(Releasing June 15th – Available for pre-order at Amazon)

CHAPTER  ONE

SARD LOPED ALONG BESIDE THE MOUNTAIN stream before angling away to start across the forest clearing that it tumbled through.

His hope that he’d finally lost the three men who’d chased him for a mile went unfulfilled but good instincts, great eyesight, marvelous reflexes, and a good deal of luck, saved him.

His instincts made him look toward the nearby trees on his left where he saw one of the followers step into the clearing and hurl a spear in his direction.

As the missile split the air on its path toward him, he avoided it by dancing to his right. With a practiced motion, he slid his knife from its sheath and snapped his wrist, propelling the honed weapon toward the spear-thrower catching him in the throat. The man collapsed without a sound.

At the same time, another assailant emerged from the trees at a run, axe upraised as he covered the twenty feet or so to where Sard crouched, but Sard had already pulled his own axe from its holder, and he dodged the blow of the fast moving figure. He swung at the attacker but only hit his weapon which sent it flying from his hand.

The man howled and snatched at Sard’s axe trying to wrest it away, but Sard doggedly held on and swept his legs, causing the assailant to fall, still howling. However, he clung to the axe handle and as he went crashing to the ground he dragged Sard down with him.

Sard landed on top knocking the wind out of his attacker, and the man lost his grip on the axe. He sucked in a breath and screamed, his eyes going wide as Sard brought the sharp-edged weapon down hard, silencing him mid-howl as his forehead split open from the force of the blow.

That’s when the third man who’d been trailing the other two ran from the forest shrieking, and cast his spear. Sard saw it coming and flattened himself against the dead man. The spear sailed over him and came to rest somewhere to his rear. Tugging his axe free and rolling away from the motionless body, he was scrambling to get to his feet and was still on one knee when, knife in hand and yelling, the wild-eyed assailant tackled and bowled him over causing him to lose his grip on the axe which flew from his hand and went skidding across the ground.

Stones dug into Sard’s back as he caught the hand that held the knife, preventing a slash to his throat. They went rolling over the blood-spattered terrain, the man hanging on to his knife, Sard trying to gain possession of it. One more roll and the man was on top of him, but Sard gave a forceful heave and tossed him over his head. He quickly scrambled to his feet, but so did the attacker who still had a grip on the knife.

Sard noted that the man seemed inexpert, holding the knife awkwardly, but he knew that wouldn’t matter in the end if he didn’t stay alert. He was tiring with sweat stinging his eyes but he watched his opponent’s hand, preparing to avoid the knife if he threw it. He was good at dodging and that would give him an even chance since the man didn’t appear to have another weapon. He could still get out of the struggle alive.

However, the man hung on to his knife and glaring at Sard, crouched as if preparing to spring. As Sard stared back bracing himself for the attack, his foot bumped something in the grass, and a quick flick of his eyes showed him his axe. Straining to keep his mind clear, he watched for his chance to grab it.

The man suddenly yelled and rushed him, knife upraised. Sard, acting fast, scooped up the axe and danced aside while swinging the weapon. It was a maneuver that might’ve worked better if his foot hadn’t hit a patch of the blood-slickened grass causing the axe to whiz past his intended mark as he slipped awkwardly to one knee. He grasped his axe tightly and hung on to it.

Swaying backward as the man clumsily thrust the knife toward his chest, Sard grabbed his hand forcing it down and away, a move that saved his heart but the assailant punched him on the side of the head making his ears ring, and he lost his grip on the man’s knife hand. Though he managed to hang on to his axe, he was unable to keep the knife blade from continuing its downward plunge and penetrating his left thigh.

He shoved his attacker away hard and retaliated, swinging his axe out and opening up his belly. The man gave a harsh gasp and fell to his knees clutching his middle as intestines came sliding out in a rush of gore, and Sard, his energy nearly depleted, used both hands and put all the muscle he could into it as he swung again, this time across the man’s neck nearly decapitating him.

A bright plume of red sprayed forth as he dropped to the ground with his head at an unnatural angle and lay still, his eyes already glazing over as he stared into eternity. Sard, covered in blood and gulping in deep breaths of air, went over on his hands and knees.

He tried to stand but realized the knife was still embedded in his thigh, sticking out like some sudden obscene growth. He’d felt it go in but oddly, it had only felt as if he’d taken a hard punch. He grasped it and pulled it out. Blood spurted bringing with it a blast of the pain he hadn’t felt before. He clutched his thigh and fell back, overcome with dizziness.

He lay there for a moment before rising up on shaky elbows, and through the sweat running into his eyes, he strained to see the wound. The pain was horrible but the blood had ceased spurting and the flow was ebbing to a trickle. It was an indication that the wound might not be as bad as it felt. But his body was leaden and his stomach roiled, and with a sudden rush of nausea he rolled over and vomited in the grass. Head swimming, his strength drained, he crawled unsteadily over to the nearby stream and tumbled in.

He barely felt the shock of the cold water as the bright day grayed out around him.