Chapter One

I am the Historian, I am immortal. I am ageless. I am nameless. I am carried by my own feet through times and worlds to witness great stories.

This is one such story.


The King was dead.

It was looking like the Kingdom would die with him.

It made me sad. This had been one of the best setups I’d ever stumbled onto. Most of the time, I had to find a way of inserting myself into a story. There was usually a barrage of lies and explanations, followed by delicate maneuvering to get myself into position to watch key events.

In this, The Kingdom of Tumani, I’d had no such troubles. On arriving in the Kingdom, someone suggested I check at the palace for a job, as the crown had a policy of helping people find work who needed it.

Once the people at the palace discovered that I had a gift for remembering conversations word-for-word, they hired me on as an Assistant Historian. Not only was the irony absolutely delicious, but it also gave me free access to the Kingdom. I could go anywhere I wanted and ask anyone anything, even the King himself.

It only took a few days to learn that the Tumani were a wonderful people. Their laws were fair and applied justly. Their society paid attention to things like art, literature, and history. It was a beautiful little oasis that was burning down around me.

At least I had a front-row seat.

As an assistant, I had started out in the city, among the people, getting a more rounded view of life in the Kingdom for the records. However, the primary historian for the King had developed a digestive issue that often kept him away from the court. Stress only made it worse, and these were stressful times.

So I was in the throne room, there to witness the most important decisions of state, when everything fell to pieces.

“What do you see?” I asked the Artist.

Her name wasn’t really the Artist. Her name was Rena, but try as I might, I could not get the name to stick to her in my mind. If you were to picture a woman named Rena in your mind, I can promise you that she looked absolutely nothing like that; almost the opposite, in fact.

However, if you were to picture an Artist, you’d probably have a nearly perfect picture of what she looked like, right down to the charcoal on the fingers. I bet you’d even get the hair right.

“I see a beautiful bronze statue.” she responded.

There was no statue, in reality. This was a little game we played, and one I enjoyed immensely. As it was my job to capture the words spoken at court, it was the Artist’s job to capture the images. She had a sharp eye and a quick, steady hand. She could crank out a charcoal sketch remarkably fast, seal it with powders she kept at her belt, then start on another one before much had even changed.

Her drawings were always incredibly realistic, a faithful reproduction of the room. However, I had discovered that there was another element to her that had never shown up in her artwork.

She had a creative mind that saw the world in shapes, colors, and symbols. So, I would often ask her what she saw and she was always willing to describe it for me, some inner part of her wanting her true vision to be known.

“What kind of statue?” I pressed her when she didn’t say anything more. She was distracted today.

It was a bad day at court. Almost every noble in the land had gathered to the throne room, but they had gathered in anxiety, not out of ambition or celebration. Whispered conversations and wringing hands had been the only things to see or hear for hours.

“It’s a statue of a family. Man, woman, and child. The lines flow into each other. The whole statue flows like water. It’s perfect. But some hairy brute keeps hitting it with a hammer. How many strikes can a statue take before it stops being beautiful, before it stops being art? One? Ten?”

I looked over at her and saw that her eyes sparkled with tears as she looked at the assembled nobles, the Prince, and the commander of his armies, a man named Ison.

The symbolism of the statue fell into place. It represented the Kingdom, and the hammer blows from the brute were the tragedies that had fallen on the Kingdom in rapid, crashing succession. As if sharing her vision, I could see the hammer strikes fall.

Hammer stroke number one: war between allies.

The Kingdom was bordered on the west by two nations, the Hussaf and the Kelan. Both had been allies of the Kingdom, and had supported them with weapons, food, and soldiers.

This support was vital. The Kingdom sat at the mouth of a mountain pass. On the eastern side of that pass was a vast and violent empire. Their very society was based on conquest and they often tried to send armies through the pass. The Tumani had turned them back every time, with help from the Hussaf and the Kelan.

Then, there had been a wedding among the Kelan, a beautiful affair that everyone hoped would unite two families that had been feuding for years. Nobles from both nations had attended to bless the union. But love didn’t carry the day. An argument turned into a fight, and a fight turned into a riot that shattered the fragile peace.

Worst of all, the wrong people died.

I don’t mean to sound heartless by that. I know that any life lost to violence is tragic. However, among those killed were some who were both innocent and important. When such people died, more was required than funerals. The Hussaf had demanded the Kelan turn over both families for justice.

The Kelan refused such a broad condemnation. It was against their laws to punish groups for the sins of individuals. Demands were met with insults. Insults were met with ultimatums. Ultimatums were met with threats. And finally, threats were met with war.

The Hussaf and Kelan went to war with each other and the Tumani were left all alone.

Hammer stroke number two: the death of the King.

As if sensing weakness, the Empire had launched an attack, the largest anyone could remember. The King had led his troops in a magnificent defense, even a counterattack to push them back through the pass. Then, someone on the other side had thrown a javelin.

It was an impossible throw.

The javelin had soared over both armies, past the King’s personal guard, and into his stomach, right below where his breastplate ended.

It was a throw that broke a nation.

Worst of all, the King had not died quickly. The javelin hadn’t pierced any vital organs, but it had punctured the digestive system, so poisons leaked into the King from within and he died slowly over three days from sepsis.

Ironically, if he had been a lesser king, a weaker man, the Kingdom would have survived his death much better. When a king is weak or corrupt, other systems develop to either eat away at his power, or to protect those who had the power to do so. It was like weeds growing up around a sparse shrub.

But this King had been no shrub. He had been an oak of a King, with broad branches and thick leaves that offered shade and protection to all beneath him.

So when he had died, the people were desperate for something to fill that void.

Hammer stroke number three: the failure of the Prince.

Every eye in the Kingdom turned to Prince Matan. They had good reason to hope that he would step into his father’s shoes. He was a kind man, and devoted to his people. I have every confidence that, if given time, he would have grown into a fine king. However, the people underestimated how much Matan had loved his father, and how deeply he grieved at the loss.

When the Prince called for a gathering of the people, everyone came, hungry for reassurance. Instead, the Prince announced that he would not be taking his father’s crown. His father would live on forever as the last King of the Tumani.

I knew Matan well enough by then to know that his intent was to honor his father. I also suspect that he was feeling unworthy to take his father’s place, and in moments of grief, such feelings can seem like they’ll always be there.

But however he meant it, what the people heard was a declaration of defeat. When the Prince turned away from the people, full of emotion, he didn’t see the effect he’d had.

Long after he had gone back into the palace, the people stood as if frozen. A sharp eye could see the despair seeping into them like excess gravity, making them heavier with each passing moment. When they finally scattered to their homes, many of them could barely walk for the weight.

Now we sat in the throne room and the Artist mused about statues breaking. Three solid hits so far. Was it still a kingdom? Was it still beautiful?

The gathered nobility waited for the next hammer stroke. The Empire had sent an emissary, something they had never done before. He was expected to arrive at any moment.

Chapter Two

Faith is powerful. And like any power, there are those who use it for good and those that use it for evil.

-Musings of the Historian


The guard at the door started to announce that the emissary had arrived, only to be pushed aside by the man himself.

All whispers stopped

Every step he took was a proclamation of confidence and power. He strutted in slowly, a long cloak of shiny black feathers flowing behind him. He wore a towering headdress, made of the same black feathers as his cape. His chest was bare and marked with ceremonial scars.

“I am Kitok, of the Raven Clan, Order of the Eaters.” he announced loudly. “I speak for the One Empire.”

He made no bow or show of respect towards the Prince. Rather, his lip curled up in scorn as he noticed that Matan sat to the side of the empty throne.

Everyone looked to the Prince. Standing at his side, Commander Ison looked like the human equivalent of a clenched fist.

“Welcome, Kitok of the Empire.” the Prince responded. In turn, I could see Kitok stiffen as the Prince did not respond with his full name or the expected formalities. “What brings you to my court?”

Kitok’s smile was a terrible thing. His teeth were oddly white, and his smile was incredibly broad, a baring of sharp teeth.

“Your gods have abandoned you. For your weakness, they have taken your king.” He spoke slowly, taking care to enunciate every word. It was the kind of careful speech I often heard from someone not speaking their first language. Through it all, he kept his teeth bared in his disturbing smile.

“Of all the God-Horde,” he continued, “there is only one that values mercy. In respect to that god, we come to offer you one chance to surrender your kingdom and become vassal to the One Empire.”

Kitok smiled all the wider at the shocked gasps that erupted around the court at his proclamation. He looked over the assembled nobles disdainfully, as if already surveying his new property.

I was standing close enough to Commander Ison that I could hear his teeth creak and see veins bulge in his neck. The smallest word from the Prince would unleash Ison and I know that he would have ripped the emissary to pieces in that moment, if given the chance.

Ison was fairly young for someone of such high rank. He had been raised in the court, the orphaned child of one of the King’s guards. He had been a companion to the Prince from birth. For all these privileges, however, Ison was a soldier, through and through.

Even in a gossipy court, no one had ever whispered that Ison’s position was due to favoritism by the old King. He was a fearless fighter and flawless strategist. He had never indulged in the comforts available to him as someone living in the palace. He lived and ate with his men. Since the King had died, however, he hadn’t left the Prince’s side.

“What do you demand of your vassals?” the Prince asked. Kitok grinned even further. I would not have been surprised if he had laughed out loud. By asking the question, the Prince had shown that he considered surrender an option,and considering surrender was a very short step away from surrender itself.

“A tithe to appease our people and our gods.”

“A tithe? So… just a tenth?” asked the Prince, clearly surprised at such a low tribute. My own stomach was sinking, however. I wondered if the Artist was capturing the evil glint in the eye of Kitok. A beastly man like this wouldn’t be smiling at a reasonable tax.

“Yes.” he began, taking half a step forward like a wolf approaching a meal. “A tenth of your livestock; a tenth of your crops; and a tenth of your men, women, and children.”

Silence reigned supreme in the court. Kitok waited patiently, beaming smug delight at the discomfort he’d caused. All eyes turned to the Prince.

“You would take our people?”

The emissary nodded, disturbingly hungry.

“Why?” the Prince asked, stumbling through simple questions as he tried to gather his thoughts.

“There are always uses for extra bodies.” Kitok was delighted to explain further. “Women for the fields, men for the mines, and for any unfit for labor, the altar.”

Kitok waited again for someone to ask him a question, but when nobody could speak, he continued without prompting.

“The God-Horde grows strong on the blood of our enemies. As we battle here in the world, our gods battle against whatever gods protect you. Even people such as you can see the omen in the death of your king. Your gods have fallen! The blood of your people will flow to our gods, strengthening the One Empire for generations!” Zealous fire blazed in Kitok’s eyes as he gloried in the victory of his gods. The nobles didn’t even gasp this time, they looked to be on the verge of vomit or collapse.

Finally the Prince found his anger and his voice.

“How dare you? Can you really expect us to turn our people over to your barbarism?”

The emissary grew only more excited, nearly panting in his fanaticism.

“No, little cub. No one ever does. It is only important that I make the offer. We will rejoice to take far more than a tithe. Should you live to witness it, remember that it was by your voice that we do this.”

“What is to stop us from killing you right now?” Matan asked through clenched teeth.

Kitok shrugged dismissively.

“You may try. You may even succeed. But you should know that I am a priest among my people. The whole Empire would be disgusted at your cowardice. To kill an unarmed priest is high blasphemy. Even if our commanders tried to stop them, which they wouldn’t, our warriors would havoc through your kingdom. In the end, your lands would serve as a blackened, smoking example of what the One Empire is capable of when unrestrained.”

Kitok delivered this speech in the same deliberate tones as the others. These were prepared responses. He had heard all of these questions before, in other lands and from other rulers. The fact that he still stood here was testament to the fact that none had dared chance total destruction.

“My duty here is done.”

With his message delivered and his task completed, Kitok turned and strolled out of the throne room. After a few moments of shocked silence, whispers sprouted like weeds all around the throne room. Even the Artist, usually so absorbed in her art, leaned over to me and tried to get my attention.

I ignored her, however. My attention was all for Commander Ison and the Prince.

They were also speaking softly. Luckily, my position close to the Commander, combined with my exceptional sense of hearing let me catch snippets of what they were saying.

“…no choice but to…”

“…getting that many… motion would take months!”

“…how many would already…”

“…them pay for it. My men could…”

“…like a sieve! Can you really say that…”


I jumped, as did everyone else. Everybody, including myself, had been so absorbed in our own thoughts and conversations that we hadn’t noticed a new visitor enter the court. Now that he had everyone’s attention, he roared again, the stone walls echoing with the power of his voice.


Chapter Three

Everyone knows that first impressions matter, so it’s strange to me how seldom people plan their own.

-Musings of the Historian


As a storyteller, I often talk about people’s jaws hanging open in surprise. Let me be clear, I often mean that figuratively. People are almost never so far outside themselves that they lose control of their facial muscles.

This was a notable exception to that rule.

Mouths literally gaped open in absolute shock. The man’s voice shook the room, impossibly loud and commanding. However, his appearance caused as much confusion as his words, voice, and volume.

Where Kitok had looked every fiber a dark priest of a warrior death cult, this man looked more like a comical parody of a noble.

He wore not one, not two, but three brightly colored sashes, each a different color. A broad red sash went around his waist, the color so bright and garish it seemed to glow. The other two sashes, one blue, one yellow, crossed over his chest from shoulder to waist in opposite directions.

On his shoulders and flowing down his back, he wore a stunning black cape. An actual cape. Pads under the shoulders were clearly meant to make him look taller and broader, but failed miserably in their intended purpose. Instead, they made him look frozen in a perpetual shrug.

To top it all off, above the already-raised shoulders, he wore fans of small white feathers. Where Kitok’s feathers had likely come from some kind of large raven or black eagle, I guessed that this man’s feathers had once belonged to something awfully close to a chicken.

He wore nothing on his head, his wispy hair already well on its way to balding.

The effect was equal parts stunning and ridiculous. Even without the loud opening announcement, his appearance alone would have been enough to command the attention of the court.

But he wasn’t finished…

“Open your ears! Listen so that you may one day testify to your grandchildren that you have beheld glory. All of you are honored, for into your throne room comes the greatest of warriors and the most skilled of all commanders! Welcome the Admiral of the Unsung, Commander of the Four Armies. A man of such skill and bravery that his name alone quelled the pirate rebellion of Sal Marcos. The finest swordsman in any land or time…

As we listened, slack-jawed to the list of mighty feats, the man’s strange costume suddenly made sense.

The man was clearly a herald.

It was a herald’s job to announce the coming of his lord or lady. Outlandish clothing was fairly common in such a profession, as were outlandish claims. After all, no noble would want to enter a room where everyone thought that his greatest accomplishment was collecting taxes from poor farmers.

However, even by that standard, this man’s claims were so far-fetched that they wandered into the bizarre. Still, I suppose that exaggeration can be a useful storytelling tool. Sure enough, people were beginning to sit up straighter in their chairs and look beyond the funny looking man towards the door.

“…not only managed to save the orphans but also extinguished the fire. And so my lords and ladies, I present Lord Magnificus the Grand!”

Every eye turned to the door. If the visiting lord could be a mere tenth of what his herald described, he would still be one of the greatest paragons of manhood any of them had ever seen.

Long seconds passed and one by one people began to turn their gaze back to the herald. He still stood front and center, not moving to the side as a herald normally would as his lord was about to enter. Surprise, confusion, and even horror slowly crept onto everyone’s faces as they realized…

…this man was no herald.

Lord Magnificus the Grand had introduced himself.

He stood proudly in a wide stance, shoulders thrown back, chest puffed out, though it still failed to stick out farther than his stomach. He seemed content to wait in his arrogant pose until the applause started.

No applause came.

“Oh for heaven’s sake!” Ison muttered, loud enough to be heard by the entire court. The Prince shushed him. He had enough of his father’s wisdom to know not to dismiss people until you have gained all of the information. He began cautiously.

“Welcome to Tumani, sir. What land did you say you were from?”

“Otlandia, sire! It is a land far to the north. We are a mighty nation and we have heard of your troubles. When we heard of the death of your king, we decided it was time to send help.”

A few of the wilting nobles perked back up at this. The Prince also leaned forward a little farther in his chair.

“Are your people sending armies or supplies?”

“Even better!” Lord Magnificus exulted. “They have sent me!”

Prince Matan thanked Otlandia for its kind thoughts and requested that Lord Magnificus make himself comfortable while he conferred with his advisors.

As it turned out, Lord Magnificus was most comfortable remaining in the center of the room. He only turned and started telling even more stories of his fantastic exploits to the cornered nobles.

The Prince’s “advisors” turned out to be Commander Ison. I had seen this coming and managed to sidle close enough this time to hear the whole conversation.

“What do you think?” the Prince asked his Commander.

“What do I think?” Ison flustered, clearly frustrated that they were spending any time on this while greater threats loomed. “What could anybody think? The man is an idiot at best. At worst, he is the most incompetent con man I’ve ever seen. Throw him out so hard he bounces and let’s get back to the crisis at hand!”

“Is there a chance that there is any truth to what he’s saying?” The Prince remained calm, holding Ison’s gaze and willing him to answer seriously. He took a long, deep breath, but the Commander overcame his personal irritation and answered with military precision.

“On the one hand, sire, his claims are clearly ridiculous. A strong and brave man might have achieved some distinction, but nearly everything he said would either require an entire battalion to pull off, or was outright impossible. I cannot see any reason to believe even one of his tales. Further, I find it unlikely that he is even from a foreign land. His lack of accent suggests that he is at least from one of the three kingdoms of the Alliance.

“On the other hand,” Ison confessed like the words were being dragged from him. “The voice and tone he used could possibly indicate command experience. Normal people simply don’t develop that kind of volume and control unless they’re trying to be heard over the din of combat.

“Secondly, his right forearm is much more muscled than his left. Combine that with a muscular pattern that favors the top of the arm and an odd level of definition and I could believe that he was experienced with the sword.”

“Thank you, Commander.” the Prince replied. “So, what is your final recommendation?”

“Absolutely unchanged, sire. Throw him out. Evidence of military service only counts against him. He certainly isn’t one of ours and if he were from one of the other two kingdoms, why would he disguise his identity? I can think of only two reasons. Either he is an assassin or a deserter looking for a new start higher on the ladder. No matter how you look at it, the only decision here is to get rid of him. We have no time to waste with this fool.”

“You’re probably right,” the Prince muttered, wilting a little bit.

They were interrupted by a soldier rushing in. He was remarkably young. You could often tell how desperate a country was for soldiers by how young they started recruiting.

“The Empire is attacking the walls!” he blurted out, as soon as he was fully into the throne room. “It’s the largest force we’ve ever seen!”

Main Menu