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The Children of Isador

The Children of Isador

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The Children of Isador

Length:
441 pages
6 hours
Publisher:
Released:
Feb 19, 2017
ISBN:
9781370391868
Format:
Book

Description

NEW, UPDATED EDITION - NOVEMBER 2016!
An Epic Fantasy Adventure.
The Morg, savage invaders from an unknown land far to the south, sack Isador's coastline. Less than a year later, they have gained control of nearly half of the continent.
After centuries of civil-war, the four races that inhabit Isador: the Ennadil, Orinians, Tarzark and Gremul, refuse to band together. No one comes to the Ennadil's aid as the Morg's war machine quickly moves north, killing or enslaving all that oppose them.
Morgarth Evictar leads the Morg. A powerful warlock bent on vengeance, Evictar has returned to his homeland after a long exile to claim it for his own. With only the City States of Orin yet to fall - victory lies within Evictar's grasp.
Can Isador be saved or is it too late?

Publisher:
Released:
Feb 19, 2017
ISBN:
9781370391868
Format:
Book

About the author

Sam J. Charlton is an author of epic fantasy adventures. Her novels are character-driven, coming of age stories that take place in richly drawn fantasy worlds. Fast-paced, and full of epic adventure and memorable characters, her books are for anyone who loves traditional epic fantasy. Two of Sam's novels: Journey of Shadows, and The Children of Isador, were shortlisted for the Sir Julius Vogel Awards. Journey of Shadows was also a finalist for the OZMA Book Awards 2016 - for Fantasy, Magic Steampunk, Fairytale, Sword & Sorcery novels. PUBLISHED WORKS: The Palâdnith Chronicles: Deep-Spire (Prequel novella) Journey of Shadows (Book 1) The Citadel of Lies (Book 2) The Well of Secrets (Book 3) The Palâdnith Chronicles: The Complete Series (contains all four works above) The Children of Isador Sam lives in New Zealand's South Island, where she works as a freelance copy writer.

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The Children of Isador - Sam J. Charlton

PROLOGUE

ILL - TIDINGS

The servant hurried through Serranguard’s airless corridors, nearly causing the torch he grasped to gutter and die, such was his haste to reach his lord’s chambers. The evidence he had been instructed to find had finally presented itself.

Hugo hoped Lord Brin would not be so consumed by rage upon receiving this news that he would forget the promotion he had promised. Hugo allowed himself a cunning smile as he reached a heavy wooden door and knocked. Such a meteoric rise from dogs-body to the Lord’s chamberlain would allow him to harass any of the serving wenches he pleased from now on.

Enter! The City-Lord’s flinty voice brought Hugo back to the present. He felt a twinge of fear. Ambition over-rode good sense, however, and Hugo pushed the door open.

Milord. At the sight of Theo Brin sitting on a chair directly opposite the door, watching him under heavy lids like a malevolent toad, Hugo decided it was better to come straight to the point. Lady Myra and Jennadil . . . I’ve seen them together . . . in private milord.

The heavy-lidded eyes widened and something dark moved in their depths. Where are they? Lord Brin spoke slowly, deliberately. His voice was calm, betraying no inner emotion.

I saw them go into the wizard’s chambers milord, Hugo replied, suddenly wishing he had not been spying on Lady Myra and Serranguard’s wizard. It was too late for such regrets now though.

Theo heaved himself up off the chair. Standing, he looked less toad-like and more threatening. His robes swished against the stone floor as he moved with surprising speed towards the open door.

Hugo watched his master leave and hoped, once again, that Theo was a man who kept his promises.

Jennadil Silverstern drew the curtain closed around the bed and smiled at the young woman sitting naked on top of the covers. Eager, and innocent, Myra Brin stared up at him. Jennadil saw the devotion in her eyes but focused, instead, on the slender curves of her naked body.

Jennadil organized their encounters with military precision lest Theo Brin discover his wife’s betrayal. Jennadil knew he was taking a massive risk continuing with the affair but the danger only added to the excitement.

Lord Brin had been duped again.

Jennadil shed his clothes with practiced ease and slid into bed next to Myra. He smothered her giggles with his mouth and pulled her urgently against him. Their time together was always so brief and passionate—exactly how Jennadil liked it.

A short while later a sound intruded on their haze of passion. The sound was unmistakable: the rattling of the iron doorknob—the grating of a key turning in the lock.

Jennadil’s blood turned to ice. No one else had a key to his chamber. The only other key belonged to a master set, and that belonged to . . .

Jennadil hissed a curse and pushed himself up off Myra.

The door unlocked with an ominous clunk and screeched inward on un-oiled hinges. Myra cringed down against the bed sheets while Jennadil leaped off the bed, intent on reaching his staff. Instead, he somehow got himself entangled in the voluminous curtain shielding his bed from the door. Panicked, Jennadil struggled to get free but only succeeded in entangling himself further. The curtain ripped off its railing with an obscene tearing sound, exposing Myra’s nakedness for all to see.

Jennadil toppled forward, limbs flailing, onto the floor; landing heavily on the flagstones. Pain lanced through Jennadil’s jaw as his chin hit the floor and he bit down on his tongue. He swallowed a mouthful of blood and tried to recover his wits. It was then he saw two expensively slippered feet beneath a sumptuous velvet robe stop before him.

Myra’s sharp intake of breath was the only sound in the silent chamber.

Jennadil would have preferred to remain cowering on the ground, pretending to be invisible for a while longer, but he could feel cold, hard eyes boring into him. Reluctantly he felt his gaze drawn upwards.

Lord Theo Brin glared down at him. The City-Lord’s face was the color of raw meat—his jowls quivered and his eyes glittered. Jennadil’s first reaction was to bluff his way out of the situation. It had worked many times for him before, albeit in less dire situations.

He even opened his mouth to make some elaborate excuse, but something in Theo Brin’s glower choked the words before they reached his mouth.

***

Ill-tidings, like a bad omen or a sign your luck is about to turn for the worse, arrives in many guises.

The lowland peasant folk had a finely tuned sense of such matters. They lived by the seasons and by the eternal cycles of the sun and moon. They were suspicious of change or of anything out of place in their pastoral idyll.

So it was on this late summer’s afternoon, as the sun was sinking towards the western horizon and the still air shimmered and shadows were long, when the reapers in the barley field were thinking about finishing for the day, that such a sign appeared.

The men and women felt a vibration beneath their feet and the sound of approaching thunder in the distance. Some leaned on their scythes and looked up, while others continued reaping, too tired to care. Not a storm cloud marred the pale sky. A few of the peasants watched the edge of the barley field, where the road rose above the rippling waves of golden barley before disappearing amongst undulating folds of land. The storm sounded as though it was rolling in from the south.

As they waited, instead of rain clouds, galloping white horses broke over the crest of the hill and thundered down the incline. The riders, crouched low over their horses’ outstretched necks, were Ennadil. Tall, dark haired and pale skinned; their fair faces were grim. No one had seen Ennadil in these parts in years. Children abandoned their task of bundling the barley stalks into sheaves and gathered at the roadside, watching the horses approach. The Ennadil streamed past, paying the locals no heed. Dust boiled up behind them and when it settled, the horses and their riders had disappeared to the north, towards Serranguard. However, it was some time before the echo of galloping hooves faded.

Unease and worry settled over the men and women in the barley field. Some of the older ones whispered amongst themselves. The presence of Ennadil in these lands was an ill omen.

The riders galloped onwards, oblivious of the stir their passing created. They had been on the road since daybreak and they had no time to admire the unfurling patchwork of cornfields, woodland and the meadows of the lowlands spreading north towards their destination. Finally, sweat-soaked and dusty, they reached the ridge of the last hill. The head rider brought his horse to a skittering halt and looked upon the scene before him. There, perched like a sentinel upon a rocky outcrop commanding over its lands, sat Serranguard.

Not taking his gaze from the castle, he reached forward and stroked his horse’s slick neck. His horse’s flanks were heaving like forge bellows. They had left Aranith a week earlier—and now the journey was nearly over.

The rider glanced over his shoulder at his companions. They were not looking at him; instead, their gazes were fixed on Serranguard. It was indeed a mighty fortress. At this time of day, its walls glowed with a radiance that made it look as if it was lit by some furnace within. Four towers rose up from the square keep. A green flag hung limply from its pole atop the southwestern tower. There was not a whisper of a breeze on this sultry afternoon.

The Ennadil’s gaze followed the road ahead as it dipped between two hills and then re-appeared, crossing the River Serran. The body of water resembled a thin silver ribbon at this distance, but it was the same great river that flowed south through Ennadil Territory before it finally reached the sea. After the river, the road wound its way up from the base of the outcrop, spiraling upwards until it reached Serranguard’s gates.

The Ennadil rider sighed. That was where they were headed, where he would seek an audience with Serranguard’s City-Lord. For the first time in centuries, the Ennadil nation would ask for help from the Orinians. Not wanting to dwell on this unpleasant necessity a moment longer, the leader of the Ennadil party spurred his horse on. Seconds later, his companions did the same. Fleet, as if carried in by a strong wind, the white horses galloped down the hill towards the fortress.

A pale yellow moon rose into the night-sky. It was a hot, airless evening. The aroma of roasting meat wafted through the lower levels of the Keep and only the murmur of voices, bursts of laughter and a baby’s occasional wail broke the night’s stillness.

Lassendil Florin, the leader of the Ennadil party, was rapidly losing his patience. Upon arriving at Serranguard, hours earlier, they had left their horses at the stables and requested an immediate audience with Lord Brin. The City-Lord had sent a servant to escort them down to one of the stuffy visitors’ chambers, along with the message that he was momentarily indisposed and would not be able to speak with them until dinner time. The Ennadil had waited and dinnertime had come and gone. They were now hungry and furious. This was no way to treat weary travelers. They had not ridden non-stop for a week to be ignored upon their arrival.

Lassendil paced across the narrow chamber and whirled around, facing his companions. It seems Lord Brin has forgotten his manners. Let us go and educate him on how guests should be treated.

The Ennadil stormed out of the chamber and nearly collided with a squat, greasy-haired man who was hurrying towards them down the corridor outside.

Ah, kind sirs. The man squinted up at the Ennadil. I am Hugo, the Lord’s Chamberlain. My Lord will see you now if you would care to join him for dinner?

Lassendil looked down at the chamberlain coldly. Take us to him, he snapped.

The servant bowed and they followed him to a stairwell, which curled up one of the towers. He led them up worn steps, his torch throwing long shadows across the ancient walls, and, finally, they reached the top of the tower. Lassendil breathed in deeply, relieved to be free of the castle’s fetid atmosphere. Ennadil castles were bright and airy compared to the airless fortresses in the City-States of Orin.

It was considerably cooler up here. Battlements ringed the tower’s flat, square roof. Candles perched on top of the battlements, illuminating the night in a soft glow. In the center of the roof stood a large, rectangular table covered in a white table-cloth and a lavish spread of food. At the head of the table, seated upon what appeared to be a throne, was Serranguard’s City-Lord.

Two men stood either side of him. To his left was a short, lithe man in his early thirties. He had wavy brown hair, a long white scar down his left cheek—and the bearing and dress of a solider. The other man was enormously fat, even more so than the City-Lord himself. He looked to be around forty-five and he wore plush velvet robes that were making him sweat copiously in the heat.

Lassendil and his companions bowed briskly. Lord Brin. I thank you for your audience. I represent the Elder Council of Aranith. I am Lassendil of the House of Florin. These are my companions, Essel, Farindel, Sariddil, Tellendel and Miradel.

Theo grunted rudely before motioning to the man to his left. This is Will Stellan—Captain of Serranguard’s army.

The soldier nodded coolly. He had the quick, intelligent gaze of a man who missed little.

This is Vermel Ham, my Counsellor. Theo motioned to the man to his right.

The Counsellor mopped his sweaty brow and acknowledged their guests with a frown.

Lassendil nodded politely, as Ennadil custom required, before turning his attention back to Theo Brin.

Lord Brin, we have traveled here with great urgency to …

Please, please. Lord Brin cut Lassendil off mid-sentence with the wave of a pudgy, ring-encrusted hand. I cannot talk on an empty stomach. Let us eat first.

Lassendil took a deep, steadying breath to curb his growing irritation. Stiff with annoyance, the Ennadil took their seats at the table. As they did so, Lord Brin scrutinized them with interest. They were an attractive race, the Ennadil; tall and lithe with beautifully molded faces, alabaster skin and bright, intelligent eyes. They wore their dark hair long and were dressed in simple green and brown outfits, sleeveless jerkins, leggings and hunting boots. The Orinians were a shorter, stockier race than the Ennadil. They had light brown, red or blonde hair and ruddy skin and were rougher in manner. It was common knowledge that the Ennadil considered them to be uncouth and barbaric. Back in the mists of time, when the Ennadil had arrived upon these shores, it was said they had brought the Orinians with them as slaves. Thousands of years had passed since then, and the Orinians had escaped slavery and traveled north to create their own territory, but neither the Ennadil nor the Orinians had forgotten their common history— and as a result, relations had always been strained between the two races.

Lord Brin did not like Ennadil. He read their serenity and good manners as calculating and cunning. You could never win an argument with an Ennadil, simply because they refused to be manipulated. They rarely lost their tempers, and they used your own words against you. However, it was their superiority that Theo hated the most about them. All the same, he had been curious enough to agree to see this Lassendil Florin and his friends. Visits from Ennadil were rare in Serranguard and Theo welcomed the distraction after the day he had endured.

Theo helped himself to a large plateful of spiced beef and roasted vegetables. Without preamble, Theo started on his meal in a mechanical fashion, eating more out of habit than hunger. He raised his hand and clicked his fingers. The sound cracked like a whip in the humid air. A servant materialized at his elbow and filled his goblet with wine. Theo noticed the Ennadil refused the offer of wine, sticking to water. He was not surprised—it was obvious the Ennadil were not here to be entertained. Theo gulped down some wine and turned his attention to the leader of the Ennadil.

Even if Lassendil Florin had not made the introductions for himself and his companions, Theo would have guessed him to be their leader.

The Ennadil looked around thirty, although it was difficult to tell as Ennadil aged much slower than Orinians. His proud bearing and self-confidence marked him as a member of a highborn family. He had long black hair that fell over his shoulders and piercing blue eyes. Theo had noticed however, that something set this Ennadil apart from the others. Lassendil Florin was having a lot of trouble hiding his impatience. This intrigued Theo, as the Ennadil only sent their most unflappable diplomats to speak with other races. Lassendil Florin was no diplomat.

Theo Brin slowed down his eating as a thought took root in his mind. He lent back in his throne and sipped meditatively at his wine. Theo was still deep in thought when Vermel Ham interrupted him. My Lord, he murmured in the City-Lord’s ear. I feel the wizard, Jennadil, should be here for this meeting. He’s half Ennadil after all. He knows their ways. His counsel would be valuable.

Jennadil is no longer in my service, Theo growled, loud enough so that the Ennadil looked up from their plates and stared at him. To his left, Captain Stellan glanced sharply at Theo and caught his following words, even though they were whispered. He is in the dungeons and has an appointment with the chopping block at dawn tomorrow.

My Lord! Vermel Ham drew back in shock. His sweaty face gleamed in the candle light. But why?

The reason does not concern you. Theo’s voice rose once more. However, after tomorrow you will need to find me a new wizard.

Vermel stared down at his plate. Yes my Lord.

Theo Brin did not wish to be reminded of Jennadil’s treachery, nor of his whore of a wife who had been whipped that afternoon. She was now locked in her room, pleading for forgiveness. Theo would never forgive her. He had toyed with the idea of killing Myra, but that way her suffering would be over in a moment. It was better to let her live and make her life a daily misery. As for Jennadil, Theo wanted him disposed of, his head on a pike, as soon as possible.

The memory of seeing Myra naked and cowering on Jennadil’s bed, made Theo’s stomach curdle. His first wife, who had died three years earlier, had been a frigid prude but at least she had been faithful. She had given him a daughter, Gywna, who had been sweet and biddable until she reached adolescence, after which she had become obnoxious. He had packed her off to Brenna to become a Guardian of Isador—an order of virgins who guarded the Temple of Ancestral Wraiths. Of course, Theo had always wanted a son but if Jennadil had gotten Myra with child then he would strangle the whelp with his bare-hands as soon as it was born—and he would make her watch.

These thoughts were giving him indigestion. Theo had lost his appetite. He sunk into the depths of his throne and glowered at his guests until they felt his stare. Realizing that the City-Lord was at last ready to talk, the Ennadil finished eating. Servants cleared the table and left them alone so they could speak privately.

So, what is it you so urgently wished to discuss with me? Theo said finally.

Lassendil’s face grew strained, as if it pained him to speak. As you have probably guessed, we are here on a very serious matter, he paused and took a deep breath before continuing. For the past year, invaders have threatened our southern coast.

Theo raised an eyebrow, incredulous rather than alarmed.

At first they only attacked in small groups; scattered raiding parties that were no more than a nuisance. Lassendil ignored the City-Lord’s smirk. But then they started arriving in enormous ships, resembling floating cities. They attacked our coastline relentlessly and now have control of Fareen and Trill.

Lassendil let his words hang in the air for a few moments before he continued. They are wiry, though strong, and cover their bodies with long black capes. Many ride great flightless birds, and their shamans use a powerful dark magic.

But who are they? Vermel mopped his sweating brow, and his faced creased in alarm. And where do these invaders hail from?

They call themselves the Morg and as far as we can guess they come from a great continent to the south. Lassendil replied.

What do they want? Theo’s expression was unreadable as he spoke.

The Ennadil held the City-Lord’s gaze. What do all invading forces want?

A silence followed Lassendil’s words. Eventually, Theo broke the silence.

Come now, he scoffed, the Ennadil nation is vast and powerful. These Morg sound like a nuisance but I am sure their army and magic are no match for yours.

It’s gratifying to hear such confidence in us, Lassendil Florin replied sharply, but if the Morg were just a ‘nuisance’, we would not have ridden a week without rest to warn you of them. If they were just a nuisance, they would not be encroaching further into our territory from the coast. They would not be enslaving our people and setting fire to villages, towns and forests. Every week more of these floating cities arrive and they pour out of their bellies in an unstoppable tide.

Theo crossed his arms across his barrel chest defensively. It does not sound like you are doing much to stop them.

We are doing everything we can, Lassendil shot back, and it is barely slowing them down!

Theo’s lip curled. You want our help?

We are not just asking for your help, Lassendil replied slowly, as he struggled to keep his temper. Other delegations have gone to the City-Lords of Mirren and Falcon’s Mount, as well as to the Tarzark Kingdom and the Forests of Gremul.

You are asking the Tarzark and Gremul for help? Theo’s mocking laughter rang across the table. By the wraiths of my ancestors, you must be desperate.

I do not think, Lord Brin, that you grasp how serious this is. Lassendil’s temper finally boiled over. Maybe I need to explain it to you again using simpler language!

Theo Brin’s laughter choked off. His eyes hooded and his face turned puce.

This Ennadil was an insolent upstart who needed putting in his place. Theo opened his mouth to give a tongue-lashing that would send Lassendil Florin cowering under the table but the Ennadil emissary did not allow him to get one word out.

These Morg are not just a threat to Ennadil but to all of Isador! he burst out. Unless we all: Ennadil, Orinian, Tarzark and Gremul, form a united front, the Morg will gradually move north, enslaving us all. It has happened all along our southern coast. The Ennadil they left alive are now forced to be part of their war machine. Their strength grows daily.

I understand what you are saying, but after centuries of isolation I do not think Isador’s races are capable of uniting. Captain Will Stellan spoke up for the first time. His expression was unreadable but unlike Theo’s, his eyes were not hostile.

Was it not the Ennadil. Theo burst in, his jowls quivering, who isolated themselves from the rest of Isador centuries ago? Where were you when the Tarzark tried to extend their territory south into our lands or when the Gremul raided our eastern border villages? When we asked you for help, you gave us long eloquent speeches about the Ennadil nation’s disinterest in our affairs. But look at you now. You come crawling on your bellies, pleading for help, or rather, demanding that we help you. Even when you are whipped like dogs you still think you are better than the rest of us!

Lassendil leapt to his feet, followed by his companions. Their faces were stony masks of fury. You still have not understood! Lassendil’s voice was hoarse with the effort he was making not to shout. This affects all of us! It is just your good fortune they attacked us first, otherwise it would be you asking for help! We did not come here to plead or demand. We came here to warn you and ask for a united front against the Morg. Need I remind you that Serranguard’s army is a quarter of ours. Just ignore the problem and bicker amongst yourselves like you have always done and when the Morg arrive at your borders you will stand alone!

Get out! Theo bellowed. He rose from his seat, his stout body shaking from the force of his rage.

The Ennadil turned their backs on Serranguard’s City-Lord—the ultimate insult among their kind. Tight-lipped with barely contained anger, they stalked away from the table. They disappeared down the stairwell, their soft-soled hunting boots noiseless on the stone steps.

Captain Stellan watched them go and with a sigh turned to his master. Theo sat brooding in the depths of his throne-like chair.

Next to him, Vermel Ham was pale and agitated. My Lord, Vermel ventured timidly. It was not wise to upset the Ennadil. We need their alliance.

Theo gave Vermel a slow, dark look, his rage slowly simmering. Vermel, used to Theo Brin’s temper, returned his Lord’s gaze without flinching, even though a nerve twitched under his left eye. You think I should have humored them do you Vermel? Theo’s voice was dangerous. You think we should hand over our army and let them scare us into being their puppets?

No my Lord. Vermel mopped his sweaty brow before continuing. It’s just that the threat could be real.

Theo meditated on Vermel’s words a moment before he turned to the young Captain of his army. You’ve been very quiet through all of this Will. He eyed the soldier’s face. What words of advice would you give me?

I agree with Vermel, Will Stellan replied, The Ennadil are proud and independent. They like us as little as we do them. They would not ask us for help unless their need was dire.

Will Stellan finished speaking and leant back in his chair. He ran a hand through his shaggy brown hair; a nervous gesture and the only outward sign that the Ennadil’s news had disturbed him. If the Ennadil do not contain these ‘Morg’, then what is currently their problem will become ours.

Theo slumped in his chair, his anger spent. He felt alone and worried. Usually, at this stage of the discussion, Theo would ask his wizard for counsel. The three of them: Vermel Ham, Will Stellan and Jennadil Silverstern, were essential to any vital decision Serranguard’s City-Lord took. However, just thinking about that fornicating wizard made Theo’s stomach clench.

What would you have me do? Theo finally asked Will Stellan.

If you are against joining with the Ennadil then we must strengthen our army and contact Mirren and Falcon’s Mount without delay, Will replied. The City-States of Orin must, at least, stand united,

Will looked across at Vermel for confirmation, and the counsellor nodded wordlessly.

Theo sighed. Indigestion burned the back of his throat and he could feel a headache forming either side of his eyes. It had been the worst day he could remember. He understood, with a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach, that for the first time in the twenty years of his rule as Serranguard’s City-Lord, his ability as a leader was about to be truly tested.

***

It was dark in Serranguard’s dungeons, as dark as the depths of an underground cavern which has never seen sunlight. The air was close and rank with the smell of mold and urine. It was cool down in the dungeons; the day’s heat could not reach here, could not penetrate the heavy stone beneath the fortress. The dungeons had the chill of a tomb, and a tomb it had been and would be for many who sojourned within its walls.

Jennadil knew it would not be his tomb. He would not rot away in the darkness until madness or disease took him. He supposed he should be grateful for that. However, the executioner’s axe did not seem like an appealing alternative at present.

The darkness in the cell was so thick it felt as if he was wrapped in a blanket. His eyes strained to make out the outlines of the walls but it was impossible. He was blind; at the mercy of the rats who wriggled their way into the cell and bit at him. Jennadil slapped them away and rattled his chains, and they slunk away into a corner for a while, only to return to gnaw at him once more when they thought he had fallen asleep.

Jennadil sat, his back up against the cold, damp wall, and pondered his predicament. If he’d had his staff, he would have been able, not only to illuminate this foul cell, but also to escape. He knew it went against the laws of Orinian wizardly conduct—using magic to avoid merited punishment—but he would have done it anyway.

The wizard’s thoughts were alternating between self-pity, fear, embarrassment and the vague hope that Theo would have a change of heart, when he became aware of footsteps approaching his cell from the corridor outside. He tensed. Had they come for him early to dispose of him quietly in darkness? A key rattled in the door and Jennadil broke out in a cold sweat. He scrambled to his feet. The chains binding his wrists and ankles clanked noisily.

A cloaked figure appeared in the doorway, holding aloft a small lantern. Keep quiet would you! A voice hissed. You’ll wake up the whole castle with that din!

Jennadil recognized the voice instantly. His legs went weak with relief. Will! Thank my ancestors, I knew you would come!

Did you? Will Stellan’s voice was terse as he knelt down before Jennadil and unlocked his chains, because I wasn’t so sure myself. What possessed you? Serranguard’s full of pretty scullery maids and serving wenches, but no, you had to have Myra.

Alright, alright, Jennadil whispered impatiently. I do not need a lecture on morals from you of all people.

Just for the record, Will replied, I would gut you like a fish if I caught you in bed with my wife.

Just as well no woman will have you then.

Well if I ever marry I shall keep my wife a thousand leagues from you.

Will reached into his cloak and pulled out a tall staff with a gnarled end, and a bundled cloak. You won’t get far without this. He passed the wizard his staff.

Thank you Will, Jennadil’s voice lost its cocky edge. I do not deserve this.

I know you don’t, Will replied, and I hope I don’t live to regret it. Follow me.

They slipped out of the cell into the narrow passage. Will pulled the cell door shut but did not lock it. Unspeaking, the two men moved down the passage. The glow of Will’s lantern was the only warmth in the sea of darkness around them. The passage went on for a while, twisting in labyrinthine fashion, until they came to a steep stairwell.

Mind your head, Will whispered as he descended the steps, and be careful. The steps are covered with moss.

The steps plummeted into the lowest depths under Serranguard. Jennadil was just starting to feel the beginnings of claustrophobia when Will stopped. Jennadil nearly collided with him. The steps ended here. There was nothing but a slab of impenetrable rock in front of them.

Will handed Jennadil his lantern and knelt down. They were standing next to a trap door, locked shut by a tangle of chains. Will drew out the bunch of keys and fumbled for a few moments before he found the correct key. Jennadil watched him unlock the chains and push them aside. When Will lifted up the wooden trap door, Jennadil could see nothing but a black void beyond.

From here you travel alone my friend. Will took the lantern back from Jennadil and pushed back his hood.

The two men stared at each other for a moment, knowing it would be unlikely they would ever see each other again. Will’s face was solemn in the lamplight. His scar was a silver slash down his left cheek and his eyes were darker than in daylight; without their usual mischievous glint. They were men of different breeds, Will and Jennadil, and yet their sense of humor had bound them together in friendship from the day they had met. Jennadil would miss their banter and teasing. He stepped forward and gave his friend a quick hug, feeling as he did so, an uncharacteristic stab of self-recrimination. This was all his own doing—he had known the risk he was taking but he had been unable to stop himself. Myra would suffer because of him.

Jennadil pushed these unpleasant thoughts aside. It was better not to have a conscience.

Will . . . I would like to say how much I . . . Jennadil began hesitantly but Will interrupted him.

Don’t thank me again—you know I could not let Brin chop your head off. I just hope you’ve learned this time.

Jennadil nodded.

There is a ladder. Will pointed to the trap door. It leads down to a tunnel. If you move quickly, it should not take you more than three hours to reach the end of the tunnel. It exits in Delm Forest.

It goes that far? Jennadil tapped his staff on the stone floor and a soft blue light illuminated from its top. I did not know Serranguard had a secret exit.

You’re not supposed to—that’s the whole point of it—besides, I knew Theo would lose his patience with you sooner or later.

Well, I think that’s my cue to leave. Jennadil lowered himself down into the darkness, his feet scraping on the rock until he found the ladder. Good-bye Will. I’ll never forget our friendship. I am just sorry I made a mess of everything. Tell Myra I am sorry, will you?

Very well, Will answered. May the wraiths of your ancestors protect you, Jennadil.

The wizard’s tousled auburn head disappeared into the darkness. Will lowered the trap door, drew the chains back over and locked it. His chest ached strangely as he looked down at the trap door and imagined his friend making his way along the ancient tunnel. Will Stellan had been estranged from his parents and siblings at thirteen. His friends and comrades had taken the place of family, and he would miss Jennadil. At least Jennadil was alive, he consoled himself. He just hoped Theo never found out how Jennadil had escaped; otherwise, it would be his head on the chopping block.

Will turned his back on the trap door and drew his hood back over his face. Then, with a heavy head and heart, he retraced his steps back up to the shadowy passages of Serranguard’s dungeons.

BOOK ONE

CHAPTER ONE

THE LAST STAND OF THE ENNADIL

One Year Later

Lassendil Florin stood at the top of the castle walls and watched the sunset. He had not done so for a while – not since the Morg had invaded. Of late, there had been no time to enjoy sunsets and sunrises, or to note the passing of the seasons. These days smoke stained the morning and evening sky and a shadow had fallen over this once serene and verdant land. However, this sunset held special poignancy for Lassendil, for it would be the

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