A swollen, misshapen moon shone bright in the night sky. It drove away clouds of alabaster stars and roused the bone-white dust of the desert below with its waxen light. A cold breeze sang through stooped and gnarled thorn trees, slowly plucking away their fading gold leaves until the branches were stripped bare. Somewhere across the dry plain, a pack of hyenas cackled nervously. They smelled something strange on the southerly wind.

     A spark glimmered to life in the grey night, growing in the shadows of a ruined fortress — a broken keep surrounded by shattered, clay-brick walls.

     Soaring silently on the breeze, a white vulture caught sight of it and cut toward the ruins. There would be food there.

    Her eyes shimmered eerily, watching figures dart along the ground far below. They were fast as jackals, graceful as flocking birds, but they looked like men cloaked in pale yellow.  More were coming out of the south, and westward from the distant coast.

     She sighed a high, sorrowful call and started her descent.

     Her talons bit into the clay as she landed on a still-standing corner of the fortress’ outer wall. A soft thud betrayed an object clutched in one of her scaly feet — a perfect sphere of smooth, translucent stone. Though moon and stars poured a sickly glow into the orb, its natural colors were fiery, as if the burning veins that rumble deep in the earth had bled this single drop.

    Below her perch, six men hunched around a small fire crackling at the foot of the fortress’ keep. One turned a spitted rabbit. His companions murmured quietly among themselves in hungry anticipation. Bronze spear tips and blades glinted where they leaned against their makeshift chairs of displaced brick.

     A warm aroma of roasting meat drifted up to the vulture, but this wasn’t the flesh that had drawn her. She shuffled closer, and the orb in her talons caught the grimy glow of their fire. Light seeped into it, pooling like liquid flame, casting into relief the hollow outline of an iris flower locked inside the glassy stone.

    A shard of brick hissed through the air and cracked off the rampart a few inches from her. She hissed, tucking the orb close against her breast with one foot.

     The men laughed. Another broke a crumbling piece of brick from his chair, but he never threw it.

     The first of the yellow-cloaked figures the vulture had watched over the long miles had arrived. It stepped through a dark breach in the fortress walls, face unseen beneath its pale hood.

     The men shouted in alarm and sprang for their weapons, then stopped dead, eyes widening.

     A song filled the empty night. It rose high and clear until the air shivered like frigid water caressed by a breeze.

    One of the men cried out a warning and started to cover his ears, only to stop halfway, transfixed by the sweet, dreadful notes creeping into his mind, coiling around every thought, snaring them like tattered cloth tangled in sharp thorns. The battle-worn spear fell from his hands.

     As one, he and his companions ran toward the figure. It was no charge, but a wild, desperate race, as though the stranger were dragging their very souls to itself. The furthest stumbled through the fire, sparks burning his clothes and searing him through the holes in his ragged boots, but none of that mattered.

     One by one, they dropped to their knees before the figure, gazing up in terror and longing.

     The song faded, but they remained enthralled.

     The figure threw back its hood, unveiling tumbling locks as fair and cold as a winter’s sun. Pure white feathers were braided into them, some speckled with dark crimson. Her face was pale and beautiful, yet filled with a wild hunger. Yearning hollowed her cheeks and left drawn shadows across her smooth brow. Her red eyes shimmered like an owl’s in the firelight, pupils widening until they blotted out all else, becoming nothing but a sheen of incandescent green.

     More of her kind entered through the breach, drawing back their hoods, eyes shimmering.

    She bent her gaze on the first of the men before her — the one who had thrown a brick at the watchful vulture above. He clutched a knife tight in his hand.

     Horror twisted his face, but he could not run.

    He turned the knife inward, trembling violently, and began to weep as he pressed it low into his belly. The blade sank deep. Dark blood spilled onto the sand piled thick within the fortress’ abandoned courtyard. His arm convulsed, ripping the blade upward, and the white ground turned black.

     A cruel laugh shivered over the ruins. The woman looked up at the white vulture and smiled.

    The bird sang a quiet song, then swooped down, landing on the man’s head as it struck the ground. She pecked at the soft flesh near the base of his neck until blood spattered the orb still clutched tight in her talons. The light welling inside it blushed crimson.

     Never releasing the orb, she began to feast, and soon, so too did the Sirens watching her. 




     “The headsman’s here,” a voice echoed through the gloom, cold and callous.

     A soft whimper quivered beside Medlar, and the bony shoulder pressed against his own started to shake.

     A windlass squealed shrilly, its howl rebounding off the low, stone ceiling, only to suffocate in the reeking layer of filth caked to the sprawling dungeon floor. The rust-covered gate where they waited rose in slow, rhythmic jerks. A faint, pale light seeped into the brown air.

     Medlar could almost taste it. Sunlight.

     A soldier stood on the far side. The white crane on his surcoat seemed to glow. Its wings unfurled across fields of shining blue and black cutting diagonally across his chest. A flawless uniform. It clashed against the stained and tattered rags of the prisoners waiting for him.

     “Come on. It’s time,” he grunted.

     Medlar took a deep breath. There was a new stench souring the air. Fear. Bitter and poisonous in his lungs. His rag-bound boots scratched over the grimy floor as he stepped into the corridor, but his cowering fellow-prisoner didn’t move. He curled his lip, but the tangles of filthy hair and beard growing wild over his head hid his disgust. “Face your death, Yoak. You knew the dawn would come.”

     He trudged past the guard who did not quite meet his eyes.

     All three of them had the blood of Desert Sons in their veins, even if Medlar’s was mixed with borderlanders’ from the south. He shared the same down-tipped nose and his skin easily darkened under Neer’s scorching sun, though it had been a long time since any sun had touched him. Now his skin was white beneath the lines of black grime filling its every fault.

     Wan blue light gathered at the corridor’s end. The floor sloped up more steeply with every step, fighting the stiffness in Medlar’s legs. They felt weak from lack of use.

     He emerged into a cramped courtyard surrounded by high sandstone walls in mingled hues of iron-grey and bone-white. Atop them, a dozen soldiers stood silhouetted against a sky still dusky and pale with fading stars. None made a sound. Only the somber song of a mourning dove broke the heavy still.

     Medlar had hoped the air would taste sweeter there, but as he approached a stone cradle in the center of the yard, a new, caustic scent stung his nostrils. Blood, or iron. The two were inseparable.

     Three men waited by the chopping block. The headsman was wrapped and masked in the same black and blue as the men on either side of him. Only his powerful arms were bare, exposing white scars and the dark reminders of burns scattered across them.

     Their eyes met — Medlar’s stormy grey, the headsman’s a peculiar golden-green — then both looked away.

     Medlar’s gaze shifted to a tall, narrow gate in the east side of the yard. It stood shut, but two sentries outside had left a smaller porter’s door open in one of the gate’s sturdy panels. They leaned against the doorframe, watching the proceedings in silence. Behind them, Medlar could see the soft horizon.

     “There’s no dawn for you, Medlar. You’ve seen your last sunrise,” said the man at the headsman’s right. Sharp-faced and lean, Kaen was taller and duskier than a pure-blooded Desert Son. Instead of a crane emblazoned across his surcoat, he wore an emblem of silver rays shining over a black horizon — twilight.

     The third man said nothing. One side of his mouth was twisted in haughty disgust, as though the sight of the condemned was enough to revolt him. Of the three, he was the most out of place. His eyes were bright blue, his white-gold hair shot with black, for which his kind were called Painted Dogs. These were the Suranon, whose ancestors came from rocky, green lands across the Burning Sea. They had ever clung to their ties with those lands, and always found the Desert Sons as harsh and thorny as their homeland in Neer.

     Feet scuffed across the cobbled ground as Yoak was forced forward to join them — too afraid to walk on his own, and too weak with fear to fight.

     The Painted Dog pointed at Yoak. “Take him first. Let Medlar see what his fate is.”

     “No!” Panic snapped Yoak’s desperate hiss. He tried to recoil, but the guard at his back was ready for him.

     Kaen’s black eyes flashed. “I’ve waited long enough to see Medlar’s head roll. Do it now.”

     The headsman shifted the great axe in his hands. It was long shafted and crowned with an age-darkened bronze blade — a strange courtesy to the Desert Sons. The Painted Dogs preferred iron for themselves and their allies. The Desert Sons found the dark metal crude and lowly. It was a shameful thing to die at the edge of an iron blade. “Let the brave one decide,” he said in a low voice muffled behind his mask.

     A muscle tightened in Kaen’s jaw. The crimson badge of a King’s officer glowered angrily over his heart — two cranes intertwining their necks — but the headsman was master of his own yard.

     Medlar glanced back at Yoak, who began to whimper again, tears cutting white lines through the grime beneath his golden eyes. Medlar had never liked the man, not in the war, not in the dungeon, but somehow in that moment, he could find no place for malice. “Is your axe sharp?”

     The headsman shifted uncomfortably.

     It was Kaen who answered. “Sharp enough. You expect him to hone his blade just for you? You’re not the only one sent to the block, though you deserve it most of all.”

     Medlar’s throat went dry. He swallowed as quietly as he could and forced a single, stiff nod. “Let Yoak go first.”

     “Mercy! Please!” Yoak shrieked, and suddenly found strength in his terror. It took all four men to drag him to the cradle while Medlar looked on. It was a strange sight. Yoak looked like an old man, bony and waxen. Mildew from dank underground walls had turned great patches of his overgrown hair and beard falsely white, though in truth, he was no older than Medlar.

     It hadn’t approached thirty years since the wind-driven night Medlar was born. Now, it felt like a hundred. A heavy weight lay on his shoulders and his bones ached. He wondered if he could struggle the way Yoak did, even if he wanted to. “It’s better to die first, than by an axe blunted by another man’s neck,” he said over the commotion.

     One of many stained, wooden doors lining the yard rattled open and another Painted Dog emerged at the head of a file of prisoners.

     “Not until dawn!” Kaen snarled as he ground Yoak’s face into the cradle. His lieutenant grabbed the prisoner’s hair in thick handfuls, twisting hard to hold him in place for the executioner.

     The newly arrived guard paused uncertainly. “We heard it was starting.”

     Kaen cursed. “Just do the deed, Headsman!”

     Yoak dissolved into wails. He went still like a terrified hare, frozen except for violent trembling.

     Straightening, the headsman planted his feet wide. He drew back the axe. His muscles flexed, veins bulging, and the blade came down with a cruel hiss.

     Medlar looked away, flinching as the splintering thud rattled across the yard. It forced the air from his lungs like a blow. Yoak’s sobs cut short. They echoed on without their master, then slipped away into a dry wind stirring for the first time in the minutes before daybreak. A second blow fell, and the body was rolled aside.

     The Painted Dog lieutenant kicked Yoak’s head away, then started to laugh. It was a harsh, jarring sound in that place. “These Desert Rats aren’t so brave at the edge of their own blades, are they?”

     “Now Medlar,” Kaen barked.

     His pulse quickened along with his breath, heart and lungs frantic to snatch a few last moments of life before the end.

     The Painted Dog pushed him to his knees in front of the cradle. His head cracked against the stone as Kaen’s calloused hands forced him into place. Hot blood burned against his gaunt cheek. He clenched his teeth, watching from the corner of his eye as the headsman raised his bloody tool once more.

     “Hold your axe!” A voice rang across the cramped yard, clear and strong.

     A pair of sturdy, leather boots clopped into Medlar’s view, caked with dull red clay, and worn until frayed patches of leather poked through the fading black polish.

     Kaen’s fingernails cut deep into his scalp as the newcomer settled casually onto the edge of the chopping block and flashed a grim smile down at Medlar. “Hello, little brother. Keeping well as ever?”

     Medlar stared into the man’s bright grey eyes, like mirrors of his own. “What are you doing here, Reynir?”

     Only a faint dusting of dark stubble marked the changes in his brother’s face since the last time they met. His hair was still dark and cropped short, as was traditional among the Desert Sons. His sun-bronzed skin was tough but still smooth save for a dimple that creased his right cheek.

     “By what right do you interrupt a legal execution?” Kaen snapped.

     Reynir continued scrutinizing Medlar’s face. “Isn’t it customary to begin a legal execution at dawn?”

     “We have a lot to do today, as you can see.”

     “Mhmm,” Reynir hummed. “It wouldn’t have anything to do with a missive you received from the King’s personal courier last night, would it?”

     There was a pause, then the headsman turned a sharp eye on Kaen.

     “I met the courier on the road,” Reynir said in a determinedly even voice.

     “I…didn’t receive any missive until late last night, and neglected to read it,” Kaen said, his face blanching an unhealthy grey.

     Reynir gave a mirthless laugh. “Amazing how many lives are lost because of those little delays. Well, I thought that might happen, so I asked for permission to bring a second copy along.”

     He reached a leather glove under his dust-red cloak. Medlar just caught the glint of a small, silver pendant pinned to the inside of the garment before his brother produced a thin roll of papyrus, sealed in blue wax with the signet of two cranes entwining their necks. He extended the document to Kaen, who at last released Medlar.

     The paper crumpled in his fist, snapping the seal, but he didn’t unfold it. His eyes burned into Reynir. “I could kill you both now.”

     “You? Openly disobey the King? Never.”

     Medlar straightened up with difficulty, trying to wipe the blood from his face with a frayed sleeve. “What does it say?”

     “The King has need of you,” Reynir said.

     Medlar blinked up at him, then twitched his eyes toward Kaen. “That king?”

     Reynir’s lips tightened, suppressing a grin down to a smirk. He nodded.


     “I’ll explain later. Unless you prefer to stay here.”

     The Painted Dog lieutenant dropped a hand to his sword hilt. He looked to his captain for orders, but Kaen made no motion. He simply watched with smoldering eyes as Medlar staggered to his feet, helped along by a sharp jerk under the arm from his brother.

     Reynir slapped a few perfunctory dustings to Medlar’s tunic, which was soiled to near black on the chest, lower back, and under both arms. “Let’s go.”

     Medlar cast a look at the headsman, who nodded and set the butt of his weapon to rest between his feet.

     “Come on,” Reynir pressed, pulling Medlar toward the open porter’s door by one arm.

     “Don’t think you’ve escaped your fate, Medlar,” Kaen called after them.

     Medlar paused and looked back.

     Hatred hung dark as a violent storm over Kaen’s features. His clenched fists were white, shoulders hunched like a crouching wolf, hungry for blood. “I know you. Wherever you go, you’ll leave a trail of bitter enemies. Sooner or later, your head will roll, whether I cut it from your shoulders or not.”

To be continued upon the book's release May 31, 2022...

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