They had been riding for days when they were finally rewarded with a view of Castle Iju. It was far worse than either of them could have ever imagined, both riders pulling their horses up hard, stopping on the crest of the first hill, awestruck and horrified at the same time.
“Guardians of Yuan defend us,” Ostyn Tan gasped as he stared out across the valley and took in the crimson-washed sky. He turned and looked at his friend and servant; wincing as he saw the visible pain and dread etched on the face of the only man he would willingly give his life for, Valian. Returning his gaze to the sight before him, he took a deep breath to steady himself. They had seen the smoke every day as they closed in on the site and had lied to themselves and prayed for a blessing, but now, seeing it, there was no question of enduring hope. All was lost.
From where they were, it looked as though the entire hill that the castle sat upon was burning. Every segment of the tower that they could see was engulfed in flames. Smoke rose in billowing clouds of debris and dust, and ash fell like black rain on the clashing armies. There would be no escape for the inhabitants of the besieged stronghold, and Valian shivered with fear even as he urged his mount forward, descending into the valley. They rode hard toward the inferno without hesitation, each knowing that they alone were the only hope for the child and his mother, for they were the only ones that had heard the order of execution given.
Valian chose a route that took him around the left side of what remained of the thick outer stone wall and into the first of many courtyards. Skillfully, he guided his horse through the maze of carnage and gore only to be faced with a barricade of slaughtered oxen. He felt his mount tense for the leap and felt himself rise up out of the saddle and then separate from it entirely. Instinctively, he curled himself into a ball as he was thrown into the press of bodies. Several men broke his fall when he hit the ground, and he heard them curse him as they got to their feet, pushing and shoving to get free. Winded, he rolled to his side and was stumbled over and stepped on several times before he could move. Struggling to his feet, he turned to his left and saw the flash of metal out of the corner of his eye a moment before he recognized it as a sword. It stopped inches from his face, met there by another sword, the scrape of steel on steel sending up sparks in front of his eyes. Bumped roughly backward, he steadied himself fast, finding his balance. Drawing his sword quickly, he saw Ostyn Tan slice first through the middle of the man that had just tried to attack him and then up in a blur of speed. Blood came from the warrior in a streaming geyser as Ostyn stood still as a statue over him, tense and ready.
“Come!” Valian screamed at him over the din, grabbing his friend’s shoulder, pulling at him to follow.
He pointed to the wall separating the inner bailey from the outer, and he and Ostyn shared a look of understanding. Side by side, they hacked their way through faceless men to reach first the courtyard and then the tower itself. When they arrived at the ground floor they ducked inside a hole made by a battering ram in the stone slab. There were fewer men there, as no one would willingly run into an inferno of falling plaster and collapsing wood. The framework was buckling in sections, and he and Ostyn ran around crushed and still-burning bodies as they made their ascent through the castle.
Up and up they climbed, hoping the stairs they ran over would still support their combined weight. Leaping over rubble, maneuvering through tight passageways created by falling debris, and climbing over dead and dying men, they moved as quickly as possible, needing to reach the top floor. They sailed across gaps in the wooden floors without thought to falling hundreds of feet to their death.
On the third level of the tower, they raced up the stairs only to find themselves looking down at where they had just been. Forward momentum nearly pushed them both over, but they recovered in time, regaining their balance with much effort, finding it hard to simply come to a dead stop after rushing up so fast and so far. They were faced with nothing, no beams to run across and no way of moving over the yawning expanse of air. Rooms that had been there were no more. Valian looked around fast, hoping for something, anything to aid them.
“Tan!” he yelled suddenly, grabbing Ostyn hard, pointing him to what he saw.
They crashed through a narrow window opening leading out onto one of the many wood-shingled roofs of the castle that extended out from each layered floor. Ostyn followed blindly, joining Valian for the run across that which collapsed under their feet. There was only one place to reach for safety, for a handhold, and they both saw it at the same time. It was a hurling leap, and a scream tore from both their throats as they launched themselves toward the broad overhang of the upper story, sailing through the smoky night sky.
The roof fell away beneath them as they hung there, suspended in mid-air, dangling from the edge, both panting. When Valian turned and looked at his friend, a bittersweet smile filled his eyes.
“Only you would follow me into such as this.”
Ice-blue eyes sparkled with pleasure. “I would follow you ever.”
And Valian knew that, even as he let out a deep breath and nodded. “Come, we must hurry.”
Ever dutiful, Ostyn began pulling himself up just as Valian was, moving up onto the overhang. They whispered prayers together, hoping that they would not plunge to their deaths. Hoping the shingles on the upper roof were still solid and holding together. Ostyn followed Valian as he had always done; there was not a time he could remember being without him. The man was the constant in his life. Only him.
They slipped back inside the tower through another window opening and stepped lightly onto the small beam that touched the stairs leading to the upper story. Arms outstretched for balance, they sprinted over the scaffolding brace, arriving at the foot of the last set of stairs. The quarters of the lord of the castle were reached in a heartbeat, as they took those last steps in a blur of movement. Once there, Valian looked around a moment to get his bearings and saw the door at the far end of a hallway surrounded by twelve heavily armed men. When they were halfway there, a woman in black armor emerged from the darkness of the room to the left, and they came to a dead stop.
“Ravel!” he roared at her. “Step aside!”
“You forget your place, Valian,” the woman yelled back. “Leave me to my duty!”
“I cannot.” Valian exhaled, almost sadly, his breath shaky, advancing slowly toward her, Ostyn walking warily at his side.
The men came from the shadows, swarming around them, crowding him and his servant together, pushing them back-to-back to face them. They attacked fast and furiously, but Valian and Ostyn were of one mind, one body, fluid, effortless grace of movement and precision. They mirrored one another in perfect symmetry, and seeing them, Ravel knew she had only moments to carry out her task.
Kicking in the door, Ravel, the champion of the Ko-Tai, the Emperor of Narsyk, looked across the room at the woman cowering in the far corner holding a sleeping infant in her arms.
“No,” Tonteen Siu whispered at the approaching woman, the unharc. “You cannot mean to take him.”
“I was not told to take him, lady,” Ravel said solemnly, continuing forward, drawing her blade from the scabbard at her side. “I was told to kill him, as well you know. I am the unharc, the sword of the Ko-Tai, I am only sent to bring an end to life.”
“Wh- why…? What have we done to the Ko-Tai?” she asked, her voice cracking as she trembled, tears streaming down her cheeks as she clutched her son tightly to her chest.
“You know well what your mate has done. He leads the rebels, he challenges his brother for the throne, and now your blood will answer for those crimes.”
Tonteen Siu hugged her four-month-old son against her hard, and as she did, her breasts began to leak with milk. Ravel rushed toward her, sword raised. Tonteen looked as though she were accepting her death, her fate, and so when she lifted her head at the last moment and ran, Ravel was taken off guard. The death stroke caught her across the abdomen instead of severing her head from her body. Tonteen staggered forward and fell to her knees. The movement let her see out into the hall where Valian stood.
“Save my son!” she screamed, rolling onto her side, trying in vain to crawl away from the woman ordered to murder both her and her child.
Valian turned sharply at the sound and, ducking beneath a slicing arc of steel, charged into the room. There was no thought to leaving his servant behind to do battle with five men. He could not think of him, and in fact his mind went blank but for a single thought—that he must save Tonteen and her son.
Ravel was faster and closer. She drove the steel point of her sword down into the woman bleeding to death on the floor, through her back, through her right breast, down until it hit the wooden floor beneath her. Still Tonteen stretched out her hands to Valian, cradling her crying son, her milk and blood pumping from her body in a spreading pool. Valian saw the pleading eyes and leaped, diving toward his nephew held in the hands of his dying mother. Ravel pulled out the sword and blood came with it, covering Tonteen’s back and hair, coursing down her sides. Still she held up her son. Ravel walked in front of her and reached down for the child as Tonteen heaved an anguished cry.
The hand never reached the baby. Valian plowed into the middle of Ravel’s back with his shoulder, slamming her hard to the side, driving her down head first into the floor, knocking her unconscious. Valian was thrown halfway across the room but came scurrying back fast on all fours to Tonteen. He took the baby and cradled him against his chest as he looked down at the infant’s mother.
Eyes met eyes for what seemed a lifetime but lasted no more than a moment.
“Jaron,” Tonteen breathed.
“Jaron,” Valian nodded, assuring her. “Aye.”
Tonteen Siu had enough strength left to lower her head and tell Valian she loved him before she died. Valian heard a scream from the hall and scrambled to his feet as Ostyn flew into the room. His eyes flicked from Tonteen to Ravel and then came to rest on his beloved lord.
“How shall we flee?” Valian asked Ostyn, taking a deep, quivering breath as he put Ioan’s head upon his shoulder, the infant pressed against the side of his neck as he patted his back gently.
He knew Valian was in shock, saw his slight tremble, and knew too if he comforted him now Valian would cease being able to breathe. He needed the man like this, clear-headed and ready to move.
“The way we came,” Ostyn answered matter-of-factly, leaning down and pulling free the silver talisman that Tonteen wore around her neck. It glittered in his hand, and he stuffed it into the top of the shirt he wore under his iron-plate armor. He stalked across the room and picked up Ravel’s sword from the floor beside her. He placed it in his scabbard but kept his sword drawn.
“Come,” he said gruffly to Valian, motioning him to follow. “We have to run before she wakes.”
“I’m already awake, you fools!”
They both turned to the woman who floated up from the floor, horrified at her display of power, watching, spellbound, as she lifted her hand toward Valian.
“So we finally see your true nature revealed, witch.” Valian spat at her. “I always suspected this truth.”
“You think you’ve won? You think saving this one child changes anything?”
“To his father it will,” Valian informed her, backing away slowly.
The growl that came out of her throat was full of anger and frustration. “Always you thwart my plans, Valian; always you come between me and my just reward.”
“There is reward in killing?” He asked, trying to distract her with his words, continuing to move back, fluidly, gracefully, making no noise to startle the child in his arms and make him cry out.
“There is reward from the Ko-Tai for carrying out his orders!”
Valian knew what the woman really craved, the love she hoped to receive if she was his brother’s perfect weapon. He knew too that she vented her frustration at being denied the heart of the emperor on her victims.
“You have followed me to places no other man could.” She glanced at Ostyn. “You and your wretched servant.”
He was almost to the door.
“You are more cat than man, Valian. Perhaps your true nature should be revealed as well.”
His dark amber eyes glinted gold in the fading light.
“What say you?”
He was silent and still even as it felt as though a hot wind blew over him, the hair on the back of his neck standing up.
“What have you done?”
Her sinister smile flashed only for a moment. “And to add to your pain, I will take your man from you forever.”
She flew forward in a blur of speed, but even as fast as she was moving, she was no match for Ostyn Tan. She thought, as did everyone at court, that Valian was the swordsman and Ostyn simply his servant, a man without training. The truth was that Ostyn Tan was much more proficient with a weapon than Valian would ever be.
Ostyn shifted his stance as Ravel came at him and as steel rang against steel, he drove her back deep into the cavernous room. A wall of fire exploded between them, and the floor fell away. Neither man checked to see if she had fallen to her death; they didn’t stop running to look. And there was always the hope that she had been consumed in the fire, her ashes mixing with those of the countless, faceless multitudes.