Once again, three unlikely heroes must band together in a fiery conflict between gods and demons.
A country ravaged by civil war, now threatened with evil unleashed by rivers of blood. Three must rise again to save the beleaguered land and thwart a dark prophecy.
A fantasy adventure for fans of Joe Abercrombie, Mark Lawrence and Scott Lynch!
Theron Ward, Aldous Weaver and Kendrick the Cold must band together and fight again. This time, they are caught in the timeless clash of gods and demons, and led by the dark prophecy of dreams.
A ruthless warlord, the Dog Eater, rises out of the rivers of blood from civil war. As friend and foe reach out from futures past, the three will see a city of white stone turn black with ash … and the only way forward is through the fire. One thing is certain, none of them will ever be the same. And one will be transformed in ways he never dreamed. Dare the three depend on the blood ties of the past to carry them through this terrible night?
**Fire and Sword is a Shelf Unbound Magazine Notable 100 for 2015**
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A Sword & Sorcery Novel 4
The one eyed man—Theron Ward thought of himself that way now—dipped his throbbing, bloodied fists into the bowl of solid gold on the slender marble altar before him. The water lapped up the crimson from his knuckles and the bowl darkened, intensified in its opacity, the silver Romarian sovereign at the bottom becoming harder to see. He smiled. He would keep at this until he could see nothing in the bowl but his reflection against a surface like crimson glass.
He looked up, listened to the chirping of the birds. It was a beautiful morning…well, it would have been if he were still Theron Ward, going for a walk in the garden with some maiden. Which he would have been.
Three years, to be exact.
It had been a spring morning just like this when he had walked with a lady, Mildrith, through the garden of his estate, Wardbrook, in the green countryside of Brynth with its rolling hills… And Mildrith’s rolling hills, or was it Lady Caitlyn who had those perfect pale… It did not feel like three years past, more like thirty with all that had taken place. All the carnage. Enough bloodshed for the lifetimes of ten men to call themselves seasoned, and he knew his journey had hardly begun. It was painful knowledge to bear.
“Some wine,” he said.
Promptly a cup was filled on a table that stood off to the left of the tiled courtyard, a jeweled cup, made of solid gold. It was lustrous in its shining density—lustrous like the tanned breasts of the serving wench who filled it…
He was drunk and melancholy, lonely for a woman, and, for a moment, he thought he was back there, in his garden with Mildrith, or Caitlyn or whoever.
“Focus on the fight, not the maid’s tits,” said Olav Yegarov from the sideline.
“I’ll focus on what I please, Yegarov,” Theron said without turning to the man and still focusing on the girl. He smiled at her the way he had smiled at the young lady in the carriage on the road that morning as they had ridden into Chech. It was the smile he always used with the fairer sex. It had been perfect once.
The girl brought the wine over, looking at the floor as she did.
Not long ago she would have been weak in the knees at the sight of him. She would have dreamt of him in the night, in the best way. He had been handsome. He had been a lord and had a name that was honored. He had once believed himself a hero, a warrior with an ambition for righteousness, a leader who was loved by many.
That was a different time.
Since Dentin, the once handsome smile now made women scowl and turn away. The maid looked over his bare torso a moment, then up at his face, and she winced. In fear, pity, disgust—he did not think long on it, but he too looked away and was blushing just as she was, regretting that he had smiled at all.
Some gentleman I am. A proper fucking hero.
He felt older than his years as he watched the girl go. His ambitions had become nothing more than surviving through the winter, and now that the task was done and the flowers were in bloom, he did not feel accomplishment. He did not feel reborn. Only more exhausted than he had been in the fall.
Being Olav’s escort was supposed to be easy money, simple tasks of collection, limited violence. A chance to pool resources and move on to larger things. Perhaps a lodge of hunters.
It had been anything but simple. The violence seemed to have no limits, and the resources that had been promised had not materialized.
Theron looked up as the next brute walked into the square of white stone tiles, his feet planted in the blood that Theron had beaten out of his first opponent, the opponent who was still twitching as a barber-surgeon shook his head at the pulverized form at his feet.
“Next to step forth in place of Baron Kvorag, of the fiefdom of Chech of the vast country of Romaria, is Timmut, son of Timmut,” announced the caller. “And who stands for you, Sir Olav Yegarov?”
“One-Eye remains my champion,” said Olav as he waved one of his spidery hands toward Theron. Olav Yegarov was a tall, hollow-faced man, sharp features above a square jaw, his straight white hair cropped tight to his scalp. His face was always clean-shaven. No matter how long they had been on the road, a sharp razor was always part of his morning ritual. Lately, Theron caught himself watching Yegarov shave, and thinking about slitting the man’s throat for all he had put them through. But Theron’s word was his word, and his choices were his own, and so he completed the tasks asked of him for the coin he asked of Yegarov.
“Very well,” said the caller. He stepped into the center of the square.
This Timmut, son of Timmut, was a large man, a barbarian, a warrior of the Steppe. His hair and beard were long, straight, and black, his eyes narrow and cruel. It did not matter. Theron Ward would fight two.
“Wait.” Theron’s voice came out in a low rasp. He had been drinking too much and puffing on his medicine pipe too frequently as of late. Last night had been no exception. “Two. Give me two. So we can get this done faster.”
“Theron, are you—” came the beginnings of a remonstration from the red-hooded young man to Olav’s left: Aldous Weaver, heretic monk turned sorcerer, monster hunter, younger brother, student, target for verbal assault, and good friend. Aldous clung to the intricately carved wooden staff in his right hand as though it would anchor him in a storm. Which, in fact, it would.
“Two,” Theron said.
There was a grunt that may have been laughter from the monstrosity of a human being to Olav’s right, a man who should have been the one pounding apart faces with his fists, but he was not permitted to partake in the contest because of the fact that one of his hands was made of iron. Kendrick the Cold. He was a little leaner and a little bit uglier, with his head shaved to the scalp and a thick, braided brown beard coming down from his scarred chin, sporting a bone from the left hand of the Emerald Witch that Theron had brought back as a gift. Ken’s always scrutinizing, beady eyes stared from the shadows set by his primitive brow, peering now past Theron to gaze at the second man who was stepping from the green lawn into the breaking square.
Theron turned to face his opponents. He had thought he was past moral ambiguity… I had a code. He looked over at the man on the ground, who finally stopped twitching. He looked at his fists. Battered. So battered they’d be nearly useless, so he’d need to get creative with the two now in the square. He’d have time to feel guilty and add a few more skeletons to his closet of never-spoken regrets when the task was done.
So with resolve to finish the evil thing, this mercenary act of—with his bare fists—bloodying poor men on behalf of rich men, Theron advanced toward his foes: Timmut and the second man, Red Rolph, a beast from the northern isles, a place separated from Romaria’s most northern point by a week or so on the fastest ships in the best of weather. The northerner was thin and wiry, exceptionally so, though he was tall and his arms were long, with large, bony fists at the ends. His hair was wild and knotted like his beard, and his skin was tattooed with blue rune markings.
He will fight to the death.
Theron had met many such men during his time in the isles.
Theron took the golden bowl from the altar and placed it at the foot of the marble formation.
“Begin,” cried the caller.
Timmut moved left to begin circling to Theron’s flank.
Theron sprang at the easterner first. Engaging him in a grapple, he pulled himself close, chest to chest with his foe, wrapping him tight with the strength of a bear.
The northerner was right there, his fist coming in a wide, powerful—if poorly aimed—hook. Theron twisted his core as he held on to the struggling Timmut and thrust the fat warrior into the other fighter’s fist headfirst. The northerner threw another blow as Theron shoved away the stunned Timmut, and ducked under the wide strike. He pressed forward, wrapping the northman round the waist and lifting him from the ground. He squeezed with all the vigor he could muster, forcing the air from the northerner right before he twisted him around and smashed him shoulder first into the white marble tile. The snap of bone echoed through the courtyard, followed by a scream and the fluttering of wings as the nearby birds took flight.
Theron caught a glimpse of the serving girl’s pale face, wide eyes, and open mouth. He was willing to wager she hadn’t enjoyed witnessing that either.
Releasing the writhing northerner, Theron turned to face Timmut, who came barreling at him. Theron had enough time to see him—he had enough time to know how he would have gotten out of the way—but he did not have the time to follow through. Timmut went low, his shoulder dropped, flesh and muscle clapping as he smashed into Theron’s abdominal wall.
He wrapped his arm around Timmut’s head, and then he felt his feet leave the ground.
The world was still to Theron’s eye. His mind slowed, and the flapping of the bird’s wings and chirping sounded far off, as did the pained groans of the northerner.
The yelling of Kendrick, Aldous, and Yegarov was all so far away.
Theron saw his own filthy golden hair swaying before him as they went down, those few dreadful feet to that cursed, slippery white marble floor, to the floor of the breaking square.
He admired the surface—the sensuality of its violence, smooth and cold like damp silk, but dare you crash upon it—
The pain was there before he heard the slap of his upper back followed by the sickening knock of the back of his skull—
—you will shatter—
—colliding with that most murderous of floors.
As fast as it came, the pain was gone.
Darkness. Lightning, a shower of lightning, purple veins of it shredding through the blackness. Oceans of blood, drums, and the faraway sound of wind whistling through a chime.
He could not feel just then, nor could he hear but for the silent resonance that rings through a skull when it is thumped upon an unforgiving surface. But he could see. He stared with great contempt at the golden bowl that he had placed upon the ground, at the murky mix of blood and water and, drowned at the bottom, the silver Romarian sovereign.
Then all at once his head throbbed and he heard the mad screams of the small audience to the spectacle.
“Get up, One-Eye. Get up, you Brynthian mongrel scum!” Yegarov roared in common speech.
“Stay focused, Ward. Stay focused and roll him over,” Kendrick said calmly, and Theron focused on his words above Yegarov’s and the foreign barking of Baron Kvorag.
Timmut’s head was still locked in Theron’s hold when they had hit the ground, and so he, too, had felt the hard lesson of the marble. But he felt it much harder. Theron was first to gain his faculties, but the northerner with the devastated shoulder was getting back to his feet as he fought through the pain. Theron needed to finish Timmut.
“Like a snake to a rabbit, Ward. Like a fucking snake to a rabbit,” Kendrick said in a voice just above a hush, faded beneath the other sounds, but Theron heard it.
Like a snake to a rabbit.
His grip round the easterner’s head had loosened from the impact of the takedown, but now Theron tightened his hold as he wrapped his legs around Timmut’s waist and, tensing like some jungle constrictor, he pulled and rotated with a deranged fury.
Timmut’s jaw snapped.
“There it is.” Ken’s voice.
Theron would have let it end there, but Timmut pulled a sharpened stone from his waist, adding a weapon to a weaponless fight. He slashed blindly at Theron’s throat. Theron kept his hold on Timmut’s throat and blocked the man’s thrust with his free hand.
This was no longer a fight to victory; it was a fight to the death.
“Finish it!” Yegarov said.
The edge of the makeshift blade kissed Theron’s skin.
“Kill him!” Aldous’s voice shattered, as it was still in the habit of doing, and the words came out like the shrill scream of a mad banshee, and it was this that spurred Theron most. He tightened his hold.
The easterner gurgled a moment and then his neck snapped and he went silent and still. Like a snake to a rabbit.
Theron rolled the twitching mass from his body and narrowly evaded a straight kick from the northerner. He sprang to his feet, and made some distance between himself and his crippled foe.
Why are you here? the child in Theron wanted to ask the wounded barbarian that he faced, for they had no true quarrel.
For what do you fight? the philosopher in him wanted to ask.
The northerner roared like a bear, his oak eyes gleaming with frenzy, his mane of wild, knotted brown hair sweeping side to side as he came steadily forth to his obliteration.
Theron took an unexpected jab to his face from the spear-like arm of his lanky foe, and his already unstable vision momentarily intensified in its obstruction. A second jab he avoided on instinct, and Theron slipped low and to the left, coming in with his right fist as he did, thudding it hard into the northerner’s ribs. The man caved forward and Theron gripped the knotted hair, pulled down, and leaned back as he plunged his knee outward and up into the northerner’s face. It made a crunching noise as the teeth shattered.
Fill the bowl. That is how this works. When you can no longer see the coin at the bottom, we win the contest, and I get what is mine without further bloodshed. Theron told himself that was a good reason to do something, to prevent further bloodshed.
His head was ringing as he manhandled the northerner to the altar, both hands locked firmly in the mane of matted hair. He kicked him in the backs of the knees, crumbling the mercenary into a position of prayer above the golden bowl.
Theron split that stranger’s skull apart with a crack against the edge of the altar. There came the sucking of air when the connecting plates of bone fragmented, split, and caved, and then the brain and its encasing fluid dripped out like the white and yolk of a cracked egg. The blood and pinkish-gray chunks of brain lathered in crimson ran down the edge of the stone and filled the bowl until the contents flooded over the rim and formed red rivers in the crevices between the tiles.
He dropped the corpse and looked down; peering back at him through the gold-rimmed mirror of crimson glass was the face of a man he did not want to know, a scowling, wounded beast with a pain in his heart that would not cease.
I am done, done with this.
“I am no mercenary,” he said.
He put a hand on the back of his head, and then looked at his fingers. No blood, but it bloody ached.
A heavy hand landed on his shoulder and he turned to face Kendrick.
“Interesting tactic, hunter, using the back of your skull like that to break your fall. I wouldn’t recommend overplaying it, though,” Ken said, his face void of expression.
“Tonight when we reach Brasov we part ways with Olav, that…gremlin,” Theron said, and peered over Ken’s massive shoulder to see Olav walking toward Baron Kvorag.
“And get back to what we said we’d do back in Brynth, after Dentin?” Ken asked.
There was no remonstration in Ken’s tone, but Theron felt it anyway.
“Yes, back to our oaths, back to killing beasts.” Theron turned his head to the pulverized corpses; they looked almost as if a monster had at them. “I fear when the excitement settles, when we move on from here, these events will have further darkened me.”
“I fear they will have darkened us all,” Aldous said, as he approached. He pulled his red hood low, as though he wanted to avoid looking at the mess. Which was fair, Theron thought, because Aldous had seen a good deal in his eighteen years, and the fact that he was not immune to the sight of violence was only a good mark on the boy’s character. When he had screamed the words “kill him” earlier it had not been out of bloodlust, only fear for Theron and a desire to see the thing done and over with.
“So…when I write about the events that transpired here, in this chapter of Theron Ward’s legend, what do I write?” Aldous asked. The boy’s tone did hold remonstration, and once again, Theron felt it.
“You write the truth. You write what you saw. Remember your father’s words. An honest writer is the most virtuous of heroes—” Theron began.
“One who lies is the most deplorable of all villains,” Aldous finished.
The sound of arguing in the Romarian tongue, which Theron was learned in, caused him to turn from the conversation with his companions. His employer, or as Theron described him, his client, Olav Yegarov, stood in the bloodied square where the dispute was supposed to have just come to an end.
But it appeared that here in Romaria, the men in power were the same lying, thieving, bastard slavers as the high and mighty of Brynth. And as he often did when in the company of titled men, Theron wondered what made a beast, what a monster? Was it claws and fur matted with blood? Long fangs and slithering tongues? Tails and wings, horns and scales… Or is it all in the eyes? When the glint of life and passion is gone, and all that remains are dead orbs drunk with the blood and tears of all those they have broken on a whim.
“Yegarov, what is that old shit spouting from his comfy chair, in his cozy blankets?” asked Kendrick. The big man had been holding Theron’s claymore in its sheath, and he handed it to Theron.
The hefty blade felt heavier than its usual seven pounds after the exertion of the unarmed combat.
“Kvorag is claiming it was an unfair contest,” said Yegarov in the common tongue.
“Of course it was unfair. Theron just fought two men and won…with one eye.” It was Aldous who spoke now. He pulled back his hood. Theron often marveled at how quickly the boy had grown in height and bone structure despite the hardships of the road. Perhaps he was only late to grow and would not forever be paltry. But it was not just the boy’s appearance that had aged; it was his demeanor, his essence that had grown the most. When Theron met him, nearly two years past, he had been a nervous, volatile whelp. Now he was a calm, fierce, wolfish man who controlled fire…sometimes.
Other times he was still a volatile whelp…who failed to control fire.
“He is not talking about this contest,” Yegarov began. “He is referring to the contest, the horse race, where he first developed this sizeable debt to me.” Yegarov was smiling. This seemed to be a trend in the claims of his debtors. They were all cheated at gambling, all wealthy, all of some status, all refusing to pay.
None of them were good men, or good women, but collecting debts from them for a cheater and swindler was not about right or wrong.
“Yegarov, had I known the extent of how wretched a man you were prior to our contract, I would have never followed through,” said Theron.
“And here I was thinking you and I, and Ken and Aldous, had developed everlasting friendships. You wound me, Theron…but our contract ends tonight. When the sun goes down we may finally part ways in Brasov… But before that, convince this old man that it is in his best interest to pay what is owed.”
Theron spat, and pulled the claymore free from the sheath. The great sword had been many times modified over the past nine years, but it was still the same sword, the same parting gift from his father before Theron began the hunt. As it had been all those years ago, it was the tool of his art, and with it he had painted red on scenes of snow and ice, forests, swamps, manors, and hovels, and the decks of ships at sea. Nine years and here he was, with the same sword on a killing path.
On the spring lawn, five boys as green as the grass stood, hands on sword hilts as they surrounded their baron. They were not the hard men; the hard men were the slaves Theron had just beaten to death. These were the pretty young boys the baron liked to keep around to look at, to live through vicariously. Not one them had a beard, faces like babes.
Theron was capable of killing them all before Baron Kvorag’s piss finished running down his leg. He didn’t want to do that, not in the least, but with his one eye he stared at the boys like there was nothing in the whole world he wanted to do more than yell in bloody joy as he hacked them screaming limb from limb. He always had a hard stare, not as hard as Ken’s, though, who was standing next to him giving the boys the same look, but worse. No thrill in it, nothing in it at all but the promise that death was so very close, so very real, and so very unstoppable.
“Tell them to walk away, to find a new master,” said Aldous as he walked into the square, so now all four of them stood on the ground bloodied by the baron’s defeat. A ball of flame ignited and hovered an inch or so above the intricately carved staff that Aldous held in his right hand. The young bodyguards gasped at the sight. If they were not already broken by the looks of Theron and Ken, they had no fight in them now.
“If they fight us, they will die. If they don’t, after we leave, Kvorag will have them killed. Tell them that Yegarov,” Ken said.
Yegarov spoke in Romarian. His voice was calm, pleading almost.
The young men remained, and for a moment it looked as if they would defend the old wretch. Theron took a single step forward, his sword over his shoulder. They did not move forward or back, but their swords lowered a few inches.
Ken stepped forward, and Aldous as well, the wizard moving to the front, the ball of flame above his staff growing as he raised his other hand to it and whispered to the fire, words the others could not hear. The flame twisted and bent into a wing, then a talon, and a snapping maw of a wolf.
The swords went all the way down, and the boys did not speak as they orchestrated their retreat. The baron yelled and shook his gold- and gem-encrusted cane as his would-be guards gathered their things from the lawn and prepared to abandon their lord. Kvorag finally stood when he saw one of the young men taking a bottle of wine from the grass. He tossed his blankets to the floor, and on old, brittle knees he stumbled at the young man and tried to wrestle the bottle of wine away.
Likely Yegarov was not the only man Kvorag owed. With the civil war raging across the country at its peaking point of violence, these were desperate times. The young men were trying to take anything they could before setting off into dangerous country to find another lecherous old man to live off. Or perhaps they’d join the Dog Eater and his ragtag army and begin burning small towns and raping women and beheading children in their chapels. The options were limited in this country for those who were intent on a life free of conflict.
The boy shoved Kvorag to the ground, made off with the bottle, mounted his horse, and rode off with the rest. The baron crawled after him a short distance, then collapsed entirely and wept.
In the end they collected what was owed. They took a horse and a cart, and on it a chest filled with the last bit of a broken baron’s gold.
“Where will you go now?” Yegarov asked, after they had ridden for a few miles down a wide road surrounded by rocky ravines and thick green woodland.
“We will escort you to Brasov, as agreed. We should make it there with at least an hour, maybe more, before sundown. You will pay us, and we will go our separate ways,” Theron said. He was about to say more, but before he did he saw signs of combat on the road. When he turned to Kendrick and the man gave him a cold nod, it was clear he saw the same.
Upturned dirt, boots pushed through mud, smears where bodies fell, faded red where they were dragged off. Torn blue fabric; from a dress, perhaps? The lady in the carriage on the road this very morn had worn a dress of this exact shade.
“Likely ambushed that same convoy we saw this morning.” Ken said what Theron was thinking.
He was about to respond when he caught the smell. It was faint, for all around them life and spring bloomed on the trees and vines, colorful flower buds bursting open, spreading wide in the season of birth. It was not enough, though, to cover the scent of death, and of the beast that followed.
“Ach! What is that smell?” Yegarov asked.
“What I’ve been waiting for,” Theron answered.