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Authors: Christian Warren Freed

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Empire of Bones

BOOK: Empire of Bones
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EMPIRE OF BONES

BOOK IV OF THE NORTHERN CRUSADE

By: Christian Warren Freed

 

 

 

Edited, Produced, and Published by Writer’s Edge Publishing 2014

All rights reserved.

© 2014 by Christian Warren Freed.

 

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher.

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

 

 

Other Books by Christian Warren Freed

The Northern Crusade Series

Hammers in the Wind

Tides of Blood and Steel

A Whisper After Midnight

Empire of Bones

The Madness of Gods and Kings

Even Gods Must Fall

 

A History of Malweir Series

Armies of the Silver Mage

The Dragon Hunters

Beyond the Edge of Dawn

 

 

 

 

 

 

ONE

A Cold Winter Night

Winter was cold this year. Famine and misery had swept across Delranan with unabated fury. Hundreds lie dead, frozen in the snow and ice. Every corner of the northern kingdom was consumed with the strange combination of violence and misery. A rebellion against the twisted forces of Lord Harnin One Eye struggled to stay ahead of their enemy even after a devastating plague ravaged much of the major population centers. Hope faded. So many had paid the price to be free but the kingdom was no closer to losing its chains.

Delranan was once the strongest of the northern kingdoms of Malweir. King Badron’s family established strong economic ties with neighboring kingdoms and had the best equipped and well-disciplined army: the Wolfsreik. What should have been a time of glory devolved into madness. Badron longed for the wealth of neighboring Rogscroft and only needed the proper motivation to attack. That came when Aurec, son of the king of Rogscroft, invaded Delranan and kidnapped his lover, Princess Maleela. Badron attacked with all of his might, leaving his kingdom open to the depredations of the Dae’shan manipulated Harnin.

Few realized the Dae’shan were the masterminds behind the war now engulfing multiple kingdoms. Immortal, their sole purpose was to prepare Malweir for the return of the dark gods. They started in Delranan, knowing the final entry point still intact lay in the forgotten ruins of Arlevon Gale. They twisted the minds of Harnin and Badron, turning them against each other. Worse, their leader, Amar Kit’han, had brought in an army of Goblins from the Deadlands. It was only a matter of time before the entire north lay in ruins.

* * * * *

Ingrid crouched in the knee-deep snow under the walls of Chadra Keep. Her breath came out in thin plumes. Her cheeks were bright red, nearly frozen from prolonged exposure. Soot smeared her face. Her blond hair was pent up under a heavy cloak. Her lithe body was hidden beneath thick, dark clothes. The short sword in her gloved hands felt cumbersome, almost alien. Blue eyes as sharp as ice glanced up towards the battlements where iron-helmed guards patrolled the frozen winter night.

Sunrise was still hours away, giving her plenty of time to accomplish her purpose. Twenty of her best were lined up behind. They comprised the heart of the new insurrection. Ingrid stole the position, to be sure, through ferocity and her desire for revenge for her husband’s death. Using the plague for cover, Ingrid used her influence to gather fighters loyal to her ideations and deposed the former ruling council.

All of her desires and actions led her to this point. Only days ago Lord Harnin, in a fit of madness, had Lord Argis executed atop the very walls of Chadra Keep. He personally flung the severed head down into the massed crowds of spectators, laughing insanely to the winds. While Argis was certainly no paragon of virtue, it was he that allowed Aurec entrance into the Keep to rescue his love. He maintained the pretense of being faithful to the decaying monarchy while secretly joining the rebellion. Captured during a massive purge, Argis was dragged away in chains and held captive until his death.

Ingrid saw his death as the catalyst for igniting the flames of rebellion across the entire kingdom. She intended on making him a martyr for the cause. His death, hopefully, would spur the sluggish population into action and they’d be able to finally overthrow Harnin One Eye and King Badron. Argis’s murder inspired Ingrid. The one thing
her
rebellion lacked was passion. She aimed to change that this very night. All she needed was his body.

Dreams of a free Delranan were too distant for Ingrid to focus on. She still had a, thus far, mediocre rebellion to orchestrate. Many friends already lay deep in the dirt, something she blamed on improper leadership. Argis was strong, but he’d been too concerned with trying to keep from being discovered to be effective. Still, his death was precisely what the rebels needed.

“Quickly, take your team and get the body. The guards won’t be back for seven minutes,” she ordered quietly to Orlek, her second in command.

The dark-haired Orlek nodded and gestured for his team to follow. Ingrid waited as the scene played out much too slowly. She was nervous beyond belief. A life of violence was almost alien to her. That didn’t prevent her from stepping up and taking control of the defunct rebellion. The people of Delranan needed strong leadership if they were going to find their way out of the growing darkness and she was the only likely candidate. Heart pounding in her chest, Ingrid watched her fighters sneak to the base of the walls.

She knew this was the trickiest part. One of her middle agents managed to bribe Harnin’s guards so they’d turn a blind eye to the recovery. Ingrid was no fool. She recognized that those guards could have easily taken the money and still intended on turning the rebels in. No one could be trusted in these troubled times. Of course, she fully intended on exploiting the recovery for her own aims, more than likely signing a death warrant for the greedy guards. She didn’t think that was her problem. The only thing that mattered was recovering Argis’s body and letting the kingdom know that Harnin wasn’t invincible. He could be broken.

Orlek’s team disappeared behind a series of small mounds comprised mostly of trash and offal. Chadra Keep had fallen far since the night Badron’s son was assassinated. Ingrid paused in thought. If only she could find Princess Maleela, the entire kingdom would rally to her cause. Justice would return and life would improve. Only no one had seen the princess for months. Ingrid bore a worried suspicion that she was already dead, despite Badron’s cause to go to war with neighboring Rogscroft.

Nervous minutes went by without any sign of Orlek. Any number of things could have gone wrong, death being the least. Ingrid wanted to follow, to take part in the task herself if only to relieve the rising tension of uncertainty building in her chest. She was suspicious, though not always. Once, before her husband was taken, she’d been overly trusting and of a good nature. The war changed her in ways she had yet to understand. Survival dictated many of her actions. Survival and the overwhelming need for revenge.

Finally, after what felt like hours, Orlek and his rebels came scrambling back. Ingrid flashed a wry grin upon seeing the body wrapped in old blankets being carried on their shoulders. The sudden stomp of boots striking cold stone broke the silence. She froze. Torchlight reflected off the top of the walls. The guards had returned too soon. Orlek was still twenty meters away and without the benefit of cover. He’d be spotted. She envisioned mounted guards pouring from the gates to surround them all. The rebellion would die and she’d be blamed.

Cursing her decision not to bring archers along, Ingrid tried to crouch deeper into the shadows. Orlek would be discovered at any moment and she was powerless to prevent it. She briefly considered fleeing while the window of opportunity was open but thought better of it. Any cowardice would travel faster than the recovery of Lord Argis. Doomed with either choice, Ingrid hoped for the best.

The guards were speaking loud, suggesting they weren’t onto her scheme. Hope flickered. Ingrid was no fool. Her enemy was sly, cunning enough to burn the entire city of Chadra to the ground if necessary. Their select indiscretion atop the Keep’s walls might only be a ruse. Desperately, she clutched the hilt of her tiny dagger. It was the only comfort she could think of until the moment passed.

Orlek’s team halted abruptly and huddled to the ground. Ingrid cursed under her breath. A stiff wind sliced across the open field, slipping beneath her collar and down her back. Chills racked her body. Her teeth chattered noisily, so loud she was sure to be caught. She closed her eyes and waited for the worst. Gruff words were exchanged between the guards, followed closely by the torrential sound of water striking the ground.

Ingrid’s eyes flew open in time to see buckets of waste splash against the rocks and snow-covered ground. The torchlight weakened and faded altogether. Then tension had passed. Ingrid could breathe easy again. It only took Orlek a moment to get his team up and moving again. They dashed the final few meters and kept running back to the cover of the houses. Ingrid and the remaining ten rebels picked up and followed.

 

 

 

“It was foolish to put yourself at risk like that, Ingrid,” Orlek scolded. The slightly older Man stood with his arms folded across his chest. His perpetual scowl seemed harsher in the low candlelight.

Anger flashed in Ingrid’s eyes. “We must all risk much if there’s to be any hope for the future, Orlek. What would you have me do?”

“Be a leader. Use your head, not your heart.”

She balled her fists. “And be like those fools I replaced? Inaella and Fenning were fools. They sat hidden in the dark and expected everyone to die for them. Look where they led us. We were at the brink of ruin.”

“They did what they thought was right,” Orlek replied. “True leaders can’t be expected to get their hands dirty without proper cause. Inaella was a good woman. I knew her before all of this. She led the rebellion in the best way she knew how.”

“She let us grow stagnant to the point we became ineffective,” Ingrid countered angrily. “How many of your friends were killed?”

Orlek stayed silent. The truth was too awful to admit aloud. He’d joined in the beginning, when everyone was bright and optimistic. They didn’t think about death back then. He smirked. Back then. It was only a handful of months ago when the rebellion started. He’d been there when Argis and Joefke led the raid on the arms locker at the docks. He’d lost friends at every turn and still kept fighting. His prowess on the battlefield led him to numerous promotions but it wasn’t until Ingrid usurped the rebellion from the former council that he attained his higher position. Now it was his job to keep her grounded and the war going in a logical direction. She didn’t make it easy.

He slowly licked his lips before answering, “Ingrid, we have all lost ones dear to us. It’s not about their deaths; it’s about how we measure their lives. Each person in the rebellion died so that Delranan can be free again. Our enemy has over five thousand regular army troops and access to near unlimited weapons stockpiles. We fight and scrape for every used arrow or nicked sword. The process must be slow and orderly until the time comes when we can finally spread across the kingdom. That time is not yet.”

“You advocate sitting with our hands tied while the enemy gets stronger? Inaella tried that and look where it led us. We stood on the precipice of ruin.”

“The plague destroyed our ranks, not Inaella’s inactivity,” Orlek countered. “You don’t honestly expect me to believe we accomplished nothing during those first few months?”

“We didn’t accomplish enough,” she replied. Her words were slow, measured.

He shook his head in disagreement. “This argument is pointless. We need to focus on the future, not the past.”

She paused, lips pursed as if ready to continue her argument. Instead, she relented, “Agreed. Our mission tonight was highly successful. I congratulate you, Orlek.”

“I don’t need thanks, give it to the others. I did what was asked of me,” he replied modestly.

Her opinion of him rose slightly. “Our next task is to spread the word that we have recovered Lord Argis’s body from our enemies. He should be revered as a hero to the cause. Spread rumors. I want him martyred for his deeds. The rebellion needs to use his murder as a rallying point.”

“We are still weak from the plague. Half of Chadra was quarantined and burned down. The Wolfsreik no longer comes down to patrol but the population is decimated. Nearly one in three died.”

She closed her eyes briefly, knowing all too well the high cost the unexpected disease bore away. Ingrid was surprised there were still enough fighters left to carry on. “Turn that around. Two in three survived. What you said is true. Our enemy holds every advantage except one. He lacks the desire to be free. Harnin One Eye is a twisted monster, Orlek, but we can beat him by twisting our words. By only using hopeful messages and through the sheer determination of the people’s fighting spirit.”

“You ask much from a broken people,” he said.

“No more than what I ask of myself.”

“What are you really fighting for? You’re no soldier. My guess is you’ve not done a hard day’s work in your life,” Orlek said, hoping to learn more about the Woman he’d tied his fate to.

Ingrid fixed him with a withering glare. Until now she had kept all details of her previous life secret, fearing they’d undo her if anyone found out. Trust did not come easily. She’d been betrayed by those closest to her in the past and had surrounded herself with hardened killers. Anything to put the past behind her. Still, she needed as much support as possible if her plans for the future were going to work. She decided it was time to include Orlek into her darkened vision of the world.

“You’re right. I was considered a lady of society. I wore the finest clothes, went to the balls held up on the hill and had enough money I didn’t need to work hard. I cooked, and kept track of our finances. We weren’t wealthy but managed to live comfortably.”

Orlek’s suspicions confirmed, he said, “There’s no shame in that. Plenty of good people used to live like that. Of course I never had it that good. Sounds like you had a good life. What changed?”

“My husband was taken in the middle of the night on charges of treason and executed in the middle of the street by soldiers he had known for years,” she answered tightly.

BOOK: Empire of Bones
5.51Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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