The River Kings' Road

Autumn, 1217

Brys Tarnell was not a pious man. It saved his life that day.

The attack came at highsun, when Sir Galefrid of Bulls’ March and most of his men were in the tiny chapel of a tiny hamlet observing their daily prayers. Ever since Galefrid had married his pious young wife out of Seawatch, he’d become much more religious; all through their journey, she’d insisted that they stop at the nearest chapel for noon prayers, and he had obliged. By now their custom was well known, and the village solaros usually had the chapel ready for them before they arrived.

Brys, alone among the knights in Galefrid’s retinue, was not anointed to the sun, and so was permitted—even expected—to avoid that daily bit of nonsense. He had just stepped out of the village inn to answer nature’s call when he heard the thrum of bowstrings and saw the first flight of fire-arrows, trailing dark smoke against the bright sky, arch in through the chapel’s open windows.

There were a dozen men waiting outside the chapel doors. Hard-faced men, armored in oiled leather and chain, who carried swords better than any bandit could afford. They stood to either side of the doors, hidden from the view of those inside but plain to any other eyes. Yet none of the villagers had called a warning.


It shouldn’t have surprised him. They’d been fools to venture across the border, chasing a half-real hope of peace into Langmyr. But, then, Sir Galefrid had never been the wisest of men. Brave, but not wise. He’d walked right into their trap, and he’d brought his wife and infant son with him.

The men outside the chapel wore no colors, but Brys was a veteran of a thousand fights on field and in alley, and he needed no herald’s signs to tell him that he was looking at castle-trained soldiers. These were not cowherds driven to desperation. These were killers, and the killing started when Galefrid’s men staggered from the chapel, coughing and red-eyed from smoke.

Young Caedric Alsarring was the first one out. Doubled over, wiping at his streaming eyes, he never had a chance to see his death before it took him. The men at the door said nothing. No threats, no questions, no demands for ransom. One swung his sword in a hissing arc, and Caedric stumbled, clutching his throat, as his life spilled red between his fingers. The man behind him tripped over the fallen youth and into the assassins’ reach. A sword swept his knees and another chopped the back of his neck. He fell and did not get up. Cries of confusion, and then of fear, rose through the smoke behind them.

Brys had seen enough. He eased away from the inn’s rough plaster, sliding a hand to the hilt of his sword as he edged toward the back of the building. There was nothing he could do to stop the slaughter, or at least nothing he was inclined to try. He was one man, with one sword; there were a dozen by the doors, and he had not yet spotted the archers. Neither Sir Galefrid nor his men were armed, for custom forbade bringing steel into Celestia’s holy sanctuaries except during vigils. Whoever had planned this assassination had done it well. Lambs had a better chance of escaping the butcher’s block.

The stables looked clear. He lingered in the inn’s shadow a moment longer, scanning roofs and alleys for signs of danger, then hurried across the open yard until he reached the safety of the stables. Inside, the horses were nervous, stamping at the scent of smoke and blood in the air, but not yet in a panic. Brys took his saddlebags down from their peg and quietly unlatched his bay gelding’s stall.

“Steady now,” he murmured, stroking the horse’s nose. The gelding looked at him with dark, liquid eyes. It was a good horse. It had been with him a long time. He had never bothered to name it, and briefly regretted that; it would have been nice to have a name to whisper as he led the animal from its stall.

He took Caedric’s gray mare as well. That one had a name: Ellyria, after a legendary dancer in the Ardasi Empire of old. The boy liked to say that his gray had such a graceful step that she deserved a dancer’s name.

Caedric was dead, now, and Brys could use a horse with a quick step.

He left the other animals in their stalls. Two horses might help him