The epic fantasy novel Sword and Chant is set to be released November 15 2012.
But if you’d like to check out the first chapter now…
Sword and Chant
Beginning to Ending
Most people believe the turmoil began when Maradek Rhonnel—Iyah of Calligar, conqueror of Kennem—died of a poisoned dart shot by a rebel who forfeited his soul to make that one strike. Most people are wrong.
To be fair, any beginning can be faulted. There is always something that comes before. Yet a beginning—a single moment—must be chosen, lest history remain tangled in its own roots.
So the beginning shall be the day Iyah Maradek, fearing foreign invasion, led his warriors across the steppes and up mountain passes to conquer the tribes of Kennem. Since the gods of Kennem didn’t strike him down, and his warriors silenced any mortal who tried, Kennem’s tribes accepted Calligar’s Iyah as their overlord.
Some who’d endured the worst of Maradek’s violence renounced him as a monster, a conqueror scarcely old enough to grow whiskers. They would wait until Maradek erred, until he aged, until he died—or until they grew weary of waiting. They named themselves Exiles.
Another few accepted Iyah Maradek but, haunted by the suffering they’d sensed within the very land itself, renounced all ties to their tribes. They built small homes behind sturdy walls and rejected everything outside them. They named themselves Chosen. Everyone else called them Lost.
But most remained with their tribes, neither Exile nor Chosen. Some were even relieved to bury their own Iyah and forgo the foreign-influenced austerity he’d favored. So Maradek spent a fortnight encouraging that gratitude—long enough to accept tribute from Kennem chieftains, establish his own warlords, and sire a son he wouldn’t learn of for two years.
News of the Calligari-Kennem mongrel reached Maradek soon after the birth of his first rightful child. He had a day to consider that news terrible before messengers delivered worse: someone was killing the Swords, one by one. Every death weakened the barriers keeping the Chant from Calligar, feeding blood and strength to that exiled god of sacrifice. And the Chant’s assassin was skilled enough to evade capture, smart enough to steal their sacred blades, demented enough to take their heads as well.
Eleven of the thirteen Swords died in thrice as many days. On the thirty-fourth day, Maradek razed a Kennem town known to harbor Exiles. What could be broken was smashed, what didn’t burn was torn down, and the folk were abandoned to winter’s ferocity. Calligar spun tales of the Iyah’s strength, and Kennem remained silently thankful the Iyah didn’t press vengeance further. Iyah Maradek Rhonnel, it was said, had ended the Killings with a single strike.
In truth, that honor belonged to the assassin, struck by a fit of pity stronger than the Chant’s enthrallment. He looked at the infant whose mother he’d just slain, and decided he had killed enough. Fighting the Chant’s compulsion, he left the orphan and her mother’s blade outside a Chosen enclave, and then tried to outrun the Chant’s fury.
And thus the beginning—more or less accurate—ends.
The middle is as expected: Calligar and Kennem held an uneasy peace salted with corrosive discord. Exiles taught their children to despise the Rhonnel brute who had desecrated their homeland. The Chosen retreated deeper into their own fellowship. The aging Swords conferred their blades and duties upon their most willing child. And the children—Calligari and Kennem, Exile and Chosen and Sword—learned what their elders taught.
The Chant waited.
And thus the ending begins: Iyah Maradek Rhonnel died of a poisoned dart shot by a Kennem who forfeited his soul to make that one strike.
News of the Iyah’s murder sucked away what little resolve remained in Benkil Andari’s heart. Crouched outside the granite crevice that was his home, he pulled a charred snake from the coals. While it cooled, he chewed bitter roots into a starchy pulp he could swallow. There wasn’t much else to eat out here, where the lands of Calligar and Kennem butted against each other. Such fare had aged him a little, despite the Chant’s infernal tampering, though not enough to put a strand of gray in his black-brown hair or a line on his smooth cheeks and brow. Another score of years might pass before his muscles atrophied and forgot the skills the Chant had once valued. Thinking of the years ahead sometimes enraged him. Most often, it made him weep.
On this night, Benkil was remembering a time of choices. Travel east or west, eat fig cakes or cucumbers, accept or refuse a contract, grant mercy or murder on a hunch. He remembered when he’d known his own name. In his loneliest hours, he huddled outside in the cold and whispered his name’s cadence to jackals that sometimes lurked among the acacia trees, to geckos that scurried between the rocks.
That much the Chant had allowed him—a moment to moment reminder of Benkil’s betrayal, of the killings he’d left unfinished. A remnant of who he’d been, of who he could be again if he simply relaxed.
Benkil despised the compulsion he had resisted for twenty-four years, eight months, and seventeen days. Once—only once—had he relaxed to test the compulsion’s strength. Fifteen miles had been lost before he regained control of his limbs, ceased running toward the Chant, and collapsed. He’d spent five days regaining those miles, sometimes on hands and knees, throwing himself against the compulsion’s thousand-pound pull.
That had been three years ago. He’d hobbled himself with manacles every night since, mistrustful of his slumbering self. But twice he’d awakened with the key in his hand. All he had gained from his fugitive living was the truth. He could resist the compulsion, never break it. Fight it, never conquer it. Gaze across the arid hills toward distant Osterloh, toward freedom among past enemies, but never cross the border to escape.
Defiance had been stupid. Heroic, perhaps, but stupid. And if he were honest, he would admit he’d found a new perspective: apathy.
With the Iyah’s murder, the Chant had made his intent known. The banished god wouldn’t abide quietly any longer. Benkil doubted anyone else would link consequence with cause. But Benkil had been the Chant’s thrall long enough to understand his hunger, to know he wanted to again wield power over everything from the smallest scrap of deadfall to the summit of holy Mount Shina. The Chant forgot nothing he wanted to possess. And since the Chant hadn’t dissolved the compulsion…
Benkil shrugged off the ache of futility with the ease of habit, and gnawed at the charred snake as the sky turned golden with sunset above the dark and rocky landscape. Acacia trees stood against the beauty like mounds of tattered black lace. Already the nights were growing colder. Steady meals would be nice come midwinter, the Chant whispered in his dreams. Spiced quail and roasted oryx, frothy goat’s milk and thick carob, melons summer-sweet to belie the season. A warm bed of soft wool and thick silks. Perhaps a pliant bedmate. Or two. How easily he could be bribed when hope fell into disuse.
He stood and stretched his arms overhead, muscles and sinews still fluid with strength, then he squeezed between the canted granite slabs. Four shuffle-steps, and the crevice widened into a cave that remained mostly dry when it rained. By feel, he found his bundle of tools and the boots he’d stolen yesterday. His bare toes grazed the manacles. He left those behind and took the remaining sum of his life outside.
As darkness slid over the hills, he pulled on his boots and cross-laced the tops just below his knees. The fine kidskin looked absurd with his coarse leggings and oryx-hide tunic. Benkil grimaced at that long-buried twinge of vanity. Time hadn’t changed him so much after all.
He took one item from his pack of tools—his favorite slasher. His fingers slid around the grip, its polished wood settling against calluses that hadn’t softened. The crescent blade curved across the back of his fingers so when he made a fist, he could open a throat with the flick of his wrist. It had been twenty-four years, eight months and seventeen days since he had last used it. And failed to use it.
Still holding the slasher, he propped his back against the granite and pulled his pack onto his lap. He gazed at the dying coals of his little fire, let settle the inner reverberations that had withstood the Chant’s persistent nudge for so long, and relaxed. As the geckos chirped their eerie songs, Benkil slept.
It was bright afternoon when he awoke, and the sun was making his eyes water. He squinted at the rocky hills surrounding him, the packed earth and yellowed grass beneath his feet. He had been walking. His left arm ached. His right hand, the one still holding the slasher, felt warm. And wet. He glanced down to the thick blood coating the curled hair of his forearm, dripping from his knuckles and wrist.
He didn’t want to look back. He couldn’t resist.
Ten paces behind him sprawled a body. Benkil retraced his steps, then used his foot to pull the blood-soaked scarf from the face. Young eyes—too old for a child, not old enough for a man—stared up at him. The aching of his arm had been caused by the cudgel resting in the youngster’s limp fist. A knife also lay nearby, clean of blood.
Crimson bubbles hissed and burst along the corpse’s slashed neck, and the chest suddenly rose. Benkil knelt to press a hand over the wound, but jerked back when the bloodless lips curved into a smile glossed with pink froth.
“Well done, thrall,” came the multi-toned voice—a sound that couldn’t possibly be made through such a wound. “Your reflexes have slowed a trifle. You’ll correct that.”
“Yes, my Chant,” he choked out. Nausea constricted his throat. “Why did I kill him?”
“He wanted to kill you. To know me as you do.”
“He’s not even grown!”
Another rise of the chest, more bloody froth. “He paid a lesser price for arrogance at your hands than he would have paid at my pleasure, yes?”
Benkil gave a convulsive shudder, unable to turn aside the memory-flashes of cruelties inflicted, of begging for mercy, of promising his own soul in exchange for a wish.
“Be done with that,” the Chant said, gently. “You have always wanted to live. Come back to me, Benkil.”
The name was wiped from Benkil’s memory in an instant. He remembered hearing it, remembered recognizing it, but couldn’t remember it. “My name…”
“You know better than to beg more than I offer. Show me what you deserve. Walk.”
Benkil staggered up. The corpse was silent now, nothing but a body he’d leave behind. And the exiled god of sacrifice—the patron of unrealized dreams and unfulfilled longings, who could tempt with promises and seduce with blood—once again had a mortal assassin to do his bidding. To sing their blood sweet, came the Chant’s whisper—from the present or from memory, Benkil couldn’t tell.
At least the babe he’d let live was grown, would no longer wail with an infant’s fear as she did so often in his dreams. She’d still die, for the Chant would demand a head with the blade. But at least she’d have the chance to run. Or fight, depending upon what mettle of Sword she’d become.
Benkil Andari closed his eyes, began walking, and slept again. The compulsion ruled him now. The Chant would guide him home.