So! Hope you liked the previous sample. Today, I’m working through the particulars of making sure the cover looks pretty on Kindle devices and mucking around with ISBNs.
After the jump is another sample for your previewing pleasure. Enjoy!
Damon saddled Silhouette, his black stallion. The long-legged charger tossed his mane and thumped a silver hoof on the ground in excitement. The still-lush grasses couldn’t tempt him. He was ready to run. “Easy, boy,” Damon said, patting his neck. “We’ll be off soon.” Truth be told, he was just as anxious.
Sunev stood with her back to him, saddling her grey mare, Torrent. She was twenty with her Eve of the Sword two years ago. He didn’t know if she knew of his upcoming ceremony. He was sure when she found out he was going to get the chastisement of his life. Sunev wasn’t exactly known for her gentle spirit. She had the unfortunate combination of their late mother’s sharp wit and their father’s temper, but whatever she said to him, he could understand. She had patiently waited her full eighteen years.
The sunlight made her hair as bright a gold as the birch trees, turned to their autumn colours in the forest beyond. She turned to him suddenly, making him jump. “Right. Damon, I’m heading for the west path to talk to Lorne. You’ll go east to Jae. Tell her about the meeting in Stonehart Hall and head back home. Hearing me?”
He smiled. That was Sunev. She didn’t believe in small talk. “Yes.”
“Good. You’ll be back later than the rest of us. When Da and Rebecca get back from Autumn’s you’ll be in, say, an hour afterwards. Don’t dally. Keep your head up. There’s still thieves about from the raid in Tuador. Listening?”
“Wipe that grin off now. You look like a fox into the chickens.” Her grey eyes were tight at the corners. “It’s no adventure, Damon. Hard business today.”
He sobered his face and nodded. Sunev straightened the scarlet wool wrap over her shoulders. Damon was sure she could make any garment look dignified. She grasped the high pommel of the saddle and swung up onto Torrent, sitting as straight-backed as though she were to ride in a parade.
“Be careful,” he said.
She nodded and clicked to her horse and took off at a brisk canter. He watched her receding over the meadow. Briefly, he cast a glance over the sloping, sod peak of their summer house, standing in the tall grass and autumn wildflowers.
There was a heavy shove on his shoulder. He turned and rubbed Silhouette’s nose. “Alright, let’s go.” He grinned as he launched himself into the saddle. “We’ve got to hurry. The news we’ve got is more important than you can imagine.” The horse turned and leapt into a gallop for the east path. He let out a whoop, not loud enough for Sunev to hear, but enough to show his appreciation. He leaned forward over his horse’s neck as they plunged into the forest. “I bet we can beat Everlasting,” he whispered fiercely.
Silhouette and his father’s horse, the smoky-coated Everlasting, were always racing each other in the fields. They hurled themselves over rocks, streams, fences, always daring each other to accomplish greater feats of wildness. Maybe on other days Everlasting would beat him home, but Erik was taking Rebecca with him to see Autumn; he would be slowed. The road to Jae’s stedding was a little more narrow, but Damon hoped the thinning leaves would give him an equal chance.
He shook his head. Whether or not he won his little bet, he was determined to do the best he could in all his father asked of him. He didn’t know if the assent to the traditional question could be withdrawn but he wasn’t taking any chances. He would prove himself worthy no matter what it took. He stayed low as green and gold foliage and the dark fingers of wet branches blurred past his vision. Silhouette’s wild spirit was infectious. He was sure the horse believed he could outrun the wind. He felt the hoof beats deep in his chest like the throb of a heart.
Bird calls were the first thing that warned, or rather, a lack of them. Silhouette’s ears flipped up and he slowed so quickly that Damon lurched forward in the saddle. Stoneharts were a part of this land as much as anything else. The birds would not cease their chatter for only him. He shivered. Sunev’s warning came back to him. Could it be the bandits from the attack on the village? Silhouette had come to a full stop. Leaves and vines pressed in close on all sides. The underbrush was so dense it gave nothing away. He swallowed and tried to stay as quiet as possible. For once he wished for the hastening of autumn for the simple fact that the leaves would not obstruct his view. The path needed to be cleared and cut back on either side. Such wonderful ideas I have when it’s too late.
A twig snapped somewhere to his right. He turned but it must have been several yards away. He could see nothing but greenery. He held his breath, listening. Do they know I’m here? He strained his eyes, looking slowly around him. He searched for anything that might give them away. There was no money on him but before he left the house he had slipped the dirk with the bejewelled pommel his father had given him into his boot. Now that he thought about it, that golden hilt would probably be more likely to get him in trouble than protect him.
“Where are they?” he whispered to his horse. Silhouette nickered. He took two steps forward and a few back, swinging his head about. He would not go on. “Surrounded?” Silhouette nodded his head up and down. He cursed himself for being so foolish. His throat was dry. He felt like he had a mouth full of ash. Idiot. Couldn’t think to bring a flask of water but I could bring a fancy knife into a pack of thieves.
He cleared his throat. “Hello?” he called out. His voice quavered. Some brave soldier I am. He forced himself to sit up straight and grip the pommel firmly.
There was a swish of leaves ahead and to his left, nothing else. Nothing but the cries of ravens. He squared his shoulders and put on his father’s card-playing face. “I carry an important message. Please let me pass.” The birds were starting to quiet. He could hear his heart in his ears.
Suddenly, a man burst out of the bushes aiming a crossbow at Damon. Silhouette reared and shrieked, pawing the air with his silver hooves. The upper part of the thief’s face was covered with strips of cloth, his dark eyes peering out of holes burned through the fabric. The eyes were wide and flicked all around like startled fish. His clothing was worn but of good quality. “Yeh be gettin’ down that beast now, prinny.” His exposed arms were heavily muscled. On his right shoulder there were a series of straight scars counting off a tally. Two groups of five and two lines. “Doncha be thinkin’ ‘bout tryin’ on me fer a tussle. I sees yeh lookin’ here.” He shrugged his shoulder at him. “These is all the weasel-squeezers I knocked down and they was big ol’ brawlers. Skinny lil’ goat fucker like you’ll be havin’ naught but sod. Get down now, boy.”
More men were coming out of the woods. Damon’s hopes of defending himself flew away before his eyes. Oh Aervie, please just let me get out of here alive. A man with the bottom half of his face masked by a scarf made a grab for Silhouette. There were no reins to snatch and he foundered in confusion for a moment. The horse shoved against him and he fell. His comrades howled with laughter.
“That’ll be a Stonehart horse, ya shite muncher!” a man with a stringy grey beard called. “He’ll not be lettin’ yeh touch his master.” He spied at least two more men with crossbows in the cover of the leaves. He knew he didn’t have a chance of escaping while they had those trained on him.
“Please, good sirs,” he tried again. A little flattery couldn’t hurt. “I carry word of war.”
“And like as not some gold too and that’s the sort of what I’ll be interested in,” the apparent leader of the bandits said.
“I’ve got no money on me.” He knew full well that they would not believe him; not with a golden dirk winking at them from his boot. Two men tried to seize his arm and tug him off his mount. Silhouette snorted angrily and rounded on them kicking out with his hooves. He saw the aim of one of the bowmen shift. What if they shot his horse out from under him?
“Easy, boy!” he cried. “It’s alright.” He pulled his arm from the grip of the thieves. “I’m getting off,” he told the bearded man, and pushed himself out of the saddle. “Don’t harm him, please!” He landed awkwardly on his feet on the soft layer of leaves covering the path.
“I’d say not!” The leader chuckled as if he’d made a joke. “Fine piece of horseflesh, that!” Damon could have wept when it hit him at last. They were going to take Silhouette. The dirk he could bear but not his beloved horse. The stallion had quieted and turned around to look at him. He swallowed and tried not to gag on the lump in his throat.
Please, someone help me. Somehow. Looking into the calm, dark eyes of his four-legged friend, he was certain the horse knew what was happening.
“Now, ‘bout that gold…” The leader swaggered towards him, crossbow down but ready to fire at a moment’s notice. He grinned savagely, giving a hoarse bark of a laugh. “Lad’s scared outta his mind! White as gull shit, lookit that!”
“No color t’all!” cried the bearded man in response. He and the other man who had tried to pull him from the saddle came forward and seized him by the arms. He gasped and let go.
“Cold as the grave he is, boss!”
“Aye?” The leader reached out and brushed Damon’s face with two dirty fingers. He frowned, clearly perturbed by the frigid flesh. “Well, more a-scared than I thought!” he proclaimed, some of his earlier bravado creeping back into his voice, though it was strained now. “I think you’ll be handin’ us the goods now, eh? There’s a peachy boy.”
“I already told you—“
“Nice piece, this.” He felt the dagger slide from his boot and heard the thieves behind him exclaiming over it.
“Aye, I’d say it, too,” the leader said. “Where’d a chicken shit like you come by such a pretty sticker?”
“My father gave it to me,” he sighed. “I don’t suppose you’d care.”
“Not like yeh mean, but I’ll be wonderin’ who this da of yers is. Wealthy, eh?” He was close enough to smell his rancid breath. Damon swallowed. If they thought he was someone of importance, they would surely hold him for ransom. He clamped his mouth shut. It had been a mistake to ever speak in the first place. This was his mess now. It was time to be a man. “Come out, don’t play shy whore with us. Who’s yer da, boy?” He glared at Damon’s silence. “Don’t get stubborn, it’ll do ya a harm and nothin’ else. The Stoneharts live up here. You a prince, eh?”
Damon stared at him. He hoped his face didn’t show how frightened he was. Even if he wanted to speak, he doubted his voice would get past the lump in his throat.
“Best start talkin’, boy.” The bearded man pressed a knife to his neck. He trembled but held his tongue. It didn’t matter if he looked brave now. He just had to keep silent.
Silhouette shrilled angrily, drawing all attention. He was fighting off the three thieves who were trying to catch hold of his saddle to restrain him. The leader laughed raucously as the horse put his back hooves into the chest of one hapless man. Damon thought frantically. If only his power would kick up for a moment. Just a second would do it. Maybe while they were distracted, he could do something. Any other time he would have vanished into the shadows of the forest by now.
Why haven’t I faded to shadow yet? Now that he had a moment to think about it, he should have already escaped. It was dark enough here, wasn’t it? Maybe if I concentrate hard enough. He fought to clear his mind but the knife at his throat bit into his skin as the thief laughed at his comrades.
Salvation came suddenly, but not the way he expected. A shriek erupted from the man with the beard and was echoed shortly by many more. The thief stared at the blue liquid on his blade, then dropped it as though it were on fire.
“Great fuckin’ she-god!” he cried. “He bleeds blue!”
“Demon!” shouted another. Several broke and ran.
The leader stared at him through the burned holes in his mask. His eyes were big. “So yer da’s the Evil One, then…” he whispered, licking his lips and backing away. Damon touched his neck and looked at the blue blood on his fingers. He blessed whatever force had given him such a unique aspect and whatever superstitious nation these thieves hailed from. Silhouette, no longer harried by the villains trying to capture him, took this opportunity to butt his head into the small of the leader’s back. The man howled in fear and took off running with the rest of his crew.
He watched them go until he couldn’t see or hear them anymore. Among Stoneharts, it was not strange to have darker blood, usually red but rarely drifting closer to purple. After birth, the colour of an infant’s blood was measured against the spectrum of the altar stones in the Hall. Darker blood meant more magic. Damon was the first to have outright sapphire blue since antiquity but it didn’t really seem to bother anyone but outsiders.
Another accidental rescue. He wasn’t sure what to make of it this time. It was funny, he supposed, but he was shaking too hard to laugh. His stomach was doing cartwheels. It was a few minutes before he trusted it enough to bend down, pick up his dirk and return it to his boot.
“Let’s get out of here,” he whispered to Silhouette and mounted. The horse did not need to be told twice. He bolted down the path as soon as Damon had his seat. They raced for Jae’s stedding, not slowing until they could see the smoke from the chimneys ahead. He just wanted to deliver the message and get back home.
They burst from the tree line and pounded up the path toward the four houses clustered around the little garden courtyard. Samuel was just coming out of the one nearest to him on the left and he turned to the sound of hoof beats. He raised a big hand to shade his eyes against the sun. In the dark of the woods, Damon had completely forgotten the sun was shining. He could see his name forming on Samuel’s lips and the look of confusion.
“Damon, what…” He didn’t finish but gasped seeing the blood on his neck. “You’re hurt! Marel!” he called back to the house. “Bring bandages. Erik’s lad’s been injured!”
“I’m alright,” he said as the big man helped him dismount. The sun made his red hair orange. It occurred to him that he didn’t know if he was alright but it was the first thing that came to mind. Marel, Samuel’s wife, came running out with a roll of linen strips. She wore slacks and a tunic like her husband. Not many Stonehart women wore dresses anymore. Except for Sunev, of course.
“Damon, Damon, what has happened to you?” she scolded, half out of breath as she reached them. Her light curls bounced with her movements. She yanked the collar away from his neck and touched her fingers to the wound. He hissed at the sting.
“I was caught by bandits on my way here,” he explained. Samuel grunted, a sour look on his face. He punched his fist into his palm and glared into the underbrush but there was nothing there to direct his anger at. “They harassed me a bit but when they saw the blood they thought I was a demon and ran off.”
“Lucky lad, lucky,” he murmured, still staring murderously at the trees. Damon lowered his head only to have it raised forcibly by a clucking Marel. She wound the cloth tightly around his neck. He would have warned her not to choke him but he knew her temper.
“Aye. I’ve got a message, though. There’s a meeting in the old Stonehart Hall five days from now. King Harlon’s calling us in for war.”
Marel dropped the end of the bandage and it uncoiled to the ground. “War?” She stared at him for a minute before starting to gather up the linen.
“With whom?” Samuel pressed.
Damon took a deep breath, hoping no one would laugh at him. Then he realized that this was far too absurd to be considered a joke.
“The White Asp,” he sighed. “If you can believe it.”
Neither of them said anything for a long time.
“The … demon?” Samuel stuttered finally.
“The demon that eats souls?” Marel furrowed her brow.
They had all read the legends, the darkest tales of Stonehart lore. He had no explanation to offer. He just nodded again.
“I don’t like it,” Samuel declared firmly at last.
“Neither do I.” He tried to loosen the bandage at his throat but Marel slapped his hand away.
“None of that, you,” she scolded. “You want to bleed to death?”
He thought it best not to answer that question. “Can you please tell Jae about the meeting? It was her I was supposed to get the message to, but I think I should probably make for home before those thieves find their nerve.”
“You will not.” Marel pushed him toward the house. “Not all by yourself and not until that cut stops bleeding. I’m not letting you ride off until I hear all about these bloody bandits and the call-to-arms. In you get. You’re having a drink and something to eat and I’ll not hear another word about it.”
Damon wisely kept his mouth shut and obeyed. He looked down and was surprised to find a large blue stain on his over-large grey work shirt. The thief must have been so startled that he’d cut him more deeply than intended. He strode up to the stone and timber house and ducked under the doorframe into Marel’s kitchen.
It was smaller than his own but the construction was mostly the same. Central fireplace with raised benches built into each wall. There were only two rooms off the back of the main area so the sunlight could come directly in through the windows along the sides. Marel had already brought out the seating cushions that usually lined the benches in the autumn as her family huddled in closer to the fire for the cold season. Soon, Sunev would do the same. It was always one of those tasks done with reluctance, not because it was difficult but because it was an acknowledgment that, yes, the summer was well and truly ended and they had a long stretch of snow and darkness ahead of them.
The smell of chicken stewing in a rosemary broth coming from the pot over the fire made Damon’s stomach rumble. While he was sorry to see the sun diminish, the sharing of savoury harvest-time dishes was something he looked forward to. Ah, well, he thought. At least I’ll get some food out of the deal.
After Marel had finished fussing over him, Samuel went to inform Jae of the situation and gather a contingent to send with him for protection on the way home. She left him alone to tend her garden and he was glad to finally relax. He hadn’t had the opportunity to do that since the messenger had arrived this morning. He watched the sunlight play across the stone floor through the lily patterned curtains and rested his head, cradled in his arms on the table. The copper pots and pans hanging on the wall over the hearth glowed warmly in the waning sunlight. The cut on his neck still stung when he moved but not as badly as before. He knew it would heal soon. By late tonight, it would be gone as if it had never been there.
It wasn’t certain why the Stonehart magic had concentrated so densely in his body. It was so strong in him that its natural blue hue was ingrained into his very blood. There were other Stoneharts with darker blood but none truly blue. Strange things had continuously happened to him since he was very young, that forced him to unknowingly unleash odd talents he never knew he had. He didn’t usually think about it until something like this happened. He didn’t really know how to use these powers that appeared seemingly at random. Every Stonehart had a Showing, when their fully matured power manifested itself in some way. Usually, it happened in late adolescence. Earlier and later Showings were not unheard of but Damon’s case was different. He had had his Showing shortly after his birth.
They had thought he was dead when he entered the world because he was so pale and his flesh was cold despite having been in his mother’s womb. After a few moments of breathless silence, however, he began to cry. As his mother held him, the earth gave an ominous rumble. Everything in the house rattled and she held him close, trying to soothe away his fear. Instead of calming, he released a blinding burst of blue light that danced wildly around the room until the shaking stopped. They all knew then that he was special.
His father had told him not to try to push himself to hone these talents fearing he would harm himself. It was dangerous for a child to try to wield a magic so obviously potent. Yet, even without training, his power often came to his aid, saving him from the notorious foul luck of the Stoneharts. It occurred to him now that if it had been anyone else at the end of that knife in the woods, they would have died or been taken hostage. His kinsmen rarely made it past the age of forty before something terrible happened to cut their lives short. It was why no one ever sought to take land in Glasshammer. Not even the lush green hills could tempt a farmer with the threat of an early death hanging over them.
Is that why you said ‘yes’ father? He thought. He couldn’t afford to let his power rest and wait until he was older. Not anymore. There was no more time to grow up. He resolved to deliberately hone his talents as soon as his Eve of the Sword was held. All his strength would be needed to fight this battle. He shivered, trying to imagine himself charging the banner of the White Asp. He tried to imagine the sound of steel on steel and the cries of wounded soldiers the way it was described in the stories. He tried to envision cutting down his enemies and driving them back. He couldn’t do it. The image wouldn’t come to him. Lake Glasshammer was strong in his mind however, its perfect mirror surface sullied by mud as he had seen it before. It made him just as inexplicably furious as it had the first time. He thumped the table with his fist.
“Are you alright Damon?” He sat up. Marel stood in the doorway with a basket of herbs on her hip.
He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Yes. Just frustrated.”
“Ah now,” she said soothingly. “It could have happened to anyone.” She set the basket down on the table and sat across from him. “What were you supposed to do? Fight them all off?”
“I don’t think I could have.” He stared at the grains in the wood of the tabletop, tracing them with his finger. “But I can’t help thinking that I could have gotten away. It’s happened before, when I was scared.”
Marel tapped her fingers on the table and made a thoughtful sound. “You’re talking about that shadow thing?”
He nodded. “I was really scared today. I could hardly keep my knees from buckling under me.” He blushed. Marel lifted her eyebrows in concern. It always shocked people when he blushed. Because of the colour of his blood, his face turned blue instead of red. But Samuel and Marel were his clansfolk so, although it was still surprising it didn’t warrant any questions. “I can’t understand why I didn’t turn into a shadow. It’s happened three times so far. Once when the tree almost fell on me, once when I saw that party of slavers when we were out hunting and once when that bear scared me in the woods, that time when I tried to turn back I changed into a wolf by accident.” He looked up at her. “Today of all days when I really was in trouble I didn’t do anything useful. It just so happened that they were superstitious about my blood.”
“That’s your fantastic luck at work again Damon,” she said smiling. “It might be that your magic knew it wasn’t going to be needed to save you. But…” She became serious. “The greater possibility is that you are maturing. Your magic will become less wild and unpredictable and more easily channelled. It’s a little early, but then, we all expected that from you.” She reached out and patted his hand. “Don’t worry about it Damon. If I’m right it will be a lot safer for you now. Your magic will be less likely to get out of control and accidentally hurt you.”
He sighed and returned his gaze to the swirls in the wood.
“Damon.” The tone in her voice made him look at her again. “Do you remember when you were very young, four years old I think, and those older boys in the village tried to pick on you?”
He furrowed his brow. He remembered his father had just turned his back for a few minutes to barter with the shopkeeper. He didn’t remember which shop in Tuador it was or even what the boys looked like only that they had been much taller than him. “They thought I looked funny because I was pale,” he said at last. “I wandered away from my father and they followed me. I think one of them pushed me into the shelves and knocked me out or knocked the wind out of me. Something like that.”
Marel smiled but it was a sad smile. He frowned at her. This was an expression he’d seen too much lately and he couldn’t understand why. “Damon, I know Erik didn’t want to frighten you and that’s probably why he didn’t tell you. But I think it’s alright now that you’re older.” She cleared her throat. “There were three boys in the village that picked on you in the cobbler’s shop that day. The oldest was about seven and he’s the one who pushed you into the shelves of boots. But you weren’t knocked out. You were angry and you got up and took a swing at him. Since you hadn’t matured yet, your magic was still very wild. It didn’t help at all that it was so powerful either. The fact is, you laid him out flat.”
“What!” Damon half rose from his chair but she took his hand and gently pulled him back down. “But you said I was only four,” he protested. “A four year old can’t knock down someone almost twice his age.”
“Let me finish, please,” she said gently. “You have to understand what happened. You see, you didn’t actually hit him. At least not with your fist. Your father never would have known you were being bullied if not for the tremor that rocked the room. The other two boys said the space between you two rippled like a heat mirage, only it was freezing cold like a winter wind. Then the magic slammed into the older boy and threw him into the racks behind him. The impact was so strong it knocked the racks over too.”
“That’s crazy,” he whispered rubbing his temples.
“Your father came running to see what had happened,” she continued as if she hadn’t heard him. “You were just recovering from the swing and preparing to defend yourself against the other two boys. He told you to stop, knowing that the magic could overwhelm you. For one so young, it could even mean death to try and wield such power. He took hold of you and you stopped trying to defend and instead tried to pull the magic back. He doesn’t know what happened. I don’t think any of us could explain it except that you received a backlash from the power you unleashed unknowingly. All he knows is that you started getting really cold.”
“I’ve always been cold,” he interrupted.
“Not like this. Not your normal temperature, like the lake in the autumn.” She shook her head. “No Damon. It was different. Your temperature dropped suddenly even as he held you tightly. You passed out and it just kept plummeting. He had to lay you down on the floor and run for some blankets because no one could touch you with their bare hands. You were so cold that your clothes and the floor around you became layered with frost. They had to dump a bucket of hot water on you just to pick you up because your clothes were frozen to the floorboards.
“They took you to the healer’s immediately and sent for all the Stonehart healers to come help. We tried everything to rouse you but you just fell deeper and deeper into sleep. There were long periods of time when you would stop breathing and we thought we’d lost you. Finally as a last resort, we built a pyre and set you on it. We wrapped you in wet blankets and lit a fire underneath you.”
“It was dangerous, yes, but we didn’t know what else to do. You were frozen like an icicle. We kept the fire away from you as much as possible but the blankets still caught eventually. Yet you never moved an inch. We thought we had failed, but just as Erik was lifting you off the pyre you opened your eyes and asked him what was going on.”
“I thought…” He trailed off, unsure of himself. “I thought I just hit my head. Was I… What happened then?”
Marel shrugged. “You had a bit of a fever afterwards but it was very mild. How you didn’t die from dehydration we don’t know.”
He rubbed his forehead with the heel of his hand. “I remember being sick but not… Not any of the other things.”
She shook her head. “No I didn’t expect you would. You were unconscious for nearly a week in that strange icy state.” She reached across the table and took both of his hands in hers. “Damon, what I’m trying to say to you is if you are maturing and your magic is coming under control it is a good thing. It’s much more frightening to have your power act on its own at random. You never know what might happen. That’s why all of us say you’re so lucky. It’s not just because you seem to escape the Stonehart curse when it falls on you. It’s because your magic, in its wild state, has emerged out of nowhere so many times and yet you’ve only been seriously harmed by these outbursts only once. Other Darkbloods have killed themselves. You remember Lorne’s sister.”
He shuddered. They’d collected all the pieces they could.
“Just be happy Damon. You’re starting to grow up. The sooner you can control your magic, the sooner you’ll be out of danger.”
He nodded, unable to think of anything to say. He could understand why his father hadn’t told him this. It disturbed him deeply that his own power could do him such lethal harm. Suddenly, his Eve of the Sword held much more meaning to him. But even after I’m safe from myself, he thought, will I be safe from the enemy?