Defiant Swords (Durlindrath #2)





Robert Ryan



Copyright © 2015 Robert J. Ryan

All Rights Reserved. The right of Robert J. Ryan to be
identified as the author of this work has been asserted.

All of the characters in this book are fictitious and
any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is coincidental.


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Trotting Fox Press

Brave Fool



was at a loss. His enemies had him in a trap, and there
was no way out. And yet, if he had the courage, there
a way. But it
would take daring of a kind that did not involve swords or magic.

Khamdar stood tall and still. His pallid hands rested loose
and confident on his wych-wood staff. He gave no hint of outward aggression,
and yet a wave of malice, strong as a flood, flowed from him
a physical thing. Brand had heard of this before. It was
said that the mere presence of one of the great sorcerers was enough to
brave warriors. He believed it.
And yet there was something in him that did not like to be pushed. The greater
his fear became the stronger that thing inside him grew.

He felt the weight of the broken staff of Shurilgar in his
hand. His whole purpose in retrieving it from the tombs was to destroy it, and
thereby destroy its other half that was used by the enemy in their siege of Cardoroth.
Anything less was a failure.

Yet Kareste looked at him, pleading silently, for she alone
could use Shurilgar’s staff with hope of defeating Khamdar.

The sorcerer, a brooding shadow, watched with malicious
fascination. Dare he give it to her?

It was a good question, for it was now plain that Kareste
had her own agenda, and if he gave her the
. If so, Cardoroth was doomed, and
perhaps the whole land also, for he sensed that she teetered on the edge of
becoming a sorceress. Khamdar had not lied when he

One other choice Brand had, and he pondered it swiftly. He
could take the staff back into the tombs and leave it there. He might survive
the harakgar, the dark guardians of that shadow-haunted
long enough to drop
some bottomless chasm, for now that Kareste knew the charm that kept the
harakgar at bay, she could retrieve it otherwise. Doing so, he might live, for
long as he did not attempt to take the staff out of the
tombs the harakgar would probably not kill him. And there were other exits than
the one he now stood before that would allow him to escape Khamdar.

But if he did any of that, Cardoroth would certainly fall,
and likely Kareste also. His mistrust of her would surely push her
to the enemies of the land.

He made his choice. There was no way to know if it was right,
otherwise it would not have been

The ring of enemies behind Khamdar did not wait with the
sorcerer’s stillness. The Azan warriors gazed with hatred, their eyes dark slits,
their hands tightly clenched about sword hilts. The elugs milled uncertainly,
their iron-shod boots scraping the stone of the high ledge as they shuffled
impatiently. From the beasts, the hounds born of dark sorcery, a low growl
throbbed, deep and rumbling as though the earth moved and tumbled masses of
stone into the abyss behind them.

Brand took a slow step back, and then another. All eyes
him, even Kareste’s, whose
face showed at first surprise and then swift disappointment. She guessed his choice:
he would not give her the broken remnant of Shurilgar’s
staff – instead he would return into the tombs of the Letharn behind
him, preferring to dare its dangers rather than trust her with it.

He took another step and hoped that his instincts were right.
him, understanding all that had just
passed through his mind, or thinking that she did, for her face was stricken.
The sight of her anguish stabbed him in the heart.

But she was wrong. The enemy now focused on
was what he intended, and
they had forgotten her. With a sudden but sure motion he threw the
The black wood glinted, and its jagged ends
timber caught the light like
flashing daggers.

Her eyes widened, but
her hand reached out, swift and sure as his own movement had
been, and plucked the staff from the air.

Even as she did so, Brand voiced the Durlin creed.

Death or infamy!
he yelled.

His voice rang clear and loud in challenge,
he did not wait for
he leapt forward and struck out, aiming for Khamdar. If he destroyed their
leader those who
followed might falter. So he hoped, for no
matter his skill at arms he could not defeat them all. He could not even defeat
Khamdar alone, but his
might give Kareste the
time she needed to decide what she was going to do – if she had not
already fallen to the lure of dark sorcery.

But Brand did not use his skill at arms. He sensed that
Khamdar was beyond such attacks, warded by
power. Instead, he drew on the newfound, unwanted,
needed strength of magic that he had discovered within

Blue-white flame spurted to life and ran along the oaken
staff that Aranloth had given him. It flared and fluttered, then streaked
toward the sorcerer.

, made a smooth motion with his own dark staff and waved
Brand’s attack aside
effort, diverting it harmlessly
into the chasm that ran

Brand tried again, but even as he summoned flame Khamdar knocked
the staff from his hand. It clattered over the stone as it fell, and Brand
stood unprotected before the sorcerer.

At that moment he felt the full power of Khamdar, of one of
the great elùgroths, and it chilled the blood in his veins. Fear surged through
him, overwhelming dread that drove into him and urged him to run, to run
anywhere to escape, even over
into the abyss, for surely such terror could not be endured.

He tore his gaze from the sorcerer and looked at Kareste. Her
hands gripped tight the broken staff of Shurilgar, but she had not moved. Her
face seemed strange, as though she summoned some great
but he saw no sign of
any spell
. He did not understand
what she was doing, but he saw no indication that she made any move to help

He gritted his teeth and planted his feet firmly on the
ground. He was not going to run anywhere, no matter the shadow of madness that the
sorcerer cast over him. If he must die, he would die fighting.

Khamdar laughed softly. He seemed perfectly at ease, confident
that he could kill his prey whenever he chose, no matter that it tried to fight

Brand trembled. Despite the cloud of horror that deepened over
him, that drained both strength and will, he slowly drew his sword.

The sorcerer grew still. His laughter ceased, and Brand drew
assurance from the fact that his enemy seemed surprised.

blade glittered and flickered
hand. A cold light seemed to shine within it. Brand
shook off a little of the fear that clung to him like a fog.

“You can kill,” he said slowly to the elùgroth, “but you
cannot win.”

Brand was surprised at the steadiness of his voice, and his final
choice was made, as he always made it: live or die; win or lose – he would

He took a pace forward, and it required an enormous effort.
Yet in doing so it freed him, for the fear
fell suddenly away, and despair and mad terror
with it. All that was left
was a soaring will to defy the person who would oppress him, and in that
, life and death, his quest, and the fate of Alithoras itself
were all forgotten. There was only one thought, and that was to resist his

A shadow of doubt crossed the elùgroth’s features, and his
fingers flexed uncertainly on his wych-wood staff. Brand understood intuitively
that it had been many long years since anyone ha
him. But whatever
, he swiftly stifled them, or else
confidence in his unassailable might rose once more to the surface. He smiled,
and then stepped forward himself.

An unexpected roaring filled Brand’s ears. If it was some
attack of sorcery, he did not understand it. But judging from how the elùgroth
tilted his own head to listen, it was a surprise to him also.

And then suddenly Brand felt rough hands on him from behind.
Kareste was there; he knew her by the flick of ash-blond hair that he saw from
the corner of his
. With a strength that he scarcely
, she spun him around toward the cave and threw
him to the ground. Taken by surprise and unprepared, he fell hard and tumbled awkwardly
across the ancient stone ledge.

He had made a mistake – the greatest of his life.
Kareste would side with the enemies of Alithoras, perhaps even rejoin the two
halves of Shurilgar’s staff, and the woe that would come of that was
unthinkable, yet he must think of it, for it would be his fault.

A voice cracked at him like a whip. “Back, you fool! Back!”

It was Kareste. Her eyes were wild, and
strain showed on her face. He staggered to his feet near the entrance to the

Kareste leaped back
the broken staff of Shurilgar raised high. A moment Khamdar paused, uncertain of
what was happening.

The roaring grew louder. Brand stood next to
He held his
unsure where to face or what to do. From just behind
the stale breath of the
, and
he sensed the harakgar stir within the tunnels that they guarded. A shiver ran up
his spine, and the hair on the back of his neck prickled.

Khamdar made to move forward. The band that he led followed
in his wake. But in midstride the sorcerer paused once more. This time he
looked up, a
expression on
his face. The roar grew
loud. A thrum
through the ground.

Without warning Khamdar turned and fled through the ranks of
his own followers. An Azan warrior, not quick enough to get out of his way, was
blasted by crimson flame and
to the side in smoke and screams. At that moment white froth flew through
the air
followed by a spray of water and
then a flood that tumbled and roared and raced in an avalanche of fury.

Kareste had called forth water from the river that ran above
the tombs and drawn it to the ledge. The band of enemies screamed and panicked.
Yet before they could move Brand saw many swept away over the ledge and into
the abyss. Moments later all were lost from sight in the mighty torrent that
gathered pace, sweeping rocks and smashing boulders before it.

Water-spray lashed Brand’s face. The ledge before him
trembled, and he was sure that some was taken away. He feared that Kareste had
called too much
the whole platform of stone might crash and topple into the
abyss, and they might yet be forced back into the caves, if even that was safe
from collapse.

2. Evil must be Fought



The ledge groaned and the water roared. Rocks and boulders
tumbled over the precipice, tearing and ripping away at the lip as though it
cloth. Yet as quickly
as the water came, the great flood ceased.

Brand looked for any sign of their enemies. His searching gaze
first took in the ruined
broken and tattered along
and then closer in where rubble and deep layers of silt had settled. Water trickled
in little streams, draining into the abyss.

The ancient stone marker remained as it had for years beyond
count, though
darkly with moisture.
, but of the hunters who had
pursued them from Cardoroth to the tombs of the Letharn, there was no sign.

Brand shivered, for the air was chill. It was as though the
enemies who had stood there just moments ago had never existed. The force of
Kareste’s magic had swept them into oblivion. He had seen her use power before
this, but not to such a catastrophic end. Her claim was true: she could use
Shurilgar’s staff. And though that had just now saved them, yet also
lure would draw
very soul into jeopardy.

He sat down on the stone, exhausted and uncaring of the wet
surface. Kareste remained standing, gazing out into the abys. There was an
expression on her face that might have been elation, but there were times when
he could not read her, and this was one. What she was thinking, he could not
guess, but certainly she gripped the
staff hard, as though she would never let it go, and that
worried him.

After a while her fingers relaxed, and she
down at him.

“Don’t think that they’re all gone,” she said. “We’ll have
trouble from them yet, before the end.”

Brand looked out toward the chasm. “Surely nothing could
survive that.”

Kareste closed her eyes. “I no longer sense Khamdar, but
that doesn’t mean he’s dead. He may have reached safety. Or, even if swept away
by the flood, he
it. Elùgroths are hard to kill. Harder than lòhrens, for
they use their power all the time to ward themselves against the chances of the

Brand groaned and stood. It seemed that every muscle in his
body ached, and even sheathing his sword hurt him.

He walked past the horses, huddled and scared near the wall,
and gave them some reassuring words and a rub along their withers to help
steady them. As he did so, he noticed that the rockfall that had once blocked
the downward route along the ledge was gone: the flood had cleared it away, yet
the stone
remained blackened where the fire of some previous
battle scorched it.

Brand moved cautiously to the broken edge and looked into
the abyss. Kareste joined him. They gazed in silence, for below them was a
scene of death. The bodies of their enemies were at the bottom of the gorge.
Some floated, tugged back and forth in the ebb and flow of the receding
floodwaters. Others, the tattered remnants of creatures that once walked, lay
sprawled and broken on hard rocks.

“Better them than us,” Kareste said.

Brand did not answer. Her comment was true, and yet it was
not a sentiment that he would have voiced himself.

They stepped back from the ledge. “They’re not all there,”
she said. “Perhaps some escaped, or maybe we just can’t see all of the bodies. The
rest may be obscured by water or swept away.”

“There’s no way to know for sure,” he said. “Yet
feel more at ease if
’d seen Khamdar down there.”

“He was quick to flee, sensing what was coming before the
others. And he is warded also. He may be injured. Or he may be dead, but I
doubt it.”

easy to kill,” Brand said.

She raised an eyebrow. “Nor are you. That much I’ve learned
for myself, though Aranloth evidently knew it before me.”

Brand looked at her, drawn as always to her green-gold eyes,
but unsure how well he knew her, if he knew her at all. And yet the risk he had
just taken, enormous as it was, had paid off.
, at least for the moment.

“What now?” he asked.

Kareste gazed back at him, her face masking the many things
that she must have felt.

“First,” she said, “Tell me why you gave me the staff. I
didn’t think you would.”

Brand shrugged. “Honestly, I’m not sure myself. But what has
been done to the Halathrin is a great evil. It cannot go unchallenged – it
must be fought.”

“So too must the siege of Cardoroth, but that continues. Yet
you gave me the staff, and you must know that it occurs to me to keep it.”

Brand shrugged again, but gave no answer.

She kept looking at him, her gaze intense. “You
me to give it back, but I don’t know why.”

“I pick my friends carefully,” he answered. “And my quests
also. If we stick together, we might both yet live. And may the king forgive
me, but I agree that the Halathrin, entrapped by sorcery as they are, must be
freed. How can I decide to help only Cardoroth or to help only the Halathrin?
It’s in our power to attempt both, but it’s a heavy burden to stand here
knowing that my first quest is achieved – that I could destroy
Shurilgar’s staff and save Cardoroth – and yet not do it.”

Kareste continued to look at him, and though her face showed
nothing, he guessed at the turmoil
battled across
her mind.

Her face did not change, but suddenly she held out the staff
to him.

“We all pick our friends carefully. Or at least we try to.”

For just a moment some great emotion welled to the surface,
and her face flushed. But then she pushed it down and became the perfect
picture of a lòhren again: calm, poised and tranquil.

“Take it,” she said. “Khamdar was wrong. I’m no elùgroth,
though I feel the lure of elùgai.”

The staff shimmered darkly between them. He saw how hard it
was for her to return it, though she
hid that from
him. And he admired
that she had the strength to offer it back, for surely if she kept it great
power was at her command.

He saw also, more clearly than she, that her final choice of
Light or Shadow, of lòhrengai or elùgai, was not yet made. From the moment that
he took the staff from her, she would yearn for it. From the moment it was destroyed,
which he still planned to do as swiftly as the Halathrin were freed, she would
regret her choice. The blush of great power was on her, and its lure was
, but so too was the freshness of her gratitude for his
trust in her. But those opposing forces would wax and wane over time, the first
growing stronger and the second receding.

She was not ready to make her choice, and to force the issue
now might be to jeopardize her soul. For once a person walked beneath the
Shadow it was near impossible to turn around again. But if she could do it, it
must be done in her own time and of her own will.

Yet still he
doubt, for if he did not take the
staff now and destroy it, then the risk to Cardoroth would grow, and with it
the peril to the rest of Alithoras.

What would Aranloth want him to do? The knowledge that
Halathrin, caught by foul sorcery and turned into beasts
that roamed the world at the will of elùgroths, would tear at the lòhren’s
heart. And that the elùgroths did this, Khamdar chief among them, was not just
a matter of spite or malice. There was a plan behind it.

He made his
Even Cardoroth was a small thing compared to the fate of Alithoras. But he felt
alone, for he was making decisions that even lòhrens and kings would find hard.

Aranloth had warned him that at all costs the staff must be
destroyed as soon as it was brought
the tombs.
the enemy,
the damage they
could cause
was incalculable. But he must take
up the burden of choice – there was no one else to do so.

He shook his head.

“Keep it,” he said. “We go to the hills of Lòrenta to free
the Halathrin, or to try to. But we must go there swiftly and destroy the staff
when our quest is done.”

Kareste looked at him strangely, and then slowly lowered her
hand. She gripped the staff fiercely.

“I thought you would take it,” she said.

He flashed a grin at her.

“So did I. But my choice is made, may the king forgive me,
and it’s behind me now. All that matters is to get to Lòrenta quickly, but I
fear that Khamdar waits for us above. He, and any of the band that survived
with him.”

“That may be,” she said. “But another way, an old way has

She pointed to where the rockfall had been cleared away. The
downward path, though steep and narrow, seemed passable. “Taking it we can
avoid Khamdar, for a time, but it will take us longer to get to Lòrenta. If we
go that way it will take us into the Angle and we must cross rivers. And no doubt
we will meet other dangers that we don’t foresee.”

“The new way might be safer,” he said. “But the old
way – back the way we came – will be swifter. And we’re in
need of haste.”

“But however fast we get there,” she answered, “we must
still get there. The slower way offers a better chance of that. And not all the
hunt was gathered here with Khamdar. We’ll surely meet with the rest if we go
back that way.”

Brand sighed. “The delay chafes me, but what you say is
true. We’ll take our chances on the new road.”

They mounted and looked around one last time. Brand would
not be sorry to leave here. He still felt the presence of the harakgar, furious
but muted within the tombs, and he knew he was lucky to have escaped.

The path ran steeply. The rockfall was gone, blasted away by
the force of water that had flowed down the ledge like a river, but the stone
was wet and treacherous, and it was no place to slip; the abyss opened to their
left like a yawning mouth.

Kareste went first, leading her horse by hand. Brand did not
like the Angle at all; everything that he had seen so far stank of death. Yet
he wondered if it had always been like that. The great carvings on the cliff
opposite the chasm told him that there was more to the Letharn than he had seen
so far.

They continued downward, moving with caution. Kareste paused
often, as though probing with some secret sense the state of the stone beneath
their feet.

“It’s perfectly safe,” she said.

Brand was less sure. “Then why are you being so careful?”

She grinned at him but gave no answer.

Nothing, and no one, followed them, but the roar of the
waterfalls, of the mighty river pouring down the
grew louder every moment.

As they went Brand studied the view. The Angle was visible
between the two silver bands of river that bordered it. It was a green and lush
land that swelled into a smooth-sloped hill
its middle, but it was far away and hard to see properly.
There were, perhaps, buildings on that rise, covering its crest and stretching
down its long sides. If so, they were decrepit, barely more than rubble, but it
was hard to tell though Brand strained his eyes. No doubt, if they were
buildings rather than masses of broken and toppled boulders, they were the
remnant of the city, or at least one of the cities, of the Letharn.

They neared the bottom of the ledge. There was water in the
chasm below them, much closer now and still running from the flood Kareste had
summoned. The broken body of an elug was caught between some upward thrusting
Its head lolled at an unnatural angle, and flies
gathered at its vacant eyes and open mouth.

Brand looked away. He took no joy in death, even
who would kill him. But his thoughts soon turned to what lay

To their right was the face of the great escarpment, and
over this thundered a mighty waterfall nearly a quarter of a mile wide.
had never seen anything like it.

Beyond, he saw the two rivers more clearly, for amid all the
roar and spray of water this was the place where one river became two. Thus had
the area earned the name of the Angle. But just before the Angle began, there
was an island. A bridge spanned the first river and led to it, and then a
second bridge spanned the next and

They rode ahead. Spray from the waterfall drove at them, and
the horses became skittish. They crossed the first bridge and made the island.
Water churned all around. Wind howled above, whipped up by the cascade of white
water that smashed into stones, frothing and foaming.

Beneath the waterfall was a lake. From this sprang the two
rivers. But the lake was not still and peaceful as was Lake Alithorin. Rather,
it roiled and tossed in ceaseless motion.

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