Authors: R. J. Blain
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy
by RJ Blain
Copyright © 2015 by RJ Blain
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher or author
excluding the use of brief quotations in a book review.
For more information or to contact the publisher, please visit penandpage.ca or rjblain.com
Original cover art copyright © 2014 by Chris Howard
Kalen fumbled with his cloak pin, hissing when he jabbed its tip into his shoulder. The pain from the wound—and the four others like it—spread up his neck, throbbing with his heartbeat. Muttering curses, he pulled it out. Holding the brooch between his teeth, he adjusted his cloak over his shoulders once again.
Without his sight, it took him far too long to secure the heavy wool into place. At least when he finished—if he finished—no one would notice how many times he had punctured himself.
Kalen seized the pin and tried again, muttering curses at his traitorous sight.
In the two weeks following his escape from Morinvale, his eyes hadn’t healed at all, refusing to acknowledge the world around him. His anger roused, but he shoved it back, drawing deep breaths until he could control himself. If the healers couldn’t cure his blindness, leaving it to a matter of time and luck, he couldn’t do anything about it either. Blaming them wouldn’t change anything, so he didn’t. He endured, silent more often than not—except when Breton was around.
Kalen tightened his grip on the sigil of the winged serpent, grumbling his frustration. He didn’t need Breton reminding him that he was as good as dead as a blind cripple. He knew it, and so did everyone else. Focusing his attention on his task, he tried to drive the thoughts of his Guardian away.
It was only a matter of time before those seeking his rank would come and take it, and his life as a result. The impenetrable darkness was an incessant reminder of that fact.
If he still had his vision, he would’ve been able to manage the once-simple task of securing his cloak. Kalen stabbed at the wool again, the pin scraping across his finger. He jammed his thumb against the tip until it caught in the clasp. Holding his breath, he gave the brooch and cloak a tug.
It held. With a triumphant huff, he leaned over and patted at the canvas-covered ground until he found one of his boots. Snagging a lace, he pulled it out from under the cot. He ran his fingers along the sole of the boot and furrowed his brow trying to identify which foot it belonged to.
“Your right,” Maiten said.
Kalen sucked in a breath and jerked his head up. Somewhere beyond his tent, he heard the murmurs of people in the camp, sounds he had ignored as unimportant in their normality. He hadn’t heard the eerily quiet Guardian enter.
“Maiten,” he replied when he managed to swallow the lump in his throat.
“Breton’s going to tan your hide if he finds out what you’re up to,” his Guardian said. A foot scuffed against the canvas floor of the tent.
“I know.” Kalen shrugged before shoving his foot into his boot. Frustration simmered in his chest, tightened in his throat, and threatened to explode out of him. Swallowing again, he drew a long and deep breath. “He can rot in the deeps for all I care.”
It was a lie. He would care, but couldn’t bring himself to admit that fact. Ducking his head down, he snagged the tongue of the boot and jerked it up with enough force that the leather stretched. In the back of his head, the cold of the First’s presence intensified. There was a murmur in his thoughts from the creature, but it reminded him of the mumbling of someone still caught in the throes of sleep.
“He’ll thrash the life out of me if he finds out I helped you, so we’ll just keep this our little secret. Hand off, foal. I’ve got your other boot, and I don’t feel like waiting for you to tie them on your own.”
Kalen snorted but dropped his hand from his boot and straightened. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
It was difficult, but Kalen forced himself to sit still. He shoved his left foot into his boot when his Guardian tapped on his ankle.
After a long moment of silence, Maiten said, “I think I’ll go on a walk through the forest. Check on the horses, you know. It’s a nice, warm night. Might be a pleasant change from wandering around the camp bored out of my wits.”
Relief kept Kalen quiet. With a few tugs, Maiten tightened the laces of his boots. After several moments of silence, Kalen felt fingers brush against his shoulder and neck where he’d poked himself with his sigil.
“Why am I not surprised?” Maiten tugged on Kalen’s cloak, and Kalen quivered with the desire to bat the man’s hand away. “There. That should hold now. I thought you’d like to know the others are all asleep.”
“Good,” he muttered.
“Temper, temper. Come on, who do you think I am? I’m no fool to think it’s safe or wise to keep you penned up. Fresh air’ll do you more good than fussing will. I remember what happened last time they tried this. They’re lucky my patience frayed before Ferethian’s. Yours already has.”
The weight of guilt settled over Kalen’s shoulders. “You heard about it?”
“I’m certain the entire camp heard, Your Majesty. Your voice is quite deep when you’re angry. I can’t say Breton didn’t deserve it. Once he cools off, he’ll be fine. It’s been the first time in two weeks you’ve been energetic enough to pick a fight with anyone, and I for one am relieved.”
Kalen huffed. “He won’t be satisfied until he proves that I’m as inept as he thinks I am.”
“Let’s talk about this away from the ears of our most curious host,” Maiten replied. The familiar weight of Gorishitorik settled around Kalen’s hips. “There. Can’t forget that, now can we?”
Once again, the sense of uselessness threatened to smother Kalen. Standing woke bone-deep aches. Maiten’s hand was warm on his back, and he swallowed back what was left of his pride, allowing his Guardian to guide him through the relentless darkness.
“How are Ferethian and Honey?” he asked in a whisper.
Maiten grunted. “No matter what your fool of a father says, they’ve only eyes for you. Your sire’s no better. Hellfires, colt, you’re bound to the two most stubborn men alive. If you think your quarrel with Breton is bad, you should have heard His Most Senior Guardianness go after Lord Delrose.”
Kalen frowned at the thought of Breton and his sire fighting. The First stirred within him again, and the creature’s sleepy amusement washed away his frustrations and left him feeling empty, worn, and tired.
“They should both chew rocks,” he muttered before sighing.
Maiten clapped him on the back. “You’re a good foal.”
“I’m not a foal anymore,” Kalen replied, twisting around to scowl at where he thought his Guardian stood. “I outrank you, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“No, you’re not a little foal anymore, but it’s fun watching you put your ears back and snap your teeth,” Maiten replied with laughter in his voice. “I might remember you outrank me later, if it becomes important.”
“There is a special place in the deeps for you, Maiten. I hope you know that.”
When his Guardian pulled him into an embrace, Kalen was too surprised to pull away. In a quiet voice, Maiten said, “It’s good you’re doing better.”
Drawing a deep breath through clenched teeth, Kalen remained silent until he could speak without snapping. No matter how frustrated he was, he didn’t dare lash out against Maiten, not when the red-haired Guardian was his only support. But at the same time, he couldn’t let it go—not entirely. “Don’t you start acting like I’m delicate.”
“If I thought you were fragile and sickly, you’d be in your tent still hunting for your other boot. Breton stashed it out of reach.”
Kalen balled his hand into a fist. “That thrice-blasted fool.”
“You can bite his head off later about it. Come on, let’s go visit the horses. Don’t stay mad at Breton for too long. You’re the only foal he’s got, and he can’t sire any of his own. He’s worried about you.”
Heat washed over Kalen’s face. The truth of it stung worse than a slap. He wanted to believe Breton’s worry was for
, but Kalen was too aware of the other reason his Guardians all treated him like he was on the verge of death. Another time, or in the Rift, he wouldn’t have had the courage to speak. “He’s worried about having to take my place,” he said, impressed he was able to keep the weariness out of his voice.
At his side, he heard Maiten draw a sharp breath. “You knew.”
Kalen’s laugh was bitter. “Of course I knew. How could I not? He was Arik’s original choice, after all. I was young, not stupid.”
He hadn’t been blind then, however. Frustration welled up within him again. “It’s only a matter of time before one of you turn on me. I’m a lot of firsts, aren’t I? The first outsider, and now the first one to be blind.”
Maiten’s hand left his back. Moments later, the man ruffled his hair. Kalen ducked his head away.
“I shouldn’t be surprised,” his Guardian said, pushing Kalen forward again. “You were always good at seeing things we wished you wouldn’t.”
“Normally, I’d say I’m not blind,” Kalen replied. He shook his head and let out a low, rueful laugh. If he didn’t laugh, he’d cry. “I’m no fool.”
“You’re no Arik, either. I think Breton has forgotten that. Careful with your steps, we’re heading into the trees. How’d you know it was night, anyway? You couldn’t have timed your escape better.”
Kalen laughed, and it surprised him that he didn’t have to force it out. “Luck of the Rift. I was bored. I never thought the day would come when I would long for my study and extra work.”
“You never were one to laze when you could be doing something.”
A whinny broke the quiet and he felt as much as heard the thud of hooves on the ground. Maiten’s hand pressed against the middle of his back moments before a blow to his chest knocked the breath from his lungs. The warm breath of a horse blew over Kalen’s face and a soft muzzle pressed against his throat.
His breath hitched. Kalen lifted his hand to pat Ferethian’s arched neck. Another horse bumped against him from the side, and he leaned against Honey’s taller shoulder. With a few tentative touches, he realized his mare was saddled, though she wore a halter with reins clipped to it instead of her normal bridle. Maiten must have saddled her before coming to fetch him.
Honey lipped at his ear in her inquisitive yet gentle way.
“See? I told you they missed you,” Maiten said, letting him go. “Move it, you two! Let the man sit before you slobber all over him.”
Honey backed away at Maiten’s demand, but Ferethian pressed closer. Kalen grinned, tangling his fingers in his stallion’s mane.
“I hope you don’t mind a log for your throne, Your Majesty,” Maiten said with a merry laugh. Kalen huffed, masked a grin, and allowed his Guardian to guide him forward.
“Better take Gorishitorik or I’ll gut myself with its hilt,” Kalen replied. With his sight, he would’ve adjusted the weapon without issue. The inability to sit with his weapon gnawed at him. In that, Breton had been right. While Kalen had been limited before without his left arm, his blindness left him helpless.
Maiten took his sword.
Letting go of Ferethian, he fumbled for the log and sat. The felled tree’s bark was rough through his trousers. Once he settled on his makeshift chair, his horses shoved their noses against him.
The frustration and anger that boiled within him flowed away and left him quivering. He leaned against Honey, her warmth lulling him.
“I’ll take you back at sunrise so they’re none the wiser for our little adventure,” Maiten said in a low tone.
“Thank you,” he replied. He heard the crunch of feet over the ground. “Hey, Maiten?”
The footsteps stopped. “What?”
“What haven’t you lot been telling me? Enough with the secrets.”
Kalen almost smiled at the reluctance in Maiten’s shuffled stride. The log shifted and creaked.
Maiten groaned and then replied, “Hellfires, I’m tired. What do you want to know?”
“Everything. Start with the mercenaries.”
“There’s not a lot I can tell you about them, Kalen. They’re good. Disciplined. Ready to march. I don’t know what they’re waiting for. Even the recruits aren’t saying a word. All I can tell you is that they like Captain Silvereye and they’re a serious bunch.”
“And the Danarites?”
“It’s a deadlock. They haven’t budged. Morinvale is quiet, too. If I hadn’t seen that army march in, I’d believe the place was empty. Silvereye won’t let anyone scout it, either; says it’s Kelsh’s problem. He’s about as neutral as we are.”
“So he’s doing what his hire says and nothing else,” Kalen murmured. He tried to figure out how all of the pieces fell together, but without being able to write down any notes, he couldn’t make sense of it. Why would Silvereye wait and do nothing? “How many are in the Crimson Eye?”
“Four or five hundred? He’s sly, Your Majesty. He’s worked hard to ensure we don’t know for certain.”
Kalen scratched his forehead before once again stroking his horses. “Of course. Any idea who hired him?”
“Not the Delrose family, that much I know. Your sire—stop glaring at me like that, Your Majesty—well, he wants to march right back to Elenrune, taking you with him. Silvereye isn’t having any of it.”
Maiten’s words didn’t stop Kalen from scowling, but he did jerk his head to face the other direction. One of his horses bumped against his chest. He lifted his hand and felt his mare’s soft muzzle, which was larger than Ferethian’s. Honey lipped at his fingers. “What is Silvereye planning to do with them?”