Free stuff: Preview from Echo of the High Kings, part 2

And, to continue sections from Echo of the High Kings, here we have a brief piece with Katarina, daughter to Duke Peter of the Duchy of Masov.  This section comes a year after the events of the first preview section.

Katarina moved with quiet feet down the dusty passage.   She hiked up her dress as much as she could, even as she worried that the hem would catch the dust and suggest that she hadn’t spent the afternoon at her studies.

Not my fault that the scholar fell asleep, she thought, though she felt a twinge of remorse that she’d eluded her newly assigned Armsman.  Then again, as rare as free time had become, she felt far better for the opportunity to explore the hidden passages below the castle… and for the opportunity to slip into the nursery and apologize to her little brother.

As if on cue, she came to the intersection of the hidden passages.  One way led deeper into the maze of corridors and the other led up to a door that opened into the nursery.  “Best to talk to my brother, first,” Katarina muttered to herself.  She gave a slight sigh, though, before she started up the corridor.

She hadn’t meant to hurt his feelings.  She knew that, for some reason, he looked upon her with some envy.  As the eldest, she had some privileges that he must think marvelous.  In truth, however, she envied him.  At eight, he had already been introduced into the martial chamber.  The Master of Arms had already begun his training and as a boy, he would train every day until combat became something of reflex and muscle memory.  He had already begun to learn sufficient runic magic to operate various relics and weapons of the Ducal House.

As a girl, even a nobly born girl of thirteen years, the Duke allowed her only the basic arts of self defense and studies of runic magic sufficient to operate only the most basic runic items.  I’m the heir, but I’m still only a female, and little Peter doesn’t realize how much I envy him.

That still didn’t excuse her mistreatment of him earlier in the day.  She’d no cause for her words, despite her frustration.  She dearly loved her little brother, and her recent movement from the nursery had only made her realize how much.  Her father, always so distant, spoke with her only in passing.  Her mother had seemed to withdraw into herself even more after her old armsman was sent away… and had ceased to take any visitors not long after Katarina moved into the woman’s quarters of the castle.

Little Peter was the only one who cared for her and she knew that her angry words had hurt him more than his childish petulance deserved.  So Katarina would make it right.

She reached the hidden door and paused a moment to listen.  This one opened into the small storage room at the end of the corridor, she knew.  Katarina had discovered it first, when she’d needed some place to hide from her tutors.  Her explorations had led her deep beneath Castle Emberhill in the five years since.

She paused as she heard what sounded like a muffled cry.  Katarina frowned, and her fingers dropped to the two wands tucked inside her dress skirts.  Technically, they were her mother’s, but Katarina had learned to use the two wands last year, and her mother had never realized that Katarina had kept them rather than putting them back.

She’d practiced with them too, though she’d had to find a quiet spot out in the countryside to do so, and timed it with thunderstorms so that it didn’t attract attention.  Well, other than the time I missed, she thought sheepishly, and it’s not like the entire forest would have burned down.

She shook her head and pushed the concealed door open.  Whatever the noise she’d heard, she didn’t hear anything else.  She set her lantern to the side and moved through the small storage room.  She paused again at the heavy wooden door.  She opened it just a bit, and then froze when she saw movement.

Her fear at discovery turned to something else as she felt the blood freeze in her veins.  A tall man stood with drawn blade just down the corridor, his back to her.  At his feet lay Maran, the old nurse who had changed her diapers and brought her her meals.  Her mouth and eyes were wide and she lay still in death, her face twisted into an experssion of pain.  The broad spill of bright red blood and the red stains across her simple dress made it clear how she’d died.

Two of her father’s armsmen lay further down the corridor.  Katarina bit into her knuckle to hold back a shriek when she saw several more armed men.  All of them wore strange scale armor, and the cut of their clothes seemed odd to her, as did their golden skin and strangely curved blades.

And then she saw one of the men step out of the open door to her brother’s room.  He grunted something in an odd language even as he wiped blood from his sword with what looked like a stained boy’s tunic.

The cold ice in her blood flashed into white hot heat in a heartbeat.  Her light thirteen year old body could not have kicked the heavy wooden door hard enough to knock down the warrior beyond.  Yet a moment later she stood over his prone body and leveled her wand with a scream.

A wave of fire and destruction swept down the narrow corridor.  For a moment, the image lay seared into her brain, burned into the back of her eyelids as her brother’s murderers burned to ash.

The moment passed and Katarina blinked away tears as her eyes tried to adjust.

She felt an iron-hard hand clamp around her mouth.  Her hand went to her second wand, but her attacker’s other hand grasped it and held her still.  The man I knocked down, he must have captured me, she thought.  Still, she struggled, she would not let this assassin kill her, not without a fight.

“Hold still, damn you, girl,” a gravelly voice spoke.  “I’m not one of them, I’m here to help!”  The voice teased at her memory, until she recognized it as her new armsman.  She hadn’t heard Bulmor speak more than twice in the past week, but it sounded like him.

She froze and when she ceased to fight, the hands pulled her back into the storage room.  The hand over her mouth let go long enough to pull the door closed.

“What’s happening?  Is… Is my brother dead?” Katarina asked.  She hated how her voice broke, yet in her mind she saw Peter still and cold in a pool of blood like poor old Maran.

“I think so, lass,” Bulmor grated.  He released her and she turned to face him.  “Those were Vendakar, probably paid mercenaries.”  His face, when she looked at him in the small dark room, looked to have been carved of stone.  “Do you know a passage that leads out?”  He took up her lantern in one hand.

“Yes…” Katarina frowned.  “Shouldn’t we head up, though?  Find my father… my mother!”  She turned back towards the door, ready to run to warn her mother, but his iron strong hands locked on her shoulders.  “Let me go!  I have to warn them!”

“Stop and think, lass- my Lady, I beg you, think!” For a moment his voice broke from the gravel strength and some raw emotion leaked through.  Katarina realized then that Bulmor feared for her.  All of a week on the job, and her new armsman already viewed her survival as essential.

That realization bored through her and forced her to stop and consider.  The nursery lay at the center of the keep itself.  It was the most heavily defended area and any attackers would have to fight their way through the other living areas to get here first.  Any warriors who had arrived here must have already fought through her father’s armsmen…

“No…”  Katarina froze.  “That can’t be, it’s not possible.”

“My lady, until we know more, we have to assume they’ve already overrun the entire castle.  We must leave.  You seem to know these passages… how do we exit?”

Katarina felt an icy hand clench on her heart.  Her brother was dead… and her last words to him had been cruel and childish.  Her parents were dead… everyone she had ever known, Erik, her father’s armsman, Tomus, her mother’s armsman… had the old scholar Mattews been murdered as well?  Had they killed him as he dozed in the library, surrounded by his old scrolls?

Why had they died… and why did she still live?

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