Shadow Of The Winter King (Book 1)

Shadow of the Winter King

Book One of the World of Ruin

Erik Scott de Bie

Shadow of the Winter King

“The World of Ruin:

A dying world—an inevitable end.

Much and many have been lost,

All must pass to Ruin.”

This book is dedicated to my wife Shelley, for helping me along this epic journey, smoothing the path ahead and behind, and always being there with an extra sword when I needed it. She is my Blood and my Bond, my Master and my Goddess.

I also want to acknowledge the hard work and support of my own Circle of Writers, without whom this book would not have been possible, particularly my exacting editor Gabrielle Harbowy, the wise Gwen Gades at Dragon Moon Press, the legendary Ed Greenwood, the superheroic Nathan Crowder, and the irrepressible Rosemary Jones.

Prologue

Tar Vangr, the City of Winter—Autumn 981, Sorcerus Annis

T
he Lord of Tears
tried very hard not to kill her.

It would have been so easy. As she sat there, he could have slipped his blade between her ribs or looped a garrote around her neck. He could have commanded a servant to lace her mead with poison or sprinkle broken glass into her food. He could have put a casterbolt through her belly from under the table and watched her explode backward from the force.

He had planned this. The Lord of Tears would stand in this place, in view of all, and take her life with a single swipe of his blade. None would challenge him here, even as he stood over her bloody corpse. All knew this was his tavern, where he killed with impunity. His Tears surrounded him in this place: any one of his sworn servants would kill or die for him. This was his place of power.

And who was she? Friendless and alone. The great Bloodbreaker, who had slain the last heir of the Blood Denerre and wiped the Kings of Winter from the World of Ruin forever. The sheer enormity of her crime was known by all. He could have cut her throat in the street and all would cheer him.

Instead, he sat and listened to her plea. Her hand lay upon his, her skin against his skin.

“I need your help, Regel.”

She used his old name. The one he had almost forgotten.

The problem, Regel thought, was that Ovelia spoke the truth. Now, after five years, she had walked back into his life and offered him nothing but truth.

He laid a finger along his nose, tracing the black teardrop etched beneath his left eye. The tattoo had hurt, but it had been nothing compared to the pain she had caused with a swipe of her sword.

“And why should I help you?” he asked, though he meant to ask,
Why haven’t I killed you?

“Because you loved the Winter King.” Ovelia’s eyes glittered. “And you loved me, once.”

Regel drew his hand away from hers. Ovelia’s eyes fell to where her fingers curled ineffectually on the table, nails scratching against years of accumulated wax. She sat, quiescent and waiting.

Why tonight, of all nights? The night he’d returned to the city after two years away, and the night he meant to kill her? The coincidence seemed impossible.

He concentrated on the carving in his hand: a rough-hewn dove, more useful than artistic. Rubbing its smooth surface let his mind focus and relax while his senses expanded, like sharpening his perception on a whetstone. He’d learned this trick as a boy, and honed it in the forty years since.

With his spiraling awareness, Regel took in the smoky, breath-stealing interior of the common room of the Burned Man, noting the surreptitious gazes of the other patrons. He saw the hilt of a knife under the ale-bearer’s skirts and met her eye, marked with the painted tear they all wore in the Burned Man. She stood ready for his move. His snare was set.

Ovelia had sealed her own fate by entering the tavern. And yet the Lord of Tears hesitated.

Ovelia watched Regel levelly, not a hint of guile on her face. “That’s beautiful.” She indicated the carving. “You always had a way with carving. Such hands you have.”

Wordlessly, he set the carved dove on the table and focused on Ovelia instead.

Ovelia Dracaris didn’t look like a murderer, let alone a traitor and regicide. Hers was neither the haughty demeanor of the courts of High Blood nor the charm of a rustic beauty, but rather something altogether unique and hers. He knew her features well: the little fishhook scar at the left edge of her mouth, the hazel eyes always a touch wet, the brow inclined to worry. He thought her nose had been broken again since he’d last seen her, but it had knit well. The tiny wrinkles spreading like wings from the corners of her eyes had deepened. He remembered Ovelia’s face wreathed in crimson curls, but now she wore white-blonde hair, cropped just below her ears. The color made her older, but that was not its purpose. Instead, he knew she had dyed her hair that she might resemble another woman he had known—a woman he had loved far more than he ever had her.

He did not want to remember. That life was far behind him. Who was she to revive it?

“You are staring,” she said. “As though I were a woman returned from the grave?”

Her demure smile made his stomach churn, and not with anger. He wondered if she knew her effect on him, and suspected that she did.

“You dyed your hair to hide your identity and to distract me with thoughts of a woman long dead,” Regel said. “It will not serve.”

Though she hid her reaction well, the hope in her eyes dimmed somewhat. She had heard his message clearly. He would grant her no sway over his heart. Never again.

“Surely you know I want you dead,” he said. “You betrayed me. Betrayed all of us.”

“Straight to it—I see you’ve not changed overmuch. I did not come to speak of the past. It is too late for us, but not—” Ovelia closed her eyes. “Not for one last task. A last homage to the Winter King.”

That caught his attention. What possible service could they pay a dead man?

The Lord of Tears searched for a lie in her face and in her throat, but he found none. He should have killed her quickly, rather than allowed her to speak. He
would
have, had the contract on her life been less than strictly clear:
One thrust through the heart

the heart she swore to another and yet betrayed.

“I need a man loyal to the Blood of Denerre, the true rulers of Tar Vangr,” she said. “More than that, I need the Frostburn, the blade so fast it could—”

“That man died alongside his king,” Regel said. “You slew them both, Bloodbreaker.”

He remembered that night well. And from the pall that passed over Ovelia’s face, so did she. Ovelia shivered, and for the first time, her seeming vulnerability slipped into something else: sorrow.

Why should she have that reaction? Should she not revel in her ignobility? If she yet lived—had not ended her life in shame as honor demanded—then surely she was a worse monster than the most loathsome Child of Ruin. And yet Ovelia reacted to the name “Bloodbreaker” with real pain, and not for herself. She truly regretted her treachery.

Her distress made him want her. He pictured seizing her wrist with a sudden creak of leather that would bite through the silence. He would pull her closer and run his fingers through her silver-dyed hair. He would draw her face to his and breathe deep. Perhaps she smelled like the woman he resembled.

But much as he itched to, he would do none of these things. Now was hardly the time to be a besotted idiot.

“I am Oathbreaker,” he said. “I am the Lord of Tears. I have no other name.”

Ovelia’s eyes said she didn’t believe him for a heartbeat. “What passes now, then?”

“We are a man and a woman seated at table, negotiating business. Offer me coin.” He looked her over, then fixed on her eyes once more. “Or was it my lust you would use?”

That struck at her. Ovelia’s sorrowful affect darkened into anger. “I did not come to whore myself, if that is what you mean.”

“It was not.” Regel shrugged. “But it is an answer.”

Finally he had struck her temper. From her Luethaar father, Ovelia had the hot blood of the southland, where smoldering nights turned women and men into beasts with blades in their hands and fierce desires in their beds. She tempered her rage with the cool honor of her Vangryur mother, though, and it made her deadly. A child of two kingdoms, she was fire and cold steel both at once.

“That is all?” she asked. “Will you say nothing else? You will insult me and leave it to the wind?”

“So I have.” Stand, he thought. Walk away, that I might kill you with no regrets. Let us put the old world behind us.

“Do I waste my time?” she asked.

“Clearly.” And yet, she had spoken of a last homage...

She frowned. “It pains me to see you become such a coward.”

Ovelia rose, but he caught her arm before she could walk away. She looked down at his hand. He had touched her without thinking. He’d not wanted her to go. Now he released her.

“I did not say no,” he said. “Tell me of this task of yours, and we shall see.”

“Very well. It will take me a moment.”

“Take your time,” Regel said. She had the rest of her life to explain, but that was not long.

They sat again, the moment tempered by the tavern smoke. The ale-bearer appeared and poured fresh drink for them both. While Ovelia was distracted, Regel glanced to his squire at the nearest table and nodded slightly. The nod was returned.

“I did not call for ale.” Ovelia sniffed warily at her drink.

Regel waved. “You need fear no poison.”

“I appreciate the reassurance.” She set her tankard, untasted, on the table.

Regel sipped his ale. The movement revealed the hilt of one of the falcata sheathed at his belt. The curved blades were hardly a match for a knight’s sword, but he favored them. He nodded to her empty swordbelt. “You are certainly brave, Bloodbreaker, to come to me unarmed.”

“A wise man once told me,” she said, “that a blade is only as sharp as its reverse edge.”

Regel tried not to wince. The Winter King had said that, and the words from her lips—her damned, filthy lips—filled him with a hot storm that raged in his veins.

Of course she did not wear her family’s Bloodsword, with its flamed blade and crossbar shaped like a dragon of myth. Draca
,
as the sword was called, bore the crest of Ovelia’s family—of her father Norlest, Sworn Shield before her—and they in turn bore the name of the blade.
Draca
meant “guardian” in the Imperial tongue, for the dragons that had defended the world before Ruin fell and the time of darkness began. It was an ancient name for an ancient family, with its last heir sitting before him.

In truth, he supposed calling her “Dracaris” was not right after all. She only truly earned that name by wielding the family sword, and she certainly did not have it now. This Regel knew because he himself held Draca sheathed below the table, his right hand on its hilt. The Bloodsword would speak better to Ovelia, of course, but it held more than enough power even in Regel’s hands: plenty enough to kill its former master. The sword had arrived two days before, along with a missive offering the price of her blood. It specified in detail how Ovelia was to die: spitted on her own treacherous sword, the end of her bloodline spilled upon the steel that had birthed it. Whoever sought her death had a sense of irony, it seemed, and hated her enough to risk the loss of a priceless weapon to do it.

A single thrust through the heart

the heart she swore to another and yet betrayed.

Regel wondered if that referred to the king’s heart or his own.

“I need your help,” Ovelia said. “And if I must fill your pockets with gold or offer you my body, I will. I believe, however, that once I name the task, payment will be unnecessary.”

“You would appeal to my honor, then.” Regel could barely contain his rage at the thought. “You, who have no honor. You would make such demands of me.”

“Yes.” Her gaze was sharpened steel. “I have more honor than you could imagine.”

Under the table, Draca felt warm against his skin. It bore an old magic that alerted the bearer to imminent danger, and even painted images with smoke of a coming attack. With the blade in her hand, Ovelia would be impossible to surprise, but across the table from him, she was unarmed and helpless. A perfect mark. Ovelia’s eyes searched him in his reverie, but she did not look ready to attack. He had never known the sword to err, but it was old—perhaps its magic had unraveled over the years. He would know if danger lurked around them if he could use his carving again, but he’d left it on the table. Instead, he hid his disquiet behind his tankard.

Regel should have killed her immediately, but now he was intrigued. What posed a greater danger to her than Regel himself? “Who is it you wish me to kill?”

“You misunderstand,” Ovelia said. “I cannot do this alone. You will accompany me.”

“An obvious trap. I should simply kill you here and now. No doubt the Ravalis would pay a fine proscription price.”

“No doubt,” she said. “But you will not kill me—not until we complete this task. Then I shall offer no resistance.”

“And you thought I would agree to such terms?”

“Perhaps I trust you.”

Regel’s hands grew slick with sweat. The candles on the table burned low—soon, the attack would come, as he had planned it. His squire would strike, Ovelia would block, and Regel would have an opening to drive the sword home. But her words gave him pause. Could she not see the trap closing around her, sword or no sword? She had admitted—to him, a known slayer—that there was a contract for her blood. Had Ovelia lost her wits since he had seen her last, or was she truly desperate?

He was missing something, and he had to know what it was. “Time passes. Speak plainly.”

“I offer that which you most desire,” she said. “Vengeance. Yours and mine.”

Draca’s warning magic practically scalded his hand. Danger was coming, but he could not see it. Perhaps it meant the impending attack upon Ovelia, or perhaps Regel himself drew close to a precipice. Whence the ambush?

She leaned halfway across the table. Her red lips parted gently. “Through her heart,” she whispered, so only he could hear. “The heart she swore to another, and yet betrayed.”

As she spoke the words from the contract, Regel understood. This trap was not for her, but for him. He raised his right hand a fraction from the table—the signal to hold. His squire sat back, and Regel saw yellow eyes glimmer at him with a frustrated question he ignored. Regel had bought himself and Ovelia a momentary respite from the impending strike. Stay too long, however, and his Tears might decide she had ensnared him in some way and attack anyway. Ovelia had mere heartbeats to live.

“Is this an attack?” Regel asked. “Tell me that, and perhaps no one need die.”

“Time to place all our knives on the table, I see.” Ovelia stared at him directly, ignoring the threat gathering around her. “This is not a trap. I am the one who hired you, so that you would meet with me, alone. It was a risk, but I need you to give me what I want.”

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