Ringil Eskiath hated his tedious fucking tutors. They smelled of ink and dust, of old, musty books and jerking off alone in their chambers, traditionally sited in the part of the mansion where the Eskiath family’s noble apartments gave way to humbler accommodations for the servants. His tutors almost ruined his natural intellect and love of reading, forcing him to plough through ponderous classics. They tried to make him write musical notation—a lost cause—and droned on about penmanship and the history of Trelayne—which as far as Ringil could see was largely lies invented to glorify the Fair City’s founders, who’d most likely been murdering bullies.
Then, in Ringil’s thirteenth year, Blademaster Verryn was hired by House Eskiath to train Ringil and his older brother Gingren in swordsmanship, knifework, and the warrior’s arts.
Verryn was from Hinerion, a mongrel port city part-way between Trelayne, capital of the northern League-states, and Yhelteth, capital of the Empire to the south. He was a mongrel as well, sired on his Trelayne-born mother by a passing Yhelteth soldier. Verryn was compact and lithe with a mobile, big-nosed face, darker-skinned than the denizens of Trelayne. Ringil, too, had Yhelteth ancestry through his mother, Ishil, which had given him his crow-black hair.
Verryn had learned blade skills as a soldier and mercenary, and had studied for some time at the legendary Demlarashan Cloister, where adepts spun in an ecstasy of bladework. Or...had spun, until the Revelation crushed all competing brands of mysticism, forcing Verryn and the other adepts to flee and sell their swords and skills. He was in his twenties, hard-muscled and scarred, with a neat chin-beard. To Ringil’s mind, Verryn was excitingly mature, half or more of his years already dedicated to combat. It lent him a dark glamour.
Ringil learned Verryn’s history in the bed in Verryn’s chambers near the armoury, after becoming his favourite pupil in every way. Not that there’d been much competition—his older brother Gingren approached swordsmanship as he did all else: ploddingly, dutifully, as a necessary responsibility befitting his noble birth. Ringil’s younger siblings were deemed too young for martial tutoring, which was just as well, as Ringil might have skewered that little shit Creglir if he’d been matched with him.
Ringil took to bladework with a passion, felt it slot into his being like a missing part of his soul.
Verryn approved. “Dance, boy, dance—become one with the blade!” he'd exhorted, his southern accent always thicker when he was aroused.
“This isn’t a sword,” panted Ringil. “It’s a cheap half-length practice toy for children. I’m not a fucking child!” He’d been training with Verryn for a year now, and felt he was owed a better blade—Gingren already had the broadsword required by the Academy where he was enrolled the following spring, and Ringil coveted it. Not that his father or brother had ever taken any notice of what Ringil wanted.
“Indeed, no, not a child,” Verryn said, eyes flicking appreciatively down Ringil’s body. The transition to adulthood had Ringil in its clutches by then, his body maturing, with Verryn’s training, from coltish lankiness to muscled grace.
Ringil felt uncomfortable and excited, heat rising in him and loosening his tongue. “Show me that Yhelteth cross-parry again?”
Verryn gave him an appraising look, then stepped in behind him, positioning his arms, sliding a thigh between Ringil’s legs to correct his stance, pressing him upright against his own body with a hand to Ringil’s belly. Ringil could feel the heat and hardness of Verryn’s erection in the small of his back and it made him shiver, the games he played with Jelim a faint echo of the dark coiling want that rose in him with Verryn.
“Tonight, boy,” Verryn breathed in Ringil’s ear. “My room, yes?” His hand slid down to cup and squeeze, and Ringil pushed his stirring cock into the calloused palm, gasping. Verryn’s rooms being situated off an empty passage near the armoury rather than deep in the maze of the servants’ quarters proved remarkably useful, that night and many others.
Ringil knew his parents would see Verryn as a depraved corrupter of youth. In Verryn’s bed, sprawled sweaty and content, he learned that Verryn had fled to Trelayne to escape a Yhelteth beheading on exactly those charges. Ringil wasn’t the first pupil Verryn had bedded. He didn’t care.
Ringil knew what he wanted, knew what had fired his pulse and made his heart race even before the storm of puberty kicked in, and it wasn’t breasts or petticoats. He’d watched men on the street, the younger, tighter-arsed servants in the gardens or stable, and the sons of the rich and noble families in his parents’ social circle. Watched them covertly, and wanted. From the servants he’d heard tales of the sexual experimentation boys got up to elsewhere, and envied the children of more modest households who attended day-schools. Ringil had no friends, just his useless brothers, distant parents, and idiot tutors.
A few weeks shy of thirteen, Ringil had met Jelim Dasnal—a wealthy merchant’s son his own age who was bored with the gossip and political chatter at the annual ball House Eskiath hosted for the Trelayne harvest festival. He and Ringil had conspired to escape into the humid autumn night, playing tag in the walled gardens and outbuildings before skirting a sleeping stablehand, a drained flagon of ale cradled in his arm. They nestled in an unused stall filled with sweet, new-cut straw, whispering and giggling, touching and kissing until a servant called from the courtyard for Jelim to join his parents at the carriage.
So Ringil already knew he liked boys, that he was bent. Verryn wasn’t a boy, though—he made Ringil’s head spin and his blood pound. Verryn’s prowess as a fighter and the dangerous knowledge that he’d killed added a dark gloss of the forbidden. Hoiran knew, Ringil had never excited much interest or praise from his father, too busy with politics and commerce to take note of his second son except to admonish or correct. They’d always rubbed each other awry, Ringil too headstrong and outspoken, unable to play the obedient son his father demanded, retreating into sullen silence after too many blows from his father’s sword-calloused hand taught him a measure of circumspection.
In some ways, Verryn was the father Ringil had always needed—attentive and appreciative of his efforts, setting clear rules and keen to teach. If some of the skills he taught were how to pleasure him in bed, how to give a hand-job and a competent blow-job without teeth getting in the way, well, those were useful. Certainly to Ringil, who knew what he liked, and blow-jobs were high on the list. That first night in Verryn's bed Ringil came in Verryn’s mouth, muffling his cries in the crook of his arm as Verryn held his helplessly bucking hips down and sucked him off expertly. Ringil liked giving as much as getting, sprawled on the sheets between Verryn’s legs or kneeling at his bedside, moaning around Verryn’s—thank Hoiran—modestly sized cock as he learned to open his throat and take him in deep.
What he had with Jelim was different—a sweet, springtime love. It lacked the dark, terrifyingly exciting edge of being fucked by someone stronger and more powerful who could and did hold Ringil down and take what he wanted from his body. Jelim and Ringil explored and experimented. Ringil got to be the experienced one, to show Jelim what it was like to be fucked, to have a cock in you, until the heat and tightness of Jelim’s perfect arse shattered his pretence at worldliness and they ended up going at it like jackrabbits. No matter—they were young, so they just did it again once they’d recovered.
And again and again, whenever they could steal some time and privacy, careful to seem only friends, well aware that Trelayne law would not tolerate their desires, would see them only as degenerates to be punished harshly if they were discovered. Both were used to privilege and to their families cushioning any misbehaviour with wealth and influence, but even so, sex with Jelim still had the lure of the forbidden, and that was multiplied many times over with Verryn.
In the end, it was all one for Ringil—his passion for fighting, for the dance of blades, blood pounding as he slashed and wove, and his lust and longing for Verryn. Fighting made him hard, thereafter—a common enough occurrence, but perhaps not to the degree Ringil experienced it. Maybe Verryn had warped him, but Ringil was no innocent child—he’d used Verryn as much as Verryn had used him, eager to learn all he could. He learned to master his lust and channel it into the fighting trance, and on his fifteenth birthday, Verryn gifted him his first true sword, a sleek Yhelteth rapier, beautifully balanced.
Verryn vanished without a word when the thing with Jelim went to hell. One more betrayal. One more loss. But it was Verryn who forever made bladework the love of Ringil’s life.
Jelim’s execution crushed any trace of springtime left in Ringil. There was a terrible inexorability to the progression of events after they were caught fucking in the stables—first, his father’s political manoeuvering to save Ringil’s life at the expense of Jelim’s, whose merchant family had a less-exalted name and fewer contacts. Then the trial, Judge Kaad sentencing Jelim to public impalement with gloating self-righteousness. Finally the horror of the barbed iron spike ratcheting up through Jelim’s young body as he hung in a public cage at the Eastern Gate. Ringil vomited his remaining innocence out, surrounded by Eskiath men-at-arms on the observation platform beside his stone-faced father.
A human mind has limits—there was no conscious place for that much rage and horror to lodge. Oh, Ringil thought he remembered that day, for all he tried to suppress and forget, but what leaked into memory, what he sweated through in nightmares and shaking flashbacks, was mere surface froth. The true record of that day was wordless and insane, buried deep in his being.
Jelim’s killing flash-forged Ringil’s contempt for his father into life-long bitter hatred. It set Ringil forever against authority, made him hate cruelty and made him cruel. Made him, of course, hate himself.
It gave Ringil’s fighting a ruthless, febrile edge, driven by the wordless inner screaming buried deep on the day Jelim Dasnal was impaled by order of the Trelayne Committee for Public Morals. Sometimes, in the heat of battle, the spiralling madness of that scream leapt from his throat and drove his sword-arm. Sometimes it saved his life, always an ambivalent proposition for Ringil. Sometimes it led to great deeds, to him being called ‘hero’, an even more ambivalent result. It made some men revere him, made others fear him.
All that came later, of course; when he was old enough and hardened enough that the inner screaming sometimes escaped without smashing him into component atoms. At the time, Jelim’s death fucked him up in all the usual ways—drugs, crime, bad company.
But the screaming was always there, especially when he was fighting. Especially when he was killing.
Ringil joined Grace-of-Heaven Milacar’s criminal operation because Milacar had too much on him to refuse, but also for the sex.
Ringil had been running with street gangs like the Basement Boys and the Brides of Silt down in Harbour End since before Verryn joined the household. His issues with his father went way back, and it was how Ringil thumbed his nose at the whole fucked-up Eskiath clan. Verryn, of course, disapproved, but Ringil ignored him.
After Jelim’s execution and Verryn’s strategic disappearance, Ringil got careless and even wilder, taking insane risks and working on smoking his own bodyweight in krin. A few months of that, and he was nabbed by Milacar’s enforcers and clipped over the head with a billy club. He surfaced to find himself tied naked to Milacar’s bed, where he was informed in no uncertain terms that in order to pay off his drug debts he was now “on the team”, as Grace-of-Heaven put it. Ringil had seen Milacar around Harbour End and liked what he’d seen. He’d pretty much engineered this scenario and wasn’t at all averse to being tied to Milacar’s bed. “On what team?” he asked, unsure if Grace meant his criminal operation or if he wanted Ringil to work off his debt in the bedroom.
“Thief gang,” Grace explained laconically, sprawled in a comfortable chair wearing nothing but an unbuttoned silk robe, cleaning his nails with a dagger. “And you’ll take orders from Vinn-the-Knife. She runs the gang. None of your entitled Eskiath bullshit here—this is Salt Warren turf and you’re mine: I own you.” He set down the dagger and glared at Ringil. “You have any idea how many contracts on you I had to buy? You’ve pissed off a bunch of powerful people.”
Ringil rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah. I’m a bad boy, Grace.” He grinned up at Milacar. "I can call you Grace, yes? Your full name’s kind of a mouthful.”
“You’ll call me sir,” Grace snarled and strode over to the bed. He was stocky and compact, no fat on him, all muscle. No real resemblance, but somehow he reminded Ringil of Verryn. Maybe Ringil just wanted to be reminded of Verryn. “I’ll give you a mouthful,” Grace rasped, opening Ringil’s mouth and shoving his hard cock in, straddling Ringil’s head and fucking his throat. He kept Ringil tied there for hours, playing with him in between meetings with thief gang captains, businessmen currying favour, and his enforcers. By the time he finally let Ringil come, Ringil was indeed calling him sir, mindless with want.
Ringil kicked off his dalliance with organised crime by helping Vinn steal the less noticeable antiques from the Eskiath mansion. He spent a lot of time fucking—or to be more accurate, being fucked by—Grace and rose in the ranks to lead his own thief gang, then worked as an enforcer. Grace taught him strategy and cunning—that and street fighting, dirty moves practised in Grace’s bedroom, the payoff for successfully besting Grace being removal of the cock-ring, and Ringil being allowed to suck Grace while jerking himself off.
Ringil’s training with Grace-of-Heaven Milacar served him well in years to come, when he was once again acting the part of a scion of House Eskiath. No one expected a Trelayne noble from the Glades to fight as dirty as any Harbour End thug, as well as wielding a lethal blade. Ringil also learned leadership skills from Grace that were far more practical than the crap taught at the Trelayne Military Academy. They were useful later, when Ringil led squads of terrified men in the war against the Scaled Folk.
Possibly that was one reason the Academy refused to publish his post-war treatise on skirmish warfare—there was too much of Grace-of-Heaven Milacar in it.
All the League’s noble sons attended the Trelayne Military Academy for training in swordsmanship and the arts of warfare. It was required, if you were to have any future in society. Ringil entered the Academy when he was seventeen, largely to appease his mother. Ishil had lost patience with his delinquent abandonment of the Eskiath name and status, running wild in Harbour End with gangs and known criminals. His father he could have withstood, bolstered by hatred, but when Ishil fixed him with a steely glare and told him to pull himself together and grow up, he reluctantly acquiesced.
After Ringil’s forced initiation into the systematic abuse that greeted all juniors, he left the Academy three years later with a better understanding of the tangled bonds of shame and complicity linking the great and the good of Trelayne in a corrupt web. And with renewed contempt for his family and their peers. His swordsmanship was more polished—if duelling was your main purpose in life—and he at least grasped prevailing military theory and strategy, useless though it was likely to prove in any real conflict.
He also left with a slow-burning hatred of Mershist Wrathrill, his chief abuser, but Ringil had learned enough from the history of warfare and Grace-of-Heaven Milacar to set that aside and wait patiently until opportunity presented itself.
The dragon turned, tail lashing out over the cliff’s edge. She had clawed her way a hundred feet up the sheer cliffs after swimming ashore, drawn by the noise of battle and the stench of spilled blood—that of humans, and of her reptile progeny. She dug her claws into the cliff-top and shrieked, then spat a long stream of venom at them. Somehow, Ringil and Egar veered around the corrosive blast, only a few sizzling droplets landing on their cuirasses and boiled leather armour. Soldiers behind them, unable to escape the poison, screamed and died.
They were on her then, inside the range of her venom glands, no clue how to kill the beast towering above them. Ringil’s horse went down under a vast taloned foot, but the screaming rage had already welled up in him, carrying him in a crazed leap onto the dragon’s thigh, a knife in each hand stabbed between the scales to haul himself up the burnished flank to a ridged spinal crest where he sheathed the blades, handholds abundant now as he clawed his way forward to the head. Below him, Egar’s horse ran riderless inland but there was no sign of the Majak. At least the beast seemed to have forgotten her other tormentor in trying to unseat Ringil.
He let the screaming in his head drive him on past fear or reason, clutching the ridged crest with both hands, his sword sheathed until he was clinging to the flared frill of spines around the dragon’s neck. Ringil pulled himself up against them, drew his blade and leaned over, stabbing his sword at the dragon’s bulging eye. She shrieked again, writhing, but not from Ringil’s attack which had fallen short. Ringil heard Egar bellowing in berserker fury and saw, as the beast shook him until his teeth rattled, a gout of acidic blood spray out from the dragon’s throat where Egar’s staff-lance had sliced through scales and flesh. Ringil raised his broadsword and hacked at the dragon’s neck-frill, slicing away a swathe which let him finally reach over and plunge his blade deep into the huge eye.
Then he was falling—thrown free still clutching the sword which seemed welded to his arm—as the dragon howled and thrashed, Egar dancing around her feet; harrying her, he later learned, until, maddened, she surged towards the sea her refuge, forgetting the high cliff she’d climbed. Ringil fell onto the heaped corpses of the squad felled by the venom blast, breaking his fall and further pitting his armour with corrosion. Closer to the cliff’s edge he saw Egar on hands and knees, retching, winded by a swipe of the tail-tip as the dragon fell.
Ringil lay there stunned as the dragon’s last shriek cut off in an earth-shattering crash and she met her doom on the rocky shore below.
Someone groaned, an odd, bubbling sound. For a moment Ringil thought it was him, then realised it came from the pile of bodies where he’d landed. A survivor. He levered himself wearily up and sheathed his sword, a mass of bruises but probably no broken bones, and began dragging the venom-splattered bodies aside. Under the dead foot soldiers was an officer in Trelayne colours—what was left of them. He was badly burned across chest and arms—the vitriol had eaten him down to the bone in places. No surviving that, but he was not yet dead, staring up at Ringil, his face wracked with pain. Ringil knew that face.
“I can honestly say, Mershist, that I’m happy to see you here,” Ringil said, using the tattered Trelayne colours to wipe acid from his gloves.
A rasping croak came from Mershist Wrathrill’s throat. Probably damaged by inhaled venom—his lungs would be filling with fluid. “…Es…kiath…”
“That’s me,” said Ringil, baring his teeth in a grin. “Delighted you remember. I certainly remember you.”
“…kill…me…” rasped Mershist, his eyes desperate.
“There was a time I’d have jumped at the chance, but no. You’re not fucking worth it.”
Ringil left him dying in the pile of corpses, and went to help Egar.
Two years before he and Egar met the dragon at Demlarashan, when he was not long graduated from the Academy, Ringil, Egar at his side, headed back across Yhelteth to their barracks after a briefing about the progress of the Lizard Wars. To Ringil's mind, the main message from the briefing had been "we're fucked", so he planned to do some krin and get drunk.
Egar stopped where a side-street climbed away from the main road in a series of shallow steps and tilted his chin up towards the houses on the hill. The nobility of Yhelteth lived there in a maze of walled gardens, flowering trees and shaded balconies. And plenty of armed guards to keep out the hoi polloi—unless you had the favour of the lady of the house.
“Ah, Gil? I’m just…”
Ringil waved one hand. “Yeah, yeah. Go see Imrana. Get yourself laid.”
Egar grinned. “Might do. Might read poetry.”
Ringil rolled his eyes. “Oh, very likely.”
Egar smirked more widely. “She’s got some pretty hot poetry. Never knew poets had such dirty minds.”
“All the ones I ever knew did,” Ringil said, remembering one back in Trelayne who’d written verses calling him “Angeleyes” and celebrating the “pale peach-like globes” of his arse. Twat. Ringil’d had to steal the pages and burn them, as much to destroy the hideous purple prose as to avoid arrest. That damned Angeleyes nickname had leaked out somehow, though, and stuck.
Egar clapped him on the shoulder and bounded off up the steep laneway. They’d been assigned to the same squad—Ringil, as a Knight Graduate, was nominally in charge with Egar as his lieutenant. Steppe Majaks didn’t pay much attention to Imperial or League military hierarchies, and Ringil was well aware that Egar would follow Ringil’s orders only if he thought them worth following. They’d liked each other from the start, which boded well, and both were seasoned fighters, although not yet against the Scaled Folk. The rest of their men were raw recruits, or to use Egar’s phrase, “fresh lizard-meat”.
Ringil took the back-alleys to the barracks, emerging on the far side of a small square opposite the entrance to his squad’s billet. He stopped, frowning at the scene greeting him. A tall, black-skinned woman stood in front of the barracks’ entrance, booted to the thigh and clad in a tight-fitting black jerkin and pants that shimmered oddly, hurting his eyes in the sunlight. She was wrapped with several harnesses holding sheathed knives. He suspected the shimmering stuff was Kiriath armour—she was clearly Kiriath. He’d seen groups of them in the main thoroughfares, coming and going from the palace. Rare to see one alone.
The woman was facing down one of the priests of the Revelation, whose deliberately torn gown and bare feet proclaimed him as being from an especially fanatical sect. The priest was shouting at her, spittle flying, but other than narrowing her eyes she just stood there, arms crossed, implacably barring the barracks’ door. One of Ringil’s newly-recruited squad hovered behind her in the doorway, pale and wide-eyed.
Ringil crossed the square. “The fuck’s going on here?” he snapped.
The priest continued ranting, but the Kiriath woman turned and looked him up and down. “And you are?”
“Knight Graduate Ringil Eskiath of the Imperial forces.” Ringil nodded at the recruit in the doorway. “He’s one of mine.”
She raised an eyebrow, ignoring the enraged prelate. “I’m kir-Archeth, of Clan Indamaninarmal. Do I call you Knight Eskiath? Sir Eskiath?”
“Call me Gil,” he said. Ringil tipped his head at the priest. “Who’s your friend?”
She fixed the priest with a jaundiced gaze. “This is Invigilator Clethru. He claims that your soldier here,”—a head-tilt to the anxious recruit behind her,—“blasphemed against the Revelation. Wants to take him to the Citadel.” She shrugged. “I happened to be passing and felt sorry for the kid.” She and Ringil exchanged a look and Ringil nodded. The Kiriath, from what he’d heard, might not gainsay the official state religion, but as scientists and engineers they were too rational to buy into it. Ringil had been raised with the Dark Court, the northern pantheon, but what little faith in interventionist deities he’d ever had as a child had been burned away in the crucible of Jelim’s death.
As he thought that, he felt an odd prompting to look up, as though a hand had tugged on his hair, forcing his head back. He saw movement on the roof three stories above, where masons were adding two extra levels to the barracks to house the incoming draft. Ringil squinted into the harsh blue of Yhelteth’s sky, then cursed and leaped forward, knocking Archeth through the doorway. They barrelled into the recruit and all three crashed to the floor in a tangle of limbs and imprecations.
Ringil felt the blade of a knife under his jaw and froze, then a thunderous smash sounded from behind him and the ground shook, stone chips flying past and rattling off the corridor walls and floor. A few flying stone splinters pierced Ringil’s coat and lodged shallowly in his back. He’d fallen over Archeth, whose knife-hand never faltered. The recruit had scrambled back down the passage crabwise and was muttering an old prayer to Firfirdar, Queen of the Dark Court, mistress of dice and death. No wonder the kid had pissed off the invigilator.
“You saw that block falling?” Archeth asked. She took a shaky breath and dropped her blade. “Saved my life.” She looked a little sheepish. “Sorry about the knife. Automatic reflex.”
“No problem,” said Ringil. “I, yeah. I saw something move, looked up just in time. Fucking masons should be sacked.”
“They’ll have run off by now, probably for good. Emperor Akal wouldn’t have just had them sacked if I’d been flattened, he’d have had them dismembered.”
“Yeah,” Ringil nodded. “Well, just an accident, no need to make a fuss about it.”
“Yeah?” he said vaguely. Reaction was setting in; he felt a little strange.
“Get the fuck off me?”
“Oh, right. Sorry.”
They hoisted themselves up, then peered out into the small square. A block of stone that must have been two cubits a side when it was whole had crashed down where they’d been standing and shattered into several lethal shards. Even inside the building, Ringil had been lucky to escape injury. He thought again of that ghostly tug on his hair and shivered, wondering at his luck.
Fate had not been kind to Invigilator Clethru. A chunk of stone the size of a large turnip had eviscerated him and he’d bled out on the pavement of the square.
Ringil squatted and examined the wedge-shaped hunk of rock that had smashed through the priest’s abdomen, severing spine and blood vessels. The symbol for Firfirdar had been scratched into the stone: a pair of dice, burning. Archeth bent over his shoulder. “What’s that?”
“Firfirdar’s mark.” He glanced up at her. “She’s a northern deity these days.” Ringil shrugged. “Workman who carved it might be from the north, or still secretly hold to the old ways. They put her symbol on the stones for luck and to stave off accidents.” He made a face. “She’s the queen of fate and luck. And death.”
“Hmmm. Not sure if she's not doing her job, then, or doing it only too well.” Archeth straightened, and Ringil rose from his crouch. He rolled his shoulders, wincing. “You’re hurt,” she said, turning him, examining the blood-stained rents in his coat.
“Not badly—a few stone fragments cut my back. I’ll have the regimental surgeon clean it up.”
“One of those butchers? Yeah, no. I’ve a carriage on the main street. Come on, you’ll see the palace physician—least I can do. My father’s Flaradnam Indamaninarmal, adviser to Emperor Akal. He’d never forgive me if Knight Graduate Ringil Eskiath, saviour of his beloved daughter, got blood-poisoning.”
Ringil turned back to the doorway where most of his squad were now clustered in nervous excitement, their eyes flicking to and away from the priest’s bloody corpse. He sighed. Hoiran’s balls, they were absolutely going to be lizard-meat unless he and Egar could beat them into shape.
“Shass! You and Tannet check the roof, although I’m sure you won’t find anyone. Rhellen and Mace, go to the nearest guard post and explain what happened, then get this mess cleaned up after the body’s removed. And for Hoiran’s sake, Kidnen, don’t swear by the Dark Court in front of fucking priests. You’re damn lucky this one’s in no state to report you. I’m escorting the lady kir-Archeth to the palace.” A flurry of sir!s and they scurried off, glad to be told what to do. Ringil sighed again. Fucking infants.
“Escorting me, are you?” said Archeth, amused.
“Sounds impressive,” Ringil said. “Little leadership trick I learned up north.” He faked a slightly sarcastic bow. “Lead on, milady.”
Three months later, at An-Monal, Grashgal the Wanderer presented Ringil with a newly forged Kiriath steel broadsword and scabbard, a gift from Clan Indamaninarmal for saving Archeth’s life. Ringil was already fast friends with Archeth, Flaradnam and Grashgal by then, having been taken under the wing of the Indamaninarmal clan.
“Well, I say ‘forged’, but really these blades are grown. It’s a complex process,” said Grashgal. Flaradnam nodded, ebony face solemn, eyes twinkling.
Ringil held the sword in both hands, speechless. He’d had no idea they were planning this. The blade was covered with gleaming Kiriath script. Archeth leaned over, pointed. “That’s its name,” she said.
Ringil looked at Grashgal, raised an eyebrow. Grashgal shrugged. “It’s complicated. Hard to translate from High Kir.”
Archeth frowned at the script and read, hesitantly, “I am…Welcomed in the…Home…of Ravens and…Other Scavengers…in the Wake of Warriors.” She grimaced. “It’s a clumsy translation, and only part of the name.”
“Even so, bit long for a sword’s name,” said Ringil. “Welcomed by ravens? …I’ll call it the Ravensfriend.”
Archeth helped him into the scabbard harness and showed him how the side seam split open when he unsheathed the blade, granting him precious moments of advantage. He sheathed and unsheathed it, feeling the sword’s perfect balance, how it sang as he slid it in and out of the scabbard.
“You’ll need it,” Flaradnam said grimly. “A messenger just arrived from the palace. Scaled Folk rafts have washed ashore all along Rajal beach. Looks like a major hatching—we’re all to be deployed there.” He tilted his head at Archeth. “No, not you, daughter. Someone must manage the Emperor.”
“You can’t keep me out of the front lines forever, Dad,” Archeth said bitterly.
“I can try,” replied Flaradnam, his face set.
Ringil barely heard their argument, sheathing and unsheathing his new sword, mesmerised. It felt like an extension of his arm. It felt alive.
“In, out, in, out.” Archeth had given up on her father and wandered over, grinning. “It’s like pornography, Gil, watching you play with it.”
“Fuck off,” said Ringil. “Don’t bad-mouth my new love.”
Archeth shook her head, amused. “Come on, lover boy, the wedding feast’s in the other room.”
Ringil went to sheathe the sword, then stopped, caught by a gleam on the blade just under the hilt. He held it close, tilting the tiny inlaid engraving to catch the light. A pair of dice, burning.
“Archeth?” Ringil asked, a cold shiver running down his spine. “Why would a Kiriath sword have the Dark Queen’s symbol on it?”
She peered at it, shrugged. “Something in the forging? Dad says the swords name themselves, and choose their own patterning. Apparently it’s—”
“Science, not magic,” Ringil recited with her in tandem. “Yeah, right.”
Archeth grinned. “I’m not getting into that shit with him again.” She turned towards the back room. “Food’s getting cold.”
“Yeah, I’ll be there,” said Ringil. He hefted the broadsword in his hands, staring at it. “Fate and death, is it?” he said. “I’m in.”
Ringil sheathed his sword and followed Archeth, the Ravensfriend a solid presence at his back as though it had always been there.
“I am Welcomed in the Home of Ravens and Other Scavengers in the Wake of Warriors, I am Friend to Carrion Crows and Wolves, I am Carry Me, and Kill with Me, and Die with Me where the Road Ends; I am not the Honeyed Promise of Length of Life in Years to Come, I am the Iron Promise of Never Being a Slave.”
[The Ravensfriend’s full name, from the ‘Land Fit for Heroes’ series by Richard Morgan]