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Authors: Amy Lynn Green

Tags: #Religion, #Christianity, #fantasy, #Amy Green, #Amarias, #Warner Press

Secret of the Giants' Staircase

BOOK: Secret of the Giants' Staircase
13.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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Published by Warner Press Inc, Anderson, IN 46012

Warner Press and “WP” logo is a trademark of Warner Press Inc.

Copyright ©2013 by Amy Lynn Green

Cover Design © 2013 by Warner Press Inc

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording or any other method of storage—except for brief quotations in printed reviews, without the prior permission of the publisher.

ISBN: 9781593177003 (Print Version)

ISBN: 9781593174897 (E Version)

Editors: Karen Rhodes, Robin Fogle

Cover by Curtis D. Corzine

Design and layout: Curtis D. Corzine

Printed in the USA

 
Chapter 1

Demetri was seeking to kill four young people whose names he did not know.

Yes, he had seen three of them back in Da'armos. The tall, silent archer, the spirited girl and the cripple with the green eyes who would not betray the members of his squad. The fourth, their captain, remained both nameless and faceless in Demetri's mind.

Demetri and his companions, Ward and Lillen, referred to the Youth Guard members only as “the Four.” It made Demetri uneasy, knowing so little about them. He was used to having pages of neatly recorded information about the criminals he pursued. He liked knowing exactly who they were, where they lived and what they had done that deserved death.

But the Four have done nothing to deserve death
.

Demetri ignored the thought. He had gone too far to turn back now. Some choices could never be taken back.

Still, there was something strange about pursuing a nameless enemy, something almost cowardly.

Demetri was no coward. Those who resented his high position in the Patrol at such a young age called him many names behind his back, but a coward was never one of them. Back in his days as commander of a desert outpost, he had led charges into rebel camps, pursued outlaws for days with few provisions and rushed into strongholds, even if none of his men followed. It was as if he didn't care if he lived or died, others said, marveling.

They couldn't have known how right they were.

Never before had Demetri lost to an opponent of any kind. The Four, whatever their names might be, were very clever. Perhaps more than that—they had escaped death countless times. They had help of some kind. Lillen and Ward had mentioned that much at least, though they would tell him little else.

“Who are they?” he had asked Lillen the night before. “These Four who will not be defeated? Tell me their names.”

“No,” she insisted. She was brushing out her blonde hair with a silver brush, an action that seemed out of place in their ramshackle camp. “If you hear their names, you will begin to see their faces. Once they have faces, they will haunt your dreams. They will beg you to show mercy, and you will pity them.”

“Then why do you know their names?”

Lillen set down her brush but continued to stare blankly into the darkness beyond the camp. “I see no faces,” she said, her own face hard as stone. “I hear no pleading voices. And I feel no pity.”

It chilled Demetri to hear those words—and from a woman, no less, one who should have a heart of compassion, a mother's heart.

Without warning, Demetri saw the face of his own mother in his mind, the way he always remembered her: long, light brown hair, laughing and turning her face toward the light as she watched the sun rise. He had always resented that his brother looked more like his mother than he did.

Now is not the time
, he thought, shaking the memories away. It was dawn, but years had passed since he welcomed the sun with his mother. Now, dawn meant the breaking of camp for a new day of travel.

There was movement in the camp. Ward was fussing about something, as usual. Lillen, at once beautiful and dangerous, was rolling up her tent with a practiced hand.

Demetri did not offer to help her, though he had finished packing his own tent. Lillen was independent, and she seemed to resent any offers of help from others.

“Another wet night,” Ward sighed, hefting up his pack. His slight frame bowed under the weight, but he never asked for help either—only complained about the rigors of travel until they made camp for the night.

It's a wonder we are able to maintain any kind of pace with him in our group,
Demetri thought.

“I swear, the extra weight from our soaked canvas will only sink us deeper into the swamps with every passing day,” he declared.

“Peace, Ward,” Lillen said, standing. Though she too was slender, she bore the weight of her pack without any sign of strain or weakness. “Tomorrow we will enter the swamps to search for the Four. Today, we go to the outlying villages.”

It was spoken not as a plan, but as a reminder of something they had already discussed. Demetri recalled no such conversation. “And when did we decide this?”

“I believe it was while you were on your watch last night,” Ward said, giving a casual shrug. Once again, they had kept information from him, just as they did whenever they spoke of the Four, or of the prophecy or any other matter of importance for the Guard Riders.

They are on my side. We must work together
, Demetri reminded himself. He breathed deeply. “And what will we be doing in these outlying villages?”

“Buying supplies, for one,” Ward said, in that same self-important tone that Demetri had found infuriating after nearly a week of travel. “Describing the Four to the villagers, for another.”

“They are mostly Kin,” Lillen added. “Slow to get involved in the affairs of outsiders, but responsive to bribes. And they will care little about why we want to kill the Four. That is to our advantage.”

“Kin?” Demetri asked. Ward gave him a superior look, which Demetri ignored. He was willing to risk looking ignorant by asking questions if the answers were worthwhile.

“An ethnic group that once lived only in this region of District Two near the swamps, but spread throughout the kingdom,” Ward said, as if he were reciting from a recent census report.

Which
, Demetri thought,
he probably is
. That sounded like the type of reading Ward might do to relax before going to sleep.

“They are wanderers, nomads, with a particular talent for acrobatics and other creative endeavors,” Ward continued blandly. “No ties to any one place, but the strongest of ties to each other. Though they live in Amarias and pay tribute to the king, they have their own laws, pay their own community taxes, have their own leaders. It is almost as if they are citizens of another land.”

“And we can buy their allegiance easily enough,” Lillen said. “I thought it wise to set a reward for the Four. If they flee the swamp before we find them, or if, somehow, they escape us—”

“You are preparing for failure,” Demetri said, stiffening. He hated failure. His strategy was always the same: plan for success, and plan so carefully that the only result could be success.

“You have failed before,” Lillen said simply. She did not seem to be bothered by the anger in Demetri's eyes or the tightening of his fists. “We are stronger together, the three of us, but there is no reason to assume that the Four will not evade us. The Kin will stop them if we cannot.”

“And you will tell
them
their names?” Demetri demanded.

“Of course,” Ward snapped. “It would mean nothing to them, and might help them identify the Four.”

“Then you will trust
them
with information that you will not tell me.”

Lillen and Ward gave no answer.

“Well then, lead the way,” Demetri said, picking up his own pack. It hardly felt heavy to him at all. “Lead me to these Kin, who will do what the king's trained Guard Riders fear they cannot.”

Demetri didn't say a word the rest of the morning. It was better that way. Ward filled the air with talk of history and botany and topography of the area, as if the swampland was an artifact to be studied instead of dangerous territory to be crossed. Although he knew Ward probably thought he ignored the lecture, Demetri heard and memorized every word.

Facts were essential. They were not all that was needed for success, but pity the one who rushed into a dangerous mission without sufficient information.

Demetri had been that fool once, and it had cost him dearly.

Lillen, like Demetri, wasn't afraid of silence. She spoke only when necessary, guiding them to the first of the encampments near the swamp.

Demetri couldn't call it a city, not really, because the community was primarily made up of wagons, colorfully painted and ringed in a large circle, as if the entire group could pick up and move at any point. As they walked into the circle, though, he noticed the grass had grown long around the wheels of the wagons. It had been a long time since this particular group had relocated.

It was strange. There were people around: children playing, women doing the wash, two old men repairing a wagon. Yet no one spoke to them. No one tried to sell them wares or offered to bring them to an inn. They only stared at the strangers, clearly noting them as intruders, and went about their business. It was as if they were invisible, walking through the people instead of among them.

Suddenly, Ward stopped. “Talk to that one,” he said, pointing.

A young man around Demetri's age was carrying a string of onions over his shoulder. He had deeply tanned skin, thick black hair, and a confident walk. Demetri had seen the same walk in many new recruits before the desert broke them down.

Without another word, Lillen hurried over to him. Demetri was struck with the silent, graceful way she moved, like a breeze through the trees. It seemed to startle the young man, because he jumped when she placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Why him in particular?” Demetri asked Ward, still watching Lillen.

“He strikes me as one who is susceptible to greed, and therefore, to a bribe.”

“How do you know that?” All he saw was a young man carrying onions.

“As I said before, I served on the Council that divided the Youth Guard into squads. I quickly learned to understand people in little more than a glance. Most people display their virtues and faults to the world, rather like laundry blowing in the open air.”

Demetri couldn't resist asking, “And what are my virtues and faults?”

“Are you sure you want to know, Captain?” Ward asked

Demetri was sure he saw a slight mocking smile appear on Ward's face.“I asked, didn't I?” Demetri snapped. He wasn't used to others defying his orders.

“Why is anyone chosen for the Guard, Demetri?”

Demetri was not feeling cooperative. He had asked a question. He expected an answer, not a series of riddles. “You were the one who served on the Council, Ward. You tell me.”

“Physical strength, yes, at times. Or agility, a quick mind, swiftness, fortitude, even creativity. All of those outer signs, we train those at the musters to look for, but there is another quality that almost all Youth Guard possess: a noble spirit.”

“And what does that mean?”

“An inner resolve, the willingness to sacrifice and take a stand based on personal convictions—these make up a noble spirit. It's quite obvious, once you know how to look for it.” Ward's face twitched into a superior smile. “And you have it, Demetri. When misdirected, it is a great weakness. A noble spirit can cause you to take unnecessary risks and make foolish, emotional decisions.”

Demetri laughed bitterly. “Never again. Any nobility you sense in me must be some trace remnant from my past. Nobility is not a weakness in Captain Demetri. Only Justis.”

It was hard for Demetri even to speak his real name, the one he had gone by before…
before the Youth Guard. Before the betrayal
.

“And where is Justis now?” Ward said, dark eyes staring probingly at him.

“I killed him,” Demetri said tonelessly. “Long ago.”

“Good,” Ward said, turning his attention back to Lillen and the young man. “Yes, he will be a good one. There will be others, of course. One hundred sceptres per head is payment enough for anyone, I would think.”

If he was looking for a reaction of surprise, Demetri refused to give it to him, although the price was incredible. “Wouldn't a smaller sum be enough of a temptation?”

“Believe me, Captain, we have much greater amounts of money at our disposal,” Ward said casually, a small smile spreading over his face. “Riches beyond your imagination, riches that even the ancient Lidians would consider a threat.”

“Lidians?” Demetri asked.

“Ancient history,” Ward said. “They lived in this area. Their kingdom—or, rather, the fortress they called a kingdom—was deeper in the swamps, where they could hide from the rest of the world. Before their fortress collapsed and they fled from their home, they were the wealthiest civilization this land has ever known.”

Demetri could not deny that talk of riches appealed to him. His father had been relatively wealthy, of course.
But to be able to toss around four hundred sceptres like it was nothing at all….

Lillen had stopped talking to the young man and moved on to an old woman in a bright purple shawl. “The town gossip, no doubt,” Ward said, nodding in approval. “Lillen can spot the most likely ones easily enough.”

Demetri stared at the grandmotherly woman, bent and frail. “You really believe she'll give up the Four? After all, they're hardly more than children.”

“I know she will,” Ward said. “These people care nothing about those who are not Kin.” He pointed to the scar on his jaw, a thick, jagged line of raised flesh. “It was one of the Kin who gave me this.”

“A sword?” Demetri asked. A cut like that could only come from a person attempting to give a death blow.

Ward shook his head. “A dagger. It barely pierced my skin,” he said, tracing the scar with one thin finger.

“That's not possible,” Demetri said. He knew how to recognize a lie. He had often called out boasters on inaccuracies in their wild stories told around the Patrol watchfire. Yet this was the first time he had accused someone of minimizing his story of injury and adventure. “It would take a deep cut to leave such a scar.”

“Not if the blade was tainted with a poison,” Ward said. “How fortunate for me that it was not enough to be deadly.” His eyes seemed to turn darker. “And how fortunate that I killed the man and took the vial of poison from his dead body.”

He tugged on a cord around his neck, pulling out the Guard Rider medallion, identical to Demetri's. The symbol of the king was inscribed in it: the letter
A
inside a broken circle. But, dangling alongside it was a slim vial with a dark liquid inside.

BOOK: Secret of the Giants' Staircase
13.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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