Stolen Time

Niamsha Pereyra sank to the floor beside the worn out cot her papa used for a bed, her eyes fixed on the sweat-streaked paleness of his face. A slight bluish tinge clung to his skin as he coughed, the deep, rattling sound a sign his illness had weakened him further.

“Papa?” Her voice shook, the childish whisper barely audible over the crackle of the fire from their small hearth. Niamsha steeled herself against his raspy breathing, forcing more courage into her words. “Papa, whatcha need? I can get—”

“No, girl.” Her papa’s mouth stretched into a pained smile. An attempt to soothe her fears, no doubt. “Watch yer speech. Guild’s got enough reason ta turn ya away. That gutter speech is all they need ta—”

He cut off, thin frame shaking as he held back another fit. Niamsha reached a hand forward, pausing with her fingers just over his cheek. The darker tint of her skin stark against his too-pale figure. She laid the hand down and shook her head.

“Ain’t gonna take no ’prenticeship,” she said. And she couldn’t, anyway. Not now that the physic had raised his price again. But her papa didn’t need to know. Niamsha smiled at him. “Not with you sick an’ Em too young ta care fer ya.”

Her papa sighed, patting her hand with one of his own. His gaze settled on her hand and she knew his fears without needing to hear them. Niamsha’s coloring mirrored the mother she barely remembered, darker than the native-born residents and always drawing looks when she wandered the streets. Not many foreign-born had remained through the old emperor’s abuse, and those that stayed chose to sequester in small villages of their own over retaining their spaces in larger cities. With the war’s end that was changing, but not fast enough. Guilds had shifted apprentice policies and standing had been lost that no lord could give back to them. Her papa’s worry the glasswright’s guild would reject her held more weight than either of them wanted to admit.

Niamsha frowned. “I leave ya, who pays the rent? Who gets yer dose from the physic? I’m gettin’ good enough at glass here. I’ll learn from you, when yer better.”

“I’d wish you wanted another trade—” He coughed again, his breath tight and pained as he waved her away.

Hovering over him, Niamsha dipped a hand into the bowl of cool water she kept by the bedside. Sweat beaded on his face again as a fierce heat swept through his body. Same as every time the physic’s dose wore off. Her hand found the scrap of cloth in the water and clenched down, wringing the water out and folding the cloth into a cool patch to ease what little pain it could. The doses wore off sooner every time. Barely two hours this time.

“Papa, you need a proper healer.”

“We’ve no coin for that, girl,” her papa said. “And I ain’t taking more tinctures. It’s time. Call Emrys in.”

“He ain’t ready,” she protested. But her papa had already slumped, eyes closed as his chest rose and fell with labored breaths. She couldn’t deny Emrys a chance to speak with their papa when he was this ill. They all knew he’d never fully recover.

Niamsha laid the cool cloth on her papa’s forehead and rose, pushing aside the curtain that separated the bed from the rest of the house. The main room—just large enough to fit a table beside the dual cots for Niamsha and her brother and a set of rickety shelves that once held her mother’s books—was dark and cold. She paced through the room toward the back door. No fire in the hearth and the doorway on the far wall revealed her papa’s long-abandoned workshop. The chairs had seen better days, but they’d be sturdy enough for any guests. Not that anyone came to see them now that her papa’s health had faded.

Rumors swept through the other crafter’s children of evil magic tinting the kingdom. They said the new high lord had a demon servant whose skin ran red with the blood of human sacrifices. Some even said the blood had seeped into his being, leaving a constant glow of an unholy tattoo that flowed through him. A curse from the gods, no doubt.

Except the rumors were silly. Holy Aeduhm and His divine children protected the Laisian Empire in return for the devotion old Emperor Laisia had shown. That’s what temple taught her, and her papa had never contradicted it. Niamsha’s gaze drifted to the alcove hidden behind her mother’s shelves. The books she’d once placed there had slowly vanished over the months of her papa’s illness, the value too high to let sit untouched while Niamsha and Emrys starved. But the salves had stayed, masking the small table where Niamsha’s mother used to pray to the foreign gods of the homeland she’d loved. If Aeduhm protected the empire because of the old emperor’s devotion, then what did He think of a loyal family hiding the heretical shrine of a long-dead woman?

Niamsha stepped over the the shelves, dust thick on the aging wood as well as the table and figures behind. She should throw them out and beg forgiveness from the divine Father and His children. But her mother’s cheerful humming lingered in her memory, stopping her hand before she touched the figures. She closed her eyes and muttered a prayer to Aeduhm. Even He couldn’t save her papa now, anyway. No need to discard the last thing left of her mother in such a futile effort.

She pulled the back door open instead, walking out into the bare patch of garden where her brother played. Emrys sat in the dirt, drawing crude pictures with a stick. A few months ago he’d been running wild through the streets with the other glasswright’s sons, his paler tan skin blending better with the locals than her darker tones did. But even those children they’d called friends wouldn’t risk coming near for fear her papa’s illness might spread.

“Em, Papa wants ya,” she said.

Emrys rose with a shrug, his shoulders hunched in the way of a child who knows he’s about to be scolded. A look he’d been wearing since their papa had first closed the shop to the sickness. Niamsha caught Emrys’s arm as he passed.

“It’s gonna be okay, Em.” She squeezed once, releasing him as he pulled away. “Papa’s sick, but you an’ me. We’ll make do.”

“With what?”

Emrys stepped inside without waiting for her answer. And what answer could she give? They had one apprenticeship’s worth of coin, almost a full gold jayl in value, but when their papa died the deeds for house and shop would go to the guild. No heirs of age to take possession unless he could hold out another ten months for Niamsha’s birthing day. Under the guild’s new rules they didn’t even have to pay fair value in trade. A response to the high lord’s new regulations, her papa said.

Niamsha sighed, leaning against the wall and swishing the worn skirts of her dress around her legs. Her friend’s mother made it for her near two years back, when they’d gone together to a formal gathering of the glasswright’s guild. The dress hung too short now, after two years of growing, and only Niamsha’s too-skinny frame let her fit into it at all. But it was still the nicest dress she owned and the only clothes she could wear to temple without disgracing her family. Temple might be the only chance for her and Emrys to get help. The new high lord had ordered charity for the poor, handed out by acolytes to those most in need. He must have known the temples would choose their favorites among the needy, but Niamsha had connections there. Her papa had paid a small fortune for her to get schooling—three or four times the apprentice fees he’d gathered now. Enough money, her papa had hoped, to overcome the hostility imperial natives felt for those with foreign blood. And not enough to buy her security among the chosen servants of the merchant god Istvan.

With a shove against the rough wall behind her, Niamsha stepped away from her home and strode to the gate, stepping between the small patches of dirt that had held her mother’s garden years before. She pushed the gate wide, glancing down the narrow alley in a habitual search for the poorer customers who used to buy trinkets of scrap glass to set beside a candle flame for a brighter burn. Save on candles by throwing the light, and her papa had always sold the scraps too cheap for their value. Said the low had to help each other or be stepped on. But no one dared linger near their house any longer, and there’d been no scrap to sell even if they did.

The unmistakable chime of her papa’s door bell rang out the back door behind her. Niamsha hesitated. Her papa wasn’t working and Emrys was old enough to send whoever it was away. She counted her breaths, waiting for the repeated jingle that would mark another customer lost to the illness that plagued the house. If she turned back, asked what commission the customer needed… She couldn’t work glass like her papa or any other glasswright, really. Even the apprentices had more practice that she did. But Niamsha knew a few of the techniques her papa hid from his fellows. A simple commission for reduced price might pay for another visit to the physic.

Twelve breaths, heart pounding as she debated the choice, and she heard voices drifting out of the shop. Not Emrys. He should have handled it. Should have looked after their papa. But Niamsha knew her papa’s thick voice even through the weakened breaths that left him wheezing. She hurried toward the door. Her papa should be in bed.

The back door swung open at her touch, the conversation barely audible from the workshop. He’d walked so far? Niamsha turned toward the open doorway, the form of her papa’s visitor hidden and voices muffled. Emrys caught her arm.

“Father said wait,” he whispered. “Something ’bout an old pact.”

“You knew better, Em,” Niamsha snapped. “Papa ain’t up to handlin’ nothing. What you think he’s gonna do if they ask fer work, or a favor?”


She pulled away, storming to the doorway, and froze at the hushed tones of her papa’s voice. His back was turned to her but the hunch of his shoulders held as much deceit as weakness.

“Ya know I can’t pay,” her papa said. “What ya plannin’ ta take? Me last bits a scrap?”

“Master says ya got something he wants,” the other man replied. “Debts get paid, one way or t’other.”

“Ain’t got nothing. Tell yer master—”

The door bell chimed again and the heavy clunk of boots entered from the street. The men fell silent, Niamsha’s papa wheezing against the strain of standing so long while waiting for the newcomer to say or do something. Niamsha peeked around the corner, but all she could see was the bulky form of the first arrival and the narrow form of someone else behind, neither offering any consideration for her papa. Swallowing a lump of tension, Niamsha edged further into the room for a better view.

“Master Trieu, I’m pleased to see you standing,” the newcomer said, her papa’s family name rolling off his tongue like a fancy flag waving in the wind.

His voice was smooth as the water in a new-drawn bath, pitched too high for any man she’d known. Niamsha’s papa nodded, lips pressed into a tight line. Why wouldn’t he say anything? Even her papa’s stubborn dedication to his craft had faded by now.

The slight figure nudged the larger man. “Our friend looks a bit under the weather. Do get him a chair. Debts can’t be paid by dead men, now can they?”

“Aye.” The larger man took two steps to one side and grabbed her papa’s work stool, swinging it over to her papa’s side. “Sit.”

Her papa hesitated, glanced toward the doorway into their house, and sat. His face gave no sign he’d seen Niamsha, but he must know she was listening. Her papa hadn’t hidden anything from her since her mother died.

“I can pay,” her papa said, turning back to the men. A lie he’d just contradicted, but they waited for him to continue. “Me shop. Worth half the sum at least. An’ me girl ain’t takin’ to the glass, so I got her ’pprentice fees.”

Niamsha clapped a hand to her mouth, muffling the sharp gasp of breath his words drew. Give away the shop and the last of their coin? How would they live?

“The shop seems excessive,” the slim figure said. “How would you earn the rest of my due? Hand over the coin, and I’ll offer an adjustment. Take some time to recover. No further payment due this season. I’m sure we can come to an arrangement once you’ve recovered.”

Her papa nodded and pushed himself to his feet. The other man stopped him, pushing her papa back onto the stool before crossing the room to dig out her papa’s strongbox. Hidden where no one ought to find it, but this man pulled it out as if Niamsha’s papa had left it on the table in plain view. They knew the shop, then, and had no need to speak to her papa if they planned to steal. Niamsha’s heart thudded in her chest as the man dug through and pulled out the handful of coins to count.

“Three cails short fer ’pprentice fees,” the man announced.

“Shorting me silver, are you, Master Trieu?”

Niamsha’s papa turned in his seat, lips parting in shock. “Can’t be. I put it there safe. She’s got full fees just waitin’.”

The smaller figure stepped forward, just into the edge of the light to scan the room. He looked almost a boy, barely grown into his shape as his eyes fixed on Niamsha’s hiding spot. He smiled.

“I imagine your daughter helped herself, Master Trieu,” he said. “You’re so very ill, she must have feared for you.” He waved at his companion and turned away. “Come on, then. We’ll take it. I’m not one to punish a child for loving a parent.”

Niamsha waited until they’d both left the shop before darting out of her corner to grab her papa’s arm.

“Papa, are you—”

“What’ve ya done?”

He muttered the question under his breath, clearly not expecting an answer. Niamsha frowned, kneeling on the cool stone of the workshop floor.

“Physic said ya needed a new dose. Old one ain’t working. What should I done?”

Her papa shook his head. “Don’t matter now. Ya gotta go. Get Emrys, pack yer clothes, get gone.”

“But papa, who’s gonna take care of you?”

“Nothing left ta care for,” He caught her face in his hands, his worn body trembling. “Go. Take nothing from no one. Can’t know who to trust. An’ don’t tell no one my name no more. Yer mother’s. She always said ta give ya hers fer the bloodline. Use it, find yer brother a safe place.”

“I can’t, papa.” Niamsha shook her head. “How’m I gonna keep us fed?”

“Yer smart. Find a way. Take care of yer brother. You promise me.”

The words stuck in her throat. But he’d never asked her for anything like this, and she’d never seen him so frightened. Whoever that boy was, he had power her papa feared.

“I promise, papa.” Niamsha swallowed a lump, squeezing his hands as she stood up. “I’ll take care of Em.”

With a nod, her papa shoved her toward the doorway into the main house. A fit of coughing took over as he leaned against the stool, hands on knees. But he waved her away as she hesitated. Nothing she could do would help him now. But the new high lord might be able to help her. Word on the street was he fancied himself a man of the people. Her father’s words stuck with her. Trust no one, take nothing, and protect Emrys. She’d only promised to protect Emrys.

Niamsha choked back a sob a grief and walked into the other room. “Come on, Em. Papa says we gotta go.”


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Free Reign

Arkaen Sentarsin, son of High Lord Johannus Sentarsin, loitered in the hallway, kicking a booted toe against the wall. His father’s study door remained firmly shut, the noise of his fidgeting not enough to disturb the discussion within. Negotiations over Arkaen’s future. Arkaen’s father hadn’t seen fit include him in those talks. Just another asset of the province, traded away for what stability could be found under High Emperor Laisia’s growing corruption. As if any alliance his father might plan could protect them if High Emperor Laisia chose to turn his gaze on them next.

A door opened further down the hall, releasing a muttering cluster of his father’s lower lords. Arkaen straightened, his nerves tingling as he cast around for a distraction. But his personal guard, Vaiyen, wouldn’t be in the palace for nearly two hours. The central figure—not a lord at all, really, empowered to speak with the voice of Arkaen’s father in minor points of debate—caught sight of Arkaen and excused himself from the group. The other lords sauntered away as Oren Kalmer strode down the hall to face Arkaen.

“What brings you to the formal business wing, young lordling Arkaen?” Oren inclined his head in a slight nod. The barest deference to Arkaen’s rank as heir to the province.

“Father is negotiating a contract for me,” Arkaen replied. “I’m waiting until he needs my input to finalize the details.”

Not that his father would ever ask his opinion. Oren’s frown told Arkaen that he was aware of Arkaen’s insignificance to the negotiations, as well.

“Your lord father will no doubt summon you when he has news to share,” Oren said. “Until then, I do believe you have lessons to attend.”

But it’s about my—” Arkaen’s whine cut off at Oren’s raised hand.

“Forgive me, young lordling.” Oren dropped his hand with a smile. “I’m afraid I have several matters yet to manage for your father. Allow me to escort you to our latest political adviser. It seems you had some trouble locating his study yesterday.”

With a sulky frown, Arkaen followed in Oren’s wake as the steward led him away from his father’ study. The stone walls of his home keep hung too close for comfort, the fading tapestries his mother had hung to lighten the feel now too worn for their purpose. Just more reminders of the lost joy her death had inflicted on Arkaen and his younger sister. Arkaen dragged his booted heels on the floor, the scrape drawing a glare from Oren.

“Princes don’t pout, young lordling,” he said.

“Princes don’t get sold to strangers like prize breeding stock,” Arkaen countered.

Oren shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the first time and likely won’t be the last. And if the worst you suffer under our emperor’s rather profligate reign is an unpleasant wife, I hope you’ll count yourself fortunate. Too many of your people suffer far worse.”

“Then why doesn’t father do anything?” Arkaen kicked at the wall again, forgetting Oren’s disapproval. “Sentar Province has the resources. We could at least send aid to the northern lands, and if he’d lead the empire in talks we could—”

“It’s more complicated than that,” Oren said, shaking his head. “The north has more complaints than a simple idealogical dispute.” He paused beside a plain door and leveled a stern glare at Arkaen. “Which is why you need to attend lessons. Now mind your tongue with your tutor. Proper manners make proper lords and our empire could use a proper lord or two.”

Arkaen laid a hand on the latch with a sigh. “Yes, Oren.”

He’d never have let another servant speak to him like that. Not even Vaiyen. But Oren wasn’t really a servant. Not in the way his father’s pages or cooks were, at least. Oren had been connected with the family since Arkaen was an infant and possibly before. He’d practically raised Arkaen and his sister when their parents had been too involved in the ever more treacherous world of imperial politics.

“Oren.” Arkaen’s word caught the man mid-turn. They stared at each other, Arkaen tense under the questioning gaze of his mentor.

“Look after Sayli, will you?”

“As I always do, young lordling,” Oren replied. He cast a glance at the door. “You expect to experience some harm in your lessons?”

“No, I just—” Arkaen shook his head. He couldn’t tell Oren. Oren might understand, but he’d never let Arkaen go, no matter the cost. “I just worry about her. She’s been so isolated since mother died.”

Arkaen met Oren’s eyes again and saw the understanding there. Oren knew without being told. Of course he would. For an instant, Arkaen was sure Oren would say something—do something—to prevent him from slipping away.

“Well, be safe, young lordling,” Oren said, turning away. “Our province needs you more than you know.”

He strode down the hall and stepped around a corner, leaving Arkaen at the door wondering if he’d misread Oren’s look. He couldn’t be approving of Arkaen’s half-formed plan. Hardly more than a thought that had been brewing since Arkaen had learned of his father’s meeting this morning. But Oren was giving him a chance to slip away. Whether he meant it or not, Arkaen would never have a better opportunity.

Releasing the door handle, Arkaen turned on his heel and dashed down the hall. Even if Oren intended to let him go, he wouldn’t have much time. Maybe a quarter of an hour before the entire keep was hunting him. It should be enough time. He detoured down a side hall and slipped out a servant’s door into a yard stinking of pungent horse droppings. Close enough to the kitchen gardens for fertilizer without spreading the stench through the keep. Arkaen peeked around the corner, searching the broad courtyard for any sign of activity. None yet. His father’s guards would check the stables first, then the weapons master. By the time they realized he wasn’t in the keep, Arkaen would be well into Torsdell proper.

Arkaen slipped past a barrel of rainwater and edged around the keep, disappearing into the broad alley separating the fine houses from his father’s home. These homes were a jumble of varied styles—stone monoliths beside sprawling wooden mansions depending on the personal style of the merchant or minor noble who’d built there. The more prominent Sentarsi lower lords kept full town estates toward the edges of Torsdell. Beyond the immediate view of the high lord’s palace, where they could imagine the town one of their own holdings. In other provinces the lower lords built their city residences as close to the high lord’s palace as possible, but fawning had never bought leniency in Sentar province. Not before Emperor Laisia’s recent excesses, at least.

With a sigh, Arkaen edged down the lane, scanning for the smaller alley that led toward the commoner’s tavern where Vaiyen had once taken him. Run down, with rough-hewn benches and watered down ale Arkaen’s father wouldn’t serve to his least esteemed rival. But for once, Arkaen had sat in a tavern and shared a private drink with a friend—far more than a friend. An ally. A voice he trusted and a shoulder he needed now.

As the twists led him further from the wealthy districts, he shed his fine silk cloak. More for fashion than warmth, anyway, and his sister had far more interest in fashion than he ever could. Arkaen glanced back at the palace, pausing at the mouth of another alley before the towers of his father’s keep vanished from sight behind the building. This marriage plan didn’t make any sense. Baron Weydert was a long-time family friend. A loyalist in every sense of the word, while others among the lower lords challenged his decisions. But Baron Weydert sat in his father’s study negotiating a marriage contract for Arkaen’s bed. There couldn’t be any real value in further that alliance more. Not that Arkaen would have been any happier with a different woman.

The jostle of voices, shouts, and music echoed down the alley, growing in volume as he neared the door. A warm glow spilled through the windows onto the cobbles beyond. Wealthier farmers and merchants shared tables, a few guardsmen in his father’s flashy gold livery at one table by the door. And in a corner, visible through the window beside him, Vaiyen.

Arkaen cursed. With his father’s household guard seated by the door he couldn’t possibly slip inside without being caught. And he couldn’t afford to wait them out. Oren would never openly defy the high lord. Arkaen knelt, foraging among the dim cobbles of the street for loose pebbles. A loose stone too large for his needs—no need to break the window—the rough edges of a few replaced stones. His fingers dipped into a greasy pool of warm liquid and he snatched his hand back. He wiped his hand clean with a shudder.

Finally, he found a few loose bits of pavers and edged closer. He tossed the first rock at the window, focusing on the lower edge of the thick glass. A clink against the frame, barely earning a glance at the window. A second. Tap-clunk against the window, then the frame. Vairen looked over again. Arkaen tossed a third pebble. Tap-clunk-tap. Vaiyen snapped alert this time, watching the window close enough to see the pebble hit the window on the rebound. He peered outside and Arkaen stepped forward, just into the edge of the light to raise a hand in greeting. In moments, Vaiyen dropped a handful of coins on the table and slipped out the door.

“Arkie, what are you doing?” Vaiyen asked, joining him in the relative safety of the alley. “If your lord father finds you down here, he’ll—”

“It doesn’t matter.” Arkaen met Vaiyen’s eyes, the diminutive nickname barely registering. He bit at his lip. Looked away. “Father’s planning a wedding.”

“Oh.” Vaiyen looked away and stepped back.

The silence stretched out, hanging between them as Arkaen tried and failed to meet Vaiyen’s eyes again. What had he expected, anyway? Not like a common-born house guard could challenge the high lord. And Arkaen wasn’t entirely sure Vaiyen would want to.

“Arkie.” Vaiyen frowned. “Look, I’m sorry. I know you don’t want this, but—” He paced away, pausing at the mouth of the alley to stare back at the tavern. “I know you aren’t surprised. You’ve been of age for a wife for two years now. You’ve a duty to the province.”

“Gods above, Vaiyen! I don;t give a damn about my duty.” Arkaen slammed his back against the wall, running a hand through his hair. “I can’t believe you’re giving me that line. Don’t I have a duty not to lie to my future wife? To honor my wedding vow and not take another to bed? Is this how you expected us to end?”

Vaiyen flinched, his shoulders trembled, and he laid a hand on the wall. Gods. He had expected this end. And maybe Arkaen should have as well.

“We couldn’t have kept doing this.” Vaiyen’s words still cut, though Arkaen had known they were coming. How long had he Vaiyen been waiting to be freed from Arkaen?

“It’s not just about your duty,” Vaiyen added. “Emperor Laisia banned any union such as ours near ten years back. If anyone learned of us, Arkie—”

“Lord Arkaen.” Arkaen’s pain shifted into fury at the repeated nickname he’d long hated. “I’m not a dog to nip at your heels, begging for scraps.”

“It’s not like that,” Vaiyen protested. “It’s just—”

“I would have fought for you.” Arkaen pushed away from the wall, each breath aching in his chest. “I would have refused this arrangement. Argued for another solution. I would have sacrificed everything for you.” His body shook with the force of his pain, anger laced in every movement. His jaw ached with suppressed tears. “I came to ask if you would come with me. Run away, find somewhere we could be together.”

“What about the province?” Vaiyen’s shock turned his voice harsh. But the shifting of his gaze revealed his true fears. That Arkaen would find a way to make that happen.

“The province has never given a damn about me,” Arkaen said. “Why should I give up everything for them?” Shaking his head, Arkaen turned away. “I would have fought for you, Vaiyen. The least you could have done is tell me you didn’t want me to.”

“Ark—” Vaiyen stepped forward. “It’s not…Just wait!”

Arkaen ran away, down the alley, ducking around corners to avoid Vaiyen’s following steps. Stupid for a noble in fine clothes to lose his way in these streets. Torsdell had its share of thieves, and though they’d never attack the high lord or his son in the finer parts of town, these streets were anything but fine. But his eyes burned and he couldn’t choke back the ache of sobs in his throat long enough to pick a direction that might be safe.

When he was sure Vaiyen wasn’t following, Arkaen paused long enough to take stock of his surroundings. A wider street at the end of the alley opened onto another tavern. One that made Vaiyen’s haunt look expensive. Hide stretched across he windows in place of glass and the door was barely more than a slab of wood attached to one wall. Too poor for any proper maintenance, and he hated to think the quality of the ale. But damn he needed a drink.

“You lost, boy?”

Arkaen froze at the end of the alley, eyes locked on the thickly muscled man leaning against the door to the tavern. A thrill of fear ran up Arkaen’s spine.

“Ya ain’t this’n’s usual type.” The man nodded at the door behind him. “Reckon you don’ wanna be near here in them clothes.”

No need to look down to know what he meant. Arkaen’s tailored breeches and embroidered tunic looked nothing like the loose trousers and plain shirts commoners wore. In Vaiyen’s favorite tavern he might have looked rich. Here he could only look like a target. Arkaen glanced back, but no one else lurked in the shadows waiting to ambush him. But that meant he’d have to have to bluff his way out of this.

“Nah, ain’t needing no thing but a drink.” Arkaen could tell his attempt at a commoners accent failed before the man laughed.

“Don’t try, boy. No one gonna think yer anything short a rich.” A smile eased the harshness of the words, turning his expression kind. “Yer what? Noble’s bastard?”

Arkaen nodded. A lie, but one close enough to truth that he could probably pull it off. A better bluff than his plan. Unless someone recognized him. But in this part of town that seemed less likely. Still, this was his home city. While he wasn’t known for wandering the streets, Arkaen was hardly unknown.

“Tell ya what.” The man examined him. “You got training? Most noble boys do, though does ya a shit lot a good here. Might find a place up north, though. Them Sernien rebels could use a good blade.”

“I don’t…” Arkaen forced a smile. “May see about it. But I best be gone.”

He couldn’t just run off and join a war. Though the war wasn’t truly in swing yet even in the north. And he’d planned to leave, thought for other reasons.

The idea settled into his thoughts as he walked. What other choice did he even have? Stay and marry Baron Weydert’s daughter? Live a lie. Or tell his father the truth and hope he escaped the emperor’s vicious retribution? Vaiyen had already given up on him over the emperor’s orders. The thought stopped him.

What if the Serniens won? What if he led them to victory and convinced Vaiyen that they could be together. It was mostly fear keeping them apart.

Arkaen turned down another alley, diverting from the path that would take him home. After all, if his training could save others from the emperor’s cruelty, could he really say no? The image played in his mind. Himself leading the disorganized northern cities to victory. Returning a hero on a finely trained war stallion and proving himself to his father and the province at once.

Navigating toward the edge of town, Arkaen shivered at the bite of the wind. If he’d hid the cloak instead of throwing it aside he’d be able to retrieve it. But Serni was only a few days journey and then he’d be among the rebels. How bad could it really be?


All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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Lady Saylina

Saylina peeked around the pillar, slight shoulders hunched beside the servant’s benches as her father, High Lord Johannus Sentarsin, paced the great hall. The half dozen lower lords milling about the hall muttered under their breath to the attendants they’d brought, casting uncertain glances at their ruler. In the center, Baron Oskari Weydert stood proudly, head high and pompous chest thrust outward. Like an heiress too proud to let the younger girls join in her play.

“I don’t know, Oskari,” Saylina’s father said. “Arkie’s a bit flighty, but that sounds…”

“Treasonous?” Baron Weydert laid a hand on his sword pommel, indicating the marble and gold room with a sweeping wave of his free hand. “He’s already abandoned your exquisite home to avoid his betrothal. I assure you, my lord, that this information comes at the greatest of costs. He has turned against us.”

“Not wanting to marry your daughter is a far cry from leading an army against our rightfully crowned emperor.” Her father paused, glaring at Baron Weydert for several breaths. “I’ll not condemn my son without solid proof. And the lot of you better keep your gods-damned mouths shut if you find any.”

The other lords stilled, a flock paralyzed in the sight of their most feared predator. High Lord Sentarsin had certainly shown himself a different man than she remembered—the man she wanted to remember. She could no longer find the gentle father who’d soothed her brother Arkaen’s skinned knees and brought her new fashions from imperial court.

Saylina crept a little closer, the hem of her skirts dragging on the polished floors. Her mother’s old maid would scold her again, but the lecture was worth the risk. If her father was protecting Arkaen even after he’d run away he might forgive a little eavesdropping. He might even stop listening to everything Baron Weydert said. Saylina’s father paced the floor again, frowning at his jittery lower lords.

“What the hell are you all staring at?” he demanded. “You can’t wonder at my intent. Arkie isn’t ideal, but he’s my only heir. If you bring me proof he’s a traitor, you’d best bring a replacement for him with it.”

“As it turns out, my lord.” Baron Weydert smiled at the other lords. “That’s part of why I’ve come.”

Saylina’s father shook his head. “The last time you had a plan my heir ran off without a word, Oskari.”

“You said yourself he’s been flighty, high lord,” Baron Weydert replied. “You can’t—”

The far door swung open, admitting a handful of giggling girls ranging from ten to twelve years shepherded by one older girl whose eyes flew wide at the sight of Baron Weydert. Lady Camira Weydert clapped a hand to her perfectly accented lips, her free hand grabbing at the more rambunctious girls. Saylina took the moment of distraction to edge back from the benches, lifting the heavy skirts off the floor to minimize the swish of the fabric. She’d heard plenty of tirades on the impropriety of a child eavesdropping on court business over the few years since she’d learned to escape her nursemaid. No need to add his latest round of criticisms.

“What are you lot doing?” Saylina’s father glared at the young ladies that made up Saylina’s entourage. “You know better than to interrupt a lord’s council, I’m sure.”

“Yes, milord. Begging your pardon, High Lord Sentarsin. We was looking fer—” The trembling response cut off before the girl could reveal they’d been hunting Saylina. It could only come from Saylina’s maid, Caela. Young Lady Camira would never dare speak without permission from her father.

“Have you lost my daughter, lass?”

The eerie calm in her father’s voice held a danger Saylina had come to know far too well in the four years since her brother had run away. She’d known, in the casual way of a younger child listening to her elders, that Arkaen argued with their father over his lessons. She’d even known that their father got angry enough that Arkaen sometimes moved through the palace in a silent creep, alert for any sign his daily tasks might bring him into contact with their father before the fury had calmed. Not until he’d left had she known that fear herself, or the madness in her father’s eyes when he was denied a thing he felt entitled to have. Saylina paused by the hidden servant’s door, torn between her escape and the threat to Caela. But Saylina’s father had never harmed a woman, from his wife to his child to any of the maids, and he’d never done any permanent damage to Arkaen. Not physically, at least.

“Milord, twas jus’ a spat a misunderstanding,” Caela replied. “She’s like as not in her sun garden. We’ll be goin’—”

“Haven’t I told you to keep that gutter speech out of my house?” A pointed break in her father’s speech told he’d stepped forward, though she could no longer see the center of the room and his court shoes made no sound on his newly-laid marble floor. “I could have thrown you to the streets when your mother died, girl. I still could, and maybe—”


Saylina moved before the word left her lips, rushing across the floor against the pull of her skirts against the floor. A weight holding her back, fighting to keep her safe from her father’s wrath. Shoving herself between her father and Caela, she spun around to meet his eyes. Her entire body shook, a tension thrumming in here skin, her nerves, pounding in her chest. The narrowed slits of her father’s eyes bored into her.

“There, lass. I see you’ve more knowledge of where my daughter is than you thought.” He waved Caela back, as if she’d never mattered.

A trap to lure Saylina from her hiding place. Saylina’s breath hissed through her lips, her hands clenched, and nothing she could do would force the tight fists open. But Caela’s face—the glimpse she’d seen of terror and relief—spoke louder than Saylina’s father ever could.

“Caela is mine, father,” Saylina said. “You’ve no right to punish her, and no right to banish her.”

She flinched at his sharp laughter. Another sign of weakness. One he’d exploit if he thought it useful to his case. With the lower lords as witnesses, though, she had a chance. He preferred to be seen as a doting father.

“You’re gaining spunk, little filly,” he said. Calm, some might have said. Possibly even indulgent of her defiance. But she could hear the taunt under the words. “But I’ve a right to punish anyone I choose. And my daughter knows better than to talk back to me.”

The tension kept her vibrating, almost as though she were a string and a musician had plucked at her. There was nothing she could do. He was the ruler and her father, and she just a child. But if she backed down now—

“You gave her to me. Caela is mine. If you hurt her…”

The empty threat hung between them, her father smirking down at her. The muttering of the lower lords cut through their battle of wills, a reminder of the stakes. Saylina could do something. She could run away, as Arkaen had, and leave her father childless. Leave her people with no heir, no stability, and no one to speak for them when the lower lords demanded higher taxes from the poor and more indulgence from the crown. And for all his anger, her father had never hurt her. Yet.

“Of course, Sayli.” Her father’s indulgent smile promised his fury would return when he had the time to address her in private. But she’d won this round.

He turned away, sauntering back to his lower lords with a casual reminder over his shoulder. “But don’t forget the girl only works for you. Even Emperor Laisia frowns on slavery.”

Saylina’s terror drained from her in an instant, leaving her unstable on her feet. And still her body shook, a retort she didn’t dare voice lingering on her tongue. Like the boy you hired for Arkaen? She muttered the words under her breath as Caela led her toward the door, giving voice to the disgust Arkaen hadn’t known to feel.

Technically, Arkaen’s boy had been a personal guard. To all appearances, the two had been the closest of friends. Saylina had only recently learned about the threats her father had made to keep the boy loyal to the crown and not Arkaen. What could her father have feared so badly that he’d threatened murder on his own citizens to place a spy on his own son? But he must have been right. Arkaen had fled at the first rumors of a marriage between himself and Baron Weydert’s daughter, Camira.

Biting at her lower lip, Saylina pulled away from Caela and took the lead. Beyond the confines of her father’s great hall, Saylina smiled at her entourage. More playmates than true courtiers, only Lady Camira Weydert was older than her. Six years older, in fact. At nineteen years, she would be far too old for a child’s retinue under normal circumstances.

But Lady Camira shined here, shouldering the disgrace of being relegated to the children’s court with a pleasant disposition and a willingness to play with the younger girls that Saylina often borrowed. If she held herself distant from Saylina herself, who could truly blame her, after Arkaen’s actions?

“Lady Camira.” Saylina looked up at the older girl. “Would you do me the favor of bringing the other ladies to my solarium? I need to attend a few minor matters in my chambers.”

“Of course, my lady.”

Lady Camira’s curtsy was as proper as any full lady, her bowed head at Saylina’s level for just a moment. She rose with a carefree poise and gestured to the other girls. The group followed her away, turning a corner mere breaths before Saylina’s control broke.

Her trembles rushed through her, leaving her in a fit of shivers as her eyes burned with tears. Caela grabbed her arm and led her down the hall. Further from any prying eyes and as close to privacy as she could get in her father’s palace. Saylina sank to the floor as soon as Caela stopped, hugging her knees to her chest to still any visible signs of her distress. Caela sat beside her, quiet and waiting for Saylina to speak.

“I—” Saylina choked on her words, coughing to clear her throat. “I can’t believe I did that.”

Caela nodded. A quick glance revealed she was shaking as well. Of course she was. Two girls facing down the ruler who sent people to execution for defying him. Even if Saylina was his daughter.

“Don’t wanna know what mighta happened if ya ain’t come out,” Caela said finally.

“What else could I have done?” Saylina asked. “I couldn’t have just left you. Not when you were following my orders.”

Caela frowned, her small face puckering into an anger she rarely admitted. “Could wish yer brother felt the same. His lad…”

“I don’t think he knew, Caela.” Saylina sighed. “Gods, but if he ever learns what happened, he’ll be devastated. He thought they were real friends.”

“I ain’t thinking ’bout how he’ll feel.”

Caela’s dismissive reply couldn’t mask the unintended question that had slipped into Saylina’s words. Saylina’s father had purchased a spy against his son with the threat of blood. Caela had been a gift from Saylina’s father, hired as her first personal attendant with no task beyond Saylina’s whims. And Saylina’s father had made good on his threat when Arkaen ran away, leaving Saylina as the sole child of the Sentarsin bloodline. The high lord had good reason to keep tabs on Saylina.

Fiddling with her skirts, Saylina tried to find some to say. Anything to distract from the thought that now wouldn’t leave her alone. But Caela must have been thinking the same thing.

“Ain’t like he never asks,” Caela admitted. She glanced up, small hands clenched in the folds of her plain skirts, dull compared to Saylina’s own fine gown. “I told him some, now and then, ’cause a what he did to yer brother’s guard. But it ain’t like I want ta talk. He don’t protect me. Don’t treat me kind, or let me see me cousin when I need.”

Saylina nodded, her eyes burning harder and bits of liquid forming at the inner corners. She should have expected that. Caela was as much as spy as Arkaen’s guard had been. Wiping the tears away before they could fall, Saylina forced herself to sit upright. The knowledge hurt, but it gave her a bit of power. As much as she might ever get from her father.

“Milady.” Caela laid a hand on her knee. “You tell me what he needs ta hear. That’s what I saw.”

“But you can’t,” Saylina said. “That’s dangerous.”

“Ain’t like his way is safe.” Cale nodded back toward the great hall. “You saw. And yer brother’s guard did just what he’s told. Least we work together, we got a chance.”

Saylina smile, heart pounding as she held up a hand with one pinky extended. To defy her father with his own spy… But what choice did she have? He’d given her no other resources.

“Sisters?” Saylina offered her hand.

After a moment, Caela linked her own pinky through Saylina’s “Aye. Sisters.”


All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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Taking Flight

The banging on his door almost didn’t wake him. The shouting almost failed to pierce his rest. But he Dreamed troubled scenes, as he so often did, and the restless wandering of his mind settled on the sounds as a counterpoint to the chaos of his sleep.

Jaylen Laisia rolled to one side, tiny body tangled in his silk sheets as he mumbled incoherent words even he didn’t understand. The banging came again. Sharp and desperate.

“Jayls!” Raeky. Why was Raeky—

Soldiers flooded down the stone corridor after Raeky, chasing him down a side hall toward Mama’s room. But Mama was gone, and his father wouldn’t admit he’d done it.

Jaylen shook his head, pushing his Dreams away. Raeky needed him now. He fought to untangle himself from the covers, every kick sending a fresh wave of silk to tie his foot in a new knot. The darkness of his room stifled his breath, leaving him floundering in a sea of invisible, soft cloth. He fought harder, wailing at his own helplessness, kicking and shoving against his silky prison.

“Jayls! Are you all right?”

Jaylen collapsed in tears, eyes scrunched in frustration. And Dreamed.

A candle by his bedside threw a faint glow around the room, revealing the cold fireplace where he used to hide from Father’s anger. Where Raeky never found him in a game of hunt-and-hide, no matter how many times he used it. Raeky wasn’t pounding on the door in this Dream. Where was Raeky?

The enormous desk and chair, sized for Father and not Jaylen, sat empty against one wall, under the wide, open window. Raeky never let him open the window for fear he’d fall out.

Jaylen looked at himself, tangled helplessly in a bed five times too large for a boy his age. There. Father’s servants had tucked him in, and his body had pinned the corners of the sheet to the bed.

Twisting in the false light of his Dream candle, Jaylen pulled his sheet free and worked his way loose from the bed. The bare stone floor was achingly cold on his feet. He hurried across the room to throw the bolt on his door, pushing the door open to reveal the dim hall beyond..

Raeky lay sprawled across the corridor, blood pooling under his body as Father’s soldier wiped his blade clean.

Jaylen shrieked. His heart pounded in his chest, tears pouring fresh from his eyes as he gasped for air. Raeky…

Raeky grabbed him, sweeping him up in strong arms and crushing him against the golden locks of Raeky’s hair. With a burst of speed, Raeky rushed inside, slammed the door, and threw the bolt home.

“Thank the gods you’re all right.”

The darkness clung tighter for the burst of light from the hallway. Jaylen couldn’t have found his own hand, clinging to Raeky’s rumpled tunic. But it was so dark. Why was Raeky dressed? Raeky carried him across the room, setting Jaylen down on the bed. He couldn’t pry his fingers loose from Raeky’s tunic, the Dream still fresh in his mind. Too clear to be false, like the girl from the orchard he’d seen fall, whose body he’d found in the gutter days later. But Raeky sat beside him.

“I thought they’d found you,” Raeky whispered. “Gods, Jayls. I thought…”

He pulled Jaylen into a tight embrace, the force of his arms squeezing air from Jaylen’s chest. Jaylen buried his face in Raeky’s shoulder, shaking, his breath tight and heart pounding. The scene from his Dream played over and over. The seeping blood, the glint of steel.

“Raeky,” he whimpered. His fingers clenched in Raeky’s shirt. “You’re—”

But Raeky didn’t believe his Dreams. Just nightmares, or fantasies, he always said. He’d never followed one of Jaylen’s Dreams to see the aftermath, sprawled in a ditch stinking like the refuse pile beside Cook’s garden.

“It’s all right, Jayls.” Raeky smoothed his hair with a free hand. “We’ll get you out of here and I’ll talk to Father, get this fixed.”

But if this was about Father…

“Dammit, woman.” Father stormed across the room, drawing a hand back as he reached Mama’s side. Father’d already taken Mama away, but she cowered in fear at the threat still. “Your child is an abomination. A demon spawn. I must destroy him.”

Someone pounded on the door again, the shouted words gruff and incomprehensible. Raeky pulled away, standing to scan the room. And stared at the open window, moonlight shining between the shutters.

“Jayls, did you open your window?”

Jaylen shook his head, pulling his knees up to his chest. But it was dark. Raeky couldn’t see him.


“Dammit.” Raeky spun around to face him. “Did you open your window?”

“I didn’t!” The denial came out a wail.

Raeky muttered a bad word—one of the words he yelled at Jaylen for using—and checked the sword at his side. Small even for Raeky and not meant for combat. Barely more than pot metal, Raeky said. So why was he wearing it now?

“I don’t have time to argue, Jayls,” he said. “You shouldn’t leave your window open. There are dangers beyond your wandering.”

“I already told you,” Jaylen insisted. “I didn’t. You read me a story, then Father’s servants came and tucked me in, and they opened the window.”

He didn’t remember it, but it must have happened. He knew he hadn’t done it. The claim stopped Raeky again, and Jaylen whimpered into his knees.

A loud, grating sound echoed through the chamber. Jaylen turned just as Raeky pulled his sword, staring at the new hole in his bedroom wall. Right where his fireplace had been. Torchlight flickered in the hall beyond, casting a dark shadow into the opening. Someone moved toward the hole. Raeky’s gaze darted from the opening to the window and back.

“Get over here,” he whispered, motioning at Jaylen.

Jaylen hurried across the space, grasping at Raeky’s breeches with tiny, shaking hands. A tall figure stepped into the space and froze.

“Young Prince Raekeen,” the figure said, his speech rousing just enough of his beard to cast wispy shadows on the stone wall. “You should be abed, child.”

“And you shouldn’t be sneaking into the bedroom of an innocent boy with murder in your eyes, General.” Raeky held his sword in front of him like a shield. “You’re not laying a hand on my little brother.”

“My lord emperor has ordered his death.” The general pulled a dagger free. “And that Eiliin-cursed imp is hardly brother to my prince. Don’t make this harder than it has to be, lad.”

Jaylen cowered behind Raeky’s slim form. Father had ordered. Just like Mama, when she went away.

Raeky shifted, his sword wiggling through the air like a snake looking for a target. “Jaylen was born from my mother’s womb, sired by my father. If that doesn’t make him my brother—”

The general leapt forward, his blade knocking Raeky’s aside and cutting deep into Raeky’s chest.

“—Then perhaps I need a lesson in heritage.”

“Raeky…” Jaylen’s eye locked on the general’s sword. The Dreams never lied. Not when they came during his waking hours. The scene from the door lingered in his mind again.

“Stand back, Jayls,” Raeky said. He waved at the new hole where the general had come from. “I want you to run out that passage when you can. Go hide and I’ll find you once I’ve spoken to Father.”

But he wouldn’t speak to Father. Not if the Dreams spoke true.

The general lunged, turning as Raeky batted the sword aside. Raeky swung back. A clash of steel. Jaylen moved with the fight, keeping Raeky between the general and himself. And prayed. He didn’t know how, but Mama used to say he should pray when he wanted something. He wanted the Dreams to be wrong.

Raeky thrust the general back, breaking a hold. Another swing and he pinned the general against the wall. Not all skill—the people loved Prince Raekeen, and would riot if he died at the hands of loyal soldiers.

“Go, Jayls!” Raeky waved a hand at the hole where his fireplace had been. “Get out of here.”

Jaylen ran, tiny feet pattering on the stone of the passageway, down the stairs, around the bend. Two guards stood watch at the far side, grinning as he ran into the room where they waited.

Raeky kicked a foot at the general, breaking the hold. The Dream was wrong. Only a little, but sometimes little things mattered. Raeky forced the general back against the door.

“Go!” He waved a hand at the hole where the fireplace had been.

Jaylen hurried to the edge and froze. The guards. But the Dream was wrong this time. Maybe there weren’t guards.

Jaylen climbed out the window, tears streaming down his face, and ran the length of the broad ledge beneath his window. Meant for flowers, Mama used to say. Now he was a flower, clinging to the stone as a lifeline in a world that would see him die. The end of the ledge. Nowhere to go but jump the wide gap between his window and Mama’s. Or climb down, where the guards may wait.

“Jump, Jayls!” But the general had taken Raeky away.

“Get off me!” The general’s voice snapped through the air. Angry, and angry soldiers made dangerous decisions.

Raeky shoved against the general’s chest, holding him in place a moment longer. “Jayls, run.”

But the passage would get him killed. The Dreams told him so. Jaylen ran to the window, climbing out to the ledge beyond. Raeky screamed behind him, steel clashed, a muffled grunt. He didn’t need a Dream to tell him. No more Raeky. Jaylen crouched on the ledge, throat tight and eyes burning. But there wasn’t time. Choking on his own breath, Jaylen climbed to his feet and ran down the length of the broad ledge beneath his window. At the end, a wide gap between his window and the ledge below Mama’s room.

Jaylen threw himself forward, fingers scrambling for the far edge, just brushing the stone as he fell.

He scanned the wall, the gentle breeze tearing at him with the force of a thunderstorm’s gale. Like the one he and Raeky got lost in last summer. The last time he’d played with Raeky before duty kept them apart. Before Father kept them apart.


But Raeky still lay in the room behind, and the Dreams said he’d fall. He shivered in the breeze, staring at the gap as tears leaked from his eyes. Raeky. Gone like Mama, and the cook’s girl, and Jaylen’s favorite nursemaid. No one left for him to run to when the dark scared him with its Dreams.

An arrow flew past his head, shot from below with poor aim in the dark. Jaylen turned to follow the path and saw the sheet hanging to dry. Too flimsy for a grown man, or even Raeky. But Jaylen was just a boy. It would hold his weight. He jumped, grabbing the silken cloth and sliding down in a terrifying, icy-cold fall until he could drop to the guard’s stairs.

Jaylen turned, hunting for the sheet. Safer if he moved now, before Father’s archers found him. There. He trembled, wrapping his arms around himself. Too far to jump.

“There you are.” The general’s sneer carried into his voice, rough and gravelly with disdain. “Get back here, you little bastard.”

The Dreams tugged at his thoughts, urging him to jump. Trust the Dreams that had guided him to this moment. Jaylen whimpered, staring back toward his window. The general’s blade glinted in the moonlight, stained red. He closed his eyes, shaking with terror, and leapt.

Soft cloth tore at his skin, red hot from the speed of his fall. The wind tearing at his clothes slowed, still a gale on a quiet night, but enough that he knew he’d land safely. The stairs below rushed at him. He fell, breath knocked from him by the hard stone. Jaylen curled against the wall, coughing his throat sore, his eyes pouring water from grief and pain.

Dreams pulled him from the shadows and guided him through the dark. Past Cook’s door to hide behind the filthy pile he used for the garden. A soldier passed, wrinkling his nose at the stench. And the Dreams led him on. Through the garden, past the guardhouse, to a grate leading under the wall. Too small for anyone but animals. Or a small boy, too narrow to suit his father and too strange for anyone’s comfort. Except Raeky.

Jaylen crawled through the tunnel, into the King’s Wood beyond. Safety, if he could get far enough. And find food, and shelter, and someone to protect him. No time for those concerns now.

He darted through the darkened forest, feet finding stable ground where he might normally trip. The Dreams gave him footing, and a path, and a chance at speed. Freedom. Until the hounds began baying behind him.

The long yip-yip-yowl of the dogs as they hunted their prey. Hunted their prince. Jaylen froze, trembling again. The dogs outran deer. Father couldn’t turn the dogs on him. But Father had sent his dog already.

“And what have we here?”

A stranger’s voice. Feminine and inquisitive. Jaylen ducked behind a tree, peeking out through the locks of his jet black hair. She languished by an evergreen, her skin aglow with blue and green light. But skin didn’t glow. Her hair cascaded down her back in waves of blue, twisting in the gentle breeze like the flow of Father’s fishing pond.

“A human.” Her disgust hung in the air. With a glance toward the distant sound of dogs, she smirked. “And one hunted by his own. No use to the people.”

She turned away, disappearing into the night. Still there, his Dreams said. Still listening. His only chance.

“Mother.” The desperate whisper was his, but the words came from Dreams. “They sent me, mother. The Dreams.”

The woman stepped back into his sight. “What dreams?”

Jaylen struggled to explain. Raeky hadn’t believed, or Mama. Cook hadn’t thought Father would do that to his little girl, no matter what Jaylen said. The woman scowled as the dogs bayed again. Closer.

“Don’t know,” he said. “They just…the Dreams tell me things. Things like Mama’s gone, though they said she just left. She’s gone. Like Raeky’s gone. They brought me here.”

“Did these dreams tell you what I am to do with you, boy?”

He shook his head. But it was dark, and the tree hid him from view.

“I see,” the woman mused. She had seen. Somehow, despite the dark and the tree and his hiding, she’d seen him move. Like he’d seen the guards on the stairs.

“Do you Dream?”

She chuckled. “Not as you do, little one.” She stepped around the tree, examining him. “Far too young for the power you hold. Tell me, why do they chase you?”

Jaylen shook his head. But he knew. And if he wanted her help, he’d have to tell her.

“Raeky—” he choked on a sob. Pushed himself to explain. “Raeky argued with a squire while I’s at lessons. Got a black eye. I told father not to kill him—the squire—but Raeky hadn’t told Father yet, so Father didn’t know about the squire. Then when Raeky told him—”

“Your sire discovered that you dream of things yet to come.” The woman nodded. “And this frightened him, I imagine. Humans have such small minds.”

Yip-yip-yowl. Jaylen cowered against the tree, the dogs singing from behind him so close he knew they could see him. Too close. He huddled in the shadows, hugging his knees to his chest as tears crept down his face. The woman knelt beside him and put a hand on his shoulder.

“Fear not, child. The Ancient Spirits have sent you to me, and I am not one to reject Their gift. No matter the strange package in which They send it.”

She rose with that, striding into the forest toward the approaching dogs. A strange, high-pitched shriek echoed through the woods, followed by a flash of blue-green light. The dogs yelped and whimpered, then were silent. Screams came next, and shouts of fear and alarm. The ring of steel, more screams, and those fell silent. Only then did she return, wiping one hand with a worn rag.

“Come, child. You’re of the clans now.”

“The clans?” Jaylen stayed crouched by the tree.

“Indeed.” She paused beside him again. “The boy I met this night is dead. You are now of my people, given to the clans by the Ancient Spirits. Leave your humanity in these woods. What remains of you is Drae’gon.”


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All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

All content on this blog is provided free for any readers and I’m always delighted to reach new audiences. If you enjoyed this story and are able, please consider supporting my work with a donation:

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Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

Check out more free content below, and be on the lookout for my upcoming debut epic fantasy, Wake of the Phoenix.

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