War had engulfed the whole world. The imposter imperor ruling in Hub was the tool of the paranoid and almighty sorcerer Xinixo, who wielded the combined power of thousands of sorcerer slaves. And yet, despite his seeming omnipotence, the pathetic few who resisted him were still at liberty, even making a little progress. Xinixo’s prime foe, Rap of Krasnegar, had rallied troll sorcerers to the cause and was about to try enlisting the incomprehensible elves. Fortunately, for his sanity, he did not know that his daughter, Kadie, had been carried off by goblin invaders or that his son, Gath, was heading for stark Nordland to deal with the fearsome jotnar, or that his wife, Inos, was in Guwash, negotiating with gnomes. Shandie, the rightful imperor, was with her, unaware that his wife, Impress Eshiala, believed him dead and had fled with Signifer Ylo, that notorious rake. And none of them knew about the sorcerers of Thume, especially the rebel pixie girl, Thaïle, who chafed against the secret binding of a thousand years. But the odds were still impossible and Longday was fast approaching. The sorcerers of the world foretold blood on Longday.
About the Author
Dave Duncan (1933–2018) was born in Scotland, and received his diploma from Dundee High School and got his college education at the University of Saint Andrews. He moved to Canada in 1955, where he lived with his wife. Duncan spent thirty years as a petroleum geologist. He has had dozens of fantasy and science fiction novels published, among them A Rose-Red City , Magic Casement , and The Reaver Road , as well as a highly praised historical novel, Daughter of Troy , published, for commercial reasons, under the pseudonym Sarah B. Franklin. He also published the Longdirk series of novels, Demon Sword , Demon Knight , and Demon Rider , under the name Ken Hood. In the fall of 2007, Duncan’s 2006 novel, Children of Chaos , published by Tor Books, was nominated for both the Prix Aurora Award and the Endeavour Award. In May 2013, Duncan, a 1989 founding member of SFCanada, was honored by election as a lifetime member by his fellow writers, editors, and academics. He passed away in 2018. Visit https://www.daveduncanauthor.com/ for more information on the author.
Read an Excerpt
The Living God
A Handful Of Men: Book Four
By Dave Duncan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 D.J. Duncan
All rights reserved.
"Faster, Ylo!" Maya urged. "Make horse go faster!" She sat on Ylo's lap, jiggling the reins ferociously. As the traces were firmly gripped in Ylo's strong hands, also, the big gray was probably unaware of the divided leadership. It certainly did not care. It plodded doggedly, not even flickering its ears, stoically fulfilling the role the Gods had assigned it. Every second day it would haul some traveler's rig up the hill. The next day it would haul another one down. Nothing about that to puzzle a horse. Not even Ylo's skills would make it go any faster, either, even had he wanted it to.
Huddled in the fur cloak she had not worn in months, Eshiala watched the byplay with heavenly contentment. She, at least, was in no hurry. Days like these could go on forever and she would never tire of them. For the last hour the road had been winding gently upward through a dense mist, so that almost nothing was visible except the well-fitted stones of the road itself, built centuries ago by the legions and still in perfect order. Wiry grass along the verge glistened with dampness and a few ghostly bushes lurked beyond that like predatory wraiths in the fog. Once in a while now she glimpsed ragged remains of the winter's snow. Summer came late to the highlands of the Qoble Range.
"You promised me beautiful scenery when we reached the pass," she teased.
Ylo flashed her a smile. They stopped her heart, those smiles of his, those bright dark eyes, those long lashes. He could say more with a smile than all the poems of all the poets of the Impire. "I said you had never seen anything like the view up here. Well, you still haven't, have you?"
"True!" She laughed.
"And admit it, you are floating in clouds, yes?"
"Yes!" she said. "Very true."
"Faster!" Maya demanded.
"Poor old horse!" Ylo said sternly. "He's having to pull all of us up this great, long hill. He's working very hard. He's an old, old horse, that's why his hair's turned all white. You ought to get out and walk, so he doesn't have to work so hard, you great heavy lump!"
That was a mistake. Maya decided she did want to get out and walk, and argued when he would not let her. She was very good at arguing. At times she behaved as if she was the rightful-born impress of Pandemia — which she was, even if Pandemia was no more aware of that than the child herself. How about a birthday party, Ylo suggested, and a cake with two and a half candles ...
They had seen very little traffic all morning, but now hooves clanked on the stones behind, coming fast. Eshiala turned and peered back through the little window. In a moment a ghostly rider materialized out of the mist, gray on gray, solidifying into color as he approached, scarlet cloak and gold-plumed hat. He swung out to pass the phaeton without slowing down, cantering on ahead, fading as swiftly as he had come, the cloud soon muffling the sound. He had been an Imperial courier, and the fact that he had been only cantering, not galloping, showed how hard the hill was on horses.
She stole a glance at Ylo and thought she detected a hint of a frown. A hint of danger? She said nothing. Something had worried him back at the inn that morning, although he had denied it. She thought he had recognized someone. She would not pry. She would let nothing ruffle her happiness.
It would end soon enough. In a day or two they would be in Gaaze, and what happened then she dared not think.
She was in love, hopelessly in love. Twenty years old, a widow with a child, and she was as heartsick as an adolescent. However guilty she felt that she should have found such happiness through Shandie's death, the world turned for her with the beating of Ylo's heart. She would lie at night with her head on his chest, listening to that solid, comforting beat.
He was a hero. The army had voted him honors no signifer had received since the previous dynasty. He was a duke by right, although not in law. Shandie had admitted that he had never had a more honest, hardworking aide than Ylo. He was even-tempered, everlasting fun, and good company. He was blindingly handsome, blessed with a perfect complexion very rare for an imp. He was tireless in bed, enormously virile and skilled, able to coax rapture from her body as a musician could pluck music from a lute.
He was a notorious rake, as faithless as a weasel.
She had known. She had let him steal her heart, knowing he would break it. He had not broken it yet. He had done what he set out to do — he had taught her what lovemaking should be, and he had brought her safely to Qoble. In another week or so they would arrive at Gaaze, and then the long journey would be over and Ylo would leave her. That had been the bargain, although never put into words.
No, she was in no hurry.
"Aha!" Ylo said. Shadowy buildings were congealing out of the fog. There was a seasonal post at the top of the pass, where weary horses could be replaced. Tomorrow, doubtless, the old gray would plod its way down again, to one side or the other, pulling some other vehicle.
"You go back to your mother now, Princess." He passed Maya across.
"Do you suppose the food is edible here?" Eshiala asked, adjusting her too-heavy daughter on her lap.
"Probably nothing much. Why don't you buy a snack while I'm changing horses, and we'll eat by the roadside somewhere." He pulled his hat brim down to shield his face.
That was an odd gesture for Ylo, who was well aware of his good looks. It was as if he was frightened of being recognized.
Despite her sincere belief, Eshiala was not a widow. Far off to the northeast, in Guwush, her husband bounced around unhappily on the roof of a stagecoach. On one side of him a dealer in raw silk lamented endlessly on the ridiculous prices gnomes expected for their produce these days; on the other a minor Imperial bureaucrat expounded on the impossibility of collecting all the new taxes Hub was demanding to fight the current war. At times they gave up hope of winning any sympathy from Shandie and debated with each other as if he were not there, between them.
The three of them were right at the back, which was the worst place to be, and the motion nauseated him. This was gnome country. The coach was crowded, yet not one passenger was a gnome. If gnomes had any reason to travel, they were required to do so in wagons, by themselves. Raspnex was sitting at the front with another dwarf, a dealer in ironware. All the rest were imps. The driver, of course, was a faun.
Shandie wondered how Inos was doing, crammed inside with the other women. She was probably even less comfortable than he was.
The road wound through darkly forested hills, but at least it was flatter than it had been the day before, without the steep inclines that had required the male passengers to dismount and walk. After a day of dust and wind and summer sunshine, they were heading toward some very unfriendly-looking rain clouds. He felt in dire need of a hot bath and fresh garments, but apparently he was about to receive a cold shower first. The knowledge that he could travel on horseback twice as fast with half the discomfort did nothing to improve his mood. He could recall being very impressed as a child by Inos' horsemanship, and he had no doubt that she could still control a horse superbly, but Raspnex could not. Dwarves fell off horses unless they were tied to the saddle. Besides, the coach fare included the cost of the necessary armed escort.
"Nasty stretch this!" the tax collector bleated, eyeing the sinister woods crowding in on either hand. "Been quite a few ambushes near here."
Shandie uttered a noncommittal grunt that would not have shamed a camel.
"Disgraceful!" the silk merchant agreed. "Don't know why the army doesn't clean out those rebels once and for all."
Shandie could have asked him how. He could have mentioned that he had slaughtered ten thousand gnomes near here less than three years ago. He did not. He had invented a vague cover story about representing a syndicate of Hubban investors looking for opportunities in undeveloped land; it allowed him to be tight-lipped about his plans and background. If he tried to explain that it was precisely because this area was infested by gnomish partisans that he had come here, then his companions would report him to the legionaries of the mounted escort.
The XXVIIth had always been an inferior outfit. Even so, this contingent inspired him with disgust. They were a sloppy bunch. He would dearly enjoy taking them in hand for an hour's drill. Two hours would be even better; then he could skin them completely.
For a moment he toyed him with the absurdity of marching over to the leader at the next stop and introducing himself. "Good evening, Optio. I am Emshandar the Fifth, by the grace of the Gods imperor of Pandemia, not to be confused with the imposter presently occupying my throne and claiming to be myself. I am your authentic commander in chief. Now tell me, has this bronze always been green or did you paint it like that for some reason? ..."
Another hour ought to bring the coach to Yugg, if there was no ambush in the meantime. From what Shandie could recall of Yugg, it had nothing to commend it except that it marked the unofficial border between the rule of law and areas held by rebels — or between Occupied Guwush and Free Guwush, depending on one's point of view. It had a fort with an Imperial garrison. Undoubtedly Oshpoo's forces would have agents in Yugg.
The first problem was going to be making contact with them. They would very wary of any imp. The second problem would be staying alive afterward.
Without slowing, the coach went rumbling through a hamlet. The huddle of squat cottages glowered at the passing strangers with tiny windows under their heavy thatch. They were obviously gnome dwellings, so small that imps would have to crawl on hands and knees inside them. They seemed deserted, but that would be because the inhabitants preferred to sleep during the day and work at night. For a moment the passengers held their noses, and then the coach was through the little settlement, back in forest again.
Such were the joys of Guwush. Despite the Impire's best efforts, it never managed to do much to improve the place. The parts it did not control were even worse, of course, with most of the population living in burrows, but to see squalor like this on a main Imperial highway was very depressing.
Shandie could not shake off a question Inos had posed that very morning, just before entering the coach. It had been bothering him all day. If gnomes preferred to live like that, she had said sweetly, then why should they not be allowed to do so? Fortunately no one else had heard her, except perhaps Raspnex. In Hub it would be ranked as heresy. In the army the idea would be treason, cause for court-martial if spoken aloud. But by definition the imperor himself could never be guilty of treason, could he? If the imperor decided that the Guwushian war was bleeding his treasury white and the best way to solve the partisan problem was just to go way to solve the partisans be the government, then nobody in the world could argue with him. Except the Senate, of course, and the most of the clergy and the army hierarchy and all the aristocrats who had acquired title to estates in Guwush and likely other groups that would surface in due course.
Well, fortunately Shandie was not required to make such decisions at the moment. Being an outlaw did have its advantages.
He was still thinking about the matter when he noticed that Raspnex had twisted around and was staring back at him, peering between the much taller impish passengers. His ugly face was screwed up in a curiously agitated expression. There were too many people between them for conversation. In a moment the little man rolled his eyes and turned away again to face the front.
In his shabby dark clothing he looked like a retired mineworker, but he was a potent sorcerer, warden of the north. A dwarf rarely displayed emotion like that. What could he have detected that had so upset him?
A one-horse chaise, a stagecoach, and a longship ...
Father yet to the northeast, Blood Wave II surged over the cold green sea, propelled by the rhythmic swing of her oars, rising and falling in steady beat, with the grace of a gull's wings. Half the crew rowed, most of the rest were asleep under the rower's feet. Onward to Northland.
Gath and Vork were crammed in together on one bench, pulling the same oar. Thane Drakkor himself had the helm, and he was keeping a steady eye on those two recruits. He had very bright blue eyes, very deadly eyes, killer's eyes.
Gath had no pore that was not streaming sweat. He was certain he had no skin left on his hands. Every muscle in his body burned.
He wanted to ask Vork how he felt now about being a raider, but he had no breath for speaking. His lungs and throat were raw and there was a sour taste of metal in his mouth. He was starting to feel a stitch in his side.
Oars swung. Thole pins creaked. The coxswain's pipe called the stroke. Water hissed past the thin planks of the narrow hull. Salt-scented sea wind blew blessedly cool on fevered skin.
This was a test, of course. Smart-aleck kids had to learn the rough side of the legend. Two uppity sons of thanes were being shown that they weren't men yet. Even pulling together, they could not keep up with the real sailors, not for long, not for much longer. This was the price of hitching a ride on a thane's longship.
The crew was watching, waiting for the mistake. Gath could feel the grins all around. The stroke was faster than usual. Trouble was, he knew what was going to happen even more surely than the crew did.
Prescience was a blessing and also a terrible curse. It produced invaluable warnings of trouble ahead and wonderful anticipation of pleasures in store. When it showed bad futures and especially inevitable bad futures, then it could drive a man insane.
A trickle of sweat ran down the bare back in front of his eyes. So the others were feeling the pace, too. They could keep it up for hours, though. High behind Blood Wave the seabirds floated in the salt air, cool and serene. Lucky birds!
Gath's fingers were knotting, losing their grip on the oar. The blood was making it slippery anyway. Not long now. He and Vork were going to catch a crab. Soon!
Then they were going to be given a taste of the rope's end, sailor talk for flogging. Toughen up the gazoonies a bit — evilishly painful. Only consolation was he knew he was going to keep quiet under it. Vork wasn't, not quite.
This is what Vork had thought he wanted, to be a raider like his father before him, and his father, and all their forefathers since the coming of the Gods. Gath didn't want that.
He just wanted to get to Nordland and tell the thanes about the usurper and the overthrow of the wardens and the new protocol Dad had invented before he died. Doing it for Dad's memory — duty.
Doing it for Dad. Here it came now —
The oar slammed into the two boys' chests, hurling them backward. Angry yells ...
Excerpted from The Living God by Dave Duncan. Copyright © 1994 D.J. Duncan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsDave Duncan's A Handful of Men Series,
ONE Still pursuing,
TWO To the appointed place,
THREE Merely players,
FOUR Impossible loyalties,
FIVE Word in Elfyn-land,
SIX When days were long,
SEVEN Hope never comes,
EIGHT Minstrel boy,
NINE Manly foe,
TEN A necessary end,
ELEVEN Rolling drums,
TWELVE God at war,
THIRTEEN The game again,
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