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The Blood King

an extract from the novel
by Gail Z Martin

To set the scene:
On the way downriver to challenge Jared for Margolan's throne, a boat accident throws Tris and his friends into the Nu River. Vahanian, who has shared more about the years he was a Nargi captive, decides to make a dangerous journey across the river into Nargi when they discover that Carina and Carroway came up on the Nargi side of the river and were captured. Knowing that he will be killed if he is discovered, Vahanian gets into the Nargi camp and is able to free Carroway and Carina using a magic transport amulet, but the magic goes wrong, leaving him stranded and outnumbered.

Vahanian barely parried the Nargi's blow as his attacker launched a frenzied onslaught. But the flare behind him told him all he needed to know. The magic had failed him, though it took the others to safety. He was alone, and in Nargi hands.

Instinct drove him on against the odds. Before his first attacker hit the ground, two more rushed to take his place, and by then, the whole camp roused so that no escape was possible. The Nargi commander barked an order and a soldier with a crossbow stepped up, training the cocked weapon at Vahanian's chest.

"Drop your sword," the captain snapped.

Trapped, Vahanian had no choice but to comply.

"Kneel, and place your hands on your head," the captain ordered. Two soldiers rushed up as Vahanian obeyed, binding his wrists with leather straps. The captain stepped closer, and the soldier kept the crossbow leveled at Vahanian. The captain reached out and tore the headgear away, exposing Vahanian's face.

"What are you, outlander?" the captain mused, "that you dress like a Nargi and fight like a Nargi?"

"Go screw the goddess," Vahanian retorted in Nargi, and the captain cuffed him so hard it nearly knocked him over.

"I wonder," the captain said, grabbing a handful of hair and yanking Vahanian's face up. "I heard stories, once, of an outlander who could fight like that. Many years ago. But he'd be too clever to come back, wouldn't you think?"

"You're the one with all the answers. You tell me."

"Interesting," the captain said thoughtfully. He turned to a soldier behind him. "Fetch the commander. Tell him we have a captive I think he will find most interesting. Bring him immediately."

The soldier acknowledged the order with a low bow, and ran off to the horses, setting off at a gallop. Just then, another soldier ran up from the direction of the cookhouse.

"Captain," the soldier shouted. "We found three bodies behind the cookhouse, and a guard dead along the perimeter," he reported breathlessly. "We lost Lucan, Cashel, Piaras and Newry."

The captain regarded the soldier dispassionately. "Burn the bodies," he ordered. He returned his attention to Vahanian. "You'll die for what you've done."

"I'd figured that out already."

This time, the captain's blow sent Vahanian sprawling, his ears ringing.

"Quick death is an honor," the captain said, standing over him. "You'll have time to reflect on your mistakes." He turned his back. "Take him away. Go over the stockade pole by pole to see what he's done to it, and post two guards at all times." The captain looked levelly at his second-in-command. "If the prisoner escapes, those guarding him will die his death."

"Yes, sir," the second-in-command replied, and called out two soldiers. They yanked Vahanian to his feet and shoved him so hard towards the stockade that he nearly fell again, staggering into the cell. The other soldiers filed back to their barracks, except for one who began earnestly inspecting and mending the stockade, and the two sharp-eyed soldiers who stood guard.

Vahanian sat down and rested his head in his bound hands. You sure picked a bad time to lose your luck, he thought. What in the world possessed you to try a stunt like this? But he knew. The others, more important to the quest to destroy Arontala and unseat Jared Drayke, would go on. The quest could continue without him. If they succeeded, he would finally have his vengeance against the dark mage. More than that, Carina was safe. And while he might never have been able to earn her love, he could at least repay the many times she had saved his life. Maybe it's time. You always knew it was going to happen, sooner or later.

The approach of a swift horse woke him from an uneasy sleep, and Vahanian rose warily to his feet as the captain ran to meet the rider. The two men spoke for a moment, silhouetted in the moonlight, then strode towards the stockade. By the walk and carriage of one silhouette, Vahanian could identify the rider even before the man's face became clear in the dim light, and what little hope he held vanished.

"That's him," the commander clipped when he reached the stockade. "Well done, captain. Bring him to your quarters. I'll question him myself."

"Hello, Dorran," Vahanian said as the guards opened the stockade door and roughly maneuvered him out of the cage. "I figured you were buzzard food long ago."

"Just as I remembered," Dorran said, a cold smile touching his thin lips. "We have some catching up to do. Bring him inside."

Inside, forced to kneel while one guard kept a crossbow trained on him, Vahanian watched the thin commander lay aside his cloak. "Amazing. You caused me no end of trouble with your... escape. But we both know it was arranged. And when the general let you free, he thought it would discredit me." Dorran circled Vahanian as he spoke.

He stopped and reached out, a dagger in his hand, to tilt Vahanian's face up until their eyes met. "I would have been a general myself by now, without your little ruse. And I've thought a long time on just how you might make it up to me."

"What about his companions?" the Nargi captain asked.

Dorran shrugged. "Riffraff. There's no time to chase petty smugglers down the river. Ready your men for Margolan."

"Expanding your horizons?" Vahanian baited, but his heart thudded.

Dorran regarded him coolly. "I've spent almost a decade rebuilding the career you damaged. This will reclaim my honor. We've made an alliance with the new king of Margolan to remind some insurrectionists about the power of a king."

"I thought Margolan had an army for that kind of thing," Vahanian retorted, trying to keep his interest from seeming too apparent.

"His army is soft. They lack the will of their king. We'll teach them. And for that, I'll be handsomely rewarded."

Vahanian stared at him balefully, but said nothing more, the point of the dagger pricking into his throat. Dorran twitched the blade, tracing the thin pair of parallel scars that, even now, showed where a slave collar left its mark years ago.

"This time, no one will arrange your escape," Dorran said, returning his knife to his belt and beginning to turn up the sleeves of his uniform. "I intend to enjoy myself quite thoroughly," he said with a cold chuckle. Without warning, Dorran wheeled, landing a kick on the side of Vahanian's head that sent the smuggler sprawling. "Get ready to see the Lady. Your luck has just run out."

The beating continued until Dorran, panting and winded, could do no more, his uniform spattered with Vahanian's blood. Vahanian lay sprawled on the floor of the Nargi captain's barracks, unable to drag himself to his feet, his wrists still bound in front of him. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth, and one eye was swollen shut. He could taste more blood in his mouth, and the pain in his chest assured him that several ribs were broken.

"Take him to the healer," Dorran commanded, wiping his hands on a towel.

Dorran moved to stand over his victim. "You know the ways of Nargi healers," Dorran said, breathless in his victory. "They're quite efficient. If I've done any real damage, they can set it right."

"Why bother?" Vahanian asked thickly.

Dorran smiled. "I haven't finished my sport yet. Tomorrow, I'm going to let the garrison have a private audience with the general's great champion fighter. Only this time, it won't matter if you win or lose. Either way, you'll still die." He chuckled. "I've been looking forward to this for a long time, Vahanian." Dorran stepped over the fallen fighter and strode into the night as the guards dragged Vahanian to his feet and pushed him, staggering, towards the priests' quarters.

Back in the stockade, Vahanian watched the dawn come with a leaden feeling in his stomach. True to Dorran's word, the Nargi priests reversed the worst damage. Vahanian spat blood, and nursed his split lip. The priests, ascetics as they were, did not bother with any wounds which might not threaten his life or his ability to fight, and Vahanian awoke from a restless sleep with the feeling that he had been ridden over by a wagon team. He replayed Dorran' boasts in his mind. Nargi, ready to march into Margolan, he thought. Tris would be cut off from behind, and the influx of expert fighters might be all Jared needed to turn the game.

Vahanian strained against his bonds. There was no way to reach Tris with the crucial information, he thought, ceasing his struggle. All the wishing in the world wouldn't get him out of here, and Tris would walk right into Jared's trap. Vahanian closed his eyes. His sacrifice to save the others would mean nothing. With the Nargi on the march into Margolan, Tris' quest was doomed.

It took all of his will to rise impassively when his captors came for him. The practice ground was full of Nargi soldiers as Vahanian was led into their midst. A soldier cut the strap that bound his wrists, and Vahanian rubbed his numb hands. Dorran watched from a chair on the side.

"I've highlighted your accomplishments as the general's champion for those who don't remember," Dorran said. "And told them what a privilege it is to fight you. As you can imagine, there have been many volunteers."

"And if I refuse to fight?" Vahanian asked, lifting his head.

Dorran' eyes narrowed. "Fight, and you'll die a warrior's death. Refuse, and I'll have you burned alive with the bodies of the men you killed." He paused. "Any other questions?" At Vahanian's silence, Dorran clapped twice to call the troops to order. "Let the first contestant come forward."

Vahanian found himself facing a Nargi soldier almost twice his size. The two began to slowly circle, each looking for an opening. As in the days of the betting games, neither carried a weapon. That, Vahanian remembered grimly, was part of the sport the Nargi so enjoyed. Barehanded combat. Winner lives. The big man lurched, surprisingly fast for his bulk, and swung at Vahanian with fists the size of melons. Vahanian dodged, ducking and coming up beside the man, then executing a flying pivot and landing a kick that sent the big man reeling. The crowd cheered as Vahanian's attacker roared in rage and lumbered back at a dead run, murder in his eyes. Vahanian narrowly evaded the man again, and scored another kick, but the attacker wheeled and caught his leg, bringing them both to the ground.

The big man jerked Vahanian's arm behind him sharply enough that Vahanian was sure it slipped from its socket. Bucking desperately, Vahanian threw the man off balance enough to scramble out of the big man's hold, and swung wide with his free hand, connecting his knuckles with the giant's nose, driving the power of his blow up and in. The soldier staggered, dropping his grip on Vahanian, and gave a deep rattle, then slumped, dying, and lay still. Vahanian staggered to his feet as the soldiers who ringed the practice area cursed him and called for his blood.

"Very good, Jonmarc. Nicely done," Dorran praised cynically. "You're doing us a tremendous service, showing us which of our soldiers are inferior." His voice steeled. "You may test the training of another soldier." He made an abrupt gesture, and a second soldier entered the ring. Setting his jaw, Vahanian moved to meet his opponent.

In all, he bested three of Dorran's soldiers before he could no longer fight. The contest became a free-for-all, and might have ended there if Dorran hadn't shouted for order and sent guards into the fray to pull Vahanian, barely conscious, from the angry mob. Guards dragged Vahanian back to the priests for healing. This time, it took longer for the priests to repair the worst of the damage.

When the priests were finished, Vahanian was led to a post in the middle of the practice ground. A guard tore away what remained of Vahanian's shirt, and lashed his wrists around the post. Vahanian's heart thudded as he saw Dorran approaching with the quartermaster, who held a knotted whip in his hands. He had seen Nargi martial discipline meted out during his captivity. Forty lashes could leave a strong fighter incapacitated. More than forty at one time were likely to kill. He hoped his expression was impassive as Dorran and the quartermaster stopped in front of him. A Nargi priest stepped up beside the quartermaster.

"Offenses in a military camp are subject to military law," Dorran announced as the camp began to assemble in a circle around the post. "For the crimes of murder, theft, trespass, impersonation and blasphemy, I sentence Jonmarc Vahanian to death."

The crowd roared its approval. Vahanian watched balefully as Dorran basked in the spectacle, then held up a hand for silence. "I'll mete out the final punishment myself," Dorran added, to the cheers of the group. "But first, it is only fitting that he pay fully for his crime."

Dorran looked at Vahanian. "I could have you flogged to death," he said under his breath. "You've seen it done."

Vahanian said nothing, and Dorran turned back to the crowd. "Forty lashes," Dorran pronounced, as the crowd cheered and shouted for more. Dorran looked to the priest. "Keep him alive. I don't want to be cheated out of the satisfaction of killing him myself."

Vahanian closed his eyes, bracing himself, and clenched his jaw as the whip snapped, and the first lash fell.

Night had fallen when the guards returned Vahanian to his cell, throwing him in to land facedown on the hard-packed dirt.

"When I call for you the next time, I'll kill you," Vahanian heard Dorran say from outside the stockade. "You can't know how much I enjoyed this afternoon. You truly are the best fighter I've ever seen. Pity," he clucked. "I've had the healers patch you up to keep it from being too easy. I do enjoy a challenge." He began to laugh. "Sleep well, Jonmarc. Perhaps tomorrow, if you beg, I might cut my pleasure short."

"Go to the demon," Vahanian managed, tasting dirt in his mouth.

"Not this time. You'll see Her first."

The only way out of this one is in the arms of the Dark Lady, Vahanian thought. Thanks to the healers, his mind was clear although his body barely moved at his command. By their work, the priests denied him the respite only shock and unconsciousness could bring.

The camp was silent when Vahanian heard the call. It roused him from a distressed sleep, barely audible over the snoring of his guards. A child's voice, calling his name. Sure he was hallucinating from the pain, Vahanian raised his head. The camp lay in a heavy shroud of fog, so thick that he could not see the banked fires across the practice area. As he watched, the door to his prison swung open, and in the doorway stood the transparent image of a young girl, beckoning him to come.

"Come, Jonmarc," the apparition said soberly. "It is time."

Vahanian had passed the point of fear, already resigned to death, yet the vision made him catch his breath. "Are you the Childe?" he rasped, his swollen lips barely able to form the question.

"Come," the vision repeated impatiently. "It is time."

Vahanian crawled toward the open door, stopping part way to glance back, expecting to see his own crumpled form behind him. "It's time to go," the ghostly child urged, standing with an outstretched hand just beyond the stockade. In the distance, Vahanian could hear the thunder of a horse riding at full gallop, and heard the guards rouse. But as he dragged himself to stand, clinging for support to the posts of the stockade, he was unprepared for the sight that burst through the fog. A cloaked rider on a white horse, riding at demon speed, and beneath the heavy cowl, eyes that burned like fire.

"The Dark Lady!" Vahanian whispered, sure now that he was dead.

The camp scrambled for battle as the Nargi soldiers pointed at the specter in terror. Half of the Nargi guards fell to their knees, prostrating themselves before the rider with a babble of desperate prayer as the priests begged the apparition for mercy. The other soldiers, frightened but dubious, held their ground, freeing a hail of arrows at the rider that bounced harmlessly off its cloak. With strangled cries, the archers dropped their weapons and fled.

Heedless of the confusion, rider and horse bore down directly on Vahanian, never breaking speed, and the cowled figure reached down, grasping Vahanian's arm and tossing him like a broken doll across its lap.

Borne into the fog, Vahanian lost consciousness.


© Gail Z Martin 2007.
The Blood King is published by Solaris in February 2008.
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The Summoner is published by Solaris (February 2007; ISBN: 1844164683).

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