Book 1: Rhidauna:
The night before his Coming-of-Age, Ghyll and his two friends escape their castle on a clandestine boar hunt that will forever change their lives. The hunt proves a disaster, and with one of them badly wounded, they return just in time to see their island castle destroyed by macabre warriors from a dragon boat, and by flocks of fire-breathing birds. Ghyll's eighteenth birthday turns into a nightmare as they flee into the night.
Now begins an epic journey to find out who is trying to kill them – and most importantly, why?
Fortunately, they can count on the help of new friends, including a sometimes overly enthusiastic fire mage, an inexperienced paladin and a young beastmistress who is also a ferocious mountain lioness. It soon becomes clear that not one but several sorcerers want to kill them. Are those black robes really followers of a terrible, long-forgotten organization?
CHAPTER 2: GROMARTHEN:
Hours later, they reached Gromarthen. The rain had stopped at last and in the dusk, the lights of the town looked warm and inviting.
Ghyll tried to remember what he knew of Gromarthen. It was one of the many rich trade ports along the Yanthe River. A burgraviate, held for the king by an old friend of Uncle Jadron’s. Damn, he thought. I’m too stupid to remember. He rubbed his eyes in an attempt to stay awake.
They passed the massive gate and stopped at the guardhouse. Two guards flanked the entrance, their halberds gleaming in the light of the lanterns. Ghyll’s training took over, and he straightened. He nodded to the men. ‘I am Squire Ghyll Denhalf from Tinnurad. Call the officer of the watch, please.’
One guardsman hesitated, but his mate had already disappeared into the building. Moments later, he came out with a sergeant, a gray-haired veteran, scarred by war. The man assessed the situation with a single glance, and saluted. ‘Good evening, Squire. How may I help you?’
‘We come from Tinnurad. I bear an urgent report for the lord burgrave,’ Ghyll said. ‘My friend needs immediate medical help.’
The sergeant looked at Damion and turned to his men. ‘You there, call the lieutenant. Ask him to come here. You two bring the wounded man to the infirmary. To see the castle’s healer,’ he said aside to Ghyll. ‘A White priest, not one of those sweet-talking quacks. If you’d be so kind as to step inside, Squire, my officer will be here directly.’
Ghyll and Olle followed him into the guardroom, while a soldier took charge of the horses. In the light of the torches, the sergeant gave them a once-over. Ghyll knew he didn’t look a nobleman in his scruffy hunting armor, soaking wet and covered in blood. We’re a mess, he thought. He’ll kick us out.
Instead, the old warrior beckoned to one of his men. ‘Get me two of our specials and make it fast, before the lieutenant comes.’
The soldier’s face fell. He hurried away, and returned a little later with two stone mugs.
‘This keeps the men goin’ on cold days.’ Straight-faced, the sergeant nodded at the steaming mugs.
The strong fumes made Ghyll reel as he took a sip. By the gods, mully! he thought. The hot spiced cider returned some feeling to his body as he drank it all, gasping and with tears in his eyes.
With a nervous glance at the door, the soldier snatched the empty mugs away and left.
Moments later, a young officer in the blue and silver of the Guard in Gromarthen entered the room. He paused in the door and raised his eyebrows. ‘Well, who have we here?’
Ghyll lifted his chin. ‘Lieutenant...?’
The guards officer came to attention and bowed. ‘Davall. And who are you, sir?’
‘I’m Squire Ghyll Denhalf from Tinnurad with an urgent message for the lord burgrave.’
Davall looked the young men over. Like the sergeant, their weary faces and soaking wet hunting clothes must have conveyed their urgency, for he nodded. ‘You’ve never been in Gromarthen before, Squire?’
Ghyll shook his head. ‘No.’
‘I’ll ride with you.’ Davall turned to the sergeant. ‘Have the Squire’s horses brought, please.’
The sergeant saluted. ‘You heard the lieutenant,’ he shouted to his men. ‘What’s keeping those horses?’
Once they were mounted, Davall seemed to hesitate. ‘I don’t want to pry, but to brave the Tinnurad trail in this weather is a desperate move. You bring bad news?’
Ghyll’s face worked. ‘Yes,’ he answered in a hoarse voice.
The lieutenant accepted his reticence and without another word led them into the town.
CHAPTER 10: SOUTHERN LEUDRA:
Olle sat concealed in the shadow of the willow tree, motionless. The stars cast a faint light over the sleeping field and it was quiet, very quiet. His thoughts went to his foster brother, and that murderous creep. Vasthul and the Dar’khamorth – what had Ghyll to do with them?
Some movement caught his eye and he saw a shape creeping towards the tent. A second and third followed. He recognized their jerky movements. Golems! Noiselessly he rose and raised his huge sword. Then he took a deep breath and hurled himself at the three shadows.
The golems’ reaction was slow enough for Olle to hit one of them full on the forehead. As he turned to the second golem, he saw Ghyll coming from the tent, sword in hand, with Damion close behind. The third golem lashed out at Ghyll, who parried the blow, stumbled and cried out, grabbing his wounded side. The golem raised its weapon for the kill, but at that moment, Damion sprang into action. He jumped the mademan from behind and clung to his back with one arm around its neck, while with the other hand he rammed his poniard into the golem’s forehead. Then he leaped away.
Ghyll tried to avoid the toppling golem, but his leg buckled and he fell. With a roar of despair, Olle turned toward his own opponent and split its head in two all the way to the shoulder blades. As he was about to run to his foster brother, a warning shout stopped him. From their tent, a fireball sizzled into the night. A blinding flash lit up the area, followed by a scream and the clip-clop of a running horse. From the brook rose the deafening croaks of a thousand frogs, protesting the disruption of their sleep.
‘Missed him, damn it!’ Bo’s voice shouted from the renewed darkness.
Olle, blinded, was for a moment disoriented. ‘Ghyll!’
‘It’s... all... right.’ His foster brother’s voice sounded full of pain. ‘I made a wrong move, that’s all.’
Olle resisted an impulse to run to his side and forced himself to inspect the fallen enemies first. After he had ascertained that all three were down for good, he strode back to the tents. ‘How is it?’
Uwella looked up at him. ‘It’s not so bad; his muscles aren’t up to these capers yet. He must be careful of that leg.’
His foster brother said something Olle didn’t hear, but Uwella shook her head.
‘Go back to bed. I’ll give you something for the pain and tomorrow morning we’ll see how it goes.’
Olle turned. ‘Was it... Vasthul?’
‘No idea.’ Bo ran both hands through his long hair. ‘I just saw a shadow in a cloak.’
‘Oh, yes, that was Vasthul all right.’ Damion came back from the direction of the road. ‘I heard him swearing and shouting as he fled. He had the same voice as that guy I chased in Theridaun – a voice like a file, and he wasn’t sparing with it.’
‘I could go after him,’ Uwella said, scowling.
Olle shook his head.
‘Too dangerous.’ He stooped and picked up something. ‘Here,’ he said to Damion. In his hand glistened a white crystal. ‘Keep it, you’ve earned it yourself,’ he said. ‘Idiot!’ He gave his friend a comradely punch in the shoulder and walked away. Moments later, he returned with two golems by the ankles. ‘Does anyone want to see them?’
‘Not me,’ Ghyll said, from inside the tent. ‘Only the crystals, please.’
‘I got two for you. Away with the muddies, then.’ With a casual heave, Olle dumped the makemen one after another into the stream, where they sank, gurgling, to the audible annoyance of the frogs.
‘That’s the end of the show, noble lords and ladies,’ he said as he sat down again under the willow tree. ‘Try to sleep; it’s an early day tomorrow.’ The others went back to bed, but the sounds of their twisting and turning betrayed that further sleep avoided them.
CHAPTER 14: THE GISTERWOUD:
The fog gave no sign of abating. With a sigh, Olle turned around. He thought he saw something moving in front of them. ‘Torril.’
‘Do you see anything?’
Torril peered into the mist. ‘Shapes,’ he said with some hesitation. ‘Shapes in long dresses?’
‘That’s where Bo is!’
They ran to the place where they had spent the night. Three faint white apparitions danced around Bo’s stretcher. ‘Co-me... Cooome...’ they moaned, with voices full of terrible desire. ‘Cooome.’ One of the shadows grabbed Bo’s arm with a transparent claw and started pulling at him.
‘Stop!’ Olle let his sword cut the air with a humming sound.
‘No-oo... Nooo... Cooome...’ The shapes crooned, trying to drag Bo off the stretcher. With a cry, Olle fell upon them, Torril right behind him. To no avail. The weapons of the two Companions didn’t touch the apparitions, as if their forms were made of the fog surrounding them. ‘By Helgran, there’s more of them!’
‘N-o-o-o.... C-o-o-o-m-e... ‘
Soon there were twenty of the apparitions; they swirled around the two who were fighting them in a wild unholy dance. Even with their impressive muscles, Olle and Torril couldn’t touch the ethereal forms and soon they began to weaken. Their breathing grew difficult and their hearts seemed about to burst. Exhausted, Olle sank to his knees and waited for the end. Torril stood beside him, head bowed, leaning upon his axe. The apparitions stretched their greedy hands out to the two Companions. ‘C-o-o-o-m-e.’ The chill of those hands paralyzed their limbs, touched their hearts.
All at once, a huge flash bathed the surroundings in light. Olle smelled the pungent odor that sometimes follows a thunderstorm. When his sight returned, the shapes were gone. In their place, men and women in gray apparel surrounded them.
One of them, a young man of their own age, came forward. He wore a black headband and his hair lay in a ponytail on his back. His lower lip and his ear lobes were pierced with small silver rings, and his face was white like Uwella’s, with jet-black shadows around iris-less eyes. His glance met Olle’s and then looked past him, uninterested. ‘Come,’ he said, cold as an echo of the white shapes.
A woman of middle age, like the young man dressed in a gray leather uniform, held out her hand. ‘Your weapons please.’
‘Who are you?’ Olle’s heart was pounding from the past effort and the pain behind his sternum away took his breath. ‘You saved us.’
‘Hand me your weapons,’ the woman repeated.
Olle hesitated, but the drawn swords of the six fighters around him left him no choice. He handed her his weapon, then Torril reluctantly did the same.
Without a word, two of the strangers took Bo’s stretcher and carried him into the woods. The others surrounded Olle and Torril, and led them after the young man with the headband, who had walked away without another glance.
They left the fog behind and soon the sun was shining, the subdued light reflecting in the dewdrops on the leaves. Olle had lost all idea of time before he saw, through the trees, a wooden palisade. A girl in the same armor as their escorts guarded the entrance. She saluted and exchanged some word with the young man with the headband. Then she opened the gate and Olle and Torril stepped inside a ring of elongated wooden huts. One of the buildings stood apart from the others. His bearers carried Bo inside and the door closed behind them. The young man with the headband walked away without looking back. Beyond that first ‘come’, he hadn’t spoken. Before Olle could ask something, hard hands pushed him and Torril into a second, smaller hut. The door slammed shut and they heard a heavy bar fall into place.
Book 2: Zihaen:
And whose cold hand reaches across the boundaries of space and time to crush weakened Rhidauna?
How did his parents and brothers die? Where their deaths really accidents, or were they killed? These questions young Ghyll Hardingraud must answer before he can ascend Rhidauna's throne.
Ghyll’s search for the truth leads him and his Companions on a journey back to the past as he slowly unravels a dark conspiracy.
Once crowned, the young King Ghyll still has to finish the mission his dead uncle imposed on him. The journey takes him and his trusted friends through inhospitable lands and dangerous swamps to the endless steppes of Zihaen, looking for the Voice from the West. He discovers he isn't the only one. His vindictive enemy pursues him, aided by undead forces.
CHAPTER 2: CAMP DIRDAHN:
The agitated sound of trumpets drowned Ghyll’s words. Davall jumped up and grabbed his helmet. At the same time, the tent flap opened and an officer rushed inside.
‘General!’ There was panic in his voice. ‘We are under attack from the air by whole swarms of burning birds.’
‘Dar’khamorth phoenixes.’ Ghyll did his best to suppress the fear that exploded in his breast. ‘General, I suggest use your archers and artillery. Keep those birds at a distance, or they’ll burn everything.’
Outside, the confusion was absolute. Tents caught flame and turned into burning traps. Half-dressed soldiers ran around, some in blind panic, while in the air firebirds dove and danced, sowing fire all over the camp. Here and there, a subofficer knew what he had to do, but to Ghyll’s surprise most of the officers stood helplessly looking around.
Ghyll felt his animated sword Childegard vibrate on his back, and instinctively he ducked. Over his head went one of the phoenixes straight for the command tent, and in seconds, Davall’s headquarters was ablaze. Ghyll couldn’t see the general anywhere and for a moment he wondered whether Davall was still inside.
Olle left his side, shouting to a group of archers. ‘Don’t bunch up. Spread out! Watch each other.’
‘See what you can do in this mess,’ Ghyll told the others. ‘Torril, stay with me and hold that standard high.’ He drew his sword. ‘Childegard, thanks for the warning. That damned bird would’ve shaved me.’
You don’t need a shave yet, Sire, Childegard thought, with a faint chuckle. Well, we’ve gone to war then. His soft singing filled the air.
We’ve gone to war... Ghyll looked around and tried to discover how the battle was going, but the smoke from the burning tents masked a lot of the action.
Two figures appeared. ‘Where is the general?’ the first one said, his voice shaking. Ghyll recognized him as the officer closest to Davall.
‘I’m afraid he’s still in his tent,’ he said. ‘I didn’t see him come out. Who are you?’
‘Colonel Tovias, the adjutant. Oh Gods, the general.’ The man seemed on the verge of panic.
‘Colonel,’ Ghyll said as steadily as he could. ‘You should collect as many of the soldiers as you can. Rearrange them in groups to fight the fires. We must leave the defense to the archers and the artillery today.’
The second figure stepped forward. ‘I’m Marris, of the Stormriders. I came to report to the general that my people are awaiting his orders.’ She glanced at the distraught adjutant. ‘As he isn’t available, I will mount an aerial attack.’
Ghyll saw a slightly built woman of middle age, in a blue uniform. ‘Stormriders! I had no idea you were here, commander. You are very welcome. Please, do whatever you can.’ Marris bowed and the two officers disappeared back into the smoke.
From the other end of the camp came the sound of heavy mangonels trying to swat the firebirds. Ghyll heard cheers and Torril tugged at his sleeve. ‘We got one!’
Suddenly, a firebird came straight at them. Curse it, no cover anywhere! Ghyll lifted his sword and with his other arm, he pushed Torril behind his back. Childegard, help!
The sword laughed. Ice and snow, cold fun. The blade had turned white as a deadly icicle and when it attacked, small snowflakes swirled around. The attacking bird was as big as a raven, and covered in flames. Its beady eyes stared at Ghyll. Squawking, it opened its hooked beak and his wings pushed fiery tongues in their direction. Ghyll took a swipe at the monster’s head, while Torril screamed. Again, the bird sent a wave of fire, but the cold from the magic sword absorbed the heat and they felt nothing. Once Torril understood they were in no danger, he gave vent to a stream of Nhaelish profanity. Again, Ghyll slashed at the phoenix, and this time his blade connected. The bird somersaulted and crashed to the ground, convulsing as the flames slowly died around it. Torril jumped forward and hacked wildly at the feathered body.
CHAPTER 7: DERIVALL:
The lieutenant saluted Ghyll and turned to the men. ‘Volunteers for a simple task.’ Everyone took a step forward. ‘Yes,’ Embit-Koy said grimly. ‘As long as it’s simple, eh?’ Quickly he chose eight guards. ‘You’re the lucky ones.’ To Ghyll’s astonishment, the warriors grinned as if they’d just got rewarded.
Embit-Koy pointed to Derivall. ‘See that little door? The mage will blow it up directly. Then we go inside and we open the main doors. After that, we conquer the castle. Got it?’ The soldiers laughed as if it was a big joke, and again it surprised Ghyll. What they had to do was dangerous and yet they didn’t hesitate. Was their faith in the young sublieutenant so strong? Embit-Koy turned back to his superior. ‘We’re ready, Captain.’
Davall looked at Ghyll, who turned to Bo. The mage took a deep breath, closed his eyes and raised his arms to the sky. Everyone stared at the flame growing between his hands. Bo kneaded it as a pastry cook kneads his dough and the flame became a ball. It crackled and sparked threateningly, but that didn’t bother Bo. The ball seemed to leap in his grasp and then Bo threw it in a high arch at the wicket door. From the battlements came a taunting laugh. The fireball hit the wicket with a fierce bang, followed by a shower of wood splinters, smoke and clouds of dust. Bo sighed and slumped down on the ground, where he remained seated with his head in his hands.
‘Get going!’ Davall roared.
Under cover of the smoke, Sublieutenant Embit-Koy with his eight guards ran to the ragged hole where the wicket had been, and disappeared inside the castle.
Agonizingly slow minutes later the heavy doors swung open.
Ghyll didn’t hesitate. ‘Attack!’ He spurred Ulanth on and galloped towards the castle, with flaming Childegard singing in his hands. Halfway, the mounted guards dashed past him and the noise of their charge echoed against the walls. With a loud ‘Hallali!’ Ghyll steered his horse towards the mercenaries who were fighting the vanguard.
Embit-Koy was the last of them standing. The sublieutenant fought two mercenaries at once, as coolly as if he was on the training field. Just before Ghyll was close enough to assist him, the young knight stumbled over the corpse of one of his men. For a moment, he lost his balance and then he died with blood spurting from his throat.
Ghyll screamed in rage and the mercenaries turned. They raised their reddened blades, but Ghyll was faster. Still screaming, he felled the first man and turned to the next. The mercenary yelled something and dropped his sword. In his anger, Ghyll didn’t care about his enemy yielding. At a slight tug on the reins, his steed reared and brought his sharp hooves down on the man’s shoulders. Screaming, the mercenary fell. His voice broke off abruptly when Ulanth danced over him. Now the gateway was empty of life. Ghyll turned his horse, ready for the next enemy, but it was no longer necessary. The last mercenaries had surrendered.
Ghyll rode through the courtyard, past the dead and wounded, with Childegard in his hand and Torril hurrying up to him with the bannered lance. In the middle of the courtyard, he stopped and looked around. To the left he saw a row of gallows, each occupied, and to the right, tiny cages with crouching figures inside. Disgust nearly choked him.
‘Amdal Ridaud!’ he shouted. Only silence answered.
Around him, Guards took possession of the castle and disarmed the remaining mercenaries. Nobody resisted them; the castle population seemed stunned by the reversal of their fate.
From a side door the sound of voices came, and a scuffle. Then a tall man in leather armor appeared, holding a second figure as a shield in front of him. The knife at the throat of his prisoner spoke plainly.
‘Zethir!’ Torril’s whisper sounded shocked.
‘Safe conduct,’ the man cried. ‘A free retreat for me and my men. ‘At the first raised weapon your boy will die!’
CHAPTER 15: COUNCIL OF WAR:
‘Good morning,’ Ghyll said, and sat down. When the scraping and coughing died down, he looked up. ‘Well, ladies and gentlemen. Three vicious attacks against the kingdom: Tinnurad, Camp Dirdahn and now Yanthemonde. Without us ever having received a declaration of war, war has come upon us. A ruthless enemy...’
‘The Nhael,’ a stocky general said. The lancer cords on his shoulder shook.
‘General Qrill, you interrupt the king,’ Gard-Galleth said sternly.
‘It’s not the Nhael,’ Ghyll said quietly. ‘The Dar’khamorth is the enemy. They are an organization of sorcerers who see themselves as the successors of the Hamorth and the Revenaunt Emperor.’
The lancer snorted like one of his horses. ‘Nonsense. The Hamorth is no more. After the Fall of Abarran, we eradicated that gang. Eradicated, you hear. We’re at war with the Nhael, those pirates of the Drakenlanden. And you brought the Nhael into our country.’
‘Qrill, what are you talking about, man?’ another general asked, baffled.
‘That... that young villain who is always at his side, whom he treats as his squire. He’s a Nhaelish pirate. That knight in the temple had it right. This is not the king! This is a traitor, do you hear! A traitor. The real Ghyllander Hardingraud died in the ruins of Tinnurad!’
‘Silence!’ the marshal roared. ‘His Royal Highness had all the proof of his ancestry with him. You’re speaking nonsense, Qrill.’
The lancer general stood up and pointed a trembling finger at Ghyll. ‘He’s a fake! A traitor! Why don’t you see it, you fools!’
Ghyll rose. Anger surged through him and he felt his facial muscles constrict. Olle had risen too, but Ghyll motioned him stay out of it. ‘You go too far, General Qrill,’ he said in a tone calmer than he really was. ‘I am your king, crowned and anointed, blessed by the gods. My squire, Prince Torril, is a friend of my house and of Rhidauna. Although no peace has been signed with the Nhael Islands, the last act of war was eighty years ago. The knight in the temple was an agent of the Dar’khamorth, General. A falmage’s tool.’
‘Lies,’ Qrill said shakily. ‘All lies! Traitor! You are...’
‘Shut up!’ Ghyll’s tone was so relentless that even Olle was startled. ‘Qrill, your assertions are treasonous. You’re under arrest. I relieve you of your command and your rank. Marshal Gard-Galleth, strip him of his wrongful honors.’
The old marshal, stiff with rage, stepped forward. He yanked the golden lancer’s cords from Qrill’s shoulder, the general officer’s badge from his chest and a distinction Ghyll didn’t recognized from around Qrill’s neck.
‘You are no longer an officer. Give me your sword, Qrill.’ Ghyll held out his hand.
‘Filthy traitor!’ Qrill screamed and dived forward. Olle sprang to stop him, but Ghyll was faster than both. He sidestepped Qrill’s sword thrust. Childegard sang in his grip and the lancer’s head fell with a thump onto the conference table.
Frozen, the commanders stared at the grimace on Qrill’s face.
With Childegard still humming in his hands, Ghyll looked around the circle. ‘Are there any more who want to break their oath of allegiance?’ he asked coldly.
Gard-Galleth yanked his sword from its sheath and raised it in the air. ‘I am loyal to my king, so help me the gods. Long live Ghyllander III!’
Sixteen arms went up; sixteen throats swore their loyalty, sixteen pale faces tried not to stare at the head before them on the table and at the blood that trickled down slowly along the edges.
Ghyll rang. A servant came in and struggled to hide his shock.
‘Have this room cleaned,’ the king said. ‘We’ll continue our discussion in the throne room.’
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Paul E. Horsman (1952) is a Dutch and International Fantasy Author. Born in the sleepy garden village of Bussum, The Netherlands, he now lives in Roosendaal, a town on the Dutch-Belgian border.
He has been a soldier, a salesman, a scoutmaster and from 1995 till his school closed in 2012 a teacher of Dutch as a Second Language and Integration to refugees from all over the globe.
Being unemployed and economically overage, yet still some years away from retirement, he is a full-time writer of epic light fantasy adventures. His books are both published in the Netherlands, and internationally.