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Authors: Greg Keyes

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The Charnel Prince

BOOK: The Charnel Prince
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Greg Keyes



The Charnel Prince

(Book Two of
The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone




Greg Keyes was born in Meridian, Mississippi, to a large, diverse, storytelling family. He received degrees in anthropology from Mississippi State and the University of Georgia before becoming a full-time writer. He is the author of
The Briar King
and the Age of Unreason tetralogy, as well as
The Waterborn
The Blackgod
, and the
Star Wars®
New Jedi Order novels:
Edge of Victory I: Conquest
Edge of Victory II: Rebirth
, and
The Final Prophecy
. He lives in Savannah, Georgia.




Had laybyd hw loygwn eyl

Nhag Heybeywr, ayg nhoygwr niwoyd.


The Forest speaks with many tongues

Listen well but never answer.

Nhuwd nhy Whad
proverb, given as a warning to young children



“I HEAR A noise,” Martyn murmured, reining in his dappled gray stallion. “It is an unnatural sound.” The monk’s predatory blue eyes strained, as if trying to burn through the huge-girthed ironoaks and rocky slopes of the King’s Forest. Ehawk could see by the set of the man’s shoulders beneath his blood-red robe that every muscle in his body was tensed.

“No doubt,” Sir Oneu replied jovially. “This forest chatters like a woman who is half-mad with love.”

But despite his tone, Sir Oneu’s black eyes were serious when he turned to speak to Ehawk. As always, Ehawk was surprised by the older man’s face—soft and tapered it was, the corners of his eyes crinkled by fifty years of laughter. The knight hardly seemed to fit his reputation as a fierce warrior.

“What do you say, m’ lad?” Oneu asked.

“From what I’ve seen,” Ehawk began, “Brother Martyn can hear a snake breathe over the next hill. I haven’t such ears, and at this moment hear little. But sir, that’s strange of itself. There ought to be more birds singing.”

“Saint Rooster’s balls,” Oneu scoffed, “what do y’mean? There’s one warbling right now, so loud I can scarce hear myself.”

“Yes, sir,” Ehawk replied. “But that ‘un is an
, and they—”

“In the king’s tongue, boy, or in Almannish,” snapped a dour, sallow-faced man. He wore robes of the same color as Martyn’s. “Don’t gabble at us in your heathen language.”

That was Gavrel, another of the five monks traveling with the party. His face looked as if it had been cut into an apple and left to dry.

Ehawk didn’t like Gavrel much.

“Mind your own tongue, Brother Gavrel,” Sir Oneu said mildly. “I’m the one speaking to our young guide, not you.”

Gavrel glared at the reprimand, but he did not challenge the knight.

“You were saying, m’ lad Ehawk?”

“I believe you call ‘em crow-woodpeckers,” Ehawk replied. “Nothing frightens them.”

“Ah.” Oneu frowned. “Then let’s have quiet, while Brother Martyn listens more closely.”

Ehawk did as he was told, straining his own ears to the limits, feeling an unaccustomed chill as the hush of the forest sank in. It was strange.

But these were strange days. Only a fortnight before, the crescent moon had risen purple, a dire portent indeed, and a weird horn had sounded on the wind, heard not just in Ehawk’s village but everywhere. The old oracle-women muttered prophecies of doom, and tales of awful beasts roaming and slaying in the King’s Forest grew more common each day.

And then these men had come from the west, a knight of the Church, resplendent in his lord’s plate, and five monks of the order of Saint Mamres—warriors all. They’d arrived in Ehawk’s village four days ago and bargained for a native guide. The elders had appointed him, for though Ehawk was scarcely beyond his seventeenth summer, there was no man more keenly gifted at hunting and tracking. He’d been excited to go, for strangers were uncommon here near the Mountains of the Hare, and he’d hoped to learn something of foreign lands.

He hadn’t been disappointed. Sir Oneu de Loingvele loved to talk of his adventures, and he seemed to have been everywhere. The monks were quieter and somewhat frightening—except Gavrel, who was outspoken and frightening—and Martyn, who was kind in his own brusque way. If he spoke laconically of his training and his life, what he did have to say was usually interesting.

But one thing Ehawk had not learned—what these men were searching for. Sometimes he thought they themselves did not know.

Sir Oneu doffed his conical helm and rested it under one arm. A stray beam of sunlight glinted from his steel breastplate as he patted the neck of his warhorse to calm it. He shifted his gaze back to Martyn.

“Well, Brother?” he asked. “What are the saints whispering to you?”

“No saints, I think,” Martyn said. “A rustling, many men moving over the leaves, but they pant like dogs. They make other strange sounds.” He turned to Ehawk. “What people live in these parts?”

Ehawk considered. “The villages of the Duth ag Pae are scattered through these hills. The nearest is Aghdon, just up the valley.”

“Are they warriors?” Martyn asked.

“Not usually. Farmers and hunters, same as my people.”

“Are these sounds drawing nearer?” Sir Oneu asked.

“No,” Martyn replied.

“Very well. Then we’ll go on to this village and see what the local people have to say.”


“Not much to look at,” Sir Oneu observed half a bell later, when they reached Aghdon.

To Ehawk’s eyes, Aghdon wasn’t that different from his own village—a collection of small wooden houses around a common square and a high-beamed longhouse where the chieftain lived.

The greatest difference was that his own village bustled with people, chickens, and pigs. Aghdon was empty as a Sefry’s promise. “Where is everyone?” Sir Oneu asked. “
Anyone there?” But there was no reply, and not a soul stirred.

“Look here,” Martyn said. “They were trying to build a stockade.” Sure enough, Ehawk saw that a number of fresh-cut timbers had been erected. Other logs had been cut, but never set up.

“On your guard, fellows,” Sir Oneu said softly. “Let’s ride in there and see what happened to these folk.”

But there was nothing to be found. There were no bodies, no signs of violence. Ehawk found a copper kettle with its bottom scorched out. It had been left on the cookfire, untended, until its contents had boiled away.

“I think they all left suddenly,” he told Martyn.

“Yah,” the monk replied. “They were in a hurry for certain. They didn’t take anything.”

“But they were afraid of something,” Ehawk said. “Those wreaths of mistletoe above their doors—that’s to ward against evil.”

“Yes, and the stockade they began,” Sir Oneu said. “The praifec was right. Something is happening here. First the Sefry abandon the forest, now the tribesmen.” He shook his head. “Mount up. We’ll continue. I fear our mission is more urgent than ever.”

They left Aghdon and struck off across the uplands, leaving the largest of the ironoaks behind them and entering a forest of hickory, liquidambar, and witaec.

Still they rode in eerie silence, and the horses seemed nervous. Brother Martyn wore a slight but perpetual frown.

“Ride up with me, lad,” Sir Oneu called back. Obediently, Ehawk trotted his own dun mare until he was abreast of the knight.

“Sir Oneu?”

“Yes. Now would you like to hear the rest of that story?”

“Yes, sir. Indeed I would.”

“Well, you’ll recall that I was on a ship?”

“Yes, sir. On the

“That’s right. We’d just broken the siege at Reysquele, and what was left of the Joquien pirates were scattering to the sea winds. The
was badly damaged, but so were a lot of ships, and no dearth of them ahead of us for repairs at Reysquele. The weather was calm, so we reckoned we could make Copenwis, where fewer ships go for dry-dock.” He shook his head. “We didn’t make it to Copenwis, though. A squall came up, and only the favor of Saint Lier brought us to a small island none of us knew, somewhere near the Sorrows. We made land in a longboat and gave offering to Saint Lier and Saint Vriente, then sent out parties to search for habitants.”

“Did you find any?”

“In a manner of speaking. Half the pirate fleet was camped on the leeward side of the island.”

“Oh. That must have been trouble.”

“Indeed. Our ship was too badly damaged for us to leave, and too big to hide. It was a matter of little time before we were discovered.”

“What did you do?”

“I marched over to the pirate camp and challenged their leader to a duel of honor.”

“He accepted?”

“He had to. Pirate chieftains must appear to be strong, or their men will not follow them. If he had refused me, the next day he would have had to fight ten of his own lieutenants. As it was, I relieved him of that worry by killing him.”

“And then what?”

“I challenged the second-in-command. And then the next, and so on.”

Ehawk grinned. “Did you kill them all?”

“No. While I fought, my men took possession of one of their ships and sailed away.”

“Without you?”

“Yes. I’d ordered them to.”

“And so what happened?”

“When the pirates discovered what had happened, they took me prisoner, of course, and the dueling stopped. But I convinced them the Church would pay my ransom, and so they treated me pretty well.”

“Did the Church pay?”

“They might have—I didn’t wait to see. I had a chance for escape, later, and took it.”

“Tell me about that,” Ehawk pleaded.

The knight nodded. “In time, lad. But you tell me now—you grew up in these parts. The elders at your village told many strange tales of greffyns, manticores—fabulous monsters, never seen for a thousand years, now suddenly everywhere. What do you make of that, Ehawk, m’ lad? Do you credit such talk?”

Ehawk considered his words carefully. “I’ve seen strange tracks and smelled weird spore. My cousin Owel says he saw a beast like a lion, but scaled, and with the head of an eagle. Owel don’t lie, and he’s not like to scare or see things wrong.”

“So you do believe these tales?”


“Where do these monsters come from?”

“They’ve been’t sleep, they say—like how a bear sleeps the winter, or the cicada sleeps in the ground for seventeen years before comin’ out.”

“And why do you think they wake now?”

Ehawk hesitated again.

“Come, m‘ lad,” the knight said softly. “Your elders were tight-lipped, I know, I suspect for fear of being labeled heretics. If that’s your fear, you’ve no worry about me. The mysteries of the saints are all around us, and without the Church to guide, folk think odd things. But you live here, lad—you know things I don’t. Stories. The ancient songs.”

“Yah,” Ehawk said unhappily. He glanced at Gavrel, wondering if he, too, had keener hearing than a normal man.

Sir Oneu caught the look. “This expedition is my charge,” he said, softly still. “I give you my word as a knight, no harm will come to you for what you tell. Now—what do the old women say? Why do unholy things stalk the weald, when never they did before?”

Ehawk bit his lip. “They say ‘tis Etthoroam, the Mosslord. They say he woke when the moon was purple, as was foretold in ancient prophecy. The creatures are his servants.”

“Tell me about him, this Mosslord.”

“Ah . . . it’s only old stories, Sir Oneu.”

BOOK: The Charnel Prince
11.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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