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The Axe and the Throne: Prologue

p.
h1=. [][][][][][][][][]CONTENTS

 

 

TITLE PAGE

WORLD MAP

INTRO

ARLIK

FROM THE AUTHOR

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2015 by M. D. Ireman

All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-329-68225-2

PUBLISHING HISTORY

eBook Edition / November 2015

Cover Illustration © M. D. Ireman

World Map © M. D. Ireman

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for third-party websites or their content.

Pride elevates and humility grounds, but neither is good nor evil.

-The Sixteenth of the Ancient Laws

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[]ARLIK

 

 

 

 

 

 

Arlik took a breath and held it, attempting to calm his anxious lungs. His nemesis was before him now, the one he and his brothers had been chasing for what felt like a lifetime, the one who would soon be dead and bleeding. Arlik fixed his most bitter stare at the thing, only to have it stare right back at him—either too stupid or too confident to show any trace of fear.

Frigid, angry air clawed at his eyes, trying to burn him to blindness, while the muscles of his lids trembled. Arlik knew better than to let his focus be lost, however. From countless such encounters, he’d learned to appreciate the deviousness of this opponent—how a blink was all that was necessary for this battle to be lost. As he peered into his enemy’s whiteless eyes of obsidian black, he let himself wonder for a moment what it may be thinking, then decided it was a task that would be met with no pleasant result.

As time crept on, Arlik became increasingly aware of how eerie these woods of the Northluns could be. Whereas the forests near his home were filled with plentiful trees of many varieties, there seemed to be but two kinds here, both waging a silent war. The scraggy pine may have been winning in number, but those few iron pine that stood were so massive and unfellable, it seemed their victory had long been preordained. They towered in their bark of stony armor, their massive limbs stretching overhead, admonishing even the wind to silence.

Shoot him already, Arlik pleaded to his brothers in thought, beginning to worry. How it was that they had been able to remain noiseless for so long was troubling in its own right. Neither moved with any real grace, not that Arlik did either, to be fair. All of them had been gifted with their father’s oaflike frame, which refused to move across soft and even ground without making some sort of cacophony, let alone walk with any stealth in woods where brittle pine straw covered loose rocks. The deathly silence that persisted made it difficult to believe his brothers were still anywhere near him, though, and the desire to look behind him for some trace that they remained became overwhelming.

[_What if Northmen took them? _]he thought with sudden alarm.

As if the creature in front of him read his thoughts, it stilled, stopping its chewing and widening its already bulging eyes. It was one of those impossible, yet gnawing scenarios—a fear so fanciful, that disregarding it only made one feel in more danger for ever having doubted it could occur. Had a group of raiding Northmen somehow managed to sneak behind them, he would have no doubt heard the scuffle when they attacked his brothers. But then again, their preferred weapon was the axe—thrown, not swung—and two such axes, flung at once, could have silenced both his brothers where they stood. The fear of losing the battle with the beast in front of him diminished, as he envisioned his brothers lying dead behind him, a group of Northmen slowly advancing past their corpses.

Arlik hardened his nerve. His brothers could say what they wished, but he was not the type of boy who feared such things. That, and they were surely alive and well. His eldest brother was probably aiming at the creature now, staring down the length of the arrow and holding steady for far too long, just as Tallos had instructed them not to do.

[_I should have been the one who got to shoot, _]he thought to himself.

There was no questioning it, Arlik was a better shot than his two older brothers, always fairing best when they practiced. Yet for some reason, Arlik had not been allowed to shoot a single time out of the past five attempts. Jarl had shot once, and John, of course, got the other four, claiming that—

The ugly thwacking noise of the release of a bow made from sapling branches sounded in the distance, interrupting Arlik’s silent grumbling, and in time an arrow followed. Its gentle arc landed it in the base of the tree, a hand’s width above the head of the rabbit Arlik had been eyeing. The animal perked, his ears nearly touching the shaft of the almost-straight arrow, then fled.

“I think got him!”

John’s yell was accompanied by heavy footfalls, crashing through straw and crackling rocks. He and Jarl bounded toward Arlik, but both their eyes were fixed past him, in search of the hare they’d just skewered.

“You missed,” Arlik said to them as they neared. It did not feel right to yell in these woods—to break the solemn quiet with boyish exclamations as his brothers liked to. Even if there were no Northmen in these parts, as Tallos claimed there weren’t, it still felt as if the Northluns were home to things that would not appreciate being awoken from so peaceful a slumber.

The boys rushed past him, either not hearing or not caring.

“You missed,” Arlik repeated, now angry enough to raise his volume.

John had done this before, more than once. He trusted his own pride over Arlik’s eyesight, always insisting that he’d hit the escaped prey. And Jarl was of no use, just shrugging stupidly, which was all John needed to justify being the one to take the next shot yet again. A bloodless arrow would aid in Arlik’s claim this time, but when he went to the foot of the tree to retrieve it, all his glance revealed were some piles of chewed pine cones and straw. He knew he could find the arrow, probably knocked loose by the fleeing hare, but his brothers’ footfalls were already beginning to fade. The desire to be proven right began to wane in importance compared to the desire to not be lost and alone as night approached.

“Wait,” he called to them, ineffectual, then bolted in their direction.

Arlik never felt so little as he did, when chasing after his brothers. It seemed their legs must have been twice his height to have climbed over the logs he was forced to crawl beneath, scratched by hooked branches and dampened by moss. The downed tree ahead of him had the unmistakable footmarks of one or both of his brothers, stamped into its punky surface, and Arlik decided he would not be crawling under this one. He leapt into the air, his left knee high and bent in front of him. His foot made contact with the top of the lying giant, and for a moment he thought he might be able to get over the thing without aid of his hands, just as his brothers must have done. He was wrong. As he felt himself about to fall backward, he reached forward with his hands, digging his fingers into the soft, wet surface of the barkless tree side he had so desperately wished to only step upon. The cold and rotten wood quickly filled the gaps under his nails as his fingers continued through, pressing into some mushy, wriggling things—probably grubs—before he was able to pull himself up. He had no time to gather any tasty grubs, however, as neither brother was in sight from the top of his perch. Worse yet, there was a significant drop off in front of him, and he had no time to climb down with caution.

Doing as his older brothers would have, Arlik jumped forward, readying himself for the impact with the rocky ground. He landed with his legs bent slightly, absorbing the brunt of the shock, but the loose stones shifted beneath him and sent him to a knee.

When he saw his blood, he wanted to cry. A younger Arlik would have cried. …He was not a child anymore, though.

Fecking whore’s beard, he said to himself. It was the most mature thing he knew to say, said often by his father when angry at a nail that would not drive straight or some such. It gave him power, speaking those words and knowing that at eight years of age, he was nearing adulthood himself.

He pulled himself to his feet, ignoring the blood coming through the knee of his trousers, and set off again toward his brothers.

Any worry he had about the injury of his knee quickly vanished when he realized he could no longer hear his brothers’ running. With his head beginning to throb with worry, he alternated between frantic sprinting and quiet walking, in an attempt to relocate them. Somehow he felt he could see the light dimming, as if the Dawnstar was hurrying its retreat in an effort to leave him in darkness. They’ll smell my blood, he thought, unsure of whether he meant the wolves or the Northmen.

“Where are you?” he yelled in desperation, fighting the urge to make some silent pledge not to protest John’s next insistence of being the one to shoot the bow, so long as Arlik might hear his brother’s voice.

“Shut up, and come ’ere,” was the response.

Arlik wasted no time getting to where the voice had come from, completely unaffected by its rudeness. He eventually found his two brothers at a familiar place.

A chasm stretched out before them, where the jagged earth was split in two. They were on the lower side, the other jutting upward a good two or three men in height. And between them and the wall of rock on the opposite side was a deep and narrow canyon that seemed to swallow all light.

This spot was known well to the three of them, as it was the farthest north they had ever been willing to travel—alone or otherwise. They were already far past the point that they’d agreed upon, with both their father and Tallos, not to go beyond.

“He went up there. I saw him,” said John.

The relief of having found his brothers had already faded, replaced by the desire to convince them to start back home. The darkness would consume the three of them just as easily as it would Arlik by himself.

“You missed him,” said Arlik. “I saw the arrow in the tree.”

“It went clean through him,” insisted John, then he looked at Arlik in a way meant to belittle him. “Didn’t you hear Tallos tell us how far something can run, even with an arrow through the heart?”

“I heard him, but—”

“Good,” John interrupted, but rather than continuing to talk down to Arlik, he softened his look and finally spoke to him as an equal. “He can’t be too much farther. You need to go and get him.”

Arlik took a moment to decipher exactly what it was his brother was asking of him. There was a dead tree that spanned the narrow canyon—or rather the skeleton of one. Years of decay had rotted the tree’s remains into a hollow shell. The narrow end rested at their feet, and the giant trunk remained fixed at the top of the far side from where it looked to have fallen. Arlik had no words.

“You’re the only one who will fit,” added John, as if that alone justified the request. Then, in rare form, John smiled and said encouragingly, “I know you can do it.”

Arlik gave the tree a second look, trying to find something in it that might make it look less than the hanging deathtrap they’d all agreed it was in the past, but his assessment did not change. He felt his head shake in involuntary protest.

John’s look quickly soured. “I just shot my first fecking rabbit, and you won’t help me get it?” He paused, then went on as if he’d come to some astute conclusion. “You really must like farming, don’t you? Playing in the cold mud? Digging up little shit potatoes no bigger than your own teeny wanker?”

This time Arlik shook his head quite consciously. “No,” he said, adamant.

John made a show that he was not convinced. “I think you do. I think these woods scare you. You would never come out here without us, now, would you?”

There was no pretending that, so Arlik remained silent and scowling.

“Well,” John went on, “you can farm all you want, just like our stupid father. You can help all the ugly farmers’ girls with the harvest sort. Then you can find the meanest, fattest one, and marry her, just like he did.”

The accusation was more than Arlik could bear. “No! I’m going to be a hunter. Like Uncle Tallos.”

“Then prove it,” spat John. “Get up that log and fetch my dead fecking rabbit!”

Arlik felt his face reddening, knowing he’d been outmaneuvered, and looked to Jarl for assistance. Jarl just gave him his usual shrug, which only worsened Arlik’s mood.

“I’ll climb up there, and look around,” he said, already walking to the log. “But I won’t find any rabbits.”

“Sure you won’t,” said John, probably wearing a repugnant grin.

Arlik got on his belly and began to squeeze himself into the narrow end of the tree, further soaking clothes that would soon turn frigid. “Don’t touch it,” he warned his brothers.

Inside was cramped and musty, and he was immediately reminded of the wound on his knee as he was forced to use it to help him wriggle upward. He fought both pain and panic as he kept pushing himself along, having to rock his body left and right in order to gain any ground.

“Stop!” he screamed at the top of his lungs as he felt the log lurch to a side. He could picture his brothers at the bottom jostling the thing.

“We didn’t touch it.”

John’s voice was muffled by the thick wood surrounding Arlik, but he figured he might be being truthful. John probably wanted his rabbit more than he wanted to frighten him, in any case, and Arlik changed his mind about how best to proceed.

“Hold it steady,” he yelled to them.

“What?”

After a bit of back and forth, he was convinced that his brothers were now steadying the log, and he continued. As it widened, he was able to bend his legs and no longer needed to rock side to side, making the climb a bit safer, but every inch closer to the center point still felt like an inch closer to death. Regardless, he pressed onward, ignoring the slight motion he felt in the log, attributing it to him being at the most flexible part. He was careful to clear his path of cobwebs with his hand, not wanting them on his face. He only hoped the spiders would remain where they skittered off to as he passed, rather than retaliate for destroying their homes.

For some reason, the bounce of the log continued to strengthen as he climbed past center, to the extent that he stopped moving in hopes it would die down.

“Hurry up,” he heard John yell. “It’s going to be getting dark soon.”

It made him wonder just how long he’d been in this log, and also how difficult it might be to climb back down. If he got to the top, and saw no rabbit, as he knew he would, his brothers may not have the patience to wait for him at the bottom.

“I’m coming down,” he shouted to them, just before taking a final look at the light coming from the opening at the other end.

“You better not. I’ll tell everyone what a coward you are. You can’t even—”

“Shhhhhhhh!” Arlik shushed his brother. “I see something.”

Something about the way he whispered must have scared his brother, because John shut up quickly, and did not prod. Arlik could scarcely believe his own words as he told them the next bit.

“I think it’s the rabbit.”

At the top of the log, Arlik saw what he believed was the rabbit, on his side. His fur was rising and falling rapidly.

Curiosity drove him on, and Arlik continued up the log, in spite of its unsteadiness. He saw the creature stand and jump, a weak and tired jump, just enough to put him out of sight.

“I told you I got him,” Arlik heard his brother say from below.

The base of the log widened considerably as Arlik reached it, flared out where roots had been torn from the earth. He pulled himself over the final lip and found what he was looking for. The rabbit was on its side again, the center-mass wound now clear to see. His black eyes were wide with fright, but they began to relax as his breaths slowed, and the snowy fluff of his winter coat no longer rose and fell with strength.

“Well, do you see it or not?” came John’s voice from afar.

Arlik ignored him, and crawled forward on his belly. He’d seen animals killed before, but never a wild one, just animals that had been raised for the explicit purpose. This was different. This animal had fought to survive—for how many years, Arlik could not guess—but he’d managed to avoid the fangs of wolves and the talons of hawks, feeding and sheltering himself in conditions worse than Arlik could ever hope to survive in. It did not seem sensible that such a creature would meet its end at the hand of such a novice hunter like his brother. Nor did it seem just.

Nonetheless, Arlik crawled on, eager to collect and show this trophy to their father… and to Tallos. Still on his belly, his feet now cleared the base of the trunk, yet for some reason, he did not feel as though he had escaped. Much like before, he was gripped by an improbable fear. He imagined those roots had come alive, like the mouth of some kraken, and were spreading out to engulf him. He ignored the phantom shadows of his imagination and put a hand on the rabbit. He could feel it still breathing, and it was a sickening sensation—not just to know it was alive and suffering, but to feel its soft, warm skin, not at all unlike the puppies of his grandfather’s kennels.

A horrid jolt of realization ran from heel to spine when the first boot entered his periphery, stepping softly on the ground beside his head. When the second boot appeared on his other side, a mammoth thing, clad in thick furs, Arlik had already turned to stone.

He wanted to scream, to yell for his brothers to run, but he could not so much as squeak. He envisioned his brothers below, both oblivious—eagerly awaiting word on the rabbit, and unable to see the Northman now straddling Arlik’s head due to the cliff and mass of roots. Have they been captured as well? he wondered. It had been a near eternity since John had last barked about his rabbit. They might be surrounded by Northmen of their own.

His hand still on the rabbit, Arlik felt the air leave its lungs for a final time, just as the last thing he would likely ever see met his eyes. The glintless head of the Northman’s axe fell into view, as if the tool had been allowed to slide in a loosened grip, from neck to butt, stopping just above the ground. This was not a tool for splitting wood, however; this was a weapon for ending life, and it would end all three of their lives if Arlik did not warn his brothers.

With all his force, he willed his chest to push enough breath to make some sound, desperately hoping that whatever pitiful noise emerged might be heard by John. He was no horrible brother, Arlik somehow had the time to realize. John was often pigheaded and selfish, but he did not deserve to die for those oft-brotherly shortcomings. That John had the courage to lead the three of them into the Northluns, away from the farms, made him a better man than their craven father, and Arlik found he could not help but thank John for that—even though it now meant he would die.

“Run,” came a loud cry. “Northmen—three of them! Arlik, run!”

The ground seemed to bow with the force of the Northman’s instantaneous response as the man sprang to action, running off in some indeterminable direction. Arlik’s head felt weightless and floated, making him worry that perhaps the Northman had had time to behead him after all. His senses were deadened to the point that all he could do was replay the voice he’d heard, echoing it in his mind repeatedly until it made sense. It was John’s voice—filled with dread but strong—and he had yelled the warning that Arlik could not.

Dead silence once again prevailed as Arlik finally regained the composure to lift himself to his knees and peer around. The once-indifferent trees that barred his vision from extending more than a few dozen paces now seemed like purveyors of doom, doing all they could to eclipse the setting Dawnstar. Arlik did not know to where his brothers or the Northmen had run. He only knew he was alone.

 

 

 

 

 

[]FROM THE AUTHOR

 

 

 

 

 

Thank you for taking the time to read this prologue. The Axe and the Throne is the first novel in Bounds of Redemption—a true epic fantasy series, taking place in a vast realm with a large cast. It is aimed at those who want a bit more grit and complexity than typical mainstream fantasy, without sacrificing readability and pace. Definitely not Young Adult, it is for mature, intelligent readers, not afraid of a little challenge.

The Axe and the Throne can be found at all major online book retailers and is available in paperback.

Sign up for the newsletter to be notified of the sequels:

 

Book 1: The Axe and the Throne

Book 2: Tides of the Realm

Book 3: Title Pending

 

 

www.MDIreman.com


The Axe and the Throne: Prologue

In this prologue to The Axe and the Throne, readers are introduced to the Northluns, a desolate and mountainous woods that separates Arlik and his family from the horrors rumored to lay beyond. It is about a twenty minute read, sure to pique the interest of those who enjoy non-fairytale fantasy. The Axe and the Throne is the first novel in Bounds of Redemption-a true epic fantasy series, taking place in a vast realm with a large cast. It is aimed at those who want a bit more grit and complexity than typical mainstream fantasy, without sacrificing readability and pace. Definitely not Young Adult, it is for mature, intelligent readers, not afraid of a little challenge.

  • Author: M. D. Ireman
  • Published: 2015-11-11 04:20:08
  • Words: 3788
The Axe and the Throne: Prologue The Axe and the Throne: Prologue