Authors: Jeff Wheeler
The Muirwood Trilogy
Copyright 2011 Jeff Wheeler
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The Muirwood Trilogy
The Wretched of Muirwood
The Blight of Muirwood
The Scourge of Muirwood
“I fear everything. This island terrifies me. There are secrets here that I am beginning to discover. My past. My family. Who I am. These tools are awkward in my hands. It is difficult to describe it. I am used to the laundry, not this vast place full of mirrors. The Leerings here frighten me as well. So ancient. So powerful. The Aldermaston suggested I use this tome to explore my feelings and confront my fears. I must be ready to face the maston test before I can save the kingdoms and before the Blight destroys everyone. So this is what I fear the most. I fear losing the man I love. I fear losing Colvin.”
- Ellowyn Demont of Dochte Abbey
They rode on horseback, side by side, down a road overgrown with the twisted limbs of monstrous oak trees. The air was full of gnats and gossamer threads of spider silk that gently tickled the face. Martin wiped his cheek hurriedly, staring into the dark woods on either side. The bend ahead was blind – the perfect location for a trap.
“By Cheshu,” Martin muttered. “I like not the look of that corner. I do not. This forsaken wood is the only road to Comoros, is it?” He hissed softly then sniffed at the air, listening with keenness for a sign of the warning that throbbed silently in his heart.
At his side was the man Martin served – the king-maston of Pry-Ree. Martin was the older of the two, but the king had a youthful face. He did not look like a king, for he dressed in a simple shirt and an unassuming leather vest. His hair was an untamed mass of gold, shorn like a sheep at the nape of his neck. There was a somber expression on his face, which was normal as he was a man who mused silently much of the day and even more since hatching the plot of a secret marriage to Demont’s daughter. But a smile crept almost unnoticed at times to his mouth, betraying some hidden thought of mirth. He was Alluwyn Lleu-Iselin, though Martin never would have called him by his common name for he was a man Martin respected and trusted above any other, including the band of men known as the Evnissyen who now clustered around their king, halting as they had halted.
In short, the Evnissyen were the king’s protectors and Martin had trained them all. It was much more than simply that. The Evnissyen were hunters, thieves, schemers, dice-throwers, warriors – the mind in the shadows, whispering advice to their leader. Martin was the man the king turned to after his royal counselors had all argued their positions, blustered for favors and lands, or even plotted his death. The Evnissyen knew all the tangles in the skeins of power and they ruthlessly plucked at them like harp strings. Martin thought this with satisfaction. It was in his instincts to smell trouble. He smelled it on the road to Comoros.
Lord Alluwyn paused his mount and tugged open the pouch fastened to his wide leather belt. He was a king-maston, the glimpse of his chaen just a hint beneath the open collar of his shirt, but he referred to himself as only a
in his title. Of the Three Blessed Kings of Pry-Ree, he was the wisest, the youngest, and the most worthy to rule them all. Which is why the others had already been assassinated, leaving his brother and nephew as co-rulers – neither of whom were mastons or very wise.
Digging into the pouch, the Prince removed a small globe made of refined aurichalcum. It glimmered in the shadows, which made Martin impatient, wondering if anyone skulking in the woods would see it. Staring at the orb, the Prince watched as the spindles set in the upper half began to whirl and spin. Writing appeared in the lower half of the orb. Martin squinted at the tiny markings that only mastons could read. “Well?”
The Prince’s face paled. He looked furtively at the road ahead, his face more serious than before. His voice was soft with warning. “A kishion in the shadows ahead. The orb bids me west.”
“Into the swamp?”
“The kishion does not want the others in our train, only me. Send them on after we are gone. You ride with me, Martin. Send the rest on to Muirwood.”
The Prince did not hesitate after that. Wrapping the reins in one fist, he stamped his stallion’s flanks with his spurs and charged into the murky depths of the oak trees. Furious, Martin hissed orders and a warning to the rest of the Evnissyen guard and then rode hard after the Prince. The trees whipped and slashed him as he fought to keep up. The thrill of the chase burned in his stomach. Draw the kishion after them in the moors. Throw him off his original plan – make him react to their movements.
The hunter is patient. The prey is careless.
The kishion was being careless. Not long after charging into the woods, Martin heard the crack of limbs, the thud of hooves from behind. The pay must be considerable for the kishion to risk being so noisy. Martin slowed his beast slightly, listening. The sound of pursuit was gaining on him. Grabbing his bow, he shrugged his boot out of the stirrup and flung himself off the horse, rolling into the mud and muck and then flattening himself against a stunted oak tree. Muddy water dripped down his face and he brushed it away with his hand, cursing. He had an arrow nocked and darted past several other trees, back-tracking. He did not worry about the Prince. He had the orb and could make it to Muirwood without aid from a hunter.
A blur of brown with a milk-stain patch on the nose revealed the pursuer’s horse. The kishion was low against the saddle, his mouth twisted into a scowl.
Martin brought back the arrow and loosed it. The kishion saw the motion and swung around the saddle horn the other way, lurching away as the arrow sank into the horse’s neck. There was a shriek, a spurt of blood, and then the horse went down. Martin sloshed through the swamp water, drawing another arrow.
The kishion emerged and he sailed the arrow at the killer. Kishion were hired for two purposes. To protect or to kill. So quick, the kishion spun aside and the arrow sank into the tree behind him. A dagger appeared in the kishion’s hand and it was Martin’s turn to throw himself back as it whistled by his ear.
The two glared at each other, circling, drawn closer. There was no taunting—no attempt to persuade or deny. There was only the imminent conflict of sharp-edged blades. Martin drew his gladius and a dagger. He poked the air in front of him, as if testing the distance separating them. He motioned for the other to attack first.
The kishion obliged and lunged at him, a new blade in his hand, going straight for Martin’s throat. Their bodies locked for a moment, jabs, cuts, feints, thrusts. Then they parted, circling the other way, eyes locked on each other. Martin’s teeth were clenched tight, revealing a sickening half-grin. Again the kishion charged him, deftly stabbing at his inner thigh, his fingers clawing towards Martin’s eyes. Their arms and limbs smashed against each other. Then they were separated again. There was blood blooming on the kishion’s sleeve. Both of them were breathing hard.
“You…you trained…among us,” the kishion whispered darkly.
Martin’s grin became more pronounced. “You noticed.”
Maybe the kishion was losing his strength. Maybe he realized he was already a dead man. He struck at Martin one last time and then he was subdued, arm twisted in a brutal lock behind him, the blade dropping from the agony of the hold. Martin then encircled his arm around the kishion’s neck and dropped him like a stone into the murky swamp water until his head was submerged. Martin clenched and squeezed, burying his weight into the man’s back, holding him beneath the water as he flailed and struggled for breath. A few more moments starved for air, a thrashing violent and desperate, but Martin shrugged harder, squeezing and holding him. He felt something break in his neck.
The struggle ended. He waited longer to be sure, not trusting his instincts. Then he released the dead man and fished through the waters for his fallen gladius. He cleaned it and sheathed it and only then noticed the Prince watching him, his face askew with emotion.
Martin looked at him gruffly. “It was foolish to ride back, my Prince. What if I had lost? A kishion can kill even a maston.”
The Prince stared at the corpse, his face in anguish. Martin scowled. He had killed many men in war and hired killers were no one to feel sympathy for. “Ride on, my Prince. I will search the body for clues as to the one who hired him.”
The Prince stared in silence and shook his head. “I am not squeamish, Martin. It is just what I saw as you drowned him. I saw a girl being drowned by a kishion.”
Martin looked around in confusion. “He was certainly a man, my lord. Not even I would drown a woman.”
“You might,” he said, his voice thick with emotion. “If I asked it of you. If the woman…deserved it. No, what I saw was in the future. A young girl in a dressing gown. The kishion tried to drown her.” He trembled for a moment, shaking his head as if dispelling a nightmare. Then he looked down at the orb.
Martin tugged on the collar of the kishion to hoist him out of the mucky waters. The corpse was limp and soaked.
“Leave him,” the Prince said. “We both know who sent him.”
“You suspect the treasonous king then? The king you are visiting Comoros to treat with?” Martin said waspishly. “By Cheshu, even with a safe conduct granted, he would try and murder you?”
Prince Alluwyn smirked. “No, the king did not send the kishion. It was his wife.”
“The wife? You say it is her? She must be devious and cunning if you suspect her and not her lord.”
“There are things I know through the maston ways, Martin. I have long suspected this. There are stories that the kings of Dahomey send only their
to negotiate treaties. They are notable for their subtlety. There are reasons I cannot explain to you further.”