The Blood King
an extract from the novel
To set the scene:
On the way downriver to challenge Jared for Margolan's throne, a boat
accident throws Tris and his friends into the Nu River. Vahanian,
who has shared more about the years he was a Nargi captive, decides
to make a dangerous journey across the river into Nargi when they
discover that Carina and Carroway came up on the Nargi side of the
river and were captured. Knowing that he will be killed if he is discovered,
Vahanian gets into the Nargi camp and is able to free Carroway and
Carina using a magic transport amulet, but the magic goes wrong, leaving
him stranded and outnumbered.
Vahanian barely parried the Nargi's blow as his attacker
launched a frenzied onslaught. But the flare behind him told him all
he needed to know. The magic had failed him, though it took the others
to safety. He was alone, and in Nargi hands.
Instinct drove him on against the odds. Before his first attacker hit
the ground, two more rushed to take his place, and by then, the whole
camp roused so that no escape was possible. The Nargi commander barked
an order and a soldier with a crossbow stepped up, training the cocked
weapon at Vahanian's chest.
"Drop your sword," the captain snapped.
Trapped, Vahanian had no choice but to comply.
"Kneel, and place your hands on your head," the captain ordered.
Two soldiers rushed up as Vahanian obeyed, binding his wrists with leather
straps. The captain stepped closer, and the soldier kept the crossbow
leveled at Vahanian. The captain reached out and tore the headgear away,
exposing Vahanian's face.
"What are you, outlander?" the captain mused, "that
you dress like a Nargi and fight like a Nargi?"
"Go screw the goddess," Vahanian retorted in Nargi, and the
captain cuffed him so hard it nearly knocked him over.
"I wonder," the captain said, grabbing a handful of hair
and yanking Vahanian's face up. "I heard stories, once, of an outlander
who could fight like that. Many years ago. But he'd be too clever to
come back, wouldn't you think?"
"You're the one with all the answers. You tell me."
"Interesting," the captain said thoughtfully. He turned to
a soldier behind him. "Fetch the commander. Tell him we have a
captive I think he will find most interesting. Bring him immediately."
The soldier acknowledged the order with a low bow, and ran off to the
horses, setting off at a gallop. Just then, another soldier ran up from
the direction of the cookhouse.
"Captain," the soldier shouted. "We found three bodies
behind the cookhouse, and a guard dead along the perimeter," he
reported breathlessly. "We lost Lucan, Cashel, Piaras and Newry."
The captain regarded the soldier dispassionately. "Burn the bodies,"
he ordered. He returned his attention to Vahanian. "You'll die
for what you've done."
"I'd figured that out already."
This time, the captain's blow sent Vahanian sprawling, his ears ringing.
"Quick death is an honor," the captain said, standing over
him. "You'll have time to reflect on your mistakes." He turned
his back. "Take him away. Go over the stockade pole by pole to
see what he's done to it, and post two guards at all times." The
captain looked levelly at his second-in-command. "If the prisoner
escapes, those guarding him will die his death."
"Yes, sir," the second-in-command replied, and called out
two soldiers. They yanked Vahanian to his feet and shoved him so hard
towards the stockade that he nearly fell again, staggering into the
cell. The other soldiers filed back to their barracks, except for one
who began earnestly inspecting and mending the stockade, and the two
sharp-eyed soldiers who stood guard.
Vahanian sat down and rested his head in his bound hands. You sure
picked a bad time to lose your luck, he thought. What in the
world possessed you to try a stunt like this? But he knew. The others,
more important to the quest to destroy Arontala and unseat Jared Drayke,
would go on. The quest could continue without him. If they succeeded,
he would finally have his vengeance against the dark mage. More than
that, Carina was safe. And while he might never have been able to earn
her love, he could at least repay the many times she had saved his life.
Maybe it's time. You always knew it was going to happen, sooner
The approach of a swift horse woke him from an uneasy sleep, and Vahanian
rose warily to his feet as the captain ran to meet the rider. The two
men spoke for a moment, silhouetted in the moonlight, then strode towards
the stockade. By the walk and carriage of one silhouette, Vahanian could
identify the rider even before the man's face became clear in the dim
light, and what little hope he held vanished.
"That's him," the commander clipped when he reached the
stockade. "Well done, captain. Bring him to your quarters. I'll
question him myself."
"Hello, Dorran," Vahanian said as the guards opened the
stockade door and roughly maneuvered him out of the cage. "I figured
you were buzzard food long ago."
"Just as I remembered," Dorran said, a cold smile touching
his thin lips. "We have some catching up to do. Bring him inside."
Inside, forced to kneel while one guard kept a crossbow trained on
him, Vahanian watched the thin commander lay aside his cloak. "Amazing.
You caused me no end of trouble with your... escape. But we both
know it was arranged. And when the general let you free, he thought
it would discredit me." Dorran circled Vahanian as he spoke.
He stopped and reached out, a dagger in his hand, to tilt Vahanian's
face up until their eyes met. "I would have been a general myself
by now, without your little ruse. And I've thought a long time on just
how you might make it up to me."
"What about his companions?" the Nargi captain asked.
Dorran shrugged. "Riffraff. There's no time to chase petty smugglers
down the river. Ready your men for Margolan."
"Expanding your horizons?" Vahanian baited, but his heart
Dorran regarded him coolly. "I've spent almost a decade rebuilding
the career you damaged. This will reclaim my honor. We've made an alliance
with the new king of Margolan to remind some insurrectionists about
the power of a king."
"I thought Margolan had an army for that kind of thing,"
Vahanian retorted, trying to keep his interest from seeming too apparent.
"His army is soft. They lack the will of their king. We'll teach
them. And for that, I'll be handsomely rewarded."
Vahanian stared at him balefully, but said nothing more, the point
of the dagger pricking into his throat. Dorran twitched the blade, tracing
the thin pair of parallel scars that, even now, showed where a slave
collar left its mark years ago.
"This time, no one will arrange your escape," Dorran said,
returning his knife to his belt and beginning to turn up the sleeves
of his uniform. "I intend to enjoy myself quite thoroughly,"
he said with a cold chuckle. Without warning, Dorran wheeled, landing
a kick on the side of Vahanian's head that sent the smuggler sprawling.
"Get ready to see the Lady. Your luck has just run out."
The beating continued until Dorran, panting and winded, could do no
more, his uniform spattered with Vahanian's blood. Vahanian lay sprawled
on the floor of the Nargi captain's barracks, unable to drag himself
to his feet, his wrists still bound in front of him. Blood trickled
from the corner of his mouth, and one eye was swollen shut. He could
taste more blood in his mouth, and the pain in his chest assured him
that several ribs were broken.
"Take him to the healer," Dorran commanded, wiping his hands
on a towel.
Dorran moved to stand over his victim. "You know the ways of
Nargi healers," Dorran said, breathless in his victory. "They're
quite efficient. If I've done any real damage, they can set it right."
"Why bother?" Vahanian asked thickly.
Dorran smiled. "I haven't finished my sport yet. Tomorrow, I'm
going to let the garrison have a private audience with the general's
great champion fighter. Only this time, it won't matter if you win or
lose. Either way, you'll still die." He chuckled. "I've been
looking forward to this for a long time, Vahanian." Dorran stepped
over the fallen fighter and strode into the night as the guards dragged
Vahanian to his feet and pushed him, staggering, towards the priests'
Back in the stockade, Vahanian watched the dawn come with a leaden
feeling in his stomach. True to Dorran's word, the Nargi priests reversed
the worst damage. Vahanian spat blood, and nursed his split lip. The
priests, ascetics as they were, did not bother with any wounds which
might not threaten his life or his ability to fight, and Vahanian awoke
from a restless sleep with the feeling that he had been ridden over
by a wagon team. He replayed Dorran' boasts in his mind. Nargi, ready
to march into Margolan, he thought. Tris would be cut off from behind,
and the influx of expert fighters might be all Jared needed to turn
Vahanian strained against his bonds. There was no way to reach Tris
with the crucial information, he thought, ceasing his struggle. All
the wishing in the world wouldn't get him out of here, and Tris would
walk right into Jared's trap. Vahanian closed his eyes. His sacrifice
to save the others would mean nothing. With the Nargi on the march into
Margolan, Tris' quest was doomed.
It took all of his will to rise impassively when his captors came
for him. The practice ground was full of Nargi soldiers as Vahanian
was led into their midst. A soldier cut the strap that bound his wrists,
and Vahanian rubbed his numb hands. Dorran watched from a chair on the
"I've highlighted your accomplishments as the general's champion
for those who don't remember," Dorran said. "And told them
what a privilege it is to fight you. As you can imagine, there have
been many volunteers."
"And if I refuse to fight?" Vahanian asked, lifting his
Dorran' eyes narrowed. "Fight, and you'll die a warrior's death.
Refuse, and I'll have you burned alive with the bodies of the men you
killed." He paused. "Any other questions?" At Vahanian's
silence, Dorran clapped twice to call the troops to order. "Let
the first contestant come forward."
Vahanian found himself facing a Nargi soldier almost twice his size.
The two began to slowly circle, each looking for an opening. As in the
days of the betting games, neither carried a weapon. That, Vahanian
remembered grimly, was part of the sport the Nargi so enjoyed. Barehanded
combat. Winner lives. The big man lurched, surprisingly fast for his
bulk, and swung at Vahanian with fists the size of melons. Vahanian
dodged, ducking and coming up beside the man, then executing a flying
pivot and landing a kick that sent the big man reeling. The crowd cheered
as Vahanian's attacker roared in rage and lumbered back at a dead run,
murder in his eyes. Vahanian narrowly evaded the man again, and scored
another kick, but the attacker wheeled and caught his leg, bringing
them both to the ground.
The big man jerked Vahanian's arm behind him sharply enough that Vahanian
was sure it slipped from its socket. Bucking desperately, Vahanian threw
the man off balance enough to scramble out of the big man's hold, and
swung wide with his free hand, connecting his knuckles with the giant's
nose, driving the power of his blow up and in. The soldier staggered,
dropping his grip on Vahanian, and gave a deep rattle, then slumped,
dying, and lay still. Vahanian staggered to his feet as the soldiers
who ringed the practice area cursed him and called for his blood.
"Very good, Jonmarc. Nicely done," Dorran praised cynically.
"You're doing us a tremendous service, showing us which of our
soldiers are inferior." His voice steeled. "You may test the
training of another soldier." He made an abrupt gesture, and a
second soldier entered the ring. Setting his jaw, Vahanian moved to
meet his opponent.
In all, he bested three of Dorran's soldiers before he could no longer
fight. The contest became a free-for-all, and might have ended there
if Dorran hadn't shouted for order and sent guards into the fray to
pull Vahanian, barely conscious, from the angry mob. Guards dragged
Vahanian back to the priests for healing. This time, it took longer
for the priests to repair the worst of the damage.
When the priests were finished, Vahanian was led to a post in the
middle of the practice ground. A guard tore away what remained of Vahanian's
shirt, and lashed his wrists around the post. Vahanian's heart thudded
as he saw Dorran approaching with the quartermaster, who held a knotted
whip in his hands. He had seen Nargi martial discipline meted out during
his captivity. Forty lashes could leave a strong fighter incapacitated.
More than forty at one time were likely to kill. He hoped his expression
was impassive as Dorran and the quartermaster stopped in front of him.
A Nargi priest stepped up beside the quartermaster.
"Offenses in a military camp are subject to military law,"
Dorran announced as the camp began to assemble in a circle around the
post. "For the crimes of murder, theft, trespass, impersonation
and blasphemy, I sentence Jonmarc Vahanian to death."
The crowd roared its approval. Vahanian watched balefully as Dorran
basked in the spectacle, then held up a hand for silence. "I'll
mete out the final punishment myself," Dorran added, to the cheers
of the group. "But first, it is only fitting that he pay fully
for his crime."
Dorran looked at Vahanian. "I could have you flogged to death,"
he said under his breath. "You've seen it done."
Vahanian said nothing, and Dorran turned back to the crowd. "Forty
lashes," Dorran pronounced, as the crowd cheered and shouted for
more. Dorran looked to the priest. "Keep him alive. I don't want
to be cheated out of the satisfaction of killing him myself."
Vahanian closed his eyes, bracing himself, and clenched his jaw as
the whip snapped, and the first lash fell.
Night had fallen when the guards returned Vahanian to his
cell, throwing him in to land facedown on the hard-packed dirt.
"When I call for you the next time, I'll kill you," Vahanian
heard Dorran say from outside the stockade. "You can't know how
much I enjoyed this afternoon. You truly are the best fighter I've ever
seen. Pity," he clucked. "I've had the healers patch you up
to keep it from being too easy. I do enjoy a challenge." He began
to laugh. "Sleep well, Jonmarc. Perhaps tomorrow, if you beg, I
might cut my pleasure short."
"Go to the demon," Vahanian managed, tasting dirt in his
"Not this time. You'll see Her first."
The only way out of this one is in the arms of the Dark Lady,
Vahanian thought. Thanks to the healers, his mind was clear although
his body barely moved at his command. By their work, the priests denied
him the respite only shock and unconsciousness could bring.
The camp was silent when Vahanian heard the call. It roused him from
a distressed sleep, barely audible over the snoring of his guards. A
child's voice, calling his name. Sure he was hallucinating from the
pain, Vahanian raised his head. The camp lay in a heavy shroud of fog,
so thick that he could not see the banked fires across the practice
area. As he watched, the door to his prison swung open, and in the doorway
stood the transparent image of a young girl, beckoning him to come.
"Come, Jonmarc," the apparition said soberly. "It is
Vahanian had passed the point of fear, already resigned to death,
yet the vision made him catch his breath. "Are you the Childe?"
he rasped, his swollen lips barely able to form the question.
"Come," the vision repeated impatiently. "It is time."
Vahanian crawled toward the open door, stopping part way to glance
back, expecting to see his own crumpled form behind him. "It's
time to go," the ghostly child urged, standing with an outstretched
hand just beyond the stockade. In the distance, Vahanian could hear
the thunder of a horse riding at full gallop, and heard the guards rouse.
But as he dragged himself to stand, clinging for support to the posts
of the stockade, he was unprepared for the sight that burst through
the fog. A cloaked rider on a white horse, riding at demon speed, and
beneath the heavy cowl, eyes that burned like fire.
"The Dark Lady!" Vahanian whispered, sure now that he was
The camp scrambled for battle as the Nargi soldiers pointed at the
specter in terror. Half of the Nargi guards fell to their knees, prostrating
themselves before the rider with a babble of desperate prayer as the
priests begged the apparition for mercy. The other soldiers, frightened
but dubious, held their ground, freeing a hail of arrows at the rider
that bounced harmlessly off its cloak. With strangled cries, the archers
dropped their weapons and fled.
Heedless of the confusion, rider and horse bore down directly on Vahanian,
never breaking speed, and the cowled figure reached down, grasping Vahanian's
arm and tossing him like a broken doll across its lap.
Borne into the fog, Vahanian lost consciousness.
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