A generation past, the western realms were embroiled in endless war. Then the Destroyer came. From the blood and ashes he left behind, a tenuous alliance rose between the barbarian riders of Parsathe and the walled kingdoms of the south. That alliance is all that stands against the return of an ancient evil—until the barbarian king and queen are slain in an act of bloody betrayal.
Though forbidden by the alliance council to kill the corrupt king responsible for his parents’ murders, Maddek vows to avenge them, even if it costs him the Parsathean crown. But when he learns it was the king’s daughter who lured his parents to their deaths, the barbarian warrior is determined to make her pay.
Yet the woman Maddek captures is not what he expected. Though the last in a line of legendary warrior-queens, Yvenne is small and weak, and the sharpest weapons she wields are her mind and her tongue. Even more surprising is the marriage she proposes to unite them in their goals and to claim their thrones—because her desire for vengeance against her father burns even hotter than his own…
"Commander!" A young Syssian soldier called out as Maddek rode toward the bridge. "Something's got the savages on the run!"
Her polished helm gleaming beneath the early-morning sun, the soldier pointed across the river. Maddek slowed his mare, gaze scanning the opposite bank. This was a grim stretch of the Lave. On either side of the swift-flowing waters, sparse grasses grew on stony ground that buckled and heaved into hills and ravines. The Farians' hunting party was camped in one of those gullies, hidden from Maddek's sight-though he knew well its location and had posted soldiers along the riverbanks, eyes covering every route out of the ravine that the savages might take when they finally attempted to cross.
Covered in the mud they painted over their translucent skin, now Farians scrambled their way out of the ravine using all of those routes-but not in concerted attack. Instead they were as gutworms wriggling free of infested dung tossed on a fire. Some carried spears and spiked clubs, but most had no weapons, as if they'd been surprised in camp and chose to run rather than arm themselves. Faintly Maddek heard their urgent hoots over the rush of the river.
“A trap jaw?" Maddek asked Kelir as the warrior rode up alongside him. If one of those giant predatory reptiles attacked the alliance army camp, Maddek would not have reprimanded any soldier for fleeing there, too.
His second captain cocked his head, dark braids brushing his shoulders. "Too quiet."
So it was. A trap jaw was silent until it rushed its prey. Then it often loosed a trumpeting roar-one that would have reached them even over the sound of the river.
A handful of savages scuttled nearer to the bridge, as if preparing to escape across the water, though this side of the river was no safer for them. Two dozen of Maddek's mounted Parsathean warriors and a handful of soldiers waited to separate the Farians' hairless heads from their hunched shoulders.
In nearly eight years of holding the Farians at the Lave, Maddek had seen savages run toward death many times. Never had he witnessed a Farian flee from anything.
"There it is!" a soldier cried out.
Coming up the stony path out of the ravine. A siva beast.
Maddek exchanged a look with Kelir as the soldiers snorted with laughter. Though as heavy as a yellow tusker and as tall as a mammoth, a siva beast was docile as a milk cow. Usually it waddled along, a plated dome of armor over its humped back and protecting the sides of its belly, using hardened beak and curved claws to rip open rotten logs and dig up roots.
Yet there were few roots and logs here. The jungle where the siva beast must have wandered from was three days' ride downstream.
A hard, bloody journey for the siva. Gaping wounds on its leathery neck and legs showed signs of attack. Gore dripped from its beak.
As did green foam. Maddek tensed. "It is poisoned."
Kelir had seen the same. "Silac venom."
Stung by one of the two-armed serpents that swam the Lave. The Farians had been right to flee. That venom first weakened the serpent's prey so it could be dragged from the riverbanks and drowned. Most animals stung by the serpent didn't escape.
And those that did, didn't truly escape. They only staggered away, until the weakness put them to sleep-and they woke as if brainless, unfeeling of pain and killing everything that moved. Eventually they starved or died of wounds. But the siva's armor protected it from an easy kill, particularly from the Farians' primitive spears and clubs, so the best chance of survival was to stay out of its sight.
The savages weren't out of sight yet. If the siva made noise, Maddek couldn't hear it from this distance. Silently it charged, tearing open a savage with curved claws as long as daggers. Its strong beak crushed another Farian's leg as the savage tried to run away.
Maddek heard those screams. He also heard a young Gogean soldier nearby, his face bloodbare as he watched the beast attack the Farians.
"So we . . . let the siva kill the savages for us?" He looked to his companions hesitantly, as if uncertain whether to be glad the beast tore their enemy apart.
Although that question hadn't been directed at Maddek, he answered it. "Then wait for it to attack our camp? It does not care if we are Farian or human. It will kill us all," he said. "There are enemies, and there are monsters. Always slay the monsters first, because enemies may one day become allies-but monsters never will."
As the Gogean soldier would have looked upon Maddek as an enemy only a generation past. Perhaps even thought him a monster.
Color stained the young soldier's cheeks as if realizing the same.
Maddek drew his sword. "Kelir?"
The warrior hefted his axe. "Ready."
To the soldiers, Maddek said, "Hold the bridge while we are across."
He took a dozen Parsathean riders with him. Their hooves thundered across the stone bridge. Immediately the siva found new focus, growling wetly as it charged Maddek and his warriors.
Had Maddek known he would be facing a beast maddened by silac venom, he'd not have ridden his favorite mare to the river this morn. Yet there was reason she was his favorite. Though tall and muscular as all Parsathean steeds were, she was also nimble as an antelope. With the barest signal from Maddek, she dodged the siva's swiping claw. As soon as they were past the beast, the siva's attention shifted to Kelir and the warriors behind him. Maddek's mare swiftly pivoted and sprang forward with a powerful thrust of her hindquarters.
The siva's soft belly was too low to the ground to offer a real target-any warrior low enough and close enough to cut it open might be crushed when the beast fell dead. Yet Maddek had seen that every time the beast struck with its foaming beak, first it reared back its head.
Sword in hand, Maddek launched from his saddle. The siva's neck muscles bunched as it prepared to snap at Kelir. A grunt tore from Maddek's chest as he swung at the beast's exposed throat, laying it open with one powerful slice of sharpened steel. Blood jetted from the fatal gash. Narrowly Maddek avoided a blow from flailing claws, rolling out of the way across the hardened ground and coming to a quick stop in a crouch-face to face with a Farian that hid from the beast behind a nearby boulder.
Muscles coiled, bloodied sword in his hand, Maddek made no move. The Farian held a bone blade in its long-fingered grip, yet the savage also remained motionless, near enough that Maddek could feel the hissing breath that issued from between its pointed teeth.
Mud covered its pale face. The savage's large ears shifted subtly-no doubt tracking his warriors' movements by their sound. All had fallen quiet behind Maddek. Waiting for his signal.
A signal would not come. He'd given an order that as long as the savages remained on this side of the river, the alliance soldiers and Parsathean warriors were not to kill them except in defense of their own lives. Maddek cared not if the Farians overran the territory south of the Lave, from the Bone Fields to the Salt Sea. He would leave them in peace. Yet if they crossed the Lave, they would die.
Many did die. But this one hadn't lifted its blade toward Maddek, so it would not.
Slowly Maddek backed away, gaze never leaving the crouching savage. His mare nickered softly behind him. Eyes still on the Farian, he swung up into his saddle.
Kelir laughed at him as they rode toward the bridge. "Now you wait for that savage to attack our camp?"
Poking at him with the same words Maddek had said to the young soldier. Maddek grinned, for despite Kelir's teasing, he knew that the warrior would have made the same choice. Perhaps the savage would cross the river with intention of raping and killing every human it encountered. But Maddek would not kill even a Farian for what it had not yet done.
If the savage crossed the river, however-then Maddek would tear its head from its shoulders.
His attention was caught by the mounted figure watching them from the opposite end of the bridge. Enox, his first captain-who ought to have been at camp, sleeping in her furs after a night spent along the river.
Silver beads glinted in her dark braids as she cast him a dour look. "A thousand warriors you have at your command. Could you have not sent them to kill that beast instead of taking it upon your own head?"
Never would Maddek send warriors into a battle he was not also willing to fight. Nor would Enox. If Maddek had not been upon the Lave this morning, it would have been she who led that charge and felled the maddened siva. "Warriors accompanied me across the bridge," he pointed out. "It is no fault of mine if my mount was fleeter than theirs."
Her snort echoed Kelir's. Yet she had not come to reprimand him, Maddek knew.
Drawing his mare alongside hers, he asked, "What brings you?"
"Dagoneh has arrived with a company of Tolehi soldiers," she said, reining her horse back toward camp. "And a message for you from the alliance council."
Maddek frowned and urged his mare to keep pace. "What message?"
"He would not give it to me, but is waiting to speak with you."
Unease slithered through his gut. Not many years ago, he'd delivered a message from the alliance council, too.
Maddek had assumed command at the Lave eight years past. In the six years following, not once had Maddek journeyed home to the Burning Plains, until his parents had requested from the council a three-year leave, so that they might find him a bride and see him married. In his absence, Iova of Rugus had assumed command of the alliance army. Before even three seasons had passed, however, the alliance council bade Maddek to return to the river with a message for Iova-the Rugusian king was dead-and to resume command while that realm's affairs were sorted. Iova was to have returned when all was settled. Yet despite the passing of a winter, she had not.
Now the alliance council sent another message, and Dagoneh would not tell Enox what it was? That could not bode well.
Yet Kelir's mind had taken a happier route. "Perhaps they have finally found you a bride."
His parents. Though Maddek had returned to the Lave, a bride for him they'd still intended to find-one who might strengthen ties between Parsathe and the five realms that made up the alliance. A royal daughter, or a noblewoman.
Very likely a woman like Iova, who was not only a fine soldier but also aunt to the dead Rugusian king. If Iova had been younger, or if she'd had a daughter, Maddek suspected that he would already be married.
For all that it would be a marriage designed to strengthen the alliance, however, never would his parents choose a bride unsuited to him. Though finding a warrior among the noble houses might prove too difficult a task, no doubt she would be honest, never lying or speaking with sly tongue, for she would become Maddek's closest advisor. If from Toleh, then she would be educated by the monks, with a mind both clever and fair. And as befitted a woman who might one day be a Parsathean queen-and if she wished to gain his mother's approval-she would be tall and strong and a skilled rider, and possess a heart that burned with fire.
Such a woman Maddek would be eager to meet-and take to his bed. For he'd been celibate after assuming command at the Lave eight years past, mindful of his parents' warning that when the High Commander of the Army of the Great Alliance asked someone to share his furs, there was not much difference between an invitation and an order. And during his short return to the Burning Plains, he'd taken no lovers. Not when his parents were already seeking a bride. Touching anyone else seemed a betrayal of the vows Maddek would make to that woman, and it mattered not that he hadn't yet met her.
A fine thing it would be, to finally fuck something softer than his fist.
So it was with anticipation that he rode into camp, where Parsathean tents made of mammoth hides and tusks housed the alliance army. Dagoneh had brought with him a hundred soldiers . . . as if expecting Maddek to leave with a large number of Parsatheans.
As Maddek would, if there was to be a wedding.
Yet there was to be no wedding. He entered the commander's tent with Kelir and Enox at his sides, and one glance at the Tolehi man's face told Maddek that he was not to receive news about a bride.
Dagoneh still wore his armor, yet had removed his helm, revealing his shaven head. Uncertainly he looked to Enox and Kelir before returning his solemn gaze to Maddek's. "Perhaps we might speak privately, Commander?"
As if fists had clenched around his lungs, Maddek told him tightly, "There is nothing you can say that they cannot hear."
Yet what Dagoneh did say, Maddek seemed not to hear. Not through the roaring in his ears.
Yet Enox must have also heard what Maddek could not accept. Fiercely she advanced on the captain, as if the sheer threat of her approach might force him to retrieve what he'd said and shove it back into his mouth.
"That cannot be truth," Enox spat. "It cannot."
"It is." Grave and steady was Dagoneh's reply. "Ran Ashev and Ran Marek have returned to Mother Temra's embrace."
Ran Ashev and Ran Marek. The Parsatheans called them their queen and king.
Maddek called them Mother and Father.
All fierceness leaving her, Enox fell to her knees on a keening wail. With her fists she pounded the ground as if she might reshape the world, as Mother Temra had. As if she might shake her queen and king free of that goddess's eternal grip.
A harsh sobbing breath came from beside Maddek before Kelir threw back his head. The warrior's howl of grief sounded as if torn from a bloodied throat.
Maddek's own howl swelled in his chest, yet it seemed there was no release for it, the grief too deep, a cavernous hollow that had suddenly opened within him.
"How?" So empty was his voice, he knew not how Dagoneh heard it.
Yet the captain must have. With grim regret, the other man shook his head. "I have no answers for you. My message and orders from the council were so bare, I suspect they were sent to Toleh in great haste."
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