Valerius And The Bastard Son by T.R. Rankin

EXTRACT FOR
Valerius And The Bastard Son

(T.R. Rankin)


Prologue

In the months following the fall of Fantar in the hills east of Palmeria, the remnants of his brutal host-and the regime they supported-dissipated like a foul mist before the rays of a new day's sun. They scattered and secreted themselves in hidden corners of the Empire like damp settling into the timbers of a great ship, and there began to fester and rot.
As the ancient Imperial order reasserted itself under the High King, Valerius, the worst of this element were flushed out and dealt with. Some were summarily put to the sword or cross. Some were sent to the benches of galleys at sea, others to various dank and dismal gaols. But many-the lower echelons of non-commissioned officers, men at arms, and the like-were taken at their oath and left to shift for themselves. Some lucky few of these returned to find home and family, others drifted to settle here or there, wherever circumstance or the urge to move on left them. Before Fantar's rise and conquest of the Inland Sea, many of these men had been brigands and petty outlaws of one sort or another. Now, some fell afoul of the law yet again. Some fell victim to their own companions.
But one night,on the road north of the tiny town of Koth, just across from the port city of Palemia on the River Sule, two in particular fell victim to something worse.
They were not the most pleasing companions, nor the most sterling of characters. Twenty-year veterans of Fantar's scourge, they had marched the entire circuit of the Inland Sea and back under his black flacon banner. They had fought together in all the major engagements of that time and had seen and done things even they would not own. Sergeant and NCO, they had belonged at the last to a regiment of Fantar's Imperial Guard and had marched eastward with him from Valeria to meet his fate in the dry hills beyond Palmeria. Not remotely interested in joining their more fanatical comrades in a fight to the death, these two switched sides early in the final melee, and afterwards, made good pickings off the corpses of their former fellows before slinking off in the night and making their way westward.
Now they sat late in a small, mud-walled tavern, their chins sunk low over their cups, and groused rather too loudly about the fate of their former leader. There were few customers in the place at this hour-the tavern catered mostly to local farmers, early risers who had long since stumbled home to their beds-and those few still scattered about swayed groggily or slumped over their tables. Even the bartender dozed on his stool, and as the discussion of the two veterans grew heated, no one seemed to notice their rising volume-no one, that is, except for the one other upright figure in the room, a hulking youth who sat listening to every word at a table in the corner behind them.
The sergeant had declaimed on the madness which had seized Fantar near the end and which had driven him-and his faithful Guard with him-eastward to the barren hills beyond Palmeria, a full eight hundred miles from the capital of Valeria. There, under a blistering desert sun, and at the very start of a battle with the resurgent High King, Valerius-a battle which the sergeant still claimed they could have won-Fantar had fulfilled the prophecy by dying at the hand of his Halfling servant, one who, according to the Oracle, he could only "half see."
"Aye" said the sergeant of the Halfling, "A scrawny little runt he was, not high enough to kiss your arse... Stuck ole Fantar like a pig, he did."
"You lie!" snarled the youth, suddenly rushing forward and looming over their table. He was a rough country lad dressed in a farmer's smock too small for his huge frame. His fisted hands were like hams waving in the sergeant's face, and while there was as yet but the lightest fringe of down upon his cheeks, his eyes burned fierce, and anger bristled around him. "Fantar would not die so."
But the veteran was not to be perturbed by such a raw youth, imposing though he was. "Would not die so? As if his corpse isn't rotting this very moment and himself wailing away in perdition! And what would you know about it, laddie boy? You were there, I suppose?"
"No, but I know."
"You know!" the sergeant scoffed, rising to face the youth who still towered over him. Several other patrons had awakened by now and moved quickly aside. "You don't know my arse from your mother's dug. Now go sit down before I... "
The youth lunged over the table, his fingers closing on the veteran sergeant's throat. The two fell clattering to the floor, thrashing about and upending furniture. In an instant, the other veteran thrust the broken table aside and flung himself onto the pair, a dagger glinting dully in his upraised fist. But before he could drive the blade home, the barman caught his upraised arm. He yanked the man aside and kicked the other pair apart, then stood over the three brandishing a large wood axe.
"Here!" he commanded, "There'll be none of that in here. You, Condor, hie yourself home where you belong. And you two, get your kits and clear out of here. I'll not have the likes of you wrecking the peace of my establishment!"
The youth, Condor, abruptly fled into the night, the door swinging wide behind him. But the other pair protested. "What do you mean?" the sergeant whined. "We were minding our own business here!"
"I heard your talk and I don't like your business," said the barman, brandishing his axe. "We had enough of 'your business' around here long before Fantar One-Eye got his due. Now clear off I tell you!"
"We paid you for lodging, we did!" claimed the sergeant, thrusting out his chin.
"And I'll lodge this axe in your skull if you push me," growled the barman. By now, several other patrons, suddenly very sober, had lined up behind the barman. Some brandished weapons of their own, while others held stools by the legs.
The veterans decided against confronting such odds. Grabbing their packs from the wall by the door, they marched sullenly out into the night. Nor was this the first time since Fantar's fall they had been so driven from the prospect of a comfortable bed.
The half-moon was past its meridian and cast a pale light along the road as the two trudged north between newly sown fields. They were headed towards a stretch of woods, which promised fuel for a fire and security for the night. Neither spoke, but both replayed the scene at the tavern with a growing sense of indignation. So seldom were they the victims that this incident seemed to justify a host of past sins.
"He was a big-un," said the NCO as the trees began to close around them.
"Aye, but barely a whisker on his chin."
"Suppose he's still lurking about?"
"Nah, home to his mama, more like it. That type has no stick to 'em. Just keep an eye open anyway."
But the sergeant was wrong. In fact, it was already too late. Behind them, the youth, Condor, stepped quietly out onto the road, and as the words left the sergeant's mouth, he smashed a large rock down onto the NCO's head, spattering blood and brains, and killing the man instantly.
"Hey!" shouted the sergeant flinching away from the spray and spinning to face their assailant. In an instant he drew sword and dagger and stood crouched at the ready. "Oh, now you've done it, laddie-boy," he snarled, glancing quickly at his fallen comrade. "Now you've done it!" And he lunged, sword whistling in the night air.
But the big youth was quicker. As the sergeant advanced, he hurled the rock. It struck the sergeant flush in the chest, knocking him back and driving the wind from his lungs. Then the youth was on him. Grasping both of the man's wrists, he drove him to the ground and landed on top of him. The sergeant tried to roll and wrestle himself free, but the youth was too big, too strong for him. Then he lay still, his arms firmly pinned to the ground by the youth's massive fists, and glared up into the face of his antagonist. He saw, momentarily, a look of uncertainty there.
"Hah! What are you going to do now, you bastard!" he spat. "Move one hand and I'll drive steel into your gizzard so fast you won't have a chance to blink."
Instant fury contorted the youth's face. His mouth twisted open and he drove his head down, clamping his jaws onto the sergeant's throat.
"Arrgh... !" the man tried to scream, but the sound was cut short as Condor twisted and bit and ripped at his throat, growling like a dog. Then he reared his head in the pale moonlight, his eyes raving wild, his mouth foaming with blood, and the sergeant's dripping larynx clenched between his teeth. With a strangled cry, he spat the gristle away, lurched to his feet and ran off into the woods.
He ran until the fury left him, then fell sobbing among the dead and rotting leaves. After a time, he quieted and lay still until a sound, or something like a sound-it could have been a rustling in the leaves-trip-hammered his heart and he leapt to his feet, crouched, tense and ready.
He had run far into a dark, primordial section of the forest. Around him, immense and ancient trunks mingled with the surrounding shadow, and the late moon cast only the slightest shimmer through the thick foliage overhead. He could see nothing. Or could he?
There, off to his right, a bit of shadow seemed to resolve itself against the trunk of a large tree. Then it moved and he could see the distinct outline of a hooded shape. It approached silently and Condor looked around quickly for a rock or a branch, something to use as a weapon. But the figure made no hostile moves. It stopped about a body's length away and stood there, as tall as himself, slender, yet still wholly indistinct, a bit of black shadow, shaped from the darkness of the night.
"Who are you?" Condor demanded.
"The question, my friend, is who are you?" The thing spoke in an unearthly voice, a soft, sibilant whisper, like a distant wind. "Are you proud of yourself for this night's performance?"
"They had no right to speak of him thus!"
"No right to speak the truth? Ah Condor," the figure used Condor's name with an easy familiarity and laughed softly, the sound like scales scraping along a rock, "you would be a tyrant indeed if you could suppress Truth! But what will you do now? Go home as if nothing happened? They will soon find the bodies, you know. You left a rather untidy scene."
Condor opened his mouth but said nothing. He had not thought of anything beyond the urgency of his rage. Now he pictured the small sod hut that was his home, the old barn and attached shed, leaning together for support, the figure of his mother, bent and withered now where once had been a lithe beauty, and the hard, embittered visage of his step-father, his curses, the beatings. No, if he went back there now, he would kill him, too.
"I can help, you know," said the figure, as if reading his thoughts.
"How? Who are you?"
"Let's just say I am one who knows who you are... And what you can become. That is what you want, isn't it? To become like him? You who are twice cursed, the bastard son of a bastard son?"
"How can you do that?" Condor tried to sound derisive, but his voice came out plaintive.
"Ah, there's a secret, isn't there?" crooned the figure, moving swiftly closer. "The Truth here, Condor my lad, is that I can make you better than him." And he leaned towards Condor, the shadow of his hood seeming to envelop his head. Condor started to pull away, then stopped for just an instant, as something of the shadow seemed to pass into him. Then the figure was gone and Condor dropped to the ground like a sack.
He was awakened by a shaft of bright sunlight, which slipped through the leaves and seared his eyes. Instantly alert, he leapt up and looked around. But the wood was quiet and peaceful. He had slept late and the sun was well up, dappling the ground with a golden shimmer. Condor stretched, pulling the muscles tight across his shoulders and feeling the hardness where they bunched on his arms. Slowly, he clenched his fingers before his face, curling them into fists. He could feel power there, and he smiled, a hard, knowing light glinting in his eyes.
He made his way westward, sticking to the forest and moving swiftly but carefully. At a stream, he drank deep, spitting and rinsing the foul blood from his mouth, then scrubbed himself clean. Following the course of the stream, he waded in the bed as it meandered towards the river. Where it crossed the road, he crouched between its banks looking each way and listening carefully before slipping across the narrow ford. He was well to the north of where the bodies lay and he saw and heard nothing.
West of the road, the stream deepened as several other rills joined it and the land tilted towards the river. The stream tumbled into a larger brook, which cut a deep gully as it neared the river. When the brook became too deep to wade comfortably, Condor scrambled along its banks, clambering over large rocks and forcing his way through tangled flood debris, undergrowth and brambles. Finally, the stream shot out from its banks, tumbled down a steep fifty-foot rock face and poured into the River Sule.
Condor squatted at the top of the face to catch his breath. He ignored the hollow ache of hunger in his belly and stared out over the river. The sun was high now, pushing westward, and the river was broad and deep, nearly a mile across and still swollen from spring rain in the mountains to the north. The current was swift and sinewy, flexing like the muscles of a great serpent, too strong to swim. Directly opposite, the head of an island split the current and beyond, hazy in the glare of the far shore, was the port city of Palemia.
The island, he knew, stretched several miles to the south, past the town of Koth and almost to the Inland Sea. Between here and the town, the riverbank was high and the water deep right up to the shore. No one lived along here until the land subsided, just north of the town. But that was where the tavern was.
Something upstream caught his eye. It was a large bush, uprooted somewhere in the north and drifting along towards the sea. As it neared, Condor sprang out like a great ape, and plunged down fifty feet into the water. Coming up under the base of the bush, he caught hold of its lower branches and pushed it ahead of him as he kicked towards the island.
Several days later, in the port city of Palemia, the mate of His Imperial Majesty's war galley, Steiger, looked up to see a large, hulking youth amble up the gangway. He was dressed in rough breeches and a loose smock-farmer's clothes-and looked like he had been sleeping in the woods. But he had an air of confidence about him, and acted like he owned the boat.
"What do you want?" the mate growled, barring the way at the entry port.
"A berth," said the youth.
"A berth? The war is over these three months past, lad! Everybody else is trying to get out!" But the youth just stood there, implacable.
"Well you look rugged enough, though a tad young... And it's not like we don't need hands. What do ye know of seamanship?"
The youth stood at the rail and surveyed the ship from stem to stern, casually taking in her beaked prow and high forecastle; the long, double-row of benches-empty now with the crew ashore-and the sweeps neatly lashed; the tall mast and taut rigging; the square sail tightly furled against the yard; the high poop deck aft with its tiny cabin tucked below. And he nodded.
"I know," he said, looking the mate straight in the eye. His eyes were hard and black, yet somehow compelling. They were the eyes of a much older man, the mate thought.
"Well," he said, "let's see what you do know. What do you call that?" he asked, and pointed to a peg set in the bulwark by one of the benches.
Condor looked at it, the words forming in his mind. "Thole pin," he said.
"And this?" the mate asked, pointing to a similar pin in the rail surrounding the base of the mast.
"Belaying pin."
"And attached to it?"
"Halyard."
"All right, then. Let's see you cast off the main gaskets."
Without hesitation, Condor leaped for the shrouds, hauled himself up the mast hand over hand and began to loosen the sail. "All right!" yelled the mate. "Belay that. You may look like a farmer, but there's a right seaman in you, I'll warrant that."

Valerius And The Bastard Son by T.R. Rankin

EXTRACT FOR
Valerius And The Bastard Son

(T.R. Rankin)


Prologue

In the months following the fall of Fantar in the hills east of Palmeria, the remnants of his brutal host-and the regime they supported-dissipated like a foul mist before the rays of a new day's sun. They scattered and secreted themselves in hidden corners of the Empire like damp settling into the timbers of a great ship, and there began to fester and rot.
As the ancient Imperial order reasserted itself under the High King, Valerius, the worst of this element were flushed out and dealt with. Some were summarily put to the sword or cross. Some were sent to the benches of galleys at sea, others to various dank and dismal gaols. But many-the lower echelons of non-commissioned officers, men at arms, and the like-were taken at their oath and left to shift for themselves. Some lucky few of these returned to find home and family, others drifted to settle here or there, wherever circumstance or the urge to move on left them. Before Fantar's rise and conquest of the Inland Sea, many of these men had been brigands and petty outlaws of one sort or another. Now, some fell afoul of the law yet again. Some fell victim to their own companions.
But one night,on the road north of the tiny town of Koth, just across from the port city of Palemia on the River Sule, two in particular fell victim to something worse.
They were not the most pleasing companions, nor the most sterling of characters. Twenty-year veterans of Fantar's scourge, they had marched the entire circuit of the Inland Sea and back under his black flacon banner. They had fought together in all the major engagements of that time and had seen and done things even they would not own. Sergeant and NCO, they had belonged at the last to a regiment of Fantar's Imperial Guard and had marched eastward with him from Valeria to meet his fate in the dry hills beyond Palmeria. Not remotely interested in joining their more fanatical comrades in a fight to the death, these two switched sides early in the final melee, and afterwards, made good pickings off the corpses of their former fellows before slinking off in the night and making their way westward.
Now they sat late in a small, mud-walled tavern, their chins sunk low over their cups, and groused rather too loudly about the fate of their former leader. There were few customers in the place at this hour-the tavern catered mostly to local farmers, early risers who had long since stumbled home to their beds-and those few still scattered about swayed groggily or slumped over their tables. Even the bartender dozed on his stool, and as the discussion of the two veterans grew heated, no one seemed to notice their rising volume-no one, that is, except for the one other upright figure in the room, a hulking youth who sat listening to every word at a table in the corner behind them.
The sergeant had declaimed on the madness which had seized Fantar near the end and which had driven him-and his faithful Guard with him-eastward to the barren hills beyond Palmeria, a full eight hundred miles from the capital of Valeria. There, under a blistering desert sun, and at the very start of a battle with the resurgent High King, Valerius-a battle which the sergeant still claimed they could have won-Fantar had fulfilled the prophecy by dying at the hand of his Halfling servant, one who, according to the Oracle, he could only "half see."
"Aye" said the sergeant of the Halfling, "A scrawny little runt he was, not high enough to kiss your arse... Stuck ole Fantar like a pig, he did."
"You lie!" snarled the youth, suddenly rushing forward and looming over their table. He was a rough country lad dressed in a farmer's smock too small for his huge frame. His fisted hands were like hams waving in the sergeant's face, and while there was as yet but the lightest fringe of down upon his cheeks, his eyes burned fierce, and anger bristled around him. "Fantar would not die so."
But the veteran was not to be perturbed by such a raw youth, imposing though he was. "Would not die so? As if his corpse isn't rotting this very moment and himself wailing away in perdition! And what would you know about it, laddie boy? You were there, I suppose?"
"No, but I know."
"You know!" the sergeant scoffed, rising to face the youth who still towered over him. Several other patrons had awakened by now and moved quickly aside. "You don't know my arse from your mother's dug. Now go sit down before I... "
The youth lunged over the table, his fingers closing on the veteran sergeant's throat. The two fell clattering to the floor, thrashing about and upending furniture. In an instant, the other veteran thrust the broken table aside and flung himself onto the pair, a dagger glinting dully in his upraised fist. But before he could drive the blade home, the barman caught his upraised arm. He yanked the man aside and kicked the other pair apart, then stood over the three brandishing a large wood axe.
"Here!" he commanded, "There'll be none of that in here. You, Condor, hie yourself home where you belong. And you two, get your kits and clear out of here. I'll not have the likes of you wrecking the peace of my establishment!"
The youth, Condor, abruptly fled into the night, the door swinging wide behind him. But the other pair protested. "What do you mean?" the sergeant whined. "We were minding our own business here!"
"I heard your talk and I don't like your business," said the barman, brandishing his axe. "We had enough of 'your business' around here long before Fantar One-Eye got his due. Now clear off I tell you!"
"We paid you for lodging, we did!" claimed the sergeant, thrusting out his chin.
"And I'll lodge this axe in your skull if you push me," growled the barman. By now, several other patrons, suddenly very sober, had lined up behind the barman. Some brandished weapons of their own, while others held stools by the legs.
The veterans decided against confronting such odds. Grabbing their packs from the wall by the door, they marched sullenly out into the night. Nor was this the first time since Fantar's fall they had been so driven from the prospect of a comfortable bed.
The half-moon was past its meridian and cast a pale light along the road as the two trudged north between newly sown fields. They were headed towards a stretch of woods, which promised fuel for a fire and security for the night. Neither spoke, but both replayed the scene at the tavern with a growing sense of indignation. So seldom were they the victims that this incident seemed to justify a host of past sins.
"He was a big-un," said the NCO as the trees began to close around them.
"Aye, but barely a whisker on his chin."
"Suppose he's still lurking about?"
"Nah, home to his mama, more like it. That type has no stick to 'em. Just keep an eye open anyway."
But the sergeant was wrong. In fact, it was already too late. Behind them, the youth, Condor, stepped quietly out onto the road, and as the words left the sergeant's mouth, he smashed a large rock down onto the NCO's head, spattering blood and brains, and killing the man instantly.
"Hey!" shouted the sergeant flinching away from the spray and spinning to face their assailant. In an instant he drew sword and dagger and stood crouched at the ready. "Oh, now you've done it, laddie-boy," he snarled, glancing quickly at his fallen comrade. "Now you've done it!" And he lunged, sword whistling in the night air.
But the big youth was quicker. As the sergeant advanced, he hurled the rock. It struck the sergeant flush in the chest, knocking him back and driving the wind from his lungs. Then the youth was on him. Grasping both of the man's wrists, he drove him to the ground and landed on top of him. The sergeant tried to roll and wrestle himself free, but the youth was too big, too strong for him. Then he lay still, his arms firmly pinned to the ground by the youth's massive fists, and glared up into the face of his antagonist. He saw, momentarily, a look of uncertainty there.
"Hah! What are you going to do now, you bastard!" he spat. "Move one hand and I'll drive steel into your gizzard so fast you won't have a chance to blink."
Instant fury contorted the youth's face. His mouth twisted open and he drove his head down, clamping his jaws onto the sergeant's throat.
"Arrgh... !" the man tried to scream, but the sound was cut short as Condor twisted and bit and ripped at his throat, growling like a dog. Then he reared his head in the pale moonlight, his eyes raving wild, his mouth foaming with blood, and the sergeant's dripping larynx clenched between his teeth. With a strangled cry, he spat the gristle away, lurched to his feet and ran off into the woods.
He ran until the fury left him, then fell sobbing among the dead and rotting leaves. After a time, he quieted and lay still until a sound, or something like a sound-it could have been a rustling in the leaves-trip-hammered his heart and he leapt to his feet, crouched, tense and ready.
He had run far into a dark, primordial section of the forest. Around him, immense and ancient trunks mingled with the surrounding shadow, and the late moon cast only the slightest shimmer through the thick foliage overhead. He could see nothing. Or could he?
There, off to his right, a bit of shadow seemed to resolve itself against the trunk of a large tree. Then it moved and he could see the distinct outline of a hooded shape. It approached silently and Condor looked around quickly for a rock or a branch, something to use as a weapon. But the figure made no hostile moves. It stopped about a body's length away and stood there, as tall as himself, slender, yet still wholly indistinct, a bit of black shadow, shaped from the darkness of the night.
"Who are you?" Condor demanded.
"The question, my friend, is who are you?" The thing spoke in an unearthly voice, a soft, sibilant whisper, like a distant wind. "Are you proud of yourself for this night's performance?"
"They had no right to speak of him thus!"
"No right to speak the truth? Ah Condor," the figure used Condor's name with an easy familiarity and laughed softly, the sound like scales scraping along a rock, "you would be a tyrant indeed if you could suppress Truth! But what will you do now? Go home as if nothing happened? They will soon find the bodies, you know. You left a rather untidy scene."
Condor opened his mouth but said nothing. He had not thought of anything beyond the urgency of his rage. Now he pictured the small sod hut that was his home, the old barn and attached shed, leaning together for support, the figure of his mother, bent and withered now where once had been a lithe beauty, and the hard, embittered visage of his step-father, his curses, the beatings. No, if he went back there now, he would kill him, too.
"I can help, you know," said the figure, as if reading his thoughts.
"How? Who are you?"
"Let's just say I am one who knows who you are... And what you can become. That is what you want, isn't it? To become like him? You who are twice cursed, the bastard son of a bastard son?"
"How can you do that?" Condor tried to sound derisive, but his voice came out plaintive.
"Ah, there's a secret, isn't there?" crooned the figure, moving swiftly closer. "The Truth here, Condor my lad, is that I can make you better than him." And he leaned towards Condor, the shadow of his hood seeming to envelop his head. Condor started to pull away, then stopped for just an instant, as something of the shadow seemed to pass into him. Then the figure was gone and Condor dropped to the ground like a sack.
He was awakened by a shaft of bright sunlight, which slipped through the leaves and seared his eyes. Instantly alert, he leapt up and looked around. But the wood was quiet and peaceful. He had slept late and the sun was well up, dappling the ground with a golden shimmer. Condor stretched, pulling the muscles tight across his shoulders and feeling the hardness where they bunched on his arms. Slowly, he clenched his fingers before his face, curling them into fists. He could feel power there, and he smiled, a hard, knowing light glinting in his eyes.
He made his way westward, sticking to the forest and moving swiftly but carefully. At a stream, he drank deep, spitting and rinsing the foul blood from his mouth, then scrubbed himself clean. Following the course of the stream, he waded in the bed as it meandered towards the river. Where it crossed the road, he crouched between its banks looking each way and listening carefully before slipping across the narrow ford. He was well to the north of where the bodies lay and he saw and heard nothing.
West of the road, the stream deepened as several other rills joined it and the land tilted towards the river. The stream tumbled into a larger brook, which cut a deep gully as it neared the river. When the brook became too deep to wade comfortably, Condor scrambled along its banks, clambering over large rocks and forcing his way through tangled flood debris, undergrowth and brambles. Finally, the stream shot out from its banks, tumbled down a steep fifty-foot rock face and poured into the River Sule.
Condor squatted at the top of the face to catch his breath. He ignored the hollow ache of hunger in his belly and stared out over the river. The sun was high now, pushing westward, and the river was broad and deep, nearly a mile across and still swollen from spring rain in the mountains to the north. The current was swift and sinewy, flexing like the muscles of a great serpent, too strong to swim. Directly opposite, the head of an island split the current and beyond, hazy in the glare of the far shore, was the port city of Palemia.
The island, he knew, stretched several miles to the south, past the town of Koth and almost to the Inland Sea. Between here and the town, the riverbank was high and the water deep right up to the shore. No one lived along here until the land subsided, just north of the town. But that was where the tavern was.
Something upstream caught his eye. It was a large bush, uprooted somewhere in the north and drifting along towards the sea. As it neared, Condor sprang out like a great ape, and plunged down fifty feet into the water. Coming up under the base of the bush, he caught hold of its lower branches and pushed it ahead of him as he kicked towards the island.
Several days later, in the port city of Palemia, the mate of His Imperial Majesty's war galley, Steiger, looked up to see a large, hulking youth amble up the gangway. He was dressed in rough breeches and a loose smock-farmer's clothes-and looked like he had been sleeping in the woods. But he had an air of confidence about him, and acted like he owned the boat.
"What do you want?" the mate growled, barring the way at the entry port.
"A berth," said the youth.
"A berth? The war is over these three months past, lad! Everybody else is trying to get out!" But the youth just stood there, implacable.
"Well you look rugged enough, though a tad young... And it's not like we don't need hands. What do ye know of seamanship?"
The youth stood at the rail and surveyed the ship from stem to stern, casually taking in her beaked prow and high forecastle; the long, double-row of benches-empty now with the crew ashore-and the sweeps neatly lashed; the tall mast and taut rigging; the square sail tightly furled against the yard; the high poop deck aft with its tiny cabin tucked below. And he nodded.
"I know," he said, looking the mate straight in the eye. His eyes were hard and black, yet somehow compelling. They were the eyes of a much older man, the mate thought.
"Well," he said, "let's see what you do know. What do you call that?" he asked, and pointed to a peg set in the bulwark by one of the benches.
Condor looked at it, the words forming in his mind. "Thole pin," he said.
"And this?" the mate asked, pointing to a similar pin in the rail surrounding the base of the mast.
"Belaying pin."
"And attached to it?"
"Halyard."
"All right, then. Let's see you cast off the main gaskets."
Without hesitation, Condor leaped for the shrouds, hauled himself up the mast hand over hand and began to loosen the sail. "All right!" yelled the mate. "Belay that. You may look like a farmer, but there's a right seaman in you, I'll warrant that."

EXTRACT FOR
Valerius And The Bastard Son

(T.R. Rankin)


Prologue

In the months following the fall of Fantar in the hills east of Palmeria, the remnants of his brutal host-and the regime they supported-dissipated like a foul mist before the rays of a new day's sun. They scattered and secreted themselves in hidden corners of the Empire like damp settling into the timbers of a great ship, and there began to fester and rot.
As the ancient Imperial order reasserted itself under the High King, Valerius, the worst of this element were flushed out and dealt with. Some were summarily put to the sword or cross. Some were sent to the benches of galleys at sea, others to various dank and dismal gaols. But many-the lower echelons of non-commissioned officers, men at arms, and the like-were taken at their oath and left to shift for themselves. Some lucky few of these returned to find home and family, others drifted to settle here or there, wherever circumstance or the urge to move on left them. Before Fantar's rise and conquest of the Inland Sea, many of these men had been brigands and petty outlaws of one sort or another. Now, some fell afoul of the law yet again. Some fell victim to their own companions.
But one night,on the road north of the tiny town of Koth, just across from the port city of Palemia on the River Sule, two in particular fell victim to something worse.
They were not the most pleasing companions, nor the most sterling of characters. Twenty-year veterans of Fantar's scourge, they had marched the entire circuit of the Inland Sea and back under his black flacon banner. They had fought together in all the major engagements of that time and had seen and done things even they would not own. Sergeant and NCO, they had belonged at the last to a regiment of Fantar's Imperial Guard and had marched eastward with him from Valeria to meet his fate in the dry hills beyond Palmeria. Not remotely interested in joining their more fanatical comrades in a fight to the death, these two switched sides early in the final melee, and afterwards, made good pickings off the corpses of their former fellows before slinking off in the night and making their way westward.
Now they sat late in a small, mud-walled tavern, their chins sunk low over their cups, and groused rather too loudly about the fate of their former leader. There were few customers in the place at this hour-the tavern catered mostly to local farmers, early risers who had long since stumbled home to their beds-and those few still scattered about swayed groggily or slumped over their tables. Even the bartender dozed on his stool, and as the discussion of the two veterans grew heated, no one seemed to notice their rising volume-no one, that is, except for the one other upright figure in the room, a hulking youth who sat listening to every word at a table in the corner behind them.
The sergeant had declaimed on the madness which had seized Fantar near the end and which had driven him-and his faithful Guard with him-eastward to the barren hills beyond Palmeria, a full eight hundred miles from the capital of Valeria. There, under a blistering desert sun, and at the very start of a battle with the resurgent High King, Valerius-a battle which the sergeant still claimed they could have won-Fantar had fulfilled the prophecy by dying at the hand of his Halfling servant, one who, according to the Oracle, he could only "half see."
"Aye" said the sergeant of the Halfling, "A scrawny little runt he was, not high enough to kiss your arse... Stuck ole Fantar like a pig, he did."
"You lie!" snarled the youth, suddenly rushing forward and looming over their table. He was a rough country lad dressed in a farmer's smock too small for his huge frame. His fisted hands were like hams waving in the sergeant's face, and while there was as yet but the lightest fringe of down upon his cheeks, his eyes burned fierce, and anger bristled around him. "Fantar would not die so."
But the veteran was not to be perturbed by such a raw youth, imposing though he was. "Would not die so? As if his corpse isn't rotting this very moment and himself wailing away in perdition! And what would you know about it, laddie boy? You were there, I suppose?"
"No, but I know."
"You know!" the sergeant scoffed, rising to face the youth who still towered over him. Several other patrons had awakened by now and moved quickly aside. "You don't know my arse from your mother's dug. Now go sit down before I... "
The youth lunged over the table, his fingers closing on the veteran sergeant's throat. The two fell clattering to the floor, thrashing about and upending furniture. In an instant, the other veteran thrust the broken table aside and flung himself onto the pair, a dagger glinting dully in his upraised fist. But before he could drive the blade home, the barman caught his upraised arm. He yanked the man aside and kicked the other pair apart, then stood over the three brandishing a large wood axe.
"Here!" he commanded, "There'll be none of that in here. You, Condor, hie yourself home where you belong. And you two, get your kits and clear out of here. I'll not have the likes of you wrecking the peace of my establishment!"
The youth, Condor, abruptly fled into the night, the door swinging wide behind him. But the other pair protested. "What do you mean?" the sergeant whined. "We were minding our own business here!"
"I heard your talk and I don't like your business," said the barman, brandishing his axe. "We had enough of 'your business' around here long before Fantar One-Eye got his due. Now clear off I tell you!"
"We paid you for lodging, we did!" claimed the sergeant, thrusting out his chin.
"And I'll lodge this axe in your skull if you push me," growled the barman. By now, several other patrons, suddenly very sober, had lined up behind the barman. Some brandished weapons of their own, while others held stools by the legs.
The veterans decided against confronting such odds. Grabbing their packs from the wall by the door, they marched sullenly out into the night. Nor was this the first time since Fantar's fall they had been so driven from the prospect of a comfortable bed.
The half-moon was past its meridian and cast a pale light along the road as the two trudged north between newly sown fields. They were headed towards a stretch of woods, which promised fuel for a fire and security for the night. Neither spoke, but both replayed the scene at the tavern with a growing sense of indignation. So seldom were they the victims that this incident seemed to justify a host of past sins.
"He was a big-un," said the NCO as the trees began to close around them.
"Aye, but barely a whisker on his chin."
"Suppose he's still lurking about?"
"Nah, home to his mama, more like it. That type has no stick to 'em. Just keep an eye open anyway."
But the sergeant was wrong. In fact, it was already too late. Behind them, the youth, Condor, stepped quietly out onto the road, and as the words left the sergeant's mouth, he smashed a large rock down onto the NCO's head, spattering blood and brains, and killing the man instantly.
"Hey!" shouted the sergeant flinching away from the spray and spinning to face their assailant. In an instant he drew sword and dagger and stood crouched at the ready. "Oh, now you've done it, laddie-boy," he snarled, glancing quickly at his fallen comrade. "Now you've done it!" And he lunged, sword whistling in the night air.
But the big youth was quicker. As the sergeant advanced, he hurled the rock. It struck the sergeant flush in the chest, knocking him back and driving the wind from his lungs. Then the youth was on him. Grasping both of the man's wrists, he drove him to the ground and landed on top of him. The sergeant tried to roll and wrestle himself free, but the youth was too big, too strong for him. Then he lay still, his arms firmly pinned to the ground by the youth's massive fists, and glared up into the face of his antagonist. He saw, momentarily, a look of uncertainty there.
"Hah! What are you going to do now, you bastard!" he spat. "Move one hand and I'll drive steel into your gizzard so fast you won't have a chance to blink."
Instant fury contorted the youth's face. His mouth twisted open and he drove his head down, clamping his jaws onto the sergeant's throat.
"Arrgh... !" the man tried to scream, but the sound was cut short as Condor twisted and bit and ripped at his throat, growling like a dog. Then he reared his head in the pale moonlight, his eyes raving wild, his mouth foaming with blood, and the sergeant's dripping larynx clenched between his teeth. With a strangled cry, he spat the gristle away, lurched to his feet and ran off into the woods.
He ran until the fury left him, then fell sobbing among the dead and rotting leaves. After a time, he quieted and lay still until a sound, or something like a sound-it could have been a rustling in the leaves-trip-hammered his heart and he leapt to his feet, crouched, tense and ready.
He had run far into a dark, primordial section of the forest. Around him, immense and ancient trunks mingled with the surrounding shadow, and the late moon cast only the slightest shimmer through the thick foliage overhead. He could see nothing. Or could he?
There, off to his right, a bit of shadow seemed to resolve itself against the trunk of a large tree. Then it moved and he could see the distinct outline of a hooded shape. It approached silently and Condor looked around quickly for a rock or a branch, something to use as a weapon. But the figure made no hostile moves. It stopped about a body's length away and stood there, as tall as himself, slender, yet still wholly indistinct, a bit of black shadow, shaped from the darkness of the night.
"Who are you?" Condor demanded.
"The question, my friend, is who are you?" The thing spoke in an unearthly voice, a soft, sibilant whisper, like a distant wind. "Are you proud of yourself for this night's performance?"
"They had no right to speak of him thus!"
"No right to speak the truth? Ah Condor," the figure used Condor's name with an easy familiarity and laughed softly, the sound like scales scraping along a rock, "you would be a tyrant indeed if you could suppress Truth! But what will you do now? Go home as if nothing happened? They will soon find the bodies, you know. You left a rather untidy scene."
Condor opened his mouth but said nothing. He had not thought of anything beyond the urgency of his rage. Now he pictured the small sod hut that was his home, the old barn and attached shed, leaning together for support, the figure of his mother, bent and withered now where once had been a lithe beauty, and the hard, embittered visage of his step-father, his curses, the beatings. No, if he went back there now, he would kill him, too.
"I can help, you know," said the figure, as if reading his thoughts.
"How? Who are you?"
"Let's just say I am one who knows who you are... And what you can become. That is what you want, isn't it? To become like him? You who are twice cursed, the bastard son of a bastard son?"
"How can you do that?" Condor tried to sound derisive, but his voice came out plaintive.
"Ah, there's a secret, isn't there?" crooned the figure, moving swiftly closer. "The Truth here, Condor my lad, is that I can make you better than him." And he leaned towards Condor, the shadow of his hood seeming to envelop his head. Condor started to pull away, then stopped for just an instant, as something of the shadow seemed to pass into him. Then the figure was gone and Condor dropped to the ground like a sack.
He was awakened by a shaft of bright sunlight, which slipped through the leaves and seared his eyes. Instantly alert, he leapt up and looked around. But the wood was quiet and peaceful. He had slept late and the sun was well up, dappling the ground with a golden shimmer. Condor stretched, pulling the muscles tight across his shoulders and feeling the hardness where they bunched on his arms. Slowly, he clenched his fingers before his face, curling them into fists. He could feel power there, and he smiled, a hard, knowing light glinting in his eyes.
He made his way westward, sticking to the forest and moving swiftly but carefully. At a stream, he drank deep, spitting and rinsing the foul blood from his mouth, then scrubbed himself clean. Following the course of the stream, he waded in the bed as it meandered towards the river. Where it crossed the road, he crouched between its banks looking each way and listening carefully before slipping across the narrow ford. He was well to the north of where the bodies lay and he saw and heard nothing.
West of the road, the stream deepened as several other rills joined it and the land tilted towards the river. The stream tumbled into a larger brook, which cut a deep gully as it neared the river. When the brook became too deep to wade comfortably, Condor scrambled along its banks, clambering over large rocks and forcing his way through tangled flood debris, undergrowth and brambles. Finally, the stream shot out from its banks, tumbled down a steep fifty-foot rock face and poured into the River Sule.
Condor squatted at the top of the face to catch his breath. He ignored the hollow ache of hunger in his belly and stared out over the river. The sun was high now, pushing westward, and the river was broad and deep, nearly a mile across and still swollen from spring rain in the mountains to the north. The current was swift and sinewy, flexing like the muscles of a great serpent, too strong to swim. Directly opposite, the head of an island split the current and beyond, hazy in the glare of the far shore, was the port city of Palemia.
The island, he knew, stretched several miles to the south, past the town of Koth and almost to the Inland Sea. Between here and the town, the riverbank was high and the water deep right up to the shore. No one lived along here until the land subsided, just north of the town. But that was where the tavern was.
Something upstream caught his eye. It was a large bush, uprooted somewhere in the north and drifting along towards the sea. As it neared, Condor sprang out like a great ape, and plunged down fifty feet into the water. Coming up under the base of the bush, he caught hold of its lower branches and pushed it ahead of him as he kicked towards the island.
Several days later, in the port city of Palemia, the mate of His Imperial Majesty's war galley, Steiger, looked up to see a large, hulking youth amble up the gangway. He was dressed in rough breeches and a loose smock-farmer's clothes-and looked like he had been sleeping in the woods. But he had an air of confidence about him, and acted like he owned the boat.
"What do you want?" the mate growled, barring the way at the entry port.
"A berth," said the youth.
"A berth? The war is over these three months past, lad! Everybody else is trying to get out!" But the youth just stood there, implacable.
"Well you look rugged enough, though a tad young... And it's not like we don't need hands. What do ye know of seamanship?"
The youth stood at the rail and surveyed the ship from stem to stern, casually taking in her beaked prow and high forecastle; the long, double-row of benches-empty now with the crew ashore-and the sweeps neatly lashed; the tall mast and taut rigging; the square sail tightly furled against the yard; the high poop deck aft with its tiny cabin tucked below. And he nodded.
"I know," he said, looking the mate straight in the eye. His eyes were hard and black, yet somehow compelling. They were the eyes of a much older man, the mate thought.
"Well," he said, "let's see what you do know. What do you call that?" he asked, and pointed to a peg set in the bulwark by one of the benches.
Condor looked at it, the words forming in his mind. "Thole pin," he said.
"And this?" the mate asked, pointing to a similar pin in the rail surrounding the base of the mast.
"Belaying pin."
"And attached to it?"
"Halyard."
"All right, then. Let's see you cast off the main gaskets."
Without hesitation, Condor leaped for the shrouds, hauled himself up the mast hand over hand and began to loosen the sail. "All right!" yelled the mate. "Belay that. You may look like a farmer, but there's a right seaman in you, I'll warrant that."