Breaking seemingly endless cycles of war, the remnants of the Great Houses of Ancient Syrscian have set aside their differences in an uneasy alliance. They've met the criteria to return to their home world against the Ban, but the World of Origins is not quite as they remember.
The dying empress has awakened.
The prophecy was fulfilled, and the return of their long-dead empress has ignited political strife within the priesthood of a regime that has ruled Syrscian for a thousand years. The scattered people brace for war.
The Towers are stirring.
Stone artifacts granting powers to rule the World of Origins have been divided among beings called Towers, who fight one another and the empress for rule of her divided realm.
The heroes from the Blue World have begun their quest.
A power in the north revives after ages of sleep. Scientists Seijung Ford and Hannah Aston race to locate their displaced companions while struggling to survive in a world where the laws of physics are strange, and where dark spiritual beings have raised strongholds against the dominion of mankind. Will the Banner of the Blue World advance to vie with the legendary Destroyer of Kutha, or will humanity fade forever into darkness?
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Read an Excerpt
Banner of the Blue World
By Bryan Kovach
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2016 Bryan Kovach
All rights reserved.
AN INCIDENT AT WICELINE'S INN
Cille of Cambria, A.D. 1901
* * *
Though it was still late summer, the sea was chill on the shores of Cambria. Wool wasn't ideal for walking clothes, but it was all Giles could scrounge up for them on such short notice. Tugging the straps of his second-hand trousers, Taran struggled to catch up to Hest. Her pace was as brisk as the wind.
Jon hiked beside him, combing pale wraithlike fingers through his hair while gazing silently at Hest. Thinking back to their late-night meeting in the castle, Taran still couldn't believe Jon's story about having a change of heart and wanting to make things right. Jon was Naruna's eyes and ears. His feigned brotherly affection had faded like a mist before the rising sun. In the end it was decided they should bring him along just to keep an eye on him.
"Cheer up, little brother," Jon said, taking notice of Taran's sideward glance. "I'll make sure Naruna doesn't find us."
The colonel worked for an international criminal named Lír, who wanted to find Val Anna. Taran now knew that Naruna wasn't her true father. Fain's books had revealed it to him — and something else.
Fain had somehow crossed over into another world. "I wish I was back under the bridge," Taran mumbled.
"You worry too much! Father will be able to avoid the colonel, and you have me along in case he comes after us."
"You mean when he comes after us," Taran replied. "And I'm not worried. We have Hest."
Jon regarded his comment lightly.
"She's going to stop Naruna?"
"I dare say she could."
Jon resumed his study of Hest, sizing her up against some unknown obstacle. Taran turned his own attention to a countryside of green wind-swept hills.
The ferry had left them at a village with a quay so small it could hardly be called a port. That was probably a good thing, being Taran carried a bundle wrapped in rags that anyone could plainly see was a sword. They shared no words with the ferryman, and took to a weedy path that was empty of traffic. There were no real roads. Nor were there any bridges, as they discovered at the first little streamlet they forded. Cambria was a country of shepherds and small villages, and little else.
Rounding the top of another hill, Taran looked down into a deep shadowed glen dotted with pools and hemmed by lonely trees. The sea-scented wind died suddenly, and with that came the realization at last that he'd entered a foreign land. The others passed him by while he paused a moment to look back towards the distant glimmering waters. Deep in his heart he felt a strange sadness at the sight, as if he would not look upon the wide blue sea again.
Hest suggested a southeasterly course. The path, Taran learned, was one that Fain had referred to in a conversation with DePons. This was something Hest had hidden from him in their discussion the previous evening. As to what lay at the end of the road, she claimed to know nothing. Taran, she insisted, was partially responsible for that.
He had burned the diary.
When he told her what he'd done to Fain's book, she was predictably wrathful. Taran had never seen a woman so enraged; but she'd calmed down just as quickly, and said that it was probably best. This way, Naruna could not know what was in Fain's mind — unless he caught up to them.
Taran kept a few scraps of Fain's book in his pocket, though, and he never told Hest anything about them. One item, a picture drawn by Val Anna upon her adoption by the Narunas, was purely nostalgic. The other was a fragmented note that somehow seemed important. He tried his best to put the puzzle out of mind for the present. Following the wilderness road was challenging enough.
Dangling from a loop of cord slung over one shoulder, Taran carried a water skin in a small bag of oddments necessary for travel. Pouches of jerky were crammed into his pockets. Everyone else was similarly discomfited, for they had hoped to distance their pursuers by abandoning heftier gear or packs.
The unaccustomed weight of a sword, which he bore sheathed in rags across his other shoulder, was becoming a nuisance. There was no way to hide it from sight, and it couldn't be left behind. The ferryman had raised his eyebrows, and Jon pretended not to notice it at all; but to Taran it was a great bother that he wished to be rid of. He sighed quietly to himself. His sense of adventure had abandoned him somewhere in Morvran Castle.
"You're anxious, Brother?" Jon asked.
Taran looked back along their trail, surveying a landscape of mist-cloaked rocks standing beside quiet pools, rising like gray robed figures that struggled amidst the cool dark waters.
"I'm worried about Giles. Naruna's due back at the castle by now — but what's this?"
He had stumbled upon some tracks in the mud between his feet. While he and Jonathan gazed on them curiously, Hest came and bent down for a closer look.
"Two children walked here," she noted. "They went without shoes. The tracks continue southeast, deeper into the vale. I've been following them for some time."
Taran glanced around the empty land. "Children went barefoot in this place?"
"We will continue to follow them."
"Why?" Jonathan asked. "You really think there might be a town that way?"
Hest glared at him, and as she rose and continued walking up the hill she let her eyes linger on his face.
"Am I to know the cause of your suspicions?" Jon shouted after her.
"You need no explanation from her," Taran replied, trudging along behind Hest. "Neither of us trusts you."
"How then might I earn your trust?"
Taran paused briefly and peered at him over one shoulder. "A man is judged by the company he keeps."
"Same to you, Brother," Jon whispered.
A tense mood followed them southeast over barren hills. The landscape slowly changed. They encountered more trees, and even a few thick stands of oak. Hest picked a course through open lands, choosing terrains littered with boulders where their feet would leave few marks.
Though the morning was already old, the sun no longer shone pleasantly, and mists clung to the bottom-lands in places where the trees gathered. Taran didn't mind the mist, as the day was promising to be warm and it would hide them from searching eyes. The damp restless air washed his face clean as he hiked among the tumbled stones, bathing him in the same vigor that had carved this mighty land. Strength poured into him from a hidden source. It seemed as though he could not be stopped, now that he had actually set out on Fain's trail. The lingering thought that he might not be coming back troubled him less the farther they walked.
At last, when the sun had risen a bit closer to noon, they paused to take a few mouthfuls of food. Taran estimated they'd traveled nearly twelve miles across trackless terrain, and now they stood at a place where the hills gave way to a gently sloping descent. The air was warming, and a very different air it was, brimming with heady draughts of woodland scents. It brought the blood to his face, and sent the hair on his head curling. His heart thumped strong, for there below, settled just beyond the hunched shoulders of downs that rose like islands in a green sea of grass, marched the vast expanse of an ancient forest.
"What a canopy," Jon lamented. "It's like the blanket that covers the dead."
"Hest, does this place have a name?" Taran wondered.
"The forest is Broceliánde," she said. "My father once told me that the wood veils unspoken secrets. Few who wandered there returned the same as they went in."
Jon nodded. "Brecelien. I have also read the old stories." "When did you ever —?"
Taran's thought was broken off sharply as his brother affected a more mysterious tone.
"It was said to be a truly enchanted wood. It was a place for mages and druids, where they composed songs of Faery — songs about creatures of the night that prepared cunning lures for men deep in the shadowed heath."
He smiled roguishly.
"The songs were warnings," Hest said to Taran. "Those who went in were changed. It was ever a place of strange unearthly covenants, the gate to Annwn, the Arbed — a crossing to some other world."
Taran worried his brow. "So, you think the stories might be a hint as to the presence of something that could have whisked Fain off to wherever he's gone?"
"Our fathers thought so," she replied.
Taran eyed the unbroken line of trees stretching from north to south. "We'll need more substantial supplies if we're going to tackle that."
"There are towns along the border. We will come to one sooner or later; but before we venture into the heart of the forest I suppose we should consider what comes after."
Taran regarded her silently.
"So," Jon said, "I guess we've all been thinking the same thing."
"The likelihood is that we shall not be coming out if we choose to go in," Hest replied.
"If we are as mad as Fain," Taran added. "There's no telling how much we'll need to carry either way, I suppose."
They went on with their eyes bent toward the grass. A trail of sorts had appeared, and it was easy to follow through the high green towards the distant line of trees. That line soon became a frowning black wall, and within another half hour they stood a stone's throw from its very eaves. There they paused to take in the forest's brooding presence.
The noon sun in its golden glory smote down upon the wood, but revealed very little. The trees smelled of long-forgotten times, times when the dawn of a different sun shone down. Here it was not so difficult to catch a glimpse into an older world.
An eerie abandoned silence drew around them as they stood looking in. A dread of watchfulness flickered uncomfortably in Taran's heart, and increased with every passing moment. He fancied a whispered voice saying, "Come," but his companions made no sign that they heard it.
"There is a road," Hest said, pointing to a flat area along the treeline.
Walking in this direction they came quickly to a stony rutted path running north-south along the forest's edge. This brought them southwards only a hundred yards or so before they arrived at a crossroads, and there the path diverged along a sharp left-hand turn that plunged into the darkness under the trees. While they stood and stared into the gaping mouth of the wood, a cart full of potatoes appeared from the shadows, driven by a man whose lumpen features mimicked those of his cargo. Cart, mule, and merchant approached with little noise and turned south. It was like seeing a ghost.
"He didn't even look our way," Taran commented.
"I wouldn't greet you either, Brother, if I saw you standing here looking like that," Jon replied. "Besides, these people are probably put off by outsiders."
"There are only outsiders here," Hest said, taking the road beneath the trees.
Entering Broceliánde was like entering a tunnel in a cave. In a little while they were forced to the wayside by some shepherds driving their flocks down towards the western vale. This time they were acknowledged, though only with subdued greetings.
"What town is here?" Taran asked as he stepped back onto the path.
The eldest, a large heavyset man, replied, "You've come to Cille, or nowhere."
With no more greeting than this, the shepherds followed their flocks towards the sunny pastures. The three passed deeper and deeper into the wood, but they said little to each other. Their footsteps were masked by an endless creaking song of twisted boughs and stems.
They walked along under shadows, and a long time passed before they began to see signs of habitation. Beyond the outer wall of the wood they came upon a silent place filled with enormous tree- columns. The branches above let in very little light. Here and there they passed small clearings where a few brick houses stood alone on the sides of the road. They looked like comfortable homesteads, but Taran couldn't imagine living in such a place. Jon trudged beside him with a blank look. Was he having similar thoughts?
"Do you think there's any way, Taran, that we could go back to how things were before you gave that stone to Val Anna?"
Taran mused quietly on his brother's question.
"You know," Jon continued, "the road we travel today is only an echo of your choice."
"You seem to know a lot about it."
"No more than you got from reading Fain's books." "You read his books?"
"Not the ones you tossed into the fire. However, I did read something about her."
He nodded towards Hest.
"Grandfather and father both were very fond of her, it seems; and you, too. I wonder what she means to the three of you. Are you certain she is to be trusted?"
As awkward silence prevailed upon them once again, they rambled on past a few small clearings. The road thereafter straightened, plunging like an arrow into the thick of an ominous weald. With backwards glances and hearts full of doubt they were ushered ever deeper into the forest's brooding presence.
The first signs of the village came with a change in the trees. Here they were less tall but closer together, their boles twisted into fantastic shapes, and most of their lower limbs had been trimmed along the road. It was a wood of kinds Taran had never seen, ancient, close-grown, and very stuffy. Holly and yew thrust out sharp green spears amid clusters of bright berries, and from beneath woven banks of nettles strung like garlands from tree to tree there lay deep drifts of last year's leaves. The oak and ash were dominant, boughs outspread in passive omnipotence, overshadowing their own seedlings, drowning all beneath in a twilight of cool shadows and endless night.
As the trees bent closer the road narrowed, until at last they came to a subtly lighter place full of bustle and noise. They had arrived in Cille, as a sign by the roadside announced. It was a village guarded by darkness, hemmed in by shadows; yet they saw in its streets no obvious indication that they were headed for trouble.
Here were all the smells, sights, and sounds that Taran always associated with fantasies of the medieval world. He saw roasted meats, brown bread, and mead in wooden casks. Heavy-laden carts creaked past bearing textiles and goods from settlements afar. There were many beautiful women in the shops — women gowned and girdled like queens, with teeth straight and white and their hair braided with ribbons. They laughed at the men, the merchants who worked their booths and stalls, who sang with their hearts full of mirth. The sweet music of flutes drifted to them from some hidden quarter, happily piping a tune to quicken the feet of weary travelers. Even the trees seemed less hostile, their leaves clapping heartily in the warm summertime breeze.
It was as if they had stepped back in time. The tale of Fain's passage to another world was somehow more believable here.
"What is this place?" Taran asked in breathless wonder.
"Haven't these people heard about the outside world?" Jon asked.
"Well, I wouldn't expect them to have electric lights or motorcars, but something does feel off, doesn't it?"
Hest was eyeing the street scene with an eager look, as if she searched for something familiar, or for someone she knew. Turning towards a nearby butcher's stall she hailed the merchant within and leaned forwards to speak to him discreetly.
"Is there an inn?" she asked.
The butcher sniffed, and smiled roguishly at Taran and Jon.
"You needs the lady to ask directions, Sirs?" he joked, wiping his hands on his apron. "Just keep walkin' the road you came in on until you come to the end of the old north-south way — a road overgrown and wild that none but fools ever use. Wiceline's stands at the crossroads. You can't miss it!"
On through the center of the marketplace they walked. Taran was increasingly aware of a return of the peculiar double-vision that had haunted him aboard Olympic. He decided not to tell Hest about it just yet. He was probably just tired from their long journey — but not so tired that he missed the suspicious sideways glances from the market stalls as they passed. Taran knew it was because of the sword, and wished once again he could have stowed it someplace secret inside the castle. It was dead weight, and it would only attract unwanted attention. Anyway, it wasn't as though he would ever actually use it for anything other than a prop.
Excerpted from Banner of the Blue World by Bryan Kovach. Copyright © 2016 Bryan Kovach. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing.
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