Hi guys! I wrote a thing! You may have noticed me blathering about it incessantly.
Well, the deadline of publication is fast approaching. It has presently been formatted for the Kindle and for other EPUB-using e-readers and I’m in the process of assigning ISBNs so that you may actually purchase them should they strike your fancy. So, let’s see if Blood of Midnight does, in fact, strike your fancy.
Below the jump is a sample of the novel for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!
Chapter 1: The Message
Damon spread the fresh hay over the corner of the stall and plumped it. His paper-white fingers plucked apart a bunch of dried sweetgrass before spreading it throughout the horse’s bed. He usually did not do such things for the others, but Silhouette was his horse and he felt entitled to show a little favouritism. The large stable doors were open to the field. None of the grazing horses out there felt cheeky enough to pester him today. The deepening of autumn occupied them with fattening up while there was still grass.
He set down the hay fork and stretched. At last, the morning chores were finished and he could return to the house for some leisure time before lunch. Perhaps he could work at finishing that flute he’d been carving, though a flaw in the wood was threatening to make it crack. No, he decided as he re-bound the messy locks of black hair out of his face, today he was feeling lazy. It was more a day for writing songs and reading.
Outside the barn, horses wandered the fields making of themselves blotches of gray, black and the occasional spot of white against the green. Beyond them, the forest had donned its fall colours; the birches, tamarack, and poplar in gold, and the steelwoods in their ghostly white. Glasshammer was too far north for the reds of maple to be found. Evergreens shrouded the shoulders of the mountains that made a wolf’s-jaw border around their lands, open only to the south. The snow-caps were already beginning to swallow the upper portions of that covering. Far in the distance, the White Blade, the tallest peak in the kingdom, pointed its jagged finger north.
Damon turned and tromped up the cart track alongside the barn, a distinct clinking of metal accompanying each step. He wore iron plates bolted over the toes of his boots. It made them expensive and weighty but heavy hooves and farm equipment made the investment worthwhile. A crushed foot could take a good worker down for quite some time.
The track cut through their apple orchard and he scanned the trees to either side of him, looking for his sisters. He’d thought that Sunev and Rebecca were taking in some of the apples today but he didn’t see them. They’d been talking about the orchard or the herb garden and he couldn’t remember which they’d chosen. Ah well, he would find out soon enough when he got to the house. If they were not in the little fenced-in patch along the south side, then they would be wanting help carrying the apple bushels.
The practicalities of the day flitted out of Damon’s head as he spotted his father, Erik Stonehart, striding off down the track that led to the main road. He glanced in the direction his father was headed and spotted a bright blue splotch in the tall grass. He could make out the livery of King Harlon after a few more paces and realized he was looking at a herald.
Now that was a rare sight! No one came to Glasshammer unless absolutely necessary for they feared the Stonehart curse; no one but bandits or slavers, those desperate or foolhardy enough to laugh off the threat of dying young, and dying badly. Damon picked up his pace to a trot, eager to see what could be so important that it could not be entrusted to a messenger bird.
They were only a few yards away from the man in blue when the lad caught up with his father. Erik turned at the sound of his footfalls and frowned.
“No, Damon. I need you to go to the house,” he said and held up his palm to halt him.
“What? But—” Damon stuttered.
At nineteen hands high, Erik was a man to be looked up to by many, and a man whose tunic Damon could not even fill out yet. He would, in time. Nature had favoured the boy with his father’s build though not his chestnut hair, nor his sun-kissed complexion. No matter how many hours Damon spent in the fields, his skin took on neither colour nor warmth and the oddity often drew the stares of strangers. He had not gotten his father’s pale blue eyes either. Those eyes were fixed on him now, as hard as ice and his crossed arms told him that Erik was not going to budge until his request was fulfilled.
“Can’t I just—”
“No. I want to know exactly where you are. No sneaking around and no silly ideas until I’ve heard what this man has to say.”
The herald held onto his sweating horse by the riding reins – something Stoneharts never used. Was it true that other horses were so stupid that they needed to be steered by the mouth? Why was the pommel of his saddle so small? He was bursting with questions but his father gave him a light shove.
“Damon, go inside.” The stern tone of his voice brooked no disagreement.
With a mutinous glare, Damon turned down the path and headed for the house. He did, however, take his time, glancing often over his shoulder.
“Is he alright, Lord?” the messenger asked. “His colour’s a bit off.”
“He’s fine. Wait until he’s indoors, if you would. He hears like a hound.” Erik looked toward his son and shooed him emphatically.
Damon quickened his pace, but only slightly. To his disappointment, his dawdling did not glean him any more news as the messenger remained silent. He lifted the latch and ducked inside.
The central fireplace still smoldered from breakfast. It was the only motion in the kitchen. Damon tapped clods of damp earth from his boots and bent to unbuckle them. Neither of his sisters’ boots were by the door which told him they were still out working. He wondered if they had any idea what was going on.
The shutters and windows had been thrown open wide to let in the fresh air; though, the emptiness of the house deprived it of some of its cheer. He sat down quietly by the window and rested his elbows on the kitchen table as he watched the two men outside talk. The sun was still strong enough to be warm on his hair and bring out the scent of the herbs in the garden. He rested his chin on his hands and frowned. What were they talking about? Hardly anyone called Erik “Lord” as the messenger had done. Leaning forward, he tried to read their lips.
The messenger gesticulated wildly. He begged for something, ducking his head and shoulders and clasping his hands together, shaking them in fervour. Damon sighed and resisted the urge to sneak out. Their summer-house had only one outer door and it faced the road. The doors on either side of the main room all stood ajar to let the air circulate, even the storage room, and the dust motes drifting through the bars of light as they fell across the floor only stirred his restlessness further.
Why does he always keep things from me? I’m not going to break in half if I hear something distressing. Still, a shiver crawled down his spine.
Erik stood quite still except for the occasional nod of his head. Damon kicked the table leg, his foot making a steady bump, bump, bump in the empty kitchen. The wind chime over his head tinkled as though to mock his sour mood. He had made it when he was ten. It was almost as big as the kitchen table and had three tiers to it. He had searched for feathers all the same shape and shade of grey to hang on the ends with the weighted beads. It had taken months to put together and another month to get the hollow brass chimes from Tuador, but he loved things like that. Anything he could poke and tinker at over several days held appeal for him as a craft as he found that he learned things best when doing them slowly.
Over the window there hung a wooden plaque decorated with thistle designs. An invocation to the Vies, spirits of the air, land, and water to protect the house and all within it.
Aervie, guard the air I breathe,
Lanvie, all the steps I leave.
Vanvie, give me sturdy health,
Blotvie, wisdom, cunning, wealth.
The decoration had been made by Erik’s great grandfather and was old enough to refer to the ancestors as Blotvie, a word few people still used anymore. In the past, it had been a custom to pray to one’s forefathers for assistance, just as one would petition and make offerings to the other Vies. Damon could see why the practice had fallen into disuse and the word with it. He was fairly sure that there was nothing some old bones could do for him that the combined might of the earth, wind, and water could not. Nevertheless, the blessing was well-cherished and engraved in nearly every Stonehart house.
Damon tried to imagine what the messenger wanted. Perhaps a large order of horses that would take a long time to pay off? A loan for a desperate farmer? He’d heard that there had been vandals setting crop fires in the lowlands south and east of Tuador Village. Perhaps someone needed wolves chased off? Sometimes Damon tired of the requests, but his father always said that the strong must protect the weak.
“As long as I live, men may call upon me for aid,” his father would say, quoting from the Code of Valour. He always seemed to refer to that passage whenever someone asked something of him, no matter the job.
Damon shook his head. No, it didn’t look like something that simple. Had someone died? Veins stood out on the backs of Damon’s hands as he clenched them. Not another one of us? Surely not? We can’t take many more losses. An image of his mother, Anna, buried a year now, swam unbidden into his thoughts. He shook his head again, with more force. No. A Stonehart messenger would carry news of a death in the family.
The kitchen was quiet and still with no one else in it. He began counting the jars of preserves, herbs and spices on the shelves that covered the walls. He left off after forty-three and swung around to look at the fireplace with the water pump in front of it, then beyond it to the raised benches that served as steps up to the rooms surrounding the main hall. Only the doors on the left side of the main room were open more than a thumb’s width and those rooms had been empty since Uncle Jacenth had passed on and his boys had gone up to live in Autumn’s stedding.
Erik reached over and patted the messenger’s shoulder, nodding. Damon sat up as he started back to the house. The way his shoulders were braced, as if against a heavy load, informed him that something was wrong. Was there trouble in Tuador? Large bands of thieves and even the odd audacious slaver were always a threat to the people of the Northern Kingdoms. As if the weather conditions weren’t bad enough, he thought. This was the first day of sun after two weeks of driving rain and high winds.
Kingdom Stonehart—if it could even be called that anymore—just didn’t have the manpower to defend itself as it once did.
They hadn’t even had a proper king for a long time. Over the years, their numbers had dwindled down so far that it seemed ridiculous to use such a title. The last Stonehart to call himself “King” had died four generations ago. His daughter, Ursula the Black, in her grief, had wanted neither crown nor coronation and had simply taken up leadership as “Chieftain.” It had been that way ever since.
In any case, it was the heads of the households that decided everything so there was not much point for kingship anymore. Erik was considered the chieftain now, though Damon didn’t know if there had been any ceremony proclaiming him so.
The door swung open and startled him; he had been daydreaming Erik stomped the mud off his boots. The rain had made a spongy mess of the fields. Damon rose to his feet, hardly able to wait for his father to come inside. That was a rule of the house: “Don’t bug a body ‘til their boots are off.”
Erik took off his leather work coat and hung it on a hook. Only then did he turn and look at his son. His eyes were full of sorrow.
Damon straightened up, squaring his shoulders. At times like these, when Erik had that heavy look on his face, he always felt so small.
“What’s the trouble, Father?” he asked, hoping he sounded like a competent man. He was not a big lad and if not for the physical labour on the farm to pad his frame, he would be downright willowy.
Please Da, tell me. I’m not a child. His father looked at the long shadow Damon threw across the floor. Damon stared at the rolled-up parchment in his father’s hand as if somehow he could read what was on the inside if only he tried hard enough.
“Sit down,” said his father, seating himself at the table. He let the parchment fall next to a glass vase, containing three purple thistle flowers and some stalks of late wheat. Sunlight danced through the water and threw rainbows across the cup and swan seal of King Harlon.
What does a king want with us? It was his deep respect for his father that kept him from reaching out and snatching up the letter to read for himself. Instead, he stayed silent, clasping his hands between his knees.
“Damon,” he began. His voice sounded strained, as though it didn’t want to come out at all. “You know these are rough times and we all find ourselves having to make decisions. Sacrifices.”
He stopped for a moment, staring at the table.
“I’m sure you’ve heard the rumours of war in the south circulating among the village lads.” Erik closed his eyes. The hand he rested on the table curled into a fist.
Damon waited, hardly realizing he’d moved towards the edge of his seat.
“They’re not rumours.” His father looked at him again. “What’s more, there are forces pushing north. King Mido Solara has been slain and all his family with him.”
Damon felt his jaw drop. “But Mother’s vision—“
“I know.” His father looked tired. “Your Reflection is supposed to be of the Solara family. There are rumours flying about the youngest daughter escaping but … ah, I don’t know. I’m sorry, Damon. It could be possible but what that means… I just don’t know.”
Erik went silent.
It was said that, when a Stonehart was born, their power was too great to be held in the body of a small child; that it had to be split in half. One half stayed in the child, while the other half, the Reflection, went into the body of second person. In time, the two would be drawn together. The Reflection would inevitably be taken by a wanderlust so strong that they would find themselves heading for the Northern Kingdoms without knowing why. Only when they embraced the Stonehart to whom they were called would they understand. An Embraced Stonehart was complete, their power stable and strong. All the best healers and fighters of the clan were always one of the Embraced.
Since his mother’s gift of farsight had told him where his Reflection was, Damon had expected a long and difficult journey. He would probably have to ride down and meet them halfway instead of waiting for them to come up and find him. If there were no more Solaras, though, he would have to accept the possibility of living the rest of his life incomplete. With his mother gone and Rebecca’s gift still too weak, there was no one to ask for guidance.
Erik’s voice broke through his thoughts.
“King Harlon has just told us that scouts have been sighted at the edge of his borders. They’re not slowing down and no army has yet been able to halt their progress. They just ploughed right through Howweld and swatted the armies of King Regaid and King Dulmir like flies. Duke Freston actually had to flee Boarsback after his initial defences were crushed. I have no idea how they got all those men across the Silver Ribbon in the middle of the rain season…” He trailed off. “Do you know what I’m trying to say?”
“They’re coming here.” The statement fell out of his mouth before he could stop it. The thought of the Southern Kingdoms falling to any force was mind-boggling. The idea of such a force ripping through their peaceful backwater settlement chilled him. An image of armoured soldiers riding chargers through their fields and churning up the still waters of Lake Glasshammer flashed through his mind and a curious anger swelled up inside him. It was like a memory, but of something he had never seen before.
This is my land. The thought struck him as strange but seemed right to him.
“Do we know who it is?” he asked.
Erik raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t think that’d be your first question. There are reports of sightings of flag bearers carrying the standard of the White Asp.”
Damon thought he was hearing things. Why would anyone carry the flag of a storybook villain? He’d heard tales of the legendary sorcerer, Lyre, since he was a child but none of them were to be believed. He was a myth used to frighten children and explain inexplicable misfortunes. Damon remembered being terrified that the White Asp would come in the night and steal his voice if he ever told a lie.
If anyone wanted to identify himself with such a despicable, murderous character, he couldn’t understand why. One nagging thought tugged at him. What if they’re not just stories? Ridiculous. No. Clearly, someone was just trying to terrorize the people into submission.
Something still didn’t fit. Why the letter?
“So, he sent us a warning?”
Erik shook his head and sighed. “It’s a call to arms. ‘All able-bodied men and women are asked to take up weapons and fight for their lands and the future of the Middle Kingdoms.’ In short, he’s asking us to stop the threat before he takes over all of Silan.”
“The whole world …” Damon murmured. He couldn’t begin to imagine someone that powerful. He realized he was chewing his lip and stopped.
“If this is any indication.” His father gestured at the parchment on the table. “There have been battles all through the duchies, many of them all happening on the same day if reports are to be believed. I don’t know how he manages to command a force that vast with such precision but his general must be the most brilliant man who ever lived, and the most fearsome. Harlon is as practical a man as I’ve ever known. He doesn’t scare easy; that’s why he’s a good king. He wouldn’t panic over hearsay, and this is as nervous as I’ve ever known him to be. He must be pretty desperate to extend the call all the way up to the high Northlanders.”
He shook his head.
“It’ll be hard travelling this late in the fall.”
Damon wrinkled his nose. “You’re not seriously thinking of going, are you?”
“We must go. The Treaty of Emmesford binds us to protect our allies from invaders. Regaid and Dulmir would answer the call as well if they weren’t too busy making war on each other. We must ‘protect the weak,’ remember?”
“King Harlon is hardly weak.”
“Neither were Kings Paros, Delan, or Shrana, or the Southern Kingdoms, and they all fell to the White Asp,” he said. “Empress Tlube was only able to manage a single call for aid and no one has heard any more from her. The Deep South Empire: gone.”
He thumped his hand on the table. “Like blowing out a candle. I’ve told you stories of the southern fighters. Their armies are not trifles.”
Damon rubbed his hands. He did remember the stories but this was no simple request. He didn’t think it fair that the Stoneharts should have to respond to the call while others ignored it, especially those who, by all rights, should know better. During the War of the Bloodplains, when Kyax, one of the chieftains of Howweld, got it into his head that he should be Emperor the whole of the Middle Kingdoms had banded together to put an end to the carnage and ruin. Rell and The Silver Ring had been hit the hardest but their gratitude had swiftly devolved into endless land disputes that continued to this day. Granted, the war had been three hundred years ago but nearly twenty years of violence and terror should be a hard thing to forget.
If King Harlon had wanted wolves chased away, he wouldn’t have hesitated. But he didn’t. He wanted the Stonehart magic to protect him. He wanted them to be like the warriors of the old legends and save the world, but there weren’t many of them left. We could still do it, couldn’t we? His pulse raced. The prospect of war both frightened and thrilled him. He had always wanted to be one of those warriors. Even if his Reflection was dead and he could never reach his full potential, he still wanted to do something. A feeling of intense pride swelled up in his chest. I could still defend my homeland.
He drew himself up in his seat.
“Then we’ve got to fight,” he said solemnly. “I know I’m not old enough to ask by tradition, but it seems we don’t have two years to wait, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to stand by while others die for Glasshammer.”
He stood up and cleared his throat, preparing to ask the time-honoured question from son to father on the day of his coming-of-age.
“Father, may I have a sword?”
Erik regarded his son in silence. Damon knew denial was coming. Many boys tried asking their fathers for the hallowed weapon that would mark their passing into manhood. But an Eve of the Sword could not be rushed. Tradition stated that it must be the eighteenth year, when a man could properly support a family and a business. But Damon wasn’t trying to be what he was not or to show off to his friends. There was evil afoot and he wanted to fight it.
Still, very few ever requested formally before their time and the ones who did earned a tongue-lashing for it. He sighed, realizing how foolish his request must seem. He was just a boy. Harlon had a standing army in Shirfeild and the rest of the Middle Kingdoms had plenty of soldiers. They didn’t need children getting underfoot.
“Da, I’m sorry I—”
“Yes, my son,” Erik cut off the apology. “You may.”
Damon was stunned. The traditional response had been given. His father looked both sad and proud at once. His eyes shone with moisture and he wore a pained smile.
Why did I ask? And why did you say yes? There was no going back on it now.
“Thank you,” he whispered, too astounded to say anything else. “Thank you.”
Blood of Midnight: The Broken Prophecy will be available for purchase this winter… and I see snow on the ground! Woohoo!