Authors: Matthew Ballard
Echoes Across Time
By Matthew Ballard
All Rights Reserved
© 2013 Matthew Ballard
No part of this book may be reproduced, distributed, transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database retrieval system without the prior written permission of the author. You must not circulate this book in any format. Thank you for respecting the rights of the author.
This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance of characters to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
For my wife, Andrea, who always encourages me to dream
A big thanks goes to Jodi Caron, Hannah Ballard, and Michelle Wade for helping me make this the best book possible.
Ronnell D. Porter
The heavy iron gate separating Ronan from tournament victory rattled upward revealing the sun drenched sands of the arena floor. Raucous cheers erupted from the spectators straining to catch the first glimpse of the competitors. Outside the holding pen’s cramped confines, a hundred thousand rumbling voices shook free bits of dirt and debris from the low hanging ceiling. Dusty particles drifted through the stale humid air and settled into the dark hair of the young prince.
As the first wave of cheering faded, Ronan’s stomach rolled, and beads of sweat coated his hands loosening the grip on his blade and shield. Recalling Master Tyrell’s lessons, he closed his eyes and pulled a deep breath in through his nose.
The crowd noise began again. The cheering started low and intensified, rolling over the coliseum like a horde of locusts feasting on a summer harvest. Ronan’s opponent, Bryson Slater, strode into the arena waving a clenched fist skyward amid chants of “Bryson”. His polished steel helmet gleamed in the crook of his arm as he waved and flashed a smile to the adoring crowd. He strode with confidence across the arena floor, and his pale skin and spiked blond hair glowed like a god under the cloudless afternoon sky.
Ronan trapped air in his lungs until it hurt. As he exhaled, muscle tension drained from his back and shoulders. He kept his chin tucked into his chest and drew the sign of the circle around his heart. “Elan, please see me safe this day.” He lifted his gleaming silver helmet to his head and paused midway. “And, if You give my blade an extra nudge, I promise to keep it secret.” He allowed the whispered prayer to hang in the room’s stagnant air giving Elan a moment to hear.
When he opened his eyes, particles of loose soil drifted through rays of sunlight penetrating the dusty room’s shadowy darkness. He twisted the crowd’s roar in his mind until it carried the intensity of a lazy bumblebee drifting on a summer afternoon breeze. With focused attention, he concentrated on the passage of air through his nose and out his parted lips.
Ronan pushed aside his fears, expectations, and the promise of a home amid the knights he so revered. He focused the entirety of his conscious mind on this singular moment to leave his mark. His hand flexed around the grip of his blade, and he gave his shield strap one last pull tightening it to his arm. At last, he opened his mind, and the world crashed in flying forward at full speed.
He lowered the visor on his helmet, pounded his sword against his shield, and charged out of the holding pen.
Freehold had slow cooked beneath a full month of cloudless summer skies, and the temperatures on the arena floor hit Ronan like a physical blow. His breaths came short and hard, and it took focused concentration to steady himself as he sprinted across the shifting sand.
As he’d done throughout the tournament, he never hesitated. He wanted his rivals to panic. A frightened opponent became easy prey for an aggressor, and he used the tactic to rattle his foes.
At eighteen seasons, Bryson Slater had lived three years longer than Ronan, and he’d used that time transforming himself into a muscled giant of a young man. Eyebrows raised when he’d delayed his graduation a year waiting for a shard to become available. His gamble paid off, and he’d run through his opponents in record time. Freehold’s oddsmakers made him a heavy favorite against Ronan.
A smug smile flickered over Bryson’s face as he lowered his visor and tightened the chain mail gloves around his wrists. Unlike Ronan’s other competitors, Bryson displayed no sign of fear or panic. He readied his sword and shield and waited for Ronan to close the distance.
Ronan pulled up a few yards short. His first strike strategy ended before it began. Bryson had superior size, strength, and experience, and he needed a new plan.
Knights representing the three schools of Elan’s magic stood along the interior edges of the arena acting as tournament judges. Through toil, effort, and sheer determination, each had claimed tournament victory. Only the strongest absorbed Elan’s shard magic and gained the title of knight. They wanted a fair hard fought contest and for both competitors to walk out alive.
Ronan circled Bryson keeping his shield up and his sword poised and ready. He took a defensive stance allowing the bigger man first strike.
Bryson raised his shield, twisted to his side, and flicked his wrist striking downward vertically along the inside of Ronan’s shield. He intended to wrap his blade around the backside of Ronan’s ankle and severe his exposed tendon. Tyrell taught this tactic, called the grass cutter, to third year students at the citadel. Although difficult to land, a successful strike would secure tournament victory and cripple Ronan for months without shard healing. Most students didn’t try the move during a sparring session let alone the championship match of a shard tournament.
Ronan stepped right and forward avoiding the cut and launching into a thrust targeting Bryson’s exposed shoulder.
Bryson moved to parry as Ronan turned his blade horizontally and used his offhand to land a scoring blow on the larger boy’s helmet.
The crowd roared as Bryson staggered backward caught off guard by the change of speed and direction of Ronan’s attack.
A light tingle rippled through Ronan’s chest, and his confidence soared. Unleashing a guttural cry, his adrenaline surged, and he thrust at the opening provided by Bryson’s off-kilter stance.
The citadel’s top student hadn’t earned the title by chance. Bryson spun avoiding the thrust, and Ronan slipped ahead whiffing on empty air leaving his backside exposed. As Bryson spun, he carried his momentum through his arm and into his blade increasing its speed fourfold. The attack caught Ronan square in the center of his back sending him sailing face first toward the loose sand of the arena floor.
Ronan’s armor protected him from the blade’s sharp edge, but the blunt force of impact ignited a surge of pain across his lower back. When he struck the sand, the weight of the fall pushed his breast plate into his chest knocking the wind from his lungs. Hot sand entered his visor sticking to his perspiration soaked face and caking his tongue.
The crowd roared its approval as Ronan sprawled across the arena floor with his sword and shield splayed at awkward angles.
Bryson circled Ronan raising his blade skyward adding fuel to the frenzied roar of the crowd caught in a wave of blood lust.
The palm of a shield knight nearest Ronan glowed blue with readied shield magic as she channeled spirit in preparation for the end of the match. Next to the knight, blue light pulsed from the extended hands of two other shield knights.
Ronan’s heart raced as panic took hold. “No.” His voice came out strained and harsh echoing inside his helmet. The shield knights couldn’t hear him. If Ronan’s life came under threat, they’d stop the match despite his protest. If he saw a spirit shield surround him, the match ended. Bryson’s plate mail boots clanged just inches from his face, and Ronan managed to roll to his side.
The queen stood motionless within the royal box as lines of concern dulled the edges of her flawless complexion. With white knuckles gripping the railing, her gaze locked on her wounded son sprawled on the arena floor.
Sir Alcott Agers, Ronan’s lifelong teacher, sat next to her with his hands cupped around his mouth screaming words lost in the cacophony of a hundred thousand cheering fans. He’d won a healing shard at a tournament decades ago but had long ago traded in his hammer for more scholarly pursuits.
Pain circled Ronan’s rib cage as he twisted to his side. It flashed outward changing to a dull ache as his roll ended beneath Bryson’s dark shadow. Rivulets of sweat streaked the sand and dirt on his face stinging his eyes and blurring his vision. His breathing came in shallow ragged pulls, and he begged for air to fill his depleted lungs.
Bryson paused, and his gaze shifted to the man sitting to the queen’s left, Merric Pride.
Unlike the thousands of spectators around him, Archbishop Merric Pride, Ronan’s spiritual leader and a powerful shield knight in his own right, remained seated. A few months after Ronan’s birth, Pride had christened him in Elan’s First Church and had guided him through the more difficult patches of his youth. He’d served on the queen’s private council with Sir Alcott and Patron Tyrell during Queen Arianne’s reign. Archbishop Pride sat stone-faced and rigid with his gaze locked on Ronan’s competitor as if in expectation.
For the span of two seconds, Bryson stood motionless holding the gaze of the archbishop. Then, with a slow subtle motion, Pride shook his head three times with his expression remaining distant and aloof. Bryson tilted his helmet forward in acknowledgment, and the moment passed. An instant later the archbishop’s expression melted into one of visible concern, and he stood and clapped his hands. He rested a reassuring hand on the queen’s shoulder and leaned into her speaking a few words. But Arianne’s eyes never wavered from her son, and she’d missed the exchange between Bryson and the archbishop.
Ronan’s chest tightened, and his stomach sank. He tried to make sense of the exchange he’d just seen. Caught in this moment of pain and anxiety, could he trust his senses? A logical explanation must exist.
Bryson tightened the grip on his sword and pounded it against his shield. Using his sword, he mocked the prince with an obscene gesture that elicited fresh roars of laughter and approval from the coliseum’s lathered crowd.
Ronan’s mind raced sorting through the events as they unfolded. Why didn’t Bryson just end it? He’d earn admission to the Order and the power granted from the precious shard magic. With a single swing of his sword he could finish off Ronan and claim victory.
As if reading his mind, Bryson raised his sword arm with slow methodical deliberation. As the blade reached its peak a hundred thousand people held their breath awaiting the finishing blow. Bryson released a primal scream and dropped his blade.
Ronan rolled and Bryson’s blade sank into the loose sand of the arena floor an inch from his breastplate.
Without a moment’s hesitation, Ronan gripped Bryson’s ankle and pulled with desperate strength.
The larger boy toppled landing with a thud face first in the sand beside Ronan.
Ronan pushed himself to his feet, tightened the grip on his sword, and knelt before Bryson. He centered his attack on the exposed flesh of Bryson’s lower back and sent his blade downward. The moment before impact, shimmering blue light appeared an inch above Bryson’s body. Ronan’s blade slammed into the shield sending a ripple of bright blue light across the magical barrier. Sparks flew from the blade’s edge, and the force of impact sent a tingle through his hand that continued up his arm into his shoulder. Smoke curled from the molten sword, and Ronan tossed it aside.