Anyway, I'm hard at work on the third - and final - part of the Price of Paradise, and those of you who have been asking and asking will be pleased to know that the paperback version WILL be released just as soon as part 3 hits the ebook ether.
Anywho, for now, I've written a "new" prologue that will take the place of the original one both in the paperback version and in the collected ebook one. The prologue currently in the original ebook release will be moved elsewhere, as a 'flashback', possibly as the result of...no, that would be telling.
So, enjoy - I've decided to post it here for free, for those of you who have already purchased Part 1 and might be feeling a bit aggrieved that I've changed it. Hope you enjoy - it's set before Gillad's first chapter, and is intended to be the first time we meet Oly, and it tells how and why everyone's favourite army scout is so convinced that the stories of men who can conjure fire aren't propaganda or exaggerations, but true.
Thanks for all the kind words and feedback on Part 2 - glad you're all enjoying it, your support means a lot.
JUST OUTSIDE THE JAHNGAR PASS, DRELLAK
As hard as he tried, Oly couldn’t take his eyes away from the remains of the body in the middle of the tent. A charred, blackened and desiccated corpse was curled up there, its remains carrying with it a sickly scent, tendrils of smoke rising from it haphazardly.
He knew that body. He knew the dead man, knew him of old. They had been scouts together, in the Drellak army, had set out on patrol around the border a few days before, saying their goodbyes and heading opposite directions. The dead man had been Juilin - Oly’s friend - and the sight of what had been done to him made hatred boil inside his guts.
The body reminded Oly of memories he would rather forget, of what had happened to his family. He tried to push those memories away, but the lack of control he often had over his emotions meant he easily do it. He wanted to shout, and rage, to scream and curse, but like the other prisoners, he was gagged.
A Swarth soldier, his armour buffed and polished to a sheen that belied a lack of real combat was sitting slouched in a chair, long fingers fishing in a bowl to his right every so often for some olives. The soldier was young – very young, with only a small hint of the beard that was common among the officer class. Oly recognised him as one of the group who had first captured them a few hours before.
Oly glanced to his left. He wasn’t the only scout who had been captured by the invading army. Starna, heavily muscled for a scout, well built and stout, was kneeling to his left, and slim, young Rehat, red haired and pale, was kneeling to his right. All of them had their hands tied behind their backs, and all of them were prisoners of the Swarth.
The tent flap opened, and a small group strode in; a slightly overweight middle aged man at their head, sparse hair carefully combed over the top of his scalp in an attempt to disguise his hair loss. Just behind came a heavy set solider with a thick black beard, a scowl across his face. Following them were three others, their faces obscured by the hoods on their cloaks. The first two men stood in front of the scouts, whereas the hooded trio took up positions in the shadows at the rear of the tent.
Neither of the first two men spoke, whilst the young soldier in the chair continued to lounge and eat.
“My name,” the lead soldier said in a deep voice, “Is General Ilocus. I am a general in the Swarth army, and you are hereby declared to be our prisoners of war.” He made a show of removing his gauntlets, half turned to hand them to the heavy set man behind him. “Before we start, know this. You don’t have to die here today. You can walk away, free, allowed to rejoin your unit. It all depends on how helpful you are.”
Illocus looked at each of them in turn, before reaching out and yanking Starna’s gag down under his chin so he could speak.
“So we really are at war, then?” Starna asked quickly, breathing heavily.
“We are.” Illocus nodded in reply.
The Swarth had been clever and cunning in their plans so far, setting fire to Juilin and leaving him to burn, his screams and cries drawing the other scouts to him like brunflies to water. The enemy had been waiting, hidden from view, ready for when Oly and the others had arrived on the scene and rushed over to save their friend. Bows ready, arrows nocked, the Swarth had surrounded them and announced that they were taking them as “prisoners of war”. Rehat had protested that Swarth and Drellak weren’t at war with each other, to which one of their captors had growled “we are now” in reply.
“You’ll get nothing out of any of us.” Starna said, spitting onto the floor in defiance.
His actions seemed to amuse Illocus, who raised an eyebrow and chuckled loudly.
“No doubt…no doubt.” The general reached behind him, a took of cup of wine from a small table. He took a long swallow and began to swirl the contents of the cup around, staring down into it. “You see, this is one thing I admire about you Drellakians; your sense of duty, your loyalty. In Swarth, joining the army is seen as a boring necessity, something that you’re forced to do for a few years in your youth. Not many people chose to stick around and make a career out of it…” he took another long drink, “But for you, our friends in the North…being a soldier is seen as a vocation, a calling…an honour!”
“You’re boring me, fat man.” Starna replied, “Get to the point.”
Oly couldn’t help but smile at Starna’s defiance. Good man, he thought, We’re Drellak, we’re not going to be intimidated.
The heavy set man moved with unexpected speed and delivered a sharp back handed blow across Starna’s face. The scout’s head snapped back so violently that for a second Oly was afraid his neck had been broken. Starna spat blood onto the floor and glared at his attacker even as the side of his face began to swell up.
“Go easy, Sir Gahart.” General Illocus said, chiding the other man as if he was talking to a child. “The man can’t talk very well if his jaw is broken…”
“Better a broken jaw than having to stand here and listen to his insults.” Gahart replied.
Starna tried to speak, paused, frowned, then tried again, his voice coming out muffled and distorted. “I’m just getting started.”
His jaw is broken, Oly thought. Too late to warn Gahart off.
Gahart stood in front of Starna, knelt down, and grabbed him by the back of head.
“Be mindful of your situation,” he warned.
Starna spat in Gahart’s face.
With a roar of anger, Gahart pushed Starna back, stood up again, and kicked him in the chest as hard as he could. Starna fell back onto the floor, curling into a ball. Gahart hauled him back onto his knees.
“Wasting my time with this one,” Illocus muttered. He roughly pulled Starna’s gag back up, and then turned to Oly, pulling his down.
“There’s no need for this.” Oly said. He kept his voice low, soft, unthreatening – there was no sense in antagonising them any further.
“And that’s precisely my point.” Illocus said, taking a seat. “We’re not here to KILL you. Well, not yet, anyway. Not unless we have to, of course. I’d far rather you gave me the information we need and we – and you - can be on our way.”
As soon as the general said that, Oly knew what was going to happen. All of the ‘not unless we have to’ talk was to make them think they had a chance of survival, that if they just opened up and gave the Swarth whatever information they asked for, then they’d be allowed to walk away. The reality, he was sure, was that the second they were no longer of use, they’d have their throats cut.
He knew he could hold out, and he had a feeling Starna would be beaten half to death as a warning, meaning he wouldn’t be capable of cooperating. That just left Rehat. Oly stole another glance at the young redhead. He was shaking, his brow was soaked with perspiration and his normally pale complexion was even worse than usual, bad enough as to appear almost see-through. He didn’t look good, and Oly had a bad feeling about the boy.
The tent flap opened again, and two soldiers in full armour, wearing helms, came in, and looked around, surveying the scene. They nodded at each other as if satisfied at what they saw, and then one stepped out again. He reappeared a moment later, followed by two others wearing fine clothing rather than armour. One of them was in his late teens, Oly guessed, the other not much more than 10 or 12. Their faces were familiar; he couldn’t quite place them at that moment, though.
As soon as they entered, Illocus replaced the gag on Oly, and then he and Gahart dropped to their knees, the bored looking younger soldier scrambled out of his chair and doing the same.
The older of the two boys motioned for them to rise, and then turned to look at the scouts, soft brown eyes drinking in everything.
“Why is that man bleeding?” he asked quietly. “Is this how we treat prisoners of war, now?” he turned to face the general and his men. “They’re scouts, how much information can they have – is it worth beating them half to death for?”
“Sire,” Illocus replied, his voice steady, “There is method to this apparent madness. These scouts represent the garrison of Tapar – the first military settlement in our way beyond the mountains. They have information on what we can expect once we approach the garrison.”
The older boy turned back to the scouts, and appraised them in silence. Recognition suddenly came to Oly from faces he’d seen drawn on parchments. The elder was Prince Artur Oisin, heir to the throne of Swarth. The other was Prince Lucian, his younger brother.
“And what size is the garrison?” Prince Artur asked, still looking at them.
“Small, sire.” The bored looking young man who had been lounging in the chair replied. “A few hundred men, if that. The main bulk of the southern army is based in Shiancoe, a far more sizeable town some days march to the north.”
“Sir Bran,” Lucian spoke up, his voice high and reedy, “If that is the case, why are we not headed there? Let us ignore Tapar and go straight to this Shiancoe – why are we wasting time?”
Nobody spoke. Bran looked to the general Gahart for support, but they both avoided his gaze.
“My brother asked you a question,” Artur demanded, finally turning his back on the scouts. “Answer him.”
The silence dragged out further. Oly was tempted to break it himself, but he’d seen what happened to Starna, and had no desire to end up taking a beating.
“My Prince,” Illocus began, wringing his hands together, “With respect, you are young and do not yet fully understand military strategy.”
“Then clearly, general,” Artur replied, “Neither do I - for I’m in agreement with my younger brother – why waste time and resource on Tapar when Shiancoe is where we need to take the fight to?”
Illocus motioned for the two princes to take a seat, and stood before them, clasping his hands over his belly in an attempt to appear more at ease.
“My Prince’s, allow me to explain. In times past, before we made our new…alliance…we would advance into Drellak territory, stake a claim on it, and then, after some back and forth negotiating, we would simply turn around again and go home.” He gave a thin smile. “It was ever thus. This was usually for two reasons – one, we never invaded with an army sizable enough to realistically win a full scale engagement, and two, we never invaded with any intention of securing new territory on a permanent basis.”
“Why?” Lucian asked.
“Well, err,” Illocus began.
“Because the object was to hold new territory, not at that time.” Artur told his brother, “The object was to let Drellak know that we had the resources and the will to invade on a greater scale should we chose . We just chose not to let things go too far before.”
“Things are different now,” Illocus nodded, “We are in greater numbers, and our resolve is stronger than ever before. Taking Tapar will send out a message. It will send out the message that things are different from before, that this time there will be no peace, no negotiating – we are taking back what was stolen from your family in the civil war hundreds of years before.”
Stolen, Oly laughed quietly to himself. While it was true that the elder of the two Princesses who had waged civil war was the loser and as such had been exiled to Swarth hundred of years before, to say that the victorious younger sister had stolen the rest of the country from her was madness. It was war, not theft. In war one side won, and one side lost. The Swarth had the misfortune to be the losing side, that was all.
“There is also,” Lucian added, tapping a finger against his chin, “Now that I consider it, another factor to consider. If we leave an army at our back – no matter how small – then we could find ourselves caught between two attacks.”
“I am impressed, Sire.” Bran said, “Your judgement belies your tender years.”
“Gentlemen…” a voice said from the back of the tent. They all turned to see one of the hooded figures who had first entered with Illocus walking forward from the shadows. Oly had pretty much forgotten they were there, they’d been so quiet since arriving. “It occurs to me,” the hooded figure said, walking to stand in the middle of the tent, “That we already have the information we need. Am I right in thinking that we are basically aware of the number of soldiers at the garrison? And that we know where to find it and what strategy is best to take it with minimal effort and losses on our part?”
“That’s a fair assumption, yes.” Illocus frowned.
“Then these gentlemen have nothing useful that they can share with us. And given that fact, may I and my fellow Majai take custody of them?”
Artur shifted in his seat and leant forward. “Define ‘take custody’…”
“It is as I say,” The hooded figure replied, with a slight bow, “Turn them over to us, and give the Majai responsibility for them.”
“We’re not murderers, Vercan.” Artur pointed out. “I’ll not suffer these men to die needlessly.”
“Precisely my point.” Vercan replied from under his hood. “They should not die needlessly.”
“And what else would you have us do with them, Sire?” Gahart asked in a rush, as if forcing himself to speak before he lost his nerve.
“My prince, if I may…” Illocus interjected, “This questioning was not just to see what further information we could extract that we don’t already know. The point here is that as things stand, the garrison at Tapar are either unaware of our presence, or have no precise idea how many of us there are. This gives us the element of surprise. Capturing the scouts was a way of keeping them from reporting our presence - turning them loose and allowing them to return would take away that element.”
Another of the hooded men stepped out of the shadows, the third following close behind him.
“Or add to it.” The second hooded man said.
“I’m sorry?” Illocus asked.
“Allow one to leave. Let him return to Tapar. Let him tell all who dwell there what’s coming for them. What difference does it make whether 200 men are expecting us or not? We will still roll over them and crush them like the insects they are.”
“Brother Mikel is right.” Vercan added. “If one scout is allowed to return, whether he intends to or not, he will sow the seeds of fear. Fear as a weapon of war should never be underestimated. For too long Swarth has cowered before Drellak, afraid of its superior numbers and the reputation of its troops. Now that you stand with the Majai, things have changed – the day of the Drellak nation is done. Send a man back; let him tell what he’s seen and what’s coming for his countrymen. They will be cowering in fear as we approach, and those that don’t run will die screaming.”
All eyes turned to look at Artur, who looked conflicted. The Prince ran a hand through his hair and frowned again, looking over at the scouts, making eye contact with Oly.
Do the right thing, Oly thought. He was hoping that the Prince would rise above what was being suggested to him. The Swarth were declaring war, but they didn’t have to do it by butchering the scouts.
“Very well.” Artur sighed, flicking a hand through the air, “Do as you will.”
Lucian started in the chair next to him and sat bolt upright, grabbing his brother’s sleeve. “No, you can’t…”
Artur placed a hand over Lucian’s and lowered his voice, speaking gently.
“This is war, Lucian.” He told him. “Our royal family are the rightful rulers of this entire land, our throne was stolen from us by the usurper who then divided the realm into two and pushed us into a pathetically small southern quadrant.”
Artur turned and glared at Oly. “We’re here to get back what should never have been taken from us in the first place – and that means blood will have to be shed. It is as distasteful to you as it is to me, brother, but if what we do here today will serve to convince Drellak that resistance is pointless, and that they can’t possibly hope to win…it could save thousands of lives in the future.”
Artur stood, Lucian following, and nodded at Vercan before leaving the tent. After a brief pause, Illocus and the soldiers followed, leaving Oly and the scouts alone with the hooded men.
The one called Vercan took a step forward, and leant down, pulling Oly’s gag off. Vercan straightened up, and in a smooth movement, flicked his hood back. What Oly saw made his breath catch in his throat.
“Are you afraid of me?” Vercan asked, bending back down and putting his face inches away from Oly’s.
Vercan’s eyes were milky white, a solid, liquid mass of lambent bright colour. There was no pupil, no iris, just a ball of glistening light. His hair, hanging long and limp around his shoulders, was also pure, brilliant white, with no colour or darkness to it at all. His face was lined and he looked haggard and drawn, like a tired old man. And yet there was an inner strength to him that radiated out, a strength and power that hovered beneath the surface.
Oly found his voice, tried to keep it steady, although he knew he couldn’t hide the surprise and disgust from his voice.
“What happened to your eyes?” he asked.
Vercan stood again, and flexed his wrists, wriggled his fingers, inspecting them as he spoke. “It is the mark of who we are, and what we do. I am a Majai. I have been using the birthright of our God for many years, and I bear the taint through my eyes and hair – purest white.”
Oly had heard the word ‘Majai’ used several times that day. He’d assumed it was a division of the army, but it looked obvious he was wrong.
“We come from across what you call the ‘Endless Sea’,” Vercan continued, still focusing on his hand exercises. “That vast expanse of ocean that sits off your western coast.” He turned to face Oly. “In your arrogance, you assume that because nobody has ever returned from a voyage over its waters, there is nothing there, that sailors are doomed to cross its unceasing waters without end.”
Vercan knelt down and removed the gags from Starna and Rehat.
“You are wrong.” He continued. “There is something there. We are there.”
“Please.” Rehat said with a sob. “I just want to go home. I’m only 14. I lied about my age…I’m not supposed to be here…”
“Why are you doing this?” Oly asked, curiosity getting the better from him. “If you’re not from Swarth, why are you here? Why are you helping them?”
“I can see the anger in your eyes.” Vercan replied. “You don’t believe in God, do you? Perhaps if you did, your anger would be replaced by contentment, and peace.”
“We do believe in God.” Oly replied. “We murdered him.”
“Ah, of course…you believe, but you refuse to give fealty. Well, we do give fealty. We have proof of God’s existence, and of his love. Your people are occupying land that belongs to the Swarth - people who, like us, walk in the worship of God. And that means we are duty bound by our oaths to help them in their endeavours, help them to reclaim land that belongs to believers. Thanks to Brother Mikel’s advice, one of you is to live, and two of you are to die. That means there is a decision to make.”
“Please.” Rehat sobbed. “I’m not supposed to be here!”
Oly wanted to lash out, to attack. There was a strength and a power radiating from this old man, but he was still confident he could beat him in a fist fight. He just needed to get free.
“Struggling is pointless.” Vercan replied, noticing Oly’s movements. “It will avail you nothing.”
“We’re scouts in the Drellakian army, and we’ll die with honour.” Starna said mumbled through his broken jaw. “Nothing you can say will break us.”
“It’s not what we’re going to say.” The one called Mikel replied. “It’s what we’re going to do.”
Vercan pulled a chair over, and sat down, back straight. He put his hands in his lap, and looked at each of the scouts in turn.
“In terms of what happens next,” he began, “Please be assured that I’m not going to make this decision lightly. As people, we Majai walk with our God; we look to him for guidance and support, for help and succour. We look to him for signs – omens – to guide us in the decisions we make.” He held out an arm, palm up, and frowned. “I will be honest with you now…for two of you here today, and for your entire country…” a single ball of flame appeared from nowhere in the palm of Vercan’s hand and sat there, flickering and dancing. Oly could feel an immense heat radiating from it. Vercan’s milk white eyes opened wider and he smiled. “…the omens are not good.”