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A V O W O F G L O R Y
(Book #5 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 Unholy Vault Designs, 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
“Life every man holds dear; but the dear man holds honor far more precious dear than life.”
Andronicus rode proudly down the center of McCloud's royal city, flanked by hundreds of his generals and dragging behind him his most prized possession: King McCloud. Stripped of his armor, half-naked, his hairy body rolling with fat, King McCloud was bound by ropes and tied to the back of Andronicus’ saddle by a long rope circling his wrists.
As Andronicus rode slowly, reveling in his triumph, he dragged McCloud through the streets, over dirt and pebbles, stirring up a cloud of dust. McCloud’s people gathered and gaped. He could hear McCloud calling out, writhing in pain as he paraded him through the streets of his own city. Andronicus beamed. The faces of McCloud's people crumpled in fear. Here was their former king, now the lowliest of slaves. It was one of the finest days Andronicus could remember.
Andronicus was surprised at how easy it had been to take McCloud’s city. It seemed as if McCloud’s men had been demoralized before the attack had even begun. Andronicus's men had conquered them in a blaze of lightning, his thousands of soldiers swooping in, overriding the few soldiers who dared to defend, and swarming the city in the blink of an eye. They must have realized there was no point in resisting. They had all laid down their arms assuming, if they surrendered, Andronicus would take them captive.
But they did not know the great Andronicus. He despised surrender. He took no captives, and lowering their weapons just made it all the easier for him.
The streets of McCloud's city ran with blood as Andronicus' men swept every alley, every side street, butchering every man they could find. The women and children he had taken as slaves, as he always did. The houses they looted, one at a time.
As Andronicus rode now, slowly through the streets, surveying his triumph, he saw the corpses everywhere, the heaping spoils, the destroyed homes. He turned and nodded to one of his generals, and immediately the general raised a torch high, motioned to his men, and hundreds of them fanned throughout the city, setting fire to the thatched roofs. Flames rose up all around them, reaching for the sky, and Andronicus could already begin to feel the heat from here.
"NO!" McCloud screamed, flailing on the ground behind him.
Andronicus grinned wider and picked up his pace, aiming for a particularly large rock; there came a satisfying thump, and he knew McCloud’s body had ridden over it.
Andronicus took great satisfaction in watching this city burn. As he had in every conquered city in his Empire, he would first raze the city to the ground, then build it up again, with his own men, his own generals, his own Empire. That was his way. He wanted no trace of the old. He was building a new world. The world of Andronicus.
The Ring, the sacred Ring which had eluded all of his ancestors, was now his territory. He could hardly conceive it. He breathed deeply, wondering just how great he was. Soon enough, he would cross the Highlands and conquer the other half of the Ring, too. Then there would be no place left on the planet upon which his foot had not tread.
Andronicus rode up to the towering statue of McCloud, in the city square, and stopped before it. It stood there like a shrine, rising fifty feet, made of marble. It showed a version of McCloud that Andronicus did not recognize—a young, fit, muscular McCloud, wielding a sword proudly. It was egomaniacal. For that, Andronicus admired him. A part of him wanted to take the statue back home, install it in his palace as a trophy.
But another part of him was too disgusted by it. Without thinking, he reached down, took out his sling—three times larger than that of any human, large enough to hold a rock the size of a small boulder—reached back and hurled it with all he had.
The small boulder flew through the air and connected with the head of the statue. McCloud's marble head shattered into pieces, exploding off the body. Andronicus then let out a shout, raised his two-handed flail, charged, and swung with all he had.
Andronicus smashed the statue’s torso and the marble toppled, then crashed to the ground, shattering with a great noise. Andronicus turned his horse and made sure, as he rode, that McCloud's body was scraped up over the shards.
"You will pay for that!" an agonized McCloud cried weakly.
Andronicus laughed. He had encountered many humans in his lifetime, but this one might just be the most pathetic of them all.
"Will I?" Andronicus yelled.
This McCloud was too thick-headed; he still did not appreciate the might of the great Andronicus. He would have to be taught, once and for all.
Andronicus scanned the city, and his eyes fell on what was surely McCloud's castle. He kicked his horse and took off at a gallop, his men falling in behind him as he dragged McCloud across the dusty courtyard.
Andronicus rode up the dozens of marble steps, McCloud's body thumping behind him, calling out and groaning with each step, then he continued to ride, right up through the marble entrance. Andronicus' men were already standing guard at the doors, at their feet the bloody corpses of McCloud's former guards. Andronicus grinned with satisfaction to see that already, every corner of the city was his.
Andronicus continued riding, right through the vast castle doors, inside a corridor of soaring arched ceilings, all made of marble. He marveled at the excess of this McCloud king. He clearly had spared no expense in indulging himself.
Now his day had come. Andronicus continue to ride with his men down the wide corridors, the horses’ hooves echoing off the walls, to what was clearly McCloud's throne room. He burst through the oak doors and rode right to the center of the room, to an obscene throne, crafted of gold, sitting in the center of the chamber.
Andronicus dismounted, climbed the golden steps slowly, and sat in it.
He breathed deeply as he turned and surveyed his men, his dozens of generals seated on horseback awaiting his command. He looked over at the bloody McCloud, still tied to his horse, groaning. He surveyed this room, examined the walls, the banners, the armor, the weaponry. He looked down at the workmanship of this throne and admired it. He considered melting it down, or perhaps bringing it back for himself. Maybe he would give it to one of his lesser generals.
Of course, this throne was still nothing next to Andronicus’ own throne, the most massive throne of all the kingdoms, one which had taken twenty laborers forty years to build. The building of it had begun in his father’s lifetime and had been completed on the day Andronicus had murdered his own father. It had been perfect timing.
Andronicus looked down at McCloud, this pathetic little human, and wondered how best to make him suffer. He examined the shape and size of his skull, and decided that he would like to shrink it and wear it on his necklace, with the other shrunken heads around his neck. Yet Andronicus realized that before he killed him, he would need some time to thin out his face, his cheekbones, so that it looked better around his neck. He did not want a fat, plump face ruining the aesthetic of his necklace. He would let him live a while, and torture him in the meantime. He smiled to himself. Yes, it was a very good plan.
"Bring him to me," Andronicus commanded one of his generals, in his ancient, deep snarl.
The general jumped down without a moment’s hesitation, hurried over to McCloud, cut the rope, and dragged the bloody body across the floor, staining it red as he went. He dropped it at the base of Andronicus’ feet.
"You can't get away with this!" McCloud mumbled weakly.
Andronicus shook his head; this human would never learn.
"Here I am, seated on your throne," Andronicus said. "And there you are, lying at my feet. I should think it is safe to say that I can get away with anything I want. And that I already have.”
McCloud lay there, moaning and writhing.
"My first order of business," Andronicus said, "will be to have you pay the proper respect to your new king and master. Come to me now, and have the honor of being the first to kneel before me in my new kingdom, the first to kiss my hand and call me King of what was once the McCloud side of the Ring.”
McCloud looked up, got to his hands and knees, and sneered at Andronicus
"Never!" he said, and turned and spat on the floor.
Andronicus leaned back and laughed. He was heartily enjoying this. He had not met a human this willful for quite some time.
Andronicus turned and nodded, and one of his men grabbed McCloud from behind, while another came forward and held his head still. A third came forward with a long razor. As he approached, McCloud buckled in fear.
"What are you doing?" McCloud asked in panic, his voice several octaves higher.
The man reached down and quickly shaved off half of McCloud's beard. McCloud looked up in bewilderment, clearly baffled that the man had not hurt him.
Andronicus nodded, and another man stepped forward with a long poker, at the end of which was carved in iron the emblem of Andronicus’ kingdom—a lion with a bird in its mouth. It glowed orange, steaming hot, and as the others held McCloud down, the man lowered the poker for his now-bare cheek.
"NO!" McCloud screeched, realizing.
But it was too late.
A horrific shriek cut through the air, accompanied by a hissing noise and the smell of burnt flesh. Andronicus watched with glee as the poker burned deeper and deeper into McCloud's cheek. The hissing grew louder, the screams almost intolerable.
Finally, after a good ten seconds, they dropped McCloud.
McCloud slumped to the ground, unconscious, drooling, as smoke rose up from half of his face. It now bore the emblem of Andronicus, burned into his flesh.
Andronicus leaned forward, looked down at the unconscious McCloud, and admired the handiwork.
"Welcome to the Empire."
Erec stood atop the hill at the forest’s edge and watched the small army approach, and his heart filled with fire. He was born for a day like this. In some battles, the line blurred between just and unjust—but not on this day. The Lord from Baluster had stolen his bride unashamedly, and had been boastful and unapologetic. He had been made aware of his crime, had been given a chance to make wrongs right, and had refused to rectify his errors. He had brought his woes upon himself. His men should have let it alone—especially now that he was dead.
But there they rode, hundreds of them, paid mercenaries to this lesser lord—all bent on killing Erec solely because they had been paid by this man. They charged toward him in their shiny green armor, and as they neared they let out a battle cry. As if that might scare him.
Erec was unafraid. He had seen too many battles like this. If he had learned anything in all his years of training, it was to never fear when he fought on the side of the just. Justice, he was taught, may not always prevail—but it gave its bearer the strength of ten men.
It was not fear Erec felt as he saw the hundreds of men approach, knowing he would likely die on this day. It was expectation. He had been given a chance to meet his death in the most honorable way, and that was a gift. He had taken a vow of glory, and today, his vow was demanding its due.
Erec drew his sword and charged down the slope on foot, sprinting for the army as it charged him. At this moment he wished more than ever that he had his trusted horse, Warkfin, to ride with into battle—but he felt a sense of peace knowing Warfkin was bringing Alistair back to Savaria, to the safety of the Duke's court.
As he neared the soldiers, hardly fifty yards away, Erec picked up speed, sprinting for the lead knight in the center. They did not slow, and neither did he, and he braced himself for the clash to come.
Erec knew he had one advantage: three hundred men could not physically fit close enough to all attack one man at the same time; he knew from his training that at most six men on horseback could get close enough to attack a man at once. The way Erec saw it, that meant his odds were not three hundred to one—but only six to one. As long as he could kill the six men in front of him at all times, he had a chance to win. It was just a matter of whether he had the stamina to make it through.
As Erec charged down the hill, he drew from his waist the one weapon he knew would be best: a flail with a chain ten yards long, at the end of which was a spiked, metal ball. It was a weapon meant for laying a trap on the road—or for a situation just like this.
Erec waited until the last moment, until the army did not have time to react, then spun the flail high overhead and hurled it across the battlefield. He aimed for a small tree, and the spiked chain spread out across the battlefield; as the ball wrapped around it, Erec tucked into a roll and hit the ground, avoiding the spears about to be hurled at him, and held on to the shaft with all his might.
He timed it perfectly: there was no time for the army to react. They saw it at the last second and tried to pull up on their horses—but they were going too fast, and there wasn’t time.
The entire front line ran into it, the spiked chain cutting through all the horses’ legs, sending the riders falling face-first down to the ground, the horses landing on top of them. Dozens of them were crushed in the chaos.
Erec had no time to be proud of the damage he had done: another flank of the army turned and bore down on him, charging with a battle cry, and Erec rolled to his feet to meet them.
As the lead knight raised a javelin, Erec took advantage of what he had: he did not have a horse, and could not meet these men at their height, but since he was low, he could use the ground beneath him. Erec suddenly dove down to the ground, tucked into a roll, raised his sword, and sliced off the legs of the man's horse. The horse buckled and the soldier did a face plant before he had a chance to let go of his weapon.
Erec continued to roll, and managed to miss the stampeding feet of the horses around him, who had to part ways to avoid running into the downed horse. Many did not succeed, tripping over the dead animal, and dozens more horses crashed down to the ground, raising a cloud of dust and causing a logjam amongst the army.
It was exactly what Erec had hoped for: dust and confusion, dozens more falling to the ground.
Erec jumped to his feet, raised his sword and blocked a sword coming down for his head. He spun and blocked a javelin, then a lance, then an ax. He defended the blows that rained down on him from all sides, but knew he could not keep this up forever. He had to be on the attack if he were to stand any chance.
Erec tucked into a roll, came out of it, took a knee, and hurled his sword as if it were a spear. It flew through the air and into the chest of his closest attacker; his eyes opened wide and he fell sideways, dead, off his horse.
Erec took the opportunity to jump onto the man's horse, snatching his flail from his hands before he died. It was a fine flail, and Erec had singled him out for this reason; it had a long, studded silver shaft and a four-foot chain, with three spiked balls at the end of it. Erec pulled back and swung it high overhead, smashing the weapons from the hands of several opponents at once; then he swung again and knocked them from their horses.
Erec surveyed the battlefield and saw that he had done considerable damage, with nearly a hundred knights downed. But the others, at least two hundred of them, were regrouping and charging him now—and they were all determined.
Erec rode out to meet them, one man charging two hundred, and raised a great battle cry of his own, raising his flail ever higher, and praying to God that his strength would only hold.
Alistair cried as she held onto Warkfin with all her might, the horse galloping, taking her down the too-familiar road to Savaria. She had been screaming and kicking at the beast the whole way, trying with everything she had to get it to turn around, to ride back to Erec. But it would not listen. She had never encountered any horse like this one before—it listened unwaveringly to its master's command and would not waver. Clearly, it was set on bringing her exactly where Erec had commanded it to—and she finally resigned herself to the fact that there was nothing she could do about it.
Alistair had mixed feelings as she rode back through the city gates, a city in which she had lived so long as an indentured servant. On the one hand, it felt familiar—but on the other, it brought back memories of the innkeeper who had oppressed her, of everything that was wrong about this place. She had so looked forward to moving on, to moving out of here with Erec and beginning a new life over with him. While she felt safe within its gates, she also felt an increasing foreboding for Erec, out there alone, facing that army. The thought of it made her sick.
Realizing that Warkfin would not turn around, she knew her next best bet was to get help for Erec. Erec had asked her to stay here, within the safety of these gates—but that was the last thing she would ever do. She was a king's daughter, after all, and she was not one to run from fear or from confrontation. Erec had found his match in her: she was as noble and as determined as he. And there was no way she would ever live with herself if anything happened to him back there.
Knowing this royal city well, Alistair directed Warkfin to the Duke's castle—and now that they were within the gates, the animal listened. She rode to the castle entrance, dismounted, and ran past the attendants who tried to stop her. She brushed off their grasp and raced down the marble corridors she had learned so well as a servant.
Alistair put her shoulders into the large royal doors to the chamber hall, crashed them open, and barged into the Duke’s private chamber.
Several council members turned to look at her, all wearing royal robes, the Duke seated in the center with several knights around him. They all wore astonished expressions; she had clearly interrupted some important business.
"Who are you, woman?” one called out.
“Who dares interrupt the Duke’s official business?" another yelled.
"I recognize the woman," the Duke said, standing.
"As do I," said Brandt, the one she recognized as Erec's friend. "It is Alistair, is it not?" he asked. “Erec's new wife?”
She ran towards him, in tears, and clasped his hands.
"Please, my lord, help me. It is Erec!”
"What has happened?" the Duke asked, alarmed.
"He lies in grave danger. Even now he faces a hostile army alone! He would not let me stay behind. Please! He needs help!”
Without a word, all the knights jumped to their feet and began to run from the hall, not one of them hesitating; she turned and ran with them.
"Stay here!" Brandt exhorted.
"Never!" she said, running behind him. "I will lead you to him!”
They all ran as one down the corridors, out the castle doors and to a large group of waiting horses, each mounting theirs without a moment's hesitation. Alistair jumped on Warkfin, kicked, and led the group, as anxious to go as the rest of them.
As they charged through the Duke’s court, soldiers all around them began to mount horses and join them—and by the time they left the gates of Savaria, they were accompanied by a large and growing contingent of at least a hundred men, Alistair riding in front, beside Brandt and the Duke.
"If Erec finds out that you ride with us, it will be my head," Brandt said, riding beside her. "Please, just tell us where he is, my lady.”
But Alistair shook her head doggedly, pushing back tears as she rode harder, the great rumble of all these men around her.
"I would rather go down to my grave than abandon Erec!”
Thor rode warily on the forest trail, Reece, O'Connor, Elden and the twins on horseback beside him, Krohn at his heels, as they all emerged from the forest on the far side of the Canyon. Thor's heart beat faster in anticipation as they finally reached the perimeter of the thick wood. He raised a hand, motioning for the others to be silent, and they all froze beside him.
Thor looked out and surveyed the great expanse of beach, of open sky, and beyond it, the vast yellow sea that would take them to the distant lands of the Empire. The Tartuvian. Thor hadn't seen its waters since their journey to The Hundred. It felt odd to be back again—and this time, with a mission that held the fate of the Ring.
After crossing the Canyon bridge, their short ride through the forest in the Wilds had been uneventful. Thor had been instructed by Kolk and Brom to look for a small ship moored on the shores of the Tartuvian, carefully hidden beneath the branches of an immense tree which hung over the sea. Thor followed their directions exactly, and as they reached the wood’s perimeter, he spotted the ship, well-hidden, ready to take them where they needed to go. He was relieved.
But he then saw six Empire troops, standing on the sand before the vessel, inspecting it. Another soldier had climbed on board the ship, docked partly on the beach, rocking in the gently lapping waves. There was supposed to be no one here.
It was a stroke of bad luck. As Thor looked farther out at the horizon, he saw the distant outline of what appeared to be the entire Empire fleet, thousands of black ships flying the black flags of the Empire. Luckily they did not sail toward Thor, but in a different direction, taking the long, circular course to bring them around the Ring, to the McCloud side, where they had breached the Canyon. Luckily, their fleet was preoccupied with a different route.
Except for this one patrol. These six Empire soldiers, probably scouts on a routine mission, somehow must have stumbled upon this Legion ship. It was bad timing. If Thor and the others had just reached the shore a few minutes earlier, they probably would have already boarded it and shoved off. Now, they had a confrontation on their hands. There was no way around it.
Thor looked up and down the beach and saw no other contingents of Empire troops. At least that was in their favor. It was probably a lone patrol group.
"I thought the boat was supposed to be well-hidden," O'Connor said.
"Apparently not enough," Elden remarked.
The six of them sat on their horses, staring at the ship and the group of soldiers.
"It won't be long until they alert other Empire troops," Conven observed.
"And then we’ll have an all-out war on our hands,” added Conval.
Thor knew they were right. And that it was not a chance they could take.
"O'Connor,” Thor said, “your aim is the best of the bunch. I've seen you hit from fifty yards out. See that one on the bow? We’ve got one shot at this. Can you do it?”
O'Connor nodded gravely, his eyes fixed on the Empire soldiers. He reached deliberately over his shoulder, lifted his bow, placed an arrow, and held it at the ready.
They all were looking to Thor, and he felt ready to lead.
"O'Connor, on my signal, fire. Then we’ll charge for the ones below. Everyone else, use your throwing weapons as we get close. Try to get as close as you can first.”
Thor motioned with his hand, and suddenly, O'Connor released the string.
The arrow sailed through the air with a whooshing noise, and it was a perfect shot, its metal tip piercing the heart of the Empire soldier on the bow. The soldier stood there, his eyes opening wide for a moment, as if he did not understand what was happening, then he suddenly stretched his arms out wide and fell forward, face-first, in a swan dive, landing with a splat on the beach at the feet of his fellow soldiers, staining the sand red.
Thor and the others charged, a well-oiled machine in sync with each other. The sound of their horses’ galloping gave them away, and the six other soldiers turned and faced them. The soldiers mounted their horses and charged back, preparing to meet them in the middle.
Thor and his men still had the advantage of surprise. Thor reached back and hurled a stone with his sling and hit one of them in the temple from twenty yards away as he was in the midst of mounting his horse. He fell back off of it, dead, the reins still in his hands.
As they neared, Reece threw his ax, Elden his spear, and the twins each their daggers. The sands were uneven and the horses slipped, making throwing the weapons harder than usual. Reece's ax found its mark, killing one of them, but the others missed.
That left four of them. The lead one broke out from the group, charging right for Reece, who was weaponless; he had cast his ax but not had time to draw his sword yet. Reece braced himself, and at the last second Krohn leapt forward, bit the soldier’s horse in the leg, and the horse collapsed, its rider falling down to the ground and sparing Reece at the last moment.
Reece drew his sword and stabbed the soldier, killing him before he could regain his feet.
That left three. One of them came for Elden with an ax, swinging for his head; Elden blocked it with his shield and in the same motion swung his sword and chopped the ax handle in half. Elden then swung around with his shield and smashed the attacker in the side of the head, knocking him from his horse.
Another soldier pulled a flail from his waist and swung its long chain, the spiked end suddenly coming down for O'Connor. It happened too fast, and there was no time for O'Connor to react.
Thor saw it coming and charged forward to his friend’s side, raising his sword and slashing the chain of the flail, before it hit O'Connor. There came the sound of sword cutting through iron, Thor marveling at how sharp his new sword was. The spiked ball went flying down harmlessly to the ground and lodged in the sand, saving O’Connor’s life. Conval then rode up and stabbed the soldier with a spear, killing him.
The final Empire soldier saw he was badly outnumbered; fear in his eyes, he suddenly turned and took off, racing down shore, his horse’s prints leaving deep impressions in the sand.
They all set their sights on the retreating soldier: Thor hurled a stone with his sling, O’Connor raised his bow and fired, and Reece hurled a spear. But the soldier rode too erratically, the horse dipping in the sand, and they all missed.
Elden drew his sword and Thor could see that he was about to charge after him. Thor held out a hand and motioned for him to stay put.
"Don't!" Thor screamed.
Elden turned and looked at him.
"If he lives, he will send others after us!" Elden protested.
Thor turned and looked back at the boat, and knew it would take precious time to hunt him down—time they could not afford.
"The Empire will come after us no matter what,” Thor said. “We haven't time to lose. What is most important now is that we get far from here. To the ship!”
They dismounted as they reached the ship and Thor reached into his saddle and began to empty it of all its provisions as the others did the same, loading up on weapons and on sacks of food and water. Who knew how long the voyage would take, how long it would be until they saw land again—if they saw land again. Thor also loaded up on food for Krohn.
They threw the sacks up high over the railing of the boat; they landed on the deck above with a thump.
Thor grabbed the thick, knotted rope hanging over the side, the coarse rope cutting into his hands, and tested it. He draped Krohn over his shoulder, the weight of them both testing his muscles, and pulled up towards the deck. Krohn whined in his ear, hugging his chest with his sharp claws, clinging to him.
Soon Thor was over the railing, Krohn leaping off of him onto the deck—and the others followed close behind. Thor leaned over and looked down at the horses on the beach, looking up as if awaiting a command.
"And what of them?" Reece asked, coming up beside him.
Thor turned and surveyed the ship: it was maybe twenty feet long and half as wide. It was big enough for the seven of them—but not for their horses. If they tried to take them, the horses might trample the wood, damage the boat. They had to leave them behind.
"We have no choice," Thor said, looking down longingly at them. “We'll have to find new ones.”
O'Connor leaned over the rail.
"They're smart horses," O'Connor said. "I trained them well. They will return home upon my command.”
O'Connor whistled sharply.
As one, the horses turned and bolted, racing across the sand and disappearing into the forest, heading back towards the Ring.
Thor turned and looked at his brothers, at the ship, at the sea before them. Now they were stranded, with no horses, with no choice but to move forward. Reality was sinking in. They were truly alone, with nothing but this boat, and about to part from the shores of the Ring for good. Now there was no turning back.
"And how are we supposed to get this boat into the water?" Conval asked, as they all looked down, fifteen feet below, at the hull. A small portion of it was in the lapping waves of the Tartuvian, but most of it was lodged firmly in the sand.
"Over here!" Conven said.
They hurried to the other side where a thick iron chain dangled over the edge, at the bottom of which was an immense iron ball, sitting on the sand.
Conven reached down and yanked on the chain. He groaned and struggled, but could not lift it.
“It’s too heavy,” he grunted.
Conval and Thor hurried over and helped, and as the three of them grabbed the chain and pulled, Thor was shocked by its weight: even with the three of them pulling, they could only lift it a few feet. Finally, they all dropped it, and it fell back down to the sand.
"Let me help," Elden said, stepping forward.
With his huge bulk, Elden towered over them, and he reached down by himself and yanked on the chain, and managed to lift the ball into the air alone. Thor was amazed. The others jumped in and they all pulled, as one, yanking the anchor up one foot at a time, and finally over the railing and onto the deck.
The boat started to move, rocking a little bit in the waves, but it remained lodged in the sand.
"The poles!" Reece said.
Thor turned and saw two wooden poles, nearly twenty feet long, mounted along the sides of the boat, and realized what they were for. He ran over with Reece and grabbed one while Conval and Conven grabbed the other.
“When we shove off,” Thor screamed out, “you all raise the sails!”
They leaned over, jabbed the poles into the sand, and pushed with all their might; Thor groaned from the effort. Slowly, the boat began to move, just the tiniest bit. At the same time, Elden and O'Connor ran to the middle of the boat and pulled the ropes to raise the canvas sails, raising them with effort, one foot at a time. Luckily there was a strong breeze, and as Thor and the others shoved and shoved against the shore, struggling with all they had to get this surprisingly heavy boat out of the sand, the sails raised higher, and began to catch the wind.
Finally, the boat rocked beneath them as it glided out onto the water, bobbing, weightless, Thor's shoulders shaking from the effort. Elden and O'Connor raised the sails to full mast, and soon they were drifting out to sea.
They all let out a cheer of triumph, as they put the poles back in place and ran over and helped Elden and O'Connor secure the lines. Krohn yelped beside them, excited by it all.
The boat was drifting aimlessly and Thor hurried to the wheel, O’Connor beside him.
"Want to take the wheel?" Thor asked O’Connor.
O’Connor grinned wide.
"Would love to.”
They began to gain real speed, cruising out on the yellow waters of the Tartuvian, the wind at their backs. Finally, they were moving, and Thor took a deep breath. They were off.
Thor headed out to the bow, Reece beside him, while Krohn came up between them and leaned into Thor's leg, while Thor reached down and stroked his soft white fur. Krohn leaned over and licked Thor; Thor reached into a small sack and pulled out a piece of meat for Krohn, who snatched it up.
Thor looked out at the vast sea before them. The distant horizon was dotted with black Empire ships, surely on their way to the McCloud side of the Ring. Luckily, they were distracted, and could not possibly be on the lookout for a lone boat heading into their territory. The skies were clear, there was a strong wind at their backs, and they continued to gain speed.
Thor looked out and wondered what lay before them. He wondered how long it would be until they reached Empire land, what might be waiting to greet them. He wondered how they would find the sword, how all this would end. He knew the odds were against them, yet still he felt exhilarated to finally be on the journey, thrilled that they'd made it this far, and eager to do retrieve the Sword.
"What if it's not there?" Reece asked.
Thor turned and looked at him.
"The sword," Reece added. "What if it's not there? Or if it’s lost? Or destroyed? Or if we just never find it? The Empire is vast, after all.”
"Or what if the Empire's figured out how to wield it?" Elden asked in his deep voice, coming up beside them.
"What if we find it but can't bring it back?" Conven asked.
The group of them stood there, oppressed by what lay before them, by the sea of unanswered questions. This journey was madness, Thor knew.
Gareth paced the stone floors of his father's study—a small chamber on the top floor of the castle that his father had cherished—and, bit by bit, tore it apart.
Gareth went from bookcase to bookcase, yanking down precious volumes, ancient leather books that had been in the family for centuries, tearing the bindings and shredding the pages into small bits. As he threw them in the air, they fell down over his head like snowflakes, clinging to his body and to the drool running down his cheeks. He was determined to tear apart every last thing in this place that his father had loved, one book at a time.
Gareth hurried over to a corner table, grabbed what was left of his opium pipe, and with shaking hands sucked hard, needing his hit now more than ever. He was addicted, smoking it every minute he could, determined to block out the images of his father that haunted him in his dreams, and now even when he was awake.
As Gareth put down the pipe, he saw his father standing there, before him, a decaying corpse. Each time the corpse was more decayed, more skeleton than flesh; Gareth turned from the awful sight.
Gareth used to try to attack the image—but he’d learned that did no good. So now he just turned his head, constantly, always looking away. Always it was the same: his father wearing a rusted crown, his mouth open, his eyes gazing at him with contempt, reaching out a single finger, pointing accusingly at him. In that awful stare, Gareth felt his own days numbered, felt it was only a matter of time until he joined him. He hated seeing him more than anything. If there had been one saving grace in murdering his father, it was that he would not need to see his face again. But now, ironically, he saw it more than ever.
Gareth turned and hurled the opium pipe at the apparition, hoping that if he threw it quickly enough it might actually hit.
But the pipe merely flew through the air and smashed against the wall, shattering. His father still stood there, and glared down at him.
"Those drugs won’t help you now," his father scolded.
Gareth could stand it no longer. He charged for the apparition, hands out, lunging to scratch his father’s face; but as always, he sailed through nothing but air, and this time went stumbling across the room and landing hard on his father's wooden desk, sending it crashing down to the floor with him.