The war is over, but something is rotten in the state of Eidyn.
With a ragged peace in place, demons burn farmlands, violent Reivers roam the wilds and plague has spread beyond the Black Meadows. The country is on its knees.
In a society that fears and shuns him, Aranok is the first magically-skilled draoidh to be named King’s Envoy.
Now, charged with restoring an exiled foreign queen to her throne, he leads a group of strangers across the ravaged country. But at every step, a new mystery complicates their mission.
As bodies drop around them, new threats emerge and lies are revealed, can Aranok bring his companions together and uncover the conspiracy that threatens the kingdom?
Strap in for this twisted fantasy road trip from award-winning author Justin Lee Anderson.
Praise for The Lost War:
“Genuinely surprised and delighted me. Bravo!” Anna Stephens, author of Godblind
“Anderson has created something outstanding here. The Lost War is easily one of the biggest surprises of the year.” Novel Notions
“This book is a roller coaster. When you get off it your legs might be shaky. Don’t worry. It’s normal. Read the book. Take the ride.” EsmeWeatherwax
“Earth-shakingly fabulous. The last few chapters made me laugh with glee at the pure wickedness of Justin’s writing. Simply awesome!!” Shalini’s Books & Reviews
“Gritty and meaty and full of adventure. Highly recommend!” Wopsywoobookblog
The boy was going to get himself killed.
Aranok put down his drink, leaned back and rubbed his dusty, mottled brown hands across his face and behind his neck. He was tired and sore. He wanted to sit here with Allandria, drink beer, take a hot bath, collapse into a soft, clean bed and feel her skin against his. The last thing he wanted was a fight. Not here.
They’d made it back to Haven. This was their territory, the new capital of Eidyn, the safest place in the kingdom – for what that was worth. He’d done enough fighting, enough killing. His shoulders ached and his back was stiff. He looked up at the darkening sky, spectacularly lit with pinks and oranges.
The wooden balcony of the Chain Pier Tavern jutted out over the main door along the front length of the building. Aranok had thought it an optimistic idea by the landlord, considering Eidyn’s usual weather, but there were about thirty patrons overlooking the main square with their beers, wines and whiskies.
Allandria looked at him from across the table, chin resting on her hand. He met her deep brown eyes, pleading with her to give him another option. She looked down at the boy arguing with the two thugs in front of the blacksmith’s forge, then back at him. She shrugged, resigned, and tied back her hair.
Aranok knocked back the last of his beer and clunked the empty tankard back on the table. As Allandria reached for her bow, he signalled to the serving girl.
“Two more,” he gestured to their drinks, “I’ll be back in a minute.”
The girl furrowed her brow, confused.
He stood abruptly to overcome the indolence of his muscles. The chair clattered against the wooden deck, drawing some attention. Aranok was used to being eyed with suspicion, but it still rankled. If they knew what they owed him – owed both of them…
He leaned on the bannister, feeling the splintered, weather-beaten wood under his palms; breathing in the smoky, sweaty smell of the bar. Funny how welcome those odours were; he’d been away for so long. He vaulted into the air with a grunt, said “gaoth” and gently cushioned his landing with a burst of air. Some of the drinkers who had spilled out the front of the inn turned their heads. He breathed deeply, stretching his arms, steeling himself as he passed the newly constructed stone well – one of many, he assumed, since the population had probably doubled recently. A lot of eyes were on him now. Maybe that was a good thing. Maybe they needed to see this.
As he approached the forge, Aranok sized up his task. One of the men was big, carrying a large, well-used sword. A club hung from his belt, but he looked slow and cumbersome; more a butcher than a soldier. The other was sleek though – wiry. There was something rat-like about him. He stood well-balanced on the balls of his feet, dagger twitching eagerly. A thief most likely. Released from prison and pressed into the king’s service? Surely not. Hells. Were they really this short of men? Was this what they’d bought with their blood?
“You’ve got the count of three to drop your weapons and move,” the fat one wheezed. “King’s orders.”
“Go to Hell!” The boy’s voice cracked. He backed a few steps towards the door. He couldn’t be more than fifteen, defending his father’s business with a pair of swords he’d probably made himself. His stance was clumsy, but he knew how to hold them. He’d had some training, if not any actual experience. Enough to make him think he could fight, not enough to win.
The rat rocked on his feet, the fingertips of his right hand frantically rubbing together. Any town guard could resolve this without blood. If it was just the fat one, he might manage it. But this man was dangerous.
Now or never.
“Can I help?” Aranok asked, loud enough for the whole square to hear.
All three swung to look at him. The thief’s eyes ran him up and down. Aranok watched him instinctively look for pockets, coin purses, weapons – assess how quickly Aranok would move. He trusted the rat would underestimate him.
“Back away, draoidh!” snarled the butcher. The runes inscribed in Aranok’s leather armour made it clear to anyone with even a passing awareness of magic what he was. Draoidh was generally spat as an insult, rarely welcoming. He understood the fear. People weren’t comfortable with someone who could do things they couldn’t. He only wore the armour when he knew it might be necessary. He couldn’t remember the last day he’d gone without it.
“This is king’s business. We’ve got a warrant,” grunted the big man.
“May I see it?” Aranok asked calmly.
“I said piss off.” He was getting tetchy now. Aranok began to wonder if he might have made things worse. It wouldn’t be the first time.
He took a gentle step towards the man, palms open in a gesture of peace.
The rat smiled a confident grin, showing him the curved blade as if it were a jewel for sale. Aranok smiled pleasantly back at him and gestured to the balcony. The thief’s face confirmed he was looking at the point of Allandria’s arrow.
“Shit,” the rat hissed. “Cargill. Cargill!”
“What?” Cargill barked grumpily back at him. The thief mimicked Aranok’s gesture and the fat man also looked up. He spun around to face Aranok, raising his sword – half in threat, half in defence. Nobody likes an arrow trained on them. The boy took another step back – probably unsure who was on his side, if anyone.
“You’ll swing for this,” Cargill growled. “We’ve got orders from the king. Confiscate the stock of any business that can’t pay taxes. The boy owes!”
“Surely his father owes?” Aranok asked.
“No, sir,” the boy said quietly. “Father’s dead. The war.”
Aranok felt the words in his chest. “Your mother?”
The boy shook his head. His lips trembled until he pressed them together.
Aranok had seen a lot of death. He’d held friends as they bled out, watching their eyes turn dark, he’d stumbled over their mangled bodies, fighting for his life. Sometimes they cried out, or whimpered as he passed – clinging desperately to the notion they could still see tomorrow.
Bile rose in his gullet. He turned back to Cargill. Now it was a fight.
“If you close his business, how do you propose he pays his taxes?” he asked, barely maintaining an even tone.
“I don’t know,” the thug answered. “Ask the king.”
Aranok looked up the rocky crag towards Greytoun Castle. Rising out of the middle of Haven, it cast a shadow over half the town.
“I will,” he replied quietly.
There was a hiss of air and a thud to Aranok’s right. He turned to see an arrow embedded in the ground at the thief’s feet. He must have crept a little closer than Allandria liked. The rat was lucky she’d given him a warning shot. Many didn’t know she was there until they were dead. Eyes wide, he sidled back under the small canopy at the front of the forge.
Cargill fired into life. “I’ll cut your fucking head off right now if you don’t walk away!” he bellowed, brandishing his sword high. His bravado was fragile though. He didn’t know what Aranok could do – what his draoidh skill was. Aranok enjoyed the thought that, if he did, he’d only be more scared.
“Allandria!” he called over his shoulder.
“Aranok?” she answered.
“This gentleman says he’s going to cut my head off.”
“Already?” she laughed. “We just got here.”
All eyes were on them now. The tavern was silent, the crowd an audience. People were flooding out into the square, drinks still in hand. Others stood in shop doors, careful not to stray too far from safety. Windows filled with shadows.
Cargill’s bravado disappeared in the half-light. “You… you’re… we’re on the same side!”
“Can’t say I’m on the side of stealing from orphans,” Aranok answered, staring hard into his eyes. Fear had taken him.
“We’ve got a warrant,” the fat man begged. He pulled a crumpled mess from his belt and waved it like a flag of surrender. Now he was keen to do the paperwork.
Perhaps they’d get out of this without a fight after all. Unusually, he was grateful for the embellishments of legend. He’d once heard a story about himself, in a Leet tavern, in which he killed three demons on his own. The downside was that every braggart and mercenary in the kingdom fancied a shot at him, which was why he tended to travel quietly – and anonymously. But now and again…
“How much does he owe?” Aranok asked.
“Eight crowns.” Cargill proffered the warrant in evidence. Aranok took it, glancing up to see where the rat had got to. He was too near the wall for Aranok’s liking. The boy was vulnerable.
“Out here,” Aranok ordered him. “Now.”
“With that crazy bitch shooting at me?” he whined.
“Thül!” Cargill snapped.
Thül slunk back out into the open slowly, watching the balcony. Sensible boy. Though if this went on much longer, Allandria might struggle to see clearly across the square. He needed to wrap it up.
The warrant was clear. The business owed eight crowns in unpaid taxes and was to be closed unless payment was made in full. Eight bloody crowns. Hardly a king’s ransom – except it was.
Aranok looked up at the boy.
“What can you pay?” he asked.
“I’ve got three…” the boy answered.
“You’ve got three or you can pay three?”
“I’ve got three, sir.”
The boy shrugged.
“Why do you care?” Thül sneered at him. “Is he yours?”
Aranok closed the ground between them in two steps, grabbed the thief by the throat and squeezed – enough to hurt, not enough to suffocate him. He pulled the angular, dirty face towards his own. Rank breath escaping yellow teeth made Aranok recoil, momentarily.
“Why do I care?” he growled.
The thief trembled. He’d definitely underestimated the draoidh’s speed.
“I care because I’ve spent a year fighting to protect him. I care because I’ve watched others die to protect him.” He stabbed a finger towards the young blacksmith. “And his parents died protecting you, you piece of shit!”
He couldn’t be sure, but Aranok suspected Thül had pissed himself. There were smatterings of applause from somewhere. He released the rat, who dropped to his knees, dramatically gasping for air. Digging some coins out of his purse, he turned to the boy.
“Here,” he said. “Ten crowns as a deposit against future work for me. Deal?”
The boy looked at the coins, up at the draoidh’s face and back down again. “Really?”
“You any good?”
“Yes, sir,” the boy nodded. “Did a lot of father’s work. Ran the business since he went away.”
“How is business?”
“Slow,” the boy answered quietly.
Aranok nodded. “So, do we have a deal?” He thrust his hand toward the boy again.
Nervously, the boy put down one sword and took the coins from Aranok’s hand, tentatively, as though they might burn. He put the other sword down to take two coins from the pile in his left hand, looking to Aranok for reassurance. He clearly didn’t like being defenceless. Aranok nodded. The boy turned to Cargill and slowly offered the hand with the bulk of the coins. Pleasingly, the thug looked to Aranok for approval. He nodded permission gravely. Cargill took the coins and gestured to Thül. They walked quickly back toward the castle, the thief looking up at Allandria as they passed underneath. She smiled and waved him off like an old friend.
Aranok clapped the boy on the shoulder and walked back towards the tavern, now very aware of being watched. It had cost him ten crowns to avoid a fight… and probably a lecture from the king. It was worth it. He really was tired. The crowd returned to life – most likely chattering in hushed tones about what they’d just seen. One man even offered a hand to shake as Aranok walked past; quite a gesture – to a draoidh. Aranok smiled and nodded politely, but didn’t take the hand. He shouldn’t have to perform a grand, charitable act before people engaged with him.
The man looked surprised, smiled nervously and ran the hand through his hair, as if that had always been his intention.
Aranok felt a hand on his elbow. He turned to find the boy looking up at him, eyes glistening. “Thank you,” he said. “I… thank you.”
“What’s your name?” Aranok asked. He tried to look comforting, but he could feel the heavy dark bags under his eyes.
“Vastin,” the boy answered.
Aranok shook his hand.
“Congratulations, Vastin. You’re the official blacksmith to the king’s envoy.”
* * *
Aranok righted his chair and slumped down opposite Allandria. Almost every eye on the balcony was on him now, as well as many inside. He looked uncomfortable. Secretly, she suspected he liked it.
“Was that our drinking money, by any chance?” Allandria asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Some of it…” he answered, more wearily than necessary.
Despite his reluctance, she knew part of him had enjoyed the confrontation – especially since it ended bloodless. The man loved a good argument, if not a good fight – particularly one where he outsmarted his opponent. Not that she’d had any desire to kill the two idiots, but she would have, to save the boy. It was better that Aranok had been able to talk them down and pay them off.
“You could have brought my arrow back,” she teased him.
He looked down to where the arrow still stood, proudly embedded in the dirt. It was a powerful little memento of what had happened. Interesting that the boy had left it there too… maybe to remind people he had a new patron.
“Sorry,” he said, smiling, “forgot.”
She returned the smile. “No you didn’t.”
“You missed, by the way,” he grinned.
“I couldn’t decide who I wanted to shoot more,” she said. “The greasy little one or the big head in the fancy armour.” She stuck out her tongue. The infuriating bugger had an answer to everything. But for all his arrogance, she loved him. He’d looked better, certainly. The war had been kind to no-one. His unkempt brown hair was flecked with grey now – even more so the straggly beard he’d grown in the wild. His skin looked leathery under a layer of road dust, and his eyes were hooded and dark. But those green eyes still glinted with devilment when they sparred.
“Excuse me…” the serving girl arrived with their drinks. She was a slight, blonde thing, hardly in her teens if Allandria guessed right. Were there any adults left? Aranok reached for his coin purse.
“No, sir,” the girl stopped him, nervously putting the drinks on the table. “Pa says your money’s no good here.”
Aranok looked up at Allandria, incredulous. When they’d come in, he wasn’t even certain they’d be served. Draoidhs sometimes weren’t. Innkeepers worried they would put off other customers. She’d seen it more than once. Aranok tossed a coin on the table.
“Thank you,” he said, “but tell your pa he’ll get no special treatment from the king on my say so, or anyone else’s.”
It was harsh to assume they were trying to curry favour with the king now they knew who he was. Allandria hoped that wasn’t it. She still had faith in people, in human kindness. She’d seen enough of it in the last year. Still, she understood his bitterness.
“No, sir,” the girl said. “Vastin’s my friend. His folks were good people. We need more people like you. Pa says so.”
“Doesn’t seem many places want people like me…”
“Hey…” Allandria frowned at him. He was punishing the girl for other people’s sins now. He looked back at her, his eyes tired, resentful. But he knew he was wrong.
“Way I see it,” the girl answered, shifting from foot to foot, holding one elbow protectively in her other hand, “you’ve no need of a blacksmith. A fletcher, maybe,” she glanced at Allandria, “but not a blacksmith. So I want more people like you.”
Good for you, girl.
Allandria smiled at her. Aranok finally succumbed too.
“Thank you,” he said, picking up the coin and holding it out to her. “What’s your name?”
“Amollari,” she said quietly.
“Take it for yourself, Amollari, if not for your pa. Take it as an apology from a grumpy old man.”
Grumpy was fair, old was harsh. He was barely forty – two years younger than Allandria.
Amollari lowered her head. “Pa’ll be angry.”
“I won’t tell him if you don’t,” said Aranok.
Tentatively, the girl took the coin, slipping it into an apron pocket. She gave a rough little curtsey with a low “thank you,” and turned to clear the empty mugs from a table back inside the tavern.
The girl was right. Aranok carried no weapons and his armour was well beyond the abilities of any common blacksmith to replicate or repair. He probably had no idea what he’d use the boy for.
Allandria raised the mug to her lips and felt beer wash over her tongue. It tasted of home and comfort, of warm fires and restful sleep. It really was good to be here.
“Balls,” Aranok said wearily. A crack resonated from his neck as he tilted his head first one way, then the other.
“What?” she asked, leaning back in her chair.
“I really wanted a night off.”
“Isn’t that what we’re having?” She brandished her drink as evidence. “With our free beer?” She hoped the smile would cheer him. He was being pointlessly miserable.
Aranok rubbed his neck. “We have to see the king. He’s being an arsehole.”
A few ears pricked up at the nearest tables, but he hadn’t said it loudly.
“It can’t wait until tomorrow?” Allandria may have phrased it as a question, but she knew he’d be up all night thinking about it if they waited. “Of course it can’t,” she answered when he didn’t. “Shall we go then?”
“Let’s finish these first,” Aranok said, lifting his own mug.
“Well,” she replied, “rude not to, really.”
Her warm bed seemed a lot further away than it had a few minutes ago.
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