Prologue: A Bitter Pill

Kafnere 6th, YED 4057
THE SCENT OF pine and soil and rot carried on a gay summer breeze. The crunch of the dense brazen tread of heavy-shouldered pack horses. Glimpses of the guardsman aheads surcoat. Blue wings stretched across a yellow sky. Or perhaps a dark falcon flying over a waving field of grain of impossible scale. The clink of that man's mail. The aroma of sweat and metal and horse and wood and midsummer.
Ahead the Lammornian Tradeway melted into green as it wound around yet another dense copse of trees. And from the back of the column through mailed warriors in autumnal yellow and midnight blue, glimpses were afforded of the King of Kovarth, Aed Uth-Slaine, sitting at ease atop his heavy chestnut packhorse (for the folk of Ralstaa had none of the fine mounts of the men of the north or the green-folk in the west). His jutting jaw sported a neat ash-blond beard, and his bronzed skin was moist in the brief midsummer heat that clung in the lowland forests this time of year. One who had never seen the King of Kovarth draw his knightly warsword might easily forget that (as nigh all kings of Ralstaa) he had slain more than two dozen seasoned warriors in single combat upon the field of tourney.
To his left a carriage, gaily painted in orange and black, housed the queen - Aed's only wife (by virtue of her royal parentage) the lady Kara. Though she travelled with the shutters drawn closed the doe-eyed queen's slender hands were likely engaged in the fine embroidery of which she was so fond. A quiet tune, scarcely louder than breath, upon her lips. And her handmaidens about her, silently admiring the lady's grace, skill, and beauty.
And sullenly, by the single opened shutter, Clarine would surely sit. Chin sunken upon her hands. Dressed in the dun kidskin more suited to a huntsman than to a King's firstborn daughter. Staring wilfully at the men on the horses she'd rather ride alongside, though she knew they'd not welcome a girl of eleven amongst their number.
Dappled sunlight broke the ancient boughs above, bathing the party in Rallah's glimmering gaze, and Clarine stuck her head out of the carriage window. Let her hair, so like her father's, be taken up by the whispered caress of the breeze, with its scent of hidden lilac and the babble of secret brooks somewhere nearby. And looked back, with ill-concealed jealousy, to where her brother, a mere lad of eight summers, shared a horse with the King's grizzled reeve Avin, a wooden soldier, his midsummer's eve gift, clutched in his small hands.
It was not that sharing a mount with the scarred old man held any appeal, so much as the freedom the boy had been afforded. While she was protected, always at the whim of some tutor or another (or worse still, ready to be shipped off to The City in less than a year's time to serve a High King she barely acknowledged, and have yet more duties heaped upon her!) her brother, Band, was doted upon, spoilt, and allowed to roam unmolested about the halls of Caer Slaine, with naught in tow but mischief.
Band had insisted upon riding with the rearguard as they crossed from the Royal Province into Talladale on the first leg of the long journey home from the festivities of the midsummer Oercorast at the High King's court. And with much fond eye-rolling Aed had consented to his young son's every whim. Clarine supposed that the brat would be acclaimed her father's heir before too long, and she'd be left to toil away her life in the canonate in some half-forgotten monastery in the woods, where the sister-priests would force her into the tedious tasks. Or, worse still, she'd be married into one of the unctuous noble houses that her father sought to court. Her best hope might be to live out her days as the sole wife (had she been of lesser standing she might have even had to share that role) of one of the fat, lecherous old men who wore crowns like her father's.
Lost in her own brooding, it would be easy to believe that Clarine never felt the arrow that pierced one of her big, golden-hued eyes (as like her mother's as her hair was like her father's) and sent her spirit to face the ash-wraiths.
At least today, Clarine Uth-Slaine had the greatest fortune amongst her family. For her it was all over before she knew it. No one else was so blessed.
Men at arms fell upon the King of Kovarth's party moments after a hail of arrows halved the gold-and-midnight clad guard in a volley of gore and rasping cries of surprise. Horns bellowed from the dark, secret places of the wood, as grey-clad mercenaries, already exchanging lethal huntsmen's bows for cudgels and cruelly curved knives shoulder to shoulder with brigantine-clad house guard in green, adorned with a glowering black lion, fell upon the Kovarth column.
They hacked their way, with big bearded axes dull with butchery, through the left flank, doing away with arrow-riddled men as they passed, crushing ribs and skulls under their heavy feet with wet crunches of forlorn resistance. And the followers turned their keen blades to the throats of those who still groaned or cried out in pain. And where the fighting was thick blood fountained like the streamers at the midsummer dance, red against vivid blue drawing lines upon the dusty ground.
When the ambushers reached the carriage the screams and cries from within made a thankful case for the closed shutters, that barred view of the atrocities inside. These men would not emerge to rejoin the battle until it was long over, their bloodlust overtaken by other lusts. But still their passions left not a single survivor when all was done.
And the mighty king himself drew forth his sword (the very same that was wielded by the paragon Slaine himself) though his breast was adorned with quarrels, and fought like a bull, or like the cunning predator that adorned his livery. Where his sword fell men died, but he had only one sword.
Aed landed hard on the ground, horse-trodden dust mere inches from his eyes, a dark-haired man standing over him, with pale eyes. He must be a foreigner, for his skin was pallid, and his silver-blue hammer, when it caught the light, was nearly the same hue as his eyes. The hammer fell again, breaking Aed's ribs, turning his insides to offal, and forcing a geyser of blood through his unwilling lips. The King looked out, towards the family he failed to protect. His wife being defiled in her carriage by common soldiers and hired killers. His daughter, mercifully slain before the same fate could befall her. And his son… where was his son? And Avin his reeve? The rearguard were gone, slain, but amongst their number he could not see the savagely lean man who came into his service claiming to be a keeper of accounts (which he knew was a lie) or his beloved son. Neither numbered amongst the fallen.
Smiling with shattered teeth, broken from a blow or from clenching in pain Aed did not recall, he summoned his reserves of strength and rolled onto his back. The hammer fell again, ruining his face, and grinding the mind within to minced-meat. Aed knew no more.

Pasanir 3rd, YED 4068
BAND DID NOT remember if he screamed or not, but he was sitting up, knife in hand, before he gathered his wits. Though the summer was scarcely days old his bare torso glistened with sweat, where it was not marked by grime. The dream was not always the same, and Band was sure that the memory had grown more and more impossibly vivid with each night of the past ten years, but then he had seen his father's final fate with his own eyes from a hidden copse not far away. Had felt the sorrow and rage and fear well up within him. Had hated Avin with a fiery, venomous fury for holding his arms and mouth so that he could not join the fray, and die alongside his family.
Now, years later, he was old enough and gracious enough to be grateful for his life, but he had never truly forgiven the old man, no matter how much he wanted to.
Through the broken eaves above him Band judged that it was not long after midnight, though the sky above the fabled city of lights was hard to see, through the smoke and the masking glow of the city. The filthy straw beneath his near-naked body was damp with sweat, and his rawspun hrid-wool blanket chafed his skin. He ran a hand over his meticulously shaved scalp (kept bare as a reminder of the shame of his family's slaying, in a land where long hair was a mark of power, wealth and nobility) and let out a shuddering sigh.
Somewhere in the run-down attic space that Band called his home, a fairy chattered its incessant mimicked nonsense. Band rose, spied the glimmer of the thing's gossamer wings, where it hovered beneath a broad beam, and slammed his hand lightening-fast into it, crushing it's frail body and silencing the thing forever. No doubt another would come before the sun rose.
At least the mungies were thin in this district. They usually didn't resurge in numbers until after spring, when the beggars moved onto more appetizing fare.
Wrapping his blanket around his shoulders he slipped out of the shutterless window that was also his door, and sat, three stories up, looking out over the oceanic rise and fall of the rooftops of Ravvh, north over the smoke-choked jaggedness of the Haules, to the impossibly distant horizon of the city walls. To the north-east he could make out the lighted spires of Cloudreach over the intervening terrain of man-made mountains of timber, stone and (for the wealthy) glass.
When he had summered here all those years ago, this walled metropolis of unimaginable scale, a city of of seemingly continental proportion, had felt wondrous. Now it was a filthy prison. The sluggish Silver River was less magical when one learned that the silver was a sheen of oil, and shit, and metal run-off rather than some mystic mirror of the divh's grandeur.
And there was no magic in dwelling in the ruinous attic of a run-down building, that leaned against its run-down fellows like a drunk or a cloud-fiend for support, or peddling low-city pussy on the streets for food and drink and (occasionally) a stray coin of thanks from and up-city merchant who had come somewhere his wife could never hear tell of.
Even lifers (a name for people who had lived their entire lives never setting foot outside the gates even once - a vast majority of it's people) could tell that The City (named as if it were deity over all other cities, the only true example of its ilk) stank. Early spring nights were cold, but their rains, fine and miasmic, steamed as they struck the sun-warm cobbles and slates, that had ravenously consumed whatever terrain the precursor spirits had meant to lay claim to this place.
Band went in and dressed. There would be no more sleep tonight. He checked Avin's bedroll, but just as it had been when he retired the previous night, it was empty. When Avin went to visit his 'contacts' in the city he was often gone a long time. Old friends in the abandoned fortress-slums along the walls as far as Band could gather.

Prologue Chapter 1