Fantasy

Chapter reveal: Graywullf, by Thomas Rottinghaus

11091157_449255418567931_1059943138652949418_n-1Title:  Graywullf

Genre: Western / Fantasy

Author: Thomas Rottinghaus

Website: www.thomasrottinghaus.com

Publisher: AuthorHouse

Purchase on Amazon

About the Book:

The Dark Wizard Lynch had lived several ages of men being loyal only to himself. But when he was accidentally rescued from certain death by the Warrior Lorn Graywullf, he found himself in the unfamiliar position of being indebted to another. To repay that debt, Lynch offers to help the Warriors reverse a spell that would wreak havoc on their World. Of course, he neglected to mention that action would serve his own interests as well. In the process, Lynch discovers much to his chagrin that he does still have a soul and a conscience.

He also discovers that the Warriors are fighting a battle they can’t win against a common enemy, a Wizard named Timon Backhelm. Only Lynch knows his complicated history with Timon, and the real reason he has sworn to kill him or be killed trying. But when Lynch realizes the extent of Timon’s power, he knows the only way to win is to initiate the creation of the Dragonspawn, a magical, physical blend of the strengths of a Dragon and an ultimate Warrior. The question is, will the Dragonspawn be loyal to those who created him, or will he simply destroy them all?

EXCERPT:

“If the powers of Light and Dark do not merge, evil will prevail.”

                                                                    Alana, Mistress of Aard

GRAYWULLF

     Lynch watched the smaller man trailing him from the concealment of a frozen clump of oak brush. His eyes were sunken in the sockets from exhaustion and hunger, and sharp lines cut through the stubble of beard that covered his haggard cheeks. The duster he wore, the pitifully light pack across his thin shoulders, even his shoulders themselves which had been capped with muscle before he started this journey, all bore the evidence of a tremendous ordeal. He was a tall man, normally lean and sinewy, but now he seemed almost cadaverous. The hunt had been abnormally long, and prey and hunter had reversed roles more than once. At the moment, he was once again the prey. Or was he? Indeed, had he ever actually been the prey? It made no difference. His smoky gray eyes betrayed more than a hint of the necessary savage cruelty of a born predator. But for now he merely waited.

The twigs of the brush he hid behind, forged in ice, were curved and hooked like the claws of a Dragon. That image dredged up memories from deep within the sediment accumulated throughout centuries within Lynch’s mind, and for a moment he actually forgot where he was. A branch snagged the threadbare sleeve of his duster and the thin cloth tore with a small, apologetic ripping sound. The sound jerked Lynch back to the present. That tiny whisper of ripping cloth made a statement, bold and clear. End it now. This ruse had gone on for far too long and it was rapidly becoming an exercise in futility for the DarkWizard. How much strength could he gain from the ceremony? Would he even rebuild his power to it’s former levels? But he found he still could not abandon his plan.

He glared at the tear ruefully with a slight shake of his head. Such pitiful garments were not befitting a Wizard of the stature Lynch had attained. Even a Dark Wizard, he thought, should be deserving of more than rags. He turned his attention back down the trail. The churned up snow where he had walked, coupled with the plume of steam from his breath in the frigid air,  pointed out his location like a giant flaming beacon. The smaller man who trailed him had stopped four hundred yards away and was staring in his direction. Somehow that pleased him, that his adversary was so utterly competent in his task. This one was better than all the rest. He had been pursued relentlessly over a period of time and space that would only confuse most mortal minds, and still the man in gray followed him. And now he had no choice but to let the hand play out. He lunged out from behind the brush and broke into a purposely awkward run through the calf deep snow.

Some perverse instinct that allowed him to survive despite countless efforts to prematurely end his existence warned him and he jerked his head to one side. He felt the passage of the bullet before he heard the report. It whipped through the hood of his duster, tore a shallow furrow from the bone of his skull and took a chunk from his right ear. It sounded like a cannonball had detonated inside his head. He catapulted forward to his hands and knees and  pitched face first into the snow.  He lost his vision completely for several seconds, and when he regained it black spots danced across his frozen surroundings. His ears rang as he reached around with agonizing slowness to tentatively explore his wound and he simultaneously raised his face from the stinging iciness of the melting snow where he had fallen. Warm blood ran in rivulets down the side of his head and neck and an alarming amount stained the snow in the indention left by his face. He was hit and he was down. Yet that also pleased him. He had been hunted before, but this one was truly amazing! The smaller man’s breath came in great clouds of escaping steam from the last mad dash up the trail and he still had almost pulled off an impossible shot. But the man who called himself Lynch was also pleased because he knew there would be no more near misses. He had watched that very morning as his pursuer had ruefully tapped the last grains of powder from his horn and then sat studying the last of the round lead balls from his possibles bag. He had no more bullets and no more powder to stoke the long rifle he carried.  Now they were on even ground, and as he lay there bleeding in the snow, Lynch grinned his feral grin.

Lynch cocked his head at the pale yellow sun as it arced across the cloudless sky. The timing was not quite right. Soon, but not just yet. He gathered his strength, struggled to his feet and bowed with a flourish, even though that made his head swim alarmingly and blood cascaded down his neck. He rocked forward and dropped down to one knee again, and as he did his vision went blank once more. The Dark Wizard felt a momentary thrill of fear, then his vision returned. He laughed mirthlessly as he struggled to his feet and resumed his torturous run, giggling maniacally and weaving like a dockside drunk.

“Son of a bitch,” the smaller man blurted in amazed disgust as he watched Lynch escaping yet again. “May the gods damn his black heart!”

He spat into the snow and tried to calm his racing heart. Now it was his turn to ruminate. How in the name of Aard, the Mountain God, did that bastard keep going?  But he knew. Oh, yeah. He knew. It was the Dark Magic which fueled his quarry’s body and gave him unnatural endurance. Even so, he felt enormous respect for the Dark Wizard Lynch. He had hunted down more than his share of hardcases but Lynch was by far the hardest of the lot.

He stared at the place where he had spat in the snow, and hated it for the bright red around the edges of the tiny hole where it had melted through the top layer. He had resorted to Dark Magic himself, even though it was strictly forbidden. Just one simple spell, when he realized this was the last leg of a terribly long race. And he’d had the bastard in his sights and let him get away. Now the Dark Magic was showing its price. Was it worth it, he wondered, to give up his own life to end another? His chest ached so badly he could barely sleep even when he allowed himself the time to do so, and he awoke at regular intervals when sleep did overtake him, coughing up bright red splashes into the snow. That one spell was eating away at his guts as surely as a wolverine on a fresh kill. The price of Dark Magic was high, for one who didn’t give themselves entirely to it. Perhaps it was even higher for those who did embrace it and received near immortality, only to lose their soul. Whatever, he thought. It didn’t matter any more. Nothing mattered except this last hunt. He muttered the rune from memory, and felt strength flow back into his muscles like molten metal. Then he resumed the chase.

Lynch glanced back only once, just to make sure the man in gray hadn’t given up. That would not suit his plans at all. Now that the hunter behind him had lost his ability to end the chase at long range, Lynch wanted him to persist. The man in gray had something he wanted. All he needed was the right place and the right time. Two agonizing miles further along, he found it.

The snowy plain came to an abrupt end, interrupted by a massive glacier towering hundreds of feet into the air. It ran several miles in each direction. But what interested Lynch the most were the fissures ranging from six inches to six feet wide that burrowed into the bowels of the glacier. After another glance at the sun, he entered one of the wider ones and ran onward. Sound from the outside was curiously muffled, while sounds from within were amplified. The glacier creaked and groaned like a living thing, and Lynch felt a moment of unease. He had a brief but extremely vivid vision of being digested by some massive creature while he was still alive. He stopped, and peered upward. Far above he saw a sliver of blue sky and a shadow that flickered over the chasm. Fear, usually a foreign emotion to the man called Lynch, wrenched his guts. He paused. His overdeveloped sixth sense was working at a frantic pace now. There were worse things afoot and on wing in the World than he, even though they had given him a wide berth to this point in his career, and Lynch had no desire to meet any of them at the moment. His hands were full with the bounty hunter on his trail.

Shards of ice rained down on him. He lowered his gaze and plunged ahead. After another three hundred yards the chasm took a right turn and Lynch stopped, his lungs working like a bellows. Sweat beaded his brow. His head ached and his ear stung like fire and blood stained his cheek and neck. He fumbled within one cavernous pocket and withdrew a limp bandana, which he tied over his mangled ear. Then he drew his sword with trembling hands and waited.

The ritual he intended to complete had certain requirements, and one of those was that the kill must be fresh, and it had to be completed by the light of the moon. Kill too soon and it would all be wasted. But he had waited for so long for this moment he had to force himself to be patient. A giddy excitement overtook him, and he felt a stirring of physical arousal.

He heard the man in gray long before he could possibly have been that close. The ice canyon played tricks with the sound and Lynch became more agitated by the minute. His eerie gray eyes darted from side to side and his breath came in short, silent gasps.  Finally he could take it no more. He darted back around the corner, his sword held at the ready. And he nearly dropped it in surprise. Two small children skipped along the bottom of the chasm, hand in hand, laughing as they came. Their eyes were bright and full of life and their cheeks were rosy from laughter. Lynch was astounded. The children drew even with him, and their eyes turned a fiery red and their rosy cheeks elongated into narrow snouts lined with sharp teeth. They lunged for him as he fell backwards, his legs flailing against their thrashing bodies. He slammed into the wall of the ice chasm and needles of pain shot up from his thighs as they chewed through his breeches. Razor sharp, sparkling white teeth ground into the flesh of his thighs and chewed upwards towards his balls. He threw a desperate punch into the side of the nearest one’s head, and as it fell he slashed his sword across the second one’s throat. Warm blood sprayed up his forearm and, for a moment, the child’s face returned. But these creatures didn’t know who they were dealing with. Lynch drew his blade back and skewered the second without a moment’s hesitation as it, too, turned back into a childlike being. He grunted as he rose to his feet, anger blazing through him as he saw his tattered leggings with his own blood seeping through them. The children’s bodies shimmered against the glaze of ice then began to shrink. In moments two field mice scampered between his legs as Lynch stared. Suddenly, his head was forced back from the sudden pressure of an icy cold blade. Lynch dropped his own sword and coolly regarded the man who held his life in his hands. The man in gray’s mouth was rimmed with red, and a tiny rivulet of blood seeped down the whiskers on his chin to drip silently onto the pristine ice. His eyes burned with single minded intensity, and just a touch of madness.

“Gotcha,” he said hoarsely.

Lynch gave an almost nonexistent nod. He indicated the passage of the field mice with the barest glance and uttered one word. “You?”

The man in gray nodded. “Transfiguration spell. I have to know one thing before I kill you. Who are you?”

Lynch didn’t answer.

The blade slipped under the skin of his throat as the man in gray increased the pressure on it. “I really don’t think I have much time. Who are you?”

A coughing fit wracked the man in gray, but his blade hand was steady. The blood running from his mouth was now a thin steady stream.

Lynch grinned. “You used the Dark Magic to catch me. Bravo! I applaud your determination.”

“Shut up.” The man in gray wheezed. “I ask, you answer. Who are you?”

“Since I am about to die, what can it hurt? I am Lynch, Warlock and Executioner, Dragonrider and Thief.”

“You killed my family,” the man in gray stated in a voice that was already lifeless.

“Perhaps,” Lynch acknowledged. “I kill a lot of people.”

“Why?”

Lynch considered that for a long moment, then shrugged. “It’s just what I do. And,” he added as an afterthought, “I’m good at it.”

“Now you’ll die for it,” the man in gray said coldly. He steadied himself for the final thrust.

“Wait,” Lynch said.

It was more of an order than a request. Despite the hatred which burned in his eyes, the man in gray stayed his hand.

“Since I am about to die, I’d like to know who you are.”

The man in gray snorted, and blood erupted from his nose in a fine spray. Flecks of it stained the worn lapel of Lynch’s duster and peppered his cheeks.  He didn’t flinch.

“I just want to know who killed me, that’s all. Before…”

The man in gray nodded in understanding. “Before I die and my name dies with me. You know the Dark Magic will kill me soon enough.”

He hesitated, and Lynch thought he had lost that last gamble. Then the man in gray blinked back tears.

“My family name is Roark. I was hired to hunt you down, but I’d have done it for free. I’m Ned Roark”

“Ned Roark,” Lynch repeated very softly. He slowly raised his left hand and laid it on Ned Roark’s grizzled cheek, and Roark knew he had lost. With his thumb Lynch tenderly wiped away the tears which trickled down through the beard stubble and washed a trail through the grime. “Ned Roark,” he repeated.  Roark felt the crushing weight of the spell which Lynch cast using his own name. Lynch casually reached inside his cloak and withdrew a long knife, then plunged it into Ned Roark’s stomach. Ned tried futilely to slide his sword home, but he found he couldn’t move a muscle. A long, sighing moan escaped his trembling lips. Lynch angrily knocked Roark’s blade aside, ignorant of the  gash it tore in the side of his neck.

“You’re a fool, Ned Roark. Never tell anyone your true birth name,” he slammed the smaller man backwards into the opposite wall and held him upright. “Tell me, Ned Roark, who hired you?”

“Elander,” Roark groaned. He looked down at the haft of the knife which protruded from his stomach. All his strength ran out with his life’s blood. Tears of frustration welled up in his eyes. “Goddammit. Thirty years I trailed your sorry ass. But it don’t even matter that I failed. They’ll keep comin’ forever. One of ‘em will nail you, you murderin’ son of a bitch.”

A shower of ice rained down on them. Lynch glance upward, irritated. He caught the flash of a shadow as it hurtled over the abyss and disappeared. He grunted an obscenity, then grabbed Roark by the collar and dragged him out of the chasm. To his surprise, the smaller man was still alive and conscious when they reached the snowy plain. A crimson trail marked their passage.

Roark’s words in the chasm cut through the fog in Lynch’s brain. The smaller man had said “they” would keep coming. He released Roark’s cloak and the smaller man dropped to the frozen snow with a lifeless thump. His head lolled to one side. Lynch frantically shook him.

“Who will keep coming forever?”

Roark smiled a sickly smile. He whispered something. Lynch bent down closer to hear

“Who are you? I mean, who are you, really?”

Lynch threw back his head and roared with laughter.

“Tell me who you are,” Roark whispered. “And I’ll tell you…”

Roark sagged onto the carpet of snow, and Lynch bent low over him, cursing under his breath.

“You won’t die on me yet, maggot.” He touched his hand to Roark’s brow and let some of his life force flow into the mortally wounded man, though it weakened him alarmingly. Roark’s eyes flew open in sudden agony.

“You’ll tell me what I want to know,” Lynch said. “Or I’ll keep you just barely alive until you starve to death.”

He slid three of his fingers through the cut into Roark’s stomach.

“Sweet Mother of God!” Roark whimpered.

“Tell me,” Lynch demanded.

“The magii’ri.” he blurted. “Elander called on the magii’ri. I’m magii’ri. The Gray Hunters are comin’ for you. Please god, just let me go.”

Lynch released his hold on the smaller man and suddenly stood. So King Elander the Good had called on the magii’ri, the race of Warriors and Wizards chosen by the gods themselves to uphold their laws. He was in the big time now. The Gray Hunters were the most ruthless mercenaries in the World. His thoughts were interrupted by a sound from Roark.

“Who are you?” the dying man croaked.

Lynch grinned. “You don’t give up, do you?”

“I’m dyin’. What difference would it make?” Roark begged.

Lynch sat behind the smaller man and almost lovingly took his head in his hands.

“Exactly. You’re dying. Why should I tell you?”

As the moon rose, he casually broke Roark’s neck and held the smaller man’s head to his chest much as one would comfort a restless child, until he quit struggling. Lynch sat there until the last vestige of sunlight disappeared  and under the full light of the moon he sliced open Roark’s chest and removed his heart. He muttered the necessary words, and

while the pale stars winked at him from the distant heavens, Lynch ate it.

He awoke later beside the burned out ashes of his campfire and sat shivering in his bedroll. The light of the moon reflected off the stark whiteness of the snow covered tundra to give the landscape a surreal glow. Branches extending from fir trees became the

curved claws of Dragons, and distant clumps of oakbrush seemed to shift position like a pack of wolves closing in on their prey. Lynch blinked his weary eyes. The chase had taken much out of him, physically and emotionally. The ritual at the end of it was designed to replenish his strength and make him even more powerful than before, but he didn’t feel it. As a matter of fact, he felt strangely diminished. His mind was fuzzy and he found it difficult to think clearly. Things he had known for a hundred years eluded him now. He wondered for a moment if eating the heart of the fallen magii’ri Warrior had the opposite effect of what was intended, and even now he felt that his power was draining out of him and he had no way to stem the flow. The moonlight paled noticeably, and Lynch cast a curious eye heavenward. The night was still cloudless and nothing obstructed the moon, but the darkness grew more oppressive by the minute.

Lynch grudgingly shrugged out of his blankets and rose to gather fuel. The frigid night air hit him like a solid wall and he cursed through his clenched teeth. The truth was he was tired. He couldn’t argue that. He was tired of running, tired of scheming, and goddamned tired of freezing his ass off on that godforsaken frozen plain. And, he thought, maybe that bullet had scrambled his brains a bit. He laid the wood in a haphazard formation and stirred up the coals under it. As he did, a shadow swept over him, and he froze. His eyes darted from side to side, but he saw nothing. He casually stretched and glanced overhead. A whisper of a shape floated across the face of the moon, and he relaxed.

Smoke rose from the pile of wood while Lynch waited impatiently for it to catch. He huddled back under his bedroll. He needed to make water, but he was loathe to leave the warmth of his blankets again. He wanted to be gone from this place, back to a city, any city, where he could have a hot bath, a hotter woman and a meal he didn’t have to cook himself. A bed would be nice too, he thought, maybe with two or three women to keep him company. Another shadow flickered over him, and Lynch distinctly felt a light whiff of displaced air. The fir branches didn’t stir. He leaned forward and blew on the embers of the fire. He could strike it with magic, but that would drain the strength he was only gradually rebuilding. A guttural croak made him lurch to his feet and unsheathe his long sword.

Just a raven, he thought. But it was still hours until dawn, and whatever made that noise had sounded bigger. A whole lot bigger. He turned a slow circle and scanned the sky. Just as he had begun to chide himself for behaving like a schoolgirl his survival instinct kicked in once again. He dropped on the hard packed snow and rolled, then thrust his sword upward as the moon was blotted out by a triangular shape at least a dozen feet across. The shocked Wizard slashed at the black shape and felt the jar of steel against bone and sinew, and warm black blood rained down upon him. The creature above him bellowed in pain as it swooped skyward, then faltered and dropped a hundred yards out in the clearing. Lynch didn’t bother lunging to his feet. He simply rolled through the snow and frantically hurled a spell at his smoldering fire. It burst into flames as more than a dozen of the hovering creatures squawked in alarm and rose, wings flapping, into the night sky.

Lynch expelled a great sigh of relief, but his relief was short lived when the creature he had wounded advanced upon the camp. The Wizard grabbed a pine knot and commanded it to burst into flame, then held his flaming torch aloft. The beast hissed in alarm and backed out of the circle of light thrown by the torch. The beast was careful to stay well out of the light, and all Lynch could see was the gleam of light reflected in its eyes. His fear was rapidly being replaced by a deep, burning, unreasonable anger, and when he was enveloped in the throes of such a mood the Wizard Lynch was a formidable adversary. His lips curled in an answering snarl each time the beast hissed at him.

Lynch thrust the torch at the beast and it hissed loudly and jumped back. As it did, a gout of fresh blood erupted from the wound in its chest, leaving an obscene trail in the virgin snow. The beast was weakening and Lynch’s desire for retribution was strong, but he felt exposed when he gauged the distance to his fire. He retreated, and the beast sank down in the snow. Lynch dragged a good sized log back to his camp site, all the while swiveling his head around to keep watch.

He built up a roaring fire, and watched as the wounded beast dragged itself farther out into the deeper darkness. It was barely visible in the fading moonlight, and Lynch watched it closely. He sat down on his bedroll and raised his shaking hands in front of his face, then laughed and lowered them to his knees. His laughter died on his lips seconds later when more of the beasts began dropping from the night sky. The night was filled with the whistling of wings and the guttural calls of the beasts. But they did not attack.   Instead they advanced upon the wounded beast. It heaved to its feet then promptly fell over. The others rushed it, and in seconds the night air was filled with a hideous crunching sound accompanied by growls and shrieks of rage as the hapless wounded beast was devoured by his comrades. Some devilish vagary would occasionally cause the firelight to flicker brighter, and one or the other of the beasts would raise a bloody snout to glare with red eyes in Lynch’s direction before it lowered its head to resume feeding. Lynch gritted his teeth and settled in for a long night.

He held his sword at the ready position with both hands while the beasts enjoyed their grisly meal. After the initial rush of adrenaline subsided, Lynch analyzed his situation. He was utterly alone, thanks to the relentless pursuit of Ned Roark, hundreds of miles from another human being. And even if he had stumbled onto other people, it was highly doubtful they would help him. He actually wasn’t sure he would , or even could ask for help. Not after the way he had lived his life. He also had no idea what kind of adversary he faced. They were nameless, faceless predators that dropped from the sky, but he knew that he should be able to identify them. He wracked his brain and several times felt that he had the answer on the tip of his tongue, only to forget it again.

Lynch chuckled. The sounds of the feeding frenzy stopped briefly, then immediately resumed.

“Out of the frying pan,” Lynch whispered and chuckled again.

What the Hell, he mused. He had no one else to blame for the position he was in. He had gotten sloppy, that was when Ned Roark picked up his trail and he couldn’t give him the slip. He had also become greedy, and that was when he decided to absorb the strength of Roark’s spirit instead of just killing him. It was a mistake he didn’t intend to repeat. The next time he would kill anyone who came hunting him at the first opportunity that presented itself, and if the opportunity was right, he’d perform the ritual. Otherwise he’d just have to be content with killing them. But he had to find a way out of his present situation first.

One of the beasts abruptly wheeled away from his dinner and stalked gracefully around the perimeter of Lynch’s camp. It was careful to stay out of the light, following the edge of light like a physical boundary. In moments it was joined by several others. Lynch lunged to his feet and clutched his sword with whitening knuckles. He turned a slow semicircle in time with the dim shadows that circled his camp, waiting for an attack. It became quite obvious the beasts would not penetrate the circle of light that ringed his camp. At least not just yet.

Lynch grinned, and it was a frightening, inhuman sight. They thought he was helpless. They thought he would cower in fear until they chose to attack. They had no idea what kind of enemy the Dark Wizard Lynch could be.

With an inarticulate battle cry bursting from his lips Lynch shrugged out of his duster and charged across the barren snow. The beasts looked stupidly at the man running across the snow as if they couldn’t comprehend being attacked by such an insignificant creature. Lynch bared his teeth and delivered a vicious backhanded blow with his sword that completely severed the wing of the first beast he encountered. A guttural croak burst from its jaws as it fell sideways, vainly flapping its one remaining wing. Those closest to it dove upon it, driven by mindless bloodlust. Lynch spun and drove his blade upwards into the throat of the next beast. He wrenched the blade free with a loud grunt, then suddenly dove to the ground and rolled to avoid the wide open jaws of one of the recovering beasts. It drove its pointy snout into the snow, milliseconds behind the frantically rolling Wizard. He sensed a slight hesitation in the attack and thrust his sword skyward just in time to drive it into the beast’s open mouth and out the back of its skull. His sword was wrenched from his hands when the beast reared up on its hind legs.

“Oh, shit,” Lynch whispered.

Once again he lunged to his feet and sprinted back towards his fire. One of the enraged beasts lurched after him, then recoiled with a bellow of pain as he neared the fire. The skin on the beast’s face and neck shriveled and blistered from the light of the fire and it fell backwards into the snow.  Lynch dropped to the snow next to his fire and rolled onto his back, steam billowing from his open mouth. The blood was singing in his ears and a strange exhilaration filled his being. His insane laughter echoed from the scrubby trees. He rolled to his hands and knees and tried to catch his breath as another paroxysm of laughter shook his body. Lynch slowly regained control of himself as he felt what little strength he had left seeping from his body. He collapsed into his blankets and lay there shivering through the remainder of the night while the surviving creatures devoured their fallen brothers.

The flock of bloodthirsty beasts took to the air and circled once then flew to the west before the first rays of light brightened the east. Lynch sat huddled in his blankets, bleary eyed from fatigue and with a massive headache pounding his temples. He forced his tired brain to function. What were they? Where did they come from? In all his many years, Lynch had never even heard of such a creature. Or had he? He did know what they were, he just couldn’t place it. So why did they surface now? To harass him? Or was he just a target of opportunity? Deep inside he knew that he should know those things, but it felt like pieces of him were missing.

He fashioned a bowl from green bark and scooped up snow to melt for tea. While the snow melted he walked out to examine the remains of the beasts. The hair on the back of his neck stood up and gooseflesh rose on his arms as he neared the kill site. Bits of leather-like skin were scattered about and a few fragments of bone protruded through the snow. The trampled snow was a deep, oily black. The carnage at the kill site was even more complete than he had imagined. The only remains of the beasts were the skulls and the backbones. He paced from one end of a carcass to the other. From head to tail, it had been over ten feet long.

Lynch retrieved his sword and wheeled around to return to his camp, but before he had gone two steps he reversed his course, dropped his breeches and urinated on the remains. Only then did he return to his fire. He hastily gulped his hot tea and squandered more of his magical energy conjuring up a spell for endurance. He wanted to get as far away as possible before nightfall. As he packed up his meager camp, the gleam of his captured long rifle caught his eye. Ned Roark’s rifle, crafted for the Gray Hunters by the most skilled craftsmen in the World. He thoughtfully hefted it then reluctantly wedged it in the crotch of a tree with a scrap of fur concealing it. It was a beautiful weapon, but totally useless without powder and lead. He had neither, and in all his years of searching he had not found the formula to make gunpowder. He was nothing, if not practical. He took only what he had to have to survive and abandoned the rest.

Lynch walked directly towards the south. Early in the morning he fought the urge to break into a run, but by noon he no longer had the strength to either run or fight the crazy urge to do so that still lay within his mind. He slogged along through the snow in a dazed state, shedding layers of clothing as the day grew warmer and sweat beaded his brow. He stopped often to drink from his waterskin and to fish out another piece of dried meat to chew on. An hour before dusk he was thoroughly exhausted.

As he gathered fuel for a long night, he calculated the distance he had walked that day, and figured he had walked roughly fifteen miles. Fifteen miles! Gliding along on the air currents the bloody beasts could travel that distance in less than an hour! Anger flared up within him, and when had unloaded his last armful of firewood he made one more trip into the densest forest to gather ten long, slender poles. He built up his fire and sharpened one end of the poles, then tied a crosspiece on each end to make a picket. He laid the pickets in the snow and tied a long length of rope to each then counter weighted them with a log suspended from a nearby tree. When he tripped it, the pickets would rise to a forty five degree angle. They could harass him and keep him from sleep, but it would cost them!

At midnight Lynch sat morosely brooding in his blankets, adding wood to the fire at regular intervals. His supper of a thin soup made with dried meat sat soddenly in his stomach like a lump of uncooked dough. He longed for a thick juicy steak, piled high with steaming mushrooms and sweet potatoes with a hot apple pie for dessert. A sudden spurt of saliva erupted in his mouth, and he slammed his tin cup down in frustration. How in the Hell had he gotten himself into this mess? He sighed. He had chosen his path five centuries ago. As a youth he had longed for eternal life, to drink in the pleasures of the flesh while his peers withered and faded away.  And his wish had been granted, but at a terrible price. The sensations he had experienced, the tastes of life he had indulged in, were all addictive and he longed for more until it consumed him. His life had become a rat chasing its tail. His tastes grew more exotic, his demands more extreme with each passing decade. And no matter how much he indulged, he always wanted more. He laughed bitterly. How ironic was it that he, Lynch, now sat in a goddamned snow bank and yearned for something as mundane as a hot meal?

The next thing he knew he was lying face down in the snow with a ringing in his ears and something warm and sticky running down his neck. His head buzzed and his vision blurred. The bastards were back! Then it hit him. They were losing their fear of fire. Rage flowed through him.

“You sons of bitches! You want some of me? Come on then!” He leaped to his feet and found his counter weight ropes.

“Come on,” he said under his breath. “Come on back for another piece of ol’ Lynch.”

He searched the night sky, and finally saw a few flickering shadows wheeling and darting among the stars. Several of them split off from the group and headed his way.

“That’s it,” he pleaded. “Just keep coming…a little farther. A little more…come on.”

Two were gliding in on a perfect plane. Lynch grinned. This was better than a goddamned steak! He gauged the distance and released the counter weights. His first picket slammed into position and Lynch actually laughed with glee as the beasts flared their wings in a vain attempt to stop.  Both impaled themselves as they went down squawking amid the sound of splintering wood and thrashing wings.  The points of the pickets penetrated the beasts completely as their struggles destroyed Lynch’s newest weapon and they wheeled away from each other, biting futilely at the main beams which still protruded from their chests. They turned on each other in their agony, and with each graceful dip of their slender necks blood spurted from a newly opened wound. Lynch watched eagerly until neither beast moved any longer. Only then did he allow himself to explore the wound on the back of his head with trembling fingers, and he still kept a wary eye out for more attackers. He found a goose egg the size of his fist and a three inch gash which still oozed blood. No matter, he thought. He’d bagged two more of the bastards. A little blood was a small price to pay.

As before, the remaining creatures circled like vultures, then spiraled down to feast on their comrades. Lynch thought briefly of slipping away while they fed, but as soon as he stepped out of the circle of firelight one of the beasts hopped into the air and circled that side of his camp. He hastily stepped back into the light. So, he thought, they are intelligent, at least to some degree. That revelation did nothing to improve his mood. Lynch spent yet another sleepless night mentally sorting through all the creatures he had heard of in reality and in myth. His thoughts were accompanied by the hideous crunching, tearing sounds as the beasts polished off their fallen comrades. Dragons? No, not dragons. Not gryphons, either. Giant bats? Maybe, but still not quite.

     He felt that the answer was right on the tip of his brain, but just out of reach. And even as hardened as he was, Lynch had no desire to delve too deeply into that convoluted mass. What he needed, he finally decided as dawn streaked the eastern sky, was a library. Too bad there was no such thing within a thousand miles. Nearly delirious from lack of sleep, Lynch laughed at that until tears rolled down his cheeks. The beasts glared at him one last time and he thrust his middle finger skyward in a timeless gesture of contempt. The beasts flew back toward the west. He broke camp and staggered off to the south

By midday the snow was noticeably shallower, and the air held a hint of warmth. But Lynch knew his progress was pitifully slow. The melting snow sucked at his booted feet and sapped his energy even faster than before. He had to rest. Rest, or go mad from sleep deprivation. His mind wandered. Once, in a different time, he had seen a man go nearly mad from lack of sleep. The men of that time traveled impossible distances in horseless carriages and guns and ammunition were commonplace. There were Demons there, but most of the people walked with blank faces, unaware of the evil that ran rampant right under their noses. Unaware, or maybe they just didn’t care.  Demons of a different sort than those he now faced, and they made his own skill at starting trouble pale by comparison. He chuckled. At least these Demons attacked a man face to face. They didn’t hide behind catchy slogans or false promises. With a start he realized he was sitting on a snow free boulder warmed by the spring sun which had just reached its zenith. He built a fire and banked it with a huge fallen log, so big he could barely roll it into the fire. Then he slept.

He slept hard, so deep in slumber a passerby might have thought him dead. The chill of the evening awoke him, and he huddled deeper into his blankets. Then he bolted upright. Sundown. Dark. The Slayers would be back. His fire still smoldered, and he piled smaller branches on it until it crackled and roared. The sleep had done him good, but he felt logy and a headache settled in at the base of his skull.

Wait just one goddamned second. The Slayers. He knew what they were. He had no idea how he knew, but he did know. He involuntarily thought back to the other time, the time which he didn’t know was coming or had already passed. That man, the one he had watched go crazy from lack of sleep, had told him many things. He wasn’t actually supposed to talk to anyone, but Lynch had never been one to respect another’s rules. The man was already twitchy by that time. The slightest noise would cause him to lurch around and stare with bleary eyes. Finally he had just laid down and couldn’t be roused. Lynch wondered absently if he had died like that. What had amazed Lynch then and now was that the man knew him. He shook himself. What the Hell was he thinking?

He faded away again, and when his senses returned it was dark. His befuddled brain took that in and processed it. He forced himself to concentrate. He needed sleep, which he would never get at night. The solution, therefore, was to travel at night with the protection of a torch, as long as that lasted, and sleep during the day.  He would regain his strength, and with his strength he would regain his power. And when he had regained his full power, nothing could stand in his way.

He clambered to his feet and found a couple of solid pine knots. He lit one from the fire and resolutely started out again, leaving the fire burning.  Perhaps, he thought hopefully, the Slayers would be attracted to the firelight like moths. But that hope was dashed when he heard the telltale whistling of wings in the air above him. Panic rose within him, but he choked it down and forced himself to hold his course towards the south. But he had only gone perhaps a mile when he heard the rushing of wings and a light breeze ruffled his hair. He involuntarily ducked his head, and the bulk of the beast whooshed over him. He quickened his pace, and another beast dived on him, so close he could feel the heat of its body and smell the fetid odor of decay that clung to its leathery hide.

Lynch broke into a trot, holding his torch high like one of the champions he had heard of from yet another time. His breath came in gasps and sweat plastered his clothes to his body. It was an impossible pace to maintain, yet the beasts easily kept up. Another one dived for him and clipped the torch with its talons. It squawked in pain and rose again, but Lynch could sense that it was not seriously cowed by the flames.  His legs were filled with molten lead and his lungs burned with each labored breath. The words sprang to his lips without conscious thought, and Lynch muttered them, even if it be the death of him. The power of the Dark Magic exploded within him as another tiny part of him died with it.

Strength radiated out to his extremities, and the burning in his chest was quenched. His legs pumped like twin pistons, spraying mud and snow behind him. Conscious thought deserted him. He was a machine, fueled by Dark Magic. His eyes noted when the scrub brush turned into dwarf trees and his brain processed the information, but it meant nothing. He heard the beasts crashing through the uppermost branches and sensed their anger, but still his legs beat their staccato rhythm. The whistling of their wings became fainter as they gained altitude to clear the trees, and still Lynch ran on. He ran on long after a mortal man would have crashed to the ground, vomiting blood, with his muscles twitching in death throes.  Exposed roots clawed at him, rocks sliced his boots to shreds and low lying branches whipped across his face. He ran on all through that hellish night and was totally unaware when the dwarf trees slowly gave way to the towering pines and firs of a black timber forest. Finally, as morning approached, Lynch became slightly aware again. The next thing he knew, he was falling.

He awoke with a ringing in his ears and the brassy taste of blood in his mouth, lying face down on a bed of springy moss that smelled faintly of mold. He tested each of his extremities with a groan of pain and found that he could still move, but his muscles ached with a frightening intensity. Lynch groaned loudly and rolled over. Far above him there was a small square shaft of light. Where the Hell was he? He closed his eyes and tried to remember.

He remembered running like he had never run before, farther and faster than any mortal. And he remembered falling. He sat up and looked around him. He had been running from something totally unnatural, something so fierce it defied description and even now dread ran fingers of ice along his backbone. Then it came back to him. He remembered falling, and thinking at the last second that he was about to die a disgraceful death in some accident that wouldn’t even be discovered for a thousand years.  Then he had struck something which yielded to his weight. There had been the shrieking of a rusty pulley, his descent had slowed, then he had crashed to the ground and everything went black. He stared at the shattered remnants of a hand elevator scattered around him. One beam was still securely tied to a tattered hemp rope. He looked upward again. Impossible. It was at least three hundred feet down. A pebble struck his shoulder, and dust wafted down the shaft.

Lynch felt his breath catch in his throat. They were there, and they knew where he was. A faintly familiar, guttural croaking sound echoed down the shaft accompanied by an eager whine. The scrabbling, grating sounds of steel hard claws on solid rock supported his sudden fear. They were trying to dig into the shaft.

He had once considered himself nearly fearless and superior to anything he might encounter. But now his self confidence was shattered and his amazing ego lay in tatters. He had never encountered anything like the beasts that trailed him. They were totally unrelenting, nearly without fear, and savagely skilled at destruction. Lynch grinned. They were kind of like him. He groaned loudly and stood up. He had one thing in his favor. They had no idea who they were messing with.

Lynch studied the opening in the shaft and gauged it against the outlines of the writhing bodies of the beasts as they tried to dig in. He estimated they would have to double the size of the shaft before they could resume their hunt. Claws and teeth against solid rock. He had some time, now he needed distance.

The first few steps were exquisite agony, and Lynch made a mental note of it to apply that principle to his own keen interest in torture. He found one of his torches where it had landed after the flight down the shaft and cast an illumination spell. Even that effort left him winded, and Lynch once again felt the thrill of fear. His power was nearly exhausted.

“This may be the end of the road, old boy,” he muttered half aloud. “What a waste. What a colossal fucking waste!” He clenched his fists in impotent rage.

He was close, so tantalizingly close, to the crowning glory of centuries of destruction. All of his plans were coming together, his allies were firmly in place and growing in power. He had spent hundreds of years honing his own skills just for the moment nearly at hand, and it was going to be spoiled by a handful of brainless creatures driven solely by instinct and bloodlust. Kind of like some people he had known.  Lynch giggled. Dammit, I’m going loopy, he thought.

A larger fragment of rock struck the floor of the cavern with a dull thump. Lynch stared dully at the dark shapes of the beasts as they busily enlarged the opening into his hole. Why had his plans unraveled? It was so hard to think! A name kept floating about just out of reach. Then he had it. It was because of…Roark. Ned Roark. Before that, everything had been fine.

“Well, Mr. Ned Roark,” he exclaimed into the gloom. “You are going to pay for this. Or did you already? No matter. I’m going to hunt down your entire family, no, I’m going to hunt down every single person you ever associated with and wipe them off the face of the World. That, Mr. Ned Roark, is a promise!”

Lynch smoothed down his hair, straightened his disheveled clothes, and resolutely walked into the overpowering darkness. As he stumbled along, he focused on one thing. Roark.  He had no way of knowing that, far above him, the light of the moon was steadily growing dimmer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Categories: Fantasy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Chapter Reveal: Kings or Pawns (Steps of Power, The Kings: Book I), by J.J. Sherwood

KingsorPawnscoverSMmTitle: Kings or Pawns (Steps of Power, The Kings: Book I)

Genre: Fantasy

Author: J.J. Sherwood

Website: www.StepsofPower.com

Publisher: Silver Helm

Purchase at Amazon

Kings or Pawns is the first novel in the Steps of Power series. It takes place after two very significant events in the world—the continental division between the human and elven races after the betrayal and death of Aersadore’s hero, Eraydon, and the recent Royal Schism that has left the elven nation’s politics even more corrupted than was prior. The new elven king, Hairem, is determined to overcome the council’s corruption and restore the elven lands, but he has far more to contend with than just the politics within the capital: an assassin has begun killing those loyal to him, a rebelling warlord threatens the city from without, and an unknown beast devastates the king’s forces at every turn. There are multiple points of view—the youthful and naïve king Hairem; the mute and spunky servant girl, Alvena; the mysterious and arrogant foreigner, Sellemar; and the cynical, dry-humored General Jikun.

Chapter One

Seven hundred forty-five hard fought days and seven hundred forty-four miserable nights they had borne to return to this place. Now the sun that arose from the horizon was more vivid and welcoming than any sunrise Jikun had seen on any day before. The sky was golden, radiating a warmth of color that cut through the cold spring morning fog like a blade. The ancient trees that lined the wide dirt road and covered the surrounding landscape shook off little drops of water as a fragrant breeze gently wove toward the elves’ greatest city on Sevrigel: Elvorium, the seat of the Council of Elves.

“Forgive my cliché, but isn’t that a sight for sore eyes?” grinned his captain. “The gods certainly know how to remind you of what you are fighting for, do they not, General?”

“That they do, Navon,” Jikun inhaled deeply. Even the stench of blood and rotting leather from one hundred fifty thousand soldiers could not conceal the pleasant aromas twisting their way toward him from across the canyon: at long last, through the final trees skirting the edge of the forest behind him, Jikun’s eyes could see the breadth of the Sel’varian city, plainly visible in the center of the cliff side that jutted out into a “V” shape over the canyon. At the end of the precipice, settled between two rivers that cascaded over the edge of the cliff, was the palace of the king.

A roar of relief and excitement arose from behind the general and his captain. Several helmets dared sail past the two, ringing as they bounced off the stone bridge before them to drop like stones into the canyon below.

“Hold onto your possessions!” General Jikun roared, turning in his saddle. “The next elf who acts like a god damn human will be stripped naked and paraded through the streets with the horses!”

The clamor quieted and Jikun turned back to Navon with a thin smile etched across his lips.

Although it was a far cry from home, he had to admit that he too was glad to return to the capital.

“Don’t make indecent threats lightly; the troops take you quite seriously,” his captain rebuked him with all the airs of a typical Sel’ven. Jikun considered it ill-suiting, as the captain had not a drop of Sel’varian blood in his body. Which was a relief for him amongst his troops.

“I was entirely serious, Navon.”

Jikun nudged his horse forward across the stone bridge that stretched over the vast ravine. The structure was a marvel of Sel’varian engineering, architecture, and magic, hardly comparable to the other elven races’ ability to design. Extending at a great expanse, the bridge was held in place by curved stone pillars mounted to the cliff side and supported by magic. The columned archway and railing across the bridge were intricately detailed, but more than being merely an adornment, they helped to shield travelers from the sudden canyon gusts that could catch a passerby off-guard.

Jikun had, on more than one occasion, imagined himself lurching over the side to an inescapable death and now found himself wondering if the archway and railing had been part of the original concept, or if they had been added later after some visiting merchant had met his doom. But of course, the Sel’vi would never admit to such a design mistake. Perhaps this was why a score of houses still spotted the canyon face below the palace where they would one day, inevitably, fall away beneath the erosion of the stone and send their poor, but foolish, inhabitants several leagues downward. During which they would hopefully have sufficient time to contemplate their poor life choices.

Jikun stiffened and edged his horse to the center of the bridge. This bridge, like the one on the opposite end of the canyon, led into the south and north ends of the city respectively. With the east end of the city banked by an enormous lake, the bridges were the primary entry points into the city. And all the elven magic in Aersadore could not comfort him when marching several hundred thousand bodies across its lengthy structure.

The horses whinnied faintly as though sharing mutually in Jikun’s dislike for this final stretch of their journey. He reached forward, patting his mare softly on the neck. Perhaps even she recognized the sight up ahead. At the bend in the bridge just before them, he could see the city’s gateway swung open wide and hear a roar of triumph and praise erupt from the guards at their posts. The salutary trumpet blasts seemed to have already been announced and Jikun imagined the waiting elves had let them loose when the watch had first seen his army rising across the west bank’s hillsides. Jikun pulled to the center of the bridge as Navon respectfully withdrew behind him.

‘What I wouldn’t give to skip this drivel of politics and charades and take a damn hot bath,’ Jikun muttered to himself as the bridge seemed to lengthen around the bend. He glanced once over the marble side—it had been over two years since he had last seen its depths; it still made his stomach drop like a stone. Far below them was a large forest, heavily shrouded in the center by the thick rolls of mist running off from the waterfalls pouring toward a lake below. From this lake, a thin river, banked on either side by a narrow field, wound its way into the distance, away to the Noc’olari or Ruljen ethnicities in the northeast.

Jikun’s head snapped back up in unease and he directed his attention instead to the first male at the gate.

“Congratulations, General, on yet another victory!” the captain of the city guard greeted as Jikun passed underneath the archway and onto the safety of the cobbled streets of the city. “His Majesty awaits you at the palace.”

Jikun nodded his head once toward the guard and pressed onward, eyes sweeping the streets of Elvorium. The gold-slated rooftops glimmered in the light of dawn and the long shadows across Mehuim Way crept up the cream faces of the buildings tinted with an orange glow. All along the street sides and hanging from windows were countless elves tossing flowers, shouting praise, and glowing with smiles. Despite having been awoken before the dawn by the welcoming trumpet calls that had saluted his troops’ approach, the Sel’vi were beaming with neatly braided hair and broadening smiles, as though they had long been awaiting this day.

But Jikun imagined they didn’t even remember what he was fighting for. It was simply the “victory” itself that had driven them to patriotism.

The street curved gently toward the entrance of the palace. Even as Jikun was lavished with shouts of praise and welcome, it seemed but a short march down its way before he and his soldiers passed beneath a flower-laden archway and stepped into the presence of several scores of elves.

Here, the mood shifted palpably. The elves waiting before the palace were taciturn and silent, bestowing no salute or praise onto the defenders of Sevrigel. Their lack of response was contagious, spreading like the Cadorian Plague through the troops and into the city beyond. Jikun’s face grew stoic, the joyous welcome forgotten. Even the naivety of praise and victory was preferred over the stiff bastards that delayed his hot bath now.

These males before him were guards, council members, and a large portion of the nobility. However, despite the conspicuous splendor of the surrounding elves, the most prominent figure stood at the forefront: Hairem, Prince of Elvorium and the Sel’vi, second of non-royal blood since the Royal Schism.

As the army fanned out behind Jikun, the crowd before him, with the exception of the prince, went down to one knee.

This gesture was a long-established practice, and Jikun doubted that he and his army would have been shown the same respect were not the Sel’vi pedants for tradition. Pedant was, without a doubt, the most accurate and all-encompassing word he could ascribe to that breed of elves. The council members were pridefully stiff in their bows, eyes never fully lowering to the earth. Their guards, though more sincere in their respect, were nonetheless all too quick to their feet.

‘I’d like to see you leave your homes to lead a war. Then we’d see how your respect rises,’ Jikun reflected sourly in response, though his expression remained carefully detached.

He was not a Sel’ven and it was perhaps this fact that led him to regard their actions with an extra tinge of cynicism. He was from the far north—the frozen lands of Darival, land of the Lithri and Darivalians. Though his army was diverse in the race of elves it had deployed, now in Elvorium he felt out of place, as his appearance clearly spoke that he was a foreigner. His hair was a blue tinted silver, like the mountains that framed Darival. His skin was a grey-white, like shadows banking the snow. And although he was tall and slender like his Sel’varian brethren, his facial features were stronger and sharper—like a sculpture chiseled from ice.

Jikun knew there was one other of his kind amongst the group before him, but he could not spot the council member’s presence amongst the crowd. He wove his hand once into the air and heard his fellow riders obediently dismount to the smooth cobbled stones. He swung himself lightly from the saddle and dropped the reins at his side.

There was a sudden eruption of murmuring from the council members. When he twisted from his horse to look, surprise rooted him in place. Hairem, prince of the Sel’vi, knelt on one knee before the army, his symbolic sword scraping carelessly across the ground beside him as though he was blind to all but the triumphant troops.

Non-royal blood or not, the gesture caught Jikun by surprise as well. Though he had not lived amongst the Sel’vi for long, he imagined that in the history of their proud nation, no ruler had gone on bended knee before any male or female of lower rank. And for all purposes of tradition, as far as the elves were concerned, Hairem was as royal as the True Bloods of The Royal Schism three centuries before. Attesting to this were the wide-eyed council members, mouths agape between murmurs as they stared in shock toward the scandalous behavior.

‘Now what am I supposed to do?’ Jikun regarded Hairem with a knit brow and slightly parted lips, then glanced in the direction of his Helvarian captain, hoping Navon would have a notion of the most appropriate response.

His captain responded with an equally bewildered look and glanced about himself, seeming to hope the answer would materialize from the crowd.

‘He has no idea…’

      Yet Navon’s eyes flicked back to the prince and he seemed to gather himself enough to move; he slowly went down to a knee before the male. In a wave, the army followed.

Jikun placed a hand to his breast and bowed low, eyes never leaving Hairem. He had been on his knees for the prince’s father for two and a half years: a bow was more than sufficient.

It was only when the army had returned the gesture of respect did the prince stand, raising his head sharply and drawing himself up before the army. He was young, but his blue eyes were cold and hard. His long, golden hair was loosely braided back and thin strands buffeted his face in the sharp gusts of wind coming in from the east. Raising his hands in welcome, Prince Hairem spoke formally, “Sevrigel owes you her gratitude for yet another successful war against Saebellus. Without doubt, you and your army are road weary, but I must detain you for a moment longer. Come, General, we have matters to discuss.” And with that, he turned in a sweeping motion, his golden cape billowing out and catching the wind, and stepped away to the palace beyond the crowd.

Jikun heaved an inward sigh, though a report to the king was expected. ‘Gods I just want a damn bath.’ He handed the reins of his horse to Navon and his captain passed him as subtle a rebuke as he could manage.

Was his impatience that apparent?

No, Navon just knew him too well.

Jikun left his army behind as he followed Hairem through the parting cluster of council members and guards. He could see their lips move slightly as they leaned in to one another, losing no time to gossip about what had taken place. Jikun focused back ahead in time to catch the end of the prince’s cape vanishing around the corner. He quickened his pace and strode free of the crowd, mindfully aware of the seething mass of hypocritical politicians he had just stepped through. At least it was to King Liadeltris that he reported.

“Keep up, General Taemrin,” the prince beckoned as he swept around another bend and stepped in through a side door of the palace.

Jikun glanced once behind him and his brow knit. Was this the usual way toward the king? It had been a few years since he had set foot inside the palace. They moved down a steeply sloped, mildly ornate hallway to a large, arched doorway.

Here the prince stopped, propping the door open with his foot, and leaned in toward a nearby shelf.

It took Jikun a moment to gather his surroundings: soft blue light from the orb bobbing near the ceiling, gleaming rows of mildly dusty glass, wooden racks that tucked their contents snuggly in carefully carved bowels. He looked about the cellar in bewilderment. Surely the prince was not above calling upon servants to do these tasks.

“Your Highness, would you like—” Jikun began.

“No, almost have it,” the prince grunted. “Ah, there we go. Is Eastern Glades a satisfactory vintage? Well, I certainly hope so as it appears to be the best bottle in here.” He patted the dust from the side with a cough.

Jikun held the door open as the prince tucked the bottle beneath his arm in order to pick up and examine two glasses. Appearing satisfied, he passed the Darivalian without so much as a glance and staunchly strode back up the way they had come. And further still, up a staircase divided by many levels of open rooms, all of which were empty and lit only for the sake of appearance. Here, the palace’s grandeur reached the obscene—it was as though all the gold and jewels of the kingdom had been inlaid into every facet of every surface. The highest room, and one of two private council chambers of the king, was their final destination.

This room, unlike many of the others, was designed to give the appearance of a vast and heavily used study, but the dust about the room was almost tangible—as though the place had not been touched since the Royal Schism.

Prince Hairem set the glasses and bottle casually in the center of the desk, striding toward the king’s chair.

“Will His Majesty be joining us this morning?” Jikun inquired as he gave the lavish room a quick, distasteful glance. He heard the guards outside close the door softly behind them. Jikun’s brow knit as he eyed the wine that the prince uncorked.

“Your failure to receive our dove makes me wonder who did.” Hairem paused a moment, staring briefly—blankly—at the glass bottle. “My father passed away thirteen days ago of an illness.”

Jikun’s eyes met those of the prince in shock. His lips parted, but he knew not what words he sought. ‘Liadeltris is dead…?’

As though reading his mind, the prince waved a slight hand as he pulled his heavy chair back with his free hand. “I need no words of your deepest sorrows to remind me of mine. I have seen one elf die in the last century and you have undoubtedly seen the passing of thousands in the last few weeks alone. To which of us goes the greater sorrow, I have no doubt. I have had the consolation of my city. I instead offer you my deepest condolences on your recent battles.” As he waited for Jikun to sit, the general could feel the king’s eyes searching his face for emotion.

He gave him none: neither for the late king nor his soldiers. He had indeed seen thousands die in the last weeks alone. And thousands before that. There was a certain numbness that was necessary to survive in times of war—Jikun had long since acquired it. “Thank you for your condolences. I shall pass your words along to my army.”

“And how are your soldiers?” the king inquired, taking a glass and filling it. He leaned forward and offered it to the general.

“…Thank you.” Jikun accepted it, swirling it with a gentle twist of his wrist. “My army is gratified to be serving its king,” he replied, trying to infuse some semblance of emotion into his voice. But that too had gotten lost beneath his mask.

The corners of Hairem’s lips twitched. “Jikun, I am not—may the gods grant him safe passage—my father. I intend to run this kingdom differently. First and foremost, I would request that, in matters of conversation, you treat me as your equal. It benefits neither of us to bear your polite cynicism.”

Jikun leaned back, taking a long sip of wine. He had to admit—he was intrigued by Hairem’s approach. That was twice today that the king had suggested that he was not like other nobility. “As you wish, Your Majesty,” he spoke after a moment’s hesitation, noting that Hairem shifted slightly at the retained title. “We are fatigued, but their spirits are high. Saebellus is a fierce opponent; his army fights with conviction and skill. Our victories have been hard fought and we have paid steeply. I return home with fifty thousand fewer soldiers than I set out with. Saebellus’ forces are wounded, but hardly defeated. And while we spill our blood for the sake of the kingdom, we hear rumors of unrest amongst the politicians… Some say that a peace treaty draws near.”

Hairem tilted his fair head back and laughed once, loudly and almost mockingly at the content of Jikun’s words. “A peace treaty? Let those that suggest it be branded as traitors. I assure you that the kingdom will never settle terms with Saebellus, General. You do not bleed in vain.” He stroked the corner of the desk, eyes hardening as though reflecting on his resolve.

Jikun wondered how strong it was. “Every battle we’ve engaged in has been in Saebellus’ favor. He knows we have the upper hand in numbers and so territory has been his strategy. He never allows us to engage him unless he has a way to flee after a defeat—and when he flees, he and his army simply vanish. And it’s not teleportation magic—no portals at all. Such magic leaves behind a distinct residue and none of my mages have ever found such a trace. Neither, would it seem, is Saebellus capable of using the magic to appear—I would imagine such an ability would have been used countless times for surprise attacks or motions to surround us in. We’re simply grabbing the lizard’s tail for now. But let me assure you, Your Majesty, that Saebellus will be defeated. Even the advantage of territory has won him no battles.”

Hairem nodded his admiration and gave a faint smile. With a slight raise of his glass, he spoke as though still attempting to reassure Jikun of the city’s tenacity. “You are an excellent general, Jikun. No doubt you and your army shall put an end to this war soon enough. Many in the city other than myself believe this as well.”

Jikun nodded his head, knowing it was with overconfidence that the elves placed their trust in Elvorium’s army. Yes, Saebellus had won no battles, but he was by no means defeated.  “Saebellus still retains control of the Beast…” he trailed off, grimacing at the shadow that loomed just outside his mind. These were the hardest words yet. Simply in speaking them, he felt he trod on the darker matters, taunting them to reveal themselves. Even after so many battles, its shape felt faint and distant—surreal in the midst of war. But how real it was. “We have had several battles with the creature and no magic or weapon seems capable of taking its life.”

Jikun saw Hairem’s lips purse into a hard, thin line as his fingers interlocked, but his eyes wavered. Perhaps it was fear that moved them.

As it should.

“Is there anything I can offer you that my father had not already given?” Hairem spoke after a moment’s deliberation.

Jikun exhaled. “Nothing that myself, my captain, or my lieutenants cannot conjure up on our own. I will let you know if matters change. We intend to stay in the city until we hear of Saebellus’ movement again. Those that have homes within the city shall go to them. The rest shall make an encampment outside the city to the north. The soldiers need to refresh their bodies as well as their minds. As for myself,” Jikun continued, leaning back into his chair, “I intend to return to Darival.”

Jikun could see Hairem’s lips part in hesitation, and then his eyes softened. He nodded his head once toward him. “I imagine it is about time you see your home again.”

“It’s been three years,” Jikun replied with a faint smile. “I would imagine so.”

Hairem set his glass down and absentmindedly straightened a stack of unruly papers beside his elbow. Jikun could judge, by the dates smudged along the upper corners, that they were far past their creators’ expected response time. “I was not privy to the extensive military campaign you have led against the rebel warlord. Your last battle was…?”

“Fifteen leagues north of Widows’ Peak. Saebellus fled into the mountains. He has several sorcerers in his ranks—one of which sent an avalanche behind him. We spent two weeks digging out our dead. I do not know where he plans to go from there. …I’m afraid there is little to tell. No cities have been conquered or besieged. Just dead elves and dead horses.” He raised his glass and again swirled the wine inside, ignoring the piece of dust floating at the top. He took a sip. “I assume under your reign my campaign against Saebellus may continue unchanged?”

Hairem nodded. “Yes, General. With, I hope, more fortune in the future.” He paused briefly. “What is your goal, General?”

Jikun blinked, his rigid composure thrown by the question. “My goal…? To fight the war. To win the war, of course.”

Hairem shook his head. “No, I meant after the war, when Saebellus is defeated—what is your ambition?”

Jikun felt the barriers inside himself rise; his face returned to its frigid countenance as memories of disconnected battles scattered the edges of his vision. He scowled inwardly, finding Hairem’s presumption offensively naïve. “You are assuming I live through it.”

Hairem opened his mouth and closed it, clearly discomforted by Jikun’s straightforward, if pessimistic, approach. “I am certain Sel’ari shall protect you for your loyalty and devotion to her people.”

Jikun raised his glass. “Indeed,” was the only monotonous response he could trust himself to offer. He took another sip before transitioning to the next “necessary” words in their political game. “What has taken place in the city while we were gone?” The words rolled off his tongue rather forcefully. It was difficult to put whatever bickering or vices the city suffered at any level of concern in his mind when placed in the perspective of his wars. But he nevertheless lowered his glass and met the eyes of the king with respectful attention.

“At home the council is scattering. When my father assumed kingship after the Royal Schism, it was due to his previous position as El’adorium that granted him the power and hold over the council. I, of course, have had no such experience. My father’s death has left them grasping for new loyalties and I’m afraid I will not be keeping all of them. I may need your help in the coming months.”

Jikun’s expression blanked for a moment even as his gut unsettled. “Help with what…?”

“I need to know that I have the support and protection of our military. It is not easy to pick up where my father left off and not expect things to change. I will have to upset the balance.”

Jikun felt uneasy at the suggestion, but he replied with no semblance of hesitation. “Of course, Your Majesty. The military’s first duty is to the king.”

“Thank you, General.” Hairem paused for a moment, face growing grim. “One of my most loyal council… Just three days before your arrival, the assassin struck within the city again…”

“Who was taken?” Jikun asked, leaning forward with unfiltered intrigue, his leather armor creaking softly in the heavy silence that had suddenly settled over the room.

“Lord Leisum Na’Hemel of Nostoran. Stabbed repeatedly in his bed while he slept. Only the maggots knew for the first two days.”

Jikun’s stomach lurched. Both hands tightened on the arms of his chair. Not at the thought of the mangled body or the feast of insects upon it, but at the thought of the Beast that reawakened at the back of his mind. Hairem had seen nothing of death. Of true slaughter. “How is this assassin being dealt with?” Jikun forced his mind back to the topic at hand. “City Guard? Night’s Watch? Mercenaries?”

“All of the above,” Hairem heaved a sigh. “It is the same killer—he leaves his victims’ arms crossed across their chests, like the worshipers of Asmodius do. Perhaps they are cultist killings…” He trailed off and Jikun scoffed to himself.

Cultist killings that only targeted council members? No. And he had no doubt the king knew better.

“But let us put this matter aside,” Hairem’s voice rose forcefully, snapping his attention to Jikun. “A great victory has been won against the rebel. You are a hero yet again, Jikun Taemrin. May Sel’ari and all the gods bless you in all of your future battles. For now, drink and rest.”

Jikun raised his glass in a due gesture of formality. “All glory and honor to your greatness.”

*

“Navon, my reins,” Jikun demanded as he neared his captain, the last figure that lingered by the palace’s side gates. He grabbed the saddle of his mare and hoisted himself up, jerking his horse around stiffly. “The king is dead, Navon.”

He knew the words would unsettle Navon as much as they unsettled himself and he could see the flicker of concern cross his captain’s face. “How?”

Jikun hesitated. Hairem had said it had been an illness, but in light of the recent string of assassinations he was not as ready to sentence the king to such a swift and sudden conclusion. And yet he buried his suspicions and replied, “Illness. It must have come rather suddenly.” His voice was stoic, but he knew Navon could read beneath his apathy.

Liadeltris had been a fierce king and opponent to Saebellus. It was common knowledge that Saebellus had been dishonorably discharged while serving as captain in the last war with the sirens, but no one knew why. Jikun had long since let the prodding curiosity subside when even Liadeltris had refused to shed light on the matter. But whatever the reason, it hardly mattered now. Saebellus had taken those loyal to him and turned on the elves’ empire.

Navon seemed to share his concern, but his tone revealed little else. “And the prince… king… what are your thoughts on him?”

“What?” Jikun looked up, still managing to catch the skepticism across the male’s face through his distraction. “I believe what he said. There will be no peace terms with Saebellus. In fact, I believe his eyes are open to the corruption of the council. And I think he has the stupidity to oppose it.”

“…but you are still concerned.”

Jikun’s brow knit. “Hairem is young. For all Liadeltris’—”

“May the gods grant him peace—”

“—experience, he still bent to the council’s pressure. Three hundred years as king, a dozen centuries as the El’adorium before that, and Liadeltris could not resist them. Once Hairem learns how the damn politics in this country go, I wonder just how strong he will remain.”

Navon gave a nod of reluctant agreement, eyes staring stoically ahead.

“Here is more news from home whilst we were away—”

“Something in your tone brings me to believe that I am not going to like what you are about to say…” Navon frowned, eyes flicking toward the general attentively.

“You remember the murders before we left? Another council member was assassinated.”

Navon’s eyes flashed in recognition, but the rest of his face remained apathetic. “He struck again?” He gave a heavy sigh, as though the capital should have done better to prevent such an atrocity. “No doubt the Night’s Watch will be far more numerous for some time now. It is unprecedented that an assassin has committed so many murders on high officials—within an elven capital, especially.” He paused to give a slight smile, churning out optimism from the news as he usually did. “I suppose there are some benefits to being out of the comfort of this city.” His eyes shifted across the nearest alley as he spoke, almost with a certain daring curiosity.

Jikun watched Navon for a moment and then cleared his throat loudly. “Gods, I could use a drink!” he barked. “How about a good drink and a fine woman to share it with?”

The darkness in Navon’s eyes faded and he surveyed his general in a reprimanding fashion. “General.” He pulled his horse to a stop, interrupting Jikun before he could continue. “Let us pause this conversation. Sel’ari’s temple. We should stop and thank the gods before we retire for the evening.”

In Jikun’s absorption with his news, he had somehow missed the building’s slithering approach. His eyes lifted to the golden dome rising up toward the heavens, the white doves nestled at her base, and the pillars that made the elves below seem small and insignificant—as they undoubtedly were. He could hear the echoes of soft singing in the distant marble halls and the pure chime of bells, calling the elves to worship. He turned his head and laughed. “I’ll thank the gods when I see the gods at work. When we are in the right and Saebellus in the wrong, I can only spit on their names every time they let one of my soldiers die for Saebellus’ damn cause. We sleep in shit and spill our blood so some damn elf can rise in the morning to sing praise to their righteous asses. We are just their pawns. No. No, gods for me today, Navon. Give me a good drink and a fine woman—those are all the gods I need.”

Navon gave Jikun another distasteful and reprimanding glare before he stiffly dismounted, the offense apparently affecting his gait. “Then can you keep a hold of these for me, General?” he asked tartly, tossing Jikun the reins to his bay horse. “Someone has to give Sel’ari thanks that you are still breathing.”

Jikun leaned to the side sharply in order to the catch the reins. His horse whinnied in protest and the general quickly righted himself. “When I was a boy in Darival, a priest of Sel’ari came through. A group of youths beat him dead for the single coin in his pocket. I don’t think Sel’ari cares about any of us, Navon, more than she’d care about one of her priests. And if she did not see fit to save him, then we’re all going to the grave, god or no god.”

Navon leaned forward, squinting in a reflective manner. “They are not absent from us, Jikun. And I have a story to counter your own. Years ago on my way to Sevrigel, I saw a stowaway cry out in Sel’ari’s name for protection. Everyone who tried to lay a hand on him perished in an instant. Sel’ari always has her reasons, Jikun,” Navon replied with a simple smile. “Sometimes they just do not fit into our expectations. Religion is a virtue …and one of the only reasons Sel’ari hasn’t sent this country to Ramul.” He turned toward the temple, as though his words were a monument of inspiration and the general should immediately reflect upon their wisdom.

Jikun shook his head distastefully. “While you are in there, put in a good word for me for lovely company tonight,” he called after with a smirk. “The more ‘virtuous,’ the better. I’d take a cleric!”

Navon gave only a dismissive wave of resigned acknowledgement.

Jikun’s smirk broadened in amusement and he leaned back idly in the saddle. He watched the lean, dark male vanish through one of the double golden doors. For just a moment he glimpsed the white marble interior, gleaming from the countless candles within. And the face of Sel’ari. He felt himself recoil slightly, perhaps more out of shame than disgust. Even in the form of a statue, the goddess’ eyes were coldly perceptive, piercing through his veil of disbelief like a dagger. He nudged his horse lightly in the flank, urging it away from the doors and further along the street until he came to the shade of a low balcony.

Away from the temple, he found himself once more at ease. He leaned an arm against his horse’s neck, watching the bustle of elves moving about through the sunny street. They acknowledged him with polite nods of their heads or wide smiles, but Jikun found little reason to smile in return. Why should he? What had they done today to equal his last two years of warring for their sake? Ate and danced and pleasured themselves. He knew not all males could serve in the army. And yet, that did not stop his resentment at every able bodied male he saw enjoying himself in the comfort of the city’s walls while Saebellus waged war outside.

Perhaps his inner thoughts had revealed themselves on his expression as he noted several responding elves regard him with unease and confusion. He wiped his face of expression and instead let his eyes trail up along the towering buildings with their many windows, pillars, and gleaming rooftops, still further up the hill of the street and into the distance. Elvorium was not his home, but even so, it was better than any place he had been since he had left Darival.

Except, perhaps, for the whore houses of Roshenhyde.

“That was pleasant to see her again,” Navon’s voice came from behind him.

Jikun straightened and turned, eyeing the peaceful smile stamped across his captain’s lips. He tossed him the reins, watching Navon leap with some faint form of grace onto his horse.

“So, where to, General?” Navon queried. His voice had livened from his perceived notion of Sel’ari’s mewling praise, afforded to him by his recent prayers. “To the camp?”

Jikun laughed, pulling his horse away from the egress of the city. “No, let the soldiers relax without your reprimanding eyes. They deserve a little freedom and rashness. To my estate, Navon. And we will stop along the way to pick up some gods of my own.”

Categories: Fantasy | Tags: | 1 Comment

Chapter reveal: Butterfly Waltz, by Jane Tesh

Butterfly_C1_2Title:  BUTTERFLY WALTZ

Genre:  Fantasy

Author:  Jane Tesh

Websitehttp://www.janetesh.com

Publisher:  Silver Leaf Books

Purchase at Amazon

When he helps his friend Jake Brenner, a tabloid writer on the hunt for a big supernatural story, Des Fairweather is swept up in a world of mystery and intrigue.  Despite his skepticism of the validity of the stories Jake is seeking, Des reluctantly accompanies Jake on his latest adventure—all with the promise that Jake can help Des secure an audition with the city symphony, a break Des desperately needs.

When Jake’s search takes the two out to the country to investigate an unusual phenomenon at the Snowden estate, Des encounters a startlingly beautiful young woman who claims to be magical.  That young woman is Kalida, a mysterious creature who has escaped from the people of the Caverns and renounced their evil ways.  But when Kalida is discovered, her people will stop at no end to get her to return to their world. Will Des be able to cast aside his fears in order to save Kalida….before it’s too late?

A mesmerizing tale that blends music, mystery and magic, Butterfly Waltz charms with its enchanting storyline and compelling characters. Resplendent with adventure, intrigue, and the allure of the supernatural, Butterfly Waltz is delightful.

 CHAPTER ONE  

The music was clearer.  It had been the faintest whisper, the tune barely discernible.  The theme grew familiar, a soft, beckoning tune, a waltz of lilting melancholy.

Kalida woke, smiling.  Traces of the dream music hung about the dark room, brightly colored ribbons of sound.  For several moments, she savored the melody, but her smile faded with the music.  She would have to decide soon.

She folded back the rose-colored sheets, removed her bedclothes, and slipped into her gown.  Her long black hair glittered as she ran her comb down its length.  Faint sunlight picked its way delicately through the forest and bathed the small room in pearly light.  Another beautiful day waited outside.

Kalida took an apple from the blue glass bowl on her small table and sat down on the little bench outside the doorway of her home.  She gazed at the silent wood.  Small birds flickered from tree to tree.  A few butterflies danced above the wildflowers that grew in the grove.  Bright colors, sunshine, butterflies—these things were alien to her nature, but she had grown to love them.  Alone with time to think, she had decided her people, the people of the Caverns, had been wrong about so many things it was impossible to count them.

The Caverns.  To think of them was to be back within the dark hallways of cold stone, the only sound the rustling of her gown on the smooth floor, while all around, silver eyes and ruby eyes cast secretive glances full of malice as they studied the rules, the dark etiquette that bound all to the Legion.  Conquer and destroy.  That was the only way.  How many worlds had she seen blown to ashes, how many beings had she heard crying out in despair?

She had been part of the destruction.  She had flown with her people, but always reluctantly, as if there were something else just beyond her reach, something different.  She could trace her discontent to the Leader’s celebration, the night she first heard music.

As a small child, she had watched in awe as the veterans of the Legion received honors at victory celebrations.  The leader she first remembered was a dark-eyed man as rough and sharp as a stalactite, who called the young ones up for a better look.  With their transforming skill, members of the Legion re-enacted the battle.  Young Kalida, thrilled by the sights and sounds, longed to be a part of it all.  Everyone clapped until sparks flew from their hands.  But one celebration night had been different.

That night, a great whispering filled the tunnels.  Kalida heard a man say, “Some new entertainment.  The Lady has brought an Andrean man to the celebration.  We’ll have some fun.”

The Lady was the title of their Leader, a harsh, demanding woman who rarely held celebrations.  Kalida followed the others to the Hall.  The Andrean man stood in the center.  He didn’t seem worried or afraid.  He wore tattered clothes and boots.  An odd-looking instrument was slung over his back.

More whispers.

“They say his brother joined the Legion.”

“How would The Lady allow that?”

“What is that thing on his back?”

“Is he going to sing?”

“Sing?” Kalida said.  “What do you mean?”

Her companion grimaced.  “You’ll see.”

Kalida stared at the man.  “But isn’t The Lady mounting a massive campaign against the Three Worlds, Trieal, Andrea, and Fey East?  What’s this Andrean man doing here?”

“I told you.  You’ll see.”

At last, The Lady appeared, accompanied by her latest creation, a creature in the shape of an eerily beautiful child.  She sat down in her stone chair with the child beside her and introduced the man. “This is Raven.  Don’t stare, child.  He’s here to sing for you.  He is always welcome.”

“But isn’t he an enemy?” the child asked.

“Under usual conditions, yes, but his brother enjoyed a brilliant if rather brief career with us, and therefore we admit Raven to our social gathering out of pity, shall we say?”

The man looked at her without expression.  “My brother’s choice to join you shamed my family, but his music will live long after you are gone.”

The Lady gave a short laugh.  “Very good.  Sing now.  I want my people to hear what you call music.  It will give them another reason to eradicate your race.”

“Whatever you wish.”

Kalida listened, fascinated, as the melody pierced the darkness of the Hall.  The members of the Legion groaned and cursed at the sound.  Her companion gave her a curious glance, so she winced, as if the sound hurt her ears as well, but it didn’t.  It intrigued her.  It made pictures in her mind of things she had never imagined.

“Love will find me,” the man sang.  “Love green and golden.  I’ll not turn from you, nor change all the while.  Safe in the magic of your smile.”

She wanted to hear more.

But there was no more music from the Andrean man.  After the celebration, he was taken away.  She never saw him again, which made her moody, not an unusual emotion among the Cavern-born, so no one suspected she had changed.  Over the years, she saw Leaders come and go, but never wanted to be one.  Her acquaintances were puzzled by her lack of ambition, but Kalida hid her growing unease.  She could not forget the alien man or his song.  Quite unexpectedly, she found a way out.

In one wild moment of rebellion, she fled the Caverns to Andrea, hoping to find the man.  She flew to the woods near Traditional City, planning to take animal form to avoid detection.  In the woods, she fell through a blaze of light, fell to this world.

Escaped.

That first morning, when the golden sun touched the lush green grass, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the color.  What was it?  Light she knew, and shadow, but this deep rich hue that colored the grass and the moss and the leaves intrigued her.  She knew red and black and white, silver and gray, colors of the Caverns.  Yellow and gold were rare, but she had golden eyes, or so everyone said.  This alien shade, though, calm and deeply satisfying, she had seen only once, on the tattered clothing of the man who played music so many years before.

Green.

She could sit in the grass for hours, reveling in new colors, even the rich browns of the earth and trees.  Everything spoke of life and growth and energy.  Exploring beyond the new forest, she discovered a large white house and watched the people who lived there.  She learned the names of colors from Mister Snowden as he taught his children in the garden.  She learned that the world was called Earth, and there was no magic here.

For a while, she didn’t need magic, just sunlight and birdsong and new colors.  Then disturbing dreams began, dreams of night flying, her hair streaming behind in the cold wind as she swooped down on cities like a bird of prey, touching the tallest towers and watching them burst into flame.  She would wake, trembling with fear and desire.  She thought her people would be unable to track her to this world, yet she saw misshapen shadows in the trees and heard harsh sounds haunting the night.  Had her people found her?

She thought of the bottle in the back of her cabinet and a shiver went through her.  No, don’t back down now, she told herself.  But how much longer can you live like this, lonely,  friendless, purposeless?  She shivered again.  She knew exactly how much longer.

She couldn’t eat.  She spent the day sitting in the doorway.  Light shone through the little bottles of potions on the window ledge: pale lavender, rich violet, amber, blue, and red.  The day itself was green and gold, so unlike the days of her childhood, which had been filled with fierce red light and the cold dark silence of the Caverns.

I am not like that now, she thought, as the sunlight faded and the colors died.  Night was the time she liked best, but this night, the darkness closed in around her.

Do I really want to do this?  Why put it off?  Drink the potion and be done with it.  The music was a dream, nothing more.  Drink the potion.  Who knows what other worlds lie beyond death?

Tomorrow.

*                      *                      *

“Tomorrow?”  Desmond Fairweather stared at his friend Jake Banner in astonishment.  “I can’t go anywhere tomorrow.”

Jake beamed, undaunted, hands outspread as if he’d caught a record-sized fish.  “This is it, Des, the big story.  Actual reports of talking flowers.  You know you can’t pass this up.  I know you can’t, and I’m staying here till you agree.”

A grand piano dominated Des’s sparsely furnished apartment room.  Jake perched on the piano bench, slicked back his hair, and gave the impression of settling in for the day.  His neon green shirt and pink tie created a jarring combination that made Des’s eyes ache as he glared at his friend.  His last student, Melissa, a giggly seventeen-year-old, had just left, after a thorough and determined massacre of her Scarlatti lesson, and he was still waiting for his head to clear.  With an impatient gesture, he pushed his dark hair out of his eyes.

“Not another of your harebrained stories for the Galaxy.” He moved a stack of sheet music out of the way before Jake’s elbow toppled it over.  “It’ll be a fake like all the others.”

“A fake?” Jake’s blue eyes widened.  “None of the others were fake.”

“I’m not going to argue with you,” Des said, “and I’m certainly not going to go chase talking flowers.”

“Aw, come on.  It’ll be fun.”

“Fun for you, you mean.”

“The owner happens to be a beautiful young lady,” Jake said in his most wheedling tone.

Des motioned wildly to the crumpled balls of paper littering the floor around the piano.  “Do you see all this?  I’m trying to compose.  I’ve told you I don’t want to travel all over the country tracking down old magic.  I don’t believe in old magic.  I don’t believe in new magic.  I don’t believe in magic of any sort.”

Jake kept his grin.  He twiddled a few piano keys and fiddled with the metronome.

Des snatched it out of his hands.  “Will you go away?”

Jake leaned back against the piano as if he found it the most comfortable spot in town.  “How’s the cash flow at Chez Fairweather?  Paid this month’s rent yet?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Talked to Sylvia yesterday.  She says she’ll recommend you for that symphony thing.”  He glanced up, eyes crinkling with amusement.

Des found it hard to speak.  “Are you talking about symphony auditions?”

“Sure.”

“She can do that?”

“Just call her up.”

Des took a deep breath to steady himself.  Jake’s reliability was questionable, but his sister Sylvia had important connections with Parkland’s music community.  “Did she get on the Arts Council Board?”

Jake swung around on the bench.  “Get on?  Pal, she’s the new president.  She’ll be happy to set things up for you, chum.  That is, when we get back from our little day trip.”

“Day trip?”

“To the land of talking flowers.”

Des gave Jake a narrow-eyed glare.  “Damn it, Jake, that’s blackmail.”

Jake shrugged.  “Hey, you do me a favor, I do you a favor.”

“I won’t do it.”

“Okay.  I guess you like living in such splendor.”  He played a loud version of “Chopsticks.”  “This thing needs a tune-up.”

Des closed the piano, sorry he missed Jake’s fingers.  “I’ll just call Sylvia and ask for her help.”

“Uh-uh, doesn’t work that way.  This is a package deal.  You help me get a story, and Sylvia will smooth the way for you, get you a good time slot or whatever.  Sounds pretty reasonable to me.  You want as many things going in your favor as possible, right?”

Des sighed.  Dealing with Jake always gave him a headache. “If I go watch you make a fool of yourself, will you leave me alone?”

“Of course.  Won’t take a minute.  We ride out, hear the flowers, record them.  I get definite proof of magic, old Basil down at the Galaxy is happy, I’m happy, and you get your audition and leave this lovely roach condo you call home.”

Des slumped in his one chair and regarded his friend, wondering how Jake managed to be so damned cheerful all the time.  He was right, though.  The apartment was dismal: a tiny grubby kitchen, an even smaller bathroom, and this room, full of piano.  Giving piano lessons wasn’t the most lucrative of careers, but he had made the decision to move out, to try his luck.  A successful audition with the prestigious city symphony could be the break he was looking for.  What he wasn’t looking for was talking flowers.  “I still don’t see why I have to go.”

“Why, pal, you’re the best,” Jake said.  “Critters just flock to you.  Haven’t you noticed?  You have a definite affinity with the Other World.”

“I do not.”

“Must be those big soulful green eyes.”

Des heaved himself out of the chair and gathered the papers off the floor.  “Will you get out of here?  I have work to do.  Real work.”

Jake reached the door.  “I’ll pick you up tomorrow morning at six.”

“Six?  Why so early?”

“I wanna be there when the dew dries.”

Des made a lunge, but Jake eluded him, laughing, and was out the door and gone.  Muttering under his breath about unwanted guests, Des bent to pick up more papers and caught sight of his reflection in the one small window.  Soulful green eyes, indeed.  Did Jake think he’d fall for that line?  Yes, his eyes were green, his hair dark and unruly, and his expression serious, just like his father’s, in fact, so much like his father’s he was afraid he might meet the same tragic fate.  Now there was a story Jake could appreciate, a story full of magic.

Magic.

What if—no, he dared not try.  He had made his decision.  He had given up the family home and the family fortune, so he had given up the family curse, as well.  He prayed he had.

Wouldn’t a little magic make things easier, though?  A better place to live, a better job, even that symphony position?

He shuddered and tried to suppress the memories.  Make things easier. Isn’t that what his father wanted?  Look what happened to him.

No, don’t look.

Categories: Fantasy, Mystery | Tags: , | Leave a comment

Chapter Reveal: Trial By Fire (Schooled In Magic 7), by Christopher G. Nuttall

TrialByFire_med1Title: Trial By Fire (Schooled In Magic 7)

Genre: Fantasy

Author: Christopher G. Nuttall

Website: www.chrishanger.net

Publisher: Twilight Times Books

Sample Chapter HERE.

Purchase on Amazon / OmniLit

About the Book

Three years ago, Emily killed the Necromancer Shadye before he could sacrifice her and destroy the Allied Lands.  Now, the shadows of the past hang over Whitehall as Emily and the Grandmaster travel into the Blighted Lands to recover anything Shadye might have left behind, before returning to Whitehall to start the fourth year.  For Emily, it is a chance to stretch her mind and learn more about new and innovative forms of magic … and to prepare for the exams that will determine her future as a magician.

But as she starts her studies, it becomes clear that all is not well at Whitehall.  Master Grey, a man who disliked Emily from the moment he met her, is one of her teachers – and he seems intent on breaking her, pushing her right to her limits.  In the meantime, her friends Alassa and Imaiqah are acting oddly, Frieda seems to be having trouble talking to her and – worst of all – Caleb, her partner in a joint magical project, is intent on asking her to go out with him.

As she struggles to cope with new challenges and to overcome the demons in her past, she becomes aware of a deadly threat looming over Whitehall, a curse that threatens her very soul.  And when she makes a tiny yet fatal mistake, she finds herself facing a fight she cannot win, but dares not lose…

/////////////////////////////////////

Prologue

Caleb stopped outside the stone door to his father’s study and paused, feeling his heart pound inside his chest. He had few good memories of his father’s study; he and the other children had never been allowed to enter, save for long lectures and punishments when they’d disappointed their parents. Caleb had never dared to try to break the complex network of spells on the lock, knowing it would displease his mother and father.

And both of his parents were formidable indeed.

“Caleb,” his mother called. “Come in.”

Caleb bit his lip and pushed at the door. The house was small – living space was at a premium in Beneficence – and his mother had had over twenty-five years to weave protective spells and wards into the stone building. She’d always known what her children were doing while they lived in her house. Her children had rapidly learned to keep their misdeeds well away from home if they didn’t want to get caught at once. He shivered when he felt another protective ward shimmering over him as he stepped through the door, then bowed formally to his father. His father looked at him for a long moment, and nodded. Beside him, Caleb’s mother kept her face impassive.

They made an odd couple, Caleb had often thought, once he’d grown old enough to meet other soldiers and magicians. General Pollock – his father – was short, stubby and muscular, tough enough to march with the younger men instead of riding a horse to battle, while Mediator Sienna was tall, willowy and one of the most experienced combat sorcerers in the Allied Lands. She might not have been classically beautiful, her stern face edged by long black hair, but she was striking, with a trim athletic build even after giving birth to five children. And there were few people who would dare insult her to her face.

“Caleb,” his father grunted. He’d never really seen Caleb as anything other than a disappointment, once it became clear that his second son was more interested in theoretical work than fighting. “You wished to speak with us?”

“Yes, father,” Caleb said. His parents weren’t stuck-up enough to insist that their children make appointments to speak with them, but certain things had to be done formally. The little rituals of politeness, as always, kept civilization going. “I do.”

His father waved a hand, impatiently. “Then speak,” he ordered.

Caleb took a long breath. Casper – handsome Casper, confident Casper – would have found it easy to speak to their parents, he was sure. But his elder brother had basked in the approval of their father, while even their stern mother could rarely remain angry at him for long. What Casper wanted, Casper got. Their parents hadn’t really spoiled Casper, Caleb had to admit, but he’d had advantages none of the younger children shared. He’d set out to walk in their footsteps, after all.

“I ask your permission to open a Courtship,” he said, allowing his voice to slip into cool formality. “I ask for your blessings and your wisdom.”

His parents exchanged glances. A simple relationship was one thing, but a Courtship was quite another. It implied that Caleb was willing to spend the rest of his life with the girl, if she proved receptive to his advances. And his parents…they might have to welcome the girl into their family, if the Courtship worked out. Caleb was the first of the family to discuss a Courtship. Even Casper had yet to bring a girl home to meet their parents.

His mother spoke first. “Who is this girl?”

Caleb held himself steady, refusing to be swayed by the bite in her tone. “Emily,” he said, simply. “Daughter of Void.”

“I see,” General Pollack said. His voice revealed nothing. “You overreach yourself, do you not? She is a Baroness of Zangaria.”

“I am a sorcerer,” Caleb countered. He’d known his father would object on those grounds, if nothing else. General Pollack came from aristocratic stock, but his father had been a mere Knight. Grandfather Karuk had been powerful enough to buy his son a commission, yet he’d never been as wealthy and powerful as a baron. “We are social equals.”

“And her father is a Lone Power,” Mediator Sienna said, slowly. “Do you not fear his thoughts on the matter?”

Caleb hesitated, but pressed on. “That is why I have decided on a formal Courtship,” he said. He’d always had the impression that Emily was largely flying free – he didn’t think that an experienced sorcerer would have allowed the crisis in Cockatrice to get so badly out of hand – but marriage was quite another issue. “It would allow him a chance to object before matters became serious.”

“She may reject you,” General Pollack warned. “You are not a wealthy man.”

“I know,” Caleb said. The family wealth, what little there was of it, would go to Casper, once his parents passed away. General Pollack was a poor man, by the standards of their social equals. But not using his position to enrich himself had made him popular with the troops under his command. “I do, however, have excellent prospects.”

His father’s face darkened. “But not as a defender of the Allied Lands.”

Caleb bit down the response that came to mind. His father had expected his children – his male children, at least – to go into the military, to fight for the Allied Lands. Casper, whatever his flaws, was a halfway decent combat sorcerer. But Caleb? He’d always been more interested in fundamental magic research than fighting. The transfer to Whitehall had been the best thing that had ever happened to him.

“His research may prove useful,” Mediator Sienna said.

General Pollack gave her a surprised look.

Caleb couldn’t help staring at her in astonishment. His mother might be formidable, but it was rare for her to disagree with her husband in public. Caleb knew they’d had some spectacular rows, yet they’d always been held in private. They’d always put forward a united front.

His mother ignored their surprise. “Do you believe she likes you?”

Caleb swallowed. That was the question, wasn’t it? He had never been able to read a girl, to tell if she was interested in him or if she was just being polite. The lads in the barracks had bragged endlessly about how many girls they’d slept with – Caleb was privately sure most of them were lying – but he had never had a serious relationship with anyone. Stronghold had enrolled only a handful of female students, while he’d been too busy at Whitehall to consider the possibilities. He’d never had the nerve to go into a brothel when he’d been on leave.

“I think so,” he said, finally. He went on before his mother could start demanding details. “That’s why I decided on a formal Courtship. If she thinks otherwise…”

“You can back off without shame,” his mother finished. It would be embarrassing to be rejected, Caleb was sure, but better that than getting into a muddle. Courtship, if nothing else, was a ritual intended to ensure that everything was open, without even the merest hint of impropriety. “I would advise you to be careful, though. It is rare for a Lone Power to have a child.”

“And one so grossly irresponsible, at that,” General Pollack growled. “Inviting both the Ashworths and Ashfalls to the Faire. What was she thinking?”

“She shut them both down,” Caleb reminded him.

His mother met his eyes. “Yes, she did,” she agreed. “But it was still irresponsible.”

“I like her,” Caleb said, refusing to look away. “I request your blessing for the Courtship.”

General Pollack exchanged a long look with his wife. “We shall discuss it in private,” he said, finally. “Wait.”

Caleb scowled inwardly as his mother cast a privacy ward, ensuring he couldn’t hear a word of what passed between them. It galled him to have to go to his parents, but he knew they would have been furious if he’d approached someone with serious intentions without consulting them first. There were times when he wouldn’t have minded being disowned, yet – in truth – he loved his family. Even Casper…

Father has no magic, he reminded himself. And yet he rules the family with a rod of iron.

He looked down at the stone floor, then up as the privacy ward dispelled. His father looked irked, while his mother was smiling coldly to herself. Caleb schooled his face into a dispassionate expression, waiting patiently for their answer. There were strong advantages to the match, he was sure, but there were also dangers. His mother was powerful, yet she was no match for a Lone Power.

“We have considered the matter,” General Pollack said. “You may proceed with your Courtship.”

Caleb let out a sigh of relief. “Thank you, father-”

“Now we will discuss the practicalities,” his mother added, cutting him off. “And precisely how you intend to proceed. You will have to present her with flowers within the month. Choosing the right ones will be important.”

“Yes, mother,” Caleb said.

He cursed under his breath. It wasn’t something he wanted to talk about, not to his blunt, plainspoken mother, but it was clear he wasn’t being offered a choice. His father’s brief lecture on matters sexual had been bad enough, back when he’d started to realize there was something different about girls, yet this was likely to be worse. He cringed mentally, then steadied himself. At least they hadn’t said no.

And now all you have to do is go through with the Courtship, he told himself. And that won’t be easy.

 

Chapter One

…Shadye looms above her, his skull-like face crumbling as the power within him threatens to spill out. Emily stumbles backwards, clutching desperately for something – anything – she can use as a weapon, but there is nothing. The necromancer grabs her shirt, hauls her to her feet and draws a stone knife from his belt. Emily feels her entire body go limp as he holds the knife in front of her eyes, then stabs it into her chest…

Emily snapped awake, feeling sweat pouring down her back and onto the blanket. For a long moment, she was unsure where and when she was; the nightmare had been so strong that part of her half-wondered if Shadye had killed her and everything she’d experienced had been nothing more than the final flickers of life before she died. And then she forced herself to remember, somehow, that she was in a tent, in the Blighted Lands. She’d had nightmares every night since they’d crossed the Craggy Mountains and started their long walk towards the Dark Fortress.

Just a dream, she told herself, as she wiped her forehead. The prospect of returning to Shadye’s fortress, where she’d barely escaped with her life, was terrifying. If there hadn’t been a very real possibility she’d inherited Shadye’s possessions, she wouldn’t have chosen to come within a thousand miles of the place. It was just a nightmare. It wasn’t real.

She started as something slithered towards her, but smiled as Aurelius butted his head into her thigh. The Death Viper looked up at her beseechingly, his golden eyes somehow managing to convey a sense of hunger even though she’d fed him only the previous night and he should still be digesting his meal. Emily had been told, when she’d brought the snake back to Whitehall, that Death Vipers could live for weeks without eating, while their last meal was digesting in their bellies, but Aurelius seemed to disagree. Perhaps the familiar bond that tied them together demanded more energy…

Or perhaps he’s picking up on my hunger, she thought, as she sat upright and picked up the snake. I could do with something to eat too.

Aurelius slithered forward. She giggled helplessly as the snake crawled up her arm and settled around her neck. She reached into her pack, pulled out a piece of dried meat and offered it to Aurelius, then pulled her trousers on, followed by her shirt. Sleeping without her clothes hadn’t been easy, but it had just been too hot inside the tent. She knew several spells to chill the air, but the Grandmaster had forbidden her to use magic unless it was urgent. Thankfully, he’d insisted on keeping watch half the night rather than sharing a tent with her.

She crawled forward and opened the flap, then poked her head out of the tent. The Grandmaster was sitting in front of a fire, his back to her, cooking something that smelled faintly like bacon, although she had no idea if it was. It smelled good, but the stench of the Blighted Lands – a faint hint of burning that seemed to grow stronger with every breath she took – threatened to overpower it.

“Good morning, Emily,” the Grandmaster said. “I trust you slept well.”

“Well enough,” Emily lied. There was no point in complaining about the nightmares. “And yourself?”

“You know I don’t sleep,” the Grandmaster said.

I assumed it was a metaphor, Emily thought, ruefully. But it was true; the Grandmaster hadn’t slept since the day they’d walked through the mountains and into the Blighted Lands. It can’t be good for his mental health.

She pushed the thought aside as she stood and looked around. The Blighted Lands were strange, perhaps the strangest place she’d ever seen. Lands that had once been green and verdant were now covered in a thin layer of ash. There wasn’t a single living thing in sight, apart from the pair of them. A faint haze shimmered in the air, making it hard to see beyond a few dozen meters. The sky was a dull grey, the sun barely bright enough to burn through the clouds hanging in the sky; the air was unnaturally still, tinted with the faint scent of burning, and wisps of raw magic that danced across her awareness for long seconds before fading away. She could barely force herself to remain calm, even though she knew there was no real threat. The landscape spoke to her on a very primal level.

It looked very much like hell.

“I’m pleased to see your monster is taking things calmly,” the Grandmaster said, as she paced around the campsite before looking at him. He was a short, wizened man, with a dirty cloth wrapped around his eyes, but he was surrounded by an aura of power she knew to take seriously. “I was worried, but I would have preferred not to deprive you of your familiar.”

Emily nodded. If anyone else had tried to wear a Death Viper as a necklace, she knew all too well, they would have died before they could wrap it around their necks. It was hard to remember, sometimes, that Aurelius was one of the deadliest creatures known to exist, with a venom so poisonous that even a mere touch could prove fatal. Only the familiar bond protected her from the snake, allowing her to keep Aurelius as a secret weapon. He’d already saved her life twice.

“He seems to be happier here than I am,” Emily admitted. She squatted down and took the mug he offered her with a nod of thanks. The Kava tasted strong, but she knew from experience that it would jolt her awake. “Is that normal?”

“The Blighted Lands may be where the Death Vipers were spawned,” the Grandmaster said, as he ladled food onto two plates. “He may feel like he’s home.”

Emily looked up, staring at the mountains in the distance. “I hope not,” she muttered. “I wouldn’t want to live here.”

The Grandmaster laughed, and passed her a plate of food. “Eat quickly,” he urged, as Emily took it. “I want to get to the Dark Fortress before it gets dark.”

Emily swallowed. Years ago – so long ago it seemed almost like another life – Shadye had accidentally brought her to the Nameless World, seeking a Child of Destiny. It had never occurred to him that someone would be named Destiny, or that her child would be a literal Child of Destiny. Shadye had meant to kill her, to sacrifice her to something called the Harrowing, yet in some ways she was almost grateful to the mad necromancer. If she’d stayed on Earth, trapped between her stepfather and her suicidal urges, she was sure she would be dead by now.

“Yes, sir,” she said, as she ate her meal. It tasted better than anything she’d cooked back on Earth, although the ever-present scent of burning had worked its way into the food. “How long will it take us to get there?”

“About an hour,” the Grandmaster said. “Unless we run into trouble, that is.”

They finished their breakfast. Emily wiped the plates and cooking equipment while the Grandmaster answered a call of nature, and started to pack away the tent. He hadn’t wanted a tent for himself, something that made her feel vaguely guilty, but he’d dismissed the matter when she’d offered to sleep in the open too. She couldn’t help feeling relieved; quite apart from her concerns about sleeping near a man, she wouldn’t have cared to sleep in the open, not in the Blighted Lands. The raw magic seemed to grow stronger at night.

That must be why so few people risk entering the Blighted Lands, she thought, as she packed up the rucksack. You could go to sleep in the wrong place and wake up in a very different form.

She shuddered at the thought, then pulled the rucksack on and braced herself against the weight. The Grandmaster nodded to her, checked the campsite for anything they might have left behind, then led the way into the distance. Emily gritted her teeth and forced herself to follow him. The flickers of wild magic in the air were growing stronger the further they moved from the Craggy Mountains that blocked the way to Whitehall. If she’d been alone, she had a feeling she would have turned back a long time before reaching the Dark Fortress.

“There’s no need to push yourself too hard,” the Grandmaster said, slowing. “If worst comes to worst, we’ll set up our tents near the Dark Fortress and wait until sunrise.”

Emily glanced up. It was early morning, by her watch, but the sun was already high in the sky. And yet, the light seemed dim, the clouds growing darker as they walked deeper into the Blighted Lands. She’d thought it was night when Shadye had snatched her, but had his lands been buried in permanent darkness? Or was she merely imagining things?

“I thought you said it wasn’t safe to lurk too close to the fortress,” she said instead.

“It isn’t,” the Grandmaster confirmed. “But I would prefer not to have to enter the Dark Fortress in darkness.”

He said nothing else until they stumbled across the ruins of a village, so hidden within the haze that they practically walked into the ruins before realizing they were there. It was hard to imagine that it had once been a living village, with farmers tending their crops and raising their children; now, it was nothing more than grey stone, all life and light leeched away by the Blighted Lands. The eerie sameness sent chills down her spine.

“Be careful,” the Grandmaster warned as she peered into one of the buildings. “You never know what might be lurking here.”

Emily nodded, pausing as she caught sight of a child’s doll lying on the ground. It looked…normal, surprisingly intact despite the Blighted Lands. But when she reached for the doll and picked it up, it crumbled to dust in her hands. She swallowed hard, trying not to cry for the girl who’d owned the doll, untold centuries ago. Had she died quickly, at the hands of a necromancer, or fled with her family to the untouched lands to the north? There was no way Emily would ever know.

“There has to be something we can do for the Blighted Lands,” she said, as she wiped the dust off her fingers. “Can’t we…cleanse the lands, or something?”

“The necromancers unleashed wild magic,” the Grandmaster said. “Every year, some people try to set up settlements within the edge of the Blighted Lands, in hopes of reclaiming the territory for themselves. And they always come to grief. If the necromancers don’t get them, the wild magic does.”

He took a long look around the village – Emily was sure he had some way to see, despite having lost his eyes years ago – and then led the way out of it, back to the south. She followed him, feeling an odd urge to stay within the village even though she knew it was suicide. It worried her for a long moment – it could be a sign of subtle magic – and then she realized the village had felt safe, despite being within the Blighted Lands. The urge to turn back and flee grew stronger with every step they took.

“The White Council was quite impressed with you,” the Grandmaster said. He spoke in a conversational tone of voice, as if he were trying to keep her mind off the growing urge to just turn and run. “They were not too pleased with the management of the Cockatrice Faire, but…they were relieved at the outcome.”

Emily nodded. Everyone from Lady Barb to the Grandmaster himself had pointed out that she’d been careless, at the very least, and that her carelessness could easily have resulted in disaster. If the Ashworths and the Ashfalls had gone to war, it would not only have led to the deaths of the leaders of both families, but also to the slaughter of hundreds of other magicians and the devastation of her lands. She knew she’d been lucky, very lucky. If she hadn’t managed to get a battery to work…

She touched the ring, hidden within her pocket, and smiled. Lady Barb had urged her to create and charge a second battery while preparing for the trip to the Blighted Lands, and Emily had done as her mentor suggested. Now she had a battery she could use, although without a valve it was useless. And they had a tendency to work once and then burn out. Putting a spare valve together with the help of an enchanter in Dragon’s Den had been harder than charging up the battery.

“You showed a staggering amount of power,” the Grandmaster added. “They were very impressed.”

Thank you, Emily thought, sardonically. Is that actually a good thing?

She eyed the Grandmaster’s back, wondering if he knew just what she’d actually done. He hadn’t treated her any differently when Lady Barb had returned her to Whitehall after the Faire, but he wouldn’t have. Others…had stared at her in awe. In some ways, she was even dreading the day when the rest of the students returned to Whitehall. If they’d stared at her after beating Shadye – and they had – they would be paying far more attention to her now.

“Some of them even considered…insisting…that you take the oaths now,” the Grandmaster told her. “Others thought you should be apprenticed at once to someone who could control your power, if necessary.”

But I cheated, Emily thought.

It wasn’t a reassuring thought. If she’d tried to channel so much power through her mind, it would have killed her or driven her insane. It had been bad enough, years ago, to have people watching her, suspicious of necromancy. Now…they probably thought she was a staggeringly powerful magician instead, a young girl fully on the same level as Void or another Lone Power. The idea that she could match the Grandmaster for raw power was absurd…

…But, to anyone who didn’t know about the batteries, it might not seem absurd.

She swallowed. “What are they going to do?”

“Nothing,” the Grandmaster said, simply.

Emily blinked. “Nothing?”

“I am Grandmaster of Whitehall School,” the Grandmaster said. “I have never had a student forced to take the oaths ahead of time, and I’m not about to start now. If you want an apprenticeship with someone…well, that could be arranged, but you have no obligation to find a master. Or mistress. Still…”

He shrugged. “Have you thought about your career?”

“I don’t know,” Emily admitted. “I’d like to stay at Whitehall for the rest of my life.”

“You’d need much more experience before you could teach,” the Grandmaster said. “I like my tutors to have at least ten years of practical experience before they start touching young and impressionable minds. But you could get a slot as a teaching assistant, I suppose, or a research student. We do have a few of them at Whitehall.”

He paused, then turned to look at her. “You do need to decide on a major before you enter Fifth Year,” he added. “Going by your marks, I’d recommend majoring in charms and perhaps healing, but it depends on what you actually want to do with your life. If you want to be a healer, you’ll need alchemy; if you want to be a combat sorceress, you’ll need martial magic and history…”

Emily sighed, feeling a little overwhelmed. “Randor expects me to go back to Cockatrice and be the baroness,” she said. “I…”

King Randor,” the Grandmaster corrected, quietly.

“But I don’t know what I want to do,” Emily continued. “There are so many interesting subjects.”

“You could probably study them all, if you spread out your years,” the Grandmaster mused. “It isn’t unknown for students to repeat their last two years at Whitehall. However, most students tend to discover the subject they want to major in while they’re in their Fourth Year and stick with it. Your marks in Healing are not bad.”

Emily winced. Healing was an interesting class, but she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life working with ill people. She’d seen enough of that life during the walk through the Cairngorms to know she didn’t want to do it permanently. There had been too many horrors there, hidden in small shacks or behind high stone walls. She had no idea how Lady Barb did it without cursing everyone in sight.

“I think I just want to study,” she said. It was a shame there were no universities in the Nameless World. She could have stepped into one quite happily and never come out. “And go into magical research, perhaps.”

“That would suit you,” the Grandmaster agreed.

He shrugged, then turned back to resume walking. “You need to remember that you’re not just any magician,” he added, as he walked. “Too many people are already showing an interest in you, not least our friends to the south.”

The necromancers, Emily thought.

She’d killed Shadye – and the Allied Lands had declared her the Necromancer’s Bane. The other necromancers seemed to believe she could kill them at will, if only because none of them had tried to claim Shadye’s lands or attack Whitehall. But that wouldn’t last, she was sure. Sooner or later, the necromancers would resume their offensive against the Allied Lands. Their endless need for new victims to sacrifice would ensure it.

And what will happen, she asked herself, when they do?

She kept her thoughts to herself as she followed the Grandmaster, feeling the air grow steadily colder as they made their way to the south. Slowly, the twisted shape of the Dark Fortress – and, beside it, the Inverse Shadow – came into view. They didn’t look anything like the half-remembered shapes in her nightmares, but there hadn’t really been time to take much note of the scenery the last time she’d visited. She’d been half out of her mind with fear when Shadye’s animated skeletons had dragged her into the Inverse Shadow, preparing her for death. If Void hadn’t been there, she would have died that day.

The Grandmaster stopped, sharply. “Listen,” he said. “Can you hear that?”

Emily paused, listening hard. There was a faint sound in the distance, a howling that seemed to come from many throats. It was growing louder, although she didn’t think the source of the sound was actually coming closer. Whatever it was – and there was something about it that touched a memory – it chilled her to the bone.

“I think we’d better go see what that is,” the Grandmaster said, after a quick glance at his watch. “Follow me.”

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: | 1 Comment

The Blackwell Family Secret: THE GUARDIANS OF SINS, by by Jonathan L. Ferrara

blackwell

The Blackwell Family Secret: THE GUARDIANS OF SINS
by Jonathan L. Ferrara
URBAN FANTASY, Young Adult
Publication date: December 5, 2014
Publisher: Dragonwell Publishing
www.dragonwellpublishing.com / AMAZON

Nicholas Blackwell has no idea he is supposed to fulfill a destiny. All he knows is that he draws trouble like a magnet. Orphaned at eleven when two demonic men killed his parents, he copes with the strict rules of his new home, St. Christopher’s academy, unaware that he has been the real target for the killers and that his guardian angel has saved him in the nick of time. And now, his problems are only beginning when a mysterious serpent lures him into the woods and tricks him into a demonic ritual that will unleash the Seven Deadly Sins to destroy the humankind. Nicholas has no choice but to correct his mistake–or die trying. Aided by Amy, a shy but determined girl who seems to know more about his task than she should, Nicholas’s quest is to travel into the City of Demonio and defeat the Seven Guardians of Sin. To succeed, he must confront demons, monsters, and lost souls, learn the mysteries of the Chapel of Dreams, discover the true meaning of friendship and love, and face the darkest secret of all: the Blackwell Family Secret.

“The Blackwell Family Secret: the Guardians of Sin” is a debut young adult urban fantasy adventure with a Christian theme.

////////////////////////////////////

[As I walk through the valley of the shadow of

death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me;

your rod and your staff, they comfort me.]

Psalm 23:4

The dark night engulfed Nicholas. His sweaty palms trembled

against his thighs as he stood in the valley, knowing there was

a good chance he was about to die. His throat tightened, as he

imagined all the terrible things that could be happening to Amy.

What if she was hurt? What if she wasn’t even alive? By now,

Nicholas had an open mind to the impossible. Anything could

happen. Nothing was off limits.

Fog dripped down the valley walls and rolled past his feet.

The hazy air made it difficult to see, until a spark of ember shone

in the distance. Decrepit gravestones scattered across the dead

field, stopping at the end of the valley at a palace of white stone.

Enticed by curiosity, Nicholas made his way through the valley.

Thin brittle bones crunched under his feet as he continued on. A

group of limp, old men crept behind, dragging toward him. Their

hands and arms swayed like a rag doll’s as they lurched through the

fog. The men cried, grinding their teeth with pain, as though they

had been waiting centuries for this moment, for Nicholas’s arrival.

Nicholas halted at the entrance of the palace, eyes locked on

the elegant script etched along the front doors: Blackwell Manor.

Cold air scraped his skin and reached down his dry throat like

a claw. His breathing became harsh as he stared at his family’s

name. His trembling hand slid into his back pocket, fingers

fighting for his inhaler. Quickly he placed it against his lips.

A cold, hollow voice echoed across the valley, chilling him

to his very core. The words hung in the air: I know a secret that

could change the world.

Nicholas calmed his nerves with a puff from his inhaler.

How could he, a boy, have come this far and survived so much?

It seemed as if Nicholas had forgotten a lot in his walk through

the valley, as if his mind was erased in such a short period of

time. He had completely forgotten how he got to the Valley

of Death, why he held six random objects in his backpack and

what had happened to his friend. There wasn’t too much he

could recall, but one thing was certain: he was about to face the

greatest evil imaginable.

As he opened the front doors of the Blackwell Manor, he

stared into the most beautiful blue eyes he had ever seen. And

then he remembered…

The snowfall had stopped and thick ruby curtains fell together,

making the stage disappear like a magic act. Seven-year-old

Nicholas Blackwell followed his parents’ lead and stood between

them to applaud. He looked up at his mother, who had the

same smile on her face as when the show began. Her dark red

hair was elegantly done up, and her long black dress sparkled

as the overhead lights beamed from the stage. He then looked

to his father who towered over him, wearing an exquisite black

suit with a blue tie to match his eyes. Oliver continued to clap,

and Nicholas did the same.

It was the largest theater in New York City, and Nicholas had

a hard time weaving through the tall masses of lavishly dressed

people. He tried to keep up with his parents, but one wrong turn

lead him to an unfamiliar hall, where he halted at a ferocious

gargoyle statue. He searched frantically for his parents through

the sea of people, standing on the base of the marble statue to

get a better look. His chest tightened with every second that

went by, and as he reached for his inhaler, he completely forgot

that he had given it to his mother to hold in her purse.

An enormous gloved hand rested on Nicholas’s shoulder,

and he turned to see a giant of a man hovering over him.

“Hey there Nicholas, you alright?” the man said in a thick,

burly voice.

Nicholas tried to respond but couldn’t find words. The man

reached into his coat pocket, and Nicholas took this opportunity

to run into the crowd. The man yelled for Nicholas to return,

but as he tried to follow, his coat caught on the teeth of the

gargoyle.

Nicholas surged through the crowd, feeling as though he

could faint at any moment. His vision blurred as he felt dizzy.

Just as he felt he would topple over, he saw red hair and his

mother’s arms stretching toward him.

“Nicholas!” Kathleen shouted in relief as she pulled the

inhaler from her purse.

“Sorry,” Nicholas said from behind his inhaler.

Oliver put a hand on his shoulder. “You scared us to death.”

Nicholas looked up. “There was a man, he knew my name.”

His parents exchanged a worried glance.

After an unsettling moment, Oliver knelt down to be level

with his son. “Nicholas, I want you to promise me you will stay

by our side, alright?”

Nicholas nodded and looked to his mother, who had not

taken her eyes from him since they had found him.

In the lobby, Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell mingled with some

friends, colleagues and one of Kathleen’s old professors from

New York University. Nicholas made a round of introductions

with his parents’ friends. He counted five pinches to the cheek,

three “look how tall you’ve gotten” and two “you look just like

your father”. He quickly forgot faces as he was being introduced

to an endless stream of people and hid behind his father, arms

wrapped around Oliver’s leg.

“Oliver,” said a man with a thick mustache and a cane,

looking as though he had just stepped out of an old Hollywood

film, “How goes the Blackwell Foundation?”

“Very well, thank you,” Oliver said proudly. “This year,

the hospital is looking brighter than ever with over two dozen

volunteers for Christmas. The donations have been most

generous, the best I’ve ever seen. The children will have a truly

blessed Christmas this year.”

“Good to hear,” the man said, leaning against his cane.

“Remind me to contribute a little extra.” He winked and turned

to Oliver’s wife. “Kathleen, may I say you look enchanting this

evening?”

“Thank you, Professor Larson.”

“I hear you’ve taken over the homeless shelter down on

32nd street. How is it holding up?”

“It’ll be a Christmas to remember.” Kathleen’s contagious

smile had everyone joining in.

Professor Larson now looked to Nicholas. “Nicholas

Blackwell, I presume?”

Nicholas nodded as he came out from behind his father.

“It’s very nice to finally meet you. I’ve heard wonderful

things. Your parents just beam about you. You know, you look

just like your father.”

Three times. That was the third time Nicholas had been

compared to his father.

It was getting late when Nicholas’s parents finally said

goodbye to their friends. It was one of the only nights Nicholas

was allowed to stay up so late—a holiday treat. He loved it.

Staying up late made him feel grown up.

Out on the street Oliver waved down a taxi. Nicholas got

a glimpse of his father’s ring embedded with an amethyst

stone. A family heirloom, one that had been around for many

generations. Not too long ago, Oliver said that one day the

ring would be handed down to Nicholas. Ever since, he had

appreciated the ring much more.

The taxi made its way toward their home through the

labyrinth of a city toward the Upper East Side. The city was lit

up, busier than ever on the Christmas Eve, and the shops stayed

open long past midnight. When they arrived, Kathleen helped

Nicholas out of the car as Oliver paid the taxi driver, giving him

a generous tip that made the man beam with gratitude, thanking

him over and over again.

“Happy Holidays to you and your family. Take care,” Oliver

said.

“You as well, Mr. Blackwell. God bless.” The taxi driver

waved goodbye and drove off into the night, probably heading

back home early, now that he had made more than enough in

tips to make his shift worthwhile.

Huddled under her cozy jacket, Kathleen wrapped her arms

around Nicholas. Her warmth overpowered the bitter cold

night. “You know Nicholas, Santa Claus is probably already

delivering toys to children around the world.”

“He is, isn’t he?” Nicholas jumped with excitement. “I can

hardly wait until morning.”

“Me too.” She smiled.

Oliver joined his family at the front door and took out his

house key from his coat pocket. Just as he unlocked the door,

his cell phone rang. Kathleen’s look made him hesitate.

“It’ll just take a minute,” he assured her.

“Alright, but remember it’s our night.” She took Nicholas’s

hand and led him up the stairs to his bedroom. She helped him

change out of his suit. He took it off reluctantly. He loved

dressing up like his father.

In his pajamas, Nicholas knelt down beside his bed. He

wrapped his hands together and closed his eyes. “Now I lay me

down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before

I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Kathleen smiled warmly as she watched her son pray.

“Dear God, I pray that everyone in the entire world has a great

Christmas and has someone to share it with. Thank you for my

mommy and daddy and everything. I love you God. Goodnight.”

Nicholas jumped into bed and crawled under his thick,

superhero-themed comforter. Kathleen gave him Dexter, his

stuffed bear, and kissed him on the cheek, then turned the

bedroom lights off, leaving a nightlight on in the corner of his

room.

“Goodnight mommy.”

“Goodnight sweetheart. I love you.” She closed the door

behind her, leaving it open just a crack. Nicholas hugged Dexter

and closed his eyes. It didn’t take long at all before he dozed off.

The sound of shattering glass awoke Nicholas. He looked at

his bedside clock. 3:33. Muffled voices echoed from downstairs.

He pushed off his comforter and crept toward the door.

Through the crack in the doorway, he could see that the light

in the living room was on. The unfamiliar voices grew louder.

Trying to move as quietly as he could, he tiptoed toward the

edge of the staircase and slipped his head between the rails of

the banister to get a better view.

His heart raced as a man came into view. The same huge

man with black gloves he’d seen by the gargoyle statue in the

theatre was now standing in his living room.

“Alright Blackwells, where are you hiding them?” The man

moved aside, revealing Oliver and Kathleen, bound to chairs.

Nicholas covered his mouth to stifle a gasp. Now that the man

faced Nicholas’s direction, he could see what the man had been

hiding under his coat. Though he looked human, his skin had

an odd green tint. Scars showed through his thick facial hair.

Nicholas also saw another man, more stout than tall, stuffing

his mouth with cookies. His jaw seemed to unhinge as he fit in

piles of cookies with ease.

“Would you stop filling your face and get over here?!” The

big man in the coat smacked his companion on the back and a

whole cookie flew from his mouth and crumbled on the floor.

“Sorry, Mr. Romulus, sir.”

Romulus turned back to face the Blackwells. “I’m only

going to ask you one more time, Mr. and Mrs. Blackwell. Where

are the sins?” He circled them in long, stalking steps.

“We have no idea what you’re talking about,” Oliver spoke

weakly.

The man swung, hitting Oliver in the face. A tooth flew out

of his mouth. The man eating cookies laughed, crumbs falling

down the front of his overalls, his enormous belly bouncing

with each menacing chuckle.

“Oliver, Oliver, Oliver,” Romulus taunted. “Why do you

make me hurt you?” He stopped his pacing and leaned into

Oliver, then glanced at Kathleen quivering in her chair, her dress

tattered, her tangled hair half-covering her face. “You think I

don’t know the famous Blackwells? You Oliver, the infamous

Seeker who had sent so many of my kind back to Hell.” He

turned sharply to Kathleen. “And your wife, Kathleen Blackwell

formerly known as Kathleen LaGuardia. Studied at New York

University where she majored in Philosophy and Religion with

a minor in Demonology,” he smirked, leaning closer. “Your

beauty could bring the Guardian of Envy to tears.”

“We do not Seek anymore,” Kathleen said, fighting to speak

through a cut lip.

“And why was that, again? Was it because you finally were

able to conceive?” He pressed his hand against her belly.

“Don’t touch her!” Oliver bellowed.

The man with the cookies laughed louder.

Again Oliver was smacked across the face. “Where are the

sins, Oliver?! Where are they?!” Romulus cut Oliver’s ropes and

forced him out of the chair, pushing him against the glossy,

wooden floorboards kicking him three times in the stomach.

“Stop it, please!” Kathleen cried.

Romulus pulled out a pistol from his side pocket and shoved

it into Oliver’s face.

Nicholas’s heart pounded so hard that he was sure his chest

would burst. Breathing became difficult.

“I’m gonna ask you one more time, Kathleen, or your

husband will die. Where are the sins?” Romulus demanded, as

he tightened his grip on the pistol.

“If I tell you the whereabouts of the sins, you’ll just kill us

anyway.” Tears fell hard down Kathleen’s face.

“Ah, Katie… Can I call you Katie?” his voice softened,

but Kathleen didn’t answer. “I am a man of my word. Tell me

where you hid them and all of this will go away.”

“Kathleen, don’t,” Oliver said.

“Shut up!” Romulus’s face reddened, distended veins pulsing

beneath his skin. He shook the pistol. “I will pull this trigger.

Now answer me, Kathleen! Where are you hiding the sins?”

“They are contained.”

“Where?”

“Sins can only be contained within… innocence.” As the

words left her lips, Oliver closed his eyes and muttered the

word ‘no’ over and over again.

“Innocence,” Romulus smirked. “A child. You brilliant

woman. Now, how come we never thought of that?” He turned

to his friend who had finished the Christmas cookies. “I love it.

Simple, yet righteous. Innocence, all a part of the great Divine.”

He looked up to the ceiling, as if it was to the Heavens.

Nicholas quickly leaned back from the banister so that he

couldn’t be spotted. Then he heard the most horrible sound. A

gun shot. Kathleen screamed.

Nicholas looked back downstairs. He couldn’t see his father

behind the couch. Kathleen hung her head and sunk into her

chair as low as the ropes would allow her.

“You evil son of a bitch!”

“Ouch, Katie. There is no need for all that.” Romulus lifted

her chin and looked straight into her eyes with a menacing

smirk.

“You said you wouldn’t hurt him.”

“Hurt him?” Romulus gave a slight chuckle. “No, I didn’t

hurt him. I freed him. You should be thanking me. I thought

the Blackwells were all about protecting the Divine. Now he is

at peace.”

Kathleen spat in his face. With the sleeve of his shirt he

mopped his face clean.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” he said, hands leaning

against the arms of her chair. “You see, Katie, we’ve been

watching your family for a very long time now. And I know for

a fact that when you and your husband fought the Guardians of

Sin and contained them, like you so honorably admit, that you

were actually… pregnant.”

Her face was now soaked with tears. She shook her head,

begging for him to stop.

“Now I can’t think of anything more innocent than a child

that hasn’t even been born. A child that hasn’t even had a chance

to sin.” He turned to the man covered in cookie crumbs. “Get

the boy.”

“No!” she screamed.

Nicholas jumped to his feet and hurried up to the third level

to his parents’ bedroom. He didn’t care how much noise he

made, he just knew he had to hurry. He hadn’t even realized he

was carrying Dexter until he ran into the bedroom. Just as he

crawled under the bed he heard the sound of another gunshot

and his mother’s screams stopped.

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: | Leave a comment

Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows, by Andrew Cratsley

frontcover_444x664Title: Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows

Genre:  Fantasy

Author: Andrew Cratsley

Website: http://www.keeperofrunes.com

Publisher: CreateSpace

Purchase at: http://keeperofrunes.com/ 

SUMMARY:

An extraordinary coming-of-age fantasy tale written by a dynamic new voice in the world of fantasy, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows has garnered high advance praise.  Kirkus Reviews notes that Cratsley “believably and authentically develop[s] his characters” and calls the book a “promising debut.”  In a Clarion Review, ForeWord Reviews reports that Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows “has all the color, imagination, and drama one might expect from the genre as well as emotional depth.”  Moreover, the review states that the book’s “fast pace and gaming-style characteristics may appeal to more reluctant readers and inspire future fantasy enthusiasts.”

About Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows:  At 120 years old, Corinth is young by elf standards.  But even as a young elf, Corinth is haunted by his sordid past. When he emerges from his solitude within the eternal forest around Enzlintine, Corinth is sent away to quell the troubled region plagued by Khalid, the Lord of Conquest.  But this will be a journey like no other. Corinth bands together with two curious companions—the human ranger Aventis and the oh-so-spirited Nadine—until the trio is captured by an insidious necromancer, Mortiscet. A vile dark elf who forces the group to help his daughter Rieka find a mysterious object, Mortiscet thrusts the group into increasingly dangerous circumstances. Can Rieka escape the clutches of her wicked and overbearing patriarch?  And what will happen when the group launches towards a frigid wasteland in search of the bane of the evil that stalks them?  On this perilous journey, they’ll have to battle assassins, ominous creatures and the forces of Khalid. Expect the unexpected—because sometimes, the best intentions come from the darkest recesses of the heart…  

A splendid and magical tale with a captivating storyline, extraordinary characters and a plot brimming with action, intrigue and adventure, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows is a fascinating read that captivates from page one. Resplendent with characters that come to life within the novel’s pages, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows is a beautifully-written, imaginative, and inventive tale.  With its strong central female characters, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows offers a refreshing diversion from fantasy tales that focus largely on male protagonists and male supporting characters.   

A mesmerizing work of fantasy geared towards young adults, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows will also appeal to adult readers of fantasy, as well as fans of such fantasy classics such as The Lord of the Rings or the Harry Potter series.  According to Pacific Book Review, Keepers of Runes and the Tower of Shadows has aspects to entice most any reader, whether lover of fantasy or not…. readers of fantasy will delight in Cratsley’s work.”

1

The Dawn of a Knight

 

As the grove shimmered under the gaze of the waning moonlight, the young elf basked in a glowing cloud of fireflies along the trails. A triumphant vigor carried his tired body like the nearby orange fire-burst petals on the wind. Never before had a stroll through the dense forest surrounding Enzlintine been so blissful, and its serenity urged him to lower the hood of his gray cloak. During these rare moments of freedom, the timeless charm of the forest swept away his worries. Leaving the barracks so early was unnecessary, but he was embarrassed by the thought of a late arrival. Not the sort of thing a sage knight should do, and certainly not him.

Heavy fog rolled in and devoured him as he strode deeper into the dense foliage. More knowledgeable of the terrain than most elves, Corinth refused to be deterred after his twenty-seven years of solitude within it. His 120th birthday promised long-desired responsibilities, but the choking mist consumed his elation over attaining adulthood. Although fog was natural in early spring, this sudden onset was peculiar. He knew he was close to the clearing, but the thought of imprisonment within a smoky prism came to mind when he struggled to see his hand in front of his face.

A soft gust whispered into his pointed ears and stopped him in his tracks. Certain no wind had brushed his face, Corinth looked down at his cloak, which hung just as limply as his strong, uneasy hands. The soft forest floor greeted his feet gently as his silver eyes swept his surroundings while he felt his way through. When he noticed his footsteps were unusually muffled, the sounds of nature perished. The cooing of mourning doves, the scratching of nearby brambles against his cloak, and even the pounding of his heart, which threatened to break through his rib cage, no longer reached his keen elven ears.

“Silence spell,” he mumbled. With a glance into the warm sky, his anxiety mounted as he wished for the light of the bright moon he knew was overhead. Resting his back against the nearest tree, he brushed his shoulder-length, ebony hair from his forehead and drew his long sword. Since the enchantment around him prevented the use of magic, he wondered if it was the work of Tessius. He dismissed the absurd thought as he considered a more sinister threat might be around him. Wary of the clearing ahead, he stopped at the edge of the tree line and gazed into the eerie place that usually soothed him. A pillar of moonlight illuminated the harsh fog, which swallowed their usual meeting place.

The sharp intake of breath meant to calm him revealed an unnatural scent carried upon the white mist. It was dirty, lacking the fragrance of flowers and pollen, which should have filled the air. He stowed his blade beneath his cloak and held it tightly, since exquisite elven steel shined brighter than silver. It was the first time he regretted this quality of his father’s sword.

With a solid defensive stance, Corinth kept his back close to the great oak just outside the clearing. Shadowy distortions appeared in the fog and leaped toward his chest as he gracefully sidestepped them. Anxiety sharpened his senses as he swung instinctively toward the glare of the amber eyes, which bulged when he ripped open the throat of the waist-high menace. A putrid scent filled the air as its pustules ruptured against his steel. He glanced quickly at his feet and found no trace of the dead, wrinkled goblin, which meant it had been conjured.

Walking into the center of the vibrant clearing, Corinth relied on his sight since goblins could easily trace his scent. His fingers tingled with anticipation, and he dared not blink as his silver eyes studied the area. Two dusky blades lashed toward his toned body, followed by more pointed, snarling faces. Slashing forward with all his strength, Corinth parried the rusted short swords and launched one of the blades through the moist air. Although thrown back a couple of paces, he remained on his feet and glared at the fearful creatures. The goblins stared wide eyed at him when they landed, unable to compensate for his speed. After impaling the wrinkled forehead of the one to his left, he turned his steel and swept it to his right without pause. His lustrous blade cleaved through the other creature’s rib cage as it attempted to retrieve its weapon. Narrowly evading the cold, iron weapon at his feet, Corinth felt the rusted edge scrape his boot. Restlessness clenched his chest when he studied the area, wondering from where the next strike would emerge.

A reflection loomed in Corinth’s blade, enticing him to spin around with a blind swing. His sword clashed awkwardly against the corroded iron, and he stared down at the toothy grin of the crazed goblin who parried his attack. The small, fanatical menace scraped its steel along Corinth’s weapon with surprising strength before Corinth could recover his slackened grip on the hilt. The goblin stared gleefully at his elven steel as it tumbled through the air. Kicking it across the bridge of its long, pointed nose, Corinth staggered when another creature leaped onto his back. He struggled to pry away the stubby, strong arms that grappled his neck as the flat of a blade slammed into the back of his knee. Tears poured from his eyes as he fell backward to the soft forest floor. The goblin on Corinth’s back swung around his neck and landed gracefully on his chest as Corinth hit the ground. Anger and terror ravaged his fit body as the tidal wave of creatures swallowed him from all sides.

After punching the devilish monster straddling him, Corinth sat up as it fell unconscious between his legs. Sharp blades poked his back before he could scramble to his feet, and a fierce kick to the ribs knocked him prone again. Sound returned with a surge of the hideous laughter of the goblin pack that towered over him as they pointed their swords at his angry face.

“Cowardly beasts!” Corinth sneered through gritted teeth.

“That is enough,” Tessius said as he calmly walked into view. The remaining creatures parted to allow him to approach. His long fingers stretched out, and his arm made a polite sweeping motion. “Un-accersi.” The creatures growled as they vanished, and the fog lifted. With a swish of his large hand, Tessius pulled down his brown hood, and his web of hazelnut braids fell neatly against his back. He smiled down at Corinth with his usually kind expression and extended his open hand.

“That was very good,” he said. “Can you stand?”

Nodding, Corinth accepted his master’s hand grudgingly. This was yet another training session, and he had failed what was perhaps his last test of skill. With a strong grip, Tessius squeezed Corinth’s shoulder as he walked toward the stone bench near the center of the clearing. Corinth gazed hopefully at his master for an explanation, while his pulse raced at the thought of this mockery before he looked at the ground, feeling mutinous.

“Come now, Corinth. This is a time to celebrate, not sulk.” Tessius chuckled and reached under his brown cloak. “Come here and sit down.”

Realizing that his attempt to hide his anger had failed, Corinth was unable to resist his protest any longer.

“I was outnumbered ten to one,” he grumbled. “You prevented me from using magic, and I could see nothing! How was I supposed to succeed?” Annoyed while Tessius surveyed him with amusement and interest, Corinth bit back his mounting anger.

“Simple,” Tessius replied as he paused to open his jug of elven mead, which always hung from his thick belt. “You were not supposed to succeed.” He held up his hand to silence Corinth before he could speak. “Sit down.”

Reluctantly Corinth took his usual seat beside Tessius, who removed two flasks from the sack on his right hip. Staring back in confusion, Corinth could think of no response as his master thrust the jug and flasks toward him. “Pour, and I’ll explain since you are of age now. I want you to drink with me and talk for a while.” Enticed by the polite gesture to pour, Corinth thought the sweet aroma had an inviting appeal, but the timing felt peculiar. Unwilling to test his master’s patience with more rudeness, he filled the flasks.

The mead soothed Corinth’s throat with a warm sensation. It was remarkably smooth, with the hint of a rare berry that grew locally. Sapphire eyes pierced him as he drank, and the calm demeanor the ladies of Enzlintine admired so much relaxed him. Faint traces of blue embraced the sky, which met Tessius’s gaze as he scratched his hazelnut braids. His bulky arm lifted his flask for another sip before he continued.

“Time and again your sword has shown no limits, and your technique can only evolve with real experience.” Curious as to why the moon enthralled Tessius so much, Corinth pondered what his master thought when his bright eyes fixed upon it.

“You intended to mimic a real battle?” Corinth asked. “It seemed like the usual kind of test, only different tactics.” His choice of words came more easily as the mead washed away his contempt.

“Your training has entailed the art of swordsmanship in the way known only to the elites of the elven guard, the sage knights. This has done nothing to aid you against what awaits you in the real world, since few share our principles of chivalry.” After pausing to empty his flask, Tessius held it out for a refill and smiled reassuringly. “If you had succeeded, the lesson would have served little purpose.”

“It would have shown I possess superior skill. Surely the lesson would have been as—”

“It would not have,” Tessius interjected. Mead spewed out of the top of the flask as he spoke, and Corinth shifted uncomfortably as it ran down his master’s arm. Tessius sighed and moved his flask to his right hand so he could shake the wasted mead off his left. “Many young sage knights fall to such perils soon after induction into the order; thus my reasoning for this lesson before giving you real assignments. Now that your eyes are open, you can proceed.” He chuckled at Corinth’s blank expression.

“You mean I was accepted?” The nearby doves scattered amid his excitement.

“Of course!” Tessius laughed heartily at Corinth. “This means greater responsibilities ahead, and as my disciple, you represent not only me but also our community. You will be officially inducted tomorrow, so be sure not to get involved in city business.” He cast a quick, stern look at his student before he lifted his flask to his lips.

“Yes, sir!” As Corinth watched the sun rise, his spirit blazed like the red sky as it enveloped Terranesit, the world in which they lived.

“Take the day off.” Emptying his flask again, Tessius stared into the sky and admired the glow of the new day. All the trees swayed gently in the breeze, and the woodland creatures scuttled about with their daily tasks. “Go visit Enzlintine. I know you miss it.”

“Yes, thank you…, sir,” Corinth replied, forcing a smile of gratitude.

“Out with it,” Tessius said as he stowed his flask into his hip sack.

“I wonder how the townspeople will…I mean to say—have they forgotten?” Intense heat swept over his shameful face as he searched for the right words. He wished he could avoid this conversation and immediately begin his duties.

“No,” Tessius said. “They are elves, after all.” He stared at Corinth’s crestfallen face and smiled. “So you made mistakes in your youth.”

“It was only twenty-seven years ago,” Corinth uttered as he swept back his uncooperative hair.

“And in that time you have grown more than any elf could be expected to. Yes, you will have to earn respect again, and as you know, it may be a slow, difficult process.” A patient smile swept over Tessius, who gave a few moments’ pause. “You were a rather petulant child who had too much pride to accept aid from those who respected your family, so you and your gang of friends hid in the old city, plotting petty heists.” He stopped for a moment to grasp Corinth’s shoulder, while he bore into his silver eyes again. “A shameful thing for any of our kind to suffer. However, you were doing the best you could on your own.”

Turning away slightly, Corinth found the sight of the sapphire eyes too much to look into; the act prompted Tessius to release him and stare at the falling moon. “Those days are gone, and you will now serve Enzlintine with the highest pride and honor that is possible for an elf.”

“I will do all that is possible, Master.” Little relief swept over his burning eyes, and the urge to start his duties consumed his thoughts.

“If you recall, your pleading went on for years before I agreed to teach you the secret arts. Only your will to learn, determination, and deep sense of remorse led you to where you are now. The pain you still feel from this tells me I have made the right decision in training you.”

Leaving Corinth to his thoughts, Tessius rose and disappeared behind the wall of vines on the east side of the clearing. The mead tingled Corinth’s lips as he pondered his master’s words, shuddering at the idea of another couple thousand years of guilt. Eager to escape his past, Corinth dreamed of heroism and noble servitude to Enzlintine.

He trudged north with little notice to where he stepped, aware that he was on a direct course toward home. A dense heaviness clung to his feet as he passed the training barracks where he’d lingered for so long. Newborn leaves and blossoms didn’t sweep him away as they should have as he walked the vast forest. Looking down at the vibrant sword he had inherited, Corinth wondered what his father would have said at his matching in rank at his young age.

Upon his arrival at the outer rim of Enzlintine, Corinth stared at what the elves called the “old city.” The ruins saddened him—as they did most of his kind—as he walked past the decimated buildings. Two hundred years of overgrowth nearly swallowed the remnants from the era of chaos. Restoration of their homeland had been slow as they had built outward while their race repopulated the forest. Keeping his eyes fixed on the cobblestone-and-alabaster road, he reached the stone archway next to the waterfall, which separated the ruins from the new city.

Sunlight glistened off the ivory buildings and mansions of the many aristocrats, artists, and musicians, reminding him at once of how beautiful Enzlintine was. Trees and gardens lined the vast structures toward the center of town as he strode by, waving at the local blacksmith. As he feared, memories of his last days in Enzlintine flooded his mind. He wondered how long it had been since his parents’ funeral when Tessius arrested him and took him into the solitude of his parents’ cabin, which was near the barracks. Recalling the many funerals of friends and family, Corinth remembered only sadness and was unable to discern what he had done at the time.

Greeted by the town square, a grid of well-kept trees and fountains, Corinth stopped on the short stone bridge. He stood over the moat and gazed at the most precious gift given to the elves, the Tree of Life. Granted by their goddess, Nartha, it was the sigil of their essence. The tree kept the entire forest fertile and immortal, and its great branches spread over the moat surrounding it. Its top was barely visible, and in the spring, it attracted doves by the hundreds. Most elves believed the tree blessed the city with prosperity, and they often held ceremonies, such as weddings, under its heavy branches. Although religion had never interested Corinth much, the tree always lifted his spirits, and today was no different. He rested on the grass of the small island and stared up for a while at the white blossoms, which floated toward the water surrounding him.

Feeling recharged, he wandered into the marketplace in the northwestern district, where the granite buildings, ornate with quartz and precious metals, were tightly packed together. The market was crowded as he passed, wondering where he should go next.

“Corinth! Is that you?”

Stopping in his tracks, he turned toward the sound of the familiar, sly voice. He caught a glimpse of the clothing vendor, who stood behind one of many booths along the street, and approached him apprehensively.

“It is! Ha!” he added, grinning at Corinth, who nodded curtly with a forced smile. “Where have you been all this time?” The scrawny vendor leaned over his counter and extended his bony hand.

“I was…removed, Besmyr,” Corinth replied as he took the vendor’s hand, unsure what to say to his old friend. The man had been the ringleader behind his childhood mischief and the last person he expected to find.

“I heard!” Besmyr said, ruffling his short, blond hair. Scathing looks from nearby vendors and customers pierced Corinth from all sides. “I was told Tessius arrested you personally.”

“Yes,” Corinth replied, glancing at passersby as his face grew warm.

“I spent a month in the dungeon, given my age, but I was worried when I heard that bloody sage knight had an interest in capturing you. Where have you been?”

“I was isolated, but after some years, I was relocated to the barracks.” The vein twitched in Corinth’s forehead, which burned as red as his tunic. He wished more than anything that he could have avoided this reunion.

“The barracks?” Besmyr asked with a suspicious frown.

“I started training after my punishment ended,” Corinth explained. It was my decision.”

“You wanted training…for what purpose?” His blue eyes flickered as his pale face reddened, and the casual conversation quickly resembled an interrogation. Corinth stood rigidly and glared back at him.

“To atone. Surely you are doing the same?”

“I’m sorry I was caught, but I make an honest living to avoid expulsion from the city!” Besmyr hissed, pulling his face up to Corinth’s. “You think I would live among humans?”

“You are not regretful of what happened?” Corinth’s heart raced furiously over the unavoidable conflict.

“Regretful I have been reduced to this living, and having to watch you puff out your chest like a pompous fool!” Besmyr snarled as he slammed his fist on the counter. “Why would being a lowly town guard make you walk about like a self-righteous buffoon?”

“I do no such thing,” Corinth said in a low tone, “and I am not a town guard. I am a sage knight.”

“A sage knight?” Besmyr blinked. “You’re full of…You have no crest.”

“I will be inducted into the order tomorrow, and I owe you no apology simply because I want to serve the city!”

“You sound just like that fool who arrested you.” Besmyr narrowed his eyes before an odd smile stretched across his face.

“You go too far!” Leaning closer to Besmyr, Corinth felt a slight tug on his belt and turned to find what had amused him. The elven child who’d pulled the purse off Corinth’s belt stood barely past his waist. Panicking, the blond boy sped down the street with Corinth on his heels.

“Serves you right!” Besmyr barked after him.

Pursuit of the thief through the marketplace was clumsy as Corinth attempted to dodge citizens with the same grace as the child.

“Boy! Everyone step aside!” Corinth shouted as he ran into a middle-aged woman, whose husband caught her as she fell. Shouting his apology over his shoulder at the angry elf, Corinth dared not pull his eyes off the child. As he sped down an alley to his left off the main street, the debris did nothing to help him gain ground. Wagons and carts vendors used to restock businesses blocked the narrow passageway, and the child passed them with impressive speed. It was the first time Corinth was thankful to be thinner and less muscular than Tessius, who could always break Corinth’s stance when he parried.

The small blond boy was almost in reach, and he dropped a bag of marbles as he rounded a corner. Unable to stop in time, Corinth braced himself with an outstretched hand as he trampled the tiny glass orbs. His left shoulder screamed in agony as he bounced off a stone wall and fell to one knee. Despite his robust training, a painful stab erupted in his side from the chase as he sprinted off once more. Ignoring the protest of his lungs and the bleeding from the cuts he had received in the alley, he cut across a vacant side street. Almost within arm’s reach, the boy ran down the alley between two men in brown cloaks. Huffing as he grabbed his knees, he stopped behind them and in front of a third man. The two men in front barred Corinth’s path as he slid to a halt. Handing over several coin pouches to the man in the back, the child scampered off behind him.

“That’s far enough,” hissed the man in the back. “He’s a good worker, and we don’t need little goodies like you turning him in.”

“Are you his employer, or are you lowly pawns as well?” Corinth wheezed, squinting for a better look at the faces under the large, brown hoods.

“I don’t see why it matters to you, foolish one. You don’t appear to be the town guard.”

The chuckling of the two men in front burned Corinth’s ears as the child’s footsteps drifted out of earshot.

“That matters not,” Corinth replied as he recalled Tessius’s warning to stay out of city business. “What you are doing is unjust, and I cannot watch you corrupt that boy.”

“What do you intend to do about it?” The man in the rear stepped toward Corinth so they could be face-to-face. Although he kept most of his face hidden, a black-and-gray beard fell out of the hood, tipping off Corinth that the man must be human, since elves couldn’t grow facial hair.

“You have no place here!” A violent explosion erupted in his chest as he shouted at them, unable to bear the thought of outsiders corrupting his home from within. The men burst into laughter, only antagonizing him further.

“You hear that, boys? We have another pompous elf to contend with,” the man scoffed as he thrust his dagger at the elf’s chest.

Sidestepping the stab, Corinth slammed his back into the wall behind him.

Illuminas caecae!” he snarled as he extended his left hand toward the bandits. The leader ducked and turned away, narrowly avoiding the flash of white-hot light, which burst from Corinth’s casting hand. The man to his right caught the full brunt of the spell and fell unconscious. He hit the paved road with a thud, while the other man shielded his eyes—but not quickly enough.

“I’m blind! I can’t see!” the cloaked man cried as he backed away and tripped over the crate behind him.

“Only temporary, I assure you,” Corinth said as he drew his weapon. “You cannot defeat me. Do yourself justice and—”

The leader spun around and hurled a pouch of sand into Corinth’s face. Intense burning consumed his eyes as he resisted the urge to scream and instead focused his energy on his keen hearing. Footsteps circled farther to his right, then paused. He pretended not to hear and held his breath as he waited for the side attack. Sidestepping gracefully, Corinth swept his elven blade and cleaved a deep wound in the man’s unarmored chest. The bandit screamed in agony and fell to the ground, heaving his last breath.

“Not so fast,” a man hissed from behind Corinth, who rubbed his watery eyes. Sharp pain erupted through the lower-left side of his back when he tried to turn. Hands wrapped in black leather grabbed his throat and prevented him from falling to his knees. Gasping for air, Corinth winced as painful tears filled his eyes. “I was watching from the shadows for my amusement, but I’m afraid I can’t let you capture my hirelings.”

Immense agony rippled through Corinth as the dagger in his side twisted before the man wrenched it back out. Laughter filled his pointed ears as he screamed. The hand that bound his throat released him and pushed him to the ground. He felt dizzy, and his eyes faded out of focus; a chill swept over him as the strength drained from his body. He rolled onto his back, unable to see the face of the cackling man who had stabbed him. Harnessing the last of his strength, Corinth raised his sword and pointed it at him.

“You still want to fight me? You can’t even stand!”

Trinus,” Corinth muttered, focused on the evil laughter. An unseen force knocked the man forward onto Corinth’s steel and impaled him. The pommel slammed into Corinth’s ribs when the rogue fell on him, but it no longer mattered, since Corinth felt no pain.

“Curse you,” the man gurgled into his ear, choking on his own blood.

Corinth twisted his blade one last time and heard the man fall silent. Darkness crept over him as he listened to the pounding of footsteps.

 

 

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult | Leave a comment

Shiloh’s True Nature, by D.W. Raleigh

shiloTitle: Shiloh’s True Nature

Genre: YA/Fantasy

Author: D.W. Raleigh

Pages: 260

Publisher: Hobbes End Publishing

Purchase at Amazon 

When 12 year-old farm boy Shiloh Williams is sent to stay with his estranged grandfather, he discovers a mysterious new world inhabited by ‘Movers’. The Movers live in symbiotic harmony with one another, except one extremely powerful Mover who has stolen the town’s most precious artifact, the Eternal Flame. Shiloh investigates his supernatural surroundings, makes new friends, and begins to think of the town as home. However, just as soon as he starts to fit in, he realizes his newfound happiness is about to come to an abrupt end. One decision and one extreme consequence are all that remain.

Chapter One

July 20th

Shiloh Williams walked along in the late-afternoon heat, on his way home from the town of Salem. The lanky twelve-year-old brushed his sweat-soaked, brown hair away from his blue eyes with one hand while trying to finish the ice-cream cone he carried in the other. His bare feet were relieved to step off the asphalt main road and onto the narrow, shady dirt path leading to his home.

The dusty, dirt lane was flanked by a vast cornfield to one side and towering black willow trees and intertwined brush on the other. Shiloh inhaled the sweet scent of honeysuckle as he licked the cone, gazing toward the two-story, white Victorian house in the distance. The house was his home, and the cornfield part of his family’s farm. One of the few farms left in the area, his father always liked to mention.

Shiloh was in a good mood: partly because he had spent the day in town playing with some friends, but mostly because this was his first actual vacation day of the summer. Until today, he had been working on the farm all day every day, since school ended. When his father told him he was receiving a two-week break, Shiloh decided he was going to make the most of it and be thankful he didn’t have to work another day in the brutal July heat.

As he strolled along the dusty path, Shiloh heard something rustling in the brush beside him. He turned his head and saw two large black birds only a couple of feet away. The birds cawed as they boldly jumped from branch to branch trying to keep pace with him. He assumed it was the ice cream they were after, so Shiloh tossed the remainder of the cone toward the brush and watched as the birds descended upon it.

Farther along, Shiloh spotted an expensive-looking, black car in front of the house. It was parked next to his father’s battered, old pickup truck, which made any other vehicle look nice. There was a man leaning against the rear of the car wearing a black suit and cap. Shiloh found that strange, considering he was dressed in a white T-shirt and shorts and had been sweating since he stepped outside that morning.

As he drew closer to the house, Shiloh realized his hands were sticky with ice-cream residue. He wasn’t supposed to be eating sweets this close to his suppertime, and knew his mother would scold him if she found out. So he slipped into the cornfield to let the giant stalks conceal his five-foot frame until he could reach the back of the house to wash off undetected.

He quietly snuck through the field and came up behind the giant stack of hay bales perpetually piled at the rear of the house. After glancing around to make sure it was clear, he crept up to the porch and over to the rusty, old spigot. He winced as he slowly turned the squeaky faucet handle, hoping the noise didn’t make it through the kitchen screen door just a few feet away.

As Shiloh cleaned his hands, the aroma of his mother’s cooking filled his nostrils, while the sound of arguing voices filled his ears. When his hands were no longer sticky, he quietly moved over to the back door, and stopped when he could hear the discussion in the kitchen. He immediately recognized one voice as his father’s, but there was another, unfamiliar, rough-sounding man’s voice. It must have been whoever came in the black car, he thought.

Listening intently, Shiloh was startled when something rubbed against his leg. It was one of his cats, Lovie. The gray and black tabby mix rubbed her face against his anklebones as she walked figure eights between his legs. Shiloh knew if Lovie was around, his other feline, Cheepie, couldn’t be far behind. He looked over his shoulder toward the faucet and found the other gray tabby, one that looked like a miniature tiger, entranced by the remaining water droplets dribbling from the nozzle.

His attention returned to the kitchen door when the rough voice said, “I don’t know how you’re keeping this farm productive when all the others in this area have gone under, but whatever you’re doing is going to fail eventually. So you might as well sell it to me before I decide to withdraw my more than generous offer.”

Shiloh imagined the scowl on his father’s face as he heard him answer, “You’ve been trying to get your hands on this property for years, but I’m not going to give it to you. Not now. Not ever. Not at any price. And if there are problems with the soil around here, you need only look in the mirror for the cause.”

“I’ll not be insulted by the likes of you, Joseph Williams. Good day,” the man huffed.

Shiloh heard footsteps, followed by the front door slamming. He was curious about this unfamiliar man, so he leapt off the porch and ran up along the side of the house. In his haste to see the stranger, Shiloh slipped on some pebbles and fell just as he reached the front corner of the house. The man immediately turned toward Shiloh scowling. Shiloh looked up at the stranger, but the bright sunshine kept him from distinguishing any of his features. The one thing Shiloh did notice was, like his driver, the man was dressed all in black, except for a hideously bright orange tie.

The man’s gaze was broken as two black birds descended and began attacking him. The man quickly ducked into the rear of the car, the birds turning their attention to his driver, who ran around to the other side to enter. As the car pulled away, Shiloh noticed it had a peculiar, black license plate with orange lettering reading HAINES.

When the vehicle left his sight, Shiloh returned to the back door, but again paused by the screen door when he heard his father’s agitated voice. “The crops looked a little off today. We definitely need to get some cash together for fertilizer. They could use a dusting too. And on top of that, I haven’t paid Rikki and Peco for a couple weeks. I’m glad I agreed to let them stay in the old barn. Otherwise they might’ve left by now. I’ll need to find a way to make it up to them.”

Shiloh heard the oven door open and close, followed by his mother’s voice, “Are you having second thoughts about Haines’ offer, Joe?”

“What? No! I’ll work the fields alone and eat dirt before I let that man get his hands on this land, Mary,” Joe stubbornly declared.

Mary scoffed. “Okay. Well, I’ll see if I can round up some recipes for dirt . . . just in case.”

Joe chuckled slightly and Shiloh smiled to himself, thinking about the easy way his mother was always able to diffuse his father’s anger.

Joe then noted, “By the way, I spoke to Doc and he said it would be all right. In fact, he suggested it before I even asked.”

“He’s not going to be happy about it,” Mary sighed.

Shiloh frowned, wondering what they were talking about, as Joe continued, “Well, that’s too bad. A vacation is a vacation. He’s almost a man now, and he needs to learn that part of being a man is having to do stuff you don’t want to do.”

Mary snorted sarcastically. “Say it just like that, Joe. That’ll make him feel better about it.”

Joe chuckled again and said, “Give me a break, Mary.”

“I won’t give you a break, but I will give you dinner. Go wash up,” Mary replied with a giggle.

Shiloh heard a chair slide across the kitchen floor and waited until the footsteps faded before opening the screen door. When he stepped through the doorway onto the black and white tile, he found his mother’s tall and slender frame at the sink. As Mary washed her hands, her long sandy-blond hair was illuminated by the sun shining in from the window above the sink.

After she dried her hands, Mary turned to open one of the nearby wooden cabinets and said, “No . . .” pointing in Shiloh’s direction and downward. Shiloh looked around in confusion. “. . . I’m making dinner and those two are not coming in here,” she finished.

Shiloh looked down and realized she was referring to the cats lingering in the doorway.

“One keeps trying to drag dead mice in the house. And the other keeps eating bugs, which wouldn’t be so bad if he wasn’t throwing them up all over the place afterward,” she continued.

A tight-lipped smile rolled across Shiloh’s face as he turned to shoo the cats back out the door.

When he turned back around, Shiloh found himself face-to-face with his mother. Her chestnut-colored eyes stared straight into his baby blues with a smirk. “What’s this?” she asked, pointing to his chest. “Ice cream?”

Shiloh looked down at his T-shirt to see a couple of stains from his earlier treat. “Oh . . . that was from earlier this afternoon,” he replied with a wide grin.

“Really? Because it still looks wet,” Mary noted, returning his smile with a shake of her head. “Go wash up. Dinner is almost ready.”

The family dinner was relatively quiet. Shiloh tried to stuff himself so he wouldn’t be lectured by his mother about eating ice cream before supper. He avoided eye contact with his father, because after hearing Joe grumble about all of the farm’s problems, he feared he might lose his time off.

When he finished, Shiloh took his plate to the sink and tried to make a hasty retreat out the back door without saying a word. However, it wasn’t to be. “Hey . . . take a seat,” Joe called, pointing to Shiloh’s empty chair at the dinner table.

Shiloh walked back to the chair feeling certain his father was about to revoke his vacation time “for the good of the farm.” He looked up to see his father leaning forward with his elbows on the table and his large callused hands folded. Joe was a tall, muscular man with perpetually unkempt, light-brown hair, piercing blue eyes, and his face always appeared to need a shave.

Joe stared at Shiloh for a moment before asking, “How would feel you about spending some time with your grandfather?”

He was taken off guard by the question, but shrugged and answered, “Okay, I guess.”

“Good,” Joe smiled. “He’ll be by to pick you up tomorrow.”

“What?” Shiloh responded in shock.

“You’re going to spend a couple weeks with your grandfather,” Joe answered pointedly.

Shiloh’s disbelief and agitation spilled out of his mouth in rapid succession. “A couple weeks? Why? I’m supposed to go swimming at the pond tomorrow! The carnival is in town next week! My birthday is in two weeks! I don’t want to go!”

Joe leaned back in his chair, shaking his head, “You’ve been complaining about having to work the fields all summer. I’d think you’d be glad to get a break from it.”

“Yeah, I wanted a break to have some fun with my friends. Not a break where I’m sent away to some strange place . . . I’m not going!” Shiloh’s voice shook with anger.

Joe, not the kind of man to listen to long protestations, replied, “You are going. End of discussion.” He returned to his meal.

Slamming his hands on the table, Shiloh rose from his chair, and walked toward the back door. “Get back here,” Joe called, as Shiloh forcefully pushed open the screen door.

He heard his father yell, “Shiloh!” but he ignored him and ran into the immense cornfield. He ran through the field until he grew so tired he had to walk. He continued walking until he found himself on the far edge of the field, where he stepped out onto a narrow dirt trail that surrounded it.

Shiloh looked back to see how far he had come and the farm’s old horse barn caught his eye. The faded, maroon monstrosity had fallen into disrepair, but the barn’s current residents, Rikki and Peco, loved it for some reason. It was their big, red dilapidated mansion.

When his gaze drifted across the field, Shiloh saw his home in the distance. The towering cornstalks obscured all but the top half of the house. Taking a couple of steps backward, trying to find a better view, he suddenly lost his balance. He began tumbling down a slick embankment covered with reeds and into the swampy marsh that separated his family’s property from the Delahanna River.

Shiloh was uninjured by the fall, but landed on his backside in the mud. He sat for a moment to catch his breath, gazing toward the river stretching out in front of him. He saw some Great Blue Herons standing nearby in the marsh. The large gray birds were motionless, with their S-shaped necks pointing up into the distance.

Following the herons’ gaze, Shiloh saw the large factory to the south. He knew the factory was there, but never paid it much attention. It was practically invisible due to the thick cluster of hickory trees lining the rear of the farm. The factory’s most distinguishing feature was an enormous cylindrical brick smokestack with a giant, orange H on its side. The huge tower emitted a perpetual gray smoke that seemed to linger in the air.

Hearing voices in the distance, Shiloh turned back toward the river. An old fishing boat was anchored just offshore with some young people frolicking around the deck. He watched as a young man jumped from the deck into the river. “It’s freezing!” the young man hollered, emerging from the water.

Shiloh smiled, remembering how he used to love the crisp bite of the river water on a hot summer afternoon. His parents wouldn’t allow him to swim in the river anymore. They said it was too polluted and dirty.

Straight across the river were some lights from the town of Old New Castle. Just beyond that was Pike Creek, where his grandfather lived and where he would apparently be going the next day. This made him think of the things he’d be missing in the next two weeks: going swimming, the carnival, spending time with his friends.

Thoughts of his impending departure made Shiloh feel sick to his stomach, so he tried thinking of something else. He looked around and noticed several gray puddles of water with a number of long-stemmed, gray wildflowers growing out of them. He frowned because he couldn’t recall ever seeing a gray flower before. He plucked the closest one and thought it was a wild daisy of some kind.

Another flower grew out of the puddle right before his eyes, taking the place of the one he picked. This second flower was not gray, but golden yellow with a black center. Though startled, Shiloh scowled and dismissed the peculiar occurrence, recalling how he’d seen colorful mushrooms grow right before his eyes while working very early in the morning on the farm.

As the sun began to set, Shiloh climbed the embankment, deciding he had better return to the house. He chose to walk back through the cornfield instead of the path along the edge of the field, because it was shorter. He came to regret that decision when the sunlight faded and the tall cornstalks blocked out what little light was left in the sky. To make matters worse, it was a new moon, so there was no heavenly light to guide him.

In the darkness, the size of the farm became more apparent than ever. Shiloh walked and walked, seeing only dark rows of corn ahead of him. He knew he would escape them eventually, but not knowing exactly where he was made him uncomfortable. The odd collection of noises echoing out of the darkness only added to his discomfort.

Shiloh dismissed some fluttering and flapping sounds, thinking it was probably one of the Great Blue Herons he saw earlier in the marsh. He then heard an odd, thumping sound, as if something was running around. He tried to dismiss that as well, remembering his father had mentioned seeing red foxes in the fields. Shiloh had never seen a fox on the farm, but supposed one could be the source of the noise.

The thumping sound seemed to grow closer and closer, but every time Shiloh stopped to listen, it would cease. The louder the noise grew, the more Shiloh’s heart raced. He tried to ignore the sound, focusing into the distance to locate his house. When the thumping became so loud it seemed just a step away, Shiloh panicked, breaking into a run.

He sprinted along until he tripped, falling forward onto the ground. Shiloh remained still and listened for a moment, but the only sound he could hear was his pounding heart. Looking behind him, down the corn row, he saw an indistinct dark mass just a few feet away.

Fear gripped Shiloh, who now thought only of escape. He turned his head around, thinking if he could just stand he might be able to outrun whatever was back there. He was shocked to discover a second dark figure blocking his path. The second shape was lower to the ground, with glowing eyes, and it was growling.

Shiloh didn’t know what to do, but figured whatever it was would have to start with him being on his feet. He took a deep breath and readied himself to stand, but before he could, the second dark figure charged him. He placed his hands over his head, preparing for an attack. However, no attack came. The figure leapt over him, chasing whatever was behind him down the corn row. Shiloh stood and sprinted away as fast as he could.

As he neared the edge of the field, he could hear a loud, fierce growling and tussling behind him. Resisting the temptation to look back, he broke through the edge of the cornfield and ran straight into the house.

 

 

 

Categories: Fantasy, Horror, Young Adult | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

The Stolen Herd by K. Madill – Win a $25 Amazon Gift Card

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00068]Title:  The Stolen Herd
Author: K. Madill
Genre: Young adult fantasy
Paperback: 181 pages
Publisher: CreateSpace (February 20, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1482640023
ISBN-13: 978-1482640021
Kindle:B00GBQ9V8O

Purchase at http://www.amazon.ca/gp/product/B00GBQ9V8O

About the book:

Mandamus is only a foal when his herd is captured by the terrible Rakhana Army. Rescued and raised in secrecy, he knows nothing of his heritage until a dreadful incident in the woods brings him to the attention of the Forest council – and everyone else. Sent away for his own protection, he is determined to seek help on behalf of the many animals who have gone missing from the forest, including his own family.

With the help of a troubled man and a stout-hearted bat, can Mandamus save his fellow creatures before it’s too late?

First Chapter:It was a pale spring morning when a green butterfly failed to save the Alsvid herd. The wind, brisk in the early hour, carried the small creature in its swiftly flowing current. The sun had not quite risen but lit the edges of the world, colouring the sky a still and sullen grey. The butterfly, whose name was Gideon, pulled out of the rigid breeze and swirled down to the empty field below. Landing on a fat coneflower, he hungrily searched for food. An inky black bat swooped and darted behind him.

Gideon took a deep gulp of nectar and then shook his head sadly. He turned to the bat that had landed softly next to him.

“Well, Arkas,” he said gloomily. “I tried.”

Arkas nodded sympathetically and dug around the flower bed, as if he hoped to find something tasty.

“I should have put an arrow through Arion’s heart,” said Gideon, plucking half-heartedly at a petal. “His…and the rest of the horses. They’re all are as good as dead now, anyway.”

Arkas chirped in agreement then scrounged up a strawberry and stuffed it in his mouth. He had begun rooting around for more when a rumble of thunder shook the sky. The ground began to quiver and the trees that lined the meadow swayed wildly from a sudden, howling wind.

“They’re coming!” yelled Gideon over a sharp crack of lightning. “Let’s go, we have to find Daleth and Mareva.” He dove into the air and sped away while Arkas flapped closely behind.

 

* * *

 

Mareva awoke with a jolt. Her mate, Hengist, flicked one gray ear at her movement but did not wake. The cave was quiet in the early morning. The queen mare took a deep breath. The tangy smell of smoke reached her nose and lit her senses with an uneasy spark.

She shook her chestnut coat and stepped carefully through the sleeping horses of her herd to the entrance of their cave. Looking out, she faced a long stretch of white sand and deep green sea. As she listened to the rush of the surf, her instinct began to nag in slow whispers. She listened closely, and then crept out of the cave. A cold wind whirled around her, bending the flowers and tearing the leaves from the trees. Shielding herself behind a gnarly oak, she peeked down a worn path to a clearing where several figures were gathered. 

Are those humans?” she asked herself, drawing a deep breath. “Yes…that is the smell of man, but…it’s different somehow.” She inhaled again. Her nose picked up the scent of unfamiliar horses—a dusty smell that didn’t match the burnt-grass odour of her herd, the Harena. She moved closer for a better look, jumping when thunder crashed closely overhead. A storm was coming.

“Do you smell that?” asked a voice from behind. Her younger sister, Daleth, a golden mare with amber eyes and a pearly mane, had followed her. “That is the stench of man and his fire.”

“It doesn’t smell like a regular man,” Mareva said with a puzzled frown. “And that fire is black—that’s not a normal flame. There is something else… a strange scent I would not associate with humans.”

Daleth studied the clearing through narrowed eyes. She flared her nostrils, testing the air for herself.

“You are right, Queen Sister,” she agreed. “It smells like an animal that has lain dead in the sun. It is the Rakhana Army, the Silver City’s most dreadful pick of soldiers, led by that reprobate, General Caucus. That’s him there, the tallest one. I’ve tasted that scent before.” She pushed her sister with her muzzle. “We should wake the others and hide further in the cave.”

“Not yet,” said the queen, for her instinct had begun to whisper again, telling her to wait… or she would miss it. “Miss what?” she thought as watched a terrible scene unfold in front of her.

The Rakhana had caught a herd of horses, trapping the terrified animals in a ring of black fire. With fat whips, the men lashed any horse that tried to dash out of the blaze. General Caucus, his face hidden by a glinting silver mask, had cornered the herd’s king. The stallion reared and struck, but the man quickly leapt out of the way and jabbed the horse with a long stick. A jet of blue flame stunned the creature and he crumpled to the ground. Men swarmed the horse, tightly pulling ropes around his thrashing form. The general attacked the stallion’s mate with bolts from his weapon until she too collapsed, only with a loud ‘snap.’ He stood over the mare and watched her flail on the hard ground.

“Oh, no,” Daleth whispered in horror. “Her leg is broken.”

General Caucus pulled a small, silver ball from his cloak and aimed it at the wailing mare, who scrambled to get to her feet. A thunderous boom rang across the field and the mare was still. He kicked at her limp form and then strode away to where the stallion lay struggling against the ropes. Mareva strained her ears and fought to pick up what the man was saying, but his words were lost under the stallion’s furious whinnies. The sisters huddled miserably together.

The moon still cast its faint light across the land as Gideon and Arkas reached the beaches.

“What pretty green wings,” said Daleth dryly, spotting the butterfly who landed at her side. Arkas squealed and flapped over to Daleth. He nuzzled the large horse affectionately.

“Daleth,” Gideon said breathlessly. “It is good to see you, old friend; you too, Mareva.”

“Never mind that,” said Daleth impatiently. “What are you doing here, Forest Man? You’re only a lucky charm for humans. Anytime I see you, it usually means trouble.” She tossed her head warningly at him.

“Gideon, what is going on down there?” asked Mareva anxiously. “Who is that herd?”

“It’s the Alsvid. That fool, King Arion, came here to make a deal with Queen Asura. She wanted animal Bonds with his herd for her soldiers of the Rakhana. In exchange, she promised them immortality.”

“What?” Daleth shrieked. “Immortality…has he been bitten by a rabid fox? How ridiculous!”

“I thought the Alsvid were dead against Bonding,” Mareva murmured.

“So did I,” answered Gideon. “But her falsehoods fed his large ego. He actually believes his herd legends about being created for the Gods and he was lured by the lies of Asura and that wizard of hers.”

“Oh, don’t tell me that scoundrel of a magic maker, Dazra, is still hanging around and stinking up the castle?” Daleth hissed. “Why he and Asura weren’t beheaded for killing their human king is beyond anything I’ve ever…”

“They weren’t beheaded because they rule the Silver City now, in his place,” Gideon interrupted. “Most people still believe their lies about him dying in a riding accident. An accident while atop your back.”

“Hmpf,” Daleth snorted. “So, they’re still up to their two favourite pastimes, trickery and untruths, are they? I see nothing has changed since I left.”

“It’s gotten worse,” Gideon answered grimly.

“Did you not tell Arion what that so called “queen” has been doing to the animals in the Silver City?” Daleth asked bitterly.

“Of course I told him,” came the reply, followed by a soft pop.

Where a butterfly had been only moments before, stood a tall, lean man. He had a bony face lit by fierce, green eyes. His long hair was the colour of tree bark and he wore a green cloak that brushed the tall grass. Arkas flew up and roosted on his shoulder.

“You’re getting old, Gideon,” said Daleth, studying the lines on his face.

“If Arion was coming to make a deal with the queen, then why are the Rakhana rounding them up?” asked Mareva quietly.

“Because she had no intention of giving them immortality,” Gideon said angrily. “She just plans on turning them all into warhorses. I came to warn him that it was the army coming to meet him, not her, but he didn’t believe me. What a fool.” He watched the soldiers with an expression that was both miserable and furious.
“Oh, no,” Mareva whispered, “the entire Alsvid—finished.”

“Not quite,” said Gideon turning to her. “I managed to do one thing right today and that’s where you two come in.”

“What do you mean?” Daleth asked.

“I took his foal.”
“Good heavens, you did what?” gasped Mareva.

“I took him,” Gideon replied. “Like I said, Arion wouldn’t believe me when I told him the army was on its way. I stood there arguing with him as the minutes ticked by and with each one the Rakhana grew closer. So, I changed to my butterfly form and teased his foal into following me. He’s so young; there’s no way he could have made the journey from here all the way to the Silver City. The first time he tried to lay down to rest, the Rakhana would have just left him there…that or killed him.”

“Where is he?” Daleth asked.

“I hid him in that brush, just over there.” Gideon pointed to a clearing further up the edge of the forest.

“Oh, Gideon, his son…” Mareva whispered unbelievingly.

“He’s your son now,” said Gideon. “Mareva, I need you to keep him here at the beaches and raise him as your own.”
“Wait a minute, you mean you want us…?” Daleth began.

“Daleth,” interrupted Gideon, “I don’t trust anyone else to take him. There’s more to this and I don’t have time to…” he stopped short, as if taking a cue from the worried looks on their faces.

“There is a legend,” he said as the violent wind that whipped his hair, “about a man who rides a ‘white-eyed steed; Alsvid are the only horses to have white eyes, as far as I’ve seen. I must keep him safe. What if he is the horse from the myth?”

“A legend,” Mareva muttered. “But if the legend is about a man and men are rounding them up then wouldn’t—”

“No,” Gideon interrupted shortly. “I need you to trust me, Mareva. Now, tell no one he is here except for the Forest Council, do you understand me?”

Without waiting for their answer, he and Arkas disappeared in a rush of green smoke.

“Good old Gideon,” said Daleth with grudging affection. “Always running around sticking his nose in everyone’s business—turns out it was a good thing, this time.” She turned to Mareva. “You stay behind me and if I tell you to run, you do it, no matter what. Let’s go find that foal.”

Daleth quickly led her sister in the direction that Gideon had pointed. As they reached the small clearing, Mareva caught the fresh-morning scent that always accompanied a young horse. She pushed past Daleth and poked her face into a small hillock.

Huddled in the weeds was a small, shaggy foal. His coat was the deepest shade of midnight and his hooves were as black as coal. He would have looked like a perfectly ordinary horse if not for his white, glowing eyes that shone like two full moons in the dark morning. He looked up at Mareva’s looming figure and gave a surprised snort.

“Daleth, my goodness,” Mareva whispered in amazement. “Look at this!”

“Let me see him,” said Daleth, shoving Mareva aside. She eyed the odd shape on the colt’s flank—a white spiral, bordered with a scattering of tiny, silver spots. “There is his mark,” she muttered. “Alsvid, indeed; we should get him to the cave.” She stared back out at the Rakhana army.

The Alsvid had stopped fighting and were grouped miserably under a swollen storm cloud that had settled solely over them. Under a shroud of pounding rain, the soldiers bound the horses into a long line. The largest soldier led the limping king stallion to the front of the row and began dragging the horse away.

“That is not a fight we can win,” Mareva said warningly, after seeing the blazing look on Daleth’s face. “And if the Rakhana see you, you will be caught too. Come, Sister, we have to get this foal to safety.”

“Quickly now, little one,” Mareva whispered to the small horse. He shakily got to his feet and they rushed him to the trees outside their cave. Here, they looked him over.

“An Alsvid,” Daleth said wondrously. “I’ve never seen one before. Look at those strange eyes. Oh, how I hate leaving them to this. Now that the army has them, who knows what dreadful things fate has in store for them.”

The foal sank to his knees and laid down between the sisters. Mareva began to wash his coat with soft, gentle licks. Comforted by the queen horse’s affection, his strange eyes grew heavy, and with a deep sigh, he fell fast asleep.

“Look at that,” said Daleth quietly. “He’s settled right in already. How lucky for us too, what with no foals this year.” She swished her tail and gave the foal a small push with her nose.

“I worry about what Hengist will say.” Mareva said with a frown. “Bringing a strange male into the herd will seem like a challenge to him, don’t you think? He won’t like it at all.”

“Well, that’s too bad for Hengist, isn’t it?” Daleth answered, laying her ears back. “You are the Queen of the Harena herd and your stallion will do as you say, if he knows what’s good for him. Besides,” she added, “Gideon told us to take him and trust me—you do not want to go against his wishes.”

Seemingly satisfied with this reasoning, Mareva finished grooming the foal. “There you are,” she whispered. “You don’t need to worry; we are your herd now.”

“I wonder what his name is,” Daleth mused. “Gideon, that twit, he forgot to tell us.”

“Now, now,” chided Mareva. “Gideon might not have known it himself. This poor, little fellow; he must have one. I hate the thought of changing it on him.”

“Well, he can’t tell us what it is and we have to call him something,” Daleth said logically. “What should it be?”

“I don’t know,” answered Mareva as she got to her feet. “You’ve never had a foal. Would you like to name him?”

Daleth looked pleased. “Well,” she replied, licking her lips. “My Bonded human used to shout a very strange word just before he led his army and me into battle. I don’t know why he said it—it didn’t seem to have any effect on the enemy, but he did it every time. I always loved the sound of that word. To me, it meant victory.”

“What was it?” asked Mareva.

“He yelled, ‘Mandamus.’”

“Mandamus,” murmured the queen. “What does it mean?”

“He told me that it meant “we command,” in a very old human language, spoken before creatures decided to use the Common Words that we and the humans share now.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Mareva said with a frown. “That sounds dangerous to me, naming him after a human battle cry. It could bring all sorts of problems and we don’t want that for him.”

Daleth snorted. “Right, well if you think this little guy is going to go through this life without running into any problems, then guess again—no one gets off that easy. For starters, he is the last of the free Alsvid… I’d say his troubles have already begun.”

“‘We command,’” said Mareva thoughtfully. “Shouldn’t it be ‘I command’?”

“Absolutely not!” Daleth answered. “Who should be allowed to command on their own? You said I could pick what we call him; now, let’s name him.”

Mareva smiled at her sister’s stubbornness. “Mandamus,” Mareva said softly, touching the foal’s forehead with her muzzle. “By the Goddess Epona, we will call you Mandamus.  Mandamus of the Harena.”

The sisters stood over the sleeping foal and listened to the fading sounds of his herd being forced away. When the sun finally rose on that dreadful morning, the Alsvid and the army were gone.

About the author:

Karai MadillA chronic “head in the cloudser” K. Madill lives in a rickety house on a well treed street in British Columbia, Canada.  When she’s not hanging out with her best equine friend in the woods she can be found trying to stay upright on her roller skates or mediating the affairs of her various furred and feathered friends that rule the aforementioned rickety house. 

K. Madill’s website: kmadill.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/K-Madill/161159890706088

Twitter: https://twitter.com/KaraiMadill1

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20643483-the-stolen-herd

 

Pump Up Your Book and K. Madill are teaming up to give away

a $25 Amazon Gift Card!

Terms and conditions:

    • By entering, you confirm you are 18 years of age or older.
    • Raffle runs from 12:00 AM EST on June 2 through 12:00 AM EST on June 28, 2014.
    • Winner will be selected randomly by Rafflecopter.
    • Winner will be notified by email and has 72 hours to claim the prize before a new winner is selected.
    • Prize will be sent via email from the author’s representative.
    • VOID WHERE PROHIBITED.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Categories: Adventure, Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Luthier’s Apprentice, by Mayra Calvani

LuthiersApprentice_medTitle: The Luthier’s Apprentice
Author: Mayra Calvani
Publisher: Twilight Times Books, http://twilighttimesbooks.com
Genre: YA Paranormal Fantasy, 184 pages

Purchase on Amazon 

Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840), one of the greatest violinists who ever lived and rumored to have made a pact with the devil, has somehow transferred unique powers to another…

When violinists around the world mysteriously vanish, 16-year-old Emma Braun takes notice.  But when her beloved violin teacher disappears… Emma takes charge. With Sherlock Holmes fanatic, not to mention gorgeous Corey Fletcher, Emma discovers a parallel world ruled by an ex-violinist turned evil sorceress who wants to rule the music world on her own terms.

But why are only men violinists captured and not women? What is the connection between Emma’s family, the sorceress, and the infamous Niccolò Paganini?

Emma must unravel the mystery in order to save her teacher from the fatal destiny that awaits him.  And undo the curse that torments her family—before evil wins and she becomes the next luthier’s apprentice…

 

The Luthier’s Apprentice 

Chapter One 

Brussels, Belgium

Present day

Sixteen-year old Emma Braun got off the school bus and strode down Stockel Square toward her home. She glanced up at the October sky and wrapped her wool scarf tighter around her neck. Heavy dark clouds threatened a downpour.

As she passed a newspaper stand, the headlines on The Brussels Gazette caught her attention:

ANOTHER VIOLINIST VANISHES!

Emma stopped. For a moment she could only stare. She dug into her jacket pocket for coins and bought a copy.

The newspaper article left her stunned. Not only because three well-known violinists had gone missing in the last several months, but because the latest one was her teacher, Monsieur Dupriez.

The news story seemed so hard to believe, she stopped at the next street corner to read it one more time.

It was the last week of October, and the shops and homes were lightly adorned with Halloween decorations. Pumpkins and Jack-o-lanterns sat on doorsteps. Witches, broomsticks, and black cats hunkered down in windows and shops. Just last evening, Emma had sauntered along this street with her best friend Annika, unconcerned and looking forward to Halloween. Now, everything had turned dark and ominous.

The strange incidents she had experienced for the past two weeks added to her stress.

At first she had thought they were a string of coincidences, but not anymore. While scowling at obnoxious Billie Lynam during school recess, for instance, she wished he would fall flat on his face… and half a minute later, her wish was granted. On various occasions she guessed people’s thoughts before they spoke. And yesterday, on her way home from school, she accurately guessed the meal her mom had left on the table for her.

Was she some kind of a psychic? If so, why now? People didn’t develop powers like these overnight. Did they?

She hadn’t told her mom about her new abilities yet; only Annika knew. Maybe she would tell her mom today, after she shared the news about Monsieur Dupriez.

As Emma approached her home, she quickened her step. By the time she reached the door she was almost running. She raced into the hallway and dropped her book bag on the floor.

“Mom!” she called, looking in the kitchen, then in the living room. The house was silent. “Mom!” she called again, racing up the stairs to the bedrooms. Entering her mother’s room, Emma found her sitting very still on the bed with a crumpled letter in her hand.

When her mom saw her, she hastily put the crumpled piece of paper into her pocket and rose from the bed. Her arched brows were furrowed with anxiety.

Emma momentarily forgot the newspaper article. “Are you okay, Mom?”

“I’ve just received some unsettling news,” her mom said. “I must make a trip to see your Aunt Lili. She’s ill. She…I don’t know how long I’ll be gone.”

Aunt Lili? Emma frowned. More surprises. Emma had never met her mom’s eccentric only sister, who lived alone in the Hungarian mountains secluded in an old chateau surrounded by dark woods—or so her mom said. Though again, her mom hardly ever mentioned her.

“What’s wrong with Aunt Lili?” Emma asked. “Can’t I come with you?” She had always been intrigued by her mysterious aunt.

“No. You’ll stay with Grandpa. You enjoy working with him, don’t you?” Her brown eyes met Emma’s before turning away, and though her voice sounded matter-of-fact, Emma detected a trace of ambivalence.

Emma sighed. She loved violin making with a passion, but Grandpa was a bitter taskmaster. No matter how much she tried to please him, she never could. Maybe that’s why her mom often seemed so reluctant about her apprenticeship.

“I’d rather go with you,” Emma said. “Plus, next week is holiday.” All Saints holiday week—or Toussaint, as they called it here—almost always coincided with Halloween.

“That’s out of the question. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. Besides, you can’t miss your violin lessons, not with the Christmas competition at the academy coming up soon.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Emma said gravely, extending the newspaper.

Her mom took it. “What’s this?”

“This is why I came running up the stairs.”

Her mom read the headlines. She gasped and looked at Emma. When she finished reading, she sat on the edge of the mattress and stared into space. “Oh, my God…” she whispered.

Emma sat next to her mom. “It says Monsieur Dupriez disappeared in his study. The doors and windows were locked from the inside. The police don’t have any explanation. How can this happen? It’s not logical. It’s not humanly possible.”

“No, not humanly possible…”

“Just like the other three—that German violinist, the French one, the American. Nobody has explained their disappearances. Who would want to kidnap violinists?” When her mom didn’t answer, she began to gnaw at her fingernail.

As if by reflex, her mom pulled Emma’s hand away from her mouth.

“Sorry,” Emma mumbled. “I’m just worried about him.”

“Poor Madame Dupriez. We must visit her. She must be in quite a state.”

“Can you call her now?”

Her mom sighed. “I will. In a moment.” She looked at Emma, her features softening. Gently, she smoothed Emma’s glossy chestnut locks and side fringe away from her face. “Don’t worry, everything will be fine. You mustn’t be afraid.”

“Afraid? Why would I be afraid?”

“I mean, about Monsieur Dupriez.” Her mom appeared flustered.

“I’m not afraid. I’m worried, and angry. I want to find out what happened to him. Without him, I don’t even want to take part in the competition.”

Monsieur Dupriez had been Emma’s teacher since she was four years old. But more than teacher, he was her mentor.

“You will do your best at the competition—with or without Monsieur Dupriez. Do you hear me?” her mom said. Then her voice softened. “Listen, darling, I know how close you are to Monsieur Dupriez, but you cannot allow his disappearance to destroy your chances at the competition. I’m not asking you to win, only to do your best. You have great talent, a gift, and your duty is to use it to the best of your ability. Never forget this. Monsieur Dupriez would never want you to forget this.”

“You still haven’t told me what’s wrong with Aunt Lili,” Emma said, changing the conversation. “Why must you go to her now, after all these years?”

Looking into Emma’s face, her mom hesitated, as if unable to decide what—or how much—to say. “You know she’s always been ill, a recluse. She…” She rose from the bed and walked to the window, then opened the curtain. It had started raining, the drops pelted against the glass. “This time it’s serious. She may die.”

Emma couldn’t help feeling a twinge of suspicion. She hated distrusting her mom, whom she loved more than anything in the world, but this time her mom was lying. Emma trusted that feeling, another of her freaky new abilities. She felt an overwhelming urge to chew her fingernails, but tried to control herself. For her mom, a violinist’s hands were a work of art.

“But what’s wrong with her? What kind of disease does she have?” Emma insisted.

“Her heart is very weak.” Her mom turned away from the window to face Emma. Her voice was laced with impatience.

And again Emma thought: She’s lying.

“Please don’t worry about it,” her mom went on in a lighter tone. “I’ll try to come back soon.”

“How soon?”

“As soon as I can manage.”

“Grandpa is always in such a nasty mood,” Emma complained.

“Well, that isn’t news, is it?” Her mom stared down at the floor, as if absorbed by her own thoughts. After a pause, she added, “He’s old and his back always hurts. You know that.”

“I love Grandpa, but he’s so freaking…” She tried to come up with the right word. Bizarre.  Instead she said, “Mysterious. You know, with his violins.”

Her mom looked at Emma and frowned, as if waiting for her to say more.

“You know what I mean, Mom. With that room at the top of the stairs. The one that’s always locked.”

Her mom’s features hardened. “He keeps his most valuable pieces in there. You must never disobey him. He would be very disappointed.”

“Who said I would go in there?” Emma asked, trying to sound innocent. If there was something she intended to do, it was going inside that room. Once she’d almost been successful. For some crazy reason, Grandpa had forgotten to lock it one day. But the instant she touched the doorknob, he had called her from the bottom of the stairs, his wrinkled features twisted into a mask that had left her frozen. He had appeared enraged and afraid at the same time.

“When are you leaving?” Emma asked, shaking off the past to focus on the present issue.

“As soon as possible. Tomorrow, probably. I’ll get the plane tickets today.”

“Mom…”

“Emma, please. If you’re going to complain or say anything negative, I don’t want to hear it.”

Fine. Obviously, this wasn’t the best time to bring up her new psychic powers. She headed to the door.

“Where are you going?” her mom asked.

“To my room.”

“I’ll call Madame Dupriez to see if we may visit her after dinner. In the meantime, I want you to pack. You’re moving to Grandpa’s tomorrow.”

 

In her room, Emma dragged her suitcase from the top shelf in the closet and set it on the floor.

“Hi, Sweetie,” she said to Blackie, her rabbit. “Want to get some exercise?” She opened the cage door so Blackie could hop out and roam about her room. Blackie was housebroken, and smart as a cat—or close to it.

She stared at the elegant taffeta gown hanging from her wardrobe door, a strapless design a la Anne Sophie Mutter she’d already bought for the upcoming violin competition.

She sighed.

Slumped on the bed, Emma wondered for the umpteenth time about Monsieur Dupriez’s strange disappearance.

Where could he be?

 

 

 

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

The Flight of the Griffin by C.M. Gray

The Flight of the Griffin 7Title: The Flight of the Griffin
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Author: C.M. Gray
Publisher: C.M. Gray
Pages: 219
Language: English
ISBN: 9781471750359

Purchase at AMAZON

The Kingdom is dying…

The Darkness is coming… the balance between Order and Chaos is rapidly shifting and the world is falling towards evil and horror, and all misery that Chaos will bring.

But there is hope…

Pardigan’s had enough, he’s only 12, but he’s breaking into the home of one of Freya’s richest merchants… and he’s doing it tonight…

A burglary that will change their lives forever sets four friends upon a quest, a race against time, to locate three magical objects and complete an ancient and desperate spell.

Sailing their boat The Griffin, the crew are quickly pursued by The Hawk, an evil bounty hunter and master of dark sorcery, and Belial, King of Demons and champion of Chaos who seeks to rule the world of man… yet first he must capture the crew of The Griffin and end their quest…

First Chapter:

The floorboard creaked under the sole of his felt boot – a calculated risk whenever entering a sleeping man’s room uninvited.

A breeze fluttered the loose linen curtain, and the sleeper stirred at the welcome respite from the hot sticky night. The prowler slowly exhaled the breath that was starting to burn in his lungs, every sense tingling, receptive to any change in the room or a sound from the street below.

The sleeper, thankfully, continued to sleep.

The street under the second-storey window was silent, the night given up to the occasional rounds of the city watch and those set on a darker business, the never-ending cat and mouse game that went mostly unappreciated by the law-abiding citizens of the sleeping city.

The summer had been one of the hottest people could ever remember, taxing the energy of the city’s inhabitants to the limit. Several of the more elderly citizens down at the port could be heard explaining that, ‘in their day’, the summers were often this hot, and indeed often hotter. Of course, these were the same group who would entertain the regulars at the portside taverns with tales of goblin hordes, ferocious sea serpents or the time the winters were so cold that the seas had frozen solid.

‘A man could have walked from here to Minster Island without ever seeing a boat or even getting his feet wet,’ was a much-repeated reminiscence. Whatever history really concealed, it was a hot summer, and this, a particularly humid night.

Pardigan watched the now softly snoring form and, moving his foot from the traitorous board, crept towards the cabinet that he knew held his prize. It was an elegant cabinet – its construction given over to more than mere function. Gracefully curved legs supported drawers and shelves that were fronted by a scrollwork of intricate designs. He inserted the blade of his knife between the edges of the middle left-hand drawer and felt for the hidden catch. If the information Quint had given him was correct, the false front should spring open. A prickle of sweat tickled his brow and he wiped it absently away. Glancing over to the still-sleeping form, he applied a little more pressure on what he hoped was the catch.

Nothing.

The merchant stirred, smacked his chops, exhaled wetly and then returned to snoring. Pardigan tried again.

Most people hated the fat merchant, known for his cheating ways and vile temper, so he and Quint had set about the business of planning to rob him with great enthusiasm. The break had come quite by chance when Quint had met the apprentice of a cabinetmaker who’d been happy to talk about the merchant, and the cabinet he’d helped his master build for him.

‘The shame of it is that the true beauty of the cabinet will never be appreciated,’ the apprentice had moaned. ‘Such a cunning mechanism my master contrived to conceal the hidden safe-box, nothing of the like have I seen before, nor I fear will I ever see again.’ He had been all too happy to describe and even sketch the piece for Quint who, of course, had shown great interest, marvelling at the skill of the cabinetmaker and, naturally, his gifted apprentice. Several glasses of elder ale had kept his new friend’s throat well lubricated, an investment in tonight’s escapade that they had both placed huge hopes in.

Up until this point, the information seemed to be good; the cabinet did indeed look like the sketch that he and Quint had spent so much time studying. Pardigan’s hopes had soared when he’d first set eyes on it as he was slipping over the windowsill. Right up until now that is, as his frustration grew. Because the Source damned catch simply wouldn’t shift – if catch it was. Pardigan was beginning to wonder if the real catch hadn’t been poor old Quint, whom the apprentice had conned into buying several glasses of elder ale on another blisteringly hot day.

Without warning, the warm still of the night was disturbed as the door to the bedroom opened with a creak, causing the hairs on Pardigan’s neck to stand up. He slowly turned, half-expecting to be staring at the tip of a crossbow bolt. Instead, a large grey cat slunk around the door, ran across and rubbed against his legs, purring as it sought attention. He ruffled its ears, before gently pushing the animal away. Without a backward glance the cat walked over and leapt up onto the bed. Settling comfortably against the sleeping merchant, it lay watching as Pardigan renewed his efforts.

He applied his knife once again. Nothing was happening with the left-hand side so he moved his attention to the right. An audible click echoed around the room, rewarding his efforts as the false door opened, wobbling the washbasin that sat precariously upon the cabinet’s top. The merchant turned over, groaning loudly and ejected the cat from the bed. It meowed, padded over to the open window and leapt to the sill. Ignoring Pardigan, it sat regarding the street below with a critical eye.

The merchant continued to sleep. He was back to breathing heavily, his fat sweaty chins bobbing with the effort of sucking in the warm moist air.

Pardigan returned his attention to the cabinet. Behind the false front was a small opening. Several moneybags had been carelessly tossed on top of some papers, a few old books and some rolled documents that had been stacked neatly above on two shelves.

Pardigan hadn’t had any real idea what he might find, but when he and Quint had been working out the finer details of the plan, they’d had plenty of time for speculation. Jewels, money and magical items had been on the hoped-for and expected list, but Pardigan now noted, with a certain touch of dismay, that there was a distinct lack of necklaces, rings and brooches in the safe. He turned over a few of the papers to see what they hid and wondered at the markings on them. He could read after a fashion, but only the local low-speak, enough to tell the difference between a bag of beans and a bag of rice. High-speak was for merchants and nobles.

He slipped several of the more promising-looking papers into his coat along with the moneybags, and then a small knife without a scabbard caught his eye. He picked it up. It had a blade about a hand’s span long and a plain blue jewel set in the pommel. He put it into his pocket and cast a last glance over the remainder of the contents. With a sigh, he gently reset the false front, watching the merchant’s face to make sure he wasn’t disturbed as the catch clicked softly back into place. Satisfied that he hadn’t been heard, he straightened and tested the new weight in his pockets. With a smile, he crossed to the window. The cat watched him approach then meowed in irritation as he brushed it from the sill. Taking care to mind the loot in his pockets, he straddled the windowsill and, with one eye to the street for the city watch and the other on the still sleeping merchant, made his way carefully to the ground.

Dropping the last few spans, he landed safely and offered up a silent prayer of thanks to the Source. Then, after casting up and down the street, he drew in his first real breath for what seemed an eternity and moved off towards the sanctuary of the poor quarter. Keeping to the shadows, he kept an eye open for both the watch and for any opportunist thieves that may be lying in wait for a rich victim like himself.

****

The grey cat continued to watch as he scuttled away, noting his haste now he was in the open. The way he looked back and forth for danger, seeing everything, but understanding so little.

She’d been waiting for something like this to happen for several weeks and now she felt both excitement and regret that the game was to move on. Maybe I was beginning to enjoy the lazy life of a house cat too much, she wondered. The easy life did have certain merits, especially for a cat. Licking a paw she cleaned herself one last time, enjoying a few final moments in this form, and then leapt from the window, shimmering before spreading wide, snowy white wings and gliding silently in search of the departing figure.

****

Pardigan hurried down the darkened alleyways, the houses crowding closer together the further he got into the poor quarter. At several points, the buildings actually touched above him and the alley became a pitch-black tunnel, blocking out even the faint ambient light that had lit his progress so far. Earlier in the evening, the oil-lamps would have been lit, but it was late now and the oil had long burned away. He came to The Stag, an inn on Barrow Street that was favoured by traders from the market square. The murmur of a few late drinkers came from behind the heavy closed door, then the sound of a glass smashing and a woman’s shrill and angry cry prompted Pardigan to move on before the drinker was tossed onto the street, illuminating him in the light from within.

At the end of Barrow Street he slowed to a cautious walk. Market Square was in front of him, a regular hangout for drunks and beggars who tended to group together. Even at this time of night there would probably be a few milling around. These people didn’t seem to keep normal hours. You could be walking around at midday and most would be sleeping like it was midnight, and then times like now, they would be up and about sucking on a bottle and probably wondering idly where the sun had gone to.

Keeping to the shadows as best he could, he moved into the square being careful to skirt the darker parts at the edge. Picking up his pace he had to clamp his hand over his nose and hold his breath as he sidestepped several piles of rotting vegetables; the warmth of the night rich in their pungent odours.

Several of the square’s occupants were dotted about but none seemed interested in him. Three drinkers grouped around a spluttering fire were singing and laughing as they passed a small barrel. Pardigan slowed and watched for a moment, fascinated as they took turns, upending it and laughing at each other’s efforts as more of the liquid splashed down their chests than into their mouths. Pardigan shuddered, and wondered at the mystery that was adulthood and at what age you lost your mind and did crazy things like that.

At 12 years old, Pardigan dreaded the thought of waking up one morning as an adult. To have had all the fun sucked out of his life, replaced by the need to scowl at people and tell everyone off for not seeing the world his way. Growing old was inevitable, growing up was not. He and the others had made several vows that they would never grow up and would sail the coast in their boat The Griffin, for a lifetime of fun, adventure and good times. Whatever happens, I’ll not be sitting in this square drunk, dribbling and howling at the moon like some crazy dog, he vowed. Casting another look at the small group, he moved on.

The square was crossed without incident and he started down The Cannery, a street so named because of all the fish canning shops that lined its sides as it went down the hill towards the city’s little port. During daylight hours, it was one of the busiest areas of town, with fishermen hauling their catch up from the port and the canneries bustling with wagons shipping out their product all over the realm. At this hour, all was deserted and Pardigan passed down the pungent street without incident, a few squabbling rats its only nocturnal residents.

Coming down into the port, there remained one final obstacle in his path – Blake’s. The largest of the inns around the harbour, it never closed. On a warm night like tonight, even at this late hour, there could be people sitting outside hoping for the comfort of a small breeze to come in across the sea.

The sound of music drifted up to him accompanied by the sound of voices laughing and talking – there was no way he could escape being noticed. He would have to cross right in front of the entrance to get to where The Griffin was moored. Drawing his coat about him, he walked on, a shiver running the length of his spine – his nerves once again on edge.

A lone figure sat on a barrel under the main window, bathed in a pool of light from a lantern that hung above the door. Keeping his eyes averted and with his heart beating in his ears, Pardigan tried not to stumble on the uneven cobbles in his haste to get past.  Nearly there, only Blake’s to pass, almost there… Talking to himself often helped in times of stress, it was almost as if some of the burden of the moment was shared … Only a little way more … Nearly …

A sudden movement from behind and he spun round in time to see a dark figure loom up with arms outstretched. With a cry, Pardigan stepped back, tripped over something and then hit the ground hard, pain instantly screaming from his back and left ankle.

He lay writhing on the cobblestones gasping, fear and despair filling him as he realised he’d been caught so close to The Griffin.  It was almost in sight, only a little further around the port, but this obviously wasn’t to be his night after all. That’s how my luck’s been running lately, thought Pardigan, offering a silent curse to the Source. Shadows gathered about him and he tried to struggle up but someone flipped him face down and sat on his back. Powerless to move or even breathe properly – flutterings of panic threatened to overcome him. Footfalls surrounded him and he waited for the touch of a knife.

‘You should have told us you were going to do it tonight.’ The speaker tapped Pardigan’s head with something hard. ‘We could have helped you know.’ He sounded cross.

‘Quint?’ Pardigan felt a wave of relief and then anger at being tricked like this. ‘Get off me, you lump.’ He felt the weight move and several pairs of hands rolled him over. A lantern was lit and he gazed up into the shadowy faces of his friends.

‘Well, how did it go?’ asked the tall scruffy boy holding the lamp. Tarent, for that was his name, reached down and pulled Pardigan to his feet. Waves of relief filled Pardigan and he smiled, his anger slipping away.

‘You rotten…’ he took a half-hearted swing at Tarent who moved aside easily. ‘Why did you jump me? I thought you were…’

‘Serves you right, now tell us…’ hissed Loras, the fourth and final member of The Griffin’s crew. Smaller than the others with a tangled mop of red hair, Loras was peering up at Pardigan with a frown etching shadows on his face. ‘We found your bunk empty, and then Quint told us about your plan.’

‘Which he wasn’t meant to carry out yet,’ added Quint.

‘So we came and waited for you here. You’ve been ages.’ Loras was moving from one foot to the other, clearly agitated. ‘Quint seemed to think you’d have plenty of coins and would be in a better position to settle our bill than we are,’ he glanced back into the inn, a worried look on his face. ‘Like I said, you’ve been ages and we were hungry.’

‘And thirsty,’ added Tarent. ‘So we appear to be a little in arrears with the good landlord here.’

Loras reached out and dusted Pardigan’s cloak. ‘Sorry about the surprise, but you should have included us, so…how did it go?’ All three waited patiently for some sort of response.

Pardigan finally shook his head in wonder at his friends, then checked up and down the path for observers. Reaching inside his coat, he pulled out a moneybag, recently the property of a certain local merchant, and fished out a silver coin that he tossed to Tarent. ‘Settle up here and let’s get back to the boat. I’ll tell you all just how well it went when we get there.’ Tarent disappeared inside the inn as the others moved off towards the gently bobbing boats of the port eager to hear more.

Now, back in the company of his three friends, Pardigan finally felt safe. They were a strange group, all with a different story of hard luck and the tough times they’d had before finding each other. They’d since formed the closest thing to a family that any of them had ever known – even the boat that they called home had a sorry tale. Quint had found it in a terrible state, rotting in a small river, off the main estuary to the city. Having nowhere better to go and all alone, he’d started to live on it. The boat had conveyed the feeling of abandonment and the only other inhabitants had been a few mice and lots of spiders. Quint had spent the first few weeks alone and in fear, expecting a gang of cutthroats to reclaim their vessel at any moment. Then, as the weeks had turned to months, he had realised The Griffin, for that was the name he had found under layers of grime, really was abandoned and he began to relax. The hull was sound, had no leaks and it had several cabins plus a good-sized cargo area. The problem with the boat had simply been neglect. Whoever had abandoned her hadn’t left any clue to their identity, but abandoned she most certainly was.

About ten spans long, The Griffin made a wonderful home, blending in wherever the boys moored her. They spent most of their time in the rivers hidden from the world, but made several trips into the port cities for supplies and a change of scene.  Pardigan, of course, was the practised thief, bringing gold, food and supplies to the boat whenever they were needed. He felt no remorse from his exploits, saying it was a harsh world and if he didn’t take stuff then someone else would. Quint often found the rich targets for Pardigan and was the only one who had known how to sail, making him the logical choice as Captain. As the oldest, Quint was the unofficial leader of the group.

Loras had once been apprenticed to a magician, but the old boy had died before passing on much of his craft. When he had left, Loras took what he could of the books and spells; the boys had found him appearing dazed and confused, with soot all over his face, blowing up tree stumps in the forest.

‘That’s great!’ Quint had said, obviously impressed at Loras’s efforts, ‘How do you do it?’

‘I haven’t the foggiest idea,’ Loras had replied. ‘I was actually trying to make the stumps grow new leaves; they aren’t supposed to blow up like this.’ He’d looked questioningly at a tatty old book held together with string. ‘I think I must be doing something wrong – maybe there’s another page missing?’  He was waving his wand again, hopping about and trying to read, all at the same time. Quint had brought him back to the boat and Loras had settled in well.

The fourth crewmember was Tarent who was the laziest person that any of them had ever met, or so they often told him. Fortunately, he hid this flaw in his character by being one of the nicest people you could ever want to meet. He slept more than anyone had a need or right to, and could spend the most amazing amount of time merely gazing out to sea, or up at a star-filled night while the others were working. To many this would have grated and annoyed, but he would also talk and talk and talk, which was a good thing. He would tell about the night skies or monsters from the deep and he knew the reason why a compass always pointed north or how to make the ticker fish bite on a hot afternoon. After supper Tarent could always be relied upon for a good story to lead their minds around the world or bring enchanted sea creatures up from the deep. His body could be lazy, but his mind was as nimble as an acrobat. He was one of the crew, and shared many of the responsibilities of leadership with Quint.

The Griffin was waiting for them at the end of the quay, dwarfed in the shadow of a large black barge. The fragrant aromas of spices and herbs rich on the warm night air attesting to the cargo the barge was carrying. They clambered up the gangplank and Quint waited at the top until the last of them came aboard, then he pulled it in, sealing the boat from the land. He glanced over to the barge where a sailor was smoking a clay pipe, watching them. Giving a wave that was returned; he slipped down the hatchway pulling it closed behind him.

Down below, two lamps were already lit, the slight breeze from the open portholes enough to make the flames flicker, sending shadows dancing around the cabin. Everyone had settled; waiting for the news as Pardigan stood at the table and, without any ceremony, started to empty out his pockets.

He carefully placed the bags on the table, side by side, eight in all. The boys watched without saying a word as each bag made a soft chink, the cord drawstring falling softly to the side. Eight bags. Four were blue, one red, one yellow and two were of common canvas. The papers and books were passed across to Tarent, while the small knife was placed upon the table alongside the bags.

They hadn’t believed Quint when he’d told them of the plan; hadn’t actually thought that Pardigan would come back with anything except a tall tale of a daring escape and some would-have-beens and should-have-beens. They hadn’t thought they’d really be seeing moneybags this evening. They all sat and stared.

Loras eventually broke the silence. ‘So what’s in ‘em?’

‘I haven’t had a chance to look,’ said an exhausted Pardigan. He waved them an invitation to the table.

Loras jumped up and tipped out the contents from one of the canvas bags. Copper coins fell out and rolled around. ‘About thirteen shillings in coppers,’ he muttered, pushing the coins with his fingers. He picked up a red bag, untied the cord, and upended it. More coins hit the table making an altogether different sound, the buttery colour of gold glinting in the lamplight. ‘Seven sovereigns and one royal crown,’ said Loras after a moment, his interest growing. The other bags were duly opened and all but the yellow bag held coins of gold, silver and copper. The yellow bag held a necklace that sparkled with precious stones as Loras held it up in awe for the boys to see.

‘It’s beautiful, Pardigan. Who, in the name of the Source did you rob? Was it the King?’ They all stared at Pardigan.

‘What sort of trouble are we in?’ asked Loras, as the peril of their situation suddenly dawned upon him. ‘What are we going to do?’

‘Come on, let’s not panic,’ said Quint. ‘Did anybody see you, stop you or question you at any point, Pardigan?’

‘No, nobody saw me and I’m sure I didn’t leave any clues,’ stated Pardigan confidently. ‘I’m very good at what I do.’

‘Course you are, but come morning the city will be in uproar about this – we have to play this with cunning and no mistake.’

Quint looked at each of them in turn; lastly he turned to Tarent. ‘What do you think?’

Tarent sighed. ‘If we up and sail on the first tide come daybreak, the watch will be after us like a shot. We can’t be appearing guilty.’ He pondered a moment. ‘…Even if we did want to give it all back, which I don’t think we do’? He glanced around the group seeing shaking heads, ‘Well we couldn’t, could we?’ Everyone shook their heads again. ‘We keep the coins, some on the boat and some we take up river and stash back at the moorings.’

Quint nodded.

‘The papers I’ll look over tonight to see what we have, then we either burn them or plan on their use. What we don’t do is leave them here to be found if we do get searched. Source willing, we can up and leave in a few days’ time and be back on our usual moorings for further plans.’ He turned once more to Quint.

‘Agreed,’ said Quint. ‘Check the papers as quick as you can. The coppers we can add to our own cash box with a few of the silver as well, so we can get our normal provisions.’

‘And the knife?’ asked Pardigan.

They all stared at the knife, still lying next to the sacks. The blue jewel sparkled in the lamplight.

‘It’s a very unusual knife,’ said Tarent in a soft voice almost as if talking to himself. ‘The best thing would be to lose it over the side, or drop it in some back alley well away from here.’ He glanced across at Quint, but he was saying nothing, simply staring with the others at the knife on the table.

It seemed almost to be calling out to each one of them, and they all knew they wouldn’t be throwing it into the sea, or losing it anywhere else for that matter.

‘Stash it in the stove for now until we can think on it,’ said Quint. Sounds of ready agreement came from all around.

Pardigan placed the knife in the cold stove then piled old ash and wood over it. The cash was split between that which was staying, and that which was going, and then Tarent moved off to his cabin to check the papers. The boat settled down; Pardigan and Quint went on deck in search of fresh air before sleeping.

‘I can’t believe it was really there, false front and all,’ whispered Quint as he lay back looking up at the stars.

‘Oh, it really was there, just as he said it was and twice as lovely as the picture.’

‘I wish I could have seen it. What were you thinking when you were creeping round the room?’ Quint sat up and stared at Pardigan. ‘Weren’t you scared to the very marrow of your bones?’

‘Being scared is what keeps a thief alive and not caught and hanged,’ replied Pardigan. He pulled the knife from his pocket, and rubbed the blue gem with his thumb.

‘I thought you put that into the stove,’ said Quint watching him.

Pardigan stared at the knife, a frown creasing his face. ‘I did, I’m sure I did but…

‘Well you can’t have, can you?’ Quint nodded at the knife in Pardigan’s hand. ‘Don’t get caught with it, put it in the stove, eh?’

‘I will.’ Pardigan ran his finger across the long thin blade. It wasn’t sharp but it didn’t feel dull either, he could just make out signs or writing on the side in the dim light, but unfortunately it wasn’t bright enough to see properly. ‘I’m sure I put it in the stove, I remember covering it with ash,’ he murmured as he slipped it back in his cloak.

The boys chatted about the night’s events for a while longer. Pardigan telling of scaling the wall and creeping around the sleeping chamber as the fat merchant snored, puffed and farted, and Quint telling a lengthy story of how Tarent and Loras and he had managed to dine at Blake’s on the slim hope of him turning up with a few coins to pay for it all.

‘Blake would have skinned you all alive if he’d known you were eating and drinking all evening with no money in your pockets,’ laughed Pardigan.

‘Ahhh, but we had faith in you, my friend,’ countered Quint, punching Pardigan softly in the arm. ‘And besides, we were hungry and the iced lemon water at Blake’s is the best in all of Freya; we needed it.’

‘I know,’ murmured Pardigan softly, ‘let’s hope this is a sign that our fortunes have changed.’

As the stars maintained their journey across the night sky, the city continued to sleep and the boys finally went below to their bunks, ready for a busy day.

****

The owl watched from the top of the boat’s mast as the two boys disappeared and with a beat of her wings flew off, back into the city. It had been an interesting evening and she felt pleased that events were finally moving along. She knew the boys would need a nudge or two to put them in the right direction, but she had a good feeling about them, a far better feeling than she had when the merchant had got his greedy, pudgy hands on the knife.

She soared over the shops and buildings of the city enjoying the freedom of flight, the air flowing over her feathers as she rode the warm currents rising from the buildings below. She watched as the moon rose above the water, its reflection rippling upon the calm ocean, its pale light making long dark shadows of the boats in the harbour, giving a new texture to the cityscape beneath her.

She flew until she saw the world start to awake and with it, dawn break on a brand new day. Turning back towards the harbour, she glided down to alight upon the deck of The Griffin and, returning to the form of the grey cat curled up on a badly stored sail and there she slept, waiting for the start of the day’s events to unfold.

Categories: Fantasy, Young Adult | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: