Excerpt: The Ember Child, Chapter 3

Chapter Three is the last preview chapter of The Ember Child I’ll be posting up here, so if you enjoy it, don’t forget to check out the full thing on Amazon (links can be found at the bottom).

In this chapter, Halasan is still reeling from the decision to abandon his old mentor to some unknown fate.  To ensure the sacrifice was not in vain, Halasan and Kirea must find an ally in the city of Port Killian who can find them passage on a ship north.  The only problem is that Port Killian is a city without law, where every man is a king and all things have a price.  Can they find someone to help them?  And if so, can that person be trusted?


 

THE FREE CITY

i

The slender vessel cut through the water of the Killian River like a blade through cloth.  She was a tiny thing, little more than a leather hide pinned to a frame of light timber, and Kirea doubted that the three of them would have fitted aboard, had Civius made the journey.  He didn’t though, she thought bitterly, her gaze climbing the mountain behind them, following the path of the thunderous falls, to where the three ropes that once stood as a bridge could be seen dangling free, flapping uselessly in the wind.

How could he cut them, she wondered?  How could he find it so easy to abandon the man who raised him?  Is that the king I crossed the world for?

The boy sat aft, rowing in sullen silence.  He had not spoken a single word since losing sight of Civius on the mountain, but Kirea could think of nothing she could say that would offer any comfort.  Nor did she want to risk it.  Halasan might have cut the ropes, but it was she who had led Coren’s men to the cabin, and it was she who would hold the blame if Civius died.  If he doesn’t hate me yet, he will soon enough.

As the sun disappeared behind the snowy peaks, Kirea found herself thinking back to the moment Halasan crossed the falls, when Civius had moved beside her and whispered into her ear.  ‘If anything should happen to me,’ he had said, ‘you stay close to Halasan.  He will need your guidance.  I have taught him the soldier’s way, but mayhap he needs a woman’s heart to teach him the king’s way.’

Kirea had not liked what she was hearing.  ‘Nothing will happen to you,’ she replied, speaking with a conviction she now knew to be foolish.  ‘We’ll leave these hunters behind and you’ll take us home.  That’s it.’

The old man had only smiled.  ‘Life is never that easy, girl.  It has taken us sixteen years to get this far… there is plenty more blood to be spilt before Halasan sets sight on Danara.  You were right though, the time for hiding is done.  Now we begin the journey home.  Now we make our stand.’

‘How?’ Kirea had whispered, fear gnawing at the back of her mind.  Coren had eyes and ears in every nation of Domanska, and spies even across the sea in the southern Newlands.  There was nowhere to go that was beyond his reach.

‘Just stay with Halasan,’ Civius had said.  ‘Keep your wits about you, and when he seeks your counsel just speak from the heart.  That is all he’ll ever need from you.  Give him that, and you’ll see him become the king he was born to be.  You should cross the bridge now, girl.  Time is wasting.’

The boat rocked gently, pulling Kirea from the halls of memory.  She looked at Halasan.  His oar strokes were powerful and well timed, but the boy was in a world of his own.  Kirea closed her eyes and offered a silent prayer to Osisi, that she might keep Civius safe.  Halasan needed him.

We both need him!

They followed the easterly course of the river for several miles, encouraged as much by a strong current as by Halasan’s work with the oar, until at last Halasan guided the craft to the bank and disembarked in the shallow water.  Offering Kirea his hand, he finally spoke.  ‘We go on foot from here.  The river continues south, but the city lies to the east.’

With Halasan’s help, Kirea climbed from the boat and waded ashore.  She watched Halasan cast his gaze back to the distant mountains, to Garash, which towered above them all.  ‘Do you think he’ll be safe?’ she asked, knowing that he was thinking of Civius.

‘I hope so,’ was all he said, before gathering his bow and quiver from the boat and pushing the vessel out into the deeper water, where it was caught by the current and carried away.  ‘It’s still some distance to the city,’ he added.  ‘We’ll have to move fast if we’re to make it before nightfall.  Can you run priestess?’

‘If needs must.’

‘Do your best to keep up.’

Halasan set off at such a swift sprint that Kirea hesitated.  She wasn’t sure how she would ever keep pace with him.  You will because you must, whispered the voice of Mother Blessing.  And then Civius again, saying, Stay with him.  With a deep breath, Kirea began to run.

It was a more tiring experience than she could ever have imagined.  Kirea had spent most of her life in Osisi’s temple, and there had been little time for exercise when fulfilling the duties of a priestess.  Her stamina had improved somewhat during the long journey from Danara, but the rich, green land of Killian was a mass of energy sapping hills and troughs, and it wasn’t long before Kirea’s lungs burnt with fire and her legs began to ache.

She tried her best to ignore the pain burning in her lungs and thighs, focusing instead on the thought of Civius sacrificing himself so that they could escape.  Then another memory came to her unbidden: the image of Mother Blessing nailed to the temple doors, her eyes cut out.  Grim faced, Kirea forced herself onward.

Along the way they passed herds of grazing cattle, fields of crops, and several farmsteads, yet not once did Halasan suggest they rest.  When he saw Kirea beginning to flag, he merely relented a little from the pace, allowing the priestess to catch her breath.  Then he would push on once more.

For almost an hour they ran, until at last they crested one final hill and Halasan came to a stop.  Kirea pulled up beside him, hands on her knees, struggling for breath.  It took her a few moments before she had the energy to look up and take in the sight that caused Halasan to pause.

Below them, stretching along the coastline as far as the eye could see, stood the city of Port Killian.  The city’s vast skyline was a mix of architectural design and techniques; a legacy of the city’s eccentric growth.

Having started life as a small fishing village, Killian had grown fat off the trade ships travelling the eastern coastline of Domanska, becoming a vast and wealthy city.  Now her power and influence was felt in even the most remote areas of the continent.  Yet it was more than trade that had given rise to such a wondrous place, for the last remnants of those northern civilisations crushed by the Basillian hordes had made Port Killian their home, bringing with them a flavour of what was left behind.  As Kirea’s eyes swept the skyline, she could see wooden homes with thatched roofs, stone buildings with tiles of terracotta, and yet more crowned with grey slate.  Some were small, some large, others crowned with towers and steeples.  There was no apparent plan to their distribution, yet none seemed out of place.

It was simply Killian.

‘The city of refugees,’ said Halasan.

Kirea glanced at him.  ‘Back home they call it the Free City,’ she said.  ‘They say it’s a place without kings, where the streets are paved with gold and where fame and fortune awaits all men.’

‘Have you walked those streets, Kirea?’

‘Briefly.  I passed through on my way to find you.’

‘Then you’ll know the truth is not always as pretty as the stories.  The folk in that city have lived hard lives.  They’ve had to fight to survive.  Most are good people, but there will always be those who pray on the weak.’

‘It seemed a grim place,’ Kirea had to admit.  She could remember how nervous she had felt when first passing through those narrow, filth-strewn streets near the docks.

‘I know the streets well enough,’ Halasan assured her.  ‘I used to come down here with Civius for supplies.  Just stay close to me and we’ll be fine.’

Half an hour later Halasan led Kirea along one of the main thoroughfares leading to the city centre.  They walked quickly, heading east towards the docks, Halasan constantly checking over his shoulder to make sure they weren’t being followed.  Even with dusk closing in, the city was a hive of activity.  Market stalls lined the way, selling everything from exotic herbs to trinkets of outlandish promises.  Halasan and Kirea had to pick a path through the prospective customers thronging the streets.

‘Is it always this busy?’ Kirea asked, her voice almost drowned out by  the buzz of the crowd.

‘Always,’ answered Halasan.  ‘Killian is the only port left on the trade route to Romil; the Basillians have burnt everywhere else.  Now everything going north or south has to come through here.’

The streets seemed to grow even busier the closer they got to the waterfront.  Taverns and inns became more frequent, overflowing to the streets with boisterous sailors and drunken labourers.  The smell of fresh bread and herbs and spices that had wafted from the market stalls soon gave way to the stench of musty ale, human sweat, and ingrained urine.  Even the dirt roads degraded into mud and filth.

A woman stepped into Halasan’s path from the shadows of an alleyway, forcing him to stop.  She was middle-aged with greying hair, a thick lip, and a black eye, and she leaned into Halasan and cupped his crotch.  ‘I’ll take you to heaven for a copper coin,’ she said in a husky voice, revealing a mouthful of rotting teeth.  Her breath stank of black worm, a putrid drug some took to dull the senses.

‘This one’s taking me there already.’  Taking hold of Kirea’s hand, Halasan pushed past the woman and continued down the street.

‘She can join us for a copper more!’ the woman called after them, before they disappeared around a corner and fell out of ear shot.

‘I have no plans to take you to heaven,’ warned Kirea, unable to suppress a smile.

Halasan grinned, his face regaining some of the boyish charm that had been missing since Garash.  ‘There’s plenty of time for me to change your mind,’ he promised.  Kirea felt her own face flush, but Halasan had already turned his attention back to the path they were following.

Eventually they found their way to Eagle’s Dock, an area composed of six huge warehouses and four wooden piers, with moorings for at least eight ships.  From their position near the first warehouse, Kirea could see four ships were currently docked – three merchant vessels, and a larger war galley.  Workers moved to and fro, unloading cargo from the ships and moving it on horse-drawn carts to the warehouses.  Halasan pressed up against the warehouse wall and pulled Kirea with him.

‘Stay low,’ he whispered.  ‘You need papers to be on the docks and we don’t need the trouble of getting caught.  When we get chance we’re going to move for those crates over there…’  He pointed across the way, to where several wooden crates had been stacked near one of the docked vessels.  ‘We’ll get a better view of Borga’s warehouse from there.’

They waited silently for several minutes.  Then, when a moment presented itself, Halasan grabbed Kirea’s hand and they ran across the dock into the darkening shadows between the crates.  Halasan checked behind them to make sure they had not been spotted, then he slumped against the crate and slid to the floor.  The workers continued about their business, oblivious to the two infiltrators.  From their new position, Kirea could see the front of all six warehouses – huge wooden structures big enough to hold the ships themselves, let alone their cargo.

‘Which one is Borga’s?’ she asked.

‘Third along.’  It was one of only three that had its great double doors swung open, like the mouth of some vast beast welcoming fresh food to its bowels.

Kirea lowered herself to sit beside the youngster.  ‘How well do you know this Borga?’

‘Well enough.  He’s Danaran by birth, but he’s been living in Killian since before the Fall.  We use him for most of our supplies.  Borga likes to make a profit, but he’s always been fair in his dealings with Civius.’

‘Then you’re sure we can trust him?’

Halasan fixed her with a steely gaze.  ‘Civius is the only man in this world I’ve ever trusted.  I’ll trust his judgement now, until Borga gives me reason not to.’

‘Then why are we waiting here instead of going straight to him?’

‘Civius only spoke for the merchant.  We’ll wait until he’s alone.’

‘Do we have time for that?  What about the hunters?’

Halasan glanced up at the purpling sky.  ‘It’s getting late.  No ships will be leaving dock before dawn now anyway.  All we can do is wait until then and hope the men hunting us can’t find us in this maze.’

‘What if Civius stops them?’

‘Then he’ll meet us here,’ said Halasan, though there was something in his voice that suggested he doubted that outcome.  He doesn’t expect to see him again, Kirea realised, the truth of it stabbing at her heart.  He thinks Civius is dead…

…what if he is?  Kirea felt her stomach lurch at the thought.  ‘I’m so sorry, Halasan,’ she whispered.  ‘I led them straight to you.  It’s all my fault.’

Halasan shook his head.  ‘It’s not your fault,’ he said.  ‘You only did what Mother Blessing asked.  Coren’s men would have found us one way or the other.’

‘But Civius…’

‘Civius is doing what he was born to do.  Whatever happens, that’s not on you.’

‘What if we never see him again?’

Halasan sighed.  ‘We won’t.  Civius knew he was going to die.  That’s the only reason he sent us on without him.’

‘Yet you cut the bridge anyway?’  This… Kirea thought bitterly, her fears taking hold… is the king I crossed the world for.  As cold and callous as Coren.  ‘How could you do that?  How could you abandon him so easily?’

‘Easy?’  There was a fire in Halasan’s eyes now that Kirea had not seen before.  A cold fire, burning with the colour of steel.  ‘You think it was easy?  That man is the only family I’ve ever known.  He was the only certainty in my life… and now he’s gone.  Cutting those ropes was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.’

‘Then why do it?’

‘Because he wanted me to.’  The fire faded from Halasan’s eyes and he sagged back.  ‘That was his final test.  He told me once that a king had to be ready to sacrifice everything for the good of his people.  If I hadn’t cut those ropes Civius would have, and if that had happened then we’d have both known I wasn’t ready.  I have to be ready, Kirea.  Danara needs me to be ready.’

Kirea put a hand on his shoulder and smiled.  ‘That,‘ she said joyfully, ‘is the king I crossed the world for!’

 

ii

 

There is more to life than gold.

This simple truth was beginning to drive Borga mad.  As the seventh wealthiest merchant in Port Killian he should have been happy.  Instead, at the age of forty-six, he was beginning to realise how shallow his existence had become.

Twenty years had passed since the roots he planted were turned to dust, when the gods cruelly took his wife, Gwen, during childbirth.  They took the child in her womb too, the first and last of Borga’s making.  To escape the grief of their loss, Borga had thrown himself wholly into his work.  Money became his passion, as he set forth on a quest to reach the top of Killian’s mountain of power, determined that one day he would have the strength to bring down the gods themselves for what they had taken from him.

It was a dangerous ambition, not just to challenge the gods, but to do it in a place as merciless and unforgiving as the Free City.  In order to survive, Borga became a callous and ruthless man.  He learnt early on that there was no place for morals in a quest for vengeance, not on the streets of Port Killian, and Borga had lost count of how many men he left broken in the name of profit.  Aye, and how many dead as well.  In the Free City the price of gold was often blood.

Twenty years…

And what did he have to show for it?  Oh, there was wealth: three warehouses full of goods, five trading ships sailing the coastal waters of the east, and a magnificent sum of gold kept for him in the city treasury.  But what was gold, when a man looked back at his life?

A man’s life is marked by what he leaves behind, Borga knew.  And what I leave behind will be divided amongst my enemies like the spoils of war.  He had no friends.  There was no place for them in Killian, where loyalty went to the highest bidder.  Nor did he have family, being the last of his line.  No… the world will forget my name the moment my candle burns out.

He wondered then about his wife – beautiful Gwen; sweet and generous Gwen. She would be living like a queen in the Halls of Asuvius, blessed for the life she had lived.  Would you be proud of what your husband has achieved, he wondered?  Would you love what he has become?

Borga doubted it.

With a sigh, he opened a bottle of wine and filled the goblet sitting on the desk before him.  He drained it in one, then poured himself a refill.  Sinking into his chair, Borga looked around the giant warehouse, watching shadows from the candlelight dance around the vast open space, in and around the sacks of wheat and barley, the crates of fruit and vegetables, and the barrels of exotic spices, which drenched the air with their scent.  With the last of the workers having just left, the place was eerily quiet.  Every move Borga made echoed hauntingly into the growing gloom.

It was past time he left himself, but Borga never relished the journey home.  On those filth ridden streets he would see men returning from work, greeted by their loved ones with a hug and a kiss.  Even the whores, women desperate enough to sell their bodies, would be seen laughing with their children.  Borga lived a life of comfort few of them could even dream of, yet for all his wealth, he could not buy a sliver of their happiness.

Borga drained his goblet again.  Sitting back, he rested his head and closed his eyes.  He was on the verge of sleep when the knock came rapping on the warehouse door.  Borga pushed himself to his feet with a yawn and hobbled over to the door, where he slid open the eye-hole and peered through.  A familiar face waited on the other side.  ‘Halasan?’ he asked, surprised.

‘We need your help,’ the boy said.

Borga did not hesitate in unbarring the door and yanking it open.  He ushered Halasan inside quickly, along with the mysterious young woman accompanying him, then checked the street to make sure the pair were alone.  When he saw no sign of Civius, Borga closed the door and dropped the lock in place.  ‘What’s going on?’ he asked, swinging on the boy.  ‘Where’s Civius?’

‘He’s on his way.  He asked that you arrange transport for us on a ship sailing north.’

‘And who’s this?’ asked Borga, turning his gaze on the tall, slender woman.  She looked uncomfortable in the jerkin and leggings she wore.  Then Borga saw the necklace hanging against her chest – a silver sword wrapped in golden flame.  ‘A priestess of Osisi?’  The surprises keep on coming!

Reddening, the woman quickly tucked the necklace beneath her shirt.

‘This is Kirea,’ said Halasan.  ‘She’s with us now.  Will you help us, Borga?’

Taking the time to consider his response, Borga returned to his desk and lowered his large frame to the chair, waving Halasan and Kirea to stand before him.  ‘I remember the first time I saw Civius, almost fourteen years ago.  Like the rest of the world, I thought he was dead.  Yet there he was, bold as a summer’s sun; unmistakably Civius, even with the child on his hip.

‘He never told me why he left Danara, only that he could never go back and that no one could know he still lived.  Had it been a lesser man, I might have thought him a coward.  But not the Warlord of Kasis.  Everything I know about that man says he should have died beside the king upon the walls of Danara, so I always knew there had to be something special to keep him alive.  And now, at last, that mystery begins to reveal itself.

‘In all the years I’ve known him, Civius has never hinted at leaving Killian.  Yet as soon as this woman arrives, he’s ready to set sail?’  The merchant shook his head.  ‘If you want my help, I want to know why the Warlord of Kasis still lives.  I want to know what was so important it made Civius turn against his very nature.  I want to know who you are, Halasan.’

The boy looked at him for a moment, his eyes the hard grey of steel.  They were piercing eyes; the kind that seemed to look into a man’s soul.  Then the youngster sighed.  ‘So be it,’ he said, resigned.

‘Halasan!’ hissed the woman, but the boy held up a hand to silence her.

‘He’s right, Kirea. If he’s going to help us then he deserves to know the truth.’  Halasan looked evenly across the desk at Borga.  ‘I am Caraborn’s heir.’

Borga almost burst out laughing.  ‘Either you think me a fool, or you’ve been touched by Pilios!  Every Danaran worth his sword knows Caraborn had no heir.  His kin were dead before he was, and he left no children.  His line ended with the Fall.’

‘He had no true born children,’ admitted Halasan.  ‘But I am his son; born to a wash girl who served at the palace.  She ran when she learnt she was pregnant, fearing the queen, and died in childbirth at the Temple of Osisi, on the day the Lucians began their invasion.’  The boy showed no emotion as he told this part of the story.  A true Danaran, Borga reflected.  ‘It would have ended there, if not for Queen Luxana.  She knew the story was true, and she believed it enough to have Civius take me into his protection.  That’s why he’s still alive, Borga.  He’s been waiting for the call home.’  Halasan gestured at the priestess.  ‘And there it is.’

Borga sank deeper into his chair, his mind working quickly to put into place the pieces of a puzzle that had been troubling him for almost sixteen years.  The boy’s reason for Civius’s continued survival was at least as good as any Borga had ever imagined.  But can it be true…?

‘Why the Temple of Osisi?’ he heard himself ask.  ‘Why Luxana and not the king?’

It was the girl who answered.  ‘Because the queen was a woman of faith, while her husband had none.  And because Mother Blessing believed the child was spoken of in prophecy.’

Mystery solved, thought Borga, with a shiver of delight.  Heaving himself from his chair, he moved around the table and stood before the boy, leaning in for a closer inspection.  Only then did he see the steel in those winter-grey eyes.  Steel and fire, he thought.

‘The Ember Child,’ Borga whispered.  ‘She thought you the Ember Child, born to lead Danara to salvation.’

‘She’s not the only one,’ said Kirea, and Borga saw the flicker of flames in her gaze too.  Danaran, the both of them.

Borga fixed his eyes on Halasan.  ‘What about you, boy?  Do you believe it?’

For a moment there was no reply.  Halasan stood silently, matching Borga’s gaze.  It made the merchant uncomfortable.  He felt like Halasan was looking into the heart of him.  Then, at last, the boy spoke.  ‘It doesn’t matter what I believe.  A man’s faith is his own, Borga.  What do you believe?’

‘I’m afraid faith is not my strongest asset,’ Borga replied with a wry smile.  ‘I stopped worshipping the gods when they took my wife.  They build men up just to tear them down.  That said, the prophecies are the one thing I do trust when it comes to the gods.  They offer people hope, and even the gods know there’s no profit in offering false hope.  They have to deliver on their promises occasionally, or else risk being left with empty temples.

‘I have no doubt there will be an Ember Child.  Perhaps it’s you,  perhaps it’s not.  There is only one certainty, as far as I can see.  Coren will make me rich for turning you in.’

To Borga’s surprise, Halasan actually laughed at that.  ‘You’re not going to turn us in, merchant.’

‘What makes you so sure?’ asked Borga.

‘Because Civius would never have sent us to a man like that.  He sees something better in you, Borga.  And I see it too.’

Borga’s heart swelled with pride at the thought of a legend like Civius holding him in such high regard. Gwen could love a man like that, he thought.  And in that moment he knew Halasan was right.  He could never betray the boy.  There is too much Danaran in me to do a thing like that.

‘There is more to life than gold,’ he said with a smile.  Then he dropped to one knee before Halasan and bowed his head.  ‘I never earned my sword, my king.  But I will give you my life.’

© 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).

If you have any other feedback or suggestions, please leave a comment here or at any of the social media links below.

Thanks for reading!

Tony
8th September 2019

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