Neythan is one of five young warriors trained and raised together by a mysterious brotherhood of assassins known as the Shedaím. When Neythan is framed for the murder of his closest friend, he pursues his betrayer – and in so doing learns there’s far more to the Brotherhood, and the machinations of the rulers of the warring kingdoms, than he’d ever thought possible. His journey will lead him across the five realms, from the Forest of Silences to the Ash Plains of Calapaar, and reveal the breaches that lie beneath the world, and the hidden truths of his oath.
File Under: Fantasy [ Brothers at Arms | The Faceless Ones | Kings and Keepers | Creed of Assassins ]
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.70(h) x 1.30(d)|
About the Author
Author hometown: Manchester, UK
Read an Excerpt
“Look,” Josef whispered. “There.”
Neythan looked to where he pointed. The camp was less than a mile away. He could see the evening fires winking through the trees of the forested valley beneath them like light through a basket.
“I see it,” Neythan said.
“Good. Good… I’ll circle round for a way down. You stay here. Patience is the way.”
“Patience is the way.”
Neythan watched Josef go, the mist rolling up ghostlike from the basin below. It was still warm, quiet but for the croaking of insects and the murmur of the stream. A night like any other, save that he was to kill a man. The price of Brotherhood.
In truth, it had been just as Master Johann had said – no chance to plan, barely time to get ready, scrambling from their beds at news from Arianna and tumbling the same hour into the forest’s knotted dark to find her. Should be grateful, Neythan supposed. They could be skulking about a cave by night, or down a canyon with only the moon for help. He’d heard tales of such from Tutor Hamir and Yulaan back at Ilysia, of boys his age on their first outing not making it back. But then with Hamir you never knew when he was telling the truth. The only thing he’d said before they left that Neythan knew he meant was, “The first time is always hardest.”
“There’s a way down.”
Neythan looked up as Josef came trotting back toward him along the ridge. “Where?”
“Along the cliff, a half-mile. Steep though.”
“It’ll do, Neythan.”
Neythan looked back along the ridge. There wouldn’t be much time. The others were probably already in place. “Alright.” He looked back to Josef, saw the calmness there, and nodded to himself. “Alright… Let’s go.”
By the time they made their way down the escarpment the campfires were dampening. The sounds of the camp itself – the ribald laughing, the chatter, the faint noise of bells and strings – continued to roll on as Neythan and Josef worked their way through the forest.
By the third watch they’d reached the settlement’s edge and sat watching the camp from the long grass, Neythan fingering his crossbow nervously, two quarrels lodged taut against the whipcord. He glanced up at the half moon peeping from the clouds. Sweat prickled along his hooded brow, trailing down the groove of his spine. He felt Josef’s hand on his shoulder.
“It’s time, Neythan.”
Neythan breathed deep and slid the crossbow up against his armpit beneath his smock. He removed his hood and stood, leaving Josef in the bushes, and began to walk, alone, toward the camp’s clearing.
The space was a brief and grassless glade as wide as a tanner’s yard. Gatherers had set a shelter on either side by the trees, no more than a shack’s wood-roofing propped on log poles roughly a man’s height, and between the two a sort of platform, overlaid with wool and what looked like bearskin and cowhides. Probably the altar. Neythan came slowly alongside the shelter nearest and leant against the beam, peering in at the crowd. One or two peered back.
“You have lingerweed?” a young woman called to him, slurring. “You have more wine?”
Neythan shook his head.
The woman frowned and waved him off.
Neythan scanned the gathering. There’d likely be guardsmen among them, armed soldiers, perhaps even a prince or two from the crown city, all for Governor Zaqeem, a king by any other name, or so it was said. Since there were no true kings save those in scribes’ tales Neythan had never much liked the saying, but here, now, with the clamour of flesh and wine and finery, he was beginning to see its meaning.
Men and women wore armlets of brass and held silver goblets, dancing and laughing. The tart smell of wine filled the air like incense, mingling with the smoke of damp logs. There were no servants here, only rich men without their aides, just as Master Johann had said.
Neythan continued to watch the crowd and saw two young girls, neither one above seven years old, by the altar, studying the women as they danced. He finally spotted Arianna standing as part of the throng, dressed in fine linen, and began to walk toward her. He approached the altar where a turbaned old woman in scarlet was chanting with arms lifted to the sky. He saw Arianna’s eyes meet his, saw her acknowledge him with her stillness. Then he saw her reach up, cupping the jaw of a silver-haired man beside her and drawing his lips onto her own.
He was the one.
Neythan let the crossbow slide from the crook of his armpit until he could feel the axel touch his fingertips, its coiled length against his forearm. He could hear himself breathing now, could hear the steady dull underwater chug of his own heart. The man Arianna had kissed – and thereby revealed as the governor of Qadesh, Zaqeem son of Tishbi – was gesturing behind to one of the young girls. The scarlet-clad priestess brought her forward, then made signs over her as others came to lift her, limp and without struggle, onto the altar, laying her on the cowhides like an upended doll.
The gatherers were shouting now, all of them on their feet. The governor smiled as the drumbeat doubled. The dancers and crowd whipped into a frenzy, staring at the child on the altar as the scarlet priestess approached with a flaming stave in her hand.
The crossbow fell fully into Neythan’s hand. He lifted it level with the governor as the axel rolled and snapped into place, the whipcord flexing, the arrow ready. The sharp flinthead peeped above the sightline like a curious onlooker as he squinted along the quarrel’s shaft. There was a slight tremor to his elbow, but that was alright – the first time’s always hardest. Just breathe through it. Be still, the way you’ve been taught.
He heard the splash of oil as the priestess doused the child on the altar. Around him, the congregants were shouting and screaming even louder. Be still. Breathe. Patience is the way. The priestess was coming forward, ready to light the sacrifice, the din of the crowd growing louder, deafening, wordless. Be still. Be still.
And then… Arianna.
Neythan watched as she stepped in front to obstruct his view. She turned again to the governor, reaching up slowly, gently, as though to touch him – and then, as he dipped his head toward her, she drew her hand across his throat from side to front with a thumb-blade.
The man’s head lolled violently as his blood leapt over the heads of those nearby. He went down gagging, pulling at the cloaks of those closest. The screams were immediate, distracting even the priestess, who paused with stave raised above the child on the altar. Neythan saw Josef’s arrow thud into the meat of her breast as she turned toward the commotion, snapping her shoulder back as she fell into the mob.
And then everyone was running. Pot-bellied men scampering half-naked into the bushes, others rushing back from the altar to the shelter’s corners for refuge, women squealing, bodies bumping, feet trampling as the gathering scattered. Cinders gusted upwards, luminous dust glinting red-gold against the night as a beefy man tumbled headlong into the campfire. Neythan went wading in, shoving his way through the fleeing crowd to find the girl. By the time he reached the altar the camp was almost empty, abandoned, the gatherers now scattered into the forest. A middle-aged man squatted in the corner of the far shelter, trembling in a thin cloak. The rest were gone, running through the moonlit undergrowth where Daneel and Yannick would be waiting.
He found the girl sitting behind the altar, rocking on her seat and humming tunelessly to herself whilst Arianna stroked her hair. The girl’s eyes were still and empty, her expression as slack as a corpse. She wouldn’t stop rocking.
“No need to thank me,” Arianna said, looking up at him. “Had you waited any longer she’d be no more than roasted beef.”
“I was about to do it.”
Arianna rose to her feet, feigning a frown, before stepping toward him and smiling sourly. “Of course you were.” She patted Neythan twice on the cheek and winked before walking away.
It was probably the thing Neythan found most annoying about her, how smug and dismissive she could be. As though the world owed her a kiss on the toes. Neythan was about to tell her that when out of the corner of his eye he saw the trembling man under the shelter rise to his feet, swaying and staggering as he did so. Maybe it was the anger from Arianna’s barb, maybe it was something else, but by the time Neythan turned to see what the man was holding, he had, with barely a thought, levelled and loosed his crossbow, and in almost that same instant, watched the quarrel split the man’s neck and lodge in his throat.
A perfect mark.
The dagger the man had been readying to hurl in Arianna’s direction slid from his hand and clanked in the dust. The man took a step, pawed impotently at the shaft in his throat, and then collapsed.
Arianna turned and looked at Neythan.
Neythan stared at the man he’d felled.
No one spoke.
When Neythan eventually went to stand over him the man was already gone, his blood a dark puddle to one side of his slackened face. The eyes were half-open, everything they’d ever known or hoped now irrevocably expunged. Null. Forgotten. Although that wasn’t really what unsettled Neythan. It was like the time he’d feared crane flies as a child, something about the way they’d fly, their legs dangling, like tiny drunken ghouls – until one night Yulaan had taken one, put it down the back of his smock and held him down. He’d screamed and kicked and wriggled until slowly realizing he couldn’t feel it, not its dangly legs scrambling against his skin, nor its wings fluttering, nor any pain. Nothing. And that was what puzzled him now, this absence of feeling he’d expected to feel. His first time killing a man and he felt nothing. No fear. No joy. Nothing.
When Daneel and Yannick came wandering out from the forest’s shadows an hour later the numbness was still there. Daneel, breathing hard, glanced at Neythan and then studied the slumped body of the governor first.
“So, this is him…” He then looked over at the dead priestess by the altar. “This one… I saw another just like her in the forest.” He craned his neck for a better look. “No… Slightly younger maybe. Sister perhaps. Ran like a gazelle.”
“So says the slug of the snail,” Josef said, wiping his sword on the oil-drenched cowhides whilst Yannick stood off to the side, watching Neythan. Yannick flicked his hand and frowned, signing to him. Neythan nodded and shrugged back. He was fine.
“I mean it,” Daneel said. “The woman was as quick as the wind. I had to use my sling to slow her.” He turned to Neythan, glanced again at the governor’s body, and smiled. “But what does it matter now? What matters is you got him, eh, Neythan? Your first. Governor Zaqeem.”
“Actually, Arianna did that,” Josef said as he came and stood next to Neythan.
Daneel’s smile flattened. “Oh.”
“But he did kill another,” Arianna said. She gestured to the body slumped by the corner of the shelter, her gaze still on Neythan.
“That so?” Daneel put his hand on Neythan’s shoulder. “So then you have done your first. Good. Finally. Well done. The first is always hardest.”