrkenall took an arrow to the back, but it failed to pierce his armor and dropped away. Turning right, he dropped to a crouch and two more arrows sped over his shoulder and head. At the same time he launched an arrow stolen from the staggered bowman and snapped a shot that took the archer behind Elenai through the throat.
Kyrkenall snatched Lothrun out of the ground as he leapt to engage the swordswoman at Elenai’s left, blocking her strike with Arzhun’s end before negligently ruining her lovely throat with his sword tip. Before she’d even begun to drop, Kyrkenall cut an arrow from the air, his legendary blade spraying the swordwoman’s blood. He laughed madly and sprinted to confront the leader.
Elenai finally woke to action, shocked. In a heartbeat Kyrkenall had killed two soldiers and injured a third.
She slashed at the nearest archer as the woman drew a bead on Kyrkenall.
The sword bit deep into the bow and she dropped it.
For an instant that was an eternity, Elenai saw the woman’s amber-flecked brown eyes, saw the muscles around the lids tighten in anticipation of the coming blow.
And then Elenai thrust her sword past an arm lifted too late and drove it into the hollow of the woman’s neck.
There was so much blood. Elenai stepped away in a crouch, all too conscious another archer remained, the one Kyrkenall had struck with Arzhun. The man might even now be aiming at the back of her head.
She needn’t have worried. Kyrkenall dealt with him even as Elenai turned, driving his sword past the fellow’s bow, raised in a pitiful parry. He plunged Lothrun through the archer’s chest armor.
Elenai didn’t quite manage to turn away before she saw the result.
No one was left alive. In the time she’d handled one warrior Kyrkenall had killed five.
The leader lay facedown, his dark cloak soaking up blood from a widening puddle. His posture concealed his injury, but there was no missing the gruesome wound on the man whose neck was half lopped, for his head sagged to one side, as if upon a ghastly hinge.
Kyrkenall’s laugh was startling as a nearby lightning strike. At its sound she whirled to find him raising his bloody sword high in salute. He turned, taking in the scene, his peals of laughter giving way to shaking gasps of mad energy.
“You’re certainly thorough.” Elenai was astonished by how loud her voice sounded from her dry throat.
He seemed to see her for the first time. His shoulders heaved as he breathed in and out.
“Shouldn’t we have saved one to question?” she asked.
“Why didn’t you?”
“Um.” Elenai thought again of those frightened brown eyes. She doubted she’d ever stop thinking of them. Could she have captured that woman? “I was worried about the last archer.”
“I had him.” Kyrkenall bent to wipe his blade on the leader’s cloak, and chuckled again, an utterly mirthless sound. “Creep up to the hill’s crest and scout, Squire.” His voice was low and full of forced restraint. “Search with your ring and your sight.”
“What are you going to do?”
Kyrkenall stared down at his hand gripping the bow. It shook. “Try to find my arrows. And my balance.”
Elenai hesitated. More than anything she wanted reassurance. Was he okay? Had she acted rightly? Had she been useful? It didn’t really seem that Kyrkenall had needed her at all, which was astonishing and humbling both.
Excerpted from For the Killing of Kings, copyright © 2019 by Howard Andrew Jones