Courage Of The Conquered (Book 3)

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COURAGE
OF THE CONQUERED

BOOK
THREE OF THE RAITHLINDRATH SERIES

 

Robert
Ryan

 

 

Copyright © 2014 Robert J. Ryan

All Rights Reserved. The right of
Robert J. Ryan to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted.

 

All of the characters in this book
are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is
coincidental.

 

Cover Design by www.ebooklaunch.com

 

Trotting Fox Press

1.
Old Enemies

 

 

Emotions washed over Lanrik. They
tightened his chest, constricted his throat and brought a film of tears to his
eyes. Yet they were of a kind so peculiar, so seldom felt, that he could not
name them.

He remained perfectly still, but his gaze
leaped like a living thing over the miles between the hill on which he stood
and the city below.

Esgallien. His old home. The place that
would always be home no matter where he roamed, even if he lived as long as
Aranloth.

Not that he would. He was not sure that he
wanted to, either. For what he felt now must only be a shadow, a token, of what
such a life entailed.  

The city gleamed like a raindrop caught by
the midsummer sun and turned by its bright rays into a brilliant diamond. But
the city, just like the raindrop, was ephemeral. Nothing lasted forever, and he
knew with sudden insight that the forces of chaos gnawed at the great just the
same as the small.

The splendor of the city held his gaze,
but he was not unaware of the flocks of crows that hopped and fluttered over
refuse, or of the sluggish layer of smoke, spewed from countless fireplaces,
that hovered cloudlike above the sprawl of buildings. It was just that his
heart was drawn to what was good. And there was much of that in an ancient city
founded by a hardworking and talented people.

Esgallien had not changed since he had
left. At least, not from this distance. Yet for all its grandeur, its many
bridges, its tall buildings, its green parks and massive squares, it seemed
smaller to him. And even more precious.

His old self, a Raithlin in service to the
king, had enjoyed living there. Now, he was exiled. The city seemed peaceful,
and yet every tale coming from it told a story of woe and turmoil.
It
seemed strong, even invincible, but it had never been at greater risk from its
enemies, which were many.

He sighed. The city’s towers pierced the
air, their lofty roofs glinted in the sun, but there were shadow-filled alleys
below. The palace gleamed, noble and fair, and yet he knew what greed and
corruption dwelt inside. The Red Cloth of Victory fluttered from its tallest
flagpole. It represented the heart of Esgallien society: courage,
determination, loyalty. It was a reminder of Conhain’s sacrifice on founding
the city. But those who ruled beneath it dishonored his name.

His old self would not have seen these
things. But he did. The city had not changed – 
he
had.

A breeze tugged at the banner, and it
attracted his attention. It was not the original cloth, of course. It was
merely a flag, dyed a bright shade of crimson, not the one soaked with
Conhain’s blood. No one knew where that was. It must have turned to dust
centuries ago. So much of the past was gone, but the spirit of the city
founders was still alive. Ebona could not break it in a matter of months, or
even years. Of that, he was certain.

Nevertheless, Conhain’s famous quote ran
through his mind.
Nothing lasts forever. Not men, or chiefs … nor even cities.

Lanrik had seen enough, lived long enough
now, to feel the truth of that statement. And to fear that it might come to
pass during his lifetime.

Aranloth’s horse swished its tail and
stamped a hoof. The sudden movement drew Lanrik out of his pensive mood.

“They’re down there somewhere,” he said.
“The Raithlin and the Lindrath. Alive or dead. And who knows what they’ve
endured since Ebona entered the city.”

Aranloth closed his eyes. When he opened them,
he looked away from Esgallien.

“She’ll have persecuted them. There was
more than one report that she was trying to hunt them all down. I believed it.
But your old friends are resourceful. She’ll not have had everything her own
way.”

“Lots of rumors reached Lòrenta,” Lanrik
said. “Most of them contradicted each other. I can’t help wonder if even one of
the Raithlin is left though, still less the Lindrath. I’ve lost count of the
supposed instances of imprisonment and escape. But torture and death are more
likely.”

Erlissa placed an arm around his
shoulders. “We’ll find out what happened, Lan.”

He leaned in toward her. “If he’s alive,
we might even be able to help,” he said. “But one way or another, I intend to
discover the truth.”

He looked over at the Lòhren. “Are you
sure you can’t come with us?”

“I would if I could,” Aranloth answered.
“But my own task is as necessary as yours, albeit in a different way.” He
patted his robes where he kept a pouch filled with the seeds the Guardian had
given him. “I promised Carnona I’d plant these in the Graèglin Dennath. It was
our bargain when I needed her help, and I must keep to that promise, even if
that help is no longer needed.”

Lanrik wondered if that was all there was
to it. It seemed to him that the lòhren had other business. He always kept
secrets, even if he did so for a good purpose, and Lanrik was getting better at
telling when that was so.

“Then we’ll just have to get by without
you,” he said with resignation.

Aranloth held his gaze. “You’ll scrape
through, I think.” He glanced at Erlissa. “But the two of you must stick
together. Whatever you do, don’t get separated. You have no friends down there
except yourselves. I’ve been in places like this before. Fear, spite and malice
thrive. You cannot trust anybody, no matter how much you want to. And remember,
try not to interfere in anything. That’ll only draw attention to you. What we
need is reliable information about what’s happening. Only then can we decide
how to deal with Ebona.” He paused for a moment, seeking to draw some last bit
of advice from the well of his experience. “Stay out of harm’s way. Listen and
learn. Keep your mouths closed and your ears open – that’s the way to
get through this.”

Aranloth held out his hand, and Lanrik
shook it firmly. When he let go, Erlissa reached up to give the lòhren a hug.
Aranloth seemed taken aback by that. He looked for a moment like he wished to
stay, but then he nudged his horse forward and turned to the right. His path
was around the city, and then on toward Esgallien Ford.

“Remember,” he said over his shoulder.
“Tonight is a full moon. We’ll meet at the next one on the tor.”

Erlissa ignored his comment. “Be careful,”
she said.

Lanrik had no wish to part from the
lòhren, or to see him go into danger by himself. Still less did he want to go
to the tor again. Lathmai’s suffering gave him nightmares even now, and seeing
the place where she died would only freshen bad memories. On the other hand,
her grave should not remain untended, and the tor was the logical place to
meet. It was easily located, and it offered a clear view for many leagues. With
all the enemies they had, that was a necessary precaution.

Neither he nor Erlissa spoke while the
lòhren guided his mount between rocks and shrubs along a faint trail into the
wilderness. Lanrik was not sure about her, but he felt his stomach sink.
Aranloth had helped them through many dangerous times, and now he had to leave
when they faced a new one. They should be safe from the witch if they followed
his advice, but even carefully crafted plans faltered in the face of the
unexpected.  

When the lòhren disappeared into a thicket
of scrubby trees, they looked once more at the city.

“Time for us to go as well,” Erlissa said.

By way of answer Lanrik started down the
road. They walked in a comfortable silence. And if the lòhren was not with
them, they had each other.

Lanrik fingered the silver ring that he
wore. Aranloth had given it to him, and Erlissa wore one just like it. It was a
ward against Ebona. It would offer no help if the witch attacked them, but it
would conceal them from her probing mind should she have cause to seek them
out. Not that she had any reason to suspect their entry into the city, but it
did not pay to underestimate her, or those in her service. She hated the two of
them. They had each thwarted and disdained her, and her reserves of forgiveness
were low, while her capacity for revenge was high. After all, she had held a
grudge against Aranloth for a thousand years.

He glanced over at Erlissa. For a moment
he studied her, and then he smiled.

She frowned. “What’s so amusing?”

“You look different … as a
blonde.”

She ran a hand through her hair. “I don’t
think it suits me. I only hope all the trouble that Aranloth took to dye it was
worthwhile.”

Lanrik grew serious. “I think it was,” he
said. “The Royal Guard are sure to have our descriptions, and Ebona will also
have informants throughout the city. If I’m having trouble recognizing you, I
don’t see how they could.”

She returned his appraising glance. “You
look different too, you know.”

He grew uncomfortable. “I look stupid with
black hair instead of brown.”

“No,” she said. “It suits you, but that’s
not what I meant.”

“What
did
you mean?”

“You look really odd without your Raithlin
clothes.”

He shrugged. “If I
look
odd, I
assure you, I feel even stranger.”

He had swapped his normal garb, clothes
that would have ensured his arrest on sight, for a plain pair of tan trousers
and a wine-red tunic so faded by wear as to be near colorless. But he had not
chosen the clothes without due thought. Not only would their drabness allow him
to appear unremarkable in a crowd, but if he had to hide, those colors would
blend well with bricks and tiles.

To further their disguises Lanrik carried
Erlissa’s walnut staff. He also wore a sword. Although it was a Raithlin blade,
etched with the trotting fox motif, he refused to leave it behind. It was an
act of defiance against Ebona and King Murhain. Futile, perhaps, but it made
him feel better. Anyway, he should not have any cause to draw it, so no one
would ever know. At least, he hoped so. It felt a suddenly foolish decision the
closer he came to the city though.

He carried the staff lightly as he walked.
It felt cool to his touch, and heavy, even for walnut. Not only did his
carrying it, instead of her, reduce the chance that someone would recognize her
as a lòhren, it served another important purpose. Part of his disguise was to
act as a bodyguard to her pretense as a healer. Bodyguards often carried staffs
and used their blades only as a last line of defense.

They walked easily but quickly down the
hill. Their horses were on their way back to Lòrenta with several of the new
Raithlin who had come this far, but no more, as a training exercise.

Ahead, at the base of the hill where a
creek ran between steep banks, was their first stop: Bridge Inn. The bridge
after which it was named spanned the banks.

While they made their way toward it,
Lanrik kept a close eye on the countryside. And though the road looked exactly
as it normally did: well made, turfed and slightly raised in the middle to
drain water, the countryside did not.

All about him he saw indications that
something was amiss. The farms were quiet, and there were no laborers in sight.
The villa doors were closed, when normally they were open. If they were not
open, at least some of the side doors were usually kept ajar for the ease of
workers that came and went with great frequency.

The fields seemed unnaturally still,
except for the few horses that he could see. There were no men hoeing weeds,
mending fences or spreading manure. Most of all, he noticed that many paddocks
that needed ploughing remained untilled and thick with weeds. That disturbed
him most of all, for this was a prosperous area, home to the many studs that
bred horses for the races in the Haranast. The problems he saw spoke of ongoing
neglect and little hope for the future.

Erlissa sensed it as well. She looked
about her carefully, her gaze lingering most on the closed villas. But they
said nothing to each other as they walked. They kept their eyes wide open and
alert, and glanced frequently toward the city beyond the inn that must lie
under the same dread or burden that sucked the life out of the land.

At length, they came to the bridge. It was
old, of pitted and weathered stone, built in the early days of the kingdom. For
all of that, it was solid and secure. It had survived many floods, and so too
had the inn beside it. That was Lanrik’s first choice of a place to gather
information, for nowhere was there more news to be had than where food filled
bellies and beer loosened tongues.

He remembered with fondness the many
occasions that he had drunk the beer of the inn. It was at times a haunt for
Raithlin. Especially in the early stages of training, for some of the most experienced
instructors lived in this quarter of the city. But his training days were well
in the past, and no one would likely recognize him now, even without a
disguise, except another Raithlin. And if he met one of them, he would be more
than happy.

He remembered the stories that he had
heard here, of how Rhodmai, who had once poured beer for weary travelers as a
barmaid, had become Queen of Esgallien and ruled in her own right after the
king’s death. She had lived to one hundred and one, and folklore alleged that
she attributed her longevity to a glass of beer every day. It was a popular
inn, and he hoped that in its crowded taproom he would hear much news without
even having to ask questions.

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