The Scourge of Muirwood (Legends of Muirwood #3) by Jeff Wheeler

CHAPTER ONE:

Whispers of Death

They rode on horseback, side by side, down a road overgrown with the twisted limbs of monstrous oak trees. The air was full of gnats and gossamer threads of spider silk that gently tickled the face. Martin wiped his cheek hurriedly, staring into the dark woods on either side. The bend ahead was blind – the perfect location for a trap.

“By Cheshu,” Martin muttered. “I like not the look of that corner. I do not. This forsaken wood is the only road to Comoros, is it?” He hissed softly then sniffed at the air, listening with keenness for a sign of the warning that throbbed silently in his heart.

At his side was the man Martin served – the king-maston of Pry-Ree. Martin was the older of the two, but the king had a youthful face. He did not look like a king, for he dressed in a simple shirt and an unassuming leather vest. His hair was an untamed mass of gold, shorn like a sheep at the nape of his neck. There was a somber expression on his face, which was normal as he was a man who mused silently much of the day and even more since hatching the plot of a secret marriage to Demont’s daughter. But a smile crept almost unnoticed at times to his mouth, betraying some hidden thought of mirth. He was Alluwyn Lleu-Iselin, though Martin never would have called him by his common name for he was a man Martin respected and trusted above any other, including the band of men known as the Evnissyen who now clustered around their king, halting as they had halted.

In short, the Evnissyen were the king’s protectors and Martin had trained them all. It was much more than simply that. The Evnissyen were hunters, thieves, schemers, dice-throwers, warriors – the mind in the shadows, whispering advice to their leader. Martin was the man the king turned to after his royal counselors had all argued their positions, blustered for favors and lands, or even plotted his death. The Evnissyen knew all the tangles in the skeins of power and they ruthlessly plucked at them like harp strings. Martin thought this with satisfaction. It was in his instincts to smell trouble. He smelled it on the road to Comoros.

Lord Alluwyn paused his mount and tugged open the pouch fastened to his wide leather belt. He was a king-maston, the glimpse of his chaen just a hint beneath the open collar of his shirt, but he referred to himself as only a prince in his title. Of the Three Blessed Kings of Pry-Ree, he was the wisest, the youngest, and the most worthy to rule them all. Which is why the others had already been assassinated, leaving his brother and nephew as co-rulers – neither of whom were mastons or very wise.

Digging into the pouch, the Prince removed a small globe made of refined aurichalcum. It glimmered in the shadows, which made Martin impatient, wondering if anyone skulking in the woods would see it. Staring at the orb, the Prince watched as the spindles set in the upper half began to whirl and spin. Writing appeared in the lower half of the orb. Martin squinted at the tiny markings that only mastons could read. “Well?”

The Prince’s face paled. He looked furtively at the road ahead, his face more serious than before. His voice was soft with warning. “A kishion in the shadows ahead. The orb bids me west.”

“Into the swamp?”

“The kishion does not want the others in our train, only me. Send them on after we are gone. You ride with me, Martin. Send the rest on to Muirwood.”

The Prince did not hesitate after that. Wrapping the reins in one fist, he stamped his stallion’s flanks with his spurs and charged into the murky depths of the oak trees. Furious, Martin hissed orders and a warning to the rest of the Evnissyen guard and then rode hard after the Prince. The trees whipped and slashed him as he fought to keep up. The thrill of the chase burned in his stomach. Draw the kishion after them in the moors. Throw him off his original plan – make him react to their movements.

The hunter is patient. The prey is careless.

The kishion was being careless. Not long after charging into the woods, Martin heard the crack of limbs, the thud of hooves from behind. The pay must be considerable for the kishion to risk being so noisy. Martin slowed his beast slightly, listening. The sound of pursuit was gaining on him. Grabbing his bow, he shrugged his boot out of the stirrup and flung himself off the horse, rolling into the mud and muck and then flattening himself against a stunted oak tree. Muddy water dripped down his face and he brushed it away with his hand, cursing. He had an arrow nocked and darted past several other trees, back-tracking. He did not worry about the Prince. He had the orb and could make it to Muirwood without aid from a hunter.

A blur of brown with a milk-stain patch on the nose revealed the pursuer’s horse. The kishion was low against the saddle, his mouth twisted into a scowl.