Lieutenant Aldis Janen frowned as his opponent raised his blade in a crisp salute from across the dueling circle. The salute was much too sharp for a man with a large dose of poison running through him.
Damn, Aldis thought. What had looked to be a promising day had just taken a decisive step in the opposite direction.
It had to be the bastard’s weight. Lieutenant Garm Crispin had put on considerable girth in his time leading the Forty-Second. Soft living at the feet of the warden, no doubt, Aldis thought bitterly. That extra weight had obviously been enough to slow the poison Aldis had sneaked into his wine.
Or perhaps what he bought was not poison at all. That old crone had likely given him nothing but water in that vial.
The thought rankled him.
Aldis hated being cheated.
And now, when the moron should have been shaking and wobbling, he was instead holding his blade high, waiting for Aldis to return the salute.
Loud jeers and catcalls sounded from the soldiers around them. All wore the king’s black and silver, just like Aldis and his opponent, but half sported the tan markings of the Forty-Second, while the rest bore the green of the Ninety-Fifth Pioneers, the unit Aldis commanded.
His soldiers were watching. Best not to disappoint them.
Aldis hadn’t actually wanted to have to fight this duel, but it didn’t mean he couldn’t win. All he had to do was mark the fat bastard. Bleed him twice and the deed would be done. Then, Aldis could move on with his grand plans. Hell, it wasn’t like it was a duel to the death.
Aldis assumed his most confident smile, raised his sword with a flourish, and saluted.
And then things went to hell.
Crispin lumbered forward, swinging his blade like he was felling trees rather than fighting a duel. There was no finesse or grace in his strikes or movements. Aldis moved out of reach of the clumsy swings, but as he did, he saw the other man’s brow dripping with sweat and his left eye twitching. His breathing was labored already, despite the duel just starting.
So the old woman had not lied about the poison after all.
But rather than causing Crispin to slow, it seemed to infect him like a fever. The lieutenant lumbered toward Aldis, his eyes wild, white foam frothing on his lips.
Crispin swung his thin blade like an axe and Aldis had to parry to keep it from cleaving his skull. As he did, he bound the sword down, driving the tip into the cobblestones. Then, with no warning, Crispin crumpled onto the blade, snapping it at the hilt with a keening ring.
The crowd grew silent as dark blood pooled beneath the body.
No, Aldis thought. Oh no!
A junior officer from the Forty-Second knelt down and felt Crispin’s neck. “Dead,” the man said.
The circle of soldiers erupted into shouts and threats.
As soon as they did, Aldis’s own second-in-command, Sergeant Kyra, rushed to his side. Her loud, brash voice barked by his ear, “Fair fight. All saw it. No blame on the lieutenant if your man couldn’t keep from falling on his own damn blade!”
Violence was in the air as surely as the scent of blood. Aldis’s first instinct was to run. His second was to fight and see what happened. Neither seemed particularly wise.
Then, the provosts showed up and made the decision easy.
They rolled in with truncheons out, and Aldis ordered his men to run. The assembled soldiers from both units scattered, leaving Aldis alone.
The provosts clapped irons on him and led him away.
How had such a promising day gone so wrong?
He never should have trusted that grizzled old crone at the apothecary, but he had had to. Warden Rollon needed a crew to deal with a situation, and Aldis wanted that commission. Actually, he needed it. Desperately. His rise in station had cost him, and he owed money to a line of creditors stretching all the way back to Resa.
He had gambled everything on landing the commission. It had been down to his own Ninety-Fifth and Crispin’s Forty-Second. That was when he had thought to arrange the duel. A few words here, a little rumor there; just enough to get old Crispin thoroughly heated.
But now? The murder of a fellow officer? The bastard wasn’t supposed to die. This would mean prison. Or worse.
The cold iron manacles brought him back to the present and he realized something was wrong. They weren’t taking him to the stockade, but rather into the towering central keep.
The hair on the back of Aldis’s neck stood on end. Something was up.
After a short walk down a stone hallway, one of the provosts opened the door while the other removed Aldis’s manacles.
Aldis stepped inside, half-expecting a knife between his ribs.
Instead, as the door shut behind him, a small light appeared. Someone hidden in shadow pulled back the slide on a lantern, shining light in Aldis’s direction. Aldis squinted his eyes, trying to get them to adjust.
The figure behind the lantern spoke and Aldis’s stomach clenched with recognition. “And here, I thought you had changed since your more foolish days at the Academy,” came the cold, flat voice of Bayun. The man was Warden Rollon’s chamberlain, but anyone with a real understanding of politics knew Bayun was Warden Rollon’s underhand. Bayun handled the things the warden could not, or should not, be involved in.
“Those days are far behind me,” Aldis said, keeping his voice even.
“Is that because there are no blonde, idealistic troublemakers here for you to follow? What was her name? Elaine? Elise?”
Aldis knew enough of the game to know how this was being played. “Elinor,” he corrected, fully aware the chamberlain knew all about his past and the people in it. “No. It was more that I realized that path was not conducive to an actual career.”
In the dim lantern light, Bayun smiled.
“A career. Do you know what else most people would consider not conducive to a successful career, Lieutenant Janen? Poisoning a fellow officer before a duel that you yourself instigated and then watching the man bleed out like a slaughtered goat on the stones of the lower pavilion.”
Hearing his machinations put so bluntly, all hope died in Aldis’s heart. He was done. It was simply a matter of whether he would survive prison long enough to dance on the gallows.
“Fortunately for you, Lieutenant, the warden and I are not most people.”
Aldis’s mouth fell open. “Sir?” he asked, lamely.
Bayun came out from the other side of the table. Though short and with a withered left arm, the man exuded a sense of power and menace. “Lieutenant, the warden has a delicate matter that needs attention. It should be a relatively simple task for one of your… resourceful nature.”
As Aldis listened, relief morphed into warm ambition. Not only was he being spared, but he was being offered an opportunity. Warden Rollon and Bayun’s favor would elevate him to an entirely new level of power and influence.
The day was definitely shaping up.
Aldis could hardly keep the grin from his face. He pushed open the doors to the tavern that had become the second home for the Ninety-Fifth.
“Lieutenant!” one man yelled out almost immediately.
“Thought you was clipped sure, sir,” said a short woman with a tankard in her hand.
Hearing his name on the lips of dozens made his grin grow even larger.
“Clipped?” he said with a laugh. “Lieutenant Aldis Janen? Please! I was merely summoned for a very special meeting.” He stepped up onto one of the tables, his boots knocking over a flagon of wine. Aldis gestured broadly, commanding the attention of the whole room.
“Brothers and sisters of the Ninety-Fifth. It seems we have ourselves a new set of orders.” He pulled forth the signed documents and held them out proudly. “An important job at the behest of Warden Rollon himself! He’s sending me to Cragswatch March and I want to know only one thing. Will you follow me there?”
Aldis drank in the cheers like wine.
One soldier came forward. Sandson, Aldis thought the man’s name was, but there were so many in the unit it was hard to keep them straight. He looked up at Aldis with adulation.
“Sir, can I buy you a drink?” the young man asked.
Aldis jumped down from the table and clapped him on the shoulder. “No,” he said, shaking his head dramatically. “But I will buy you one. In fact, I will buy one for every brave man or woman under my command.”
The cheers grew louder.
With a tankard in hand, Aldis offered a toast to the crowded room. “To Cragswatch. To the Ninety-Fifth. It’s our time now,” he said. “Let us show them our quality!”
He drained the cup as soldiers chanted his name.
It was a beautiful morning.
The light snow gave the sharp, craggy peaks a pristine white dressing, gleaming like new gold in the rich glow of morning. Flurries of light danced along the mountainside, sparkling and shifting. They reminded Elinor of old stories of mountain spirits in the time of Aedan; the breath of the mountain as it lay dreaming.
Then, just like that, they were gone.
Elinor’s short, blonde hair blew in the cold wind and her black uniform snapped and ruffled behind her. Warmth competed with chill air, making her skin tingle.
Slowly, she smiled.
Since Timberline, things felt different. She felt different.
There, she had met the Shepherd of Tree and Stone, had stood before a spirit of the old age. No myth or fanciful tale, but a powerful force almost beyond her comprehension. And before the Shepherd, she had uttered an oath to save a life.
Everything felt more alive now. More urgent. More real. She felt like she was waking up from a long slumber, and she liked it.
There was the crunch of boots in the snow, the familiar cadence of an old friend. Elinor felt as much as heard the approach of her chief of engineers.
“I did not think it was possible,” Elinor said, turning around, “but I can actually hear you frowning, Con.”
Journeyman Engineer Conbert Eylnen moved up beside her. “An awful lot to be frowning about, Elinor. I still don’t understand why you’re taking this so calmly.”
“Orders are orders, Con.”
“They’ve stripped us of our entire contingent of engineers,” he said. “The lot of them. All to be transferred to the Ninety-Fifth.” His frown deepened. “This is punishment for Timberline.”
Elinor nodded, though she did not match his frustration. “Yes, it is, but I will not regret the past, Con.” She rested a gloved hand on his shoulder. “It will be alright. We’ve been through bad and worse before.”
She clapped him a bit harder on the shoulder, signaling a change in topic. “On the bright side, at least we will see Aldis soon.”
Con groaned. “Only in the true depths of our current despair could that be considered a good thing.”
“I know he can be a bit brash, but it will do both of us some good to see an old friend.” Her smile grew wider. “Despite his faults, I do miss his humor and good spirits.”
“Aldis Janen is a spoiled wastrel who has always been able to get by on his charm and his family,” he said. “He has never achieved a genuine thing in his life. You’ve always given him a pass on his character defects because he was kind to you in the Academy.”
“Absolutely. When so few others were. I do not forget such things, Con.”
He sighed. “I’m just saying that your feelings for him tend to cloud your judgment.”
She moved off her rocky perch. “You two never got along.”
“No, we most certainly did not.”
“Well, then the good news for you is when we see him later today, you will have another chance to mend things, now won’t you?” she asked with a smile as she headed back toward the camp.
Elinor took stock of the large wagons being pulled by the mule teams. “With some luck, we can reach Height’s Ward Keep, or what’s left of it, by nightfall.” She pointed to a cliff, a short distance from their position. “We should have a good glimpse of the road from there. Think you’re up for a little climb, Journeyman Engineer?”
Con sighed, but followed her up the cliff.
Before long, he was catching his breath. “I don’t—I don’t know how you do that so fast,” he wheezed.
Elinor said nothing. Her eyes focused in the direction of Height’s Ward Keep. In the distance, a cloud of dark shapes stained the sky.
“Rouse the camp. I want us covering ground in under an hour,” Elinor said, moving. “At the hop and weapons to hand. Prepared for trouble.”
Con was already scrambling back down, shouting orders to get the company moving.
Con and Elinor rode into a scene of horror.
The large clearing was filled with torn and shattered bodies. Dozens of men and women lay in the snow, their red blood frozen on their black uniforms.
Black uniforms of the King’s Army.
“By the First Ascended,” Con swore, staring out at the charnel scene before them.
He knelt down beside one of the corpses. The black uniform had a green stripe down the arms; an engineer.
Cold dread curled inside Con’s stomach like a sleeping snake. This was the other reclamation group. The Ninety-Fifth Pioneers.
Con moved to another body. A woman’s face stared up at him, eyes wide with fear. He recognized her. Her name had been Rina. Rina something. A noble, but he couldn’t remember her family name. He had known her in the Academy.
“Elinor, this is the Ninety-Fifth,” Con said. “I know—I knew some of these people.” He shook his head. “What happened here?”
“All the wounds are to their backs, Con,” Elinor said. “They were run down. Taken from behind.” She scanned the clearing, her eyes hard. “Where are the rest of them?”
“What do you mean?” Con asked, but even as he said it, he understood. Unlike their contingent, the Ninety-Fifth Pioneers were a full cohort. They traveled with forty soldiers and over twice that in attached engineers and teamsters. There were no more than fifty bodies in the clearing.
Con looked back to Elinor. “Lieutenant Janen?”
“Aldis isn’t here,” she said.
In her voice, Con heard an equal mix of relief and worry.
She moved across the bloodstained clearing until she stood above a body that clasped a long pole. A torn banner dangled from it.
Elinor removed the banner and folded it silently. With each crisp, precise movement, Con saw tension grow on her face. Cold fury in her eyes.
“What do we do, Elinor?”
“These were soldiers of the King’s Army. Our brothers and sisters. We bury them,” she said. Then her voice grew colder. “And then we find who did this.”
Release: February 15, 2016
On Sale now on Amazon