Echoes of Illyria is an ongoing fantasy series. The epic saga blends elements of high fantasy and adventure with a focus on realism, relatable characters, and true moral dilemmas. Set in a world where metal is incredibly rare, three friends battle the evils of empire while unraveling the secrets of a forgotten past…. And a hidden foe.
A Promise of Iron, book one of the Echoes of Illyria saga:
Long ago, the Illyrian Empire fell and the world of men fell with it. The Illyrians are gone now. Nobody knows where. All they left behind are miles of dark roads and unanswered questions.
From the darkness the Cyllian Empire has emerged. It straddles the old thrones of men and brings a tenuous peace, filled with the unease of hate and the impatience of idle spears.
The Mere grow restless in their mountain homes. They strike at the lands of men with a boldness not seen since the days of Illyria.
The Ruk bear the scars of a long-lost war. Toiling under the heel of the Empire, they have little hope for a better life.
Born out of hatred, a young man seeks to bring it all down, stone by stone, brick by brick. He’s no hero. Heroes are fools and dead men. But he hears the words upon the wind. And he seeks a promise… A PROMISE OF IRON.
Targeted Age Group:: 15+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I have been working on the story for years. The first draft was very different. Written about ten years ago, it focused on the story behind the story, the larger forces at work. Admittedly it missed all the heart a story needs to truly live. Enter stage left, Aubree McCoy, my four year old daughter. You could say she was the inspiration… you could say she helped me find the heart of the story… and you would not be wrong.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I tried to write believable characters. I want realism… accessibility… relatability. Once I established the backstory for each character their mannerisms became a reflection of that story, of the world around them and their place in it.
Faerin— protagonist and main point of view as the story is written in first person. His life has been one of suffering and hate. Born of two worlds, yet belonging in neither, he seeks to improve the worth of his salt…. by any means necessary.
Crylwin— rich, powerful, charming…. and a drunken playboy who grapples with the weight of familial responsibility. Also Faerin's best friend. Quick to laugh, quick to temper, he is impulsive and an absolute blast to write.
Lira— born into a life of privilege, one not equally shared with the lowly of the world. She seeks to use her wit, coin, and influence to tip the scales. Defiant, radiant, commanding; she is the moral heartstring of the story.
I stood up and gestured for Crylwin to join me, not that I had to; he could have made three guesses to where I was sitting and still had two to spare. He was an hour late, I noted as I looked at the oculus above, but thankfully so was my contact.
“This place is fucking packed,” he said as he took the seat opposite me. He never seemed bothered having his back to the room, Cyllian pride or Cyllian arrogance.
I gestured to the serving girl to bring another round. She acknowledged my request with a smile. “Rohger said some lord is prepping a war raid into Merelands. Retaliation for some attack on the homesteads west of town. A few were killed, survivors are being put up in the Southquarter.”
Crylwin grunted. “Seems like every merc in Belen is here with some of daddy’s copper.”
I smoothed the front of my gray leather jacket then squared my back against the wall. “Not many stars or jackets with them.”
Work for the Imperial Mercantile Guild was pretty straightforward. Stars on your collar made you an officer, you had rules, and you followed a code. Jackets, like me, followed the stars. We would listen, learn, and with a little luck earn a commission of our own one day; we called it making ten. Mercs were different. They followed coin and that typically led to trouble.
“She likes you,” Crylwin said as he tilted his head towards the approaching serving girl. “No accounting for taste.”
“Melly?” I asked as I watched her push through the crowd with our drinks in hand. “I suppose, but it’s a sad sod that tickles the barmaid.”
Crylwin opened his mouth as if to object, then took a drink instead.
“Besides, she’s paid to like me; she works for tips.”
“I think she is after more than just a tip,” he whispered as she arrived tableside.
Melly set our drinks down, a light golden colored ale for myself and a dark lager for Crylwin. She leaned in as she collected the empty glass in front of me, presenting her ample cleavage. “Full crowd today, boys. If I can’t get to you, just come up to the bar.”
“No worries, Melly,” I said. “We’re just passing the time until my contact arrives.”
“So, you made your ten then?” she asked.
“Well, congratulations! Here, I’ll spot you this round; I’m sure Rohger won’t mind.”
“Oh, there’s no need for—”
“Thanks!” Crylwin said, taking his glass to his lips.
“I'll catch up with you boys a little later. This lot has me running all over this place.” With that, she disappeared into the crowd of onlookers and lingering pipe smoke.
Melly was cute, in the way that your neighbor’s daughter was cute. She had pale green eyes, cream-colored skin, and a mop of unruly orange hair that she pinned up in a failed effort to tame the chaos. To me, there was nothing particularly special about her. In truth, accessibility might have been her greatest asset. She was a pretty Rukish girl, probably as fiery in bed as she was in dealing with her customers, but as fun as a run with her might be, I was about business today and she wasn’t her.
“When is this lordling supposed to be here, anyway?” Crylwin asked.
I looked again at the oculus above. “He said midday, but you know how these things go.”
“Quarter past one now,” Crylwin grumbled as he followed my gaze. “Prick.” He turned his chair away from the table to get a better view of the crowd.
Turns was the unofficial watering hole for every jacket and merc looking to earn their stars in the province. Everyone chasing iron or the promise of it came here. But Turns was metropolitan in its collection of dreamers and wicked men, the kind of damp place we Ruks liked to soak our heads. For every man looking to make a name for himself, there was another who only worried over coin, content to grind out a meager Rukish wage to support a meager Rukish life. The old roots, those that knew the war, did it for a whiskey and a chance to spill some blood.
I had seen a crowd near this size a few times. Turns was always good for an extra handful of rabble, especially with a good promise of spoils. On a fine summer day such as this, a fancy lord might come upriver from Gent looking to add a few men to his roster. He’d stop here at Forhd, the last outhouse of civilization in Belen, and with a good speech and a fistful of coins, he might rally some twenty or thirty men, Rukish men mind you, never their own, and head off for the Westmarches to knock some Mere heads around. Most times, they didn’t even cross Belen Hills before they turned back with half a bag of Golmere ears, and their cocks all swollen with pride.
There was never any iron in it, of course. Golmere were primitive compared to the other Meren races. They used weapons made of bone or stone. Occasionally, you might get lucky and kill one that had a stolen copper, but counting on the Golmere to have anything of value beyond their ears was a foolish enterprise. Still, the boys would trot back as pleased as pie as if they had just cleared the Marches like the Illyrians of old.
Today was different; it was a call for coppers, a superstitious detail I couldn’t help but see as a good omen, despite the questionable rabble that now crowded my favorite tavern. It had all the promise of a true war raid, enough to muster out five full Garas, around two hundred fighting men, and nearly the entire local fighting strength of Forhd. These boys wouldn’t be heading into the Westmarches for ears and a couple of laughs; they were headed south and west into Merelands for a proper fight with proper Mere; ears wouldn’t be the only prize.
“You pledging in?” Crylwin asked as he looked over the terms list one of the recruiters had left on the table. “Split looks pretty good.”
I shook my head.
“It has been a long time since I saw a call this size. Last time it had put such a run on copper that folks were hocking everything just to afford a rusted out bronze saber. Looks like every farmdick within two hundred miles is here thinking he could play soldier and win himself some iron.”
“Plenty of folks here just following a promise,” Crylwin noted.
I nodded in agreement.
He turned to me then, his copper-colored eyes questioning.
“You could find iron, too; you fool Ruk.” He rotated his empty glass in the light that illuminated our table. “Sunemere always ride with iron; there should be plenty to go around.”
“I could end up dead,” I said. “And you know as well as I that any iron found would never make it to a split unless we crushed an army of them.” I turned to the recruiter’s terms list and pointed to a similarly worded stipulation. “Lords first, stars second,” I read, shaking my head. “Sure, the day wage looks fair, but the prices on rented coppers will be even worse. This would barely cover my interest to the House—And I won’t be caught riding south with iron.”
“I didn’t think you were superstitious,” he remarked as he pointed to the sheathed sword hanging on the back of the chair.
“Every Ruk is superstitious. You Cyllians have your gods; we have our bones and omens.”
He shrugged as if my words were as useful to him as the empty glass he still held.
“Honestly, you think I would get a fair cut with borrowed iron and no stars on my collar?” I asked. “The nobles would take their pick, and my purse would be just a few coppers heavy for the trouble.”
“All the more reason to get your stars then,” Crylwin said as if ignoring the whole reason for being here.
“Good idea,” I said.
He smirked and looked back towards the bar to get Melly’s attention.
Crylwin didn’t understand my life any more than I understood his. I was Ruk; he was Cyllian. We weren’t supposed to understand each other. In truth, his family was Roharan and had been around since long before the wars. The differences seemed an important enough distinction to him. There was no real difference; they all had copper eyes, and we did not.
“I’m just hoping to get to the House before the run on iron ends,” I explained. “Last time everything was priced out before the raid even left Forhd.”
Crylwin looked up with surprise. “You have enough for iron?”
“No, not normally,” I replied, then let a smile creep onto my face.
He caught the gesture and shook his head.
“Hey, she offered,” I explained. “I figure I should have five maybe six stars left after I pay my dues. The good stuff will be gone, but there is no telling what people will have turned in. Maybe she can sell me something that needs some work that I can get on the cheap, saves them from melting it down at least. It’s a hope more than anything.”
“I wouldn’t drag her into it. I’m sure the auditors are suspicious enough with you showing up every few days and hanging around like a lady’s maid,” he warned.
I gave him a dismissive look and took a drink of my beer.
“You know I could just—”
“No,” I cut him off, reflexively. “I won’t take a broken copper off of you.”
He shrugged, expecting the answer. At least he knew not to argue with me about it. Ruks were prideful when it came to charity, and I had a shade more pride than most.
“Besides, I am already bent over on interest here,” I said, gesturing to the borrowed sword on the chairback. “The last thing I need is for you to come collecting. You might have to bust up this pretty face of mine.”
Crylwin smiled then stood as he caught Melly looking our way. He raised his empty glass then sat back down. I watched him for a moment, another product of my Cyllian education. During my time in the South, I learned how to study my surroundings. When people valued your life somewhere between a horse and a dog, depending on how much they liked the dog, awareness was typically your first line of defense.
Crylwin was handsome; he kept his brown hair styled, but his face unshaven, an interesting contrast compared to most Cyllian nobility. He had grown into himself over the last year; his shoulders were broader now, and his face held a brooding tone that often made him appear more contemplative than he was. He wore his lord’s coat with confidence and swagger, something that would have been out of place a few years ago. He was only a year older than me, but he was nearly my equal in height, a rare thing, not that I was tall for a Ruk, only that he was exceptionally tall for a Roharan.
Height had nothing to do with how he stood, though; he would stand tall at five feet. He was commanding and direct and owned an authoritative air even if he was inclined to act the fool. Still, people followed him, hells I followed him, and it wasn’t just because of the worth of his salt or the coat and title that came with it. I had always assumed it was the confidence one exudes when they wear a broadsword at the hip. People follow that kind of strength in this world, but the more I spent time with him, the more I realized the sword had nothing to do with it.
We talked of smaller things while we waited, the kind of idle chatter that accompanies a light ale in a poorly lit room. A Seveli salt caravan was due in town the next day or so coming through the northern pass on their way to Gent. Lord Monroe, who was on one of his ill-fated treasure hunts to Belen Heights, was looking to expand into agriculture on the Southbank. Decia was characteristically angry with him over some offense though his actual crime was a closely guarded secret.
Melly came with our second round and another glimpse at her inviting cleavage. Crylwin reminded me again of my failures; I reminded him I wasn’t celibate, only focused. I was keeping my options open to see how earning my stars might improve my fortune with her.
“You don’t have the salt,” Crylwin reminded me. But I was prideful, and a prime example of stubborn Rukish determination.
Little Lord Ellington came half-past second hour. I saw him first at the door and stood to usher him back to my table. He was the spitting image of his father though he had a stature more akin to his sister. Sashed across his waist in bright purple silk was a thin gentlemen's blade. His discomfort was evident as he crossed through the sea of people. I hoped that would at least speed us through the transaction.
I had my writ book opened with sealing wax warming above a small candle in anticipation while Crylwin busied himself through my previous commissions.
“I didn’t know you were the Sword of Belen Hill!” Crylwin exclaimed as Ellington approached. I gave Crylwin an appreciative nod. I would need every copper I could get, and this little game had born fruit more than once.
“I’ve been drinking with a legend!” he continued as he pushed his chair back from the table and stood. “Crylwin Monroe,” he said, extending his right hand to Ellington. “I don’t believe we have formally met.”
“Indeed,” Ellington said. “Lordson Johanus Ellington.” He removed his glove and took Crylwin’s hand in his own.
I removed my borrowed iron hanging from the chair back and gestured for the two men to sit. It was a gamble involving Crylwin in this signing, but for once, the concern for Cyllian propriety seemed to be in my favor.
“Shall we be on with it?” I asked as I took my seat.
“Indeed,” Ellington replied.
I pulled the sheet of paper I had prepared for the transaction and began to read aloud:
“On this, the 4th day of the 9th cycle in the year 1272, I, Lordson Johanus Ellington, third named, declare that in full compliance with the law, the holder of this mark…”
Ellington took the note in his hand and read it himself for accuracy. While he read, I let my mind wander. I thought of stars on my collar and her on my arm; then a darker thought surfaced from the deep recesses of my mind. The dream faded.
Crylwin cleared his throat, and I blinked back into the moment. I looked down and saw Ellington staring at my right arm. I pulled up my jacket sleeve in compliance and turned my wrist upward to reveal my identification mark.
It was the same mark on the upper right corner of the page Ellington held, and it was the same mark that was depicted on the rest of the documents folded and sealed in my writ book.
“Everything appears to be in order here,” Ellington said as he took the ink reed and held it to the underlined section of the page. Hastily, he scrawled his signature, returned the reed to the jar of ink, then took the dropper of sealing wax that I had warming above the candle stand and poured a few drops below where he had signed. He reached into the pocket of his lord’s coat and pulled out a marble figurine carved in the likeness of a mounted soldier. He pressed the bottom of the figure into the pooled wax, wiggled it back and forth, then pulled it free, leaving the prancing horse of House Ellington embossed upon the page.
Ellington took a white kerchief from his other pocket and wiped the excess wax from the bottom of his stamp as if to say the wax of a Ruk was not good enough to be tread upon by his little marble horse. Without looking up from the page, he placed the figurine back into his pocket and gestured to Crylwin. “Sir.”
Crylwin chuckled as he reached for the same reed. His signature was practical, made of tight, orderly spaced Cyllian letters. He took the same dropper of wax and poured it below the seal of House Ellington. In place of a stamp, he made a fist and pressed the ring he wore into the wax. He held it there firmly, then lifted his fist from the page. Silently, he placed the ring to his mouth, turned his stare towards Ellington, and sucked free the flecks of wax that remained. The sides of his mouth curled. “As witnessed.”
Ellington didn’t look away from the page, nor did he meet the solemn stare that weighed upon him. His hand moved to the purse at his belt, and with a quick gesture, he tossed it on the table. It didn’t make the sound I expected it to, but I was not going to argue coin at this point. I was here to make my ten; I wouldn’t risk souring my final commission over a light purse. I had my whole life to worry about Rukish sentiment and a want for coin.
Crylwin was rarely so cautious.
“A touch light, don’t you think, Johanus?” Crylwin said with an accusatory tone, just loud enough for those around to hear. “That’s a bit of a surprise considering the circumstances.”
Ellington leaned his head forward conspiratorially and whispered, “Discretion, sir.”
“I don’t know, Johanus,” Crylwin balked. “My friend here procured a service.”
Crylwin knew the details of my commission even if the writ was left intentionally vague. It was not the first time I had played door guard while some Cyllian banged away at a few Rukish whores before their wedding. It was the first time I had been paid to mind the door while my client was the one being…serviced.
I wasn’t sure which was the greater offense, but I knew that purity laws frowned on either scenario. I also knew a frown from the Purity Council was as good as a death sentence down South. Up here, things were a little different. The council still had power, and reputation was vital for Cyllian interests, but this was Rukland, even if the name no longer meant anything.
With the right connections and a handful of coin, such encounters could be arranged. They were private, discreet, and an easy day’s work. It was not my preferred contract, but I was eager to get that final commission. Helping to undermine Cyllian morality by facilitating their hidden depravity was just a bonus. I liked holding onto those secrets; in the right hands, they were as valuable as iron. Typically, I would keep such sordid affairs private, but Crylwin wouldn’t agree to sign as a witness unless I told him in full.
“Alright, Crylwin,” Ellington said grudgingly. He reached for another purse at his belt and pulled free two silver nobles and a copper penny. “The copper is for your competence; the silver is for your silence.” He let the coins fall to the table.
Crylwin remained silent as he took a step towards him. He folded his arms across his chest in a casual way that said a lot without saying anything.
A light purse was a typical Cyllian gesture that said in plain enough words, “Fuck you, Ruk.” I didn’t take any offense to it; it was almost tradition. I wouldn’t tell the man's secret, not for free, at least, but Crylwin ran a little hot. He didn’t appreciate being insulted, directly or indirectly. I knew there was bad blood between the two houses, something to do with little Ellington’s sister and conspicuous nine-month absence. It was for that reason I thought to avoid the contract altogether, but again, I was eager to make my ten, and the promise of iron has its ways.
I waved my hand to calm them both. I turned to Ellington with a smile. “My thanks to you, my lord. We are concluded here.”
I extended my arm out to him. It was an honest gesture, but in my carelessness, I had overlooked the fact that Ellington had removed his gloves. He looked disdainfully at the mark on my outstretched arm; then, he looked at me with cold hard eyes. He dismissed the gesture with a sneer.
His hatred for my people was palpable, but I took comfort in a few simple truths as I kept my bare hand outstretched. The social laws that governed Cyllian society were as meaningless to us as purity law. This was Rukland, the birthplace of the Ruk, and this was Turns, the kind of seedy establishment we Ruk’s liked to haunt. A slight on me, a local hero, was a slight on us all. We were oppressed sure, conquered, and occupied for two decades now. But here, surrounded by at least a hundred cutthroats thirsty for something to bloody, well, he would be wise to shake my fucking hand.
Ellington looked up at Crylwin, who towered over by nearly a foot and half a hundred pounds.
Crylwin narrowed his eyes and smiled.
Ellington’s hand was as soft as a woman’s breast.
As Ellington left the table and hurried through the crowd towards the exit, I grabbed the purse full of coins and opened it. I counted out one iron star, one gold crown, five silver nobles, and a handful of copper bits.
“As if a Cyllian had any business dealing in bits,” I lamented at the Rukish currency that mixed in with the Cyllian coin. I reached for the silver on the table and added the two coins into the purse he left. I purposely left the copper penny on the table for the drinks. Crylwin leaned in and took the penny in his hands and tossed it my way. I caught it on reflex and shot him a confused look.
“Drinks are on Lord Anus,” he said with a grin.
I cocked my head as he revealed Ellington’s silken purse from within the fold of his arms.
“Melly deserves a bigger tip,” he said as he opened the purse and counted out a silver noble onto the table.
“You damn fool, Crylwin!” I whispered as I stepped forward to chase Ellington down. He grabbed my arm as I passed.
“He signed and sealed already, nothing he could do to change that now. No need to get your worry face on. I nicked it, not you.”
I looked to the door, then back to Crylwin.
“I will get it back to him tomorrow, princess,” he soothed. “I need it. Lord Ellington has a banquet to celebrate our little lord’s upcoming nuptials. I planned to take Decia to apologize; you know how she loves a good wedding. Perhaps taking her will buy me enough time to dodge my own.”
My look of concern turned to one of confusion. “You were invited? How? They hate you.”
His smile grew wider. “I can think of no better way to gain entrance to a party I wasn’t invited to than by returning a lost purse that was stolen at an establishment he would never visit, concluding business that never took place.”
I questioned if he had taken the purse for coin, for spite, or as a pretext to entry as he said. But at that moment, I saw the genius of his plan.
“This better not come back on me, you know how they treat my kind. If he suspects that I had a hand in it, I won't have a hand to worry about.”
“Keep your dress on; I will make sure he knows it was me.” He winked, then began counting out his bounty.
I sighed as I dabbed a few drops of wax to an open page in my book and affixed the signed document to it. I refolded the other completed commissions and closed the leather cover. I corked the inkwell and unspent wax and tucked them both safely in the pocket of my jacket.
“We will see you later tonight,” Crylwin said as he lifted his glass into the air, “toasting your stars.”
I paused and took a long breath.
“Go!” he said reassuringly. “You’re wasting time.”
I grabbed the sheathed sword, slapped him on the shoulder, and headed for the door. As I pushed through the crowd, I could hear Crylwin shouting behind.
“There he goes lads, the Sword of Belen Hill, off to get his stars!” A cheer erupted as I stepped through the doorway.
As I closed the door, I heard him shout again. “Another round for us all, courtesy of Lord Ellington!” A second cheer erupted—it was louder than the first.
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