I’m trying something different this week. The following is the first chapter of an upcoming novel called The Pale Princess. I’m not sure on the release yet – though probably early 2020. The book is complete and has gone through one layer of editing, but will go through more before it’s complete.
Thunder rumbled through the cloudless sky. Lan Varison glanced up, expecting to see storm clouds rolling in as they often did at this time of year, but only the bright sun shone down.
Thats not thunder, you dolt. Sophie elbowed him in the side, drawing his attention back to her.
Though she was younger, her elbow found its way to his ribs, and her deep blue eyes met his almost level. Then she swiveled back to the road sending her strawberry red hair swinging. Only the bit of lace looped around her head made a pretense of controlling it. She stared along the road, her deep blue eyes intent as they often were, and a hint of a smile on her lips.
What is it then?
She elbowed him again. Its like youve never heard horses before.
Lan stared along the road, looking for signs of horses, but saw nothing. Is she teasing me again? Sophie loved to joke, but he often didnt understand her jokes, so this could be one, but the way her cheek pulled, twisting the small scar at the corner of her mouth, made it seem unlikely.
What horses sound like that? Lan asked.
She twisted her bright orange belt and lifted the end of the fabric to her mouth, chewing on it. Those do, she whispered.
He squinted along the road. A trail of dust rose along the road, rising into the sky like a cloud. It was faint, barely more than a haze, but she had still seen it.
Thats from horses? he asked.
And a lot of them, from the sound.
The thundering grew louder to where he could feel it within him. It stirred the dust around him, making it into something almost alive. Another moment passed, and he noted light glinting off metal.
Lans breath caught. Armor.
Something caught his eye even more. A trail of black traced through the armor of the nearest rider. Even without seeing the pattern, he recognized it. This close to the border, everyone in Narithwould recognize it by reputation almost as much from the stories Nana told them.
That would be the Taihg. What are they doing here? Lan had never seen the elite soldiers of Rayeln, and never expected to see them this close to their village, but hed heard them described often enough in Nanas stories to recognize them.
Sophie shot him an annoyed look. The Taihg wouldnt have any reason to come through here. The border is leagues from here.
The soldiers approached quickly, so Lan grabbed Sophie, pulling her away from the road. She resistedshe always resisted when he tried to tell her what she should dobut he maintained a firm grip, jerking her off the road.
They stood off to the side as the soldiers passed. Each soldier sat stiffly in their saddle, sunlight gleaming off the metal. Dark etchings along the chest plate created a familiar pattern that drew his eye. As they did, it was even clearer that they were the Taihg. One of the soldiers glanced over as they passed, but quickly dismissed them, and turned his attention back to the road, heading toward the village.
Why would they be riding toward Hevith? Sophie whispered.
They probably arent. Lan watched the riders. They shouldnt even be here, but then Narith was a small country with little for defense other than the natural protections of their borders.
There was something impressive about the way they rode, a ferocity. Some claimed they were gifted with magic, while others claimed the swords they used were enchanted. All recognized the Taihg were practically unstoppable.
Sophie rounded on him, placing her hands on her hips in a mimicry of their grandmother. Lan didnt fear Sophie nearly as much as he did his grandmother. She was almost as intimidating as the Taihg.
Theres only our village along the road, Lannerdon. Where else would they be traveling?
He glared at her. The village is along the road, but there are many other places beyond it that would be more likely for the Taihg to visit.
I bet theyre coming to Hevith. She started back along the road, forcing Lan to hurry after her to keep up. With her long strides, she made quick time.
You bet? He arched a brow. It sounds like youve been spending too much time with Lucan. Im sure Nana would be thrilled to hear about
He cut off as she elbowed him again, somehow managing to find a soft spot between his ribs. If you tell her anything, I might just have to talk to her about the way you sneak off into the forest and maim that poor tree.
She shrugged. Dont think you can keep your secrets hidden, Lannerdon, she said, making a point of emphasizing his name even more this time. I know where you keep that sword hidden, sneaking off with it each night. Where would you get a sword anyway?
Lan flushed. I found it buried in Papas shed.
She snorted. Papa wouldnt have a sword. Hes a farmer. Can you imagine Papa attempting to wield a sword?
Lan shrugged. There was a time early in the war when everyone had to fight, even farmers. They were called up to protect Narith on the chance that war spilled over their border. Thankfully, it hadnt. Maybe it was from then. That was from
Before the war ended. I know the stories as well as you. She looked toward the village in the distance.
From where they stood on the edge of the road, Lan could make out the top of the nearest buildings, and saw the trail of smoke rising from chimneys.
That wasnt what I was going to say, Lan said. That was from when our parents were still alive.
Sophies face clouded. They werent lost in the war.
They were too. I know you dont want to believe it, but they died
Trying to get us to safety.
Because of the war.
You say it like they were fighting. They were running, like so many others. They werent soldiers. They werent like the Taihg. Had they been there
She sniffed and fell silent, moisture gathering in her eyes. Lan slipped his arm around her shoulders. Im sorry. I shouldnt bring them up.
She shrugged his arm off her shoulder. You always bring them up.
Trying to pretend theyre not gone doesnt bring them back, he said.
She glared at him again. You dont think I know that?
Lan didnt press. Sophie always had a harder time dealing with the loss of their parents.
She walked along the road, and Lan followed her, staying quiet.
When they reached Hevith, any thought that he might discover what had brought the Taihg through the village faded. There was no sign of the soldiers.
Lan stopped at the edge of the village, staring. Hevith was large for a village, having grown over the last decade because of people moving away from the border, wanting to avoid the war, and away from the larger citiesthose felt to be targetsfor a quieter life. A safer life. It was what their parents had intended by bringing them back to their home village.
Hevith was known for its weaving, though most of the village consisted of local craftsman and farmers. Their grandmother led the weavers and had been attempting to teach Sophie, but when weaves didnt go well, she would get easily frustrated, and give up. Not Nana. She had incredible patienceat least with weaving. She would stick with the most complicated pattern, working through it until satisfied she had it exactly right. Lan was more like his Nana with her patience than his Papa and his tremendous strength.
See? Lan said. They didnt come to Hevith. Scanning through the village, he didnt see any sign of the Taihgno trail of dust and no reflection off of metal. It was as if the soldiers had vanished.
She shifted her feet as she glanced at him, the small scar on her cheek twitching. Lan Im sorry.
He shrugged. The soldiers shouldnt have been here anyway. That they were suggested a kind of danger the village didnt want. It meant the safety of Narith had changed. It meant the war was starting up again.
Im going to see where they might have gone, Lan said.
As he turned, she reached for his arm and he pulled away quickly, not giving her a chance to stop him. He hurried through the village and didnt turn to see if she followed. Lan doubted she would. When they arguedeven over things as minor as thisshe rarely bothered to stop him.
The village itself was quiet. It was midday, and the rush of the early morning had passed. The farmers would be working in their fields, trying to complete the harvest and get it prepared for the coming winter. Weavers like his grandmother would still be working through the days project. Others would be nearly through with preparations for the day and be readying for the next.
Lan ignored the few familiar faces he encountered, avoiding the annoyed glares he received, typically from those who close to his age. He and Sophie were given more freedom than most their age. Lan worked with his grandfather often enough, but he only needed so much help. Even though he would one day be expected to take over the farm, and that wasnt anything Lan wanted for himself.
Even with its growth over the years, Hevith only had one street running through it, the forest bordering one end, the open plains the other. As he got closer to the forest the scent of sawdust overpowered the lingering smell of the sweet breads from the bakery and smoked meats at the butchers shop.
Lannerdon? Is that you?
He turned and smiled at Marlon. The owner of the mill was an older man, his hands twisted with age, and a milky sheen to his eyes, but he still had a sharp mind and ensured the trade for the lumber went in his favor.
Its Lan, Master Marlon.
Ah, you dont need to call me master anything. That is unless you plan to take my offer?
Lan smiled at him. I think Papa would be disappointed if I didnt take over the farm.
Marlon clapped him on the shoulder, squeezing him briefly. A shame. Youve got the size to do well for me. I think in time I could train you to run it.
Not Jarmas? he asked with a smile. The millers grandson was about the same age as Lan, though Lan and Jarmas hadnt always gotten along, and he wasnt all that reliable.
Jarmas could work for you, one day. You know how important the mill is to Hevith.
Lan had no idea what Hevith would be without the mill. There were other industries, but none quite as valuable as the mill. I know, Master Marlon.
Maybe Jarmas could take over Ilians farm.
The idea of Jarmas working with Papa was too much for Lan to consider. Papa wants the farm to stay in the family.
Marlon waved his hand. I think I might have to have a few words with him the next time we dice.
Is that all you do? Lan asked, smiling.
Maybe theres ale to be drank, but I would never share that with Persepha.
Lan hid a grin. Nana knew quite well that Papa enjoyed sitting at the tavern and sharing ale with his friends and turned a blind eye to it. It was how he heard his gossip, the same as her with the weavers.
What are you doing in town today? What Lan really wanted was to know if Marlon had seenor heardanything about the Taihg.
A meeting, he said, waving his hand again.
What kind of meeting? Lan could imagine him meeting with someone from the Taihg, but then why would they have met with the owner of the mill?
Nothing very exciting, Im afraid.
Have you seen He caught himself. Marlon was nearly blind, so had probably not seen anything.
You know I havent seen well for nearly ten years, Lan. I could use an escort back to the mill, if you dont mind.
Lan looked all around him, before turning back to Marlon and nodding and holding out his arm to the other man. Of course. Papa would be disappointed if he didnt.
Good. Maybe by the time we get there, Ill have you convinced to come work with me.
Lan smiled and they made pleasant conversation as they strolled through Hevith. Every so often, Marlon would pause and speak to people they passed as Lan remained silent. Usually, Marlon would recognize people long before they saw him, letting Lan know the other man wasnt nearly as blind as he made it seem. By the time they reached the sawmill, Lan had heard enough about the operation of the mill that he thought he could step in and do itwhich was likely what Marlon had wanted.
The mill was an enormous wooden building standing beside the Ulsa River flowing at the edge of Hevith. The sawdust was thick enough he coughed as they approached, and the sounds of activity came from inside. For all the pressuring Marlon did, Lan had never been inside the mill.
Well, I will be sure to let Ilian and Persepha know how you assisted me today. Well talk again soon, Im sure.
Lan nodded, and when Marlon disappeared into the side entrance of the mill, Lan continued onward toward the edge of the village, relieved to leave Marlon behind. When he reached the edge of the forest, he heard rumbling coming from within. Lan peered through the shadows, but couldnt make anything out within them. The sound wasnt anything like hed ever heard before. Was it the Taihg returning? The rumble could be from their horses. Likely, Sophie would know.
The sound came again.
The deep, heavy rumbling sounded something like an animal, but what kind of animal would make sounds like that?
What are you doing?
Lan jumped and saw Sophie watching him. How long have you been there?
She sniffed. Long enough to see you staring into the forest. What are you doing?
He turned his attention away from her and stared into the trees again. At the edge of the forest they didnt rise nearly as high as they did deeper in, but they were dense enough to make it difficult to see far into the forest.
I heard something.
Why were you here?
I walked Master Marlon to the mill.
I bet he tried to get you to work for him again. Lan didnt answer. Sophie loved to harass him, but he wouldnt give her the pleasure of a response. Whatd you hear?
He shook his head. I dont know. It sounded something like an animal.
She pushed a strand of her brown hair back from her forehead and grinned at him. A dimple formed in the corner of one cheek when she did, a feature Nana often claimed was like their mother. Lan had memories of their mother, but a dimple wasnt part of them.
You sound like an animal. She pushed past him and heading into the forest.
I dont think thats safe. If you heard what I did, you wouldnt be going in there.
She cast a glance over her shoulder, her mouth puckered in a smirk. I know you wouldnt. I would.
Darish take you, Sophie! he swore, only earning another edge to her smirk. What if theres
A boar. Thats all you likely heard. Weve hunted them enough to know how to bring them down anyway. Besides, Papa would love the meat. Are you afraid of a boar?
His brow furrowed. No. The word came out sounding petulant. As the older brother he wasnt supposed to sound like that.
Then come on. Lets see what you heard. Its probably nothing
The rumbling came again, this time much closer than before.
Sophie stiffened. What was that?
He grunted. That was what I was telling you about. I dont know what it is, only that its not a boar.
She turned her attention back to the forest. We need to find out what it was. Come on.
Lan didnt want to follow her into the treesnot seeking whatever made that soundbut he couldnt let Sophie go without him.
When they were no more than a dozen steps into the trees, he saw movement and grabbed for his sister.
She spun. Lan, what do you think youre doing?
Im trying to
He didnt get a chance to finish.
There was another rumble, this one followed by a roar. He and Sophie were thrown back as fire exploded around him. He slammed into a tree and his head banged off the trunk, sending him sagging onto the ground.
Lan attempted to look up, but his eyes blurred.
Another roar burst from nearby and heat burned across his skin.
Lan reached toward his sister. She was near him, somewhere.
As he searched and found her hand, he squeezed. Sophie
She squeezed back as whatever creature was in the forest roared again.
Lan closed his eyes and dropped his head back, closing his eyes for what would come.