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Part I: The Burning
DARKEST night blanketed the fields and pastures beyond Riverend’s high city gates. On Riverend’s western edge, both temperature and pressure plunged. Several soldiers on that side of the city wall shuddered with the change, so uncharacteristic for even late summer. An even deeper hush crept over the land.
Thick clouds from the west snuffed out the light from the full moon rising. Bitter blackness replaced the starry night. The blackness spread, falling over the city itself, like a living thing, so thick that even the torches along the western wall barely penetrated it. The night’s gentle breeze died, and the land held its breath, waiting.
SHAUN’S boots thumped across the wooden floor as she paced the room’s length, past each of its four bunks, all of them empty except for a stray sock on one and her sword on another. She stopped pacing after her fifth pass. Someone was sliding a whetstone over a blade in the next room. The high-pitched scrape set her teeth on edge. She resisted the urge to bang on the wall to get whoever it was to stop. She had trouble enough already without causing herself more of it.
She exhaled sharply and then combed her fingers through her amber hair which fell short of her shoulders. Her finger tips went to her temples and rubbed them in gentle circles, trying to ease the tension there. Turning back to her pacing, she tried to block out the sound of the whetstone and rein in her thoughts.
It was her fault. She should have recognized the trap the moment her training officer told her that Darcy Krieger, of all people, had requested her as her Watcher. She should have wondered why Darcy would make this request just a day after she was removed from her post as Watcher for the king’s youngest daughter. But she was too focused on the argument she and Sara had that lead up to her removal.
Her hurt over being dismissed by her closest friend had clouded her judgment far too much. She even felt a small swell of vindictive pride when she learned that Sara’s longtime rival asked for her. She should have seen it coming, but never did.
Darcy’s spiteful laughter still echoed through her mind, along with her face and its smug look when her trap was complete. Shaun had played right into Darcy’s hands. Anger and shame roiled inside her. Darcy got exactly what she wanted: to humiliate Sara, once and for all. And, Shaun had been the one to help her do it.
Shaun stopped again and shook her head as the sting of frustrated tears burned her eyes. No, she would not cry over this. She had not cried since breaking her leg in her eighth summer, and she would not start now. Not even over this.
The damage was done. Crying would not change that.
Something in the next room, probably the whetstone, thumped onto the wooden floor. Muffled words followed it. Shaun cast a dark look at the wall separating the two rooms.
Time to leave, she decided, before she got into an argument after all. Hiding in the barracks only delayed the inevitable anyhow. She needed to explain her side of things and expose Darcy’s plot before the damage got any worse.
Turning back, Shaun strode past her bunk and snagged her sword and leather belt from where she had dropped them. She strapped on her plain apprentice knight’s sword, then tugged on her white tunic to straighten it. Her fingers felt for kinks its collar band, tracing over the Riverend crest on one side and the crest of the Knights Service on the other, both stitched in the green and gray of Riverend.
Satisfied, she made haste out of her bunk room and the barracks, in the direction of the main academy hall. That was where she would find Sara, along with most of their peers. She fought down the nervous tremor in her chest and told herself everything would be fine once she told her side, but only half believed it.
Shaun looked up at the sky as she walked and then frowned. None of the stars or the full moon that was rising when she returned to the barracks earlier were now visible. A thick blackness had replaced them. She wondered if a storm had moved in while she was inside the barracks, but the utter lack of a breeze seemed unusual for a coming storm. She broke into a jog, not wanting to be caught in it, if rain started.
Her boots pounded across the cobblestones that covered the streets between the barracks, the castle, and the academy. She gripped the hilt of her sword to keep it from rattling in its scabbard as she ran. She ignored the looks she drew from those she passed.
When she reached the main academy hall, Shaun took the half dozen steps two at a time up to the long portico, but stopped when she reached the top. She let her breathing return to normal and combed her fingers through her hair again, trying to neaten it at least a little. The nervous tremor grew worse. Steeling herself, Shaun straightened her tunic one last time before she walked through the hall’s entrance.
Inside the hall’s anteroom, quiet reigned. She was the only one there, though a low murmur of voices came from somewhere down the corridor straight ahead. She followed the sound. Small yellow orbs set into recessed alcoves lit the way and cast a dim glow up the stone walls toward the vaulted ceilings.
She knew her fears were not unfounded the moment she came upon the students and other apprentice knights gathered near the doors to the main lecture hall. They spoke in hushed tones, not unusual in the austere building, but just about all of them avoided her gaze.
They had already heard about what happened, probably from Darcy herself. It meant Sara had definitely heard it by now as well. She doubted that the story being circulated contained much truth at this point. She could only pick out a few whispered words as she passed through the crowd, but those few that she heard confirmed her suspicions that they were talking about her.
“Can you believe . . .”
“. . . but Darcy is Sara’s biggest rival.”
“They had a big fight and then . . .”
“. . . they’ve been friends forever.”
“A betrayal like that . . .”
Shaun wondered if things could get any worse for her, but then she spotted a mutual friend. Myra would know where she could find Sara. She was just about to enter the lecture hall behind her friends and her Watcher, Thomas, when Shaun came up behind her and gently grabbed her shoulder.
Myra jumped and let out a short squeak. The conversation taking place within the group abruptly died and Thomas spun back, a sharp look on his face. His hand dropped to the hilt of his sword. He relaxed when he saw it was only Shaun. She caught the slight rolling of his eyes, but ignored him.
Myra laughed at herself. “Shaun, you startled me.”
“Is she in there?” Shaun tried to keep a nonchalant tone to her voice, but fell short. Thomas raised an eyebrow at her from behind Myra. She knew what he was thinking. Here we go again.
“Yes. She went in not long ago.”
She laid a hand on Shaun’s arm when she turned her gaze in the direction of the lecture hall beyond the group. “I think you may want to give her a wide berth tonight.”
Shaun sighed. “It wasn’t my fault.” It came out louder than she had intended. The fact that it was also a lie made it worse.
Myra’s friends exchanged secretive smiles with each other. Shaun looked down at her feet as embarrassment turned her face bright red. Backbiting gossips. Nearly all of them had passed their seventeenth summer. Had they not all grown past such childish games by now?
“Just give her a day or two, Shaun. She’ll come around.”
Myra took her cues from her father, Riverend’s highest advisor and diplomat, when it came to Shaun and Sara. She would not take sides this time anymore that she had after other fights, which had grown more frequent of late. Sara had been acting so strangely around her.
“Perhaps you could—”
Myra started shaking her head as soon as Shaun started the question. “I don’t think that wise.”
One of the young men in Myra’s group leaned in and said quietly, “We should go in before the reading starts.” He slid a quick, nervous glance at Shaun, as though afraid she might hit him for interrupting.
Myra nodded at him.
She told Shaun, “Just give Sara some time. It will all work out, as it always does.” She gave Shaun’s arm a gentle squeeze and then she turned away to enter the lecture hall.
Thomas ran a hand over his close-cropped dark hair and let Myra go in without him, then he turned an inquisitive look on Shaun. She frowned back at him. They had known each other since their first days of training and she trusted him more than anyone, besides Sara. She bit her lip.
“What do I do?”
“There are risks either way. But, I do not recommend you wait too long to decide which risk to take.” It was not his way to stand there and debate it with her. He cocked his head at her and raised an eyebrow for emphasis. “So . . . outside or in?”
He turned away before she could answer. Shaun stared after Thomas’s broad back as he walked into the lecture hall without her. Myra might be right, and everything would blow over in a day or two, maybe a week or two, but giving Sara that much space required a kind of patience she did not possess. The idea that Sara believed Shaun had betrayed their friendship might kill her if she did not do something about it now.
Even as deep-seeded dread filled her, Shaun strode toward the lecture hall entrance. She stopped dead, just before entering, however. She spotted a pair of the king’s personal guard stationed not far inside the entrance, meaning Sara’s father was in the hall too. His presence alone made her consider abandoning her plan.
Thunder rumbled overhead. The sound echoed down the corridor behind her, signaling the storm outside was about to begin.
SOLDIERS lined the western wall, taunt with apprehension at the stillness and strange darkness. A rumble of thunder from above caused a sheep somewhere in the pasture below them to let out a fearful bleat. Some of the soldiers jumped, while others laughed at their skittishness.
Then, a loud buzzing filled the air, like the approach of a thousand bees. Some of the men and women on the wall clapped their hands over their ears. An angry fork of red lightning cut the sky, hanging above the road that wove from the western gate through the pastureland beyond the wall. Another rumble of thunder, even louder than the last drowned out the buzzing. The wall shook and shuddered under their feet. Men and women shouted and grabbed hold of its edge to keep from falling.
A thick blast of red lightning shot down from the sky and struck the road. Suddenly, an army of five hundred materialized where the lighting had struck, no more than a hundred paces from the city gates. Their black armored ranks were barely visible in the thick blackness surrounding the city.
The wall guard stared down at them, some wondering if they were nothing more than a hallucination. Dumbfounded at the army’s sudden arrival, few had time to react before a volley of barbed arrows was launched at them. Soldiers fell atop the wall as the arrows hit their marks one by one.
The army below let loose a triumphant, bloodthirsty howl as the volley petered out. They charged the gates as one.
SHAUN stepped to the side of the doorway and looked for the king. She spotted his imposing form easily, at the front of the hall, near the lectern front and center. An elderly man stood next to him, partially bent at the waist and dressed in dark robes that pooled around his feet. He did not stand much taller than the king’s shoulder, but then, most people did not. The king’s height and breadth, and thick hair and beard, now streaked with gray, had the effect of making him resemble a bear. His temper could be as formidable as a bear’s too.
Though her family and Sara’s had been close as long as she could remember, she still regarded the king with the same mixture of awe and apprehension as she had when she was a small child. She supposed that was how most great kings were regarded that way.
Shaun brought her thumb to her mouth and chewed at the skin around her thumbnail while she considered whether it was better to wait until after the lecture to find Sara, away from the king’s eye. She pulled at a piece of loose skin with her teeth. A pinch followed and then she tasted blood.
Looking down at her thumb, Shaun saw blood springing up from it where she pulled the loose skin off. Cursing under her breath, she sucked on the wound. She could hear her mother in her head, telling her that she was going to get an infection and then be unable to hold her sword.
Shaun turned her pale eyes back in the direction of the king and then in the direction of the rows of carved wooden benches rising up toward the back of the lecture hall. People coming into the hall kept blocking her view, making it impossible for her to see Sara from where she was. She dropped her hand and decided she was being silly by stalling. What was the worst that could happen if the king spotted her?
Ducking slightly, she slipped inside the hall and took to the steps on the outside of the rows. Behind her, King Jaris barked out a deep laugh, making Shaun jump. She glanced back, but his attention remained focused on the old man still. She continued up the rows, looking for Sara across the rows of divided benches next to her. She was not there. Shaun’s long legs carried her to the top row, where she stopped again and looked down on the rest of the room. She scanned the rows of benches on the other side of the room.
Sara was easier for her to pick out from there. She sat just three rows up from the front of the hall, close to where the king stood. A young man was crouched down next to the bench where Sara sat. She immediately recognized his ginger hair and beard—Jak.
Anger washed over her again, followed by deep seeded loathing. The feelings between them were mutual, a throwback from their competition during the Trials. She glared down at him, but restrained her urge to charge down the steps and confront him. Also the urge to worry at another finger, before her mother’s voice could needle her for it again. She rolled her eyes, despite her mother’s absence.
It was only her mother’s own habit of keeping her nails trim and her fingers smooth that made her pick at Shaun. But, Shaun was not an archer like her mother, nor did she ever want to be. Her place was not on the wall like her mother or a guardsman like her father. She was made to be a knight and belonged at Sara’s side, in the place Jak occupied now.
He said something to Sara and then his face twisted into a goofy grin. To her horror, Sara actually smiled back. Worse, she looked interested in what he was saying to her.
Shaun suddenly wondered if Sara knew she would come looking for her and meant to be seen with Jak. Was she pretending to be friends with him out of spite for what happened between her and Darcy?
Whatever the reason, she meant to put a stop to it. She descended the center stairs until she stood behind Jak. She glanced at Sara, but when Sara looked back at her, her smile faded into a frown.
Jak turned his head to look up at Shaun. His nose still hooked to the right where she had broken it during the Trials. The break never healed quite right. His smile faded as Sara’s had when he realized it was her standing over him.
When she said nothing, he asked, “Do you need something?”
“I need you to find somewhere else to be.”
“I am assigned as her Watcher today. I am not going anywhere.”
Shaun’s jaw tightened. Her Watcher? A smug look spread across his face, so like Darcy’s that it made her want to break his nose again. Maybe that would straighten it again.
Instead, she crouched down and rested her hand on the pommel of her sword. She kept her voice low. “A fantastic job you’re doing, too, sitting here cracking jokes with your Ward.”
His mouth fell open to protest. She cut him off before he could. “Consider your shift over. Be on your way, before I call the king over.”
Jak scowled at her and his nostrils flared. “Fine. But, my training officer will hear about this.” He rose to his feet and stalked away, up the rows.
Shaun watched him go. She did not doubt whether he was serious, not for a moment, but she decided she would worry about that later. She sat down in the empty space on the carved wooden bench next to Sara.
Sara, however, avoided looking at her and instead looked down at the journal in her lap. Her dark blond locks cascaded over the shoulders of her pale green dress, tamed only by the matching green ribbons and clips shaped like tiny bejeweled butterflies. The butterflies’ cheerfulness seemed in opposition to the angry furrow she could see on Sara’s brow.
“That was rude.” Her fingers crimped journal’s corners.
Shaun swallowed and quickly tucked back strands of her own hair trying to get in her face. “I needed to talk to you, and Jak was in my way.” She paused, afraid of the answer she would receive. “How did he get assigned as your Watcher?”
“That is not your concern anymore, Shaun. I asked for someone other than you as my Watcher, because I did not want see you today. That has not changed.” She tossed her hair back. Anger and hurt clouded her dark eyes when she finally looked at Shaun. “If anything, my position on that has solidified. Please leave me alone now.”
“Nothing happened with Darcy, not the way you think. Can I just explain what happened?”
“No. I don’t want to hear what you have to say. If you will not leave, then I will.” Sara rose from her seat and turned away from Shaun.
Without thinking, Shaun reached out and grabbed Sara’s silk-draped wrist to stop her. “Sara—”
Sara spun back and yanked her wrist free of Shaun’s grip. “You are out of bounds, knight.”
The look on her face bordered on hatred. Startled, Shaun dropped her hand. She then realized that the people in the row behind Sara all stared at her. In fact, the entire hall had fallen silent.
The king cleared his throat at the front of the hall. Shaun’s gut clenched in fear of what was to come next.
“Sara Hahlerand and Shaundra Greyson. Are the rest of us intruding on your argument?” His voice boomed across the silent lecture hall.
Sara’s face turned bright pink and she dropped her gaze. Shaun closed her eyes, suddenly wishing the floor would open up and swallow her or that the gods would smite her where she sat. Then, she rose to face him as befitted an apprentice knight. She only hoped she might still hold that title at the end of this night.
GUARD Master Tor Greyson sprinted out of a guard tower when he heard the boom outside the wall. The arrows began raining down a moment later. He ducked behind the wall’s edge for cover. Other soldiers were not so quick and the wounded and dying toppled down around him. Some called his name, but he ignored them, daring not to move.
When arrows stopped flying, Tor shot up again and looked over the wall’s edge to see where the volley came from. He spotted the army in black sprinting for Riverend’s gates. Mordwell. It had to be them.
He turned to shout orders at his soldiers. “Sound the—”
A loud boom cut him off, followed by a shudder in the wall. A battering ram. It collided with the thick, iron-banded gates below him a second time. Crackling wood accompanied the boom, but the gates held for the moment.
“Blast them all. Sound the alarms! Turn everyone out!”
Armored soldiers at arms scrambled around him, pulling the wounded men and women out of the path of the archers taking position along the inside edge of the wall. Others descended the ladders to turn out the rest of the guard and alert the knights and the king to what was happening.
The great bells atop the guard towers started clanging to sound the alarm for the city and beyond. The alarm was too late though. He caught the first whiff of smoke from below. They would try to burn and blast their way through next. They would succeed.
Tor pressed his fingers to his ears to block out the deafening peal of the bells and thought of his daughter. He was old enough to remember what happened during the Nine Years War. He knew what was to come.
He regretted that he and his wife kept the stories from her, the ones the academy did not teach. His wife always thought there was time, if even this was to come again. He knew it would. Now, he had no way to warn Shaun.
She was not ready for this, but she would have to be.