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Kings of the Wyld
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“Fantastic, funny, ferocious.” — Sam Sykes
Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best, the most feared and renowned crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld.
Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk, or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay’s door with a plea for help — the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.
It’s time to get the band back together.
A Ghost on the Road
You'd have guessed from the size of his shadow that Clay Cooper was a bigger man than he was. He was certainly bigger than most, with broad shoulders and a chest like an iron-strapped keg. His hands were so large that most mugs looked like teacups when he held them, and the jaw beneath his shaggy brown beard was wide and sharp as a shovel blade. But his shadow, drawn out by the setting sun, skulked behind him like a dogged reminder of the man he used to be: great and dark and more than a little monstrous.
Finished with work for the day, Clay slogged down the beaten track that passed for a thoroughfare in Coverdale, sharing smiles and nods with those hustling home before dark. He wore a Watchmen's green tabard over a shabby leather jerkin, and a weathered sword in a rough old scabbard on his hip. His shield—chipped and scored and scratched through the years by axes and arrows and raking claws—was slung across his back, and his helmet … well, Clay had lost the one the Sergeant had given him last week, just as he'd misplaced the one given to him the month before, and every few months since the day he'd signed on to the Watch almost ten years ago now.
A helmet restricted your vision, all but negated your hearing, and more often than not made you look stupid as hell. Clay Cooper didn't do helmets, and that was that.
"Clay! Hey, Clay!" Pip trotted over. The lad wore the Watchmen's green as well, his own ridiculous head-pan tucked in the crook of one arm. "Just got off duty at the south gate," he said cheerily. "You?"
"Nice." The boy grinned and nodded as though Clay had said something exceptionally interesting instead of having just mumbled the word north. "Anything exciting out there?"
Clay shrugged. "Mountains."
"Ha! 'Mountains,' he says. Classic. Hey, you hear Ryk Yarsson saw a centaur out by Tassel's farm?"
"It was probably a moose."
The boy gave him a skeptical look, as if Ryk spotting a moose instead of a centaur was highly improbable. "Anyway. Come to the King's Head for a few?"
"I shouldn't," said Clay. "Ginny's expecting me home, and …" He paused, having no other excuse near to hand.
"C'mon," Pip goaded. "Just one, then. One drink."
Clay grunted, squinting into the sun and measuring the prospect of Ginny's wrath against the bitter bite of ale washing down his throat. "Fine," he relented. "One."
Because it was hard work looking north all day, after all.
The King's Head was already crowded, its long tables crammed with people who came as much to gab and gossip as they did to drink. Pip slinked toward the bar while Clay found a seat at a table as far from the stage as possible.
The talk around him was the usual sort: weather and war, and neither topic too promising. There'd been a great battle fought out west in Endland, and by the murmurings it hadn't gone off well. A Republic army of twenty thousand, bolstered by several hundred mercenary bands, had been slaughtered by a Heartwyld Horde. Those few who'd survived had retreated to the city of Castia and were now under siege, forced to endure sickness and starvation while the enemy gorged themselves on the dead outside their walls. That, and there'd been a touch of frost on the ground this morning, which didn't seem fair this early into autumn, did it?
Pip returned with two pints and two friends Clay didn't recognize, whose names he forgot just as soon as they told him. They seemed like nice enough fellows, mind you. Clay was just bad with names.
"So you were in a band?" one asked. He had lanky red hair, and his face was a postpubescent mess of freckles and swollen pimples.
Clay took a long pull from his tankard before setting it down and looking over at Pip, who at least had the grace to look ashamed. Then he nodded.
The two stole a glance at each other, and then Freckles leaned in across the table. "Pip says you guys held Coldfire Pass for three days against a thousand walking dead."
"I only counted nine hundred and ninety-nine," Clay corrected. "But pretty much, yeah."
"He says you slew Akatung the Dread," said the other, whose attempt to grow a beard had produced a wisp of hair most grandmothers would scoff at.
Clay took another drink and shook his head. "We only injured him. I hear he died back at his lair, though. Peacefully. In his sleep."
They looked disappointed, but then Pip nudged one with his elbow. "Ask him about the Siege of Hollow Hill."
"Hollow Hill?" murmured Wispy, then his eyes went round as courtmark coins. "Wait, the Siege of Hollow Hill? So the band you were in …"
"Saga," Freckles finished, clearly awestruck. "You were in Saga."
"It's been a while," said Clay, picking at a knot in the warped wood of the table before him. "The name sounds familiar, though."
"Wow," sighed Freckles.
"You gotta be kidding me," Wispy uttered.
"Just … wow," said Freckles again.
"You gotta be kidding me," Wispy repeated, not one to be outdone when it came re-expressing disbelief.
Clay said nothing in response, only sipped his beer and shrugged.
"So you know Golden Gabe?" Freckles asked.
Another shrug. "I know Gabriel, yeah."
"Gabriel!" trilled Pip, sloshing his drink as he raised his hands in wonderment. "'Gabriel,' he says! Classic."
"And Ganelon?" Wispy asked. "And Arcandius Moog? And Matrick Skulldrummer?"
"Oh, and …" Freckles screwed up his face as he racked his brain—which didn't do the poor bastard any favours, Clay decided. He was ugly as a rain cloud on a wedding day, that one. "Who are we forgetting?"
Wispy stroked the fine hairs on his chin as he pondered this. "Clay Cooper … oh," he said, looking abashed. "Right."
It took Freckles another moment to piece it together, but then he palmed his pale forehead and laughed. "Gods, I'm stupid."
The gods already know, thought Clay.
Sensing the awkwardness at hand, Pip chimed in. "Tell us a tale, will ya, Clay? About when you did for that necromancer up in Oddsford. Or when you rescued that princess from … that place … remember?"
Which one? Clay wondered. They'd rescued several princesses, in fact, and if he'd killed one necromancer he'd killed a dozen. Who kept track of shit like that? Didn't matter anyway, since he wasn't in the mood for storytelling. Or to go digging up what he'd worked so hard to bury, and then harder still to forget where he'd dug the hole in the first place.
"Sorry, kid," he told Pip, draining what remained of his beer. "That's one."
He excused himself, handing Pip a few coppers for the drink and bidding what he hoped was a last farewell to Freckles and Wispy. He shouldered his way to the door and gave a long sigh when he emerged into the cool quiet outside. His back hurt from slumping over that table, so he stretched it out, craning his neck and gazing up at the first stars of the evening.
He remembered how small the night sky used to make him feel. How insignificant. And so he'd gone and made a big deal of himself, figuring that someday he might look up at the vast sprawl of stars and feel undaunted by its splendour. It hadn't worked. After a while Clay tore his eyes from the darkening sky and struck out down the road toward home.
He exchanged pleasantries with the Watchmen at the west gate. Had he heard about the centaur spotting over by Tassel's farm? they wondered. How about the battle out west, and those poor bastards holed up in Castia? Rotten, rotten business.
Clay followed the track, careful to keep from turning an ankle in a rut. Crickets were chirping in the tall grass to either side, the wind in the trees above him sighing like the ocean surf. He stopped by the roadside shrine to the Summer Lord and threw a dull copper at the statue's feet. After a few steps and a moment's hesitation he went back and tossed another. Away from town it was darker still, and Clay resisted the urge to look up again.
Best keep your eyes on the ground, he told himself, and leave the past where it belongs. You've got what you've got, Cooper, and it's just what you wanted, right? A kid, a wife, a simple life. It was an honest living. It was comfortable.
He could almost hear Gabriel scoff at that. Honest? Honest is boring, his old friend might have said. Comfortable is dull. Then again, Gabriel had got himself married long before Clay. Had a little girl of his own, even—a woman grown by now.
And yet there was Gabe's spectre just the same, young and fierce and glorious, smirking in the shadowed corner of Clay's mind. "We were giants, once," he said. "Bigger than life. And now …"
"Now we are tired old men," Clay muttered, to no one but the night. And what was so wrong with that? He'd met plenty of actual giants in his day, and most of them were assholes.
Despite Clay's reasoning, the ghost of Gabriel continued to haunt his walk home, gliding past him on the road with a sly wink, waving from his perch on the neighbour's fence, crouched like a beggar on the stoop of Clay's front door. Only this last Gabriel wasn't young at all. Or particularly fierce looking. Or any more glorious than an old board with a rusty nail in it. In fact, he looked pretty fucking terrible. When he saw Clay coming he stood, and smiled. Clay had never seen a man look so sad in all the years of his life.
The apparition spoke his name, which sounded to Clay as real as the crickets buzzing, as the wind moaning through the trees along the road. And then that brittle smile broke, and Gabriel—really, truly Gabriel, and not a ghost after all—was sagging into Clay's arms, sobbing into his shoulder, clutching at his back like a child afraid of the dark.
"Clay," he said. "Please … I need your help."
Once Gabriel recovered himself they went inside. Ginny turned from the stove and her jaw clamped tight. Griff came bounding over, stubby tail wagging. He gave Clay a cursory sniff and then set to smelling Gabe's leg as though it were a piss-drenched tree, which wasn't actually too far off the mark.
His old friend was in a sorry state, no mistake. His hair and beard were a tangled mess, his clothes little more than soiled rags. There were holes in his boots, toes peeking out from the ruined leather like grubby urchins. His hands were busy fidgeting, wringing each other or tugging absentmindedly at the hem of his tunic. Worst of all, though, were his eyes. They were sunk deep in his haggard face, hard and haunted, as though everywhere he looked was something he wished he hadn't seen.
"Griff, lay off," said Clay. The dog, wet eyes and a lolling pink tongue in a black fur face, perked up at the sound of his name. Griff wasn't the noblest-looking creature, and he didn't have many uses besides licking food off a plate. He couldn't herd sheep or flush a grouse from cover, and if anyone ever broke in to the house he was more likely to fetch them slippers than scare 'em off. But it made Clay smile to look at him (that's how godsdamn adorable he was) and that was worth more than nothing.
"Gabriel." Ginny finally found her voice, though she stayed right where she was. Didn't smile. Didn't cross to hug him. She'd never much cared for Gabriel. Clay thought she probably blamed his old bandmate for all the bad habits (gambling, fighting, drinking to excess) that she'd spent the last ten years disabusing him of, and all the other bad habits (chewing with his mouth open, forgetting to wash his hands, occasionally throttling people) she was still struggling to purge.
Heaped upon that were the handful of times Gabe had come calling in the years since his own wife left him. Every time he appeared it was hand in hand with some grand scheme to reunite the old band and strike out once again in search of fame, fortune, and decidedly reckless adventure. There was a town down south needed rescue from a ravaging drake, or a den of walking wolves to be cleared out of the Wailing Forest, or an old lady in some far-flung corner of the realm needed help bringing laundry off the line and only Saga themselves could rise to her aid!
It wasn't as though Clay needed Ginny breathing down his neck to refuse, to see that Gabriel longed for something unrecoverable, like an old man clinging to memories of his golden youth. Exactly like that, actually. But life, Clay knew, didn't work that way. It wasn't a circle; you didn't go round and round again. It was an arc, its course as inexorable as the sun's trek across the sky, destined at its highest, brightest moment to begin its fall.
Clay blinked, having lost himself in his own head. He did that sometimes, and could have wished he was better at putting his thoughts into words. He'd sound a right clever bastard then, wouldn't he?
Instead, he'd stood there dumbly as the silence between Ginny and Gabriel lengthened uncomfortably.
"You look hungry," she said finally.
Gabriel nodded, his hands fidgeting nervously.
Ginny sighed, and then his wife—his kind, lovely, magnificent wife—forced a tight grin and reclaimed her spoon from the pot she'd been tending earlier. "Sit down then," she said over her shoulder. "I'll feed you. I made Clay's favourite: rabbit stew with mushrooms."
Gabriel blinked. "Clay hates mushrooms."
Seeing Ginny's back stiffen, Clay spoke up. "Used to," he said brightly, before his wife—his quick-tempered, sharp-tongued, utterly terrifying wife—could turn around and crack his skull with that wooden spoon. "Ginny does something to them, though. Makes them taste"—Not so fucking awful, was what first jumped to mind—"really pretty good," he finished lamely. "What is it you do to 'em, hun?"
"I stew them," she said in the most menacing way a woman could string those three words together.
Something very much like a smile tugged at the corner of Gabe's mouth.
He always did love to watch me squirm, Clay remembered. He took a chair and Gabriel followed suit. Griff trundled over to his mat and gave his balls a few good licks before promptly falling asleep. Clay fought down a surge of envy, seeing that. "Tally home?" he asked.
"Out," said Ginny. "Somewhere."
Somewhere close, he hoped. There were coyotes in the woods nearby. Wolves in the hills. Hell, Ryk Yarsson had seen a centaur out by Tassel's farm. Or a moose. Either of which might kill a young girl if caught by surprise. "She should've been home before dark," he said.
His wife scoffed at that. "So should you have, Clay Cooper. You putting in extra hours on the wall, or is that the King's Piss I smell on ya?" King's Piss was her name for the beer they served at the pub. It was a fair assessment, and Clay had laughed the first time she'd said it. Didn't seem as funny at the moment, however.
Not to Clay, anyway, though Gabriel's mood seemed to be lightening a bit. His old friend was smirking like a boy watching his brother take heat for a crime he didn't commit.
"She's just down in the marsh," Ginny said, fishing two ceramic bowls from the cupboard. "Be glad it's only frogs she'll bring home with her. It'll be boys soon enough, and you'll have plenty cause to worry then."
"Won't be me needs to worry," Clay mumbled.
Ginny scoffed at that, too, and he might have asked why had she not set a steaming bowl of stew in front of him. The wafting scent drew a ravenous growl from his stomach, even if there were mushrooms in it.
His wife took her cloak off the peg by the door. "I'll go and be sure Tally's all right," she said. "Might be she needs help carrying those frogs." She came over and kissed Clay on the top of his head, smoothing his hair down afterward. "You boys have fun catching up."
She got as far as opening the door before hesitating, looking back. First at Gabriel, already scooping at his bowl as if it were the first meal he'd had in a long while, and then at Clay, and it wasn't until a few days after (a hard choice and too many miles away already) that he understood what he'd seen in her eyes just then. A kind of sorrow, thoughtful and resigned, as though she already knew—his loving, beautiful, remarkably astute wife—what was coming, inevitable as winter, or a river's winding course to the sea.
A chill wind blew in from outside. Ginny shivered despite her cloak, then she left.
They had finished eating, set their bowls aside. He should have put them in the basin, Clay knew, got them soaking so they wouldn't be such a chore to clean later, but it suddenly seemed like he couldn't leave the table just now. Gabriel had come in the night, from a long way off, to say something. Best to let him say it and be done.
"Your daughter?" Clay prompted.
Gabe nodded slowly. His hands were both flat on the table. His eyes were fixed, unfocused, somewhere between them. "She is …willful," he said finally. "Impetuous. I wish I could say she gets it from her mother, but …" That smile again, just barely. "You remember I was teaching her to use a sword?"
"I remember telling you that was a bad idea," said Clay.
A shrug from Gabriel. "I just wanted her to be able to protect herself. You know, stick 'em with the pointy end and all that. But she wanted more. She wanted to be …" he paused, searching for the word, " … great."
"Like her father?"
Gabriel's expression turned sour. "Just so. She heard too many stories, I think. Got her head filled with all this nonsense about being a hero, fighting in a band."
And from whom could she have heard all that? Clay wondered.
"I know," said Gabriel, perceiving his thoughts. "Partly my fault, I won't deny it. But it wasn't just me. Kids these days … they're obsessed with these mercenaries, Clay. They worship them. It's unhealthy. And most of these mercs aren't even in real bands! They just hire a bunch of nameless goons to do their fighting while they paint their faces and parade around with shiny swords and fancy armour. There's even one guy—I shit you not—who rides a manticore into battle!"
"A manticore?" asked Clay, incredulous.
Gabe laughed bitterly. "I know, right? Who the fuck rides a manticore? Those things are dangerous! Well, I don't need to tell you."
He didn't, of course. Clay had a nasty-looking puncture scar on his right thigh, testament to the hazards of tangling with such monsters. A manticore was nobody's pet, and it certainly wasn't fit to ride. As if slapping wings and a poison-barbed tail on a lion made it somehow a fine idea to climb on its back!
"They worshipped us, too," Clay pointed out. "Well you, anyway. And Ganelon. They tell the stories, even still. They sing the songs."
The stories were exaggerated, naturally. The songs, for the most part, were wildly inaccurate. But they persisted. Had lasted long after the men themselves had outlived who (or what) they'd been.
We were giants once.
"It's not the same," Gabriel persisted. "You should see the crowds gather when these bands come to town, Clay. People screaming, women crying in the streets."
"That sounds horrible," said Clay, meaning it.
Gabriel ignored him, pressing on. "Anyhow, Rose wanted to learn the sword, so I indulged her. I figured she'd get bored of it sooner or later, and that if she was going to learn, it might as well be from me. And also it made her mother mad as hell."
It would have, Clay knew. Her mother, Valery, despised violence and weapons of any kind, along with those who used either toward any end whatsoever. It was partly because of Valery that Saga had dissolved all those years ago.
"Problem was," said Gabriel, "she was good. Really good, and that's not just a father's boasts. She started out sparring against kids her age, but when they gave up getting their asses whooped she went out looking for street fights, or wormed her way into sponsored matches."
"The daughter of Golden Gabe himself," Clay mused. "Must've been quite the draw."
"I guess so," his friend agreed. "But then one day Val saw the bruises. Lost her mind. Blamed me, of course, for everything. She put her foot down—you know how she gets—and for a while Rose stopped fighting, but …" He trailed off, and Clay saw his jaw clamp down on something bitter. "After her mother left, Rosie and I … didn't get along so well, either. She started going out again. Sometimes she wouldn't come home for days. There were more bruises, and a few nastier scrapes besides. She chopped her hair off—thank the Holy Tetrea her mother was gone by then, or mine would've been next. And then came the cyclops."
Gabriel looked at him askance. "Big bastards, one huge eye right here on their head?"
Clay leveled a glare of his own. "I know what a cyclops is, asshole."
"Then why did you ask?"
"I didn't …" Clay faltered. "Never mind. What about the cyclops?"
Gabriel sighed. "Well, one settled down in that old fort north of Ottersbrook. Stole some cattle, some goats, a dog, and then killed the folks that went looking for 'em. The courtsmen had their hands full, so they were looking for someone to clear the beast out for them. Only there weren't any mercs around at the time—or none with the chops to take on a cyclops, anyway. Somehow my name got tossed into the pot. They even sent someone round to ask if I would, but I told them no. Hell, I don't even own a sword anymore!"
Clay cut in again, aghast. "What? What about Vellichor?"
Gabriel's eyes were downcast. "I … uh … sold it."
"I'm sorry?" Clay asked, but before his friend could repeat himself he put his own hands flat on the table, for fear they would ball into fists, or snatch one of the bowls nearby and smash it over Gabriel's head. He said, as calmly as he could manage, "For a second there I thought you said that you sold Vellichor. As in the sword entrusted to you by the Archon himself as he lay dying? The sword he used to carve a fucking doorway from his world to ours. That sword? You sold that sword?"
Gabriel, who had slumped deeper into his chair with every word, nodded. "I had debts to pay, and Valery wanted it out of the house after she found out I taught Rose to fight," he said meekly. "She said it was dangerous."
"She—" Clay stopped himself. He leaned back in his chair, kneading his eyes with the palms of his hands. He groaned, and Griff, sensing his frustration, groaned himself from his mat in the corner. "Finish your story," he said at last.
Gabriel continued. "Well, needless to say, I refused to go after the cyclops, and for the next few weeks it caused a fair bit of havoc. And then suddenly word got around that someone had gone out and killed it." He smiled, wistful and sad. "All by herself."
"Rose," Clay said. Didn't make it a question. Didn't need to.
Gabriel's nod confirmed it. "She was a celebrity overnight. Bloody Rose, they called her. A pretty good name, actually."
It is, Clay agreed, but didn't bother saying so. He was still fuming about the sword. The sooner Gabe said whatever it was he'd come here to say, the sooner Clay could tell his oldest, dearest friend to get the hell out of his house and never come back.
"She even got her own band going," Gabe went on. "They managed to clear out a few nests around town: giant spiders, some old carrion wyrm down in the sewer that everyone forgot was still alive. But I hoped—" he bit his lip "—I still hoped, even then, that she might choose another path. A better path. Instead of following mine." He looked up. "Until the summons came from the Republic of Castia, asking every able sword to march against the Heartwyld Horde."
For a heartbeat Clay wondered at the significance of that. Until he remembered the news he'd heard earlier that evening. An army of twenty thousand, routed by a vastly more numerous host; the survivors surrounded in Castia, doubtless wishing they had died on the battlefield rather than endure the atrocities of a city under siege.
Which meant that Gabriel's daughter was dead. Or she would be, when the city fell.
Clay opened his mouth to speak, to try to keep the heartbreak from his voice as he did so. "Gabe, I—"
"I'm going after her, Clay. And I need you with me." Gabriel leaned forward in his chair, the flame of a father's fear and anger alight in his eyes. "It's time to get the band back together."
A Good Man
It was not, apparently, the answer his friend was expecting. Or at least not as emphatically as Clay put it. Gabriel blinked, the fire inside him snuffed out as quickly as it appeared. He looked confused more than anything. Disbelieving. "But Clay—"
"I said no. I'm not leaving town to go running off west with you. I'm not leaving Ginny behind, or Tally. I'm not going to track down Moog or Matrick or Ganelon—who very probably still hates us all, by the way—and go traipsing across the Heartwyld! Tits of Glif, Gabe, there's more than a thousand miles between here and Castia, and it ain't paved with stone, you know."
- "George R. R. Martin meets Terry Pratchett."—Buzzfeed Books
- "Kings of the Wyld is gritty but not grim. It was a blast to read, from start to finish. The boys are getting the band back together, and woe be to anyone who stands in their way. Magic swords, broken promises, and some of the craziest action you're likely to read this side of the Wyld. Reading this book made me want to grab a sword and set off on an epic quest."—Christopher Paolini
- "A fantastic read, a rollicking, page-turning, edge-of-your-seat road-trip of a book. Great characters, loveable rogues that I genuinely cared about and all manner of fantastical monsters. All spiced with a sly sense of humour that had me smiling throughout. Wonderful."—John Gwynne
- "A comedy, an adventure tale, a consideration on growing older, and a sendup of fantasy conventions, all at the same time. It also has heart. In short: it rocks....I finished this book in one night. If I could, I'd see the tour, and buy the t-shirt. Instead, I'll have to content myself with waiting for the sequel, and reading it again."—B&N SF & Fantasy Blog
- "Brilliant debut novel... Eames has cranked the thrills of epic fantasy up to 11... Moreover, the plot is emotionally rewarding, original, and hilarious. Eames clearly set out to write something fun to read, and he has succeeded spectacularly."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
- "Fantastic, funny, ferocious. Hugely recommended. Read it now."—Sam Sykes
- "Absolutely awesome. If the Beatles held a concert tomorrow (with all the necromancy required for that to happen), it still wouldn't be as good a 'getting the band back together' story as this. Full of heroes, humor, and heart."—Jon Hollins
- "Nicholas Eames brings brazen fun and a rock & roll sensibility to the fantasy genre."—Sebastien de Castell
- "A fantastic epic fantasy! Just the right smidgen of tongue-in-cheek to work wonderfully. Go read."—Django Wexler
- "An absolutely outstanding debut . . . [It has] all the heart and passion that great fantasy can bring in the hands of a master."—Myke Cole
- "Kings of the Wyld took me back to my Dungeons and Dragons days. It has well-crafted characters long past their best but still fighting, non-stop fantasy action and welcome touches of humor. Great reading!"—Ian Irvine
- "A promising, fast-paced debut that balances classic quest fantasy with modern sensibilities and liberal doses of humor. Huzzah!"—Alex Marshall
- "An outstanding debut which will make you laugh and cry and hold your breath. This is a book that has it all."—K. J. Parker
- "Escapism of my favorite type - noble quests, edge-of-the-seat action, and well-rounded, likeable characters that carve out their own unique definition of "family". If you like your fantasy gritty and your humor dark, then this is the next book for you."—Forbidden Planet
- "Nicholas Eames is the voice of modern fantasy."—Michael R. Fletcher
- "Eames' debut fantasy tale has it all....Readers will not be able to put this book down."—Booklist (starred review)
- "Mercenaries get the rock star treatment in this funny, heart-filled epic fantasy."—Book Riot
- On Sale
- Feb 21, 2017
- Page Count
- 544 pages