This is the story of a man and a monster, but really it is the tale of a blade…
In a black castle on the cliff tops by the sea, near the high moors of Sigil’s Gate, the Celtic Princess, Aowyn, snuggled close to her dark-haired husband. His arm slung over her wide belly. She smiled as he bowed his head and buried his face in her copper hair, breathing deeply. The child in her womb squirmed. Aowyn grasped her husband’s hand and placed it over the baby’s kicking.
“Do you feel that?”
“Mmm.” He freckled her nape with kisses.
Aowyn giggled as the baby became more active. “He likes you.”
“How do you know it is a he?”
Aowyn chewed her lower lip. She didn’t know. What if she let her royal family across the sea down by failing to produce a male? Worse, what if she let her husband down? “The baby is so strong, like you, Xander. I always assumed it was a boy.”
“Let us hope.”
Aowyn stared into the darkness for a long time. Tables and chairs were but rough shadows, save for where moonlight bounced off the edges. The peace in the room lulled her. Her vision blurred in a sleepy half-consciousness, until a voice, none which she had heard before, took her attention.
“Aowyn, daughter of Aodhagáin, hear me.”
Aowyn’s eyes widened, and she propped herself up on one elbow. “Did you hear that, Xander? Someone is in the room. Go and get a battleaxe.” She looked over her shoulder, but Xander was frozen in time. Aowyn began to tremble. “Who’s there?”
“Be not afraid, young one, for we bear glad tidings.”
Aowyn slowly pushed back the covers and swung her legs over the side of the bed. “Who are you?”
“Step into the light and know us better.”
Aowyn obeyed, though she was filled with doubt. Slowly she moved to the stretch of moonlight that reached through the room.
“Aowyn…” as her name was spoken, the pale light became blinding. She had never seen such glory, for it was brighter than the noon-day sun. Gradually her vision returned, and the warmth of spring grass, dotted with little yellow flowers, tickled her senses. The light remained around her, as pure as an artist’s canvas, save for this little haven of green and yellow.
The voice became many now, in a rush of hushed murmurs, like the caress of a soft breeze. “The child you bear will one day be great. See him now.”
The canvas of light swirled in to many colors, taking on depth and definition. Aowyn’s heart swelled as a broad-shouldered man, clad in royal purple, descended a gilded staircase toward her. His amber eyes were startling and held a knowing twinkle. His hair was like the setting autumn sun.
“Behold Eoghan, prince of the Crown Realm.”
Aowyn reached out to the image, wanting so desperately to touch this young man with Xander’s stature and her nature. He smiled at her boyishly, then vanished.
The light faded. Aowyn’s heart raced, her breathing increased. “Wait.”
The grass and the flowers shriveled into empty space. She shook her head. “No. Wait. I want to see him again. Gods, why taunt me so?”
But the voices were gone, and Aowyn was in her bed.
Xander’s hand rested over her belly. The baby squirmed.
“Do you feel that?” she asked.
“Mmm.” He freckled her nape with kisses. The baby became more active. Aowyn giggled. “He likes you.”
“He.” Xander breathed in his wife’s lovely scent. “How do you know?”
Aowyn was startled when the words flowed from her without her consent. “The gods have made it known to me.” She chewed her lower lip. Was it true?
Xander propped himself up on an elbow. “The gods.” He sounded incredulous.
Aowyn’s shoulders rose to her ears. It was a wild statement, to be sure. Her voice was timid. “I have seen him.” She rolled on to her back, glowing with excitement. “Oh, Xander, he is beautiful!”
Xander flopped over and rubbed his face. Aowyn slipped her arm over his brawny chest. “He has your brow and shoulders. He was so big and strong. You will be proud, my love.” She snuggled into his shoulder with a dreamy sigh.
Xander stared at the ceiling. A son. He wanted nothing more. But his wife was a princess, bearing a prince. A prince needed provinces to govern and kingdoms to rule. All Xander had was Blackthorn Keep. He clenched his jaw. One decrepit fortress was not enough. He had fought all of his life to retain his birthright over what very little land his family had left, but he would have to fight harder with a son on the way.
Xander’s breath came in a shudder. He glanced down at Aowyn, who had nodded off. It was going to be a long, sleepless night.
Xander stood before the window the following morning, gazing at Aowyn in the black rose garden below. A blue butterfly landed on her hand, and a smile lit her face. Xander sighed, rubbing his forehead with his fingertips as he leaned against the windowsill. The sunshine warmed his bare chest and shoulders.
His forefathers would have given their kingdoms for sons. Perhaps that is how Blackthorn’s hold had dwindled. Such a small land for a great prince to enter. It simply would not do. Yet Xander saw no peaceable way to expand. Was there no one with whom he could form an alliance? He had fought for so long to retain what little he had, yet now he would willingly swear fealty to anyone for more.
Could he perhaps arrange a marriage? High King Balthazaar at Winterholme, far away to the northwest, had recently announced the birth of a daughter, Alexa. Xander had a feeling such a proposal would be frowned upon. Aowyn’s people were newcomers to the land. Winterholme’s hold was full of ancient, royal blood. Balthazaar would likely see the proposal as a taint upon his lines. Xander, alone, did not feel that way, though his bloodline ran through the land just as deeply. He had been fighting in Aowyn’s country under his father’s command when he, serendipitously, met and fell in love with the princess. Her father saw an opportunity to forge his own way on to a new continent and offered Aowyn to Xander as a truce between the kingdoms. Now here she was, bearing a son, and Xander had no provinces to deign to him, save for the tiny hold of Blackthorn. No doubt, once word reached Aowyn’s homeland of the coming prince, great expectations would arise.
Xander shifted his weight. Perhaps Aodhagáin would send assistance. Then he remembered that his father’s battle had drained the coffers of both kingdoms, and what little Aodhagáin had remaining was given with Aowyn as a meager dowry.
Xander thumped his forehead against the windowpane, closed his eyes, and clenched his jaw. He did not hear the bedroom door open or register that he was no longer alone until a startled voice chimed in the background.
He looked over his shoulder. “It is alright, Maeb, you can come in.”
Maeb shielded her eyes so blue that they were nearly gray. “Ní hea,” she shook her head, then continued in Xander’s tongue, slowly and broken. “You are only half-dressed.”
Xander chuckled. “Maeb, how many children have you nursed? I do not have much you have not seen.”
“It is not proper.”
Xander rolled his brown eyes and crossed to his wardrobe. He pulled on a loose tunic and offered Maeb a rueful smile. “Better?”
Maeb looked away and fanned herself with her hand. Xander’s own mother would not have been half as sweet as Aowyn’s old nursemaid. Xander took a seat at a small table that overlooked the garden. Maeb set about changing bed linens and arranging fresh garments in Aowyn’s wardrobe.
Xander slid down in the chair and folded his hands over his stomach, lost in his thoughts. It was not until Maeb raised her voice to him that he realized how much time had passed.
“I ask you three times now what you want for first meal.”
Xander raised his hand carelessly to wave her off.
Maeb crossed to him and picked at a few black curls, as if fawning over her own son. “What troubles you?”
Xander leaned forward and hung his head, slowly rubbing his hands together. Should he tell her? What help could a nursemaid be? He exhaled a long breath. “Wyn says the gods have revealed that she carries a son.”
Maeb let out a noise not unlike a chicken who has laid an egg. “Wonderful!” She tussled his hair. “Why worry? This cause for great joy.”
When she calmed down, Xander explained. “It would be, save he is a prince by birthright, and I am just a man. I have nothing to offer him.” He looked up at Maeb, forlorn. “A prince needs kingdoms; I only have this crumbling heap of a fortress. It is unfit for a prince. Do you understand, Maeb?” He rose slowly, his gazed fixed on Aowyn outside. “My father was not exactly keen to make allies. I have no one to turn to for assistance.” He looked at the round, elf-like woman. “Unless you know of someone?”
Maeb’s expression was blank, and she stepped back slowly.
Maeb wiped her hands on her apron and hurriedly turned away.
Xander knocked over his chair in his haste to catch her. “Maeb, do you know of someone?”
Maeb was trotting toward the door. Xander caught her wrist and spun her round. “Maeb, you must tell me.”
Maeb shook her head.
Xander grasped her shoulders. “If you know who can help, for the love of all your gods in the firmament, tell me!”
Maeb trembled in his hands. She would not meet his gaze. She swallowed hard. Her words trickled barely above a whisper. “There is rumor… but we do not speak his name.”
Xander’s grip softened, and he held Maeb’s face, pressing his lips to her graying temple. “Please, sweet mother, tell me.”
Maeb bit her lip. “Sylas Mortas.”
Xander turned her gaze to meet his. “Please tell me where I can find this man.”
Maeb clutched his wrists and pulled them away from her. “He is no man. He is only evil. Please do not seek him out.”
“Maeb,” Xander implored.
Maeb’s eyes turned icy. “In the swamps of Morgorth, not far from head of River Trefnwy.” She stole away from him and reached for the door, pausing. “But you not hear it from me.”
Xander spurred his horse onward. Rhun was a hulking black steed who practically had to rear up to get his front under him in order to launch forward with every stride. His mane, dark as midnight, whipped by Xander’s face. Xander crouched low over Rhun’s withers, driving his hands against the horse’s sweaty neck. They splashed into the River Trefnwy, water exploding into the air with each hoof beat and turned westward, putting the pink blush of dawn behind them. A line of alder trees loomed in the distance, still cloaked in twilight.
They cantered into the woods and wove through the trees, hopping over logs, and prancing through streams. The further in they rode, the darker it got. The forest floor turned soft and loamy. Rhun kicked up bits of silt, and a damp smell rose from below. The ground broke in to muddy patches. The dense woods around them turned mossy and abruptly sparse with narrow spruces. Rhun slowed, no longer sure of his footing. Xander dismounted and tossed the reins over Rhun’s head. Bullfrogs croaked nearby. Xander swatted a mosquito nuzzling the vein in his neck. Rhun nickered warily. Xander patted his shoulder to reassure him. Black peat squelched beneath them, belching up the rank odor of standing water. Xander could barely see in front of him. Thank the heavens for the native moonflies that glowed and dimmed like stars on the horizon. Rhun threw his head, pulling on the reins and balking. Xander exhaled between his teeth. “Easy, lad.”
Rhun’s nostrils flared and contracted, his eyes wide.
Xander chirped to him, hoping to offer some encouragement.
After a moment, Rhun finally took a step forward. Xander rubbed the horse’s forelock and forged ahead, squinting. Pockets of brackish open water gurgled and foamed. Bubbles ballooned so large that a young child could have fit inside. They burst with a splat, reeking with acidity. Xander wrinkled his nose and swallowed against the sick knot in his throat. Vines twisted at his boots as if trying to pull him into the bog and snuff out his life force. Rhun halted again and stamped his hoof. Xander thought he caught a glimpse of firelight through the trees ahead. He rubbed Rhun’s nose. “It’s not much further.”
Rhun shook his mane. Xander tugged on the reins. Something long and thin snaked through the water. Rhun skittered his haunches round, knocking into Xander and smashing his foot. Xander bit his lip hard, wanting to punch Rhun in the neck. Idiot beast! He limped a few steps, trying not to yell out and startle Rhun further. Rhun followed behind placidly as though nothing had happened. The mud sucked Xander’s boots deep into the earth. Great veils of lichen swung from the trees like specters. Xander pushed a curtain of them aside and glimpsed a campfire-lit clearing.
A pot bubbled over embers. Barrels leaned against an old, creaky shack. Across the way, a table stood beneath a steaming, burbling alchemy station. Xander tied Rhun’s reins to a branch, and the stallion dropped his nose to graze. Xander reached for the dagger at his side, wishing he had brought something larger. However, he had learned as a lad that a man who cannot defend himself at short range could not really defend himself at all. His hand tightened around the hilt. He planted his feet firmly on guard, pointing the blade in the direction of a snap from the woods. His breath raced as a tall form appeared between the trees. A figure, cloaked in royal blue with stitchings of runes, seemed to float toward him carrying a pile of logs. It dumped them beside the fire and stood before him. “It took you long enough to find me, Barwn Xander.”
Xander’s breath seized in his lungs. “You know my name.” It was a startled statement, not a question.
“Of course I know who you are. I know who everyone is.”
“Are you Sylas Mortas?”
“The one and same.”
“If you know who I am,” Xander began to circle cautiously closer, “do you know why I have come?”
Sylas Mortas watched him patiently from beneath his cloak. “You seek power, young Xander. Power you cannot obtain alone.”
“Do you know why I seek this power?”
Sylas held up his hands. “I do not concern myself with the whys of men, only the what and how. You seek power; I seek how to help you.”
Xander paused. “Why would you want to help me? What is in it for you?”
Sylas chuckled. “Do not worry your lordly laddie head over that.”
Xander lunged at him, jabbing with his dagger.
A massive blue light launched him through the air and landed him hard on his rear. His dagger went flying in the opposite direction. Rhun danced, startled, in the background. Sylas crouched by the fire and poked at the coals. “When you are ready to behave, I will be ready to talk business.”
Xander wiped mud from his arms and neck. What did Sylas do to him? “What is your price, Mortas?” he asked with disgust.
Sylas rose and dusted off his hands. “Allow me to help you, Xander, with payment due only with fulfillment of the bargain.”
“Bargain?” Xander got to his feet and searched for his dagger. He kept an eye on Sylas. “People say you are wicked and not to be trusted. Why should I trust you without knowing the cost first? How do I know you will not demand my firstborn?” He spotted the hilt sticking out of the ground and bent to retrieve it. He cursed as he burned his hand on a hunk of molten metal.
Sylas moved to an anvil near his shack and picked up a falchion blade. He held it with reverence. “Xander, Xander, Xander… Have I not made it clear that I care not for the lives of men? I only seek to make a means to an end. I am sure we can come to some agreeable terms.” He turned the hilt to Xander in offering. “I believe you stand in need of a new blade. This is Idegwaed. Try her out, won’t you?”
Xander eyed the cloaked figure. After a long while he grasped the falchion. Idegwaed’s balance was unlike any he had ever experienced. Her guard was styled to resemble a screaming mouth. The flawless obsidian blade glinting in the firelight extended like a tongue. The grip was black pearl, bound in silver wire. The pommel bore a single ruby as counterweight. Xander swung the falchion with such ease. Never had his movement been so fluid and effortless. He felt as though Idegwaed had been forged exclusively for him. She sang as she sliced the air. Xander’s arm grew stronger, a river of power flowing through him, as though he could never be conquered so long as he kept swinging. Sylas’s dark laugh cut the moment, a cold piercing sound. He clapped slowly. “Beautiful, is she not?”
Xander was breathless. Idegwaed was beyond compare. She was a sword men would kill for. He swallowed. Such a prize did not come free.
Sylas’s voice was thick. “Do we have a deal?”
Xander stared into the surrounding darkness. Oh, gods, did he want this sword! Blackthorn would never be threatened again with the likes of this blade, this extension of himself, at his command. “Name your price.”
“Oh, really, my dear Barwn. It’s nothing you need to worry yourself over. Merely a trifle compared to what you’ll gain from Idegwaed. I can assure you that I deal quite fairly. You get what you want. I get what I want. Every one is happy.”
He looked at Sylas. “If I am to make a deal, then I wish to look the man in the eye of whom I’m making the deal with.”
Sylas nodded and slipped back his hood. Sallow, spotted, green skin framed a gaunt face adorned by long, pointed ears. A blaze of flaming, orange-red hair stretched down the middle of his scalp from widow’s peak to nape. He gazed at Xander with almond-shaped, glossy black, pupil-less eyes.
Xander had never seen such a being. He quaked inside.
“With that blade,” Sylas pressed his webbed fingers together, forming a point with his thumbs and index, “I can guarantee all the power you seek. Nations will fall to your feet. However, I cannot guarantee the consequences.”
Xander swallowed. “How do you mean?”
Sylas began to pace. "The weapons I forge have their own personalities. Much like people, relationships with such things have lasting effects. I will guarantee your victory, nay, I foresee it, Barwn Xander, though I cannot say at what cost. Now, do we have a deal?"
Xander caressed the ruby on the pommel as though awakening a lover. Idegwaed seemed to hum his name pleasurably. Xander felt braver and stronger the longer he clutched her. She assured him that the consequences would pale in comparison to the things she would do for him. Sylas foresaw his success. It was a sure thing. How could the Barwn of Blackthorn resist? "You say you foresee my victory..."
Sylas nodded. "You need only tap Idegwaed’s power."
Xander ran his hand against the cool flat of the blade. Idegwaed warmed to his very touch. "Tell me how."
Sylas stepped beside him with a twisted smile, full of piranha-esque teeth, and placed a clammy hand on Xander’s shoulder. "Simple. Kill."
Rhun cruised into the sunlight with Xander astride. Idegwaed, nestled in a red staghide scabbard, swung gently at their sides. Rhun snorted and dropped his head as they crossed the River Trefnwy. Xander loosened the reins and let his feet hang free of the stirrups. The midday sun felt wondrous after so many dark hours in that dreary, cold swamp.
Xander felt that all would be right in the world now. Archduges, iarlls, and tywysogion would swear fealty to him in exchange for his protection. They would gift castles and fiefdoms to his son. Life would be perfect for the first time in Xander’s family.
They rode all day until Rhun stopped at the edge of midnight and gazed at Blackthorn. He whickered softly and pawed the earth. Xander shifted in his saddle. “What is it, lad?”
Then he saw it, or rather didn’t. The kettledrums normally lit at night by the gate had been quelled. Blackthorn was suspiciously quiet, until Xander heard a scream.
Xander dug his heels into Rhun’s side and rocketed toward the gates. Rhun couldn’t move fast enough. Xander drove hard against the stallion’s neck, booting him over and over. Rhun’s breaths came frantically. The tall grasses brushed by in a blur of moonlit gold.
Once in the bailey, Xander swung from Rhun’s back before the stallion had come to a halt. Before he could draw Idegwaed from her scabbard, two men clad in chainmail and boiled leather barreled into him. Xander’s hands were bound behind his back as a fist slammed into his jaw. He arched his back to try and kick out, but failed. With a grunt, he hammered his heel into his captor’s foot then pummeled his elbow into the man’s ribs, breaking free. He raced to Rhun’s side and drew Idegwaed. In one fell swoop, he spun and hacked into one of the men’s pauldrons. The man staggered backward, gripping his shoulder. The other raced toward Xander, swinging a claymore. Xander grit his teeth and pitched a blow into the on comer’s side. A voice from the curtain wall above cackled with glee. “Keep him busy, boys!”
Xander rolled away from the blow of a mace and saw a hulking man clutching Aowyn. Aowyn struggled against him, her voice muffled by the man’s hand over her mouth.
“Wyn!” Xander yelled.
Aowyn tried to cry out as the large man laughed again. “I have a date with a princess.”
Xander bellowed and affronted the one with the claymore. Steel screeched against obsidian. Xander rammed his shoulder into the man’s chest, then pivoted and slashed into the place between the other’s neck and shoulder. A spray of blood sputtered against Xander’s chest. He raised Idegwaed and swung again. She chewed through chain and bit deep into flesh. The man dropped to his knees, his open-mouthed face blankly turning skyward. Xander roared again and spiraled toward the one with the claymore, shoving Idegwaed into his belly. Xander’s heart pounded as the man looked at him with the same wide-eyed expression as his comrade had. Xander grabbed the man’s head and pulled him close, pushing Idegwaed deeper through the man’s gut with a primal yell. As the man choked, the sneer on Xander’s face turned to a dark smile.
He pulled Idegwaed out and watched with an unnatural pleasure as the man fell to the ground. Xander placed the toe of his boot against the man’s face, and turned it away from him. The rapid breath in his lungs burned. The blood on Idegwaed rained like tears down her guard as Xander ran toward the nearest door.
The door had been battered open and hung in broken pieces. Xander leapt over the rubble, squinting in the darkness. Bodies lay on the floor. He stooped by one and recognized his captain of the guard. A glance over his shoulder revealed three of his other best men. Xander swore under his breath and stole up the staircase. He found Maeb gagged, bound, and unconscious in a darkened corner. He checked her pulse and breathed a sigh of relief. Alive. He whispered an apology and left her as he found her. He didn’t want her causing a commotion and running off to find Aowyn only to get herself in to more danger.
He tightened his grip around Idegwaed and crouched, prowling down the hall. He heard Aowyn’s scream. He was getting close. The sound of pottery smashing and bodies clunking against furniture was just around the bend. When he reached the door, he kicked it open.
“Unhand my wife.”
The burly man captured Aowyn by the wrist and pulled her in. He chuckled. “My men and I were beginning to wonder if you were coming back.” He regarded Aowyn momentarily and laughed again. “Who do I kid? A pretty girl like this. Of course you would come back.” His lips curled as he pressed his nose to Aowyn’s jawbone, breathing deeply.
Aowyn stared at Xander in terror, uttering his name. The man covered her mouth and pressed a dagger to her throat.
Xander growled. He tightened his hold on Idegwaed, and took a step in their direction. “Let her go.”
The man looked at him from the corner of his eyes with a baleful grin. “Uh, uh, uh, Barwn Blackthorn. Play nice now.”
Xander began to circle them. Who was this man? Why had he come? By the looks of his furs, his cape, and the rings on his beefy knuckles, he was a man of importance. Xander continued to pace around them, frustrated that Aowyn was being kept between them like a shield.
“Tell me where you are from,” Xander snarled, “so that I may send your head there when I cut it off.”
The man sniggered. “Such a shame they want her dead. She’s so very beautiful.”
Xander’s anger raged as the man pressed his tongue against Aowyn’s cheek and slowly slithered it up to her temple. Aowyn’s breath coursed and her eyes flashed. She bit hard into the man’s finger until a line of blood trickled to the floor. The man sounded like thunder, “You venomous she-devil!”
He grabbed her and threw her over his shoulder, bolting for the door. Xander had not been mindful, and left it unguarded. He charged after them. The man was lumbering down the hall. Xander could hear Maeb clucking beneath her gag, then squawking and making a ruckus as the man drew near. With a bellow and a mighty heave, Xander hurled Idegwaed after him. The falchion sang through the air and buried herself deep between the man’s shoulder blades. The man sucked in a sudden breath and paused mid-stride. He staggered around toward Xander, his eyes open capaciously. Xander bolted to grab Aowyn and push the man forward. With a deafening thud, the man fell. Xander held Aowyn close. She trembled in his arms. Xander took her face with both hands and looked her in the eyes. He didn’t need to speak the words he was thinking, wondering if she was alright. She simply nodded and hugged him hard. He scooped her up, cradling her, and leaned his forehead against hers. He walked down the hall slowly, never wanting to take his eyes from Aowyn again. The world seemed to disappear. He made way to their bedroom and gently laid his wife on the bed, pressing his mouth to hers softly. He made her comfortable and dropped to one knee, weaving his fingers with hers. “Tell me what happened.”
Aowyn winced. “It happened so fast. One moment we were enjoying dinner, the next the castle went dark. Our men started fighting. Maeb and I tried to escape, and then that man…” She shuddered, then cried, “Oh, Xander, where were you?”
Xander kissed Aowyn’s knuckles. This was his fault. If he had been here to protect his keep, this might not have happened. “This will never happen again. I swear it.”
“How can you promise that with assurance?”
Xander looked at her earnestly. “Everything will be different from now on.” He leaned over the bed, placing a hand on his wife’s belly. He kissed the widest part of it and spoke quietly. “You will never have to fight for our land so long as I live.”
His fingers tightened around Aowyn’s nightgown as the baby kicked beneath his hand. He kissed Aowyn long and deeply, then rose.
Aowyn stirred uncomfortably. “That sword you had… I’ve never seen it before. Where did you get it?”
Xander tensed and said nothing.
Aowyn tried to turn his head to look at her. “I have only seen one other like it, forged by a creature my father drove from our lands. Tell me where you got that sword.”
Xander clenched his fists.
Aowyn choked. “Sylas Mortas. You’ve been to him, haven’t you?”
Xander turned his back.
“You don’t understand what you’re dealing with, Xan. I know him. He will only make things worse for us. Even the gods want no business with him! Please believe me.”
“I love you. Goodbye.”
“Where are you going?” Aowyn shifted in bed. “Please don’t leave me alone.”
Xander glanced over his shoulder as he exited the room and shut the door behind him. Any threat to Aowyn was a threat to his son and must be hunted down without hesitation.
He returned to the man’s body, took his dagger, and dislodged Idegwaed from her sticking place. He strode to Maeb, shook his head, then cut her loose and ungagged her. Maeb started ranting in her tongue. Xander ignored her and helped her up. When she paused to take a breath before her next tirade, Xander shoved the dagger into her hands. “Go to Aowyn. Protect her. Do not leave her side. In the morning, you shall have fresh men to guard the keep. Understand?”
Maeb nodded and waddled down the hall to the bedroom.
Xander bolted downstairs to the bailey and mounted Rhun.
“Aowyn…” the gods called again.
Aowyn answered their beckoning and rose slowly from her bed. Maeb snored beside her, clutching the dagger she had been given. Aowyn crept to the window, bathing in the last moonlight before dawn. She hoped the gods would show her another vision of her son.
“I am here,” she whispered. “What would you have of me?”
Aowyn found herself enveloped by a dawn as red as fire. This canvas was painted with her husband marching into a castle. He swung a terrible black sword at the guards, slicing through their armor and rending them to their knees. A spin found the blade clean through another guard’s belly. The next was beheaded. More and more guards came, but Xander only grew stronger with each kill. His face was grim. Aowyn barely recognized him. He was dropping men dead as easily as rain fell until he reached a throne room. He pointed his sword at the Iarll in charge. “Swear fealty to me or die,” Xander demanded.
The Iarll at throne was aghast and trembling. With a wave of his hand, a servant brought him his sword. The Iarll took it, then dropped to his knees and proffered up his blade to Xander.
Xander snatched it. For a moment he looked unsure of himself, but then erupted with a sudden holler, and beheaded the man. He stood over him, breathing hard. He looked up at the servants and pointed the blades at them. “You answer to me now.”
The servants cowered in a corner and nodded emphatically.
Xander kicked the body across the floor, blood streaking against the polished tiles. “Clean this mess up.”
Aowyn watched Xander march back outside and return to Rhun. He rode forth unopposed.
The red dawn grew brighter.
Aowyn bit back a cry. “Why do you show me this?”
“Xander walks a dark road,” the gods answered. “He has sought the aid of Sylas Mortas.”
Aowyn looked on as Xander rode into another city. Women and children fled before him. He offered his ultimatum to the men at arms. Those who refused met a swift end.
“He must be stopped,” The gods said.
Tears burned Aowyn’s ruddy cheeks. Surely this was not her Xander. The world went black, and she awoke in her bed.
Birds chirped outside. It was a beautiful day.
She looked over her shoulder. Maeb snored loudly, clutching the dagger she had been given.
“Maeb.” Aowyn poked her. Maeb stopped snoring and opened an eye. “Maeb, how did Xander find Sylas Mortas?”
Maeb shut her eye and let loose the loudest snore of all.
Aowyn grimaced. She leaned close to Maeb and muttered, “You’re useless.” She threw back the covers. She never saw Maeb’s pained expression.
Xander lit from Rhun’s back, his boots hitting the earth in a dusty cloud. Idegwaed rested in his hand, bloodied from a two-day rampage. He grabbed the wrist of the first man he came across and hacked off his hand. It was a hand that could pose a threat to Aowyn and their son. He moved on mercilessly, bringing down anyone who came across his path. A twisted pit of excitement formed in his stomach. He was keenly aware of the way his muscles flexed whenever he danced with Idegwaed. The sunlight that beat off his shoulders now only made him more aroused. Even the guards were fleeing before him by the time he reached this city. He strode into the great hall, offering his ultimatum to the Tywysog of this province. The Tywysog rose swiftly and drew his sword. Servants quickly equipped him with a shield.
Xander shook his head. “Do you think that will save your rotten hide?”
The Tywysog banged his sword against it, announcing his intent.
Xander grasped Idegwaed’s hilt and rushed the Tywysog. The Tywysog deflected Idegwaed with the shield and whacked Xander in the back with the flat of his blade tauntingly. Xander growled and windmilled around, crashing Idegwaed against the other sword. He pressed the attack. Idegwaed’s obsidian edge scraped down toward the Tywysog’s hand. The Tywysog clenched his jaw and kicked out, shoving Xander back and slicing at his shoulder. Xander spun away, just in time, and cut hard into the Tywysog’s thigh. The Tywysog bawled and staggered, clutching his leg. Xander raced toward him, Idegwaed raised over his head. The Tywysog tried to limp away as Idegwaed fell through the air. The Tywysog lifted his sword, and the black blade glanced away. The Tywysog forced himself upright, his face drawn and pale. Xander swung at his head, then his shield arm. Idegwaed’s tongue sparked against its rival and then bit into the shield arm. It gnawed through bone, and the shield fell. The arm hung awkwardly, sinew exposed. Xander reeled around and swept the legs out from beneath the Tywysog with the flat side of Idegwaed, then grabbed the Tywysog’s hair, pulling his head back to expose the man’s throat. Idegwaed hummed as she slid against stubble.
Xander felt alive with an intense spark. His muscled rippled with renewed power. He savored having this man’s life in his hands. He would never again be subject to anyone.
“Submit or die,” Xander murmured.
The Tywysog swallowed. “Either way I am a dead man. I pity those who bend to tyran—”
Blood spilled. The Tywysog gurgled and crumpled to the floor.
Xander cleaned his blade on the Tywysog’s clothing. As he did so, he noticed small chinks along Idegwaed’s edge that had not been there prior. He sheathed her carefully and turned to the fearful guards in the room. “You there. Cowards.” He crossed to them swiftly and took them by their collars. “You’re mine now. Inform your comrades. We ride at dawn. Those who refuse will be hunted and killed for the dogs that they are.”
The guards nodded in unison.
Aowyn had not seen Xander in three weeks. After her vision of the blood dawn, she feared for Xander’s life. Maeb could do little to comfort her nightmares. Aowyn only wept in to Maeb’s shoulder and begged her to tell her where to find Sylas Mortas. Perhaps if she could talk to him, he would tell her where Xander was and why this sudden, dire madness. Yet no one would give her the answers she sought, and with each passing day she felt as though a piece of her died inside. Even the baby kicked less.
Xander wove his way through the Twelve Kingdoms, increasing his army with the fall of each hold. A third of the kingdoms were at his disposal after only a month. In the battle at Three Ogre Fief, his army doubled. With the demise of each hold’s ruler, however, Idegwaed’s chinks became more abundant. Little imperfections had grown into teeth. She was saw-like and even more fearsome to behold. With every battle, Xander grew more powerful. Yet he felt bits of him vanishing, not unlike his precious falchion. It wasn’t immediate. It was little things. The more he noticed them, the harder he fought and tried to hide them. Trying to convince his army, who only fought beside him for fear of him, that they were undefeatable. The harder he fought, the more noticeable such weaknesses became. He started feeling hollow. When they took the sixth kingdom, his men sensed something was amiss. No one could put their finger on it, but it put the warriors off, and men went missing from the ranks.
Aowyn clutched her belly and winced.
She cursed the gods when they called on her now. Pain. So much pain.
“He must be stopped,” they insisted.
A vision came to her of Xander and Rhun galloping into a large city. He wielded his terrible sword, beheading women and children alike. He grabbed a torch and urged Rhun toward a cathedral. Rhun reared, his hooves drilling against the heavy wooden doors until they burst open. Xander cantered inside and lit banners and beams, then flung the torch deeper into the cathedral. They careened outside. Houses burned. Children wept over their parents. Bodies piled in the street. Orange, smoky haze plumed from the cathedral.
“Xander must pay for his sins,” the gods noted.
“No!” Aowyn cried. “Please. Don’t take my Xander.”
“A curse on your house then, Aowyn, and all you bear in it.”
“No,” she pled, “spare my child.” She curled into a ball, barely able to withstand the agony within her. “Take me instead.”
“You?” The gods considered it. “A cursed life will he lead, until the day he dies, but we will take you for the sins of Xander.”
Aowyn’s eyes were wide open as she screamed for Maeb.
Maeb held her tight, stroking her hair.
Aowyn gripped her belly. “The baby’s coming.”
Maeb kissed Aowyn’s hair. “It is too soon.”
Aowyn let out another cry. Blood trickled on to the bed sheets. “Now!”
Xander found himself drunk and abandoned at Old Council’s Realm. He was dragged before High King Balthazaar, who towered over him on horseback. More men than Xander had ever seen were gathered on the horizon. Their shields of blue and white unmistakably marked them under the command of the king. Balthazaar’s horse pawed the ground as ten men surrounded Xander. Somehow one of them had gained possession of fanged and hungry Idegwaed and held her against the vein in Xander’s neck. He really could not remember much in his drunken stupor. Last night’s escapades had left him weak, off guard, and at the king’s mercy. He felt drugged. As he squinted against the sunlight, he was certain he saw no less than four Balthazaars, all swirling and dancing around each other in a blur of blue and gold robes. Xander winced as all of the kings spoke at once in separate voices, something about treachery, lucky to be alive, and being found wanton.
The twenty, or was it fifty, men got him to his feet, holding him captive, bound with his arms behind his back. Idegwaed’s broken glint blinded him. He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to concentrate on what was being said. He picked out one of Balthazaar’s voices and hoped it was the right one.
“I underestimated you, Barwn Blackthorn. Too long have I left you unchecked. I have failed my people by allowing them to fall by your hand, and for that I must pay. I understand that now. It is by the grace of the God of Mercy, whose cathedral I built and you destroyed, that I allow you to keep what has been forcibly taken from me, but you will come no further than Council’s Realm. It is the free city of the Twelve Kingdoms and should remain so. For this purpose have I brought my army, to ensure that you do not try to resist this treaty. You may keep the blood lands, but it comes with its own price. You are responsible for the recompense of all those poor souls, and any I find unlawfully in my lands after a reasonable time of refuge will be driven back. There is no place for your kind in my world.”
My kind, thought Xander with a stab of conscience.
“Lord only knows why you have crossed your king thusly.”
“My son,” Xander answered dryly.
Xander opened his eyes, rolling his tongue in an attempt to dismiss the feel of cotton in his mouth. He coughed to clear his throat. “My wife bears a son. He is to be a prince of the realm by birthright.”
Balthazaar shifted uneasily in his saddle. His horse snorted and chomped at the bit. After a moment, a contract and quill were being shoved under Xander’s nose.
“What’s this?” Xander asked.
“The land you have taken maledictions you. I know you are destitute and have no monetary means to rule. Sign this, and your life will be spared… for now. Consider it a gift to your son.”
The lands were his if he signed. Die, if he refused; live if he accepted. Either way, he was a condemned man. Balthazaar was right. Xander never had the means to fund the lands, only the power to take them.
Xander forced his name across the scroll before he could regret it all. The price was too steep. He only wanted to return home and forget this had all happened.
Balthazaar gave a curt nod when it was all said and done. The world went black to Xander.
When he came to, he found himself bound and gagged, slumped in Rhun’s saddle. The horse plodded along calmly as if knowing with certainty where to go. Xander glanced at the sky. The sun was slightly behind them, but not by much. They were headed southeast to Blackthorn. Xander groaned as Rhun jarred against a bank. The guards must have knocked him out. His head was splitting, and he tasted dried blood on the rag in his mouth. He reached to pull it out, and looked to his side. Idegwaed swung in her sheath. Xander bent over carefully to retrieve her and slid the rope around his wrists against the blade’s jagged edge. He held her up in one hand. She had once been polished, smooth, and a prize to be won, but was now rugged and terrifying, and ugly. Xander felt this same ugliness within himself. How many lives had paid for this blade, now swollen with tiny cracks and veins? He clenched his teeth and swallowed back a sick taste. He sheathed Idegwaed hard and kicked Rhun into a gallop.
A few of the men Xander had sent on his earliest conquest remained at the keep. It wasn’t but enough to guard the household. He swung over Rhun’s wide back and passed the reins to one of those men. Another ran out to him and took him by the arm.
“What is going on?” Xander demanded, prying away his elbow.
“Please, my lord, come with me. It’s urgent.”
Xander marched behind. “Is it Aowyn? Is she alright?”
The guard said nothing, but led him upstairs where Maeb was exiting Xander’s chambers. Her face was ashen and haggard. She looked at Xander bitterly. “Do locht.”
Xander pushed past her into the room. Even from where he stood, he could see Aowyn was deathly pale. He rushed to her side and took her icy hand in his. Her hair was dull and matted. Even the sun kisses across the bridge of her nose were faded. He pressed his lips to her fingers, willing warmth back into her. Her eyes opened to him. She moved her mouth to speak, but no words came.
Xander could scarcely stand to look upon her glazed expression. “Oh, Wynnie…”
“Her birthing time came days ago,” Maeb said softly from behind him. “He will not come.”
Xander held Aowyn’s hand so tightly. Was there a way to save them? “Bring me a dagger, Maeb.”
Maeb returned quickly and pressed the dagger in to Xander’s hand. He looked at the blade, hands shaking. I must do what Maeb has not.
He rose slowly, jaw trembling. He gently pushed back the covers to reveal Aowyn’s naked body, frail and gaunt. “I’m sorry, Wyn.”
Carefully he pierced her belly with the blade and tore through flesh. Aowyn’s back arched, and her face lit up like white fire, eyes fully open and aware. Her throat gurgled, and a cry split the air, but it was not hers.
Maeb unwound the babe from a mess of cord and fluids.
The dagger fell from Xander’s hand, and he dropped to Aowyn’s side. She stared into space, her lips pursed and pulsing. Xander stroked her hair. “I’m sorry, Wynnie. I’m so sorry!”
She turned her head. Her gaze came in to focus. For a moment, Xander saw his Aowyn, not the ghost of her. She smiled. Her chest sank with a peaceful sigh. The care of the world faded from her countenance. Xander buried his face against Aowyn’s lifeless fist and choked back a sob. He shook his head. No. No, this couldn’t be happening! This wasn’t what he wanted. This wasn’t part of the bargain.
Through his misery, he became aware of Maeb shushing a squalling clamor in the background. She nudged Xander’s shoulder, proffering a ball of whimpers. “Do mhac, Eoghan.”
“Eoghan,” Xander echoed hollowly. He took him, staring into the face of a prince. Carrot-colored fuzz graced the baby’s head. Golden eyes considered Xander from behind a misshapen nose that wrinkled close to his face. A twisted spine writhed against Xander’s hands. Xander looked between Eoghan and Aowyn. Maeb was singing a soft, mournful song in her tongue as she cleaned Aowyn’s body and closed her glassy eyes. Xander looked back at Eoghan and tried to feel some sort of love for this purple-faced being. He swallowed as his emptiness was replaced by compelling loathing. Eoghan squirmed and kicked free of the swaddle, revealing a blue, clubbed foot covered in orange fuzz.
Xander grabbed Maeb, shoved Eoghan back into her arms, and stormed from the room.
Five years had passed since Xander had sent Aowyn’s remains across the sea to Aodhagain, so that she might be buried with her ancestors.
In that span, strange creatures began stalking the countryside. Howls rode the air from Litchwood Forest at the edge of Blackthorn. Howls that Xander did not recognize. There were nights he would stand at the window, a flask of Blacksteed ale in hand, and watch massive, black forms prowl the skirts of the keep’s land. Green eyes glinted in the moonlight, blinking at him. Maeb called them barghest. Somewhere between a bear and direwolf was this monster. They were never far off. Xander would never have rest. If it was not brigands after his land for all those years, it was now barghest. Their cry, meant for him, made the hackles on his neck stand at attention. Other creatures were taking up residence as well. There was word on the air that giants roamed the land, and white stallions with long, golden horns. No one knew where they were coming from, but Xander had an inkling.
He took a deep swig from his decanter and then flung it into the fireplace. With a clap, the fire roared, fueled by the alcohol in the now molten container. Xander looked over his shoulder. Idegwaed hung above the mantle. Shadows danced against her ragged blade. Xander squinted. His mouth drew in a tight, grim frown. Idegwaed.
The blade had brought him all the land and subjects he desired, as promised, but it brought all the worldly troubles with it. He had not needed to fight for Blackthorn since the day he hung Idegwaed, for all now feared to cross the very blade that had brought them under Xander’s rule. Except the barghest. Xander felt they would not keep to the woods much longer. Why, though? What would such monsters want with a crumbling keep? Xander ran a hand through his wavy, black hair. Why were any of these creatures drawn to Blackthorn?
He moved slowly to Idegwaed. She appeared milky liquid in the flickering shadows. Ethereal. Alive. He reached toward her. He could drive the barghest out. He had been unstoppable before, surely he could be so again.
Dawn edged in behind him. He paused in this moment, on the edge of daylight and darkness. The door of the room creaked open, and an excited breath came from outside.
Xander’s arm fell. He gazed in the direction of the boy. The gleam of firelight skipped off of his bright eyes. Xander looked back at Idegwaed. She had brought him power, but that power had damned his son.
The boy scampered in on his knuckles, dragging his clubbed foot. He gave Xander a wide berth and a wary eye. He scooted to the table in the corner to snatch a boiled cream treat, leftover from his father’s untouched supper. He watched Xander as he gobbled up several cold sausages. Eoghan’s eyes burned into Xander’s back. The boy had an insatiable appetite. He was ugly to the point where Xander felt that he should be shut away. Sickly and weak he was not. Where most babes grow out of some shortcomings at birth, the years had not improved or been kind to Eoghan. His crumbled nose had grown black and dead. The twisted spine stretched beyond his bottom. He never allowed Maeb to trim his nails. Whenever he got away with something, he behaved as though it were a giant joke. Maeb tried to keep him in line, but she was no match for his savage strength. He was smart, too. Xander saw it clearly. The boy knew how to throw his weight around and when to use someone else’s moment of weakness to his advantage. He could act dull and helpless, but there was no mistaking the intelligence in his eyes.
He grunted and whimpered as he ate Xander’s food, possessive as though he had never been fed. Xander stared into the fire. His shoulders rose to his ears in disgust. His jaw clenched. His fists tightened. A roar rose in his throat.
The nursemaid hurried in.
“Get him out of my sight.” Xander pounded the fireplace mortar, glancing sideways at the animal that was his son.
Maeb scurried to the boy, scolding him softly in his mother’s tongue.
Eoghan bared his teeth and growled.
“Naughty boy. Come now, Eoghan.”
Maeb tried to reach him. Eoghan ducked away, ham bone in teeth, spilling what little food was left with a clatter.
Maeb chased him, hand splayed to catch him, but the boy was too quick.
Xander spun on his heel with an angry holler, snatching Eoghan by the scruff of his neck. He lifted the boy and glared eye to eye with him. Eoghan blinked, chin trembling. He proffered the ham bone to his father.
Xander grabbed it and flung Eoghan to the floor then hurled the bone into the fire.
Eoghan crab-walked across the floor, his eyes never leaving Xander.
“Honestly I do not know why I keep you, Maeb,” Xander spat.
Maeb wiped tears from her face as she knelt beside Eoghan, stroking his hair.
“If you cannot control him…”
Maeb kissed Eoghan’s temple, caressing his ruddy cheek.
“I should just shut him away,” Xander said quietly.
“Aowyn would never forgive you,” Maeb choked bitterl