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Condemned as a murderer for killing the man who dishonored his sister, Blaine "Mick" McFadden has spent the last six years exiled in Velant, a penal colony in the frigid northern wastelands. Harsh military discipline and the oppressive magic keep a fragile peace as colonists struggle against a hostile environment. But the supply ships from Dondareth have stopped coming, boding ill for the kingdom that banished the colonists.
Now, as the world's magic runs wild, McFadden and the people of Velant must fight to survive and decide their fate . . .
Praise for the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga
"Epic fantasy as it was meant to be read: gripping, action packed, and larger than life. A delight for any fan of the genre!" —Rachel Aaron
“Epic fantasy at its best." —Aaron Rosenberg
"A vivid, engrossing tapestry woven from epic heroism, post apocalypse struggles, perilous magic and darkest fantasy. A distinct and distinctive achievement." —Juliet McKenna
"A book that will take over readers' thoughts until long after the final page." —RT Book Reviews
The Ascendant Kingdoms Saga
Reign of Ash
War of Shadows
Shadow and Flame
Table of Contents
A Preview of The Dragon's Path
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Velant Penal Colony, Six Years Later
PUT YOUR BACKS INTO IT! WE NEED THOSE FISH."
Blaine bent forward, grabbed the rough rope net, and leaned back, working in time with the line of other men who helped to draw the catch on board. The fishing ship Pathi was a herring buss, a fat-bodied vessel good enough to weather the squalls of the Ecardine Sea but not well suited for escape.
"Good work. That'll keep the gibbers busy, I warrant." The overseer stood behind them, chuckling at the size of the catch. "Empty them onto the deck and get the nets out again. Move. Move."
"I'm frozen to the bones," groused the man next to Blaine. Broad-shouldered with muscular arms, the man had eyes as cold and blue as the sea.
"Would you rather be gibbing?" Blaine asked, with a nod toward the men who scrambled into position to cut the gills and gullet from the fish before salting them and packing them into the barrels that filled the Pathi's hold.
"What's the difference? They're just as wet as we are," the man replied, shaking his oilcloth slicker to rid himself of some of the water that had doused them as the net came on board.
"I figure we're warmer dragging in nets than sitting still gutting fish—and we might be able to get the fish stink off us once we get back to port," Blaine replied. "C'mon, Piran, you know it's true. The last time we got stuck gibbing, I smelled like a herring for a month after I got off the boat."
Piran Rowse chuckled. "You're assuming that you don't actually smell like that all the time." Piran had the build and temperament of a fighter, with a muscular frame, a neck like an ox, and a head of thinning light-brown hair, which he preferred to keep shaved, even in the Edgeland cold. Both his face and his body carried the scars of too many fights for Piran to remember, although one jagged scar beneath his eye was a memento from a broken bottle in a bar brawl. His nose was flatter than it should have been and a little off-center, but his blue eyes could glint with merriment for good music and passable ale. Piran's broad smile had no trouble winning him female companionship, an effect Blaine likened to the appeal of a friendly, but ugly, stray dog.
From what little Blaine had been able to get out of his friend, Piran had been a mercenary, a onetime soldier, and a bodyguard. Which of those jobs had gone wrong enough to land him in Velant, Piran was cagey about saying. Blaine had met Piran three years ago, when they both were transferred from the miserable ruby mines to the equally miserable herring fleet. Since then, they had become fast friends.
A high wave splashed over the ship's side, dousing them. Blaine cursed, getting a face full of seawater. The oilcloth slicker, gloves, and pants could only afford so much protection against the cold northern sea. Even with thick woolen clothing beneath the oilcloth, there was no escaping a dampness that chilled to the bone. Blaine stamped his feet, wishing his heavy leather boots were more waterproof. "At least the catch is good today."
Piran grinned. "Good enough to earn us a full measure of grog tonight, I wager."
The ever-present smell of fish grew sharper as the gibbers did their work. Blaine and the others continued to haul the heavy nets in with their catch. Other men sealed the barrels of salted fish and carried them below. Shouting to be heard over the wind and the waves, the overseer called out directions and cursed those who moved too slowly.
"Think the catch is good enough to keep us through the winter?" Piran asked as they shouldered into the next haul.
"Don't know. Why?"
Piran glanced both ways over his shoulder before replying. "Just some of the talk I've heard among the guards. Said that the last couple supply ships weren't as full as usual."
Blaine grimaced, standing back as the net cleared the railing and the deck shuddered with the weight of the catch. "If that's the case, we'll be living on herring and turnips before the winter's through."
Piran made a sour face. "Not the first time I'll have done with tight rations, but I'd rather have my belly full while I freeze."
A good day's catch meant backbreaking work. This far north, the sun never completely set, making the six-month "white nights" season the time when convicts and guards alike pitched in to provision the colony for the half year of darkness to come. Blaine shivered. Even after six years, he hadn't grown accustomed to the long subarctic nights. Donderath, half a world away, had a temperate climate, with four seasons and a winter that, while sometimes harsh, was nothing like Velant's brutal cold and howling winds.
After a twelve-candlemark shift at the nets, the "night" haulers came clomping up from the bunk rooms below with their heavy boots, growling and cursing at the cold wind. Weary and numb with cold, Blaine and Piran lined up to go below. Since it never got dark, the buss could fish day and night, and by alternating crew, give the men slightly more room in the cramped quarters belowdecks.
In the cramped area of the hold set aside for crew, hammocks swung with the motion of the boat. It was cold enough that Blaine kept his oilskin coat on until the hold grew warm from the press of bodies. Piran had wandered off to find someone who was still willing to play him at cards or dice.
"Give it up, Piran. I've already lost two measures of grog and my ration of smoke weed to you," complained a raw-boned, red-haired man.
Wide-eyed with feigned innocence, but barely suppressing a grin, Piran turned to the man's companions and held out his hand with three dice on his open palm. They all groaned loudly. "Not since I lost my best socks to you, dammit," complained one of the men.
Piran's smile widened. "I haven't worn them yet. You might win them back."
Indecision clouded the man's face for a moment before he nodded. "All right. For the socks."
Blaine turned away, chuckling. The longer the boat was at sea, the larger the number of fishermen who realized that Piran was uncannily fortunate when it came to games of chance. His luck stopped just shy of being so good as to raise accusations of cheating, though Blaine had known Piran long enough to suspect that sleight of hand, not magic, helped his chances considerably. Blaine had not played his friend for anything more valuable than a few measures of snuff since they had been in the mines together. On occasion Piran let him win.
Later, when most of the men lay snoring in their hammocks, Blaine awoke as the ship rose and then fell so sharply that he was nearly thrown from his bed.
"By the gods! A few more like that, and it'll send us all to Raka," Blaine muttered, hanging on to his hammock and hoping that his supper ration remained in his stomach despite the way the ship lurched and pitched.
"If Raka is warmer than Velant, I'll go willingly," Piran replied, holding fast to one of the support beams, but to Blaine's eye, Piran's face had taken on a green tint.
"Velant is where the gods send the men Raka turns away," said the red-haired man, who had given up trying to stay in his hammock and braced himself between the hull and the support post.
Water flooded down the stairs from the deck, and the hold erupted with curses. Bad as it was below, Blaine knew it was worse on deck. Storms arose swiftly on the Ecardine Sea, with gale-force winds and sleet that could cut skin. It was not unusual to lose three or four men overboard each trip due to storms. Blaine had no love for Velant, but the idea of dying in the cold northern waters, his body and soul forever prisoner to Yadin, god of the dark water, seemed an even worse alternative.
That fate had obviously occurred to some of their fellow fishermen, because Blaine heard voices muttering prayers to both major gods and household deities alike, begging safe passage. Then a loud laugh cut across the hold, and Blaine looked at Piran.
"Tell Yadin and his ice demons that he's better off with the herring than the likes of us. The herring have more meat on their bones," Piran said. "As for the other gods, while you're at it, see if they can magic up better grog. What we've got tastes like sheep piss."
The red-haired man scowled at Piran. "You mock the gods?"
Piran laughed again. "I can't mock what isn't real."
The red-haired man looked as if he might take a swing at Piran, but the boat rose and fell again, sending him sliding across the hold to land hard against the other hull. Piran looked up at the deck above them as if it were the sky. "Is that the best you can do?"
"Shut up, Piran," Blaine muttered.
Piran looked at him and raised an eyebrow. "When did you get devout?"
Blaine shook his head. "I'm not. But I'd rather not clean you up after our bunkmates are done kicking your sorry ass."
Piran grinned. Two missing teeth were testament to just how much he relished a good brawl. "Let them try."
The ship canted hard to starboard, and several men lost their grip, slamming across the hold. Above their heads, they heard a crack like thunder, and the shouts and screams of men.
"We've lost a mast," Blaine muttered.
Piran let go of his hold on the support post and gave Blaine a shove. "Get up the steps. Now!" All joking was gone from his face. In its place was a cold reckoning that Blaine guessed had gotten Piran through the wars he had survived, battles he would only talk about when drunk.
Lurching like drunkards, Blaine and Piran stumbled across the hold. A few of the others struggled to their feet, realizing that if the ship were to go over, their odds of surviving were far better on deck than below. Many of the men remained frozen where they were, clinging white-knuckled to their hammocks or to the posts, eyes closed and heads down, praying.
"Stay below!" a guard shouted as they reached the top of the stairs, and belatedly tried to shut the door against them. Piran and Blaine threw their weight against the door, sending the guard sprawling. When the man attempted to grab at Piran's legs, Piran kicked him away.
"Maybe the gods were listening," Blaine murmured as they reached the deck. The main mast of the buss had splintered, leaving only the mizzen standing. The deck was awash with seawater, and the fishermen and sailors alike had lashed themselves to the rails. Piran and Blaine managed to do the same, ducking to avoid the worst of another wave that broke over the bow. Blaine came up sputtering.
"We'll drown by inches at this rate," Piran said, holding tight as the ship pitched.
"Can you see any of the other ships?" The Pathi had been one of thirty ships in Velant's fleet of herring boats. When Blaine had been on deck before the storm, he had spotted many of the other ships spread out across the water.
"I can barely see my hand at the end of my own damn arm," Piran replied. "Clouds above, rain between, and the sea below. I can't see worth shit."
If we founder, would the other ships bother to look for survivors? Or would they just gather the herring barrels they could find and head back to port? On one hand, Velant wouldn't care if two dozen convicts drowned. But even Commander Prokief might count the loss of an experienced crew, given the colony's dependence on fish for both food and trade with Donderath. And while the fishermen aboard the Pathi were convicts, they had fished long enough to be valuable.
Gradually, the storm lost its fury. Blaine dragged himself to his feet, gripping the rail hard enough that he thought his fingers might make indentations in the wood. The deck smelled of vomit and seawater, and every man aboard the Pathi was ashen-faced.
"Stared Yadin in the face and spit in his eye, we did." Piran chuckled.
"Shut up, Piran." Blaine was sore all over. He had long ago grown used to the hard work of hauling in nets. Last night's battle with the sea had left him battered and numb with cold. Storm crests had broken across the deck with the force of body blows. Blaine's shoulders, knees, and elbows ached after bracing himself all night long. From how stiffly his shipmates moved, Blaine guessed that they felt much the same. Many men were bruised and bleeding where the waves had thrown them into the railings or slammed them against the deck. And yet, despite the worst the storm had to offer, they were still alive and afloat.
Captain Darden came around the ship's wheel, where he had lashed himself through the storm. His dark, heavy brows and full beard made his scowling face look as ominous as the thunderheads that had just cleared from the sky.
"Muster on deck! I need a head count."
In the end, only two of the Pathi's crew were missing, and miraculously, the ship had taken no damage other than the loss of its main mast. That alone was enough to present problems. The Pathi had been at sea for four weeks, nearly at the end of its six-week voyage. They were at the edge of their range, far out from the coastline, and even farther from any other ports.
Blaine and the others waited as the captain took out his sun board and calculated their position. Captain Darden's expression braced Blaine for bad news even before the man spoke.
"The storm took us off course and farther out to sea than our usual fishing sites," Darden said. "If we're lucky, maybe one of our sister ships will find us and tow us back to port. If not—" He shrugged, but they did not need him to finish the sentence. Far from home without their mast, the sea would finish what it started.
"It's his fault!" the red-haired man, Isdane, shouted. He pointed at Piran. "He mocked the gods. Mocked Yadin himself. Dared the Sea God to take us."
Piran's face was pure innocence. He spread his hands and shrugged. "Just a figure of speech."
Isdane launched himself at Piran, a massive bull at full charge. Piran was faster, and sidestepped the big man, narrowly eluding his grasp.
"Piran!" Blaine spotted two of Isdane's friends just as they bent to rush Piran. Blaine stepped up beside Piran as the crowded deck erupted in shouts. One of the men threw a punch that connected hard with Piran's jaw, but Piran returned a sharp jab that sent the man sprawling. Blaine intercepted the second man, landing his fist squarely in the center of the man's face, breaking his nose.
Before the fight could go further, strong hands seized Piran, Blaine, and Isdane and hauled them back. Captain Darden stepped in between Piran and Isdane.
"That's entirely enough." Darden fixed them with an icy glare. "We've got all the problems we need without this."
"But I heard him. He mocked the gods!"
Darden looked at Isdane wearily. "I suspect the Sea God has more sense than to take offense from the likes of Piran Rowse." He turned back to Blaine and Piran. "Get below, and stay there. Any more trouble and I'll have you whipped."
Blaine and Piran followed Isdane and his friends down the narrow stairs in silence. But when they reached the hold, Isdane started toward Piran again. "It's your fault we're going to die out here."
Blaine shouldered his way between the two men, and shoved Isdane backward into his friends, hard enough to make them step back a pace. "Shut up, fool. Dying's not certain, but whipping is, and I've got a mind to hang on to my skin."
Isdane glared at Piran, and Blaine stood his ground between them, hands on hips. "We've got water enough for at least another week, and herring enough for the rest of our lives. There's no reason for the other ships not to come looking for us; Commander Prokief'll have their hides if they cost him a boat and a cargo of fish. He won't be satisfied unless they bring us back or show wreckage to prove we sank. And in the meantime, mark my words, Captain Darden will have us fishing. I've got no desire to haul in nets with a striped back, or to have a bath of seawater after a flogging."
Behind him, he heard Piran open his mouth to comment, and turned. "Your mouth started this. Drop it."
Blaine could feel the heat from both men's gaze, but he did not back down. Finally, Piran gave a creative curse and walked away. Isdane shot Piran a murderous look, then turned to his friends. "Let it go, boys. We can always jump the sorry son of a bitch when we get back to port."
Isdane and the others retreated to one side of the hold. Blaine found Piran leaning against one of the support poles that held their hammocks. "On the whole, that went rather well," Piran observed.
Blaine swung a punch that caught Piran on the side of his jaw.
Piran's eyes went wide. "Hey, what was that for?"
"You could have gotten both of us thrown overboard to appease Yadin."
"You don't believe in the gods."
"No," Blaine replied, "but sailors are as superstitious as they come, and if anyone other than Isdane starts thinking you're a jyng, the captain's likely to toss you over you just to keep the peace."
Piran's mouth set in a hard line, but he made no retort and Blaine relaxed. "Hey, it could be worse," Blaine said. "Darden could have decided to split you open and read your entrails for omens."
"Don't give him any ideas. He doesn't like me."
"I wonder why."
Piran fell silent for a moment. "Do you think we'll really die out here?"
Blaine shrugged. "Velant's a death sentence. The only real question is what… or who… carries it out."
Piran raised an eyebrow and looked at him. "You really don't care, do you?"
Blaine turned away, tugging at the knots of his hammock. "No, I really don't."
GET ON YOUR FEET, YOU LAZY ASS. WE'RE BEING rescued." Piran rocked Blaine's hammock hard enough that he nearly fell to the floor. Blaine struggled to clear his head. "The captain spotted a couple of ventjers on the horizon this morning. They must have been looking for us." Ventjers were smaller boats sent out from Velant to offload the gibbed herring and resupply the herring busses. With the ventjers, the busses could remain at sea for weeks at a time before returning to port.
"A whole team of ventjers aren't going to be able to tow us back to port," Blaine replied.
"There are three more busses with them. I wager they'll figure out a way to get us back."
Blaine grimaced. "You'll wager just about anything, with anyone."
"Can't help it; I'm a betting man."
It took three days to make it back to Skalgerston Bay, Edgeland's main port. Since both the port city and the port itself shared the same name, colonists often referred to the village as Bay-town, though none of the maps reflected that name. Blaine stood on deck as the Pathi was towed in. Along the waterfront were a collection of low log buildings. Some were warehouses to store gibbed and fresh-caught fish on ice. A few were taverns and brothels for the sailors who found their way to Velant's gods-forsaken port. Skalgerston Bay had a short row of shops where soldiers and convicts could purchase crockery, farming tools, and a few other necessities and luxuries from Donderath.
Behind the buildings of Skalgerston Bay lay the rest of Edgeland, the island at the top of the world. Blaine had heard the rumors that a few hardy trappers had found more remote shores, even farther to the north, but it was difficult to imagine that anything could be farther from civilization. Most of Edgeland was miles-thick ice and jagged rocky peaks. A narrow fringe of stony soil bordered the sea. On that fringe, guards and convicts scratched out their survival in the prison colony.
From the deck, Blaine could see some of the homestead farms in the distance. Edgeland's poor soil could still yield potatoes, turnips, and carrots, along with a few bitter native fruits and enough rye, barley, and hops to fuel a profitable—and illegal—trade in home-brewed ale and strong whiskey. Small herds of sheep, goats, and dairy cows, along with chickens and pigs, all sent from Donderath, augmented the fish served at every meal. Prokief's warden-mages, when not using their magic to keep the convicts in line, used their power and the heat of Edgeland's underground hot springs to grow more succulent plants, specialties reserved for the commander and his chosen favorites.
Blaine hoisted his sack of clothing and personal items onto his back and lifted the small barrel of gibbed fish he and every other fisherman had earned as part of their pay for the fishing run. Piran was right behind him, juggling his own sack and barrel, as they made their way down the gangplank.
"Show your Tickets, if you have them," the guard said in a monotone as Blaine and Piran reached the bottom. Blaine dug his Ticket of Leave out of the oilskin pouch that he wore on a leather strap around his neck. New convicts in Velant were housed in the sprawling barracks inside the stockade, under the constant eye of Commander Prokief's motley soldiers. Those that survived three years in the harsh conditions could earn both a meager stipend for their labor and the coveted Ticket of Leave. For the male convicts, "surviving" meant living through time in the brutal labor gangs of the ruby and copper mines. For the female prisoners, it was enduring the attention of the guards and the backbreaking work of the laundry.
With a Ticket of Leave, a "seasoned" convict could live outside the stockade. Ticket-holders became colonists, able to engage in a trade, offer merchandise for sale, and go about their business. It was a cruel illusion of freedom. Every Ticket-bearer could lay claim to a three-acre homestead. The promise of the offer paled once the homesteader tried to plow the frozen, rocky ground. Those looking to earn coin could sign on with the herring fleet or find work with a trapper or merchant.
"Looking forward to getting home?" Piran asked as he and Blaine paid a coin to the wagon master who would take them out of Skalgerston Bay and out to the homesteads.
Blaine shrugged. "I'm looking forward to drying out, and eating something other than that godsdamned fish."
By the time they reached the homesteads, it should have been night, though the winter sun remained low on the horizon. At the first rise in the road, the plume of smoke coming from a cabin's chimney was visible.
"Home sweet home," Piran said, slapping Blaine on the back. They climbed down from the wagon, shouldering their barrels of fish and their sacks of clothing.
A tall, lanky man was splitting wood in front of the cabin. He stopped when he made out two figures headed his way, and weighed the ax in his hands until Blaine and Piran were close enough to recognize. Then he sank the ax into the stump he was using as a chopping block and grinned broadly.
"Mick! Piran! Welcome back!" Dawe Killick pushed a strand of dark hair out of his eyes. Killick had a hawk-like nose and piercing blue eyes. His long-fingered hands, now calloused from hard work in Velant, retained the nimbleness of his original craft of silversmithing. He smiled broadly as Blaine and Piran approached, and he welcomed them with a handshake and a slap on the back. "You brought fish?"
Blaine groaned. "Of course. And this time out, we nearly became fish food." He and Piran set down their barrels. "The stories can wait until we've had something to eat."
"Food should be ready inside. I'll help you move the barrels into the shed." He looked skeptically at Blaine. "Rough seas?"
"Happy to be back on dry land, that's for sure," Blaine replied. "Is everyone well?"
Killick opened his mouth to reply, but the door to the cabin burst open and a woman stood framed in the doorway. "Mick and Piran! Thank the gods you're home." A petite red-haired woman bounded down the stairs. Kestel Falke wore the same homespun woolen garb as most of the other Ticketed prisoners, but as Blaine saw her stride toward them, the sashay in her walk betrayed her former occupation as a sought-after courtesan. She had green eyes that sparkled with wit and humor, and a figure that stood out even under her nondescript woolen dress. At the moment, someone might think her pretty but unremarkable. Her cheek had a smudge of cinders and her face was flushed from the hot stove. Yet Blaine had seen Kestel when she bothered to dress up for one of the local festivals, and even with the rough clothing and homemade cosmetics available in Edgeland, she could transform herself into a head-turning beauty. He could only guess just how beautiful she had been at court, clad in silks and velvets and adorned with diamonds and gold from her wealthy paramours.
Kestel greeted both Blaine and Piran with hugs, then linked her arms through theirs and walked them into the cabin with Dawe behind them.
"Did you miss us?" Blaine teased.
Kestel tossed her hair with mock seductiveness. "Not in the least," she joked. "Dawe and Verran don't make as much mess as the two of you."
Blaine gave Kestel a good-natured squeeze. "Ah, but everyone thinks we're the luckiest four men in Edgeland, sharing a house with you."
Kestel leveled a half-joking glare his way. "Let them assume all they want. After all, a courtesan's reputation is her biggest asset."
Blaine gave her an exaggerated glance from head to toe. "I wouldn't exactly say that," he drawled, and she smacked him on the shoulder. "But I'm still in awe of how you managed to arrange this. Everyone assumes that the four of us are your paramours. Meanwhile we four luckless, loveless bastards suffer in silence without relief and you know we can't set the record straight without making a mockery of our manhood."
Kestel grinned. "Damned right. No one needs to know that I've 'retired' from the courtesan business. And there's nothing stopping any of you from meeting your needs with one of our fine convict wenches or the strumpets down in Bay-town."
"You're lucky your other courtly skills include cooking and spying."
Kestel snorted. "You're lucky I was willing to lay my virtue on the line with Prokief to get you your Ticket, or you'd still be in the mines."
Blaine planted a brotherly kiss on the top of her head. "Right you are on that one, luv. I'll owe you eternally."
"Yes, you will." She shuddered. "I slept with more disgusting men at court, but at least they were rich."
Blaine chuckled. When the five of them had earned their Tickets, Blaine had offered Kestel his protection, no strings attached. A place like Edgeland presented a different set of dangers than the royal court. Kestel's renown as a courtesan had made her especially vulnerable to Velant's guards, until two of the first to force themselves on her had mysteriously turned up dead. No one had been able to say just what had killed them, but the others took note. It was then Blaine realized that Kestel could name "assassin" among her talents, along with sex and intrigue, and that while she valued his friendship, she scarcely needed anyone's protection.
"Has anyone mentioned that you two carry on like an old married couple?" Piran laughed.
Kestel crinkled her nose in mock disgust. "You do. Frequently. So far, I've been willing to overlook it."
- " The immediate action in this story pulls the reader in... And with more than a few unexpected twists, this easy-to-follow storyline will leave the reader completely surprised and ready for the next book in the saga."—RT Book Reviews on Ice Forged
- "There's plenty of action and plot embroidery, and the pages turn easily."—Kirkus on Ice Forged
- "Well written and full of action, this grabs the reader on the first page and refuses to let go until the very last page."—RT Book Reviews on The Sworn
- "[Martin] launches herself into the adventure with whole-hearted passion."—SFX on The Summoner
- "With creepy ghosts, nefarious undead, magic, plenty of intrigue, and even a little romance, high fantasy fans shouldn't miss this series."—SciFiChick.com on Dark Haven
- On Sale
- Jan 8, 2013
- Page Count
- 592 pages