– Prologue –
Tendrils of smoke stained burnt orange coiled into the air from the ink-laden paper. Flames crept along its borders and inched towards its centre. Aside from the candles burning on the desk across the room, the fire in Jonas Vorley’s hand was the only source of light in the room. The window shutters were closed fast against prying eyes. He watched the scrawl melt away and finally let the script fall into the ashy grate of his cold fireplace, where it continued to burn away the signature that offered the permission he’d long sought.
Jonas cocked his head at the rough scraping of footsteps outside, a subtle warning of an approaching knock. Long strides carried him across the dark room to the door. He opened the door as the soldier in the hallway raised his fist. Jonas flashed his teeth in amusement at the man’s surprise.
“Serjant,” Jonas eyed the double bars on the sleeve of his coat that identified his rank. He took careful note of the intricate hilt of the sword at his hip—a man of noble means. He knew the soldier, but could not recall his name. “Do not waste my time looking surprised. Get on with it.” His heart quickened as he predicted the possible contents of the report.
The soldier saluted the Sheryff to hide his discomfort, “Serjant Lauder, syr. Governyr Makkin has requested your presence for an urgent matter.”
“What is it?” The impatience was clear in his voice. He already knew what the matter was likely to be, as he knew all things that happened in the region. As Sheryff of the Northern provinces—second only to the Governyr himself—he had to know these things.
“Your traps, syr.” Lauder melted under Jonas’s striking gaze, which heated with a greater intensity at the confirmation of his suspicions. The serjant hurried to answer the next unspoken question. “Two have been captured.”
“Excellent. Take me.” Jonas gathered his sword belt and slipped into his riding jacket. The ashes of his letter danced and scattered as he strode past the fireplace to follow Serjant Lauder down the hall.
“Tell me,” Jonas said.
“Caught in one of your traps, Headwaters, syr—” Lauder hurried to keep up with his commander’s long strides, and felt his words die in his throat as the man cut him off.
“Who?” any would be satisfactory, but a man could dream. Through the nearest window, the night sky was cloudless and lit by a waxing moon approaching its apex. Usually, the military quarter at the southern reaches of the city was quiet at night; there was little unrest so close to the center of power. Now, there was a commotion in the air that heralded the event. The men were awake and buzzing with the capture, even if they did not know its full scope.
“Nagel,” Lauder began.
“The elder?” Jonas replied, hoping his luck remained strong.
“The elder,” Lauder confirmed. Jonas’s chest swelled at the news.
They hurried down sharply hewn steps from the second level and emerged into the fort’s courtyard. Militia bustled past, looking busy, but with their peripheral vision trained on their commander, keen to sense his disposition at this latest success. When Vorley was happy, they all could be.
The younger Nagel had harassed him and his operations soundly, but the core of the very resistance rested with the elder. This would sound their final death knell, though the independence front had been dying for months. His scheme to capture them had paid off enormously.
“And the other?”
“His guard. Won’t say his name, but I think he’s that Barnicke boy, the one that disappeared a few months back.”
“Disappeared,” Jonas scoffed. Even the boy’s father, Lon Barnicke had suspected his youngest son of defecting to the rebellion. They’d had many a discussion. ‘If only he’d come back, we would welcome him,’ Lon had said. Jonas had agreed as thoroughly as his empty feelings for the boy would allow, having no intention of sparing the traitor.
Jonas stooped under the doorway as they re-entered the fort on the other side of the courtyard. The hallway inside was wide enough for four men to march abreast, allowing a defensive formation in the event of a breach. At the end of the hallway, the governyr paced in front of a heavy oaken door while another soldier stood nervously nearby. This soldier spied Vorley and then Lauder, and visibly relaxed as he recognized the expression of relative ease on Lauder’s face.
“What took you?” Makkin asked from down the hall, his voice was weak at the late hour, but his attitude commanded respect.
“Hmm?” Jonas replied firmly as he neared.
“What took you?” the governyr repeated, somewhat less sure of himself the second time.
“I’ve only just heard.”
The two soldiers stood at attention as the two most powerful men in Northern Numyria politely sparred.
“Of course, of course,” Makkin accepted the explanation and then changed tack. “You’ve done it this time Jonas. We’ve got him.”
“Cicero. I’ve heard.”
“And that Barnicke boy… Grian, I think? Grown some shade, but he’s got his father’s nose.”
“Lucky we caught them,” Makkin’s corpulent body quivered with excited relief. Jonas never had his doubts, but of late, the endlessly weakening governyr had felt legitimately threatened by the agitators hidden away in the forests to the north. Thankfully, he felt no such feelings of threat from his closest advisor.
“I don’t believe in luck. This was hard work and preparation, and foolishness on their part,” Jonas flashed his teeth.
“Which one was it?” the Governyr asked.
“Headwaters,” Jonas replied. “They were getting very desperate,” Jonas replied. He’d fomented a bit of false sympathy in the large town at the Arrowhead River’s source. Rich with supplies and young men, the town’s sympathetic offerings would have been a bounty to the emaciated independence front. It was simple enough to set up a trap, though he had not anticipated capturing the rebellion’s leader. It had to be on its last legs.
“This ends it,” Makkin said.
Jonas grimaced. They’d beheaded the snake, but the stuff rebellions were made of—ideas—rarely died so easily. Nonetheless it was the beginning of the end. He would simply have to keep up the pressure, a task altogether more manageable once he had the Governyrship fully in his grasp.
“It would seem,” Jonas mollified his governyr as his mind turned to the next step in stamping out their enemy. He hoped that particular task would be informed by the coming moments with their captives. “Let’s get on with it.”
“Just through here, syr,” Lauder knocked on the great oaken door and another series of knocks replied. Lauder slid the bar lock against the grain of the wood and opened the door. Makkin hesitated and Jonas strode forward. His footfalls echoed off the stone walls.
In the middle of the room, two men knelt, their hands bound behind their backs and their ankles chained. Both men’s eyes rose from the cold stone floor that offered little comfort to their knees.
“What a wonderful surprise,” Jonas said, arms wide in false welcome. The younger man, Grian Barnicke, spat at Jonas’s feet and sneered. Jonas considered the spittle briefly, then leaned forward casually and backhanded Grian. His face careened into the ground. Jonas ignored the hiss of disgust from Makkin as the Governyr padded into the room after them. With a look of disdain, Jonas turned his attentions on the elder man.
“Cicero Nagel, do you not teach your juniors respect?”
“It is placed where it is earned,” Cicero said simply, a calm expression on his face. His lips were thin with discomfort but his brow was relaxed.
Jonas smirked as he reached down to stroke the rebel leader’s short and finely sculpted white beard. “This suits you.” He recalled that Cicero had kept his face clean shaven in the past.
“Change is good,” Cicero replied, “Of course, you know my stance on such matters.”
Jonas shrugged and conceded the point, “Perhaps we’re not so different.” The sort of change he had in mind was less dramatic than Cicero’s ideals.
“You’re finished now, Cicero!” Makkin bellowed, tiring of the careful banter Jonas was busy constructing. Jonas felt the muscles at the back of his neck tense with annoyance. His patience for the governyr was wearing thin.
Barnicke struggled off the floor back into a kneeling position, leaving behind a stain of blood and spit where his lip had split on the stone. This time, he spat at Makkin, who waddled out of the way too slowly and ended with blood and saliva on his pants and boots.
Jonas backhanded the young man again. “Learn a new trick, dog.” This time, the boy seemed to deflate and stayed down.
“I’ll have your h—” Makkin started.
“Silence,” Jonas hissed, holding up his hand to hush the governyr. It was a rare moment of lost control, but Makkin’s posturing had become tiresome. Jonas’s patience waned, especially as the secret words of the emperyr’s letter echoed at the back of his head, words confirming his pending succession. He ran his hands over his smooth, shortly cropped hair to settle himself. To his surprise, Makkin quieted, and Jonas felt the tension in his neck melt away. “Cicero, we really must come to a compromise on this messy business.”
This time, it was Cicero’s turn to shrug.
Jonas continued, “We’ve rooted you out. We’ve captured your friends, your followers. You’re running out of supplies, of supporters. Your capture today is proof enough of that,” Jonas slowly paced back and forth in front of Cicero and the prostrate Barnicke boy. Makkin stood out of range of flying spittle, his face red with indignation but his lips closed and, blissfully, tongue still. “Tell us where the rest of you are hiding. If we can put this little thing to rest, we’ll spare them. With your help, Cicero, I’m sure my lord—” Jonas indicated to Makkin, “—would be willing to offer you a pardon. A man with your knowledge, your diplomacy… you could be invaluable to the empyre.”
“We’re past that, Jonas. It’s gone too far. He’s gone too far,” Cicero moved to motion with his hands as though making one of his inflammatory speeches, but was reminded he was bound by the rough cord chafing his wrists. “Look out your windows. The people are bound, not such as this,” with his chin, he indicated himself and his companion, “but in every way except.”
“This is our destiny,” Jonas replied. “This land serves the other. That is how it has always been, from the Age of Kings to this Age of Hallows.”
“But it need not.”
Jonas sighed. Once, in his youth, he’d entertained the very idea, and almost got behind it. But that was a long time ago now. He looked deep into Cicero’s eyes and saw there would be no negotiation. The man was set in his ideals. But every man could break. That process started now.
“Very well then.” Jonas withdrew a wide blade from its sheath at his side and in two quick movements, pulled Grian’s hair to expose his neck, and opened his great vessels onto the floor. Blood spilled out and seeped between the spaces in the stones. “Take him to the dungeon,” Jonas motioned for the guards to drag Cicero away. Cicero stared at him, a look of sympathy in the elder’s eyes. Jonas turned away. Somehow, he felt that the sympathy was not for the dead boy, but for him.
Will Cicero break? Find out in the debut novel from J.R. McConnery on Amazon!