Read an Excerpt From Victoria Aveyard’s Realm Breaker

When the heroes have fallen, who will take up the sword?

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Realm Breaker, the start of a new action-packed fantasy series from Victoria Aveyard—publishing May 4th with HarperTeen.

A strange darkness grows in Allward.

Even Corayne an-Amarat can feel it, tucked away in her small town at the edge of the sea.

She soon discovers the truth: She is the last of an ancient lineage—and the last hope to save the world from destruction. But she won’t be alone. Even as darkness falls, she is joined by a band of unlikely companions:

  • A squire, forced to choose between home and honor.
  • An immortal, avenging a broken promise.
  • An assassin, exiled and bloodthirsty.
  • An ancient sorceress, whose riddles hide an eerie foresight.
  • A forger with a secret past.
  • A bounty hunter with a score to settle.

Together they stand against a vicious opponent, invincible and determined to burn all kingdoms to ash, and an army unlike anything the realm has ever witnessed.


 

 

PROLOGUE
The Song Unsung 

No mortal alive had ever seen a Spindle.

Echoes of them lingered, in places remembered or forgotten, in people touched by magic, in creatures descendant of other realms. But no Spindle had burned in an age. The last of them was a thousand years gone. The passages closed, the gates locked. The age of crossing ended.

Allward was a realm alone.

And it must stay that way, Andry Trelland thought. For the good of us all.

The squire attended to his lord’s armor, ignoring the first drop of rainfall as he tightened the belts and buckles over Sir Grandel Tyr’s broad frame. His honey-brown fingers worked quickly over familiar leather and golden steel. The knight’s armor gleamed, freshly polished, the pauldrons and breastplate worked into the likeness of the Kingdom of Galland’s roaring lion.

Dawn broke weakly, fighting through the spring rain clouds bunched up against the foothills and looming mountains. It felt like standing in a room with a low ceiling. Andry inhaled, tasting the damp air. The world pressed down around him.

Their horses whickered nearby, thirteen tied in a line, huddling together for warmth. Andry wished he could join them.

The Companions of the Realm waited in the clearing below the hill. Some guarded the pilgrim road leading into the trees, waiting for their enemy. Some patrolled the temple overgrown with ivy, its white columns like the bones of a long-abandoned skeleton. The carvings on it were familiar, Elder-written—the same letters Andry had seen in mythic Iona. The structure was ancient, older than the old Cor Empire, built for a Spindle long dead. Its bell tower stood silent. Where the Spindle inside once led, Andry did not know. No one had ever said, and he’d never worked up the courage to ask. Still, he could feel it like a scent near to fading, a ripple of power lost.

Sir Grandel curled his lip. The pale-skinned knight scowled at the sky, the temple, and the warriors below.

“Can’t believe I’m awake at this Spindlerotten hour,” he spat, his voice unchecked.

Andry ignored his mentor’s complaint.

“All finished, my lord.” he said, stepping back. He looked over the knight, checking Sir Grandel for flaw or imperfection, anything that might hinder him in the battle to come.

The knight puffed out his chest. Three years Andry squired for Sir Grandel. He was an arrogant man, but Andry knew no swordsmen of his skill who did not also err to pride. It was to be expected. And all was in order, from the toes of Sir Grandel’s steel boots to the knuckles of his gauntlets. The veteran knight was a picture of strength and bravery, the pinnacle of the Queen’s Lionguard. A fearsome and stirring sight to behold.

As always, Andry imagined himself in that same armor, the lion across his chest, the green cloak over his shoulders, his father’s shield on his arm instead of fixed to the wall in his mother’s parlor. Unused for years, covered in dust, nearly broken in two.

The squire ducked his head, chasing away the thought. “You’re ready.”

“Certainly feel ready,” the knight replied, resting gloved fingers on the hilt of his sword. “After too many days dragging my aging bones across the Ward. How long has it been since we left home, Trelland?”

Andry answered without thought. “Two months, Sir. Near two months to the day.”

He knew the count like he knew his fingers. Every day on the road was an adventure, through valleys and mountains and wilderness, to kingdoms he’d never dreamed to see. Alongside warriors of great renown and impossible skill, heroes all. Their quest was near to ending, the battle looming close. Andry did not fear a fight, but what came after.

The easy, quick road home. The training yard, the palace, my mother sick and my father dead. With nothing to look forward to but four more years of following Sir Grandel from throne room to wine cellar.

Sir Grandel took no notice of his squire’s discomfort, prattling on. “Spindles torn open and lost realms returned. Hogwash, all of it. Chasing a children’s story,” the knight grumbled, testing his gloves. “Chasing ghosts for ghosts.”

He shook his head at his battle-ready Companions, their garb and coloring as varied as jewels in a crown. His watery blue eyes lingered on a few.

Andry followed Sir Grandel’s gaze. He landed on the figures with tight, rigid posture, their armor strange, their ways even stranger. Though they were a month on the road with the Companions of the Realm, some felt anything but familiar. Inscrutable as a wizard’s riddle, distant and unbelievable as a myth. And standing right in front of me.

“They aren’t ghosts,” Andry murmured, watching as one stalked the temple’s perimeter. His hair was blond and braided, his form broad and monstrously tall. The greatsword at his hip would take two men to wield. Dom, Andry thought, though his true name was far longer and more difficult to pronounce. A prince of Iona. “The Elders are flesh and blood as much as we are.”

They were easy to distinguish from the other warriors. The Elders were beings apart, six of them in all, each one like a beautiful statue, differing in appearance but somehow all alike. As distant from mortal kind as birds from fish. Children of different stars, the legends said. Beings of another realm, the few histories told.

Immortals, Andry knew.

Ageless, beautiful, undying, distant—and lost. Even now, he could not help but stare.

They called themselves the Vedera, but to the rest of the Ward, to the mortals who only knew them from ancient history and fading stories, they were the Elders. Their kind were few, but to Andry Trelland’s eye, they were still mighty.

The Elder prince looked up as he rounded the temple, meeting the squire’s gaze with fierce emerald eyes. Andry dropped his face quickly, knowing the immortal could hear their conversation. His cheeks flushed.

Sir Grandel did not flinch, flint-eyed beneath his helmet. “Do immortals bleed, Squire?”

“I don’t know, my lord,” Andry replied.

The knight’s gaze shifted through the rest. The Elders came from every corner of the Ward, emerging from half-forgotten enclaves. Andry had memorized them like he did courtiers, both so Sir Grandel would not embarrass himself in company and for his own curiosity.

The two Elder women were a sight unto themselves, warriors as much as the rest of them. Their presence had been a shock to the mortal men, the knights of Galland most of all. Andry still found them intriguing, if not awe-inspiring. Rowanna and Marigon were of Sirandel, deep in the Castlewood, as was Arberin. Andry guessed them to be close kin, with their red hair, pale foxlike faces, and purple chain mail, iridescent as snakeskin. They looked like a forest in autumn, shifting between sun and shadow. Nour came from Hizir, the desert enclave in the Great Sands of Ibal. They seemed to be both man and woman to Andry’s eye. They wore no armor at all, but tightly wrapped yards of duskrose silk banded with a ransom of precious stones. Their skin was golden, their eyes bronze, rimmed in black kohl and lightning purple, while their black hair had been worked into intricate braids. Then there was Surim, who had traveled the farthest of any, mortal or immortal. Bronze-skinned with deep-set eyes, he still wore the journey from Tarima on him like a heavy coat, his stout pony having carried him across the vast Temurijon steppe.

Dom was more oak tree and antler than anything else. He wore leather beneath a gray-green cloak, embossed with the great stag of his enclave and his monarch. His hands were bare of gloves or gauntlets. A hammered silver ring gleamed on his finger. His home was Iona, hidden in the glens of mountain-clawed Calidon, where the Companions had first assembled. Andry remembered it sharply: an immortal city of mist and stone, ruled by an immortal lady in a gray gown.

Sir Grandel’s voice cut through the memory.

“And what of Corblood princes, descendants of the old empire?” he hissed, his words taking on a razor edge. “Spindlerotten, maybe, but mortal as the rest of us.”

Andry Trelland was raised in a palace. He knew well the tone of jealousy.

Cortael of Old Cor stood alone, his boots braced on the broken stone of the pilgrim road. He stared, unyielding, into the shadows of the wood, lying in wait like a wolf in its den. He wore a cloak of Iona too, and antlers were molded across his steel breastplate. Dark red hair fell about his shoulders, like blood at dusk. He served no mortal kingdom, but there were slight lines of age on his face, on his stern brow or at the corners of thin lips. Andry guessed him to be near thirty-five. Like the Elders, he was of Spindleblood, a son of crossing, his mortal ancestors born beneath the stars of another realm.

So was his sword. A Spindleblade. The naked weapon reflected the sky above, filled with gray light, etched in markings no one alive could read. Its presence was a thrum of lightning.

“I don’t know either,” Andry muttered, wrenching his eyes from the blade.

Sir Grandel clapped the squire on the shoulder. “Perhaps we’ll find out,” he said, stomping down the hill, his heavy armor clanging with each step.

I certainly hope not, Andry thought as his lord joined the other mortal Companions. Sir Grandel fell in among the North cousins: two other knights of Galland. Edgar and Raymon North were just as sick of the errant quest as Sir Grandel, their tired faces mirroring his own.

Bress the Bull Rider pressed in, his smile overwide beneath his horned helm. The mercenary needled the knights whenever he could, to their chagrin and Andry’s delight.

“Though you will not take up the sword, you should pray to the gods before battle nonetheless,” said a deep voice, smooth as thunder.

Andry turned to see another knight step from the trees. Okran of Kasa, the brilliant kingdom of the south, bowed his head as he approached, his helmet under one arm, his spear beneath the other. The Kasan eagle screamed across his pearl-white armor, wings and talons outstretched for a kill. Okran’s smile was a shooting star, a flash against his jet-black skin.

“My lord,” Andry replied, bowing. “I doubt the gods will listen to the words of a squire.”

Okran angled an eyebrow. “Is that what Sir Grandel Tyr tells you?”

“I must apologize for him. He is tired after so long a journey, crossing half the realm in blistering weeks.” It was a squire’s duty to pick up after his lord, in object and in word. “He does not mean to insult you, or any other.”

“Don’t fret, Squire Trelland. I am not the kind to let buzzing flies bother me,” the southern knight replied, waving a nimble-fingered hand. “Not today, at least.”

Andry fought the impolite urge to grin. “Are you calling Sir Grandel a fly?”

“Would you tell him if I did?”

The squire did not answer, and that was answer enough.

“Good lad,” the Kasan chuckled, drawing his helmet over his head, fixing the amethyst nose guard into place. A knight of the Eagle took shape, like a hero stepping out of a dream.

“Are you afraid?” The words bubbled up before he could stop them. Okran’s expression softened, bolstering Andry’s resolve. “Do you fear the thief and his wizard?”

The Kasan fell quiet for a long moment, his manner slow and thoughtful. He looked at the temple, the clearing, and Cortael at its edge, a sentinel upon the road. The forest prickled with raindrops, the shadows turning from black to gray. All seemed quiet, unassuming.

“The Spindle is the danger, not the men seeking it,” he said, his voice gentle.

Try as he might, Andry found he could not picture them. The sword stealer, the rogue wizard. Two men against the Companions: a dozen warriors, half of them Elders. It will be a slaughter, an easy victory, he told himself, forcing a nod.

The Kasan raised his chin. “The Elders called to the mortal crowns and I was sent to answer, same as your knights. I know little of Corblood or Spindle magic, and believe even less. A stolen sword, a torn passage? All this seems a conflict between two brothers, not something to concern the great kingdoms of the Ward.” He scoffed, shaking his head. “But it is not for me to believe what the Elder monarch said or what Cortael warned, only to stand against what could be. The risk of turning away is too great. At worst, nothing happens. No one comes.” His warm, dark eyes wavered. “At best, we save the realm before she even knew she was in danger.”

“Kore-garay-sida.” The language of his mother’s people was easy to reach for, well taught in Andry’s childhood. The words were honey on his lips. The gods will it so.

Okran blinked, caught off guard. Then he broke into a smile, the full weight of it overpowering. “Ambara-garay,” he answered, finishing the prayer with a dip of his helm. Have faith in the gods. “You did not tell me you speak Kasan, Squire.”

“My mother taught me, my lord,” Andry replied, drawing himself straight. He was nearing six feet tall, but still felt small in Okran’s lean shadow. Growing up in Ascal, Andry was used to being noticed for his darker skin, and he was proud of the heritage it showed. “She was born in Nkonabo, a daughter of Kin Kiane.” His mother’s family, a kin, was known even in the north.

“A noble lineage,” Okran said, still grinning. “You should visit me in Benai, when all this is done and our lives returned.”

Benai. A city of hammered gold and amethyst, nestled on the green banks of the Nkon.

The homeland he had never seen took shape, his mother’s stories a song in his head. But it could not last. The rain fell cold, reality impossible to ignore. Knighthood was three or four years off. A lifetime, Andry knew. And there is so much else to consider. My position in Ascal, my future, my honor. His heart sank. Knights are not free to roam as they will. They must protect the weak, aid the helpless, and above all serve their country and queen. Not sightsee.

And there is Mother to think of, frail as she has become.

Andry forced a smile. “When all this is done,” he echoed, waving as Okran went down the hill, his steps light on the dampening grass.

Have faith in the gods.

In the foothills of the great mountains of Allward, surrounded by heroes and immortals, Andry certainly felt the gods around him. Who else could have set a squire on such a path, the son of a foreign noblewoman and a low knight? Heir to no castles, blood to no king.

I will not be that boy tomorrow. When all this is done.

At the edge of the clearing, the immortal prince of Iona joined Cortael. His Elder senses were keenly focused on the forest. Even from the hill, Andry saw the grim set of his jaw.

“I can hear them,” he said, the words like a whipcrack. “Half a mile on. Only two, as expected.”

“We should take our precautions with a wizard,” Bress called out. The ax over his shoulder flashed a smile against the sky.

The Sirandels turned to stare at him as if facing a child.

“We are the precautions, Bull Rider,” Arberin said softly, his voice accented by his unfathomable language.

The mercenary pursed his lips.

“The Red is a meddling trickster, nothing more,” Cortael called without turning. “Ring the temple; keep your formation.” The Corblood was a born leader, well accustomed to command. “Taristan will try to slip through us and tear open a crossing before we can stop him.”

“He will fail,” Dom rumbled, drawing his greatsword from its sheath.

Okran thumped the butt of his spear on the ground in agreement, while the North cousins rattled their shields. Sir Grandel drew himself up, his jaw hard, his shoulder squared. The immortals fell in, their bows and blades in hand. The Companions were ready.

The skies finally opened, the cold, steady rain turning to downpour. Andry shivered as the wet worked down his spine, needling through the gaps in his clothing.

Cortael raised the Spindleblade to the road. Rain spattered the sword, obscuring the ancient design of the steel. Water ran down his face, but he was as stone, weathering the storm. Andry knew Cortael was mortal, but he seemed ageless in that instant. A piece of a realm lost, glimpsed only for a moment, as if through the crack in a closing door.

“Companions of the Realm,” Cortael said, his voice carrying.

Thunder rolled somewhere up the mountains. The gods of the Ward are watching, Andry thought. He felt their eyes.

The rain doubled its onslaught, falling in sheets, turning the grass to mud.

Cortael did not waver. “That bell has not tolled for a thousand years,” he said. “No one has set foot inside that temple or passed through the Spindle since. My brother intends to be the first. He will not. He will fail. What evil intent drove him here ends here.”

The sword flashed, reflecting a pulse of lightning. Cortael tightened his grip.

“There is power in Corblood and Spindleblade, enough to cut the Spindles through. It is our duty to stop my brother from this ruin, to save the realm, to save the Ward.” Cortael looked at the Companions in turn. Andry shivered when his gaze brushed over him. “Today, we fight for tomorrow.”

Cortael’s resolve did not quell the rising fear in Andry Trelland, but it gave him strength. Even if his duty was only to watch and wash away the blood, he would not flinch. He would serve the Companions and the Ward in whatever way he could. Even a squire could be strong.

“That bell has not tolled for a thousand years,” Cortael said again. He looked like a soldier, not a prince. A mortal man without a bloodline, only a duty. “It will not toll for a thousand more.”

Thunder sounded again, closer now.

And the bell tolled.

The Companions startled as one.

“Hold your ground,” Dom said. Wind tore at the golden curtain of his hair. “This is the Red’s doing. An illusion!”

The bell was both hollow and full, a call and a warning. Andry tasted its wrath and its sorrow. It seemed to echo backward and forward through the centuries, through the realms. Some part of Andry told him to put as much distance between himself and the bell as he could. But his feet stayed rooted, fists clenched. I will not flinch.

Sir Grandel bared his teeth and slapped his hand against his chest, steel ringing on steel. “With me!” he shouted, the old battle cry of the Lionguard. The Norths answered in kind.

Andry felt it in his chest.

From the hill, Andry glimpsed two figures walking steadily up the path, fading between the raindrops. The one called the Red was aptly named, swathed in a cloak the color of freshly spilled blood. He was hooded, but Andry could see his face. He was young, clean-shaven, with pale white skin and hair like wheat. His eyes looked red, even from a distance. They quivered as he took in the Companions, scanning them all from head to toe. His mouth moved without sound, lips forming words no one could hear. The wizard.

The other man stood not in armor but worn leathers and a cloak the color of mud. He was a rogue, the shadow to his brother’s sun. His helmet obscured his face, but it didn’t hide the curls of dark red hair beneath.

His blade, twin to Cortael’s own, was still in its sheath, jeweled with red and purple, a sunset between his fingers. The sword stealer.

So this is supposed to be the ruin of the realm, Andry thought, bewildered.

Cortael kept his sword raised. “You are a fool, Taristan.”

The bell tolled again, rolling back in the tower.

The other son of Old Cor stood quietly, listening to the temple bell. Then he smiled, his white-toothed grin evident even beneath his helmet.

“How long’s it been, Brother?”

Cortael was unmoved.

“Since birth,” Taristan finally offered, answering for him. “I bet you had a good time of it, growing up in Iona. Spindleblessed from your first heartbeat.” Though Taristan’s manner was light, his tone near jovial, the squire saw an edge to him. It was like watching a feral dog size up a trained hound. “And to your last.”

“I wish I could say it was a pleasure to meet you, Brother,” Cortael said.

At his side, Dom glowered. “Return what you have taken, thief.”

With quick fingers, Taristan half drew the blade at his side, revealing inches of the sword. Even in the rain, the steel gleamed, the etched lines a spiderweb.

He twitched a smirk. “You’re welcome to try and take it back if you want, Domacridhan.” The Elder’s full name fell off his tongue awkwardly, not worth his effort. He wiggled the sword in its sheath, taunting them all. “If you’re anything like the vaults of your kin, you’ll fail. And who are you to keep my birthright from me? Even if I am the younger, the spare, it’s only fair we each hold a blade of our ancestors, of our lost realm.”

“This will only end in ruin,” Cortael growled. “Surrender and I will not have to kill you.”

Taristan only slid a foot, moving with the grace of a dancer, not a warrior. Cortael shifted to match, extending the blade to his brother’s throat.

“The Elders raised you as you are, Cortael,” he said. “A warrior, a scholar, a lord of men and immortals both. The heir to rebuild an empire long since lost. All to do exactly what I have done: Bring the Spindles back into crossing. Rejoin the realms. Allow their people to return to a home they have not seen in centuries.” He glanced at Dom. “Am I wrong, Elder?”

“To tear a Spindle open is to put all the realms in danger. You would destroy the world for your own ends,” Dom growled, his steady manner fading.

Taristan stepped, squelching in the mud. “Destruction for some. Glory for others.”

The mantle of the Elder’s stillness fell away with the ease of a discarded cloak. “Monster,” Dom raged, his own sword suddenly raised.

Taristan grinned again, taunting. He’s enjoying this, Andry realized with disgust.

Dom snarled. “You cannot force a Spindle. The consequences—”

“Save your breath, Dom,” Cortael said. “His fate is chosen.”

Taristan halted in his tracks.

My fate is chosen?” he hissed, his voice turning soft and dangerous, a blade beneath silk. Rage gathered in him as the storm gathering above.

On the hill, Andry felt his heartbeat quicken and his breath come fast.

“They took you and trained you and told you that you were something special, an emperor returned, Corblood and Spindleborn,” Taristan seethed. “The last of an ancient bloodline, meant for greatness. Old Cor was yours to claim and conquer, yours to rule. What a glorious destiny for the firstborn son of the parents we never knew.”

With a snarl, he raised both hands to his helmet and ripped it away, revealing his face.

Andry let out a gasp, mouth ajar.

The two brothers stared, mirror images of each other.

Twins.

Though Taristan was ragged where Cortael was regal, Andry could barely tell them apart. They had the same fine face, piercing eyes, stern jaw, thin lips, high brow, and strange, distant way of all those of Spindleblood. Separate from the other mortals, alike only to each other.

Cortael recoiled, stricken. “Taristan,” he said, his voice nearly swallowed by the rain.

The sword stealer drew his own Spindleblade, unsheathing it in a long, slow motion. It sang in harmony with the bell, a high breath to a deep bellow.

“Every dream you ever had was given. Every path you ever walked already decided,” Taristan said. Rain lashed the blade. “Your fate was chosen the day we were born, Cortael. Not mine.”

“So what do you choose now, Brother?”

Taristan raised his chin. “I choose the life I should have lived.”

The infernal bell tolled again, deeper this time.

“You gave me the chance to surrender.” Taristan’s lip curled. “I’m afraid I can’t do the same. Ronin?”

The wizard raised his hands, white as snow, palms outstretched. The Sirandels moved faster than Andry thought possible, three arrows leaping from the string. They aimed true, for the heart, the throat, the eye. But inches from Ronin’s face, the arrows burned away. More arrows flew, faster than Andry thought possible. Again the arrows flamed beneath the red glare, little more than smoke in the rain.

Cortael raised his sword high, meaning to cut Ronin in half.

Taristan was quicker, parrying the blow with the clang of steel on steel. “What you learned in a palace,” he hissed, their identical faces close, “I learned better in the mud.”

The wizard’s palms came together, and there was the grate of stone, another curl of thunder, and the hiss of liquid on something hot, like oil sizzling in a pan. Terror bled through Andry as he looked to the temple, once empty, but no longer. The doors swung outward, pushed by a dozen white hands streaked in ash and soot. Their skin was split and cracked, showing bone beneath, or oozing red wounds. Andry could not see their faces, and for that he was grateful. He could scarcely imagine the horror of them. A hot light pulsed from within the temple, so bright as to be blinding, as the shadows spilled from the doorway and raced across the clearing.

The Companions turned toward the commotion, faces dropping in shock.

“The Ashlands,” Rowanna of Sirandel gasped. Her golden eyes widened with the same fear Andry felt in himself, though he had no idea what she meant. For a moment her focus shifted from the temple to the horses up the hill. It was not difficult to guess her mind.

She wanted to run.

Below, Cortael growled in Taristan’s face, their blades locked together. “The Spindle?”

The other twin leered. “Already torn, the crossing already made.” He moved in a flash of speed, bringing his elbow across Cortael’s face with a crack. The great lord spun, falling, his broken nose gushing a torrent of scarlet blood. “What sort of idiot do you think I am?”

Dom leapt, roaring an Elder battle cry. He moved in a graceful arc, until the wizard raised a hand and brushed him aside with barely a touch, tossing him into the mud some yards away.

The foul, living corpses of the Spindle forced their way from the temple in the dozens, tumbling over each other. Some were already broken, crawling on shattered limbs rattling in greasy black armor. They were like mortal men but not, twisted from the inside out. Most clutched battle-worn weapons: rusted iron swords and notched axes, cracked daggers, splintered spears. Broken but still sharp, still lethal. Arrows peppered the horde, the Sirandels felling the first wave like wheat before the scythe. They could be killed, but their numbers only grew. They carried an unmistakable odor of smoke and burned flesh, and a hot wind blew from insidecthe temple, from the Spindle, bringing with it clouds of ash.

Andry could not move, could not breathe. He could only stare as the corpses fell upon the Companions, a scarred and bloody army of a lost realm. Were they living? Were they dead? Andry could not say. But they kept an odd circle around Taristan and Cortael. As if commanded to let the brothers fight.

Okran’s spear danced, skewering throats as he moved in agile arcs. The Gallish knights formed a well-practiced triangle, fighting hard, their swords stained in black and red. Surim and Nour were but blurs through the fray, shortsword and daggers dancing. They left destruction in their wake, cutting a path through the bodies as they surged. The creatures screamed and fought, their voices inhuman, screeching and frayed, their vocal cords shredded. Andry could hardly distinguish faces—they were bleached beyond recognition, scalps bare and skin the color of bone, scarred red or painted in dripping oil. Flaking with ash, they looked like wood burned white, scorched from the inside out.

The plan was two against twelve, Andry thought, petrified. But no, it’s twelve against dozens. Hundreds.

The horses snorted and tugged at their ropes. They smelled the danger, the blood, and most of all the Spindle hissing within the temple, filling their bones with lightning terror.

Taristan and Cortael circled each other, Cortael’s armor half painted in mud. Blood ran down his chin and over his antlered breastplate. Their blades came together, striking true. Despite their shared face, they could not have fought more differently. Cortael was skill and force, where Taristan was an alley cat, always moving, shifting on his toes, sword in one hand, dagger in the other, using both in equal measure. He smashed; he dodged; he used the mud and the rain to his advantage. He grinned and sneered, spitting blood in his brother’s face. He slammed his blade down on his brother’s shoulder, his light plate and ring mail. Cortael grimaced in pain but seized his brother around the middle. The twins toppled together, rolling through the muck.

Andry watched without blinking, frozen to the spot. What can I do? What can I do? His hands shook; his body trembled. Draw a sword, damn you. Fight. It’s your duty. You want to be a knight, and knights are not afraid. A knight would not stand and watch. A knight would charge down this hill and into the chaos, shield and sword ready.

Below the hill, the mud turned red with blood.

And a knight would die doing it.

Arberin screamed first. A corpse grabbed his red braid, climbing on his back. Another followed. And another, and another, until the sheer weight of bodies brought the Elder to the ground. Their blades were many. White steel, black iron, pitted and old. But sharp enough.

His flesh gave easily.

Rowanna and Marigon fought their way to their kin. They reached a body still bleeding, his immortal life ended.

Sir Grandel and the Norths were losing ground, their triangle tightening with each passing second. Swords danced; shields bashed; gauntlets cracked on flesh. Bodies piled around them, white limbs and decapitated heads. Edgar tripped first, falling as if through water, slowly, the end already realized. Until Sir Grandel seized him by the cloak, pulling him back upright.

“With me!” he shouted over the din. In the training yards of the palace, it meant keep up, be strong, push harder. Today it simply meant stay alive.

The bull rider roared, his ax wheeling, cutting throats with every pass. Red and black streaked his armor, blood and oil. But the mercenary could not keep up his pace. Andry wanted to scream when the horned helm of Bress the Bull Rider disappeared beneath the corpse tide.

The seconds felt like hours, and every death a lifetime. Rowanna fell next, half submerged in a puddle, an ax in her spine. A hammer blow caved in Raymon North’s breastplate. The wet rasp of his dying breath rattled even over the battlefield. Edgar bent over him, his sword forgotten as he cradled his cousin’s head. Despite Sir Grandel’s best efforts, the creatures fell upon the kneeling knight with knives and teeth. Andry had known the Norths since he was a boy. He’d never thought he’d watch them die—and die so poorly.

Sir Grandel was heavy, difficult to pull down, though the creatures tried. He looked up from the clearing, locking eyes with Andry, who was still on the rise. Andry watched his own hands move, gesturing without thought, beckoning for his lord to abandon the battle. With me. Stay alive. In another time, Sir Grandel would have scolded him for cowardice.

Now he obeyed, and he ran.

So did Andry, his sword suddenly in his fist. His body moved faster than his mind, his feet sliding over the mud. I am squire to Sir Grandel Tyr, a knight of the Lionguard. This is my duty. I must help him. All other thoughts faded, all fear forgotten. I must be brave.

“With me!” Andry howled.

Sir Grandel climbed, but the creatures followed, tearing at his limbs, pulling him backward. He raised a gauntleted hand, fingers splayed. Not reaching, not begging. Not asking for aid or protection. His eyes went wide.

“RUN, TRELLAND!” the knight bellowed. “RUN!”

Sir Grandel Tyr’s last command struck Andry through. He froze, looking into the red maw of the carnage below.

A corpse tore the knight’s sword away. He fought on, but the mud sucked at his boots and he slid, pitching forward against the slope, fingers clawing at the wet grass.

Tears pricked Andry’s eyes. “With me,” he whispered, his voice a flower dying in frost.

He could not watch as one sword fell, and then another. The world spotted before him, black dots spreading to eat up his vision. The smell of blood and rot and ash consumed everything. I must run, he thought, his legs like water.

“Move,” Andry hissed to himself, forcing a step back. He felt his father watching, and Sir Grandel too. Knights dead in battle, knights who had done their duty and not forsaken their honor. The sort of knight he would never be. Andry sheathed his sword, his fingers meeting the reins of his horse.

Nour was dead upon the temple steps, their long, lithe limbs splayed across the marble. They were lovely even in death. Marigon wept openly over Rowanna’s body but still fighting with deadly rhythm. She howled, tossing her hair, not a fox but a wolf with red fur. Surim and Dom were still alive, trying to fight their way to Cortael.

Okran’s spear was broken at his feet, but he was not without shield and sword. The white armor of Kasa turned crimson, the Eagle painted with a fresh kill.

Andry untied his reins, hands shaking. Then he turned to Okran’s horse. The squire set his jaw, willing his fingers into motion. They were numb with fear, clumsy, as he loosed the knight’s horse. I can do this, at least.

Cortael and Taristan fought in the eye of a bloody hurricane. The mud churned beneath their feet, torn up like a tournament ground. Cortael looked the same as his brother now, ragged and worn, far from a prince or an emperor. Both panted in exhaustion, swaying on their feet, each blow coming a little slower, a little weaker.

Ronin stood before the temple doors, the air swirling with ashes. He kept his arms spread, palms raised, in worship to no god Andry knew. He tipped his head and smiled up at the bell tower. It tolled in answer, as if a bell could do such a thing.

The Spindleblades met as lightning veined, each blade aglow for a moment, purple-white and blazing.

One of the horses screamed and reared, snapping the rope line. They all bolted, and Andry cursed. Leather slid through his fingers. Andry squeezed and braced himself, expecting to be dragged down the hill. Instead Dom’s white stallion whinnied, caught in his hands.

A cry, shouted in Kasan, broke Andry’s heart anew. Okran fell, his body skewered with blades. He died looking skyward, searching for the eagle, the wings that would take him home.

Across the clearing, Marigon lost a hand to an ax, and then her head.

Surim and Dom roared, unable to reach her, islands in the bloody sea. The waves closed around Surim first. He whistled for his horse, but the steppe pony was already in the fray, fighting to his side. She was torn apart before she could reach him. It was his ending too.

Andry had no voice left, no thought even to pray.

In the circle, Cortael screamed his rage, his blows coming fierce again. With a swing of his sword, he knocked away Taristan’s dagger, the blade falling deep into the mud. With another, he dismantled Taristan’s guard and drove the Spindleblade deep into his brother’s chest.

Andry froze, one foot in the stirrup, not daring to hope.

The corpse army stopped too, bloody jaws agape. On the steps, Ronin’s hands dropped, his scarlet eyes wide.

Taristan fell to his knees, the blade protruding from his body. He gaped in shock. Above him, Cortael watched without joy or triumph, his face still but for the rain washing him clean.

“You did this to yourself, Brother,” he said slowly. “But still I ask your forgiveness.”

His twin choked, the words difficult to form.

“It’s—it’s not your fault you were born first. It’s not—not your fault you were chosen,” Taristan stammered, staring at his wound. When he looked up, his black eyes were hard, resolute. “But you continue to underestimate me, and for that, you are to blame.”

With a sneer, he drew the sword from his own chest, the blade slick and red.

Andry could not believe his eyes.

“Those bells have not tolled for the gods in a thousand years,” Taristan said, rising back to his feet, a Spindleblade in each hand. All around him, the creatures made strange sounds, like chittering insect laughter. “And they do not toll for your gods today. They toll         for mine. For Him. For What Waits.”

Cortael toppled back on his heels, terrified. He raised a hand between them, undefended, at the nonexistent mercy of a forgotten brother. “You will destroy the Ward for a crown!”

“A king of ashes is still a king,” Taristan crowed.

In the bog of bodies, Dom struggled, battering his way to his friend. He won’t make it, Andry knew, his vision swimming. He is too far, still too far.

Taristan stabbed Cortael’s Spindleblade into the mud at his side, favoring his own sword. Cortael could do nothing to stop him as he raised it. There was nowhere to turn, nowhere to run. His face crumpled, a prince reduced to a beggar.

“Brother—”

The blade struck him true, shearing through plate armor and mail into Cortael’s heart. The heir to Old Cor fell to his knees, head lolling on his shoulders.

Taristan used one booted foot to draw the sword from Cortael’s chest, letting his body slump. “And a dead man is still dead,” he hissed, sneering over the corpse.

He raised his weapon again, ready to hack his brother’s body to pieces.

But his sword met another, a blade of Iona in the hand of the last Companion alive.

“Leave him,” Dom snarled, furious as a tiger. He shoved Taristan back with ease.

The Elder planted himself between Taristan and his friend’s body, feet set for another fight though he was torn apart, surrounded, and already beaten. Cortael’s sword, bloody and useless, still stood upright in the mud, a gravestone waiting for them both.

Taristan laughed openly, amused. “The stories say your kind are brave, noble, greatness made flesh. They should say you are stupid too.”

Dom’s lips twitched, betraying a smile of his own. His eyes, the Elder eyes of an immortal realm, were shockingly green. They shifted for an instant, looking up the hill, to the squire planted firmly in the saddle of a white stallion.

Andry’s heart surged, his jaw set in grim resolve. He nodded, only once.

The Elder whistled, high and true. The horse exploded, charging down the hill. Not into the battle, but around it, past the creatures, the bodies, the Companions fallen and dead.

Moving with the speed only an immortal could claim, Dom lunged for Cortael’s sword, vaulting head over feet to draw the blade from the mud. He threw it as he rolled upright, using all his momentum to hurl the blade like a javelin, up and over the scarred heads of the Spindle army. It sailed, an arrow from the string. One last gasp of victory against defeat entire.

Taristan roared as the blade and the stallion raced each other.

Andry’s world narrowed to the flash of steel as it landed in the slick grass ahead. He felt the horse beneath him, all muscle and fear. The squire was trained to ride, trained to fight in the saddle. He slung himself sideways, thighs gripping hard, brown fingers reaching. The Spindleblade felt cold in his hand.

The army screamed but the stallion did not break stride. Andry’s pulse rammed in time with the hooves pounding beneath him, an earthquake rattling up in his chest. His mind blurred, a haze as each fallen Companion flashed before him, their endings irrevocably carved into his memory. No songs would be sung of them. No great stories told.

It was too much. All his thoughts splintered and re-formed, melting into one.

We have failed.

 

Excerpted from Realm Breaker, copyright © 2021 by Victoria Aveyard.

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