In advance of the publication of The Shadow Men Trilogy box set on February 28, I will be publishing a few excerpts online. What follows is from the first chapter of the novel:
Donier a Fieled, a noble of the third rank, and an officer in the army of Lastl, was not watching Gver Keleprai, as so many others in the palace for the Feast of Balance celebrations discreetly were. He was staring at the woman beside him, who at that moment was laughing at something he said and laying her hand on his arm as she did. He excused himself from his companions so that they did not notice the direction of his gaze. He did not trust his face to hide his emotion, he had taken too much wine. One of the balconies was empty, but for a Cureder and some scholar discussing Senteur’s heavens, so he went there, affecting to take some air.
In spite of himself, he turned from his feigned interest in a nearby tree where several sprites sang to watch the woman, Liene ul Terainous a Fusel. She and the Gver were now carrying on their own discussion separate from the other three, his back to Donier while he could see her face. He forced himself to look away at the tree before she noticed.
His rage surprised him. Why should he care that she was holding court with the Gver? It was appalling, but no more so than any number of other transgressions that marked the passing of days. What did it matter who the Gver might turn his attentions to, and that the lady might encourage it as well? That her husband was missing, dead in all likelihood, not even a month ago; well, perhaps she was simply looking to her future as best she could. Still, she would not even be here, would be sitting in her home in a mourning gown, if they had only found Terainous’ body. It was odd, he thought, that the Afusel were allowing her about the court given current circumstances, but she was obviously being escorted by the other noble couple who were conversing with Nes Kigarle, and perhaps in this day and age that was all that was required for the sanctity of a woman to be guaranteed.
It had been a nightmare. A small band of the Shadow Men had evaded the notice of the pyrsedies and set about razing and looting the countryside east of Lastl. In response the Gver sent Nes Ludenn and his cohort, including both Terainous and Donier as seconds, to hunt the beasts down. They marched down the old Renian highway for two days before they came upon the still-smoking ruins of a way station, the defiled bodies of the innkeepers and postal men strewn across the road.
The area around the way station was forested, nearly the last trees one would see passing through to the desert. Only the burned-out buildings of the station and the path down to the river were uncovered by foliage. After a cursory investigation of the slaughter, the cohort spread out along the path, most clustered near the river filling their flasks. The Shadow Men materialized from the dense underbrush, as if their dark flesh were formed from the very gloom that lay overgrown there, with swords drawn, shrieking their awful war cries. Everything after was confusion.
The men who had straggled behind on the path to the river were cut down. The five tasked with burying the dead of way station fled down the highway. The rest of them were left to form a poor phalanx, their backs to river, and it wasn’t long before Donier found his ankles wet and his foothold slipping. The Shadows snarled and yelped, sensing the desperation that had seized the remaining cohort.
He could not say when the battle turned. There was no singular moment, no coalescing of the disparate spirits gathered, no transformation from the many to the one, which songs and chroniclers always spoke of authoritatively. Looking at it dispassionately, as Donier did these things, it was a matter of superior numbers finally telling the tale, for, though nearly a third of their men were killed in the first moments of the battle, the cohort still counted nearly twice the men.
In the midst of it all, with the situation at its most dire, Terainous was touched—a demon’s hand, there was no other explanation. The gossip about it was everywhere. He wondered if Nes Liene had heard any of it. He himself had not, for no one would dare say anything of it to him, but he knew what was being said. And he could deny none of it. He had been there, heard Terainous whooping and shrieking, saw him throw his sword at the beasts as they pressed in. Then he had turned and flung his shield into the water and tried to swim across the river. The waterway was wide, the current quick, and he was pulled downstream. The last any of them heard of him Terainous was singing some child’s song from his youth as he floated away.
When the Shadows were routed, half the remaining cohort was sent in pursuit. Ludenn led that group, leaving Donier to cremate their dead. Afterwards, he spent the better part of the day scouring the forest downriver for any sign of his friend until he sensed the men growing restless. They returned to the highway and set off in search of the deserters, laying them to the sword.
Nothing was done after, no party sent downriver to see what trace could be found of the missing second. As far as the Lastl cohorts were concerned, he was dead and there was no use in sending anyone to investigate. Better for everyone to assume he was than to go out and find otherwise. Donier understood their reasoning, but he still felt it was a disgraceful way to treat the heir to an important family. He was a noble of the second rank, after all.
The Afusel had refused to accept the cohort’s verdict that Terainous had passed to the Hall, which explained why Liene was not in mourning, and that was surprising in its own way. A family of their stature would be expected to prefer a dead son to the return of one with senses beyond this realm, especially when they had other heirs.
When his emotions had cooled enough that he thought they would no longer show, Donier rejoined the festivities within. The Gver and Liene had disappeared into the crowd and he returned to his companions, resisting the urge to see where they were and what they might be doing.
Her name, Kigarle had told him, was Liene ul Terainous. The Gver still felt he should know who she was, but the names meant nothing to him and he dismissed it. How often was he left with this feeling? Too much these days, he thought ruefully, as he stared intently at her almond-colored eyes. The musicians had taken to the stage again, playing some of their quieter numbers, the romances and the tragedies. The air was finally beginning to cool somewhat as the crowd dwindled and the strains of a breeze passed through from the balconies.
He had contrived to speak to her alone beside the stage, the crowd ebbing and flowing around them. She had been eager to talk to him, he thought. He noted the flush on her cheeks, from the heat or wine. She was watching the musicians intently as they performed and he followed her gaze. Only two of them were playing: one of his court players and a man who, by the pale hue of his skin, was Kragian. They were singing a romance that had been popular before the Northern War, though then it had been played with Mgetir pipes, not the two guitars they were using. He could not remember the last time he had heard it, yet the words rushed back into his mind as if they had always been there for the asking.
“What a lovely song,” she breathed as they finished. She was very young—could not have been married for longer than a year or two, he thought.
“Haven’t you heard it before?” he asked her. He was aware of others watching them as they stood close. It was her eyes, he decided, the way they turned her whole face alight that made her so enchanting. Her features were plain but the eyes made them dance.
“No,” she said. “Is it old, Most Gracious?”
He laughed. “That depends. How old do you think I am?”
Her eyes widened, “Oh, Most Immortal, I didn’t mean—”
“I know. I know,” he said, laughing again. “But I am old. That song was written just before the war. It was the only song you heard the summer before. And I think I’ve only heard it a handful of times since.”
She turned back to the stage as the musicians began to play again, this time a recent song, one which had been heard in every music hall through the winter. He watched the rise and fall of her dress. The song finished and she turned to him, nervous he thought, considering her word and how to proceed.
He decided not to give her the chance. “You are too young to understand, perhaps, but do you know how a singular beauty can drive a soul to utter distraction?”
She smiled, flushing even more deeply. “You are most gracious, Immortal Gver. I wonder if I might speak to you of my husband.”
Her voice dropped. “He’s been missing, Most Beneficent, since the Shadows’ raid last month. There’s been no sign of him for good or ill since.”
With that, her name was no longer simply a name: Liene ul Terainous.
“I wanted to ask, Most Gracious, if it is not too much consideration, if perhaps you could send another party to search for him. It has been so difficult these last weeks, not knowing one way or the other.”
He said something, agreeing to speak with Adept Tehh about it later, promising her. Cursed old fool, how could he have forgotten that, he thought, the ground no longer so sure under his feet.
“I cannot imagine how hard it has been. Let us see what we can do to ease your mind of these worries this evening,” he said, taking her by the arm to lead her away from the stage, the eyes of the crowd upon them. His eyes were on her, though: how young she was, how light in every movement.