In Selenoth, the war drums are beating throughout the land. The savage orcs of Hagahorn and Zoth Ommog are on the move, imperiling Man, Dwarf, and Elf alike. The Houses Martial of Amorr have gone to war with each other, pitting legion against legion, and family against family, as civil war wracks the disintegrating Empire. In the north, inhuman wolf-demons besiege the last redoubt of Man in the White Sea, while in Savondir, the royal house of de Mirid desperately prepares to defend the kingdom against an invading army that is larger than any it has ever faced before. And in the underground realm of the King of Iron Mountain, a strange new enemy has been attacking dwarf villages throughout the Underdeep.
Beneath the widepread violence that has seized all Selenoth in its grasp, a select few are beginning to recognize the appearance of a historic pattern of almost unimaginable proportions. Are all these conflicts involving Orc, Elf, Man, and Dwarf the natural result of inevitable rivalries, or are they little more than battlegrounds in an ancient war that began long before the dawn of time?
Epic fantasy at its deepest and most intense. A SEA OF SKULLS is Book II in the ARTS OF DARK AND LIGHT series that began with A THRONE OF BONES. It retails for $5.99 in the Castalia House store and at Amazon.
From the Prologue:
The stables were to the left of the great house, past the rows of little cottages in which the married servants lived and the orchards that kept the household supplied with apples, pears, quinces, and other fruits. She ran easily over the long green grass, barefoot, and the familiar sensation of the stalks beneath her toes made her feel certain that her kindly father would never send his beloved daughter away from her family and her home, no matter how many kings and magiciens might demand it of him.
She saw her younger brother, Perrin, running towards her. He was four years younger than her; their older brother, Robinet, had been sent to the monastery at Corénaz to study numbers with the monks there, as befitted their father’s heir. Perrin was a sweet, happy little boy whose head barely came to her shoulders, but as he drew nearer, she thought he almost looked as if he was upset, or frightened.
“What’s the matter?”
“Father yelled at me! He says I have to go to the house! He told me to run!”
“I don’t know. He was talking to Simon and two other men. I think something is wrong.”
Isabel nodded. “Better do as he told you. Run along home and I’ll go see what it is.”
To her surprise, he shook his head. “He said if I saw anyone, I should tell them to come with me.”
“Oh, you’ll be fine. You know the way. Besides, you can hardly get lost from here.” She dismissed his protests. “Go, if father wants me to run home too, I’ll catch up with you.”
He nodded obediently and ran off. She laughed, surprised, and more than a little curious, as to what their father might be about with Simon. She didn’t mind seeing him; the hunter was one of the more handsome young men in the village and sometimes she caught his eyes following her as she walked past. She broke into an easy jog, and before long, spotted the young man on horseback, riding away from her father in the company of two riders wearing leather armor and shields strapped to their backs. She frowned, disappointed that the young man had left before she had had the chance to greet him.
“Isabel, is that you? You shouldn’t be here!”
Her father was running towards her now and he was shouting at her. His face was red and angry, and the shock of his displeasure brought her to a halt.
“Go back to the house right now! What are you doing out here?”
He loomed over her and grabbed her arm roughly, jerking her around and half-dragging her back in the direction of the house. He wasn’t a big man, but he was taller and stronger than her, and he was squeezing her arm hard enough for it to hurt.
“You must have seen Perrin. Didn’t he tell you to go back to the house?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “Run back to the house and tell your mother to bar the doors. Le Chasseur says there is a raiding party of orcs about and they may be coming this way!”
“But the king,” she said. “I wanted to talk to you–”
“Damn the king!” he roared, shocking her, and he shoved her, so hard that she stumbled and nearly fell. “Run, Isabel, run to the devil-damned house!”
Her eyes were blurry with tears as she ran back in the direction she had come, much faster this time. She didn’t know of whom she was more afraid, the dreadful goblins of whom she’d heard terrible tales since she was half Perrin’s age but never seen, or this red-faced, shouting stranger who looked like her father but certainly didn’t act like him. Her bare feet fairly flew over the grass, though whether she was running towards home or away from her father, she couldn’t possibly have said.
As she ran past the cottages and came within sight of the house, she could hear her mother shouting at someone. Alarmed, but doubting that her mother would be likely to administer a tongue-lashing to orcs, she put on a last burst of speed and turned the corner to see her mother gesticulating angrily at the backs of two of the male cooks who were running away as fast as they could on the path towards the village road.
“Isabel!” she cried when Isabel called out to her. “Oh, thank le bon Dieu! I didn’t know where you were! Those wretched cowards came to tell me they heard there were orcs lurking about the woods nearby, but they ran away to town instead of arming themselves! Can you imagine? Come inside, dear, everything will be fine. Did you see your father?”
She nodded as Isabel told her that Father was out near the stables, and that he seemed to be aware there was a raiding party nearby. She wasn’t frightened anymore, not now that she understood why her father shouted at her. Perhaps the lily-livered cooks might run away, but her father was a knight with twenty men-at-arms sworn to him and she knew there wasn’t an orc on Selenoth that could hope to stand against a true Savondese knight, much less one who was both a viscomte and royal vassal.
They were walking towards the house, her mother’s arm around her, when they heard a fearful shout and Daniel the gardener came sprinting around the side of the building away from the stables. He was an older man, with short, stumpy legs and a fat belly, and he was easily run down by the pair of great green monsters that were at his heels. Their appearance struck her as unreal; they seemed to have appeared straight out of a nightmare worse than any she’d ever dreamed. Their shape was a puppeteer’s exaggeration of a man’s, with powerful, bulging shoulders and long, vein-corded arms. The monsters had no sooner caught up to Daniel than the first one leaped upon him from behind, bringing him down to the ground before the second one smashed in the poor man’s head with repeated blows from the large spiked club it was carrying.
Her mother screamed. Isabel stood frozen, too astonished to be afraid, her eyes locked upon the terrible red ruin of the back of the gardener’s head. She looked up and stared at the brutish orcs, taking in the tusks that jutted up from their thick lower jaws, the dark green skin which was covered by a few rags of some dirty material so faded and worn she couldn’t tell if it was cloth or leather. Their faces were wide, and looked to her like a demonic cross between a pig, a bat, and a dog, and while there were sparks of intelligence in their cruel yellow eyes, she saw no sign of either mercy or humanity in them.
And if they weren’t much taller than her, they were about three times wider, with muscles that bulged like living armor beneath the paint and smeared tattoos that adorned their skin. Five more appeared as the first two, having dispatched poor Daniel, began to advance towards Isabel, with broad smiles on their grotesque faces.
“Get behind me,” her mother whispered, interposing herself between Isabel and the monsters, and finally Isabel found herself able to move again. “It’s going to be all right. Don’t run.”
They’re not dogs, Mother, Isabel wanted to say, but she was far too terrified to speak. The lead orc waggled his club suggestively and the gardener’s blood sprinkled the grass as he took a step towards them. Then he stopped and an expression that might have been fear filled his bestial face. That step was his last, as the pounding of horse hooves erupted without warning behind her. She saw something big and brown flash past the corner of her eye just before her father’s lance spitted the orc right under his chin. The monster’s blood was dark green, not red, Isabel observed, as it sprayed from his throat. Three of Father’s men were right behind him, all of them mounted, and the four warriors cut down the half-naked orcs as easily as the monsters themselves had murdered the helpless gardener.
“To the house, now!” her mother shouted and pulled at her arm.
Isabel turned and ran with her. Behind her, she heard her father shouting his battle cry and it was echoed by his men. “Je suis prêt!” she heard them shout as they drove the orcs back, away from the house. Just hearing his deep voice restored her courage. “Je suis prêt!”