His father wrongly executed when he was a child, Taziar Medakan had turned to stealing for his survival. He was the Shadow Climber, skilled at remaining one with the shadows, unseen in the midst of his enemies. And he stole not for profit, but for the challenge of it, donating most of his booty to those in need. But though Taz could defeat any trap, he wasn't prepared for the treachery of Ilyrian, a cunning politician ready to sacrifice the Shadow Climber to gain power himself. So Taz found himself in the baron's dreaded dungeons from which even a master thief's only escape might be death! There he met Moonbear, a prince among barbarians, a swordsman beyond compare, and Taz's last hope for salvation. Together the two sought their pathway to freedom. But it was a pathway that would set a whole kingdom on their trail in a pursuit led by Ilyrian and a Dragonrank sorcerer on his own mission of magical revenge.
Release date: April 18, 2019
Print pages: 288
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Mickey Zucker Reichert
Ilyrian set his stylus to the paper, bored with chronicling the guardsmen’s routine. But, as Army Information Liaison, his job was to report even the most mundane affairs of the soldiers to Baron Dietrich and to review their performances to the last critical detail. He scribbled, “Approaching sundown: Bannruod, Ehren, Thuodobald, Berg, Waldifrid prepare meal.”
A branch snapped. Ilyrian glanced up at a solidly-built soldier who addressed him briskly. “Captain Taziar wants you in his tent, sir.” Without further clarification, he turned and marched away.
Ilyrian clapped his ledger closed. Discomforted by the summons, he fidgeted. Why would the high commander wish to meet with a political officer now? He clambered to his feet and wound through the maze of tents. We’ve already discussed our next offensive. In the ten years of war against Danwald’s barbarians, he’s never deigned to discuss details with me, nor to simply chat. Ilyrian scowled, aware of information about himself he would rather Captain Taziar Medakan did not know.
Ilyrian threaded between the last sequence of camps and stopped before the commander’s tent. He took a deep breath and loosed it slowly, not wishing to look suspiciously distressed by the captain’s calling. Still tense despite the maneuver, he raised the flap and stepped within.
An oil lamp bathed the interior of Captain Taziar Medakan’s tent; its flame swayed in the breeze of Ilyrian’s movement. Light flickered over the simple, wooden furnishings. The captain occupied a chair before a cluttered desk. His tanned muscles bunched beneath the thin linen of his uniform. The well-kept brass of his buckles glittered. Black hair shadowed eyes gray and hard as stone. “Don’t bother to sit, Ilyrian.” Taziar’s voice was a graveled bass. “This won’t take long.”
Ilyrian swallowed. Despite a decade in the baron’s service, he still felt unsettled by the captain’s icy glare. “I—I don’t understand.”
The captain’s eyes narrowed. He clamped a hand over the disarray before him, and a stylus disappeared beneath his massive fist. “I have evidence you’ve been dealing black market drugs to my men.”
Though true, the accusation jarred Ilyrian. As the youngest son of a nobleman, he had received only a piddling inheritance at his father’s death. Unwilling to toil like a commoner and embittered by the station fate accorded him, he had considered murdering his elder brothers. But aside from its illegality, the latter course posed practical difficulties. Two of his brothers were warriors, and the last had been apprenticed to a blacksmith, swinging the hammer until his muscles bulged. Without recourse, Ilyrian had used cunning and his father’s status to attain his political position. Careful dealings with the baron of Cullinsberg and the money from his black market sales had already drawn him nearer to promotion. Now, Captain Taziar Medakan threatened to destroy ten years of manipulation with a single accusation. Ilyrian gathered breath for denial.
But the captain waved a hand in scornful dismissal. “Save your words, Ilyrian. I’d sooner trust a street beggar.”
Ilyrian scowled, infuriated by the insult.
Captain Taziar rose, his demeanor threatening yet composed. “I’m telling you now to give you an opportunity to stop without bringing you up on charges. What my men do in their free time is their own business. But I won’t tolerate anyone undermining their abilities as warriors or endangering their own and their companions’ lives.” Taziar retook his seat, his expression bleakly forbidding. His voice went soft. “Dismissed, Ilyrian.”
Ilyrian drew a ragged breath. Without the income from his drug sales to the soldiers, he knew he could never buy his promotion. His tone went shrill with feigned offense. “I’m innocent! I …”
The captain’s fist slammed to the tabletop, scattering papers like fluttering ghosts in the lamplight. “Dismissed, Ilyrian! Get out of my tent before I change my mind and try you today.”
Anger spun ideas through Ilyrian’s mind. He whirled and stormed through the tent flap. Immediately outside, he collided with a soldier. With a muttered curse, he pushed past. The warrior shoved Ilyrian back with an open violence. The nobleman staggered. He snapped his head about to confront the other man. It was Aird Moor, one of the baron’s fiercest bowmen and his most successful scout.
Aird Moor grinned. “Sorry, Ilyrian,” he said with mocking insincerity. Without awaiting a reply, he entered the captain’s tent.
Rage burst like flame across Ilyrian’s mind. Hatred flared against the indiscretions of a peasant soldier and the captain who could destroy his reputation with a single report. He’ll ruin me. The nobleman no longer harbored any doubts. Captain Taziar Medakan must die.
Ilyrian tromped to the edge of the camp and sat, cross-legged, on a bed of pine needles. For a silent hour, he stared at the captain’s tent, alternately cursing Taziar and vowing bitter vengeance. At sunset, he watched Aird Moor and Taziar leave for dinner. Ilyrian remained, his appetite lost, his fury dulled to cold calculation. His vigil continued as the captain returned to his tent alone and later, wandered into the forest to relieve himself. Then, Ilyrian’s lips framed a smile, and cruel excitement suffused him. He flicked open his ledger and wrote. “Well after nightfall: Captain Taziar disappeared into the woods for an indeterminate period of time.”
Nearly two hundred of Cullinsberg’s citizens gathered before the platform at the city gates, drawn there by the towering threat of the gallows. Despite the huddled, sweating mass of people, a shiver traversed young Taziar Medakan. He backstepped, glad for the reassuring warmth of his mother against him. She clapped a palm to his shoulder in reassurance, but her hand trembled and her fingers gouged his flesh.
Though twelve years old, Taziar stood only as high as his mother’s breasts. He knew he would never attain the resplendent proportions of the father after whom he was named, nor even those of a normal man. Craning his neck, he surveyed the crowd. Most wore the homespun shirts and britches of Cullinsberg’s peasantry, but the number of nobles seemed disproportionately high. Guards and soldiers, in uniforms of red and black, stood in tense clusters among the citizenry. Taziar recalled the many times these same people had watched in awe as the baron bestowed honors and medals of heroism upon Captain Taziar Medakan, young Taziar’s father. But this time, Taziar knew they had come to see his father die.
Helpless tears welled in Taziar’s eyes. This can only be a nightmare. He imagined himself in bed, attempting to find a different reality to disperse the cold terror of what he hoped was only a dream. But the crowd remained vividly clear. Their whispered conversations left him no choice but to believe. He rubbed tears away with hands toughened from tree climbing. Suddenly, he wished the calluses which scratched his eyelids had been won from practicing the sword maneuvers his father had taught him rather than from boyish antics.
A stately-looking man dressed in finely-woven linen trimmed with red silk stepped to the platform. The crowd fell silent. Again, tears blurred Taziar’s vision, and his father’s last words to his son rose in accusation: “A warrior dies twice, once for himself, and once for his loved ones. You must remember. I have already died. Someday, I will not return from a battle. Your mother will cry, but you must remain dry-eyed. You are my son, and you must understand. My soul is long gone. My body will have only left to join it and leave me at peace.” Taziar’s hopelessness fled before a rush of righteous anger.
The man on the platform raised his arm. He addressed the crowd, his voice a dramatic baritone. “Listen all. Listen well. We have gathered in the sight of sacred Aga’arin to witness the execution of Taziar Medakan, supreme commander of Cullinsberg’s marshaled armies, found guilty of high treason against our most holy baron, Lord Dietrich.”
Nervous whispers ran through the massed group. Taziar’s small hands balled into fists. Behind him, his mother shivered, her breaths emerging in short sobs. Neighbors’ hissed innuendoes during the course of the trial had wounded her deeply, and she had wasted to a frail skeleton. Taziar winced and clung to her, numbly aware he might lose both parents in one day.
The nobleman continued. “Lest anyone doubt this most harsh application of punishment, it must be remembered that Captain Taziar Medakan has committed the most heinous of crimes and the one act unforgivable to soldiers: the sin of cowardice.”
Taziar shook his head, certain of his father’s innocence, yet helpless to intervene. He watched in pained silence as the speaker produced a bound ledger.
“According to the notes of our Army Information Liaison, Captain Taziar Medakan’s actions have seemed suspicious for some time. We find multiple entries documenting his late-night disappearances.” He flipped through the pages. “On the sixteenth day of the month of high suns, barbarian gold was discovered in the captain’s tent, an odd finding for one violently opposed to attacking villages or plundering, even to add to the baron’s treasury. Captain Taziar Medakan denied knowledge of the incident.”
The speaker turned more leaves. “On the twenty-first day of that month, Captain Taziar Medakan hid his men at a woodland camp rather than participate in a flanking maneuver he had arranged. As a result, the frontal troop was decimated. The captain claimed a messenger informed him the frontal forces had been delayed. Citizens, the messenger denies leaving the frontal troop, and two of our brave soldiers and our liaison swear he was at the front at the time the so-called message was delivered. Taziar Medakan’s apparent concern for his own welfare cost the lives of over a hundred of his loyal men. Their only crime was to follow orders he, himself, chose not to obey. His treason caused the deaths of your husbands, fathers, and sons. If anything, this punishment is too lenient. Full retribution must be gleaned from Aga’arin’s hand in the afterlife, beyond the boundaries of our world.”
Shouts of indecipherable condemnation rose from the crowd.
The speaker cleared his throat, then finished in an over-rehearsed monotone. “As a duly appointed priest and executioner for the city-state of Cullinsberg, I sentence Captain Taziar Medakan to death by hanging on this fifth day of the harvest month in the seventeenth year of his high lord’s reign. Hangman, proceed.”
Taziar’s mother moaned. Her fragile frame went rigid. Tears drenched Taziar’s collar. Stung by his mother’s grief, he huddled closer, silently beseeching the expectant figures of Cullinsberg’s citizenry. He located six guards clustered behind his mother: Pluchar, a younger warrior who had often shared drinks with Taziar’s father; Salik, the man who’d commanded the troop decimated by Captain Taziar’s presumed treason and, as the second in command, the one most likely to benefit from the captain’s death. Young Taziar did not recognize the other men. Damn you! You know he’s innocent. He imagined the soldiers drawing swords and rushing the platform in defense of their commander. But the men remained silent and attentive, guiltily avoiding Taziar’s gaze.
Taziar’s father mounted the platform, led and flanked by spearmen. The captain wore a simple cloth tunic and breeks, stripped of the proud blacks and reds of his uniform and his badge of rank. His hands were bound behind him, yet otherwise he looked no different than when he’d left home for the last of his many battles against Danwald barbarians. His black hair lay neatly combed. He carried his immense, swarthy form with a quiet dignity. His head remained high, and his eyes swept the crowd with friendly interest.
Though not unexpected, Captain Taziar’s courage unsettled his son. Hangman and executioner adjusted the ropes and pulleys, but Taziar could not tear his gaze from his father. Casually, the captain’s gray eyes scanned the crowd, singling out and focusing upon each soldier in turn. Taziar noticed that not one of the men dared to meet his father’s pointed stare. Then the captain looked directly at his only child.
Taziar caught at his mother’s skirt. Though distant, his father’s eyes seemed clear, gray and, soft as clouds. Yet urgency lurked in their depths, a driving force which goaded Taziar to action. His gut drew into a tight knot. His eyes locked on his father’s, attempting to read the older man’s last request, yet still too young to understand the demand for vengeance.
Captain Taziar Medakan spoke, his voice devoid of bitterness. “Taziar.” The crowd went silent, surprised the accused would waste his last breath by speaking his own name. “My son,” the captain finished softly. “I was betrayed.”
Taziar turned his gaze toward Salik, but the new, young captain stood with his head bowed. The tears on the soldier’s cheeks looked unmistakably sincere.
The hangman flicked a loop of rope over the head of the former supreme commander of Cullinsberg’s army. The elder Medakan remained still, accepting. He neither flinched nor shied, even as the hangman drew the slip knot tight to the base of his neck and signaled the pulleyman below.
Shock numbed Taziar’s mind. No longer able to believe in dreams, he surrendered to a fear which crushed his chest until he felt unable to breathe.
The pulleyman yanked the rope, hand over hand. The sisal went taut. The force lifted Captain Taziar Medakan from the ground. His wife’s pained scream was lost beneath the cries of the crowd. She went suddenly limp and dropped to the ground.
“Momma!” Taziar whirled to comfort her. Tears burned his eyes like poison. But immediately, his father’s plea returned: Your mother will cry, but you must remain dry-eyed. Ruthlessly, Taziar crushed his urge to weep. He glanced toward his father. The captain’s skin had gone deathly pale; his gray eyes bulged. Then, the man who had so many times anticipated death in combat and had faced his execution fearlessly, bucked and jerked reflexively to retain his last moments of life.
Sorrow slapped Taziar with the force of a sea gale. His vision washed to a painful white. He wanted to run until the world collapsed about him, climb to the new star which, by Mardain’s religion, would hold his father’s soul. And he needed to be alone.
The crowd shifted to aid Taziar’s mother, many the same people whose whispered slurs had so weakened her. A hand clapped Taziar’s shoulder, and a gruff male voice sounded in his ear. “Taz?”
With an oath befitting a mercenary, Taziar broke free and ran. He crashed into a peasant. Impact sprawled him in the dust. Pain shot through his nose, but it seemed inconsequential compared with the emotional agony of watching his father die. Again he pushed into the masses, flailing his arms. Gradually a path cleared before him. A reedy voice cursed him, and others echoed blasphemies as he thrashed blindly through the crowd. Once free, he darted into the city streets.
Taziar ran without direction. Though slight, he was strong and lithe. The sun had disappeared beneath the horizon before he paused to catch his breath, deep in an unfamiliar sector of the city. Leaning against the mud-chinked logs of a dwelling, he heard voices and footsteps in the roadway, but discomfort and disinterest rendered their words unintelligible. Soon, the speakers rounded the corner of the building, dressed in the uniforms of Cullinsberg’s guardsmen.
A lump formed in Taziar’s throat. He felt the warm sting of beginning tears and bit his cheeks to keep from crying. Unable to control his grief and fearing to violate his last vow to his father, Taziar again raced into the street. He dodged through the roadways, their darkness broken only by the faint shimmer of moonlight.
Taziar’s headlong flight brought him through a narrow alley. He charged between the buildings’ hulking shadows, blind to the rusted cooking pot and the ten figures lounging around it. Suddenly, spent coals crunched beneath Taziar’s sandals. His shin cracked painfully against iron. The pot rolled, splashing hot soup across his thighs. Impact bounced him to the ground. He rolled from instinct, abruptly aware of angry shouts around him.
Taziar struggled to his feet. Before him stood nearly a dozen people, their hair long and frazzled, their expressions hostile. “Clumsy bastard!” one screamed. “Get him!”
Taziar spun and raced down the alleyway. His legs ached from his already overlong run and his collision with the cooking pot. Fear and exertion soaked him with sweat. The pursuing footfalls closed rapidly. Though running for his life, Taziar gained a strange pleasure from the rush of excitement his terror inspired. For the first time, he could momentarily forget his father’s death.
Suddenly, a storefront loomed before Taziar, its wooden awning protecting a porchload of firewood. Cornered, Taziar whirled. His pursuers fanned into a half circle before him. Panting, Taziar studied them in the moonlight. Closer, he recognized them as youngsters, some no older than himself. At least one was female. All of them wore tattered clothing, much of it far too large.
The oldest and tallest of the street rogues sneered. “We’ve got him now.”
Another’s voice grated with threat. “Let’s kill him.”
The girl tossed her blonde tangle of hair. “He ruined our dinner.”
“Whacha mean?” A muscled teenager with a scarred face glowered at Taziar. “ ’e is dinner. I’ll skin ’im.”
Taziar bit his lip, heart pounding. He backstepped into the shadow of the awning.
A child who appeared no older than seven piped up breathlessly from the back. “You gonna kill ’im first, Blade? Or just skin ’im?”
Frantically, Taziar cast about him. His gaze missed nothing: the ten rogues who baited him, blocking escape through the alleyway; the painted brown door of the store, its padlock clearly evident; the awning which towered two arm’s lengths over his head. Fear heightened his senses. His mind channeled solely on the menace before him, allowing him to forget the trial which had occupied his thoughts and nightmares for weeks and the mother he had left lying in a crowd of Cullinsberg’s citizens.
Blade crouched. “I think I’ll just skin ’im.” A knife appeared in his fist. Moonlight glittered off the blade, carving its edge into sharp focus. He closed on Taziar, his steps graceful and precise as a cat. The others followed, brandishing sticks, expectant and ready.
Taziar glanced from Blade to the awning to the approaching gang. Breath rattled in his chest. His fists tensed and loosened. With a howl of purpose, he leaped. His fingertips hooked the edge of the awning. He hung there for a moment, anticipating the cold sting of the knife. Leaf mold slicked his hands, and his grip faltered. He hissed in frustration.
Taziar shivered, remembering the gnarled oak at the city limits. Elbows bent, he swung his body up and over the awning. More accustomed to branches, he misjudged the force of the maneuver and crashed to the top of the awning. Wood slivered through his britches and into his knees. Shouts rose from the crowd below him.
Taziar darted across the awning, his footfalls thundering on the thin layer of pine. He came to the far end and stopped abruptly. He whirled. A sandy-haired teen was hoisting his wiry body to the awning with a boost from his friends. Taziar looked down. A jump would land him back in the alley, surrounded by street toughs. Cursing, he glanced upward.
Stars littered the sky. The moonlight revealed each mud-and sod-chinked log which supported the store. At the corner, the edges of wood overlapped, forming hand and toe holds Taziar could have climbed even when he was six. Without hesitation, he scrambled to the roof.
Taziar spun, seeking an escape from street rogues hungry enough to follow him to a rooftop and eat him. The stores on either side of the alley stood taller than the one he had climbed. The rift between the buildings gaped, wide enough so Taziar dared not trust himself to jump without plummeting to his death. His palms went slick with sweat. Fear blurred the neighboring buildings to gray shapes. He inched forward and peered over the side. Two of the ragged youths had gained the awning. The sandy-haired climber was nowhere he could see, until a grubby fist appeared over the rooftop.
Taziar leaped forward and stomped on the groping fingers. Their owner yelped and withdrew his hand with a string of ripe oaths. “Spread out! Up the other corners.”
The street youths scattered. Taziar crouched, uncertain. Soon, he heard the scrape of climbers from other. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...