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Echo of the High Kings Audiobook, Rerelease, and Giveaway

Good morning everyone.  I’m happy to say that progress on the Echo of the High Kings audio book is well underway.  To celebrate the audiobook release, I’m having a new cover produced for the paperback and ebook versions and running something of a contest and giveaway as well as a book bomb.

The book bomb will be timed to coincide with (roughly) the day of the audiobook release on Audible and (hopefully) Amazon.  Since there’s a delay of 3-7 days from when the audiobook is approved to when it goes live, I’m going to arbitrarily set a day now for a book bomb.  That will be the 11th of October.

On to the part that people get excited about: giving stuff away.  I’m going to do a contest as part of the book bomb.  For all reviews written on Echo of the High Kings to verified purchasers, I’ll do an entry into a drawing.  On the 15th of November, I’ll post the winners on my blog, they can then contact me afterward.  Now, for first place, I’m giving away a signed paperback copy of Echo of the High Kings (currently a $28 value).  For second place, I’m giving away an audiobook code (winner’s choice) good for either The Fallen Race or Echo of the High Kings.  Third place, you don’t get a book, but you do get put in a book as a character… no guarantees about survival, of course.  This is a random drawing, so the reviews, good or bad, that win will be the winner, also if there’s no way to identify the particular winner, (IE, no name posted with the review or no one steps forward), I’ll draw for a new winner.  Also, while the book bomb is on the 11th, I’ve no way to tell when a particular reviewer actually bought the book, so I’ll draw from all reviews posted until the 15th of November.   For those of you who take a bit longer, that’s 2 months to do some reading and write up a review.

Echo of the High Kings

Thanks everyone for reading and enjoy!

 

Echo of the High Kings First Sample

This section is the opening scene in Echo of the High Kings.  Echo of the High Kings will be released on 1 August 2014.

 

Lady Katarina Emberhill

Castle Emberhill (Ducal Seat) Duchy of Masov

Twenty Seventh of Idran, Cycle 993 Post Sundering

 

Katarina ducked under the swing of her opponent and swung wildly in return. Her hit connected with his shield, but he grabbed her arm, lifted, and threw her flat on her back to the cold, muddy ground of the stable yard. Katarina felt the air woosh out of her lungs and for a moment, stars danced before her eyes. She caught her breath with a gasp and scowled up at Jarek, “You cheated.”

He smiled down at her, his brown eyes merry. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you wanted me to train you the prim and proper methods of fighting. It’s not like you’re going to duel someone.”

Katarina groaned and sat up. She felt the chill mud of the stable yard through her leather riding clothes and as she ran a hand through her raven black hair, she realized that she had more there… in addition to the sweat from the past hour of impromptu ‘training’ from Jarek.

Jarek looked behind her and his face went pale. Katarina saw him snap to attention, his wooden practice sword discarded, “My lord.”

Katarina felt her heart drop. She stood as quickly as she could manage and turned. As she’d feared, Lord Peter, Duke of Masov, sat on his horse at the stable yard entrance. Her father had no expression on his face, but she could see the irritation and disappointment in his eyes. Worse, she saw a half dozen mounted men behind him, many of them dressed in fine furs and robes on the blustery fall day. Their expressions ranged from amusement to disgust.

Katarina gave the best curtsey she could manage, “Father.”

The slight pinched expression he showed then suggested that he almost didn’t want to admit his connection to her. Katarina bit the inside of her lip at that realization. It wouldn’t be the first time, she thought, although finding me in this state, breaking my promise not to try to train in fighting is sure to reach a new level.

“Jarek, I will speak to Lord Elaisz about this, you may go,” Duke Peter said as he dismounted. Katarina winced at that. Lord Eliasz was the Baron of Zielona Gora, Jarek’s father, and her own father’s closest adviser. One of the stable boys ran out to catch the reins of his horse. Duke Peter walked forward to stand in front of Katarina. She was almost his height, a fact that did not instill any confidence in her. “Katarina, we will discuss this later. Get yourself cleaned up and come to my study.” The lack of emotion in his voice hurt even more than the cold look in his gray eyes.

Katarina managed a curtsey to her father and a polite nod at the noblemen and then hurried away from the scene as her eyes welled up. I just wanted to learn, she thought, angrily. Her brother, Peter, had already begun training. She had heard that women in other nations, even Marovingia, learned at least some weapons training. Her father had denied it to her, with multiple reminders that proper women did not find interest in such things.

Half in tears, she almost ran into her little brother as she raced through the corridors of the keep. He blinked at her, “What’s wrong? How’d you get so muddy, you better get changed before someone sees you.” Behind him she saw his armsman, Zeno.

Katarina pushed past him and rushed to her room. She heard him behind her, “Kati, what’s wrong?”

Katarina turned, “Father’s back. I’m sure he’ll be glad to see you.” She couldn’t help the vitriol in her voice. With Father, Peter can do no wrong, she thought, while I can do nothing right.

She saw the look of shock on his face. Katarina wiped at the tears on her face and sighed. She miserably spoke, “I talked Jarek into teaching me how to fight, in the stable yard because we thought it would be mostly deserted. Father showed up right after Jarek dumped me in the mud.”

Peter winced, “I told you I could train you what I’m learning…”

“No,” Katarina said. She looked around the hallway and dropped her voice. “Peter, you’re the heir. You can’t be seen disobeying father, or there will be half a dozen people who will spread rumors about you.” Katarina sighed, “I’m his too strong-willed daughter, who rides horses and reads books.” She didn’t know if Peter understood. People didn’t talk as freely around him as they did her. In some ways, being considered the outcast meant she heard much more of the gossip and talk, in part because people didn’t care what she overheard.

“Look, just trust me, it was better that I do it that way. Besides, I’m five foot tall, you’re only three feet tall. Jarek’s a better match for me.”

Peter scowled, “I bet he’s in trouble, huh?”

Katarina winced again, “Yeah, Father said he’s going to tell Lord Eliasz.”

“Well, if you don’t want Mother to see you like that, you should probably head down the back stairs, she’s on her way up to make sure that the guest wing is prepared for the guests,” Peter said. He still looked confused and a little hurt that she hadn’t involved him. But the things she’d heard some of the noblewomen talk about… she didn’t want to make things more difficult for her family. She had intended her little training session to be a secret. Next time, I’ll do it in some of the hidden passages, she thought, assuming there is a next time.

Whatever trouble Jarek got into, she was certain she could talk him around. Though she had the feeling he wouldn’t be too fond of her for the next week or two until his father forgave him. Like Peter’s relationship with their father, Jarek and Lord Eliasz were close and Katarina felt certain that whatever punishment Jarek received, he’d be more upset by his father’s disappointment in him than anything else.

Katarina gave Peter a nod, “Thanks, Peter. Father will no doubt tell her soon enough, but I’d rather not have the confrontation right now.” She turned away and rushed to her room. She felt more than a little grateful that her father hadn’t moved her out of the children’s wing yet. Really, at her age, it was customary that she be moved to adult quarters in Estera Tower. But Estera Tower’s bathing rooms were designed around proper adult women who never got muddy or dirty at all. The children’s suites all had access to the larger bathing chamber, because even noble children got messy.

Katarina bathed quickly and then rushed back to her room. She frowned when she found two of her father’s armsmen outside her door. The older one, Tomek gave her a nod and a slight smile, “Lord Peter wanted someone down here to keep watch.”

Katarina managed a nod and continued past them into her room. Tomek was one of her father’s oldest armsmen, he had served her grandfather, from what she’d heard. She thought, briefly, to ask what had happened to her last armsman, Covle. She thought better of it though. Neither looked comfortable down here, away from their main charge. For that matter, Covle had disappeared so suddenly and without any fanfare that Katarina felt certain it meant he’d done something dreadful.

His disappearance had made her more recent adventures possible. Without an armsman to follow her around, she had been able to explore the hidden passages within Emberhill Castle for hours and even had time to convince Jarek to train her a bit on fighting. Combined with the fact that Armsman Covle Darkbit always made her feel uncomfortable, she hadn’t asked many questions about his departure. He would always get those weird smiles on his face when he thought no one was looking, Katarina remembered, like he knew some secret that no one else did.

She found her maid, Linsey, awaiting her, a disapproving frown on her face. “My lady, I warned you that you’d get in trouble.” Katarina pinched her lips together against a retort. She didn’t know why her mother had assigned the skinny woman to her. Linsey was the keep’s most poisonous gossip. Katarina had little doubt that half the castle would know about the incident before evening.

“Not a proper thing for a Lady to do, you ask me,” Linsey said. “For that matter, riding isn’t even proper, not unless you’ve some place to go, and then a carriage or palanquin is far more proper…” the woman continued her tirade and Katarina made polite noises as Linsey helped her into a dress. Katarina was tall and thin for her age, at six cycles, though she wouldn’t be considered of age until nine cycles. Katarina still had a ways to grow for that matter, a fact which quite vexed Linsey. This newest dress was already too short, and in another few weeks Katarina wouldn’t fit into it at all.

As she stared into the mirror, Katarina realized that she looked more and more like her mother. She had the same curly black hair, the same pale skin, and her thin face with sharp nose and arched eyebrows. She was fast catching up with height, for her mother towered over most people in the Duchy of Masov. Perhaps, she thought enviously, I’ll even grow into her curves.

As if on cue, the door to her room opened and her mother swept in. Katarina rose and curtseyed, and her mother gave her a slight sniff and a nod. She glared at Linsey, “I told you to ensure she was presentable to our guests. I’m holding you responsible for that incident in the stables.”

Katarina winced. Linsey would take that out on her. The maid had a joy of using a brush to dig into her scalp and yank at her dark hair when she was angry. Besides, it wasn’t as if Linsey had known the Duke would be back so soon. Even for her dislike of the maid, she spoke up, “Mother, Linsey didn’t know that the Duke would be back, she couldn’t have warned me.”

“She did, indeed, know that,” her mother said. Lady Alexia scowled at Linsey, “I told her that Duke Peter would return this morning.” Anger cut sharp lines into her mother’s face, and Katarina realized with a shock that her mother had aged much in the past few years. Lines of gray worked through the dark curls of her hair. “And I specifically told her not to let you go out riding, much less get into this kind of mischief.”

Linsey looked away, “My lady…”

“We will speak of this later,” Lady Alexia snapped. “You are dismissed.” She waited as the maid left, then turned her blue eyed gaze on Katarina. “You look much more presentable, though I doubt anyone will look at you now and see aught besides the mud spattered girl they first laid eyes on.”

Katarina lowered her head, “I’m sorry, Mother.”

“I can’t be angry at you, my dear,” Lady Alexia said. “I might as well be angry at water for being wet, the Viani for being mysterious, or Auir for shining.” She gave a sigh. “But you do try my patience.” Lady Alexia took a deep breath. “Your father wished to keep this… quiet, but the purpose of this event tonight was to show you off… for potential betrothal.”

“What?” Katarina asked in shock. She had known, theoretically, that she would be betrothed and married someday… but that day had seemed a distant thing.

“Half the Duchy’s nobles have come, along with their heirs. We’ve even a couple noblemen from Boir, Lord Hennings and Lord Anhalt,” Lady Alexia said. She saw the expression of shock on Katarina’s face and sighed. “Child, I know that this is a rude awakening, but it is… was, a good thing. Things are, uncertain right now, and growing more so. A betrothal could prevent bloodshed, could stabilize things somewhat.”

Katarina nodded. She’d heard some of the rumors and she knew her duty, yet she had hoped for greater freedom. For a brief moment, she wished she’d been born a boy, so that she could learn to fight, so that she’d have her father’s love and respect. So that she wouldn’t be some prize to be sold off to build a political alliance. “Very well.”

“Look,” her mother sighed, “You know that… your Father and I, our arranged marriage has not been the best example.” The two almost never spoke, Katarina knew. Though how much of that was due to the fact that her father was Starborn and so would still be youthful and young long after her mother died of old age was uncertain. Katarina had never heard them argue, yet there seemed some underlying bitterness that meant that they barely spoke in private.

Even so, they were publicly a team, a strong marriage. Though Katarina knew that her mother’s place of birth was something that many noblewomen held against her. Lady Alexia came from Marovingia, so she was seen as an outsider. Would Katarina face the same fate, she wondered? Would she go to some distant land in order to build an alliance?

Katarina gave her a nod. Her mother smiled slightly, “My dear, it will be alright, I promise you.” A distant look went over her face, “I will do everything I can to make certain that you and young Peter will be cared for, no matter what it might cost me.”

Katarina frowned at that in confusion. Her mother sighed at the expression on her face, “Katarina, we’ve wasted enough time. Your father is in his study. Go see him, accept whatever punishment, and do not further aggravate him. He has enough worries, now.”

Katarina left. Her footsteps carried her out of the children’s wing and down the lone access corridor that led to the Duke’s quarters. Her father’s two armsmen followed her, their faces somber. She paused outside the library door. The library had always been her favorite room in the keep, even before she found the hidden passages that connected to it. She used to spend hours of her childhood, seated in one of her father’s oversized chairs and reading the history books. She’d particularly liked the stories of the times when her father’s people, the Starborn, had arrived to Eoria. She was fascinated by the thoughts that other worlds awaited beyond her own and of the brave men and women who had shaped this world and had raised the banners of civilization and brought an end to the generations of war. The Starborn had established their Codes to prevent disease and outbreak, introduced concepts of crop rotation and fertilization, and and established their Laws which applied to all, noble and peasant alike. In the two thousand cycle reign of the Starborn High Kings, their civilization had spread across the Five Duchies and even to the distant continent of Aoriel. They had even, briefly, maintained outposts on Eoria’s twin world, Aoria.

If the High Kings still ruled, I’d be free to pursue my own dreams, Katarina thought bitterly. But then she buried that thought. The High Kings had been gone for almost a thousand cycles, brought down by betrayal and bloodshed on a scale that had nearly eradicated civilization entirely. She couldn’t call on their justice, they were dead and gone, so long ago that even their spirits were silent. Katarina took a deep breath and worked up the courage to pushed the library door open. The two armsmen took up positions outside. Inside she saw that the study door was partially open, and she heard raised voice from within. She recognized Lord Eliasz’s voice first. “…Baron Oltsztyn is willing to use that to his advantage. Particularly after you embarrassed him by releasing his bastard son from the Ducal Guard.”

“Can you blame me?” Duke Peter asked, his voice harsh. “Darkbit came to me and insisted that I give him my daughter’s hand, in exchange for his ‘services.’ He all but said it was a bribe to keep his mouth shut.”

Katarina felt a chill as she realized what that meant. Her stomach twisted with revulsion at the thought. Covle Darkbit wanted to marry me, she thought. All of the man’s odd smirks and arrogance took on a new light. No wonder her father had dismissed him.

“Still, it’s a good thing he’s estranged from Oltsztyn, otherwise he might try to make some deal with him,” Lord Eliasz said. “Worse, he might try to take this to Lord Estrel of Longhaven.”

“Doubtful,” Duke Peter said, his tone bitter. Katarina didn’t have to wonder at that. She had heard the rumors of how poorly mismanaged Longhaven was. Lord Estrel was her cousin, the eldest son of her grandfather’s youngest brother, and after Peter and herself, he was the next in line for the inheritance. “Estrel would love the opportunity, but he hasn’t the money to tempt Covle Darkbit. Besides that, don’t forget Lord Hector is his military commander, with orders to try and set things right with their defenses.”

“Hector?” Lord Elias asked. “Your bastard nephew?”

“The same,” her father said. “Though Estrel has him on a tight rein from what I hear. I just hope it’s enough to stabilize Longhaven. A cycle or two is all we need to fix some of this,” Duke Peter said, his voice tired. She moved closer to the door, though she gave a nervous glance over her shoulder at the library door. It would be… awkward to be caught eavesdropping on her father and his chief adviser, especially after the earlier events of the day. “You’ll have to punish Jarek,” he said, his voice sad. The change of topic confused her. With the discussion of politics she’d almost forgotten about her own misadventure.

“I know,” Lord Eliasz said. “I’m thinking I’ll send him back home. Ancestors know I need someone to look after things. My other boy… well you know, he’s not fit to rule. Jarek can get some experience looking after things and keep Rodik out of trouble, hopefully.”

“I thought it was good at first at how well they go along, but they’re both too demon-spawned eager to get into mischief,” her father said. “I can’t blame Jarek, not really. Katarina though…” Her father sighed. “Well, there’s nothing for it. She’s basically upset the entire betrothal discussion in one act. I’ll have to bend over backwards now, to get the concessions we’ll need… which might well give up more than we can afford. Thank the High Kings she wasn’t born a boy or she would be a disaster.”

Katarina felt tears well up in her eyes. She stumbled back from the door and went as far away from the study as she could go. She found herself at the back corner of the library, next to the thick history books which she’d so enjoyed. I’d be a disaster, would I? She looked at the books and her fingers traced the spines. She had disappointed her father, caused him pain, and she didn’t know if there would ever be a way to earn his trust back… she could see that now.

She wouldn’t bother, then. If he so hated her, if she was this disaster, then she would live life her way… and to hell with the consequences.

***

Blurb:

In Eoriel, the High Kings are legend: rulers who once stood against the darkness and ruled the world for two thousand turns of peace and prosperity. In the long turns since their fall during the Sundering, Eoriel’s civilization has faded. Dark men and darker beings have torn down and destroyed the old works. While some have held out against the grind of history, other places have been reduced to primitive tribes of savages, worshiping dark spirits and demons as their gods.

Yet a spark of hope remains. Some still believe in the old legends, some still fight to restore the old ways, and some will stand against the darkness, in an echo of the High Kings.

Echo of the High Kings will be released on 1 August 2014

Writing Achievement Unlocked

Well, it’s not much of a post, but I’ve unlocked a new parenting/writing achievement.  This seems to be the only position the little fellow was comfortable enough to sleep.  Something tells me he’s going to be a handful.

My attempts at multitasking...
My attempts at multitasking…

In other news, progress is continuing on writing of The Shattered Empire, the second book of the Shadow Space Chronicles, and it’s still on track for release in the fall. Echo of the High Kings is looking good to be released at the start of August. If all goes to plan (or at least relatively close to plan) I should have the third book of the Shadow Space Chronicles available by early 2015 and the sequel to Echo of the High Kings around the same time.

Free Stuff: Preview from Echo of the High Kings, Part 3

A third installment from Echo of the High Kings.  The section covers a skirmish between Lady Katarina’s followers and some of Duke Hector’s men.

Aerion set his back against the tree and took a deep breath.  Through the trees, the squeal of pigs and the rumble of wagons carried.  He listened to that sound, and he waited.  For a moment, he remembered his home.  Aerion remembered Old Taggart’s voice, rough and low, filled with caution, as if every word were some precious coin to spend.  He remembered the smell of his mother’s apron, the scent of stew and bread, and of smoke from the wood fireplace in the inn. 

And then he remembered the fire, and the screams.

At that moment, a clear trumpet clarion sounded as Gerlin signaled the attack.

Aerion leaped from behind his tree, and immediately spotted the wagons, only thirty feet away.  He ran forward, hands clenched on the greatsword.  One of the guards on foot, raised a drawn bow, arrow pointed at Aerion.  The guard released just as Aerion stumbled.  Aerion felt the arrow’s fletching kiss his neck.

The guard reached for another arrow.  Aerion felt his world narrow, as everything but that guard and his bow vanished.  He felt his legs pump him forward.  His heart raced, a steady drumbeat that drowned all else out.  Aerion felt a cry of rage and fear open his mouth, but he couldn’t hear it, couldn’t hear anything.

The guard, knocked another arrow.  The mercenary seemed to move in slow motion.  He raised the bow, drew it back.

And then Aerion had closed the distance.  He swung the sword downward, all memory of his training lost, he swung the four foot blade like an axe.

The sword struck the mercenary between his right shoulder and his neck.  The blade chopped down through his simple leather armor, and a fountain of blood erupted.

Aerion stumbled back, spitting blood and suddenly sickened.  He had to tug hard, foot pressed against the corpse to pull his sword free.  Some motion sensed as much as seen caused him to turn.  He ducked under a spear thrust and caught the shaft just behind the barbed head.  Aerion pulled hard, and suddenly stood, face to face with a blonde bearded mercenary, his eyes wide, pupils dilated.

Aerion saw him release the spear, hands going for a dagger at his waist.  He brought the pommel of his sword up into his opponent’s face.   The mercenary stumbled back with a cry.

A shout made him turn, and he saw one of the Jasen on the ground, a brutish looking warrior above him with an axe.  Aerion lunged forward, sword extended.

The iron tip of his sword skidded off of the axeman’s chainmail.  Aerion continued his move and slammed his shoulder into the larger man’s back.  The axeman stumbled away, and Aerion stumbled back.

Another man, his face drawn in a rictus of hate, swung a sword at him.  Aerion brought up his sword to parry, and a shock went down his arm.  The beserk warrior swung again, and again Aerion blocked.  He kicked out, desperate to get some room to move, but his opponent caught the blow on his shield and continued his wild attack.

Again and again the madman battered at him, Aerion desperately swung his larger sword to block blow after blow.  He backed away, tried to gain some space, but his attacker didn’t slow his own pace, and continued to press him.

His feet caught on something.  Aerion fell back over a still body.  Aerion hit the hardpacked road on the flat of his back.  The impact drove all the air out of his lungs.  Aerion brought his sword up to block as his opponent swung a powerful overhand blow. 

The sword struck just inches above the crossguard with a sound like a hammer striking glass, the brittle iron of his sword snapped.

Aerion held the stump of his blade up in shock as the berserk warrior above him raised his own blade for the finishing blow.  Aerion kicked out hard.  His leg struck his attacker’s knee, which bent backwards with a horrific crackle.

The warrior dropped with a scream, and Aerion stood, still clutching the stump of a sword.  The beserker still swung his sword at Aerion.  He crawled towards him, maimed leg dragging.  Aerion saw Jasen, a bloody gash down the side of his face, drive a spear down into the beserker from behind.

“Grab his sword, boy!” Jasen shouted.  He pointed over Aerion’s shoulder.  “There’s more of them, ancestors know where they came from, but they’re attacking lady Katarina!”

Aerion felt a jolt of ice water pump through his veins.  He looked over, just in time to see eight horsemen push through a cluster of fighting.

He saw her then.  She stood in the middle of the road, only twenty feet away.  She had her sword in her left hand, something else in her right.  She looked like a scene from a story.  She stood like a savage warrior princess, her dark hair back in a braid, her chain shirt spattered with blood.

Aerion blindly reached down.  His fingers found the hilt of the sword that had nearly taken his life.  He charged forward.  Jasen had already run ahead, but Aerion’s longer legs easily outpaced him.

He sprinted past Lady Katarina, just as she raised her right hand.  He heard her shout something as he raced past.  He couldn’t hear her words over the roaring in his ears and his own labored breathing.

One of the horsemen reared before him, and swung down with a blade.

Aerion ducked under the horse’s head, then thrust up on the horseman’s left side.  He felt the lighter blade skitter off the horseman’s greaves, then catch and plunge up under his breastplate.

The horseman sagged, just as the frightened horse sidestepped.

Aerion jerked the blade free and turned, just in time to see two more behind him.  Time slowed again as he saw the nearest had his hammer raised, about to descend upon Aerion.  Aerion tried to force his body to move out of the path, but he didn’t have time.

He heard Lady Katarina shout something, her high, clear voice cut through the shouts and screams.

Aerion watched the hammer descend, saw his death in that swing, with no time to move out of the way or block it.

Then the world flared white.

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?