If you like this sample, The Swampling King is available at Amazon.com
The eyeholes of Zerill’s mask narrowed her vision down to two small circles, filled with nothing but the discolored wood of the tavern’s ale-stained table.
Sitting quietly with her head down and her hood up was the best way, she had found, to be ignored. It seemed an unspoken rule among the highlanders—at least the ones who frequented this place—that those who wished to drink in silence be left alone to do so. And as long as she was left alone, Zerill was free to listen, which was exactly what she had come to do.
The tavern was not that same one she had visited last year—she never went to the same place twice in a row, for fear of being noticed despite her mask and cloak—but even so it felt familiar. They all looked much the same: warped wooden tables placed seemingly at random; a few fire-blackened lanterns that shed dim light over dozens of pale masks with huge black eyes; a stout, surly man behind the bar whose festival mask somehow completely failed to hide the glower he directed at each customer that came through the door. This place was no exception. In fact, though the northernmost plateau of the city—called “Cliffside” by the highlanders—was home to more people than Zerill had ever seen living in such close quarters, it still had far more identical ale-houses than seemed necessary to her.
But she didn’t come to the Cliffside taverns every year for their variety. She came because there was no better place to find the information she needed. During the year-end festival, disappointed knights who had failed to acquit themselves in the swordsmanship tournament always sought places like this one to drown their sorrows in peace. No one in the slums would dare to speak a word of judgement or mockery to anyone wearing Storm Knight grey. And in the four years she and Verik had been making the journey into the Plateaus, Zerill had learned something: when highlanders drank, they tended to talk. They tended to talk loudly, and they didn’t pay a great deal of attention to who was listening.
“Tournament’s all fake anyhow. Th’ real thing’s inna Swamp, tha’s where it matters.”
The speaker was a young man with long black hair and a highlander’s earthy brown skin, one of a trio of knights who had come in close to an hour before. They had claimed a table near the bar, and it had taken only a few drinks before they had begun explaining emphatically to each other—and anyone who would listen—how little it mattered that they had already been eliminated from the tournament. It was almost surreal to hear the loudspeech used so freely. And so slowly. There was a leisurely pace to the way the highlanders spoke, with long sounds and pauses for emphasis and altogether too many words; among the Abandoned, when speech was necessary at all, most dispensed with it as quickly as possible.
Zerill didn’t look up at the man when he spoke, just feigned a sip from her drink and kept her head down. She had glanced at the group only once, when they had entered, and immediately identified them as knights. It was not something they would ever have thought to hide. Their stormcloud-grey tabards stood out among the garb of the tavern’s other patrons—all black, a part of their festival costumes—and the knights wore no masks to cover the dark coloring and curiously small eyes that marked them as highlanders.
Highborn nobles and knights rarely bothered to disguise themselves for the night, she had noticed, though she was not entirely certain why. Perhaps they think themselves above the judgement of their gods and demons. It would be very easy, she imagined, for highlanders—and especially their highborn—to think themselves above almost anything. There were no highborn among the Abandoned, but had she been born in a castle on a mountaintop in the open sky, Zerill wondered if she might not feel the same way.
Another of the knights, who Zerill recognized by his deep tones as the largest of the three, voiced his agreement. “’Nother purge’s what we need. S’been too many years. Show those dark-eyes we c’n use our swords.”
The third man made a show of lowering his voice. It was only a show, though—Zerill could easily hear him from across the room. “You’ve heard of course? Duke Castar will lead a purge at cycle’s end, during Aryll’s Rest. Reprisal for the Deepling attack on Greenwall.” This one was less far gone than the others—not sober by any means, but trying to impress those around him rather than just loose-lipped from the drink.
Zerill tried to remember what she knew of how the highlanders measured time—a rest was the three-day calm at the end of each wind-cycle when the constant winds above the mist ceased blowing, and each cycle was made of a rest and the four nine-day wind patterns called turns that preceeded it. Near forty days to prepare, if he speaks the truth. But does he? It would make sense. The rests were usually a time of reflection or celebration for the highlanders, just as this one was. The Abandoned would not be expecting an attack.
She risked a quick glance at the man, reaffirming her memory. His appearance fit with her guess: wavy black hair, overly styled; tabard pressed and cleaned, absent of stains or signs of wear; fingers adorned with a number of garish rings. She had seen dozens like him over the years, men who spoke much but knew little. Is it an empty boast, then, or does he actually know of a purge? But it was the most relevant information she’d heard all night; she dipped her head again and concentrated on separating the conversation from the low din of voices in the tavern.
“Where’d y’hear that?” the long-haired man asked. “No one said anything t’me.”
“Tha’s because it’s goatshit,” the big one said. “Good Cer Horte here jus’ wants us to think he’s special. Nex’ thing he’ll be tellin’ us he dines with the Eagles.”
The braggart—Cer Horte, apparently—slammed his mug down audibly. He made no effort to even pretend quietness now. “I have it from Duke Castar himself! He is a friend of my father, you know. He recruited me personally!” It was a plausible claim. Zerill had followed Castar’s rise over the years; there were always rumors about him recruiting wealthy young men to the Knights of the Storm, usually in exchange for some favor from their fathers. Perhaps Horte knew something after all.
It was enough to take to Azlin, at least. Better to be warned unnecessarily than taken by surprise.
“Fine, fine, n’ermind. Yer prob’ly right.” The large one sounded cowed—Zerill guessed Horte was something of a leader of the small group. “Jus’ have another round.”
“I am right,” Horte said sullenly. Then, after a moment, “Yes. No matter. Another round! And let’s find some women! I can’t tell under the damned masks, are there any here?”
Zerill’s breath caught in her throat, and she nearly bolted. No, I’d have to pass them to reach the door. That would draw them right to me. Instead she hunched under her black cloak, trying to remain as formless as possible. She heard a chair screech against the wooden floor; footsteps approaching. She kept her head down.
“You, there.” Horte’s voice, too near. She exhaled, raised her head. The young knight was looking right at her. He grinned lecherously. “Yes, I thought so. What brings a woman to a place like this alone? Come, sit with us!”
Zerill considered her options. If she ran he would stop her, though he would try to make it seem playful. She had seen drunken knights do the same to other women in the past. She could not let that happen. He would want her to remove her mask, show her face—his kind cared very much about the look of a woman’s face. And if he saw hers, the rest of her life would be measured in hours. Highlanders didn’t take the time to pass fair judgement on the Abandoned; if she wasn’t killed immediately, she would be forced to stand at the edge of a cliff with her toes hanging over the side until she couldn’t anymore. Until she returned to the Swamp by the fastest route available. Standing the cliff, they called it. Letting their Sky God judge guilt or innocence, supposedly, but whoever was doing the judging, the Abandoned were always found guilty.
Her hand twitched toward the knife hidden at her waist, but she stopped herself. Violence would only make things worse. She couldn’t fight all the knights and watchmen in the Plateaus, and even if she evaded them, they might follow her back to Verik. There was only one choice, really: if she couldn’t run and she couldn’t fight, she would have to try to talk her way out.
She stood, and gave her best attempt at a highlander bow. “I’m sorry, Cer Knight. I cannot stay, my children—”
She had hoped that would put him off—brash young knights like Horte usually preferred their women young and unattached. But he just cut her off with a laugh. “You sound far too young and pretty to have children. And if you do, why are you here by yourself? Come now, don’t be shy.” He stepped around the table and reached for her wrist; Zerill snatched it away. He laughed again. “Quick. I like that. But you don’t have to be afraid, my dear.”
Zerill cursed herself for a fool. React like one of them, she reminded herself. Recoiling wouldn’t help. “You flatter me. I am hardly worthy of your attention.” She tried to speak with the careless languor of a highlander, but the words still sounded too fast in her ears. Ancestors, I should have practiced more. She forced herself to remain still as Horte moved his face in close to hers. His breath stank of ale.
“I’ll be the judge of that.” His hand moved toward her face. “Let’s see what you have under that mask.”
Zerill tensed, ready to push past him and run. Better to have him chase her as a highlander woman who had spurned him than as a swampling intruder—if he saw her face and hair under the mask, all was lost.
Another voice stopped her. “Leave her alone.” A slender man gripped Horte by the shoulder and pulled him back. The knight’s fingers caught in the strap of Zerill’s mask; she felt it snap as Horte stumbled backward.
The mask fell.
She snatched at her hood with her left hand, pulled it forward over her face as she dipped down; her right hand darted out and grabbed the ceramic mask inches from the floor. Did anyone see? But she heard no gasps or cries from the patrons. She was safe.
“Are you—” The voice choked off, and she looked up to see the slender man who’d come to her aid kneeling before her.
Staring her full in the face.
He wore no hood, only a standard festival mask—pale white ceramic with big dark circles painted in the eye sockets—surrounded by a corona of thick black curls. But through the holes in the mask, behind the crude mockery of her own features, she thought she could see something in his eyes: surprise, or perhaps fear.
Her heart contracted painfully, and she rushed to replace her own mask, holding it to her face with one hand. It was too late, though, and she knew it. There was no chance that he hadn’t noticed. Her skin was white as bone, her eyes deep black and too large, her hair a pale yellow-white unheard of among the dark-skinned, dark-haired mountain people. No one could mistake her for a highlander. He saw. A deep, instinctive fear cried out in her blood—never be seen by a highlander, never—but she forced herself to ignore it, and reached a shaking hand for her knife.
And then the man cleared his throat, and extended his hand. “Pardon me. Are you alright?”
Her fingers froze inches from the blade at her waist. Why isn’t he yelling for help? He had to have seen my face. Hesitantly, she took his hand. She didn’t know what game he was playing, but she let him help her to her feet—if he was going to give her time to reassess the situation, she would take it.
Horte’s two friends had moved to his side, and the three of them blocked the way forward. Their attention was on her rescuer now.
“You’ll regret that,” Horte said.
“I doubt that very much.” The curly-haired man’s voice was unafraid; he might have been on the verge of laughter. “Tell me, were the swamplings too much trouble? The Knights of the Storm are hunting women in taverns now?”
“Shut your mouth!” the big knight to Horte’s right roared. He surged forward, throwing an unbalanced roundhouse punch.
The slender man side-stepped and thrust out a foot; the knight stumbled over it, pitched headlong into a nearby chair, and tumbled to the ground with a grunt.
“Come on!” her rescuer gripped her free wrist and darted through the opening. Zerill followed, still holding her mask tightly to her face.
There was nobody in sight as they left the tavern. Highlanders didn’t walk outside alone during Dal’s Rest; they gathered together at the festival grounds, or celebrated inside their homes. The moon was a pale suggestion in the clear sky, and here and there a star glimmered to life. Dusk had only just fallen, but among the narrow, shadowed streets of Cliffside—the gas-lamps that lit the higher plateaus were absent here in the slums—it was already dark as full night. Let them try to catch me now. The darkness would hinder the highlanders, but she had the eyes of the Abandoned, and the blackest night above the mist was brighter than daytime below.
She pulled her wrist away from the slender man. The knights would be following them shortly; she had to go. But this man had seen her face, she was certain of it, and he had said nothing.
She lowered her mask and looked him in the eye, trying to take some kind of measure of him, and she heard herself ask, “Why?” Even that was more than she should have done—to let a highlander know that the Abandoned spoke their tongue was forbidden. She clamped her mouth shut.
He didn’t answer, and the mask hid his face, but she felt the uncertainty in his silence. He doesn’t know why he did it any better than I do.
After a moment he said, “You should run. That way.” He pointed down a narrow alley to the west. “They’ll follow me.”
She hesitated, still trying to glean something from the eyes behind the painted black circles of the mask, but the sound of the tavern door forced her into motion. The knights were coming. She darted into the alleyway. Let him draw them away, if he is so eager. He’s a highlander. I don’t care what they do to him. Somehow, though, she found herself looking back. A rain barrel sat in the narrow passage; she ducked behind it and watched.
The three knights burst through the door into the street, nearly falling over each other in their drunken haste. The slender man lingered until they saw him; he began to run only when he had their attention, heading south down the street.
“Stop!” Horte bellowed. He and his friends drew their swords and gave chase.
A few short seconds and they were beyond Zerill’s sight. I should go, she told herself. I can’t stay here. She tucked her mask into her belt. She couldn’t spare the hand to hold it in place, not now. In a single leap she was atop the rim of the rain barrel; another and she was gripping the edge of the tavern’s second floor window. She clambered up to the roof easily. She had been climbing the towering boggrove trees of the Swamp all her life; this was nothing.
The darkened streets of Cliffside spread out all around her, the lowest of the Plateaus’ districts save for the farming flats. Its narrow passages were crammed near to bursting with shacks and buildings, and made narrower by large piles of shoveled snow hidden too deep in shadow for the sun to shrink. Unfamiliar smells wafted up from the alleys, human waste and refuse, the stink of too many people packed too closely together. Not bad now, at the far end of winter, but it would worsen as the weather grew warmer. Still, even this place that the highlanders called a slum was safer and more permanent than anything her people had ever known.
Farther above, the rest of the Plateaus protruded erratically from the mountainside like poorly-made shelves of random shape and size, joined together by dozens of switchback roads and stone staircases. To the south and slightly higher on the mountain was the larger People’s Plateau, full of homes and markets and shops; over the rooftops, she could see the glow of the festival grounds against the dusk, brighter than anything in the Swamp. To the east and higher still rose the Countsbluff—home to the most powerful of the highlanders—shining with points of yellow-orange gaslight. The great peak of the Queensmount called the Godspire towered above it all, a spearhead splitting the eastern sky, and wrought from the stone at its base was the palace of the highlander king: the Aryllian Keep, the highest structure in the Plateaus save for the temple to the Sky God that stood beside it. Highlanders, she had noticed, cared very much about being closer to the sky than anyone else. Spots of torchlight traced back and forth along the half-circle of the Keep’s walls, carried by the Royal Swords on watch duty, and from the base of those walls the waterfall called Aryllia’s Tears spilled forth, glowing red as embers in the dying sunlight.
On any other night, Zerill would have stopped to look at the stars as they emerged one by one like hatching lightflies. She loved the lights in the sky above the mist, and she wouldn’t see them again for a long while. But she couldn’t afford to linger. She’d already taken too many risks, come too close to discovery. She needed to go west, to the half-dozen lower plateaus of the farming flats, where Verik waited among windmills and livestock fields and terraced crops.
She could still hear the shouting of the knights to the south as they pursued the stranger who had helped her. It doesn’t matter, I have to go. Verik is waiting.
And yet… the highlander had seen her face—she knew he had—and still he had risked his own safety for hers.
She leapt across the alleyway and followed the noise south.
The slender man was all black from behind, curly hair blending into a dark tunic and trousers, and there was no light in the street, but Zerill’s eyes picked him out easily—she had lived most of her life in worse darkness than this. He was sprinting at a good pace; he wove gracefully around a drunken man who stumbled into his path, then risked a quick look over his shoulder at his pursuers.
The knights were easier to see, in their grey tabards—the heavyset man lagged in the rear, and Horte was not terribly far ahead of him. The long-haired knight, though, was surprisingly swift, even after too much drink. He was closing the distance. Not quickly, but he would overtake her rescuer eventually. And they have had enough to drink that they might use those swords when they catch him. Her fingers signed a silent curse, almost unconsciously, and then she was following them over the rooftops, quick and quiet as a bat descending on prey.
The fastest knight was her priority—the other two were already falling behind. She bounded over the gap between buildings, landed on the inclined slats of the next rooftop, and scampered up to its apex. The curly-haired man risked another look behind him, saw that he was losing ground, and threw himself to the right, disappearing into a nearly-invisible alleyway. The long-haired man followed closely behind.
The alley passed directly in front of Zerill’s path; she could head him off there. She slid down the sloped roof and then, halfway down, jumped up and landed atop the building’s stone chimney. From there she threw herself across to the next home on the street, grabbing the edge of the roof with both hands. Her shoulder twinged, still sore from her earlier fall, but she had felt much worse, and she was busy. She braced her feet against the wall to interrupt the impact, then pushed off and hauled herself onto the rooftop. The alley was just ahead, and she rushed to the edge.
The long-haired knight was passing below her and a bit to her left, dangerously close to the slender stranger. Zerill drew her knife and raised it to throw.
No. Her knife was Maker-forged, a blade of blue-grey slate merged seamlessly with a wooden hilt by the deepcraft so that it was impossible to tell where one material ended and the other began. It would be impossible to confuse for highlander steel. And if the highlanders found a dead knight in the Plateaus with a Maker-forged knife in his chest, the Abandoned would suffer the consequences for years to come. She needed another way.
She swept her gaze over the alleyway, left then right. There. Someone had strung a clothesline across the small passage to her right, from a window a yard or so down. She threw herself into a tight roll and, just above the window, vaulted over the side of the roof. Holding the edge with one hand, she swung her knife low, severing the line.
Her timing was good. A bundle of damp laundry plummeted onto the knight’s head as he passed beneath her. Blinded, he stumbled forward and lost his footing. With a startled cry, he toppled to the ground and landed heavily on his stomach. It looked very much like a scene from one of the festival puppet-shows she had seen on the streets earlier in the day, and Zerill couldn’t help but smile as she pulled herself quietly back onto the roof.
Horte rounded the corner into the alley just as the slender man exited at the far side and continued south down the next street. There was no sign of the heavier knight. Too slow. He must have given up. Zerill knelt at the corner of the rooftop, watching until Horte passed beneath her—she couldn’t risk leaping the gap while he might see. There was a comfortable distance between her rescuer and his pursuers now, though, and the long-haired man had yet to regain his feet. He can outrun them now. There’s nothing more I can do.
As if to prove her wrong, two men in the blue tabards of the Royal Swords rounded the corner ahead, lanterns in hand.
Zerill ducked lower to avoid being caught in the light. The slender man checked his stride at the appearance of the guardsmen, looked behind him to see Horte emerging from the alley, and redoubled his speed.
“Stop him!” Horte shouted, waving his sword overhead to attract attention.
The two Royal Swords came to a halt, and one of them, a man with a shorn head, raised his lantern. “Who goes there?” Even before hearing an answer, the two men spaced themselves to effectively block the narrow street.
Between breaths, Horte bellowed, “I am… a Knight… of the Storm! Stop him!”
The curly-haired man appeared to accept that there was no way past the two Swords and slowed his step as he approached, raising his hands. “Yes, you’d better stop me. Three Swamp Knights with swords chasing an unarmed man, and I’m the one needs stopping.” Again, he sounded more amused than threatened.
Horte’s cheeks flushed as he stumbled the last yards that separated him from the other men. “I… am no… Swamp Knight.” He inhaled deeply, then pointed his sword at the slender man and tried to look threatening. “Say it again and die.” Zerill gathered that the knights didn’t approve of the term. No surprise, that—highlanders didn’t tend to enjoy being associated with the Swamp.
The second Sword, a tall, lanky man, took Zerill’s rescuer by the arm and held him as Horte approached, watching the drunk knight with a wary eye. “Is this man guilty of some crime?”
“Assault… against a… knight.” Horte braced his hands against his knees as he tried to catch his breath. “Unmask him. I would know… I would know his face and his name.”
This time the slender man laughed aloud. “Remember when you said I would regret getting involved in this? I think it’s only fair that I return the favor: you are really going to wish you hadn’t taken off my mask.”
“Quiet!” Horte barked. He gestured impatiently at the guards. “Do it!”
Zerill frantically cast about for some plan, but she was too far away now, and she could not risk revealing herself, not while those lanterns brightened the street. There was nothing she could do—this man had helped her, and now he was going to be badly beaten for it at the very least. Capture had not lessened his insolence in the slightest, and highlanders did not like to be mocked. She could only watch as the bald guardsman pulled the ceramic mask roughly from the prisoner’s head, revealing a brown-skinned face below his dark curls, with a sharp jaw and small highlander’s eyes.
“I warned you,” the slender man said. The impertinent grin he directed at Horte looked just like his wry tone had suggested it would; it reminded Zerill of Verik, a little bit.
She braced herself for Horte to strike him, or worse. But to her surprise, the bald Sword uttered a panicked “By the Above!” and both he and his partner dropped to their knees. A moment later, some realization dawned across Horte’s face, and then he too knelt before the slender man.
It was only when the bald guardsman spoke again that Zerill understood, and the breath left her lungs as if she had plunged into ice-cold water.
“Prince Josen! We’ve been looking all over the Plateaus for you!”
If you liked this sample, The Swampling King is available at Amazon.com