THE SWORD OF THE COVENANT
Book 1: Twilight's End
The imposing gates of the outer city stood open, the chill of an early spring morning hanging in the air as the last vestiges of night clung stubbornly to life. In the distance, a seething mass of dark clouds could be seen, the occasional flash of lightning and deep rumble of thunder betraying the approaching storm. As a gentle breeze wafted across the awakening city, the smell of rain grew heavy upon the wind.
Swathed in a riot of conflicting colors and fabrics, the city's inhabitants hurried about their daily tasks with heads bowed and eyes wary. Although it had been two years since the end of the war, the never ending patrols were a constant, bitter reminder. Repressive laws had been enacted in the spirit of a more orderly regime, when in fact, they enforced a rigidity that allowed the new government to rule through fear and intimidation. Two of these laws, registration papers and weapon permits, were both capital offenses. At least once every day, a violator was dragged to the city square and impaled upon a long, sharp stake. Left until the following morning, their example was a gruesome reminder of the consequences of flaunting the new authorities.
Four gates were embedded in the outer wall that surrounded the merchant district. Herds of milling sheep, merchants, and several farmers from the outlying districts waited patiently to enter. In the days of the city states there would have been no need to wait, commerce deemed more important than mere regulations. Most of the farmers and merchants, however, cared little for politics as long as business was good and prices remained high.
At each of the four gates, a small detachment of guards stopped and checked the various people, wagons, and carts that were intent upon entering or leaving the city. Dressed in purple cloaks, finely tooled leather armor, and polished steel helms, they went about their duties with the cool calm of men who knew they were in charge. Armed with short swords and pikes, the six-pointed star of Spinel was proudly displayed upon their freshly oiled breastplates. Seldom encountering a problem they could not easily handle, the gate guards had developed a reputation for ruthlessness that few dared challenge. Those who did usually did not live to try again.
The line of people and wagons at the western gate, longer than usual, was filled with those eager to dispense with the early shearing. Hoping to get the best prices before the blistering heat of summer descended upon the land, the farmers and merchants had endured the rigorous hardships of overland travel. Even with the ascension of the Spinel Empire and their brutal elimination of all that did not fit their system of order, the road was still dangerous. Money, however, transcended such petty concerns as safety.
Bringing up the rear of the long column, a lone rider sat hunched upon the back of a chestnut mare, the hood of a plain, woolen cloak pulled low. Reaching the guards the rider stopped. With reins held loosely in gloved hands, the figure sat motionlessly as if awaiting some unknown signal. A few moments passed and when neither guard nor rider spoke, the corporal in charge of the detachment cleared his throat and stepped forward.
"Excuse me stranger, but I must ask that you lower your hood," he said politely, but firmly.
With an exaggerated motion, the rider threw back the brown hood and stared intently at the young officer. Finding it hard to match the man's steely-eyed gaze, the corporal lowered his eyes. Making a show as if he was examining the man before him, the corporal could not help but notice the prominent nose that jutted out from the man's face. Long and pointed, it reminded him of an eagle's beak, both proud and cruel. Even though he barely topped five feet, the short man gave the corporal an uneasy feeling.
"Any weapons to declare," the corporal asked in neutral tone.
"Some," the stranger replied, a ghost of a smile forming on his pale, thick lips.
A murmur passed through the group of soldiers as knuckles whitened on the shafts of several broad-bladed pikes. With a stern glance the young corporal silenced them. Apparently unconcerned, the stranger sat unmoving upon his horse and watched the brief exchange between superior and subordinates. The corporal, his senses heightened by the sudden rush of adrenaline that coursed through his veins, could sense the approaching storm both in the air and on the ground.
Fidgeting with the leather-bound hilt of his long sword, the officer lifted his hand and coughed diffidently, "Do you have permits for those weapons?"
Without twitching an eyebrow, the stranger's smile broadened, "Perhaps."
The man's one word responses and cocky smile were beginning to wear upon the corporal's nerves. Losing patience, he glanced down the line at his troops and picked three of them to teach this upstart a lesson in respect; respect for his command and respect for the great Spinel Empire.
"Calle, Sarim, Azir," he said with the sharp, brisk tones of command. "Search him. If he has the necessary permits fine, if not, kill him."
The three young soldiers, raw and inexperienced, lowered their pikes and stepped forward as they had been trained. Not comprehending the nature of the man mounted in front of them, not aware that the gray-eyed stranger personified their own deaths, they were confident that the unpleasantness would soon be finished. They would never know how right they were. Between one breath and the next, three daggers materialized and flashed from the stranger's hands. Glittering as they tumbled end over end, the well-thrown projectiles embedded with a sickening thud into the throats of the surprised guards.
With their windpipes severed clean, the three soldiers fell limply to the ground, the last gasps of life gurgling wetly in their throats. Momentarily startled, the remaining guards stared uneasily at the bodies of their former comrades. Unsure of how to proceed, they looked to their commander for answers.
Snarling in defiance, the corporal literally tore his long sword from its scabbard and pointed it at the gray-eyed stranger, "You'll pay for that scum."
Without changing expression, the man shifted slightly in his saddle. Shrugging his cloak back to bare his left arm, he reached across his body and deftly removed the leather riding glove from his left hand. Resting on the third finger was a platinum band engraved with the six-pointed star of Spinel. At five of those points, a beautiful stone was inlaid within the silvery metal. The corporal could feel the two-stoned ring beneath his glove shrink into insignificance. Studying it carefully, the young officer soon realized his mistake.
A ruby for the assassin's guild, a diamond for his one hundredth kill, a black pearl for the mage's academy at Erhlan, an amethyst sealing him to the Emperor, and the polished hematite ingot that marked him as a blademaster adorned the stranger's ring. The missing sixth stone, a star sapphire, was reserved for guild masters and that took nearly a lifetime to earn. The corporal quickly dropped to one knee in a gesture of utmost respect and motioned frantically for his men to follow. The stranger, who had killed three trained soldiers with such apparent ease, was an imperial assassin and to interfere with one, even unknowingly, usually meant death. The young officer, genuinely afraid for the first time since being assigned to the gate, was prepared to plea for his life.
"I'm deeply sorry my lord, I didn't realize who you were. Had I but known..."
With a sharp, imperious gesture, the assassin cut off the corporal's frantic apologies. With as much emotion as one would give a swatted bug, he stepped his horse over the three dead bodies already beginning to stiffen in their bright, crimson puddles. Looking back over his shoulder, he locked his cold, imperious gaze once more upon the kneeling corporal.
"Mistakes happen corporal. These three men," he said, glancing briefly at the corpses, "paid dearly for yours. Don't be foolish and make another. If one word of my arrival or this little incident escapes any of your lips, I'll make their deaths seem pleasant in comparison to what I shall do to you."
The corporal nodded hurriedly, relief flooding his pale face. "Yes my lord, it shall be as you say."
Pulling the cloak's hood back over his head, the assassin nudged the russet mare through the gate. Without a backward glance he disappeared into the tightly packed throng of people crowding the vast marketplace. A forked tongue of lightning flashed across the sky, chased moments later by a loud peal of thunder. As if a giant celestial sword had rended the heavens, a swift downpour quickly soaked the unwary. The little rivulets of water that formed ran red where the three dead soldiers lay. With the blood washed from their lifeless bodies they seemed calm and composed, only the remaining daggers evidence of the violence that had occurred moments before.
Motioning two men to tend the fallen, the corporal rose to his feet. With the knees of his breeches already encrusted with mud, he gestured for the rest of his troops to rise. Running a hand through his dampened hair, the young man let out a relieved sigh and walked back to the guardhouse. Taking a seat at his small desk, the corporal took a piece of parchment and a nearly featherless quill and began to compose his morning report. Bringing his racing emotions under control was difficult, but soon managed. Leaning back in his chair thoughtfully, he studied it for several long moments. Placing the corner of it into the wavering flame of the candle he used for light, he watched the page blacken and crumple with a grim smile. He was definitely too young to die.
The stone corridor stood empty, the dark shadows held in check by the feeble flickering of several half-burned torches. The passage, nestled deeply within the bowels of the mazelike keep, was similar to dozens of others scattered throughout the immense structure. At the end of one particular hallway, unlike the others, a wooden door was hung upon freshly oiled hinges. Thicker than a man's forearm and hewn from an ancient oak, the door was unadorned save a simple, iron doorknob. Flanking both sides of the door stood a single guard. Wearing finely crafted half-plate armor, the six-pointed star of Spinel proudly displayed upon their breastplates, they stood silent and immobile. With sword and shield they vigilantly guarded whatever lay beyond that simple, wooden door.
The sound of metal striking stone broke the heavy silence, the footsteps of iron shod feet echoing loudly down the long passage. With purposeful strides, an armor clad figure emerged in the torchlight. Dressed in a beautiful set of polished, steel plate, the ivory hilt of a long sword protruded from the deep folds of a finely woven purple cloak. Short, closely cropped dark hair that was graying at the temples and pale blue eyes dominated the leathery features of the old man. Standing a respectable six feet, his once taut muscles had slackened as age determinedly won out over the exuberance of youth. Looking deeply into the old man's eyes, however, revealed a smoldering spirit and solemn wisdom that no amount of time could hope to diminish.
With a slight limp the old man pulled up to a stop in front of the door, carefully eyeing the guards. The two guards, stony visages unchanged, crossed their swords in front of the door barring the man's path. Slowly, so as not to provoke the two armored guards, the elderly man removed the gauntlet from his left hand. A glittering six-pointed star crowned that liver-spotted appendage atop a heavy, platinum band. All six points were encrusted with a precious stone announcing the man's importance.
With the same bland expression, the two guards lowered their blades and resumed their quiet vigil. Reaching forth his unclad hand, the old man pressed his palm upon the thick grain of the oaken door and waited. Patience, a virtue one had from birth or acquired through strict mental discipline and training, was one of his strong points.
A few minutes passed before a voice spoke, the words muffled by the thick wood, "Enter."
Shifting his cloak back across his shoulders and adjusting his sword belt, a habit left over from a more nervous youth, the graying man replaced his gauntlet and opened the door. Stepping into the large room, he turned and closed the door quietly behind him. Years of military training took over as his soft, azure eyes scanned the room carefully.
Soft, lambskin rugs lay piled deeply upon the stone floor, the white fur gleaming in the room's muted light. Behind him, two tapestries covered the drab walls. One displayed a pair of breathtaking unicorns frolicking in a sun-filled meadow, the sense of peace and purity portrayed by the artist radiating from the interwoven fabric. The other, an odd contrast to the first, was dominated by a large flying creature that was happily sacking a helpless castle, its razor-toothed maw belching a steady stream of fire. Both were very old and woven of the finest material, their worth obvious.
To the left of the entrance a huge fireplace was recessed in the cold stone. Orange, glowing embers, all which remained of a once majestic tree, filled the room with pleasant warmth. In front of him hung an impressive display of banners and weapons arrayed upon a plethora of hooks and wires. Taken in battle, they gave testament to the strength and glory of the Spinel Empire. The fourth and final wall on his right was barren; devoid of any decoration, its only function was to provide a backdrop for the massive desk and chair that sat in front of it.
Shedding a soft, luminescent glow upon the various papers scattered upon the desk's surface, a crystal globe the size of a child's clenched fist rested within an intricate, gilded frame. Taking all this in with one quick glance, the old man dropped creakingly to one knee and waited for the room's second occupant to speak.
Born to wealthy and influential parents, Lord Anglemar had been groomed from birth by the Imperial Court to assume a position of authority within the Empire. Raised in the capitol city of Sheal, young Anglemar soon showed a growing talent for the wizardly arts. Sent to the mage's academy at Erhlan, Lord Anglemar was barely ten when he began his indoctrination into the mystical arts of magic.
Intelligent and resourceful, he had mastered the lesser forms of magic and had a good, solid grasp of the greater arts by the age of fifteen. Supplementing his wizardly skills with martial ones, Lord Anglemar joined the military arm of the Empire at the age of twenty. Rising to the rank of general by the age of twenty-three, he was placed third in command of the armies poised to invade the City-State of Aria. After two years of fearsome battle, one well placed arrow, and the discovery of a small, delicate flower that when ingested liquefied the bones, Lord Anglemar found himself the appointed Governor-General of the Empire's newest conquest, the bountiful farmlands of Aria.
Turning a cool gaze upon the kneeling man, Lord Anglemar smiled and fingered the fringes of his silken shirt. Young enough to be the elder man's grandson, it sent a thrill of pleasure tingling through his body to see one of such power and experience knelt before him. With plain features, mud-colored hair, and a medium build, Lord Anglemar did not delude himself about his physical attractiveness. There had been relationships in the past, but all that the women had been interested in was his growing wealth and power. Disillusioned, Lord Anglemar had abandoned any hopes of love, finding true happiness only in his own strength and power. Not one to let a slight pass, he had personally killed each and every woman who had toyed with his heart. Their deaths had been gruesome, Lord Anglemar's skill with some of the more questionable magical practices revealed.
"Rise and report General Jheron," the young lord said pleasantly. A smile that did not quite reach his eyes was etched upon his face. Deep inside he cared little for the ancient general, but realistically, he knew he needed the general's support to keep his stranglehold of power in the new land.
Slowly rising to his feet, General Jheron's gaze fell upon the young nobleman. It never failed to surprise the general that Lord Anglemar was of noble birth. Descended from the very first Emperor, Aschelle Spinel, the nobility held most of the important positions within the Empire. Lord Anglemar, however, looked nothing like one born of such noble lineage and General Jheron knew from experience that it rankled the young lord. If not for his own tactical genius and skill at arms, General Jheron would have never risen as far as he had with his own lowly social standing.
Still, he had been in the military for twelve years before he had achieved his rank compared to Lord Anglemar's three. However, even though he was a vastly superior tactician, General Jheron was not bitter that he was subordinate to someone who was younger than half of his grandchildren. Supporting the Governor-General had its own rewards, both political and personal, that outweighed any resentment. There were worse positions than being placed in command of the Empire's occupation force. Second in command of all of Aria, General Jheron did not begrudge the young lord his position or authority.
"Milord, there is not much to report," the elderly general replied in a deep, respectful voice. "With the drought officially over and food production reaching its normal capacity, I doubt we will have any more food riots. I have two units of Centurions standing ready in case the need arises."
In the past year, with the land and people recovering from the ravages of a war that had devastated fields and crippled available manpower, food sources had plummeted. With the onset of a crippling drought, what little crops remained had withered from the lack of water. Food became more precious than gold. To further inflame an already volatile situation, the new Governor-General had imposed a series of taxes that took nearly half of what the people had left. Half of little more than nothing amounted to a population ripe for rebellion.
Desperate and starving, the people rose in defiance against their oppressive leaders. Instead of opening the warehouses filled to overflowing with food for the Spinel soldiers, Lord Anglemar had used military force to crush the resistance. Since most of the protestors were women and young men not even old enough to shave regularly, the fighting had been brutal. While General Jheron personally abhorred using force against helpless civilians, he issued the order and his troops quickly and efficiently cleared the streets.
Hundreds of women and children had been ruthlessly slaughtered simply because they were hungry and those thoughts still rankled the general's sensibilities. However, if force was necessary to make a point, it usually made a lasting impression and seldom had to be remade. Thanks to an influx of new farming techniques and slaves brought from all reaches of the Empire, the harvest had been abundant, more than making up for the previous year's shortage. The odds of another food riot were very slim.
Lord Anglemar nodded and tapped his finger thoughtfully upon the lacquered finish of his desk. "What about the rumors of another resistance group forming in the countryside?"
General Jheron shook his head and grinned wryly, "Just rumors milord. I doubt the simple folks out in the country can even spell resistance let alone form one. I'll inform my spy network if you wish milord, they'll find out quick enough."
"No need General, I've called in a few favors and am having someone brought in to investigate the matter. There is no need to waste your resources. I may be the youngest Governor-General in the history of the Empire, but I won't be the shortest reigned one. I will not take unnecessary risks Jheron."
"Of course not milord," the general said smoothly, the rising anxiety in Lord Anglemar's voice causing him to choose his next words carefully. "Being cautious is the course of wisdom, but beware. If you start jumping at every shadow, you'll soon see enemies where there are none. That milord is when people begin to make mistakes. That is when the real enemy strikes."
"I shall take your words into consideration General, but I'd rather be wary than dead," replied Lord Anglemar, knowing the day he relaxed his guard would be the day he lay cold and stiff.
General Jheron nodded and fell silent. "Bringing in someone specifically to check on an unfound rumor," he thought, "perhaps I should find out who this someone is and how much of a rumor this uprising really is." Lord Anglemar was not the only one who could call in favors should the need arise. "With your permission milord, I still have many tasks that require my attention today."
Waving negligently, Lord Anglemar began rifling through the papers on his desk not even bothering to raise his eyes. Bowing absently, General Jheron pivoted in military fashion and crossed to the door, the soft lambskin muffling his heavy footsteps. Hesitating for the briefest of instants, the old general seemed on the verge of further queries. With a resigned shake of his head, he opened the door and departed, leaving Lord Anglemar alone once more.
Starring impassively at the various words scrawled before him, Lord Anglemar waited patiently until the door closed behind the general. Brushing aside a few reports on troop provisioning and equally unimportant drivel, his hands closed upon a battered parchment. Having arrived only moments before the general, the wax seal remained unbroken, the message safe from prying eyes. Glancing at his personal seal, a seal that would flash into flames and reduce the message to ashes should any but he attempt to open it, Lord Anglemar drew his belt knife and gingerly sliced it open. Settling comfortably back in his cushioned seat, he studied the message carefully.
"Lord Anglemar, I've successfully located and infiltrated the supposed rebel camp. At first they distrusted me, but my seeming "luck" and "good timing" of where and when to launch the raids have won these simple folks over. By my estimates, we have raided six Imperial Outposts resulting in thirty-six casualties. The morale here is high and with the spoils looted from the outposts, they are well provisioned and well armed.
At the writing of this letter the band numbered one hundred and fourteen combat capable men and twice that number in women and children. With an average of four to five men joining daily, however, the situation grows ever worse. While most arrive not even knowing how to properly hold a sword, their leader, an ex-mercenary named Cyrin Athmarrow trains them well. I don't know his whole story, but I believe he is former military, perhaps even an agent of the Covenant sent to sow dissent.
This band will only grow stronger and bolder as time goes on and with foreign backing could pose a real threat to the continued occupation and integration of Aria. It is my recommendation that Cyrin be pacified at the earliest possible convenience. In my humble opinion, without him the rebellion will fall apart and the rebels will return to their homes where they will once again become successful and productive citizens of the great Spinel Empire."
For the glory of the Empire
Fingering the missive absently Lord Anglemar was hardly surprised. M was his best spy and could be trusted to find out what was really happening. He was relieved that he had sent for help, the situation at hand calling for a certain, professional touch. Soon, Cyrin would be pacified and his little rebellion quelled. That left only one problem, the rebels themselves.
He could follow his man's advice and simply allow the rebels to disperse peacefully back to their homes, but dissidents only needed strong leadership to become a problem once more. Even if Cyrin was successfully removed from the equation, what was to stop another idealist from rising up and providing the necessary leadership?
"No," he thought, "not this time."
Several units of Centurions, untested by true combat, were at his disposal and could use the practical training. All that remained was to wait for the arrival of the specialist, issue the necessary orders, and watch his carefully laid plans fall into place.
With the important events of the day completed, Lord Anglemar lounged back in the thick cushions of his chair and allowed his thoughts to drift. As sleep crept up on him, dreams of power and glory, of one day sitting upon the Amethyst Throne, washed away all waking thought. The message fell on the desk, forgotten for the moment, but only for the moment.