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Chapter 1 Ch-line

The Mailshirt’s New Host


Ras liked to watch the heavens, in fact he never tired of it. He knew the planets by heart and all the major constellations and even the names of some stars. He did not know what the stars were, but he thought they were pretty, and that seemed to be enough. Often though, he did have a glimmer of a deeper understanding of all things, and that greatly confused him. So too did tantalising glimpses of his wandering life and various wives and children. Truly there were things in his history that confounded him. It was as though he had led many lives all rolled into one.

He had sat out on the hillocks every night since he was young, tending various clans’ flocks and watching the stars. Only once had he lost a sheep and that had been to a wolf. He had tirelessly hunted down and killed the predator, chopping off its paws and bringing them back to Falser, the clan chieftain, to prove what he had done. Falser had laughed heartily and slapped the youth on the back several times, vastly amused by such single-mindedness in one so simple-minded.

Ras knew people laughed at him but his own spirit was so light that he never minded. Sometimes he laughed with them, which made them laugh even harder. He even felt sorry for them. They worked in the forests or the mines or sometimes in the city down by the sea, and seldom looked at the sky. They had families and friends, which he did not, but they stayed indoors at night and rarely acknowledged the heavens. Most of them could not name a single star. Only one old mage in those parts could do that, and lately even she had had trouble remembering all the astrological signs, patterns and events.

If the shepherd wished for anything it was for a spyglass. The old mage had described the wondrous device to him, and talked of how it brought the images of stars closer. She had even shown him one, and he had seen pockmarks on the moons of Q’zar, along with many more stars than the unaided eye could discern.

A shadowy nighthawk flew over the clearing where he watched the flock. Ras sighed. If only he could fly like the hawk. He would soar up into the sky and visit the moons and maybe even the stars. The old mage had once told him that the stars were very distant suns and that worlds like Q’zar went around them, just as Q’zar went around its sun. The mage had said that when he lay on his back on a hillock gazing up at a particular star, there was every possibility that another young man lay on his back on a planet circling that very star, gazing back at Ras. Ras liked that idea. It gave him a warm happy feeling but it also filled him with a vague unease at times. It was as if he should or did know all this but the knowledge was hiding from him.

Ras sat up straight. A shooting star streaked across the heavens. He quickly fumbled out his pouch, removed a tiny talisman made of eagle feathers and clay, and chanted a brief prayer that was more like a wish. He asked White Quell if he might one day travel to the stars.

As if in answer, the earth rumbled and the sheep began to bleat frantically. Ras was suddenly catapulted into the air. He hit the ground hard, the air knocked out of him. Then he was tossed up and down as the earth moved in sickening rolls beneath him. After what seemed a long time, but was probably only seconds, the rumble stopped. An utter silence fell. Sheep, insects, night birds, the night itself, all were hushed.

That was when Ras saw a bright gleam in a canyon several hundred yards away. It was like a golden fire, half glimpsed, or else like light gleaming off a warrior’s helmet. He quieted the flock, singing them a soft soothing song, then he set off into the canyon.

Even without illumination he rarely stumbled or put a foot wrong. Ras knew these hills the way a blind man knows his own house. A thick cloud of dust from an avalanche hung in the air. Ras could smell it, taste it. It got into his hair and clothes. He coughed several times. At last he came to the point where he felt sure he had seen the light, but there was nothing there now.

Ras turned in a full circle, and even stopped for a moment and stared straight up at the bright star, Angeera, as if it might reveal something. He took a step toward a precipice and as he looked back down, he was inexplicably bathed in golden light. He dropped to his knees, staring at a great fall of rock in the faint starlight. Exposed now, for the first time in who knew how long, were the jagged raw shoulders of the ravine, filled with fissures and pocked with holes. Halfway up, protruding from the disturbed earth, was what looked like a sleeve of golden links.

Muttering protective prayers, including one against acne, Ras made his way to the gleaming object. He was scared, but unable to stop himself. He took several slow measured steps closer, and knelt beside the artefact. He started digging. It took some time and he gashed his fingers on the sharp rocks, but he did not care. Here was a golden treasure, such as the old folk told of in their hearth stories. Princes and pirates were known to bury treasure, though Ras forgot that daemons and ogres did also. In his excitement, Ras could think of nothing, except a strange conviction that a star – one of those golden suns the old mage spoke of – had fallen from the sky and become buried in the earth.

Ras continued to dig.

When he had scooped out a sizeable hole, he sat back on his haunches and marvelled at the thing he had uncovered: a glorious mailshirt, made of thousands of tiny links, and so beautiful it made his heart ache. Even in the dark it glowed, as if there were life in it.

Without hesitation, the awestruck youth pulled the mailshirt on over his own ragged poncho. Childishly pleased he gazed down at himself, admiring the splendid figure he cut.

Then slowly his expression changed.

There was much grumbling in the encampment and little discipline. Fires burned brightly, often with no attempt to conceal them, and the voices of men carried far on the night air. Kaleton, a lieutenant to the warlord, strode angrily between the tents, a rage building inside him, yet he could say nothing. Here sprawled the ragged remnants of a once great army, the imperial guard of the Preceptor himself. It had once been a force which none could match.

Now it crouched in barren foothills, drinking the bitter local wines, its collective belly rumbling with hunger and discontent. Each night more and more soldiers deserted, and there was little the commanders could do. Kaleton had his hands full just trying to stop the Preceptor making an example of deserters caught in one of the local towns. The Preceptor believed that terror would reunite his fast dwindling army. But Kaleton knew that nothing would shatter the army’s fragile loyalty faster.

For now it was best to turn a blind eye, let the deserters go, and hope that most would come back when the warmer weather returned and good pillaging was to be had once more. Though that possibility was also slim.

The Preceptor’s time had come and gone, it seemed, and though he had grabbed the sword of fate in a mighty two-fisted grip, he had not held it for long. He had been bested by a slip of a girl. A girl who had turned out to be a very powerful archmage, though that did not assuage the insult.

Kaleton grunted sourly. He had stayed with the Preceptor longer than any other, his loyalty – though constantly tested – a thing of puzzlement to those who left. Sometimes even he was puzzled. Sometimes he had to make himself remember.

The Preceptor had given him back his honour, and that was no small thing.

Kaleton came to the north-east perimeter and noted, wearily, that the watch was asleep. He booted the man’s legs and watched with little satisfaction as the sentry leapt to his feet, cursing. The man fell silent when he realised who stood before him.

‘I was just resting, sir.’

‘You were asleep, Cullen. If I find you thus again I will make an example of you. Understood?’

‘Right you are, sir,’ the man grunted. ‘Keep your eyes open, man. What kills the rest of us will kill you first.’

Kaleton strode away into the dark. He found the other sentries awake, though sullen and listless and unconvinced there was a need for such watchfulness. Who would attack them here? Their worst enemies were boredom and lice. It was a standing joke in the encampment that if they could but enlarge the daemonic lice to the size of oxen and fit them with swords they would have an army nobody could beat.

In a square tent made of canvas and fur sat a man of middle years. Once known as the King of Kings, his hair was iron grey and his hawkish face sharp and angular, and badly scarred from battle. He was tanned the colour of old leather and wore a campaign tunic, stained boots, and breeches that had once been as soft and supple as kid gloves. A short cape embroidered with filaments of gold and silver thread spoke of better days, as did the jewelled goblet from which he drank.

‘More!’ He slammed the empty goblet on the folding table where a map was spread. Dark red wine spattered across it like a trail of blood.

A young lackey hurried in and refilled the Preceptor’s goblet. In his nervousness, the youth stumbled and a splash of wine spilled down the Preceptor’s front. The warlord’s hand flashed out and drove a parry-hilt knife into the boy’s arm. Real blood spattered the map this time. The boy screamed, clutching the knife, and stumbled back.

‘Imbecile!’ growled the Preceptor drunkenly. ‘Now get out.’

Kaleton entered, sized up the scene at once, and scowled. He called to one of the guards, ordered him to take the boy to the hospital tent and have him attended to. When they were gone, he turned expressionless eyes to the Preceptor.

‘No wonder you have trouble keeping servants.’ Kaleton straddled a chair. He eyed blood on the map and thought it an ill omen.

‘What?’ muttered the Preceptor.

‘Why did you stab the boy?’

‘Stab who? Talk sense, man.’

Kaleton’s neck ached. He tilted his head to the left then snapped it back. There was a sharp crack, and he felt some of the tension he had been feeling drain away. There was no point trying to reason with the Preceptor when he was in this state. Indeed, in some ways, the Preceptor he knew was not in this tent. The man before him was a shadow of that other man, the fierceness less, the focus blurred. And yet his next words surprised Kaleton, suggesting that he was not as drunk as he seemed.

‘How many asleep this time?’


‘Hang him.’

‘We have too few guards already. Hang one, and others will desert while they should be guarding you.’

‘You’re getting soft, Kaleton. Nothing like a hanging to smarten the men up, keep them focused.’

‘The men must be fed, Preceptor, and paid. Winning the occasional battle and having a few villages to burn and women to ravish might help, too. Without that, you will soon have no men to hang, knife, or put to sleep with speeches.’

The Preceptor eyed Kaleton. For a moment Kaleton wondered if he had gone too far. Bluntness was a virtue, he believed, and yet –

The warlord burst out with a braying laugh that was oddly infectious, like the laughter of children. He clapped Kaleton on the back, then hunched over again, bitterness returning as quickly as the laughter had come.

‘How many will we lose tonight?’ the warlord asked.

‘A score, perhaps. Another month and we will be down to you and me. Then we can pack up and go home.’

‘Home?’ the Preceptor mumbled softly. ‘Where is that, Kaleton? I seem to have misplaced the address.’

‘There will be better days, as long as we –’ Kaleton stopped and turned.

There was a commotion outside. They heard raised, angry voices, peremptory commands, then a hush. Kaleton drew his sword. The Preceptor stood, swaying, holding his goblet. If someone had come for his head, then he would greet him in a dignified fashion. If the truth were known, the Preceptor almost welcomed death. He was tired of fading slowly. It was better to fall in a spectacular defeat that would inspire legends, rather than a few ballads.

The shouts came closer. Kaleton stepped between the Preceptor and the tent flaps. The warlord noted this and, as always, wondered at the man’s fierce loyalty. Long ago the Preceptor had given Kaleton the chance to avenge himself, to unleash an appalling hatred. In some ways he had never fully recovered from that. Such were the things that fashioned men.

A body barrelled backwards into the tent, both its arms missing, arterial blood gushing like geysers. Kaleton shoved the mortally wounded man aside and held his sword at the ready.

Into the tent stepped a man. A thin willowy man. More a youth, really. The beard on his face was still wispy, yet there was a terribleness about him, as if he were ancient and evil beyond any measure ever devised. He was dressed as one who tended sheep, and indeed stank of it.

‘What’s this?’ said the Preceptor haughtily. ‘A shepherd’s boy come to parley?’

‘Speak and act with care, m’lord,’ advised Kaleton.

The youth-who-was-not-a-youth first regarded Kaleton, then the Preceptor. He wore a magnificent mailshirt, the like of which Kaleton had never seen. Each link seemed to change colour in some subtle fashion that the eye could not pin down. Somehow the chain mail had melded with the shepherd’s body, like living armour. Despite his loyalty, Kaleton felt a shaft of fear.

The youth moved.

Kaleton’s sword arced in a blur but the shepherd deflected it faster than anyone should have been able to react. Kaleton’s sword arm was locked in a vice-like grip, then he was thrown aside. The shepherd studied the Preceptor.

‘You are the one they call the Preceptor.’ It was not a question.

‘That I am,’ said the Preceptor, raising his goblet shakily, then taking a swig. It was more to steady his nerves than an act of bravado. ‘And you?’

‘I am the Wardragon. This host is not fit for my use.’

‘We all have prob –’ The Preceptor suddenly stopped, staring at the mailshirt, at the individual links. He had seen something like this once before. The Archmage Fa’red had shown him a dragonlink reputed to have come from a mailshirt worn by a god who had fallen to Q’zar a thousand years before. The fall had been so mighty it had created the lake still known as Skyfall. The Preceptor had pursued the missing links of the mailshirt, along with Fa’red, but in the end had been thwarted by the young mage Jelindel dek Mediesar.

‘Are – you the being who came a thousand years ago?’ the Preceptor asked, his voice oddly hollow.

‘I am that one.’

‘But the dragonlink shirt was destroyed.’

‘I cannot be destroyed.’

‘Are you a daemon?’

‘I am the Wardragon. Daemons fear me.’

‘What do you want?’

‘This host is weak in the mind. I must have another.’

The Preceptor felt something stir within him.

‘And in return?’ he asked.

‘Power.’ The voice was flat and atonal, yet the single word hinted at things unimaginable.

The Preceptor rubbed his temples. ‘We should talk.’ He waved the being to a chair but the youth did not move.

‘No talk. Will you provide a host that is complete of both mind and body? Acquiescence is necessary for long term occupation. Do you acquiesce?’

The Preceptor felt a moment of fear. But only a moment. ‘Yes.’

The youth began removing the mailshirt. A moment later he collapsed, moaning in agony, a great mailshirt-shaped welt covering his body.

Kaleton watched the entire procedure with deep misgiving, and kept his sword at the ready. A score of soldiers gathered at the tent flap, but none came too close to the Wardragon. The shepherd passed out.

‘What manner of being is this?’ asked Kaleton in a whisper. With an air of absorption, the Preceptor reached out and picked up the mailshirt.

‘Preceptor!’ Kaleton warned. ‘This is foolhardy!’

The Preceptor ignored him. He raised the mailshirt over his head, slid his arms into it and let it flow down onto his torso. It was a perfect fit.

Kaleton hissed, ‘M’lord, this thing is dangerous!’

‘No, Kaleton,’ said the Preceptor. ‘Now it is we who are dangerous.’

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