The Hunter's Rede (Book 1 in the Chronicles of Ealiron series) by F.T. McKinstry is today's featured book on One Thousand Worlds.
Lorth of Ostarin is a hunter of men. Lawless, solitary and obscure, he is trained in magic and its inherent order. This uneasy combination of pitilessness and structure has made him the highest paid assassin in the land. It is also about to throw his life into chaos.
The trouble begins when Lorth returns home from a long absence to find his old haunts compromised by a cruel, upstart warlord who has invaded the realm and pushed it to the brink of war. Lorth's cavalier attempt to elude a political sandpit quickly deteriorates into a series of skirmishes that he negotiates with a sword and a reckless penchant for using magic against the rules. He flees with a price on his head; but no angry warlords, wizards, foreign aristocrats or spooky apparitions can rattle him from the dark stability of his profession—until he is captured and condemned to execution by a formidable wizard who serves the old powers.
In his quest to prove his innocence and loyalty to the realm, Lorth discovers a profound sense of identity in his internal confluence of war and wizardry. But his quest turns bloody when love for a priestess and a will to avenge his homeland drives him to infiltrate an enemy occupation bent on domination and a blatant disregard for the forces of magic. This brings him to his greatest test, where he must surrender to the darkness of his nature to become a hunter unlike anything he has ever known.
F.T. McKinstry is the author of the Chronicles of Ealiron, an epic fantasy series by Double Dragon Publishing; and Water Dark, a novella by Wild Child Publishing. Her short stories appear in Tales of the Talisman, Aoife's Kiss, and a collection called Wizards, Woods and Gods. When she's not writing or reading weird things, she's hanging out with her cats and fishes, tinkering in gardens, shoveling snow or smearing paint on canvases.
The Hunter's Rede
Warm rain caressed the babargon trees that crouched on the rise overlooking the Anglorean outpost deep in the Tarthian jungle. In a land with no winter, the autumnal equinox had just passed; the new moon hung like a stagnant pool above the woolen cloud cover. As night stole the last of the light, fog settled into the shadows, muting voices, hiding movement and sinking its teeth into the imaginations of tired, wounded warriors.
An assassin gazed upon the captain's tent with the patience of a praying mantis. He did not need light to know where it stood. Unseen and unknown to all but the few who paid him, his tall, lean body draped between the weeping trees, he waited, his mind caressing the glimmering watch-web he had cast around his post to warn him of any unwitting intrusion.
In his homeland of Ostarin far to the north, they called him a hunter. Here, they called him kav'tib, which in their fluid tongue meant warlock, in no good terms. Icaros, the wizard who had raised him after the earth took his mother away, once said, There is more to being a wizard than pretty tricks! The Keepers of the Eye know the minds of gods.
The hunter was far from that. But his tricks, such as they were, proved good enough for the Tarthian nobility. They had hired him for being lawless and without loyalties, a servant of the Old One, the primeval, feminine force of cycles, birth and death who knew all things even beyond the timeless ramparts of gods. Even so, he would not be the most skillful, highest paid assassin in Sourcesee without the things Icaros had taught him. He knew things beyond his multifaceted training as a warrior, things only wizards knew.
For seven years, he had hired out his services to the warlords of Tarth, an empire of wet, wooded lands that had as many boats as carts, a desolation of brackish marshes, towns on stilts, jungles dripping with moss and the warm, fragrant nectars of constant rain. All manner of life grew here, every kind of creature that crept, slithered, swam or flew, humans notwithstanding. These were bronze-skinned, tall, with rounded noses and deep-set eyes the color of swamps, eyes that knew the mysteries of things that flowed. Dominated by the Great Reson Fen near the borders of Anglorea, Tarth was known for its concoctions, everything from rich, heady drinks to narcotics, medicines—and of course, poisons.
He reached up and touched the orange-sized scar on his neck, a five-rayed star left by a near-fatal spider bite. A Tarthian woman had found him gasping and burning in the hazy shadow of a willow tree that leaned over a quiet brown-black river. Like images from a dream, he still remembered the way the water pulled on the long, thin leaves hanging down, the scent of jasmine, the feel of the woman's hands on his face, chirruping birds, croaking frogs and the numbness in his arms and legs. She had dragged him away from the water and into an unpleasant hollow that smelled as if the mud itself were rotting there. He never knew what she had done to him—let alone why—but on the other side of a seemingly interminable delirium he had awaked, alone, weak and, amazingly, alive.
He had not known the face of his own death before that, though he knew death in every part of his nature, being the hand that so often dealt it. Now, the spider bite lived in his body as a presence just below the surface of thought. It sensed the nature of events around him, and intensified when anything came along to which he needed to attend.
He had never learned the name of this spider, but he had learned that the deadly creatures lived only in the swamps that fed the headwaters of the Mroc. While following the straggled path of the company below, he had captured one and brought it to this hidden outpost. With a word, he had crept as a whispering shade into the captain's tent and respectfully loosed the spider into his blankets. The warrior was a man of little note, not the kind of top-heavy lords and commanders whom the hunter usually targeted. His orders had been specific with this one. Keep it quiet, keep it hidden.
The war had begun in the distant southwest, beyond the Red Forest River, where the borders of Tarth dried out and the stony, brushy hills of Anglorea stumbled up and ran with fresh winds as if relieved to get out of the rain. The hunter had left his gold's worth of blood on those stones, and in the mud and pools of the forests, silently and without a thread of emotion for those whom his aristocratic employers had picked to die. He could not have said what the war was about, exactly. A hunter did not concern himself with that. He had crept like the nameless spider into the underground, into the shadows of warriors, lords, horses, whores and swords; into the moaning, oil-darkened recesses of the war machine and there he practiced his art. He cared little for where the river of life flowed or why.
He had become the river, rising and falling to the rhythm of the Hunter's Rede, an unwritten set of codes, shades, they were called, designed to guide assassins in their work. But it was more than that. Shades of gray between the darkness and the light, the Rede whispered the wisdom of the wild. After so many years, it had rooted into his animal mind as primordial instinct.
As he waited for death's exhale, feeling the water on the slick black trunks of the babargon trees soaking into his cloak, the hunter wondered, as he did every year at this time, why he remained in this land. Though his lords paid him well for the things he knew—things they feared to know—he had lost