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Don Bassingthwaite

The doom of Kings

PROLOGUE

In the beginning, there had been some agitation to abandon the human dating of years and declare an era of sovereignty for the triple race of hobgoblins, goblins, and bugbears, but Haruuc had crushed such posturing before it got out of hand. Even as the dry summer of 969 YK drew out and Haruuc’s triumphant campaigns carved a new nation out of Cyre and Breland, there were already voices rising against his growing power. Someone had resurrected the ancient title of lhesh, meaning “high warlord”-and this Haruuc had accepted without question, since it had, in fact, been his idea-but there were also tongues wagging among the united Ghaal’dar clans, reminding everyone that when the title of lhesh had last been used in the dying days of the Empire of Dhakaan, it had been a temporary title. A warlord had been proclaimed lhesh for a short period, then had stepped down. It was clear, the wagging tongues said, that Haruuc was gathering too much power and that his clan, the Rhukaan Taash, would hold all the power in the new nation that was being born.

Haruuc had waited, with the patience that his enemies had always underestimated, until the loudest of those tongues had wagged themselves into undeniable treason, then personally cut them out of their owners’ mouths. The remaining tongues had stopped wagging of their own accord, but Haruuc knew the silence wouldn’t last. The Rhukaan Taash was gathering power that would lead to unrest among the other clans-and unrest from within was as much of a threat to his vision of a new nation as enemies without.

Fortunately, Haruuc thought as he looked across the ordered ranks of the warlords assembled before his field command tent, there had been a way around the problem that fought two battles with one army.

A burly hobgoblin of advancing years, his age frosting the wolflike ears that poked out from a helmet decorated with curling horns, rose from a bench and met Haruuc’s gaze with silent intent. Haruuc nodded and said, “Munta the Gray of Gantii Vus wishes to speak.”

Young warriors given the honor of acting as attendants rapidly raised the banner of the Gantii Vus, a fanged maw wreathed in flames, on the Pole of Order. The assembly fell quiet as the banner rose against the evening sky. Many of the chiefs still saw Munta as someone who might have been able to challenge Haruuc if he chose, even though the wily old chief had been one of the warlord’s first and strongest allies when Haruuc was still just an upstart warrior. Munta spoke as soon as the banner reached its height, choosing his words with the deliberate care of someone who knows he walks a narrow path.

“Lhesh Haruuc and exalted chiefs, no one of honor can turn his back on his clan. Do you agree?” There was a general murmur of assent to which Haruuc added a slow nod. Munta continued, his sharp teeth flashing as he spoke. “If no one of honor can abandon his clan, Lhesh, we must accept that the Rhukaan Taash will have power as long as you have power. I put it to you: For our nation to rise above clan wars, there must be a place where all clans are equal. I urge you to establish a seat for your power in neutral territory, where the might of the people comes before the might of any one clan, and the chief of one clan can speak for all.”

He sat down to the approving sound of hands slapping against chests. The banner of the Gantii Vus was lowered from the Pole of Order. Haruuc made a show of sitting and pondering the idea before gesturing to the warriors attending the pole. As lhesh, he didn’t need to wait for the banner of the Rhukaan Taash to rise before speaking, but he did it this time. It showed his humility. The assembly whispered in surprise as the razor crown of the Rhukaan Taash rose. when it was at its height, Harucc said, “This suggestion is worthy. The humans of the Five Nations consider such places to be their capitals, and they are great cities. Why should we not have one? I accept the suggestion of Munta. There will be a city where the nation comes before the clan.”

More applause greeted the statement, even from some of those who had wanted to replace the human calendar and who wouldn’t normally have had anything to do with something inspired by the customs of the Five Nations. Haruuc caught a gleam in the eyes of Munta and held back an answering smile. The plan they’d hatched together had worked. He raised his hand, gesturing for silence.

“Where should this city be?” he asked. “Where will we find neutral territory?”

Munta spoke up again-strictly speaking, he was out of order, but they needed to keep the excitement of the assembly high and not give any of the chiefs a chance to think too deeply. “Claim one of the cities we’ve taken from Cyre!”

There was a buzz of acclaim for the idea, but Haruuc shook his head as Munta sat down. “The Cyran cities are razed. What is there to claim? And why should we claim them? They stood on the fringes of our conquered territory. If I must build a new city, it should be central.”

“Lhesh, I know a place,” said a bold, crisp voice. “May I speak?”

All eyes turned to the three shava, Haruuc’s sword brothers, who stood close behind the lhesh. Specifically, they turned to Fenic of the Mur Talaan. Haruuc’s ears flicked, and he nodded to the attendants of the pole. It took them a moment to find the banner of the minor clan, but Fenic waited. When the banner of three tribex horns was raised, he continued. “On the edge of Mur Talaan territory, there is a Cyran town. It’s not much, but it’s well- located. It sits on the Ghaal River just below the first cataract, and the dragonmarked humans of House Orien have recently built a trade road to service it. To the Cyrans it was a frontier town, but their frontier is now the heartland of our new territory.”

“I know the place,” said Haruuc, his ears flicking thoughtfully. He fell silent, letting the assembly wait again. He was certain that most of the chiefs and warlords had some idea of the place, too. Even if they didn’t, they knew of the first cataract on the Ghaal and they knew that it was a respectable distance from the lands of the Rhukaan Taash. When it seemed that they’d waited long enough, he looked up and nodded again to Fenic. “It is a good place. The new city of our nation will be there.”

The assembly burst into applause for a third time, the loudest and longest yet, and the gleam in Fenic’s eyes was the same as that in Munta’s. Haruuc looked out over the assembly and this time allowed himself a smile.

Two weeks later, Lhesh Haruuc wasn’t smiling. He swung his sword and the magnificent weapon-more than an armslength of heavy battle-scarred steel, sharp as death on one side, jagged as a dragon’s teeth on the other- split a human warrior almost in two. It wedged against a rib and he had to kick at the corpse to free the weapon. “You didn’t say these people were so stubborn!” he said.

Fenic’s shield swept past him, blocking a blow from another human. His shava’s sword cut the legs out from under the man. “This place was your idea,” Fenic answered. He grunted as he slammed the edge of his shield down to crush the injured man’s skull and end his life. “They’re not usually stubborn. The conquest has filled the town with refugees. They’re fighting because they don’t have anywhere else to go.”

Haluun, Haruuc’s brother by both the sword and birth, laughed. “They can go to the fields and the mines! My wife has the chains ready!”

“That’s what they’re afraid of,” said Fenic.

Haruuc paused to shake the blood from his sword and look around the square of the Cyran frontier town. There were nearly as many banners showing in the fight for this one town as there might be in a far larger battle-a deliberate choice. When his new city rose, there would be warriors in almost every clan who would be able to say they’d fought with the lhesh to make it happen. What should have been a swift strike, however, had turned into a long day’s battle. Fenic was right. Refugees had packed the town, and desperation had given the humans courage. They’d made an effort to fortify the town, throwing up barricades in the streets and setting traps and ambushes. They’d seldom stood to fight but had retreated to alleys and rooftops to harry their attackers with arrows and stones.

Haruuc had the foresight, though, to buy the services of the goblins of the sharaat’khesh. The Silent Blades wouldn’t normally have waded into an active battle, but he’d promised them and their cousin clan, the Silent Wolves, a place in his new city if they wanted it, and that had earned him their favor. A handful of the slippery goblins had easily cleared the rooftops in places where the town’s defenders had trapped his regular troops.

The barricades in the streets, cunningly placed to keep the attackers away from the town’s center, had been more of a problem-at least until Haruuc had called on the brute strength of the bugbears among his troops.

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