I’m definitely not going to miss August. Not only is autumn my favorite season, but the end of summer has not been kind to me. The lows were very low, and I'm still struggling to move past them. But there were also plenty of highs this month: my son is finally, reliably sleeping through the night (now hubby and I just have to resist the urge to squander that shiny new free time and actually sleep, too 🙃), I went on my first short solo getaway since having my baby, and I’ve got a ton of cool projects in the works for the upcoming season!
- #FantasyQueens Contest Results: Being on a panel of judges with some of the best writers I’ve had the pleasure to meet on Instagram was an incredible experience. And I was honestly blown away by all the talented writers I discovered while reading the contest entries--this community is chock full of absolute diamonds. The final scores of the top 10 entries were so, so close to one another, I wish we could have handed out more prizes! I’m so grateful to have met even more incredible authors through this competition. If you missed out on this one, keep your eyes open come October...😶
The first place prize included a feature in three of the judges’ author newsletters. And so, C.M. McCann’s winning story, “The Warriors of Death,” will be shared in full at the conclusion of this letter! I’m honored to feature such a worthy piece with a mysterious world, clan politics, secret romance, and strong characters.
I’d also like to give a special shout-out to Rowan Wright and Aurora Medina, who took second and third place, respectively, in the contest! (Click for links to all three winners’ Instagram accounts 🥰).
- Pre-Vacation Goals: Another positive from this August: I booked a family vacation for early November--the first we’ll have taken since before I was pregnant! We’ll be heading to Atlantis in the Bahamas, mostly because it’s a short flight, and I don’t want to test the baby’s reaction to airplanes on anything longer than 3-ish hours. Fingers crossed that Caleb enjoys (or at least tolerates) flying. 😬🤞
There is a lot of writing work I’d like to complete before this trip in November. I have to draft my short story for Project Winter Solstice (by the end of September, actually, so a large portion of my writing time and energy will be devoted to that next month), and I need to finish one of my critique partner’s books (so bittersweet). I would also like to get through my WIP self-edits and commission my first character portraits. In an ideal universe, I’d even have time to implement CP feedback and send my book out to beta readers before I go, but I’m not exactly holding my breath. 🙃
On a more personal level: I’d like to lose my baby weight. Most of it, at least. I just have not felt good about my body since I gave birth. Swimsuits were the bane of my existence all summer long, and it would be nice not to feel that way while I’m supposed to relaxing in the Bahamas. I just have to take care not to obsess over it. I’d have to lose 20 lbs to return to my pre-pregnancy weight, which is probably not a realistic 2-month goal while toddling after a baby. But I’d feel much better if I could lose at least half of that. We shall see!
I’d be remiss if I didn’t first update you on my Indian shampoo acquisition (new subscribers can read the relevant anecdote here). 😅 The hero of this story, my husband’s coworker who lives in India, had to reach out after not hearing from the company, and turns out there was a shipping delay. So I still do not know if coffee and patchouli is the correct scent Duke Milandre would desire, but hopefully the product will be in my hands soon enough. Also, this:
Seriously, Nick befriends the best sort of people. 😂
- Novel Status Report: Another 5k (ish) words cut! My total word count now sits at 305,906. Which means that since I began editing, I’ve officially cut a total of 50k words from my book. I know you can read, but, THAT’S A LOT OF WORDS. 😱
People--I’m going to break into the 200k range. If not this month, then the next one. I can FEEL it. And this is all with only the feedback from a single alpha reader (my husband) and myself. After I implement future critique partner and beta reader advice...maybe I’ll shave off even more!
- Solo Writing Retreat: A few weeks ago, my husband drove me to a beach hotel about 40 minutes south of my house and left me there for two days, alone. I checked in on him and the baby like a nutcase every few hours, missed them terribly, but it was also liberating to remember what it's like to be by myself. I'll be honest, it took me half the time I was away not to feel completely lost and dazed by the sudden lack of responsibility, so I wasn’t nearly as productive as I’d hoped to be. But it was such a rejuvenating experience; and I did still get more editing done on the beach than I would have at home with the baby (and I ate a TON of boardwalk food 🙈).
When I got home, Nick suggested we make this a monthly thing, at least while I'm struggling through this stage of edits. I don’t have words to describe how supportive my husband is. I’m in the process of planning my solo writing retreat for next month! Which is fortuitous, because I really need to just sit down and pump out that short story for Project Winter Solstice.
I took a break from beta reading this month and focused on two of my always fabulous CPs (plus following up on beta feedback I'd given last month).
A week ago, I received the first 9 chapters of a new WIP that I’ve been asked to alpha read, and I cannot wait to roll up my sleeves and dig into this world! It’s been a while since I’ve alpha read for someone; I’m looking forward to the change in style. And I’m quite excited about this book and its lovely author. 🤩
First, a preface, written by the author:
The Soturit of Bassur, the Warriors of Death, haven't been seen for centuries. Once the most celebrated group of mage warriors in the land, they were created when non-believers and foreigners threatened the Northwestern Continent's way of life. Considered the chosen of Bassur, the God of Death, and the sons of Tursadh, the God of War, the group was known as twice-blessed.
Once their mission was completed, the warriors disappeared, melting into the shadows of society, three kingdoms rising from the ashes.
Now, the Soturit have risen again to tear down the useless monarchy. They are universally feared, already having assassinated the rulers of Baelin. While the prince has risen to take his parents' place, the Warriors have warned of their return. Now they have set their sights on Davian, murdering the king. The queen is next.
Without further ado, the featured story:
The Warriors of Death
By C.M. McCann
Säde Keir wandered the lush green grounds of Keir manor aimlessly, her training done for the day. Her hand trailed over the manicured bushes, soft ivory flowers blooming in her wake. Grass moved to nestle her bare feet with every step, the scent of warm earth after rain embracing her soul.
Her peace didn’t last long. A young servant rushed towards her, every inch of her brown-clad body screaming frazzled. Säde stopped, a blooming vine winding idly up her leg.
“My lady,” the poor girl gasped, “Chief Aava insists you come at once.”
Säde’s brow quirked, but she nodded, following the girl back to the house, leaving her flowers behind. They entered through one of the servant doors, weaving through the yeasty heat of the kitchens and into the hallway beyond. Despite the servant’s urgency, Säde slowed her pace multiple times, her long legs nearly overtaking the small girl.
She was led to the back hallway on the second floor where her mother’s study was tucked between the library and her father’s den. The servant didn’t enter with her, merely shoving the door open.
Säde shifted into the doorway, regretting her decision to go barefoot as her mother looked over her oval glasses to stare at her toes peeking from beneath the hem of her dress.
Sighing, Aava waved a hand. “Shut the door behind you, Säde.”
She did as she was told, pulling the heavy wooden door softly shut, eyes running over her mother’s desk. It looked a wreck as usual, but try to organize it and she would complain she couldn’t find anything. Sitting on top of her usual mess was a recently opened letter, golden wax chips scattered across the papers.
“What does Aunt Linnea say?” Säde asked. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good for her mother to fetch her with such haste.
Aava glanced between her desk and her daughter. “The Queen has sent out orders to all clans. No chiefs may gather for Sulaiva’s Festival, but representations to each clan are expected to attend.”
Säde scowled. “Does she expect the Soturit to attack in such crowds?”
“It is a necessary precaution to protect this country.” The Chief of the Keir clan spoke, not her mother, and Säde forced back an eyeroll. Aava softened, a somber look overtaking her round face. “No one knows what they will do. Do you blame her for being so cautious after Lennart’s death?”
No, she didn’t. Säde probably would have made the same call if an ancient dark organization had come after her husband and murdered him in their bed. Lennart had been found slaughtered beside Linnea, a bloody handprint over his face and an ashen X etched over his heart—the mark of the Soturit of Bassur. The Warriors of Death.
He was not the first king to die by their hand. Word had spread from the southern country of Baelin of dead monarchs and lingering threats. Yet no one had imagined the threat would reach them. Serisen, maybe, but Davian stood too far apart.
“Does Da know?” Linnea was his younger sister, he would worry.
Aava took her glasses off, rubbing at the bridge of her nose. “Not yet. He’s still out dealing with that squabble at the border. He should be back before you leave.”
Säde cocked her head, somewhat surprised her mother would allow her to go to the capital without them. “Who’s to attend me?”
How many guards was she expected to entertain on the near week-long journey to the festival?
“A few guards for travel.” Aava waved a hand dismissively. “Enni will keep you at the festival itself, though the others will remain nearby. Fair?”
Säde nodded, content. Enni was her older cousin on her mother’s side. While Säde was taller than the average woman, Enni towered over her, matching even the tallest of the male guards in height. She was one of the few female guards they had, and there was no one Säde’d rather have watching her back.
“Your aunt would like you to leave early so you can have dinner with her the night prior to the festival,” her mother added as Säde turned to take her leave.
Säde glanced over her shoulder. “Did she say why?”
Aava shook her head, settling back behind her desk. “She didn’t specify.”
Lips pressed tight, she slipped out the door, her mind preoccupied with the why. When a king or queen takes the throne, they are meant to leave all connections to their previous clan behind, family included, to better serve the country as a whole. Requesting Säde specifically put the queen in a strenuous position. She could only hope her aunt had invited all the clan representatives, not just her.
Rounding the corner, Säde found herself pressed against the stone wall, arms pinned over her head, thigh pressed open by a knee. Heat flared in her core and she sighed, head tipping back.
His lips tickled against her ear as he chuckled, sending a shiver coursing down her spine. His mouth grazed across her earlobe, down her jaw, trailing fire until he reached her parted lips. She arched into him as he captured her mouth, fingers curling above her head. Säde wanted, needed, to run her hands through his thick dark hair, over his muscled back, across the sharp curve of his hip.
Kai pulled back, and she let out a low moan at his distance. His stormy eyes glittered while he took in her flushed face, a crooked grin playing lazily over his full lips.
“Hello, little sun.” His words were a purr.
She wriggled, straining against his grip, a wicked gleam appearing in her green eyes.
He released her with a quick nip to her bottom lip, stepping back and offering his arm. Säde exhaled sharply. As much as she wanted to melt into him, they couldn’t be caught, especially so close to her mother’s door. She took a moment to admire him, lean muscles in a layer of leather armor, twin daggers resting on either side of narrow hips. Säde wanted to linger in the sight of him, but she forced herself to take his proffered arm, letting him lead her through the halls.
“I wasn’t expecting you.” Säde didn’t get to see him often. He was a Mullen, and a sellsword. While he was typically hired by his clan, he traveled to offer his services elsewhere whenever he had the time. If he knew he was traveling, he typically sent a note ahead.
Kai shrugged, unconcerned. “What did your mother want?”
“I’m going to the Sulaiva Festival at the castle this year.” She pulled closer to him as they edged past a servant.
“I’ll have my guards of course, and Enni.”
Kai nodded sharply, disapproval turning his eyes charcoal. Her brow creased in confusion. She thought Kai liked her cousin. Enni was the only one she had entrusted with the secret of their relationship. The two seemed to have a mutual respect, though she wouldn’t consider them friends.
“I suppose this is where I leave you.” Kai’s voice was tinged with regret as they approached the door to her rooms.
Säde glanced along the long hall, waiting for a moment to make sure everything was clear before she grabbed his hand with one hand, the doorknob with the other.
“You aren’t going anywhere just yet.”
Her eyes full of promise beneath full lashes, he followed her in, a slow wicked grin spreading across his lips.
* * *
The trip to the capital was long and boring, and Säde was relieved when they finally pulled up to the castle gates. Enni sat across from her, impossibly still, her hand resting on the pommel of her sword. She had been relaxed for the easy travel, talking and joking with her cousin, but now that they had arrived, with danger still lurking in the shadows, Enni slipped into her role of bodyguard. Säde wanted to roll her eyes at her cousin’s tense shoulders. Despite the threats, there was no way the Soturit would attack with so many people around.
Säde looked out the window instead, knowing her thoughts would only lead to pointless argument.
The expansive green lawn swept into view as the thick iron portcullis opened slowly. The large square castle was an intimidating portrait in the shimmering heat. Twin towers rose against the summer haze to the north, marking the back edges of the castle.
Their carriage rounded the fountain that stood proudly in front of the heavy wooden doors and came to a stuttering halt. Enni hopped out first, her dark eyes narrowing at the glint of the summer sun. She knew better than to offer Säde a hand. Säde hastily followed from the stuffy interior, her half-skirt trailing behind her.
The double doors burst open and Queen Linnea strode out, pale face stoic, her hands behind her deep, sea-green dress, the crown atop her strawberry blonde curls shining gold. Enni and Säde bowed as she approached, though a smile played at Säde’s lips. She and her aunt had always had a good relationship, despite the rules of the monarchy.
“Säde.” The queen smiled, and her niece straightened, folding into her aunt’s outstretched arms. Linnea smelled of the sea and rich tilled earth, the hint of her usual soap, verbena, floating above it all. “I’m so glad you made it.”
“So am I,” Säde said, her lips curving wider. She couldn’t say Aunt Linnea while she spoke to the queen publicly.
“Your parents told you of our dinner this evening?”
Säde gave her aunt a quick nod. “Who else is coming?”
Linnea linked arms while the servants unloaded Säde’s bags, the guards standing by. Enni trailed behind them as they entered the castle.
“It will just be you, I’m afraid. Some of the clans won’t make it until tomorrow morning.”
Säde quirked a brow. Tomorrow was the start of the festival. It didn’t start until midday, but she had assumed she would be one of the last to arrive, not one of the earliest.
“Was there something you wanted to talk about?” Säde asked curiously.
Linnea patted her arm. “Nothing to worry yourself about. We’ll talk more at dinner, I promise. For now…” she trailed off, her gaze going distant. “I need to make sure preparations are set for tomorrow. You’ll be okay?”
Säde dipped her chin, watching her aunt bustle off as quickly as she had come. There was something off, something cracked in her aunt’s usual cool and calm demeanor. She chalked it up to grief over her husband, though she hadn’t thought them close.
Säde settled into her usual rooms, awash in her clan colors. Forest green walls, deep blue rugs, painted white furniture, and grey detailing. Enni was stationed outside her door and would take the room attached to Säde’s once night came. The other guards were put in the barracks with the rest.
She dropped onto the bed with a huff, wishing Kai was there with her to enjoy the expansive down. Their last night had been too short. After inviting him into her rooms, they lazed in each other’s arms, becoming ice and fire and more at every touch. Kai had disappeared before dawn, like he always did, with no evidence he had ever been there, beyond her puffy lips and warmed heart.
Säde stretched across the comforter, imagining Kai beside her, his rough fingers brushing against her bare skin. She must have fallen asleep, because Enni was shaking her awake, concern written across her wide face.
“Dinner’s in a half hour.”
“Will you help me?” Her question was a desperate plea.
Enni nodded, following Säde as she moved to the vanity, hands running through her long red hair, pins clattering to the floor. Enni made quick work of it, weaving her hair into a series of intricate braids, until the tail trailed down her back.
She was hastily changed from her traveling gear into a soft dress in rich green with dove grey embroidery. Simple, but suitable enough for her dinner with the queen.
Her cousin escorted her silently from the second floor up to the queen’s apartments, where they would apparently be dining. Säde had never eaten with the queen in her chambers before—it had always been the dining hall. The queen’s rooms proved to be surprisingly plain, whites and greys and browns muddling into an ocean of dull.
The queen was already seated before platters of steaming food. Before Säde could bow, Linnea waved her into her seat. Säde was quickly served the rich dinner by a silent servant.
“Aunt Linnea,” she prompted, once the servants had been dismissed. “What’s going on?”
The queen placed her fork gently to the side, napkin dabbing at her lips.
“I am naming you my heir.”
* * *
Säde was still reeling by the time Sulaiva’s Festival began. The long, white flowing dress and bright flower crown she wore made her uncomfortable, marking her as an eligible woman, one of the sun goddess’s chosen.
The heir to the Davian throne. Her aunt had no children, no one to inherit, and with the threat of the Soturit lingering like a black cloud, Linnea felt the urgent need to declare one.
Säde wound through the courtyard, eyes grazing over the acrobats and fireswallowers that decorated the space. Being heir didn’t mean much. She would inherit the crown, yes, but anyone was welcome to challenge her for it at any time. Still, the Keir clan was expansive and to have been chosen over all of her cousins… She could barely believe it.
The festival was a blur of noise and color and grandeur. Laughter, golden and pure, illuminated the air, yet Säde wasn’t ready to join in. Heir. Not to a clan, but to a throne. Her nose wrinkled. Her parents would be devastated.
Säde wove through the press of bodies, vaguely aware of Enni behind her. Sulaiva’s Festival was usually one of her favorites, between the drinks and contests and rare imported foods, yet now she was a ghost amongst them, never registering the people and greetings that came every few minutes.
“You look unhappy.” A hand slipped around her middle and she spun.
Säde flung her arms around him, elated, her problems temporarily forgotten. A smile stretched her previously troubled lips.
He pressed a kiss to her forehead, disentangling her arms. “What’s going on?”
Säde shook her head. Linnea had asked her not to share, and despite typically telling Kai everything, this secret she would keep close.
“Nothing. I missed you.” She stroked a lock of deep brown hair away from his olive skin, away from the harsh scar that bisected his eye. “I’m glad you’re here.”
His smile didn’t quite reach his eyes as he took in her “pure” attire. Kai’s mouth twisted. “Aren’t you a sight.”
She slapped his arm playfully. “It’s tradition. All eligible women of age.”
“Tell them you’re taken.” He nipped at her ear.
“Say the word, Kai.” Säde wriggled her bare finger. “I’m yours.”
He pressed a chaste kiss to the corner of her mouth. “As tempting as that is, I have my duties to attend to. Enjoy the festival, little sun.”
Säde held onto his calloused fingers as long as possible. “Find me afterwards?”
Kai shot her favorite crooked smile. “As soon as I’m able.”
She stuck out her bottom lip as he walked away, disappointed he couldn’t stay to meander the party with her. Säde moved out into the gardens, snagging an apple from the ballroom before wandering through the many stalls of ribbons, jewelry, statues, and other odd trinkets. Her fingers trailed wistfully over the delicate metal bands.
Maybe one day.
Shaking the thoughts of marriage away, she moved away from the stalls and toward the competitions in the training yard. They were currently in a show of archery, the current man shooting near, but not quite on the outer edge of the bullseye. Säde cringed. That was unfortunate. Even she could hit that, and her skill with the bow wasn’t great.
She stood at the fence, eyes wandering over the other competitors. Other girls in floaty white dresses and multicolored floral crowns surrounded the fence beside her, judging potential suitors while they waited for their turn.
The competitions would last until sunset, when, under the light Kurridwen, potential couples often disappeared to experiment with their compatibility. Säde cared about none of them, no matter the skill they showed. She would be seeking out Kai at nightfall.
She watched the men of the competition anyway, knowing any one of them could likely end up as the king by her aunt’s side. Her side, if something happened. Linnea seemed sure that something would be soon—that night even—yet Säde saw nothing amiss. She recognized every face there, by sight if not by name, and no one was acting suspicious. No shuffling feet, no heavy cloaks in the summer heat, no extra weapons, no shifting eyes.
Säde probably should’ve mentioned something to Enni so her guard was aware of the queen’s worry, but, even with Linnea’s demand for no one to know, Säde didn’t see the point. There was no threat. She was truly beginning to believe her aunt paranoid.
The men finished with raucous cheers and gentle clapping from the women watching. Säde joined in a moment too late, her thoughts still crowding her mind, despite her attempts to concentrate. She needed to focus, she would be competing against the others shortly. And while she had no interest in winning a suitor, she did need to make a show as the new heir.
Säde reached into her core, letting coils of magic soothe her mind, a soft smile growing on her lips as the grass awakened beneath her feet, spiraling around her feet in a woven sandal. She let out a deep exhale. Using her earth magic quieted her thoughts and allowed her to focus on the task at hand.
She stepped into the ring amongst the others, glad the show of magic was first. It would center her and display the strongest weapon in her arsenal before she was forced to fumble with a sword and bow.
Their magical specialties varied. Elemental powers, like her own, physical magic, mental, even conjuration. The test for each were different, but generalized, a challenge anyone within their field could achieve in some way.
A woman with flames licking her fingertips stepped up to battle an onslaught of blades when a shout arose from the castle. Ice clawed at Säde’s heart as she whirled, breath rushing out at the sight of smoke.
She rushed out of the training yard, tearing across the ground, skirts in hand, Enni a shadow at her back. The earth spurred her forward and her hair whipped behind her. She nearly knocked the festival-goers out of her way, desperately shouting at them to move. They gathered in the courtyard, magics joining to dose the fire spreading up one of the trees. A firebreather laid on the ground, unconscious, his face ashen.
Säde’s brow creased, a shadow flashing over her peripheral. She spun, yet nothing was there. Her heart skipped. Something more was happening. Maybe her aunt’s fear was getting to her, but her instincts screamed distraction.
Skirting the crowd and dying fire, she rushed into the ballroom, searching for some sign of the queen. She had to show her face at the festival periodically, yet Säde found no luck in the ballroom or gardens.
Stomach churning, she tore through the hallways, up the many stairs to the queen’s apartments, breath heavy. Relief dripped through her at the sight of the guards standing soberly at the queen’s door.
“Is the queen in?” Säde asked between calming breaths.
The guard closer to her cocked his head, his eyes narrowing. He shook his head. “I’m sorry, Lady Keir, but no. Is something amiss?”
Her eyes hit the floor as she chewed on the inside of her lip. Where was her aunt? Had she somehow missed her in the crowd?
“No, just an accident with one of the performers. I wanted to make sure she was aware.”
Paranoid. Her aunt’s worry had gotten to her, without a doubt. The guards exchanged a glance, and the other stepped forward.
“I will provide any assistance needed, my lady.”
Säde gave her thanks, leading him back down the halls and into the courtyard. The queensguard hastened into the thick of the mess, but Säde stepped back, assessing the damage. The tree was the worst of it, a charred, jagged thing, but they had stopped it before it dissolved. Yet still she saw no sign of Linnea’s strawberry-blonde head bobbing along the height of the crowd.
Another scream rent the day in two. Säde whirled, eyes wide, terror clutching her in its iron grip. Her feet moved before she could think. This scream was different from the last. It wasn’t a shout of shock and surprise. This was a cry of heart-deep terror.
The sky darkened above her, and Säde nearly tripped over a stall trying to look up. Confusion wrinkled her brow. Sunset was still hours away and it was not cloud that hung the sky with rain. Shadows shot tendrils across the blue, slowly engulfing the sun.
She made it to the edge of the garden when she froze with the rest, heart skipping at the sight in the distance.
There on the hill, shadows spiraling around their feet, were thirteen figures embodying darkness itself. Their clothes were all black, their faces covered in masks and hoods, even their weapons gleamed ebony against the inky dark.
Horror bound her chest as her mouth gaped open. She should’ve believed her aunt. She should’ve taken Linnea’s worry seriously. They were here.
The Soturit of Bassur. Warriors of Death. Sons of Tursadh. They had many names, but it didn’t matter what one called them. They were death, destruction, and darkness.
They didn’t move, and neither did the crowd her. A silent standoff. The center warrior, riding a massive black stallion, stepped forward, and the air around her shimmered with the summoning of magic. Thorny vines coiled around her, weaving around her fists in sharp gloves.
“Send us your queen.” His voice was strangely amplified, pounding across Säde’s skull. Several around her winced, clutching their heads. “And you need not die with her.”
Murmurs flashed through the crowd in dismay. None of them talked of giving up her aunt, but no one knew what to do against the threat of death. Säde pushed through them as the wind picked up. She was a wild bright spot in the growing dark, white and red and green.
Säde’s voice was low, but strong, carrying across the space between. The center figure didn’t flinch.
“So be it. You have a half hour, should she be brave enough to meet her end.”
Säde whirled to find her aunt beside her, eyes burning. The crowd around them sunk to their knees, eyes wide with worry. Säde shoved her aunt’s shoulder, forcing her to face her.
“Absolutely not!” she nearly growled. “We can’t give in to these demands. This is ridiculous!”
“It’s the only way to keep everyone safe. They will go when I have died.” She made to step forward, but Säde tightened her grip.
“And what about me? I’m your heir. They’ll come after me next.” Säde shook her head. “No. They don’t get what they want. They can’t.”
Linnea looked to her niece’s hand and Säde quickly dropped it to her side, remembering who she was talking to. A frown twisted the queen’s lips. “Fine. Ready the others. We’ll have a battle on our hands soon.”
With that, Linnea swept away, the crowd rising as she passed. Säde’s gaze lingered on her, not quite trusting her aunt’s easy submission.
“You heard the queen,” Säde said. She’d worry about her aunt later. “Get battle ready. The training yard has weapons and armor if you brought none. Go!”
The group gathered gave out a battle-cry, dispersing in all directions. Säde called after them.
“Spread the word!”
Säde rushed off to her room, excited to rid herself of the pure nonsense of an outfit. She plucked off the flower crown as she raced up the stairs, tossing it onto her bed when she reached her room, Enni shutting the door after her, the large woman blocking anyone’s chance of finding Säde vulnerable. Säde stripped off the plain white shift, letting it drop to the floor, tying her red hair into a braid as she stalked to her wardrobe. It was at her mother’s insistence that she packed her armor, and she sent a silent thank you by the way of Coilletsa, the Keir patron goddess of the forest.
She threw on a tunic and a pair of breeches, strapping on her leather vest, braces, and thigh guards before lacing up her well-worn boots. Säde fastened her weapons belt around her hips, sheathing twin daggers at her side. She found pins to wind up her braid into a bun, unwilling to give anyone an extra grip, finishing it with two spikes.
Säde exhaled, mouth pressed thin. She was ready.
She bolted down the stairs, Enni quick behind when the shadows engulfed the castle in a tangible darkness that threatened to suffocate. Säde coughed, stumbling, nearly falling the rest of the way down. No. They had time yet.
Sleeve over her mouth, she put a hand to the wall, tracing her way back outside. Someone shot beams of light through the dark, illuminating the world for a few brief seconds. It wasn’t enough. The balance tipped, and the light died.
This wasn’t right, casting them in darkness on the sun goddess’s day of celebration. Sulaiva, she prayed. She muttered the goddess’s name. Others took it up after hearing her, and it became a chant, a desperate plea to rid them of this all-consuming darkness.
The world brightened, but not fully, rays of light and slinking shadows seemed to be at a play of push and pull. It was enough. Through a haze of grey, they could see again.
Just in time to watch Linnea cross in front of the Soturit, fists trembling at her sides. Säde bolted forward, arm outstretched, shooting her magic through the earth.
The vines wrapped around the queen to pull her back, to guard her. Too late. A bolt of shadow shot through her chest. Time slowed. Säde’s mouth fell as her aunt arced through the air, her hands glowing bright as she attempted one last spell.
The queen’s body crashed to the ground, just as a tidal wave broke over the riders, sweeping the unexpected Soturit towards the growing wall of battle-ready clan members. Bodies and weapons crashed with a snarl, water rushing over their ankles, magic ringing through the air as people threw up wards and summoned the elements.
Säde rushed into the fray with a horrendous wail. Her aunt had done it anyway. She ducked an incoming fist, slashing blindly with her dagger. The queen had sacrificed herself for no reason. The dagger only connected with air. The Soturit had broken their word.
She wove a thorny shield, just in time to catch an arrow before it struck her hip. Säde let the shield drop, her second dagger singing from its sheath just as a body dropped beside her. Not a Soturit.
She refused to look at the face. Baring her teeth, she swung at the black-clad being that had dropped her clansmen. It stopped her with a flick of a gloved hand, her blades hitting solid air. Its masked nostrils flared.
“Heir,” it hissed.
It grabbed her before she could blink. Her body was in a vice grip as she was dragged backwards through the killing field. She thrashed against it, desperately summoning her earth magic. Vines shot from the ground to wrap around its ankles, forcing it to stumble and release her.
Säde sprung back, earth shifting between the thing’s feet, more vines spiraling forth, entangling it in a web. With a flick of her wrist, it was pinned to the ground and she raised her right dagger over its heart. She hoped it had a heart.
Säde was too focused on the Soturit in front of her, she didn’t notice the one behind her until pain flashed white-hot across her lower back. Säde dropped to the damp ground, breath rushing out of her as her knees slammed into the ground. She struggled to stay upright, to keep her daggers in her hands.
She slashed recklessly at black legs. This wasn’t how it ended. It couldn’t be. Säde screamed as she was yanked upright by her hair, her knees wobbling.
Kai. Her mind filled with distant hope. But where was Enni. Why wasn’t Enni guarding her back?
It didn’t matter, Kai was here. He could help.
“You said… You promised… You can’t!”
His words made no sense. She whimpered as the thing behind her leaned close, growling in her ear.
“The monarchy must die.”
Darkness lunged into her vision as she curved like a bow, pierced by a shadow blade. Her mouth gaped, her mind numb. Her whole body seized. Tears welled, and she dropped into the waiting arms of darkness.
Not darkness. Kai.
She blinked blearily, trying to bring his face into focus as her body went cold. Her magic acted on its own, grass growing around her, around them, trying to stopper the flow of blood from her gaping chest. Her mouth opened. She could only gurgle, blood trickling out the side of her mouth.
“Don’t,” he said, his voice broken. “Säde, stay with me.”
Kai’s black masked face was the last thing she saw, his storm eyes holding her until the world faded to black.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Upcoming fantasy author, new mom, D&D addict, Gemini, Slytherclaw, lover of raw dough, wants to be your friend. 💗