Warlord, page 1
by Michelle West
Rosdan Press, 2011
SMASHWORDS EDITION: 978-1-927094-09-9
Copyright 2011 by Michelle Sagara
All rights reserved
Cover design by Anneli West.
Four Corners Communication
Warlord copyright 1998 by Michelle Sagara. First appeared in Battle Magic ed. Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Segriff.
Smashwords Edition License Notes
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Novels by Michelle West
The Sacred Hunt
The Sun Sword
The Broken Crown
The Uncrowned King
The Shining Court
The Sea of Sorrows
The Riven Shield
The Sun Sword
The House War
The Hidden City
City of Night
*Forthcoming in 2012 and 2013
Table of Contents
Other Stories by the Author
This is the first of the short pieces I’ve written that were set in the universe of the Sun Sword novels, and it features the domicis, Avandar. When I was asked to write a story for the anthology Battle Magic, I was hesitant, because although my books often contain battle scenes that take up hundreds of pages, I’m not actually fond of battle; they’re always a struggle to write. I like the events and the interactions that lead up to a conflict; I like the ramifications and aftershocks that occur as a result of one. But it’s like the moment of a gunshot; the shot itself isn’t the point; it’s what lead up to it and what happens after it that makes it compelling. Unless you happen to be the person being shot at, which of course is different.
But Avandar and his past, alluded to in the books, but never fully explored, have always interested me, and I agreed to write the story with the understanding that the mage was trained for war, but that the war itself would be more internal.
This is not all of his story; given the fact that he’s lived for longer than any of my mortal characters combined, that would be impossible in this space of words. But it does give insight into his character that might not be as clear in the novels.
I think, in the interim between the conception of this story (and it was written before Uncrowned King) things have shifted a bit, because they do between conception and execution for me; they grow and they develop dimensions I didn’t see when I first conceived of them.
HE CAME down from the mountain on the day the sun rose between its peaks in a curtain of orange and crimson, a gesture of near-forgotten glory. He had some wealth with him, and in some quantity, although he had taken care to make certain it was easily carried and easily hidden. He dressed for the weather, although the cold never bothered him, and carried a pack—emptied—that observers might believe had once been filled with supplies. He wore no obvious weapons, although he might have chosen to arm himself with a sword had he taken the southward pass; to the Dominion, a weapon defined the status of a man and he was not above vanity, although the sword was no true weapon. He had his birthright, and with it, he had destroyed whole armies. Those fires were not banked.
It was time, again; time, but still too early.
He had woken the previous day, and the day before it, from the nightmare that had haunted his life for so many years now it had become, in some fashion, his closest companion—the only companion he was allowed. At dusk, having thrown off sleep by a monumental act of either will or cowardice, he would be wreathed in old ghosts, and the blood on his hands would glisten darkly as he listened to old cries.
The ghosts had driven him for years, and as always, he had retired to the finery of his mountain confines to wait out their long decline. Half-mad when he arrived—always that—clothing rent and torn, blood across his chest, his hands and the length of his face not covered by untended beard, he would plunge through the mystical wards that separated his mountain vastness from the cold, the wind, the snow, and the presence of any other man.
There, surrounded by the finery of lifetimes, awash in the reflection of magelight against crystal, gold and silk, he would recover from his wounds.
But the deepest of the wounds seldom left completely.
As a younger man, his rage had fueled the healing; as a younger man, it had been easier to foist the import—and impact—of his actions upon his enemies and allies. If, he would reason, they had not attacked or if they had done as they were ordered… But he had been younger, then. The pain was easier to twist into rage, and rage was by far the more comfortable. Unfortunately, with age came a certain understanding, a certain self-knowledge, and a distinct self-loathing. A man so enraged was an easy pawn, and he intensely disliked being the servant of any other man.
But he was tired.
And the dreaming was different, this morn. Different because it had followed the course of three nights, unchanging; different in that the ghosts of the dead were escorted, were called back, by the visage of a woman in robes of blue.
He disliked gods on principle; they were, of a type, rulers, and made of men—men and their own flesh and blood—groveling servants. And they, in their time, had destroyed more than his life by their curse and their geas, by the edicts they had no right to pronounce upon him. It was no surprise that he recognized the hand of a god in the figure of the woman.
“It is time,” she said, her voice low and deep, yet still loud enough to be heard clearly over the terrified accusations of his dead, all his dead. “The battle that you’ve trained for all your life is about to start. They will find you; they have always found you in the past.”
He could not make out her face in the folds of cloth that framed it. Shadows, there, darkness of her own.
“And am I a pawn,” he said stiffly, “to be ordered into a life I’ve chosen to leave?”
“You have never,” she replied, “chosen to leave it. Never.” And so saying, she pulled a glowing orb from the confines of her sleeves. “Or perhaps you do not remember your beginnings.”
He lifted his hands. Pulled back. He knew what the orb was, although it had been a long, long time since he had seen one.
“You are weary,” she said, as the light faded, as the implied attack ceased. “And I understand weariness. Will you not, at last face the truth?”
“I have tried,” he said bitterly.
“I have lost everything that I have ever cared for. I have surrendered all, again and again. And I am still as you see me. I am still as I was.”
“Perhaps,” she replied softly, “it is time to seek the truth of that fact. Go North, and East. Seek service.”
“Have I not served in my time?”
Her eyes were violet ice; he saw them, saw the hint of pale, icy cheek, the hint of moving lips in shadowed face. “You have never served any master but yourself. After all these years, do you not understand that truth?”
The first night, he might ignore the words, although he heard the truth in them clearly. And the second night. But the third night, he accepted the sign of Fate. He stirred himself, and l
* * *
“The life of those who serve is not an easy life, and if lived correctly—and it will be, by those of you who finish your apprenticeship—it is not a life of glory.” The man who spoke paused a moment. Frowned. “I realize,” he added stiffly, “that you are in your first year here. Manners, however, are not the preserve of the well-taught; they are a requirement within the guild halls.”
It was a threat, of course, and it worked; the unruly, unacceptable, thoroughly disgraceful lot of boys that the guildmaster had seen fit to send him fell silent as they contemplated life outside of the future employment the guild offered.
And that was the problem.
They saw it was a job, and while it was that, it was also more, this gifting of service, this dedication of life. It was a vocation.
Most of these boys wouldn’t make it past their first year. If they somehow managed that, it was unlikely they’d persevere beyond the first year of their apprenticeship. They were like young weeds, and it was his task to strengthen the garden; he’d grown used to the job over the years.
The door swung open, exposing his students to the faint noise of the hall. Just what they needed. Another distraction.
Ellerson frowned at the familiar young man. When the boy didn’t cringe, the old man assumed it was important. He put on his this-had-better-be-good expression—although when he taught it was never that far away from his real one—and nodded at the interruption.
“I expect,” he said, as he walked across the room, “that you will be ready for the history test when we resume.”
* * *
Although the classrooms in the guild hall were modest, the building itself hosted rooms that only the finest of the Ten’s mansions could boast; it was to these that clients came with their requests, seeking the service of a domicis. Most had temporary needs, and often of an exceedingly dull and transitory nature; they wished to impress a certain group of the right people for a certain season.
Ellerson was a practical man; he understood that the guild prestige derived partly from the money that men and women such as that were prepared to spend for the sake of appearances, and he treated them with courtesy and deference. But it was not in his nature to accept their offers.
Truthfully, it was not in his nature to accept any; he was of an age where he felt his service was suspect, and he had taken a well-deserved retirement after the lingering death of his last master.
All of which should have been beside the point, and none of which usually was. When he was summoned at all, he was offered a task by the guildmaster, and one refused the guildmaster only rarely. Always at some risk.
He found the door ajar. Waited a moment to see just how formal Akalia was being. But no attendant peered out; no one waited to greet him in the stuffy uniforms that younger journeymen were forced to endure when Akalia was entertaining clients of money and power.
Ellerson grabbed the door’s authoritative handle and pulled it open.
“Ah, Ellerson. We were waiting for you. Please, come in.” Akalia frowned slightly, pursing her well-weathered lips. Ellerson noted the expression, but he was frowning as well.
There was a man sitting in the armchair in front of Akalia’s ancient desk. The desk itself was spotless—hardly its usual state—and there was a decanter and three cut crystal glasses which were reserved only for the finest of the patriciate.
Or at least those who considered themselves among the finest. Ellerson had met many, many such men and women in his life. He had also offended quite a few.
“Before you start,” Akalia said quietly, raising a palm in a gesture that was part command, part surrender, “let me say that I realize that you are a) retired and b) far too curmudgeonly to be asked to serve a member of the minor or major nobility even if you weren’t.”
The man in the chair raised a dark brow in an otherwise perfect face. It was too perfect by half for Ellerson’s liking; too haughty and too well-formed, unblemished by the heat of the sun or a day’s honest labor. It was also completed by the finest clothing he had seen in perhaps five years—give or take a year for the Princess Royale—and a modest collection of rings which, thrown together, were the only quirky thing about the man. They were not fine, the rings, or rather, not all of them were; they were a mishmash of styles and materials that clashed rather than complemented.
“Ellerson,” Akalia said, looking dowdy and unkempt by the unavoidable visual comparison to her visitor.
Ellerson stiffened; he couldn’t help it. Instinct shored up his shoulders, his chin, the line of his nose. “How may I be of assistance?”
“You might start,” she said, just slightly less stiffly, “by being less formal. This is not an interview, Ellerson. This man is not a prospective master.” And if he were, I’d never invite you to meet him without several days of coaxing and preparation first. The unspoken sentence was several degrees louder than the spoken one, and followed by a brief, perfect frown. She was good at that; she, too, taught unruly boys.
“Ah.” Ellerson relaxed. Slightly. “Your pardon. Akalia knows I’m retired, but occasionally seems to forget. I am Ellerson of the guild. Whom do I have the privilege of addressing?”
The man rose. “Avandar,” he replied. “Avandar Gallais.” He did not bow; nor did he extend a hand. But there was a warming of expression that might not be missed if one were paying careful attention.
Ellerson waited; the time passed. At last, Akalia cleared her throat. “Avandar Gallais,” she said quietly, speaking to Ellerson, although the older man hadn’t taken his eyes off the visitor, “has come to…join the guild.”
“Impossible,” Ellerson said flatly.
“Impossible?” the visitor said, raising a dark brow. “I have failed at very little that I have attempted in my life, in spite of opposition.”
“You see what I mean, Akalia?”
“And I have offered, of course, to pay for the privilege of being taught the…guild’s vocation. Service, I believe.”
“Your guildmaster seemed to think that my money was good, and my intent not obviously damaging.”
“Akalia, may I speak with you in private?”
”No,” Avandar Gallais replied, “I do not believe it would be suitable. I am…unused to having my future discussed when I am not present to mount my own defense.”
Ellerson said, coldly, “I-was-not-speaking-to-you. Should you, for reasons that completely escape me—and should any sane teaching member of this guild—find your petition acceptable, you will have to endure far worse than merely being discussed when you are not, as you put it, able to mount your own defense. Do I make myself clear?”
The air literally crackled.
Akalia’s face dropped into her hands.
Ellerson’s face froze into rigid, unpleasant lines. “If that is supposed to impress me,” he said, “it fails. You are certainly not the only mage domicis—or would-be one—to cross this threshold. Certainly the most arrogant, and the least suitable, but not the only, and not the first. Now if you are at all serious, I have two words of advice for you: Get out.”
To his surprise—and judging from her apprehensive expression, Akalia’s—Avandar Gallais did just that. Slowly, to be sure, and with the icy stillness that spoke of barely-checked anger. But he went.
* * *
As the guest absented himself, Akalia relaxed. “Why what?”
“Why do you want to accept him? There is no possible way that service is any part of that man’s calling. Forcing others to service—and quite probably unpleasantly—yes. But serving? Taking a master and making that life the only life? Akalia
“No,” she said softly. “I don’t.” She rose, then, and went to the windows nested between ancient, very fine shelves.
“He reeks of power. It clings to him in every possible way. Had he come to request the services of a guild member, there are three I would immediately suggest. I would also inform the three, should they choose to apply, that I would consider their chances of surviving their service to be vanishingly small.”
Akalia nodded absently.
“Akalia, I find your lack of response distressing.”
“I concur,” she said, again quietly.
“We have enough trouble finding acceptable students among the desperate rabble that come seeking some skill for employment. Would you put a man of this nature in this classroom?”
She turned to face him, eyes hard. “I would pull you from your classroom Ellerson, and I would put him entirely in your care.”
“If he’s going to learn in the guild, he’ll follow the guild procedures. Is that clear? The students have to be house broken; I don’t care how old they think they are. Akalia—” Ellerson stopped. “It’s not just the money.”
“And it’s not his status. You don’t recognize his name either.”
“Then what? If you’re going to saddle me with this task—a task, mind, that I think will be impossible to successfully complete—I will at least be offered the courtesy of truth.”
“I had a dream, Ellerson,” she whispered. “I had a dream, three times.”
He lifted a hand to his face. “Gods,” he muttered. “You’re going to make the next four years of my life miserable for the sake of superstition.”