The cabin was empty.
Kalor the hunter knew this, yet with every step he took through the abandoned hovel his anxiety grew. It’s a serious man who lives in a place like this, he thought, gazing up at the vast array of weapons mounted on the cabin’s western wall. There were swords and daggers, axes and bows, spears and hammers; weapons of every shape and size and style. The man has more tools than the entire Danaran army.
That told Kalor something. As did the functional bedrooms, and the multi-functional living area. By the gods, it tells me more than Antius has!
With a sigh, Kalor tugged back the hood of his cloak and ran a hand through the long strands of his dark hair. This is a serious man with a serious purpose. And he knows we’ve come for him.
Spinning on his heels, Kalor strode from the cabin and rejoined the five Purgemen waiting outside. He was barely able to keep the anger from his face as his gaze fell on their tall and slender leader.
‘Well?’ asked Antius.
‘The fire still burns,’ Kalor told him, struggling to keep his voice calm. ‘Looks like we’ve just missed them.’
Cursing, Antius swung on Punto. ‘The next time you send a warning to those we hunt, I’ll snap your fat neck faster than you snapped that twig!’
Punto bowed his head in shame. Like Kalor, the fat man could not risk pushing Antius’s temper too far. While the Purgemaster and the rest of his men were Lucian, Kalor and Punto were not. That made them expendable, and Antius was not a man slow to dispose of expendable assets.
Kalor shook his head. Whatever Antius’s illustrious heritage, the man was a fool. The mistake had been his, not Punto’s. While the Purgemaster had been wise enough to accept Kalor’s advice of allowing the priestess to lead them to their prey, he had chosen the men least capable of the task at hand. The hunt required the stealth and cunning of experienced hunters, men who knew how to stalk prey and strike silently. Instead, most of the men Antius had chosen were warriors, to whom such things as patience and care were signs of weakness. Kalor was the only hunter amongst them, and he knew the element of surprise could mean the difference between a successful kill and a failed pursuit. Now surprise was gone and the prey startled. If Kalor’s fears about the man they hunted were well placed, then the cost of their mistake could prove high indeed.
‘Who is it we hunt?’ he asked the Purgemaster.
Antius looked at him with cold, dark eyes. ‘I’ve already told you everything I can,’ he said. ‘For some reason the boy is important to the followers of Osisi, and like all the relics of the false gods, he must be ended.’
‘Not him. The boy is not the threat here. I’m talking about the man who guards him. The soldier.’
Antius shrugged. ‘He’s nothing, just the last remnant of a broken army. He dies with the boy. I’m sure even you can handle an ageing wolf, Kalor.’
Kalor sighed. ‘I’ve seen the way the man lives, Antius. He’ll not be easily killed. It’s no wolf we hunt here, it’s a lion.’
‘You Danarans and your lions,’ Antius chuckled. ‘There’s nothing to fear here, just a foolish old man who should have died when the Unbreakable fell. You find their trail, and we’ll kill your lion.’
Every fibre of Kalor’s being cried for him to bury his fist in Antius’s smug face, but that would be playing into the Purgemaster’s hands. He wants me to hit him, Kalor realised. The man has finally grown tired of having me point out his idiocy to the others. All he needs now is an excuse to kill me.
Burying his anger, Kalor set about the task at hand. Shouldering his way past Antius, he walked to the centre of the clearing and crouched to the ground, scanning the surrounding grass for signs of a trail. He knew the chances were slim. They were hunting experienced woodsmen now; the kind who knew the signs of a trail and how to hide them. Kalor’s best hope was that the burden of the priestess and the hastiness of their retreat would stop the boy and his protector from being as good as they could be…
Before he knew the answer to that question however, Kalor heard a faint noise from the trees ahead.
‘Well?’ asked Antius. ‘Do you have the trail?’
‘There’s no need,’ replied Kalor, his mouth suddenly dry. ‘The lion returns.’
The words were barely out of his mouth when an axe burst from the trees, spinning through the air with such speed and power that Punto had no chance to react. The axe took him in the face blade first, killing him instantly.
Surging to his feet, Kalor fell back instinctively towards the cabin, swinging the bow from his shoulder and notching an arrow. He watched the four Lucians draw swords and spread out across the clearing, their eyes frantically searching the trees for sign of the attacker. Before long, a lone figure emerged from the undergrowth and stood before them.
Kalor’s heart sank. He recognised the man not by the strip of red cloth covering one eye, nor even the lion’s headed pommel of the sword he wore, but by the fury etched on his face and the sureness of every step he took towards his enemy. It was Civius, the Warlord of Kasis. No wolf, no lion… this was a legend.
Lost in the moment, Kalor forgot the bowstring drawn to his cheek and the role he had to play in what was about to follow. All he could do was watch. This man, who had been worshipped by Kalor’s father as a god, had just stepped from the pages of history to stand against four men sent to kill a boy. Through it all, there was only one thought in Kalor’s mind. Impossible…!
Then the legend spoke, confidence dripping from every word. ‘This is my mountain, boys. You step on it carrying swords, you’re likely to end up like your friend there.’ He nodded to Punto’s corpse.
It was Antius who replied, as foolishly arrogant as ever. ‘We are here on the orders of the Emperor-God Coren. Every mountain under heaven belongs to him.’
‘A god now, is he?’ Civius sneered. ‘Then why doesn’t he come here himself and strike me down?’
‘I’ll strike you down, you bastard!’ stormed Isuvius, who was another that believed being born in the cradle of the Empire made him superior to every man born under a different sky. He will learn the truth of that soon enough, thought Kalor, with more than a little relish. Yet when Isuvius surged forward, Antius blocked his path with the flat of his sword.
‘Give us the boy, old man,’ said the Purgemaster, ‘and we’ll forgive your insolence.’
Civius sighed. ‘The fact you know he’s here at all means I have to kill you.’ The words were delivered with such quiet confidence that they sent a chill down Kalor’s spine.
Antius’s face ran a deep crimson. ‘Kill him,’ he hissed furiously.
From the moment the Lucians advanced, Kalor knew they were dead. Civius was the man who had almost single-handedly turned back the Ancoran army at Rakotis. At Alacha, he had taken the head of their king and watched the Ancoran people kneel before him. Yet above all of that in the annals of Danaran history, it was Civius who had taken less than a hundred men and held the fort of Kasis against the might of the Myran army.
Kalor ran his gaze critically over his fellow Purgemen. What are these four fools compared to that, he wondered? Not that he gave a single shit about his fellow Purgemen. It was the thousand gold pieces promised for the boy’s head that concerned Kalor. A man could live like a king on money like that. And men like Antius will be licking my boots…
Fanton was the first to die. Young and inexperienced, the blond haired noble saw his chance for glory and rushed headfirst at Civius, only for the old man to sidestep the lunge, parry Fanton’s blade from his hand, and sweep his own sword up in a vicious arc that slashed the Purgeman’s throat. Fanton toppled to the floor with his head almost completely severed from his shoulders.
Nasta, furious at his brother’s death, yelled a battle cry and charged, Isuvius following eagerly in his wake. The two Lucians worked together to push Civius back, with the older man first having to deflect attacks from Nasta, before adjusting his stance to block those from Isuvius. Civius’s age began to show under the ferocity of the dual assault, his speed and strength quickly evaporating.
He was almost done… before he parried a forceful blow and caused Nasta to stumble. That was all it took for Civius to seize the incentive and turn the tide. He drove a left hook into Nasta’s face that spun him from his feet, freeing Civius to focus on Isuvius. Alone, knowing he was doomed, Isuvius gripped his sword in two hands and launched a desperate swipe at Civius’s stomach. The old man swerved the blade with ease, then used the Purgeman’s own speed against him to spin in behind him. From there, Civius locked an arm around Isuvius’s neck and drove his blade up through the man’s back and out of his chest.
With the light fading from Isuvius’s eyes, Civius pulled the weapon clear and turned his attention back to Nasta, who was still struggling to his feet. Before he could recover, Civius brought his sword down on the man’s powerful neck and decapitated him.
It was only then, with just Antius standing between him and the Warlord of Kasis, that Kalor remembered the arrow notched to his bow. It was an easy task too, finding the mark in Civius’s chest. With one arrow it could be over, and Kalor would be one step closer to Coren’s gold.
No, he told himself, not that way. The Warlord of Kasis deserves better than that. He deserves a true death, sword to sword, face to face. Let Antius put him to test.
As though reading Kalor’s mind, Antius unbuckled his sword belt and tossed it aside, freeing himself from the encumbrance. He began a series of exercises in which he slashed his blade through the air, this way and that, loosening the muscles in his arms and shoulders. If nothing else, thought Kalor, at least he has a flair for the dramatic.
It did little to impress Civius, however, who waited patiently for Antius to finish, before tearing at him like a tornado. The old man, who must have seen more winters than the moon, tried to overwhelm his opponent with the sheer force of his will… but Antius was too talented a swordsman for that to tell, and soon enough the duel stood in the balance.
With the sound of clashing steel filling the air, the two men danced across the clearing, attacking and parrying, their swords flashing silver in the noonday sun. Eventually, even Kalor’s keen eyes struggled to keep pace.
The duel lasted for several minutes before the strain finally told. Kalor had expected the old man to break first, but in the end it was the Lucian. Civius launched a series of heavy blows that sent Antius into retreat, and when two of those strikes almost breached his defences, the Lucian stumbled. Civius was on him in an instant, moving for the kill…
…before Kalor’s instincts took over.
The arrow took Civius high in the right shoulder. The strength in his arm giving out instantly, his sword clattering to the floor. More than anything though, it was the distraction that proved fatal. Antius recovered his balance, lunged forward, and plunged his sword through Civius’s stomach. The Danaran grunted as the blade tore through him.
Grinning, Antius bent to Civius’s ear. ‘The boy will join you in the afterlife,’ he said, before twisting the blade savagely.
Despite the obvious pain, Civius clamped a hand on Antius’s wrist. The Purgemaster struggled to free himself from the grip as Civius reached down and drew a hunting knife from his boot. ‘Not before you,’ he said through gritted teeth, stabbing the knife upwards through Antius’s chin. The Purgemaster was dead before he hit the floor, the knife still embedded in his jaw.
When Civius turned his gaze on Kalor, fixing him with that piercing blue eye, the hunter knew what he had done. The old man took two laboured steps towards him, before his legs buckled beneath him and he fell to his knees. Running to his side, Kalor caught Civius before he could fall completely, lowering him gently to the ground.
‘I was expecting that arrow sooner,’ the old man grunted, his breathing shallow, his mouth wet with blood.
‘I wasn’t expecting it at all,’ said Kalor, furious at himself. It had been fear that made him loose the arrow. Fear of facing Civius alone. ‘You deserved better than that.’
Civius’s eye widened. ‘Your accent… Danaran?’
Kalor nodded, and to his surprise the old man smiled. ‘Then at least I was killed by the best.’
‘I thought you were dead already,’ Kalor told him. ‘Everyone does. The Lucians say you were killed fleeing the city; that you ran for the hills as soon as their spears appeared on the horizon. They call you the King’s Coward.’
Civius grabbed Kalor’s collar and pulled himself up so that their faces were inches apart. ‘I’m no coward,’ he said. ‘I followed the king’s orders that day, and I’ve had to live with it ever since.’
Kalor nodded. ‘I believe you,’ he said truthfully. ‘There’s not a Danaran alive who would believe those Lucian lies.’
Civius relaxed and lay back, his face growing paler by the second. ‘What are you doing with these dogs?’ he asked. ‘You ride for Coren?’
‘I ride for gold. Your boy has a mighty price on his head.’
‘There was a time when men rode for more than gold…’ Civius broke off as he began to cough, spluttering fresh blood.
‘Those days are gone,’ said Kalor with a certainty tinged by regret. ‘These days a man either submits to his betters, or he dies. These Lucians might be arrogant beyond reason, but one day they will rule everything touched by the sun.’
‘They won’t rule me,’ Civius muttered defiantly. ‘And they won’t rule Halasan.’
‘Aye, the boy. Your king.’
Kalor smiled. ‘My king is an old man, Civius. His name is Marius. An old friend of yours, I believe? He at least stood with Caraborn on the walls of Danara, and whatever he did there earned him the crown. He serves Coren now as a vassal king.’
‘Marius…’ Civius said the name with disgust, chasing it away with bloodied spit. ‘If Coren made him king, it’s because he betrayed Caraborn. Halasan is Caraborn’s son. He’s your king by blood.’
Kalor stared back in disbelief. ‘Caraborn had no children,’ he said, convinced.
‘None the world knows of.’ Civius twisted against a surge of pain, before fighting back to get his words out. ‘Open your eyes, boy. You think the Warlord of Kasis didn’t want to die in glory upon the walls of Danara? Yet here I am, sixteen years later, on the other side of the world, protecting a boy Coren wants to see dead. A little strange, no?’
Kalor sank to his haunches as the words sank in. In his mind, the mists that had shrouded the Purge’s purpose in Killian began to clear. Coren had not sent a handful of his best men across the world to kill a rogue priestess and a worthless child. He had sent them to end a threat to Lucian dominance in Pelonia. He had sent them to assassinate the true heir to the Danaran throne. ‘Fires of Junos,’ the hunter muttered. ‘The son of Caraborn…’
Civius grunted against more pain. ‘Now will you take the oath?’ he asked.
Kalor sighed. ‘No, Civius. I won’t. There was a time I followed men like you. There was a time I would have followed your king. But those days are gone now, washed away by the flood of the Lucian Empire. I’ve seen the rewards for loyalty and honour given in this new world. I’ve seen it in the faces of the dead, as their eyes are pecked out by the vultures. I told you I ride for gold and that’s the truth. I’m loyal only to myself now.’
The hunter drew a knife from the sheath at his waist and Civius glanced at it. ‘A lonely life,’ muttered the old man.
‘It avoids disappointment,’ Kalor told him.
‘Will you hunt the boy still?’
‘Then, before he kills you, tell him I love him. I was always too proud to do it myself.’ Civius stretched for his sword, and with some effort dragged it to his side. He held it out to Kalor. ‘And take this. May it remind you what it is to be Danaran.’
The words stung, but Kalor accepted the weapon. ‘Wait for me in the Halls of Asuvius, old man. I’d like to speak with you again.’
Civius nodded. ‘Do it,’ he said. And with a deep breath, Kalor plunged the dagger into his heart. The light of life faded from Civius’s gaze, and a last breath rattled from his body.
Kalor stared down at him for a moment, then brushed closed the dead man’s eye. The Warlord of Kasis was gone.
Pushing himself to his feet, Kalor approached the undergrowth from where Civius had earlier emerged. He found the old man’s trail and followed it through the trees. I’ll have you soon enough, boy. Then Coren will make me rich and I can put this hell behind me.
© Anthony Mitchell 2019
If you enjoyed this excerpt and want to know more about the world of Domanska, check out the full story, The Ember Child, available now on Amazon in both Kindle and Paperback format (and can also be found on Amazon.com).
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11th August 2019