Authors: Vox Day
A Magic Broken by Vox Day
Published by Marcher Lord Hinterlands
A division of Marcher Lord Press
8345 Pepperridge Drive
Colorado Springs, CO 80920
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to actual people, organizations, and/or events is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2012 by Vox Day
All rights reserved
Cover illustration and design by James Simonsen
Edited by Jeff Gerke
International Standard Book Number: 978-1-935929-79-6
The sun broke without warning over the mountaintops to the south, spilling much-needed warmth over the camp of the traveler. It had been a hard night, a cold and cheerless one in their rude, makeshift shelter, but he took solace in the knowledge that it would be his last night in the wilds for the foreseeable future.
He shared a few meager strips of smoked beef with his guide, who, ten days into their journey, was every bit as grim and silent as he had been since his services were first engaged on the far side of the high mountain pass. The half-barbarian Tessini were a dark and stocky lot, as little inclined to give up their secrets as the dwarves who lived in massive underground cities somewhere beneath these very mountains. So short and broad-shouldered was the guide that he might easily have been mistaken for a dwarf were it not for the hawkish features on his clean-shaven face.
The guide was very nearly as unfriendly as a dwarf too, the man who was presently calling himself Nicolas thought, vaguely annoyed at his inability to crack the man’s reserve. Even now, with their journey together nearly at an end, the Tessino still refused to meet Nicolas’s eyes and looked away when Nicolas was doing no more than passing him a hardened heel of week-old bread. Though it was irritating, Nicolas found he had to respect other’s stubborn reticence. And, he reminded himself, that reticence served his purpose well.
His hunger satisfied, if not his palate, Nicolas rose to his feet and stretched his arms and back. The sunlight was a godsend, for at the guide’s insistence they had gone without a fire the night before. The cold of the hard and stony ground had worked its way into his bones, leaving him feeling as if he were inflicted with a case of premature rigor mortis. More than once during the night he considered lighting a fire over the guide’s objections, but the thought of trying to find his way through the deadly heights without a guide chilled him even more than the freezing darkness did. Also, it was unlikely that the man’s fears, whatever they might be, were ill-founded, even if he would not do Nicolas the courtesy of articulating them.
For if the Tessini were only half-civilized, that was more than one could say for the wild land in which they lived. The mountains that gave them their name, and from which they scratched out a precarious existence, also allowed them to remain free of any overlord. Were it not for the high, treacherous peaks, interspersed with thickly wooded valleys, one of the neighboring powers, either the Kingdom of Savondir to the north or the Holy Empire of Amorr to the south, would have long ago snapped up the diverse collection of little baronies, duchies, and other petty independences scattered throughout the vast mountain range.
But the shining armor and heavy destriers of Savondir’s knights were useless in a place where even a mule might fear to tread, and all the fabled discipline of Amorran mighty legions counted for nothing in a place where two men could not walk abreast for more than a score of strides before one would find himself stepping off a cliff or walking into a tree.
Nor, Nicolas considered, would the dwarves of the region be inclined to sit idly by and accept human rule over them, since any king worthy of his crown would be sorely tempted to assert a claim to the priceless veins of gold and other metals that ran through the roots of the mountain range like underground rivers. No, the dwarves would fight alongside their human neighbors—if indeed the term could be applied to those who lived in a proximity that was vertical instead of horizontal—to keep their precious mines free of any unwanted influence from the powers in the north and south.
Both kingdom and empire were perpetually pressed for coin, and neither the king nor the Houses Martial that ruled Amorr would hesitate to claim the natural riches of this wild land, if only they could hope to do so at a reasonable price in men and gold.
Nicolas heard a crunching noise behind him and turned to see that his guide had rolled up the canvas under which they’d slept the night before and strapped it to his back. Suppressing the urge to sigh, Nicolas reached out and took his own pack from the man and slipped it on his shoulders. It was lighter than it had been six days ago, but not by much. With a grunt and a nod, the guide began to stride down the slope, but Nicolas stopped him.
“Will we be there before night falls?”
The guide nodded, pointing at the peak due south of them. “Two more ridges. The walls’ll be in sight afern we cross the next one. Be there an hour afore sundown if’n the weather hold.” The doubtful manner in which he glared at Nicolas seemed to suggest that if it didn’t, he would regard Nicolas as being personally responsible.
“Very good. I’m sure we shall both be relieved when this journey is finally at an end.”
His guide did not bother to reply, but Nicolas was left with the impression that the Tessino agreed. Ah, well, he couldn’t find it in his heart to blame the man. It would have been much easier if he had taken the main pass through the mountains, but despite being little more than a dangerous path barely wide enough for a horse-drawn cart, occasionally punctuated with too-frail bridges spanning yawning ravines, that was the more-travelled way, and Nicolas wished to avoid any unexpected encounters with too-familiar faces.
He’d found it hard to imagine the alternate route could possibly be as inhospitable as it was reputed to be. And yet, he’d learned to his dismay that it truly was to anyone who wasn’t a troll big enough to smash through the thick mass of trees that somehow covered the stony slopes, or a bird able to fly over them.
As his guide preceded him on the day’s long and tedious trudge toward first of the final two ridges in their path, Nicolas considered his destination. There were no mines inside the high walls of Malkan, but it produced an astonishing amount of gold all the same.
In the heart of these inhospitable lands, the powerful merchant-bankers of the Golden Circle kept their treasure houses—seven of the twelve Savondese Great Guilds had their roots and their headquarters here. All overland trade between the north and the south of the continent passed through the city of Malkan, and although the price for travelling the Bardinus Pass unmolested was not overly burdensome, the sheer volume of goods being traded between the kingdom and the empire made Malkan one of the wealthiest cities in the world.
And like most wealthy cities, Malkan attracted predators of every shape and size.
The bankers and the guilds comprised the elite that truly ruled the city. They raised up petty nobles when it served their collective interest and tore them down again when it did not. Perhaps only the orc tribes of the east knew such vicious and violent politics. A man who nominally ruled the city on Starsday might easily be assassinated, eulogized, interned, and all but forgotten by the following Moonday.
They trudged on. Finally, they crested the first ridge.
The city’s walls were impressively high, Nicolas mused as he followed the Tessino across a stream running downhill early in the afternoon and laid his eyes upon them for the first time. Malkan’s walls were much higher than those of Montrove, whose rebel earl had not survived the ill-fated rebellion against the King of Savondir that culminated in the storming of his citadel by the royal army.
Nicolas had been there when the mines underneath the east wall were sparked by the royal battlemages, collapsing it and giving the Red Prince the entrance into the city he’d been seeking. That sort of siegecraft wouldn’t be possible here, he realized, not without first digging through the mountain rock upon which Malkan’s walls had been constructed.
It was possible, of course. Given enough time, resources, and a mage or three, nearly anything that could be conceived could be completed. But a siege of these walls would make for a daunting and difficult challenge, especially with the forested hills that would surround a besieging army on every side and give cover to those charged to harry it. It was as close to impossible as any military task Nicolas had ever contemplated. Surely no general would be so mad as to accept a command that would not only require burrowing through solid bedrock but quite possibly subject his sappers to attack by dwarven countermines from below.
Malkan’s northern wall was built in two rings, with the outer wall rising just past where the main pass leading toward the great gates briefly narrowed, but set back far enough that attackers could not try to descend upon it from the nearby cliffs. As they approached the outer ring, Nicolas saw a line of fifteen or twenty mule-drawn carts waiting to the side as an equally long line of carts slowly filed out from within, led by a pair of stocky, leather-armored Tessini.
Nicolas grimaced, thinking of the toll that one battlemage supported by a few archers could inflict on a force being funneled through that gap toward the outer wall. Any archers making the difficult climb to the cliffs above to counteract the anticipated hail of missiles would themselves face a withering fire from the four tall battlements that surmounted the inner wall. It was no wonder that despite its riches, no one had tried to attack Malkan since the inner wall had been raised more than two hundred years ago.
At the moment, however, it was not the walls that were his concern. The much more pressing issue at hand was a slender man in a red robe standing on a platform just inside the smaller gate toward which Nicolas and his guide were approaching. The robed man’s eyes were closed, and he seemed to be ignoring the people slowly making their way past the platoon of guards below. But Nicolas was quite sure this was anything but the case. He could feel the touch of the man’s spell as if it were the faintest of caresses, a thin web of invisible silk being cast delicately over the crowd in which he was trapped.
“Ho, Ziano,” one of the guards said to his guide. “You’re back so soon?”
“We took the Nuferan trail,” the guide explained, and a broad, yellow-toothed smile, the first Nicolas had seen on that leathery face, threatened to crack it.
“Didn’t see naught but some troll tracks, mebbe two, three weeks old.”
“It goes good then. Well done. One little moment.” The guard held up a hand and looked up at the red-robed man, who was pointing at Nicolas. “Him? All right.”
The friendly smile suddenly disappeared from the man’s face, and the guide was staring at him as if he’d suddenly turned into an orc. “You some sort’o wizard?” the guard demanded, even as he stepped back a pace and put a hand on his sword handle.
“Gods, no, I’m a soldier,” Nicolas lied easily. The guard wasn’t the problem. It was the red robe he had to worry about. “I was one of the Duc de Montrove’s cavalry captains. I managed to get out after the walls were breached, but, I’m sure you understand, I couldn’t stay in Savondir. I thought to come here and find work as a bodyguard, or perhaps join up with a mercenary troop.”
“Bit late in the season for that, but mebbe you’re a lucky one if you got yourself out of Montrove alive. Well, if you ain’t a wizard, then you got anything that’s magicked?”
“My sword.” Nicolas patted the hilt and ignored the knowing smirk that the guard exchanged with the mage. Half the men-at-arms and all the nobles in Savondir firmly believed their blades were ensorcelled with potent and deadly magics, although very few of them truly were. Nicolas’s sword was not, in fact, enchanted, but he devoutly hoped the men who were about to examine it would believe it was. Otherwise, his journey was on the verge of coming to a very quick and unpleasant end.
Nicolas gave Ziano a small purse full of silver coin. The guide took it and parted from him without so much as a nod of thanks. Nicholas was forced to remove his sword, and then he was escorted by a pair of guards into a small antechamber just inside the inner wall. The red robe from the gate was already there, in the company of an older man wearing breeches and a stained wool shirt.