The River Kings' Road: A Novel of Ithelas, Book 1

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9781441759238: The River Kings' Road: A Novel of Ithelas, Book 1
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A fragile period of peace between the eternally warring kingdoms of Oakharn and Langmyr is shattered when a surprise massacre fueled by bloodmagic ravages the Langmyrne border village of Willowfield, killing its inhabitants--including a visiting Oakharne lord and his family--and leaving behind a scene so grisly that even the carrion eaters avoid its desecrated earth. But the dead lord's infant heir has survived the carnage, a discovery that entwines the destinies of Brys Tarnell, a mercenary who rescues the helpless and ailing babe, and a Langmyr peasant, a young mother herself, whom Brys enlists to nourish and nurture the child of her enemies as they travel a dark, perilous road.

As one infant's life hangs in the balance, so too does the fate of thousands, while deep in the forest, a Maimed Witch practices an evil bloodmagic that could doom them all.

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About the Author:

LIANE MERCIEL lives and practices law in Philadelphia where she is at work on the next novel in this new fantasy series.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1

Autumn, 1217

Brys Tarnell was not a pious man. It saved his life that day.

The attack came at highsun, when Sir Galefrid of Bulls’ March and most of his men were in the tiny chapel of a tiny hamlet observing their daily prayers. Ever since Galefrid had married his pious young wife out of Seawatch, he’d become much more religious; all through their journey, she’d insisted that they stop at the nearest chapel for noon prayers, and he had obliged. By now their custom was well known, and the village solaros usually had the chapel ready for them before they arrived.

Brys, alone among the knights in Galefrid’s retinue, was not anointed to the sun, and so was permitted—even expected—to avoid that daily bit of nonsense. He had just stepped out of the village inn to answer nature’s call when he heard the thrum of bowstrings and saw the first flight of fire-arrows, trailing dark smoke against the bright sky, arch in through the chapel’s open windows.

There were a dozen men waiting outside the chapel doors. Hard-faced men, armored in oiled leather and chain, who carried swords better than any bandit could afford. They stood to either side of the doors, hidden from the view of those inside but plain to any other eyes. Yet none of the villagers had called a warning.

Ambush.

It shouldn’t have surprised him. They’d been fools to venture across the border, chasing a half-real hope of peace into Langmyr. But, then, Sir Galefrid had never been the wisest of men. Brave, but not wise. He’d walked right into their trap, and he’d brought his wife and infant son with him.

The men outside the chapel wore no colors, but Brys was a veteran of a thousand fights on field and in alley, and he needed no herald’s signs to tell him that he was looking at castle-trained soldiers. These were not cowherds driven to desperation. These were killers, and the killing started when Galefrid’s men staggered from the chapel, coughing and red-eyed from smoke.

Young Caedric Alsarring was the first one out. Doubled over, wiping at his streaming eyes, he never had a chance to see his death before it took him. The men at the door said nothing. No threats, no questions, no demands for ransom. One swung his sword in a hissing arc, and Caedric stumbled, clutching his throat, as his life spilled red between his fingers. The man behind him tripped over the fallen youth and into the assassins’ reach. A sword swept his knees and another chopped the back of his neck. He fell and did not get up. Cries of confusion, and then of fear, rose through the smoke behind them.

Brys had seen enough. He eased away from the inn’s rough plaster, sliding a hand to the hilt of his sword as he edged toward the back of the building. There was nothing he could do to stop the slaughter, or at least nothing he was inclined to try. He was one man, with one sword; there were a dozen by the doors, and he had not yet spotted the archers. Neither Sir Galefrid nor his men were armed, for custom forbade bringing steel into Celestia’s holy sanctuaries except during vigils. Whoever had planned this assassination had done it well. Lambs had a better chance of escaping the butcher’s block.

The stables looked clear. He lingered in the inn’s shadow a moment longer, scanning roofs and alleys for signs of danger, then hurried across the open yard until he reached the safety of the stables. Inside, the horses were nervous, stamping at the scent of smoke and blood in the air, but not yet in a panic. Brys took his saddlebags down from their peg and quietly unlatched his bay gelding’s stall.

“Steady now,” he murmured, stroking the horse’s nose. The gelding looked at him with dark, liquid eyes. It was a good horse. It had been with him a long time. He had never bothered to name it, and briefly regretted that; it would have been nice to have a name to whisper as he led the animal from its stall.

He took Caedric’s gray mare as well. That one had a name: Ellyria, after a legendary dancer in the Ardasi Empire of old. The boy liked to say that his gray had such a graceful step that she deserved a dancer’s name.

Caedric was dead, now, and Brys could use a horse with a quick step.

He left the other animals in their stalls. Two horses might help him make better time on the road, but more than that would be difficult to manage, and too conspicuous besides. And though Brys would have bitten off his tongue before admitting it aloud, he was reluctant to steal from companions who might yet survive. True, there was only the thinnest thread of hope that anyone might escape the ambush in the chapel, but he wasn’t eager to snap it off himself. Not when he already had the two horses he needed.

Tightening his grip on the reins, Brys eased open the stable doors. Smoke shrouded the chapel in a gray veil and rose from several other buildings nearby. None were burning in earnest, but the fires were spreading.

The sound of approaching steps snapped his attention back to the street. He readied his sword for a killing blow and crouched behind the half-open door.

It was neither an archer nor a swordsman who shuffled through the smoky pall, however, but a woman carrying a lump of blankets in her arms. Her face was white and drawn tight with pain; red showed on her lip where she’d bitten it through. The shaft of an arrow jutted up from her back, just over the hip, and blood darkened the skirts of her plain servant’s dress in a wide wet stripe spilling down from the wound.

As she came to the doors Brys took her elbow and yanked her inside, out of sight. She didn’t resist, didn’t make a sound. There wasn’t a shout left in her.

He knew her, vaguely. She was one of the maidservants who had bustled around Sir Galefrid’s wife and their newborn son throughout the journey from Bulls’ March. Brys, who preferred to avoid domestic concerns whenever possible, had never spoken to the woman. He could not recall her name.

She, apparently, suffered from no such difficulty.

“Brys Tarnell?” she whispered, and managed the wan shadow of a smile at his nod. It did not reach her eyes. Nothing but pain reached her eyes.

She thrust the knotted blankets at him, stumbling under the strain of the motion. Instinctively Brys stepped forward and caught the bundle before it fell. Then he glimpsed what lay inside, and nearly dropped it himself.

There was a baby in the blankets. A baby with a tear-swollen face red and round as a midsummer plum. A baby he knew, even without the lacquered medallion tucked into the swaddling—a medallion far too heavy, on a chain far too cold, for an infant who had not yet seen a year.

“Wistan?” he asked, stupidly.

The woman nodded. Her chin sagged toward her chest; each nod seemed a little heavier than the last. “I carried him out. He was crying in the chapel ... I took him out to hush him, poor impious thing, and it saved him. There’s no one else. No one.” She wiped tears from her chin; the effort left her leaning against the wall for support. Blood smeared onto the rough wood where her hip rested against it. “I was hoping for a horse, but I haven’t the strength to ride. He’ll be safe in Bulls’ March. Only there. Please. Keep him safe.”

“I will.” The words were out before Brys realized he’d opened his mouth. He paused, but saw no need to take them back. He shifted the bundle of blankets and looked down at the baby, whose hiccuping sobs were quiet but constant. A great danger, but a great opportunity. The heir to Bulls’ March—his dead liege lord’s son—had just fallen into his arms.

Yes, he would keep the child.

Brys walked toward the horses. As he reached them he stopped, realizing something, and turned back to face the woman again. He could read the unasked question, and the hope, on her face.

He shook his head, as gently as he could. “I can’t. That’s a bad wound. Looks like a gut shot. I can’t tend to a child and an invalid both, and you need more healing than I can offer. There’s nothing I can do.”

She said nothing. After a moment her eyes closed and she slumped to the manure-specked ground, still breathing but too weak to stand. Brys checked the courtyard—still empty—and set the baby on a pile of clean straw for a moment. He grabbed the half-dead servant by the shoulders and pulled her into an empty stall, where she’d be out of view if anyone should glance into the stable.

“Sorry,” he muttered as he left her.

The next question was how to carry the baby. He didn’t have an arm to spare for Wistan, and he didn’t have a carrier to hold the child on his back. A coarse hemp feed bag, hanging among the tack on the wall, caught his gaze. Brys took it down, let the straps out as far as they would go and stuffed Wistan inside. The straps wouldn’t fit over his shoulders, so he knotted both ends of a quirt to the feed bag and used that as a strap instead. He fitted the makeshift carrier across his body, settling the baby against his chest, and fastened his cloak over the whole thing to hide the child and secure him more firmly.

Shouts, muffled and dim, still came from the chapel. Brys was grimly relieved to hear them. As long as there was killing to be done, the killers would be distracted.

He led the horses toward the village’s western gate and the forest that stretched beyond. A dead man, dressed in a farmer’s undyed wool, lay in the road. A goose-feathered arrow pinned him facedown to the earth. The shaft was well made, the fletchings unpainted; it was as deadly, and anonymous, as the killers by the chapel.

Across the way he saw another pair of arrow-struck corpses, these smaller. Children, a boy and a girl, both with the fla...

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