The Blood King
Rian Baylor escaped life as a slave and found freedom in a new home, an ocean away. But when that home is razed around him, he wants vengeance. He sets out in pursuit of blood and finds instead love, war, and suffering. A girl draws him back to his homeland, where he discovers a secret organization of warriors and manipulators who have worked to bring him home, to lead in the same vein of his ancestors, to continue the line of Baylor, the Blood King.
‘It is only the broken that possess the greatest strength of all men. It is only the broken that bear the title ‘hero.’”
The Words of the World
The shadows were lengthening beneath the torches that guttered in the breeze. Still the king had not returned. The Mother was sitting in a hard-backed oaken chair, absentmindedly twirling a thin knife between her fingers. Moments stretched into long minutes of anxious silence. She raised a black-gloved hand, flicking two of her fingers with the slightest creak of leather.
Though she did not turn her head, the sounds of light footfalls reached her ears, almost masked by the blowing of the wind. She imagined seeing little tufts of grass flatten as a shadow passed over them and smiled slightly at the thought.
The footsteps ceased. She could feel a presence above her, looming. Waiting.
“It is time, Alaria, to blow out the candle. They will be returning soon. Be ready.”
“But she. She’ll - ”
“She knows the price of service. This must be done. Shall I ask another, or can you take care of this for me?”
“It will be done, Mother.”
Alaria bowed, allowing her knees to bend, before she took her leave, slipping through the thick canvas flaps that looked black under the guise of night. She walked from the tent with a dark purpose in her stride, unstringing her longbow as she did so. The black arrows with their gray fletching hid in the folds of darkness. And her cloak marked her as an agent of the Order; heads turned away and eyes burrowed into the ground as she passed.
She crested a low, grassy ridge, and walked along it, until her back was pressed against a great oak tree that stood sentinel to the forest dregs behind it.
She waited. Minutes stretched into hours and still the night was silent, the shadows unbroken. She flexed her fingers, pulled a deep breath of air into her lungs, laid an arrow on the string, shifted her feet, straightened her back.
She heard them before she saw them, the pounding of hooves, muffled by the thick grassy carpet that stretched underfoot. But the thudding was drawing steadily closer. It had to be them.
Alaria stepped out from the tree, drawing the bowstring back until the fletching brushed her ear. The limbs of the longbow creaked with the strain. She could almost hear the bow screaming in protest as she held the shot, waiting. Her breath was smooth and slow, her hands unwavering, her back trained to hold that position for many long hours.
Three heads appeared beyond a small hill several hundred meters away. They were drawing nearer. Alaria focused her vision on the three riders, dismissing the man that rode in the middle, as well as the woman that rode to his right. But the woman who rode to his left, whose brown hair had come loose from its bun while she was riding, was coming into range.
They dipped out of sight again, and Alaria relaxed the tension on the bow, keeping her breathing constant and measured. The heads angled up out of the recession, followed quickly by shoulders and torsos and horses. Alaria pulled back a little more, tracked the shot, closed her eyes, took in a deep breath, then released the arrow with her breath.
Before the arrow had hit its mark, another was already on its way. The shrieking of frogs and the hooting of owls, the growling of cats and the rustling in the underbrush hid the speeding hum of rushing death until it was upon them.
Rian’s head snapped up as the sound slid around his ears. It was a sound he recognized, a sound that had ingrained fear into his mind, a sound that was always accompanied by death. The humming was deep but rapid; an arrow, he knew, in the seconds before it struck its mark. His stallion, sensing his fear, snorted and reared, giving vent to a neighing roar as he did so. But the sound was unable to overcome another sound, one far quieter and far more terrifying.
The thud of an arrow sliding through cloth and leather and halting in flesh. The soft gasp of surprise more than pain at the burning that laced along her chest and into her fingertips, lighting up her brain. The second whistling and another thud. Another gasp, this time more of resignation than anything else. The brown mare whinnied as her rider slid sideways from the saddle. The animal reared, eyes rolling in fear, and bolted, sending a cloud of dust rising into the darkness.
Rian turned frantically, his eyes wide. The blood had fled his face quicker than water falls from open fingers, leaving behind a sickly pasty white that crept along his cheeks until his eyes stood out starkly. The reins fell against the stallion’s neck, his fingers numbed from shock, too numb to grip anything.
The world felt frozen. Time ceased to be. Sound was reaching his ears, muffled and sluggish, everything around him looked to be blurred, streaked, as though an artist had swept a stroke of water over top of the paint. His lungs burned and he was mildly surprised to find that he had stopped breathing. A sound reached his ears, battling through his shield of terror and denial, and registered in his brain. A sound so dim, so soft, that his heart leapt into his throat.
Adrenaline flooded his veins and he kicked his feet free from the stirrups and vaulted over the side of the great stallion, his feet slamming into the ground so that the impact sped up his legs and smashed into his knees. He didn’t react. He took two great strides forward and sank onto the ground, entirely ignorant of the damp that was spreading through his breeches.
His scarred, bearded, terrified face swam over hers, and a slight smile touched the corners of her mouth. Her hand found his and his heart seemed to explode at her evident lack of strength. He turned to find the other one, her name had vanished from his mind, but that was not important right now.
“Go!” he screamed, a red, raw scream that tore like blades at his throat. “Get someone, anyone,” the shout had died, choked into a sob, “help,” his voice was nearly lost.
Andrea looked down at the two, clustered on the ground, and cracked the reins across her mount’s neck, sending the animal into a driving gallop into the camp. The beautiful white stallion had walked off and begun to graze on a stretch of grass nearby. Sabina’s horse had vanished.
The silence was oddly worse than the subtle sounds that had existed there before. The sounds of harried breathing, of animals snorting, of cloaks rustling, they had vanished, and the sounds of Sabina dying seemed to increase a hundredfold.
Through the dim, Rian could make out the two arrows, with black shafts and gray fletching, that protruded from her chest. They were no more than three inches apart. The heavy broadheads had punched through her thin leather armor the way a hot knife slides through butter, and her ribcage had provided little resistance after that. The arrowheads were just barely protruding between her shoulder blades, where two thin lines of blood were tracing their way down her cloak.
Her front was washed in red. With every heaving, scraping pull of blessed oxygen into those pierced lungs, the blood welled a little faster, pooling around the already soaked shafts and pouring down her chest where it collected in her lap, soaking into her clothes, dribbling onto the grass. The smell of metal was in the air, barely enough to mask the smell of fear.
Rian cradled her pale face in his hands, staring into her eyes as though he was a blind man whose sight had been restored. Her hand lifted from where it rested at her side and travelled slow, as though the air itself was molasses, until her fingertips rested against the burn that dominated the left side of his face.
“Rian,” she said, in a choking gasp that was hardly more than a whisper lost to the wind.
A bubble of blood grew at the corner of her mouth as she spoke and burst when her lips stopped moving, scattering splotches of red across her cheeks. His throat had become a burning, piercing circle of pain, as though a flaming knife had been thrust under his jaw. He clenched his teeth to stop the chattering, barely reacted when his eyes began to burn, sending a few thick tears falling over his lids and sliding down his nose, where they fell upon her forehead with a gentle tap. Tap, tap. Tap.
“Rian,” she said again, this time with even less strength.
He held her chilled hand against his cheek and bent his head over her lips. With a groan that sounded horribly like blades churning through a thick, viscous liquid, she pulled her head closer to his ear, and began to whisper to him.
“I’m not who you want me to be,” her voice was a death rattle; his body didn’t feel like his own. “I’m not what I wish I was,” her words struck him but fell away, unable to penetrate the growing cloud of despair that hung over him. “I think you know this,” her lips were hardly moving. “But I’ve loved you. With all that I am, I’ve loved you.” His tears began to fall in earnest, and she smiled, a sad little smile. “I’m not afraid to die. I am a part of you, now. Remember. Ri-” her voice broke like water crashing upon stone, his name, half-spoken, resting on her dead lips.
A long sigh replaced the whispers, a sigh that wrapped its icy fingers around his heart, a sigh that seemed to linger on the wind, eliciting a fresh storm of tears from the king. He shook as grief washed over him, racking his chest, flooding his lungs, blinding his eyes.
Her head fell back. Her body was suddenly limp. He laid her on the ground and brushed a rough hand against her eyes, closing the lids. He knelt over her then and pressed his lips to her own. He kissed her like he had never kissed her before, like he should have kissed her a thousand times, pulling on her cold, blue lips, some part of him believing, however foolishly, that she would kiss him back. But she did not move. He eventually pulled away, his hands shaking violently, staring at the pale, bloody face that looked more at peace now than he had ever seen in life.
Her hair was fanned out around her head, making her face seem small. He gripped a handful of his sleeve and began to brush it, ever so gently, against her cheeks, cleaning the blood from her mouth. In his chest, he could feel a gaping hole where his heart used to be, a black pit of grief and pain that sent a constant storm of lances throughout his body, so that his fingers ached and his toes, and his legs cramped and felt ghostly, as though they belonged to someone else. His senses were dulled, he had gone deaf on some level, blind on another. His throat burned and seared, but now with the feeling of ice so cold it burned something fierce. The tears had stopped, though his eyes were still damp and bloodshot. And his chest still heaved, rising up and down in rapid, uncertain bursts, his breath coming in quick tugs and sudden releases. His head shook slightly, like he was trying fervently to hold something between his ears.
He tried to swallow and found he was unable to. His throat had ceased to work. His fingers clawed at his throat as though he were suffocating, leaving long lines of red in the flesh where his nails dug in deep. He fell to his back, his body no longer able to support itself. His knees were folded awkwardly beneath his torso, but he could not feel the pain in his knees and his thighs as they bent. He turned to his side and began to rock, slowly at first, then rapidly, his mind forcing his body to move because his mind had become hell, a hell that could comprehend naught but her death.
The rocking subsided, the shaking stopped. But the piercing in his throat remained. His eyes snapped open, dry but still red. The pupils were dilated so that the irises were little more than thin rims circling the mass of black. He pushed himself to his knees; tilted his head back so that he stared unabashedly at the gaping maw of the sky.
Then he screamed. Rain began to fall as the sound rolled off his lips like thunder, ripping apart his throat. The sound was a bestial, guttural cry; an explosion of pure grief that had transmuted into burning, fiery rage. The cry carried on until his lungs pressed against his chest and the base of his throat seemed anchored by his lungs, pushing down and piercing from a lack of air. When the cry died off his lips he did not move. Nor when the rain began to fall in thick curtains. He was entirely unfeeling. Rain plastered his hair to his face, soaked his clothes and ran down his nose, falling off his ears and pooling on the ground where he knelt.
Still, he did not move.
His mind was a cavity of pain, a pain far worse than physical torture. He longed for blades, for fire. It would have been easier to handle than this. This was a thousand, minute blades rending his flesh from his bones, burrowing into and through his skull, cutting his lungs into ribbons, carving his still-beating heart from his chest and holding it before his face. Like boiling, molten rock being poured into his veins, like ice freezing against his bare skin until the digits fell off, like his face dragging against a jagged stone, like being chained at the bottom of a shallow pool so that he could see the surface, see it, but never reach it. Like icy water flooding his lungs and his brain, like fire tracing its way along his legs, burning his skin from his bones, melting his eyeballs and boiling his brain and heart, like nails being thrust into his wrists, forcing him to hang until death claimed him, like a thick, rawhide rope fastening around his neck and squeezing off air, like a great beast consuming him, like a beheading with a blunt sword.
But worse. A thousand times worse. Because he was drowning without the relief that was death. He was burning without the prospect of nothingness. Every second was a knife that ripped through his body, until his skin felt like little more than tatters hanging onto charred bones by thin, bloody threads. His body ached as his mind raged and swirled and stormed, until the physical pain that mirrored his grief grew numb.
He longed for death. He longed for an end to the suffering. He was tired; utterly spent, wrung out and beaten. He found his eyes closing and didn’t try to fight it.
Then he was falling, falling into an endless abyss. Falling for what felt like days, weeks, years. The pit had walls, and they grew nearer to him every second, great, slimy black walls, like the throat of some queer creature. But there was no floor. Nothing that would stop the falling, end the fear, shatter his spine and crush his body into a pulp.
At length, a light appeared, far distant. It grew gradually, into a roaring plume of orange flame, spitting red sparks and sending a column of smoky heat ahead of it. The great burst of flame opened like a wide mouth, swallowing Rian as he flew into it, washing him in a world of perennially growing heat that melted his armor into his flesh and set his hair afire, heat that turned his eyes into jellied pulps that streamed down his cheeks.
The tunnel of fire turned all at once into black water, water that made his skin clammy and freezing cold, water that ran up his nose and flooded his brain, water that fled down his throat and settled in his stomach and his lungs. His throat burned worse than ever, his stomach bulged, his forehead bulged, his empty eye sockets streamed. The water vanished.
The walls grew even closer, until he scraped against them as he slid down, rending his skin from his body in great bloody expanses of rock. The jagged, slimy rock sprouted thousands of prickly protrusions of steel in perfectly winding circles that tore what remained of Rian’s corpse into tiny shreds.
Every second the pain mounted. And since he was dreaming, he found he was unable to evade it. Death would not come. Sleep could not save him. His body could not numb him. He felt everything.
The walls vanished. His world became a pit once more. A face began to dance before him, then it multiplied, until a thousand and then ten thousand images of this face shimmered in front of his mangled eyes. He was unable to look away, unable to drown it out. Sabina stared at him, the hard look in her dark eyes accusatory. Blood was splattered against her cheeks, red lines traced from her nostrils.
“You could have saved me,” she said, though her lips did not move, and every face that stared at Rian spoke the words at the same time, creating a ringing echo that grated against his ears and pounded into his head.
The faces vanished. Thunder roared. It didn’t stop. It sounded louder and louder until Rian thought his skull would rupture from the sound. He glanced down. A floor had finally appeared. There was a single, thick black spike protruding from its center. He was hurtling toward it, unable to stop himself, unsure if he wanted to.
He seemed to speed up. The ground rose to meet him. …