We are at the halfway point, and it’s time to start getting serious. Storm of Empire is just over a third funded, and now there is just under three weeks to reach the goal. So here, to give you a taste of what you are getting, I present the entire first chapter of the novel. If you like what you see, then please click on over to my Kickstarter page and back the book!
Chapter 1: Omen Star
The star arched over the city, its tail like a curtain of colorless fire that glowed even in the daylight. Karana looked up at it from the narrow window of the archive and wondered what it really was. She had never seen one so large, seeming so close she felt she could touch it. They called bearded stars omens of evil in the histories, but she knew they were more often said to portend momentous events – things that might change the course of empires.
A pall of smoke fell across the sky above her and she flinched away as a cloud billowed down the street and filled the plaza below, obscuring the crowds all moving toward the harbor. The archives were too far from the walls to hear the ongoing assault, but the smoke of the fires of thousands of barbarians blew across the city, bringing the smells of burning wood and flesh. Perhaps the star spoke truly, and these were the last days of the city of Ilion.
She turned away from the window and felt another surge of dizziness, caught at the parapet to hold herself steady. For days now she had been caught by the sudden spells of vertigo and weakness. She told herself there was nothing to it but weariness. She had worked day and night for a week now, sleeping little and eating less. They all did what they could, those who remained.
She turned back to her work and drew fragile scrolls from their slots on the walls and placed them as carefully as she could on the rolls of untreated rawhide – they had run out of vellum and real leather days ago – and then rolled them up. The layers would help to protect the old parchments from crumbling when they were moved. Once rolled, she packed them in crates, pushing them down snugly. She already had three boxes ready to be nailed shut and carted off. The wagon was late.
It was hot in here, high summer outside and barely a breath of wind. She drew the veil off her hair and fanned herself for a moment, unobserved, but she quickly covered her head when she heard footsteps. She just had time to arrange the silk over her braids when Marius came in. He was the assistant Master, and while she did not like him as well as she had liked old Master Sabos, she got along with him well enough. He was a thin man just reaching middle age, and he was as tired as the rest of them, the few that were left.
“Three waiting?” he said, looking at the crates. He sighed. “I don’t know if they are coming back.”
“They’ll come back,” she said, wanting to believe it. “We have to get as many of the scrolls aboard ships as we can.”
“They said the harbor was chaos, last trip,” he said. “People are desperate to escape.”
“The Almanni have been only been laying siege for ten days,” she said. “Without ships to blockade the harbor I don’t see how they will expect to take the city.”
“If we had legions of old guarding the walls, I would not worry much either,” Marius said, sitting down. The fingers of his left hand were knotted up, and he could not straighten them, but he pushed things around well enough with his fixed fist it was hard to notice. “But the soldiers we have are not the best, and they are fewer than makes me comfortable.”
Karana did not argue with him. Second-guessing military matters was his special interest, not hers. She preferred histories of people, not armies. It made her nervous to hear him say it, though. Behind all the assurances that the barbarians could not possibly take the city was the crawling fear that perhaps they could. After all, why else were they laboring so hard to preserve the library?
“I am beginning to wonder if we should not go as well. We have packed a great deal.” He took out a cloth and wiped at his sweaty neck, then fanned himself with it. The upper floors were stifling this time of year, especially during the day. “If we put as much as we can in the cellars, it should be safe enough.”
“Do you think so?” Karana did not believe it. In her mind she saw the archive in flames, books and scrolls curling in the heat. The thought turned her stomach and made her feel sick in her heart. She took more scrolls down from the shelves and then stole a look at him. She saw the way he did not look at her, and she smelled more smoke and she knew he was afraid. He wanted to just run away, and perhaps that would be the wise thing to do.
There was a silence, and then she turned away from him, began to lay the scrolls out, her small hands with their intricate henna stains moving carefully on the aged documents. These were lists of kings from her homeland, Sydon, far across the sea to the south. The home she had never seen. “Well, and you may go if you wish. I am not going to prevent it.”
He was silent for a moment. “They say the Autarch has already left the city. He fled in the night with wagons of gold and took ship for Orneas – or even for Archelion.” He shifted. “I would say when the rats desert, it is time to swim.”
She snorted a little at that. Marius could be very funny when he wanted. “You and I both know that would be the story no matter what the truth is.” Autarch Desius – the Emperor’s vice-regent in Othria – was not a popular man in a good season. It was said to be his ill-treatment of the barbarian auxiliaries that had brought down the horde upon them, and so just now he was the closest villain to hand.
Karana heard him stand up, and she turned to face him, wondering how hard he would push her. Now she saw how afraid he was. “I think the city will fall,” he said. “I am going to load a last wagon, and then I am going down to the harbor to get on a ship. You should come with me. If the savages get inside the city. . .” He didn’t finish the thought, but then he didn’t have to.
Voices came from outside in the street. Calls and cries, shouts, the sounds of mules and barking dogs. She heard distant drums, the barbarians calling their men to war. Obstinate, she folded her arms and bit the inside of her lip. “I’m not going yet,” she said.
“Consider it, please,” he said. “I will call you when I am ready to go.”
She felt dizzy again, put her hands back on the table and leaned on it, trying to hide the way the room swam around her. Marius looked at her, concerned. “Are you all right?”
“I’m tired,” she said. She closed her eyes, and that helped a little. “I am very tired.”
“You should eat something,” he said. He came a step closer, then turned away. “I’ll call you, and we’ll go.”
She turned away and went to the window, leaned on the stone and took slow breaths, trying not to be sick. Her head hurt now, a slow pounding. The smell of the smoke was oppressive. She waited until he left, and then she wanted to sit down but she stayed for a moment, looked up at the sky and saw the tail of the star shimmering through the smoke. She felt as if the whole city was simply taking itself apart around her. The familiar sounds of the bazaar were gone, the smells of the bread baking two streets over beside the park were vanished, leaving the smell of war behind.
She looked west, down the wide avenue, and from here she could just see the waters of the sea between the tall towers there in the old city, the domes of the ancient temples. The horizon was dark, and she felt a slight breath of wind. Rain coming in, probably after dark. It would be a welcome thing, to cool the streets and rooftops, and clouds to cover up the cursed glow of the star. Three days now it had lit the sky. It could not go soon enough to suit her.
Karana wished for wind, closed her eyes and breathed in, imagining the cool air on her face, heavy with coming rain. She breathed out, and the air stirred, washing away the smoke, blowing through the window and rustling the papers, rolling the scrolls over against one another. Glad of the breeze, she breathed in, and the wind shifted, blew the other way, ruffling her veil and her cotton robe. She opened her eyes, wondering, and she breathed out, slow and even, and the wind stirred again, as if in answer. She gripped the stone parapet hard, feeling the heat of the day radiating out onto her skin.
She looked to the sea, feeling the wind die away. She wondered if she were asleep, and dreaming. There, on the horizon, darkness waited, and she saw just a small white flicker of storm.
Arthras spat the smell of pitch into the dirt and looked up at the walls. From the hills above the city they had not looked like much of a barrier, snaking around the cramped streets like a long worm, but up close they were tall enough. He was not even that close, stuck here making ammunition for the catapults. There was a mass of men chipping rocks into rough balls to make them fly better, and then they were carted over to Arthras and his companions. They dropped them in tubs of hot pitch, then pulled them out and rolled them in the piles of dry straw until they were covered. They piled them up on cowhides and then they were dragged off to feed the stone throwers.
It was stinking, sweaty, ugly work that made his hands black and sticky, and there was no glory in it at all. He heard the drums beat to muster the men for an assault on the walls, but he was trapped here, not to be given a chance to fight. He stood for a moment and glared at the stone fortifications, seeming to float on a cloud of smoke, and then he looked up to the star – the bearded star that filled the sky.
King Usiric’s red banner hung slack over his cluster of men, and Arthras wished he could march in there and rub tar in the bastard’s face. They’d had victory over an army in the north, chased them here, to the gates of the empire itself, but only a fool would pit this army against a city. They were not just warriors; their whole people was encamped in those tents – women and children and old men. They could not go back to their homelands – there was no harvest – so they came to war.
But there were good lands close enough. They had turned away from attacking Helicon in the north, and instead come to the seat of the Autarch himself. Arthras wanted revenge on that treacherous bastard as much as anyone, but now the army had been idle for ten days, sitting and staring at the walls, building useless nonsense like catapults. They needed to storm the gates with rams and ladders and ropes. Yet they sat while children went hungry and the fat cowards inside the walls packed away their gold and food and sailed away with it. From the heights the stream of ships leaving the city was easy enough to see.
Something hit him in the back of the knee and knocked him down; he came up fast and faced the hulking shape of Thros, his commander, and his tormentor. Thros carried a heavy axe in his hands, and though he had a maimed leg that slowed him down and made him limp, he was strong as a bull. Athras’ hands itched to draw his long knife and spill the giant’s guts.
“Get to work,” Thros grunted. “The battle starts soon, they need fireballs.” He brought his axe up and scraped it at his hairy cheek. His beard was patchy from old burns, and it made his face even uglier. Athras ground his teeth and turned back to his pile of stones and his barrel of pitch. He promised himself he would kill Thros another day. He was a thrall, and so while he might not be a slave, he was still less than a free man like Thros. The giant was denied the front line by his wounds, and so he took it out on anyone in reach.
The drums pounded again, and then the horns, signaling for the attack to begin. Arthras reached for another stone and felt a stabbing pain behind his eyes, grunted and winced. Another headache. This was the third one in as many days. He grimaced and put the back of his hand against his forehead, keeping his tar-smeared fingers away from his face.
“Get working,” Thros growled, lifting his axe threateningly. Arthras knew the big man would be more than happy to crease his skull with the haft if he stalled any longer. He picked up the stone. It was heavy, the size of a human head, and he looked at the bigger man, feeling anger boil in him along with the pain.
Thros saw the look on his face and stepped in close, slammed the haft of the axe into Arthras’ ribs and knocked him down, pain exploding in his side. He wheezed, the pain lancing through him, and then the pain in his head bloomed like a sunrise and he clenched his eyes shut, hands digging into the mud.
He looked up and saw Thros there, looking as tall as a tower, and he drew one foot back to kick. Arthras saw it all very clearly, and everything seemed to slow. The pain in his head and the pain in his chest twisted together, and he dug his fingers down into the earth, and he felt something tremble. A small tremor, and then it grew. He felt it through his hands like a pulse, and then in his chest, grinding through the pain in his ribs.
Then the earth shuddered, and Thros staggered away, off-balance, and fell against a pile of rocks. Arthras got to his feet and reeled to him, fell on him with his knife out, and he pressed it across Thros’ ugly face, digging the dark iron edge in against his skin. He thought of killing him – just cutting his throat and leaving the corpse behind. But there were men looking, and there was no honor to be won from killing a man with a crippled foot. There would be a blood price for such a killing, and perhaps exile.
Instead he got up, and then he reversed the long knife and smashed the heavy pommel into Thros’ knee – the good one – and heard bone crack. Thros cried out in pain and glared at him murderously. The pain in his side was intense, and he gritted his teeth. “I owed you that,” he growled. “And no more.” He turned and spat on the pitch and turned toward the walls of Ilion, watched as the war-banners marched toward the gates. He bent down and picked up Thros’ fallen axe, hefted it in his hands.
The horns blared and then fires kindled along the lines of the army as the catapults ignited their missiles. Each one went up in a sudden glimmer of flame until they all burned, like fallen stars. The drums called and he heard the cries to loose. Ten, twenty, then thirty balls of fire launched into the hazy sky, trailing dark smoke as they hurtled forward to smash against the stone walls. Some of them did not reach it, bounded along the ground and then cracked against the stone, but he saw two of them shoot clean over, and he smiled. That would rouse the defenders.
Arthras firmed his grip on the axe. There was an energy seeming to buzz in his joints and his bones, and he looked at his hands, saw they were not shaking, but steady. He felt hot, and angry. He was not going to stay here meekly rolling pitch and straw while the city was taken, he was going to fight. He left the onlookers behind and stalked toward the city. There was pain in his chest, and the earth seemed to thrum and shudder under his feet.
Karana woke with a start, seeing the light was dimming. She sat up, feeling stiff and thick-headed, her neck sore from lying bent down on the table. She had drooled on herself and she wiped at it with the corner of her sleeve. There was a breeze, and she heard a distant mumble of thunder, like a giant stirring in the sky over the sea. It was not yet evening, but the light had turned strange, seeming to come from nowhere. The sun was hidden, and clouds were creeping in to cover the shimmering light of the star.
She got up, listening for voices, for sounds, and she heard nothing. Her sandals made small sounds on the floor as she left the room and passed through two more filled with half-packed books, seeing no one. The incoming breeze rustled the papers, and she paused to pull the shutters closed and latch them in place. It smelled like rain.
The great hall on the ground floor was empty, the silence almost unbearable. She stopped on the stairs, then coughed and called out. “Lenscar? Destos? Marius?” Her voice sounded small in the big room, and it made the silence seem louder.
They were all gone. She had fallen asleep, and they all fled. Marius had said he would come back, but he had not, or could not. She went to one of the high, glassed windows and looked out into the plaza, saw it was almost empty, save for an old woman who looked lost, and a few dogs robbing a tattered vendor’s stall.
Thunder growled again and, as if in answer, she heard the drums of the barbarians. The sound was more intense this time, was it closer? She felt fear in her throat like a heavy lump she could not swallow past. She turned and went back up the stairs, then up to the topmost level and ran to the windows that faced the gates of the city. The light was not good, and she could not see very well, but she saw enough.
There was fire, in the dark, and light glowed from behind the walls, illuminating them with a red gleam like phosphor. She saw points of light that arced and fell – arrows, or something else – and she heard beneath the wind the oceanic sound of thousands of men, all moving as one. She breathed in and the wind reached through and almost whipped the veil from her hair, and she grabbed it and held it tightly. Ilion’s doom was coming, and it was coming now.