Beset on all sides by the forces of the merchant emperor Talquist, the Cymrian Alliance finds itself in desperate straits. Rhapsody herself has joined the battle, wielding the Daystar Clarion, leaving her True Name in hiding with her infant son. Ashe tries to enlist the aid of the Sea Mages. Within their Citadel of Scholarship lies the White Ivory tower, a spire that could hold the key to unraveling the full extent of Talquist's machinations. Achmed journeys to the reportedly unassailable palace of Jierna Tal, to kill emperor Talquistall the while knowing that even if he succeeds, it may not be enough to stop the momentum of the war.
As they struggle to untangle the web of Talquist's treachery, the leaders of the Cymrian alliance are met with obstacles at every turn. Rhapsody soon realizes that the end of this war will come at an unimaginable price: the lives of those she holds dearest.
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The Hollow Queen
Book Eight of the Symphony of Ages
By Elizabeth Haydon
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Elizabeth Haydon
All rights reserved.
THE FORGES, YLORC
The ring of steel against anvil was always a lovely percussion line for a song, and Sergeant-Major Grunthor was in the mood for singing as he pounded away, shaping the new pick hammer he was making.
The fires of the ancient forges of Canrif, designed and built a millennium and a half before by Gwylliam the Visionary, splashed light over the enormous smithy, adding a dance of shadows to the heat and smell of the place, increasing the Sergeant's already considerable pleasure. Gwylliam, an ancient king he had never met, was a genuine anus of a human being in Grunthor's estimation, but an undeniable genius at smithing and architecture. Therefore he thought it only right and fitting to shape his newest song in tribute to the long-dead inventor, whose mummified remains he and his comrades had come upon a few years before, splayed out on a table that was hidden away in the vault of a secret library in the bowels of the citadel the man had literally carved out of a mountain range in what now was the kingdom of the Firbolg, known as Ylorc.
Grunthor threw back his head between swings of the forge hammer and let his glorious bass, often a few notes flat, fill the high-ceilinged chamber with song.
Oh, Gwylliam was a piece o' shit
But that don't matter none,
'E liked ta build and loved ta smith
'Cause makin' stuff is fun.
It isn't nice ta beat yer wife
Ya shouldn't if you 'ave one,
But anyone would wanna smack
That bitch that they called Anwyn.
Yen the broadsmith, the Archon responsible for the forges, stood in as close an approximation to attention as the wiry Firbolg body was capable of and tried to maintain a placid expression, when what he really craved was to go to bed.
"Join in, Yen," the Sergeant instructed as he turned the pick hammer on its side. "That's an order."
"Don't know words, sir."
"Hmm. Could be a problem, then. Once Oi get the chorus down, Oi better 'ear ya."
"Hmmm, now — where was Oi?"
"'Bitch that they called Anwyn,' sir."
"Ah, yes." Grunthor opened his mouth to begin a second verse but, struck suddenly by decorum, he removed the shield from his eyes with great drama and stepped momentarily away from the anvil. He turned and looked furtively around the smithy floor.
"Where's me pint?"
"Base of anvil, sir."
"Ah, yep —'ere she is." Grunthor scooped up the amber bottle, pulled the cork with his back teeth, spat it out, and held it high to the towering ceiling above, adding its shadow to those that were already dancing there.
"'S'only proper we drink a toast to Annie," he said solemnly. "'Ere's to Anwyn, dead, again, a third an' 'opefully final time. You was a worthy adversary, Annie. Well, not really. You was a craven, manipulative nightmare with far more opinion of yerself than you ever deserved. May you writhe in the Vault o' the Unnerworld in unceasin' agony for Time Immemorial, amen."
"Amen," said Yen automatically.
The Sergeant-Major, who stood fairly close to eight feet tall with shoulders as wide as a one-ox plow, waved the bottle aloft for a moment longer, then downed the contents, following up with a resounding belch that echoed through the smith chamber.
The guards atop the ramparts applauded politely.
Grunthor acknowledged their applause with a tip of the empty bottle, put it back at the base of the forge, then picked up the tool he'd been smithing and held it out for the broadsmith's inspection.
"Yer opinion, Yen?"
The Archon examined the hammer.
"Not one of your better ones, sir."
The Sergeant's enormous amber eyes narrowed. He held up the newly crafted pick hammer to them and inspected it himself.
"You best be talkin' about the song, sonny. This 'ammer's a thing o' beauty."
The manic light went out of the Sergeant's eyes, and his face grew solemn.
"Really? The truth now, Yen, no jokin'. This is important."
The broadsmith signaled silently for Grunthor to turn the hammerhead over, and leaned closer to look at it again. The tool was approximately three times the size of the pick hammers that were routinely produced in the kingdom's commercial forges for mining and rock climbing in the peaks of the Teeth. Grunthor himself had designed the original model for the routine hammers several years before, and it had become one of the kingdom's most successful goods of sale, sent in trade around the world. In addition, its contribution to the expansion of the kingdom to new heights, literally, and the mining of the gemstones and rare minerals that he and the Firbolg king, Achmed the Snake, had discovered in the depths of areas unexplored in Gwylliam's day, was significant.
His expression at the moment could only be described as hurt.
Yen thought carefully and cleared his throat.
"You said big one for smashing."
"Yeah," said the Sergeant-Major. "What's wrong with it?"
"Head too long compared to height. Need to be shorter." Yen cleared his throat again. "Not by much."
"'Ow much?" Grunthor demanded.
The broadsmith looked at the head of the tool again. Then he held up his fingers with an infinitesimal gap between them.
The Bolg sergeant's face lit up again.
"Oh! Well, if that's gonna make the difference, let's put 'er back in the forge, then, Yen. Gotta be perfect fer what Oi got planned. Oi guess what ol' Brenda usta tell me at the Pleasure Palace was true, then. Longer's not always better. Oo'da believed it? Take yer time, Yen.
"An' besides, it gives me a chance fer two more verses, maybe three."
Yen merely closed his eyes.
* * *
Several hours later, when the massive head of the pick hammer had been shaped in proportion to Yen's satisfaction, and the handle adjusted to accommodate it, Grunthor went down the long hall that was one of the major horizontal air vents for the forges and opened the gated doorway. He stepped out onto the sheltered ledge, into the night wind, and stared westward, over the steppes at the Krevensfield Plain and the rest of the Middle Continent beyond.
What had been a pristine vista not that long ago was now speckled with light and smoke from what the Lord Marshal of the armies of the Cymrian Alliance, Anborn ap Gwylliam, had termed the Threshold of Death.
Grunthor and the Firbolg king had taken great amusement in the melodramatic name, but appreciated the concept nonetheless; Anborn had established a battle line, an interconnected series of fortified encampments that had once been farming settlements, designed to prevent the army of the southern nation of Sorbold from crossing, unrestricted, into the central regions of the Middle Continent. Most of the major provincial seats and army garrisons of the Alliance were positioned in the northern third of that area, and the great gap between the helpless farmers and the bulk of the army was now in the process of being evened out.
Tactically, Grunthor was pleased.
As pleased as one could be when an ally was defending a vast open landmass that bordered an attacking nation quartered in mountains, an enemy with an eye on assets north of that enormous open field.
Not good plannin' fer our side on the part of the All-God, he thought, watching the last moments of the sunset. Or 'ooever it was what planned it.
Just as the last of the turquoise light left the sky, he felt a shadow fall upon him from behind.
"Good evening, sir. Got a new joke fer ya."
There was no response, but Grunthor could feel the shadow grow a few steps closer.
"Whaddaya get when ya cross a Firbolg soldier with a Dhracian assassin?"
There was a moment of silence. Then a sandy voice spoke.
"I don't understand."
"Either an unbeatable combination of milit'ry might, or the ugliest, deadliest prostitute ever."
Silence echoed up the vent.
"I still don't understand."
Grunthor sighed. "'Ave a seat, Rath."
With almost no disturbance of air whatsoever, the space on his right was occupied with the thin body of the Dhracian demon hunter, a man with whom Grunthor had had little interaction and even less conversation.
The man who now was the only person in the Bolglands with a chance of killing the adversary for which they were preparing.CHAPTER 2
NORTHERN SEACOAST, TRAEG
The waves that crashed along the rocky coast carried with them the thinnest sliver of fading moonlight, shining waveringly at the seam of the sand and the depths.
Gwydion ap Llauron stood for a moment in the sea wind as he broached that gleaming edge, up to his knees in a rolling surf. The heir to the legacy of some of the most famous mariners in history, he had felt the sea in his blood all his life; his earliest memory was of being held suspended within the gently swirling tides, most likely in the arms of his father, long before he had the ability to walk on his own, the salty water swelling and ebbing around his infant body. There had been a comfort in the waves then that he remembered still, when all other memory of those early days was lost to Time and age.
Gwydion, or Ashe, as the high lord of the Cymrian Alliance was known to his intimates, waited for a few moments with his feet buried in pebbled sand disappearing relentlessly into the Deep and watched the moon until it set. Then, when all trace of light was gone from the sky, he waded farther out into the burgeoning waves.
In his hand he carried an ancient blade known as Kirsdarke, a sword of elemental water forged in another age, on the other side of the world. It was a deeply magical weapon, said to have been tempered in the cold, boiling icefire of an undersea volcano. Its frothing blade was raging with excitement, running in shining rivers from the tang to the tip as he walked deeper into the surf.
As the water crested his thighs, Ashe allowed himself a final thought of his wife and infant son, the former now engaged in the war that was taking root in the land behind him, the latter hidden deep within distant mountains to keep him safe from that conflict and from those of dark intent who hunted him for darker reasons. Ashe whispered a prayer for their safety skyward to whatever beneficent force might hear him as he separated himself from the realm of air.
Then, inhaling deeply, he submerged his body into the arms of the sea.
The rippling sound of the wind vanished from his ears as the water closed over his head, replaced by the heavy thrum of waves and the dark tides beyond them. Ashe closed his eyes, knowing that when he opened them again he would see no more than he could with his eyes shut; the falling moon had taken the very last illumination beneath the surface with it, leaving only endless darkness.
He waded, blind, out farther until his feet could no longer brush the sandy bottom, hanging suspended in the drift. The sensation harked back to his first memory, as he had intended, and he allowed himself a moment to revel in the comfort he remembered as his body went vaporous. Kirsdarke's blade turned formless as well; he could feel the heft of the weapon lighten in his hand as it became nothing more than hilt.
With the fading of his corporeal body came a strengthening of his will; the power of the elemental sword of water vibrated through him with a roar, attuned now to the most overwhelming source of power, strength, and vibration in the world: the wild ocean, the Wide Central Sea at the edge of which he was now hovering.
Eyes still closed, he loosed his last bond to the part of himself that was anything but water, and felt his flesh dissipate, falling away like a diaphanous garment in the tide. Then he focused his thoughts and tied his mind to a particularly strong current and let it pull him, with the receding waves, out into the dark world of endless water before him.
Walking through the ocean.
Passing below the keels of the pirate ships, armed merchant vessels, and warships that plied the waves above him, an enormous armada that had destroyed and then blockaded the harbors of the Alliance, effectively sealing off the western coast of the continent to any seafaring vessel not belonging to that argosy of death.
THE RAVEN'S GUILD, YARIM PAAR, PROVINCE OF YARIM
Yabrith was by rights a petty thief, a thug, and a modestly talented killer.
Other than a reputation for a cool head, he had little to recommend him as second-in-command of the Raven's Guild, the famous coterie of assassins that also operated one of the most celebrated tile foundries on the Middle Continent, doing business in plain sight while the darker element of the guild hid their dealings from the light of the sun. So while many of his fellows were more gifted in the arts of larceny, intimidation, graft, pickpocketing, and murder most foul and for hire, Yabrith had achieved a fairly easy place in the guild's hierarchy, essentially holding down the fort whenever the guild scion, a hollow-faced, narrow-eyed man known as Dranth, was away.
As he had been for some time now.
Having Dranth's trust was something Yabrith never took for granted. He had known from a very early age that position was essential within an organization like the Raven's Guild, and had been similarly aware of his shortcomings when it came to the thuggery normally necessary to achieve such position. He was gifted with a blade, though many others were more so. He had no compunction about fulfilling contracts on women, children, or the clergy, but neither did anyone else in the Raven's Guild. Among the roster of soulless murderers, brutal beaters, and vicious torturers in the ranks of the organization, Yabrith could almost have been mistaken for a rank amateur rather than actually considered an assassin at all.
So rather than scrapping in back alleys or slitting throats in the dark, he instead became a student of organization and procedure, gaining a knowledge of protocol and the inner workings of every office, business, barracks, and noble house in Yarim Paar, even up to and including the Judiciary, the capitol that was the provincial seat of Yarim and the home of its duke, a dullard named Ihrman Karsrick. There were, in fact, more men working in the Judiciary on the payroll of the Raven's Guild than not on it.
Even so, the longer Dranth remained away from the guildhall, the more nervous Yabrith became. Given that the scion had taken an out-of-town job, traveling overland with three others of superior skill and minimal ethics, to the realm of the Firbolg in the neighboring mountain range known as the Manteids to the human population of the continent, and as the Teeth to their current occupants, Yabrith was finding himself growing a little more nervous with each day that Dranth did not return.
The guild scion was known as a man of speed and alacrity of purpose.
Finally, when Dranth unexpectedly stepped through the fireshadows that coated the floor near the table in the guildhall where Yabrith was finishing his supper one evening, Yabrith choked on the sausage he had swallowed before chewing it properly.
"Welcome back, finally," he said as he wiped his mouth clear of spittle with his linen napkin. "I don't believe you have ever been this late in returning from a journey before; I hope all went well."
"Swallow your tongue," Dranth replied darkly as he crossed to the sideboard beside the fireplace, seizing the bottle of brandy with hands that shook and splashing the ruby liquid into a crystal glass. "If you need help I can assist with that."
Yabrith's eyebrows rose into his hairline, but he said nothing. His jaw clenched shut with a resounding pop.
Dranth turned his attention to emptying the decanter of brandy, after which he heaved the glass into the fireplace.
Yabrith knew better than to comment. He brushed the glass fragments surreptitiously from his doublet and waited for the guild scion to speak. He sat quietly while Dranth paced in silence in front of the glowering flames, finally dropping into the armchair at the head of the table.
Yabrith continued to wait.
At last Dranth looked up.
"The others are dead," he said. His voice was hollow. "Like bottle flies."
Yabrith exhaled, still saying nothing, but clenched his intertwined fingers together even more tightly than they had been since the guild scion's first order of silence.
The three men who had ventured forth with Dranth into Ylorc, the mountainous realm of the Firbolg monsters, were the most skilled members of the Raven's Guild. Trentius, known for merciless interrogation that bordered on artistry, was said to be part bat, able to hang upside down in the darkest of alleys and caverns until a victim passed by below; Sandon, an albino who was all but invisible in direct sunlight and an unerring marksman with everything from a crossbow to a throwing knife; and Dhremane, a mute who had successfully erased all sound from his passage, and all odor from his flatulence, who could stand, undetected, for more than eighteen hours, in plain sight — each of them a master dispensary of death.
Yabrith would have sooner believed the sun would voluntarily refuse to rise than those men be lost to the guild, their expertise unmatchable, irreplaceable.
Excerpted from The Hollow Queen by Elizabeth Haydon. Copyright © 2015 Elizabeth Haydon. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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