Sorry it’s been so long between posts. With work, kids, and running Booktastik, life has been hectic. I’ve also, finally (after much angst because I wasn’t writing) started working on the first book in my next fantasy series. I’m hoping the first draft will be finished by February with a release date at the end of March. So please cross your fingers for me :). I hope you enjoy this little teaser first chapter.
Laney is a princess dispossessed. Sworn to protect her world as a caretaker for the long-disappeared dragons, she lives a relatively idyllic life with her royal parents. But darkness is closer than they realize. After Tyrk the Destroyer kills her family, she is forced to flee to a neighbouring kingdom, revenge in her heart. But there are secrets even she isn’t privy to, and she is likely to learn about them the hard way. Because now that Tyrk has taken her kingdom, he is preparing to destroy her world.
Laney ran across the field, her breath burning in her throat. Billowing behind, her green dress left her ankles bare, allowing stiff stalks of yellow grass to whip and scratch her skin. Not far now. The leaden granite walls of the keep beckoned. She hoped she wasn’t too late.
In her mind, Frederick’s urgent parting words sounded. I have taught you all I can. The time has come. You must do everything in your power so that all is not lost. I fear the blood of the Varians has already been spilled. He had pushed her out of the door before he finished speaking, only to yell after her as she sprinted away. “Do not lose the bird, whatever you do!” She had hardly heard the last but knew the dove was her only salvation.
Glancing down, her eyes met those of the silver-colored bird at her waist. Its wings were secured with thick woollen twine, which wrapped around its body; its body secured in a netted pouch fastened to her dress. Warmth from the small bird radiated against her stomach. “It’s okay, bird. I won’t hurt you. You can trust me.” She panted, looking up. Almost upon her home, her feet slowed. What would she find? Was there a chance her family was still alive?
The guards standing tense at the spiked iron gates—black breastplates gleaming, hands resting on the pommels of swords hanging at their sides—were strangers. Frederick was right, she thought, they are dead. Laney swallowed the sorrow threatening to undo her. If only her brother hadn’t listened to their parents, the king and queen, when they forbade him and Laney from visiting Frederick, the strongest sorcerer in the small kingdom of Arbalion. Rumours had persisted for weeks about the foreign king’s march upon her father’s throne, and though King Bastian had sent a force he deemed sufficient to annul the threat, and word had reached them of their success at pushing Tyrk the Destroyer back, Frederick was one of the only people who had smelled falsity in such reports.
Laney had learned much, over warm deelvine tea, in her many illicit visits to the wise man’s cottage with her guard, Hazine. But had she learnt enough?
One of the dark-bearded guards, a soldier of Tyrk the Destroyer, turned his head toward Laney and spat. The shaggy-furred black dog at his feet looked at her, slowly stood and growled. Laney stopped, wishing she were invisible.
The soldier regarded the large animal before following its gaze. He would see her in three, two, one…. Now only yards away, Laney’s blue eyes connected with his. Desire and cruelty lit up his eyes — a look she had seen before — and twisted the corners of his mouth into a greedy smile. The bravado with which she had left Frederick’s fled, leaving her empty and frozen. She had envisaged herself striding into the keep, meeting her family’s bitterest foe on her own terms, but now all she could do was stand and wait as the enemy made confident strides toward her. Thankfully, he had bade the dog heel before he approached. I am a coward, she thought.
Resting her hand protectively over the bird, she trembled but met the man’s gaze. No words separated his upturned lips as he closed a rough hand around her slender arm. As he dragged her past the other milling guards, all fell silent. Laney heard gravel crunching beneath their feet and horses whinnying in the distance. They passed through the main gates into the outer courtyard then Laney felt firm stone underfoot, signalling their entry through secondary gates.
Felches, the bright blue beetles whose sustenance was the flesh of the dead, scurried across the inner courtyard, leading the way to the formal entry. When Laney looked down to negotiate the two steps to the main doors, she saw a dark stain of dried blood, the road the scavengers followed into the main hall.
Mamma. Pappa. Her legs lost strength, and she fell. The guard’s fingers dug painfully into her arm, jerking her upright before she hit the ground. She stumbled forward. Her shoes trod upon the recently warm vestiges of people she had known, and, as the soldier hauled her onward, half-digested food exploded from her mouth, covering the soldier’s black boots with barely recognizable splatters of milk, carrots and cheese. He stopped, dead. Turning swiftly, he dealt a backhand blow to her cheek, the force cracking her head to the side. Again, his grip prevented her from falling, and she cried as quietly as she could as the brute pulled her down the hall, towards the throne room. Reaching her free arm up to wipe her mouth, she remembered the bird and quickly lowered her hand to cover it.
The oak double doors to the throne room stood open. The man stopped at the entrance, shoving Laney down. Her knees slammed into the flagstone floor, and a cry escaped her. “Do not move.” The guard growled before approaching the throne and bowing. Muffled voices reached Laney, but she couldn’t make out what was said.
Breathing in a metallic tang, Laney sat back, bottom resting on her heels. Looking around, she hoped to see her parents, but also hoped not to. Her heart pounded. She gazed to her left, where a stone dragon deity stood — Avindar — wings outstretched, head almost touching the twenty-five foot ceiling, light gleaming off its polished black surface. Laney and her parents were sworn to the old ways, and Avindar represented their custodianship of the land and their promise to protect peace and fertility until the long-disappeared dragon race could return and claim their home. More of the black-breasted guards ringed the statue, mallets in hand. Oh, no. They’re going to destroy it!
Laney swallowed, and after hesitating, looked to her right, the vein in her neck beating so hard, she could feel it. Her sight rested on a pile of limp bodies thrown into the corner, clothes bloodstained, limbs tangled in a lifeless embrace. She blinked, her breath coming in short bursts. None of the corpses appeared to be wearing clothes she recognised as her parents’, but lying on the top of the macabre mound, she saw the long, black, plaited beard of her father’s chief guard, Lucas. His once stern, battle-scarred face was hidden by his burgonet, but Laney could see the fatal wound; a slice rent from his side: red, gaping, final. The fiercest of her father’s soldiers, he had always had a smile for the princess. Laney held back a sob.
The bird at her waist squirmed as a shadow fell across them. So engrossed in the horror of what she saw, she hadn’t heard the man approach. She looked up at the dark shape of her captor. He grabbed her arm once again and hauled her to her feet. Staying behind her this time, he jabbed his fingers into her back, prodding her forward until she stood at the foot of her father’s throne. She had never seen anyone sit there but her father, except when she was a child and her older brother, Marcus, pretended to be king as they played. Laney blinked back tears, squared her shoulders and looked Tyrk the Destroyer in the eyes.
Tyrk rose, his wide-chest and black cloak blocking Laney’s view of the Arbalian throne. Stepping down, he stood within touching distance of the young princess. Tyrk placed a hand on Laney’s shoulder, gripping harder and harder until he saw her wince. He relaxed his grip, but left his hand to rest on her slender frame. When Tyrk smiled, wrinkles fanned out from the corners of his dark eyes, like cracks shearing the surface of a frozen pond. “So, the little bird flies home. But, as you can see,” he gestured extravagantly with one arm until his hand waved towards the carnage Laney had seen piled in the corner, “you have arrived too late. Imagine; one day you are rejecting the marriage proposal of a prince, and the next, you are dead. Life’s funny like that.” He raised one arm, and Laney couldn’t help but flinch. Instead of the blow she expected, Tyrk waved to the men at the statue. “Darnil, attend me.”
A young man, Laney estimated his age at maybe twenty-five, approached, his face too stern for a young person, two short, deep lines marking the space between his brows. The thick beard that was cut in a straight line under his chin mirrored the color and style of the king’s. When he reached them and looked into her eyes, she could see the family resemblance—his dark eyes were as intense as his father’s, intense to the point of madness. The princess tried to hold his gaze, but discomfort won, and she looked to the ground.
“So, father, this is the bitch.” Darnil prodded Laney’s leg with his boot. “Not so smug now, are you, princess?” He raised his voice. “Look at me when I talk to you.”
Laney cringed, but brought her head up and looked at him. He would have been handsome, she thought, with his high cheekbones and thick hair, except for the unsettling twist of his mouth and dangerous glint in his eyes. Even though she knew she would soon die, she would rather that than marry him. Her father had agreed, thank Avindar, refusing Tyrk’s proposal on behalf of his son. Not four months later and Laney and her family were paying the price.
Tyrk watched his captive’s face. Laney blinked, but the usurper saw no tears in the wake of her lids. She stared at him without expression, although it took great self-control. Trained to keep her feelings hidden, she tucked her sorrow behind her heart, keeping it warm for later. She let it flow through her veins; the blood feeding her body with oxygen, the misery feeding her determination, determination she would surely need to accomplish what she was about to attempt.
The king squeezed on her collarbone again, so hard she expected to hear the crack of bone. He leaned down, his face inches from hers, his menacing voice so quiet that none but she could hear. “I know your little secret.” His breath smelled of wine. Laney coughed, disgusted to be breathing his recently expelled air. “You thought your alliance with Carthain would save you, but I’m coming for them, too. All they’ve worked so hard to protect will be mine. I know about Avindar’s Blessing, and I will have the Dragon Throne.” Taking his hand off the girl, Tyrk turned to the soldier who had dragged Laney in. “Let’s do this in the courtyard; I don’t want any more blood on the floor in here — I’d hate for it to stain. Bring her.” His stride was long and powerful, the set of his head arrogant.
What was this secret—Avindar’s Blessing? Laney had studied the Book of Avindar, and there had been no reference to any blessing in the nine-hundred pages. Her musings were interrupted by another bruising grip on her arm. She winced as the soldier jerked her to her feet.
As Laney was dragged to her death, she sent her thoughts to the wind. I’m not ready for this, Frederick. I don’t want to say good-bye. Nausea born of fear rolled through her stomach. A memory from two weeks ago came to her, and she saw her reflection in her bedroom mirror. She would never look into her own azure eyes again. Now, saying a final farewell to herself, she touched the smooth rise of her cheek, slipped a finger to trace her full lips, lips that had only kissed a boy once, and finished by reaching into the hidden pocket at the hip of her skirts.
Her unsteady fingers touched steel.
Reaching the courtyard, the red wetness upon the ground drew Laney’s attention. Thinking of her parents — her dead parents — the anticipation of revenge gave her the strength to close her fingers around the hilt of the dagger. When the guard stopped her in the middle of the courtyard by yanking her hair until her head snapped back painfully, she grunted and gripped the dagger even harder. What she wouldn’t give to slit his throat with it, but she wasn’t here for that. Don’t mess it up now, she chided herself.
He held her in that position for the scrutiny of a circle of sneering, road-stained soldiers. Laney stared at the sky and imagined what it would be like to escape into its cerulean heights.
Tyrk’s chin was tipped upwards as he took casual steps around the courtyard. Passing the soldiers, he looked each in the eyes before halting in front of Laney. Darnil stood by his side, a smirk on his face, hands clasped behind his back.
The king spoke louder than he had in the throne room, and his voice echoed off the courtyard walls, carrying a short way into the fields beyond. “You are about to witness the end to the royal Varian line. Standing before us is the youngest, and only, living child of the recently deceased King of Arbalian.” Tyrk paused to allow the audience’s laughter to subside. “Remember this day well, for this is what happens to those who refuse me. We will send you to the heavens, Little Dove. It will be quick — let no person say I am a king without mercy.”
Laney’s eyes widened momentarily. How does he know my father’s name for me? Her free-spirited ways as a child, following her brother and his friends climbing trees, participating in mock battles and championing injured animals had earned her the pet name of Little Dove.
The guard holding Laney’s hair released his grip. He put his mouth so close to her ear that the touch of his foul breath caused her to shiver. “King Tyrk likes to. . .” his tongue slid along her ear, “. . . to watch the life drain from the eyes.” Laney shivered involuntarily and gripped the dagger hard enough that her fingers ached.
The guard stepped away. Tyrk drew his sword from its sheath. The hiss as it left its scabbard seemed to Laney to be the loudest thing she had ever heard. Had Pappa thought the same thing before he was murdered?
Laney ignored her shaking fingers as she slid her hand from her pocket, adrenaline drying her mouth. One of the soldiers shouted, “She has a weapon!”
Laney rushed, almost dropping the dagger—she would only get one chance. She saw Tyrk’s eyes widen before he lunged his sword toward her stomach. She sliced the dagger across the bird’s bonds before dropping the blade to grab the dove, Frederick’s words in her mind: You must be touching the bird when your soul leaves your body. So much could go wrong, and the few seconds she had to consider it seemed an eternity.
Tyrk’s sword nicked the tip of the bird’s wing before splitting the fabric of Laney’s dress and piercing the porcelain skin of her stomach. Laney grunted. The bird fluttered in her hands as she tried to hold it, the pain of her injury almost too great to ignore.
The king held the princess’ shoulder, forcing her to stand while he stared into her eyes. Feeling cold and light-headed, yet strengthened by a blossoming flame of hatred as heady as the scent of one of her mother’s vermillion roses, she smiled and whispered, “You are wrong, usurper, the Varian line lives on.”
Tyrk’s grin as the verve in Laney’s eyes glazed to stillness was for the benefit of his soldiers—the truth in the girl’s words reaching his ears. What did she mean? Was there a relative they knew naught about?
Laney’s limp fingers fell to dangle at her sides. Scarlet bloomed, seeping into her dress, staining the green fabric black. The silver-colored bird, a red blemish upon its wing, was free. With frenzied flapping of desperate strokes, it sent a scatter of feathers to land softly upon the bloody ground.
Tyrk released his grip on Laney, dropped his sword and leapt for the bird, his hands catching the air beneath its swiftly rising form.
The bird flew—Laney’s awareness gazing out of its eyes, to look upon her home and the lifeless body of the young princess slumped in the courtyard. Deep sadness welled within her, the lack of avian tears a confirmation she no longer resided in human form. The castle’s towers and turrets receded as she soared west, to a different land. She cawed a final goodbye to her family.
Tyrk watched his men drag the girl’s body away. They would throw her on the substantial pile of dead already in the field beyond the castle, to be burned in two days. Wind, newly risen from the south, gusted into the yard, sending goose bumps slithering along his arms. Ignoring the chill that settled in his belly, he cast superstition aside. Omens are for the weak, he thought, before shivering. Striding into the cold embrace of his ill-gotten keep, he hadn’t noticed his youngest son watching, gray eyes peering from a second-floor window.
Erendol, tears grazing his face, whispered a promise so quiet it was barely the caress of breath over his lips. In that moment, in the smothering iron-laden seconds between one fate and the next, a traitor was born.