Circle in the Deep: The Outcast Royal Book 1
It's a tricky thing to determine where the line of right and wrong is when pillaging a city. Only a certain type of warrior will know the difference.
1 – Khardalis, the Iron Maiden and crown jewel of the Behemon Mountains, lay stripped and broken before her enemies.
The armies of Hasriim the Great already flowed through her streets and the first screams of the harrowed population were soon joined by the ravenous crackle of fire. In the waning night, the mingled voices of victims and flames would rise like an apocalyptic choir to echo across the mountainside.
The city had stood defiant for too long against Hasriim and as such, her humbling would be the subject of dread legends for years to come. Tales would be whispered of how rapine, slaughter, and plunder had left her a shell only fit for vultures and jackals. In cities as far as the fabled courts of Xhulth across the Caged Sea or even far Verenvan, dire stories would be told of the noble houses down to the last babe in arms butchered and hung from the palace Citadel.
Not every word would be true but the message would be clear. Khardalis was broken as was fitting for all who stood against Hasriim the Great.
Yet not one word would be spoken about how it was not Hasriim, however great he might be, who accomplished the fall of the proud city.
That dubious honor lay with a band that skulked around the gutted barbican of the Goat’s Gate.
The fortified gatehouse squatted upon the junction of the city’s outer wall. A branch of the interior wall provided, like yawning jaws, access to a rough mountain track into the Behemon Mountains.
The gate’s name had been a matter of some debate amongst the learned antiquarians of the city. Some had postulated that it was so named because this was where mountain shepherds used to drive their flocks into the city in antiquity. Others said that anyone exiting from said portal had best be as surefooted as a goat if they planned to travel the treacherous slopes beyond.
A few truly innovative and progressive academics proposed that the appellation of goat was derived as a derogatory term resulting from early conflicts between nomadic and agrarian peoples, but academics often say many silly things and their fellow civilized men indulge such foolishness.
Regardless, those scholars would soon never argue again as they died amongst other civilized men, while the Goat Gate was held by a small detachment of those distinctly less civil.
Moments earlier, they had ensured rapid ingress into the city. Now, they were determined to halt any egress. That is, of course, assuming one couldn’t pay.
“That’s everything we have,” a woman sobbed and clutched a silken shawl around her with one hand while the other pressed a small boy to her hip. The child shivered in the night air and the thin nightgown trembled against his spare frame.
“Not everything, me thinkz,” a tall, barrel-chested man rumbled in a basso voice thick with a northern accent. He looked up from perusing the pack he held open with one hand while the other hand rested on the pommel of a sword in a battered scabbard. Seeming all the larger in the coat of scales and gorget worn across his broad body, he loomed over them both.
With thick, scarred fingers, he’d already plucked out the bag of coins and a wineskin that lay at his feet but he now squinted at the woman in the light of the burning city. His pale eyes glimmered in a gaunt face. He sucked his teeth and turned his visage to a skull’s rictus grin before he nodded.
“What do you me—” She began to weep but saw the heavy fingers stretched toward her. Fearing the worst, she cried out and tried to draw back but the brute’s fingers snagged the opal necklace around her throat.
“You are having theze.” The big man chuckled as the child at her side began to cry. “Give me theze and onez in you earz, then it be everything, me thinkz.”
“Please…please!” the woman croaked and her eyes bulged as her fingers struggled with the necklace. “Take it, please, but don’t hurt us.”
After another agonizing moment of fumbling, the necklace came free.
“Hurt?” the brigand asked with a bemused chuckle as he admired the necklace in his fist before he winked at the bawling child. “Why think me do that, eh?”
“Because your face looks like the celestial end of a hell-bound demon,” drawled a man from under the gate’s shadow. “And that’s when you’re in a good mood.”
The speaker emerged from the belly of the barbican. Bandy limbed and wiry with a horn bow slung over one shoulder, he wore a padded tunic crisscrossed with a leather harness from which hung a long-knife and a quiver of arrows. His voice was even and calm but something in his flinty gaze made mother and child shrink away.
The bowman’s black-eyed gaze played across the woman and lingered at every place where her thin nightgown shifted and clung to the soft body beneath. His expression didn’t change but his shoulders seemed to roll forward while his advancing steps took on a distinctly predatory gait.
“Perhaps the lady is looking for a guide, hmmm?” he all but purred in the back of his throat. “Someone to see her and her dear son to safety?”
“I can’t pay,” the woman said with a shiver and hugged herself. “He has everything.”
His lips curled to form a cold smile.
“Oh, I’m sure we’ll find a way to balance the scales.”
“Weren’t you—” The big man began to turn to the newcomer but fell silent at the wicked light in his companion’s eyes. The shadows on the gaunt face deepened as he looked at the beset mother with a shrug. The necklace fell amongst the other plunder at his feet and he refused to look at the sniffling little boy.
“Earringz first, me thinkz,” he grunted flatly and moved his hand to rest it on the pommel of his sword again.
Desperation and fear warred on the woman’s face as she struggled to remove the earrings, but a keening scream from deeper within the burning city held her attention for a moment. Something grew hard and remote in her eyes. She handed the earrings over, turned to the “guide,” and nodded stiffly, but she held her head high as she met his merciless gaze.
“Very well,” she said, her throat so tight she almost whispered. “Get us to safety and you can…can have whatever you want.”
As if to illustrate the point, she loosened her grasp on the shawl and straightened to draw her shoulders back. His smile broadened and it was his turn to nod.
“This way, my lady,” he said in a throaty invitation as he gestured toward the dark passage leading out of the city.
The big man would not look at either woman or child as they began to shuffle past him. Without turning, he raised his voice to address his companion, his gaze fixed beyond the bloody streets and fire-spattered buildings.
“Be quick about it, Norlen,” he called in an ashen voice. “Ax-Wed won’t like, me thinkz.”
Before the man could respond, a third figure emerged from under the gatehouse and her icy tones froze both men like an arctic gale.
“What won’t I like, Brekah?”
He stiffened while Norlen turned jerkily to regard the speaker who stepped from the dark. Their reaction was muted, however, compared to the beleaguered woman who gaped openly.
Had she ever seen such a creature?
The figure that strode forward, in spite of the armor and mail-curtained helm she wore, was ferociously female, but she was a lioness to the domestic feline cowering of the two men. She stood eye to eye with Brekah and her every movement betrayed a strength and agility that pushed beyond mere sinew. One gauntleted hand clutched a flaccid wineskin while the other rested upon the head of an ax on her belt.
Norlen was the quickest to recover and strode quickly to scoop up the wineskin pilfered from the woman’s pack.
“We’re merely dealing with things,” he said with an unctuous smile as he held the wineskin up as an offering. “Nothing you need to worry about.”
Eyes like forge-heated copper flashed within the shadow of the helm’s sockets as Ax-Wed looked past the wine to where the mother and son gawked at her. She looked at Brekah, who still refused to face her, and glared at Norlen.
The words were as cold and hard as the grinning edge of the weapon at her belt.
His face spasmed with hatred but he mastered his expression and proffered the wineskin again.
“I don’t know what you mean.” He chuckled, an almost clucking sound in his dry mouth. “Take the skin and let us get back to it. The others will be back soon and they will probably have many more chickens that need to be plucked.”
Her gaze wandered to the wineskin for a moment and her fingers tightened on the limp sack in her hand. With a low sigh that slithered through the metal links that veiled her face, she let the empty skin fall from her grasp as she stepped forward.
“That a girl,” Norlen said encouragingly and a genuine grin crept across his face. “There you go. Climb right back—argh!”
His words ended in a choking gag as Ax-Wed stepped past the outheld liquor and seized him by the throat. With an ease that even the larger man would have struggled to display, she dragged the gasping, gargling bowman to one side. His eyes bulging, he clawed feebly at the armored limb that held him in a grasp as hard as the steel it was clad in.
“Brekah,” she said without an ounce of strain in her voice. “The pack.”
With a grumbling grunt, Brekah ambled around and held the pack out to the woman who stood moon-eyed with her child pressed against her hip.
“Take it,” Ax-Wed instructed in a calm, unhurried voice.
The woman hesitated for a moment and her fingers trembled when they stretched toward the pack. Then, with a lurch of resolve, she snatched it from him.
Again, the voice was untroubled despite the fact that Norlen now groped with one hand for the blade at his belt.
“Don’t,” she said and turned a chilling glare upon the bowman, who stilled although one hand still clenched around the arm holding him.
“Go,” she repeated and kicked the plundered wineskin toward the woman without turning her gaze from her captive. “Save as much of that as you can. In three days, you should reach a lodge on the north face. If it is empty, fine, but if not, use that wine to barter for assistance. They don’t get good wine up there very often.”
The woman slung the pack over her shoulder and scuttled forward with the child in tow. She hooked the carrying cords of the vessel with unsteady fingers but her voice was clear as she straightened to address the towering warrior.
“Thank you,” she whispered as she began to edge toward the portal. “May the gods bless you.”
She needed no more encouragement and turned from the ruins of her old life, dragging her son beside her. Before she vanished down the tunnel-like portal, the lad looked over his shoulder long enough to wave a hand in farewell.
Ax-Wed waved in return but something like a shiver passed over her.
When they had moved far enough to satisfy her, she returned her gaze to Norlen, who wheezed through her constricting fingers as he glared at her with undisguised hatred.
With no more effort than if he were the little boy who had fled, she threw him aside. He lost his footing and landed on his backside with a wounded grunt.
“Not a zmart thing, me thinkz.” Brekah groaned and rubbed the back of his neck as though he experienced a sudden ache.
“Maybe.” She shrugged and let her shoulders sag before she rolled them. “But right isn’t always smart.”
“Truth.” The large man nodded and gestured with his chin at the recovering Norlen. “But him not having zuch ideaz, me thinkz.”
The bowman found his feet and snarled obscenities and blasphemies in three different tongues as he unlimbered his bow.
“Don’t ever touch me again.” He growled belligerently as his fingers brushed the fletching of the arrows at his hip, his bow already freed from his shoulder. “Ever.”
Ax-Wed still rested her hand on the head of her weapon and regarded him coldly as his fingers closed around the shaft of an arrow.
“You’re a fine shot, Norlen,” she said in the same sanguine tone. “But don’t be stupid. Not twice in one day.”
He tugged the arrow halfway from the quiver and her fingers tightened enough that her gloves creaked slightly.
“Oh, this one isn’t for you,” he retorted venomously as he rolled the arrow between his fingers so the barbed head clicked against the others. “I think this one will be for your little friend.”
She tilted her head enough to look down the passage through the barbican where the woman and her son emerged from the shadow of the wall.
Steel had returned to her voice but this time, he merely sneered.
“It’s a far stretch on a small target but you said it.” He chuckled cruelly through bared teeth as he drew the arrow completely from the quiver. “I’m a fine shot.”
The ax seemed to fly into her hands and one hand grasped high while the other slid toward the bottom of the haft. There was no further word of warning this time but a low, wet snarl rose from deep in the lioness’ chest.
Brekah’s gaze darted from one to the other, his eyes wide and frightened. His mouth gaped and lips twitched as half-formed admonitions bubbled in the back of his throat.
An eternal second stretched as poisoned glare met smoldering glower, then Norlen’s mouth moved as he raised the shaft to his bow.
“This’ll teach y—”
The ax whistled gently before a dull, fleshy thud drew a ragged groan from Brekah. The sound was followed by the heavy thump as Norlen fell on the bloody cobbles. His limbs spasmed and organs voided to leave nothing but a sharp fecal stink in the air.
For a moment, an unnatural silence seemed to settle over that corner of the city as Ax-Wed drew a rag from her belt. Brekah turned away and shook his head.
The lioness had barely begun to clean her blade when he turned to face her, his eyes glittering and huge.
“No need for that, me thinkz,” he warned in a hoarse whisper and hooked a thumb over his shoulder.
Almost a dozen wretches in disheveled finery staggered up the abattoir of a street and looked over their shoulders constantly as if harried in their approach. They appeared to be a handful of small families and couples, all wearing or adorned by the kind of casual finery that inspired loathing and avarice in those denied such things. Some seemed to have had time to throw bundles together or retrieve small chests, but others appeared to have only what they wore.
At first, they seemed to be driven by the sight of the burning city but Ax-Wed’s gaze settled on the rangy figures arrayed behind them. The light of moon and flame gleamed on battle-greased blades and glinted off hard-worn armor. With cruel laughs and rough threats, they drove their herd toward the Goat Gate, their smiles keen and sharp as they all anticipated a good shearing.
“You run now they won’t chaze, me thinkz.” Brekah grunted and his gaze slid off her to Norlen’s cooling corpse as his nose crinkled. “Too buzy to follow, but you ztay and there’ll be more blood, me thinkz.”
She squared her shoulders, tucked the stained rag into her belt, and settled both her hands atop the ax head.
“I won’t run.” She shrugged and nodded toward Norlen’s body. “I gave him a chance. It’s not my fault he was too stupid to take it.”
The man shook his head and stole a glance over his shoulder.
“Norlen more popular than you, me thinkz,” he stated matter of factly. “More popular and been two-backing with Targhli for pazt few monthz. She’ll want zatizfaction, me thinkz.”
Now, it was her turn to shake her head.
“Even if he brought it on himself for wanting his way with a desperate woman?”
Brekah shrugged and turned toward the street again.
“Never bothered her before,” he grunted, the words slow and sour. “Won’t matter now, me thinkz.”
Ax-Wed’s chest swelled to answer but her shoulders sagged and she let the retort dissolve into a long, low sigh.
“What will you do?” she asked finally and raised her gaze to confirm that the divested nobles were barely a stone’s throw from the gatehouse.
“Watch,” he replied over his shoulder. “Tell them what happened if they azk but they won’t wazte time azking, me thinkz.”
She nodded and forced herself to wait in stillness and silence as the predator-stalked herd approached. Almost in counterpoint to the warrior’s poised position, the fallen nobles began to bleat their fearful entreaties.
“Please, have mercy,” they pleaded as their gait slowed to a nervous shuffle and they stared in terror at the bared blades behind them. “This is all we have left in the world. Mercy, please!”
Brekah drew a deep breath, coughed a little when the latrine stink of Norlen filled his nostrils, and raised a bellowing cry.
“One line, single file!” he ordered with the certainty and volume of a battle-seasoned commander. “No pushing and no cutting.”
“Yeah, no cutting,” snickered one of the she-jackals who nipped at the heels of the herd and flicked a red blade before her. “ʼLess you want us to cut you.”
From the looks of things, a few had already received such treatment. Near the head of the forming column was a gray-headed man with craggy features who clutched a crimsoned scrap of velvet to his face. Behind him, a paunchy woman sniffed and winced as she tried to squint around a freshly broken nose that leaked blood down her face.
“Now, now,” admonished a tall, lean man who emerged from the circling pack. “We are escorts for these fine people, after all.”
His clothing and armor were finer than the others but no less battered and battle-stained. He sauntered toward Brekah through the frightened folk who parted before him. An ivory-hilted sword hung on his belt and a steel-rimmed buckler held lightly in his left hand both seemed parts of his anatomy.
He stopped short when he noticed Norlen’s body a pace away from the grisly totem of his head. A face that might have been beautiful were it not so scar-crossed and soot-smeared scowled first at the corpse and then at the blood still clinging to the ax.
“Explain,” he ordered between clenched teeth and lowered his free hand to the sword at his belt.
“Well, Jaggor,” Brekah began and sucked his teeth again in a death’s head grimace.
Before anything further could be said, the blade-brandishing she-jackal uttered a horrible shriek.
“Norlen!” Targhli screeched and shoved through the cowering civilians. “Norlen!”
Her long-bladed knife still in one hand, she threw herself on the ground before her lover’s sightless eyes in a perverse imitation of worship. Her hard, wild gaze searched the slack expression and then swung upward toward the towering woman with the bloody ax.
“You! You bitch. I’ll kill you!”
The long-knife trembled but the woman didn’t rise from her crouch.
Ax-Wed glared at her and her burning gaze determined the measure of the woman in an instant. She dismissed her easily and turned her lioness’ gaze to Jaggor.
“We had a disagreement,” she said, her voice steady and flat.
The corner of his mouth twitched upward and for a second, cold, reptilian speculation slid behind his eyes. One less share in what was bound to be a prolific haul wasn’t something to ignore.
“You’ll pay for this.” Targhli yowled where she still crouched and the knife quivered in her hand. “I swear it by all the gods and every demon that’s earned a name.”
Ax-Wed didn’t bother to turn her head when she replied.
“There’s no need to pester them. I’m standing right here.”
The woman screamed like a wild cat but when she did not pounce, all understood what the warrior woman already knew.
“What was the disagreement about?” Jaggor asked and his eyes trailed to the pile of booty at Brekah’s feet. More calculations slithered behind his eyes and the rest of the crew seemed to sense it as they began to creep forward between the confused and still terrified flock.
Brekah noticed the change with one sweep of his eyes and took half a step back.
“About a woman,” he said quickly, one hand raised in placation while the other remained fixed on his sword. “Norlen was for taking a woman and Ax-Wed disagreez.”
Jaggor’s fingers tightened around the hilt of his sword.
“So she killed him for having his way with a prisoner?” he asked while the icy arithmetic slid the information on his mental abacus.
“No,” the big man said and took another half a step back when he realized some of the band had begun to creep along the flanks. “He intended to kill the woman’z boy or might have, me thinkz.”
Targhli rose and bared her teeth along with the long-knife in her hand.
“So she killed Norlen, one of her own, for some war-chaff’s whelp.” She growled in fury. “It seems to me like she merely wanted a bigger share.”
Soft murmurs of assent slid between the mercenaries as they crept closer.
“After all, didn’t you hear her say we would have never taken the gate without her?”
Ax-Wed weathered the accusing question without retort, which stoked the discontented current that crackled between the hot-blooded brigands. She rested her hands on her ax and fixed her gaze on Jaggor, their leader, and waited patiently.
Brekah slunk into the shadow of the gate and clear of the encircling band as Jaggor reached the end of his calculations. The leader of the sell-swords stood behind the shrinking circle and with a speculative glance, he assessed the scene with a cool smile.
Ax-Wed read the smile in an instant—one less rival, one less share. With a grimace, she adjusted her footing subtly.
“I suppose I should have known better than to trust a Thulian.” Jaggor sighed and expertly feigned self-deprecating resignation. “She couldn’t help it, I suppose.”
A hate-filled murmur passed through the gathered mercenaries as horrified whispers wove through their captives. All eyes turned to the warrior woman and some of the defeated even squared their shoulders as they stood a little taller.
Yes, a Thulian explained everything, didn’t it? No mortal man could defeat Khardalis but Hasriim had not sent mere men but a demon in mortal flesh. There was no shame in defeat when it took one of such a race to conquer them. After all, weren’t so many ancient stories full of these monsters from the sea, armored giants who worked foul magic with their very breath?
“That’s why its face is covered,” a captive muttered. “To hide the streaked hair and the fangs.”
Ax-Wed chuckled as the pack of jackals closed in.
It definitely seems like Ax-Wed has a knack for getting herself into dangerous situations. We shall see if she is able to get herself out. Circle in the Deep: The Outcast Royal Book 1 is available for pre-order now, and available for purchase July 22, 2021.