“A gritty, medieval fantasy full of enchantment” (Publishers Weekly), David Keck's epic Tales of Durand trilogy concludes with A King in Cobwebs
Once a landless second son, Durand has sold his sword to both vicious and noble men and been party to appalling acts of murder as well as self-sacrificing heroism. Now the champion of the Duke of Gireth, Durand’s past has caught up with him.
The land is at the mercy of a paranoid king who has become unfit to rule. As rebellion sparks in a conquered duchy, the final bond holding back the Banished break, unleashing their nightmarish evil on the innocents of the kingdom.
In his final battle against the Banished, Durand comes face to face with the whispering darkness responsible for it allthe king in cobwebs.
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A Feast of Life and Death
Kieren the Fox leaned back from the high table. "In the old stories, these feasts are always the start of something."
Durand looked down on the little knight from his spot over old Duke Abravanal's shoulder.
"I need no such looks from you, Durand Col," said Kieren. "How long have I known you? Man and boy, it must be twenty years. You were rolling on the rushes there like a puppy when I first saw you.
"And you may make a skeptical face, but what I say about stories is true: it's always this feast or that feast. They were gathered for the Feast of the Ascension when. ... They all start that way. You check with that minstrel friend of yours, next time you see him. Heremund?"
"I've not seen the skald in years." There had been no new tales for many winters.
Sir Kieren glanced up and down the high table, winking at young Lady Almora where she sat by her ancient father a few spots down. "The hall was crowded; throughout Creation the Sons of Atthi feasted the Ascension of the Eye of Heaven over darkness and the beginning of Spring. And so half the fractious barons of Gireth and Yrlac, ten years sulkily united under Abravanal's rule, muttered under green garlands in that black hall, their ladies in gowns of emerald while knives winked, wine sloshed, and greyhounds roiled in the rushes like fat eels."
Almora laughed, tucking her chin a bit. She was the only cheerful thing in the hall.
"Where do all the dogs come from, anyway?" Kieren wondered. One of the brutes was nuzzling its way past their knees even now, its coat as coarse as brown oakum. Kieren slipped the dog a scrap and was lucky to keep his fingers.
"Now I've got lost. Ah yes. The greyhounds. All under the lowering eye of the duke's champion, Durand Col, who stood like a black-bearded idol at the duke's shoulder, forever watchful, forever loyal, and forever lowering at me though I've known him since he was a pup and I his master. You could stop lowering, Durand."
This got another bright laugh from the girl.
It was enough to draw a cautioning frown from Almora's lady-in-waiting, Lady Deorwen.
Sir Kieren pursed his lips behind his great mustaches, and made sure he was out of Deorwen's earshot. "Worse than usual?"
Almora ducked her dark eyes. "The dreams again," she said.
"Ah," said Kieren. "You'd think she'd have laid the last of the old ghosts to rest by now."
"They still come to her," said Almora. "She is often abroad at night."
"Running errands for the Lost." He clucked his tongue. "Ten years since Radomor of Yrlac put this place under siege, and still the dead are not done with us."
Kieren set his hand on Almora's shoulder and she smiled, wistfully now.
Just then, something drew Durand's attention from the girl, his old friend, and Deorwen. There'd been a word misspoken, and a shushing — too loud.
Durand Col, Champion of Gireth, scratched his beard and shot a glance down the long tables, where he spied a bald fighting man struggling with his companions.
"Let me speak, you hissing pack of fishwives!" The bald fighting man waved a boar's rib in the air as he shrugged off his companions. He wasn't one of the usual men who came to Abravanal's board. The dullard had a shapeless face, a bit like a pig's bladder.
Kieren frowned. "It's that Euric boy, idiot brother to the Baron of Swanskin Down."
"I only asked why the old man hasn't married the girl off," Sir Euric said. A ring flashed on his finger. "What harm is there in asking?"
"What did he say?" old Abravanal quavered, scarcely more than whisper.
"Nothing, Your Grace. He's drunk, most likely," Kieren said, but Euric had ventured onto dangerous ground.
Lady Deorwen took Almora's elbow and shot Durand a cautioning look. The woman was half his size, but her dark eyes still nudged him off balance, though long years had passed since he'd set a finger upon her.
"In the autumn, the king's messengers show up here in Acconel," Euric continued. "They tell us, 'Ride over the mountains. Get to Fellwood. Quiet that rabble down there.' A land that's nought to do with Gireth or Yrlac — not much to do with Errest the Old, some might say. Leave half a rebellion behind to go haring off to the Fellwood Marches. But the snows come early and the high passes are choked. And that gives us a winter here at home to settle things with the barons in Yrlac. It's a gift from the Powers of Heaven, sure enough.
"But what did we do? It is Ascension time now, and some of our friends from Yrlac are hopping over the river every other night. ... A winter wasted, and Yrlac still not sorted. They need a sign over there. While there is still time!"
Only then did Euric seem to notice that the eyes of the high table were upon him, and that his tirade was in the ears of his masters.
Abravanal rose unsteadily to his feet.
Euric straightened, patting the air with one greasy hand. "With respect, Your Grace. With respect. But you must show the lords of Yrlac your mind! We have lost one winter since the king's message, but there have been ten long years since Radomor of Yrlac rebelled against the king. Ten years since we vanquished him. Ten years since you have held the traitor's lands. Are the native lords in Yrlac free or conquered? They must know where they stand. King Ragnal has business of his own, worrying that them forest lords in Fellwood do not heed him, I suppose. And what cares he which of his lords plays duke in Yrlac? The king will send word now that Spring is here: over the mountains to Fellwood and show them they're not forgot!"
There were lords of Yrlac in the room, shifting on their benches, but the drunkard began counting options on his fingers: "Marry the girl off to that Lord Leovere of theirs, if you must; bind his house to yours. Or, if you won't give them the girl, crush them, and think on marrying the girl to one of your own barons here. Drop the gate on the devils in Yrlac! They must know your mind, Your Grace — you must know your mind. And it must be now!"
Duke Abravanal trembled in every limb. "Must?
Must?" He could hardly choke out a syllable, so full of rage was he. "Who are you to speak this way, to tell me that I must give up my daughter?"
"Father ..." Almora gave the old man a beseeching whisper, then shot a pointed look at Kieren.
Kieren the Fox, Abravanal's Steward in Gireth, was already on his feet. "Lord Euric, for your late father's sake, I hope you'll spare a moment to remember where you are. You've a right to your own mind, but we're in our liege lord's hall just now."
It was a noble attempt and had to be made, but Euric only blinked stupidly.
"That's just it, Sir Kieren. Maybe His Grace needs a word," Euric said. "It's our future he's fumbling with." He jabbed his rib bone at his duke. "I know he's got plenty of reason to hang on to the child with all his others dead. But locking her up in here in Acconel? The king will send us all over the mountains any day now, and Acconel will be left with hardly a fighting man to defend it. What if Lord Leovere or any of the rest of his Yrlaci friends choose to make trouble? Is Abravanal with us here in Gireth or them in Yrlac?"
A few hands in the hall shaped the Eye of Heaven to ward off evil. The man's words were treason.
"Almora is my own affair, you stupid fucking boy," rasped Abravanal. "As is how I govern the lands my late sons wrested from the rebel Duke of Yrlac. And my dead children. God! As if I do not remember them. As if they ever leave my mind!"
Euric looked up into the garlands crowding the soot-blackened vaults of the Painted Hall. Lady Deorwen was gathering up Almora to get her from the hall. Almora's hair bobbed like sable as she snarled in Deorwen's ear. She was no infant to be sheltered from harsh words; it would be something like that she was telling poor Deorwen.
And Deorwen was not quite quick enough.
"Your Grace. She's like a dove in this black old tomb." Euric's hand swept expansively over the girl and the high table. "Is she fifteen now? A girl her age should be out on her own, not cooped up here with her old father. I know a great lord on the border who's of an age to marry. That would be a message sent." Durand wondered if the man referred to himself. "I mean ... is there something amiss with the girl? Something wrong with her?"
A big hollow rage filled Durand's head. There was not wine enough in Creation! She was a little girl....
Almora had nearly reached the door. Deorwen had been too slow.
"What's that you say?" the duke breathed.
"I only wondered if there might be something —" The boar's rib dangled in silence.
"Durand Col!" spluttered the duke.
Durand stepped from the gloom behind the old duke, drawing every eye.
"The fool's in his cups. He's brother to Swanskin Down," Kieren whispered, but the old man would not hear — could not hear. To bring up marriage. To offer the Yrlaci's favorite, Leovere of Penseval. To question Abravanal in his own hall. To say that something might be wrong with Almora. And all in a hall full of headstrong lords from the two lands of Abravanal's domain. Durand was the Champion of Gireth, oath-bound to defend the duke and his daughter. And Euric had one way back.
Chinless Euric's expression hardened like a stubborn child's. "I've said what I meant."
"Then you must unsay it," said Durand.
"But there must be a reason —"
"Oh Host Above ..." said Kieren, despairing. Kieren and Coensar had been trying to arrange for a marriage with Yrlac for a year or more.
Durand, with a flat smack of his hand, set twenty goblets wobbling. Wet blooms of wine spread over the table linen. "Sir Euric, you've slandered the kin of our liege lord, sworn and rightful. You will not recant. A hundred noblemen of Errest are witness."
The man stared back, the little bobble of his chin glistening with grease.
"Get a horse," said Durand. "I'll meet you in the yard and prove her ladyship's honor on your bones!"
Abravanal's eyes bulged and Kieren put his face in his hands. Lady Deorwen had managed to get Almora from the hall.
* * *
Durand walked his shaggy black giant of a warhorse, Shriker, into the inner yard where knights and lordlings shuffled in the cool brightness of a spring afternoon. Most were a little the worse for the wine. Some would have known Euric — page, shield-bearer, and baron's brat — since he was a boy. A ruddy banner of silken cloud rippled above the battlements where guardsmen weighed the odds, wagering their pennies. Durand remembered fighting a siege in this place, ten years before.
Taking a man to the yard was a mortal business. Durand was already muffled to the eyes in straps and iron. He winced at the stink of the stained, rag-stuffed old gambeson under his hauberk and coat of plates. He jabbed a brace of lances into the turf.
He scrutinized Shriker's gear, fighting the brute's black trappings to get his fingers on double girths and broad breast band. The monster shifted — a quick tramp meant to slice Durand's foot off, no doubt. But Durand knew the animal.
Sir Kieren stalked across the grass and bent perilously close to Shriker's flank. The little man's drooping mustaches bobbed at Durand's ear.
"Euric's kin have been bound to the Dukes of Gireth since old Duke Gunderic was a nipper. They've held that Swanskin Down for the Dukes of Gireth time out of mind, Durand. You remember his poor father. Looked like a baker. And now Euric's brother is the baron, of course."
"Catch hold of his bridle a moment, Sir Kieren," said Durand mildly. Shriker was nodding. "The devil bites when he's cross." And Durand tugged a girth tighter. "I take it you've spoken to Abravanal then? He won't listen?" If Abravanal had relented, Kieren would already have his peace.
Kieren's mustache jumped as its owner grimaced. "Swanskin's an important man. The Down is right on the blasted border with Yrlac, not a league from Leovere's seat at Penseval. Things are ticklish out there."
"Ticklish, aye. So Euric said. But I gather Duke Abravanal is adamant," said Durand gently. "So Euric must be taught a lesson."
"His Grace has had a hard time, Durand. You must make allowances for that. And it's Ascension Day. Think on it. In an hour we'll all be stood in the high sanctuary with the cedar and the balsam and the Eye of Heaven. Is this the time to shed the blood of the Sons of Atthi? What can the King of Heaven think of such a thing? It is his day, after all."
"You ask the King of Heaven. I'm Abravanal's man. And if Abravanal won't be talked around, that's an end to it."
Kieren grunted. "If Euric had spent more time in Acconel, he'd have known better than to open his gob about the girl. His Grace will no more marry her away to some lord of Yrlac than slit her throat. We've been trying to bring him round to Leovere for two years. To him, all the men of Yrlac are traitors and murderers and only the Host Below knows what else. Me? With Yrlac and Gireth bound in blood and kinship, I'd dance at the wedding. And this drunkard thinks he can fix it up by shouting down the high table? Maybe I should have you give him a knock or two on my behalf, once you've settled his account with His Grace.
"Still, a man might wonder why his brother sent him. That new baron, Vadir, is not the simpleton Euric is. Was Vadir trying to press his own suit? God, he can hardly have thought Euric could woo her!
"But it doesn't matter. The poor girl won't see a betrothal until the old man's gone." Fighting the infernal Radomor of Yrlac had taken both of Abravanal's sons, and dark-haired Alwen had died while wife to Radomor. Durand had seen Alwen in her tower while Radomor smoldered and their infant child howled. Three children dead over Yrlac. The duke would not allow his last surviving child to leave his sight. Giving Almora to yet another lord of Yrlac was unthinkable.
In the daylight, Durand noticed that the Fox's long mustaches were more silver than red. The poor man had been managing Abravanal's affairs for more winters than Durand could guess.
"You might speak to Euric himself," Durand suggested. "I cannot, but there's nothing barring you from having a word."
"Have I not done so? But it's a rare baron's brother who has the courage for contrition."
"And our Euric is not the exception," Durand concluded.
Just then, high-strung Shriker tossed his big head, screaming up between the walls: Somewhere down the yard, Euric would have led out his warhorse, and Shriker was not pleased to scent another stallion. "Here's our baron's brother now," said Durand, and indeed Sir Euric had appeared, stomping into the yard, still wrestling with his battle gear — and with an entourage of agitated friends. The slab-sided brown stallion who had so offended Shriker permitted Euric's friends to catch hold of his bridle.
"Here it is. Doom has come among us," said Kieren. "I'd better get to His Grace. You'd best take care of yourself."
Euric, clad in green and gold, was shaking off his comrades and leaping into the saddle, a bare blade wobbling in the air.
Durand climbed soberly onto Shriker's back. He lifted his helm and slid the riveted barrel down over iron links and hair-stuffed canvas, grateful as the closed helm resolved the confusion of Creation into one narrow gash. He could hear his oft-broken nose whistle. A quick-whispered prayer hissed and rattled like the splash of water on a skillet.
Abravanal and his family looked on, the duke under a heap of blankets. Tiny Deorwen's disapproval was enormous. She had an arm around Almora, once again ready to hustle her away.
Durand found the hilt of the old sword-of-war he carried: a gift he bore but never used. It had belonged to a comrade and there were tangled feelings. No. For fighting, he used a chained flail. With its rough links and nasty blacksmith's ball of filed nails, it did the job. He thumbed the tines for a moment, then let his eye settle on his opponent.
Already, Sir Euric had spurred his charger into neutral ground, letting the animal's hooves lash at Heaven. He bellowed, "Black Durand! Old Hunchback! You're a canker on a sickly court, and Gireth wastes away with you at its heart! And it is past time that someone cut you out!"
Durand blinked. He resented "hunchback." His shoulder gave him trouble since Radomor and the siege, but hunchback was unjust. Iron links of mail crunched as he worked his jaw.
Euric seemed unhappy with Durand's silence and waved his brass-pommeled sword vigorously.
"Bloody old cripple! My plowmen will have that patchwork head of yours for a football. What say you to that, vile ogre?"
Durand hauled in a deep breath. "You may yet be reconciled with your duke, Sir Euric. Recant and have done." Kieren the Fox deserved that much, and a scar or two did not make a patchwork. His beard hid a lot.
"The old man does not know his enemies, Black Durand," Euric snarled. He snatched a lance from a stone-faced shield-bearer. What a master that boy had.
"So be it," said Durand. He roughly reseated his helm, wrenched one lance from the ground, and managed a quick salute to the duke and his daughter.
Euric had already lashed his mount into a full gallop.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A King in Cobwebs"
Copyright © 2018 David Keck.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1. A Feast of Life and Death,
2. A Rite of Fire,
3. Familiar Spirits,
4. Lord in All but Name,
5. A Keeper of the Dead,
6. His Grace's Shadow,
7. A Test of Fire,
8. The Trial of the High Passes,
9. A Gate of Cloud,
10. The Horn of the Forest,
11. The Marches of Fellwood,
12. Judgment of the Sword,
13. Kingdom of the Hornbearer,
14. A Road of Stone and Spirits,
15. The Mercy of Iron,
16. Dark Homecomings,
17. An Ill-Suited Hero,
18. Whispers in the Lonely Places,
19. Of Ice, Death, and Stone,
20. A Bitter Glory,
21. Like a Red-Gold Coin,
22. The Starlings, the Eagles, and the Crane,
23. At the River,
24. The Vale of Ydran,
25. The Path of Ashes,
26. A Labyrinth of Dreams,
27. The Passage of Honor,
28. Dunnock of the Hedges,
30. The Bay of Eldinor,
31. Lost Princes,
32. The Mount of Eagles,
33. The King's Watch,
Tor Books by David Keck,
About the Author,