Read Bones of the Empire Online
Authors: Jim Galford
Bones of the Empire
The Fall of Eldvar: Book Five
Edited by Tricia Kristufek
Cover art by Rukis
First edition 2015
Copyright ©2011-2015 by Jim Galford. All Rights Reserved.
No reproduction of this work may be used in any fashion without permission of the author. For information on usage permissions, please contact the author at [email protected]
“The Fall of Eldvar” books by Jim Galford:
Book one, In Wilder Lands – 2011
Book two, Into the Desert Wilds – 2012
Book three, Sunset of Lantonne – 2013
Book four, The Northern Approach – 2014
Book five, Bones of the Empire – 2015
I have all but forgotten the many tasks I once considered important beyond measure. Once, I spent days scribbling down every dream, thought, and hope for my children to read when they were older. When I began the task, it was for myself, to help me deal with the insanity that life brought. I quickly realized that if I ever had anyone else in my life, they would want to know everything when I was dead. It was a sobering thought, but someone had to know and learn from the mistakes I’d made. They had to learn to avoid having the same regrets I’d felt growing up. I wanted to help someone…anyone…though my own failures.
After having—and possibly adopting—children, the need to show them what I had experienced became a driving force for me. Not to educate them, which should have motivated me, but to leave a legacy for them to learn from. The other races leave tangible things for their young—a house, jewelry, or any number of other trinkets that honestly have no worth in times like those we live in. My people tend to leave knowledge meant to build on our children’s natural instincts. I found myself wanting to provide both in the form of these writings.
I assumed from the earliest days of the war that I would die. That was the simplest way to explain why I wanted to leave a legacy. It’s morbid to think of now, even after so much death, but now that I know why I was doing it, I no longer want to. Instead, I dream each night not of my own life or death or even of my mate’s, but of finding some way to give our children lives that do not revolve around knowing they could die at any moment. I would have them live for tomorrow, not dread it.
“Is very clear. Prophecy says we go east and find nice warm place to hide out until war is over. This is how we win war, I think. We ignore war until Turessians are so annoyed that they give up. I see section talking about Turessian impatience.”
Estin glared at Yoska as the dark-skinned human grinned back at him, clearly hoping he would accept such foolishness. Yoska’s “readings” of the prophecies had gotten more elaborate of late, usually reaching the point of absurdity as soon as the weather turned worse. Whenever Estin argued with him, Yoska’s already thick accent would grow steadily stronger, until Estin either had to walk away or threaten him to get any further answers. This time, Yoska stroked at his greying beard, almost daring Estin to argue. Given that only Yoska could read the text laid out before them, Estin had little leverage.
Glancing over at Feanne for support in telling Yoska he had gone too far, Estin was dismayed to see she was lost in conversation with Dalania and had likely heard none of the conversation. Without Feanne to support him, it was not even worth arguing with Yoska. Instead, he resorted to ignoring Yoska and chose to watch Feanne and Dalania, setting aside the debate about direction of travel until they were ready to actually go.
The two women were such complete contrasts to one another that Estin was always amazed they got along the way they did. Then again, Feanne was quite the contrast to him as well, and she was his mate…his wife, according to other people’s terminology. Dramatic differences between people no longer held the same significance to Estin that they once had.
Dalania was a fae-kin, a member of a race that some believed were descendants of the great forest spirits. Like the rest of her people, Dalania was vaguely human, but with some distinct oddities to her appearance that made her stand out in any crowd. For starters, she was naked at all times, her whole body surrounded by vines and leaves rather than clothing, even in the snow-swept lands they traveled through. Where her skin was visible, it was tinted a pale green, while her long hair was a brown-green blend. She was frequently referred to as a dryad, though Dalania seemed to dislike the association, as such creatures were actual fae and regarded by many to be lesser gods, which she certainly was not.
Unlike the rest of the group, Dalania was a pacifist, nearly always disgusted by the others’ willingness to charge headlong into battle. For some reason, she had chosen to follow them straight into a war that they all doubted could be won. Estin expected that sooner or later she would give up on them and find somewhere safer to be, though he did like having her around. Sometimes it was nice to have another viewpoint, even if he did not often have the luxury to agree with her.
Sitting with Dalania, Feanne was about as different from the fae-kin woman as possible, at least in Estin’s mind. She was lithe and strong—far stronger than most would expect, given her light frame and height of only five feet. Dressed like the rest of the party in heavy winter clothing and cloak, Feanne was sitting barefoot in the snow, her paw-like feet as numb to the weather as Estin’s…likely even more so, since she had spent her life in the wilderness.
Feanne was a wildling, like Estin, a race of animal-people that most cities considered savage or unpredictable. In her case, that was fairly accurate. Feanne had grown up quickly, fighting to live through each day against hunters and worse. At a glance, anyone could see she was part fox in the most literal sense. Red fur covered most of her body, except her white tail tip, a white stripe of fur down her jaw and chest, and her black hands and feet. What few noticed until it was too late was that her claws were not those of a fox. Instead, her mixed ancestry had given her the deadly claws of a lioness and a similar temperament. Those claws were often sharpened and filed smooth when they stopped to rest, ensuring they were ready for the next fight. Even if one missed the weapons she preferred, it was harder to avoid noticing the scars that covered much of her body.
Sighing, Estin looked to the others in the group for support against Yoska. The old human would be the death of him if Estin did not find someone else to argue on his behalf. Estin might not have much of a temper, but Yoska was pushing him toward it far too rapidly.
A third wildling, Raeln, sat apart from the others with his eyes closed as he rested. His fur patterned mostly in grey and white with hints of black, his features tended to blend into the snow and stone surroundings in much the same way Estin’s did. The huge wolf-man had done almost no talking in the last week, except to give occasional edicts about which direction they would go or to settle arguments between Estin and Yoska. Otherwise he kept to himself, often walking away when Estin asked for his thoughts on anything. He would be no help in any matter he did not consider vital to their survival.
Turning the other way, Estin stared at the sixth member of the group. This man had been the latest addition and was still a mystery to all of them. Estin was not even sure he felt comfortable having the man with them, let alone ignored more often than not. The man’s motivations might directly oppose their efforts, but they had no clear idea.
Turess was a human, but not from a culture anything like Yoska’s. Dressed in a white underrobe made for the bitter weather of the north and a black makeshift jacket, he was an outsider among the group members, but he certainly belonged in these lands. More than two thousand years prior, he had conquered vast sections of Eldvar and created an empire larger than any in recorded history, stretching from the deserts to the eastern oceans. Thin tattoos running across his brow and cheekbones marked him as a respected member of that society. Those marks would have terrified Estin after years of fighting the armies of Turessi, but Turess had already helped them several times and was acting as a guide, despite not speaking their language. More importantly, he had written the very prophecies Yoska was blabbering about, which detailed possible ways to stop the violent uprising by the Turessians that had killed hundreds of thousands of innocents across many lands.
“Turess?” asked Estin, hoping he could offer something in the debate.
Smiling absently, Turess shrugged and said something that Estin could not understand. Estin was willing to bet that it was something akin to “I cannot understand you, you idiot wildling, but thank you for noticing me.”
“Is settled, then, yes?” asked Yoska, pointing east. “We go someplace warm!”
Frowning, Turess grabbed Yoska’s wrist and pushed his arm to point northward. The man tapped the prophecy parchments in Yoska’s lap and said something else Estin could not decipher. When Yoska did not reply, Turess added, “Sot eirhen ne li’wa.”
“Scary should-be-dead man says we go north,” Yoska muttered, rolling up the parchments and giving Turess a dark glare. “I think he also says I am incompetent, but On’esquin did not teach me enough words to be certain.”
Estin got up from the cold, stony ground and left Yoska and Turess to argue among themselves. He knew after the last few days that the two men could easily spend much of the night debating, though the truth was they probably spent as much time trying to understand each other as they did actually conversing.
Yoska had learned some of the old Turessian language Turess spoke from a friend, On’esquin, but even so, his grasp of the language was somewhat questionable. Two nights prior, Yoska had told Estin he was having an argument with Turess about the terrain, only to learn an hour into the fight that Turess had been trying to suggest a different way of cooking some rabbits they had caught.
Standing with the tips of his ears just below the tent roof, which flapped about in the winds that raged outside, Estin paused in thought as he realized the name of the language the men were speaking was probably not Turessian—unless Turess had created the language himself. While not impossible, Estin was willing to bet there was still plenty to learn about Turess, starting with what else he knew about how they could stop the war that had conquered or annihilated half the nations they had traveled through in the last few months. That would have to wait until Turess learned enough of the common trade language to converse. Estin was not about to spend his time learning Turessian, and he certainly was not about to trust Yoska to successfully translate that much information.
Estin gave Feanne one more glance and then headed toward the entrance to the tent, where snow blew in under the flap. Raeln had placed stones on the edge to keep it from blowing in, but the snow managed to seep in around it. Even knowing what it would be like outside, Estin wanted the time alone, and the tiny fire in the tent had made the interior smoky, even with a small hole in the ceiling. A short time out in the storm would be a welcome relief and make returning to the warmer tent even nicer.
Slipping past the tent flap, Estin was immediately hit by icy winds and blinding snow. The heavy wool shirt and pants he wore cut much of the wind, but without his cloak, he could still feel the snow stinging his skin through his fur in spots. His bones ached within seconds, making him wonder for perhaps the hundredth time how the furless people could survive there at all. It wore him down quickly and made him feel far older than the almost eleven years he had lived. He was not quite middle-aged and certainly hated feeling so sore after so little time in the cold.
Closing his eyes, he let the winds clear his mind and lungs. He had once dealt poorly with the winter months, but after living both in the desert and the mountains, he now preferred the snow, despite his aching joints. His fur was thick enough to keep him warm most of the time, and when it was not, it became an excuse to cling to Feanne for warmth. Rarely did they travel in storms this severe, which was far more than he could handle for more than a few minutes at a time. Feanne could seemingly endure anything nature could throw at her, something Estin had never really learned how to mimic.
Estin raised his hands and let the snow collect in his palms. Nestling into his fur and the thick calloused pads on his hands, the white powder contrasted sharply with the black fur there. He knew his dull grey clothing would likely blend into the swirling snowfall, helping to hide him from anyone who managed to wander past. Only the black fur on his hands and feet would be easily visible. Even his face, with its black patches around his eyes and muzzle, would be largely lost, thanks to the white and grey fur elsewhere.
Glancing back, Estin brought his seven foot tail around into view, making sure it did not stand out too clearly in the snow. The black and white rings, which alternated the whole length of it, would have been easily spotted at a distance, but the storm seemed to blur the colors together, likely making it difficult for anyone more than a few feet away to see him.
They had been running for so long, Estin could not help but think in terms of avoiding attention at all times. The Turessian people had marched on the southern lands, conquering everything in sight. But despite having no fear the armies of the lands they had attacked, they had one very basic fear: Turess. He had prophesied that in the days following a god’s death, six people would gather their troops against the heart of the enemy army and have at least some chance of doing something to stop the war. Unfortunately, that was about all they had gleaned from the prophecy so far.