Author: Matthew Siegard
Released: February 13, 2016
Cover and map illustration: Christopher Schramm
In a medieval-era world of great men and new nations rising from the ashes of a fallen empire, Raven is a talented pain in the ass. A cynical, arrogant thief and fleecer, he has a dagger and lockpick up his sleeve and a comeback on his lips. He was once the younger brother of a boy who was prophesied to be an invincible warrior, and who was killed for that mistaken belief. Now he has only venom for causes and talk of destiny, happy to be a successful nobody. But when a mysterious job goes bad, he finds that the secrets he holds are vital to the coming war between the republic of High Iyanor and the necromantic dominion of Kishoria. He is captured and coerced by an Iyan captain into guiding an expedition to find a long-forgotten weapon before the Kishorians can reach it. He joins a team of soldiers and mages, and if the danger were not enough, his party includes not only another fated young warrior but a member of the jotunn race that killed his brother. Bitterly, he leads them beneath the Temple Among Worlds, and they fight through barbaric goblins and cosmic monstrosities, navigate dark mazes, and sabotage horrific traps. Raven is distrusted, but only he knows that he has been courted by the Kishorians with a promise: betray the Iyans, and walk away wealthy. When plans fail, heroes fall, and deadly secrets are revealed, Raven’s cynicism and self-interest is tested by the valor of his companions. He might lead his allies to ruin… or he might use his dark reputation to lure his enemies into his most daring con yet.
The gods must have had stronger throats than Raven’s, because while his burned, the spirits of the desert blew one vast sheet of iron wind across the sand dunes. Raven had long since abandoned his vest and jacket, and wore his smelly old undershirt wrapped around his head, and a kerchief to cover everything under his eyes from the stinging sand. He walked eastward—at least he thought it was eastward, judging by his rare glimpses of the sun through the storm—and doubted that he could have made the journey to the city of Cleon even in fair weather. At least the sandstorm kept the vultures away. They could have their fill after he was dead, but Raven hated the thought of those bastards getting friendly when he was still puttering along.
Climbing a dune and squinting through the rush of a billion flying barbs, Raven found nothing familiar. He could not see far, but there was no sign of any rock formation that might offer a cave and shelter, or a dying animal from which he might carve some sustenance, or a broken-down caravan from which he might “borrow” some water. All he could see apart from sand was a trio of fearsome animal-headed totems, warnings by the desert nomads for the civilized peoples to keep away. Not a problem, he thought.
He pressed on. The skins on his belt were bone dry, and the skin on his arms was red and cracking from the dehydration and barrage. Perhaps there was an upside to dying here, Raven thought. If his body were never found, maybe that little weasel Vaclav would worry from time to time that Raven was still out there, pursuing his revenge. The same went for the dozen or so other people that Raven hoped would suffer for fear of him. Perhaps he could remain on the earth as some kind of wraith; there were tribes in Mongut who made it sound almost like child’s play to remain bound to the world after death, not that he had remembered how they said to actually do it. He had long since conceded that no gods would vouch for his virtue and that the Great Judge would have no part of passing him on to Paradise, but if damnation allowed him to torment all the people who irritated him in life, at least he could keep busy for the first several decades of eternity.
For now at least, Raven was still alive, and he heard something. Something that sounded not at all unlike neighing and muffled galloping along the sand through which he trudged. It took his mind a moment to grind back to his grim reality, but then he immediately dropped prone to the ground, and waited under the blanket of driving sand. Two horsemen flew past, heading… southwest-ish he estimated. They either ignored him or hadn’t seen him, and he raced off after them, his grunts resonating in his own ears. He had no chance of catching up to the galloping steeds, of course, but he quickly came upon the camp to which they rode. He crept up behind a rock formation and peered down into the small valley it overlooked, where a camp was set up.
It was an Iyan military camp… Republican Guard… Ninth Legion, Raven determined by the orange banner bearing the outline of a spotted salamander--not quite Raven’s favorite animal. They must have just been one company, judging by the number of tents; he saw fewer than a hundred men, but there were likely more either in the tents or on patrol. They were dressed appropriately for the weather, their eyes protected by thin gray netting under their helmets to block most of the sand. Considering that all tents were pegged down and horses corralled, they had been here for at least several hours, and judging by the minimal guarding and lack of defensive emplacements, this was a base from which to coordinate a search, not some larger provocation against desert nomad tribes.
Raven produced a short monocular from his satchel and examined the camp more closely. Though his vision was obscured by the flying sand and his necessary distance from the camp, he believed he spotted a saurite among the humans, engaged in some conversation with two other soldiers. The saurite’s form was distinct, and judging by the pattern of conversation, one of the soldiers was there to translate for benefit of the other. This was definitely a search operation. Saurites--lizard-men most often hailing from the swamps in southern Iyanor and river banks throughout the world--were famous for their acute senses and skill as trackers in many environments, and some of the swamp tribes had friendly enough relationships with the Iyan Republic, as they had little use for each other’s land. This saurite was wrapped in a longbow and quiver, a belt and loincloth strapped with basic supplies and a curved knife, and a horribly gaudy bandana covered in bright feathers that identified him as an accomplished hunter. Or maybe a saurite queen; Raven knew little of the ugly skinks.
Raven pulled back the spyglass and surveyed the entirety of the camp once more. Though his throat burned, he could wait until nightfall now that opportunity awaited him. If he were impatient or a notch more desperate, he might have made his move now, attempting to take advantage of the sandstorm to obscure his movements. But now was not the time. Even in the Iyan desert, on the frontier of the civilized world, opportunity was everywhere for those who were patient, and more importantly, unafraid to get their hands a bit dirty.
Under cover of night, the desert was cool and calm, the air fresh. A half-mile east of their camp, the saurite and a young Iyan southron soldier patrolled side-by-side, sweeping northward. They were observant but relaxed.
“Gannix kopka se phelam, Kevork?” the Iyan asked.
“Sis por kalesko fu kopka,” the saurite answered, his voice deep, words accompanied by a trilling from the back of his throat.
“Fu kopka seem kalesko wo ne hexlu,” the Iyan joked.
“Sis mug kopka qui bru miga mix sim.”
The Iyan laughed and nodded in agreement.
The saurite stopped short and clasped his hand on his companion's arm, stopping and silencing him. His bulbous eyes widened and his nostrils flared, sniffing quickly. Saurite smell was not quite as acute as Saurite sight and hearing, but in the uncluttered air of the desert, a stray odor did not evade a veteran hunter. The saurite sniffed and soon settled on a direction for the disturbance.
“Kra human mok,” the saurite said with a tinge of hunter’s excitement, drawing the bladed longbow from his back, along with a trio of slender arrows that he balanced easily in his long, muscular fingers. The bow was a fellfang, its limb carved from the great black klaymer trees of the deep swamp and affixed to a scythe-like blade running parallel to the wood. In close combat, the saurite would grip the wooden limb with both hands and wield the weapon as a kind of sword. It was an elegant weapon, one born from saurite woodwork and the blacksmithing of their human trade partners, and the hunter was fluent in its use, sensitive to the weight of its every component. He kept it ready for use at a blink’s notice as he led his companion toward the unknown quarry.
Just over a dune to their west, a man clad only in frayed pants lay face-down in the sand. The soldier was quick to rush to his aid, while the saurite first studied the surroundings for any indication of an ambush. Satisfied that none awaited them, the beastman too came to the unconscious man’s side, and the soldier held up his head and patted at his cheek, trying to provoke a reaction from his closed eyes and faintly wheezing mouth. The fallen desert traveler had the look of a northern Iyan or a Sade, or perhaps a highland Algostine, judging by his light hair and how easily his fair skin had burned. His lips were dry and cracked, and his eyelids flickered dreamily.
“Come on, friend, we’ve got you taken care of,” the soldier said, tipping his canteen to the man’s lips. The fallen traveler wasn’t lucid, and his eyelids continued to flicker, but his lips opened and sucked in the trickle of water, and when it was done, he slipped a slow moan.
“Kras kleeton jam mericon,” observed the saurite.
“Cimminosha,” said the soldier. Pulling the man to his feet, he said, “Slas humics harak!”
They lifted and carried the man together, holding him between them with his arms wrapped around each of their shoulders, his feet somewhat stumbling along as they carried him back to camp.
“That’s right, friend!” the soldier said. “Keep walking. Get that blood flowing, and we’ll get you up and moving on your own in no time!”
His prediction was immediately fruitful, for the man planted his feet and pulled at his two rescuers’ shoulders to smash their two skulls together at the forehead. The Iyan and the saurite were instantly unconscious, collapsing into the desert sand with simultaneous plops. Raven clapped his hands and shook off the sand caked in his hair.
In his journeys, Raven had seen the river saurites of the eastern lands up close--vicious buggers--but not the swamp-dwellers of southern Iyanor. Bards had made them out to be small dragons, but this was more like a large iguana. The creature’s face was slightly elongated, with a loose sack of skin under its chin that inflated and deflated with each silent breath. The scaly skin was mostly lime green, but with some darker texturing around the cheeks and circling the bulbous eyes. A thin spine ran from its nose to its tail, which waved gently in the creature’s rest. Raven wondered if that was normal, or if the creature was only pretending to be knocked out. Probably involuntary he decided; if he were any less of a gentleman, he would have slit the thing’s throat just to be sure.
It wasn’t the beastman that interested him, but the soldier, who was stirring. As the Iyan's head began to shift in the sand and his fingers tremble, Raven grabbed the sword from the man’s scabbard and locked his head in a choke hold.
As the soldier gargled for air, Raven stuck the sword to his chest and demanded, “Name!”
Recovering some of his senses, the soldier blurted out, “Ack! Kieron Clame, squadman! Republican Guard of High Iyanor!”
“Who are you?”
Raven slid the blade lower, to his stomach.
“Ahh! Sergeant Palapanit! Ugh! But he’s returned to the city for the night! Meeting with some Sky Mage! I don't know why! Corporal Farfax is in charge while he’s gone!”
“How many other companies are stationed out here?”
The sword shifted a few more inches down.
“Gaggh! Four companies, the entire second regiment! Epsilon company’s two miles north, Kappa’s eight to the southwest. Sigma…”
“Who’s in charge of Kappa?”
“Excellent. Now tell me your mother’s maiden name.”
Raven squeezed his arm tighter. Though the soldier flailed, he quickly lost consciousness and sank back onto the sand. After checking the saurite again to verify that he was still out, Raven went to work on the young soldier, starting with his canteen.
Moments later, he was walking toward the camp in a Republican Guard uniform: a blue-painted iron cuirass; bronze greaves, bracers, and a helmet painted with yellow salamander spots; and dark leather gauntlets and skirt. His belt held the xuparia, a mid-length, double-edged sword, and a smaller kurio short sword as an auxiliary; Raven’s spare dagger was strapped inside his boot, above the ankle. The armor was tight around the midsection and a hair short in the arms, but the key to having it look right was to move quickly and confidently, which Raven could do, despite having only skeletal knowledge of the particular military unit he was infiltrating, and despite being within shouting distance of a soldier and a southern swamp-swimmer who would wake up very angry at him soon enough. Most of the troops at the camp were gathered around fires or on watch. He went right for a pair of soldiers--simple armsmen and not landed knights from the looks of their plainer armor--who sat lazily on boxes of grain. They ate scraps of bird meat off the bone and watched over the makeshift corral of ropes and pikes, which enclosed eleven or twelve horses, mostly Wakari Ashen, a fine breed of warhorse.
“Where’s Sergeant Palapanit?” Raven demanded, adopting a reasonable facsimile of a northern Iyan accent.
“In town,” answered the plump soldier with a thick moustache. “Why?”
“Dammit,” Raven said, briefly waving his journal. “Captain Dior has a message for him. Has to get to him immediately. I’ll need to take a horse.”
“Where’s yours?” asked the thinner, older soldier with a glass eye.
“Reared up after seeing a damned snake a few miles back, and fell onto a rock. Broke its leg. Had to put the judgéd thing out of its misery.”
Moustache squinted, seeing with only the light of a campfire and the stars. He said, “You look terrible. You look all…”
“Dried up? Thanks for noticing,” Raven said, helping himself to the small tin of water set beside Moustache. After a long gulp, he explained, “I shouldn’t be telling you this, but we think someone’s been poisoning Kappa’s water supplies. A friend of mine got it bad, and might not make it through the night. It’s gotta be those judgéd sand-drinkin’ nomads if you ask me.”
Glass Eye paused from sipping from his own tin. “Poisoned?”
“Yeah. I’m so damned parched, I’ll trust that you guys haven’t gotten hit yet, but keep an eye out,” said Raven as he loosed the strongest-looking filly, tossed on a saddle, and mounted while Moustache helped to hold it still. “Thanks. Command’s trying to keep this a secret for some reason, so let’s keep what I said between us. Just stay alert. Look out for strange people around the camp.”
“You think they’re coming here?” asked Glass Eye, unnerved.
“We’ll see, but I’d watch those horses. Thieves always go for the horses before anything else. Good luck, my friends. Hi-ya!”
About the Author
Matthew Siegard lives in Gainesville, Florida with his beautiful fiancé, who encouraged him to finally stop editing and take a go at publishing. He works as an analyst during the day, and saves writing about sword and sorcery for after hours (mostly). He reads a great deal of historical non-fiction, along with classic and contemporary genre authors such as JRR Tolkien, HG Wells, George RR Martin, and his favorite, Jules Verne. Matthew currently organizes the Gainesville Fiction Writers group in his hometown, facilitating discussion of writing approaches and tough critique of each other’s work. He’s happy to write in any genre, but is focusing now on epic fantasy, although the closest he has ever come to actual medieval warfare was fainting while learning about 19th century surgical techniques in a Civil War fortress.
An e-copy (epub, mobi, or pdf) of A PACT OF LIES (open internationally).
Ends April 14th, 2016.
Ends April 14th, 2016.