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Excerpt for The Headsman's Daughter (Redacted Edition) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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It's like Total Recall in Middle-Earth.”

Thomas Duder, author of The Generalist



There is a particular magic and humor about Jones’ writing that never seems tired, and a modern/ancient ‘feel’ that I like. Mr Jones is extraordinarily accomplished.”

Claire Stibbe, author of Chasing Pharoahs.



Lesbianism, bad language, hard drinking and extreme violence... what more could you possibly want in a book! Sam plays it again with yet another non-stop, sexy, action fantasy in a fully realised world as only he can do it.”

Tonia Marlowe, author of Blue Diamonds and other novels.







The right of Samuel Z Jones to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Design, Copyrights and Patents Act 1988.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any electronic retrieval system, without the prior permission of the publisher in writing.



Copyright Samuel Z Jones 2016




Zedd Baskerville” appears by kind permission of Thomas Duder, author of The Generalist & other novels.


Cover Art Featuring:

Rachel Baird

Sally Heath

MJ Ranum


Props courtesy of FlameOz


Interior Art: Sally Heath


Published by Wight Orchid 2017


ALSO BY SAMUEL Z JONES


AKURITE EMPIRE SERIES


ROMANCING THE SWORD

Kingdom of The Void

Far Hrinor

Sins of The Father

Masters of War

Weapons of The Gods


SORCHA STORIES

Sorcha's Story

Sorcha's Revenge

Sorcha's Revolt


SABRA DAISHEN

The Red Knight

Golden Firebird

Beyond The Sunset


THE LORD PROTECTOR

Gaes of The Red Witch

Fortress of Knighthood

Number of The Witch


THE WOMEN'S REGIMENT

Gunpowder Rouge

The Baron Moruna

The Guns of Fort Jiar

The Headsman's Daughter





Happy Birthday, Claire







The Women's Regiment

The Headsman's Daughter

by

Samuel Z Jones

[
REDACTED EDITION]


Copyright Samuel Z Jones 2015

Published by Wight Orchid 2017






PROLOGUE

THE KNIGHT & THE DRAGON


In a cavern beneath a mountain, the dragon Gargouille lay on a mound of gold. The dragon's attention was presently on a knight, clad as tradition demanded in full plate armour and girt with enchanted sword. The knight's armour was red as blood, the dragon's scales granite grey. Contrary to tradition, the wyrm and the paladin were not fighting, but having a conversation.

“The Lord Protector's problem may not be his enemies, but his friends.”

The dragon's voice was sibilant in Sir Denebar's ear, a whisper surprisingly soft for so huge a beast. Denebar grunted and shifted his weight, seeking comfort or at least stability perched on the great mound of gold comprising Gargouille's nest. As the guardian and de facto banker of the Realm's gold, the dragon Gargouille had also become one of the Lord Protector's closest councillors.

“And what the devil do you mean by that?” The Lord Protector himself, Sir Taran Denebar demanded.

“Simply that my Lord Protector is too closely tied to the military to effect his designs with ease.”

“Ease? If I wanted ease, I'd have retired long ago!”

“Indeed. For about a week, two at most. The Realm would need no longer to fall back into war. As well my Lord Protector knows.”

The dragon delighted in tormenting Denebar with his title: He had not chosen it, did not like it, and accepted it solely because to refuse would encourage the demands that he proclaim himself king.

Very few had the nerve to taunt the Lord Protector. Besides his station, Sir Denebar was a battlefield knight, veteran of a hundred fights, renowned swordsman and slayer of monsters. He was also a bearlike man, well over six feet tall and proportionally broad, fierce of beard and grim of eye. The dragon Gargouille, while small by the standards of his race, was nonetheless a monstrous beast owning no regard at all for either a man's stature or his station.

“What do you propose?” Denebar grunted at last; the dragon was more patient than he, having centuries to compare with the decades of a man's life.

“It seems to me,” Gargouille hissed, “that my Lord Protector...”

“Stop that!”

“...has an abundance of mighty warriors at his command. But such men and women lack subtlety, and that is what is required here...”

“No.”

“...I was merely going to suggest...”

“No.” Denebar caught the dragon's eye and held it, a feat few men possessed the willpower to achieve. “In this I can read your mind. In what sense, exactly, is assassination by dragon in any way 'subtle'?”

Gargouille hissed, long and slow, the dragon's equivalent of kissing its teeth, and then said, “You must concede this is no task for questing knights.”

“No, that it is not. But it's a damn nasty job to shirk off onto the Women's Regiment, and they're the only ones as could do it. There's the ugly truth of it. How the hell I mean to sell it to them; that's another thing entirely.”

“The Lord Protector is wise in his compassion,” the dragon smarmed sarcastically, “but indeed, even my services, which he must inevitably call on, would demand first that his Lordship...”

“Watch it,” Denebar growled.

“...beg the aid of the Women's Regiment, which can only require somehow convincing Lady Xenales to support so unpleasant a mission.”

“Some bloody councillor you are,” Denebar grunted, making at last to depart. “I could have worked all that out meself.”

Gargouille's laughter followed him from the chamber and along the winding passage back to the surface. The way was surprisingly narrow, considering the dragon's bulk; Denebar could easily touch the opposing walls with both hands. The passage was almost perfectly smooth, worn so by the action of Gargouille's scales on the rare event that the wyrm slithered forth. Lately, this had been only for state occasions; Denebar privately thought that the dragon was getting lazy.

Outside, blinking in the daylight, Denebar enjoyed a rare moment alone. It did not last; just as he was considering packing his pipe and sitting down for a smoke, hoofbeats echoed from the narrow road leading to the dragon's lair.

Denebar groaned, sat down on a rock, and packed his pipe anyway. He had just struck a match when the rider came in sight; a woman, clad in the deep red uniform of Denebar's personal Lifeguards, leading a second horse by the reins.

“My Lord!”

“Good morning, Captain.”

“Sir!”

Captain Karmilla Tate dismounted her horse at a bound and landed at attention. Denebar sometimes thought the intense young woman slept like that, bolt upright, eyes front, unblinking.

“Oh relax,” he told her. “Step into my office, pull up a chair.”

Karmilla swivelled her eyes as if to discover the office of which the Lord Protector spoke, but there was only the mountain valley leading to the dragon's cave. “My Lord?”

“Oh, alright, I'm coming...” Denebar heaved himself to his feet and clanked over to the spare horse that Karmilla had brought. He was not quite quick enough to stop Karmilla moving to the opposite side and holding his stirrup while he mounted.

“Captain, how many bloody times have I told you not to do that?”

“I don't keep count, sir.”

“The day I can't mount my own horse is the day I retire. Take some advice, Captain; make yourself too useful, and you may be sure I'll find a use for you. Think on that, because I'd far rather you had a nice quiet career and went home to Vale where I found you.”



CHAPTER ONE

KARMILLA


That her father was the Baron of Vale, Karmilla Tate had always known. Only as she grew from a child into a young woman did she begin to suspect that her father was very different even from other great knights.

Sir Karel Tate lived, with his wife Lyssa and their daughter Karmilla, beside a lake in the deepest valley of Vale, hidden in the remotest mountains of northerly Kellia. Their home was a simple log cabin on the lake shore, with a single room within where wife and daughter slept, while the great Baron himself, Knight-General Sir Karel Tate, slept outside on the turf in full armour, his sword upon his breast.

Karmilla's father was a taciturn man, her mother equally so; silence ruled the little family on the lakeside. Karmilla learned silence before she learned speech, and so learned not to question, but simply to watch.

On some nights, her mother would go outside and sleep beneath the stars with Karel Tate. It was rare that he ever set foot within the cabin, and equally rare that anyone disturbed the solitude of their valley.

Only two kinds of people ever visited. To Karmilla's child-eyes, they were at first big shiny people, and small, dull-coloured people. They would come and speak to her father, and from these infrequent conversations, Karmilla learned all she knew of the world beyond the valley.

The small, dull-coloured people she learned were called “peasants”, and identified themselves so. The big, silver people, were “knights”. Peasants trembled before her father, for he was a knight of enormous stature, clad in armour and bearing his sword every hour of night or day. The knights were not cowed by him, and stayed longer, usually overnight, sometimes a few days.

Every peasant seemed more or less alike. Sometimes, her father would go off with them, and return a few hours or days later. Every knight was different; as like her father as they were unlike him. Most of the knights came to see Karel Tate in particular, but there were one or two who visited both the Baron and his wife.

The first time that Karmilla's parents directly introduced her to a knight, she was eleven years old. This knight, she had never seen before. All the rest had worn silver or iron armour; this knight's corselet was red as blood. He stood as tall as her father, grey-haired and bearded. His blue eyes were a quiescent storm of ready laughter and waiting fury in equal measure.

“Karmilla,” her mother said, “this is the Lord Protector, Sir Taran Denebar. He is the greatest of knights, and he is here to see you.”

Karmilla only realised after a long pause that a response was expected. “Why?” she asked at last.

The red-armoured giant, Sir Denebar, chuckled before he replied, “Because your father too is a very great knight, and I would meet the child that will one day assume his land and duties. We must discuss your life in the meantime. Walk with me.”

Karmilla followed Sir Denebar along the lake shore and towards the treeline. Her parents paced ten yards behind them; Karmilla sensed them without having to look back, and both Karel and Lyssa Tate walked soundlessly.

“Do you understand what your mother told you of me?” Denebar asked, and Karmilla shook her head.

“I see. They call me the Lord Protector, which I suppose you can take at face value; I am the lord and guardian of the Realm of Kellia and Silveneir. And it is to me that all knights of the Realm owe fealty. But there are three knights who stand full square with me, and of these your father is one. That is why he does not bow to me, nor answer me unless he wishes, for he is the Headsman of Vale, and no lesser law than the Lord Protector himself.”

This was the longest speech Karmilla had ever heard. She marvelled at the ease with which Sir Denebar spoke, his attention roving from her to the woodlands to the open sky, and always the calm, assured, easy yet courtly speech, rolling from his bearded lips.

“Only one command may I give to the Headsman, and that is to let fly his sword. And if, as his heir in this Realm where men and women stand equal in law, you are one day to succeed him, then you must first learn, as he did, the ways of the sword. What has he taught you?”

“To watch,” Karmilla said, simply. “To listen.”

Denebar nodded, apparently satisfied. “The time is come that you ask him to teach you. In five years, I shall return, and take you to the next of those other knights who stand equal to your father and I. But first a test, to be sure I am not mistaken. Have you ever seen a dragon, Karmilla?”

She of course had not, but from the overheard words of other knights to come before, she had learned what a dragon was. Her father had slain one, long ago, in the earliest days of the Witch War. The names of other dragonslayers she had learned, though none had ever visited.

The knights who sometimes came to see Karel Tate spoke in awe of the dragonslayers: Saint Sabra Daishen, who slew the firebird of Avellar; Lady Neroven Varrinor, that slew the drake at Silveneir; Great Sir Kirin Baltu, who beheaded the wyrm of Narillion, and Montesinos DeKellia, the greatest of them all, who had slain the Warmaster Tor Enlad when that sorcerer-king cast away his human shape, and joined battle in dragon-form.

Karmilla, who had learned to question by observation, was so caught by wondering to which of these the Lord Protector meant to send her, that she quite forgot to answer his question directly.

“Dragon?”

Denebar grinned, and beckoned her onward through the trees. Soon they came to a clearing that Karmilla knew well; she had played there all the days of her childhood. Now the place would never be the same. A dragon waited in the clearing, a great grey-scaled wyrm half-filling the open ground. It stirred as Denebar and Karmilla emerged from the trees. Lifting its great saurian head, the dragon stretched and cricked its tail, shook the long spines on its back and flexed its leathern wings.

With hypnotic grace, the huge head swung around and levelled lambent eyes the size of dinner plates on the interlopers in the glen.

“Gargouille!” Denebar yelled, waving up at the dragon. “Look who I've got here! Karel Tate's sprog.”

The dragon's head came in closer, barely a yard away from Karmilla. The beast's hot breath snorted a sulphurous gust over her. The huge eyes dilated, focussing close.

“Say hello,” Denebar suggested.

“Hello, Sir Dragon,” Karmilla said.

“Hello, human child.” The dragon's voice was a hiss, resonant still from the beast's broad chest. “But my name is not 'Dragon'. I am Gargouille. And I am not 'Sir'; if we are to be formal, then I am properly Great Sir Gargouille, the Baron Karkossa, Lord High Treasurer of The Realm, Flight-Marshal of the Eastern Watch and Minister of Internal Revenue. To my own people, I am His Royal Highness the Crown-Prince Draconis Imperialis Magisterum.”

“My loyal steed,” Denebar grinned and patted the dragon affectionately.

“Indeed,” Gargouille replied with indignant sarcasm, “my Lord Protector.”

Denebar growled and shot the dragon a glare, only to turn his attention back to Karmilla.

“Well, you didn't wet yourself or burst into tears, and I've seen grown men do both when eyeballing a dragon. You'll do, Karmilla. Tell your father I'll be back in five years, and if he says you're ready, you'll get to ride a dragon.”




CHAPTER TWO

THE PRISONER


A castle wall and attendant tower guarded the pass to the dragon's lair. Within the fort and on the wall, the Drakesguard glared on duty. They were not prone to glaring, being perhaps the most exclusive and self-satisfied unit of the Lord Protector's armies. The occasion for glaring was the presence of a rival unit, twenty Riflewomen of the Lord Protector's own Lifeguards, presently standing to passive-aggressive attention at the gate.

Even the clatter of hooves signalling Denebar's return from his conference with the dragon did not disrupt the glaring. The gates parted, and Denebar himself appeared, reining his horse on the threshold to gape from his Lifeguards without the wall to the Drakesguard atop it, and back again.

Are you lot still playing silly buggers?” the Lord Protector demanded. “I've been gone hours!”

It's traditional, my Lord,” Karmilla said defensively, giving the Drakesguard an obligatory glare.

Denebar rolled his eyes, then hollered up at the Drakesguard, “Sorry! Apparently it's tradition!”

The Drakesguard glared back, a dozen men and women in chainmail and grey livery. Each had a small grey dragon the size of a pigeon perched on their shoulder, befriending one of the little gargouilles being the sole means of entry into the Drakesguard's ranks. Being allowed pets was only one item on a long list of grievances that the rest of the army had against them.

Receiving no joy from the Drakesguard, Denebar turned again to Karmilla and her troops. “Are you ready, Captain?”

Ready, my Lord?”

Denebar grinned and plied his spurs. His horse shot away, lost to sight within moments in a cloud of dust. The Lifeguard, well used to the Lord Protector's antics, bolted for their horses without need of command. Denebar got a mile down the road, and was feeling quite pleased with himself, when a squad of riders peeled out of concealment among the rocks and fell in alongside him at the canter.

Afternoon, my Lord!” The lieutenant trilled.

Damn you and all who sail in you!” Denebar roared back, but Lieutenant Cascos only grinned and saluted. Denebar reined in his wild career; weighted with armour, there was no way his horse could outpace the Lifeguard without a good headstart and a plan in mind. Clearly, he had been out-thought on this occasion.

Karmilla, upon elevation to a Captaincy in the Lifeguard, had immediately promoted a number of NCOs who had served with the Lord Protector a good deal longer than she. Among them was Cascos, a senior NCO now in her late thirties, who had gleefully accepted the lift to Lieutenant that attended membership of the Lifeguard.

By the time Karmilla and the rest of the troops caught up, the Lord Protector was trotting down the road, chatting with his escort.

You have this scoundrel well secured?” Denebar asked, and Cascos nodded with a grin.

Hanging by his heels in the Utryce jail where we found him, sir.”

Good stuff. I suppose I must see the villain, having already courted the dragon on his account.”


The villages of the Utryce Highlands were remote and not often called upon by great knights and their retinues. The Utryce themselves were a hard, proud people, as tough as the craggy hills of their domain. Denebar privately considered them as wildly beautiful as the summer heather and the winter snow; he had after all married a woman of Utryce blood.

The entire village turned out to watch as the Lord Protector rode in, flanked and followed by the Lifeguard. The villagers showed neither fear nor joy, too proud to admit to either, though the arrival of Denebar and his bodyguards more than doubled the tiny settlement's population: Wherever he went, in peace or war and regardless of his will, the entire complement of the Lifeguard followed him, resplendent in blood-red livery, broad feathered hats and ornate swords, two hundred elite soldiers of the Revolutionary Women's Regiment.

Only a small contingent had gone with Denebar directly to the dragon's cave; the majority had picketed the surrounding area, more to be certain that the Lord Protector should not evade them than out of any real fear for his safety. Sir Taran Denebar feared nothing and no one; anyone resourceful and daring enough to offer him danger would learn their folly from the great knight himself.

The Captains of his bodyguard, Karmilla included, knew this and tried not to resent it. She could only feel that her job was a ceremonial position, an honorary post for the daughter of the Baron of Vale.

The Lord Protector dismounted, cheerfully beckoning the nearest Utryce villager.

I hear a rumour you've got a troublemaker?” He grinned.

Karmilla kept her face carefully neutral. She had no idea, even now, whether the Lord Protector's jovial disregard for social station was sincere naivety or deliberately disconcerting. It certainly unnerved the Utryce Highlander before him; the man blinked, accepted the reins of Denebar's horse, and dumbly pointed out the building where the prisoner was being held.

There had been no need to ask in any case; the building was guarded by four burly Highlanders in full battle-gear; plaid kilts and warbraids, armed with long claymores, dirks and shields.

Do none of you chaps have a mail shirt?” Denebar enquired as he approached.

The Highlanders, three young men and a woman distinguished by her steel mask, glanced at each other in consternation.

Karmilla,” Denebar said absently, “take a note; send these people, oh... six? Yes; six good mail shirts. Never know when they might need 'em, eh? Now let's get a look at this prisoner.”

The impromptu gaol was one of the few stone-built structures in the village, an old Silvan guard-tower of yesteryear. It had once boasted an upper storey built of split logs, but now only the stone ground floor remained, with a new roof of thatch where the upper parapet had been. The door was roughly made, but sturdy, and barred from without with a great wooden sleeper.

The guards opened it up and Karmilla accompanied the Lord Protector inside. Within, they found the prisoner just as Cascos had said; hanging upside down by his ankles from the rafters. He was a big man, heavily muscled, dressed in sturdy boots, black breeches, and tan shirt. His broad arms were heavily tattooed and he wore his hair in warbraids similar to the Utryce. But where the Highlanders' hair was red or blond, this man's mane was deepest black.

Why he's a Kellion, by jingo,” Denebar exclaimed, with every appearance of joy. “A man of the Old Country, a man of my own blood. And what've you done, chap, to fall afoul of my best girls of the Regiment, eh?”

The prisoner had been hanging upside-down for hours and was in no state to respond coherently. Karmilla answered the Lord Protector's question instead, though he already knew full well.

He's a Slaver,” she said.

Ah, spotted the Cult tattoos there on his arms.” Denebar nodded sagely, then switched manner abruptly and seized the prisoner by the hair. “Hear that, you worthless bastard? We know damn well who you are and what you were about; prowling Utryce looking for girls, which I must say is phenomenally stupid.”

He let the Slaver's hair go and turned back to Karmilla, reverting to his genial mode as smoothly as the sun emerging from the clouds.

Would you say that was stupid, Captain?”

Phenomenally so, my Lord,” Karmilla deadpanned.

Care to enumerate his folly, or shall I do it?”

By your leave, my Lord.” Karmilla braced at ease and reported as if giving a Regimental briefing. “The Utryce are a violent and belligerent people, renowned for their love of privacy and violently defending their independence. The region is remote, the terrain formidable, and every road in guarded by fortresses, the Lord Protector's own not least among them.”

Indeed,” Denebar nodded, “one wonders, therefore, at the obstinate idiocy required to try slaving here. Who caught this animal, precisely, Captain?”

Locals,” she said. “According to the report. They handed him over to the Highland Rangers, who sent a rider to New Adathen, and thus here we are.”

A merciful man would just leave the bastard here,” Denebar mused. “Worst the Utryce would do is burn him at the stake; they never had much bother with the Slavers' Cult here, even back in the old days. He'd have to be an idiot, and determined with it, to come girl-hunting here alone. Which naturally raises the question...”

Is he alone, my Lord?” Karmilla dutifully enquired.

Denebar shot her a look as if to check she was not being funny.

Too much to hope that this is just a lone Cult die-hard. Someone must have sent him. So you get your wish, Captain.”

My Lord?”

Cut him down, truss him up, throw him arse-skywards on a horse, and hie him back to New Adathen. We'll put him to the question there.”

Why not here, my Lord? I could fetch in Cascos and a couple of keen girls. They'll have the truth out of him, soon enough.”

I dare say they'd get something,” Denebar conceded. “But even were it the truth, I doubt we'd have the full tale. These Slaver scum are tough as old boots; there's some real work involved to make this bastard sing. That, and I'm reluctant to tax the village here with billeting two hundred fighting girls overnight, or longer. No, and loathe as I am to suffer this wretch to see another dawn, it's at New Adathen we'll hear his story.”





CHAPTER THREE

THE SWORDSMITH OF GLORY



The day after her first meeting with the Lord Protector, Karmilla's parents took her on a journey. Her father always wore his armour and sword; for this, her mother took down the long rifle from above the hearth. They packed only lightly, so at home in the forest that they needed no provisions and little equipment.

A few times, one or other of Karmilla's parents had taken her up the high crags hedging their sanctuary, and shown her the view of the world. From the rocky heights, the Realm of the Lord Protector spread away eastward. In winter, the whole world looked white. The sun on the snow and the angle of view from the heights made lights and images dance on the horizon. In summer, the snows gave way to rugged gorse as far as the eye could see. North, south and west, the mountains loomed.

Karmilla had been to Vale, the village in the pass below their home valley, but she had never imagined that anyone else lived in the mountains besides her parents and herself. The cities of old Kellia and Silveneir had fallen, burned in the long wars, their citizens scattered. Those who herded together on the refugee trail fell prey to the tyranny of the Kaesean Empire. Even now, in the days of the Lord Protector, large settlements were few and the population widely dispersed.

From the heights of the crags above their home valley, Karmilla's parents took her west into the mountains. The journey took several weeks. Karmilla met charcoal-burners for the first time, mountain hermits and other little families living all alone. Everyone seemed to know her father, but he rarely stopped to return their greetings. On the few occasions they did so, Karmilla's mother did the talking. Her father stood back, saying nothing. Most, Karmilla recalled seeing other children for the first time. They looked at her with wide-eyed curiosity, jealous and afraid, but of what she did not know.

In a high mountain valley, above the level of the snows but sheltered and thick with evergreens, an old man lived alone beside a hidden tarn. It might have been a miniature of the valley Karmilla had grown up in, save that the waters of the pool bubbled hot.

The old man was sitting in the doorway of his hut when Karmilla and her parents appeared. He wore fur-lined boots and sheepskin trousers, but sat bare-chested in the steamy air beside the bubbling pool. A long straight pipe smoked in his hand, but he put it aside when he saw the visitors on his seclusion, and rose to greet them.

His arms and chest were heavily tattooed, still sinewy with muscle despite his age. By his white hair and beard, Karmilla guessed him older even than the Lord Protector, who until now was her measure of age.

Expected you anon,” the ancient said. “My days grow short, but I knew I would make one more sword for the Headsman of Vale.”

You are... unchanged,” Karmilla's father said. “It has been almost forty years since my father brought me to you. I bring my daughter now.”

Daughter?” The ancient quirked an eyebrow, and looked for the first time on Karmilla. “Things have changed in Kellia. Let it be so, then. Even the mountains do not remain the same. Let us begin.”

Behind the ancient's hut was a forge, sturdily built of logs and stone. A strange contraption powered the bellows, a system of sealed boxes and clattering stacks fed by pipes out to the bubbling tarn. Coal and firewood stacked the walls of the forge. At the back stood upright bundles of iron and steel rods, all of varying weights and sizes.

The ancient measured Karmilla by eye, comparing also the respective heights of her parents. Then he selected a rod from the pile, and hefted the weight in his hand.

May I see your sword, Master Headsman?”

Karel Tate unshipped his long blade. Rested point down with his hand upon the pommel, the Headsman's sword stood over five feet tall. The rod the ancient had selected for Karmilla was four feet long, measuring to her shoulder.

The ancient crouched down and looked Karmilla in the eyes, then looked up at her parents and nodded approvingly.

Good Kellion eyes,” he said. “Come tell me what they see.”

He brought Karmilla into the forge and indicated the bundled rods of iron and steel.

Two steels,” he said, “to make a good sword. One hard and one soft. One I have chosen, now you choose the other.”

Another girl might have asked questions, but Karmilla simply wandered along the rows until she saw one bar that caught the light differently to all the rest. Lifting the ingot taxed the limits of her strength, but she brought it back to the ancient swordsmith.

Well chosen. That is the last ingot of true meteoric steel raised from Lake Karmensis by Lord Mensai, once the most renowned of Kellion swordmakers. Seven ingots of this steel were the price of his seven years tuition under me.”

Karmilla looked a question at him, and the ancient smiled as if he read her mind.

For the swords I make, there is no fee that could be paid. Each is a gift, for swords were not made to hang idle in the forge. Do you see any here?”

But for the tools and makings of his trade, there were no finished pieces in the forge. Karmilla shook her head.

Nonetheless, swords I have been making. And it is for these that I am glad of your father's coming.” Here he patted Karmilla's shoulder and turned to address her father. “Master Headsman, like you, I have no son. Of all that have ever come in search of my blades or the skill to make them, none has remained or provided any heir. And I have said that this sword I shall forge for your daughter shall be the last of my hand. For she must be Headswoman when you are gone, but I must go before you. So I have forged one thousand swords, and stored them safely against the day that Kellia should have need of them. Let the guarding of them forever rest in the hands of your descendants, whatever else may pass in days to come.”

Karel Tate nodded, but said nothing. The ancient chuckled and shook his head, glancing down at Karmilla.

More talkative than his grandfather,” the old man confided. “Now, this sword I'll make for you will not be hurried, and you three will not sit idle in its making. You, Master Headsman, will learn all you may of my art in the seven months we shall be here. Seven months to learn what should take seven years to teach you, but it is all we have. Few swordsmiths remain of our nation, and of all that ever were, I alone discovered the secret of Avallian steel. To this also you may attribute my great age.” He tapped his nose and chuckled again, then directed Karmilla's father to help him begin stoking the forge.


For seven months, Karmilla and her parents lived with the ancient swordsmith. Every day her mother took her hunting while her father and the ancient stoked the forge. Karmilla learned to shoot, and to hunt by a new method than she had hitherto. Her father hunted with bow and snare; her mother with the rifle. She had rarely seen her mother shoot, though the weapon had often been brought down for cleaning. Now it was cleaned twice daily, before and after hunting. Her mother drilled her assiduously in its use, rarely letting her fire it until she had mastered all the ancillary skills and habits.

All the while, her father and the swordsmith worked the forge. Day and night they laboured. The firewood and coal depleted rapidly, but her father went to fetch charcoal-burners and arrange fresh supplies. The forge glowed hot continuously, warming the hut so that Karmilla and her mother joined her father in sleeping outside. The swordsmith slept inside, seeming to bask and grow stronger in the heat. Even when the forge was unattended, the wheels and stacks feeding from the bubbling mountain spring kept the bellows working.

Karmilla learned the pleasures of hot water, bathing in the bubbling pool, but the ancient warned them never to drink from it. All their drinking water came from a higher tarn, a second spring within the same valley that yet ran ice-cold and pure.

The two iron cores, one of finest mortal ore, the other of meteoric provenance, were introduced to the fire. To the mortal iron, the ancient added strands of other metal, thinner strips of rare minerals. Then the meteoric and mortal cores were welded and beaten together, the joining surface dusted with Rare Earths and alchemical formulas. The resultant bar was heated again, then drawn forth and twisted into a steel rope. For days and nights unceasing, the ancient and the Headsman hammered the blade, quenching it at last in the mineral-rich waters of the volcanic tarn. The seventh month of labour was spent on the hilt, perfecting the guards into the coiling likeness of a dragon.

The sword that resulted stood as high as Karmilla's shoulder, and was almost too heavy for her to lift. Nevertheless, it was given to her with great ceremony, and she carried or wore it from then on wherever she went. The return journey to Vale seemed to take far longer than their outbound hike.

For a while, the ancient swordsmith travelled with them, leading a different road to the one they had come by. A week into the journey, the swordsmith and Karmilla's father went off together into the mountains. Karmilla and her mother continued the journey home, joined there a day later by her father. She never saw the ancient swordsmith again, but the blade he had forged became the chief focus and anchor of her life.



CHAPTER FOUR

THE WARRANT


Officially, the Lord Protector had no command of the Women's Regiment. Formal leadership and administration of the largest armed force in the Realm fell to a board of Colonels, each with direct command of a particular corps of the Regiment. Practical command was in the hands of Warrant Officer Xenales, who although only holding a rank equivalent to a Captaincy, did so by the Lord Protector's Warrant. She was also, however, the sole living Silvan Diva, having 'slain her hundred', sword in hand. Exempt by ancient Diva's Privilege from all law and duty, Xenales had continued to reign in the Women's Regiment, staunch at her post and a force both the Lord Protector and the Board of Colonels must abide.

She kept her office in the Lower Gatehouse at New Adathen. This bastion had proved itself time and again the keystone of New Adathen's defence. In the years that Xenales had kept her watch, no foe in arms had passed alive up the causeway to New Adathen's inner Keep. She was not about to let it happen now.

Word had already reached the Lower Gatehouse of the Lord Protector's approach. As Denebar and his Lifeguard passed through the outer gates of the fortress, Xenales was already on her way down to brace him at the Gatehouse threshold. Being thus impeded on his own doorstep was not an unfamiliar experience for Denebar. He had found it easier to let Xenales bring him her reports thus; no other petitioner dared approach him while the Diva demanded his attention. She stood now beneath the centre of the Gatehouse arch, boots planted in the dust and one hand riding habitually on her swordhilt. The pose was one of many insolences traditionally permitted to a Diva.

Very punctual, Warrant,” Denebar boomed, reining in his horse. “Your agents are getting better.”

The Lord Protector's fame goes ever further ahead of him,” Xenales deadpanned. Her face was hidden behind an old-fashioned Silvan mask, a steel mirror painted with rank and honorific insignias. She affected blues and mauves in her uniform, by Diva's privilege permitted to dress as she pleased, and topped this off with a broad-brimmed hat sporting two long feathers.

Denebar privately hated the hats. That uniforms should in peace-time run flamboyant was to be expected in the Women's Regiment. But the big floppy hats popular with the officers and elite units were in Denebar's eyes a step too far. He had at first hoped for an ally in Xenales, but she had gleefully sided with the pro-hat faction.

What,” Xenales demanded, “is that shabby thing draped over Sexpest's saddle?”

Sexpest was Lieutenant Cascos. Among her other duties, Xenales ascribed herself the right to assign nicknames throughout the Regiment. Cascos grinned back at Xenales.

Got a present for you, Warrant,” she said, and dumped the Cult Slaver off her saddlehorn.

He landed in the dust, bound hand and foot, glaring sullen defiance. Xenales strolled over to regard the prisoner.

Well, well, well. What have we here, then?”

A Slaver,” Denebar replied. “One of the Cult of Slavers, indeed.”

I can see that,” Xenales shot back. “I know what those tattoos signify. Thought we'd done for all these bastards long ago.”

So did I,” Denebar agreed. “And yet this piece of filth was found prowling around Utryce.”

Now there's a tale I should like to hear anon. I presume the Lord Protector will remand his prisoner to the hospitality of the Regiment?”

I had assumed the good Warrant has suitable accommodations available,” Denebar replied.


New Adathen did not in truth have a torture chamber, nor indeed a professional torturer. The guardroom of the Western Gate had seen use for interrogations in the past, and it was here that Xenales brought the prisoner.

Said the Utryce caught this?” Xenales demanded, while the captive was being tied to a sturdy chair. Denebar nodded sagely, having already confirmed this detail on the way.

I'm surprised they left him his balls.” Xenales paused directly before the prisoner, then grabbed him firmly by the crotch. “What do you expect me to do with this, except have it tortured to death?”

Well, you know I prefer to save torture for the rarest occasions,” Denebar replied. “And I'm just a fighting man; I don't know much about sadism, and I don't like to keep chaps on staff who do.”

Well I'm just a soldier,” Xenales said, releasing her hold on the whimpering prisoner. “But I dare say I can make this bastard sing.”

I hate to take you from other important work, Warrant,” Denebar murmured, but Xenales waved the remark off.

I spend my days yelling at idiot squaddies like a nun in a brothel. It'll be pure pleasure to vent on a truly deserving creature.” Turning to the doorway, she called out, “Cascos, fetch me a meathook and two good strong girls. We'll hang this animal up by his arse-piece, and then see if I can't get really fricking inventive.”

Well, that sounds a good enough start,” Denebar conceded. “I'll just leave you to it, Xenales; I've no great wish to see you go to work.”

Shame,” Xenales replied, taking off her mask and lighting a cigar. To the prisoner she said, “Now let's be clear; you're a dead man. Nothing you tell me will make your death quick. But that the good Lord Protector would object, I'd feed you alive to my dog one ounce of meat a day, starting with your bollocks. But there's no time for that; your bastard crew have no doubt been up to their sick shit, kidnapping girls and raping them insane. And a lot of my girls, them as are now NCOs and officers in the Women's Regiment, were just pretty teenage things when the Empire gave your Cult scum free rein. The Empire's gone now, and we've gotcha. So you are, as I say, a dead man. But if you hope to still be a man by the time you die, you'll spill your guts, in every sense of the phrase. You'll give me your crew's plans, their whereabouts, numbers, names, everything down to the colour of their eyes and how often they change their jocks. And for the heroic obstinacy I expect of you, I will promise a far swifter end to all the Cult vermin you'll try so hard to protect. See, I want you to hold out.”

The prisoner had sat sullenly through all this. Now, his only response was to spit in Xenales' face. She kissed her teeth, wiped the spittle from her cheek, and put out her cigar in the prisoner's eye.

The shriek and hiss of cooking flesh was nightmarish. Denebar winced and turned to make a dignified retreat.

On his way out, he passed Lieutenant Cascos, armed with a meathook and an evil grin, accompanied by two burly Riflewomen from the kitchen staff.

That was quick, Cascos,” Denebar remarked, taking out his pipe and tobacco.

Ran both ways. Not every day we get this kind of fun. Think the Warrant will let me cut his balls off?”

Only if he doesn't talk,” Denebar said, “which we rather want him to. But short of that, fill your boots.”

My Lord,” Cascos grinned and saluted with the meathook, then hurried on down to the interrogation room.

Denebar went outside and lit his pipe. Even through the thick stone walls, the captive Slaver's screams reached him clearly. He had just finished smoking and was about to head off to his other appointments of the day, when Cascos came bounding back up from the dungeons again. There was already blood on her hands.

The Warrant let me break his fingers and bosh him in the nuts a bit, but she won't let me go to work with the knife. Says we need a Physic for that, someone as knows how to cut a man open without killing him.”

Bloody hell.”

You know what they say, LP; want a job done properly...”

...Get Xenales to do it, yes indeed.”

Excuse me, LP, I have to dash; I want to be there for the meathook, we're gonna hang him by his arsepiece and...”

Yes, yes, I know. I'm sure you don't want to miss that.”

Hell, I wanna ram the hook in,” Cascos grinned. “The Warrant won't wait forever.”


It was much later in the day when Xenales emerged, and sought out the Lord Protector in his office. She was spattered with blood from head to foot, with a half-smoked cigar between her teeth which she lit immediately upon stepping in.

Finished already, Warrant?” Denebar asked.

Not nearly. Giving the girls a break, they've worked hard. Here; present for you.”

Xenales delved in her pocked and produced a gory flap of something. Denebar reluctantly identified the tattooed skin from the slaver's chest.

Thank you, Xenales...”

I'll have it cured proper and put in a frame,” she said. “There's some nice artwork on that. I wanted to shirt the bastard, but the Physic says that'll kill him.”

Shirt him?” Denebar enquired.

Cut him around the waist and peel his skin off in one,” Xenales explained. “But apparently ripping the last bit off the scalp'll kill 'em with shock. So we settled for sending Cookie back to the kitchens to get some salt and some really good knives. Cascos is off looking for a rat; Physic reckons we can pop it in his stomach and stitch him back up nicely.”

Good grief...” Denebar reached for the brandy bottle on his desk and poured two large glasses for himself and Xenales. “And has he talked yet?”

Oh yes,” Xenales said, dismissively. “That's what I came to say; you'll have a full report in the morning, but we've got enough out of him to make a start. There are indeed Slavers operating in Kellia again.”

Well, we guessed as much just from finding our friend.”

Gets worse.” Xenales toasted Denebar with her brandy, then re-lit her cigar and sat down in the chair facing his desk. “Seems the Slavers' Cult ain't half so dead as we'd hoped. We've only caught a handful of the old Masters over the years, hoped they'd died of old age at least. But our friend on the meathook says there are hundreds of his mates at a stronghold somewhere in Kellia.”

Well, we're not having that.” Deneber topped up their glasses and re-lit his pipe.

They've screwed up,” Xenales asserted. “A handful of evil old rapists could hide out forever, harems and all, as they've proved by lasting this long. But here's the rub: The Cult have as a big a hate on for the Regiment as we have for them. Since they've been recruiting again, they've had to open new avenues to kidnap enough girls.”

Riflewomen?” Denebar would have laughed, had they not been in deadly earnest. To attempt to rape a Riflewoman was to invoke immediate and unlimited retribution from the might of the Regiment.

I'm sure we'd have tripped over the Cult long ago if they so much as attempted to snatch a Riflewoman, Warrant.”

Xenales toasted the compliment.

So not Riflewomen...” Denebar mused, and Xenales provided the answer even as the thought struck him itself:

Deserters.”

The Regiment had no conscripts; every girl was a volunteer. The days of starving waifs joining up on the promise of boots and a gun were long ago: Now girls came from all over the Realm to become Riflewomen, and were well paid. If any girl failed training, or found any reason that the life of a soldier was not for her, no dishonour attached. Denebar knew that the Regiment kept track of all ex-Rifles: Every day served after training added to a girl's eventual pension. Given such lenient policy, the Regiment, and Xenales in particular, took a dim view of any girl who simply deserted.

The Slavers have been sweeping up Regimental deserters,” Denebar summarised, “thinking we won't give enough of a damn to notice.”

Which might have been a fair bet,” Xenales conceded. “But that brings us to our friend on the meathook, daring Utryce to get near the Grounds.” The Regimental Training Grounds in deepest Utryce were the eventual destination of every recruit to the Rifles. The highest desertion rates of any unit in the Regiment were inevitably from the training corps.

Now,” Xenales went on, “our friend and his crew have a base. He's not said where yet, but for my money it'll be at Narillion or Iarantown. Plenty of other castles in Kellia, but most are way out on the Moruna.”

I second your logic,” Denebar agreed. The Kellion Moruna was an icy wasteland, excellently remote for anyone trying to hide, but incapable of supporting large groups or regular commerce. “Can't drag captives across that, least of all in winter. Wherever they are, it has to be within spit of civilisation, or they'd get no new girls or Cult recruits.”

My thinking exactly, sir.”

What about Pen Kellion?” The ruined fortress of Kellia's fallen monarchy was on the far side of the Moruna, viciously cold but still far more viable than the nation's ice-bound interior.

The old Pen?” This had apparently not occurred to Xenales. “I doubt it. To get there without crossing the Moruna is six months' hike, and it's ferocious country every step of the way. I'll take a bet on it, if you like; happy to take your money.”

Open a book on it,” Denebar chuckled, betting being a fond pastime. “We can check easily enough. I'll send word to Vale, have the Headsman take a look at Pen Kellion.”

Send Morsinos,” Xenales advised. “If you're betting that the Headsman alone showing up at their door will bring 'em out meek to the chopping block, send Morsinos to back him up.”

Why not just send Sir Malakim too,” Denebar muttered, “have him level Pen Kellion, Morsinos pick over the rubble, and Tate despatch any survivors, eh?”

An admirable plan, my Lord.”

Xenales met his glare with a steely gaze of her own. She had no specific plans herself to run the country, Denebar knew, but considered maintaining the political power of the Women's Regiment her personal charge. For this reason, Denebar had tacitly cultivated Xenales as a prominent political opponent. It served him well, to have his staunchest ally test him both in public and in private.

That Xenales suggested he despatch both Morsinos and Malakim, his closest knightly confidantes, could only presage some other powerplay within the Regiment. He glanced at the chessboard on his desk, midway through a game from his last meeting with Xenales. Idly, Denebar moved a pawn one space forward.

I was going to send Major Nihm to investigate Narillion,” he said, his eyes now on the chessboard.

Not Nihm, not right away.” Xenales shifted a knight to interdict the line advanced by Denebar's pawn. “I've already got some work in mind for him.”

The Major is at your disposal, of course.” Denebar caught Xenales' gaze and held it. She had taken her mask off to smoke, and now looked back at him with her cigar clenched between her teeth.

Not thinking of questing off yourself, are you?” she demanded.

No, I scratched that itch by talking this all through with Gargouille. This is very clearly a job for the Women's Regiment. I will of course despatch those knights as may be useful...”

I already said I want Nihm,” Xenales snapped.

And you shall have him. And anyone else you want for the mission, naturally. But what I want, Xenales, is a well-planned operation certain of success. You may be thinking of rescuing all the girls apparently still languishing in chains even since we abolished such practices, I am thinking of the need to behead every single one of those bastard Cult Slavers.”

Oh, as if I wasn't thinking of that...”

We must be very sure, when we strike, that we have them all at a blow. We cannot ride with fire and sword throughout the Realm, whacking off heads in every town and village. We must find the Slavers' Cult, Xenales, and build one gallows for them all on a single day.”

I want Karmilla.”

Well, you can't have her!” Denebar protested at once. “Sabra's sake, why?!”

You did mention beheading, and you've already got a job in mind for her father. Besides, she's wasted chasing around after you. You can't keep her safe at your side her entire career, that girl deserves some action.”

She's an excellent bodyguard,” Denebar grumbled. “I hardly ever get away from her.”

Which is the chief reason I want her. You've driven every Captain of the Lifeguard insane for years. If you like Karmilla so much, give her a break! The main squad I'll pick anon, but for their officers I want Karmilla, Nihm, and Astoval.”

Astoval?!” Denebar blustered. “Well, if you insist. I see you intend some serious training for this mission. Oh alright, you can have Karmilla, but only as an administrator. Nihm knows his business, and I dare say he can handle Astoval. But you are not to send Karmilla into the field against the Slavers' Cult. That's my sole condition. Her mother's history with them; you know it better than I.”

Very well,” Xenales agreed. “I'll make it happen. I doubt there's much more to get from our prisoner, but be sure I'll have it.”


CHAPTER FIVE

PASSAGE OF ARMS


For five years, the Headsman of Vale trained his daughter in the solitude of the wilderness. He told her nothing, but by silent demonstration and long repetition imparted all that could be taught of the knightly way of the sword.

In Karmilla's sixteenth year, the Lord Protector returned. She had anticipated the day, alerted by the visit of a lesser knight to the Headsman of Vale. He was a young man, tall and muscular but still dwarfed by Karmilla's father. He wore silver mail far less imposing than the rune-chased corselets of other knights she had seen. By his accent and the plaid in his cloak, Karmilla knew him for an Utryce Highlander, which was then to her a place as distant and exotic as Heimjaro or Hrinor. Karmilla did not speak to him, and his visit was brief: He was too awed by the great knight, Karmilla's father, to speak much or stay long. Karmilla silently went and packed a bag, put on her sword, and went down to the lakeside.

With her parents' silent blessing, she set out that evening on the long hike into Vale. By morning she passed through the village, a little cluster of huts in the mouth of the valley. As when she had followed her father to visit the ancient swordsmith, the commoners she passed all seemed to know her. Men and women in the fields and on the village street stopped and watched her. Some greeted her, and some faces she recognised as having visited her father once or twice over the years. She was mildly annoyed when a small procession of village children began following her, but did nothing to repel their curiosity. She was no less curious herself.

The sun rose slowly on Vale, shadowed by the high saddle of the mountain arms blotting out the horizon to the east. The children followed Karmilla to the top of the ridge, and there looked down on western Kellia, the passes of the mountains yielding to the wide flat moors of the Moruna.

North, the ruins of Pen Kellion lay about the feet of the mountains. Beyond the ruined fortress, Karmilla could just make out a peak her father had mentioned the first time he had brought her here as a child.

There,” she said, speaking to the children with her eyes on the view, “from that mountain which has no name, my father told me that Sabra Daishen departed from the Realm.”

S'called Wivven's Peak,” one of the children said, picking its nose. “Dunno who Wivven was.”

Karmilla took this as proof of her father's policy of silence, and said no more.

One of the children pointed, taking a grubby thumb out of its mouth to do so. Karmilla was quite unable to tell the gender of the child, and forgot the question entirely when she spotted for herself what it was pointing at. Between the ridge and the ruins of Pen Kellion, a lone rider fled before a score of mounted pursuers.

Karmilla started down the slope at once. The children moved to follow, only to all fall back when she unsheathed her sword. She felt a strange fire in her blood, striding down to the foot of the rise. There, with the horseman only a hundred yards ahead and his pursuers rapidly gaining ground, the thrill turned to cold dread. She stood her ground nonetheless, assuming the pose that her father had taught her was traditional for such situations; feet apart, sword set point down before her, with her hands resting on the hilts.

The lead rider reined in sharply, wheeling his horse to a halt six feet from her. Only as the dust settled did Karmilla recognise him, by the dusky red of his armour and the grey of his beard, as the Lord Protector himself.

Just the girl, I should expect!” Sir Denebar boomed, but then looked back over his shoulder at the approaching riders. “But Haroum's own accursed luck on your timing, girl; they've caught me.”

The mounted party surrounded them in a moment, twenty women in bright red jackets, armed with sword and rifle. Their uniforms were flamboyant; decked in gold brocade and elaborate lanyards, topped off with broad-brimmed hats adorned with feathers. An officer, more boisterously feathered and brocaded than the rest, rode up and saluted the Lord Protector.

I shall buy a fine hunting dog and name it after you, Captain,” Denebar said, bitterly.

Flattered, my Lord, I'm sure.” The officer looked no such thing. “Putting a dummy on the dragon was a sly ruse, I must admit, but not sly enough. The rest of my troops will catch up eventually.”

'Tis an honour and a duty to give 'em such good exercise,” Denebar returned. “And you only think you've got me foxed. This young lady here was just about to challenge me for the road, and being alone I'd have had no choice but to accept. But with you here, well, captain of my bodyguard...”

Oh, for Sabra's sake...” The officer rolled her eyes and ground her teeth, then dismounted with an ill grace and stalked up to Karmilla. She took off her hat and cloak, passing them to a rider who had come up to catch her horse. “He does this constantly. Always some bloody shenanigans...”

Karmilla waited while the older woman got on guard, which she did with a flourish of her sword and a dance-like sway into position.

Sure about this?” The officer asked, with a glance from Karmilla to the Lord Protector.

I promised her a ride on a dragon, and you're making that very awkward to fulfil discretely,” Denebar replied.

The captain sighed and addressed Karmilla, probing in the same moment with her sword. “He makes it his life to make mine difficult, I swear...”

Karmilla whirled her sword on guard, swatting the women's lighter blade aside, and went into a complex figure-eight pattern as she advanced. The officer leapt backwards with an oath.

Sabra's sake, take it easy!”

She lunged in earnest even as she spoke. Karmilla shifted to a defensive pattern, stinging her opponent's sword aside half a dozen times. The flow of footwork carried them past each other, and they froze suddenly, Karmilla's sword a hairsbreadth from her opponent's cheek, the older woman over-lunging past her shoulder. Their eyes locked, her opponent shifted to recover her balance, and Karmilla twitched her sword into a draw-cut. The officer yelped and ducked away with one hand to her face.

First blood!” Denebar declared, happily.

I'll say, vicious little bitch!” The officer winced as she tested the cut with her fingertips. “Fricking duelling scar, thank you very fricking much! Who teaches that to their kids, eh?”

Classic manoeuvre of formal duelling,” Denebar remarked idly, “common to Silvan and Kellion traditions, I should have thought.”

Yeah, well it's just charming!” The captain took out a white hankie and pressed it to her face. She would have gone on complaining, but at that moment a great shadow overhead preceded a blast of wind. All eyes turned upward to watch the dragon Gargouille come in to land. About half a mile in the distance, a cloud of dust marked another party of riders approaching. On the dragon's back, flopping unconvincingly to one side in the saddle, was a suit of armour crudely painted red and strapped to a wooden frame.

It didn't work,” Denebar called out to the dragon.

I did say it would not,” Gargouille replied. “Why I let you humiliate me so...”

Look who we've got here!” The Lord Protector boomed, indicating Karmilla expansively. The dragon's head swung around to look at her.

Hello, human child.”


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