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A C H A R G E O F V A L O R
(Book #6 in the Sorcerer’s Ring)
About Morgan Rice
Morgan Rice is the #1 bestselling author of THE VAMPIRE JOURNALS, a young adult series comprising eleven books (and counting); the #1 bestselling series THE SURVIVAL TRILOGY, a post-apocalyptic thriller comprising two books (and counting); and the #1 bestselling epic fantasy series THE SORCERER’S RING, comprising thirteen books (and counting).
Morgan’s books are available in audio and print editions, and translations of the books are available in German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portugese, Japanese, Chinese, Swedish, Dutch, Turkish, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak (with more languages forthcoming).
Morgan loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.morganricebooks.com
Select Acclaim for Morgan Rice
“THE SORCERER’S RING has all the ingredients for an instant success: plots, counterplots, mystery, valiant knights, and blossoming relationships replete with broken hearts, deception and betrayal. It will keep you entertained for hours, and will satisfy all ages. Recommended for the permanent library of all fantasy readers.”
--Books and Movie Reviews, Roberto Mattos
“Rice does a great job of pulling you into the story from the beginning, utilizing a great descriptive quality that transcends the mere painting of the setting….Nicely written and an extremely fast read.”
--Black Lagoon Reviews (regarding Turned)
“An ideal story for young readers. Morgan Rice did a good job spinning an interesting twist…Refreshing and unique. The series focuses around one girl…one extraordinary girl!...Easy to read but extremely fast-paced... Rated PG.”
--The Romance Reviews (regarding Turned)
“Grabbed my attention from the beginning and did not let go….This story is an amazing adventure that is fast paced and action packed from the very beginning. There is not a dull moment to be found.”
--Paranormal Romance Guild (regarding Turned)
“Jam packed with action, romance, adventure, and suspense. Get your hands on this one and fall in love all over again.”
--vampirebooksite.com (regarding Turned)
“A great plot, and this especially was the kind of book you will have trouble putting down at night. The ending was a cliffhanger that was so spectacular that you will immediately want to buy the next book, just to see what happens.”
--The Dallas Examiner (regarding Loved)
“A book to rival TWILIGHT and VAMPIRE DIARIES, and one that will have you wanting to keep reading until the very last page! If you are into adventure, love and vampires this book is the one for you!”
--Vampirebooksite.com (regarding Turned)
“Morgan Rice proves herself again to be an extremely talented storyteller….This would appeal to a wide range of audiences, including younger fans of the vampire/fantasy genre. It ended with an unexpected cliffhanger that leaves you shocked.”
--The Romance Reviews (regarding Loved)
Books by Morgan Rice
THE SORCERER’S RINGA QUEST OF HEROES (Book #1)A MARCH OF KINGS (Book #2)
A FATE OF DRAGONS (Book #3)
A CRY OF HONOR (Book #4)
A VOW OF GLORY (Book #5)A CHARGE OF VALOR (Book #6)A RITE OF SWORDS (Book #7)
A GRANT OF ARMS (Book #8)A SKY OF SPELLS (Book #9)
A SEA OF SHIELDS (Book #10)A REIGN OF STEEL (Book #11)A LAND OF FIRE (Book #12)A RULE OF QUEENS (Book #13)
THE SURVIVAL TRILOGYARENA ONE: SLAVERSUNNERS (Book #1)ARENA TWO (Book #2)
THE VAMPIRE JOURNALS
TURNED (Book #1)
LOVED (Book #2)BETRAYED (Book #3)
DESTINED (Book #4)
DESIRED (Book #5)BETROTHED (Book #6)
VOWED (Book #7)
FOUND (Book #8)
RESURRECTED (Book #9)CRAVED (Book #10)FATED (Book #11)
Listen to THE SORCERER’S RING series in audio book format!
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Copyright © 2013 by Morgan Rice
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author.
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Jacket image Copyright Sergii Votit, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
“Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.”
Gwendolyn lay face down in the grass, feeling the cold winter breeze rush over her bare skin, and as her eyes fluttered open, slowly, distantly, the world came back into focus. She had been in some faraway place, in a field radiant with sunlight, flowers, Thor and her father by her side, all of them laughing and happy. Everything had been perfect in the world.
But now, as she peeled open her eyes, the world before her could not have been more different. The ground was hard, cold, and, standing over her, slowly gaining his feet, was not her father, not Thor—but a monster: McCloud. Done with her, he slowly rose, buckled his pants, and gazed down with a satisfied look.
In a rush, it all came back to her. Her surrender to Andronicus. His betrayal. Her being attacked by McCloud. Her cheeks flushed red as she realized how naive she had been.
She lay there, her whole body hurting, her heart breaking, and more than any time in her life, she wanted to die.
Gwendolyn opened her eyes further and saw Andronicus’ army, scores of soldiers, all watching the scene, and her shame deepened. She should never have surrendered to this creature; she wished, instead, she had gone down fighting. She should have listened to Kendrick and the others. Andronicus had played to her sacrificial instincts, and she had fallen for it. She wished she would have met him in battle: even if she had died, at least then she could have gone down with her dignity, her honor, intact.
Gwendolyn knew with certainty, for the first time in her life, that she was about to die. But somehow, that no longer bothered her. She no longer cared about dying—she just cared about dying her way—and she wasn’t ready to go down yet.
As she lay there, face down, Gwendolyn furtively reached out and grasped a clump of dirt in one hand.
“You can get up now, woman,” McCloud ordered gruffly. “I’m through with you. It’s time for others to have a turn.”
Gwen clutched the dirt so hard her knuckles turned white, and prayed that this worked.
In one quick motion she spun around and threw the clump of dirt into McCloud’s eyes.
He had not expected it, and he screamed and stumbled back, raising his hands to try to wipe the dirt out of his eyes.
Gwen took advantage of the moment. Raised in King’s Castle, she had been reared by the King’s warriors, and they had always taught her to attack a second time, before your enemy had a chance to recover. They had also taught her a lesson she had never forgotten: whether she carried a weapon or not, she was always armed. She could always use the enemy’s weapon.
Gwen reached over, extracted the dagger from McCloud’s belt, raised it high, and plunged it between his legs.
McCloud shrieked even louder, removing his hands from his eyes and grabbing his groin. Blood flowed between his legs as he reached down and pulled out the dagger, gasping.
She was thrilled with herself for landing the blow, for getting at least this small revenge. But to her surprise, the wound, which would have downed anyone else, did not slow him. This monster was unstoppable. She had wounded him badly, right where he deserved it, but had not killed him. It had not even made him sink to his knees.
Instead, McCloud extracted the dagger, dripping with blood, and sneered down at her with a look of death. He began to descend for her, clutching the dagger with shaking hands, and Gwendolyn knew her time had come. At least she would die with some small satisfaction.
“Now I’m going to carve out your heart and feed it to you,” he said. “Prepare to learn what real pain means.”
Gwendolyn braced herself for the dagger plunge, prepared to meet a painful death.
A scream rang out, and after a shocked moment, Gwendolyn was surprised to realize the scream was not her own. It was McCloud; he was shrieking in agony.
Gwen lowered her hands and looked up, confused. McCloud had dropped the dagger. She blinked several times, trying to understand the sight before her.
McCloud stood there with an arrow lodged in his eye. He shrieked, blood pouring from the socket as he raised a hand and grabbed at the arrow. She could not understand. He had been shot. But how? By whom?
Gwen turned in the direction from which the arrow had sailed, and her heart soared to see Steffen, standing there, holding a bow, hiding amidst a huge group of soldiers. Before anyone else could figure out what was going on, Steffen fired off six more arrows, and one by one, the six soldiers standing beside McCloud fell, arrows piercing through all of their throats.
Steffen reached back to fire more, but was finally spotted and pounced on by a large group of soldiers, who subdued him and pummeled him down to the ground.
McCloud, still shrieking, turned and ran off into the crowd. Amazingly, he was still not dead. She hoped that he would bleed to death.
Gwen’s heart soared with gratitude for Steffen, more than he would ever know. She knew she would die here today by someone else’s hand, but at least now it would not be by McCloud’s.
The camp of soldiers quieted as Andronicus arose and marched slowly towards Gwendolyn. She lay there and watched him approach, impossibly tall, like a mountain moving her way. Soldiers fell in behind him as he came closer, the battlefield deathly silent, the only sound that of the whipping wind.
Andronicus stopped a few feet away, looming over her, looking down, expressionless. He reached up and slowly fingered the shrunken heads on his necklace, and an odd sound came from the bowels of his chest and throat, like a purring noise. He seemed to be both angry and intrigued at the same time.
“You have defied the great Andronicus,” he said slowly, the entire camp listening to his every word, ancient and deep. His voice boomed with authority and resonated across the plains. “It would have been easier if you had submitted to your punishment. Now you will have to learn what real pain means.”
Andronicus reached down and drew a sword longer than Gwen had ever seen. It must have been eight feet long, and its distinctive ring echoed across the battlefield. He held it high, turning it in the light, the reflection so strong that it blinded her. He examined it himself as he twisted it in his hands, as if seeing it for the first time.
“You are a woman of noble birth,” he said. “It suits you that you should die by a noble sword.”
Andronicus took two steps forward, grabbed the hilt with both hands, and raised the sword higher.
Gwendolyn closed her eyes. She heard the whistling of the wind, the movement of every blade of grass, and there came flashing through her mind random memories from her life. She felt the completion of her life, felt everything she had done, everyone she had loved. In her final thoughts, Gwen thought of Thor. She reached down to her neck and clasped the amulet he had given her, held it tight in her fist. She could feel the warm power radiating through it, this ancient red stone, and she remembered Thor’s words as he had given it to her: this amulet can save your life. Once.
She clutched the amulet tighter, throbbing in her palm, and she prayed to God with every fiber of her being.
Please God, let this amulet work. Please, save me, just this one time. Let me see Thor again.
Gwendolyn opened her eyes, expecting to see Andronicus’s sword flashing down at her—yet what she saw surprised her. Andronicus stood there, frozen, looking over her shoulder, as if watching someone approach. He appeared to be surprised; even confused, and it was not an expression which she had ever expected to see him wear.
“You will lower your weapon now,” a voice rang out behind Gwendolyn.
Gwendolyn was electrified at the sound of that voice. It was a voice she knew. She spun, and she was shocked to see standing there a person who she knew as well as her own father.
There he stood, dressed in his white robes and hood, his eyes shining with an intensity greater than she had ever seen, staring right at Andronicus. She and Steffen lay on the ground between these two titans. They were two creatures of incredible force, one of the darkness, and one of the light, standing off against each other. She could almost feel the spiritual war raging above her head.
“Will I?” Andronicus mocked, smiling back.
But in Andronicus’ smile, Gwen could see his lips tremble, could see, for the first time, something like fear in Andronicus’ eyes. She had never thought she would see that. Andronicus must have known of Argon. And whatever he knew, it was enough to make the most powerful man in the world afraid.
“You will harm the girl no further,” Argon said calmly. “You will accept her surrender,” he said, taking a step closer, his eyes shining, hypnotizing. “You will allow her to retreat to her people. And you will allow her people to surrender, if they choose. I will only tell you this one time. You would be wise to accept it.”
Andronicus stared back at Argon and blinked several times, as if undecided.
Then finally, he leaned back his head and roared with laughter. It was the loudest and darkest laughter Gwen had ever heard, filling the entire camp, seeming to reach up to the very sky.
“Your sorcerer’s tricks won’t work on me, old man,” Andronicus said. “I know of the Great Argon. There was a time when you were powerful. More powerful than man, than dragons, than the sky itself, or so they say. But your time has passed. Now it is a new time. Now it is a time for the great Andronicus. Now, you are but a relic, a remnant of some other time, when the MacGils ruled, when magic was strong. When the Ring was indefensible. But your fate is tied to the Ring. And now the Ring is weak. Like you.
“You are a fool to confront me, old man. Now you will suffer. Now you will learn the strength of the Great Andronicus.”
Andronicus sneered and raised his sword again, towards Gwendolyn, this time looking right at Argon.
“I’m going to kill the girl slowly, before your eyes,” Andronicus said. “Then I will kill the hunchback. Next, I will maim you, but leave you alive as a walking symbol of the power of my greatness.”
Gwendolyn braced herself and flinched as Andronicus brought the sword down for her head.
Suddenly, something happened. She heard a sound cut through the air, like that of a thousand fires, followed by Andronicus’ scream.
She opened her eyes in utter disbelief to see Andronicus’ face contorted in pain, dropping his sword and kneeling to the ground. She watched Argon take a step forward, then another, holding out a single palm, which was radiating a ball of violet light. The ball grew larger and larger, enveloping Andronicus as Argon continued walking forward, expressionless, getting closer and closer to Andronicus as he held out his palm.
Andronicus curled up into a ball on the ground as the light enveloped him.
A gasp erupted from his men, but none dared approach. Either they were afraid, or Argon had cast some sort of spell to make them powerless.
“MAKE IT STOP!” Andronicus screamed, reaching up and grabbing his ears. “I BEG YOU!”
“You will do no further harm to the girl,” Argon said slowly.
“I will do no further harm to the girl!” Andronicus repeated, as if in a trance.
“You will release her now and allow her to return to her people.”
“I will release her now and allow her to return to her people!”
“You will give her people a chance to surrender.”
“I will give her people a chance to surrender!” Andronicus shrieked. “Please! I will do anything!”
Argon breathed deep, then finally stopped. The light disappeared from his hand as he slowly lowered his arm.
Gwen looked up at him in shock; she had never seen Argon in action, and she could hardly comprehend his power. It was like watching the heavens open up.
“If we meet again, great Andronicus,” Argon said slowly, looking down as Andronicus lay there whimpering, “it will be on your way to the darkest realms of death.”
Thor struggled, held firmly in place by the Empire soldiers, and watched helplessly as Durs, a man he once thought of as a brother, raised a sword to kill him.
Thor shut his eyes and braced himself, knowing his time had come. He kicked himself for being so stupid, so trusting. They had set him up all along, a lamb led to slaughter. Even worse, as the leader, the other boys had looked to Thor for guidance. He had not only let himself down, he had let all the others down with him. His naïveté, his trusting nature, had endangered them all.
As Thorgrin struggled, he tried with all he had to summon his power, to call it up from somewhere deep inside himself, just enough power to break free of his bonds, to fight back.
Yet, try as he did, it would not come. His own strength was just not enough to break free of all the soldiers holding him down.
Thor felt the wind caress his face as Durs lowered the sword, and braced himself for the imminent impact of steel. He was not ready to die. In his mind he saw Gwendolyn, in the Ring, waiting for him. He felt he had let her down, too.
Thor heard a sudden noise of flesh meeting flesh, and opened his eyes and was surprised to see that he was still alive. Durs’ arm froze there, in mid-air, his wrist caught by the hand of a huge Empire soldier who towered over Durs—no easy feat, considering Durs’ size. He held Durs’ wrist just inches away from impaling Thor.
Durs turned to the Empire soldier, surprise in his face.
“Our leader does not want them dead,” the soldier muttered darkly to Durs. “He wants them alive. As prisoners.”
“No one told us that,” Durs protested.
“The deal was that we would get to kill them!” Dross added.
“The terms of the deal have changed,” the soldier answered.
“You can’t do that!” Drake called out.
“Can’t we?” he answered darkly, turning to him. “We can do anything we want. In fact, you are now our prisoners, too.” The soldier smiled. “The more Legion we have for ransom, the better.”
Durs looked back at the soldier, his face falling in outrage, and a moment later, chaos erupted as the three brothers were pounced upon by dozens of Empire soldiers, who tackled them down to the ground and bound their wrists.
Thor took advantage of the chaos and turned and searched for Krohn, who he spotted just a few feet away, lurking in the shadows, loyally close to his side.
“Krohn, help me!” Thor screamed. “NOW!”
Krohn leapt into action with a snarl, flying through the air, landing his fangs on the throat of the Empire soldier holding Thor’s wrist. Thor wriggled free and Krohn leapt from one soldier to the next, biting and clawing them until Thor could break free and grab his sword. Thor then spun around and in a single blow, chopped off three of their heads.
Thor darted over to Reece, closest to him, and stabbed his captor in the heart, freeing him and allowing him to draw his sword and join the fight. The two of them fanned out and hurried to their Legion brothers, attacking their captors and freeing Elden, O’Connor, Conval and Conven.
The other soldiers were distracted by detaining Drake, Durs and Dross, and by the time they turned around and figured out what was going on, it was too late. Thor, Reece, O’Connor, Elden, Conval and Conven were free, all with weapons in hand. They were still badly outnumbered, and Thor knew the fight would not be easy. But at least know they had a fighting chance. Undaunted, they all charged the enemy with abandon.
The hundred Empire soldiers attacked and Thor heard a screech high overhead and looked up to see Estopheles. His falcon swooped down and scratched the eyes of the lead Empire soldier, who fell to the ground flailing. Estopheles then scratched several others, taking them down one at a time.
As they charged, Thor placed a rock in his sling and hurled it, striking one soldier in the temple and knocking him down before he could reach them; O’Connor managed to fire off two arrows, both landing with deadly precision, and Elden hurled a spear, impaling two soldiers, dropping at their feet. It was a good start—but there remained a hundred soldiers left to kill.
They met in the middle with a great battle cry. As he had been taught, Thor focused on one soldier in particular, choosing the biggest and meanest one he could find, and raising his sword high. There was a great clang of metal as Thor’s sword was blocked by the man’s shield, and the man immediately brought a hammer down for Thor’s head.
Thor sidestepped, and as the hammer plunged down into the earth, Thor pulled the dagger from his belt and stabbed him; he collapsed, dead.
Thor raised his shield in time to block the sword blows of two attackers, then parried with his own, killing one of them. He was about to swing at the other when he caught a glimpse of a sword slashing down at him from behind; he had to spin around and block that with his shield.
Thor was getting attacked from all sides now, badly outnumbered, and it was all he could do just to keep the blows from raining down on him. He had no time or energy to attack—only to defend. And more and more soldiers kept coming at him.
Thor looked over and saw his Legion brothers in the same predicament: they each managed to kill one or two soldiers—but badly outnumbered, they paid a price, receiving minor wounds from all sides. Thor could tell that they were losing ground—even with Krohn jumping in and attacking, and even with Indra helping, picking up rocks and hurling them at the group of soldiers. It would only be a matter of time until they were surrounded and finished off.
“Free us!” came a voice.
Thor turned to see Drake, bound by ropes with his brothers, just a few feet away.
“Free us!” Drake repeated, “and we will help you fight them! We fight for the same cause!”
As Thor raised a shield to block yet another great blow, this from a battle axe, he realized that having three more hands would help greatly. Without them, they clearly had no chance of defeating all of these soldiers. Thor didn’t feel he could trust the three brothers anymore, but at this point he felt he had nothing to lose by trying. After all, the three brothers had motivation to fight, too.
Thor blocked yet another sword blow, then dropped to his knees and rolled over, through the crowd, several feet, until he reached the three brothers. He jumped up and slashed their ropes one at a time, protecting them from blows, as they each drew their swords and jumped into the mix.
Drake, Dross and Durs charged the thick crowd of Empire soldiers and attacked, slashing, thrusting, jabbing. They were each large and skilled, and they caught the Empire soldiers off guard, immediately killing several of them and helping the odds. Thor felt mixed feelings about freeing them, after what they had done—but given the circumstances, it seemed to be the wisest choice. Better that than death.
Now there were nine of them against the remaining eighty or so soldiers. The odds were still terrible, but at least better than they were.
The Legion brothers fell back on their training skills, on the drills ingrained in them during the Hundred, the countless times they had been trained to fight while encircled and outnumbered; they did as Kolk and Brom had trained them to do: they fell back and formed a tight circle, backs to each other, and fought off the encroaching Empire soldiers as one unit. They were emboldened by the arrival of the three extra fighters, and they each caught a second wind, and fought back more vigorously than before.
Conval extracted his flail and swung it wide and struck the enemy again and again, managing to take out three Empire soldiers before the chain was snatched away from him. His brother Conven used a regular mace, aiming low and taking out soldiers’ legs with the studded metal ball. O’Connor couldn’t use his bow at such short range, but he managed to extract two throwing daggers from his waist and threw them into the crowd, killing two soldiers. Elden wielded his two-handed war hammer ferociously, raining great blows all around him. And Thor and Reece blocked and parried with their swords expertly. For a moment, Thor was feeling optimistic.
Then, out of the corner of Thor’s eye, he detected something that disturbed him. He spotted one of the three brothers turning and charging across the circle of Legion; Thor turned and saw Durs. He was charging, not for an Empire soldier, but for him. For Thor. Right for his back.
It happened too quickly, and Thor, fighting off two Empire soldiers before him, could not turn in time.
Thor knew he was about to die. About to be stabbed in the back by a boy he had once thought of as a brother, by a boy whom he had, naively, trusted twice.
Suddenly Conval appeared in front of Thor, to protect him.
And as Durs lowered his sword for Thor’s back, it found a target in Conval’s chest instead.
Thor turned and screamed: “CONVAL!”
Conval stood there, frozen, eyes wide in a death stare, as he looked down at the sword plunged through his heart, the blood gushing down his torso.
Durs stood there, staring back, equally surprised.
Conval collapsed to his knees, blood gushing from his chest. Thor watched, in slow motion, as Conval, a close Legion brother, a boy he had loved like a brother, fell face-first to the ground, dead. All to save Thor’s life.
Durs stood over him, looking down, appearing shocked by what he had just done.
Thor lunged forward to kill Durs—but Conven beat him to it. Conval’s twin rushed forward and swung his sword wide, decapitating Durs, whose limp body fell to the earth.
Thor stood there and felt hollowed out, crushed by guilt. He had made one too many mistakes in judgment. If he had not freed Durs, Conval might be alive right now.
With their backs exposed to the Empire, it gave the Empire soldiers an opportunity. They all rushed in through the open circle, and Thor felt a warhammer smash him on the back of the shoulder blade; the strength of the blow sent him down to the ground, face-first.
Before he could rise, several soldiers pounced on him; he felt their feet on his back, then felt one soldier reach down, grab his hair, and lean over him with a dagger.
“Say goodbye, young one,” the soldier said.
Thor closed his eyes, and as he did, he felt himself transported to another world.
Please God, Thor said to himself. Allow me to live this day. Just give me the strength to kill these soldiers. To die some other day, in some other place, with honor. To live long enough to avenge these deaths. To see Gwendolyn one last time.
As Thor lay there, watching the dagger come down, he felt time slow to a near stop. He felt a sudden rush of heat, up his legs and torso and arms, all the way through his palms, to the tips of his fingers, a tingling so intense he could not even close his fingers. The incredible rush of heat and energy was ready to burst right through him.
Thor spun around, feeling charged with a new strength, and aimed his palm at his attacker. A white orb of light emanated from his palm and sent his attacker flying across the battlefield, knocking back several other soldiers with him.
Thor stood, overflowing with energy, and aimed his palms throughout the battlefield. As he did, white orbs of light went everywhere, creating waves of destruction, so fast and intense, that within minutes, all of the Empire soldiers lay in a great heap, dead.
As the heat of the moment calmed, Thor took stock. He, Reece, O’Connor, Elden, and Conven were alive. Nearby were Krohn and Indra, also alive, Krohn breathing hard. All the Empire soldiers were dead. And at their feet lay Conval, dead.
Dross was dead, too, an Empire sword thrust through his heart.
The only one left alive was Drake. He lay there, moaning on the ground with a stomach wound from an Empire dagger. Thor marched over to him as Reece, O’Connor and Elden dragged him roughly to his feet, groaning in pain.
Drake, wincing in pain, sneered back insolently, semi-conscious.
“You should have killed us from the start,” Drake said, blood dripping from his mouth, breaking into a long cough. “You were always too naïve. Too stupid.”
Thor felt his cheeks redden, even more furious at himself for believing them. He was furious, most of all, that his naïveté resulted in Conval’s death.
“I’m only going to ask you this once,” Thor growled. “Answer me truthfully, and we will let you live. Lie to us, and you will follow the way of your two brothers. The choice is yours.”
Drake coughed several times.
“Where is the Sword?” Thor demanded. “The truth this time.”
Drake coughed again and again, then finally lifted his head. He looked up and met Thor’s eyes, and his stare was filled with hate.
“Neversink,” Drake finally answered.
Thor looked at the others, who all looked back at him, confused.
“Neversink?” Thor asked.
“It is a bottomless lake,” Indra chimed in, stepping forward. “On the far side of the Great Desert. It is a Lake of the deepest depths.”
Thor scowled back at Drake.
“Why?” he asked.
Drake coughed, getting weaker.
“Gareth’s orders,” Drake said. “He wanted it cast into a place from which it would never return.”
“But why?” Thor pressed, confused. “Why destroy the Sword?”
Drake looked up and met his eyes.
“If he could not wield it,” Drake said. “Then no one could.”
Thor looked at him long and hard, and finally, he felt satisfied that he was telling the truth.
“Then our time is short,” Thor said, preparing to go.
Drake shook his head.
“You will never get there in time,” Drake said. “They are days ahead of you. The Sword is already lost forever. Give up and return to the Ring and spare yourselves.”
Thor shook his head.
“We don’t think as you,” he replied. “We don’t live to save our lives. We live for valor, for our code. And we will go wherever that takes us.”
“You see where your valor has taken you now,” Drake said. “Even with your valor, you’re a fool, just like the rest of them. Valor is worthless.”
Thor sneered back at him. He could hardly believe that he’d been raised in a house, had spent his whole childhood, with this creature.
Thor’s knuckles whitened as he squeezed his sword hilt, wanting more than ever to kill this boy. Drake’s eyes followed his hands.
“Do it,” Drake said. “Kill me. Do it once and for all.”
Thor stared back long and hard, itching to do it. But he had given Drake his word that if he told the truth, he would not kill him. And Thor was always good to his word.
“I will not,” Thor said finally. “As much as you may deserve it. You will not die by my hand, for then I would be as low as you.”
As Thor began to turn away, Conven rushed forward and shrieked:
“For my brother!”
Before any of them could react, Conven raised his sword and thrust it through Drake’s heart. Conven’s eyes were alight with madness, with grief, as he held Drake in a death embrace and watched Drake’s limp body fall to the ground, dead.
Thor looked down and knew the death would mean little consolation for Conven’s loss. For all of their loss. But, at least, it was something.
Thor looked out at the vast stretch of desert before them and knew the Sword was somewhere beyond its borders. It seemed like a planet away. Just as he thought their journey was complete, he realized it had not yet even begun.
Erec sat amongst the scores of knights in the Duke’s hall of arms inside his castle, secure behind the gates of Savaria, all of them bruised and battered from their encounter with those monsters. Beside him sat his friend Brandt, who held his head in his hands, as did many of the others. The mood in the chamber was glum.
Erec felt it, too. Every muscle in his body ached from the day’s battle with that lord’s men and with the monsters. It had been one of the toughest days of battle he could remember, and the Duke had lost too many men. As Erec reflected, he realized that if it had not been for Alistair, he and Brandt and the others would be dead right now.
Erec was overwhelmed with gratitude for her—and even more, with a renewed love. He was also intrigued by her, more so than he had ever been. He had always sensed that she was special, even powerful. But this day’s events had proved it to him. He had a burning desire to know more about who she was, about the secret of her lineage. But he had vowed not to pry—and he always kept his word.
Erec couldn’t wait until this meeting was over so he could see her again.
The Duke’s knights had all been sitting here for hours, recovering, trying to figure out what had happened, arguing about what to do next. The Shield was down, and Erec was still trying to wrap his mind around the ramifications. It meant that Savaria was now prone to attack; even worse, messengers had streamed in with news of Andronicus’ invasion, of what had happened at King’s Court, at Silesia. Erec’s heart sank. His heart tugged at him to be with his brothers in the Silver, to defend his home cities. But here he was, in Savaria, where fate had put him. He was needed here, too: the Duke’s city and people were, after all, a strategic part of the MacGil empire, and they also needed defending.
But with the new reports flooding in of Andronicus sending one of his battalions here, to attack Savaria, Erec knew that his million-man army would soon spread to every corner of the Ring. When he was done, Andronicus would leave nothing. Erec had heard stories of Andronicus’ conquests his entire life, and he knew that he was a cruel man without equal. By the simple law of numbers, the Duke’s few hundred men would be helpless to stand up against them. Savaria was a doomed city.
“I say we surrender,” said the Duke’s advisor, a grizzled old warrior who sat slumped over a long, rectangular wooden table, lost in a mug of ale, slamming his metal gauntlet on the wood. All the other soldiers quieted and looked to him.
“What choice do we have?” he added. “It is but a few hundred of us against a million of them.”
“Perhaps we can defend, at least hold the city,” said another soldier.
“But for how long?” asked another.
“Long enough for MacGil to send reinforcements, if we can hold out long enough.”
“MacGil is dead,” another warrior answered. “No one is coming to help us.”
“But his daughter lives,” another countered. “As do his men. They would not abandon us here!”
“They can barely defend themselves!” another protested.
The men broke out into agitated mumbling, all arguing with each other, speaking over each other, going around and around in circles.
Erec sat there, watching it all, and feeling hollowed out. A messenger had arrived but hours ago and had delivered the dreadful news of Andronicus’ invasion—and also, for Erec, the even worse news, just reaching him now, that MacGil had been assassinated. Erec had been so far away from King’s Court for so long, it was the first time he had received the news—and when he had, he felt as if a dagger had been plunged into his heart. He had loved MacGil as a father, and the loss left him feeling more empty than he could say.
The room grew quiet as the Duke cleared his throat and all eyes turned to him.
“We can defend our city against an attack,” the Duke said slowly. “With our skills and the strength of these walls, we can hold it against an army even five times our numbers—perhaps an army even ten times our numbers. And we have enough provisions to withhold a siege for weeks. Against any regular army, we would win.”
“But the Empire boasts no regular army,” he added. “We cannot defend against one million men. It would be futile.”
“But so would surrender. We all know what Andronicus does to his captors. It appears to me that we will all die either away. The question is whether we die on our feet or die on our backs. I say, we die on our feet!”
The room erupted into a cheer of approval. Erec couldn’t agree more.
“Then we have no other course of action left,” the Duke continued. “We will defend Savaria. We will never surrender. We may die, but we will all die together.”
The room fell into a heavy silence as the others gravely nodded to each other. It seemed as if they were all searching for another answer.
“There is one other way,” Erec said finally, speaking up.
He could feel all eyes turn and stare at him.
The Duke nodded his way, for him to speak.
“We can attack,” Erec said.
“Attack?” the soldiers called out in surprise. “The few hundred of us, attacking one million men? Erec, I know you are fearless. But are you mad?”
Erec shook his head, deadly serious.
“What you fail to consider is that Andronicus’ men would never expect an attack. We would gain the element of surprise. As you say, sitting here, defending, we will die. If we attack, we can take out a lot more of them; more importantly, if we attack in the right way, and at the right place, we might do more than just hold them back—we might actually win.”
“Win?!” they all called out, looking at Erec, completely bewildered.
“What do you mean?” asked the Duke.
“Andronicus will expect us to be here, to sit back and defend our city,” Erec explained. “His men will never expect us to be holding a random chokepoint outside our city’s gates. Here in the city, we have an advantage of strong walls—but out there, in the field, we have the advantage of surprise. And surprise is always greater than strength. If we can hold a natural chokepoint, we can funnel them all to one spot, and from there we can attack. I speak of the Eastern Gulch.”
“The Eastern Gulch?” a soldier asked.