Seven hundred and seventy-nine years have passed since the founding of Malcera.
The Council of Warriors rules the country with a strong hand.
As a young peasant in a far-off village begins to dream of change, life and death collide together in the home of Sir Alton Treadnight...
A scream pierced the air, a sound of agony that reverberated from every stone in Castle Armath.
The midwife's brow knit in concentration as she bent over the young woman on the bed, wringing out a cloth in cool water and bathing the girl's forehead. "Shh, shh." She reached out and smoothed her patient's hair back from her face. "That's right. My poor lady, it's almost over. There now. Shh."
Despite the midwife's address of her as a lady, the young woman was in actuality the kind of patient the midwife felt most at her ease with- a simple peasant.
Talla Gale Treadnight was very young, only nineteen, with a lovely, heart-shaped face and long dark lashes. She looked so vulnerable, the midwife thought, her delicate, slender frame dwarfed by the sumptuous bed that held her. Her long chestnut hair appeared almost black with dampness, spread out on the soft pillows in wild disarray.
Her eyes fluttered open as her face temporarily released itself from the grimace of pain it had been held in. They were large, sad, soulful eyes, pale brown in color, reminiscent of a doe's. When she had first come to this house, they had sparkled with life. Now there was a shadow deep within them, of some great burden that only she knew.
"How much...longer?" she gasped out. Her voice was tight and low with pain.
"Not long, not long, dear." The midwife hurried to soothe her. "Not long at all. You're doing just fine, lady, just fine. I'll send for my lord."
Talla's voice rose in a strange desperation. She clutched at the bedcovers, her hands seeking something to grip to ease the pain as another wave of suffering washed over her. "Not Alton." She forced the words out between clenched teeth. "Not now!"
Puzzlement stamped itself on the midwife's features. "Shh, it's all right. Your husband should be here to witness the birth of his child."
"No," Talla said again. "No! Not Alton, please!"
She tried to sit up, cried out in pain and fell back against the snowy sheets with a sobbing intake of breath.
"All right, all right, lady." The midwife shifted the pillows supporting Talla's shaking body. "There, there. Don't worry, now. There's nothing to fear."
Talla's agitation could be dangerous for her at this stage, she knew. The girl was not strong, and privately the midwife thought that the birth might prove too much for her. Better to defy tradition and let her have her way than insist on it and jeopardize the safety of both mother and child. Talla was already struggling.
But as the midwife had said, the end was not long in coming. Fifteen minutes later, with one final, anguished cry, Talla brought her child, Sir Alton Treadnight's second son, into the world. Then she sagged against the pillows, her limited strength exhausted from the ordeal.
Knowing that the young woman could do nothing to help her, the midwife hurried to bathe the newborn and wrap his tiny body in a blanket.
She frowned in thought. Five years before, she had assisted Sir Alton's first wife, Salena Kalderon, with the birth of Alton's first son. Dalivan had been healthy and strong from his first breath, opening his lungs with a lusty cry.
This little one was exactly the opposite, small and delicate, almost fragile, making only one pathetic little whimper before falling silent. Like Talla herself, the midwife thought, quiet and frail.
She put her own thoughts aside and carried the little bundle to the bed. Talla made a valiant effort to raise herself, holding out her arms for her baby.
"Oh." The word came out as a soft, entranced breath, her tired face lighting up with joy. "Oh, he's beautiful."
She traced a finger across the baby's face, laughing softly with delight as the infant grasped her finger in a feeble fist. "My precious little son."
Then it was as if the will went out of her. She collapsed, clasping her child to her heart. She turned her head, her lovely eyes fixed on the midwife.
"Name him for me," she said. "For my family. I want him to have my family name." In trembling hands, she held the baby up to the midwife, who swooped in like a guardian angel to bear him away.
The midwife carried the child to the wooden cradle that had waited in readiness in the great chamber for many days, laying the baby down tenderly and tucking the blankets in around him.
"There we are, lady. Shall I call for my lord now?"
But Talla never heard her. Sir Alton Treadnight's second wife died as she had lived- completely unnoticed, never making a sound.
Seven hundred and ninety-one years have passed since the founding of Malcera.
The Council of Warriors is dissolved.
As the fledgling Anzora Monarchy begins to test its strength, tension rises at Castle Armath...
Thirteen-year-old Galen Treadnight brought his sword up in a desperate parry, making a last attempt to fend off the expert thrust of the older, more experienced swordsman. His opponent's blade stopped its path toward his chest, more, he knew, out of the man's desire to continue the fight than any skill on Galen's part.
He scrambled to his feet, readying the weapon as best he could and adopting a poor imitation of a fighter's stance. His foe chuckled derisively, sure of victory already. Galen could not see his face through the lowered visor of his helmet, but he could envision the sneer upon it.
The enemy launched into a pitiless, blinding attack, moving so quickly that Galen was in retreat before he knew what had happened. The older warrior forced him to give nearly a yard of ground before he finally let up, giving Galen a chance to attempt his clumsy movements with the sword.
Even a master swordsman, such as his father and the others on the disbanded Council of Warriors had been, would have been hard pressed to find an opening in his foe's flawless defense. Someone as pitiful with a weapon as Galen was stood no chance at all. The weak, ill-timed thrusts he made bounced harmlessly off the older fighter's blade or armor, or worse, hit nothing at all. Several times he stumbled and nearly fell over his own feet, tangled up in his awkward footwork.
The foe let him make a fool of himself for a few moments, then forced the attack again, driving Galen even further backward. Now Galen couldn't even parry all of his thrusts and cuts, remaining unscathed simply because the other chose not to end the fight.
Finally, though, the older fighter tired of the game. Spinning his blade around in a complicated move, he slammed the weapon hard against Galen's own sword, numbing his hand and sending the sword flying out of it.
"All right, enough already. You win," Galen panted, raising his visor and cradling his throbbing wrist.
But to his surprise, the other fighter didn't drop his sword. He raised his foot and kicked Galen hard in the side, striking his shoulder with the flat of the wooden practice weapon as he fell.
Then he stood over him and delivered another harsh kick to Galen's ribs, hitting him several more times with the sword.
"I said enough, Dalivan!" Galen pushed himself out from under his half-brother's punishing blows, struggling to his feet. "This isn't a real battle! You don't need to kill me to win!"
Dalivan's voice, as he finally dropped the sword and removed his helmet, dripped with unbridled scorn. "You're hopeless, Galen! If that had been a real battle, you would have disgraced the entire realm of Malcera and been dead within two seconds! I hope you realize that the only reason you even lasted as long as you did is because I let you go! I don't think a Lannitan raider would give you the same courtesy!"
"Oh, come on," Galen protested. "Lannita hasn't raided Malcera in years. We're at peace with them now."
"It's the principle of the thing." Dalivan's eyes smoldered. "You're a Treadnight, or at least you're supposed to be. Our family name is built on weaponry. Fighting. The sword. All the way back to the ancients. And then you come along, and a child with a broomstick would be more dangerous!" His mouth twisted as he added his favorite insult to the rebuke. "Then again, maybe I shouldn't expect too much. That peasant blood is bound to weaken you."
Galen felt his face flame. It always hurt when Dalivan brought up the fact that his mother was a commoner. Dalivan's own mother, Salena Kalderon, had been a wealthy noblewoman. Galen's mother Talla Gale, by contrast, had had nothing in the world but her pretty face, or so the old servant women said.
That is, when they dared to speak of Talla at all. Galen's father hated any mention of his second wife. Galen, named for his mother, was the only proof that she had ever existed.
"I can't help who my mother was." He hated how weak the reply sounded, but then a better argument sprang to his mind.
He said it without thinking. "The king's a peasant."
Without warning, Dalivan raised his hand and brought the back of it sharply across Galen's face. "Don't ever let me hear you say that again!"
Galen winced, but some stubborn imp had taken hold of him. "Why not? It's true! King Kyren is as much a commoner as...as my mother was, and look at him! He's a warrior, a king even!"
"No, he isn't." Dalivan's tone was the dark, dangerous one that made everyone who heard it cringe. "There is no King Kyren, no royalty at all, just a commoner with dreams of power and glory and a few of the right friends. The monarchy, the capital in Tormelis, it's all a lie. As soon as the novelty wears off, the Council will be back in charge and Kyren Anzora will be where he belongs, grubbing in the dirt with the rest of his kind. As it should be. There is no king, understand? There never was!"
Galen had rarely seen his half-brother so furious. "All right, all right!" He held up his hands in surrender. "I didn't know. I won't mention it again."
"See that you don't." Dalivan turned his back on Galen and marched off across the field, calling back over his shoulder, "Especially not in front of Father!"
Galen didn't have to be told that. Ever since the Council of Warriors had disbanded, his father, Alton Treadnight, had been restless and moody, brooding over some danger that only he saw on the country's horizon, resenting Malcera's new king. Any mention of the new ruler would likely send his father into a rage.
For his part, Galen didn't think the monarch was so dangerous. He had met Kyren Anzora before, when the whole Treadnight family had journeyed to the Council Hall in Coston City for an extended series of meetings one winter. Kyren hadn't been a king then, only a councillor like Galen's father, but even then he had seemed remarkable. The first commoner to ever hold a position on the Council of Warriors, Kyren, in his late twenties, was also one of the youngest councillors in Malcera's history. Galen still remembered the young man's eyes- so intensely blue that they seemed to be made from little pieces of a cloudless sky.
And laughing. Even during the most serious parts of the meetings, even when he spoke his thoughts on the most pressing issues in the country, Kyren's eyes were always laughing, as if nothing in the world could ever really trouble him.
And now he was king. Those laughing, fearless eyes shone from beneath a crown, leading Malcera into a future as bright as their sky-glorious shade. Could a king with such kind, merry eyes ever really be as twisted and deceitful as his father claimed?
"There is a king, no matter what Dalivan thinks," Galen whispered fiercely to himself as he watched his older brother's figure grow smaller and smaller in the distance. "There is a king. A king with commoner's blood."
The scene repeated itself the next day. Had the choice been up to Galen, he would have declined to practice with the sword, knowing he was irredeemably inept.
But Dalivan dreamed of one day joining the Council of Warriors as their father had, still holding on to the belief that the monarchy would last only a short time. He gave Galen no option but to oppose him, seeking someone, anyone, to practice with, careless of his younger brother's dislike of the sword.
Today, if it was possible, Galen did even more poorly than he had yesterday. Today, for the first time since the fall of the Council, Sir Alton Treadnight left his chambers to watch his sons' performance.
If there was one thing in all the world Galen craved, it was the approval, the notice of his father. He would have given anything to deliver a passable demonstration of skill, but, conscious of his father's cold eyes upon him and of Dalivan's easy, expert strikes that highlighted his own pathetic attempts, he stumbled and lost his grip even more than he usually would have. He simply wasn't strong enough to bear up against his brother's fierce blows.
Dalivan, for his part, seemed to glow. His every movement grace, his exhibition flawless, and his skill evident, he excelled in his father's scrutiny, meeting every expectation anyone could have.
The spring sunlight shimmered across his comely, well-muscled body, bringing a radiance to his statuesque face. The dark ponytail that hung at the nape of his neck contrasted with the pale blue doublet he wore. Dalivan Treadnight was a son any man would be proud of.
Galen, on the other hand, knew he was just the opposite. He had inherited next to nothing of Alton Treadnight's legendary looks and skill, as Dalivan had. Instead, Galen favored his mother, with a delicate build and soft, gentle features.
Perhaps, he thought dismally, he reminded Alton too much of his one folly, the pretty peasant girl named Talla whom he regretted every day.
At Dalivan's insistence, Galen opposed him in three matches. Each seemed to last forever, and Dalivan bested him in every one. He offered his younger brother no mercy, sprawling him on the ground time and time again, raining punishing kicks and strikes on his unprotected body.
Dalivan gave Galen no rest even after three such humiliations. As Galen dragged himself wearily to his feet for the fourth match, a deep, gravelly voice interrupted.
Both boys turned at the sound. Sir Alton Treadnight stepped out from the tree he had been leaning against, a wolflike half-smile playing around his features.
"A true warrior," he said, drawing his own keen blade from the scabbard at his side, "concerns himself only with a worthy opponent. Draw your sword and face me, son."
The words were as painful as knives to Galen's heart. Once again he had failed to please his father. The message in Alton's comment was clear- his younger son was not even worth his concern. Galen watched with secret longing as Dalivan threw his wooden blade scornfully down at his brother's feet, replacing it with a true warrior's sword of shining steel, and strode off across the field to meet Sir Alton. The combat between the two was a dance of mastery, showcasing a deep connection between father and son that Galen could only dream of.
"Good, good. Watch yourself now, you're opening your side a little too much. There. Well done."
Alton and Dalivan had reached that plane that Galen never would, the space where only the song of their clashing blades mattered, the point where Alton sought to correct the miniscule errors that only a true master of the sword could see in Dalivan's movements. They worked and thought almost as one mind.
Watching them, it was easy to see why the Treadnight name was so lauded and feared. This was what had made their family's honor. People like Galen's father and brother were the artists who had crafted a great thing from the Treadnight house.
What would it be like, Galen wondered as he bent to collect the wooden practice swords, to be in Dalivan's place? To feel his father's affection and appreciation, to be the son that was honored and skillful, the son of pure, noble blood? What would it be like to feel the blade cutting the air with the sharp, polished finesse that Dalivan's always did? What would it mean to be a warrior, a warrior like a Treadnight should be?
Deep down, he knew he would never know. He was no warrior. He could not fight. He would never feel what Dalivan enjoyed daily- the rare, precious love of his father, Sir Alton Treadnight.
The two duelists had moved out of his earshot now. The sparkle of the swords in the sun passed back and forth as they moved at blinding speed through the air. Alton and Dalivan were distant figures, distinguished only by the colors of their tunics, the one a youthful promise in bright blue, and the other a figure of experience and expertise in silken black.
Finally, Alton signalled an end to the match. Both swords dropped as their wielders sat down on a nearby stone bench, Dalivan listening intently as his father explained some fine point of battle-craft. Briefly, Alton's hand came down and rested a moment on his son's shoulder, saying all that his taciturn manner would never say.
No. Galen would never know that touch. He would never hear those words.
He did not have to see the approval in his father's grey-green eyes, so like his own, to know it was there.
But it was not meant for him, and it never would be.
Seven hundred and ninety-two years have passed since the founding of Malcera.
The monarchy grows stronger and does not end.
As the commoner-turned-king faces resistance, a messenger carries to Castle Armath grave tidings...
The messenger stood in the great hall of Castle Armath. His royal livery, scarlet and silver, dripped with the rain the sullen skies were pouring down upon Malcera. He twisted his hat in his hands, his back to the heat of the fire.
Galen, seated in the corner of the room, watched his face intently. There was something more in it, something inappropriate for the simple message he had just delivered. There was something the messenger wasn't telling them.
"Say it again." There was an odd, pleased tone to Sir Alton's voice. He leaned forward slightly.
The messenger cleared his throat, obviously intimidated by the tall nobleman. "There was...there was an attack on the royal treasury this morning, my lord. Several guardsmen in His Majesty's service were murdered by the rioters. Your eldest son was the ringleader of the attack, heading six other noblemen's sons."
Galen inhaled sharply. His brother had always been headstrong, but he had never imagined Dalivan would go this far. To kill King Kyren's soldiers...not only was it murder, it was high treason, plain and simple.
He wondered who the other six youths were. So this was what had had Dalivan so distracted lately. He stole a glance at his father.
If anything, the look on Alton's face was one of pride. Of course, Galen thought. His beloved son had just struck a blow against the king he hated.
"And where are these young men now? Surely Kyren Anzora would know better than to lay a hand on my son, no matter what crimes he is said to have committed."
"They are being held in the palace dungeons, my lord."
Anger twisted Alton's features. "What? What right does that peasant-king have to imprison noblemen's sons?" He rose from his chair. "I'll ride to the palace immediately."
"My lord..." The messenger shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. "My lord, there is no need."
Alton's eyebrows rose. Galen knew his father's rage was rising too, and shuddered. "If you mean that Anzora does not intend to release my son," Alton snarled, "His Majesty will find that a harder battle than he expects. A father has the right-"
"That is not what I mean, my lord." The messenger's voice trembled slightly. "What I meant to say is that six of the seven attackers are being held."
Some of the fire left Alton's eyes. "So. At least Anzora is not so bold as to attempt to imprison my son. Very well then. I will await Dalivan's arrival here."
"You...you would be waiting long, my lord. Your son is...is not..."
"You're trying my patience. Speak your message plainly and be gone."
The messenger cringed. "Six of the rioters were captured. One was killed. Your son...your son is dead."
Silence fell over the hall.
Shock formed a tight knot in Galen's chest. His brother, dead? Dalivan had never been kind to him, often even abusive, but he had always been a presence in his life. On Dalivan rested all of his father's hopes. It seemed impossible that he could be gone.
A thousand expressions crossed Sir Alton's face at once. Disbelief. Indescribable sadness. Grief. Anger. Black hatred.
The messenger watched in fear, his voice cracking as he ventured to speak. "His Majesty offers his condolences..."
Alton Treadnight's roar made Galen flinch. He pushed himself farther back into the corner, terrified of what his father, in his grief, might do.
"Don't you dare speak to me of that dog's pitiful condolences! This has Anzora's name all over it! Out of seven young men, the only one murdered is my son, and I am expected to believe it was by chance, a simple accident?" Alton's tone was dangerous, almost manic. Galen had never heard him like this before. "No! I'll tell you what it was! This was a warning! That craven coward knows I oppose his sham of a ruling, so he had my son killed to prove his power over me!"
Alton's voice shook, whether with grief or rage Galen didn't know. "I will not be threatened by a commoner, do you hear me? I won't! Anzora will have to reckon for my son's death, that much I can promise you!"
The messenger didn't reply. Trembling in the face of the nobleman's anger, he made a shaky bow and nearly ran from the castle.
Alton dropped to one knee in the center of the hall, pressing his hand against his face, his shoulders shaking with sobs. "My son...my son..." he said, over and over. "My precious son!"
Never before had Galen seen his father weep. It was disconcerting, and sympathy welled up within him. He almost approached his father to offer what comfort he could, but then thought better of it. In his present state, Alton Treadnight was a dangerous man.
How long he remained there, weeping, Galen never knew. It was a long time before his father stood. Wiping his eyes on the sleeve of his black silk doublet, he took a deep breath, calling out, "Adric!"
The castle steward, an elderly man who had served them for as long as Galen could remember, came running. "Yes, my lord?"
"Have my horse saddled. I'm riding to the capital."
"Anzora will answer for this. King or no king."
Adric bowed. "Yes, sir."
"And if he dares to deny this plot of his," Alton vowed, "then I will continue what my dear son started. Anzora has begun something tonight that he will be hard pressed to end."
Alton Treadnight's voice was heavy and dark with hatred. It no longer sounded human.
Sir Alton's journey to the palace was in vain. Though he expressed his sympathies to his old fellow councillor, Kyren Anzora denied any preemptive planning of Dalivan's death and sent Sir Alton on his way.
Alton had been in a black mood ever since. The castle staff tiptoed around him, knowing how volatile their master was in his grief.
Galen might as well have been nonexistent. His father was too absorbed in the son he had lost to care about the son he still had.
Alton ate little and slept less. He spent most of his time staring into the fire, his fingers folding in and out of hard, dangerous fists, his face working and twitching with passion. Galen wasn't sure which troubled him more- his heavy burden of sorrow or his burning hatred for King Kyren, which seemed to have tripled in intensity.
Galen never left his father. Though Alton never even acknowledged him, some force of devotion kept Galen in the same room, silent, but still there.
Sometimes he wondered how much of his father's sanity had been lost that rainy night. Alton's fixated stare sometimes gave way to wild pacing back and forth, raving against the king and the monarchy. He would keep it up for hours, then retreat to his usual place by the fireside and resume his focused stare.
Galen simply could not believe his father's suspicions. The king was too kind, too gentle, too honorable to plot anything so treacherous and underhanded as his brother's death. He had seen the bright blue eyes of Malcera's king, and he knew there was no shadow of guile within them.
Galen was not brave enough to attempt to comfort his father, though others, such as Adric, certainly tried. Alton ignored them all, immersing himself in his mourning and allowing it to consume him.
All of Castle Armath slowly became enveloped in its master's blanket of sorrow. The halls became hushed and quiet, the servants making their way around as unobtrusively as if they walked in a graveyard or on some sacred ground. The tapestries on the walls and the rushes on the floor became soiled and dirty, and the soot and smoke from the fires streaked the castle's very stones an ugly black. The few windows built into Armath's walls were kept covered, barring the sunlight. Only a few sputtering torches and candles lit the halls.
Galen found this way of life oppressive and wearisome. He wished his father would find something else to do with his life, that he would accept the pain of Dalivan's absence and move on.
Buried deep within him was the faint spark of another hope- that with Dalivan dead, his father might finally notice him. Often on the long nights when his father did nothing but stare into the flames, he felt like screaming. You still have me! I'm still here! Look at me, Father, just look at me!
It was on one of those long, lonely nights that Galen made his great mistake.
He never knew, afterwards, exactly what brought it to his tongue. Maybe it was how tired he had become of living in his father's heavy mist of grief. Maybe it was the longing for his father's approval that had finally become too much to bear. Maybe it was something else, something more dangerous- his desire to end his father's mistrust of the king.
He only knew for certain that he had said it, and his life had forever changed.
As usual, Alton was sitting in the great carved chair, gazing at something in the hungry, crackling flames that only he could see.
The nights of raving were definitely worse than the nights of staring, but tonight Galen couldn't stand his father's dark silence.
"It wasn't just the king."
He said it softly, but in the noiseless hall, occupied by only the two of them, it seemed as loud as a peal of thunder.
It felt like an eternity before Alton replied. Galen had not been sure he would. His father only growled one word.
"That night. It wasn't just the king, if he did orchestrate...what happened. Dalivan killed too, the messenger said he did. The king's guards..." His voice trailed off, but he made himself go on, desperate to keep his father talking to him. "Even if the king did murder him, wasn't Dalivan a murderer too?"
He could only manage it in a whisper, his back stiffening in dread of what his father's response might be.
"My son was no murderer."
The words were said in such a low tone from Alton's throat that Galen had to struggle to hear them.
"My son was a warrior. My son killed for the cause the Treadnights believe in. My son struck out against a false monarchy. There is nothing I could admire more than what he did." His voice turned angry. "Anzora, on the other hand- Anzora was a coward, destroying my son in the hope that he would not have to oppose me. And due to his treachery-" Alton's voice broke. "I lost everything."
"I don't believe the king had anything to do with it. And you didn't lose everything. You still have me."
Only those few words, and everything changed.
Slowly, slowly, Alton rose from his chair, his powerful frame silhouetted against the leaping flames.
"You!" he whispered harshly. "You!"
His hands curled into fists. "You," he snarled, with an ugly little laugh. His words came measured, as if they were the blows of a blacksmith's hammer on an anvil. Galen felt each one like a lash from a whip.
"I would have given anything if it had been you who died that day."
Galen staggered back and nearly fell. He had never imagined that even his father could say something so cruel. But Alton wasn't finished.
"I lost a warrior, and you think you are enough to replace him? You're worthless, a weakling! You are nothing, nothing!" His expression was wild, and Galen backed away from him, tears stinging his eyes. "You are nothing and you will never be anything else! Nothing!"
His voice rose to a fever pitch. "And yet you stand there, in your insolence, and proclaim the innocence of that common-born insect Anzora? How dare you! How dare you!" He started forward. Galen just barely dodged his swinging fist.
For the first time he registered the fact that his father was angry enough to kill him.
Alton thundered after him, screaming, "How dare you!" over and over.
Panic rose in Galen's heart. He had no idea where to turn, where to run. His father's wrath could very well be the end of him, and no one would care enough to hold Sir Alton back.
He stumbled, sobbing for breath, through an unfamiliar doorway. Fear had made everything strange.
But as soon as he looked around him he knew he was trapped. The door opened, not into another room, but onto the sentry walk that topped the castle wall. He darted across the walk and shoved with all his strength on the wooden door that led into the opposite tower.
It was locked. Despite his frantic pounding, it heartlessly refused to open. He cringed in the corner between the tower and the wall like a hunted animal, lungs aching for breath. He could run no longer.
The door he had come through swung open. Alton's screaming had stopped, but the rage was still in him. Galen trembled with fear.
Alton crossed the walk with a few quick strides. His fingers dug into Galen's shoulder with a viselike grip until he couldn't hold back a cry of pain.
The blows came down in a furious hail, striking his back, his shoulders, his face, bruising him mercilessly. Nothing stopped his father. Nothing he could do would save him now, not until his father's wrath exhausted itself.
Through some twist of fate, he freed himself for a few precious seconds, running a few feet before he fell headlong, overcome by exhaustion and injury.
His father was on him in an instant, his hand closing on the collar of Galen's tunic, twisting it until he nearly screamed. Alton was leaning over him now, his eyes hard and cruel. Galen let out a terrified sob. "Father...please..."
Alton shoved him away with all his strength.
Galen fell hard against one of the crenellations on the wall. His feet caught themselves up in each other.
He was falling, falling, falling from the dizzying height of Castle Armath's wall.
For long, torturous seconds he hung suspended in the air.
And then the ground rose up to meet him. The impact knocked the breath from his lungs. He couldn't move, couldn't breathe. He knew he was badly injured, but he couldn't feel.
The last thing he saw was his father, staring down at him with an eerie calm in his grey-green eyes.
And then Sir Alton Treadnight turned away and left him lying there.
That was when the pain came, and with it, darkness.
Seven hundred and ninety-five years have passed since the founding of Malcera.
Alton Treadnight wages war.
The capital city of Tormelis burns.
Lord Faron Alamar becomes a traitor to his cause.
Kyren Anzora surrenders.
And vengeance gains a name.
The horse stumbled and lost its footing on a patch of loose stones, nearly going down before it recovered itself. Galen gripped the reins tighter and pulled the animal back to a trot. He might make better headway at a gallop, but he would also be putting himself in more danger than necessary.
If it had been possible, he would have preferred to go on foot to the mountain. A horse and rider might be noticed, but a lone person would blend seamlessly into the landscape.
He glanced down past his horse's saddle. If he could have walked, he would have.
But the fall from the tower on that dark, stormy night had done more damage than even Sir Alton had likely anticipated, shattering Galen's right leg and severely injuring his back. None of the injuries had healed properly, leaving Galen with a twisted, useless leg and an awkward, halting step, able to walk only with the aid of a crutch.
His father had never spoken of his rage that night, or really spoken much to Galen at all. He was too busy with his endless plans of vengeance. Ceaseless battles fought and won, victory, defeat, strategy and cunning, courage and deceit- Alton lived and breathed it now, for while his one remaining son slowly began to heal, Alton declared war upon Malcera and its king.
Privately Galen thought it was a tragic, evil story. Gradually, as the tide of the war swung in his father's favor, the remnants of Kyren Anzora's forces drew back to the royal capital of Tormelis. His father had given chase and besieged the city, but the king's forethought had made sure his city was ready for the worst. The siege was fruitless- until, somehow, his father persuaded Lord Faron Alamar, one of King Kyren's closest friends, to betray the city into his hands. Lord Faron had done so, compromising the palace defenses and murdering the watchmen at the city gate, letting the enemy in. The last terrible battle had occurred in the palace, between Sir Alton Treadnight and the king. And Kyren Anzora had laid down his sword.
It had all been over with then. Alton had established a new form of government, the Protectorate, with himself at the head as Lord Protector. Their symbol was the black hawk that had once decorated Dalivan Treadnight's coat of arms. As for King Anzora, he had not been put to death, but no one knew where he was being held. Only a small group of rebels high in the ghostly peak of Mount Dakan kept his cause alive, led by a woman warrior and friend of the king's named Adina Thycaris.
The war had ended two years ago. But Galen had been fighting, in his own way, ever since.
Though he had not been able to leave his bed during the war, his mind had not been idle, and after days of agonizing over the choice, he had come to a painful and dangerous decision.
The man who had been his father was gone now. In his place stood a vengeful and merciless warrior who had crippled his own son in rage.
Flesh and blood or not, Galen could not stand with him.
Though thanks to Alton he could not help the physical fight as Adina and her remnant did, Galen had found his own way to oppose his father. Like the hard-eyed Faron Alamar, Galen had become a traitor- a traitor on the side of the rebels. He hung back in the shadows, silent and unnoticed, ready to catch every scrap of information that he could and carry it back to Adina on the mountain.
It was Adina that he rode to now, and dangerous news he had to tell her.
He knew exactly where the entrances to Adina's well-hidden maze of tunnels were. It didn't take him long to find one.
One of the rebels was waiting for him as he guided the horse inside, a former member of the Rogue band named Adamon Blackhold. "It's good to see you, lad," he said, his strong arms taking Galen's weight as the boy slid awkwardly to the ground. Adamon steadied him, handing him the simple wooden crutch. "It's been a long time," he continued. "I was half starting to think you'd been found out!"
"Not yet I haven't," Galen replied, starting forward along the main tunnel, Adamon falling into step beside him. "I admit I've had to lie low. I had no choice but to come here tonight, though; I've heard something."
"Save it for Adina," Adamon said, pulling open the door to the main room. "Whatever happens'll be her decision anyway."
It was Adina herself who rose to greet them as they entered. "I had a feeling you might come tonight, Galen," she said. The last member of the rebel faction, Corby Estonor, nodded also, but the pleasantries held a note of urgency beneath them, and they settled almost immediately down to business.
"I can't stay long," Galen began. "As I told Adamon, I've had to keep a low profile lately. But I heard something that I knew would have to be brought to your attention as soon as possible, Adina, and that's why I'm here. My father has decided to send one of his commanders here in less than two weeks with fifteen soldiers."
"Fifteen!" Corby gasped. "We can't fight that many!"
"I know," Galen said. "I was hoping, Adina, that you'd consent to leave the mountain. It's too dangerous here now that everyone knows where you are."
"I can't leave these tunnels," Adina replied. "They're too important, too well-hidden. And besides, we have her to think of."
Her. Galen had nearly forgotten about her, but now that Adina had mentioned it he wondered why she was not present.
Adina had told him about her on his last visit. Her name was Kalia, and she was the cousin no one knew Kyren had. She had made her way here months ago, producing the king's signet ring and royal cloak as proof of her identity. Galen had yet to meet her, and Adina, for some inexplicable reason, didn't seem to want him to.
"Oh, yes, I'd forgotten about the princess," he said. "As a matter of fact, I don't understand why she's not here right now. Why can't she know of my presence?"
"Why, indeed?" a young woman's voice said from the doorway, and all four of them whirled around.
No one seemed to know what to say for a moment. Then, with a sigh, Galen stood up and crossed the room to her. She was small and slender and not exactly pretty, with ragged flaxen hair and an intense expression on her features.
He removed his hood, revealing his face.
She seemed to freeze in place. As he had been taught to do with ladies, he took her hand delicately, raised it to his lips, and kissed it.
"It's an honor to meet Your Royal Highness at long last," he said formally. "May I introduce myself? My name is Galen Treadnight."
She snatched her hand away from him in fury. "I know who you are," she snapped. Her blue eyes spewed hatred.
~Continued in The Malcera Chronicles, Book One: The Ruling