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Servant of a Dark God

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Servant of a Dark God

SERVANT

OF A

DARK GOD

    JOHN BROWN

    SERVANT

    OF A

    DARK GOD

A TOM DOHERTY ASSOCIATES BOOK

    NEW YORK

    This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this

    novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

    SERVANT OF A DARK GOD

    Copyright ? 2009 by John Brown

    All rights reserved.

A Tor Book

    Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC

    175 Fifth AvenueNew York, NY 10010

    www.tor-forge.com

    Tor? is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.

    Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

    Brown, John, 1966–

    Servant of a dark god / John Brown.—1st ed.

    ??????p. cm.

    ISBN 978-0-7653-2235-7

    I. Title.

    PS3602.R7145347 2009

    813'.6—dc22

    2009016709

    First Edition: October 2009

    Printed in the United States of America

    0???9???8???7???6???5???4???3???2???1

    For Nellie

    The Goat King danced the crags by day,

    At night he came to feed,

    And dupe the foolish farmer’s wives

    To hold his monstrous breed.

    The husbands sought to hunt him down

    And take him as he lay,

    But the wily King, with a wicked touch,

    Stole their souls away.

    CONTENTS

    ??1.

    Thieves

    ??2. Stag Home ??3. Chase ??4. Bounty ??5. The Hunt ??6. King’s Collar ??7. The Courage of Women ??8. Prey ??9. Hatchling 10. Battle 11. Hunters 12. The Mother 13. Snare 14. Fugitives 15. Purity 16. Breach 17. Soul Meat 18. A Cold Kiss 19. Summons 20. Snake Games 21. The Divine 22. Riders

    23. Scent 24. Trees 25. A Shortness of Breath 26. Baker’s Herbs 27. The Glass Master’s Daughters 28. Alliances 29. Fright 30. Secrets 31. A Broken Wing 32. Spoor 33. Body and Soul 34. Sacrifice 35. Pursuit 36. Crossroad 37. Sleth 38. Traps 39. Koramite 40. The Thrall of Mokad 41. Muster 42. Like a Spider 43. Hag’s Teeth

    44. The Monster’s Lair 45. The Grove 46. Mantle and Crown 47. Master of the Harvest 48. Shim 49. Farewell Terms and People Acknowledgments

THIEVES

    T

    alen sat at the wooden table in nothing but his underwear because he had no pants. Somehow,during the middle of the night, they had walked off the peg where he’d hung them. And he’dsearched high and low. The last of their cheese was missing as well.

    The cheese he could explain: if you were hungry and a thief, then cheese would be a handy mealto take. But it was not the regular poverty-stricken thief who roamed miles off the main roads,risked entering a house, and passed up many other fine and more expensive goods to steal a pairof boy’s dirty trousers hanging on a peg in the loft.

    No, there wasn’t a thief in the world that would do that. But there was an older brother andsister.

    Talen had two pair of pants to his name. And he wasn’t about to ruin his good pair by workingin them. He needed his work pants. And to get those, he needed leverage. The good news was thathe knew exactly which items would provide that leverage.

    It only took a few moments to find and hide them. Then he went back to the house, cut threeslices of dark bread, and put them on a plate in the middle of the table next to the saltedlard.

    River, his sister, came in first from outside carrying a massive armload of rose stemsclustered with fat rose hips. Talen sighed. She already had fifteen bushels of the stuff in theback. Were they going to make rose hip syrup for the whole district? And he knew he’d be theone that would have to cut each and every hip and remove the seeds so her syrup didn’t end uptasting like chalk. It was a thorny business, even if he did wear gloves.

    River walked to the back room to deposit her load and returned. Blood spattered her apron. Athick spray ran from her cheek to throat.

    “What happened to you?”

    “Black Jun,” she said. “The cow that was bred by that rogue bull, her water broke lastnight, but the calf was too big for a normal birth.” She shook her head. “Jun’s brother-in-law from Bain cut into the cow this morning and made a mess of it.”

    “Did she die?” asked Talen.

    “Not yet,” said River, “but such a wound, even with old Nan’s poultice, would take aDivine’s hand to keep it from corruption.” River had been apprenticed to Nan, who hadmidwifed as many cattle as she had humans. That’s where River learned how to take a calf thatcouldn’t be pulled, by cutting in from the side. That’s where she’d learned about thevirtues of everything from pennyroyal to seeding by moonlight. She could have learned far more,but old Nan went out late in a rainstorm one night and tumbled down a steep slope to her death.Even so, as unfinished apprentice, if River said the wound was bad, it was bad.

    “And the calf?” asked Talen.

    “Saved,” she said. “For now.” She took off her bloody apron and hung it on a peg on thewall.

    Under the apron, River was wearing her work pants, which would have been a much easier mark fora clothing thief since River’s room was on the first floor of the house. Of course, she’donly point out that nobody would look for pants in a girl’s room. Which was true for mostwomen, but River wasn’t most women. She wore pants to everything but the dances and festivals,and even then she threatened to do so. Skirts were a bother in the fields, she said. A botheron a horse, and a bother when hunting. And nobody was going to tell River otherwise.

    Talen gave his bloody sister his most pleasant smile.

    She looked at his bare chest and legs. “Where are your clothes?”

    “That’s a good question,” said Talen.

    River shook her head and went to the cupboard to get her pot of honey. She searched about andthen turned around, looking as if she’d lost something.

    Surprise, surprise.

    There was nothing like her cinnamon honey. It was not the thick amber that most of the honey-crafters sold. This honey was thin and clear and tasted like moonlight. River got it from alovesick dyer who lived on the far side of the settlements and liked her despite her pants. Hesaid the honey came from bees that made their hives in the cliffs there. He had also said thathis love for her flowed like the nectar of the pale green flowers that clung to the cliffs,that she was his flower and he her bee, and that their pollinations would be more wild andsplendid than anything a pot could contain. All of which proved that the dyer knew nothing ofwomen. At least, not River. She had smiled at the dyer’s sentiments, but that didn’t make thedyer any less of an idiot or his hands any less blue. River was not a girl won withdeclarations of wild and amorous pollinations or delicious gifts, even if the gift was spicedhoney that cost three weeks’ worth of labor.

    Ke, Talen’s older brother, walked in next with flecks of barley stalks caught in his tunic. Kewas built like a bull. In the summer he looked even more like one because he shaved his hairshort. He did it, he said, to keep his head cool and make it easier to clean. But it alsoallowed others to see the thick muscles in his neck. He retrieved his bow and archer’s bagfrom his bedroom. The bow was made with wood, horn, and sinew, and it was so powerful onlysomeone with his massive strength could draw it more than half a dozen times. Da, because ofhis strength and size, was sometimes called Horse. Ke, having inherited all of Da’s muscle,had picked up the name of Little Horse, but he wasn’t a horse. That was too noble a creature.Ke was a bull, no doubt about it.

    Talen, of course, inherited all the wit in the family, but nobody seemed to value that. He wasnever referred to as “the bright one” or “that great blaze of brains.” Instead, he gotnames like Twig and Hogan’s Runt.

    Ke sat at the table. His bow was blackened with charcoal and linseed oil and then covered witha good layer of goose fat and beeswax to protect it from the wet. He’d always been anexcellent archer. Da had seen to that. But Ke was now something more. He’d proven last year inthe battles with the Bone Faces that he was an efficient killer as well. He pulled out hiscrock of goose fat to rub in yet another layer, then looked back into the bag. “Hey,” hesaid, and opened the mouth of the sack wider to fish about in its contents.

    “Lose something?” Talen asked.

    “Where are my new bowstrings?” Ke said.

    “Strange,” said Talen. “All sorts of things going missing today.” He tsked. “What anegligent bunch we must be.”

    It took River about two seconds to catch on. “I want my honey,” she said.

    “I want my trousers,” said Talen.

    Ke looked up from his sack. “You took my strings?”

    “You took my trousers.”

    “What would I want with those?” asked Ke.

    “What would I want with your bowstrings? They don’t fit my bow.”

    River put her hands on her hips. “That honey has a special—”

    “Oh, don’t act like you’re offended for the dyer,” Talen said and began to work his waytoward the door.

    “Who said anything about him?” River asked. “That honey’s imbued with vitality. Now, handit over.”

    “Pants first,” said Talen. He continued to move until he stood between them and the doorway.

Ke narrowed his eyes.

    River cocked her head, threatening a fight. She tightened the yellow sash she used as a belt.This is what she did when she wanted to run. The two of them exchanged an evil glance, andTalen knew if he sat where he was a moment more, they’d have him.

    “Trousers!” he demanded. Then he dashed out of the house in his bare feet and underwear andinto the yard.

    To his surprise, Talen found Nettle, his cousin, opening the door to the smokehouse to getsomething to eat. He was supposed to be on a patrol with his Father, but Talen didn’t carewhat he was supposed to be doing. He was here now, and could even the odds in this fight.

    Ke and River charged out of the house hard on Talen’s heels. At this point Talen was mostworried about River. He darted left, and thanked his instincts. A short length of firewood flewpast him. River, in addition to being a healer, was a thrower, deadly with spoons, pots, andsticks at twenty yards. She could whip off a wooden garden clog and fling it with ferocious aimat your head before you’d even taken five steps. Talen knew: he had the bumps to prove it.

    Talen ran past Nettle. “Trip them!” he said.

    Nettle, the Mokaddian traitor, did no such thing. He cut a link from one of the hanging sausagechains, took a fat bite, and stood back to enjoy the show.

    Talen raced toward the woods beyond, but River had the angle on him and sprinted to cut himoff. Thank the Six she hadn’t had time to pick up anything but a stick. Talen veered towardthe garden.

    “Pick up the pace,” Nettle called out. “They’re gaining on you.”

    “Coward!” Talen yelled back. He dashed around the garden fence, turned to avoid Ke, ran backtoward the house, and found himself boxed in between the midden and the barn.

    He had two choices. He could make a run at one of his dear siblings and hope to blow by, or hecould go up the old walnut tree and hope they would stay at the bottom and do nothing more thanshout insults and threats up at him.

    He wouldn’t get by Ke and his long arms. Talen had enough room to get by River, but she wasdaring him, grinning at him to just try.

    He made his decision.

    Da had fashioned a wooden slab bench and put it next to the trunk of the giant walnut tree.Talen ran for the bench. When he was close enough, he took one running step to the bench thenanother to an old knob sticking out about five feet up the trunk. He followed the momentumupward, grabbed a branch, pulled himself up, and stood on a fat arm of the tree well out of thereach of his brother and sister.

    “That’s about the dumbest place you could have chosen,” said Ke.

    Talen climbed a few branches higher and looked down at the two of them. “The joke’s up.”

    “We don’t have your hog-worn trousers,” said Ke. “You’re the one who loses things on aregular basis.”

    Talen did not lose things on a regular basis.

    He saw Ke bend over and pick up a number of rocks. “You come out of that tree or I’ll knockyou out,” said Ke.

    “No,” said Talen. “I think you need to give up your childish games.”

    But Ke threw a rock instead.

    Talen ducked. The rock flew straight and true and would have made a pretty bruise, but a smallbranch stood in the way and sent the rock wide. Goh, he needed to put more branches between himand those rocks, so Talen climbed until the branches were no bigger than his thumb.

    He couldn’t see Ke or River from this height. Nettle stood over by the well, finishing hissausage, and using one hand to shade his eyes from the sun.

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