The city of Ro Canarn burns. With their father’s blood fresh upon the headsman’s sword, Lord Bromvy and Lady Bronwyn, the last scions of the house of Canarn, face fugitive exile or death. In the court of Ro Tiris, men fear to speak their minds. The Army of the Red marches upon the North. Strange accidents befall those who dare question the King’s new advisors. Those foolish enough to speak their names call them the Seven Sisters: witches of the fire god; each as beautiful and as dangerous as a flame. And, called from the long ages of deep time by war and sacrifice, the children of a dead god are waking with a pitiless cry—all that was dead will rise. All that now lives will fall.
About the Author
A.J. Smith spent 12 years devising The Long War cycle. He works in secondary education.
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The Black Guard
By A.J. Smith
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2013 A. J. Smith
All rights reserved.
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THE BLACK GUARD
THE TALE OF THE GIANTS
In the long ages of deep time, uncountable millennia before the rise of men, there lived a race of Giants.
Continents shifted and mountains rose and fell as the Giants fought the Long War for the right to possess the lands of their birth. The greatest Giants, mortal beings of huge size and power, lived long enough, fought hard enough and gained enough wisdom to become gods.
Rowanoco, the Ice Giant, claimed the cold northern lands and was worshipped by the men of Ranen.
Jaa, the Fire Giant, ruled the burning desert sands to the south and chose the men of Karesia as his followers.
The Stone Giant, known only as the One, held dominion over the lush plains and towering mountains of Tor Funweir, and his followers, the men of Ro, believed they had the right to rule all the lands of men.
Other Giants there were also, though their names and their followers are thought lost, and their empires buried, as victims of the Long War.
The Giants have long since left these lands to the humans, but their followers still worship them, invoke their names daily and aggressively maintain their laws. The Giants themselves sit beyond the perception of humans in their halls beyond the world while their most trusted followers fight the Long War in their stead.
Lord Bromvy of Canarn stood by the docks of Ro Tiris and wrapped his heavy travelling cloak tightly around his shoulders. The city had two main docks, one used primarily for trade ships and private galleons, while the other, the one near which he currently stood, was exclusively for the king and his knights. Brom had arrived via the smaller of the two harbours a few days ago, leaving most of his lordly trappings back in his father's keep at Ro Canarn. Only his longsword gave any indication of his heritage, a finely crafted blade with the cast of a raven on the hilt. He wore simple leather armour and looked more like a brigand than a noble, with unkempt curly black hair and a thin beard which made him look rather fierce. The young lord had travelled widely throughout the lands of men and preferred to be an anonymous presence rather than a visiting noble. The duchy of Canarn was over the sea from the rest of Tor Funweir and a world away from the snobbery of the other duchies. Bromvy and his sister Bronwyn had been raised by their father, Duke Hector, to be as worldly as possible, and in Brom's case this meant spending as much time away from home as he could. He had just passed his twenty-fourth birthday and as he gazed at the now empty docks Brom found himself wishing for the simple life of an itinerant traveller.
The majority of the ships had been launched several hours ago. Brom had watched as they sailed north towards his home, the walled city of Ro Canarn. He hadn't counted the knights of the Red on board, but it had looked to be a battle fleet capable of sacking the city. The crossed swords mounted over a clenched fist had been visible on their tabards and Brom knew this meant battle was intended. More worrying were the mercenary ships of Sir Hallam Pevain which accompanied the knights. They were swords for hire with a brutal reputation and Brom had fought the urge to roar out a challenge to the bastards as they'd left.
King Sebastian Tiris still stood on a high balcony overlooking the harbour, where he had watched his departing troops with an imperious sneer. He hadn't seen Brom skulking far below him, and the young lord stayed as far away as possible. He'd met the king once before and didn't want to take the chance that the lordly shit-stain would recognize him and have him arrested. If the king had made the move to assault Canarn, it meant that Duke Hector's children would already have been named to the Black Guard, as enemies of the crown.
Brom's mind was racing as he mentally chastised his father for being foolish and offering the king his chance to overthrow the house of Canarn and bring it securely within the lands of Ro. His home had always been seen as a forgotten province, over the sea and too close to the Freelands of Ranen for comfort. But the king had frequently stated his desire to take back his land from the liberal men of Canarn, and it seemed Duke Hector had finally given him his excuse.
Brom was angry but also largely helpless, and he began trying to contrive a way to get help. Most pressing on his mind was the woman who stood next to the king, her elegant hand holding back her lustrous black hair against the wind. She was a Karesian from the south and Brom knew her kind: an enchantress of the Seven Sisters, capable of swaying the will of men. What she was doing with the king of Tor Funweir he did not know, but Brom had seen her cackle as the ships were launched and King Tiris announced his intention to capture Ro Canarn. The euphoric look in the monarch's eyes as he looked at her had made Brom think that the enchantress was more than a simple consort. This was doubly concerning because, before he'd left, Brom had seen another of the Seven Sisters in Ro Canarn: an enchantress with a spider's web tattoo on her face, Ameira the Lady of Spiders. Why the Karesian enchantresses were interested in his homeland was not clear, but Brom left the docks with the intention of finding out.
As he turned towards the city with the vague goal of first finding a tavern and a drink, he began to think of all the people he could go to for aid. The list was not a long one and was comprised primarily of killers, criminals and scoundrels, men who had travelled with Brom as he learned how not to be a noble. None of them commanded an army, however, and he became increasingly despondent as he walked up the steep road that led away from the sea.
Brom loved his father and his sister and tried not to think of them in combat, or worse. His father's guardsmen were well trained and loyal, but no match for a battle fleet of knights of the Red, churchmen who represented the One God's red aspect of war, and who formed the armies of Tor Funweir. They were trained to a level of skill unmatched throughout the lands of men and dutiful in a way that bordered on fanatical. Brom knew of none of his people, the men of Canarn who unknowingly waited for the fleet to arrive, who could stand against the knights. His friend, Magnus Forkbeard, a Ranen priest from the far north, was in the city with Duke Hector and was possibly the only man able to match the knights for skill and ferocity – but Magnus was just one man and would not be able to sway the battle alone.
Brom was torn. Part of him wanted to find a boat and rush to the aid of his father. The more rational part knew that his sword would not sway the outcome and that he'd merely end up dead and unregarded on the cobbled streets of his home. If he could provide help, it would not be by standing beside his father and roaring challenges at the red men. The simple fact that one of Duke Hector's children would still be free was as much of a victory as he could hope for. As he passed through the northern gate of Ro Tiris, Bromvy of Canarn steeled himself to enter the underbelly of Tor Funweir and to stay free a while longer.
He needed no pass or official documentation to enter the city via the docks, though the gates leading inland were more closely guarded with squads of watchmen to suppress crime and patrols of king's guardsmen to make sure no undesirables could enter or exit the city. Brom smiled as he realized that he was the kind of undesirable that they were looking for, meaning he'd have to be on guard and at the least would have to locate a forger prepared to accept his coin.
Ro Tiris was an impressive sight to men who had not seen the towering White Spire of the King and the expansive Red cathedral. It was frequently cited, by the proud men of Ro, as the largest city in the world. Brom knew this to be, if not a deception, then at least misleading, because it was not even the largest city in Tor Funweir. It could make some claim to being the most densely populated, the best looked after, the richest and possibly the most crime-free, but Ro Weir to the south was a larger sprawl in terms of actual size. Though the southern city was dirty, hot and packed to the noxious walls with all manner of criminals and foreign influences, it had, in Brom's estimation, more life to it than Ro Tiris. The capital's stiff formality, and the large population of clerics and knights, got on his nerves.
The capital of Tor Funweir still offered certain opportunities for men who lived on the wrong side of the law, however, and Brom knew of several illicit traders and merchants who would be able to help him get out of the city and head south. He had a vaguely formed idea of finding an annoying Kirin acquaintance of his called Rham Jas Rami, a man who had certain skills Brom lacked and who owed the young lord several favours. If he could get a forged church seal and pass through the gates of Tiris unobserved, he knew that his chances of remaining free would be increased tenfold, as looking for a man in the wilds of Tor Funweir was no simple matter and the Purple clerics who would be despatched to find him were not suited to travelling rough.
RANDALL OF DARKWALD IN THE CITY OF RO TIRIS
'Randall, if I have to empty my own piss-pot again I'm going to bite your ear off. Get in here, boy.'
The knight was a sweaty old man, his best days behind him, with only alcohol and women to quicken his heart now that valour in battle was beyond him. He spent his days drinking, whoring and trading on his once great reputation. There were still plenty of tavern owners in Ro Tiris prepared to front a man a drink in exchange for tales of glory and battles won. The name of Sir Leon Great Claw was still sufficiently well known to guarantee a receptive audience. Only his young squire, Randall, knew the realities: Sir Leon was little more than a drunk, unable to buckle his armour or to last an hour asleep without a visit to the piss-pot.
As Randall entered the dirty tavern room, he was hit by the noxious smell, and the two whores who'd been keeping the old knight company left with a trail of insults regarding Sir Leon's personal cleanliness.
'You know we should charge extra for having to put up with the smell ... he soiled himself while we were working.'
Randall felt sorry for them, but knew well enough that they were lucky not to have been beaten during their encounter. Sir Leon was not gentle to the women he paid, complaining – as he did about most things – 'No one knows how to treat a knight these days.'
'Where have you been, boy? Do you want me lying in my own filth all day?' Sir Leon growled.
'Not at all, my lord, but the tavern owner is less than happy at the damage you caused last night and I needed to do a bit of work to appease him.'
Randall was used to his master being drunk, but the previous evening he had broken several more chairs and tables than was normal.
'Damage ... what horse shit is this? I was telling a story, and when I tell a story I like to be expressive.' As if to emphasize the point, Sir Leon waved his arms around extravagantly.
'I appreciate that, my lord, but you headbutted a serving woman and attacked a lot of furniture with your sword.' Randall averted his eyes and tried not to offend his master.
'I was lost in the moment, my boy. Those were not tables last night, they were the armies of Karesia and I was wading through their blood as I did at the battle of Kabrin.'
The battle of Kabrin was twenty years ago when Sir Leon rode with the Red church knights against the Hounds of Karesia. In Randall's estimation, the old knight had told the story several hundred times and never the same way twice. He'd long been abandoned by the knights of the Red and forced to admit that the One God no longer needed his sword.
'Get rid of this shit and fetch me some wine.' Sir Leon kicked the piss-pot towards his squire and fell back heavily on to the stained bed.
'At once, my lord,' the squire said swiftly, catching his reflection in the side of the brass pot. Randall was tall for his age, but had not yet grown fully into his height and carried himself with a lope that made him appear gangly. At seventeen, he was considered a man, but everyone still called him boy and he hadn't yet summoned the courage to correct them. He kept his brown hair cut short at Sir Leon's request and the patchy stubble on his chin was shaved frequently. Randall thought that longer hair and a beard might make him appear older, but he knew that Sir Leon found something pleasing in his squire's youthful appearance.
Randall hefted the brass container up to his chest and did his best not to breathe in as he walked gingerly to the rear window of the inn. Several doors on the second floor were open and various unsavoury characters could be seen taking their morning wine or paying those with whom they'd spent the night.
It was a far cry from the lavish taverns Sir Leon used to frequent. Randall had been with him for three years and had observed the slow but sure decline in his sleeping arrangements. The last time they visited the capital, they had stayed at the Royal Arms, an inn reserved for the best knights and richest noblemen of Tor Funweir. This time, though, their experience of Ro Tiris was less capital city and more rat-infested back street. Not that Sir Leon seemed to mind. He took his decline with a pragmatic belligerence which Randall almost admired, though he thought it mostly a product of the knight's alcohol intake.
The rear window was positioned above a partially open sewer that ran from the old town of Tiris to the king's compound overlooking the harbour. Randall rested the filthy pot on the window ledge and tipped it out, tapping the bottom firmly to expel all of Sir Leon's nightly waste. It was a job that had become progressively more revolting over the years and Randall now wondered whether his sense of smell had been permanently damaged.
The splash below ended with an angry shout and Randall peered over the frame, looking down into the narrow alleyway into which he'd poured the pot.
'What in the name of the One do you think you're doing, boy?'
The words came from a steel-armoured man who had wandered into the alley to urinate. Randall gasped as he saw the cloak and scabbard that identified the man as a cleric of the Purple church, one who followed the One God's purple aspect of nobility. He wore a tabard displaying the sceptre of his order and had the bearing of a true fighting man.
'Apologies, my lord, I didn't look,' Randall said with sincerity.
'I should beat you till you bleed, you insolent serving rat!' The cleric pointed a huge, gauntleted fist at the young squire while Sir Leon's waste dripped from his formerly pristine purple cloak.
'I said I was sorry, and I'm not a servant, I'm squire to a knight of Tor Funweir,' Randall said more assertively than he had intended.
'You ... a squire? Didn't your knight teach you the way of things? We of the Purple are the nobles of God. We own you and your pathetic life until the day you join the One, which won't be long if you disrespect me again,' the cleric said angrily.
'Sir, I will gladly wash your cloak if you'll permit me.' Randall had spent years listening to Sir Leon rant and rave about the Purple clerics. They supposedly represented the best and highest ideals of the One God, though Randall had seen very little noble about them the few times he'd crossed their path. They appeared arrogant, violent and unforgiving. He was, however, sensible enough to keep his opinions to himself.
'You'll do more than wash my cloak, boy, you'll take me to your master immediately.' He stormed out of the alley and made his way towards the front of the tavern.
Randall took a deep breath and turned back towards Sir Leon's room. Life was just beginning to creep into the inhabitants of Ro Tiris and the morning sounds of shops being opened and ships made ready filled the air. Tiris was the king's city and even in the poor quarter the buildings were well made of stone, but the streets were narrower, dirtier and more dangerous further away from the royal compound. A Purple cleric was out of place in such a disreputable area.
Randall did not know what to say to his master as he entered the room, but he hoped he hadn't done anything that would cause too much trouble. Sir Leon was lying spreadeagled across the bed, nothing but a filthy white smock covering his overweight frame. Randall coughed.
'Shut up, boy, I'm trying to sleep,' barked the old knight.
'I think there's a cleric downstairs who wants to speak to you, master,' Randall said quietly.
Sir Leon rolled over to face his squire, his eyes narrow and questioning. 'A cleric?' he asked suspiciously.
'Yes, my lord, I spoke to him just now, out of the window.' Randall felt nervous.
'And what colour robe was the cleric wearing?'
Randall paused, his eyes firmly on his boots, before he spoke. 'I think it was purple, master,' he muttered, making the word purple deliberately indistinct.
Sir Leon cleared his throat with a guttural growl. 'Now, young Randall, should I be concerned as to why this Purple bastard wants to speak to me?' The old knight looked long and hard at his squire, who shrank under his gaze.
'I think I offended him, without meaning to.' Randall doubted the details of the encounter would defuse the situation.
Sir Leon inhaled deeply, causing him to cough again, and this time he placed his hand over his mouth to catch the globule of blood and phlegm. He sat up on his bed, rubbing his considerable stomach as he did so.
'Well, I believe I should be properly attired so as not to offend her ladyship. Did he give a name?'
'No, we didn't really get to introduce ourselves.'
Excerpted from The Black Guard by A.J. Smith. Copyright © 2013 A. J. Smith. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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Table of Contents
Display Options Notice,
BOOK 1: THE BLACK GUARD,
The Tale of the Giants,
Chapter 1: Randall of Darkwald in the City of Ro Tiris,
Chapter 2: Brother Utha the Ghost in the City of Ro Tiris,
Chapter 3: Magnus Forkbeard Ragnarsson in the City of Ro Canarn,
Chapter 4: Lady Bronwyn in the City of Ro Canarn,
Chapter 5: Rham Jas Rami in the City of Ro Weir,
Chapter 6: Algenon Teardrop Ragnarsson in the City of Fredericksand,
Chapter 7: Sir William of Verellian in the City of Ro Canarn,
Chapter 8: Zeldantor in the City of Kessia,
Chapter 9: Randall of Darkwald in the Merchant Enclave of Cozz,
Chapter 10: Rham Jas Rami in the Wilds of Tor Funweir,
BOOK 2: DAUGHTER OF THE WOLF,
The Tale of the Water Giants,
Chapter 1: Lady Bronwyn in the Ruins of Ro Hail,
Chapter 2: Sir William of Verellian in the Ruins of Ro Hail,
Chapter 3: Magnus Forkbeard Ragnarsson in the City of Ro Canarn,
Chapter 4: Halla Summer Wolf aboard the Dragon Fleet,
Chapter 5: Saara the Mistress of Pain in the City of Ro Weir,
Chapter 6: Randall of Darkwald in the City of Ro Tiris,
Chapter 7: Rham Jas Rami in the Straits of Canarn,
Chapter 8: Lady Bronwyn in the Ruins of Ro Hail,
Chapter 9: Brother Lanry in the City of Ro Canarn,
Chapter 10: Halla Summer Wolf in the Realm of Wraith,
Chapter 11: Magnus Forkbeard Ragnarsson in the City of Ro Canarn,
A Note on World-Building,
About this Book,
About this Series,
About the Author,
An Invitation from the Publisher,