The Winter KingThe Winter King

The Winter King
Book 2, the Sabazel series

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ISBN: 978-1463575014

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What if an Amazon queen had a love affair with Alexander the Great? What if their son had to defend his lands from the Mongol Horde? What if his sister was the priestess of a bull-cult on Crete? What if her son started the Trojan War -- between India and Persia?

In a world rooted in Mediterranean history and mythology, armies clash, magicks compete, and the gods set their pawns onto the game board. ndrion, son of an Amazon queen and a world-conquering warrior, was named Beloved of the Gods. But divine love demands of him a test of strength. When his father's empire is betrayed and conquered by barbarians, Andrion flees to his mother's tiny realm. There, in the midst of defeat, he must mortgage his innocence, assess his loyalties, and try to be the warrior his father once was.

Meanwhile, Tembujin, the son of the barbarian Khan, finds in the midst of victory that betrayal is not reserved for his enemy, and that perhaps he doesn't want to be the warrior his father once was. Only by forming an uneasy alliance can the two princes earn their patrimonies, inch by inch and heart by heart. And the women surrounding them have more than a little say in both victory and defeat.


"...a marvelous sense of romantic adventure...unusually literate, intelligent and respectfully aware of the epic tradition...strong characterizations complimented by an evocative magical poetry in the magery...plausibility in action and locale...use of Classical background assured and distinctive...firmly grounded in reality, tradition and myth."
--Robert Hadji, Borderland

"A compelling story.  I read it through the night!"
--R.A. MacAvoy

"A remarkably fine and thoroughly engrossing book!"
--Patricia C. Wrede

"Original, imaginative, and believeable!" 
--Elizabeth Ann Scarborough

"...a story told at many levels...a lot of thought-provoking conflict...what makes these books the lessons they teach on the clash of cultures. What the author has to say is well worth reading."
--John T. Sapienza, Jr., Different Worlds

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NOTE: I've always thought of this book as "Son of Sabazel". Inspiration for it ranged from tales of the Mongol Horde to the legend of El Cid.

Chapter One

The aged walls of Iksandarun reverberated to a volley of hoofbeats. Couriers raced out of the west and plunged through the gates, scattering the market goers with cries of alarm. A lathered horse fell dead in the dust before the palace. The couriers swayed with exhaustion in the presence of their emperor, delivering dire news. The Khazyari had burst from the distant legendary Mohan Valley like maggots from a rotten peach. The Crimson Horde had swarmed across the borders of the Empire.

The Emperor Marcos Bellasteros listened, his features sternly attentive. He asked several pointed questions. He thanked the messengers and saw to their comfort, and then quickly sent for his generals. In the eighteen years since he had conquered the Empire, he had built it almost to its former prosperity; if it was his glory, it was also his burden.

Bellasteros, king of kings, god-king, sat that night in his private chambers. His only son, named Andrion, beloved of the gods, sat with long limbs knotted at his father’s feet. “These horsemen,” stated the emperor, his brow furrowed by the depth of his thought, “come around the end of the mountains, from nowhere, moving faster than seems possible. And the Empire is weak. The years since your birth have not been enough to mend it. It has absorbed us, its Sardian conquerors, and while we have strengthened it, we have not healed it.”

His voice died, refusing to speak words of doom. His dark eyes, flickering with a distant flame, pierced the night that cloaked the window as if watching the Khazyari make their implacable advance from the western steppes, through the rich valley of the Mohan, to the borders of the Empire itself. The diadem of the emperor gleamed in his sable hair.

Andrion’s rich brown eyes were his father’s; his bones were his mother’s, light, strong, square. His face was his own, pure marble yet to be sculpted by time and fate. “Should we go to the winter capital in Farsahn? We could stop in Sabazel for the midsummer rites.” This time, he thought, perhaps Dana will come to me. The fine, almost delicate line of his mouth twitched into a smile and then tightened, denying retreat.

“Sabazel,” Bellasteros murmured. His gaze softened. He stroked his son’s dark auburn hair, assuring himself the young man really existed. And he laughed, dryly, without bitterness, his teeth glinting white in the sable of his beard. “Yes, Andrion, we have lived our lives on the borders of Sabazel, not quite within, not quite without. If only we could go there and lay our worries in the lap of our mother, the goddess Ashtar. But I am emperor; I cannot hide from distasteful duty. I fear we shall have other rites to celebrate come midsummer.”

A wind sighed through the window, caressing Andrion’s upturned face, teasing him with the scents of lemon and orange blossoms. Spring in Iksandarun; spring in Sabazel, and the soft odor of asphodel to sear the senses.

Bellasteros leaned back in his chair. “I shall set two legions in the path of the Khazyari, and send to Patros in Sardis for reinforcements; if worse comes to worst, we can fall back before them, shut ourselves behind the walls of Iksandarun and wait.” The lines on his brow deepened with a painful irony. “These horsemen pour in from the west, but the defenses of the Empire have always looked to the north, to Sardis. Justice, perhaps, but I shall not accept such judgment.” He set his jaw, raised his chin, squared his lean and powerful shoulders.

Andrion raised his own face to search the darkness outside, but it was impenetrable. And I am the emperor’s son, he thought. Born on the day of victory, on the cusp of winter eighteen years ago. Now spring gives birth to summer with a rumor not of life but of death. Bellasteros, the summer king.

Suddenly the wind veered, filling his nostrils with the sharp-sweet scent of blood, and he shivered.

The mountains, rank upon shadowed rank, supported the vault of the night sky, the western vault behind the Khazyari camp. The mountains still marked the borders of the Empire, but they no longer protected it. Circumvented, they seemed to slump, fading into a dark and indistinguishable horizon.

A band of Khazyari warriors and their sturdy steppe ponies trotted over a slight rise. In the midst of the group, a cloaked figure bounced on its horse like an ungainly insect. When the escort reined up, the figure emitted an audible groan.

A white pony moved ghostlike through the night. Its rider signed peremptorily; with respectful gestures the other warriors faded back, becoming only shadows flitting among the rocks and brush of the plain.

The Khazyari rider approached the solitary cloaked figure. “Hilkar, chamberlain of the court,” he said mockingly, in lightly accented common speech. “Is all in readiness?”

Hilkar swept back the hood of his cloak. His face was thin, his pale jowls dangling loosely in the starlight, like dead fish. “My lord Tembujin. I intercepted the orders of Bellasteros to General Aveyron, as you asked. I have ridden all the way from Iksandarun—”

“Which is not far.” The warrior adjusted the short bow he carried. He propped one leather-booted foot on his pony’s shoulder. His bright black eyes scanned the darkness, not Hilkar’s face, naming Hilkar only some insignificant creature of the night. “Yes?”

“Two legions, set on either side of the old caravan route,” said Hilkar. And louder, trying to draw the Khazyari’s eye, “They mean to catch your forces between them.”

The warrior laughed. He waved his hand, indicating the watchfires of the Khazyari camp spread as lavishly across the ground as the stars across the sky, indicating a dying moon that hung low in the east, shedding no light upon Iksandarun.

Hilkar swallowed hard. He slipped what looked like a bolt of cloth from a bag on his saddle. “Here, my lord. A gift from your loyal servant, so you may remember me after your victory.”

Tembujin lazily reached out, took the cloth, shook it. A cloak, its crimson darkened into deep carnelian by the night, billowed over the flanks of his pony as it was tossed by a sudden breeze. “Yes?”

“Bellasteros’s cloak. To enspell him. He is strong, my lord.”

“True. He defeated you, did he not?”

Hilkar’s reedy voice tightened bitterly. “He defeated the Empire and made it his own. He could not defeat my spirit. All these years I have waited for vengeance.”

The Khazyari folded the cloak and placed it between his thigh and his saddle. “Open the gates of Iksandarun for us, and you shall have your vengeance.”

“My lord!” Hilkar gasped. “That would be . . .”

“Difficult? Dangerous? No more dangerous than talking to me, traitor.” The warrior smiled slowly, and his long lashes bristled about his eyes.

Hilkar groveled as best he could on horseback. “Yes, my lord. Yes, my prince. I ask only my due reward.”

“That, too, you shall have.” With an elaborate yawn Tembujin straightened, turned his pony, signaled to the escort. Spears and arrows stirred the night. “And I am not your prince,” he said over his shoulder.

Hilkar quailed back, nodding and bowing, sputtering assurances of loyalty, flattering phrases, protestations of his own worth. The Khazyari warriors gathered around him, swept him up, carried him eastward into the night. His voice dissipated down the wind.

The moon, a pale, wasted crescent, abandoned Iksandarun. The warrior prince trotted, smiling, down into his encampment.

On the night of the midsummer moon Bellasteros’s prescience was fulfilled. The shattered legions fell back to Iksandarun in little more than a rout. To the unbelieving citizens the gates of the city seemed to open by themselves. The sounds of battle echoed in the passageways of the palace.

Andrion leaned against the arched doorway of the throne room, forcing gulps of acrid air past his clenched teeth. The necklace he wore, a gold crescent moon with a gold star at its tip, leaped and sparked in the sweat pooled at his throat. His face was smudged, the linen chiton and draped cloak he wore were torn, the short Sardian sword he held was stained crimson. The Crimson Horde, he thought. Khazyari blood was as red as that of his own people.

“By all the gods,” he said between his teeth, part curse, part prayer, “if I ever find who betrayed the legions and opened the gates, I shall cut out his heart, I shall stain the ancient altar of the temple with his blood as it was bloodied by traitors on the night of my birth!”

But no, his father had banned human sacrifice that very night. Andrion gulped again. His companions, sons of servants and noblemen alike, had pushed him from the battle in the streets into the momentary safety of the palace. His cloak was pinned with a brooch styled like the wings of the god Harus, and the gold necklace circled his throat; his identity was all too obvious. So he had gone, he had fled his companions, and their death screams were taunting wraiths in the air before him. Andrion, the prince, the heir, his life bought with blood . . . “I swear,” he cried, “I shall avenge you!”

Voices echoed within the throne room. Andrion turned. There, at the opposite end of the long, empty chamber, their forms winking fitfully in crimson lamplight, stood General Aveyron and his emperor.

Bellasteros sat stiffly against the glory of the peacock throne, his face scored by runnels of pain. He was not coiled like a hunting cat, blazing with anger and majesty; he was silent, his temper strangely eroded, the diadem only a band of embers on the dark hearth of his hair. He held the sword Solifrax, the gods’ gift of power that was his alone to bear, unsheathed across his lap. The crystalline blade dripped red on the tile floor, blood spreading around the throne.

The general held his helmet under his arm politely, but he spoke friend to friend, his body straining forward in desperate, disbelieving urgency. “The city is burning. The Khazyari run like ravening wolves through the streets. The women’s wing of the palace has fallen, and the temple citadel.”

Shouts and screams and a crash of masonry echoed down the corridor. Andrion spun about; the Khazyari had brought a battering ram to the main door. If the old emperors had not built their palace as a fortress, it would already be over, his throat bared to the knife on the merciless stone of the altar. Death, and peace in the arms of the goddess—beloved of the gods, indeed! No, death was too easy.

The tapestries on the walls of the throne room seemed to smoke faintly, their images muted, as if at any moment they would burst into flame and disappear. The outstretched wings of Sardian Harus were broken; the mountain and pool of Sabazian Ashtar were muddied beyond cleansing. Gods, Andrion thought, shaking himself, even my own senses betray me.

Aveyron’s voice was low and hoarse. “Your first wife, my lord. The lady Chryse. She and your daughter Sarasvati have thrown themselves from the battlements and dashed themselves to death in the courtyard rather than face the Horde.”

Bellasteros closed his eyes. A muscle jumped in his jaw and his shoulders tightened in a long, sustained shiver. Solifrax glinted red, reflecting the pool of blood at his feet.

Andrion laid his cheek against the cool marble of the wall, his long, anguished breath clouding the stone. Chryse, the gentle sparrow, that one of his mothers who had guided his steps and mended his childhood wounds; Sarasvati, his spirited half-sister, less than a year younger than he.

“Declan. the high priest of Harus . . .” Aveyron inhaled shakily. “Declan Falco lies dead in the temple courtyard, one of the falcon standards smashed in his shattered hand.”

Andrion’s fingers tightened convulsively on the hilt of his sword. Declan, too, wise tutor and compassionate friend; the darkness of this night consumed all hope. Tears burned the back of his throat and he choked them down into the void that had been his heart. He lived, and he would not weep.

Bellasteros opened his eyes. Their dark luster was dimmed, shadowed by defeat and death; the Sardian Conqueror was himself conquered. “So,” he murmured with a quiet brutality, “the payment has come due; the sacrifice of the summer king. If only it were me alone, and not my people.”

“Gods!” Andrion hissed. This despairing old man was not his father. It could not be his father. He would not let it be his father.

Another crash. The palace shuddered. A frescoed wall cracked and the images painted on it disintegrated. The hero Daimion and his companion Mari, queen of Sabazel, the hero Bellasteros and his companion Danica, queen of Sabazel, were becoming flakes of ash drifting like dead leaves to the floor.

Aveyron stepped onto the edge of the dais and seized his emperor by the arm. “My lord, no. You and the prince must escape. I let the barbarians turn my flank; I let them waste the legions. I shall stay and pay for my failure while you live for another day.”

“No, Aveyron, old friend, not your failure.” Bellasteros laid his hand on Aveyron’s.

Aveyron shook away reassurance. “You and the prince must escape. The long leagues of the Empire lie before you, and Farsahn and Sardis beyond. You must live, so the Empire will live.”

“Will your death buy the Empire? Will mine?” Bellasteros for a moment looked into the glistening face of his general, looked into the face of Death. And he shuddered, throwing off some subtle choking drowsiness, waking the lean strength of his body. His eyes cleared and sparked into the numinous glow of the god-touched. He leaped from the throne. “Andrion,” he said, his voice firm. “The prince. Where is he?”

That was his father. “I am here,” Andrion called. With a tight smile more wary than relieved, he strode up the length of the audience chamber. His steps were only a faint patter on the floor.

Aveyron stepped back with a bow. Bellasteros rose, extending his hand, and Andrion placed his stained and dirty hand in his father’s. Warm flesh touched warm flesh, the same sinew, the same bone. “You must live,” the emperor said to his son. “I bought your life when you were born the winter king and were to have died for me. Now my life is due.”

“No, no! I shall not go without you. You are the Empire. You are hope.” Andrion tightened his grasp as if he could pull his father bodily from this evil despair. “I shall not go alone.”

“I cannot go,” said Bellasteros. The same stubborn will, no matter how oddly distorted. A slight frown marred the clean planes of his face, his words not quite his own.

“No,” Andrion said aloud, his jaw set. He had never dared such defiance. He had never needed to. “The Empire is more than Iksandarun. It is your place to carry the sword and the diadem to safety. To Sabazel, my lord, my father; ever our refuge.” Inwardly he cringed; no one had ever before had to tell Bellasteros his duty.

Solifrax, drained of blood, gleamed palely. A slow breeze stirred the gathered smoke, carrying in it a resonance of chimes, faint and disordered; the wind plucked at Andrion’s tunic and stirred his hair. Andrion met his father’s eyes, willing him to hear, and Bellasteros’s eyes darkened in comprehension. For just a moment Andrion sagged, and then squared himself yet again.

An echoing crash shook the building. Shouts and cries flooded the corridors. The moment shattered. “Go,” Aveyron insisted. “I will guard your back. In Ashtar’s name. in the name of Harus, go now.”

“So be it then,” stated Bellasteros. “Perhaps the gods intend my death, but I have defied them before.” He set aside Andrion’s hand and glanced about him, a bright-eyed falcon seeking its prey.

Aveyron knelt at his emperor’s feet. For just a moment his back bowed wearily. “My thanks, lord, for the honors you have given me.”

“Well earned, my friend.” Bellasteros’s voice clotted. He lifted the curved blade of Solifrax and set its gleam on the general’s shoulder in benediction. “May you feast this night in paradise.”

Aveyron pulled himself to attention. He settled his helmet again on his head. His face was stark, gaunt, as if the skull already tightened the skin to nothingness. “My lord.” He flourished his sword in salute, and he was gone.

Andrion’s body rippled in a spasm of denial. “The gods shall answer for this,” he muttered.

“The gods answer only to themselves, Andrion.” Bellasteros’s mouth curled in a black humor. His eye turned toward what remained of the painting of Daimion; it peeled off the wall before him and was whirled away. The flesh crawled on Andrion’s neck; Bellasteros blanched. Lamplight glanced, ruddy brilliance, along the outstretched blade of Solifrax. “And do the gods deem it time for me to relinquish Daimion’s sword?” the emperor murmured, half to himself, fading again.

“No!” Andrion exclaimed. “This despair is sorcery, whether of man or god; do not surrender to it!” And yet, he told himself, if the conqueror speaks of surrender, surely all is lost . . . Andrion grasped the comfort of his mother’s name. “Danica. We shall go to Danica. She speaks with the goddess.”

“No longer,” sighed Bellasteros. “Those days are gone forever.” His forefinger touched Andrion’s necklace, tracing the line of the crescent moon and the star at its tip. A wind stirred the air, and a beating of wings.

With a desperate, stubborn, tenacity, Andrion called, “Father!”

And again Bellasteros knitted together the raveling threads of his thoughts. His mouth set itself in a tight line of command; he thrust Solifrax into its serpent-skin sheath and jumped lightly down from the dais. “Let us see, Andrion, if any of my guard remain, so that with them we can sneak like thieves over the walls of our own city.”

Andrion nodded, sheathed his sword, set his shoulder to his father’s. He turned his back on the glittering peacock throne of the Empire and stretched his legs to match Bellasteros’s stride.

The length of the hallway was muted with eddies of smoke, echoing with murmurs of battle. Beside the door stood the other standard of Harus. The bronze falcon seemed to strain upward, wings thrusting frantically against its bonds. “Well then, Harus,” said Bellasteros. “I owe you and Sardis, though I am not even of Sardian blood.” He pulled the hollow bronze figure from its pole and tucked it behind his sash:

“My lords,” said a reedy voice.

Both men snapped around, their hands on their swords; Bellasteros, the famous campaigner, was a moment quicker. But it was a plump, beardless old man in the brown robe of a servant who stood behind them. “My lords,” he said again. “I have lived in this palace many years. I know a secret passage.”

Andrion forced his heart down from his throat and croaked, “The stories you told me as a boy, Toth? You said they were only legend.”

Toth smiled vaguely and flapped a pudgy hand in the air. His clear, pale eyes sparked. “Legends become reality at need.”

“True enough,” growled Bellasteros. But a furtive amusement crimped the corners of his mouth. “Let the servant guide his master then, to this secret he has kept as his own.”

The old man bobbed a perfunctory bow and scuttled down the passageway into misty smoke. Bellasteros and Andrion exchanged a quick glance and followed.

Five of the emperor’s private guard, dirty and bloodied but as yet unscathed, waited with horses and supplies in a small dingy stable yard. “Toth!” exclaimed Bellasteros. “My thanks.”

The old man smiled again. He produced a cloak, roughly woven of brown wool. “I could not find your crimson cloak, my lord,” he told the emperor, “but I think this would be better.”

Andrion glanced cautiously around. The sky was a black vault, etched with roiling smoke. The battlements of the palace flickered with the quickest, briefest tint of crimson. Demons dancing on the pyre of the defeated, he thought. The smoke was bitter in his mouth.

He turned abruptly and recognized one of the guards, a young man encountered in the hallways of the palace. They had joked together, had sparred at weapons-practice . . . Andrion could not remember the man’s name.

Beyond the wall, from the heart of Iksandarun, rose a great cry. An eerie ululation offered by a thousand throats, rising and falling, that twined itself about the city and strangled it. The horses shifted restlessly, jangling their harnesses.

“A victory paean, I wager,” said Bellasteros softly, detached.

Andrion spat. “Barbarians.”

Bellasteros half turned, as if drawn to the sound. “But I must bring my heir to safety,” he protested; he turned back again, tightened his body with an almost audible snap, and draped the clumsy cloak about himself.

Do not think about it, Andrion ordered himself. Madness stalks the night, sorcery stirs the shadows, my world turns upside down and reveals its soft underbelly.

Toth began to heave at the rough blocks of stone surrounding a well that lay against the wooden wall of the stable. Bellasteros waved and the guard ran forward. Andrion threw his young muscles against the rock. In a few moments the coping of the well lay uprooted on the dirty straw. The opening was a great blot of darkness, a cloud of darkness flowing tangibly upward. The emperor plucked up a torch and held it out. Stone-carved steps curved around the inside of the hole, their treads hollowed from much use, and dived into shadowed depths. From somewhere below echoed a faint trickle of water.

Bellasteros’s eyes gleamed. “An ancient water tunnel?” he asked Toth.

“Yes, my lord.” And, his hands fluttering, “Wait, wait, stack those stones here . . .”

“To conceal our exit,” finished Andrion. “Very good, Toth.” Odd, he had never thought the old creature capable of such cunning.

Bellasteros strode from man to man, offering a word of encouragement or a strong shoulder; he brought a length of rope from the stable and helped Andrion rip the supporting poles from the superstructure of the well. Levers took shape, the rope weaving through them like a spider’s web. Andrion let himself believe that all would be well; they would escape, and Bellasteros would lead the armies of Sardis to the relief of Iksandarun.

The unearthly ululation began again, wavered and died. The stableyard filled suddenly with rosy light as flames leaped above the walls of the palace. The sky remained flat, unyielding.

“Come,” ordered Bellasteros. He placed his foot on the top step, on the second step; his hand holding the torch shook suddenly, and his face in the scarlet light twisted. His other hand groped for the hilt of Solifrax.

He remembers the quest for the sword, Andrion realized. It was my mother who led him down just such a stairway, her star-shield shining before them. At the end they found the garden of the gods.

Bellasteros glanced up, searching; Andrion caught his eyes and held them. His eyes were horribly dull, terribly wrong. Perfidious gods, Andrion thought, and between his teeth he said, “If the gods mean to take the sword, better below than at the hands of the Khazyari.”

Bellasteros steadied. The torch disappeared below the lip of the well. A glow fluttered within, a solitary firefly unable to illuminate the depths of the night.

The horses snuffled at the gaping black hole and started back, refusing. The guards swore; Andrion cursed. A wind whirled down from the palace walls, bearing a drift of glowing cinders, and brushed the flanks of the beasts. Whinnying indignantly, the horses plunged forward and stumbled onto the steps.

Andrion took the other torch and beckoned to Toth. “Come. We shall guard the rear.”

The old man chuckled. “No, young lord; I think you will need a friend here, in the city.”

“But Toth, the barbarians—”

“Will not notice an old eunuch left from the old days, before Bellasteros spread his cloak like a blessing over us. No, I shall stay and make sure this courtyard is nothing but charred wood and stone and ashes circling in the wind.”

The wind—the voice of Ashtar. He was, after all, a clever old creature. “My thanks,” said Andrion, and he and Toth solemnly touched hands. The old man’s eyes were oddly translucent, like windows into another world. Andrion turned away.

He started down the rough, uneven stair. Slowly, he told himself. A fall could mean a broken neck. Toth would wait until the torchlight was gone before he released the levers. There was plenty of tinder to spread over the tumbled rock; the palace, its gardens and tapestries, his own room filled with rolled maps and manuscripts and clumsy odes to Dana’s beauty, the implacable beauty of the goddess. Gone, already gone. The Khazyari would find only a ruined and abandoned well. He stumbled and grasped at the wall; the slime on it burned his hand like acid. He saw only then that he had torn his palm on wood and rock.

Bellasteros and the guard were waiting at the bottom, pressing themselves against a rough-hewn wall that surrounded a dark, dank pool of water. A great rock-carved chamber arched overhead, its crevices lost in guttering shadow. Perhaps there were words carved there, perhaps not; perhaps a smoke gathered on the surface of the pool. The emperor’s mouth was pinched shut in denial, but his sunken eyes were bleached into pale tinted mirrors reflecting nothing but despair. Andrion, struggling with exasperated horror, hurried once again to his side. “Father!”

With a weary sigh Bellasteros awoke. “Yes, yes, Andrion.”

A tunnel exited the far side of the chamber, following the course of a stream, a water tunnel carved in the dawn of time long before Iksandarun became the seat of the Empire. The small company and their reluctant mounts splashed into the passageway.

Suddenly the earth heaved itself around them, and a wave of dust and ash boiled from behind to envelop them. Toth had done his work well. I shall reward him some day, if I ever see him again, Andrion thought. “About here,” he muttered, looking narrowly upward, “would be the city walls.”

“Yes,” said Bellasteros. His torch threw wavering shadow on the rock. Rock shaped into leering demons? Andrion asked himself. No, it was his own imagination that saw the barbarian victory cry take form around him.

And then a breath touched his cheek, a breeze purling through the old tunnel, freshening, beckoning. Not a wind bearing the blood-and-soot scent of the city, but a cold wind singing down from the fastness of Cylandra, the white-capped mountain of tiny, remote Sabazel. Andrion smiled and turned to Bellasteros, and Bellasteros echoed his quick grin.

The exit was a tiny crevice between megaliths that might at one time have been hewn by the hand of man. Now they lay cozily together, overgrown with brambles and vines. Cursing the thorns and quelling the indignant snorts of the horses, the company forced their way through and emerged into a willow grove.

Limber branches danced and sighed, and rustling leaves played with a sky suddenly filled with stars. Andrion started with recognition. He knew this place, a grove lining the banks of a stream well beyond the city walls. He had played here as a child, dreamed here as a youth.

The wind summoned him. Beside him, his father straightened and inhaled deeply of the clean air. A full moon spun through the fingerlike leaves of the willows. Heartened, the company strode forward.

At the edge of the grove the trees parted, seeming to lift their roots and move away from the armed company like fine ladies raising their skirts to avoid a mud puddle. The plateau of Iksandarun opened before Andrion’s eyes. A shroud of darkness shot with flame lay over the city. A pall of smoke engulfed the stars and reached upward, grasping at the full moon of midsummer. The moon, its great golden face tinted crimson—Ashtar’s eye stained by the ordeal of Iksandarun—seemed too heavy to be borne on a breeze that failed and died.

The stench of smoke and death filled Andrion’s nostrils. Faraway screams filled his ears. He quelled an impulse to run back into the trees and hide there, denying his birth, denying the gods. The grove was protected by a corner of the goddess’s mantle; she loved him, yes, and whom she loved she tested. As she had tested his grandmother Viridis, who had perhaps walked here before she gave herself to Sabazel and died for her gift at the hand of Gerlac in Sardis.

Viridis’s only son, his father, stood beside him. The cool shadow of the trees slipped away from him like a rent garment. His eyes dulled again, haunted by circling ghosts. “There,” he said, his voice thin and taut. “The moon was there, caught in the constellation of the Tree, the night you were born. It has not been there since.”

“My life come due?” Andrion heard himself say. “Or yours?” The hair prickled on the back of his neck. Blood stained the ancient altar, and blood stained the moon. Viciously he shrugged away such thoughts.

Bellasteros turned to him as if wanting to reassure him. But his words were not reassuring. “The rites of the goddess will be finished by the time we reach Sabazel, and men will have been turned away from its borders. Perhaps the queen will not let us in.”

Andrion’s heart went leaden in his chest. To be turned away at the gates of Sabazel would be the final betrayal. But he raised his chin, touched his father’s arm, and said stoutly, “How can the Queen Ilanit, my half-sister, turn us away? We are the only acknowledged sons of Sabazel.”

Bellasteros shook his head, not seeming to understand. Andrion ground his teeth in frustration at the spell that must be sucking at his father’s spirit. Gods, why do this to him? he demanded silently. There was no answer.

It was only when they mounted that Andrion realized his pony Pergamo had been left behind; Toth had given him a tall cavalry horse. So easily, then, did his youth pass. So terribly.

A fitful smoke hung heavy over the grassland, blurring the outlines of walls, the crumbled ashes of farmsteads. The bodies of their defenders bristled with clumps of arrows like some creeping weed. Bellasteros looked about him and moaned; a tear coursed slowly, painfully, down his hollow cheek, and disappeared into his beard. His eyes, sunken pale shadows, reflected no moonlight.

Andrion leaned forward over the neck of his horse, trying to urge them on, faster, faster, feeling almond-shaped eyes on the back of his neck. But the moon faded; they had to pick their way through the ruined land as a sullen crimson light diffused along the underside of the great cloud of smoke. The city burned; Bellasteros’s challenge, to build and to grow, was forfeit. A distant wailing hung upon the heavy air; the hoof-beats of horses reverberated upon the earth.

The hoof beats of more than the small imperial company—light steps, unshod steppe-ponies. Andrion inhaled sharply. Where? The sound could come from anywhere . . .

Shouts tore the night, incomprehensible Khazyari passwords. As one Bellasteros and Andrion reined in their horses and spun about. The guard, uncertain, blocked their way. The horses entangled themselves, plunging and rearing.

Khazyari shouts and black-tipped arrows together split the night. One guard went down with a cry, the arrow embedded in his throat, and his horse screamed and vanished into the murk.

Bellasteros’s body snapped into wakefulness. “By all the gods!” he shouted. Solifrax flared from its scabbard. For a moment the blade glinted crystal clear, driving the darkness before it. Andrion’s breath caught in his throat, with exaltation perhaps, perhaps with terror. He drew his own sword.

The dim shapes that were the Khazyari darted through the smoke, circling like jackals. Another flight of arrows hissed downward.

And one barbed shaft struck deep into Bellasteros’s right arm. He cried out, in protest, it seemed, not in pain; the sword Solifrax flew from his hand and inscribed a gleaming arc through the darkness.

“No!” Andrion shouted. “God’s beak, no!” He threw his short sword away and reached up, fingers open. Solifrax fell neatly into his hand. The hilt was too large; it seared his palm and he gasped. He was not the hero who had earned its power. The glow of its path still hung in the air, the glow of its curving blade hung behind his eyelids in the shape of a crescent moon.

One quick glance, and Andrion saw his father bent over his horsed neck, grasping its mane; the diadem lay inert on his hair, his face was stark white, his teeth bared in a rictus grin of pain and of pride in his son. Then his face went blank, the last threads of his intelligence, of his courage, fraying into nothingness.

“Gods!” screamed Andrion. The outrage, the agony, the fear filled him taut as a wineskin. And burst. He shouted, realizing as he did so that he sang the Sabazian paean. The sword moved in his hand, jerking his arm out, and his thighs tightened on the horse’s sides. It leaped forward. He struck, slicing right and left, and voices cried in sudden terror. Hoofs thundered behind him.

The Khazyari gave way, howling, before the wrath of the prince and the shining blade of Solifrax, and their shapes faded into the night.

But Andrion did not dare stop. Even as the sword muted itself, growing unbearably heavy; even as his hand burned, he urged the company onward. His arm could fall from his body before he would give up that sword. His father’s sword, which now lay awkwardly in his own right hand.

The gods will answer for this! he told himself, seizing the far edge of sanity. I shall defy them all. The company raced on, farther, farther, as a westering moon pulled the smoking shroud of Iskandarun with it across the sky.

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