Malice

MaliceTitle: Malice
Series: The Faithful And The Fallen #1
Published by: Pan MacMillan
Release Date: 04/07/2013
Genre:
Pages: 640
ISBN13: 978-0330545754

Called a 'Hell of a debut' by bestselling author Conn Iggulden, Malice by John Gwynne is the first in The Faithful and the Fallen series.

Young Corban watches enviously as boys become warriors, learning the art of war. He yearns to wield his sword and spear to protect his king’s realm. But that day will come all too soon. Only when he loses those he loves will he learn the true price of courage.

The Banished Lands has a violent past where armies of men and giants clashed in battle, the earth running dark with their heartsblood. Although the giant-clans were broken in ages past, their ruined fortresses still scar the land. But now giants stir anew, the very stones weep blood and there are sightings of giant wyrms. Those who can still read the signs see a threat far greater than the ancient wars. Sorrow will darken the world, as angels and demons make it their battlefield. Then there will be a war to end all wars.

High King Aquilus summons his fellow kings to council, seeking an alliance in this time of need. Prophesy indicates darkness and light will demand two champions, the Black Sun and the Bright Star. They would be wise to seek out both, for if the Black Sun gains ascendancy, mankind’s hopes and dreams will fall to dust.

 

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CHAPTER ONE

CORBAN

The Year 1140 of the Age of Exiles, Birth Moon

Corban watched the spider spinning its web in the grass between his feet, legs working tirelessly as it wove its thread between a small rock and a clump of grass. Dewdrops suddenly sparkled. Corban looked up and blinked as sunlight spilt across the meadow.

The morning had been a colourless grey when his attention first wandered. His mother was deep in conversation with a friend, and so he’d judged it safe for a while to crouch down and study the spider at his feet. He considered it far more interesting than the couple preparing to say their vows in front of him, even if one of them was blood kin to Queen Alona, wife of King Brenin. I’ll stand when I hear old Heb start the handbinding, or when Mam sees me, he thought.

‘Hello, Ban,’ a voice said, as something solid collided with his shoulder. Crouched and balancing on the balls of his feet as he was, he could do little other than fall on his side in the wet grass.

‘Corban, what are you doing down there?’ his mam cried, reaching down and hoisting him to his feet. He glimpsed a grinning face behind her as he was roughly brushed down.

How long, I asked myself this morning,’ his mam muttered as she vigorously swatted at him. ‘How long before he gets his new cloak dirty? Well, here’s my answer: before sun-up.’

‘It’s past sun-up, Mam,’ Corban corrected, pointing at the sun on the horizon.

‘None of your cheek,’ she replied, swiping harder at his cloak. ‘Nearly fourteen summers old and you still can’t stop yourself rolling in the mud. Now, pay attention, the ceremony is about to start.’

‘Gwenith,’ her friend said, leaning over and whispering in his mam’s ear. She released Corban and looked over her shoulder.

‘Thanks a lot, Dath,’ Corban muttered to the grinning face shuffling closer to him.

‘Don’t mention it,’ said Dath, his smile vanishing when Corban punched his arm.

His mam was still looking over her shoulder, up at Dun Carreg. The ancient fortress sat high above the bay, perched on its hulking outcrop of rock. He could hear the dull roar of the sea as waves crashed against sheer cliffs, curtains of sea-spray leaping up the crag’s pitted surface. A column of riders wound their way down the twisting road from the fortress’ gates and cantered into the meadow. Their horses’ hooves drummed on the turf, rumbling like distant thunder.

At the head of the column rode Brenin, Lord of Dun Carreg and King of all Ardan, his royal torc and chainmail coat glowing red in the first rays of morning. On one side of him rode Alona, his wife, on the other Edana, their daughter. Close behind them cantered Brenin’s grey-cloaked shieldmen.

The column of riders skirted the crowd, hooves spraying clods of turf as they pulled to a halt. Gar, stablemaster of Dun Carreg, along with a dozen stablehands, took their mounts towards huge paddocks in the meadow. Corban saw his sister Cywen amongst them, dark hair blowing in the breeze. She was smiling as if it was her nameday, and he smiled too as he watched her.

Brenin and his queen walked to the front of the crowd, followed closely by Edana. Their shieldmen’s spear-tips glinted like flame in the rising sun.

Heb the loremaster raised his arms.

‘Fionn ap Torin, Marrock ben Rhagor, why do you come here on this first day of the Birth Moon. Before your kin, before sea and land, before your king?’

Marrock looked at the silent crowd. Corban caught a glimpse of the scars that raked one side of the young man’s face, testament of his fight to the death with a wolven from the Darkwood, the forest that marked the northern border of Ardan. He smiled at the woman beside him, his scarred skin wrinkling, and raised his voice.

‘To declare for all what has long been in our hearts. To pledge and bind ourselves, one to the other.’

‘Then make your pledge,’ Heb cried.

The couple joined hands, turned to face the crowd and sang the traditional vows in loud clear voices.

When they were finished, Heb clasped their hands in his. He pulled out a piece of embroidered cloth from his robe, then wrapped and tied it around the couple’s joined hands.

‘So be it,’ he cried, ‘and may Elyon look kindly on you both.’

Strange, thought Corban, that we still pray to the All-Father, when he has abandoned us.

‘Why do we pray to Elyon?’ he asked his mam.

‘Because the loremasters tell us he will return, one day. Those that stay faithful will be rewarded. And the Ben-Elim may be listening.’ She lowered her voice. ‘Better safe than sorry,’ she added with a wink.

The crowd broke out in cheers as the couple raised their bound hands in the air.

‘Let’s see if you’re both still smiling tonight,’ said Heb, laughter rippling amongst the crowd.

Queen Alona strode forward and embraced the couple, King Brenin just behind, giving Marrock such a slap on the back that he nearly sent his nephew over the bay’s edge.

Dath nudged Corban in the ribs. ‘Let’s go,’ he whispered. They edged into the crowd, Gwenith calling them just before they disappeared.

‘Where are you two off to?’

‘Just going to have a look round, Mam,’ Corban replied. Traders had gathered from far and wide for the spring festival, along with many of Brenin’s barons come to witness Marrock’s handbinding. The meadow was dotted with scores of tents, cattle-pens and roped-off areas for various contests and games, and people: hundreds, it must be, more than Corban had ever seen gathered in one place before. Corban and Dath’s excitement had been growing daily, to the point where time had seemed to crawl by, and now finally the day was here.

‘All right,’ Gwenith said. ‘You both be careful.’ She reached into her shawl and pressed something into Corban’s hand: a silver piece.

‘Go and have a good time,’ she said, cupping his cheek in her hand. ‘Be back before sunset. I’ll be here with your da, if he’s still standing.’

‘’Course he will be, Mam,’ Corban said. His da, Thannon, would be competing in the pugil-ring today. He had been fist champion for as long as Corban could remember.

Corban leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. ‘Thank you, Mam,’ he grinned, then turned and bolted into the crowd, Dath close behind him.

‘Look after your new cloak,’ she called out, smiling.

The two boys soon stopped running and walked along the meadow’s edge that skirted the beach and the bay, seals sunning themselves on the shore. Gulls circled and called above them, lured by the smell of food wafting from the fires and tents in the meadow.

‘A silver coin,’ said Dath. ‘Let me see it.’

Corban opened his palm, the coin damp now with sweat where he had been clutching it so tightly.

‘Your mam’s soft on you, eh, Ban?’

‘I know,’ replied Corban, feeling awkward. He knew Dath only had a couple of coppers, and it had taken him moons to earn that, working for his father on their fishing boat. ‘Here,’ he said, delving into a leather pouch hanging at his belt, ‘have these.’ He held out three coppers that he had earned from his da, sweating in his forge.

‘No thanks,’ Dath said with a frown. ‘You’re my friend, not my master.’

‘I didn’t mean it like that, Dath. I just thought – I’ve got plenty now, and friends share, don’t they?’

The frown hovered a moment, then passed. ‘I know, Ban.’ Dath looked away, out to the boats bobbing on the swell of the bay. ‘Just wish my mam was still here to go soft on me.’

Corban grimaced, not knowing what to say. The silence grew. ‘Maybe your da’s got more coin for you, Dath,’ he said, to break the silence as much as anything.

‘No chance of that,’ Dath snorted. ‘I was surprised to see this coin – most of it fills his cups these days. Come on, let’s go and find something to spend it on.’

The sun had risen high above the horizon now, bathing the meadow in warmth, banishing the last remnants of the dawn cold as the boys made their way amongst the crowd and traders’ tents.

‘I didn’t think there were this many people in all the village and Dun Carreg put together,’ said Dath, grunting as someone jostled past him.

‘People have come much further than the village and fortress, Dath,’ murmured Corban. They strolled on for a while, just enjoying the sun and the atmosphere. Soon they found themselves near the centre of the meadow, where men were beginning to gather around an area of roped-off grass. The sword-crossing ring.

‘Shall we stay, get a good spot?’ Corban said.

‘Nah, they won’t be starting for an age. Besides, everyone knows Tull is going to win.’

‘Think so?’

‘’Course,’ Dath sniffed. ‘He’s not the King’s first-sword for nothing. I’ve heard he cut a man in two with one blow.’

‘I’ve heard that too,’ said Corban. ‘But he’s not as young as he was. Some say he’s slowing down.’

Dath shrugged. ‘Maybe. We can come back later and see how long it takes him to crack someone’s head, but let’s wait till the competition’s warmed up a bit, eh?’

‘All right,’ said Corban, then cuffed his friend across the back of the head and ran, Dath shouting as he gave chase. Corban dodged this way and that around people. He looked over his shoulder to check where Dath was, then suddenly tripped and sprawled forwards, landing on a large skin that had been spread on the floor. It was covered with torcs, bone combs, arm-bands, brooches, all manner of items. Corban heard a low rumbling growl as he scrambled back to his feet, Dath skidding to a halt behind him.

Corban looked around at the scattered merchandise and began gathering up all that he could see, but in his urgency he fumbled and dropped most of it again.

‘Whoa, boy, less haste, more speed.’

Corban looked up and saw a tall wiry man staring down at him. He had long dark hair tied tight at his neck. Behind the man were all sorts of goods spread about an open-fronted tent: hides, swords, daggers, horns, jugs, tankards, horse harness, all hanging from the framework of the tent or laid out neatly on tables and skins.

‘You have nothing to worry about from me, boy, there’s no harm done,’ the trader said as he gathered up his merchandise. ‘Talar, however, is a different matter.’ He gestured to an enormous, grey-streaked hound that had risen to its feet behind Corban. It growled. ‘He doesn’t take kindly to being trodden on or tripped over; he may well want some recompense.’

‘Recompense?’

‘Aye. Blood, flesh, bone. Maybe your arm, something like that.’

Corban swallowed and the trader laughed, bending over, one hand braced on his knee. Dath sniggered behind him.

‘I am Ventos,’ the trader offered when he recovered, ‘and this is my faithful, though sometimes grumpy friend, Talar.’ Ventos clicked his fingers and the large hound padded over to his side, nuzzling the trader’s palm.

‘Never fear, he’s already eaten this morning, so you are both quite safe.’

‘I’m Dath,’ blurted the fisherman’s son, ‘and this is Ban – I mean, Corban. I’ve never seen a hound so big,’ he continued breathlessly, ‘not even your da’s, eh, Ban?’

Corban nodded, eyes still fixed on the mountain of fur at the trader’s side. He was used to hounds, had grown up with them, but this beast before him was considerably bigger. As he looked at it the hound growled again, a low rumble deep in its belly.

‘Don’t look so worried, boy.’

‘I don’t think he likes me,’ Corban said. ‘He doesn’t sound happy.’

‘If you heard him when he’s not happy you’d know the difference. I’ve heard it enough on my travels between here and Helveth.’

‘Isn’t Helveth where Gar’s from, Ban?’ asked Dath.

‘Aye,’ Corban muttered.

‘Who’s Gar?’ the trader asked.

‘Friend of my mam and da,’ Corban said.

‘He’s a long way from home, too, then,’ Ventos said. ‘Whereabouts in Helveth is he from?’

Corban shrugged. ‘Don’t know.’

‘A man should always know where he’s from,’ the trader said, ‘we all need our roots.’

‘Uhh,’ grunted Corban. He usually asked a lot of questions – too many, so his mam told him – but he didn’t like being on the receiving end so much.

A shadow fell across Corban, a firm hand gripping his shoulder.

‘Hello, Ban,’ said Gar, the stablemaster.

‘We were just talking about you,’ Dath said. ‘About where you’re from.’

‘What?’ said the stablemaster, frowning.

‘This man is from Helveth,’ Corban said, gesturing at Ventos.

Gar blinked.

‘I’m Ventos,’ said the trader. ‘Where in Helveth?’

Gar looked at the merchandise hung about the tent. ‘I’m looking for harness and a saddle. Fifteen-span mare, wide back.’ He ignored the trader’s question.

‘Fifteen spans? Aye, I’m sure I’ve got something for you back here,’ replied Ventos. ‘I have some harness I traded with the Sirak. There’s none finer.’

‘I’d like to see that.’ Gar followed Ventos into the tent, limping slightly as always.

With that the boys began browsing through Ventos’ tent. In no time Corban had an armful of things. He picked out a wide iron-studded collar for his da’s hound, Buddai, a brooch of pewter with a galloping horse embossed on it for his sister, a dress-pin of silver with a red enamel inset for his mother and two sturdy practice swords for Dath and himself. Dath had picked out two clay tankards, waves of blue coral decorating them.

Corban raised an eyebrow.

‘Might as well get something my da’ll actually use.’

‘Why two?’ asked Corban.

‘If you cannot vanquish a foe,’ he said sagely, ‘then ally yourself to him.’ He winked.

‘No tankard for Bethan, then?’ said Corban.

‘My sister does not approve of drinking,’ replied Dath.

Just then Gar emerged from the inner tent with a bundle of leather slung over his back, iron buckles clinking as he walked. The stablemaster grunted at Corban and walked into the crowd.

‘Looks like you’ve picked up a fine collection for yourselves,’ the trader said to them.

‘Why are these wooden swords so heavy?’ asked Dath.

‘Because they are practice swords. They have been hollowed out and filled with lead, good for building up the strength of your sword arm, get you used to the weight and balance of a real blade, and they don’t kill you when you lose or slip.’

‘How much for all of these,’ Corban asked.

Ventos whistled. ‘Two and a half silvers.’

‘Would you take this if we leave the two swords?’ Corban showed the trader his silver piece and three coppers.

‘And these?’ said Dath, quickly adding his two coppers.

‘Deal.’

Corban gave him their coin, put the items into a leather bag that Dath had been keeping a slab of dry cheese and a skin of water in.

‘Maybe I’ll see you lads tonight, at the feast.’

‘We’ll be there,’ said Corban. As they reached the crowd beyond the tent Ventos called out to them and threw the practice swords. Instinctively Corban caught one, hearing Dath yelp in pain. Ventos raised a finger to his lips and winked. Corban grinned in return. A practice sword, a proper one, not fashioned out of a stick from his back garden. Just a step away from a real sword. He almost shivered at the excitement of that thought.

They wandered aimlessly for a while, Corban marvelling at the sheer numbers of the crowd, at the entertainments clamouring for his attention: tale-tellers, puppet-masters, fire-breathers, sword-jugglers, many, many more. He squeezed through a growing crowd, Dath in his wake, and watched as a piglet was released squealing from its cage, a score or more of men chasing it, falling over each other as the piglet dodged this way and that. They laughed as a tall gangly warrior from the fortress finally managed to throw himself onto the animal and raise it squeaking over his head. The crowd roared and laughed as he was awarded a skin of mead for his efforts.

Moving on again, Corban led them back to the roped-off ring where the sword-crossing was to take place. There was quite a crowd gathered now, all watching Tull, first-sword of the King.

The boys climbed a boulder at the back of the crowd to see better, made short work of Dath’s slab of cheese and watched as Tull, stripped to the waist, his upper body thick and corded as an old oak, effortlessly swatted his assailant to the ground with a wooden sword. Tull laughed, arms spread wide as his opponent jumped to his feet and ran at him again. Their practice swords clacked as Tull’s attacker rained rapid blows on the King’s champion, causing him to step backwards.

‘See,’ said Corban, elbowing his friend and spitting crumbs of cheese, ‘he’s in trouble now.’ But, as they watched, Tull quickly sidestepped, belying his size, and struck his off-balance opponent across the back of the knees, sending him sprawling on his face in the churned ground. Tull put a foot on the man’s back and punched the air. The crowd clapped and cheered as the fallen warrior writhed in the mud, pinned by Tull’s heavy boot.

After a few moments the old warrior stepped away, offered the fallen man his hand, only to have it slapped away as the warrior tried to rise on his own and slipped in the mud.

Tull shrugged and smiled, walking towards the rope boundary. The beaten warrior fixed his eyes on Tull’s back and suddenly ran at the old warrior. Something must have warned Tull, for he turned and blocked an overhead blow that would have cracked his skull. He set his legs and dipped his head as the attacking warrior’s momentum carried him forwards. There was a crunch as his face collided with Tull’s head, blood spurting from the man’s nose. Tull’s knee crashed into the man’s stomach and he collapsed to the ground.

Tull stood over him a moment, nostrils flaring, then he pushed his hand through long, grey-streaked hair, wiping the other man’s blood from his forehead. The crowd erupted in cheers.

‘He’s new here,’ said Corban, pointing at the warrior lying senseless in the mud. ‘I saw him arrive only a few nights ago.’

‘Not off to a good start, is he?’ chuckled Dath.

‘He’s lucky the swords were made of wood, there’s others have challenged Tull that haven’t got back up.’

‘Doesn’t look like he’s getting up any time soon,’ pointed out Dath, waving his hand at the warrior lying in the mud.

‘But he will.’

Dath glanced at Corban and suddenly lunged at him, knocking him off the rock they were sitting on. He snatched up his new practice sword and stood over Corban, imitating the scene they had just witnessed. Corban rolled away and climbed to his feet, edging slowly around Dath until he reached his own wooden sword.

‘So, you wish to challenge the mighty Tull,’ said Dath, pointing his sword at his friend. Corban laughed and ran at him, swinging a wild blow. For a while they hammered back and forth, taunting each other between frenzied bursts of energy.

Passers-by smiled at the two boys.

After a particularly furious flurry of blows Dath ended up on his back, Corban’s sword hovering over his chest.

‘Do – you – yield?’ asked Corban between ragged breaths.

‘Never,’ cried Dath and kicked at Corban’s ankles, knocking him onto his back.

They both lay there, gazing at the clear blue sky above, too weak with their exertions and laughter to rise, when suddenly, startling them, a voice spoke.

‘Well, what have we here, two hogs rutting in the mud?’