Legend by David Gemmell

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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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Introduction by Marcus Antonius

It was a dark night in the winter of 1985.

All the aircraft were back on the ground after a good session of night flying sorties.

Me and a mate had a couple of pints before we hit our beds.

He was the guy who got me into the Dungeons & Dragons gaming club.

We chatted about books and I told him I read Science Fiction, he said have you ever read Fantasy?

I said no, so he popped to his room and brought a book back with him.

He said "try this!"

When I got back to my room I started to read.

I thought this was the best book I had read in years!

This is the book.

I hope you enjoy it.

~Marcus
 
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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Synopsis:

His name is Druss.

The stories of his life are told everywhere. But the grizzled veteran has spurned a life of fame and fortune and retreated to the solitude of his mountain lair.

His home is Dros Delnoch.

And it is the only route through the mountains for the army laying waste the country around them. Once the stronghold of the Drenai, the fortress of Dros Delnoch will now be their last battleground. And Druss will be its last hope.

His story is LEGEND.

The Drenai Empire is under threat. The tribal Nadir people have been united for the first time by the great warleader Ulric, who has forged a massive empire in the North. The Drenai leader Abalayn is trying to negotiate new treaties with Ulric, but war is brewing and an over 500,000 strong Nadir army marches on the fortress of Dros Delnoch, gateway to the Drenai heartlands. Dros Delnoch is the greatest fortress in the world, a narrow pass guarded by six high walls and a great keep, but under Abalayn its complement of defenders has been reduced to less than 10,000 men under the leadership of an unfit General.

The fate of the Drenai hinges on the defence of Dros Delnoch. If the fortress can hold the Nadir horde for three months, the Drenai general Magnus Woundweaver might be able to gather and train a Drenai army. However, given the odds, no-one truly believes that Delnoch can be held.

The novel follows the stories of two men who find their destiny at Dros Delnoch. Regnak Wanderer (Rek for short) an ex-army officer and natural 'baresark', seeing a war brewing, resigned his commission because he lacked the courage to risk his life and took to a life of wandering. Rek is an idealist and eventually he returns to Delnoch at the persuasion of the woman he falls in love with and finds his destiny as the Earl of Bronze. The other man is the greatest hero of the Drenai people - Druss the Legend. His death was foretold defending Delnoch and while given the choice to avoid it and fall into senility Druss (and his once possessed axe Snaga) marched to the great fortress to defend his people one last time. In this story Druss is in his sixties and much weaker than his prime but still a formidable warrior and an inspirational leader to the Drenai. The story also flicks into the perspective of several defenders during different stages of the siege as time goes on. It also follows The Thirty, a group of 30 warrior priests of the light whose purpose is to fight and die (except for one priest that leaves to continue the order at the end of each great battle) for the greater good and their people, the Drenai.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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About the author:

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David Andrew Gemmell (1 August 1948 – 28 July 2006)

David was a British author of heroic fantasy, best known for his debut novel, Legend. A former journalist and newspaper editor, Gemmell had his first work of fiction published in 1984. He went on to write over thirty novels. Gemmell's works display violence, yet also explore themes of honour, loyalty and redemption. There is always a strong heroic theme but nearly always the heroes are flawed in some way. With over one million copies sold, his work continues to sell worldwide.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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This book is dedicated with love to three very special people. My father, Bill Woodford, without whom Druss the Legend would never have stood on the wall of Dros Delnoch. My mother, Olive, who instilled in me a love of stories in which heroes never lied, evil rarely triumphed, and love was always true.

And my wife, Valerie, who showed me that life can be like stories.

Grateful thanks are also due to Russell Claughton, Tim Lenton, Tom Taylor, Nick Hopkins, and Stella Graham for their help throughout the project.

David Gemmell
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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Prologue

The Drenai herald waited nervously outside the great doors of the throne room, flanked by two Nadir guards who stared ahead, slanted eyes fixed on the bronze eagle emblazoned on the dark wood.

He licked dry lips with a dry tongue and adjusted his purple cape about his bony shoulders. He had been so confident in the council chamber at Drenan six hundred miles south when Abalayn had asked him to undertake this delicate mission: a journey to distant Gulgothir to ratify the treaties made with Ulric, Lord of the Nadir tribes. Bartellus had helped to draft treaties in the past and twice had been present at talks in western Vagria and south in Mashrapur. All men understood the value of trade and the necessity of avoiding such costly undertakings as war. Ulric would be no exception. True, he had sacked the nations of the northern plain, but then, they had bled his people dry over the centuries with their taxes and raids; they had sown the seeds of their own destruction.

Not so the Drenai. They had always treated the Nadir with tact and courtesy. Abalayn himself had twice visited Ulric in his northern tent city and had been royally received.

But Bartellus had been shocked at the devastation in Gulgothir. That the vast gates had been sundered was no surprise, but many of the defenders had been subsequently mutilated. The square within the main keep boasted a small mound of human hands. Bartellus shivered and wrenched his mind from the memory.

For three days they had kept him waiting, but they had been courteous—even kindly.

He adjusted his cape again, aware that his lean, angular frame did little justice to the herald’s garb. Taking a linen cloth from his belt, he wiped the sweat from his bald head. His wife constantly warned him that his head shone dazzlingly whenever he grew nervous. It was an observation he would have preferred to be left unspoken.

He slid a glance at the guard to his right, suppressing a shudder. The man was shorter than he, wearing a spiked helm fringed with goatskin. He wore a lacquered wooden breastplate and carried a serrated spear. The face was flat and cruel, the eyes dark and slanted. If Bartellus ever needed a man to cut off someone’s hand …

He glanced to his left—and wished he had not, for the other guard was looking at him. He felt like a rabbit beneath a plunging hawk and hastily returned his gaze to the bronze eagle on the door.

Mercifully, the wait ended and the doors swung open.

Taking a deep breath, Bartellus marched inside.

The room was long, twenty marble pillars supporting a frescoed ceiling. Each pillar carried a burning torch that cast gaunt dancing shadows to the walls beyond, and by each pillar stood a Nadir guard bearing a spear. Eyes fixed firmly ahead, Bartellus marched the fifty paces to the throne on the marble dais.

Upon it sat Ulric, Warlord of the North.

He was not tall, but he radiated power, and as Bartellus moved into the center of the room, he was struck by the sheer dynamism of the man. He had the high cheekbones and midnight hair of the Nadir, but his slanted eyes were violet and striking. The face was swarthy, a trident beard creating a demonic appearance that was belied by the warmth of the man’s smile.

But what impressed Bartellus most was that the Nadir lord was wearing a white Drenai robe embroidered with Abalayn’s family crest: a golden horse rearing above a silver crown.

The herald bowed deeply.

“My lord, I bring you the greetings of Lord Abalayn, elected leader of the free Drenai people.”

Ulric nodded in return, waving a hand for him to continue.

“My lord Abalayn congratulates you on your magnificent victory against the rebels of Gulgothir and hopes that with the horrors of war now behind you, you will be able to consider the new treaties and trade agreements he discussed with you during his most enjoyable stay last spring. I have here a letter from Lord Abalayn, and also the treaties and agreements.” Bartellus stepped forward, presenting three scrolls. Ulric took them, placing them gently on the floor beside the throne.

“Thank you, Bartellus,” he said. “Tell me, is there truly fear among the Drenai that my army will march on Dros Delnoch?”

“You jest, my lord?”

“Not at all,” said Ulric innocently, his voice deep and resonant. “Traders tell me there is great discussion in Drenan.”

“Idle gossip merely,” said Bartellus. “I helped to draft the agreements myself, and if I can be of any help with the more complex passages, I would consider it a pleasure to assist you.”

“No, I am sure they are in order,” said Ulric. “But you do realize my shaman Nosta Khan must examine the omens. A primitive custom, I know, but I am sure you understand.”

“Of course. Such things are a matter of tradition,” said Bartellus.

Ulric clapped his hands twice, and from the shadows to the left came a wizened old man in a dirty goatskin tunic. Under his skinny right arm he carried a white chicken, and in his left hand was a wide, shallow wooden bowl. Ulric stood as he approached, holding out his hands and taking the chicken by the neck and legs.

Slowly Ulric raised it above his head—then, as Bartellus’ eyes widened in horror, he lowered the bird and bit through its neck, tearing the head from the body. The wings flapped madly, and blood gushed and spattered, drenching the white robe. Ulric held the quivering carcass over the bowl, watching as the last of its lifeblood stained the wood. Nosta Khan waited until the last drop oozed from the flesh and then lifted the bowl to his lips. He looked up at Ulric and shook his head.

The warlord tossed the bird aside and slowly removed the white robe. Beneath it he wore a black breastplate and a belted sword. From beside the throne he lifted the war helm of black steel, fringed with silver fox fur, and placed it on his head. He wiped his bloody mouth on the Drenai robe and carelessly tossed it toward Bartellus.

The herald looked down at the blood-covered cloth at his feet.

“I am afraid the omens are not pleasant,” said Ulric.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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1

Rek was drunk. Not enough to matter but enough not to matter, he thought, staring at the ruby wine casting blood shadows in the lead crystal glass. A log fire in the hearth warmed his back, the smoke stinging his eyes, the acrid smell of it mixing with the odour of unwashed bodies, forgotten meals, and musty, damp clothing. A lantern flame danced briefly in the icy wind as a shaft of cold air brushed the room. Then it was gone as a newcomer slammed shut the wooden door, muttering his apologies to the crowded inn.

Conversation, which had died in the sudden blast of frosty air, now resumed, a dozen voices from different groups merging into a babble of meaningless sounds. Rek sipped his wine. He shivered as someone laughed; the sound was as cold as the winter wind beating against the wooden walls. Like someone walking over your grave, he thought. He pulled his blue cloak more tightly about his shoulders. He did not need to hear the words to know the topic of every conversation: It had been the same for days.

War.

Such a little word, such a depth of agony. Blood, death, conquest, starvation, plague, and horror.

More laughter burst upon the room. “Barbarians!” roared a voice above the babble. “Easy meat for Drenai lances.” More laughter.

Rek stared at the crystal goblet. So beautiful. So fragile. Crafted with care, even love, multifaceted like a gossamer diamond. He lifted the crystal close to his face, seeing a dozen eyes reflected there.

And each accused. For a second he wanted to crush the glass into fragments, destroy the eyes and the accusation. But he did not. I am not a fool, he told himself. Not yet.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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Horeb, the innkeeper, wiped his thick fingers on a towel and cast a tired yet wary eye over the crowd, alert for trouble, ready to step in with a word and a smile before a snarl and a fist became necessary. War. What was it about the prospect of such bloody enterprises that reduced men to the level of animals? Some of the drinkers—most, in fact—were well known to Horeb. Many were family men: farmers, traders, artisans. All were friendly; most were compassionate, trustworthy, even kindly. And here they were talking of death and glory and ready to thrash or slay any suspected of Nadir sympathies. The Nadir—even the name spoke of contempt.

But they’ll learn, he thought sadly. Oh, how they’ll learn! Horeb’s eyes scanned the large room, warming as they lighted upon his daughters, who were clearing tables and delivering tankards. Tiny Dori blushing beneath her freckles at some ribald jest; Besa, the image of her mother, tall and fair; Nessa, fat and plain and loved by all, soon to marry the baker’s apprentice Norvas. Good girls. Gifts of joy. Then his gaze fell on the tall figure in the blue cloak seated by the window.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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“Damn you, Rek, snap out of it,” he muttered, knowing the man would never hear him. Horeb turned away, cursed, then removed his leather apron and grasped a half-empty jug of ale and a tankard. As an afterthought he opened a small cupboard and removed a bottle of port he had been saving for Nessa’s wedding.

“A problem shared is a problem doubled,” he said, squeezing into the seat opposite Rek.

“A friend in need is a friend to be avoided,” Rek countered, accepting the proffered bottle and refilling his glass. “I knew a general once,” he said, staring at the wine, twirling the glass slowly with his long fingers. “Never lost a battle. Never won one, either.”

“How so?” asked Horeb.

“You know the answer. I’ve told you before.”

“I have a bad memory. Anyway, I like to listen to you tell stories. How could he never lose and never win?”

“He surrendered whenever threatened,” said Rek. “Clever, eh?”

“How come men followed him if he never won?”

“Because he never lost. Neither did they.”

“Would you have followed him?” asked Horeb.

“I don’t follow anyone anymore. Least of all generals.” Rek turned his head, listening to the interweaving chatter. He closed his eyes, concentrating. “Listen to them,” he said softly. “Listen to their talk of glory.”

“They don’t know any better, Rek, my friend. They haven’t seen it, tasted it. Crows like a black cloud over a battlefield feasting on dead men’s eyes, foxes jerking at severed tendons, worms …”

“Stop it, damn you … I don’t need reminding. Well, I’m damned if I’ll go. When’s Nessa getting married?”

“In three days,” answered Horeb. “He’s a good boy; he’ll look after her. Keeps baking her cakes. She’ll be like a tub before long.”

“One way or another,” said Rek with a wink.

“Indeed, yes,” answered Horeb, grinning broadly. The men sat in their own silence, allowing the noise to wash over them, each drinking and thinking, secure within their circle of two. After a while Rek leaned forward.

“The first attack will be at Dros Delnoch,” he said. “Do you know they’ve only ten thousand men there?”

“I heard it was less than that. Abalayn’s been cutting back on the regulars and concentrating on militia. Still, there’re six high walls and a strong keep. And Delnar’s no fool—he was at the Battle of Skeln.”

“Really?” said Rek. “I heard that was one man against ten thousand, hurling mountains on the foe.”

“The saga of Druss the Legend,” said Horeb, deepening his voice. “The tale of a giant whose eyes were death and whose ax was terror. Gather around, children, and keep from the shadows lest evil lurks as I tell my tale.”

“You bastard!” said Rek. “That used to terrify me. You knew him, didn’t you—the Legend, I mean?”

“A long time ago. They say he’s dead. If not, he must be over sixty. We were in three campaigns together, but I only spoke to him twice. I saw him in action once, though.”

“Was he good?” asked Rek.

“Awesome. It was just before Skeln and the defeat of the Immortals. Just a skirmish, really. Yes, he was very good.”

“You’re not terribly strong on detail, Horeb.”

“You want me to sound like the rest of these fools, jabbering about war and death and slaying?”

“No,” said Rek,
draining his wine. “No, I don’t. You know me, don’t you?”

“Enough to like you. Regardless.”

“Regardless of what?”

“Regardless of the fact that you don’t like yourself.”

“On the contrary,” said Rek, pouring a fresh glass, “I like myself well enough. It’s just that I know myself better than most people.”

“You know, Rek, sometimes I think you ask too much of yourself.”

“No. No, I ask very little. I know my weaknesses.”

“It’s a funny thing about weakness,” said Horeb. “Most people will tell you they know their weaknesses. When asked, they tell you, ‘Well, for one thing I’m overgenerous.’ Come on, then; list yours if you must. That’s what innkeepers are for.”

“Well, for one thing I’m overgenerous, especially to innkeepers.”

Horeb shook his head, smiled, and lapsed into silence.

Too intelligent to be a hero, too frightened to be a coward, he thought. He watched his friend empty his glass, lift it to his face, and peer at his own fragmented image. For a moment Horeb thought he would smash it, such had been the anger on Rek’s flushed face.

Then the younger man gently returned the goblet to the wooden table.

“I’m not a fool,” he said softly. He stiffened as he realized he had spoken aloud. “Damn!” he said. “The drink finally got to me.”

“Let me give you a hand to your room,” offered Horeb.

“Is there a candle lit?” asked Rek, swaying in his seat.

“Of course.”

“You won’t let it go out on me, will you? Not keen on the dark. Not frightened, you understand. Just don’t like it.”

“I won’t let it go out, Rek. Trust me.”

“I trust you. I rescued you, didn’t I? Remember?”

“I remember. Give me your arm. I’ll guide you to the stairs. This way. That’s good. One foot in front of the other. Good!”

“I didn’t hesitate. Straight in with my sword raised, didn’t I?”

“Yes.”

“No, I didn’t. I stood for two minutes, shaking. And you got cut.”

“But you still came in, Rek. Don’t you see? It didn’t matter about the cut—you still rescued me.”

“It matters to me. Is there a candle in my room?”
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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Behind him was the fortress, grim and grey, outlined in flame and smoke. The sounds of battle filled his ears, and he ran, heart pounding, his breathing ragged. He glanced behind him. The fortress was close, closer than it had been. Ahead were the green hills sheltering the Sentran Plain. They shimmered and retreated before him, taunting him with their tranquillity. He ran faster. A shadow fell across him. The gates of the fortress opened. He strained against the force pulling him back. He cried and begged. But the gates closed, and he was back at the centre of the battle, a bloody sword in his shaking hand.

He awoke, eyes wide, nostrils flared, the beginning of a scream swelling his lungs. A soft hand stroked his face, and gentle words soothed him. His eyes focused. Dawn was nearing, the pink light of a virgin day piercing the ice on the inside of the bedroom window. He rolled over.

“You were troubled in the night,” Besa told him, her hand stroking his brow. He smiled, pulled the goose down quilt over his shoulder, and drew her to him under the covers.

“I’m not troubled now,” said Rek. “How could I be?” The warmth of her body aroused him, and his fingers caressed her back.

“Not today,” she said, kissing him lightly on the forehead and pulling away. She threw back the quilt, shivered, and ran across the room, gathering her clothes. “It’s cold,” she said. “Colder than yesterday.”

“It’s warm in here,” he offered, raising himself to watch her dress. She blew him a kiss.

“You’re fine to romp with, Rek. But I’ll have no children by you. Now, get out of that bed. We’ve a party of travellers coming in this morning, and the room is let.”

“You’re a beautiful woman, Besa. If I had any sense, I’d marry you.”

“Then it’s a good job you have none, for I’d turn you down and your ego would never stand it. I’m looking for someone more solid.” Her smile took the sting from her words. Almost.

The door opened, and Horeb bustled in bearing a copper tray containing bread, cheese, and a tankard.

“How’s the head?” he asked, placing the tray on the wooden table by the bed.

“Fine,” said Rek. “Is that orange juice?”

“It is, and it’ll cost you dear. Nessa waylaid the Vagrian trader as he left the ship. She waited an hour and risked frostbite just to get oranges for you. I don’t think you’re worth it.”

“True.” Rek smiled. “Sad but true.”

“Are you really heading south today?” asked Besa as Rek sipped his fruit juice. He nodded. “You’re a fool. I thought you’d had enough of Reinard.”

“I’ll avoid him. Are my clothes cleaned?”

“Dori spent hours on them,” said Besa. “And for what? So that you can get them filthy in Graven Forest.”

“That’s not the point. One should always look one’s best when leaving a city.” He glanced at the tray. “I can’t face the cheese.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Horeb. “It’s still on the bill!”

“In that case I’ll force myself to eat it. Any other travellers today?”

“There’s a spice caravan heading for Lentria that will go through Graven. Twenty men, well armed. They’re taking the circular route south and west. There’s a woman traveling alone, but she’s already left,” said Horeb. “Lastly there’s a group of pilgrims. But they don’t leave until tomorrow.”

“A woman?”

“Not quite,” said Besa. “But almost.”

“Now, girl,” said Horeb, smiling broadly, “it’s not like you to be catty. A tall girl with a fine horse. And she’s armed.”

“I could have travelled with her,” said Rek. “It might have made the journey more pleasant.”

“And she could have protected you from Reinard,” said Besa. “She looked the part. Now come on, Regnak, get dressed. I’ve not the time to sit here and watch you breakfast like a lord. You’ve caused enough chaos in this house.”

“I can’t get up while you’re here,” protested Rek. “It wouldn’t be decent.”

“You idiot,” she said, gathering up the tray. “Get him up, Father, else he’ll lie there all day.”

“She’s right, Rek,” said Horeb as the door closed behind her. “It’s time for you to move, and knowing how long it takes you to prepare your public appearance, I think I’ll leave you to get on with it.”

“One must look one’s best—”

“When leaving a city. I know. That’s what you always say, Rek. I’ll see you downstairs.”
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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The winter wind struck his bed-warmed body, snatching his mind back to the reality of today and the long ride south. He crossed to the bench on which his clothes had been laid out and swiftly dressed. The white woolen undershirt and the blue hose were gifts from gentle Dori, the tunic with gold embroidered collar a legacy of better days in Vagria, the reversed sheepskin jerkin and gold ties a present from Horeb, and the thigh-length doeskin boots a surprise gift from a weary traveler at an outland inn. And he must have been surprised, thought Rek, remembering the thrill of fear and excitement as he had crept into the man’s room to steal them only a month earlier. By the wardrobe stood a full-length bronze mirror, where Rek took a long look at his reflection. He saw a tall man with shoulder-length brown hair and a well-trimmed mustache, cutting a fine figure in his stolen boots. He looped his baldric over his head and placed his longsword in the black and silver sheath.

“What a hero,” he told his reflection, a cynical smile on his lips. “What a gem of a hero.” He drew the sword and parried and thrust at the air, one eye on his reflection. The wrist was still supple, the grasp sure. Whatever else you are not, he told himself, you are a swordsman. From the sill by the window he took the silver circlet talisman—his good-luck charm since he had stolen it from a brothel in Lentria—and placed it over his forehead, sweeping his dark hair back over his ears.

“You may not actually be magnificent,” he told his reflection, “but by all the gods in Missael you look it!”

The eyes smiled back at him. “Don’t you mock me, Regnak Wanderer,” he said. Throwing his cloak over his arm, he strolled downstairs to the long room, casting an eye over the early crowd. Horeb hailed him from the bar.

“Now, that’s more like it, Rek my lad,” he said, leaning back in mock admiration. “You could have stepped straight from one of Sieben’s poems. Drink?”

“No. I think I will leave it a while yet—like ten years. Last night’s brew is still fermenting in my gullet. Have you packed me some of your vile food for the journey?”

“Maggoty biscuits, mildewed cheese, and a two-year-old back of bacon that will come when you call it,” answered Horeb. “And a flask of the worst—”

Conversation ceased as the seer entered the inn, his faded blue habit flapping against b
ony legs, his quarterstaff tapping on the wooden boards. Rek swallowed his disgust at the man’s appearance and avoided glancing at the ruined sockets where once the man’s eyes had been.

The old man pushed out a hand on which the third finger was missing. “Silver for your future,” he said, his voice like a dry wind whispering through winter branches.

“Why do they do it?” whispered Horeb.

“Their eyes, you mean?” countered Rek.

“Yes. How can a man put out his own eyes?”

“Damned if I know. They say it aids their visions.”

“Sounds about as sensible as cutting off your staff in order to aid your sex life.”

“It takes all sorts, Horeb, old friend.”

Drawn by the sound of their voices, the old man hobbled nearer, hand outstretched. “Silver for your future,” he intoned. Rek turned away.

“Go on, Rek,” urged Horeb. “See if the journey bodes well. Where’s the harm?”

“You pay. I will listen,” said Rek.

Horeb thrust a hand deep into the pocket of his leather apron and dropped a small silver coin into the old man’s palm. “For my friend here,” he said. “I know my future.”

The old man squatted on the wooden floor and reached into a tattered pouch, producing a fistful of sand, which he sprinkled about him. Then he produced six knucklebones bearing crafted runes.

“They’re human bones, aren’t they?” whispered Horeb.

“So they say,” answered Rek. The old man began to chant in the Elder tongue, his quavering voice echoing in the silence. He threw the bones to the sandy floor, then ran his hands over the runes.

“I have the truth,” he said at last.

“Never mind the truth, old man. Give me a tale full of golden lies and glorious maidens.”

“I have the truth,” said the seer, as if he had not heard.

“The hell with it!” said Rek. “Tell me the truth, old man.”

“Do you desire to hear it, man?”

“Never mind the damned ritual, just speak and begone!”

“Steady, Rek, steady! It’s his way,” said Horeb.

“Maybe. But he’s going a long way toward spoiling my day. They never give good news, anyway. The old bastard’s probably going to tell me I shall catch the plague.”

“He wishes the truth,” said Horeb, following the ritual, “and will use it wisely and well.”

“Indeed he does not and will not,” said the seer. “But destiny must be heard. You do not wish to hear words of your death, Regnak the Wanderer, son of Argas, and so I will withhold them. You are a man of uncertain character and only a sporadic courage. You are a thief and a dreamer, and your destiny will both haunt and hunt you. You will run to avoid it, yet your steps will carry you toward it. But then, this you know, Longshanks, for you dreamed it yester-eve.”

“Is that it, old man? That meaningless garbage? Is that fair trading for a silver coin?”

“The earl and the legend will be together at the wall. And men shall dream, and men shall die, but shall the fortress fall?”

The old man turned and was gone.

“What was your dream last night, Rek?” asked Horeb.

“You surely don’t believe that idiocy, Horeb?”

“What was your dream?” the innkeeper persisted.

“I didn’t dream at all. I slept like a log. Except for that bloody candle. You left it on all night, and it stank. You must be more careful. It could have started a fire. Every time I stop here, I warn you about those candles. You never listen.”
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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2

Rek watched in silence as the groom saddled the chestnut gelding. He did not like the horse; it had a mean eye, and its ears lay flat against its skull. The groom, a young slim boy, was crooning gently to it as his shaking fingers tightened the girth.

“Why couldn’t you get a grey?” asked Rek. Horeb laughed.

“Because it would have taken you one step too many toward farce. Understatement is the thing, Rek. You already look like a peacock, and as it is, every Lentrian sailor will be chasing you. No, a chestnut’s the thing.” More seriously he added, “And in Graven you may wish to be inconspicuous. A tall white horse is not easily missed.”

“I don’t think it likes me. See the way it looks at me?”

“Its sire was one of the fastest horses in Drenan; its dam was a war-horse in Woundweaver’s lancers. You couldn’t get a better pedigree.”

“What is it called?” asked Rek, still unconvinced.

“Lancer,” answered Horeb.

“That has a nice ring to it. Lancer … Well, maybe … just maybe.”

“Daffodil’s ready, sir,” said the groom, backing away from the chestnut. The horse swung its head, snapping at the retreating boy, who stumbled and fell on the cobbles.

“Daffodil?” said Rek. “You bought me a horse called Daffodil?”

“What’s in a name, Rek?” answered Horeb innocently. “Call it what you like; you must admit it’s a fine beast.”

“If I didn’t have a fine sense for the ridiculous, I would have it muzzled. Where are the girls?”

“Too busy to be waving good-bye to layabouts who rarely pay their bills. Now, be off with you.”

Rek advanced gingerly toward the gelding, speaking softly. It turned a baleful eye on him but allowed him to swing into the high-backed saddle. He gathered the reins, adjusted his blue cloak to just the right angle over the horse’s back, and swung the beast toward the gate.

“Rek, I almost forgot,” called Horeb, pushing back toward the house. “Wait a moment!” The burly innkeeper disappeared from sight, emerging seconds later carrying a short bow of horn and yew and a quiver of black-shafted arrows. “Here. A customer left this behind in part payment some months ago. It looks like a sturdy weapon.”

“Wonderful,” said Rek. “I used to be a fine bowman.”

“Yes,” said Horeb. “Just remember when you use it that the sharp end is pointed away from you. Now begone—and take care.”

“Thanks, Horeb. You, too. And remember what I said about candles.”

“I will. On your way, boy. Be lucky now.”
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
-
Rek rode from the south gate as the watchmen trimmed the lantern wicks. The dawn shadows were shrinking on the streets of Drenan, and young children played beneath the portcullis. He had chosen the southern route for the most obvious of reasons. The Nadir were marching from the north, and the fastest way from a battle was a straight line in the opposite direction.

Flicking his heels, he urged the gelding forward toward the south. To his left the rising sun was breasting the blue peaks of the eastern mountains. The sky was blue, birds sang, and the sounds of an awakening city came from behind him. But the sun was rising, Rek knew, on the Nadir. For the Drenai it was dusk on the last day.

Topping a rise, he gazed down on Graven Forest, white and virginal under the winter snow. And yet it was a place of evil legends that normally he would have avoided. The fact that instead he chose to enter showed he knew two things: First, the legends were built around the activities of a living man; second, he knew that man.

Reinard.

He and his band of bloodthirsty cutthroats had their headquarters in Graven and were an open, festering sore in the body of trade. Caravans were sacked, pilgrims were murdered, women were raped. Yet an army could not seek them out, so vast was the forest.

Reinard. Sired by a prince of hell, born to a noblewoman of Ulalia. Or so he told it. Rek had heard that his mother was a Lentrian whore and his father a nameless sailor. He had never repeated this intelligence; he did not, as the phrase went, have the guts for it. Even if he had, he mused, he would not keep them long once he tried it. One of Reinard’s favourite pastimes with prisoners was to roast sections of them over hot coals and serve the meat to those poor unfortunates taken prisoner with them. If he met Reinard, the best thing would be to flatter the hell out of him. And if that did not work, to give him the latest news, send him in the direction of the nearest caravan, and ride swiftly from his domain.

Rek had made sure he knew the details of all the caravans passing through Graven and their probable routes. Silks, jewels, spices, slaves, cattle. In truth he had no wish to part with this information. Nothing would please him better than to ride through Graven quietly, knowing the caravaners’ fate was in the lap of the gods.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
-
The chestnut’s hooves made little sound on the snow, and Rek kept the pace to a gentle walk in case hidden roots should cause the horse to stumble. The cold began to work its way through his warm clothing, and his feet were soon feeling frozen within the doeskin boots. He reached into his pack and pulled out a pair of sheepskin mittens.

The horse plodded on. At noon Rek stopped for a brief, cold meal, hobbling the gelding by a frozen stream. With a thick Vagrian dagger he chipped away the ice, allowing the beast to drink, then gave him a handful of oats. He stroked the long neck, and the chestnut’s head came up sharply, teeth bared. Rek leapt backward, falling into a deep snowdrift. He lay there for a moment, then smiled.

“I knew you didn’t like me,” he said. The horse turned to look at him and snorted.

As he was about to mount, Rek glanced at the horse’s hindquarters. Deep switch scars showed by the tail.

Gently, his hand moved over them. “So,” he said, “someone took a whip to you, eh, Daffodil? Didn’t break your spirit, did they, boy?” He swung into the saddle. With luck, he reckoned, he should be free of the forest in five days.

Gnarled oaks with twisted roots cast ominous dusk shadows across the track, and night breezes set the branches to whispering as Rek walked the gelding deeper into the forest. The moon was rising above the trees, casting a ghostly light on the trail. Teeth chattering, he began to cast about for a good camping site, finding one an hour later in a small hollow by an ice-covered pool. He built a stall in some bushes to keep the worst of the wind from the horse, fed it, and then built a small fire by a fallen oak and a large boulder. Out of the wind, the heat reflected from the stone, Rek brewed tea to help down his dried beef; then he pulled his blanket over his shoulders, leaned against the oak, and watched the flames dance.

A skinny fox poked its snout through a bush, peering at the fire. On impulse, Rek threw it a strip of beef. The animal flicked its eyes from the man to the morsel and back again before darting out to snatch the meat from the frozen ground. Then it vanished into the night. Rek held out his hands to the fire and thought of Horeb.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
-
The burly innkeeper had raised him after Rek’s father had been killed in the northern wars against the Sathuli. Honest, loyal, strong, and dependable—Horeb was all of those. And he was kind, a prince among men.

Rek had managed to repay him one well-remembered night when three Vagrian deserters had attacked him in an alley near the inn.

Luckily Rek had been drinking, and when he had first heard the sound of steel on steel, he had rushed forward. Within the alley Horeb had been fighting a losing battle, his kitchen knife no match for three swordsmen. Yet the old man had been a warrior and had moved well. Rek had been frozen to the spot, his own sword forgotten. He had tried to move forward, but his legs had refused the order. Then a sword had cut through Horeb’s guard, opening a huge wound in his leg.

Rek had screamed, and the sound had released his terror.

The bloody skirmish was over in seconds. Rek took out the first assailant with a throat slash, parried a thrust from the second, and shoulder-charged the third into a wall. From the ground Horeb grabbed the third man, pulling him down and stabbing out with his kitchen knife. The second man fled into the night.

“You were wonderful, Rek,” said Horeb. “Believe me, you fight like a veteran.”

Veterans don’t freeze with fear, thought Rek.

Now he fed some twigs to the flames. A cloud obscured the moon, and an owl hooted. Rek’s shaking hand curled around his dagger.

Damn the dark, he thought. And curse all heroes!
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
-
He had been a soldier for a while, stationed at Dros Corteswain, and had enjoyed it. But then the Sathuli skirmishes had become a border war, and the enjoyment had palled. He had done well, been promoted; his senior officers had told him he had a fine feel for tactics. But they did not know about the sleepless nights. His men had respected him, he thought. But that was because he was careful, even cautious. He had left before his nerve could betray him.

“Are you mad, Rek?” Gan Javi had asked him when he had resigned his commission. “The war is expanding. We’ve got more troops coming, and a fine officer like you can be sure of promotion. You’ll lead more than a century in six months. You could be offered the gan eagle.”

“I know all that, sir, and believe me, I’m really sorry I shall be missing the action. But it’s a question of family business. Damn, I would cut off my right arm to stay; you know that.”

“I do, boy. And we’ll miss you, by Missael. Your troop will be shattered. If you change your mind, there will be a place for you here. Any time. You’re a born soldier.”

“I’ll remember that, sir. Thank you for all your help and encouragement.”

“One more thing, Rek,” said Gan Javi, leaning back in his carved chair. “You know there are rumours that the Nadir are preparing a march on the south?”

“There are always rumours of that, sir,” answered Rek.

“I know; they’ve been circulating for years. But this Ulric is a canny one. He’s conquered most of the tribes now, and I think he’s almost ready.”

“But Abalayn has just signed a treaty with him,” said Rek. “Mutual peace in return for trade concessions and financing for his building program.”

“That’s what I mean, lad. I’ll say nothing against Abalayn; he’s ruled the Drenai for twenty years. But you don’t stop a wolf by feeding it—believe me! Anyway, what I’m saying is that men like yourselves will be needed before long, so don’t get rusty.”
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
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The last thing the Drenai needed now was a man who was afraid of the dark. What they needed was another Karnak the One-Eyed—a score of them. An Earl of Bronze. A hundred like Druss the Legend. And even if, by some miracle, this were to happen, would even these stem the tide of half a million tribesmen?

Who could even picture such a number?

They would wash over Dros Delnoch like an angry sea, Rek knew.

If I thought there was a chance, I still wouldn’t go. Face it, he thought. Even if victory was certain, still he would avoid the battle.

Who will care in a hundred years whether the Drenai survived? It would be like Skeln Pass, shrouded in legend and glorified beyond truth.

War!

Flies settling like a black stain over a man’s entrails as he wept with the pain and held his body together with crimson fingers, hoping for a miracle. Hunger, cold, fear, disease, gangrene, death!

War for soldiers.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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The day he had left Dros Corteswain, he had been approached by one of the culs, who had nervously offered him a tightly-wrapped bundle.

“From the troop, sir,” he had said.

He had opened it, embarrassed and empty of words, to see a blue cloak with an eagle clasp in crafted bronze.

“I, don’t know how to thank you all.”

“The men want me to say … well, we’re sorry you’re leaving. That’s all, sir.”

“I’m sorry, too, Korvac. Family business, you know?”

The man had nodded, probably wishing he had family business that would allow him to depart the Dros. But culs had no commission to resign; only the dun class could leave a fortress during a war.

“Well, good luck, sir. See you soon, I hope … we all hope.”

“Yes! Soon.”

That had been two years ago. Gan Javi had died from a stroke, and several of Rek’s brother officers had been killed in the Sathuli battles. No message had reached him of individual culs.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
-
The days passed—cold, gloomy, but mercifully without incident—until the morning of the fifth day, when, on a high trail skirting a grove of elm, he heard the one sound he disliked above all others: the clash of steel on steel. He should have ridden on; he knew he should. But for some reason his curiosity fractionally outweighed his fear. He hobbled the horse, swung the quiver to his back, and strung the horn bow. Then carefully he worked his way through the trees and down into the snow-covered glen. Moving stealthily, with catlike care, he came to a clearing. Sounds of battle echoed in the glade.

A young woman in armour of silver and bronze stood with her back to a tree, desperately fending off a combined assault from three outlaws, burly men and bearded, armed with swords and daggers. The woman held a slender blade, a flickering, dancing rapier that cut and thrust with devastating speed.

The three, clumsy swordsmen at best, were hampering each other. But the girl was tiring fast.

These were Reinard’s men, Rek knew, cursing his own curiosity. One of them cried out as the rapier lanced across his forearm.

“Take that, you dung beetle,” shouted the girl.

Rek smiled. Not a beauty, but she could fence.

He notched an arrow to his bow and waited for the right moment to let fly. The girl ducked under a vicious cut and flashed her blade through the eye of the swordsman. As he screamed and fell, the other two fell back, more wary now; they moved apart, ready to attack from both flanks. The girl had been dreading this moment, for there was no defense but flight. Her gaze flickered from man to man. Take the tall one first, forget about the other, and hope his first thrust is not mortal. Maybe she could take them both with her.

The tall one moved to the left while his comrade crossed to the right. At that moment Rek loosed a shaft at the tall outlaw’s back that lanced through his left calf. Swiftly he notched a second arrow as the bewildered man spun around, saw Rek, and hobbled toward him, screaming hatred.

Rek drew back the string until it touched his cheek, locked his left arm, and loosed the shaft.

This time the aim was slightly better. He had been aiming for the chest—the largest target—but the arrow was high, and now the outlaw lay on his back, the black shaft jutting from his forehead and blood bubbling to the snow.

“You took your time getting involved,” said the girl coolly, stepping across the body of the third outlaw and wiping her slender blade on his shirt.

Rek tore his eyes from the face of the man he had killed.

“I just saved your life,” he said, checking an angry retort.

She was tall and well built, almost mannish, Rek thought, her hair long and mousy blond, unkempt. Her eyes were blue and deep-set beneath thick dark brows that indicated an uncertain temper. Her figure was disguised by the silver steel mail shirt and bronze shoulder pads; her legs were encased in shapeless green woolen trews laced to the thigh with leather straps.

“Well, what are you staring at?” she demanded. “Never seen a woman before?”

“Well, that answers the first question,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“You’re a woman.”

“Oh, very dry!” She retrieved a sheepskin jerkin from beneath the tree, dusting off the snow, and slipping it on. It did nothing to enhance her appearance, thought Rek.

“They attacked me,” she said. “Killed my horse, the bastards! Where’s your horse?”

“Your gratitude overwhelms me,” said Rek, an edge of anger in his voice. “Those are Reinard’s men.”

“Really? Friend of yours, is he?”

“Not exactly. But if he knew what I had done, he would roast my eyes on a fire and serve them to me as an appetizer.”

“All right, I appreciate your point. I’m extremely grateful. Now, where’s your horse?”

Rek ignored her, gritting his teeth against his anger. He walked to the dead outlaw and dragged his arrows clear, wiping them on the man’s jerkin. Then he methodically searched the pockets of all three. Seven silver coins and several gold rings the richer, he then returned to the girl.

“My horse has one saddle. I ride it,” he said icily. “I’ve done about all I want to do for you. You’re on your own now.”

“Damned chivalrous of you,” she said.

“Chivalry isn’t my strong point,” he said, turning away.

“Neither is marksmanship,” she retorted.

“What?”

“You were aiming for his back from twenty paces, and you hit his leg. It’s because you closed one eye, ruined your perspective.”

“Thanks for the archery instruction. Good luck!”

“Wait!” she said. He turned. “I need your horse.”

“So do I.”

“I will pay you.”

“He’s not for sale.”

“All right. Then I will pay you to take me to where I can buy a horse.”

“How much?” he asked.

“One golden Raq.”

“Five,” he said.

“I could buy three horses for that,” she stormed.

“It’s a seller’s market,” he retorted.

“Two, and that’s final.”

“Three.”

“All right, three. Now, where’s your horse?”

“First the money, my lady.” He held out a hand. Her blue eyes were frosty as she removed the coins from a leather pouch and placed them in his palm. “My name is Regnak, Rek to my friends,” he said.

“That’s of no interest to me,” she assured him.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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-
3

They rode in a silence as frosty as the weather, the tall girl behind Rek in the saddle. He resisted the urge to spur the horse on at speed despite the fear gnawing at his belly. It would be unfair to say he was sorry he had rescued her; after all, it had done wonders for his self-esteem. His fear was of meeting Reinard now. This girl would never sit silent while he flattered and lied. And even if by some stroke of good fortune she did keep her mouth shut, she would certainly report him for giving information on caravan movements.

The horse stumbled on a hidden root, and the girl pitched sideways. Rek’s hand lanced out, catching her arm and hauling her back in the saddle.

“Put your arms around my waist, will you,” he said.

“How much will it cost me?”

“Just do it. It’s too cold to argue.”

Her arms slid around him, her head resting against his back.

Thick, dark clouds bunched above them, and the temperature began to drop.

“We ought to make an early camp,” he stated. “The weather’s closing in.”

“I agree,” she said.

Snow began to fall, and the wind picked up. Rek dipped his head against the force of the storm, blinking against the cold flakes that blew into his eyes. He steered the gelding away from the trail and into the shelter of the trees, gripping the pommel of his saddle as the horse climbed a steep incline.

An open campsite would be folly, he knew, in this freak storm. They needed a cave, or at least the lee of a rock face. For over an hour they moved on until at last they entered a clearing circled by oak and gorse. Within it was a crofter’s hut of log walls and earthen roof. Rek glanced at the stone chimney: no smoke.

He heeled the tired gelding forward. At the side of the hut was a three-sided lean-to with a wicker roof bent by the weight of the snow upon it. He steered the horse inside.

“Dismount,” he told the girl, but her hands did not move from his waist. He glanced down. The hands were blue, and he rubbed at them furiously. “Wake up!” he shouted. “Wake up, damn you!” Pulling her hands free, he slid from the saddle and caught her as she fell. Her lips were blue, her hair thick with ice. Lifting her over one shoulder, he removed the packs from the gelding, loosened the girth, and carried the girl to the hut. The wooden door was open, snow drifting into the cold interior as he stepped inside.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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The hut was one-roomed. He saw a cot in the corner beneath the only window, a hearth, some simple cupboards, and a wood store—enough for two, maybe three nights—stacked against the far wall. There were three crudely made chairs and a bench table roughly cut from an elm trunk. Rek tipped the unconscious girl on to the cot, found a stick broom under the table, and swept the snow from the room. He pushed the door shut, but a rotten leather hinge gave way and it tilted open again at the top. Cursing, he pulled the table to the doorway and heaved it against the frame.

Tearing open his pack, Rek pulled his tinderbox free and moved to the hearth. Whoever had owned or built the holding had left a fire ready laid, as was the custom in the wild. Rek opened his small tinder pouch, making a mound of shredded dry leaves beneath the twigs in the grate. Over this he poured a little lantern oil from a leather flask and then struck his flint. His cold fingers were clumsy and the sparks would not take, so he stopped for a moment, forcing himself to take slow deep breaths. Then again he struck the flint, and this time a small flame flickered in the tinder and caught. He leaned forward, gently blowing it; then, as the twigs flared, he turned to sort smaller branches from the store, placing them gently atop the tiny fire. Flames danced higher.

He carried two chairs to the hearth, placed his blankets over them before the blaze, and returned to the girl. She lay on the crude cot, scarcely breathing.

“It’s the bloody armour,” he said. He fumbled with the straps of her jerkin, turning her over to pull it loose. Swiftly he stripped off her clothing and set to work rubbing warmth into her. He glanced at the fire, placed three more logs to feed the blaze, and then spread the blankets on the floor before it. Lifting the girl from the cot, he laid her back before the hearth, turning her over to rub her back.

“Don’t you die on me!” he stormed, pummelling the flesh of her legs. “Don’t you damn well dare!” He wiped her hair with a towel and wrapped her in the blankets. The floor was cold, and frost seeped up from beneath the hut, so he pulled the cot to the hearth, then strained to lift her onto the bed. Her pulse was slow but steady.

He gazed down at her face. It was beautiful. Not in any classic sense, he knew, for the brows were too thick and thunderous, the chin too square, and the lips too full. Yet there was strength there, and courage and determination. But more than this: In sleep a gentle, childlike quality found expression.

He kissed her gently.

Buttoning his sheepskin jacket, he pulled the table aside and stepped out into the storm. The gelding snorted as he approached. There was straw in the lean-to; taking a handful, he rubbed the horse’s back.

“Going to be a cold night, boy. But you should be all right in here.” He spread the saddle blanket over the gelding’s broad back, fed him some oats, and returned to the hut.

The girl’s colour was better now, and she slept peacefully.

Searching the cupboards, Rek found an old iron pan. From his pack, he took out a pound of dried beef and set about making soup. He was warmer now and removed his cloak and jacket. Outside the wind beat against the walls as the storm’s fury grew, but inside the fire blazed warmth and a soft red light filled the cabin. Rek pulled off his boots and rubbed his toes. He felt good. Alive.

And damned hungry!

He took a leather-covered clay mug from his pack and tried the soup. The girl stirred, and he toyed with the idea of waking her but dismissed it. As she was, she was lovely. Awake, she was a harridan. She rolled over and moaned, a long leg pushing from the blanket. Rek grinned as he remembered her body. Not at all mannish! She was just big but wonderfully proportioned. He stared at her leg, the smile fading. He pictured himself naked alongside her …

“No, no, Rek,” he said aloud. “Forget it.”

He covered her with the blanket and returned to his soup. Be prepared, he told himself. When she wakes, she will accuse you of taking advantage of her and cut your eyes out.

Taking his cloak, he wrapped it around himself and stretched out beside the fire. The floor was warmer now. Adding some logs to the blaze, he pillowed his head on his arm and watched the dancers in the flames circle and jump, twist and turn …

He slept.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
-
He awoke to the smell of frying bacon. The hut was warm, and his arm felt swollen and cramped. He stretched, groaned, and sat up. The girl was nowhere in sight. Then the door opened, and she stepped inside, brushing snow from her jerkin.

“I’ve seen to your horse,” she said. “Are you fit to eat?”

“Yes. What time is it?”

“Sun’s been up for about three hours. The snow’s letting up.”

He pushed his aching body upright, stretching the tight muscles of his back. “Too much time in Drenan in soft beds,” he commented.

“That probably accounts for the paunch,” she noted.

“Paunch? I’ve a curved spine. Anyway, it’s relaxed muscle.” He looked down. “All right, it’s a paunch. A few more days of this and it will go.”

“I don’t doubt it,” she said. “Anyway, we were lucky to find this place.”

“Yes, we were.” The conversation died as she turned the bacon. Rek was uncomfortable in the silence, and they began to speak at the same time.

“This is ridiculous,” she said finally.

“Yes,” he agreed. “Bacon smells good.”

“Look … I want to thank you. There—it’s said.”

“It was a pleasure. What about starting again, as if we had never met? My name is Rek.” He held out a hand.

“Virae,” she said, grasping his wrist in the warrior’s grip.

“My pleasure,” he said. “And what brings you to Graven Forest, Virae?”

“None of your damned business,” she snapped.

“I thought we were starting afresh,” he said.

“I’m sorry. Really! Look, it’s not easy being friendly—I don’t like you very much.”

“How can you say that? We’ve only said about ten words to each other. A bit early for character assessment, isn’t it?”

“I know your kind,” she said. Taking two platters, she deftly flipped the bacon from the pan and handed him a plate. “Arrogant. Think you’re the gods’ gift to the world. Footloose.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” he asked. “Nobody’s perfect. I enjoy my life; it’s the only one I’ve got.”

“It’s people like you who have wrecked this country,” she told him. “People who don’t care, people who live for today. The greedy and the selfish. We used to be great.”

“Rubbish. We used to be warriors, conquering everybody, stamping Drenai rules on the world. A pox on it!”

“There was nothing wrong with that! The people we conquered prospered, didn’t they? We built schools, hospitals, roads. We encouraged trade and gave the world Drenai law.”

“Then you shouldn’t be too upset,” he told her, “that the world is changing. Now it will be Nadir law. The only reason the Drenai conquered was that the outlying nations had had their day. They were fat and lazy, full of selfish, greedy people who didn’t care. All nations fall that way.”

“Oh, so you’re a philosopher, are you?” she said. “Well, I consider your opinions to be as worthless as you are.”

“Oh, now I’m worthless? What do you know of ‘worthless,’ prancing around dressed as a man? You’re an imitation warrior. If you’re so eager to uphold Drenai values, why don’t you get off to Dros Delnoch with the other fools and wave your pretty little sword at the Nadir?”

“I’ve just come from there, and I’m going back as soon as I have accomplished what I set out to do,” she said icily.

“Then you’re an idiot,” he said lamely.

“You were a soldier, weren’t you?” she said.

“What’s that to you?”

“Why did you leave the army?”

“None of your damned business.” He paused, then, to break the awkward silence, went on: “We should be at Glen Frenae by this afternoon; it’s only a small village, but they do sell horses.”

They finished their meal without speaking, Rek feeling angry and uncomfortable yet lacking the skill to pierce the gap between them. She cleared the platters and cleaned out the pan, awkward in her mail shirt.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
-
Virae was furious with herself. She had not meant to quarrel with him. For hours as he slept she had crept about the cabin so as not to disturb him. At first when she woke she had been angry and embarrassed by what he had done, but she knew enough about frostbite and exposure to realize he had saved her life. And he had not taken advantage. If he had done so, she would have killed him without regret or hesitation. She had studied him as he slept. In a strange way he was handsome, she thought, then decided that although he was good-looking after a fashion, it was some indefinable quality that made him attractive—a gentleness, perhaps? A certain sensitivity? It was hard to pinpoint.

Why should he be so attractive? It angered her; she had no time now for romance. Then a bitter thought struck her: She had never had time for romance. Or was it that romance had never had time for her? She was clumsy as a woman, unsure of herself in the company of men, unless in combat or comradeship. His words came again in her mind: “What do you know of ‘worthless,’ prancing around dressed as a man?”

Twice he had saved her life. Why had she said she disliked him? Because she was frightened?

She heard him walk from the hut and then heard a strange voice.

“Regnak, my dear! Is it true you have a woman inside?”

She reached for her sword.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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4

The abbot placed his hands on the head of the young albino kneeling before him and closed his eyes. He spoke, mind to mind, in the manner of the order.

“Are you prepared?”

“How can I tell?” answered the albino.

“Release your mind to me,” said the abbot. The young man relaxed his control; the image of the abbot’s kindly face overlapped his thoughts. His thoughts swam, interweaving with the memories of the older man. The abbot’s powerful personality covered his own like a comforting blanket, and he slept.

Release was painful, and his fears returned as the abbot woke him. Once again he was Serbitar, and his thoughts were his own.

“Am I prepared?” he asked.

“You will be. The messenger comes.”

“Is he worthy?”

“Judge for yourself. Follow me to Graven.”

Their spirits soared, entwined, high above the monastery, free as the winter wind. Below them lay the snow-covered fields at the edge of the forest. The abbot pulsed them onward, over the trees. In a clearing by a crofter’s hut stood a group of men facing a doorway in which stood a tall young man, and behind him was a woman, sword in hand.

“Which is the messenger?” asked the albino.

“Observe,” answered the abbot.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
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Reinard had not had things going his way just recently. An attack on a caravan had been beaten off with heavy losses, and then three more of his men had been found dead at dusk, among them his brother Erlik. A prisoner he had taken two days previously had died of fright long before the real entertainment could begin, and the weather had turned for the worse. Bad luck was haunting him, and he was at a loss to understand why.

Damn the speaker, he thought bitterly as he led his men toward the cabin. If he had not been in one of his three-day sleeps, the attack on the caravan would have been avoided. Reinard had toyed with the idea of removing his feet as he slept, but good sense and greed had just held sway. Speaker was invaluable. He had come out of his trance as Reinard had carried Erlik’s body back to the camp.

“Do you see what has happened while you slept?” Reinard had stormed.

“You lost eight men in a bad raid, and a woman slew Erlik, and another after they killed her horse,” answered Speaker. Reinard stared hard at the old man, peering at the sightless sockets.

“A woman, you say?”

“Yes.”

“There was a third man killed. What of him?”

“Slain by an arrow through the forehead.”

“Who fired it?”

“The man called Regnak. The Wanderer who comes here on occasions.”

Reinard shook his head. A woman brought him a goblet of mulled wine, and he sat on a large stone by a blazing fire. “It can’t be; he wouldn’t dare! Are you sure it was him?”

“It was him,” said Speaker. “And now I must rest.”

“Wait! Where are they now?”

“I shall find out,” said the old man, returning to his hut. Reinard called for food and summoned Grussin. The axman squatted on the ground before him.

“Did you hear?” he asked.

“Yes. Do you believe it?” answered Grussin.

“It’s ridiculous. But when has the old man been wrong? Am I getting old? When a craven like Rek can attack my men, I must be doing something wrong. I will have him roasted slowly over the fire for this.”

“We’re getting short of food,” said Grussin.

“What?”

“Short of food. It’s been a long winter, and we needed that damn caravan.”

“There will be others. First we will find Rek.”

“Is it worth it?” asked Grussin.

“Worth it? He helped some woman kill my brother. I want that woman staked out and enjoyed by all the men. I want the flesh cut from her body in tiny strips from her feet to her neck. And then the dogs can have her.”

“Whatever you say.”

“You don’t sound very enthusiastic,” said Reinard, hurling his now-empty plate across the fire.

“No? Well, maybe I’m getting old. When we came here, there seemed to be a reason for it all. I’m beginning to forget what it was.”

“We came here because Abalayn and his mangy crew had my farm sacked and my family killed. And I haven’t forgotten. You’re not turning soft, are you?”

Grussin noted the gleam in Reinard’s eyes.

“No, of course not. You’re the leader, and whatever you say is fine by me. We will find Rek and the woman. Why don’t you get some rest.”

“A curse on rest,” muttered Reinard. “You sleep if you have to. We leave as soon as the old man gives us directions.”
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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Grussin walked to his hut and hurled himself on his fern-filled bed.

“You are troubled?” his woman, Mella, asked him as she kneeled by his side, offering him wine.

“How would you like to leave?” he asked, placing a huge hand on her shoulder. She leaned forward and kissed him. “Wherever you go, I shall be with you,” she said.

“I’m tired of it,” he said. “Tired of the killing. It gets more senseless with every day. He must be mad.”

“Hush!” she whispered, wary now. She leaned into his bearded face and whispered in his ear. “Don’t voice your fears. We can leave quietly in the spring. Stay calm and do his bidding until then.”

He nodded, smiled, and kissed her hair. “You’re right,” he said. “Get some sleep.” She curled beside him, and he gathered the blanket around her. “I don’t deserve you,” he said as her eyes closed.

Where had it gone wrong? When they had been young and full of fire, Reinard’s cruelty had been an occasional thing, a device to create a legend. Or so he had said. They would be a thorn in Abalayn’s side until they achieved justice. Now it was ten years. Ten miserable bloody years.

And had the cause ever been just?

Grussin hoped so.

“Well, are you coming?” asked Reinard from the doorway. “They’re at the old cabin.”
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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The march had been a long one and bitterly cold, but Reinard had scarcely felt it. Anger filled him with warmth, and the prospect of revenge fed his muscles so that the miles sped by.

His mind filled with pictures of sweet violence and the music of screams. He would take the woman first and cut her with a heated knife. Arousal warmed his loins.

And as for Rek … He knew what Rek’s expression would be as he saw them arrive.

Terror! Mind-numbing, bowel-loosening terror!

But he was wrong.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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Rek had stalked from the hut, furious and trembling. The scorn on Virae’s face was hard to bear. Only anger could blank it out. And even then, barely. He could not help what he was, could he? Some men were born to be heroes. Others to be cowards. What right had she to judge him?

“Regnak, my dear! Is it true you have a woman inside?”

Rek’s eyes scanned the group. More than twenty men stood in a half circle behind the tall, broad-shouldered outlaw leader. Beside him stood Grussin the axman, huge and powerful, his double-headed ax in his hand.

“Morning, Rein,” said Rek. “What brings you here?”

“I heard you had a warm bed mate, and I thought, Good old Rek, he won’t mind sharing. And I’d like to invite you to my camp. Where is she?”

“She’s not for you, Rein. But I’ll make a trade. There’s a caravan headed—”

“Never mind the caravan!” shouted Reinard. “Just bring out the woman.”

“Spices, jewels, furs. It’s a big one,” said Rek.

“You can tell us about it as we march. Now I’m losing patience. Bring her out!”

Rek’s anger blazed, and his sword snaked from its scabbard.

“Come and get her, then, you bastards!”

Virae stepped from the doorway to stand beside him, blade in hand, as the outlaws drew their weapons and advanced.

“Wait!” ordered Reinard, lifting his hand. He stepped forward, forcing a smile. “Now listen to me, Rek. This is senseless. We’ve nothing against you. You’ve been a friend. Now, what’s this woman to you? She killed my brother, so you see it’s a matter of personal honour. Put up your sword and you can ride away. But I want her alive.” And you, too, he thought.

“You want her, you take her!” said Rek. “And me, too. Come on, Rein. You still remember what a sword’s for, don’t you? Or will you do what you normally do and scuttle back into the trees while other men do your dying for you? Run, you dung worm!” Rek leapt forward, and Reinard backed away at speed and stumbled into Grussin.

“Kill him—but not the woman,” he said. “I want that woman.”
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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Grussin walked forward, his axe swinging at his side. Virae advanced to stand beside Rek. The axman stopped ten paces short of the pair, and his eyes met Rek’s: there was no give there. He turned his gaze to the woman. Young, spirited—not beautiful but a handsome lass.

“What are you waiting for, you ox!” screamed Reinard. “Take her!”

Grussin turned and walked back to the group. A sense of unreality gripped him. He saw himself again as a young man, saving for his first holding; he had a plough that was his father’s, and the neighbours were ready to help him build his home near the elm grove. What had he done with the years?

“You traitor!” shouted Reinard, dragging his sword into the air.

Grussin parried the blow with ease. “Forget it, Rein. Let’s go home.”

“Kill him!” Reinard ordered. The men looked at one another, some starting forward while others hesitated. “You bastard! You treacherous filth!” Reinard screamed, raising his sword once more. Grussin took a deep breath, gripped his axe in both hands, and smashed the sword into shards, the axe blade glancing from the shattered hilt and hammering into the outlaw leader’s side. He fell to his knees, doubled over. Then Grussin stepped forward; the axe lifted and chopped, and Reinard’s head rolled to the snow. Grussin let the weapon fall, then walked back to Rek.

“He wasn’t always as you knew him,” he said.

“Why?” asked Rek, lowering his blade. “Why did you do it?”

“Who knows? It wasn’t just for you—or her. Maybe something inside me had just had enough. Where was this caravan?”

“I was lying,” lied Rek.

“Good. We will not meet again. I’m leaving Graven. Is she your woman?”

“No.”

“You could do worse.”

“Yes.”

Grussin turned and walked to the body, retrieving his axe. “We were friends for a long time,” he said. “Too long.”

Without a backward glance he led the group back into the forest.

“I simply don’t believe it,” said Rek. “That was an absolute miracle.”

“Let’s finish breakfast now,” said Virae. “I’ll brew some tea.”
 
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Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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Inside the hut Rek began to tremble. He sat down, his sword clattering to the floor.

“What’s the matter?” asked Virae.

“It’s just the cold,” he said, teeth chattering. She knelt beside him, massaging his hands, saying nothing.

“The tea will l help,” she said. “Did you bring any sugar?”

“It’s in my pack, wrapped in red paper. Horeb knows I’ve a sweet tooth. Cold doesn’t usually get to me like this—sorry!”

“It’s all right. My father always says sweet tea is wonderful for … cold.”

“I wonder how they found us,” he said. “Last night’s snow must have covered our tracks. It’s strange.”

“I don’t know. Here, drink this.”

He sipped the tea, holding the leather-covered mug in both hands. Hot liquid splashed over his fingers. Virae busied herself clearing away and repacking his saddlebags. Then she raked the ashes in the hearth and laid a fire ready for the next traveller to use the hut.

“What are you doing at Dros Delnoch?” Rek asked, the warm sweet tea soothing him.

“I am Earl Delnar’s daughter,” she said. “I live there.”

“Did he send you away because of the coming war?”

“No. I brought a message to Abalayn, and now I’ve got a message for someone else. When I’ve delivered it, I’m going home. Are you feeling better?”

“Yes,” said Rek. “Much better.” He hesitated, holding her gaze. “It wasn’t just the cold,” he said.

“I know: it doesn’t matter. Everybody trembles after an action. It’s what happens during it that counts. My father told me that after Skeln Pass he couldn’t sleep without nightmares for a month.”

“You’re not shaking,” he said.

“That’s because I’m keeping busy. Would you like some more tea?”

“Yes. Thanks. I thought we were going to die. And just for a moment I didn’t care—it was a wonderful feeling.” He wanted to tell her how good it was to have her standing beside him, but he could not. He wanted to walk across the room and hold her—and knew he would not. He merely looked at her while she refilled his mug, stirring in the sugar.

“Where did you serve?” she asked, conscious of his gaze and uncertain of its meaning.

“Dros Corteswain. Under Gan Javi.”

“He’s dead now,” she said.

“Yes, a stroke. He was a fine leader. He predicted the coming war. I’m sure Abalayn wishes he had listened to him.”

“It wasn’t only Javi who warned him,” said Virae. “All the northern commanders sent reports. My father has had spies among the Nadir for years. It was obvious that they intended to attack us. Abalayn’s a fool; even now he’s sending messages to Ulric with new treaties. He won’t accept that war’s inevitable. Do you know we’ve only ten thousand men at Delnoch?”

“I had heard it was less,” said Rek.

“There are six walls and a town to defend. The complement in wartime should be four times as strong. And the discipline is not what it was.”

“Why?”

“Because they’re all waiting to die,” she said, anger in her voice. “Because my father’s ill—dying. And because Gan Orrin has the heart of a ripe tomato.”

“Orrin? I’ve not heard of him.”

“Abalayn’s nephew. He commands the troops, but he’s useless. If I’d been a man …”

“I’m glad you’re not,” he said.

“Why?”

“I don’t know,” he said lamely. “Just something to say … I’m glad you’re not, that’s all.”

“Anyway, if I had been a man, I would have commanded the troops. I would have done a damned sight better than Orrin. Why are you staring at me?”

“I’m not staring. I’m listening, dammit! Why do you keep pressing me?”

“Do you want the fire lit?” she asked.

“What? Are we staying that long?”

“If you want to.”

“I’ll leave it to you,” he said.

“Let’s stay for today. That’s all. It might give us time to … get to know each other better. We’ve made a pretty bad start, after all. And you have saved my life three times.”

“Once,” he said. “I don’t think you would have died of the cold; you’re too tough. And Grussin saved us both. But yes, I would like to stay just for today. Mind you, I don’t fancy sleeping on the floor again.”

“You won’t have to,” she said.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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The abbot smiled at the young albino’s embarrassment. He released his hands from the mind hold and walked back to his desk. “Join me, Serbitar,” he said aloud. “Do you regret your oath of celibacy?”

“Sometimes,” said the young man, rising from his knees. He brushed dust from his white cassock and seated himself opposite the abbot.

“The girl is worthy,” Serbitar replied. “The man is an enigma. Will their force be lessened by their lovemaking?”

“Strengthened,” said the abbot. “They need each other. Together they are complete, as in the Sacred Book. Tell me of her.”

“What can I tell?”

“You entered her mind. Tell me of her.”

“She is an earl’s daughter. She lacks confidence in herself as a woman, and she is a victim of mixed desires.”

“Why?”

“She doesn’t know why,” he hedged.

“Of that I am aware. Do you know why?”

“No.”

“What of the man?”

“I did not enter his mind.”

“No. But what of the man?”

“He has great fears. He fears to die.”

“Is this a weakness?” asked the abbot.

“It will be at Dros Delnoch. Death is almost certain there.”

“Yes. Can it be a strength?”

“I do not see how,” said Serbitar.

“What does the philosopher say of cowards and heroes?”

“The prophet says, ‘By nature of definition only the coward is capable of the highest heroism.’”

“You must convene the Thirty, Serbitar.”

“I am to lead?”

“Yes. You shall be the voice of the Thirty.”

“But who shall my brothers be?”

The abbot leaned back in his chair. “Arbedark will be the heart. He is strong, fearless, and true; there could be none other. Menahem shall be the eyes, for he is gifted. I shall be the soul.”

“No!” said the albino. “It cannot be, master. I cannot lead you.”

“But you must. You will decide the other numbers. I shall await your decision.”

“Why me? Why must I lead? I should be the eyes. Arbedark should lead.”

“Trust me. All will be revealed.”
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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“I was raised at Dros Delnoch,” Virae told Rek as they lay before the blazing fire. His head rested on his rolled cloak, her head nestled on his chest. He stroked her hair, saying nothing. “It’s a majestic place. Have you ever been there?”

“No. Tell me about it.” He did not really want to hear, but neither did he wish to speak.

“It has six outer walls, each of them twenty feet thick. The first three were built by Egel, the Earl of Bronze. But then the town expanded, and gradually they built three more. The whole fortress spans the Delnoch Pass. With the exception of Dros Purdol to the west and Corteswain to the east, it is the only route for an army to pass through the mountains. My father converted the old keep and made it his home. The view is beautiful from the upper turrets. To the south in summer the whole of the Sentran Plain is golden with corn. And to the north you can see forever. Are you listening to me?”

“Yes. Golden views. You can see forever,” he said softly.

“Are you sure you want to hear this?”

“Yes. Tell me about the walls again.”

“What about them?”

“How thick are they?”

“They are also up to sixty feet high, with jutting towers every fifty paces. Any army attacking the Dros would suffer fearful losses.”

“What about the gates?” he asked. “A wall is only as strong as the gate it shields.”

“The Earl of Bronze thought of that. Each gate is set behind an iron portcullis and built of layered bronze, iron, and oak. Beyond the gates are tunnels which narrow at the center before opening out onto the level between walls. You could hold the tunnels against an enormous number of men. The whole of the Dros was beautifully designed; it’s only the town which spoils it.”

“In what way?” he said.

“Originally Egel designed the gap between the walls to be a killing ground with no cover. It was uphill to the next wall, which would slow down the enemy. With enough bowmen you could have a massacre. It was good psychologically, too: By the time they came to take the next wall—if they ever did—they’d know there was more killing ground to come.”

“So how did the town spoil it?”

“It just grew. Now we have buildings all the way to Wall Six. The killing ground’s gone. Quite the opposite, in fact—now there’s cover all the way.”

He rolled over and kissed her brow.

“What was that for?” she asked.

“Does it have to be for something?”

“There’s a reason for everything,” she said.

He kissed her again. “That was for the Earl of Bronze,” he said. “Or the coming of spring. Or a vanished snowflake.”

“You don’t make any sense,” she told him.

“Why did you let me make love to you?” he asked.

“What sort of a question is that?”

“Why?”

“None of your damned business!” she said.

He laughed and kissed her again. “Yes, my lady. Quite right. None of my business.”

“You’re mocking me,” she said, struggling to rise.

“Nonsense,” he said, holding her down. “You’re beautiful.”

“I’m not. I never have been. You are mocking me.”

“I will never mock you. And you are beautiful. And the more I look at you, the more beautiful you are.”

“You’re a fool. Let me up.”

He kissed her again, easing his body close to hers. The kiss lingered, and she returned it.

“Tell me about the Dros again,” he said at last.

“I don’t want to talk about it now. You’re teasing me, Rek; I won’t have it. I don’t want to think about it tonight, not anymore. Do you believe in fate?”

“I do now. Almost.”

“I’m serious. Yesterday I didn’t mind about going home and facing the Nadir. I believed in the Drenai cause, and I was willing to die for it. I wasn’t scared yesterday.”

“And today?” he asked.

“Today, if you asked me, I wouldn’t go home.” She was lying, but she did not know why. A surge of fear welled in her as Rek closed his eyes and leaned back.

“Yes, you would,” he said. “You have to.”

“What about you?”

“It doesn’t make sense,” he said.

“What doesn’t?”

“I don’t believe in what I’m feeling. I never have. I am almost thirty years old, and I know the world.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I’m talking about fate. Destiny. An old man in tattered blue robes without any eyes. I’m talking about love.”

“Love?”

He opened his eyes, reached out, and stroked her face.

“I can’t tell you what it meant to me when you stood beside me this morning. It was the highest point in my life. Nothing else mattered. I could see the sky—it was more blue than I’ve ever seen it. Everything was in sharp focus. I was more aware of living than I have ever been. Does that make any sense?”

“No,” she said gently. “Not really. Do you truly think I’m beautiful?”

“You are the most beautiful woman who ever wore armour,” he said, smiling.

“That’s no answer. Why am I beautiful?”

“Because I love you,” he said, surprised at the ease with which he could say it.

“Does that mean you’re coming with me to Dros Delnoch?”

“Tell me about those lovely high walls again,” he said.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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5

The monastery grounds were split into training areas, some of stone, some of grass, others of sand or treacherous slime-covered slate. The abbey itself stood at the centre of the grounds, a converted keep of grey stone and crenelated battlements. Four walls and a moat surrounded the abbey, the walls a later addition of soft, golden sandstone. By the western wall, sheltered by glass and blooming out of season, were flowers of thirty different shades. All were roses.

The albino Serbitar knelt before his tree, his mind at one with the plant. He had struggled for thirteen years with the rose and understood it. There was empathy. There was harmony.

There was fragrance that pulsed for Serbitar alone. Greenflies upon the rose shrivelled and died as Serbitar gazed upon them, and the soft silky beauty of the blooms filled his senses like an opiate.

It was a white rose.

Serbitar sat back, eyes closed, mentally following the surge of new life within the tree. He wore full armour of silver mail shirt, sword, and scabbard, leather leggings worked with silver rings; by his side was a new silver helm bearing the figure “1” in Elder runes. His white hair was braided. His eyes were green, the colour of the rose leaves. His slender face, translucent skin over high cheekbones, had the mystic beauty of the consumptive.

He made his farewells, gently easing the gossamer panic of the plant. It had known him since its first leaf had opened.

And now he was to die.

A smiling face grew in his mind, and Serbitar sense-recognized Arbedark. We await you, pulsed the inner message.

I am coming, he answered.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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Within the great hall a table had been set, a jug of water and a barley cake before each of thirty places. Thirty men in full armour sat silently as Serbitar entered, taking his place at the head of the table and bowing to the abbot, Vintar, who now sat on his right.

In silence the company ate, each thinking his own thoughts, each analysing his emotions at this culmination of thirteen years of training.

Finally Serbitar spoke, fulfilling the ritual need of the order.

“Brothers, the search is upon us. We who have sought must obtain that which we seek. A messenger comes from Dros Delnoch to ask us to die. What does the heart of the Thirty feel on this matter?”

All eyes turned to black-bearded Arbedark. He relaxed his mind, allowing their emotions to wash over him, selecting thoughts, analysing them, forging them into one unifying concept agreed on by all.

Then he spoke, his voice deep and resonant.

“The heart of the matter is that the children of the Drenai face extinction. Ulric has massed the Nadir tribes under his banner. The first attack on the Drenai empire will be at Dros Delnoch, which Earl Delnar has orders to hold until the autumn. Abalayn needs time to raise and train an army.

“We approach a frozen moment in the destiny of the continent. The heart says we should seek our truths at Dros Delnoch.”

Serbitar turned to Menahem, a hawk-nosed young man, dark and swarthy, his hair braided in a single ponytail intertwined with silver thread. “And how do the eyes of the Thirty view this thing?”

“Should we go to the Dros, the city will fall,” said Menahem. “Should we refuse, the city will still fall. Our presence will merely delay the inevitable. Should the messenger be worthy to ask of us our lives, then we should go.”

Serbitar turned to the abbot. “Vintar, how says the soul of the Thirty?”

The older man ran a slender hand through his thinning grey hair, then stood and bowed to Serbitar. He seemed out of place in his armour of silver and bronze.

“We will be asked to kill men of another race,” he said, his voice gentle, sad even. “We will be asked to kill them not because they are evil, merely because their leaders wish to do what the Drenai themselves did six centuries ago.

“We stand between the sea and the mountains. The sea will crush us against the mountain, and thus we die. The mountain will hold us against the sea, allowing us to be crushed. Still we die.

“We are all weapon masters here. We seek the perfect death to counterpoint the perfect life. True, the Nadir aggression does not pose a new concept in history. But their action will cause untold horror to the Drenai people. We can say that to defend those people we are upholding the values of our order. That our defence will fail is no reason to avoid the battle. For it is the motive that is pure, not the outcome.

“Sadly, the soul says we must ride for Dros Delnoch.”

“So,” said Serbitar. “We are agreed. I, too, feel strongly on this matter. We came to this temple as outcasts from the world. Shunned and feared, we came together to create the ultimate contradiction. Our bodies would become living weapons, to polarize our minds to extremes of pacifism. Warrior-priests we are, as the Elders never were. There will be no joy in our hearts as we slay the enemy, for we love all life.

“As we die, our souls will leap forward, transcending the world’s chains. All petty jealousies, intrigues, and hatreds will be left behind us as we journey to the Source.

“The voice says we ride.”
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
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A three-quarter moon hung in the cloudless night sky, casting pale shadows from the trees around Rek’s campfire. A luckless rabbit, gutted and encased in clay, lay on the coals as Virae came back from the stream, wiping her naked upper body with one of Rek’s spare shirts.

“If only you knew how much that cost me!” he said as she sat on a rock by the fire, her body glowing gold as the flames danced.

“It never served a better purpose,” she said. “How much longer before that rabbit is ready?”

“Not long. You will catch your death of cold, sitting half-naked in this weather. My blood’s chilling to ice just watching you.”

“Strange!” she said. “Just this morning you were telling me how your blood ran hot just to look at me.”

“That was in a warm cabin with a bed handy. I’ve never been much for making love in the snow. Here, I’ve warmed a blanket.”

“When I was a child,” she said, taking the blanket and wrapping it around her shoulders, “we used to have to run three miles across the downs in the midwinter wearing only a tunic and sandals. That was bracing. And extremely cold.”

“If you’re so tough, how was it that you turned blue before we found the cabin?” he asked, a broad smile robbing the question of malice.

“The armour,” she said. “Too much steel, not enough wool beneath it. Mind you, if I had been riding in front, I wouldn’t have gotten so bored and fallen asleep. How long did you say that rabbit would be? I’m starving.”

“Soon. I think …”

“Have you ever cooked a rabbit this way before?” she asked.

“Not exactly. But it is the right way; I’ve seen it done. All the fur comes away as you crack the clay. It’s easy.”

Virae was not convinced. “I stalked that skinny beast for ages,” she said, recalling with pleasure the single arrow from forty paces that had downed it. “Not a bad bow, if a little on the light side. It’s an old cavalry bow, isn’t it? We have several at Delnoch. The modern ones are all silver steel now, better range and a stronger poundage. I’m starving.”

“Patience aids the appetite,” he told her.

“You’d better not ruin that rabbit. I don’t like killing the things at the best of times. But at least there’s a purpose if one can eat it.”

“I’m not sure how the rabbit would respond to that line of reasoning,” said Rek.

“Can they reason?” asked Virae.

“I don’t know. I didn’t mean it literally.”

“Then why say it? You are a strange man.”

“It was just an abstract thought. Do you never have an abstract thought? Do you never wonder how a flower knows when it’s time to grow? Or how the salmon find their way back to the spawning grounds?”

“No,” she said. “Is the rabbit cooked?”

“Well, what do you think about when you’re not planning how to kill people?”

“Eating,” she said. “What about that rabbit?”

Rek tipped the ball of clay from the coals with a stick, watching it sizzle on the snow.

“Well, what do you do now?” she asked. He ignored her and picked up a fist-sized rock, then cracked it hard against the clay, which split to disgorge a half-cooked, half-skinned rabbit.

“Looks good,” she said. “What now?”

He poked the steaming meat with a stick.

“Can you face eating that?” he said.

“Of course. Can I borrow your knife? Which bit do you want?”

“I’ve got some oatcake left in my pack. I think I’ll make do with that. Will you put some clothes on!”
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
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They were camped in a shallow depression under a rock face, not deep enough to be a cave but large enough to reflect heat from the fire and cut out the worst of the wind. Rek chewed his oatcake and watched the girl devour the rabbit. It was not an edifying sight. She hurled the remnants of the carcass into the trees. “Badgers should enjoy it,” she said. “That’s not a bad way to cook rabbit.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” he said.

“You’re not much of a woodsman, are you?” she told him.

“I manage.”

“You couldn’t even gut the thing. You looked green when the entrails popped out.”

Rek hurled the rest of his oatcake in the direction of the hapless rabbit. “The badgers will probably appreciate dessert,” he said. Virae giggled happily.

“You’re wonderful, Rek. You’re unlike any man I’ve ever met.”

“I don’t think I’m going to like what’s coming next,” he said. “Why don’t we just go to sleep.”

“No. Listen to me. I’m serious. All my life I have dreamed of finding the right man: tall, kind, strong, understanding. Loving. I never thought he existed. Most of the men I’ve known have been soldiers—gruff, straight as spears, and as romantic as a bull in heat. And I’ve met poets, soft of speech and gentle. When I was with soldiers, I longed for poets, and when with poets, I longed for soldiers. I had begun to believe the man I wanted could not exist. Do you understand me?”

“All your life you’ve been looking for a man who couldn’t cook rabbits? Of course I understand you.”

“Do you really?” she asked softly.

“Yes. But explain it to me anyway.”

“You’re what I’ve always wanted,” she said, blushing. “You’re my coward-hero—my love.”

“I knew there would be something I wouldn’t like,” he said.

As she placed some logs on the blaze, he held out his hand. “Sit beside me,” he said. “You’ll be warmer.”

“You can share my blanket,” she told him, moving around the fire and into his arms, resting her head on his shoulder. “You don’t mind if I call you my coward-hero?”

“You can call me what you like,” he said, “so long as you’re always there to call me.”

“Always?”

The wind tilted the flames, and he shivered. “Always isn’t such a long time for us, is it? We only have as much time as Dros Delnoch holds. Anyway, you might get tired of me and send me away.”

“Never!” she said.

“ ‘Never’ and ‘always.’ I had not thought about those words much until now. Why didn’t I meet you ten years ago? The words might have meant something then.”

“I doubt it. I would only have been nine years old.”

“I didn’t mean it literally. Poetically.”

“My father has written to Druss,” she said. “That letter and this mission are all that keep him alive.”

“Druss? But even if he’s alive, he will be ancient by now; it will be obscene. Skeln was fifteen years ago, and he was old then—they will have to carry him into the Dros.”

“Perhaps. But my father sets great store by the man. He was awed by him. He feels he’s invincible. Immortal. He once described him to me as the greatest warrior of the age. He said that Skeln Pass was Druss’s victory and that he and the others just made up the numbers. He used to tell that story to me when I was young. We would sit by a fire like this and toast bread on the flames. Then he’d tell me about Skeln. Marvellous days.” She lapsed into silence, staring into the coals.

“Tell me the story,” he said, drawing her closer to him, his right hand pushing back the hair that had fallen across her face.

“You must know it. Everyone knows about Skeln.”

“True. But I’ve never heard the story from someone who was there. I’ve only seen the plays and listened to the saga poets.”

“Tell me what you heard and I will fill in the detail.”

“All right. There were a few hundred Drenai warriors holding Skeln Pass while the main Drenai army massed elsewhere. It was the Ventrian king, Gorben, they were worried about. They knew he was on the march but not where he would strike. He struck at Skeln. They were out-numbered fifty to one, and they held on until reinforcements arrived. That’s all.”

“Not quite,” said Virae. “Gorben had an inner army of ten thousand men called the Immortals. They had never been beaten, but Druss beat them.”

“Oh, come,” said Rek. “One man cannot beat an army. That’s saga-poet stuff.”

“No, listen to me. My father said that on the last day, when the Immortals were finally sent in, the Drenai line had begun to fold. My father has been a warrior all his life. He understands battles and the shift and flow between courage and panic. The Drenai were ready to crack. But then, just as the line was beginning to give, Druss bellowed a battle cry and advanced, cutting and slashing with his axe. The Ventrians fell back before him. And then suddenly those nearest to him turned to run. The panic spread like brushfire, and the entire Ventrian line crumbled. Druss had turned the tide. My father says he was like a giant that day. Inhuman. Like a god of war.”

“That was then,” said Rek. “I can’t see a toothless old man being of much use. No man can resist age.”

“I agree. But can you see what a boost to morale it will be just to have Druss there? Men will flock to the banner. To fight a battle alongside Druss the Legend—there’s an immortality in it.”

“Have you ever met the old man?” asked Rek.

“No. My father would never tell me, but there was something between them. Druss would never come to Dros Delnoch. It was something to do with my mother, I think.”

“She didn’t like him?”

“No. Something to do with a friend of Druss’s. Sieben, I think he was called.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was killed at Skeln. He was Druss’s oldest friend. That’s all I know about it.” Rek knew she was lying but let it rest. It was all ancient history, anyway.

Like Druss the Legend …
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
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The old man crumpled the letter and let it fall.

It was not age that depressed Druss. He enjoyed the wisdom of his sixty years, the knowledge accrued, and the respect it earned. But the physical ravages of time were another thing altogether. His shoulders were still mighty above a barrel chest, but the muscles had taken on a stretched look—wiry lines that crisscrossed his upper back. His waist, too, had thickened perceptibly over the last winter. And almost overnight, he realized, his black beard streaked with grey had become a grey beard streaked with black. But the piercing eyes that gazed at their reflection in the silver mirror had not dimmed. Their stare had dismayed armies; caused heroic opponents to take a backward step, blushing and shamed; caught the imagination of a people who had needed heroes.

He was Druss the Legend. Invincible Druss, Captain of the Axe. The legends of his life were told to children everywhere, and most of them were legends, Druss reflected. Druss the hero, immortal, godlike.

His past victories could have ensured him a palace of riches, concubines by the score. Fifteen years before Abalayn himself had showered him with jewels following his exploits at the Skeln Pass.

By the following morning, however, Druss had gone back to the Skoda mountains, high into the lonely country bordering the clouds. Among the pine and the snow leopards the grizzled old warrior had returned to his lair to taste again of solitude. His wife of thirty years lay buried there. He had a mind to die there, though there would be no one to bury him, he knew.

During the past fifteen years Druss had not been inactive. He had wandered various lands, leading battle companies for minor princelings. Last winter he had retired to his high mountain retreat, there to think and die. He had long known he would die in his sixtieth year, even before the seer’s prediction all those decades ago. He had been able to picture himself at sixty—but never beyond. Whenever he tried to consider the prospect of being sixty-one, he would experience only darkness.

His gnarled hands curled around a wooden goblet and raised it to his grey-bearded lips. The wine was strong, brewed himself five years before; it had aged well—better than he. But it was gone, and he remained … for a little while.

The heat within his sparse furnished cabin was growing oppressive as the new spring sun warmed the wooden roof. Slowly he removed the sheepskin jacket he had worn all winter and the undervest of horsehair. His massive body, crisscrossed with scars, told of his age. He studied the scars, remembering clearly the men whose blades had caused them: men who would never grow old as he had, men who had died in their prime beneath his singing axe. His blue eyes flicked to the wall by the small wooden door. There it hung, Snaga, which in the old tongue meant “the Sender.” Slim haft of black steel, interwoven with eldritch runes in silver thread, and a double-edged blade so shaped that it sang as it slew.

Even now he could hear its sweet song. One last time, brother of my soul, it called to him. One last bloody day before the sun sets. His mind returned to Delnar’s letter. It was written to the memory and not the man.

Druss raised himself from the wooden chair, cursing as his joints creaked. “The sun has set,” whispered the old warrior, addressing the axe. “Now only death waits, and he’s a patient bastard.” He walked from the cabin, gazing out over the distant mountains. His massive frame and grey-black hair mirrored in miniature the mountains he surveyed. Proud, strong, ageless, and snow-topped, they defied the spring sun as it strove to deny them their winter peaks of virgin snow.

Druss soaked in their savage splendour, sucking in the cool breeze and tasting life as if for the last time.

“Where are you, death?” he called. “Where do you hide on this fine day?” The echoes boomed around the valleys … DEATH, DEATH, Death, Death … DAY, DAY, Day, Day …

“I am Druss! And I defy you!”

A shadow fell across Druss’s eyes, the sun died in the heavens, and the mountains receded into mist. Pain clamped Druss’s mighty chest, soul deep, and he almost fell.

“Proud mortal!” hissed a sibilant voice through the veils of agony. “I never sought you. You have hunted me through these long, lonely years. Stay on this mountain and I guarantee you two score more years. Your muscles will atrophy; your brain will sink into dotage. You will bloat, old man, and I will only come when you beg it.

“Or will the huntsman have one more hunt?

“Seek me if you will, old warrior. I stand on the walls of Dros Delnoch.”


The pain lifted from the old man’s heart. He staggered once, drew soothing mountain air into his burning lungs, and gazed about him. Birds still sang in the pine, no clouds obscured the sun, and the mountains stood, tall and proud, as they always had.

Druss returned to the cabin and went to a chest of oak, padlocked at the onset of winter. The key lay deep in the valley below. He placed his giant hands about the lock and began to exert pressure. Muscles writhed on his arms, veins bulged on his neck and shoulders, and the metal groaned, changed shape, and—split! Druss threw the padlock aside and opened the chest. Within lay a jerkin of black leather, the shoulders covered in a skin of shining steel, and a black leather skull cap relieved only by a silver ax flanked by silver skulls. Long black leather gauntlets came into view, silver-skinned to the knuckles. Swiftly he dressed, coming finally to the long leather boots, a present from Abalayn himself so many years before.

Lastly he reached for Snaga, which seemed to leap from the wall to his waiting hand.

“One last time, brother,” he told it. “Before the sun sets.”
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
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6

With Vintar standing beside him, Serbitar watched from a high balcony as the two riders approached the monastery, cantering their horses toward the northern gate. Grass showed in patches on the snow-covered fields as a warm spring wind eased in from the west.

“Not a time for lovers,” said Serbitar aloud.

“It is always a time for lovers, my son. In war most of all,” said Vintar. “Have you probed the man’s mind?”

“Yes. He is a strange one. A cynic by experience, a romantic by inclination, and now a hero by necessity.”

“How will Menahem test the messenger?” asked Vintar.

“With fear,” answered the albino.
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
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Rek was feeling well. The air he breathed was crisp and clean, and a warm westerly breeze promised an end to the harshest winter in years. The woman he loved was beside him, and the sky was blue and clear.

“What a great day to be alive!” he said.

“What’s so special about today?” asked Virae.

“It’s beautiful. Can’t you taste it? The sky, the breeze, the melting snow?”

“Someone is coming to meet us. He looks like a warrior,” she said.

The rider approached them and dismounted. His face was covered by a black and silver helm crowned with a horse-hair plume. Rek and Virae dismounted and approached him.

“Good morning,” said Rek. The man ignored him; his dark eyes, seen through the slits in the helm, focused on Virae.

“You are the messenger?” he asked her.

“I am. I wish to see Abbot Vintar.”

“First you must pass me,” he said, stepping back and drawing a longsword of silver steel.

“Wait a moment,” said Rek. “What is this? One does not normally have to fight one’s way into a monastery.” Once again the man ignored him, and Virae drew her rapier. “Stop it!” ordered Rek. “This is insane.”

“Stay out of this, Rek,” said Virae. “I will slice this silver beetle into tiny pieces.”

“No, you won’t,” he said, gripping her arm. “That rapier is no good against an armoured man. In any case, the whole thing is senseless. You are not here to fight anybody. You simply have a message to deliver, that’s all. There must be a mistake here somewhere. Wait a moment.”

Rek walked toward the warrior, his mind racing, his eyes checking for weak points in the armoured defences. The man wore a moulded breastplate over a mail shirt of silver steel. Protecting his neck was a silver torque. His legs were covered to the thigh in leather trews, cased with silver rings, and upon his shins were leather greaves. Only the man’s knees, hands, and chin were open to attack.

“Will you tell me what is happening?” Rek asked him. “I think you may have the wrong messenger. We are here to see the abbot.”

“Are you ready, woman?” asked Menahem.

“Yes,” said Virae, her rapier cutting a figure eight in the morning air as she loosened her wrist.

Rek’s blade flashed into his hand. “Defend yourself,” he cried.

“No, Rek, he’s mine,” shouted Virae. “I don’t need you to fight for me. Step aside!”

“You can have him next,” said Rek. He turned his attention back to Menahem. “Come on, then. Let’s see if you fight as prettily as you look.”
 

Marcus Antonius

Per Ardua Ad Astra
-
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Menahem turned his dark eyes on the tall figure before him. Instantly Rek’s stomach turned over: this was death! Cold, final worm-in-the-eye-sockets death. There was no hope in this contest. Panic welled in Rek’s breast, and his limbs began to tremble. He was a child again, locked in a darkened room, knowing the demons were hiding in the black shadows. Fear in the shape of bile rose in his throat as nausea shook him. He wanted to run … he needed to run.

Instead Rek screamed and launched an attack, his blade whistling toward the black and silver helm. Startled, Menahem hastily parried and a second blow almost got through. The warrior stepped backward, desperately trying to regain the initiative, but Rek’s furious assault had caught him off balance. Menahem parried and moved, trying to circle.

Virae watched in stunned silence as Rek’s blistering assault continued. The two men’s swords glittered in the morning sunlight, a dazzling web of white light, a stunning display of skill. Virae felt a surge of pride. She wanted to cheer Rek on but resisted the urge, knowing the slightest distraction could sway the contest.
 
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