Corin an Fol, Longswordsman and ex mercenary has but one objective: retire early and settle down. Unfortunately the gods have other ideas. When Corin arrives home after many years fighting foreign wars, he finds bad news waiting for him. The High King has been murdered and his crystal crown, the Tekara, destroyed.

The Tekara is no ordinary crown. Wrought of solid crystal it contains a charm of strength that has protected the Four Kingdoms for millennia. But the Tekara is vulnerable to one thing: treachery. So when Caswallon the schemer secretly places the crown on Prince Tarin's head he knows it will shatter, causing the realms to fall apart. He stands to gain as soon as it breaks.

Though many suspect Caswallon, who is known as a sorcerer, only one dares stand against him:  Queen Ariane of Kelwyn. She is visited by her goddess in a dream who warns that Prince Tarin has fled with the shards of the Shattered Crown, and only by finding both Prince and Crown can the Four Kingdoms be saved.

After being promised gold, Corin an Fol reluctantly joins the queen's desperate quest to salvage the missing shards. But Caswallon is on to them and already watching their every move.

Chapter 1 The Smithy

Corin an Fol, recently redundant longswordsman, determined cynic, and downtrodden wretch, was not having one of his better moments. His head hurt, his feet were soaked (leaky boots did nothing for morale), and it hadn't stopped bloody-well raining for three days — and worse — three nights.

He was wet through, his hands frozen and his nose running, and now Thunderhoof, his very expensive foreign warhorse, had chosen to start limping. It was all an act, of course. Thunder did this kind of thing when he'd had enough tromping about the countryside.

Corin wiped the snot from his nose and blinked through the rain. Fog and moor, moor and fog — he now remembered why he left this place.

"It isn't my fault you were born in the south," Corin told his horse. Thunderhoof had been a generous gift from his former employer, Silon of Raleen, back in the days when they were getting on. It seldom rained down there in Raleen, it being half-desert, and Thunder, worthy beast though he was, had scant appreciation for this damp northern climate.

"Besides," continued Corin, "we've only a few miles to go. You can stew in a nice warm, dry stable, and I can get soused." Thunder didn't respond, nor did he pick up his sluggish pace.

mile marker loomed out of the murk: Finnehalle Seven Miles. The words were barely visible.

"See, look you!" Corin, excited now, patted the horse's soggy back. "We're almost there, boy." But if Thunder had been impressed by the milestone, he didn't show it, which wasn't that surprising considering he couldn't read.

A lane entrance yawned off to their right, just past a stubby clump of hedgerow. Above that a battered sign dripped and creaked on a rusty pole: Polin's Smithy One Mile.

An arrow pointed down the track. Corin reined in as he took in the sign. Down in the wooded dip he could see smoke rising crooked from the smith's cottage and forge. Polin was a stout soul. He'd been a good friend to Corin, back then.

I suppose we could always...

Moments passed. Rider sat thinking whilst horse looked mournful and did something peculiar with his right foreleg.

"Oh, sod it then. Have it your way." Corin dismounted onto the lane with a squishy thud and then hauled hard at Thunder's reins, urging the snorting beast follow him down the side track and on toward the smithy. The horse gave him that superior look — an expression not dissimilar to the one Silon used to visit upon him when he'd just said something obtuse (which happened now and then).

"Horse, I hope for your sake Polin's ale barrel is full," complained Corin. He'd had his heart set on spending a night or two in the Last Ship, the inn he'd frequented a lot —back then. Still, Polin used to keep a decent keg and it would be good to catch up. It had been fourteen years after all, and Finnehalle would still be there in the morning.

Half way down the lane, the rain stopped and a wan sun pierced the grey. Corin smiled as sunlight danced and sparkled in the puddles ahead. This was more like it. But the grin fled from his face when a woman's shriek of rage sent rooks croaking skyward.

What's this?

Corin reached the outer fence to the smithy's lands, tied Thunder's reins to a stump, and then, hand reaching back across his shoulder, slid Clouter, his heavy longsword, free of its scabbard.

"Stay here!" Corin hissed at the horse. Thunder blinked at him but obliged with indifference. Corin left him and approached the gate. He turned the latch and carefully stole inside the stockade, his wet clothes and cold feet forgotten now.

Trouble. It was something Corin an Fol understood, its having been his constant companion for over fourteen years.

The woman screamed again — more anger than terror betrayed by her tone. Corin cursed and broke into a run, Clouter gripped between calloused palms and his grey-blue eyes steely hard. It had been two long weeks since he'd last had a scrap. Corin was more than ready. ***

Ulf laughed when the woman threatened him with her rusty knife. His twin, Starki, had already done for her husband, whilst the boy, Cale, had slipped inside the cottage to collect any spoils. That spotty bag of bones had his uses — sometimes.

They hadn't killed the smith yet, just brained him half senseless. The big fellow now crouched spewing and moaning in the dirt just outside the stables. Ulf had forgotten him already, having eyes only for the blacksmith's wife.

She was comely, in a spitting, shrieking, red-haired freckled kind of way. But it wouldn't have mattered if she were ugly. Ulf had never been the fussy kind.

He turned slightly at a noise to his left — Cale returning, his grubby fingers full of silver coin and his bright blue bug-eyes gawping at the scene. Ulf ignored him. Instead he goaded the girl with mock kisses and obscene hints.

Starki, lacking the finer qualities possessed by his twin, grabbed greedily for the girl. She stepped backwards, hissed, and flashed the tiny blade at his blood-shot eyes.

Starki laughed and winked at Ulf. "While you're trying to prick me with that I'm going to prick you with this." He cupped his groin with a hand and made a lewd thrusting gesture with his hips.

"Get that out and I'll slice it off!" The woman spat in his eye.

"Feisty mare, eh, Starki," observed Ulf. "Mayhap we should draw lots." Behind him the gawky Cale watched in fascinated silence.

"I'm having her first!" Starki grabbed again, but the woman knew what she was doing with her knife. She sliced hard, took a finger.

"Bitch!" Starki's meaty left fist hammered into her face, knocking her prone. He stood over her then, panting, swearing, and flicking the blood from his dripping right hand so that it splattered her linen gown.

She rolled over and tried to get up, but Ulf's studded boot thudded down onto her back, sending her sprawling again. Starki, his eyes lit with murderous rage, freed his dagger and crouched low over the woman.

He froze when the sharp kiss of steel pricked lightly at the nape of his neck.

"Play time's over, ugly," a voice said.

Starki rolled free of the stranger's blade, but only just. He looked up wild-eyed. Where had this bastard come from? A tall nasty-looking bugger clad in dun-leather tunic over a rusty mail shirt. Lean-faced — a white scar crooked up from right brow to hairline — with shaggy brown hair and scary eyes of smoky blue-grey. In his hands he clutched a bloody great sword, perhaps five-and-a-half feet long.

But Starki was no craven. In a grunting blur he'd freed his axe and swung out hard and across, aiming to split this lanky impostor in two. To his right his twin watched slack-jawed as Starki's broad swipe cut through air alone.

Clouter did better.

Ulf swore as his brother slunk to his knees, Starki's fingers trying in vain to staunch the great rift now opened in his belly. He wept as his guts spilled free, shuddered for a miserable moment, and then lay prone.

Ulf had his sword out now – a wickedly curved blade, half sax, half broadsword. He levelled it, roared, and waded in, but the steely-eyed stranger's longsword held him at bay. Meanwhile, the boy, forgotten by everyone, sidled slowly toward the rear of the stable, believing it now prudent to vacate the premises, a good notion. Trouble was the woman saw Cale out of the corner of her eye. Worse, she was blocking his escape route.

"Stay put, yer little shite," she said. Cale wasn't about to argue with a madwoman armed with rusty knife, however small. She stomped over, grabbed his wrist, and yanked hard. Cale yelped and the stolen coins spilled and sparkled to vanish in the dirt. "I've a rope just perfect for your scrawny neck," she told him. Cale gulped.

Ulf slipped a dagger into his left hand. He circled Corin, the two blades gleaming in the sunshine. Corin smiled at him. Ulf studied the stranger's nasty looking blade. Barely, he kept a lid on his fury hearing his twin's dying shudders behind him. Then the stranger's smoky eyes flicked across to where that idiot Cale was succumbing wimperingly to the smith's wife. He seemed half amused at the boy's antics. Ulf seized his moment, tossed his dagger hard and fast. Corin grinned, having expected that. His heavy blade sent the knife spinning away with a blaze of sparks.

But Ulf didn't waste any time. He shouldered into Corin with both hands now on his curved blade seeking to hack hard into his enemy's side. Instead Corin's counter stroke clanged into the twin's blade, knocking him off balance.

Still grinning, Corin leapt at Ulf. Reversing Clouter, he rammed the wolf's-head pommel hard into Ulf's chin, breaking the big man's jaw and launching him backward. Ulf groaned once and then lay still.

Corin knelt and wiped Clouter clean on Ulf's woolly coat. He gave its steely length a critical eye before slinging the longsword back in its scabbard, hanging lateral across his back. Corin now turned to the woman who currently had the spitting youth in a headlock.

"You get some rope, girl," he said, "and I'll hoist this fat bastard from that tree out there." He motioned toward Ulf's prone fur-clad lump and then pointed to the large ash shading the far end of the stockade.

>"What about this streak of piss?" The woman yanked Cale's left earlobe and he squawked enthusiastically.

"We'll hang him too," replied Corin, grinning evilly. "By the ears," he added. "Over hot coals. Slowly." Corin winked at Cale, who for his part looked wan and sad.

"Aw...you wouldn't," the boy said as the woman left him to source the rope. Corin ignored him. Instead he went to the well across the yard, hoisted a bucket, and spilled the contents over his head.

"I'm hungry," he said to the boy then. Cale didn't reply. He was looking past Corin at someone's looming approach.

"I'm Tommo," said a gruff voice. The smith was big and fresh-faced, though blood now matted his sandy hair and rouged his stubbled cheeks. "We are in your debt, stranger," he said.

"Where is Polin?" Corin asked, confused. He didn't like being called stranger. The smithy was only seven miles from where he'd been born. Still, he didn't know these people so why should they know him.

"Father died last winter," the girl answered, returning. She threw a heavy coil of rope on the ground and then stood with feet braced and arms crossed to study Corin.

"I know you." She smiled impishly, which made her look younger, perhaps twenty- five. "You're Corin an Fol," she said, and he nodded. "I used to quite fancy you back then, but you buggered off to foreign parts. I'm Kyssa. Remember me?"

Corin recalled a freckled twelve-year-old girl with wild red hair and a mischievous grin. He nodded, "Aye, I do so, yes." Corin was awkwardly aware of Tommo's lowering brow and sombre expression. "I'm sorry to hear of your father's death. He was a good man, Kyssa."

She shrugged. "Everyone dies."

Half hour later, big Tommo helped Corin hoist the kicking, fully conscious Ulf skyward while Kyssa clapped and Cale soiled his pants, this day not going as he'd planned it.

"Well," said Corin, awarding the boy a steely stare. "What have you got to say for yourself, shithead?"

"I've done nothing! I don't deserve...that." Cale's bulging eyes glanced up to where Ulf quivered and kicked.

"We will see." Corin turned and winked at Tommo, but the smith didn't look the forgiving type.

"He's a thief," said Tommo. "Thieves hang, it's the law."

"Bugger the law," said Corin. "How old are you boy?" Corin asked Cale.

"Almost fourteen winters," Cale replied, and sensing he might have a chance, stuck his chin out. "What's it to you?" Cale was in awe of this stranger and his massive sword but determined not to show it. This bastard had easily bested the two toughest men he had ever known. They might not have been house-trained but they had been his only companions.

Cale had wanted to do for them both when they were taunting the woman, but that was different. Cale didn't like that sort of thing, having his own sense of honour. Not that the wench didn't deserve it, the way she'd treated him.

Master Cale had his pride and wasn't about to forgive this weirdo stranger's executions of Ulf and Starki. For three profitable years Cale had accompanied the brutal twins, learning much as they robbed and murdered their way across the wilderness of Kelthaine and Fol.

"Thirteen and three quarters to be exact," he answered eventually, again thrusting out his chin in defiance. "Not that it's any of your concern."

"Well, be grateful you're not yet fourteen. If you were I'd slit you open like an overripe melon!" Corin held the boy's defiant gaze for a moment longer, then turned away to spit on Starki's mangled, fly-clustered corpse.

Slowly his anger faded, replaced by fatigue and sorrow. Corin remembered what had occurred on his own fourteenth birthday. The memory of that day would never fade; it was branded into his skull like the sword scar on his forehead. That had been the day of the raid on Finnehalle by Crenise pirates, culminating with the death of his father and brothers, and later the loss of his mother and sister too.

"Where are you from?" Corin glared at the boy.

"It don't matter where he's from," Tommo cut in, but Corin motioned him to silence. Beside her husband, Kyssa fingered her knife fondly and smiled at Cale. He pretended not to notice.

"Kelthara," Cale muttered then, staring sulkily at the field outside. His quick mind was calculating a way out of this unpleasant situation. He heard footsteps, and turning back he paled — it was apparent Tommo's patience had finally dissolved. The ominous hulk of the blacksmith loomed over him, massive hands bunching in fury.

"Leave him be." Corin's voice halted the big man's fist. Tommo turned, glowering at the longswordsman.


Corin shrugged. "There's been enough retribution today," he said. Kyssa shook her head. She looked disappointed.

Ignored for the minute, Cale seized his chance. With practiced ease he scooped from the dirt the coins he'd stolen. "I'll be taking my leave now, masters," the boy announced as he spun on his heels and fled the yard. "I don't suppose we'll meet again." As Tommo and Corin gave chase, Cale turned and hurled a dagger he'd kept stowed up his left sleeve. Tommo dived and Corin ducked as the blade whooshed over their heads. Corin was angry again now. His fast legs soon carried him ahead of the labouring smith, his longsword swinging behind him as he vaulted the wall with athletic ease.

To no avail. Cale was a city lad, well used to being pursued by vengeful adults down the labyrinthine lanes of old Kelthara town. He'd soon vanished into the thorny knot of woodland enclosing the western end of Polin's Smithy.

Corin yelled out to him. "If I come across you again it will go bad for you boy! Remember the name Corin an Fol!"

His only answer was the wind in the trees.

Shaking his head in disgust, Corin returned to the stockade. Before he reached the gate the strange sound of laughter made him stop and glance up at a nearby oak. There scarce ten feet away, beautifully balanced on the stout limb of a level branch sat a girl. Her face was pale perfection dominated by two huge tawny eyes. These now watched him with mocking humour. There was something decidedly odd about this child. Corin felt uneasy under her gaze. "You did well today," she giggled, her bare legs swinging high above his head. It seemed odd how the chilly breeze didn't bother her, despite her only garment being a pale blue dress hemmed well above her knees and elbows. Long golden braids cascaded down her back and she wore shoes of softest red leather. The girl grinned down at Corin with impish delight.

"We are watching you with interest," the strange girl said. Then her lips twisted into a cat's feral grin. Suddenly she looked cruel – spiteful. "Be careful in the woods. He is stalking you."

"Who are you child?" Corin managed before Tommo's heavy footsteps distracted him. He squinted through the afternoon sun to see the blacksmith approach.

"What are you looking at?" Tommo enquired. He awarded the tree a quizzical glance. Corin pointed above then swore under his breath. The branch was bare.

"I... nothing," Corin struggled doubting his senses. "The boy's gone," he said stating the obvious just to change the subject. Corin wondered whether those field mushrooms he'd found yesterday were having an unwholesome affect on him. It wasn't a good sign seeing strange girls in trees.

Tommo shrugged. "I wouldn't have hung him," he said eventually, "just wanted to scare the little shit." Corin nodded. "Why not stay and sup some ale with us," Tommo offered then, "Kyssa's got a three day stew on the stove – turnips, coney, broth and all."

"I thank you - but no," responded Corin. He'd changed his mind after the fight. He now desired solitude: time to think on his own. "I wish to watch the sun set on the ocean this very evening, take my leave in the taverns of Finnehalle. It's seven miles away if I read that last marker correctly, though my memory makes the distance shorter." Corin had a sudden notion.

"There is a service you can do for me, Tommo, if you will," Corin added.

"Name it."

"My horse, Thunderhoof, is lame, or pretending to be. He's covered many leagues over the last week and isn't happy – doesn't like the wet. Could you stable him and see to his needs? He's a good old boy but gets a bit stiff sometimes."

"Gladly," responded Tommo insisting once more Corin stay for some respite at least. "Finnehalle is only seven miles away, yes, and I've other steeds to lend you. Those rogues left shaggy mounts tied outside the north gate. They'll not be using them again, nor do I expect that young cutpurse will return to reclaim his pony."

Corin could not be persuaded. He made his excuses to the blacksmith and his wife, who now joined them, insisting he wanted to walk the last few miles. It would clear his head Corin told them. Tommo was nonplussed but Kyssa gazed at him askance.

"You are a strange one, Corin," she yielded a shrug. Corin feeling awkward didn't respond. Instead he went to get the horse.

They waited in silence both worn out by this troublesome day. Eventually Corin returned with Thunderhoof clomping noisily behind him. Then just a few minutes later the longswordsman bade farewell to blacksmith, his wife, and Thunder. Heart heavy Corin took his leave from Polin's Smithy. He vowed to return after a few days hard drinking. Thunderhoof didn't notice Corin's departure - he was already at his oats. Corin left lane and smithy behind. Time to go home. He wondered if Holly was still in town. He'd liked Holly – back then.