Half Moon – free opening chapters.


by Dale Renton


Jeren sat in the darkest corner of the tent, knees drawn up under his chin, watching the old man die.

Too slowly.

It was almost time, and still he could hear Sumak’s wheezy breath, fluttering in his throat like a trapped insect. The old man looked impossibly frail, skin stretched tight across his face. The poison Jeren had been slipping into Sumak’s food had been doing its work for almost two weeks, yet still the ancient shaman clung to life.

In his dark corner, Jeren screwed his eyes shut, fighting the urge to scream. He had never felt so much anger. Anger at the old man, for refusing to die – and anger at himself – because in spite of the old man’s weakness, in spite of the knowledge he had acquired, Jeren still feared him. He reached for Sumak with his mind.

Sumak’s eyes opened then narrowed when they settled on Jeren. Sumak did not speak, but Jeren could sense that the old man knew. Fear, anger and now, unexpectedly, guilt exploded in Jeren’s breast. He launched his will at Sumak’s, attacking like a snarling cat, rending and tearing. He let his hatred boil, the way Hisnor had shown him, until it became the sum of his existence. His rage tore at the placid, formless whole that was Sumak, seeking a flaw, a weakness that would open the path to Sumak’s destruction.

There was no flaw.

Jeren subsided, anger spent and fear rushing to take its place. He closed his eyes, wrapped his arms round his legs, pulled them hard against his chest and waited.

Nothing happened. Eventually, Jeren forced himself to look at the old man again. Sumak’s eyes stared back at him, but they were glazed.

Jeren rose and stumbled across the tent, legs unwilling to co-operate after being folded for so long. He stooped and peered at Sumak then reached out and touched the old man’s neck. There was no sign of life. He spat in Sumak’s face. He would have preferred to smash it with his fist or to crush it beneath his boot, but then questions would have been asked. It was better this way. By the end of this day, Jeren would be shaman.

He knelt at the side of the tent where Sumak’s possessions were piled. The two candles set on either side of the shaman’s cot did not shed much light, but the spear was always in the same place and his hands found the shaft, wrapped in deerskin. He stood, lifting it clear of the clutter on the tent floor. Jeren had only seen the spear taken from its wrapping once, years ago. Sumak had shown it to him when he told Jeren the story of his travels with the Snow Walker, Otepah; how they found the spear in the southlands, beneath the Spill, and brought it to the Angle Wood.

Not for the first time, Jeren wondered what the spear’s value was, why Hisnor was so insistent he must have it. Surely it could not be worth much, otherwise Sumak would not have left it lying in his tent for all these years.

Jeren threw his fur cloak across his shoulders and pushed aside the tent flap. It was still dark but there was a hint of grey in the sky and the stars were losing their brightness. He stepped outside, tied the flap and set off between the rows of tents that formed the winter camp. The snow had crusted and it crunched noisily beneath his feet. Jeren was unconcerned. Hundreds were camped here, the whole of the South Wind tribe, and it was not unusual to hear someone moving about this close to morning.  

He crossed the narrow strip of land that joined the Angle Wood to the west bank of the Andor River and turned north. He encountered no one – and he was not displeased. Sumak’s death would be discovered soon and it would be well if no one knew he had been with the shaman when he died. Jeren planned to make Sumak’s funeral a ceremony to be remembered. After all, it would be his first as the new shaman of the South Wind.

The wind was strengthening, blowing south from the mountains. There would be more snow today. Jeren pulled his fur up around his ears and leaned his head forward to protect his eyes from the fine crystals whipped up by the wind. Winter, even this late in the season, was not a good time to be away from the warmth of the tents, but Jeren was used to it. Since before the first snow falls he had been stealing away to visit his teacher, Hisnor. The things he had learned outweighed such discomforts. Hisnor had shown him what he could become. What he would become. Today.

The trees thinned out as Jeren moved further north. Woodlands gave way to open, undulating plains. Ahead, the towering Skyraker Mountains dominated the horizon, though more than half their bulk was hidden by clouds. He turned east, following the edge of the forest. An hour later he came again to the banks of the Andor and followed the river south for a few hundred paces to the clearing where Hisnor would meet him.

His teacher was already there, standing beside a fire that looked as if it had been burning for some time. Usually it was Jeren who had to wait.

‘You have it?’ asked Hisnor.

Jeren could not see Hisnor’s face in the shadow cast by the hood of his crimson robe. He handed the bundle over and watched while Hisnor pulled away the deerskin and threw it aside. The spear seemed unremarkable; a little longer than a South Wind hunting spear, its steel head tarnished as if it had not been polished after tempering. For about a third of its length, the shaft was charred and blackened.

Hisnor held the weapon close to the fire, turning it in his hands. Jeren could not tell what he was looking for. Eventually, his teacher straightened, jammed the butt of the spear into the snow and turned to face him again.

‘What of Sumak?’

‘He is dead,’ said Jeren.

‘Did you overcome him?’

Jeren sensed the importance of his answer. He hesitated. Should he speak truly, or should he say that he had defeated the shaman, knowing that the only person who could disprove his claim was dead?

‘The poison killed him.’

For what seemed a very long time, Hisnor said nothing. Jeren grew impatient. He still could not see his teacher’s face, hidden within the hood.

‘I have done all you asked,’ he said. ‘I have brought you the spear, and Sumak is dead. You promised me the secret of your strength. Will you show me?’

‘Yes,’ said Hisnor, and his mind touched Jeren’s.

It was what Jeren craved. The key to the power that Hisnor, until now, had only let him glimpse. He opened his mind.

Despite burned bright and pure. Nothing could withstand it. Nothing could co-exist. Jeren of the South Wind bathed in its purity, and he understood. The way stood open before him. He had been shown the source of Hisnor’s strength; he must only learn to grasp it…

It was gone.

 Jeren opened his eyes and found Hisnor close before him. His teacher had thrown back his hood and as always Jeren’s gaze was drawn to the red eye tattooed in the centre of his forehead. Then something else caught his attention. There was movement in the forest around where they stood. Shadowy figures darted among the trees and something about them was not right. They were man-like, but they were not men. The proportions between arms and torso were wrong. Their upper bodies swayed strangely as they skirted the clearing.

‘Who are they?’ Jeren asked, startled. Hisnor had always come alone.

‘They are my servants,’ said Hisnor, stepping closer.

‘Why are they here?’

‘To serve me, of course, as you have,’ his teacher replied. ‘But your service is ended.’ Hisnor drew a curved dagger from his belt.

Jeren, shaman of the South Wind, screamed as he learned the final lesson of Despite.

1 – Capomonte

A brass bell tinkled. Raffin Andelaran walked to the door at the end of the hallway. From a rack mounted on the wall he lifted a slim, black cudgel. He kept his face clear of the opening as he slid back the board and looked outside. The eyes that met his were bleak and grey, unblinking beneath a smooth, tanned brow.

‘He’s going to kill you,’ said Raffin’s visitor.

‘And good morning to you, Iain,’ Raffin replied.

He tucked the cudgel under his belt and drew back the heavy bolts securing the door. As soon as he raised the latch, the door swung open and his visitor entered.

‘I’m glad you’re on time.’ Raffin slid a finger under the collar of his patterned green shirt and worked it back and forth. ‘It’s going to take me a while to get used to dressing like a gentleman again.’

Iain Neoran wore the plain functional clothing of a soldier. The hilt of a long sword jutted above his left shoulder and there were knives sheathed at both his hips.

‘You’re about to stick your neck in a noose instead of a fine collar,’ he said.

‘Ah, but will it still be there when the noose tightens?’ Raffin smiled. ‘Get me to the guild hall, Iain. Let me worry about Barthwek Rind.’

He lifted his broad-brimmed hat from a peg on the wall and followed Iain from the hallway. They emerged in a small courtyard. The two men paused to secure the door then crossed the yard and followed a covered walkway to the front of the red stone house. They passed through a wrought iron gate and took a paved pathway to the much larger wooden gates barring the main entrance to Raffin’s home. Two burly figures awaited them, dressed and armed much like Iain, though their swords were scabbarded at their hips. Raffin knew both men from previous dealings with Iain Neoran; like the war master, they moved with a taut grace, a suggestion of pent violence that acted on the nerves like an unspoken threat.

‘The others?’ Iain asked.

‘Alayn and Esra will mind our backs,’ the taller of the two, bearded Walther Uvenor, replied.

Iain nodded. Walther and his companion, Pieter Rovan, moved to open the gates and Iain’s grey eyes settled on Raffin again.

‘I can likely get you to the guild hall. But once you’re inside…’

Raffin smiled. ‘I came back to Capomonte to see the new magister, Iain. I thought I’d have to petition for an audience. The fact that he sent me a personal invitation speeds things up a little.’

‘It brings you to his door under his terms, at a time of his choosing.’

Raffin strode past Iain and through the gates. He paused to adjust the angle of his broad-brimmed hat, and to take in the morning-bright vista.

Capomonte, hill and town, reminded him, as always, of one of the tiered cakes so favoured at weddings. The Thieves’ Wall, and higher up the slope, the Grand Wall, circled the hill, the latter enclosing the bustling Hawkers’ Market and the halls of the great guilds of Parr. Above these on the hilltop stood Duke Feristo’s manor, itself enclosed by a heavily fortified wall.

‘Just get me there in one piece, Iain’ said Raffin. The four men set off at a brisk pace.


‘You will agree with me, my dear Duke,’ said Guild Magister Barthwek Rind, ‘when I say that the strength of the guilds and of the noble families is more closely tied than ever before.’

He paused, allowing Feristo the opportunity to voice that agreement. The duke said nothing. He extended his arm, holding out a patterned silver goblet. One of the serving boys hurried to fill it from a decanter similarly etched with the sunburst emblem of the Mages’ Guild. Rind kept the irritation from his face.

‘Certainly, since I accepted the burden of leadership of my guild there has been a period of co-operation which we have found mutually beneficial,’ he continued.

Feristo maintained his silence, slumped in his chair, long legs stretched out in front of him. He held the goblet up where it caught the morning sunlight streaming in through the council chamber’s windows.

Rind’s patience reached its limit. ‘A pity your father could not share in our good fortune.’

Duke Feristo’s cheeks flushed. ‘Get to the point, Rind. We both know you want something.’

Barthwek Rind smiled and sat back in his chair, held out his own goblet to be filled. He watched appreciatively as the boy poured, then sipped the honeyed wine. Feristo never liked to be reminded that his father would still be duke, would still be stifling his ambitions, were it not for Rind’s assistance.

‘Raffin Andelaran has returned to Capomonte.’

Feristo’s eyes narrowed. ‘Your squabbles with other members of your guild are not my concern.’

‘Precisely, Duke Feristo.’ Rind leaned forward. ‘And what does not concern you, does not merit the attention of the splendid young men who patrol the streets of Capomonte in your colours.’

Feristo stared into his goblet, swirling the contents. ‘I will not tolerate murder, Rind. Capomonte is my town. I am the law here.’

‘I’m not asking you to do anything, my Duke. Quite the opposite, in fact.’

Understanding finally registered on Feristo’s thin features and he stood, shaking his head. ‘I won’t order my men to look away while your thugs butcher Andelaran. I don’t like him any more than you do, but he has friends.’

‘Of course not. Your guards are justly known throughout Parr as champions of the king’s law.’ Rind rubbed the uppermost of his several chins. ‘But you could order a parade – an inspection.’

The Duke gnawed his thumbnail, eyes darting around the room. ‘I can’t bring them all in. There’d be riots!’

‘Very astute, Feristo. I would never suggest such a thing.’ Rind cast his eyes to the ceiling. ‘However, the patrols within the Grand Wall might be ordered to an assembly.’


‘This morning. By eleven.’

Feristo’s glare bore a malice which Rind might not have tolerated under other circumstances. Eventually, however, the duke nodded.

‘Splendid!’ said Barthwek Rind. He held out his goblet again. ‘More wine!’


The guards at the Thieves’ Wall let Raffin and his companions pass without a word. As they ascended the winding streets towards the upper reaches of the town, the crowds grew denser, but the Sothrasins’ grey uniforms ensured the way cleared before them. At the massive arched stone gateway in the Grand Wall, again the duke’s guards allowed them through with barely an acknowledgement.

‘Only four on duty,’ said Iain. ‘There should be a dozen or more.’

The billet house beside the gate appeared unoccupied, too. Raffin was uncertain if the guards’ absence was a good sign until he noticed Walther’s hand settle on the hilt of his sword. He looked across the busy Hawkers’ Market to the central fountain where the statue of Attaviani the Uniter rose high above the marquees. Hundreds of people of assorted rank and calling filled the spaces between the tents and stalls, but he could see no sign of the black and yellow livery of Duke Feristo’s militia.

‘I wondered how Rind would manage with Feristo’s men swarming like bees all over the town.’ Iain’s gaze settled on Raffin. ‘I suppose there’s no use suggesting we turn back?’

Raffin shook his head. ‘I know you well enough by now, Iain. You anticipated this.’

‘I wonder if you’ll still feel like flattering me while you’re trying to pluck a dagger out of your back.’

Raffin looked out over the market again. This was the most crowded part of Capomonte. Even allowing for the respect commanded by the grey uniforms of his Sothrasin companions – and not forgetting his own talents – there would be people closely pressed around them as they made their way from the gateway to the guild hall. A sudden lunge with a blade…

He swallowed. What were the alternatives? They could march straight through the crowd, trusting to their skills and to the assistance which Iain’s less visible agents would surely provide. With their enemies able to work without fear of intervention from Feristo’s militia, the likelihood of success seemed slight. Perhaps it would be better to circle around the market, avoiding the denser crowds? They would have to cover more ground and it would take longer, but Raffin was sure this was the wiser choice.

‘We’re going to climb the wall,’ said Iain.

The war master’s hand clamped on Raffin’s arm and they were moving again. The four men turned into the narrow space which separated the billet house from the neighbouring armoury. At the end of the passageway they waited, ankle deep in refuse whose nature Raffin preferred not to investigate, while Walther produced a small grappling hook and a coiled rope from his pack. The dark bulk of the Grand Wall loomed above them. On the second attempt, the hook lodged. At a nod from Iain, Pieter drew his sword and moved back to the alley entrance. Walther scrambled up the rope with the sort of ease Raffin had seen among sailors who worked the rigging of the tall ships on the Besper Sea. He disappeared from sight and several moments passed before his head poked out over the parapet. A wave told them it was safe to ascend.

‘Can you make the climb, or should I go first and we’ll haul you up?’ Iain asked.

Raffin gave him a hard look. ‘Just try not to cut yourself with that overgrown sword.’

He set about clambering up the wall, feet scrambling for purchase with a lack of success that soon had him cursing the craftsmanship of the stonemasons who had seated the huge granite blocks. By the time Walther’s hand caught hold of his fine emerald shirt and dragged him onto the parapet, Raffin did not have enough breath left to curse. In far less time than he himself had taken to make the climb, Raffin was joined on the wall by Iain, then Pieter. Walther coiled the rope and put it back in his pack.

‘There were some fellows gathered around a tinker’s stand who seemed interested in our disappearance,’ said Pieter. ‘I expect they’ll be joining us shortly.’

‘Only if we stand around long enough. Let’s move!’

Iain set off as he spoke, stooping to keep below the line of sight of anyone watching from the marketplace. Raffin imitated the war master. It stood to reason that if you could be seen, you could be shot, and he was well aware of the nasty effect a crossbow bolt could have, even on a Master of the Guild of Mages. They had gone no more than a hundred paces when Walther called to Iain. A figure had appeared atop the wall beside the billet house and as they watched, several others climbed over the parapet.

‘Do we fight them?’ Pieter asked. He had drawn his sword again, and there was a dangerous look in his eyes.

Iain shook his head. ‘Not yet. There will be others trying to get ahead of us.’

Pieter took another look back before settling into stride again. They reached one of the numerous towers that bestrode the Grand Wall and passed through its arches without slowing. Ahead, the wall followed the contour of the hill, curving towards the Ducal Gate. Their way looked clear as far as the next tower. Through some architectural quirk, the parapets to either side rose higher, with a wooden fighting platform running along each inner wall. The four men straightened and increased their pace.

They were less than halfway to the tower ahead when armed men began to emerge from it. Iain cursed and slowed to a walk.

‘Raffin?’ he asked.

The question needed no explanation. Raffin stopped and focussed his mind on the approaching warriors. He sought, and quickly sensed what he expected. He shook his head.

‘They’re warded, Iain – probably as well as we are. I don’t have time to break it down.’

What he had found was more alarming than he preferred to admit. The warding was master-class and surprisingly complex, wrought in a style with which Raffin was unfamiliar. If it was the work of the guild magister, then Barthwek Rind had made profitable use of the time since their last meeting.

No time to worry about that now. He reached for the black cudgel tucked in his belt.

Iain’s hand caught his wrist. ‘This isn’t your kind of work.’ He turned to Walther. ‘Keep him alive.’

Iain and Pieter sprinted towards the eight swordsmen who barred their way. Walther turned to watch for their pursuers, but Raffin’s attention remained fixed on the confrontation ahead.

A tall man with plaited hair broke from the group of assassins and ran at Iain Neoran, whirling his sword above his head in a blinding display of speed and control. Iain flowed past him like water round a stone. The long sword turned the other’s blade then slid across his belly. The assassin screamed and dropped to his knees and Pieter hacked a killing blow to the back of his neck.

The other assassins slowed, edging forward with swords raised defensively, almost as if the numbers favoured the Sothrasins. Raffin was not surprised. The first sight of the war master’s blade work caused most men to hesitate. One of the assassins called orders to his fellows. A swordsman climbed onto each of the fighting platforms and the others spread across the walkway.

Pieter leapt onto the fighting platform on the inner wall. With a rapid feint and thrust he skewered the man who faced him. Iain Neoran made no thrusts, nor did he make extravagant slashes in the manner of the men who faced him. The tip of his blade moved in short, sharp arcs, deflecting the assassins’ heavy blows, darting like a snake’s tongue. Raffin could scarcely pick the killing strikes, but by the time Pieter rejoined Iain, three more of the attackers lay at the feet of the War Master of Sothrak. The surviving three turned and fled. Pieter disappeared after them through the entrance to the tower. Iain waved Raffin and Walther forward.

Raffin remembered their pursuers and turned to look behind. Still no sign of the men, yet surely they should be almost upon them by now?

Walther answered his unspoken question. ‘Iain plans thoroughly, mage. Alayn and his friends are in the tower behind us. They have crossbows. No one will be coming through there for some time.’ He moved off, gesturing for Raffin to follow.

Their passage remained unrestricted for the next few minutes while they circled the marketplace, passing above and behind the barracks where the parade master’s calls and the sound of marching feet signalled that Feristo’s guards were assembled. As they drew closer to the rear of the guild hall, Raffin looked at the palms of his hands. The red marks from his earlier climb were fading, but still visible, and he contemplated renewing acquaintance with Walther’s rope with little enthusiasm.

They reached the point which Raffin judged as closest to the guild hall but Iain did not slow. Ahead stood the twin towers of the Ducal Gate, largest of the entrances in the Grand Wall. Iain led them down the spiral of stone steps inside the nearer tower. Five guards were seated around a table in the billet room when Raffin and the Sothrasins entered from the stairwell. They jumped to their feet – then sat again quickly when Iain’s hand flashed to the hilt of his sword. The intruders traversed the room, passed through the doorway and into the street without a word exchanged.

Outside, Iain called them together. He spoke calmly, his words directed almost exclusively to Raffin. ‘There will be no more evasion. Our best hope now is to get you inside quickly, before Rind’s men are able to gather in force. Stay close!’

They ran along the narrow lane separating the grounds of the guild halls from the two-storey facade of the barracks. Raffin was fed up with running, and that meant someone was going to regret the necessity. Someone named Barthwek Rind. He let his mind wander through a series of scenarios in each of which Rind played a prominent role. The first traces of a smile were touching the corners of his mouth when Walther crashed into his legs and dragged him to the ground. Something tugged at Raffin’s ear as he fell, and his hat flew from his head.

‘Behind us!’ Walther yelled.

Raffin rolled onto his side and stared back the way they had come. No more than twenty paces away, a narrow gate stood open in the barracks wall. Beside it, a man worked frantically to reload a crossbow. Walther and Iain grabbed Raffin’s arms, dragging him to his feet while Pieter dashed towards the bowman. Before he had covered half the distance, the bowman raised the weapon and Raffin realised Pieter was not going to be quick enough. The bowman levelled the weapon as Pieter dodged and weaved towards him, but in such an enclosed space there could be only one result.

A shadow slid through the gateway behind the bowman. Steel glinted and the crossbow fell to the ground, the bolt discharging against the wall as its owner crumpled. Pieter walked the remaining few paces to the fallen man. He nudged the body with his boot then acknowledged the shadowy figure standing over the corpse with a flourish of his sword. His rescuer, hooded and clad entirely in black, stepped forward and returned Pieter’s gesture – with a curtsy. The stranger pulled back her hood, revealing a tangle of golden hair and the face of an undeniably beautiful young woman.


‘Who is she?’ Raffin asked. The woman had faded into the shadows as suddenly as she had appeared, with never a word spoken.

‘Let me look at that,’ Iain said.

For the first time Raffin became aware of a warm trickle on his neck. He raised his hand and was surprised when his fingers came away wet and red. Iain rummaged in Walther’s pack then handed Raffin a wadded cloth.

‘The bolt nicked your ear. Hold this to it – and don’t worry – there’s a lot more blood than real damage.’

Raffin nodded and did as he was told. Walther retrieved Raffin’s hat and held it up, wiggling the end of his finger through a jagged tear in the brim. Raffin sighed and Walther tossed the hat back on the ground.

‘Made you look foppish anyway,’ he said, and snorted.

They moved off and in less than two minutes Iain halted them at the rear of the wall surrounding the mages’ guild hall grounds. Walther suggested they use the rope again, but Raffin dismissed the idea – not only through lack of enthusiasm for the climb.

‘It’s not a good idea to arrive uninvited in those grounds. There are certain precautions which can make it an unpleasant experience. Besides – I need to make an entrance.’

Walther snorted again. He was beginning to make a habit of that, Raffin decided.

‘I need to make an entrance,’ he repeated, ‘because I have to make as many people as possible aware of my visit. If I’m seen entering the guild hall, then I will need to be seen leaving again. Otherwise Guild Magister Rind will find himself facing some very difficult questions. Guild Masters don’t simply disappear. Feristo would be forced to get involved and that would be awkward for both of them.’

They ran the length of the laneway which separated the mages’ grounds from the neighbouring hall of the Merchants’ Guild. No one tried to bar their way but as they reached the end, a clatter of footsteps from behind caused them to turn. A party of armed men stood at the corner they had just left. Walther gestured to them in a manner that could never have been interpreted as polite as they stepped out into the bustle of the Hawkers’ Market.

Vendors called from behind colourful stalls, hordes of townsfolk and posturing spruikers wandering amongst them. Raffin spotted several men in the crowd whose business he felt certain had nothing to do with trade. Some of them made no attempt to disguise their anger at seeing him reach his destination, but the presence of the Sothrasins ensured they kept their distance.

Staying close to the wall, they walked along the front of the guild hall. Three broad steps led up to the doors. On either side of the entrance, a guard clad in the sky blue and white dress uniform of the Warriors’ Guild stood to rigid attention. Raffin stopped on the first step and turned to Walther.

‘Announce me.’

Another snort? Walther mounted the remaining steps then squared his broad shoulders in a manner that made the guild warriors’ stance look slovenly.

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ Walther bellowed. Feristo’s parade master could not have done better. Every head within a hundred paces turned. ‘I have the honour of presenting Raffin Andelaran of Capomonte, Master of the Guild of Mages!’

A few moments later, a mage accompanied by two apprentices appeared in the doorway. Raffin recognised the man at once – Erelio Fulmar, a mage of only moderate ability but a dedicated and persistent sycophant. Raffin had no doubt that Fulmar and his kind would account for much of the present complement of Capomonte’s branch of the Mages’ Guild. That, in part, was why he had had to accept Rind’s invitation to walk into an obvious trap. The guild could not rely on the likes of Erelio Fulmar any longer. But could he convince Guild Magister Barthwek Rind of that?

‘Master Andelaran, you are injured! Please, come inside and I will have it seen to.’ Fulmar’s nasal voice lacked sincerity.

Raffin took the wadded cloth from his ear and noted that the bleeding seemed to have stopped. He tossed the cloth to one of the apprentices and shook his head.

‘That will not be necessary, Fulmar. A slight accident on my way here.’

Not a flicker of reaction, but Raffin had no doubt that Fulmar was aware of the nature of the “accident”.

‘I believe Guild Magister Rind is expecting me,’ Raffin continued.

‘Of course. If you are certain you do not require the attention of a healer, I shall announce your arrival.’ A mirthless smile accompanied Fulmar’s words.

Raffin nodded and turned to Iain. ‘I’ll be out by sunset,’ he said.

Iain stepped close to Erelio Fulmar. ‘I know your name and I know your face, mage. If Raffin Andelaran comes to any harm, I will kill you.’

Fulmar’s pale complexion turned ashen, and he swallowed. ‘I… I’m sure I have no idea what you mean. Now, Master Andelaran, if you will follow me?’

He retreated into the foyer, the apprentices walking dutifully on either side of him. Raffin nodded to the Sothrasins and strode into the guild hall.

2 – A Meeting of Minds

Raffin followed Erelio Fulmar and the two apprentices in silence. Over a year had passed since he had last entered the guild hall in Capomonte. The strange feel of once-familiar surroundings made him realise how much he resented the disruptions that had taken him away. Even more, he felt the absence of his mentor, Orvil.

The old man had been the heart of the guild, as well as its head, his presence and influence stamped on the guild members, young and old, who walked its corridors and halls. As Raffin climbed the broad staircase to the first floor, the absence of that influence was clear. They passed several guildsmen who knew Raffin well, but each averted his eyes and hurried by.

At the head of the stairs, Fulmar led him to a sofa beneath one of the several high arched windows which flooded the landing with bright midday sunlight and bade him wait. Barely acknowledging the mage, Raffin sat. Barthwek Rind would doubtless take pleasure in making his visitor wait. Perhaps his self-indulgence could be turned to advantage. Here, in the place where Raffin had learned so much, and always, he recalled with a smile, with such impatience, Orvil’s tenets could be put to good use. He could almost hear the old man’s rumbling voice. Each moment is a gift. Use it well, for it will never be yours again.

He leaned back in the sofa, closing his eyes, yet his mind began to function on a level that few outside the highest levels of his guild could emulate. Once again he saw the winding that had shielded the hired assassins on the Grand Wall. He followed its turns and convolutions, its warps and weaves, its patterns and flows, as though they stood before him still. He sensed its strengths and he sought its flaws. He learned.

‘Master Andelaran – are you well?’

One of the apprentices who had accompanied Erelio Fulmar at the door stood before him, a look of concern on his face which Raffin, upon consideration, decided was genuine.

He smiled. ‘Quite well, thank you.’

‘Guild Magister Rind bids you join him, if it pleases you.’

It was seldom that a lowly apprentice would be asked to conduct any visitor into the Guild Magister’s presence, let alone a full Master of the Guild. The flush of the young man’s cheeks suggested he was aware of the insult.

‘It pleases me little enough,’ Raffin said as he stood. The apprentice made an awkward bow. ‘What’s your name, lad?’

‘Lendel, sir.’

‘How long have you been in Fulmar’s service?’

‘Almost a year, sir. I arrived here just after Magister Orvil left.’

Raffin caught the disappointment in the apprentice’s tone and nodded his understanding. ‘Orvil’s departure took a few of us by surprise, Lendel. But perhaps things will change.’

Perhaps Barthwek Rind would listen to reason. Would he accept that Raffin had not come to wrest the leadership of the guild from him? Would he set aside his own ambitions once he understood the threat they faced? Unlikely. But Raffin had seen things in the beleaguered Duchy of Orse that obliged him to try. A divided guild would be worse than no guild at all.

Lendel led Raffin down the broad passageway which bisected the floor. To left and right, the heavy panelled doors they passed were closed, but Raffin could readily recall the libraries and laboratories, the apartments and retreats which lay behind them. The passage ended in a pair of brass-faced doors above which the golden sunburst of the guild gleamed in the light of torches sconced to either side. Rind had chosen to receive him in the guild council chamber. No surprise in that. The Magister’s authority would be emphasised by his occupation of the Sunburst Chair, the Capomontese Mages’ Guild’s rival for the High King’s throne in Tredente.

Lendel swung open the doors and managed to step inside while bowing so low that his shoulder-length hair almost brushed the deep-piled Firvan carpet. He straightened and cleared his throat.

‘I have the honour of presenting Raffin Andelaran of Capomonte, Counsellor to the High King, Ambassador to the Firvan Empire and Master of the Mages’ Guild!’

‘Good lad,’ said Raffin, stepping past the apprentice. ‘You got most of that right.’

The young man retreated, closing the heavy doors behind him and, somewhat to Raffin’s surprise, leaving him alone with the Magister of the Mages’ Guild of Capomonte.

Barthwek Rind had not, after all, chosen to sit in the magnificent Sunburst Chair. Instead, he lounged on a sofa near the centre of the room where the council table had hitherto stood. Perhaps the Mages’ Council did not sit so frequently nowadays? Rind’s corpulent torso was draped in finely woven blue and gold robes and a large, once-white napkin was tucked under the several chins which spilled over his collar. The low table in front of him was heavily laden with a selection of choice foods.

‘Raffin, my dear friend. Welcome!’ Rind said.

Raffin strained his senses, searching for an attack. ‘The pleasure, I am sure, is all mine, Magister,’ As he bowed, he rechecked his warding, wound with a skill Rind could not have matched the last time they met. The last time. How much had the magister learned since then? ‘I trust you are in good health?’

‘Ah, the burdens of leadership are wearisome, but I cope.’ The brimming table bore ample testimony to how well Rind coped. ‘But what of you, my friend?’ he continued, ‘What brings you back to Capomonte? I thought you were destined for the high king’s court in Tredente.’

Raffin sat on one of the two chairs facing Rind’s table without waiting for an invitation, a minor petulance in return for being escorted in by an apprentice. If Rind noted the gesture, no sign of it reached his face.

‘Tredente has its attractions,’ Raffin replied, not the least of which is the absence of Barthwek Rind, ‘but I was nowhere near the capital. I’ve been visiting with Duke Permen, in Orse.’

‘Indeed. And how fares Denassar?’

Denassar was head of the Mages’ Guild in the tiny northern state; a pleasant man but barely master class.

‘Well enough when I left, Magister, but that situation is not likely to persist. I have come to see you because Orse is under attack.’

‘Under attack?’ Impossible to tell whether the look of concern on Rind’s face was genuine. ‘Most unfortunate. But why bring the problem to me? Surely it’s a military concern.’

‘The assault is supported by mages, Magister. By a group of very powerful mages who call themselves “Messengers”. It was their presence in Orse that caused Duke Permen to ask for my help. They were turning up in his city and performing some very unpleasant rites to honour their “Lord”.’

The magister smiled. ‘A certain amount of theatre is useful in our craft.’

‘They were killing people.’

‘Indeed,’ said Rind, and he refilled his goblet from the silver decanter on the table beside him. ‘Not an acceptable practice, of course, but nothing to do with my guild in Capomonte.’

‘Permen ordered them out,’ Raffin continued, ‘and they went quietly enough. But two weeks later, they turned up at Tolwell on Orse’s northern border with an army. They slaughtered the entire population of the town.’

Rind tut-tutted. ‘I regret the loss of life, of course, but I still see this as a purely military matter. Why don’t you ask the high king to send Permen some troops? Or Emperor Artemus? Permen has always been more inclined towards alliance with the Firvan Empire than with Parr.’

‘Artemus has problems of his own, Magister. The armies of the Isatar of Beralan are attacking his eastern borders again and there are rumours of a second force, approaching from the north.’

Rind stifled a yawn with the back of his hand. ‘Rumours? You’ll have to give me more than rumours, Master Andelaran.’

Raffin persevered. ‘There is more to what’s happening in Orse than a simple military situation, Magister. Permen took his army to Tolwell to deal with the Messengers. I went with him, to help ward his men. As we both know, the Orsan guild is not oversupplied with talent.’

Rind nodded.

‘When we reached Tolwell, the Messengers set their army against Permen’s troops. But they did more than that, Magister. They built a co-operative winding; a compulsion the like of which I have never faced before. A score of these Messengers built a winding that could have incapacitated Permen’s entire host. I was unable to ward them against it.’

‘You seem to have managed well enough – otherwise I doubt you’d be here.’

‘The only reason I survived is because Permen’s archers brought down most of the Messengers with their first volley.’

‘Very fortunate.’

‘Fortune had little to do with it, Magister,’ said Raffin immodestly. ‘They were following my orders.’

‘How clever of you. Now, I believe we have wasted enough time on this matter. Permen will have to seek assistance elsewhere…’

‘The black flag of Veros flew over the Tolwell Keep,’ Raffin interrupted. The guild magister fell silent. ‘Their soldiers were not human,’ Raffin went on. ‘They were beast-men, just like in the legends.’

The friendliness disappeared from Rind’s voice. ‘The black flag of Veros. Or perhaps a simple rag, flown by a horde of ruffians? Do you expect me to believe this concoction?’

Someone rapped on the door of the chamber and Raffin bit off an angry reply. Rind’s willing assistance could make a great deal of difference to the Orsans’ hopes of survival. He had to keep trying to win him over.

Erelio Fulmar entered, flanked by Lendel and another apprentice, and crossed the floor to Rind’s lounge. He leaned close to the magister, spoke rapidly in a hushed tone, and retreated to stand by the doorway. Rind placed his goblet on the table and swung his legs to the floor.

‘Why have you returned to Capomonte?’ he asked.

‘Because I need your help, Barthwek. I need the help of the guild. These Messengers are a threat to the entire kingdom.’

Rind smiled, but the expression never reached his eyes. ‘We both know the truth, Andelaran. You didn’t come here to ask for my help. You came here to take my place.’

The assault was launched as he spoke. The magister’s will tore at Raffin’s defences. It was a complex attack, far stronger than anything Rind had produced in the past, fashioned with greater skill. And there was something else; something that tugged at Raffin’s memory. Something Raffin knew he should recognise danced around its edges. It surged against Raffin’s will, threatened to burst through, lunged at him with unnerving ferocity. It broke on his resolve, spent its force without achieving the destruction it craved.

‘Can we assume that’s out of the way, now?’ Raffin asked.

Barthwek Rind hurled his goblet. An arc of blood-red wine trailed through the air behind it. The magister struggled to his feet, seized the edge of the table and tipped its contents onto the plush carpet. Raffin said nothing, waiting for Rind to accept that the pecking order in this guild had not changed in line with the titles. He heard a gasp from near the doorway and turned to see Lendel step towards him, hand raised in warning

Then something very hard crashed into the base of Raffin’s skull.

End of Chapter 2


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