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We Ride the Storm (The Reborn Empire #1)

War built the Kisian Empire and war will tear it down. And as an empire falls, three warriors rise.

Caught in a foreign war, Captain Rah e’Torin and his exiled warriors will have to fight or die. Their honour code is all they have left until orders from within stress them to breaking point, and the very bonds that hold them together will be ripped apart.

Cassandra wants the voice in her head to go away. Willing to do anything for peace, the ageing whore takes an assassination contract that promises answers, only the true price may be everyone and everything she knows.

A prisoner in her own castle, Princess Miko doesn’t dream of freedom but of the power to fight for her empire. As the daughter of a traitor the path to redemption could as easily tear it, and her family, asunder.

As an empire dies they will have to ride the storm or drown in its blood.

Chapter 1 – Rah

It’s harder to sever a head than people think. Perhaps if one were skilled with an axe it could be done in a single blow – so long as the body was not trying to run away at the time – but out in the grasslands decapitation has to be done with a knife. The first incision is easy. Then you drag your serrated blade through the flesh and think you’ll soon be done. I thought so my first time. I thought it would be quick and simple and involve a lot less thick globs of blood. And don’t even get me started on how tough it is to saw through the spine.

But it is our way. The Levanti way. So though we grumble, we saw through still-warm flesh and long-dead flesh alike to free the soul within. But these men did not die upon our plains. These men were not Levanti.

“We should just leave them,” Eska said, pacing behind me, every step a thud upon the track as though it had insulted his mother. “It will be night soon.”

Blood darkened one man’s face like the ragged remains of a mask. It had burst from his eye and poured from his throat –­ a slash there having done half my job already.

“They were not noble enemies, Rah.”

“All spirits are equal,” I said. “You should have remembered that before you gave the order to kill them.”

“They attacked us.”

I stood, a sigh deflating my chest as I looked upon the poor dead bastards. “We leave no soul behind,” I said. “Lok, Amun, Juta, cut ‘em.”

Obligatory grumbling followed as the two men stepped forward, the boy between them.

“Juta is a not yet shorn, he—”

“Must learn.” I returned Eska’s scowl. “And opportunities to practice may be scarce.” I nodded to Juta, his long hair caught back in an untidy ponytail. “You know what to do.”

“Yes, Captain.”

“I’ll work beside you.”

Laughter filled the evening as the rest of our hunting party moved away from the slaughter, only Eska staying to loom his disapproval over me. “We don’t know this land well enough to travel by night,” he said as I knelt in the dirt before the man with the popped eye. “Not without the aid of the Goddess.”

“Our eyes will soon adjust to having only one moon in the sky.”

Eska grunted. “That makes it no less wrong.”

I lifted the dead man’s head onto my knees, and using the slash in his throat as a place to start, began cutting. He had been my kill so was my responsibility. In large battles such things were not always possible, but here on a deserted track upon a foreign shore there ought to have been no battles.

A clot of blood slipped through my incision and plopped onto the grass between my knees. Another thing you learnt early was to keep your knees apart.

Further along the track, Amun was making quick work of his man, while Lok worked as slow and steady as ever. Juta’s face had screwed up in concentration.

“Kishava says it’s more than an hour’s walk back.”

I stopped cutting and looked up at my second. His scowling face glowed with the last of the summer sunlight. “If you think you can do this faster then by all means take over.”

“I don’t think you should be bothering at all,” he hissed, the words for me alone. “These are not our people.”

“No, but a soul is a soul and that is why I am the captain and you are not. If you are so concerned about our pace then fetch a sack for the heads. Maybe two.”

He knelt, the sun turning his short hair gold though the brows confronting me were thick and black. “They are all full of meat,” he said, his lips almost to my ear. “You know they are all full of meat.”

Again I stopped, and though I kept myself from looking past him to see if anyone was listening, I hoped they weren’t. “Yes, I know they are, so move things around or throw some of the kills to the animals.”

“We need the food, Captain.”

“You think I don’t know that,” I said, my knife frozen at the point of slicing the last cords of flesh. “But what sort of Levanti would we be if we abandoned our honour the moment we stepped from our homeland?”

Leaning closer still he snarled: “This is the sort of thinking that got us here in the first place.”

I locked my gaze to Eska’s – this man I had called friend long before either of us had sworn our lives to protect the herd. “If you want to lead the Second Swords then challenge me,” I said, heart pounding as I clenched a handful of the dead man’s hair.

Eska chewed at nothing, drawing attention to the scar that travelled the line of his jaw. A lucky escape from a stray axe blow the day we had lost Herd Master Sassanji to a Korune raid.

“No?” I said, and shoved him away when he did not answer. “Then get a sack. You’ll carry it back to camp yourself and the heads will be your responsibility until we find a temple.”

He got to his feet, all long-limbed grace. “Yes, Captain.” He pressed his fists together in salute, however brief, and walked away. A few seconds later his barked orders rose above the noise, over the buzz of insects and the croak of frogs, even over the complaints of a dozen Swords with nothing to do.

Beside me on the track, Juta concentrated on his corpse, blood covering his hands and smeared upon his cheek. Amun had already finished and owned the look of someone who had been trying not to listen.

I quickened my pace, making such a mess of the spine it looked like I had torn the damn head off by the time I finished. Dead eyes stared at me as I spoke the prayer of Nassus under my breath. He probably wouldn’t have wanted me to. Like the Korune he would no doubt have preferred a prayer to his own god, Hepsut or Pachi or… Ara? The missionaries spoke of so many it was hard to recall who belonged to who anymore, so Nassus would just have to do.

Wordlessly, Eska brought an already bloodstained sack and I dropped the head in before he took it to Juta. Light was fading fast, darkening the forest in which we had hunted before the villagers attacked. Fools. They ought to have run at the sight of our weapons, but I could respect their decision to fight however slim the chance of survival. I had tried telling them we meant no harm, but they had understood our language as little as we understood theirs.

Though only dregs remained in my water skin, I rinsed my hands and wiped them on the dead man’s sleeve. The others did the same, Amun nudging his head-less body to the edge of the track with one booted foot.

“All right, let’s go,” I said. “Before more of these fools come looking for trouble. Kishava?”

The tracker nodded, lifting her sack of carved deer flesh. “We’ll have to move fast,” she said, as the rest of the group gathered their own sacks of meat. “Night is coming.”

“Then we move fast.”

With a sack of heads slung over each shoulder, Eska strode into the trees in Kishava’s wake. I signalled for all to follow, Juta the last before I brought up the rear. Though he was not yet a Sword he carried a sack of meat the same size as all the others. His scowl of concentration had not dissipated.

“Arm sore, boy?” I said as we walked beneath the shadowed canopy. There, insects swarmed, leaping from sweaty arm to sweaty brow and on to the sodden back of my tunic.

“Like I’ve been strung up all day,” Juta said, blood clumping a handful of his long hair. He swatted at flies clustering around his bloody burden. “Damn flies.” He glanced at me only to look away. “Did we really have to do that, Captain?” he said, not meeting my gaze again. “They weren’t warriors.”

“Was Matriarch Petra a warrior?”

“No.”

We walked on through the lengthening shadows, following the trail of Swords cutting a dark vein through the trees. “Was her soul freed?”

“Yes.”

“Then you’ve answered your own question. In the eyes of Nassus all souls are equal. To leave one trapped in its flesh would do great injury to the creator. Do you understand?”

“Yes, Captain.”

And though he did not turn back, he nodded and lowered his gaze to the dry undergrowth. He had listened to the lesson, but it ought not have been mine to teach. Bitter heartache cut through me, and there, just for a moment, I wished it all undone, wished we were home beneath the baking sun taking kills back to the herd. But I had spoken. I had not let our honour be shattered. And allowed the choice again, I would give the same orders.

“What will we do with the heads, Captain?” Juta said, his question breaking me from my thoughts. “There are no temples here.”

“No temples to Nassus, but they must have their own. We will carry them until we can give their souls freedom.”

*****

I cleaned my knife before the fire, sweat beading my brow. Food made its way around the camp on two dozen battered tin plates, fights over who ate next breaking out every time someone finished their meal. It had made sense to leave the other eighty behind at the time, freeing up much needed space for tools and supplies, but while I sat listening to them argue it seemed almost as bad a decision as selling the mules and the spare horses to gain passage across the Eye Sea. Although when dozens of arrows and spears are aimed at your back you leave as fast as you can, whatever the cost.

Once I could no longer keep cleaning my knife without wearing it thin, I shoved it back in its sheath and got up, striding through flickering orange firelight to where it met the shadows. There, two saddleboys crouched over a coal pit.

“Changed your mind about food, Captain?” Juta said, barely glancing up from his work. Sweat dripped from the ends of his hair and the tip of his nose to hiss upon the coals.

My stomach growled at the smell of charring meat, but I shook my head. “Nah, I’ll pick at a few leftovers.”

“Wise.”

He held up a plate to Himi while turning meat with his other hand. She took it without thanks, saluted me, and walked back toward the firelight, elbowing a saddleboy returning with more coals.

“That bad?” I said once Himi was out of earshot.

“This is the end of the meat from the last hunt.”

“It should have lasted three days.”

“It didn’t.”

Juta pushed a sodden lock of hair back behind his ear as Fessel poured fresh coals into the pit. Cooking ought not to be their job, but without a full herd there was no one else to do it. Swords didn’t do such things. It had been hard enough getting them to carve up the meat from the hunt.

I ran a hand over my eyes. “Fuck.”

He kept taking blocks of meat from the waxed-hide pot and dropping them on to the coals. “Yes, I’m sure you could do with one.”

“You have no idea.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Captain, I’m not a child anymore. I know exactly how you feel.”

He grinned, but I did not grin back. At home he would have been only a season or two away from being shorn and branded a man, but this was no motherland and I needed a cook more than another warrior with a big stomach. If we managed to find work as mercenaries then he might get the chance to join our ranks. If not, then a disgruntled saddle boy would be the least of my worries.

“How far can we make it on today’s hunt?”

Juta looked up, wiping sweat from his eyes with the back of one long-fingered hand. “Maybe four days if we ration,” he said. “The horses would need more grazing though because there’s only two days of feed, maybe two and a half. Orun will know better.”

I leaned back as smoke billowed into my face. Juta turned more meat, burying it deep into the coals. I would have left then, but he gripped my arm. “The boys have been talking about leaving,” he hissed, his scarred fingers digging into my sleeve. “They say we might not yet be men but we have given our oath to defend the herd same as you. We are meant to be training to be Swords not slaves. At the end of the summer I will be sixteen.”

“They listen to you?” I whispered back.

“Sometimes.”

“Then keep them as long as you can. If we travel south our fortunes might take a turn for the better.”

He shrugged in the direction of a rack where slivers of meat hung drying. Underneath it two sacks sat unopened. “And the heads?”

“I’ll take them to the first temple we find.”

“That had better be soon, Captain, in this weather they’re going to start to smell real bad.”

“We have natron?”

“Some.”

“Then salt them or we’ll attract the attention of every vulture in Chiltae.”

*****

Eska gathered the Hand, and the five of us sat around the dying fire while the Swords minded their own business. Kishava, the tracker, Orun, the horse master and Yitti, the healer, along with Eska and myself, the five of us together making a complete hand with which the Swords were wielded. At least that was the idea. I had learnt such things at the Herd Master’s feet, but with time had come the knowledge that it mattered not how fine the intention, it still had to be carried out by men.

“Well, Captain,” Eska said, planting himself cross-legged upon the dirt. “What fine plan are you brewing now?”

Bitter, angry men.

“We’ve been here two weeks,” I said, looking at the four fire-lit faces around me. “There’s been no sign of Gideon, and life without a herd has been—”

“Shit.” Eska scowled at the flames.

“I was going to say harder than we expected.”

Orun shrugged up one shoulder, the other weighed down by his horse box. “It is about how I expected it,” he said in the rasping tones of a man who has seen many summers. “There’s a reason why we travel in herds. Many hands make light work. We fight and hunt; others cook, weave, tan and look after the foals. We can keep fighting and hunting, but no one is going to cook for us any more.”

“Except the saddleboys.” Eska again, glancing to where Juta sat crouched before his pit of coals, Fessel a mere shadow behind him as he prepared the last of the rice.

“That isn’t their job any more than it’s ours,” I said. “We can’t go back yet, that means we have to find a way to go forward.”

“Very philosophical,” Eska sneered.

Kishava cleared her throat. “The captain’s right. We’re stuck out here for a full cycle of seasons and that’s too long to sit and wait. Gideon would not have done so.”

Yitti rubbed the short pelt of his hair vigorously. “Yes, but we’ve no reason to think Gideon is still alive,” he said, digging the tip of his boot into the dirt rather than look at us. “Moving is dangerous. There’s water here, and animals. The Swords who’ve scouted beyond the forest tell only of endless stretches of lifeless rock.”

“There’s a city,” Orun said. “At least that’s what I think the girl was trying to say. One of the girls from that village whose men attacked you today. I asked, at least I tried to ask—” he made the shape of a pointed roof with his arms to indicate how he had attempted communication. “She pointed south and said a bunch of nonsense, but I think it’s called Capital.”

“Capital? Is it big?”

Again, that one-sided shrug. “She went like this—” He held his arms far apart. “But she might have just been in awe of my cock.”

Laughter broke some of the tension, Orun’s smile lopsided like his shrug. At thirty-six he was the oldest member of the Second Swords of Torin.

“South then,” I said. “Perhaps Capital is on the Ribbon, which means water and food. That’ll be the best place to find someone who speaks our language. We could ask after Gideon and maybe find work.”

“Work?” I had braced for the outburst, but still I flinched when Eska rounded on me. “You want us to work? Like the city folk back home? If that’s what you wanted then you could have just kept your mouth shut like Herd Master Reez told you to.”

“And accepted rule by the Korune? Damn it, Eska, I don’t want to be here either, but could you have surrendered?”

He got to his feet, his shadow towering over me. “If Herd Master Reez gave me an order I would follow it, no matter what it was.”

“Herd Master Reez has lost his mind!” I snapped. “He—”

I was on my feet too, chest heaving, but I shut my mouth as fast as I had opened it and glared at Eska, unmoving. Unblinking.

Eska stepped closer, lowering his voice though we already had an audience. “Then why didn’t you challenge him?” he said. “Huh? Why didn’t the great Captain Rah e’Torin stand up and speak before it came to this? I’ll tell you why. Because the great Captain Rah e’Torin is a coward. Because if you had challenged him and lost you would have died or been exiled alone, but this way you got to keep your honour and drag us all along for company.”

He spat, saliva hissing as it hit the coals. “The only reason you were Captain Tallus’s second in the first place was because his sister liked the taste of your cock. But I don’t see any way that cock of yours can get us out of this mess, so perhaps it’s time you stepped aside and let someone else make the decisions.”

“Like you?”

“Like me. If I had still been his second when he died then none of us would be here sucking water out of rocks and hacking off the heads of savages.” He drew one of the blades from his back, and that was it. Either it had to draw blood or be thrown down, never to be picked up again.

Had we been home on the plains a matriarch or priest would have stepped between us, would have done their best to cool tempers before the Torin lost a much-needed warrior to a poor cause, but there were no matriarchs here, no priests, and no herd. The other three members of the Hand did not move, though Yitti scowled as he hunted bandages in his pack. He had never wanted to be a healer.

My hand found the smooth leather of a well-worn hilt, my fingers trembling as fire pumped through my veins. “If you had stood before the Korune and said nothing you would have thrown honour to the dirt,” I said. “You would have doomed every one of our souls to weigh heavy upon Mona’s scales. Do you think we would have thanked you?”

“Scales. Honour. Gods. Fuck you and your old glory, Rah. Look around and see the new world because whether you like it or not things have changed. And it’s time the Second Swords had a new captain to lead them home.”

If there had been silence before it deepened now, seeming to suck away everything except the resilient crackle of the coals. “Home,” I said, grip tightening on my sword hilt. “You cannot.”

“Why? Would the sea swallow us whole? Would Herd Master Reez behead warriors led by a new captain? A loyal captain?”

There were mutterings now, but I could not hear words over the hammering of my heart.

Eska lifted a challenging brow when I did not reply. “Well, Captain, will you fight me?”

“Yes,” I said, though inside my heart I screamed a different answer. “I would die rather than let you spit on our ancestors and bring shame upon the Torin.”

I pulled first one sword then the other from the harness upon my back.

“This is stupid,” Yitti said, fulfilling the role of the absent matriarch and stepping between us. “There is trouble enough without this.”

“Stand aside, Yitti,” Eska said, drawing his second sword, its blade etched in prayers as were my own. “If anything happens to you, you’ll have trouble stitching yourself up.”

With a grimace, Yitti ran a hand along his hair again, as though rubbing his scalp might help him devise a way to make this stop. But we had both drawn our swords. There was no going back.

Yitti stepped aside leaving a fire-lit Eska to fill my vision. Noise and movement surged as the Second Swords made space, dragging logs and saddlebags out of the way while shouting to others to hurry. And more came, forming a circle in the firelight that pushed and shoved and muttered while inside every mind another fight took place. Who did they want to follow? Who did they want to win?

Eska licked his lips. “Gods stand on my side,” he called to the night. “I would lead these Swords home and fight for the Torin, not against it, for the new world, not against it, because screaming and thrashing in the dark does not stop tomorrow coming.”

I ought to have thought of my own words, but my mind had been whirling free and snatching at horrors. This might be the end, here on these strange rocky shores far from home. Better to die than be exiled alone, but I clung to life as I clung to the blades that had never yet let me down.

“Gods stand on my side,” I said, hardly thinking except to blame the Korune that it had come to this. “Because whatever change is coming we are still Levanti, we are riders and warriors and nomads, we are the Torin and we do not give in.”

The words were inadequate, but no words could have voiced the ache in my heart. An ache that deepened as Eska stepped, spinning one sword and then the other, their etched blades glinting. No cheers. No cries. Each watching Sword might know the outcome they wanted, but the gods alone would decide.

Another step. Another spin. I stood, blades ready, waiting for him to come to me.

I am a captain of the Torin. The gods are on my side. I am a captain of the Torin. The gods are on my side. I am a—

Ash and embers flew into my face and through the stinging cloud Eska lunged. I dropped, but the tip of one blade bit my shoulder as a coal bit my face, and I rose hissing and backed away. He followed, grinning. “Come on, Rah,” he said. “Captain Tallus said you were better than me. Prove it.”

He swung high, his second sword ready. I caught it, parried, and at the clang of steel on steel all thought fled. Fuelled by rage I pushed him back, blades ripping air. No thought, only instinct. No plan, only desperation. His blade nipped my side. Mine caught his arm. And again we circled. Sweat stung my eyes and every breath rasped, but I did not take my eyes from his. “Intention is not in the blades,” Captain Tallus had always said. “It’s in the eyes.”

Eska’s brows twitched and I lunged, ducking beneath his guard. He got a blade to my high thrust, but the low that followed pierced his thigh, uncorking a trickle of blood. He could have conceded then, have chosen life in exile alone, but instead he roared and threw himself toward me. Like a line of fire, the tip of a blade sliced my torso, cutting leather and skin to split me open. Desperation stole every thought, and I deflected his second strike so forcefully that my blade escaped my slick grip ripping his with it. Together they thudded into the dirt.

Bent double, Eska laughed, one bloodied hand gripping his remaining sword, the other a wound on his side. Pain spilled from my chest. “Yield!” I said, chest heaving and head thumping. “This is your last chance.”

He only laughed harder, the sound awful in the silence.

“Yield.”

“No,” he said, and flung his remaining sword at my head. Its hilt slammed into my shoulder as I dropped, sending embers spewing. Coals hissed, searing my arm, and blinded by ash I thrust up. My arm juddered, almost buckled. A grunt, and again Eska laughed a soft, hissing laugh. “Fuck you, Rah,” he said, laughter breaking to a cough as ash swirled. “Fuck you.”

The etched prayers along my blade disappeared into his gut. Loose in one hand he held a retrieved blade, though which or how I could not force my mind to consider. There was just pain that increased as fury ebbed.

“I’m sorry,” I managed, my lips sticky with the taste of blood.

Again that laugh. “I’m not.” The hate in his eyes said it all. He swung, his weight forcing my blade deeper into his gut. His sword ought to have cleaved open my head and we ought to have died together, but fear fuels one in a way nothing else can. Roaring pain and desperation and using every last ounce of strength, I heaved the weight of his dying body off me and rolled. Eska landed with a heavy thud upon what remained of the fire and started to sizzle, the stink of singed hair and leather filling the suddenly dark night.

His sword hit the ground.

Shouts. Hurrying steps. Where silence had been a moment before noise rose now, the sort of noise that hammers at the skull. A hand slapped my cheek. “Captain? Captain! Damn it, someone bring a torch!”

Either the torch was lit at great speed or I faded out for a moment, I knew not which, but when next I opened my eyes it was to the glare of flaming pitch. The torch had been jammed into the ground beside Yitti, the movement of whose rough hands upon my sliced-up chest elicited a strong desire for death.

I groaned.

“Not dead yet, Captain,” he said, “but I’ll have to stitch this up so it’s not over yet either.”

“Eska?”

“Dead.”

Stupid question. Of course he was dead. I had felt the resistance of his flesh upon my blade and the weight of him in death.

“Kishava is preparing to remove his head.”

“No.”

Gods only knew why I said it. The last thing I wanted to do that night was cut Eska’s head from his body, but to have someone else do it…

“No, Captain?”

“No.” I gritted my teeth as his needle pierced my skin without warning. “I’ll do it.”

“You’re in no state to do anything tonight.”

“Damn it, Yitti,” I said. “Sew me up and I’ll do it.”

He didn’t answer, but called out to the others without missing a stitch. I closed my eyes then, trying to focus on the sounds around me, on voices and conversations, on the scuff of steps and the snort of horses troubled by the scent of blood. I gave an order for Orun to do the rounds and calm them as best he could – at least I think I did. Everything blurred with the pierce and tug and burn of the needle and thread.

Once Yitti had sewn me up and cleaned my burns he left me alone. The other Swords had long since returned to whatever entertainment they had been drawn from, though the relative quiet of the camp suggested many were sleeping. There was nothing I wanted to do more, but sleep would have to wait a while yet.

Yitti had left the torch, and in the circle of its flickering, crackling light lay Eska. Half-lidded, his eyes stared at nothing, and though the muscles in his face had sagged his pride had not. Whether or not it was a trick of the light or of fatigue, the man seemed to smile mockingly up at me as I lifted his head, wriggling my knees in beneath his shoulders.

My hands shook as one cupped his skull, the other gripping my knife. It was a warm night and the body had not yet cooled, not yet stiffened, and the first incision in the back of his neck let still-warm blood flow onto the ground between my knees.

“You fool,” I said, and though I tried to concentrate on slicing his skin my gaze kept slipping back to his face. “You could have yielded.”

Despite his bloodless face I could almost imagine his lips moved in the flickering light. “So could you,” he would have said. “But you were never going to, and neither was I. We have always been fools together.”

With a grunt of effort I hacked through his throat, the strength of the human body as fascinating as its frailty. The dregs of his blood oozed onto my hands.

“I guess so,” I said, knife continuing around his neck. Tears stung my eyes. It ought not to have been this way. We had been saddleboys together, both of an age that we had trained together, slept together, learnt together, and eaten together. Every Torin I thought of as family, but he had been closer than most.

“Do you remember that day we broke the Herd Master’s bowl?” I said, nicking the last of his skin and starting on the thick meaty flesh around his spine. “We shouldn’t have been in his tent,” I went on. “I don’t even remember why we were, making trouble no doubt, you were always good at that. And I bumped the table and it fell and gods know I was so scared. I didn’t tell you that, didn’t tell you I was afraid they would throw me out and I would have to roam alone scavenging in the grasslands, but you must have known. I was too scared to even lie, but you—” I dug the tip of my knife into the sinews. “You blamed that dog that followed Aristas everywhere and they believed you because you could lie your way past the scales with that face of yours.”

I knew not whether I was laughing or crying then, but tears blurred my vision as I cut through Eska’s spine, my hands slippery and shaking. It took longer than it ought, but it was my responsibility to see he got the chance to face Mona, a lie already upon his lips.