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Legacy of Kings

Book Three of the Magister Trilogy

C.S. Friedman - Author

ePub eBook | $7.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9781101566442 | 512 pages | 06 Sep 2011 | DAW | 18 - AND UP
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"C.S. Friedman makes fantastic things-and frightening things-seem very real." -New York Times bestselling author Tad Williams.

The young peasant woman Kamala has proven strong and determined enough to claim the most powerful Magister sorcery for herself-but now the Magisters hunt her for killing one of their own. Her only hope of survival lies in the northern Protectorates, where spells are warped by a curse called the Wrath that even the Magisters fear. Originally intended to protect the lands of men from creatures known only as souleaters, the Wrath appears to be weakening-and the threat of this ancient enemy is once more falling across the land.



The attack began before dawn.

Jezalya’s population was mostly asleep, trusting to its sentries to sound an alarm if trouble came calling. But no one really expected trouble. The wall surrounding the desert city was tall and strong, with centuries of witchery woven into its substance; only a fool would try to break through it. Least of all during the night, when even the fiercest of warriors laid his weapons aside, leaving sovereignty of the sand to lizards and demons.

Their error.

Outside the city Nasaan waited, studying the great wall through a spyglass. He had a small but loyal army at his command, made up of tribal warriors from the most powerful desert families. Perhaps they were not as well armored as the soldiers of Jezalya, but they were ten times as fierce, and they were bound to him by ties of blood as well as political fealty. His witches were kin to him as well, which meant that they would be willing to lay down their very lives to assure him victory. They were a whole different species from Jezalya’s witches, who provided the city’s prince with power in carefully measured doses in return for carefully measured coinage. Oh, those witches would help out with a few small tasks, and maybe even scry for trouble now and then, but only up to a point. As soon as they became convinced that Jezalya was a lost cause they would bolt like frightened rats, and not waste one precious moment of life-essence trying to save her.

Or so Nasaan’s spies had assured him, after months of reconnaissance.

A pale blue light began to spread along the eastern horizon, harbinger of dawn. Inside the city, Nasaan knew, people were just starting to stir. The grand market at the heart of Jezalya would open as soon as the sky was light, so the most ambitious vendors were already laying out their wares, lining up fresh vegetables and strips of newly slaughtered flesh in neat rows to entice buyers. Wagons were beginning to move up and down the narrow streets, transporting goods from one place to another in anticipation of a new day’s business. Merchants who had sheltered in Jezalya for the night were gathering their parties together, preparing to return to the road. And along the top of the great wall sentries watched the sky lighten, unutterably bored. Once more, a night had passed without incident. They were not surprised. War was a creature of daylight, and if trouble came, it would not be on their watch.

Wrong again.

There was not yet enough light to see by, but Nasaan’s spyglass had been bewitched so that it would magnify what little there was, facilitating his reconaissance. He could see sentries walking along the top of the wall, their eyes scanning the barren plain that surrounded Jezalya. Nasaan tensed as one man looked his way, but his witches had crafted spells to keep the enemy from seeing him or his people, and apparently those were more effective than whatever spells Jezalya was using to watch for trouble.

His men were clearly anxious to begin the fighting, but it would do no good to rush the city’s outer wall prematurely, Nasaan knew. His strategy inside the city must play out before he and his men could make their move. Otherwise they would be held at bay by the same great wall that had defeated greater armies in the past. Such a barrier could not be conquered from the outside.

With a whispered word he cautioned his men to stillness, and waited.

One of the sentries’ lanterns suddenly went dark. Nasaan stiffened. A few seconds passed; then the light returned, and whoever held the lantern now bobbed it up and down: once, twice, three times.

Nasaan’s signal.

There was no alarm sounding yet. No noise of combat from inside the city, carried to them on the dry desert wind. Nasaan held his breath, his hand closing tightly about his reins. The more that his agents in Jezalya could accomplish by stealth and trickery, as a prelude to all-out battle, the better it would be for everyone.

No man can breach the walls of my city, Jezalya’s ruler had bragged. The words had been meant as a deterrent, but instead Nasaan had accepted them as a personal challenge. That was the day that he had known it was his destiny to claim the prosperous trade city for his own. Not with brute warfare, charging against the great wall as so many armies had done in the past, struggling to mount ladders and climb ropes while the city’s warriors rained down hot oil and burning arrows on their heads. No. Such a strategy was doomed to failure before it began. But a few dozen men inside Jezalya could accomplish more than a thousand men on the outside, if the desert gods favored their mission.

And Nasaan was on good terms with his gods.

What was the name of the city’s ruler, anyway? Dervash? Dervastis? Son of a chieftain from a minor tribe that few men respected. It was amazing that the city had accepted the rule of such a man, given the weakness of his family line. Nasaan carried the blood of ancient kings in his veins, and with it the spark of their greatness.

Jezalya deserved such a leader.

Slowly, torturously, the massive gates finally began to swing open. Nasaan could see a wave of anticipation sweep through the ranks of his men as they tensed in their saddles, preparing to ride forward. Not yet, he thought. Raising his hand to signal them to hold their ground, cautioning them to have patience for a few moments longer. Not yet! His small army was positioned much closer to Jezalya than would have been possible during the day; his witches had drawn upon night’s own darkness to augment their protective magics. But the greatest risk of the operation would be in its first moments of aggressive action, a mad dash across open the open plain to the city’s entrance. Not even all his witches acting in unison could obscure something like that. They needed to wait until Nasaan’s men inside the city had finished their job and controlled Jezalya’s main gate. If Nasaan’s men tried to storm the gate before that had been accomplished . . . well, it would be one hell of a bloody mess, that was certain.

This prize is worth bloodshed, he thought. And he whispered a final prayer to the god of war under his breath, promising to build him a great new temple in the heart of Jezalya if the battle went well.

And then, at last, the gates of the city were fully open. The massive armored doors would not close quickly or easily, Nasaan knew; his first objective had been accomplished, and all of it without raising the city’s alarm. So far so good.

But there was no way to manage the next phase of the invasion without alerting his target. Hiding a host of warriors from sight when they were moving stealthily in the depths of night, keeping to cover whenever possible, was one thing; masking the charge of an attacking horde riding noisily across open ground was another. Better to abandon witchery entirely, now, and claim whatever advantage speed and fury could buy them.

A tense silence fell over the armed company, punctuated only by the impatient snuffing of a few horses. They, too, could feel the tension simmering in the air. But no one was going to move without Nasaan’s command.

And then his hand fell. And with a war cry so terrible it would surely strike fear into the hearts of the enemy, his men kicked their horses into sudden motion. Thundering across the dry earth, the beating hooves raised clouds of dust so thick that it seemed as if a sandstorm were bearing down upon the city, faceless and terrible. This was not merely a human army descending upon Jezalya, but the very embodiment of the desert’s fury.

Fear us! Nasaan thought fiercely. Gripping his reins with one hand as he raised up his other arm, positioning his battle-scarred shield high enough that it would protect him from the enemy’s fire. Fear us so much that you choose surrender instead of risking slaughter at our hands. Choose life instead of death.

He had agents inside the city who would tell its leaders that this was their only choice. That they could either surrender to the tribal army and know peace, or suffer the full fury of its wrath. Nasaan himself hoped they would choose the first option—it would leave more of the city intact for him to rule—but he suspected that many of his men felt otherwise. They lusted for the aftermath of military conquest as much as they did for battle itself, hungering for the thrill of unbridled rapine and destruction that would follow a lengthier siege. Nasaan’s greatest challenge, if the city surrendered, would be to keep his own men from destroying it.

Of course, if the leaders of Jezalya did not surrender . . . then he would rule over whatever was left once his men were finished sacking the place.

A sudden sharp blow struck his shield from above. Then another. Arrows were being launched at them from the upper reaches of the wall. There weren’t as many as normally would be expected—Nasaan’s agents had apparently taken control of the nearer portions of the wall, denying Jezalya’s archers access—but still there were enough to send a thin steel rain hurtling down from the sky, lethal in its velocity. One arrow pierced through Nasaan’s upraised shield right next to his arm, gouging his bracer. Another struck a bolt on his shield with a sound like the crack of lightning and bounced off. He heard several of his warriors curse as they were struck, but no man fell, and no man faltered. They all understood the importance of getting inside the city gate before Jezalya had a chance to mobilize.

Even now the alarm must be sounding in all her barracks. The head of the night watch would be cursing his own inattention as the daylight officers staggered naked out of bed, fumbling for their armor, yelling for information. No doubt they would order the great city gate to be closed, unaware that Nasaan’s men had taken control of it.

Closer and closer to that gate Nasaan rode now, desert blood singing in his veins. Then the first of his men passed through it, ululating in triumph as they entered the city. Nasaan’s agents inside Jezalya had done their job well. He glanced back over his shoulder to make sure all was well behind him—

And saw death bearing down upon him.

A vast mounted force was coming up swiftly behind his men, and it did not look friendly. Where it had come from he did not know, but its witches must have been touched by the gods, to be able to obscure the presence of so many men. Judging from the cloud of dust this new army was raising, it was several times the size of his own, and it was bearing down upon them with the speed of a sand-spawned whirlwind. The bulk of Nasaan’s strike force was about to be trapped between the great wall and this furious army. And now sounds of battle were starting to ring out from inside Jezalya’s walls; without timely reinforcement, Nasaan’s men inside the city would not stand a chance.

Even as he cried out a warning to his men, arrows began to fly at them from behind. Those who were holding shields had not positioned them to defend against a rearguard action; arrows pierced both human and equine flesh. One horse reared up as it took two arrows in its side, nearly throwing off its rider; another went down with its rider still in the saddle, and both were trampled underfoot. One of Nasaan’s witches quickly cast a spell to protect them, but there was little she could do other than fend off the arrows one by one as they arrived. There were no natural obstacles here that could be manipulated to greater purpose, no sunlight to be angled into the enemy’s eyes, not even cloudy skies to help provide a bolt of lightning . . . only an empty, barren landscape, devoid of any tool that a witch might use to lend added force to her efforts.

As the human whirlwind bore down upon them, Nasaan’s rearmost ranks wheeled their horses about to confront it. Feverishly Nasaan prayed for the war god Alwat to favor him and his warriors as he braced to meet the enemy head-on. It was said that Alwat favored those who had the courage to fight against impossible odds; if so, then Nasaan’s situation right now was sure to please him.

Suddenly something massive and dark swooped down out of the sky, right over the enemy’s front line. The men attacking Nasaan seemed to falter, with no visible cause. It was a strange thing to witness, as if a wave of uncertainty were somehow rippling through the enemy ranks, man by man. Even the horses seemed to grow confused, and several stumbled, becoming dangerous obstacles to the men behind them. Never in all his life had Nasaan seen anything like it. But he was not one to question a gift from the gods. Voicing a war cry that echoed across the vast plain, he signaled for his men to charge.

Whatever the dark creature was, it hovered overhead as the battle was joined, its vast wings barely visible against the dark sky. Nasaan could not spare a moment to look up at it, but he could sense its presence overhead even as he braced himself for impact. It was watching them. Waiting. He knew that instinctively, just as he knew instinctively that this was not a natural creature, and that whatever it was doing to the enemy was not a natural act.

Steel continued to ring out against steel in the barren plain as the two armies fought, and dust arose in great plumes all about them. But there was clearly a sickness in the soul of the enemy now, and they could not stand their ground. The first man Nasaan engaged seem to move lethargically and could not manage to turn aside Nasaan’s sword, nor could he swing his own powerfully enough to make his blow count. From what Nasaan could glimpse out of the corner of his eye as he dispatched the man, others were acting similarly. The enemy’s horses were stumbling about like untrained colts who had never seen a battle before. Several reared up in panic and tried to flee the battlefield, colliding with others as they did so, fostering utter chaos. All semblance of military formation among the enemy had been lost. Even as Nasaan thrust his sword into the side of a third enemy warrior, he wondered what sort of terrible power could have caused such a thing.

And then he saw a vision. Or maybe it was not a vision. Maybe there really was a woman standing in the middle of the battlefield, in a circle of utter calm. Maybe the tides of violence really did part around her like a rushing stream, without any man being consciously aware of the process.

At first glance she appeared to be a woman of the desert, with the golden skin and the finely chiseled features of a tribal princess, but her bearing proclaimed her to be something more. Her body was wrapped in layered veils of fine silk, and the long sleeves beat about her body like restive wings as men fought to their deaths on all sides of her. And her eyes! They were black and faceted, like gemstones, as inhuman as they were beautiful.

She was staring straight at him.

Nasaan knew that there were demons of the desert called djiri, wild spirits who sometimes aided tribal warriors in battle. He also knew that their help did not come without a price. Tales were told around the campfire of warriors who had been saved from the brink of death by such creatures, only to discover that that the price demanded was their firstborn child, a favored wife . . . or even their own manhood. The djiri were capricious and cruel, and notoriously unpredictable. One of Nasaan’s own ancestors had supposedly received the aid of such a demon, back when he had led his tribe in battle against the Tawara, and the ancestral songs hinted at a price so terrible that he became a broken man as a result and ultimately took his own life.

None of Nasaan’s men seemed to be aware that the djira was present, nor did the horses appear to see her. Yet the tide of battle parted as it approached her, like rushing water parting around an island. Men fought, bled, and died on all sides of her, but no matter how chaotic the battle became, they did not move into her space. Blood spattered across the ground not far from her feet, and clods of earth torn loose from the earth by pounding hooves came flying in her direction . . . but men and horses all turned aside as they approached, seeking bloodshed elsewhere. No living thing would come close to her.

All this Nasaan absorbed in a single instant, and then an enemy warrior engaged him, and he was fighting for his life once more. Not until he had dispatched the man—an easy task, given the enemy’s confusion—was he able to look back at the woman.

She was still there. Untouched by battle.

Her eyes were as black as the desert night and filled with promise.

A wounded horse staggered by Nasaan. Its rider, a young man in brightly polished scale armor, took a swing at his head. Nasaan caught the blade on the edge of his shield and turned it aside easily; the man’s blow was as weak as a child’s.

She did this, he thought, as he gutted his opponent with a quick thrust and watched him tumble to the ground. Overhead the great beast was beating its wings steadily, driving dust down into Nasaan’s eyes. He blinked it away just in time to meet the attack of another assailant, decapitating the man with a single sweeping blow. Even as he did so, the man’s horse fell to its knees, so swiftly one might think it had been hamstrung.

Magic.

Even without looking at her, he knew that she was smiling. He could feel her presence against his skin, cold fingernails of promise pricking his spine. You want Jezalya. The words were like ice against his flesh. I can give it to you. Had his ancestor experienced something like this? Had the offer of his own djira been simultaneously terrifying and seductive, casting his soul into such confusion that he could barely think straight? The touch of a desert spirit should not be cold; Nasaan knew that. But that observation was a distant thing, and his focus right now was the immediate picture. As he turned aside the blade of yet another attacker, only her offer mattered.

I can give you victory, she whispered into his brain.

If he refused her, did that mean the enemy would suddenly come back to its senses? Perhaps even gain a magical advantage in turn? The thought of his own warriors being infected with that strange mental sickness was daunting. Courage alone could not shield an army from such a power. No human effort could.

He took advantage of a moment’s respite to look out over the battlefield. His men were doing well; they had taken advantage of the enemy’s strange weakness to decimate its ranks, despite the odds against them. They might be able to carry the day even if the djira turned against them now. But time was everything inside Jezalya, and every minute they wasted made the situation more precarious for his people inside those walls. Any minute now the great gate might start to close, so that his men in the city were left isolated. He could not allow that to happen.

Gritting his teeth, he looked back at the djira. Dead men and horses were piled around her in a perfect circle, like some ghastly siege wall. Fresh blood, gleaming blackly in the dim morning light, soaked the ground surrounding her feet.

He waited until she met his eyes, then nodded.

Go, then. The words resounded in his brain as clearly as if she had spoken them aloud. Ride to Jezalya. Take the city.

For a moment he hesitated . . . but only for a moment. Then he wheeled his horse about to face the city once more, and cried out for his men to follow him. A few looked at him as though he were mad, but something in his manner must have convinced them he was not. Or else they were just willing to follow him anyway. One by one they worked their way free of the battle’s chaos to join him. Stumbling, confused, the enemy did not pursue them. The last living strength had been drained from their limbs, the last vital energy from their hearts. Whatever power the djira was using on them was truly fearsome, and Nasaan was glad he had not given her reason to turn against him.

Hooves pounding, his small army thundered toward the city, ranks reforming as they rode. This time there were fewer arrows to contend with; clearly Nasaan’s agents within Jezalya had been dealing with the guards. The gate was still open, and through it he could hear the sounds of battle—human cries and collapsing defense structures and the ringing clash of steel-on-steel—while the sun breached the eastern horizon at last, sending lances of harsh golden light spearing across the plain, crowning his men in fire as they rode.

He passed through the city gate with his sword raised, the names of his ancestors a prayer on his lips. And Alwat’s name as well, a prayer of gratitude for this improbable victory.

And he rode into the fires of Hell.

And glory.


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