When their father is murdered by imperial soldiers, two siblings set out on opposite paths--one will destroy the Empire forever and the other will save it--in this thrilling new epic fantasy. Sonya is training to be a Ranger of Marzanna, an ancient sect of warriors who have protected the land for generations. But the old ways are dying, and the rangers have all been forced into hiding or killed off by the invading Empire. When her father is murdered by imperial soldiers, she decides to finally take action. Using her skills as a ranger she will travel across the bitter cold tundra and gain the allegiance of the only other force strong enough to take down the invaders. But nothing about her quest will be easy. Because not everyone is on her side. Her brother, Sebastian, is the most powerful sorcerer the world has ever seen. And he's fighting for the empire.
Release date: April 21, 2020
Print pages: 496
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The Ranger of Marzanna
But now imperial soldiers arrived each year to collect their own tithe, as well as the Ovstrovsky family’s. And they never forgot.
Little Vadim, age eight and a half, sat on a snow-covered log at the eastern edge of the village and played with his rag doll, which was fashioned into the likeness of a rabbit. He saw the imperial soldiers coming on horseback along the dirt road. Their steel helmets and breastplates gleamed in the winter sun as their horses rode in two neat, orderly lines. Behind them trundled a wagon already half-full with the tithes of other villages in the area.
They came to a halt before Vadim with a great deal of clanking, their faces grim. Each one seemed to bristle with sharp metal and quiet animosity. Their leader, a man dressed not in armor but in a bright green wool uniform with a funny cylindrical hat, looked down at Vadim.
“You there. Boy.” The man in green had black hair, olive skin, and a disdainful expression.
Vadim hugged his doll tightly and said nothing. His mother had told him it was best not to talk to imperial soldiers because you never knew when you might say the wrong thing to them.
“Run along and tell your elder we’re here to collect the annual tithe. And tell him to bring it all here. I’d rather not go slogging through this frozen mudhole just to get it.”
He knew he should obey the soldier, but when he looked at the men and horses looming above him, his whole body stiffened. He had never seen real swords before. They were buckled to the soldiers’ waists with blades laid bare so he could see their keen edges. He stared at them, clutched the doll to his chest, and did not move.
The man in green sighed heavily. “Dear God in Heaven, they’re all inbred imbeciles out here. Boy! I’m speaking to you! Are you deaf?”
Slowly, with great effort, Vadim shook his head.
“Wonderful,” said the man. “Now run along and do as I say.”
He tried to move. He really did. But his legs wouldn’t work. They were frozen, fixed in place as if already pierced by the glittering swords.
The man muttered to himself as he leaned over and reached into one of his saddlebags. “This is why I’m counting the days until my transfer back to Aureum. If I have to see one more—”
An arrow pierced one side of the man’s throat and exited the other side. Blood sprayed from the severed artery, spattering Vadim’s face and hair. He gaped as the man clutched his gushing throat. The man’s eyes were wide with surprise and he made faint gargling noises as he slowly slid from his saddle.
“We’re under attack!” shouted one of the other soldiers.
“Which direction?” shouted another.
A third one lifted his hand and pointed out into one of the snowy fields. “There! It’s—”
Then an arrow embedded itself in his eye and he toppled over.
Vadim turned his head in the direction the soldier had been pointing and saw a lone rider galloping across the field, the horse kicking up a cloud of white. The rider wore a thick leather coat with a hood lined in white fur. Vadim had never seen a Ranger of Marzanna before because they were supposed to all be dead now. But he had been raised on stories of the Strannik, told by his mother in hushed tones late at night, so Vadim knew that was what he saw.
“Get into formation!” shouted a soldier. “Archers, return fire!”
But the Ranger was closing fast. Vadim had never seen a horse run so swiftly. It seemed little more than a blur of gray and black across the white landscape. Vadim’s mother had said that a Ranger of Marzanna did not need to guide their horse. That the two were so perfectly connected, they knew each other’s thoughts and desires.
The Ranger loosed arrow after arrow, each one finding a vulnerable spot in a soldier’s armor. The soldiers cursed as they fumbled for their own bows and let fly with arrows that overshot their rapidly approaching target. Their faces were no longer proud or grim, but tense with fear.
As the Ranger drew near, Vadim saw that it was a woman. Her blue eyes were bright and eager, and there was a strange, almost feral grin on her lips. She shouldered her bow and stood on her saddle even as her horse continued to sprint toward the now panicking soldiers. Then she drew a long knife from her belt and leapt toward the soldiers. Her horse veered to the side as she crashed headlong into the mass of armed men. The Ranger’s blade flickered here and there, drawing arcs of red as she hopped from one mounted soldier to the next. She stabbed some and slit the throats of others. Some were only wounded and fell from their horses to be trampled under the hooves of the frightened animals. The air was thick with blood and the screams of men in pain. Vadim squeezed his doll as hard as he could and kept his eyes shut tight, but he could not block out the piteous sounds of terrified agony.
And then everything went silent.
“Hey, mal’chik,” came a cheerful female voice. “You okay?”
Vadim cautiously opened his eyes to see the Ranger grinning down at him.
“You hurt?” asked the Ranger.
Vadim shook his head with an uneven twitch.
“Great.” The Ranger crouched down beside him and reached out her hand.
Vadim flinched back. His mother had said that Strannik were fearsome beings who had been granted astonishing abilities by the dread Lady Marzanna, Goddess of Winter.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” She gently wiped the blood off his face with her gloved hand. “Looks like I got you a little messy. Sorry about that.”
Vadim stared at her. In all the stories he had ever heard, none of them had described a Ranger as nice. Was this a trick of some kind? An attempt to set Vadim at ease before doing something cruel? But the Ranger only stood back up and looked at the wagon, which was still attached to a pair of frightened, wild-eyed horses. The other horses had all scattered.
The Ranger gestured to the wagon filled with the tithes of other villages. “Anyway, I better get this stuff back where it came from.”
She looked down at the pile of bloody, uniformed bodies in the snow for a moment. “Tell your elder I’m sorry about the mess. But at least you get to keep all your food this year, right?”
She patted Vadim on the head, then sauntered over to her beautiful gray-and-black stallion, who waited patiently nearby. She tied her horse to the wagon, then climbed onto the seat and started back the way the soldiers had come.
Vadim watched until he could no longer see the Ranger’s wagon. Then he looked at all the dead men who lay at his feet. Now he knew there were worse things than imperial soldiers. Though he didn’t understand the reason, his whole body trembled, and he began to cry.
When he finally returned home, his eyes raw from tears, he told his mother what had happened. She said he had been blessed, but he did not feel blessed. Instead he felt as though he had been given a brief glimpse into the true nature of the world, and it was more frightening than he had ever imagined.
For the rest of his short life, Vadim would have nightmares of that Ranger of Marzanna.
Sebastian Turgenev Portinari sat on the floor of his bedroom and stared at the bowl of water in front of him. He took one of the rusty bolts from the small pile beside him and gripped it tightly in one hand. He stared at the water in the bowl, focusing his intent on the metal in his hand. After a moment, he felt a surge—the bolt crumbled to rusty flecks, and the water spiraled up into a delicate point of ice.
“Oh, that’s lovely, Sebastian. You’re getting quite good at controlling it.”
Sebastian turned to see his mother, Irina Turgenev Portinari, standing in the doorway. Her pale face was framed by her long white silky hair as she smiled down at him.
“Thank you, Mother,” he said. “But I would prefer to practice at the lake, where I could really let loose.”
“Your father said you must not be so ostentatious right now.”
“But why, Mother?”
She sighed. “Why don’t you come down and ask him yourself. Dinner is ready.”
Sebastian followed his mother downstairs to the small dining room in their farmhouse. His father, Giovanni Portinari, was already seated at the head of the table. He was a solidly built, clean-shaven man with the olive-tinged complexion of an Aureumian, close-cropped gray hair, and thick bushy eyebrows.
“Sebastian,” he said by way of greeting.
Sebastian nodded. “Father.” He noticed that a fourth place had been set at the table. “Is Sonya coming home?”
“She usually makes an appearance after the first snowfall,” said his father. “If not today, then perhaps tomorrow.”
Sebastian wasn’t entirely sure what his older sister did for months at a time out in the wilderness. Hunting, camping, becoming one with nature, he supposed. Or as best as she could without the gift of elemental magic. Whatever it was, she’d been doing it for a couple years now, only stopping in now and then, and more often than not getting into an argument with their father when she did. She always upset the normal routine of the house whenever she appeared, and these days Sebastian found that he somewhat dreaded her visits because of that.
He sat down at the table as his mother brought in a platter of sour bread and boiled potatoes.
“Really, Mother?” he asked. “Potatoes again?”
“Now that it’s winter, we need to be conservative with our stores,” she said.
“No, we don’t,” he said. “I could go out there right now, thaw that field, and have a whole new crop growing in weeks.”
“No, you can’t,” said his father. “It draws too much attention.”
“From whom?” asked Sebastian. “I’m tired of keeping my magic a secret.”
“Tough.” His father sliced a potato as he spoke with the calm authority of a retired general. “You are only sixteen and as long as you live under my roof, you will do as I command.”
Sebastian glared at his father as he gnawed on a chunk of bread, but his father seemed not to notice. It really wasn’t fair. Ever since Sebastian had discovered he could perform elemental magic, his parents had constantly pushed him to hone his abilities. But what was the point if he was never allowed to show anyone what he could do? His sister was only two years older than him, yet she could go off and do whatever she wanted, while he was stuck here, practically a prisoner in his own home.
Then Sebastian heard an odd noise outside the house. Something he couldn’t place. The clank of steel, perhaps? His parents paused in their eating.
“Is that Sonya?” asked Sebastian.
His father’s thick eyebrows curled down into a scowl. “No.”
Suddenly the sound of breaking glass and splintering wood filled the house. Imperial soldiers charged into the dining room, their sabers drawn.
Sebastian froze, partly in terror and partly in awe of the absolute precision that these men displayed. But his father was a hardened veteran of the war. Without hesitation, he flipped the table, sending bread and steaming potatoes into the air, then grabbed Sebastian and his mother and hauled them in the only direction available: the staircase that led to the bedrooms.
Sebastian stumbled up the steps as his father yanked him roughly by the arm. Once they were inside his parents’ bedroom, Sebastian’s father slammed the door shut and shoved the wardrobe in front of it.
“Why are soldiers here?” Sebastian asked in a shaking voice. “What do they want?”
“Sebastian, you must listen to me!” Giovanni pulled his own imperial-issued saber down from the wall, his face set. “I will hold them at bay for as long as I can. You jump out the window and run to Olga Slanikova’s farm down the road. Hide in her cellar until…” He paused. “Until the soldiers are gone.”
Sebastian gaped at his father. Even in the fog of his panic he could see that those instructions made little sense. How would Sebastian know when the soldiers were gone if he was hiding in a cellar? And even more importantly, what would he do after?
“Father, do you want me to try…” He looked meaningfully down at the sword in his father’s hand. Steel would work even better as a conduit for his magic than iron bolts. It would destroy the sword, of course, but he was certain he could finish off the whole group of soldiers with one fiery explosion.
“Absolutely not!” his father said. “I forbid you to use magic. That would be playing right into their hands.”
Before his father could explain further, the soldiers knocked the door off its hinges and the wardrobe fell forward with a loud crash.
His father squeezed his shoulder. “I have told you what to do, Sebastian! Go now!” Then he placed himself between Sebastian and the soldiers, his sword held at the ready.
“Mother…” Sebastian turned to where she was huddled on the bed.
“Listen to your father,” she said in a pinched voice, her eyes glistening with tears behind a curtain of long, snow-white hair. “Go!”
He gritted his teeth, feeling the hot shame of helplessness fill his throat as he yanked open the window and climbed out onto the ledge. The clang of steel on steel rang behind him as he half slid, half fell down the side of the house and into a snowdrift. Since he was only dressed in a shirt and trousers, the harsh, biting chill of winter suffused him immediately. He stumbled to his feet, shook the snow from his clothes, then turned in the direction of Olga Slanikova’s farm.
Except his father had underestimated the imperial soldiers. Sebastian only took two steps before the tip of a sword appeared inches from his throat.
“The commander said to take you alive, unless you resisted,” growled the soldier with the sword. He was flanked on either side by several more soldiers, all with swords drawn. “Are you going to resist?”
Above, the sounds of combat from the bedroom window ceased. Then he heard his mother scream out his father’s name, followed by her heartbroken sob.
Sebastian closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “If you give your word not to harm my mother, I will come without a fight.”
The soldier nodded approvingly. “That’s a good boy.”
Sebastian almost lashed out at him for that. People were forever calling him a “good boy,” or worse, a mama’s boy, and it was never a compliment. But it was precisely to protect his mother that he kept himself in check.
The soldier whistled shrilly. “Bring the old lady out unharmed!”
Sebastian stood shivering silently in the cold with his captors as two soldiers emerged from the house holding his mother between them. Her long hair was disheveled, but she walked with her usual quiet dignity toward Sebastian. She had never been one to show weakness.
The lead soldier looked to see if there were any more soldiers coming, then grunted. “Did we lose the rest?”
One of the men escorting Sebastian’s mother nodded tersely.
The soldier looked impressed. “Pretty good for an old guy. I’d heard stories about Giovanni the Wolf but figured they were mostly exaggeration.” He shrugged, as if he found the loss of life of little import. “Let’s move out. The commander is expecting us back at the garrison by morning.”
The soldiers placed Sebastian and his mother in the back of a carriage with bars on the windows and a door that locked from the outside. But it was surprisingly comfortable inside. Sebastian and his mother sat across from each other on benches padded with soft quilting, and there were several thick wool blankets to keep them warm during the journey.
Sebastian immediately pulled one of the blankets over his shoulders, but he noticed that his mother merely sat there, shivering as she stared blankly into a corner of the carriage. Sebastian leaned forward and draped a blanket across her back.
She gave him a sad but grateful smile as she took the edges of the blanket in her hands. “Thank you, dear.”
“Are you okay, Mother?” he asked. “Are you hurt?”
“My Giovanni is dead,” she said quietly. “His loss feels like a limb has been severed from my body.”
“I’m sorry, Mother.”
Even as he said the words, Sebastian realized with an odd shock that he wasn’t as grieved by his father’s loss as he was by the pain it caused her. It was true that he had never been close with his father. For all their arguing, his sister had always been much closer to the man. Even so, surely Sebastian should feel more than fleeting grief for the death of a man who had sacrificed everything, including his life, for him.
His mother reached out her hand, her skin so pale he could see the blue veins beneath. He took it in his own hands and tried to warm it.
“Don’t worry about me, my son,” she said. “Your father is dead, and now you must be your own man and make your own choices.”
Her red-rimmed hazel eyes held his. “Do what you think is right. Understand?”
She smiled and tucked a lock of his blond hair behind his ear. “Good.”
He didn’t really understand, but his confirmation seemed to comfort her, and that was all he could do at present. He had already looked around the carriage and found neither metal nor crystal within reach. Even the bars on the windows were made of wood. These soldiers clearly understood the limits of his ability and had taken no chances.
As their carriage rattled down the road, the snowfields slipped past the barred windows, gleaming luminous in the moonlight. Mounted imperial soldiers surrounded the carriage, riding in perfect formation. Again Sebastian could not help feeling awe at their precision. His father had often spoken of the ruthless efficiency of imperial soldiers, but had neglected to mention their almost serene discipline. Every one of them seemed to know exactly what to do at all times. Sebastian envied them that surety.
Sonya Turgenev Portinari reached her parents’ farm just as the dawn was breaking across the horizon, staining the snowy fields a cozy pink. But the warm nostalgia she felt at seeing her childhood home was cut short when she saw the barn door wide open. It was not an oversight she could imagine her father or Mikhail allowing. Then she saw a cow wander through the courtyard, and she knew that something terrible had happened.
She had a strong urge to rush in, but she didn’t give in to it. Instead she pushed back her fur-lined hood and shook out her long dark hair. Now she would be able to hear the potential sounds of ambush better. She guided her black-and-gray stallion, Peppercorn, slowly down the path from the trade road to the farm, her hand resting on the pommel of the long knife belted at her waist.
The cow stopped along the side of the barn and began half-heartedly pushing the snow aside to see if there was any brown grass beneath it she might nibble on. Beyond the barn, Sonya saw some of the sheep milling about in the field. They were unattended, despite the fact that winter sometimes brought wolves that were hungry and desperate enough to brave human settlements.
The main house, a simple, two-story wooden structure painted a pale blue, was quiet and motionless, except for the curtains, which blew in and out of broken windows. The door to the house was also open.
Sonya closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. Underneath the powerful smells of manure and hay that always accompanied the farm, she caught the smell of fresh blood, bright and coppery. After a few moments, she heard someone cough wetly inside the barn. She dismounted Peppercorn and tied his reins to the hitching post. Then she drew her knife and made her way silently into the barn.
Only a feeble amount of sunlight made its way between the cracks in the wooden planks, but it was enough for her to see. Her boots made no sound as she passed the empty sheep and cow pens and crept toward the pig pens where the smell of blood was strongest.
“Mikhail,” she said quietly.
Mikhail Popov Lukyanenko turned at the sound of his name. He was an older man, with shaggy white hair and stringy muscles. She was accustomed to seeing him full of spirit, rich humor, and quiet courage. But now he lay in a trough of pig slop, clutching pointlessly at the huge gash in his belly as he slowly bled to death. He had served Sonya’s family since before she was born, but to her, the old man was far more than a servant.
“Uchitel,” she whispered as she crouched next to him. It meant teacher in the language of the Izmorozian ancestors.
“Ah, Sofyushka.” His weathered face was creased with pain. “I am rewarded… for my stubbornness… to see your face… one last time.”
“Imperials.” His mouth sounded dry, even though his throat gurgled with blood. “They came…” He tried to swallow but couldn’t, so Sonya carefully poured a small amount of water from her skin into his mouth. After some effort, he continued. “They took your brother.”
“Father would never allow that,” she said.
“I saw them… put Sebastian and your mother into a small carriage… with bars on the windows…”
His mouth worked open and closed a few times, as if he was trying to form more words. She held up the skin of water, but he shook his head.
“It’s okay, Uchitel.” She tied the skin back to her belt. “I’ll figure out the rest, just as you taught me.”
“I want to tell you…” He lifted his blood-soaked fist from the wound in his stomach so that it began to flow freely. “I tried to stop them.”
She took his sticky red fist in her gloved hands and forced a smile. “Old man, you shouldn’t have done that.”
He grinned up at her, his mouth now full of blood. “A Strannik is free…” Blood ran down the side of his mouth. “Free to do as they choose.”
Sonya’s attempt at stoic resolve failed. Sorrow welled up in her chest and tears coursed down her cheeks before she’d even realized they’d left her eyes. She wiped fiercely at them as she took in a shuddering breath.
“Sofyushka.” Mikhail’s eyes locked on to hers. “I return.”
And then the life left him, and the man known as Mikhail Popov Lukyanenko was nothing more than food for the earth.
“Uchitel.” She gently closed his eyes, then intoned the prayer Rangers spoke when a soul went to the cold embrace of Lady Marzanna. “One day I will return as you now return. Until then, I will travel light.”
She stood and gazed down at the man who had taught her so much. Who had believed in her when no one else had. As a Ranger of Marzanna, she knew that death was not loss. It was a blessing to return to the Lady. But Sonya could not help feeling a yawning emptiness in her gut, as if his departure had left a gap in her soul.
When she emerged from the barn, she stopped for a moment to stroke Peppercorn’s velvety nose. He nickered and swished his black tail.
“It’s okay, Perchinka,” she murmured, her voice quavering more than she would have liked. “I’ll be okay.”
She forced herself to focus on what was before her. Her childhood home, seemingly broken and abandoned. She had not been wrong before when she’d said that her father would never allow the imperials to take her brother. The only explanations were that he was incapacitated, or dead. And imperial soldiers were not generally inclined to spare someone. Not even a decorated war hero like her father, Commander Giovanni Portinari, known to comrades and enemies alike during the Winter War as Giovanni the Wolf.
Her father had been born to a wealthy merchant family in Aureum, the country that lay to the south and was the seat of the Aureumian Empire. He had enlisted in the imperial army as an officer and quickly distinguished himself by both his intelligence and ferocity. When the empire came to conquer Izmoroz, he was made general in the army, and later promoted to commander. He distinguished himself in the war to such a degree that once he achieved victory, the empress granted him a title and property in the newly annexed land. After such a violent, blood-drenched youth, he was content to marry a beautiful young Izmorozian noblewoman and settle down on his farm to raise his family in rural domesticity.
As Sonya stepped through the door and into the kitchen, she observed the overturned table and shattered remains of the door. The violence and bloodshed her father tried to walk away from all those years ago had finally caught up with him.
She made her way through the house, and the gentle memories of her childhood clashed strangely with the evidence of chaos that was now all around her. Furniture lay askew, and all the windows had been broken inward, suggesting that the soldiers had surrounded the house and attacked simultaneously from all sides. Some might have seen that as excessive in dealing with an elderly couple and their sixteen-year-old son, but only those who didn’t know her father. Even at his age, and retired from making war for over twenty years, he remained fearsome in his skill with the sword. Throughout her life she had seen him practice every day in the yard. So many of those days Sonya had begged him to teach her what he knew, but…
Sonya stopped and closed her eyes. The past was a ghost that sought to strangle the present. Mikhail had taught her that. Now that he was dead, she was more determined than ever to honor his Ranger teachings. It didn’t matter that her father had refused to teach her the sword. She had found her own way—a better way, as a Ranger of Marzanna.
When Sonya entered her parents’ bedroom, she saw that the great war hero Commander Giovanni Portinari had done an admirable job of fending off the soldiers. Five of them lay dead, their leather and steel uniforms crusted with dry blood as they formed a loose semicircle around her father’s body. Her father was slumped forward on his knees, the tip of a sword protruding from his back.
She knelt down next to him and felt for his pulse, though judging by the smell and discoloration of the skin, she already knew she wouldn’t find it. After a moment, she carefully leaned him back and pulled the sword from his chest. His face was relaxed in a way it never had been in life. Typically his mouth had a hard, thin set to it. But in death, it was open and soft.
“One day I will return as you now return,” she whispered. “Until then, I will…”
Would she travel light where her father was concerned? Could she? Even now, so many conflicting emotions boiled within her. They’d had many arguments, particularly during these last few years after she’d been accepted by the Lady Marzanna as a Ranger. But despite all their disagreements, he had been her father, her hero, and the most magnificent man she’d ever known.
“Daddy…” Her voice warbled as tears once more coursed down her face. “I wish…”
If wishes were fishes, I’d never be hungry. That’s what Mikhail used to say, usually in a mocking tone when Sonya had been complaining about something. It angered her now as it had always angered her then, but that anger brought focus, as it was meant to do. There were more pressing concerns than her regrets, such as finding her mother and brother.
“The dead are with the Lady,” she admonished herself. “I must look to the living.”
She emerged from the house with a cold, burning intensity in her heart.
It wasn’t difficult to locate the wagon tracks and the cluster of indentations from iron-shod horse hooves. The tracks led east, most likely toward the imperial garrison at Gogoleth. She could tell by the depth of the depressions that some of the horses had been riderless for the return trip, no doubt thanks to her father thinning their ranks. She saw no sign of her brother fighting back. Perhaps her father had forbidden him to use magic. He could be stubborn like that. Or perhaps Sebastian had merely been too frightened to use it. He could be cowardly like that.
Regardless, Sonya’s best hope of rescuing her surviving family was to catch up to them before they reached Gogoleth. Weary as the soldiers no doubt were, and with their ranks depleted, she was fairly certain she could take them. And if she could slip a bit of metal to Sebastian, he might even pluck up the courage to assist her.
She returned to Peppercorn, who snorted and stamped his hoof eagerly as she unhitched him from the post. She stroked his warm neck for a moment.
“Yes, Perchinka. It’s time to run.”
She untied her bow and quiver from her saddle and slung them across her back. Then she vaulted into her saddle with a pointless flourish that had always made Mikhail roll his eyes. Thinking of him, she turned and gazed back at the open barn door for a moment.
“Spasibo,” she said, which meant thank you. It was inadequate, but the only other way she could hope to show her gratitude for all he had done was to live without fear and serve the Lady Marzanna, as all Rangers must. Then she touched her heels to Peppercorn’s sides and they began their pursuit.
As further testament to the orderly efficiency of the imperial cavalry, the carriage that carried Sebastian and his mother reached Gogoleth early the next day, just as the captain said they would. Sebastian hadn’t been to the capital in years. He rem
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