More than four centuries ago, the Scepter of Mercy was lost to the king of Avornis, and each subsequent liege has promised—and failed—to return the powerful talisman to its rightful home. Now, young Lanius, the only surviving son of King Mergus, rules, though he is considered illegitimate and must abide by the decisions of regents. Still, the legacy of the missing scepter ultimately belongs to him. But it is also coveted by the Banished One, an immortal exiled by the other gods, who invades the world of men through their dreams. Lanius, with no talent or heart for battle, must keep those in the sway of the malevolent deity from Avornis’s borders. To this end, Lanius requires the help of Grus, a fearless and respected captain of the king’s navy. But Grus has a far loftier destiny than his common birth would suggest—and the bastard king’s brave, accomplished ally might well turn out to be his most dangerous adversary.
Originally published under the pen name Dan Chernenko, The Bastard King is a magnificent foray into epic fantasy by the incomparable Harry Turtledove, the prolific and multi-award-winning master of alternate history science fiction. A tale of courage and destiny, it is alive with action, imagination, and humanity, and populated by richly complex, imperfect heroes and a villain as truly fiendish as any that has ever graced the fantasy genre.
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The Bastard King
Book One of the Scepter of Mercy Trilogy
By Harry Turtledove
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Dan Chernenko
All rights reserved.
This tale begins a little less than nine months before King Lanius was born. That was when Certhia, King Mergus' concubine, went to Mergus and told him she thought she was with child.
Mergus, by then, had been King of Avornis for almost thirty years. He was a big, rawboned man with a long white beard and a scar on his cheek above it that proved he'd been a warrior in his younger days. His eyes were a dusty, faded blue — a hopeless blue, you might say, for he had no sons.
Waiting to succeed him was his younger brother, Prince Scolopax. Mergus hated Scolopax. The hatred was mutual. Scolopax waited ... impatiently.
Hearing Certhia's news, Mergus put his big, knobby-knuckled hands on the concubine's soft shoulders and rumbled, "Are you sure?" The rumble ended in a harsh, wheezing cough — several harsh, wheezing coughs, in fact. Mergus had been coughing more and more the past couple of years. Prince Scolopax might not have to be impatient too much longer.
On the other hand, after this, he might.
Certhia looked up into the king's lean, haggard face. Her eyes were blue, too, the deep, striking sapphire blue for which so many women gave so many wizards so much gold. For her, the color was natural. Mergus thought so, anyway.
"Not yet, Your Majesty," she answered. "In another month, though, I'll know for certain."
"If it's a boy —" Mergus paused to cough again. He had trouble stopping. When he finally did, a tiny fleck of pink-stained spittle rested on his lower lip. He flicked out his tongue and it was gone. He gathered strength. "If it's a boy, Certhia, I'll wed you."
Those sapphire blue eyes widened. "Oh, Your Majesty," Certhia whispered.
"I mean it," Mergus declared. "If it's a boy, he'll be my heir. To be my heir, he has to be legitimate. For him to be legitimate, you have to be my wife."
"But —" Certhia said, and then said no more.
But indeed. Commoners in Avornis were allowed three wives, nobles four, and the king six. Even Olor, king of the gods, had no more than six wives. Mergus had long since gone through his allotted half dozen seeking a son. He'd lost one wife in childbirth, one to a fever. One he'd sent away for barrenness. The remaining three had given him five daughters, two of whom still lived.
"I don't care," he said now. "I'll find a way."
"The priesthood won't like it," Certhia predicted.
Mergus scowled. "The priesthood never likes anything," he said, which wasn't far wrong, either. "But if I have a son, he will sit on the Diamond Throne after me. If I can't get a priest to listen to me any other way, I can buy one, or more than one. I can — and I will."
Certhia cast down those blue, blue eyes. "Yes, Your Majesty," she murmured. More than anything else, she wanted Mergus to marry her. To be Queen of Avornis ... But she was shrewd enough to know that letting him see that would hurt her chances.
Mergus reached out and caressed her breasts through the thin linen of her smock. Instead of stepping forward into his arms, she flinched away. "They're tender?" he demanded.
"Yes," she said. "I'm sorry, Your Majesty."
"Don't be," Mergus told her. "You're pregnant, all right. If it's a boy ..." He had the face of a man who'd forgotten how to dream but suddenly remembers.
Grus commanded a river galley on the Stura, southernmost of the Nine Rivers cutting across the plain that made up the heart — and the breadbasket — of the Kingdom of Avornis. He was almost thirty — he'd been born in the year Mergus took the Diamond Throne. Slightly above middle height, he was lean and dark-eyed, with a thick black beard he trimmed very close. He'd taken a sword cut on one side of his chin a couple of years earlier, and the hair in the scar, when it began to grow again, grew in silver.
Like the rest of the Nine, the Stura flowed east, out from the foothills of the Bantian Mountains toward the Sea of Azania. The Tigerfish fought her way upstream on oar power. An officer with a kettledrum beat out the stroke for the rowers (free men, every one of them, not dead-souled slaves or chained captives who pulled oars for the Banished One).
Grus swigged from a wineskin and wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his linen tunic. He kept a wary eye on the southern bank of the Stura. The river belonged to Avornis; the land beyond it to Prince Ulash — and thus to the Banished One. Ulash's grandfather had once ruled on this side of the Stura, as well; the Prince made no secret of wanting to do the same. But Grus saw only a few thralls laboring in the fields — no signs of trouble.
He turned to his first lieutenant, a leathery veteran named Nicator, and remarked, "The latest truce seems to be holding."
Nicator's teeth were startlingly white against his sun-cured hide when he grinned. "Oh, yes — for now. And it'll keep right on holding for as long as Ulash wants it to, or until the Banished One tells him different. After that? Ha!" He shook his head.
"I know." Grus went on watching the thralls. They went on working without even looking up at the Tigerfish. In a very real sense, the river galley wasn't there for them. Grus shivered, though the sun blazed down from a cloudless sky. The thralls' ancestors had been Avornans. They were ... something else, something less. He shivered again, and took another pull at the wine. "Poor buggers."
"Who? The thralls?" Nicator asked. At Grus' nod, his lieutenant spat into the Stura. "They don't know the difference — or care, either."
"I know," Grus said again. "That makes it worse, not better."
Nicator thought it over. "Well, maybe," he said.
As Grus passed the wineskin to Nicator, the ship's wizard bustled up to him. "Excuse me, Captain —" he began.
"What is it, Turnix?" Grus broke in.
"Seeing shadows that aren't there again, Turnix?" Nicator added scornfully.
The tubby little wizard turned red. "I do my best to keep this vessel safe," he said with dignity.
His "best" had sent sailors scrambling and marines grabbing for their weapons three times in the past two days. He spied danger whether it was there or not. "What is it — what do you think it is — this time?" Grus asked with such patience as he could muster.
"May it please you, sir, it's danger — great danger," Turnix quavered.
Grus laughed in his face. "Oh, yes, fool, danger pleases me. But what pleases me about it is that it'll be no more dangerous than these last three times. For that, I thank Olor and all the other gods."
"All but one," Turnix said, and Grus nodded. No Avornan would thank the Banished One. He was less than a god these days for his banishment, but more dangerous to mere men than all the heavenly hierarchy put together. For, being banished from the heavens, he manifested himself on the suffering earth and meddled directly in the affairs of men.
"Well, what is this danger, then?" Grus asked gruffly. "Have Ulash's men crossed over to the north bank of the river? Have they set some sort of ambush for the Tigerfish? Has he put galleys of his own in the Stura?"
"None of those, sir. Worse than those, sir," the wizard answered.
The sailors muttered, some in fear, some in derision. Nicator said, "Fling him over the rail and let him swim home, the useless, shivering son of a yellow dog."
"I know what I know," Turnix declared.
"I know what you know, too," Grus said. "Less than you think you know, that's what you know. And until you know you know less than you think you know, I think you'd better know enough to get out of my sight."
That wasn't easy to do on a river galley, which measured only about eighty feet from ram to dragon, forepost to rudder. Turnix did make himself scarce, though, and that served well enough. "Too bad he doesn't make himself disappear," Nicator muttered darkly.
As the sun sank behind the Tigerfish, her anchors splashed into the river at bow and stern. Grus ate hard bread and salty sausage with his men, and washed supper down with wine. He made sure the night watch was strong — the Banished One claimed the darkness as his own. After everything seemed as safe as Grus could make it, he lay down on the deck planking, wrapped himself in a thick wool blanket, and fell asleep.
And he discovered that Turnix wasn't such a bumbler after all. For when Grus fell asleep that night, he dreamt, and when he dreamt, he saw the Banished One face-to-face. He fought to wake up, of course. He fought, and lost, and wished the wizard had been wrong instead of all too right.
"I see you, Grus," the Banished One said. His voice and his face held the same terrifying, unearthly beauty. He was not a thing of this world. He belonged in the heavens — or he had.
Which would be worse, answering him or not? "I see you," Grus heard some inner part of him say.
"You will fail. You will fall," the Banished One told him. Those terrible eyes looked into his soul, and Grus quailed. Men were not meant to be measured so. Vast contempt blazed forth from the Banished One. "And even if you think you triumph, you fail regardless." He laughed. That was harder to bear than the gaze. Grus hadn't thought anything could be.
"Go away," his inner voice croaked. His spirit made a sign he would have used in the flesh.
And he was awake, staring up at the innocent, cheerfully twinkling stars. Except for a few mosquitoes buzzing overhead, everything was calm and peaceful as could be. The sailors on watch strode along the deck, bows in their hands, swords on their belts. But sweat soaked Grus, and he smelled the sour reek of his own fear.
He looked around for Turnix. The wizard lay snoring, not ten feet away. Grus silently begged his pardon. Facing the Banished One was a more deadly danger than any on the river. This time, Turnix had known more than even he'd thought he'd known.
"Come on," Mergus said testily as he led Certhia down a seldom used corridor somewhere in the bowels of the royal palace. Torches burned fitfully in sconces on the wall. The air had a dead, unbreathed feel to it. The king was impatient. "Do you know how hard this was to arrange?"
Certhia was getting impatient, too. "You're the king. You can do whatever you want."
Mergus laughed. "That only proves you've never been a king." His laughter and his words echoed oddly from the rough-hewn stone. The stone might have been unused to having sounds bounce off it.
His guards waited at the top of the stairway. They were probably sniggering and poking one another in the ribs with their elbows. They thought he'd brought his concubine down here so he could make love to her in this strange, uncomfortable, but private place. Mergus had let them think so. Mergus the proud, Mergus the arrogant, submitted to embarrassment — even courted embarrassment — without a murmur, without a whimper.
Certhia giggled. Mergus hadn't told her why he'd brought her down here, either. She drew her own conclusions. Mergus looked around. He wouldn't have chosen this for a trysting ground, but ...
The witch appeared in the corridor in front of him and Certhia. One instant, she wasn't there; the next, she was. Certhia squeaked in surprise. The witch ignored her and dropped King Mergus a curtsy. "You summoned me, Your Majesty?"
"Yes." Mergus had summoned someone, at any rate. The witch was younger than he, older than Certhia, her brown hair lightly streaked with gray. She had a broken nose that somehow made her look interesting, not homely. By her plain linen smock and long black wool skirt, she wasn't rich. By the silver rings in her ears and on one finger, she wasn't poor, either. Mergus asked, "What do I call you?"
"Rissa will do," she answered. "It may be my name, it may not. But it will do."
His answering nod was quick and harsh. "All right, Rissa. You know what I want of you?"
"Would I be here if I didn't?" Without more ado, Rissa turned to the king's concubine. "Take off your smock, dear. I need to feel of you."
Certhia squeaked again, this time in outrage. "What?"
"Do it," the king said, the iron clang of command in his voice no less than if he'd been ordering soldiers into battle against the Thervings.
She bridled. She was no soldier, and the iron clang of command only put her back up. "What for?" she demanded.
Mergus visibly started to say Because I told you to. A moment later, he visibly thought better of it. "Because I'm going to find out if you're carrying a boy," he replied after that tiny pause.
"Any court wizard could tell you," Certhia said.
"No court wizard could keep his mouth shut afterward," the king said. "Rissa here will. Rissa here had better, anyhow. Now come on. We haven't got all day down in this miserable hole."
Certhia started to argue more. Then she thought better of it. With a sigh that said she was still unhappy — and that she expected King Mergus to know it — she pulled her smock off over her head.
A heavy gold chain supporting an amulet hung in the shadowed valley between her breasts. They were larger and sagged a bit more than they had before she conceived.
Rissa paid no attention. She set her hands lower, on Certhia's belly. The king's concubine hadn't shown her pregnancy for long. Clothed, she hardly showed it even now. But the witch nodded as soon as she touched Certhia's flesh. "Yes," she breathed.
"Yes, what?" King Mergus' voice was hard and urgent.
"Yes, it will be a boy," Rissa answered matter-of-factly. Then, the palms of her hands still on Certhia, she stiffened. When she spoke again, she sounded nothing like herself. "I hate him. I shall punish him. Though he have a son, let him be impotent. Let his hope die before him. Let all laugh at what he has become. As I have ordained, so let it be." The brass of a slightly sour trumpet rang in her words.
Certhia gasped in terror. "That is the Banished One, cursing your son!" Her hand flashed to the amulet she wore. In danger, she forgot she was naked from the waist up. "King Olor, protect him! Queen Quelea, protect me!"
Mergus' fingers twisted in a protective gesture every Avornan learned by the age of three. He murmured prayers, too. After his heart's first frightened lurch steadied, he also murmured defiance. "He'll not have him!" Now his hands folded into fists. "He'll not!" He'd been without an heir of his flesh too long. He would have defied worse than the Banished One to keep that heir ... he would have, were there worse than the Banished One.
Rissa's hands fell away from Certhia. The witch blinked a couple of times, as though coming back to herself. She did not seem to remember what she'd said — what had been said through her — or Certhia and Mergus' replies. Only when she saw their faces did she ask, "Is something wrong?"
Words tumbled from the king and his concubine. The witch stared from one of them to the other, horror filling her face. Her fingers writhed in the same gesture as Mergus had used.
"I am unclean," she gasped when she could speak at all. "I am violated!" She pressed both hands against her crotch, as though the Banished One had used her body, not her mind. A moment later, Certhia put on her smock again. But she let the amulet hang outside the crimson silk now, where she could quickly seize it at need.
Mergus asked, "Can the taint be taken away?"
"I know not," the witch told him. "I shall speak to those set over me." The king's hand fell to the hilt of his sword. It was no ceremonial weapon, but a blade that had seen much use in war. Rissa's eyes followed the motion. She nodded. "If you doubt I will abide by their verdict, Your Majesty, strike now."
A couple of inches of the blade came out of the jeweled scabbard. But then Mergus shook his head. "No. I believe you. You will do what needs doing. Can you go to them by the way you came here?"
Rissa nodded again. "I can. I will. And I will say one last thing to you, if you give me leave."
"Go on." King Mergus' voice was rough as sandstone.
"Hear me, then: If the Banished One hates your son, if he curses your son, surely he also fears him."
Back and forth along the Stura, from the last cataract in the foothills of the mountains to the Sea of Azania and then upstream once more. This was the life the Tigerfish and the rest of the Avornan river galleys led when on patrol.
Grus had duly written up his dream of the Banished One and submitted it as part of his report to his superiors. For a while, he wondered if he would be summoned to the city of Avornis and questioned further. When no summons came, he began to wonder if it had been only a meaningless dream.
But part of him knew better.
Not many men, even aboard the Tigerfish, knew what had chanced that night. Grus had never been one to make much of himself or of what happened to him. He had told Turnix, though; he wanted the strongest protective amulets the wizard could make. And he'd told Nicator. If anything happened to him, his lieutenant needed to know why it might have happened.
Excerpted from The Bastard King by Harry Turtledove. Copyright © 2003 Dan Chernenko. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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