Welcome to Embers of Alour-Tan release day! The first Release Day Tidbit is the full and complete text of Chapter One!
At least it’s a nice day, Alexis mused, gazing up into the clear blue beyond the Āzamvult’s leafy canopy. The last time she made the journey to Olkelban, she had traveled in the company of several thousand of her comrades-in-arms. King Jabian’s footmen, warhorses, and battle wagons had all clattered and clamored around her. Banners and standards of noble houses had waved, overlapping martial chants had vied for dominance, and marching songs had carried along the length of the company. In a mere two weeks, the army had made the three hundred fifty mile journey to Olkelban. It arrived as a heroic relief force to save the beleaguered city. Then it died.
Compared to that cacophonous ensemble, Alexis and her warhorse Kiya made no sound at all. Though his hooves were as wide across as Alexis’s splayed hand, she registered their heavy, rhythmic clop-clop along the packed dirt road no more than she did her own heartbeat. She reached out and patted the horse’s neck and he leaned into her touch. She had spent most of this journey walking beside him rather than saddled on his back. The Buline warhorse would bear her the whole way without complaint or fatigue if she asked, but Kiya wasn’t her beast of burden; he was her partner. Though she yearned to claim the reward King Jabian had promised to her, she was in no hurry to carry out the baleful duty it required. She would reach Olkelban soon enough.
A splintering crack ripped through the forest’s amiable background chatter. Adrenaline jolted through Alexis, stiffening her limbs for an instant before they relaxed into loose combat readiness. Kiya gave a brief snort of protest and halted. A great tree crashed down out of the thick woods and slammed into the road a scant fifty feet in front of her, blocking their path. Her hand went to the pommel of the sword sheathed at her hip, but she didn’t draw. Not yet.
“Well, well,” a mocking male voice called out. She tried to localize it, but it echoed off of every tree trunk and reflected back from the canopy. “Look what we have here. Must be our lucky day, ha boys?”
Two men materialized from the forest as though spawned by the foliage itself, one on either side of the road near the fallen tree. She took stock of them while her surprise dissipated, ingrained training overriding fight-or-flight instinct. Hooded cloaks, far too warm for a day like today, concealed their faces. Each man wielded a short sword and wore a dagger belted at his waist. The weapons bore signs of age and hard use, but had sharpened edges and lethal-looking points. Based on the way the men moved, they wore no appreciable armor.
“We can go about this one of two ways,” the voice continued. It belonged to neither of the two men in front of her. “If you like, you can hand us over all the lovely things you’re carrying that are fit to make us richer men. If not, we can take all of those just the same and leave what’s left of you for the vultures.”
Common travelers might have been startled out of their wits by the falling tree and the sudden appearance of the bandits, or intimidated by the cocky certitude of the speaker’s voice. Alexis fought back a grin and managed to keep a stern face. “Do these two do everything for you?” she asked of the unrevealed speaker. “Intimidate women on the road, cut your food, maybe even help you piss?”
The speaker appeared, leaping down from a branch that had concealed him in its leafy cover, and landed with the lightness of an acrobat on the fallen tree. This bandit had a more rakish and theatrical air than his companions, and instead of a heavy cloak wore a pointed goatee and a ragged jacket that might once have been finery. Alexis noted a dagger at each hip, but he carried no short sword.
The bandit leader threw back his head and chortled. “Big words for someone out here all alone. You’re not making me think too kindly of letting you go the easy way.”
Alexis scoffed. “If you want to make a deal, here’s mine: slink back into the forest and I’ll pretend this conversation never happened. I’ll ignore that you slowed down my journey, got in the way of my business, and generally disrupted what was otherwise a pleasant day. Do all of this and you live to harass the next wanderer.”
The leader sized her up, taking long enough that the gaze became more leer than assessment. Alexis bristled and hardened her glare, but said nothing. Once his eyes reached her face, he threw back his head and chortled again in an exact echo of his earlier mirth. “You’ve got nerve, lass, I’ll give you that. But nerve and daddy’s sword won’t do you very much good out here.” The remark about her sword, presented by King Jabian himself when she became a Knight-Commander in his army, sent fire through her chest. She felt her upper lip curl unbidden. The leader didn’t notice—or didn’t care. He swept both arms in a grandiose arc to indicate the surrounding forest. “We aren’t even the worst of what lurks in the Āzamvult.”
“You’re right,” she said, her snarl turning into a sweet, deadly smile. “You’re nothing. You’re a scared little boy that wants to feel in control. Everything in this forest is more fearsome than you. Including me.”
The bandit chortled yet again, but this time he kept his eyes on her. Some of the cocksure swagger went out of him. “And who are you that I should be so afraid?”
A familiar wellspring of pride bubbled up from within, calling forth a mantra one part identity, one part declaration, and one part battle cry. “I am Alexis, daughter of Siobhan by—”
She stopped short. A pang of grief knifed through her and quashed the burgeoning pride. On countless prior occasions, she had invoked her title-by-birthright, though minor in its nobility, to inspire courage in friends and instill fear in foes. Now, against upstart bandits certain to cower before it, the title no longer belonged to her. As one of the few soldiers of King Jabian’s army to have survived the massacre at Olkelban and the most junior of the battlefield commanders, she had been his majesty’s obvious choice to bear the blame as a concession to public outrage over the loss. While political connections protected her superiors, she was but third in the line of succession for her father’s dukedom of Heragon. His majesty’s decision had been easy.
“Daughter of Siobhan, eh?” the bandit grinned, revealing several metallic teeth in varying shades. “Duchess Siobhan of Heragon herself, no less?”
“That’s right,” she said through clenched teeth.
“And here I thought her grace the good duchess was too honorable to ‘get a bastard,” the bandit drawled with glee. “Guess she’s not so much better than the rest of them nobility after all.”
Fire rose up in Alexis’s throat. The accusation of bastardy alone spurred her to demand satisfaction, but to insult her mother in the same breath was more than she could take. Her full title would have put to rest any doubts about her heritage and sent these miscreants scampering back into the woods, but that was gone. She would not allow shame to come to her family’s name because of it.
“Apologize,” she growled.
“Or what?” the bandit chortled, his concern waning. “You’ll draw that pig-sticker of yours and wave it about?” He eyed her sword and Kiya—who hadn’t yet given the bandits so much as a concerned glance—with newfound interest. “Did you steal the pony and the iron from mommy, perchance?”
The sword flashed out of Alexis’s scabbard with a whisper, gleaming in the bright sunlight and sending coruscating reflections out across the ground and foliage. As she drew, Kiya’s attention snapped forward and the warhorse shifted his stance to prepare for action. “You go too far.”
“I could say the same of you, girl,” he said, the laughter gone from his voice and replaced by a lethal edge. “Do her, boys. Keep the horse if you can.”
The other two bandits brought their swords up and closed in on her with caution. Despite the shadows of their hoods, she could see their searching eyes flit between her steel and Kiya’s imposing bulk. Alexis took a measured step toward them, keeping her grip on the sword loose and easy. The pair hesitated. They had orchestrated this theatrical approach to intimidate the travelers they beset. Their quarry wasn’t supposed to respond by engaging them.
The three men, Alexis, and Kiya held their places for a long beat, each waiting for the others to make the first move. Alexis ran through any number of general strategies she might employ, knowing that her muscle memory would see to the specifics when the time came.
The bandit on her left moved first. He strode forward and made no effort to feint, intent instead on stabbing her without flourish. His counterpart followed a half-step later, swinging his sword at the side she would have to expose to parry the first’s attack.
Neither expected her speed. She lunged toward the bandit on the right, ducking the first attacker’s stab. With a twist of her wrist, her blade clacked against the swing meant to exploit a weakness she never exposed and the momentum and weight of her larger, heavier sword swatted away the smaller one.
With Alexis clear, Kiya’s rear hooves slammed into the first man’s head, launching him into the fallen tree trunk with a bone-cracking crunch. The man’s sword clattered out of his hands and he slumped to the ground. The cloak wrapped around his head grew damp.
The leader of the bandits paled, but he hopped down from the fallen tree and drew both of his daggers as he hit the ground. Alexis kept him in her peripheral vision as she righted her grip. The remaining sword-wielder had recovered from the ringing parry and now held his blade in defensive readiness.
“You bi—” the leader sputtered.
Alexis passed her sword from one hand to the other and came at his neck with a slash meant to separate head from body. The man brought up both daggers and caught her blade where they crossed. He shoved it away, leaving her exposed. Seeing his opportunity, the other bandit lunged—in vain. She reversed her sword, taking hold of its long blade, and smashed the heavy pommel into the man’s face before his attack could land. He collapsed to the ground with agonized cries, dropping his weapon as his hands went to the ruins of his nose.
During the chaos, Kiya moved behind the remaining bandit, trapping him between Alexis’s blade and a wall of warhorse that towered over him.
“Should have listened to me when you had the chance,” she taunted.
He said nothing in response this time. Instead, he attacked with both daggers carving quick, deadly patterns into the air. Two weapons gave him more unpredictable avenues for attack, but split his focus and his strength. Also, Alexis’s sword was much bigger.
She swung the pommel toward him like a mace. He realized too late that it wasn’t the blade of a sword he had to parry, but rather a solid chunk of steel. The daggers wouldn’t help him if he couldn’t catch the attack. He tried and failed to dance back out of the way before it hit him. The pommel slammed into his hands and sent one of his daggers flying. He yelped in pain.
She flipped the sword around with practiced ease, catching the bloodied pommel and ignoring the stinging of her own hands from the blade’s edges. The bandit’s face showed a mix of fury, pain, bewilderment, and fear. He had thought her an easy mark, a mere girl walking her horse down the road all alone. Nothing had prepared him to deal with the trained, battle-hardened proficiency of a Jabianite Knight-Commander.
“Big mistake,” she chided. She went at him, each clash of their mismatched weapons sapping more of his strength. He made good account of himself, she had to admit, and for a time parried everything she threw at him. At last, his arms betrayed him and the dagger ripped free of his weakening grasp, sailing into the foliage.
She leveled the sword at him and rested its tip against the hollow of his throat. “Apologize,” she repeated.
His eyes flicked past her and Kiya screamed an alarm. “Now!” he cried, his voice raw with terror and exultation.
Alexis spun away from him, bringing her sword up to meet whatever attack she faced. The man whose nose she’d pulverized had regained his senses enough to recover his weapon. Her blade intercepted his, but he had already closed in. She pushed his blade aside, trying to drive it into a glancing blow across her plate armor—
Plate armor that she no longer owned or wore.
Pain exploded like fire across her ribcage as the short sword slid through her tunic and ripped her flesh, but she had deflected it enough that it didn’t penetrate her ribs and gouge the organs beneath.
She internalized the pain and used it to fuel her retaliation. Holding the man’s blade aside with her sword, she brought her free hand around to punch the pulpy remains of his nose. The blow elicited a howl of agony and he staggered back again. Alexis stalked toward him, her blade held low and her side burning. She felt warm wetness dripping down her flank, but dismissed it. She would deal with it later.
The noseless man cried something unintelligible, though definitely insulting. Her expression cold and hard, Alexis brought the sword up for the killing blow, her side screaming in protest. The man looked up at her, eyes wide as he realized what was about to happen. The sword came down. His body collapsed in a heap and his head rolled away from it.
Alexis spun toward the leader, but Kiya had already dealt with him. The man lay flat on his belly, an arm stretched toward a dagger resting beyond his grasp. Kiya had a hoof fixed square on the man’s back, pinning him to the ground and keeping him immobile. If the warhorse shifted his weight, the man’s spine would crack. His face showed he knew as much, bewildered though he was that Kiya hadn’t already crushed him.
“Apologize,” Alexis repeated, making her way over to the man and kicking his dagger even further out of his reach.
“I’m—” he coughed under Kiya’s weight, “—I’m—sorry!” he managed.
“Good,” she said with a nod. “Then you meet the Watchers with appropriate remorse. May they show as much mercy to you as I have.”
His eyes widened and he started to scream. Her sword slammed down through his skull, pinning his head to the ground. She gave it a hard wrench, then withdrew it. Kiya snorted in distaste, withdrawing his hoof as though he had stepped in something unsanitary.
Alexis cleaned her blade off on the man’s vest and re-sheathed it. She gave a brief thought to collecting the bandit weapons, but contented herself with the coins they had on them and one of the leader’s daggers. She didn’t need to add superfluous weight to her burden or Kiya’s and the meager price the bandit weapons might fetch didn’t justify the effort.
Acute awareness of the pain in her side rose to the forefront of her thoughts as her adrenaline subsided. Keeping her wounded side as still as she could, she reached across to probe the gash. Battle wounds were nothing new, but this one carried a little extra shame with it. She had grown so used to fighting with armor, encased in nigh-invulnerable steel plates, that instincts had overridden her situational awareness. An armored knight would have been right and wise to deflect stabbing blows into glancing slashes that the armor could laugh off. Relying on the tactic when she had nothing but cloth and leather to protect her could have gotten her killed.
She moved to Kiya’s side and rummaged through his saddlebags with her good arm, searching for the needle and gut she kept for emergencies. Once she extracted her supplies, she addressed the horse. “Clear the road while I take care of this, will you?” Even without the rigorous training regimen of a Jabianite warhorse, Bulines like Kiya had mental faculties nearing those of humans. Kiya couldn’t speak her language, but he understood every word she said. After a moment studying her with a mixture of concern and equine aloofness, he shook his head and nickered in agreement.
While Kiya leaned down to grab the dead bandit leader by the fabric of his jacket, Alexis stepped off the main road and into the foliage. Modesty wasn’t high on her list of priorities, but the attack made her cautious. Once she’d moved a few paces into the wood, she set down the medical supplies and peeled off her tunic. Every move elicited a stab of pain and she paused to take steadying breaths after each new twinge. Once free of the garment, she tossed it down beside her spool of gut with a mixture of frustration and triumph.
Her entire left flank glistened red, but the size of the wound and her post-battle sweat made it more dramatic-looking than it was. A shallow gash over her ribs spanned half a hand-width from one end to the other. Every little movement tugged at the tissue, making it hurt more than it had any right to. She’d had worse. Much, much worse.
A memory of fire wrapping around her played out while she threaded her needle and set to work. She focused on the memory, using it to distract her from the pricks of pain caused by the stitching. The duel in Olkelban’s main plaza had resembled no type of warfare she knew, but she had waded in all the same and set her sights on slaying the mad magus Deowyn. Her king had sent her to protect the city and she had intended to carry out that mission to her dying breath—a breath she had come close to drawing.
Deowyn noticed her as the dragon reared back to strike. Before she could react, her feet left the ground and she flew into the path of the dragon’s fiery breath, shielding the magus. The dragonfire would have vaporized her but for her albiz-made armor, which spread and deflected the heat to stave off obliteration. Instead, the armor fused together in the inferno, locking her inside to roast in a metal oven as she crashed to the ground.
The red-haired elf-girl—Buccandralla Āzamlåda—appeared beside her, firing her cannon into the magical duel. None of her attacks reached Deowyn, deflected aside by magic to smash into the ground and surrounding buildings, but she continued to try. The elf knelt down beside Alexis and did something to her armor. The deadly heat dissipated in an instant, as though the metal had been through a forest stream rather than a fury of flame. Alexis still couldn’t move and would later have to be cut out of her ruined armor, but albiz metal-working kept her from roasting alive.
She finished stitching up her side and wiped away as much of the blood as she could. The thought of a cool forest stream sounded exquisite just now. She would make a point to keep her eyes, ears, and nose open for one as she continued up the road. Satisfied with her field sutures, she pulled her bloodied tunic back on, tuning out the pain but taking care not to stretch the new stitches.
Once dressed, she stepped back onto the road. Kiya had disposed of the bodies and stood waiting for her with a bored, expectant gaze. His jaws worked at some bit of foliage he had found to his liking. The only signs of struggle were splashes of blood and paths in the dirt from Kiya dragging the bodies away. Both would fade into obscurity before long, but Alexis didn’t want to take any chances. She covered over the tracks and blood with more dirt, using her feet as makeshift tillers. When she had finished, the collapsed tree alone justified the disturbed path well enough to fool anyone who encountered it.
She frowned at the fallen tree, as thick across as she was tall. “Can you jump that?” she asked the horse.
Kiya stared at her and continued chewing.
“Fine,” she said, holding up a hand in concession. “I’ll meet you on the other side, then.”
She ducked back into the woods and made her way around the tree. Kiya could have made the same trip, but maneuvering in the thick underbrush was easier for her than for him. He preferred the direct route. She emerged from the foliage onto the path, where Kiya stood waiting for her. She hadn’t heard him take a galloping start or make the leap.
“Show off,” she said with a grin.
She stowed the needle and remaining gut back in her saddlebags. Holding her left arm close to her side to keep the stitches from tearing, she swung herself high onto Kiya’s saddle with practiced ease. So much for sparing him the burden of carrying her. He made no protest, nor would he. Once she had settled herself, he resumed their prior pace along the road.
The memory of Olkelban brought her task back to the fore. She had tried not to think about it; doing so left her stomach churning. These three bandits had been little more than a taste of what lay before her, but their taunting and her slip of the tongue had reminded her all too well why she had to carry out the task her king had given her. If she wanted to once again be recognized as a noble of Jabian’s Kingdom, a member of House Heragon, and a true-born daughter of her mother and father, she had no alternative.
To reclaim her identity, she had to kill the hero of Olkelban. She had to kill Finton.