In the narrow streets of Solus, the soldiers in red made their assault on the Harkan kingsguard, hurling spears, pressing forward, arrows raining down from every direction. The soldiers in black did their best to arrest the charge of the red army. Shield pressed shield. Shoulders butted. Iron screamed against bronze. The kingsguard fought back against their attackers, but there were simply too many soldiers in red and not enough in black. Hands flailed and shields crumpled.
“We’re digging in our heels,” said Gneuss. He huddled alongside Ren, keeping his head low. “But we can’t hold out for long. Sooner or later these sons of bitches are going to break through our wall. So when the boys in red make their push, we’re going to give them a surprise. They’ll expect us to hit back. Instead, we’ll retreat into that open space, the one up there,” he said, pointing to the place where the street emptied out into a wide plaza. “It’ll look like chaos when we hit the clearing.” Gneuss wrapped his fingers around the neckline of Ren’s tunic. “They’ll expect us to fan out like a bunch of fools, but we’re going to do the opposite. The men’ll draw in close and form a wedge. That second part’ll happen quickly, stay near.”
“I wasn’t thinking of running,” said Ren. He’d found his men, but he’d lost sight of the ransoms. “Have you seen my friends?”
Gneuss set his jaw. “They’re safe with the kingsguard.”
Ren didn’t think any of them were safe. They’d never be safe in this city. The streets were a jumble of men and armor and the fighting was all around him.
The soldiers in red thrust out their spears and pushed forward. They wedged one shield against the next, forming a makeshift wall of red and bronze, and they used it to drive back the Harkans. The red army advanced, beating some terrible drum. From the sound of it, Ren guessed the thing must be as wide around as a man was tall. And worse still, at intervals, a clarion call punctuated the drumbeat. The two sounded in patterns, part of a system, he presumed, one that directed the soldiers to attack or pause, to loose arrows or toss spears.
An ill feeling formed in Ren’s stomach, or maybe it had never left him. He’d thought the underground was congested, but the streets here were packed even more tightly. He could barely breathe, barely move. He did not walk but was carried by the retreat.
“Tye!” Ren cried. He was still worried about his friends, concerned about them getting lost in this crowd or taking a spear through the chest. He put his hands on a pair of shoulders and lifted himself above the bustle. He struggled to catch sight of Tye or one of the others, but the streets were a blur of men and metal, smoke and ash. An arrow nearly pierced Ren’s neck. He’d made a target of himself and it was all for nothing. In the commotion, he couldn’t tell a soldier from a ransom, and Tye was shorter than most of the fighting men.
“Stop wiggling around,” said Gneuss. “I’ve lost one king today and I don’t intend to lose another.”
So they know, thought Ren. They know my father is dead. Arko Hark-Wadi had perished in the fire set by Amen Saad.
“Stay back, and for Mithra’s sake, stay down,” said Gneuss, concern overwhelming his voice. It was clear that he wanted to protect the heir to the throne, but Ren heard something else in his words. They were tinged with regret, and he guessed it was because Gneuss had failed to save Ren’s father. Perhaps he was a friend of the king. Ren didn’t know. He knew almost nothing about his kingdom. He didn’t even know why the black shields were in Solus, not for certain.
“Now!” Gneuss cried, his voice growing distant. In the flurry of motion that followed his command, Ren and the captain were separated. There was simply too much pushing and shoving for any one person to stand in place for much longer than the span of a heartbeat. One moment they were all packed into a long and narrow street, the men pressed shoulder to shoulder, and the next they were in a wide-open clearing, everyone jostling for position. The Harkans did as Gneuss said. Men dashed in all directions before settling back into orderly ranks, each man finding his spot in the formation. All seemed well as the Harkans readied themselves for the charge. They were headed toward the city walls, away from the fires, which were once more visible in the distance.
Hooves beat like thunder upon the stones. Mounted cavalry, men dressed in blue, charged the Harkan lines. They came out of nowhere, striking from the far side of the clearing, where their presence was concealed by a high wall. They planned this, thought Ren. They were waiting for us to enter the plaza. He guessed a whole army or maybe two of them had stood in waiting while the soldiers in red drove the Harkans into the open.
It was a trap, plain and simple.
Gneuss had made his plan, but his foes had made one as well. Theirs appeared to be the better one, or in any case the more successful one. They had the advantage of superior numbers. For every soldier who wore black, there were easily ten who did not. The Harkans were walled in on three sides, and archers lined the rooftops of the plaza. It’s a box, thought Ren, and they’ve forced us into it. All it would take was a little time and this would be the end of the Harkan kingsguard and the ransoms.
As if to prove the point, the blue riders smashed into the Harkan formation, shattering the heavy shields of the kingsguard and trampling the men. Iron hooves crushed metal and bone, crushed whole men beneath their weight. The Harkan lines exploded and the men were driven outward in a hundred different directions, split apart not just by the riders in blue who had come at the black shields from the Harkans’ left flank, but by the men in red who had charged the black shields head-on, and a third army, soldiers in yellow livery, who had come from the right.
The field was a loose patchwork of red and black and yellow and blue, a weave with no pattern to it. There was no order and nowhere to hide. Ren was unarmored, largely weaponless, and standing among soldiers who bore not just mail but shields as well. Even the horses were clad in metal. And the soldiers in red bore spears that were easily twice his height. Ren held only a dagger, so he fled when the soldiers approached, weaving a crooked path through the field, eyes trained on the crowd and searching for the ransoms. Everyone else was wearing blue or red or yellow or black. Only the ransoms wore their linens, so it was no surprise when Ren caught sight of them. Five
soot-stained tunics fled toward a garden of statues. He guessed the place held cover, from the archers above and the cavalry too.
Ren sped toward the statues, calling out to his fellow ransoms, shouting their names. His voice was loud, overeager, and he immediately regretted his enthusiasm. He’d wanted to find his companions, but he’d only drawn attention to himself. Instead of finding Tye or Adin, he found soldiers, well armed and well armored. A pair of fighting men chased after him. I ought to be able to outpace a man wearing bronze, he told himself, but the soldiers pursued him with frightening speed, moving as if they themselves wore no armor. The men darted between the statues, their agility as surprising as it was unsettling.
One approached from the front while the other edged around to Ren’s side, drawing his attention in two directions. A blade kissed Ren’s thigh, but missed doing any real damage. Ren crouched low and tumbled to avoid a second attack. He rolled past a tall statue, and the soldiers followed, pivoting, coming around for another attack. Ren drew the barbed horn he’d cut from the eld. He could not fight with his father’s dagger. It was too short to wield against swords, but the horn was long and as sturdy as iron, its barbs as deadly as any spear. He raised it just in time to arrest the next blow. The red sword might have cleaved Ren in two had he not blocked the attack. Still, the sound of the blade striking the bone made an unexpected din, a kind of ringing, like the chiming of a bell in some tall and distant cathedral, and to make matters worse the sword caught on one of the horn’s curling tusks, momentarily binding the blade to one of the barbs. Ren tussled with the soldier, the sword grinding against the horn. The fighting man was stronger than Ren and better trained. He dug his heels into the stony path and threw his weight against the eld horn, hurling Ren back toward the granite pedestal of a tall statue. Ren’s head hit the stone and his vision went white.
He lost sight of the battle as a sudden darkness closed in around him. He was lost. Alone.
Then voices rent the silence, men talking.
Ren’s eyes blinked open.
He was no longer wedged against a pedestal, and the statues were gone. Living and breathing men, women, and children stood in their place. There were at least a dozen of them, and they regarded him with a warm familiarity. One offered Ren what seemed like the heartfelt grin of a friend he’d not seen in some time, or perhaps it was the glint of recognition found in the eyes of a distant relative he’d only just met after years of separation.
His head parted with the granite pedestal and the vision shattered. The dream was gone, and he had no time to contemplate it. Ren stood face-to-face with the sweat-soaked grimace of his attacker, their noses just inches apart. The stink of the man was horrendous, as was the grinding of his teeth. Worse yet, the soldier was slowly pressing on the horn, forcing the crooked barbs into the soft flesh of Ren’s forehead and cheek. Soon the points would dig deeper, and in a moment, more would prick his skin. Ren twisted his body left and right, shuffled his feet, and tried to push back against the blade, but the soldier was simply too strong, the blade too heavy. Ren had only his desperation, the sheer desire to live. With a cry, he pushed down on the horn, threw his head forward, and struck the bridge of his attacker’s nose. A terrible crunch rang out and the soldier fell backward, stumbling momentarily as a great gush of blood flooded down his chin.
“You little bastard. I’m going to stick this blade so far up your ass it’ll cut your tongue in two,” he said, and Ren did not doubt the truth of his words. The man had freed his sword from the eld horn. He raised it up, his lips parting to reveal an eager grin, blood dribbling from his upper lip. He swept the blade downward, a killing blow, but halfway through the act his whole body went limp as a sword sprung from his chest. The blade was red, but the color was not born of the man’s blood, though there was plenty of that. The iron was sealed in paint. The weapon belonged to the red army, but the one who held it did not. Tye, drenched in sweat, gripped the sword in her still-trembling hands.
“Don’t just stand there,” she said. “Help me pull this god-awful blade out of him.”
Shocked that he was still alive, Ren stared at the sword for a moment. Then he went over to Tye, put two hands on the red-leather grip, and gave it a tug. It took their combined strength to pull the sword free, and even then the two of them toppled backward and hit the ground.
Head resting uncomfortably against the cobblestones, that vision of the statues flashed once more through his thoughts. He saw the stone figures moving about, looking as if they were alive. I’m losing it, he thought, having visions of statues walking the earth. Surely that blow had knocked him senseless. His head ached and there was an odd buzzing in his ears. I must’ve really knocked myself out, thought Ren. He knew no other explanation for what he’d seen and heard.
“I suppose we’re even now,” Tye said, her smile brighter than it ought to be.
Ren guessed they were even. He’d come to Solus to save her and she’d returned the favor. “Where’re the others?”
“Behind me. We tried to stick together when the whole thing went to shit, but I think we lost Carr. Adin!” she cried, and the boy appeared. He was holding Curst with one hand and a stolen sword with the other. Ren was the only one without a weapon, so he nabbed the fallen soldier’s blade and slung the eld horn over his shoulder and into his makeshift sack.
“Adin, I thought I’d lost you,” said Ren. He slapped the Feren boy on the shoulder. “Where’s Carr and Kollen?”
“With the kingsguard, not far,” he said. “We should find them, it’s not—”
“Safe,” said Ren. “I know. Let’s go.”
“We’re already doing that,” said Adin.
“Where’re the Harkans?” Tye asked. “I saw them just a moment ago.”
“Did we lose them?” asked Ren.
“Lose them?” asked Adin, his voice turning contemplative, eyes glancing at the distant streets. “Maybe we should lose them,” he said. “Forget the kingsguard. Let’s grab some beggars’ cloaks and slip out of here. You did it once, Ren. You escaped the city, and the two of us made our way into Solus.”
“He’s right,” Tye echoed. “We should slip out of here. There may be hundreds in the guard, but there are thousands of soldiers in the city, maybe tens of thousands.”
Ren nodded his understanding, but something held him back—some urge within him would not allow him to leave his father’s men. “No,” he said. “I can’t. It’s—”
A red sword struck Adin’s shoulder, parting the flesh, blood saturating the air. Ren half-arrested the red sword with the his own, stopping the blade before it cut Adin in two. Still, the boy dropped to his knees, eyes rolling backward, vomit escaping his lips. Worse yet, the sword of his attacker was wedged between Ren’s blade and Adin’s skin. The soldier put his foot to Adin’s back and pulled hard on the iron.
Adin uttered an almost inhuman moan.
Quick to act, Ren struck the man on the jaw. He hit him with as much strength as he could summon, but the blow did little to distract the soldier. Ren, however, was awash in distractions. Adin whimpered and blood emptied from his chest. Somewhere, Curst screamed. Ren prayed the boy didn’t run. They’d never find him in all this chaos. Tye simply cursed.
The soldier gave his sword a second tug, freeing it for another strike. He was too late. Ren drove his blade straight into the man’s gut. He pierced the skin just below the soldier’s shirt of mail and drove the sword upward until it would go no further. The blow was fatal, but the soldier in red did not seem to realize it. The pain must have frozen out his senses. He was lost, disoriented. He let go of his sword and stumbled backward, collapsing awkwardly to the ground and heaving one last breath before falling still.
Ren watched it out of the corner of his eye while he knelt beside Adin to inspect the wound. He pressed his hands to the cut, but the blood welled up between his slender fingers.
“Bandages!” Ren kept one hand on the wound and used the other to rip a piece of cloth from his already-torn tunic. Tye offered a wad of cloth ripped from her sleeve. As Ren pressed it to the cut, Curst came running out from the gap between the statues. Apparently, he’d been hiding, but he screamed when he saw the wound.
“Do anything,” Ren said, “crumple yourself into a ball, but do not cry out.” They’d already drawn the attention of the soldiers once. If more arrived, they’d be finished. “Give me something else, more cloth.” Ren put out his hand and Tye produced a second wad of linen, but Ren needed more bandages. He saw more blood than he thought a body could hold.
Adin shivered, his body convulsing as Ren cinched the fabric around the cut.
“Is it bad?” Adin asked, his voice weak, face pale, lips turning to blue. Ren was not certain if he was joking or merely hallucinating. It was worse than bad, worse than any wound Ren had seen.
“It’s just a little nip, nothing to worry about,” Ren lied. He feared the wound was mortal or soon would be if Adin did not receive better attention.
“That’s good. I’ll be all right,” said Adin, who was possibly delirious, most likely in shock. “I told you we should have run.” He was still muttering, talking about hiding, stealing cloaks, and making their way out of the city. Ren didn’t listen. Adin could not be moved. He needed a physician and only the kingsguard had one of those, or at least they did have one when Ren rode with them all those weeks ago. The man had bound a wound on the king’s arm, tending to some injury he’d incurred during his hunt. Ren prayed the physician yet lived and traveled with the kingsguard. Without his attention, Adin was a dead man.
That much must’ve been clear to all of them. Curst wept openly. He kneeled at Adin’s side, tears streaming down his face. Ren feared the child’s crying would draw more
soldiers, and it did, but this time it caught the attention of the men in black, not red. One after another the black shields surrounded the ransoms. They must have all fled into the garden, but had only now caught up with Ren. Gneuss plowed through the bunch. “I told you to stay—” The words sat idle on his lips when he caught sight of Adin’s wound.
“Physician!” Gneuss called out. He gripped Ren’s shoulder. “We’ll do what we can. Now keep close to me, all of you.”
“Why, what’s happening?” asked Ren.
In the distance, the soldiers in red gathered at the edge of the garden. Curiously, none chose to enter it.
“What’re they doing?” asked Tye.
Ren understood, “They’re going to—”
“Surround us?” asked Gneuss. “They’ve already done that.”
“What then?” asked Tye. She looked to Ren and Gneuss too.
Both were silent.
It was the soldiers in red who gave the answer. Jars of clay arched through the sky, striking the edges of the field, bursting into flames as they struck the ground. One by one the fires sparked to life, encircling the field of statues.
“They’re trapping us here,” Ren said, the ring of fire moving closer.
“Hell,” said Tye, “they’re going to roast us.”
I’ll die like my father, thought Ren, burned by Mithra’s Flame. His hand left Adin’s chest. There was no point in saving him, no point in saving any of them. With each explosion, the fires rose higher, feeding off one another, growing taller and hotter, the ring of flame encircling them.
(C) Michael Johnston, Tor Books, 2021. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
The Amber Throne #2
Silence of the Soleri is the action-packed sequel to the epic fantasy novel Lev Grossman calls “bloody and utterly epic.”
Solus celebrates the Opening of the Mundus, a two-day holiday for the dead, but the city of the Soleri is hardly in need of diversion. A legion of traitors, led by a former captain of the Soleri military, rallies at the capital’s ancient walls. And inside those fortifications, trapped by circumstance, a second army fights for its very existence.
In a world inspired by ancient Egyptian history and King Lear, this follow-up to Michael Johnston’s Soleri, finds Solus besieged from within as well as without and the Hark-Wadi family is stuck at the heart of the conflict.
At the Publisher’s request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About Michael Johnston
Michael Johnston was born in 1973 in Cleveland, Ohio. As a child and a teen he was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy. He studied architecture and ancient history at Lehigh University and during a lecture on the history of ancient Egypt, the seed of an idea was born. He earned a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University, graduating at the top of his class. Michael worked as an architect in New York City before moving to Los Angeles. Sparked by the change of locale, a visit to the desert, and his growing dissatisfaction with the architectural industry, he sought a way to merge his interests in architecture and history with his love of fantasy. By day he worked as an architect, but by night he wrote and researched an epic fantasy novel inspired by the history of ancient Egypt and the tragic story of King Lear. After working this way for several years, he shut down his successful architecture practice and resolved to write full time. He now lives and writes in Los Angeles with his wife and daughter.