Jan 03, 2023
46 mins read
Happy new year! Hope everyone has been having a good one so far.
I'm closing in on about the 50% mark of my newest book, A Kingdom of Curse and Ruin. I completed the first draft a while back, but I knew the book wasn't close to finished. I only had 47k words, and for the first book in a new fantasy series, I knew I needed a lot more to the story. However, I was stuck. I didn't know how to move forward. I'd made an outline, as I always do, but I was at a loss for how to expand the story. Thankfully, an author friend (Z Jeffries. Find his books here!), did a beta read and gave me some great notes! His feedback was just what I needed. Now, the book is around 75k words, and I still have at least another 30k words to add. That feels more like a high fantasy book!
My plan for this series is to write three books for Curse and Ruin. After, I want to expand this new fantasy world. The realm is called Esstaria, and there are nine Kingdoms in the realm. I plan to write books (and series) about almost all of them. I already have plans for 10 more books set in Esstaria! If all goes well, this new realm will be at least the next five years (likely more!) of my writing life. I'll also be writing other stories and creating new series, but this is my main focus. It feels like my entire writing journey has been leading to this endeavor. Not even only my writing journey, but my life. Everything I've watched, read, and enjoyed has been leading me to this. We're in for a ride, and I can't wait for you to experience the first book!
As a little treat, here's a small excerpt!
(Note: This formatting is purely for this post. The book will not be formatted like this upon release.)
King Aldin tasked Maewald with an important yet dangerous journey—a secret mission to Tarinn to request aid from the allied King in the north, King Ranley Thaen IV. Important because if war with Rynhaven did indeed come, Elroot couldn’t match the larger Kingdom’s magical prowess—and the danger came from venturing into the Freelands.
The trio of suns held high as Maewald rode with his chosen companions, some of whom he’d shared many a battle with. They rode on horseback with only the necessary equipment and supplies. The troop traveled disguised as traders. As such, no drones journeyed with them, and the troop forwent armor and Elroot crests in favor of the simple and common clothing of the Freelands.
Captain Maewald had traveled his fair share throughout his life. Before coming to Elroot, he served Queen Iret, then Princess Iret, in Lithos. Maewald admired her then, and those feelings had only grown in the years since. Iret was a headstrong yet understanding ruler. Maewald considered it a gift to serve under such a bright woman.
Young Maewald had always envisioned a life dedicated to taking up arms and serving a Kingdom. For many in Esstaria, such a goal was noble; for Theo Maewald, there could be no other path. His father had served Lithos, and his grandfather, and his four uncles, and both grandparents on his mother’s side, and the trend continued deeper into his family trees. Service with a sword in hand filled him like the blood in his veins.
The northeastern border of Elroot was the least populated. King Aldin had devised the plan for Maewald and his troop to travel disguised as traders. All portal travel was documented by the Twilight, and if Rynhaven caught wind of King Aldin sending anyone–especially a captain–to Tarinn, the suspicion of a coming war would flip to a certainty. So, under the cover of night, Captain Maewald and his companions had used the Elroot portal near the northeastern border to travel to Pandel, a portal station near the allied Tarinn Kingdom.
The portal station faded from view some hours ago. The uninterested and rude portal attendant had looked Maewald up and down, curiosity and doubt in her gaze. Maewald suspected the pointy-eared woman didn’t believe a word of their cover story. Nonetheless, the captain paid the fee, their story was documented, and he and his crew were granted entry to the Freelands.
The closest township was Norrin—a place that just so happened to be a popular resting spot for traders traveling to Tarinn.
The road to Norinn was old and ragged. Imprints from horses and carriages were ground into the dirt road from years of wayward travelers. Everywhere the old Captain could look, he found great, tall trees and low-growing bushes. Dirt seemed to hang in the air after a step for a little longer than in Elroot.
Nature was cast in a green hue to the south, toward the yellow sun. To the north, where the azure sun roamed, nature skewed to varying shades of blue from about above the height of a man’s waist. Pastel, almost faded, shades of green occupied most of nature closer to the ground. The north was unique for many reasons, and Maewald enjoyed the striking visuals of the land.
The east lived under the white sun, keeping everything out there in a never-ending shower of dull gloom. Maewald had spent some time in the east, and it wasn’t a place he wanted to revisit. Plath laid claim to most of the east, and the melancholy sky mirrored the chill that rose in Maewald’s gut whenever he simply thought the word Plath.
The west, the way to Maewald’s mother land of Lithos, thrived under the offset mixing of the blue and yellow suns. Though, as night approached, the blue and yellow suns faded from sight quickly, leaving their stubborn white celestial brethren to have its day in the waning hours before the moon took its post.
The white sun bathed all of Esstaria in the dusk hours, one of the few things that was universal no matter where one lived. The white sun employed a downtrodden glow, often evoking a despondent feeling. However, Maewald found a bit of comfort in knowing that just about everyone felt a bit sad before nightfall came. He imagined he wasn’t alone in that.
Maewald had seen the multicolored sky of Esstaria all his life, but in the Freelands, the watercolor-like painting above him seemed bolder, like one could feel the true expanse of Esstaria in a way that struck him as unnerving. He was certain the Freelands played with his mind.
The road their horses clomped along was wide. There were no houses, factories, mills, or created structures of any kind as far as the eye could see. An odd fact, considering Norrin was only a days' ride from the portal station.
All land outside the borders of the nine Kingdoms was owned by a council of High Elves, who had taken to calling themselves Free Elves some centuries ago. The Free Elves invited any who wished to live in the Freelands under the terms of one law: the Kingdoms have no claim or rule in the Freelands.
From what Maewald could remember from schooling, the Elder Elves allowed the fledgling human Kingdoms to stake claims to land under the all-encompassing agreement that all Kingdoms leave the Freelands to their own devices. The Free Elves created the Twilight to govern the use of magic, gifted magic to the Kingdoms through assigned magicians, provided spell books, portals, arc glaives, and continually worked to create with magic as only they could.
The centuries-old Free Elves were clever and dangerous bastards. No single Kingdom could oppose the Twilight, and Maewald doubted that all nine together could topple them. Many, including Maewald, often wondered why the Twilight turned a blind to the vicious King in Plath, Vamune, and his ever-continuing quest to conquer the other Kingdoms and stake claim to the Dreer Plains. Maewald figured since Vamune had yet to be successful, the Twilight were comfortable to wait out his plans and take action at the last minute—if such a thing were ever required. After all, Vamune had never opposed the Twilight or their terms.
Maewald had set off with his usual crew. Larani Benson, Captain’s First, was a fine knight; more than fine, a powerful and tactical warrior. Maewald had long thought of her like a younger sister. She’d served under him in Lithos, and when Queen Iret gave her hand to Aldin in marriage and asked Maewald to accompany her, Theo asked for only one kindness in return, that Iret also bring Benson.
Maewald had also brought Natan Sybil and Amin Markson. Sybil shared the same bright, teal eyes as Benson—a trait all Knights shared—and was nearly as formidable in battle as the Captain’s First. Sybil chose to let silence and actions describe his person. The captain appreciated that about the tall Knight. Maewald certainly preferred Sybil’s approach to life more than the loud and brash Markson’s often wordy and tired rants about seemingly everything. Markson, an expert marksman—the man somehow found humor in the similarity of his name and occupation whenever the connection was made—had an opinion about everything. If he weren’t such a fine soldier, Maewald would’ve passed him to another troop years ago.
Adelin Vera, a partling and a mage medic, was the final soldier Maewald had chosen. The captain liked that Vera looked at the world with wonder. She’d graduated mage school and joined the Elroot army with the ink still fresh on her diploma. Maewald admired her optimism, even if he found it naïve. He envied how she could spin situations. She would learn with time that Esstaria was not a forgiving realm, but Maewald wasn’t one to mold a young mind to defeat.
Benson rode alongside Maewald—Markson, Sybil, and Vera behind, Markson spouting some nonsense about trees in the Freelands growing taller than in the Kingdoms due to less dense populations. Maewald figured the man was correct with his assumption, but the captain also wondered why a man would need to know such a thing.
Maewald caught Benson eyeing him. Her teal eyes sparkled as she chuckled, and the captain realized he’d been frowning.
“Windbag,” Benson said.
Maewald raised a brow and grinned. He’d never met anyone that could read him quite like Benson. “If that archer weren’t flappin’ his gums, I’d be worried.”
“It is endearing, don’t you think? Wanting to know a little something about everything.”
“I’ve learned with age that me old mind can only store so much. I’ll keep to what’s important fer the Kingdom.”
Benson laughed again. “Well, the thirst for knowledge is never unhelpful.”
Maewald couldn’t imagine venturing anywhere without her. Though he was her senior by nearly fifteen years, the old captain figured she knew more about life than he ever would. They rode silently, apart from Markson’s chatter, for a long moment. Maewald glanced at Benson; her smile had faded, replaced with something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
“What is it?” he asked.
She cleared her throat, her gaze occupied with the reins wrapped around her gloves. “Do you think King Ranley will agree to send Raeha?” Her gaze lingered for another long moment, Maewald allowing the silence to drift between them. He had an answer ready, but he sensed her thought hadn’t finished. Finally, Benson took a deep breath and squinted at the sky. “Would be quite a boon. Everyone knows about Raeha. I’d think the mere mention of her teaching at the Elroot School of Magic would give Rynhaven pause.”
The captain had met Sorceress Raeha many years before, and he wouldn’t soon forget the singular magician of fire—the one many proclaimed the Prophesied. Raeha’s mother, Gwinna, was no less impressive. Gwinna had lived longer than many Kingdoms, and though the gifted Sorceress had never confirmed it, rumors abounded that she was among the first who formed the Twilight.
Maewald met Gwinna back in Lithos when she visited the Lithos School of Magic. Gwinna had taught at every magic school in the nine Kingdoms. He reckoned Gwinna understood magic better than anyone.
“King Ranley is a friend o’ Elroot,” Maewald said. It was all he could say. In truth, he didn’t know if King Ranley would agree. If the northern King did send aid to Elroot, and Rynhaven attacked, Ranley would be taking a clear stance in the battle. Kingdoms rarely did as such, usually allowing squabbles and wars to sort themselves out rather than expand them and call other Kingdoms to arms. Maewald found the tactic cowardly, even if he understood the reasoning.
As far as the documented history was concerned, there had only been five major wars in Esstaria. Maewald’s life had been a particularly busy one; he’d taken part in two of those five wars. The other three happened before all nine Kingdoms had even formed.
One such war Maewald fought in, the Battle at Hamlin, was Rynhaven’s first attempt to snuff out and conquer Elroot. Maewald was in Lithos then, and Lithos backed Elroot. Five Kingdoms eventually entered that war until a standstill was called and a peace treaty signed. Seems Rynhaven didn’t value that treaty anymore.
Maewald had met Gwinna long before the Battle at Hamlin, but the war itself was his introduction to Raeha. The captain’s mind never felt quite right after that war. He spent years twitching when shadows moved beyond his sight in the darkness, never quite knowing if his mind were playing tricks on him or if a Rynhaven sorceress had come to finish the job. Sleeping hadn’t been the same since. He still heard the screams of dying soldiers in quiet moments just as vividly as he had during those cold and lonely nights hiding in the muck to avoid the bright and terrifying flashes of magic.
For as ruthless as the sorceresses in Rynhaven prided themselves to be, none of them held a candle to the depravity he witnessed Raeha enact. By all accounts, Raeha was a timid and all-together pleasant woman. A sorceress—innately cunning and devious—but still a woman with passion and care in her heart. Yet, on the battlefield, something else took over. She became a creature of darkness–a plight on any living soul that opposed her.
The Rynhaven sorceresses could’ve certainly taken Raeha down. Anyone can be outnumbered and overwhelmed, but Raeha excelled in fire magic, and there aren’t many willing to lose their life in such a morose fashion so that their compatriots can taste victory.
Raeha didn’t win the war—or, better said, she didn’t influence a standstill on her own—but anyone who set foot on the battlefield knew that the tide turned the moment the Sorceress of Fire entered the fray.
Acquiring her magic-spending fingers to oppose Rynhaven again would be a boon unmatched by anything else. Hell, Maewald would rather have Raeha on the backlines merely casting spells of protection than the entire Tarinn army—and Tarinn housed the second largest army in Esstaria; only topped by the unruly forces in Plath.
King Ranley of Tarinn must know how helpful Raeha would be should Rynhaven attack again. The northern King must know that Elroot would lose a direct war with Rynhaven. The rich bastard Elo Yundra called Elroot home, and the realm needed Yundra’s clothing factories. But, even with those realizations, Maewald still wasn’t sure if King Ranley would oblige. If Ranley denied them, the death of Elroot seemed likely.
“All we can do is hope,” Maewald said, his own gaze training the sky.
Benson returned her focus to the shoddy dirt road. “The most dangerous word in all the realm.”
The captain appreciated Benson’s proclivity for boldness. She’d seen too much to shroud the truth in sugar. He wondered if his own hardness about the world had rubbed off on her. Perhaps it had, and perhaps that was a good thing.
Markson’s squawking cut through Maewald’s drifting mind. He eyed Benson again, and she shook her head. The captain tightened the reins of his steed and slowed enough to hear the conversation in full.
“I’m telling you,” Markson said, his voice high and raw, “not even for a second.”
Maewald didn’t need to see Markson to know the archer wore his usual smugness. Markson was average height, handsome, dark hair, and had a face that people just seemed to find punchable. His incessant rambling and overflowing ego certainly fueled his punchableness.
“I think you speak beyond your means,” Vera said.
Markson scoffed. “You’re a medic!”
“And a mage!” Maewald could hear the grin in Vera’s words.
“Still a medic. A crow has a better chance of handling an arc glaive than you do.”
“I’d still like to try.”
Maewald didn’t look back, but he imagined Vera sat straight, her posture perfect, a serious-yet-enthusiastic look upon her while her fire-red hair framed her smooth face.
“Tell her, Sybil,” Markson pleaded. “Tell this fish-out-of-water that an arc glaive would sever her dainty hand in two!”
Maewald imagined Vera wore a look of utter repulsion. Markson had a point, in a way. Vera was short and thin, but Maewald had learned long ago that the appearance of a magician often meant nothing.
“You don’t know anything about me,” Vera said. “I may be what you call fresh blood, but I’m touched by magic. Are you?”
Markson stumbled over his vowels and consonants, unable to form an intelligible word. Maewald had half a mind to spin around and laugh at Markson.
“With a simple spell,” Vera continued, “I could drop you and your horse. I’d be lost in the wind when you awoke, or, if I were an especially devious mage, you’d never wake.”
Maewald knew Vera lied. She was a mage, but a partling. Her well of magic was shallow, allowing her to cast only a few spells. She could certainly incapacitate Markson with a Spell of Force, but that wouldn’t kill him. She might even pass out herself if she exerted enough force to down Markson and his horse. The captain assumed the medic banked on Markson’s limited knowledge of magic. A moment passed, and Markson remained quiet. Vera’s ruse had worked. Maewald noted her boldness with delight.
During the argument, Benson had reversed herself on her steed to face the trio behind them. The Captain’s First laughed a hearty and full rumble. “The fresh blood has got you there.”
Benson’s short, brown hair was swooped to one side, showing the under shave of her head. She wore tight fitting clothes that accentuated her defined build. Maewald had known enough Knights to realize they all took pride in their physiques. Her bronze complexion contrasted with her teal eyes in a way that often made her look intimidating even when she was jesting.
“Come off it, Benson!” Markson said. “Do you really believe the fresh blood—who, by the way, could be no taller than two baskets of bonberries—can handle an arc glaive?”
Benson crossed her arms, enjoying herself in a way that pulled another scoff from Markson. Though Maewald found more to be aggravated about in Markson than he did to praise in the spectacular archer, he appreciated the comradery that Markson helped instill in the troop. The archer argued more than he simply conversed, but that allowed him to get to the meat of issues—to know his fellow soldiers better. It was a smart tactic, and Maewald had no doubts that Markson utilized it with that knowledge.
Markson and Sybil had been a pair as long as Maewald had known them. A package deal. They’d never been assigned anywhere separately. For a long time, the captain thought something deeper, more romantic, might’ve linked the two. But Sybil was a Knight, and Knight’s swore their lives to thrones, much like indentured servants to the crowns, and that was an oath that Sybil took to heart.
Maewald had learned over the years that Sybil and Markson simply just got along. They understood each other in a way that very few ever understood anyone other than themselves. Hell, in a way that few even understood themselves. Maybe, at some point, something else had been there. Maewald wasn’t one to judge, and the two were valued soldiers. Of course, if a connection more sensual in nature had developed between them, the word getting out would see Sybil lose his status as a Knight.
Maewald had decided long ago that if he ever caught wind of such a thing, he’d happen to be blind and deaf that day.
“Well?” Markson said, exasperation suffocating the word.
“You already know the answer,” Benson said. Her eyes moved a few ticks, landing on Vera, Maewald assumed. “The archer is right, Cadet. I love your spirit, but you’re not a Knight. There are only a special few who can wield an arc glaive without Knight’s training.” She smiled. “I’m sure you’re handy with a sword, though.” Benson began to resituate herself properly on her steed but stopped halfway. “I’d wager even handier than Markson.” She completed her turn and winked at Maewald. He chuckled.
Benson’s comment predictably riled Markson up, and the archer returned to his argument with Vera. The hours ticked by as Maewald found solace in the expansive nature of the Freelands. He was no stranger to the place—many ventured into the Freelands for one reason or another. Some to start a new life, others simply just to travel when they couldn’t afford the portal fare from one Kingdom to another. The Freelands offered no governing system, as such many a dishonorable individual roamed the untamed land.
The troop veered off the wide road and into the forest after two of the suns set, using the dwindling light of the white sun to chart their path. Maewald led them for a long moment until the trees thinned enough to find a patch with adequate room for the five disguised traders.
Benson crafted a small fire pit and lit a fire. The troop huddled around the rising warmth. Tall trees surrounded them as darkness set in and the moon’s dim glow gave view to the stars.
Markson set his gaze upon Maewald. The archer had been sharpening an arrow. “We expecting a jolly romp through the Freelands to Tarinn?”
The captain would love nothing more than the archer to have hit the nail on the head, but Maewald knew the Freelands. “Should be in Norrin about nightfall tomorrow. Tarinn’s two days from there. Plenty o’ time fer the Freelands to swallow us in ugliness.”
Vera held her arms tightly across her chest. Maewald shared a look with Benson; the Captain’s First raised a lone brow.
“You alright, Cadet?” Benson asked.
Vera nodded but looked uneasy, her red hair shrouding her eyes. Maewald suspected she was trying to calm herself; he’d become a man familiar with the look of uncertainty.
“Just never been in the Freelands,” Vera said.
“Well,” Markson said. “Let’s hope the lawless regions favor you more than they’ve favored me.”
Vera regarded the archer. “Been here a lot?”
Markson glanced at Maewald and chuckled. “You could say so. I was born in the Freelands. I’m a soldier in the Elroot army without citizenship. I don’t call any Kingdom home.”
“How’s that work?”
“Most Kingdoms will take any that can pass training. Citizenship is only required to serve a court or to own land within a Kingdom’s borders.”
“You don’t have a home?”
“The Elroot City encampment is my home.”
Vera’s face scrunched. “The training grounds?”
Markson nodded. Maewald was surprised that the information was news to Vera. Perhaps the medic gave a bit too much attention to her schooling.
“It’s not all bad,” Sybil said, his thick, eastern accent strangling every letter. “Soldiers have permissions that citizens can’t achieve without being a soldier.”
“Aye,” Markson said. “I can go anywhere in Elroot I’d like, and most shops and restaurants give soldiers discounts. I have a room in Elroot City; don’t pay anything for it. Not a bad life. Minus the whole could-die-on-any mission of it all.”
Vera prodded the fire with a stick. She looked at Sybil. “But you’re a knight?”
Sybil smiled; the flames danced off the moon’s glow on his bald head. If one were to imagine the perfect specimen to represent a Knight, it would be Sybil—tall, chiseled from stone, broad, and the very definition of imposing. But Maewald knew the man’s heart was as warm as the fire.
“Knights don’t need to be citizens to enter Knight Academy,” Sybil said. “After, you swear an oath to the throne. No other Kingdom would have me as a Knight once I’ve taken the oath, and I wouldn’t betray that oath. No Knight worth their salt would.”
“Knights never defect?”
Benson laughed. “Only Plath would take in a traitor.”
Vera was young, only nineteen, and Maewald supposed a bit of naivety wasn’t a bad thing. The medic had graduated among the top of her class in magic school and excelled during training to join the army. She’d told him before their journey to find the Coven that she’d never been outside Elroot City. She had a lot to discover. Maewald remembered his own younger years. So much wonder had fluttered within him then.
“We should get some sleep,” Maewald said. “I’ll take first watch.”
The troop spread out around the captain. An hour later, he listened to the snores and wheezes of his soldiers. He hoped Markson’s sentiment about the Freelands favoring the young medic would ring true. Their mission should take no longer than four days, but he knew that four days in the Freelands was enough time for damn near everything to go wrong.
All eyes held upon Maewald and his troop. The tavern doors had been closed for a long moment, and the patrons inside hadn’t torn their gazes from the travelers. Maewald wasn’t sure if anyone suspected them to be anything but fur traders; the long stare-down likely stemmed from unfamiliarity. Still, the troop stood quietly, the captain assessing the eyes on them—his assumption was that his crew did the same.
The journey to Norinn passed smoothly. They didn’t encounter anyone or any trouble on the road to the small town. Maewald thanked the gods for that. Now, in the presence of Freelanders, the true test began.
Maewald strode to the bar, his troop following closely. He took a seat; the tavern keeper eyed him while filling a mug. The ale slid past Maewald, the keeper never losing sight of the newcomer.
“Need a room big enough for the five o’ us,” Maewald said.
“Just one room?” the tavern keeper asked.
Maewald nodded, and though the tavern keeper displayed a look soaked in curiosity, he turned to the cabinet behind him and withdrew a key attached to a plank.
“Seven be ‘round the corner just up those stairs.” The keeper’s chin jutted at the stairwell to Maewald’s left. The keeper held the key-plank for another moment before placing it on the bar, his curiosity still painted on him. “Drinkin’ anythin’?”
“We’ll take a round o’ yer most popular,” Maewald said.
The keeper locked eyes with Benson, then Sybil, and finally returned to Maewald. “Traders with Knight escorts? Mighty rare ‘round here.”
“You know how the rich be,” Maewald said. “Everythin’ is shrouded in some importance that will end up matterin’ little to the likes o’ us.”
The keeper leaned back; his curious look growing stronger. “Us?”
The ales made their way to the bar. Maewald refrained from replying. He didn’t want to slow the process of getting away from the bar as quickly as they could.
“Ya other three be Freelanders?” the tavern keeper asked.
“Don’t see no bags with you. Must be pickin’ somethin’ up.”
“Couldn’t tell ya what it was. Course, if I knew, I’m sure my employer be expectin’ a level o’ privacy.”
Maewald felt a hand brace his shoulder. “A long day deserves a good pint,” Markson said.
The tavern keeper lowered, looking around the bar, giving Maewald the impression that the keeper knew something important. “Just keep yer heads down,” the keeper said. “Knights ain’t what I’d call liked out here.”
Maewald thanked him. The troop gathered their ales and moved to a round table near the stairwell. The tavern had resumed its livelihood during their conversation with the keeper. Maewald accepted the happening as a blessing, and he was sure they wouldn’t be afforded too many of those.
“Eyes open and ears focused,” Benson said. She held her mug close to her mouth. Maewald doubted any in the tavern could read lips, but Benson had never been one to take unnecessary chances. He’d taught her well. He wasn’t sure if he should take pride in that or feel ashamed that he’d been an accomplice to her jaded outlook. But they were in the Freelands, and precaution was never the wrong choice out here.
Sybil drank with an aura that could be interpreted as careless. Maewald had known the Knight long enough to spot when anxiety bubbled in him. The tall Knight hid it well, but he was on alert. Markson appeared carefree as usual, and Maewald suspected the archer’s relaxed presentation—complete with one leg over the other and a comfortable lean in his chair—was less of a show.
Vera’s eyes raced around the tavern. Her mug sat in front of her, untouched.
“Drink up,” Maewald said.
Vera hastily scooped up her mug and drank, ale spilling on the sides and onto her shirt.
“Slower,” Markson said without looking at her. Markson stretched his arms and yawned. He looked at the ceiling. “What do we make of the big lad and his short female companion to your left.” The archer kept his gaze high, not looking at anyone around their table. He didn’t need to, Maewald knew he was speaking to Sybil.
Vera strained her neck to look around Benson, to where Markson had referred. “I don’t see—”
“Easy, cadet,” Benson said. The medic went red and retracted herself. Benson laughed. “You need experience to be experienced.” She took another hefty gulp of ale. “I noticed them when we entered.” Her brows raised. “Sybil?”
“The big man has looked at us three times since we sat,” Sybil said. “The woman hasn’t looked once.”
“They’re not talking either,” Markson said.
Maewald laughed. A moment later, Benson and Markson joined him. Vera retreated to her mug as Markson shook his head and displayed a look of anger.
“That’s good, Vera,” Markson said through gritted teeth. “Play up being uncomfortable.”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” the medic said.
“We must appear enraptured in our own little world,” Maewald said.
“All the while,” Benson said, “we’re studying them.”
Sybil patted Markson’s shoulder. “Right now, anyone watching thinks we’ve angered Markson and I’m consoling him.”
Benson feigned taking a drink. “And now we seem like any other travelers stopping in for a round.”
“The woman moved,” Markson said. “Perhaps to relieve herself.”
“Or perhaps to get a better look,” a voice said from behind Maewald.
The captain looked over his shoulder. The woman stood behind him; the man was still at her table.
“You see”—the woman pulled over a nearby chair— “a ruse is only as good as those employing it.” She sat and stared at Maewald. “I know you.”
“I think not,” Maewald said.
She smiled, her face shrouded by her heavy cloak. Her clothes were dark and baggy, but from her height and the shape of her face, Maewald figured she was no bigger than Vera.
“Of course,” the woman said. “I don’t know you, but I recognize you.”
“And who do you think he is?” Markson asked.
“Well,” the woman said. “They’re knights”—her finger swapped from Benson to Sybil—“but anyone can see that.” Her head tilted at Vera. “She’s new. First real mission?” Vera looked away, and the woman grinned again. “I haven’t quite marked you.” She rolled her tongue on the word ‘marked’ and Maewald knew that this woman did indeed recognize them. “And he is a captain.”
“You shifted,” Benson said.
The woman regarded the Captain’s First. “You didn’t feel it?” Her tone felt mocking, and when the woman moved the side of her hood enough for them to see the point of her ear, Maewald’s stomach turned.
She was an elf. They couldn’t have run into a worse situation if they’d tried. Everything in Maewald told him to strike her down now, right in the open for all to see. Their cover would be blown, but the elf would be dead. He pondered the danger of that trade.
The woman turned to Maewald. Her eyes darted to the hand he’d slid into his coat. “Do you think you’re quick enough?”
Maewald held her gaze. The moment stretched into eternity. He saw his dagger pulled, and he saw his crew dead. His jaw clenched. The elven woman raised a brow, a gesture that said “good choice” without the use of words.
“It’s not easy to cloak while you shift.” The elf redirected to Vera. “I suspect your red hair hides your points.” Vera froze, her mug near her chest. Her hand trembled. The elf’s gaze moved around the table, resting on each until she landed on Maewald again.
Her eyes gleamed. Her face was clean, nails clipped but long enough to tap the wooden table. The beating of her nails on the wood drowned out the noise of the other patrons. The sound reminded Maewald of a broken clock, keeping a cadence that seemed erratic but familiar. A grating moment passed. The woman kept her stare on the captain, and then a terrible realization hit him; she was tapping to the beat of his heart.
Maewald felt his face harden, and she smiled at his reaction. He couldn’t place an age on her. She was a Free Elf; that oddness tracked. Even other elves often couldn’t guess the ages of Free Elves.
“I wonder what an Elroot captain is doing all the way out here in Norrin.” She leaned back, and Maewald sensed a dangerous calm in her. “Ah.” Her fingers stopped tapping. “Tarinn, is it?”
“What’s yer business?” Maewald asked.
“I’m a Free Elf. Your presence is my business.”
“We’re just passing through,” Benson said.
The woman eyed Benson but leaned close to Maewald. She hovered near his ear, but the chill of her breath felt far away. “You’re not welcome here.”
She stood, quickly and without making any noise. “Fortunate for you, I quite like this place.” Her tone lowered. “We will see each other again.”
And then she was gone. Maewald turned toward her table, but the man was gone too. The captain glanced at Benson, then Sybil, and they both shook their heads. The elf had shifted again, and they still hadn’t felt it. She was taunting them.
Maewald didn’t need to wonder why. He was a captain. He traveled with Knights. That was reason enough for Free Elves. He cursed himself for entering the tavern, but he’d been confident that with Norrin being so close to Tarinn, the Free Elves would keep their distance. He’d misjudged, and now targets hung on their backs.
Maewald loosed the reins of his horse, his troop following suite. The captain gave the tavern that doubled as an inn a last long look. He’d laid awake for hours after the altercation with the Free Elf. Perhaps he’d allowed the ease of their venture cloud the reality of the Freelands. Or maybe his years betrayed him, weakening his aged mind.
Many nights of sleep were lost since the Battle at Hamlin. The captain’s mind had eased in the years following, but the arrival at a place of reclaiming his dreams took longer than it should have. He knew that. He couldn’t let go of the soldiers who died beside him, some in his arms, others in ways he was helpless to combat.
The Free Elf had shifted and cloaked the act. Her well of magic must be an ocean unto itself. He didn’t remember seeing any flowers or vines on her person. She must’ve hidden them beneath her cloak. Maewald wouldn’t admit to himself that the very presence of magic terrified him; that he pulled away inside himself each time the word smacked his face.
He was a captain of the Elroot army. He served a noble Queen and a King that meant well. His life had purpose; he had soldiers to protect—lives depended on him. He couldn’t allow fear purchase upon his heart. Yet, with reins in hand, his mind filled with memories of a colorful haze. A sky ripe with iridescent hues—a beauty that smote reality. The sky during war shimmered like the most abstract and beautiful painting one could imagine, but the colors told of destruction on the ground. Magic in Esstaria popped with fluorescent shades that should’ve inspired wonder, but the real truth of the colors was that many would die under such a sky.
Benson rounded her horse and locked eyes with him. He saw the unease in her, too, and that did nothing to quell his aching gut.
“Sir,” Markson said.
Maewald turned to his archer to find the man’s gaze zeroed in on the road they’d traveled to Norrin. Dirt rose in the distance like a dust storm.
“Riders,” Sybil said.
“The elf,” Benson said.
Maewald turned back to the post and tied the reins down again. The elf was returning, or she’d sent a troop. Neither boded well. He’d hoped to ride out of Norrin before trouble could rear its ugly head; he should’ve known better. He pulled his sword from the bag on his steed and regarded Vera. “Ready yer fingers. Seems we’ll need your expertise.”
She nodded, but fear swam in her eyes. The medic opened the bag on her horse and fumbled through the contents. Books and vials scattered the ground. Maewald had seen such anxiety from many cadets.
“Calm yerself,” Maewald said. “We can’t avoid the fight; no use lettin’ it control you.”
She nodded again, but an unease still guided her movements. She stuffed small vials filled with leaves and petals into her pockets. The cadet removed a large, oval carbon container from the other side of her horse. She withdrew a long vine from it and wrapped it around her torso. She looped the vegetation over herself like a sash and tied it on her front as one would a belt. She looked the part, and all the captain could do was hope that her appearance wasn’t a falsity.
“Will that be enough?” Benson asked.
Vera’s look confirmed that she didn’t know, but she didn’t say anything. Her words must’ve been stolen by her trepidation during the redirection of her attention to the Captain’s First.
“It’ll have to due,” Maewald said.
Markson grabbed his bow and quiver. He disappeared behind the tavern. Sybil and Benson withdrew their arc glaives. The color of the velvet-looking sheaths on their hips dissolved, becoming translucent. Their blades pulsed as the iridescent magic covering them lit and burned like a star.
Maewald was no stranger to arc glaives; he’d even used them plenty in his day. He preferred the simplicity of a steel sword, and he wouldn’t lie to himself—wielding an arc glaive was akin to fighting two battles at once: your enemy and your movements. The mind couldn’t falter with an arc glaive in hand; lest the ill-temper of constricted magic strike you down.
Maewald turned to Vera. “How close do ya need to be?” She froze, and Maewald could see her mind turning over at the pace of a snow tortoise. He smacked her shoulder. “Cadet?”
She shook her head. “Fifty paces, maybe?”
“Maybe?” Benson asked.
“I’ve never been in real battle.” Vera’s words rushed from her; she pulled on the vine. Her chest rose quicker at the end of her sentence.
Maewald grabbed her shoulders; his touch was gentle. “Listen to me. Spell of Protection. Nothing else. Keep it slow—”
“I can’t,” she said.
“Ya can. It’ll be alri—”
“No.” She shook her head. “I can’t do Spell of Protection.”
“What do you mean?” Benson asked.
“I can’t. It’s too much.” Vera’s eyes hid in the dirt. “I can’t sustain it. I’ll pass out.”
Maewald shared a disconcerting look with Benson and took a heavy inhale. “What can ya do comfortably?”
“It’s not about comfort. I can’t do Spell of Protection at all.”
Benson crowded them. “What can you do? Do you see that?” She gestured at the nearing trail of rising dirt. “We don’t have time.”
“Spell of Healing,” Vera said with haste.
Vera shook in Maewald’s grasp. “Spell of Force.”
The tavern windows had opened during the exchange. Faces from inside stared at them. Freelanders stood outside and near the shops connected to the tavern in the L-shape design of the Norrin town square. No one bared looks of sympathy upon the unwanted travelers. They were here to see a show of death.
“Is that all?” Benson asked. She’d grown irritated and hadn’t hidden it.
“Spell of Adept.”
“That’s all you know?”
Vera kept her gaze low and nodded.
Maewald felt the weight of their situation. Vera, the medic, could heal them if given the time, but she couldn’t offer them the momentary safety that Spell of Protection provided. They had no armor or shields. The fight would be one of skill and quickness.
The captain caught a bright glare at the corner of his eye. He pivoted to see Markson on the roof of a shop, rotating a small mirror. The archer placed himself to their side at an angle that allowed a visual of the tavern’s front and where the dirt road led into the town square.
The clopping of hooves stole the silence.
“We’re out of time,” Sybil said.
Maewald lifted Vera’s chin. “Heal any injuries ya can. Use Force only if needed; don’t use Adept.”
She nodded again.
“Get out o’ sight.”
Vera left them, and Maewald joined Sybil and Benson at the ready. The horses neared; nine riders—the elf took up the rear. Maewald knew the elf’s distance wasn’t an act of cowardice but thinking of it as such helped fuel his confidence. The riders stopped at what Maewald estimated to be twenty paces from the trio. Bandits from the looks of them. They had armor, shields, and swords. No doubt knives hidden under their armor.
The elf sat behind her crew. Her cloak was down; her pointed-ears poked from beneath her short hair like daggers that only knew one purpose—torment. Maewald didn’t hate elves on the whole, but he certainly hated this one.
“Thought ya said ya like this place?” Maewald asked.
“The tavern,” the elf said. “Not the square.”
“Ya don’t want to do this.”
She grinned. “Take those three alive; kill the other two.” Her horse turned to ride away, but she stopped and looked over her shoulder. “The archer is atop the general shop.”
The elf returned to the dirt road. Two riders broke from the pack and headed for the general shop.
“Coward!” Maewald shouted. He wanted to agitate her, but he thanked the gods with a silent prayer that the elf had vacated. He wasn’t sure why she left, but now wasn’t the time to ponder blessings.
An arrow loosed from the distance, but the pair of riders had their shields raised. Another arrow clanged against the bandits’ armor. The third penetrated a horse’s leg. The animal toppled. Markson always found an angle. The rider fell below their horse, and the heavy animal rolled over the attacker. A piercing scream was cut short at the sound of a loud crunch. The other rider continued toward Markson. The archer had height and distance to his advantage; the captain hoped it’d be enough.
The remaining six riders left their horses and circled Maewald and the Knights. Benson’s teal eyes brightened, the sign of a raging Knight. The bandits’ aggression surprised the captain; he wondered if they’d ever fought someone like Benson.
The Captain’s First disappeared only to reappear outside the circle. Her arc glaive hissed as it sunk into a bandit. The bandits looked spooked; Maewald remembered his first time seeing someone shift. The attackers kept their pace—eyes wide—and two charged the old captain. He parried and side-stepped.
It’d been some years since he’d endured a real fight. He wondered how much he had left. The bandits were quick; young and spry opponents that swung together to overwhelm him. The captain was no stranger to such a tactic. Bandits employing a strategy often only seen on the battlefield of war did impress him.
He gritted his teeth as he swatted an arching swipe. The bandits closed the distance with a pace he favored. The captain stepped forward quickly to catch a coming swing. His sword clashed with the bandit’s blade, and the captain brought their weapons up in a begrudging embrace. His withdrawn dagger found entry between the bandit’s helmet and neck plate before the other attacker could counter swing at him. Their quickness might outpace his old bones, but Maewald could fight dirty with the best of them.
Benson and Sybil appeared in flashes, present to eyes for a moment, then lost in unseen shadows the next. The bandits couldn’t have been prepared for a dance with the most tested warriors of a Kingdom. Maewald leaped away from the bleeding bandit and ducked a wild swing from the second. He saw Benson reappear between two enemies. Her arc glaive dislodged the head from one, and an arm from the other.
Maewald hadn’t seen any arrows enter the fray near him. He deflected a slash and looked for the archer. Markson hadn’t left the roof of the shop; the bow master shot arrows at a steady pace down at the bandit coming for him. The attacker had hunkered down behind his fallen horse. Maewald saw the bandit fiddling with something but couldn’t make it out. Then, the bastard tossed an orb at the general shop. The orb exploded before it reached the roof and expelled a chunk of the shop’s sign.
A hot rush of pain exploded in Maewald’s mind. The attacker’s blade retracted from his leg. He’d torn his attention away for too long. He staggered and dropped to his knee. The bandit’s sword came at him again, but the old captain rolled away. Pain seared his thoughts as he stood. For a moment, it felt like a torch blasting his leg. His cut glowed green, and then the bleeding stopped. He couldn’t see Vera—he supposed he didn’t need to.
The bandit lunged at the captain again. Maewald swatted the coming blade to the dirt and shoved the attacker back. When his enemy jolted away, Maewald followed in a hurry. Maewald liked getting up close and personal, he found the tactic often flustered his adversary. The bandit blocked his swing, but now that his attacker was on the retreat, his movements grew stiff. The captain kicked the bandit’s knee and caught the attacker’s underarm with a dagger as he buckled. The bandit grunted in pain and dropped his sword. Maewald’s following strike ended the second bandit the same as the captain had ended the first.
Another explosion thundered the town square. The watching Freelanders had disappeared when the skirmish began. The general shop caved, the roof giving out. Maewald lost sight of Markson.
“Benson! The roof!” Maewald shouted.
The Knight vanished then reappeared paces away. She shifted again, but before she reached the bomb-throwing bandit, the enroute bomb reversed course and exploded on top of the thrower. The bandit didn’t have time to scream, much less flee. Maewald saw Vera drop to her knees near one of the shop entrances. The damn cadet had pulled her weight.
The clanging of blades drew the captain’s attention. Two bandits’ swords pulled apart, the attackers looked worn and confused. Maewald found no sympathy for them. Sybil dodged another strike and shifted. When Maewald’s vision caught sight of Sybil again, his arc glaive plunged through the armor of a bandit. The last stood on shaky knees and readied, but when he raised his sword, a returning Benson intercepted him and freed his head from his body. The fight was quick and dirty, and Maewald thanked the gods for that.
The captain rested a hand on his knee and caught his breath. “Find Markson.” Maewald gathered himself and went to Vera. The medic’s clothes were wet, and she looked like she’d fought harder than any of them.
“Spell of Force takes a lot outta ya?” Maewald asked.
She panted and took his hand. “Catching the bomb and keeping the explosion over the bandit took more than I anticipated.”
Clever move. Maewald smiled. “Ya did good.”
Benson and Sybil returned supporting a limping Markson.
“How’d ya manage that escape?” Maewald asked.
“Should’ve gone for more stable cover after the first bomb,” Markson said, “but I thought I’d find an opening when he threw again.”
Markson raised his brows. “I ran, but the second bomb came quicker. I jumped when the roof gave out. Landed wrong.”
Vera placed a hand on Markson’s chest. “I’ll heal you on the road. Need to gather myself.”
Freelanders exited shops again and crowded the L-shaped design of the town square. The captain knew any more time spent in Norrin would only lead to more unpleasantness.
Vera climbed on her horse; she looked weak.
“Let’s get to some brush,” Maewald said.
Vera attempted a smile. Maewald couldn’t imagine what it was like to both crave and feast upon oxygen. All living things needed to breathe—in one way or another—but magicians were different. They absorbed that nutrient of life nearly as quickly as they consumed it. It must be a tiring existence.
Sybil rode next to Markson. “We’ve overstayed our welcome.”
Markson spat. “Good riddance.”