Chapter 1

Their bodies were strewn along the high road that bisected the ancient village of Vin. Some made it as far as the wooded valley to the north while others died in their homes. They lay where they fell, bodies untouched except by the ravenous fowl that celebrated their fate. Blood filled the crevices and low points of the cobbled road; a road once walked on by kings, by parents and by children.

A pitiless wind carried from the Sea of Roses blew strong, pushing against the low sloped foothills and onto the rocky ridges. The wind howled and whined, kicking up the scent of decay and entangling it with the sweet smell of lilac from the home gardens. It carried also, the feeling of despair evident on the faces of the columns of soldiers that walked by, an unintentional funeral procession of men and women so accustomed to death to nearly be immune to such sights.

Val Court steadied his horse, patting the side of its neck. Diverging from the path, he observed the situation from a ridge overlooking the village. At his side, Morrem followed suit.

"What's happened here, High Soldier?"

Val winced at his title. He had grown accustomed to the curt and unofficial talk of the men, preferring to remain one of the guys. His new volley, Morrem, was the son of a priest from Cord. Priests sending their sons to war, typical, Val thought. Priesthood in The Golden City was little more than a political position.

"Volley," Val returned the gesture by speaking officially. "Have three men scout the Hidden Road. Then lead a dozen into the village to look for survivors. Put a watch on the roofs of the barracks and the chapel."

Morrem nodded, pulling his horse towards a handful of passing soldiers then stopped. "Do you think there will be any?" He asked, a tone of uncertainty in his voice. "Any survivors, I mean."

The High Soldier spit onto the ground, then ran a dirty hand through his even dirtier hair. Morrem was disgusted at the rudeness of a superior, but said nothing as he awaited his response. Val shrugged, then made eye contact. "I wouldn't have left any."

Val was tall, even for a Trouen, his long limbs composed of well defined muscle. Shoulder-length auburn colored hair gave the faintest hint of gray in the proper lighting. This was all masked by the dirt now covering him. It had been a long trip from Il Brakhur and there was little time for self grooming. Some would see humor in a leader not of noble birth, but Val did not. He took his job seriously, unlike the captain. His fellow soldiers gossiped that he lost his sense of humor somewhere over Singer's Straight during the march south, but in truth he lost it long before then.

As Morrem vanished among the column of soldiers to assign duties, the High Soldier gazed at the hills from which they had come. On the third hill back, a gleam of reflected light met his eye.

The Captain, wearing full armor while well within the Empire's borders, the fool. Though looking at the state of Vin, untouched by violence for four centuries but now a total massacre, made him reconsider just how foolish the captain's tendencies were.

Captain Brodingan was given his title and appointed leader of the 1st Army known as the Nighthands during the siege of Il Brakhur. He finished top of his class at the Boller Academy of Military Training, located in the Sunlight District of The Golden City. His predecessor, Mallory III, another in a long line of inadequate leaders to the 4th army, was killed a week prior during a skirmish outside the walls of Il Brakhur. During the interim, Val held the army together and effectively made more progress on the siege than Mallory had in the previous two months of leadership. Brodingan arrived, accompanied by ten members of The Tide as bodyguards. Another month of textbook siege strategy and the city was captured.

With the threat from the Brakhur people squashed, the Nighthands were ordered to return to The Golden City. On Val's recommendation, they took the long route along the coast rather than pass through the mainland, where deserters would disappear into their home towns at the first opportunity.

After a few minutes, Captain Brodingan's noble-bred steed galloped up to where the High Soldier surveyed the murdered village. The Captain looked out of breath, obviously tired from carrying the extra weight of the unnecessary armor over such a long distance. He steadied his breathing and then calmed his beast by sidling next to Val's own horse.

"How could they have come this far north, Val? How were they not detected?" Val noticed he was more distraught than tired. "The Brakhur rebels… how could they have done this? Why would they do this? Don't they know when they're defeated?"

Val remained silent, seeing his scouts returning from the Hidden Road. The road's name was deceptive, of course. No longer was there the pretense of secret, but it kept its name because of its heritage. In the early days of the Empire, Lord Hilmes V forged a secret pass between Vin and The Golden City, which was controlled by the Kauth. Its secrecy and charting marked the formation of the Nighthands, to which Captain Brodingan, and to a lesser extent Val Court, now led.

In those days, the 4th was no more than a small company of spies and sorcerors with the purpose of infiltrating The Golden City and conducting espionage from within. Today, the Nighthands are a legacy, but under-utilized in battle. Though a major part of the Siege of Il Brakhur, they were the calculated muscle to precede the Smoke, 2nd Army of the Trouen Empire.

The war had been especially rough on the Nighthands. A fact made more infuriating to Val by its motivations. It was power and greed, nothing more. The discovery of a civilized economy far into the Misty Sea would be the catalyst. The Empire had long controlled the known world, whether officially or through political favors and agreements. When the Caber Islands made contact, the Brakhur were eager to create a friendly trade environment and shed their position as the Empire's puppet. In the end, this friendly trade proved too much for Emperor Ness to tolerate.

The war was all about trade routes and their control. Most of the north's merchants travel by road. The only exception was to reach the city of Il Brakhur, which lies in the south, across from Singer's Strait. The Brakhur settled on both sides of the straight to facilitate transports with the Empire easier. They did this with the permission of the Trouens, of course. The arrangement worked great until the Caber Islands entered the picture. The islands lie in the Misty Sea to the east. The Brakhur controlled both Olin Point and Rivi Point on the strait. The Empire had only Frozen Port in the far north-west, which was in no position to reach the new land. This meant that for the first time, the Empire was at a disadvantage in commerce. Through some heavy handed extortion, Emperor Ness convinced the Brakhur to hand over Olin Point on the north side of the strait.

This temporarily averted conflict, until merchants at Rivi Point began undercutting their rates, meaning less business was coming through Olin Point. Again, the Empire contacted the Brakhur. Only this time, the Brakhur denied Ness's request. Instead, they secretly arranged a mutual protection pact with the Caber Islands as well as Filomene and Havner in the north, two recently discovered city-states that hadn't been acquisitioned by the Empire, just yet. The Empire sent emissaries to appeal once more, and the Brakhur dumped their bodies into the sea.

The war raged for three years and the Nighthand was responsible for the brunt of the dirty work. They defended Olin Point, conquered Rivi Point and organized the siege of the city of Il Brakhur. Elsewhere, the Empire sent the 3rd army to capture Filomene and Havner. Once Olin and Rivi Points were under the Nighthand's control, they sent the 2nd out to the Caber Islands. From what Val had heard, the battles there were intense and sporadic with neither side having clear lines of defense. Instead, small bands of fighters held out in the wilderness and ambushed supply chains. Lone attackers hunted during the night, often stealthily infiltrating camps and killing soldiers while they slept. It was a year before the fighters there had finally succumbed and surrendered.

Meanwhile, the Nighthand had surrounded the city of Il Brakhur and machines of war were under construction. The entire siege of that single city lasted two years, while the entirety of the war lasted three.

The three scouts saluted the Captain, giving only a courteous nod towards the High Soldier. Standard protocol, of course. The Captain nodded to the one in the center. He was a short, stocky man with a grotesquely mutilated left ear. Despite all health care procedures, it leaked uncontrollably. After a time, the soldier had simply stopped noticing. And now, a permanent yellowed stain decorated the side of his neck and the shoulder of his off-white tunic.

"Captain," he began. "We've returned from the Hidden Road. Wagon tracks and numerous footprints lead out of the mountains and into Vin."

The Captain turned to Val, confused. "What's your thoughts on this?"

"I'd rather not make a conclusion until the team from inside Vin report their findings, sir."

The Captain nodded, and then began ceremoniously unfolding his map, ignoring the scouts. They each glanced back to Val, uncomfortably awaiting orders. Val nodded and dismissed them.

Captain Brodingan staring at the map of the battle plans of the nearly finished Caber Island War reminded Val of a turnip farmer studying the complex principles of a sorcerer's veshine. The Captain was a politician, first and foremost. Noble born, or rather bred, like his high prized horse. His family had traced their lineage to the 2nd century of the Empire. He had the finest training and schooling, knew military tactics and theory like no other, and had the practical experience of a ham sandwich.

The captain thoughtfully marked a line on the map indicating the progress of the Nighthand back over Singer's Straight and along the coastline. With a strike of his pen, he blotted out Vin and marked the date under it with casual finality. Historians would teach noble children about this date, examining the socio-political impacts on the Empire. The importance of a few hundred civilian deaths and the loss of the birthplace of the Empire would lie in anecdotes and symbolism.

Val wondered how much time they had until the fortune seekers stripped the village of everything not held down, and a few things that were.

From the high road, Morrem now approached at a fast pace. He saluted the Captain, who now focused on re-folding his map the proper way, taking care to follow the pre-existing seams. He did not noticing the arrival of the volley.

Val sighed. "What do you have to report?"

"There are forty soldiers dead at the pier. They were burned, their bodies only recognizable by the insignia on their armor and weapons. The seal of the Royal Guard."

The Captain suddenly turned, raising his eyes to the young man. "What? Forty of the Royal Guard?" He cocked an eyebrow. "That's impossible."

"Volley," the High Soldier spoke before an answer could be given to The Captain. He spoke, as if detached. "How many wagons are at the pier, and am I right to believe that they are all empty?"

Morrem looked stunned, but kept his jaw from dropping. He cleared his throat, then answered. "Eight wagons, and yes High Soldier. They're all empty."

"Captain, would you like my assessment at this time?" Val asked. The Captain nodded, folding his arms across his chest, amused. "We have a royal authorized transport traveling to Vin in secrecy. They came here so as to avoid the attention that a Royal Guard would cause passing through the mainland to Olin Point. Despite their secrecy, it appears they were ambushed. Based on the number of dead, the attacking force must have been large. At least two, perhaps up to four companies would be required, to lay waste to that many Royal Guard. That large of an outfit cannot cover their tracks entirely. We saw no tracks on the coastal road, and if the attackers had arrived early, taking the same route as the transport, the Royal Guard would have seen it and been more cautious. That means they came by sea. This being an old unused port, it's fitting. They killed not only the guard, but everyone in the village. The only reason for this would be to remove any witnesses. Their motive is tied to whatever was being transported. My guess is gold, or something equally as valuable."

"The Brakhur, then." The Captain concluded.

"No," Val corrected him. "The Brakhur are a conquered people. If they somehow managed to gather enough troops for two companies, it would be a miracle. Beyond that, they would have to get around our perimeter we have setup around the city of Il Brakhur, or the garrisons to the south. If they were capable of this, it would be a massive victory for their movement. They would want us to know who did it so they could wave it in our faces. Here, every last witness was killed. What we have is an enemy who doesn't want us to know who he is."

"An ally," the Captain concluded. Val nodded.

The Captain thought this over for some time. Val could see his mind turning with the possibilities, no longer thinking of the tragedy, but instead of how he could further his position himself and capitalize on this tragedy. He had been terribly disappointed to not receive the appointment as occupier and governor of the city of Il Brakhur after the siege. Discovering a traitor among the Empire's allies or better yet, a peer, would secure him any governorship he desired.

Deeply, Val wished it had been the Brakhur. He had a feeling that the alternative would be much worse for the Empire, as well as for the Nighthands.

Hours passed before the full army and all of its supply chain arrived in Vin. Men were assigned duties in the way of setting up a camp and the disposal of the corpses littering the village.

Val and Rayma, specialist of siege weaponry, were the only officers to volunteer in the burial. Throughout the process, he would catch a glimpse of her in hard focused digging and wondered what it was that compelled her. For Val, he chose the detail so he could spend some time thinking. He wasn't in the right state of mind for the song and dance of setting up camp, listening to the bitching and moaning of his peers.

The rest of the detail were composed of mostly unskilled soldiers and camp followers. It was sunset before the last body was covered. No memorable words were spoken and no songs were sung. These men and women were not poets or priests, they were soldiers. With straining hands and aching backs, they did the work that nobody else would. In the deep hours of the night, they would only think of vengeance and survival. Songs and honor would come later, when the dignified could give commentary on the futility of war and the honor of The Trouen Empire. Trik hold the Emperor, and all that rubbish.

Val and Rayma walked together back from the burial mound to the valley north of the chapel, where tents had already been erected. The depression was sheltered by tall pines whose needles blanketed the ground. Here and there, piles had been pushed aside to make a safe clearing for campfires. The needles themselves made decent kindling, but much of the firewood had already been picked by the villagers during the particularly cold fall weather. Even in the Hamilt Peninsula to the south, where the Nighthands had concluded its long siege of the City of Il Brakhur, the weather had more of a chill than normal for this time of year. Now they traveled north, even as the temperature grew colder.

The air had already begun to fill with the smell of smoke as they approached the camp. Rayma put her hand in his, surprising him.

"You're cold," he noted.

"Warm me, then."

His eyes narrowed on her. She had never indicated an attraction to him before. She was older than him, but by only a few years. Tall, with light brown hair and a northern complexion, she was built large for her sex. Her specialty was siege works, more specifically the mechanical contraptions that could launch a boulder two hundred feet and hit a target the size of a small horse.

The Nighthands had ten specialists, each with their own unit they led. They reported to The High Soldier, who had an apprentice referred to as a Volley. Volleys were destined to be High Soldier if they lived long enough. The High Soldier reported to The Captain, who reported directly to The Emperor's Thyiss. The Thyiss advised the Emperor on all aspects regarding war and the military and was easily the 2nd most powerful man in the world.

Val reached his tent, still holding Rayma's hand. In the setting sun, the shadows created by the canopy of trees hid their closeness. They stepped into the tent, darkness surrounding them. Silently, they undressed without passion. Their lips joined, their noses smelling the death on each other's skin. In that darkness, he took her. Afterwards, he held her gently for some time and kissed the bare skin of her shoulder. Without word, she dressed and exited the tent before him.

Val sat there in the darkness, listening to the chirping of crickets and the drunken laughter of nearby warriors. Absently, he redressed himself and left the tent, finding Sherit and Rienne throwing stones a few dozen yards away.

"Good, the man of myth has finally arrived. Rienne's been cheating all night, depriving me of my hard earned pay. I do say, that if this continues I should need a raise. These are hazardous conditions, you know, putting up with his sneaky hands. I half expect to find a dagger in my belly if I ever actually catch him in the act."

Rienne shrugged, annoyed by Sherit's constant rambling but not enough to stop taking his money. "You know, if you spent more time practicing your throw and less time gabbing, you may actually beat me one of these days."

Sherit looked appalled. "You hurt me deep, Rienne. I do say, that if there is anybody more deserving of my money, it is myself. And if I should continue to delight my fellow man with the triumphant roar of my presence, a little more respect is asked… no, deserved. After all, would our fine High Soldier have deemed it appropriate to join us for beer and stones had he not heard my inviting tone from afar?"

"Sherit," Val cracked a rare smile. "It's likely Emperor Ness himself will be sending a convoy of nymphs, having heard your speech as far as The Golden City."

Sherit bowed and Rienne went as if to gag. "Don't encourage him, Val. He's unbearable as it is."

"On the contrary," Sherit interjected. "It is more likely that the High Soldier simply has a finer taste for the subtleties of the human tongue. After all, was it not him who partook of a taste of human tongue this very night, of our very own beloved Rayma no less. Rayma, who even now is so overcome by gratitude that she has forgone the company of our high cadre of officers, most notably myself, so that she may now meditate on this fantastic journey of love she has entered."

Val gave Sherit a hard look and Rienne smiled ear to ear.

"You didn't! Oh my, you did!" Rienne erupted with laughter, rolled back off the rock he had been sitting on. He started to attract attention from nearby soldiers.

"I don't know how you know, but the knowledge doesn't leave this campfire." Val looked stern.

"Ah," Sherit raised a hand. "Then perhaps we should invite more company to share in this merriment and make this campfire a bonfire, the place of romantic tales involving our knight in shining… well, in armor in any case, and the fair maiden whose heart was wooed by the ruins of the former village of Vin, birthplace of The Empire. Or perhaps, at the fierce look of my esteemed High Soldier, I can now read his subtlety like a scholar and cease this dialogue at once."

"That would be smart," Val sneered.

Rienne stifled his giggling while climbing back to a sitting position. "Don't look now," he said. "But here comes our fair maiden."

Rayma approached the campfire at a quickened pace. Soon, the three noticed the seriousness in her face and they rose.

"High Soldier," she saluted abruptly. "They've found a survivor, a young boy. He's not in good shape, but he's alive. Rienne, we need you."