Below is a random chapter from the book I'm still writing, writing, writing. I swear I'm writing it.
The editing is atrocious and there's a strange sticky goo I can't seem to get rid of so don't touch it or anything.
Snow refused to give way to the stampede of bitterly angry teenage feet. Ciara dug through the forest, grabbing a hold of low hanging branches and pulling herself forward all while fighting against the winter with a burning sense of indignation at once again being the only one left out in the cold. Her skirts acted more like a poor shovel, scooping up the snow leaving a wide berth behind her as she struggled deeper into the woods.
This mess kept going from bad to worse, and her father dumped her into it all sight unseen. If she’d felt like clearing her head she may have felt a sting of pride that he’d trusted her to handle such a mission on her own but even that was a bitter recompense in the face of the sheer cliff in front of her.
On one side there were witches, emperors, generals and soldiers. And the other, a boy with a runny nose who kept sticking it into the most infuriating of places.
A branch snapped in the forest.
Ciara stopped, her breath the only taint to the dark forest air. She tried to turn in the black forest searching for the source sound, most of the stars curtained off by the thick naked tree tops. There! Another broke, deeper in the forest, away from the ring of caravans which still had an imminent ring of smoke puffing away.
Fingers shifted through her pocket and found purchase on the dagger, deep in the folds. Instinctively her eyes closed as she tried to focus her sight into her ears.
She was seven years old again, an old pair of her father’s muck boots riding up to her thighs as she stood impatiently in the middle of the marshy land near the river. Far in the background the sound of women slapping the rocks with sheets reverberated across the ever present arms of the mountain.
Her father dropped to his knees and looked her in the eye. He did that with every child he came across, lowering from his mighty peak to meet them as equals. Ciara’d always taken it for granted and started to climb onto his thick shoulders.
“No, No, Siyah kuş,” he called to his daughter who dropped back down into the mud. A rare dip into his abandoned native tongue he reserved for Ciara.
“Hold out your hand,” Asim instructed, and into her speckled palm he placed a pommel, wrapped in blackened leather with curiously gold accents flanking the cross guard.
Her fingers curled around it as she pulled the blade to her face. A curious symbol, a series of three circles mimicking a target, etched into the pommel. She dragged her small finger around it, poking the bullseye with her nail.
“Like this,” her father said, walking behind her and grabbing her arm. He carefully maneuvered the blade in her hand until the cross guard rested comfortably then bumped her elbow up.
“Am I doing it right?”
“Perfectly,” her father said, smiling.
“Asim,” her mother’s voice called from the rivers edge. She’d been overseeing the other women and trying to keep her other child from breaking his neck on the rocks below the pool the children claimed for their own
“Yes, cesaret,” he responded to his wife, still shifting about Ciara’s weight until she feared she was about to fall face first into the sucking mud.
“What are you doing?” Bralda asked. Ciara looked back at her mother, her hair firing in the warm spring light, the first they’d seen in weeks after the rains broke. She was dressed for castle work, her good hemlines dragging in the mud, but had slipped a pair of far too large boots onto her feet in a rush.
“Cia needs to learn, the land is dangerous,” he said as he stepped away from his daughter who stood motionless with her right arm extended far from her body. Her right foot was sinking slowly into a makeshift bog throwing off her horizon, so that from her perspective the trees all seemed to be taking a bit of a slow nap.
“What she needs to learn is how to properly darn a sock,” Bralda muttered, unhappy with the last sewing efforts her daughter made. Unable to get a proper stitch, she began to pull apart the seems and then kept pulling until it was more a set of ankle warmers with long fringe than sock.
“Darn socks will help in the room. Sharp daggers will help outside,” Asim said proudly. Then to his daughter, “Close your eyes.”
Bralda crossed her arms, normally a sign the fight was over and she’d won but this was one of those rare cases that her husband stood strong in his convictions, refusing to bow to the norms of the Albrants. Ciara was always sitting beside the fire, her hair still soggy from her bath, while her mother took to their Lord’s numerous tears and rips, when her brother would burst in all smiles upon her father’s back chattering about all the mighty monsters he fell that day.
Asim never said a word or corrected the boy, as a true Scepticar should. It was Bralda left to scold the boy that monsters were not real and he shouldn’t be putting such notions in his sister’s head. But later, while their parents were asleep Corwin would sneak over to Ciara’s bed and show her a tooth, as long as her finger and curved slightly inward. “The monster’s were real, but they’re not anymore,” he confessed dropping the tooth into his little sister’s palm.
But that was her son. Bralda had no brook with her daughter being drug out into the wilds and left to fend for herself. She would insert herself into all of Asim’s talks of teaching Cia how to hunt, how to skin, even how to smith. Her daughter resented her mother for every bit of it.
Today was different though, even with her mother scowling on the sidelines, Ciara knew she was about to kill a monster of her own. Obliging, she closed her eyes and waited for her father to say something.
Suddenly her balance was thrown off as something fast bumped her left elbow. She shifted quickly to keep from face planting into the mud.
“Keep your eyes closed,” Asim instructed, his voice oddly distant. Ciara cinched up her eyes so tight, the sides of her vision turned golden.
Another jab hit her in the back and she spun to meet it, the dagger hitting only air. She squelched up her boot, turning around to try and find what kept smacking into her. “Father…”
“Your senses, you cannot trust them at all times. Listen to your heart, Siyah kuş,” his voice reverberated into her ears as if he were right behind her.
“All I hear is a thumping,” Cia said dutifully.
Asim laughed heartily at that, the guffaw skipping around the clearing like a dragonfly on the rivers edge. How could he possibly be moving that quickly.
“Then listen for your ears,” he said, a bit less poetically.
She tried again, rolling her shoulders back and raising her arm as if she were about to swat a fly. The mud squelched under her shift in balance and at that moment the invisible monster attacked, knocking into her left shoulder.
Without moving her feet, Ciara swung her dagger arm towards her shoulder, but found only air. Her eyes cracked and she saw her mother, her arms still crossed as if she washed her hands of the whole thing but was ready to step in at a moments notice anyway.
“No,” Asim said and something sharp bit into the back of her knee sending her arms pinwheeling to keep her balance.
Without falling to the mud she caught a glimpse of her father, barefoot and carrying a flat stick not much longer than her arm. So that’s what had been hitting her.
“Keep the eyes closed,” Asim instructed again, his voice moving away.
She nodded her head and closed them, though not as tightly as before and took one deep breath. As she exhaled the world opened before her.
“Talk about learning to run before one can crawl,” Bralda muttered under her breath. Asim seemed to not hear it as his feet paced about the edge of the mud pit, but Ciara could.
She stopped fighting with the darkness and used it. Her hand remained steady while her ears followed the soft squishing of something scampering across the mud. It reminded her of those silent nights on Soulday eve when everyone would gather in the snow and have a moment of silence for those who’d failed to return. And inevitably, in the edge would be a small rabbit scampering away from the crowd shattering the quiet of the night.
Her head whipped to the left, as a strange sound whizzed through the air but nothing hit her. She tried to reposition herself without making a sound, nearly impossible in the deep muck. But inside her father’s oversized boots she could easily shift her entire foot within them.
As she moved quietly, the stick tried to take its chance. But Ciara’d been counting on it. And giving it her all she spun her entire body, leading with her right arm until a pair of arms grabbed her wrist.
“Congratulations, you have slain the monster.”
Ciara’s dream shattered at the unexpected voice and her eyes flew open to the dark man still holding onto her wrist, her dagger inches from his chest.
He followed her eyes and let go of her wrist. She continued to hold the dagger near his heart, not flinching. “It’s you.”
Taban laughed, “Yes, it is me. Why is it no one is ever excited to see me?”
“Maybe they’re not big fans of being assassinated,” she said cooly, looking once more at the mans hands unarmed and held far from the sides.
“Killing is not all I do,” Taban said
“No?” she slowly let her arm rest, but kept the dagger unsheathed.
“No, not at all. There is espionage, planting false evidence, altering the fates of those who come in contact with me,” he counted off each crime on his fingers, “Oh and I make a magnificent ham and egg sandwich.”
“Eating ham is sinful,” Ciara said.
“Only if I do it right,” Taban winked, sliding back into the snow. His foot prints lined the clearing, as if he’d been pacing around the edge watching the girl with her eyes shut tight holding out a dagger in the middle of the forest.
Embarrassment burned hot in Ciara’s stomach to help cover the fact she no longer had rage to keep her warm. “What are you doing out here?”
“I could ask the same of you. No coat, no heat, seems you wanted to be rescued,” Taban said.
“I don’t need any rescuing,” she said tersely, trying to shake off that smile at her expense on his lips.
“Not this time, no. The little nightingale has a sharper beak than I expected.” Even with the snow to provide contrast, it was still hard to spot Taban. He’d shrugged off the dark green leathers from their last meeting over two months ago for a light grey coat stuffed to bursting with down. He seemed to favor the cold about as well as Ciara.
“You’re following me,” Ciara said pointedly.
“Ah, technically no,” he said.
“What? You just happen to be everywhere we are a few seconds later? It’s all a coincidence? We’ll laugh upon it when we’re not freezing to death in the forest.”
He laughed again at her outburst, as she waved her dagger about to punctuate every word. But the assassin caught the hint and unbuckled his coat, displaying the familiar green leathers underneath. Taban held it out to her, so she could slip an arm in but Ciara glared.
“Freeze or do not, it is no tax off my pay.” She continued to glare but snatched the coat up and slipped it over her arms. For the first time since the powder broke from the clouds, she actually felt warm.
Ciara watched the assassin, trying to manly shrug off the cold leaking into his veins. She didn’t trust him. She didn’t like him. But she felt beholden to him for saving her life. And she hated that.
“You suspected that a little…frost would deter me from my mission?” he said indicating the snow that’d drifted half way up some trees. “I’ve followed you since you left your father’s house. Ingenious plan, hiding in the bear trap. I only needed to keep a few fingers of the Empire at bay instead of the full arm.”
“Yes, well…” Ciara said, suspecting he knew Aldrin had fallen into the pit on accident but wanting to play along as the tactician anyway. “Why?”
“The Empire may be made up of idiots, but they are zealous idiots. The most dangerous kind,” he said idly plucking the bow strung across his shoulder like a bass.
Ciara glared, growing tired of the games, “Why are you following us? Why were you following us? Why have you been following us since the beginning?”
“See little missy,” he started when a rustling began from within the trees. Taban drew the bow and fitted an arrow before Ciara could turn to the hand inexpertly shaking the trees causing excess snow to drop on it.
Some light cursing met with the wet plops as a torchlight bounced into view. Ciara looked over at the man who probably murdered people in his sleep and placed her hand over top the arrow. Wolves didn’t carry torches…unless young girls in vibrant capes were involved.
A shaggy blond head poked through the dark forest and offered some much needed illumination upon the situation. “Ciara?” Aldrin asked as his eyes rested upon her. “Ah! A shadow demon!” he shouted as he came upon Taban, his fingers fumbling for his resized belt trying to find the rusty sword.
Taban for his part made a show of slowly undrawing the bowstring and replacing his arrow. Then he chuckled quietly as the prince finished unsheathing his sword and still held onto his belt.
“He’s no demon, Aldrin,” Ciara said, adding under her breath, “I hope.”
The prince glared from the dark man, dressed more like the old tales of elves than a farmer wandering in the forest in winter, over to Ciara who, in the coat, looked like an overly fluffy dove beneath a black hat. She stepped a few inches away from Taban cursing under her breath for letting herself get that close.
The assassin seemed to take it all in stride, “Now that the weapons are sheathed…”
Aldrin waved his sword in defiance of the dark man’s words.
“Now that the dangerous weapons are sheathed,” he said again, savoring the look of disdain on the boy’s face, “let us commence with pleasantries. I am Taban,” he said bowing.
“Who is your Lord?” Aldrin asked, old etiquette rules burned into his brain from years of watching foreign diplomats track mud upon their welcome mat flooded back.
This threw Taban off, which shifted the smirk to Aldrin’s face, “Beg pardon?”
“Who do you serve?” the prince asked, pointing his sword to the shade.
“Ah. You are concerned I work with the Empire, yes?”
“There’s a stranger wandering about in the woods near where the prince of Ostero is hiding,” he glanced over at Ciara and added, “and holding my friend hostage.”
Taban laughed at that. “I have done many despicable acts, but kidnapping was never one of them. I did have to steal a donkey once, but that was a very long story. No, I do not nor have I ever served the Empire. I find the Emperor rather deplorable, and I hear he smells of haddock. I am in service to The Triad.”
Ciara looked at Aldrin but he kept his sword held out, as if it could do anything other than fall apart. She’d heard whispers of the triad on long nights when the castle was still. It was something only those few in the Lord’s close circle ever mentioned. Aldrin had never heard of it.
“I’ve never heard of this Triad.”
“Your ignorance is not my fault,” Taban said, “I suspect there is some wet nurse or an oily man with a droopy mustache to blame.”
Ciara walked slowly across the clearing towards the prince, her hands held up, “Aldrin, it’s all right. He’s a…” friend died on her tongue, as did colleague, and acquaintance, “he’s someone we owe both our lives to.”
The sword wobbled a bit at that, “What are you talking about?”
She sighed and told him about the night he was stabbed, “That assassin, the Emperors man who came after you. I didn’t kill him.” Ciara pointed to Taban, who waved, “he did.”
A moments pain crossed his eyes, and she shared it. Not another person they owed a favor too for their lives. How many more mythical swords can there be?
“He killed the assassin and saved us both,” he said, “and has been following us ever since?”
Ciara sensed the opening there. Was it really a lie of omission if she didn’t fill in all the details about her involvement with Taban. But as she looked over to the man who could slit both their throats before the uttered another word she decided to come clean.
“There’s more,” she knotted her hands into the coat’s pockets, her fingers clinking against something glass, “the night of the ‘party’ I didn’t escape on my own. He helped me.”
“I’d say I did a bit more than help,” Taban said, the smirk secure on his face, tilting up a mustache he’d cultivated in the past two months.
“Aldrin,” she looked into his eyes more disturbed that she was concerned about hurting him, than from actually lying, “I’m sorry I never told you. It,” she glared over at Taban, “I didn’t think I’d ever see him again.”
“As I was running nearer to the caravans he just vanished from my side. Then we packed up and sailed off so quickly I assumed he’d fallen into a badger hole or something,” Ciara confessed.
“Thanks for caring,” Taban said cheerfully.
“I, I’m sorry,” she continued, ignoring the assassin.
“No,” Aldrin said, his eyes breaking free of Ciara’s warmth. He raised his arm again, pointing the sword toward the man calmly picking at his freezing shoulders, “Why did you save me? Why does everyone keep saving me?”
Taban chuckled cruelly at that, “I could not tell you the machinations of a witch. As my gran always said, do not meddle in the affairs of witches for they are bloody witches. But my mission is much like the girl’s here.”
“You are beholden to me, then,” Aldrin said.
A shadow fell over Taban and his tone darkened, “I am beholden to no boy who can barely find his own bollocks. My mission is my own. Lucky for you, it involves keeping you alive for the time being.”
“Then why save me?” Ciara asked pointedly, well aware what her life was worth when compared to a possible king, “Aldrin was safe with the historians, with or without me.”
Taban laughed at that, the shadow vanishing back into the night as quickly as it came, “Perhaps I am a sucker for damsels in distress.”
“Or perhaps you simply hope she will do your job for you.”
“Is it open mike night or something,” Taban muttered as a fourth voice joined their unexpected party.
Isadora dropped her hand covering a small blue crystal that lit up the snow around her, casting such a glow over her face she looked as if she were frozen solid. A blanket was wrapped over her shoulders and she had a woolen hat covering her head and ears, almost down to her eyebrows.
“You let a witch follow you home?” Taban asked Ciara, “Very dangerous. Once you feed it, you’ll never get rid of her.”
Isadora gripped her light crystal tightly and turned it until the blue beam focused squarely upon Taban’s face. He staggered a bit in the snow, but tried to hold his ground. Ciara thought she could see small shards of ice crystalizing across his eyebrows and mustache.
He threw up his hands and said, “Very well, I can see when I am unwanted,” even as his teeth chattered. Taban turned, stomping away from the three deeper into the forest.
“Wait!” Ciara called out, running towards him.
Taban turned, a small smile heating up the ice still clinging to his face. She sloughed off the second sleeve of the coat and handed it to him.
“I do not wish to be beholden to you,” she said, passing it to him.
He took it slowly, looking back at the witch who continued to cast her ice crystal upon the spot he’d been standing, “For your sake, Nachtegaal, I hope you never are.” Slipping on his coat he got a few more feet into the trees before his trail vanished, as if he’d never left it.
Aldrin looked over at Isadora, still watching into the woods in case the assassin turned around. “Thank you for your assistance.”
The witch turned to the boy king, covering over her crystal once more, “Shouldn’t you be researching. Unless you think the sword of Casamir will discover itself.”
With the prince properly cowed the witch glanced once over at Ciara and, shaking her head, vanished back to her corner of the woods leaving the two teenagers alone.
Aldrin struggled to put his sword away, while still holding a torch high in one hand. Ciara walked to him, and, like a mother hen, said, “Here, let me help.” Grabbing his belt loop she guided the no longer sharp end to its home.
As soon as she released her grip, he stumbled back a bit, his cheeks flaming in the cold, “Now that that’s over we should be getting back. Medwin says he found something for you.”
“Right,” Ciara nodded, trying to shake off the disquiet she felt at Aldrin shirking away from her touch.
The prince led the charge back, casting his torch high. Ciara looked back towards the spot where Taban had stood fearing her already complicated life was about to go careening off a cliff.