Sworn (Bound Trilogy Book Three) – Chapter One

Chapter One: Rowan

 

 

The fairy tales that once fed my hunger for adventure made it all seem so simple. After the heroes overcame their challenges, the happily-ever-after followed just as dawn follows the darkest night. Small losses led to greater gains, love overcame all, and those with the purest intentions were certain to win in the end.

My own recent adventures had turned my thoughts away from those stories, but I longed to inhabit them again as I struggled to calm my pounding heart and the magic within me. Never had I felt so far from living the fairy tale I’d once dreamed of.

My prince had rescued me, and I had personally vanquished my greatest enemy. But instead of riding off into my happy ending, I found myself surrounded by enemies—a band of disheveled and tough-looking thieves who had stopped us on this dark forest road and taken our weapons. The ever-after I so hoped for seemed to be retreating as quickly as my dear friend Florizel. I’d told her to flee when enemies came, and the flying horse was now no more than a dark speck against the blue sky that showed between the branches overhead.

Florizel’s departure didn’t leave me without allies. I had Aren by my side, a man I once feared and now loved more than I loved the magic and the freedom he’d helped me discover. Counting him, myself, and Ulric, the deposed king of Tyrea, we had three powerful magic users in our little party.

Added to that we had Aren’s sister Nox, a gifted Potioner who, even without channeling magic, could hold her own in a fight. Flanking her were the merfolk, Kel and Cassia, appearing to be nothing more than beautiful, bronze-skinned humans as they sat astride their horses and shot glares as cold as the ocean’s depths at our would-be captors.

Thirteen thieves surrounded us in a neat circle. The thief standing next to Ulric was needle-thin and sharp as a blade. He let his eyes wander from face to face, then down over my body. I pulled my ragged, filthy skirt a little lower over my legs and wished we’d found time to stop in a town to pick up a change of clothes. My comfort was a minor concern, but I had a history finding myself in inappropriate clothing when I needed to flee. I had no doubt we would be doing just that as soon as Ulric gave the order. They had taken our blades, but we still had our power.

I glanced at the king, who had ordered us not to identify him, and found I couldn’t read anything in his expression. He was as hard and inaccessible as the first time I’d seen him in a lonely prison cell, if somewhat more fearsome now that I knew who he was and what he was capable of.

The leader of our enemies, a fellow in a jaunty cap completely out of place on a rogue thief, released my horse and Aren’s as the others closed the circle around us and finished distributing our few weapons among themselves. He shifted his attention back to the dirty, pale-haired girl who had burst in moments before to leap to our defense.

“They’re not coming with us,” the thief said.

She crossed her arms. “They have to.”

Patience had spoken for us after the thieves attacked, but I still didn’t know whether she counted as friend or foe. She’d been friendly once, when her family of Wanderers had sheltered me and Aren on a rainy night, hiding us from enemies. Much had changed since then. My stomach clenched as the sunlight illuminated scars on her face that hadn’t been there the last time we met. Back in the autumn, Patience had been bright, cheerful, strong-willed and ready to command the world. She’d been whole, and running through a fire-warmed tent with her friends. Now she walked with a limp, and her left eye was gone, replaced by a scarred mess of shiny skin.

Her remaining eye, blue as the sky, never left me as she spoke to the thief. “They can help us, I know it. Jevan, please. Just bring them back, and let Goff and Laelana decide what to do with them.”

“This is foolishness,” interjected a broad-shouldered brute who stood near Ulric, gesturing with his newly-stolen sword as he spoke. “Cut their throats or toss them on their asses and take the horses. I don’t care either way, but we’ve been standing here too long. We should be gone as ghosts by now.”

This Jevan fellow had stated their mission clearly enough. Death to the monarchy. He clearly had no idea he’d announced this to the rightful king of Tyrea and his son, that his words should have been justification for the Sorcerers killing him where he stood. To these thieves, we were a small band of travelers unfortunate enough to have been caught in their trap. Powerless.

The urge to release my magic’s destructive potential grew stronger as Jevan eyed his weapons and the others gripped their mismatched daggers and clubs tighter, eager for a fight. The familiar tingling of magic flowed through me as I struggled to hold back, to obey orders. My horse shuffled nervously, and Ulric shot me a sharp look. His gray hair, peppered with brown now that his magic was recovering after years in prison, hung over his eyes and gave him a savage look.

Aren watched my struggle as well, guarded and concerned. “Better control that,” he muttered.

The thieves would think he meant the horse. I knew better. Aren hadn’t seen the flooding I’d caused back in the city, but he knew what my magic could do if unleashed, its potential to harm friends as well as foes. His dark eyes never left me, even as a thief stepped closer to his horse.

I looked to Ulric again, and he shook his head.

To not act now when we were so able seemed cowardly. Aren could have reached out and broken the leader’s mind, or transformed into an eagle and attacked while his father called an earthquake, blinded them, or stole their strength. And I—

Could kill by drawing water, a dark voice within me offered.

That did it. My magic quieted instantly as Dorset Langley’s face appeared in my memory, full of life at first, then drawing in on itself as my magic—as I—pulled the water from his body until he was little more than a bony husk on the ground. Relief came with surrender, and I despised myself for being happy to let go. Even after everything I’d accomplished in the past week, my fear was strong enough to turn me into a mouse when I should have been a roaring mountain lion.

And I was glad of it, if it meant not killing again.

Coward.

Ulric turned to Patience. “I don’t think your friends are inclined to listen to you, my dear.”

Patience spit on the ground. “Jevan, take ’em back and I promise I won’t follow you any more. And I won’t pester about helping with the hunt.”

Jevan’s pale brows drew together, and a hint of a smile turned the corner of his lips. “This is that important to you, little savage?”

She crossed her arms. “Not just to me. They have something to do with all of the big things going on in this country. It would be stupid to kill them without letting Laelana get some answers.”

Jevan scratched at his neck. His men looked at him, at each other, at us. Clearly they weren’t about to make a move without his say-so.

“Very well,” he said at last. “But this is on you, girl. We’ll take them with us, but when Goff doesn’t like the look of them and their heads end up in the dirt, that’ll be your fault. I’m happy to leave them here and let them live.” The casual words about what he obviously considered our inevitable deaths sent a chill over me.

Ulric’s lip twitched. He must be insane, I thought. Trading fair odds of escape for what could turn out to be an army and a bloodthirsty leader, perhaps one with magic we knew nothing about…

Patience nodded. “Fair enough.”

Jevan rolled his eyes. “Gods, Patience. You’re going to be the one with an axe at your throat one of these days.”

She looked over our party again. She obviously didn’t recognize the deposed king, and she’d never met Kel, Cassia, or Nox. She only knew me and Aren, and not by our real names. We’d been rain-soaked and exhausted travelers when she met us. She had no idea what she was getting herself into if she brought us back into her life.

“Nah,” she said quietly. “Goff won’t like them. Laelana won’t either, but she’ll see reason.”

Something besides the fresh scars troubled me, but it took me a moment to figure it out. The child seemed to have aged incredibly in just a few months. She’d struck me as a charming little girl of perhaps eight when we’d met, spirited but well-meaning, precocious and playful. She’d obviously been an educated child before, but now spoke like an adult, and appeared to carry the weight of the world on her thin shoulders.

What happened to you?

Questions would have to wait. “Off your horses, three of you,” Jevan ordered us. “Double up. Timmin, take a horse and we’ll lead them. Everyone else surround and keep up.”

Aren frowned and glanced at his father. Surely now we’d act. Patience may have meant well, but this detour would delay our mission. Ulric only stared straight ahead, and Aren’s jaw clenched tight. He obeyed, though, and kept his silence.

Perhaps he trusted that Ulric had a plan. I certainly hoped so. I couldn’t seem to get a handle on the man at all. Not since we’d gained our freedom and he suddenly lost whatever respect and affection he might have had for me when we were imprisoned together. I’d received a pat on the back for killing a man Ulric hated. Since then, I might as well have been invisible to him. No more encouragement, no kind words, no suggestion that I might be helpful in the upcoming struggle to regain his throne from his eldest son.

It pained me to be discarded so easily, and with no reason given. All he’d put me through in his attempts to shape me into something he could use to escape prison, the work I’d done and everything I’d accomplished, seemed to mean nothing. I flushed with anger at the memory of the cruelty he’d thought necessary to train me, but it cooled quickly. I’d seen what he was capable of. Stealing an enemy’s strength, confusing them with moments of invisibility, shaking the earth and causing it to swallow soldiers whole. Even without his magic he was dangerous, a strong and capable fighter. I could hardly afford to make an enemy of him.

So I will obey. For now.

I climbed up behind Aren on his horse, and Patience took mine. She sighed as she settled into the saddle, taking weight off her feet. Kel rode with Nox, leaving Cassia with Ulric. He maintained his stony expression as she found her seating and put her hands gingerly on his arms to steady herself. The pair didn’t let their discomfort show, but acted as though a human king and a mer woman were the most natural companions imaginable.

And that, I realized, was how we had to present ourselves. Unified. No sign of the tension between Aren and Ulric, left over from years of neglect and cruelty. None between Nox and her father after his abandonment twenty years ago. No visible uncertainty in me as I struggled to understand my place in the group, in the world. Certainly no clue that the merfolk had a neutral yet tenuous relationship with Ulric, and only wanted him back on the throne because he was less of a threat to them than Severn, the son who deposed him.

No problem at all.

Jevan rode ahead of Nox and Kel, their horse’s reins secured to his saddle to keep them from bolting. He didn’t seem to notice Nox’s icy blue eyes glaring at the back of his neck, or the way her fingers twitched as though longing to reach for the dagger they’d taken from her. Kel put an arm around her waist, and she leaned back against him.

They made for a strange couple. Nox was every bit as cold and hard as Kel was kind and warm. Human and mer. Land and sea. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out what he saw in her, but he was obviously smitten.

Another of the thieves rode Cassia’s horse and tied Aren’s to it, preventing escape unless we wanted to attempt an awkward dismount and flight on foot. Ulric rode slightly ahead of us, flanked by men with swords and knives drawn, and another on foot leading the horse by the reins. I doubted Ulric would have submitted to such an indignity under other circumstances, and wondered again why he wouldn’t allow us to act.

Aren tensed as his father glanced back at us. I squeezed my arms tighter around his waist, and he brushed his fingers over mine.

I relaxed slightly. We were together. That was the important thing. We’d almost lost each other only days before. Aren had nearly lost his magic and his life. But now we were together, and we would be fine. His magic was strong. His wounds were nearly healed. I had control over my power, at least in theory, even if the memory of what I’d done with it gave me nightmares. We would face whatever came, together, stronger as a team. I could overcome anything as long as I had him.

Ulric’s glare focused on me, and his brows gathered into a deep scowl. My heart skipped. A week before, that expression had been saved for the prison guards and times when Ulric spoke of the Darmish king or Dorset Langley.

And I killed one of them, I thought. I saved us. How does that make me your enemy?

We rode on through the spring forest, leaving the road behind. Yellowish mosses covered the trunks that surrounded us, and the horses’ hooves crunched over last autumn’s foliage. The forest here was less lush than what we’d encountered days before at the border. Spring was stunted. The sun shone warm enough, but something else felt wrong. I closed my eyes and loosened my hold on my magic slightly—not to attack, but to feel. The lack of water quickly became obvious. Even if I’d wanted to use my skills, I wouldn’t have been able to call much to me from these woods.

Still, the forest canopy came alive with birds tweeting to each other as we passed, their voices masked beneath the mumbled conversations of the men around us. Our group kept silent until Cassia whispered something into Ulric’s ear. The fellow walking beside them slapped her hard on the leg.

The look she shot him should have had him writhing on the forest floor, but he just grinned up at her. She lifted her chin, paying him no more attention than she would a nipping fly.

Do something, old man, I thought. Nothing I’d heard about the king of Tyrea had led me to believe he’d put up with such disrespect, even if he believed Cassia capable of taking care of things herself. But he remained as he had been, unconcerned.

Patience glanced back over her shoulder at them, but said nothing.

Nox snapped her fingers, and Aren and I turned around. She didn’t speak, but stared pointedly at her twin brother. His shoulders tightened, and he shook his head. She nodded and closed her eyes, and I realized that she was trying to communicate with him. As a Potioner, she lacked the magic that protected me from Aren invading my thoughts. I’d assumed he was barred from trying that with her, but a moment later she opened her eyes and raised her brows, questioning. Aren shook his head slightly and turned to face forward.

“You could have a full conversation with her, couldn’t you?” I murmured.

“Not easily, and not without them noticing,” Aren said quietly, speaking back over his shoulder. “That Jevan has a little magic in him. He’ll notice if I try to use any more.”

Even with that quick exchange, Jevan looked suspicious. If Ulric wanted our power to remain hidden, we’d have to act like average people, giving up every advantage until he said otherwise.

“I hope your father knows what he’s doing,” I said.

“Me, too.” Even at that low volume I picked up on the concern in Aren’s voice. The thief leading our horse glanced back, and I didn’t dare ask more.

We rode on until I lost track of time and forgot to be frightened. My stomach grumbled, and my thoughts wandered to dark places I only wanted to leave behind. I longed to get down and walk to ease the ache in my backside, or to reach some place interesting.

Be careful what you wish for, I reminded myself.

At least the sun was warm on my back. Nights were still cold, and our blankets too few. The deep chill in my bones felt like it had moved in permanently.

The man who had slapped Cassia touched her leg again, brushing his fingers over the outside pocket on her thigh. It seemed he’d spent some time working up his nerve. “You from around here?”

“No.” Ice dripped from Cassia’s voice, but the idiot kept grinning.

“Just passing through? Too bad about all this. I’m sure we can make you comfortable for the night. I have a lovely—”

“No.”

Ulric looked down his nose at the man. “The lady’s not interested, friend. And as much as I’d enjoy seeing her hand you your stones on a platter, I would advise leaving her alone. We don’t want trouble.”

A smarter man would have cowered under the look in Ulric’s eyes, and the tone of his voice would have sent him running. As it was, he merely snatched his hand away from Cassia’s leg and stepped back. He chuckled nervously. “Feisty one, eh?”

“Shut up, Morgan,” Jevan barked. He’d lost his jovial attitude over the afternoon, and if he wasn’t fearsome, he at least looked like someone to be taken seriously. I tried to sense his magic, and couldn’t. Years of being cut off from my own power had left me without an instinctive feel for it. I’d need to practice that.

Aren stretched his back and rolled his left shoulder forward. He’d done an incredible amount of healing since our return to Tyrea, but the deep knife-wound he’d taken back in Darmid still troubled him. The scar would fade. His always did, save for the strangely patterned one that his brother Severn had left on the other side of his back when Aren was a child. I reached over and absently scratched at my left arm, where I’d taken a nasty injury only days before. Magic had held me together and Nox had offered a salve to speed things up, and the scar was healing well.

But something about my magic felt wrong, something that went deeper than my horror at what I’d done.

Patience let out a high-pitched whistle as we reached the top of a low rise in the forest floor. An answering whistle came from high in the trees, and a young woman dropped to the ground, landing in a crouch well ahead of the horses.

She stood and looked the group over.

“I don’t think this were the plan,” she observed, and sucked air through the gap between her front teeth.

“They’re friends,” Patience said. She looked back again and made eye contact with me for the first time since we’d left the road.

The young woman looked us over again and walked away, dirt-brown ponytail swinging behind her. Aren’s horse plodded forward. We came closer to Ulric and Cassia, and Aren leaned over to speak to his friend.

“You all right?” he asked her.

She brushed her thick, dark hair back over her shoulder and shrugged. “Fair enough. The old man might need a rest, though. He’s slumping.”

Ulric grunted.

“Is that so, old man?” Aren asked.

Ulric shot him a dark look. “Not too old to whip you, boy.”

I couldn’t tell how much of the conversation was for the benefit of the thieves.

Patience slowed to ride beside us. “We’re almost there now. You’ll all be able to rest.”

“Almost where?” I asked.

“I guess I’d call it home.” She certainly didn’t sound excited to be there.

“Are the others here?” I asked. “The Wanderers?” It would be good to see them again, to know that they were safer than Patience’s appearance might indicate.

She closed her eye and drew in a long breath. “Those who are left are here.” She leaned forward to address the man who led Ulric’s horse. “Mind if I speak to them privately?”

He frowned and turned to Jevan, who nodded. The thieves released the horses and rode ahead, though others still surrounded us.

Now, I thought, expecting Ulric to make his move. He only accepted the reins and kept his eyes forward as though this were all part of his plan.

“It was the king’s men,” Patience said.

“Severn’s?” Ulric asked.

Patience raised her eyebrows. “Only king we’ve got. He found out that we were harboring fugitives. Guess he didn’t care for that much.” No accusation in her voice, but I felt her words like a knife to the heart. Patience squeezed her eye closed, and a tear trickled from between her whitish lashes. “Same ones that got us the first time, before we met you two. When that demon horse screamed and I saw the torches, I thought I was having a nightmare. They…” She shook her head, hard. “Mama’s dead. And Papa. And Frans. And—”

I squeezed Aren’s hand as the girl took a deep, shuddering breath. I wanted to reach out to her, and didn’t know how.

“I’m sorry, Patience,” Aren said, and I sensed that this was one of his rare, genuine apologies rather than an expression of condolence. “Your mother was a great woman, and wise. I only knew her briefly, but…” His voice trailed off.

What else was there to say? Without us, the Wanderers might have been left alone to make a new life somewhere. Because they’d given us shelter, Jein and her husband were dead, and Patience was a half-blind shadow of the girl she’d once been. They’d helped us, and Severn had made them pay for their disloyalty.

The Aren I’d met back in the autumn wouldn’t have cared, or wouldn’t have allowed himself to acknowledge it if he had. Not so now. “I’m sorry,” he said again.

During our time in prison, I’d become familiar with the strain of displeasure that showed around Ulric’s eyes as he listened to Patience’s story. He’d worn that expression while calculating escape plans and plotting his revenge on the people who held him captive. I remembered what Aren had told me about Ulric, that he was a bad father and a good king. It seemed he wouldn’t leave this debt unpaid when he took his throne back.

One more item in Severn’s ledger, written in blood-red ink. At least that was one thing we could all agree on.

We rode through a section of forest where the trees grew so close together that the horses had to pass through single-file, flecking their coats with sharp-scented pine sap. On the other side, an encampment of wooden huts came into view, nestled amongst shallow dips and hollows in the land. The village blended into the forest and stretched so far back into the trees that I couldn’t see where it ended. The buildings were cobbled together from a combination of wood, stone, and metal that might have been plucked from a garbage pile, but they looked sturdy enough. Peak-roofed canvas tents dotted the spaces between.

People walked about, talking and laughing. Light flashed from the only stone building in view, accompanied by the hammering sounds of a blacksmith’s shop. Several adults sparred with swords in a makeshift village square, dressed in simple leather armor and cheered on by a flock of small children. A chicken squawked, and an axe bit into wood. Somewhere nearby a baby cried, and a horse whinnied in the distance.

Patience’s lips set into a firm line as she took in the sight.

“Welcome to Rebel’s Glen.”

SWORN copyright 2016 Kate Sparkes

Available January 29, 2016

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