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Authors: Juliet E. McKenna

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The Swordsman's Oath (Einarinn 2)

BOOK: The Swordsman's Oath (Einarinn 2)
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The Swordsman's Oath

 

( Tales of Einarinn - 2 )

Juliet E. McKenna

SWORDMASTER...

Ryshad was a warrior, a sworn man pledged to defend the Empire and his lord with his sword and his life. Livak was a thief, a woman as dangerous and cunning as she was beautiful. Brought together by fate—and the wily wizard Shiv—these unlikely allies once traveled to the frozen lands of the North to find answers to an ancient mystery. Instead, though, they discovered death and worse at the hands of the Elietimm, a band of evil sorcerers who nearly destroyed them.

OR SLAVE?

Now, the Elietimm have infiltrated the Empire using their strange and deadly power. It is up to a reunited Ryshad and Livak, joined by Shiv, to discover the secret knowledge that can save the Empire—a mission that will lead them far from the lands they know. It is Ryshad, though, who will journey farthest, to a distant country where nothing is what it seems, not even the magical sword that has long protected him. And if that sword should turn against him now...

 

The Swordsman's Oath
The Second Tale of Einarinn
Juliet E McKenna

For Steve, sternest critic and staunchest support.

Acknowledgments

I continue to rely on the invaluable assistance of Steve, Mike and Sue, for their dedicated scrutiny of each line, while Liz and Andy valiantly take on the big picture and Helen comes up with those key questions. Everyone reading these books has reason to be as grateful to them as I am. I am also indebted to Jenny and to Sharon for friendly, flexible childcare and thereby peace of mind as well as peace and quiet.

As my most immediate contacts within Orbit, I am most fortunate in having Tim and Lisa for good-humored editorial expertise, while Cassie and Adrian spread the word. Of the many booksellers whose enthusiasm is doing so much, my local Ottakar’s team is closest to me in every sense. My thanks go to all, as well as to their colleagues.

I would also like to thank the ever expanding circle of friends, family, friends of family, family of friends and members of IPROW who continue to support me with curious facts, plausible names and ongoing interest.

This circle has, however, been sadly diminished by the untimely deaths of Zoey Ducker, through tragic accident, and Graham Skinner, after long illness. They are not forgotten.

Chapter One

From Planir,

Archmage of Hadrumal,

to Messire Guliel D’Olbriot,

Sieur of that House and Keeper of the Honor

of the Name, Adjurist of the Convocation of

Princes and Patron of the Empire,

Solstice salutations and most heartfelt wishes for

prosperity and health in the year to come.

My dear Sieur,

I am most grateful to you for intelligence of the Elietimm ships wrecked on your coasts over the For-Winter season. I have not forgotten the narrow escape of both your man and mine in their recent encounter with that race and may I assure you I remain sensible of the threat to your domains and the wider peace of the Empire. Beyond such important but necessarily impersonal concerns, I would venture to remind you that just as you lost a sworn man in Aiten, I lost a scholar in Geris, a man of much learning who might have aided us both against this threat, though of course, nothing outweighs the loss of both their lives. I do not forget such debits in the scales, as I am sure you do not.

Your letter encourages me to think that you realize, as do I, that our interests lie along the same road in this matter. Just as you face the very real danger of hostile forces landing on your coasts, or worse, to lie concealed in the unpopulated reaches of Dalasor or Gidesta, so I am faced with the threat of a complex magic whose mysteries we in Hadrumal are still unravelling. On that subject may I assure you that there can be no shame or blame attached to your man Aiten for his attack on my mage Shivvalan. There can be no doubt that had his mind not been invaded by the foul enchantments of the Elietimm, he would have fought to the end in defense of his honor and your Name.

Thank you for your enquiries after Shivvalan; he is quite recovered and eager to do his part in foiling the schemes of the Elietimm. You also mentioned the pleasure with which you received the sword that I discovered so unfortunately concealed by an elderly and somewhat eccentric wizard, but your thanks are unnecessary. It is sufficient recompense that you approved my suggestion to present the blade to your sworn man Ryshad Tathel. I was most impressed by his resourcefulness and courage in the face of dire trials and it seemed only fitting that such an heirloom should be used once more to defend the Empire, in service of so great a House.

On that subject, I have a favor to request of you. I continue my researches into the mysteries of this ancient magic. As you will know from your own nephew’s fate, this seems to attract the unwelcome attentions of those Elietimm at large in our lands. While my wizards have many talents, swordsmen they are not. Should you be willing to grant me the use of your man Ryshad, I can certainly put his undoubted talents to a use worthy of your House. The more we learn of these Elietimm and the quicker we do it, the better it will go for both of us.

The High Road toward Cotebridge,
in the Lescari Dukedom of Marlier,
8th of Aft-Spring in the Second Year of Tadriol the Provident

How do you apologize to a grieving mother for not being the man who killed her son? Another might have Aiten’s blood on her hands but I was still more deeply stained with shame that I had been unable to raise my sword against my friend of so many years to free him from the foul enchantment that had claimed his mind and his will, even at that ultimate cost. I’d tried to explain away my failure but my halting words had hung in the air, twisting awkwardly like crows on a gibbet. Had that visit to his family all been a dreadful mistake? No; my honor demanded it, if I were to be able to look myself in the eye as I shaved of a morning and see a man true to his oath.

Things had improved a little when Aiten’s father and brothers had decided getting soaked in homemade applejack was the best way of honoring his memory. Everyone had told a story about Aiten and some of them even stayed funny when I recalled them sober. A sour morning-after with a head as thick as winter fog and my mouth tasting like a pissed-in boot had been a small price to pay.

My smile faded as I recalled Tirsa, Aiten’s sister. A middling brown-haired girl with soft brown eyes and a pleasant smile; the sort of lass you see by the handful at markets clean across the Old Empire. Only I’d be able to pick her out from a festival crowd at a hundred paces, and it would still cut me like a whetted knife in ten years time, she was so like Aiten to look at.

Remembering the grief in Aiten’s mother’s face as she clutched the bundle of his possessions to her breast, trying to breathe in the last scent of her lost child, had me sufficiently distracted not to notice the bandits lurking in the hedgerow. Showers of rain on and off all morning had left the sky as gray as my mood, and despite it fairing up I still had my hood raised. None of this excuses my lapse; I certainly should have remembered that the roads in Lescar are always more dangerous outside the fighting seasons, as perverse as anything else in that benighted land.

One of the vermin had my bridle before I could gather reins or wits. The startled horse reared backward, and as I felt its hooves slip in the mire of the sodden road I kicked my feet free of the irons, barely keeping my own footing as I leaped clear. Shaking and sweating, the horse snapped at the grabbing hands of the bandits and escaped up the road, leaving me facing the filthy gang of them.

“Pay your toll, pal, and we’ll let you pass,” the foremost said, grinning widely, blackened stumps in his slimy gums.

I shook my head at the leader. These sorry discards from some defeated militia weren’t going to be much of a challenge. They were all gaunt and hungry, matted and filthy, driven to scavenging like desperate dog-foxes after a long winter of lean pickings. Still, desperation makes for dangerous men, I reminded myself.

I backed down the rutted road a few paces, to draw them out far enough to be sure there were only four of them. Lescari, cowshit between their ears as well as between their toes since I could now be certain they had put no one behind me to cut off any retreat. I could certainly outpace them if I chose to turn tail and run, but I didn’t fancy trying to make my way through the unknown muddy byways off the highroad. As my hand moved toward my sword-hilt, parchment in my pocket crackled, reminding me of my duty to my patron’s orders.

Besides, I didn’t feel inclined to run; Dast’s teeth, why should I? I wanted my horse back too. It was a good beast from Messire’s own stable and I’d been riding it no more than seven or eight leagues a day to husband its strength.

“Sorry, friend. You didn’t say whose authority you had to levy a toll.” I kept my voice neutral.

“This is all the authority I need!” He struck a challenging pose with his notched sword, evidently aiming to impress in his rusty breastplate fringed with inadequate chainmail.

His pack grinned, all bold in remnants of ill-fitting armor.

More fool them; the leather of my thick buff coat covered a layer of metal plates without the vulnerabilities I was assessing in my opponents as they smirked. I don’t wear a hauberk; it attracts notice and my usefulness to my Prince depends on going unremarked. I laid a hand to my own sword. It sparkled silver on the pommel, the polished scabbard bright in a watery gleam of fugitive sunlight now that the rain had stopped.

“What’s your charge?” I asked, face calm, mind anticipating the next moves. I spend long seasons trying to teach the militia raised for the House of D’Olbriot that there’s no virtue in fighting if you can avoid it, but Lescaris learn the opposite in their leading strings, from their warring dukes down, to the endless grief of their torn and bleeding land.

The leader finally registered my unfamiliar accent. “Tormalin man, are you? Fancy words, fancy horse and blade. What you’ve got in your purse, that’ll be the rate for the road!”

Evidently a man with no more sense than Dastennin gave a flatfish. “I’ll give you the price of a meal.” I smiled without humor. “You can thank the Lord of the Sea for that.”

The other three looked tempted by the thought of food they could pay for rather than a fight for their dinner, as I had suspected. The leader scowled, unwilling to back down. “We’ll spare a coin to Talagrin at the next shrine, when we’ve selled your horse and your gear, thank the Hunter for sending us a plump pigeon ripe for the plucking.”

“You want to try for my feathers?” I drew my sword. It slid gleaming from the scabbard with a steely rasp and the rusty weapons facing me wavered. “Why? I’m carrying nothing but letters from my patron.”

I wouldn’t have been bandying words with outcasts before I’d visited Aiten’s family, I reflected. Not when I’d been carrying enough true-minted Tormalin gold to buy up half this sorry fiefdom. I wasn’t the only one looking to defend my honor, the coin reflecting the value Messire D’Olbriot put on Aiten’s oath now his death demanded its redemption. I forced myself to lay aside the burden of my own guilt while I dealt with these vermin.

“Sworn man, are you?” the foremost sneered, letting his sword point dip as he scratched his lice-infested head. “Lick-spittle to some fat-arsed Prince who spends all his days with his head in a jug, playing with himself. That’s how you pass your time, isn’t it, wringing the goose’s neck?”

His fellow footpads snickered at this, but I am long past the days when cheap insults enraged me. A true swordsman knows hot fury kills more men than cold steel. I backed away another pace, drawing him forward beyond the dubious protection of his fellows. Messire’s militia are never so easily gulled, not after I’ve brought them to heel.

“So what have you got to say for yourself, curly? Come on, hand over your coin and that belt-pouch for a start! Well, answer me, curse you, unless you’re too busy shitting yourself.”

My continued silence was unnerving Foul-Mouth’s supporters by now, as I intended.

“All right, lads, let’s have the bastard!” He took a bold step, rusty blade leveled.

I glared at the closest one to Foul-Mouth’s off hand, who took an involuntary pace back. Idiocy was about to kill his mate, that and my sword, but if any of them chose to run I wasn’t about to waste my time hunting them down.

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