As a thank you for all your support, I thought you might enjoy reading the first chapter of the next book, CURSES AND WARFARE.
I am called by many names: Destiny, Fate, Fortune; however, I prefer Moira, for it sounds as if I have a heart.
I do not.
I oversee human destinies, and all things happen as I intend. Some try to deceive me, some accept their fate willingly. I am Moira. I will not be cheated.
Puck’s Gulch – November 11, Six Months After His Quest
Zander rolled the word around in his head and examined it from every angle. No matter how he considered it, the word sickened him.
He grabbed a set of knives and strode to the practice field behind the stable, strapping two to his belt, sliding one into the sheath in his boot, and another up his sleeve. He faced the pell, a six-foot wooden post set in the ground thirty feet away and flipped the final knife in the air. As it tumbled down end over end, he snatched the handle and threw.
Thud. It found its mark in the heart of the post.
Moira had put the safety of Puck’s Gulch in his hands. How could she expect him to turn a group of men and women not yet twenty into fighters?
Clenching his jaw, he slid the knife from his sleeve and sent it flying. It glanced against the post and toppled into the dirt. Heat flushed through his chest.
Seventeen that day, too young for the responsibility. He snatched the blade in his boot and turned a circle before sending it toward the target. The knife hit low, but a sliced kneecap would still take a man down.
After he’d survived the annual quest Moira designed to test the sixteen-year-olds in his village, she’d offered him a choice—follow his dream of becoming a Protector or train warriors. The Protectors defended the market area from petty thieves and hunted with the elders. Zander’s expertise with the bow had made him long to join them. But with Moira’s warning of an invasion, Zander had relinquished his dream in order to prepare for war. He’d accepted the burden of his name—Zander, defender of all.
Two-handed, he grabbed the blades in his belt and overhanded them toward the post. One sliced through an imaginary forehead and the other stabbed a cheek.
He gathered the knives, leaned against the wood post, and rubbed his throbbing thigh. During his quest, a boar had gored him and infection had set in, leaving his leg weak. The old wound still ached and he limped when he was tired. Stars, he hated that it made him look frail! Most days he hid the pain, but the winter cold had seeped into his bone and made the ache barely tolerable.
In the field over, a group of fighters fumbled with steel scimitars, the curved blades lighter than the flat wooden practice blades they were accustomed to. He winced as one of the men swung too quickly, and nearly sliced his partner’s arm . It had taken six months to forge weapons that matched the blade he’d bought from the Raskan travelers during the last festival. The Puck’s Gulch metal-smiths excelled at plow shares, not blades. Zander had paid for the swords himself with coins hard-won at the spring wrestling tournament. A tourney he’d cheated to win. A cheater then, a leader now.
Moira had warned of war, but it was the traveling Raskans who had brought the details to Zander’s isolated village. At the last festival, they whispered of fighting among the five tribes Puck had pulled from when he established his utopian society. Founded on peace, his village had never been threatened in their two-hundred-year history. Not until now.
The Raskans’ news was that the Kharok tribe had driven the Odwa tribe out of their land. Now homeless, desperate refugees marched toward Puck’s Gulch. It seemed certain the Odwans would be the enemy Moira predicted.
He tucked a braid of ebony hair adorned with a single white feather behind his ear and massaged the muscles in the back of his tight neck. After the quest, he’d been pleased when seven of the other questers joined him. With his best friend, Greydon, they’d recruited another three dozen men and a handful of women.
East of the stable, a dozen men and all the women shot at targets in the archery field while the rest of the recruits wrestled in the round, stone outbuilding that doubled as their dining hall. It was from there that Greydon sauntered across the open area behind the outbuilding toward Zander. Calm, with the confidence that came from being the first-born son to a wealthy elder, Greydon’s friendship had surprised Zander. As the son of a furrier, Zander had held little respect for the elders before he met Greydon. Now, Greydon was second-in-command as they prepared for war.
Zander shared everything with his friend, except the one thing that could make Greydon hate him. Because of Moira’s favor, Zander had seen a secret Greydon held close to his heart. Zander had since learned to shield against seeing people’s secrets, after spending hours in meditation. He only used his gift when necessary, but he couldn’t unsee Greydon’s.
“Hoy.” Greydon clasped Zander’s hand and pulled him in to touch shoulders. Even in the cool winter air, sweat soaked Greydon’s blond dreadlocks. He loosened it from a hemp tie and shook his head. “The guys are getting stronger. They’re becoming first-rate wrestlers. How’s sword practice?”
“They’re struggling.” The pressure to be ready within the year gnawed at Zander, causing him sleepless nights. “Even with the Protectors’ help, I don’t see how we can hold off an invasion from men with years of fighting experience.”
“We’ll do the best we can.”
Zander turned to Greydon. “What if it’s not enough? Except for your father, the elders ignore us, pretending everything will be the way it’s always been.”
“They don’t like the other part of your plan.” Greydon examined his palm, rubbing at a spot of dirt.
Anger bloomed in Zander’s gut and tightened his chest. “Puck settled the five tribes to be equals. It’s time to honor our founder’s vision.”
Greydon held up his hands. “It’s not me you have to convince.”
Before his anger could settle, Zander sensed someone behind him. He turned to the solemn face of Zephyr. The boy was a perfect example of why Zander fought for equality. Following Puck’s dream meant there would be no poor and no elders holding the best land.
Though he was almost sixteen, Zephyr was small and malnourished. He bore the red hair and blue eyes of the Odwa tribe, rare in Puck’s Gulch. His threadbare jacket identified him as one of the peasants from the shanty houses that ran along the northern rim of the gulch. Zander stared out across the fields at Elder Warrin’s large manor. He was one of five elders that controlled the land and employed many of the poor as farm laborers or kitchen workers. But the wages were low and too many went hungry while the elders lived in excess.
Zeph held out a slip of paper. It was a message from Zander’s twin sister, Alexa. Don’t forget our birthday celebration tonight. Bring a friend?
He grinned. She hinted at Dharien, but he wouldn’t be the friend Zander would invite. To Zeph he said, “Tell her I’ll be there.” He turned to Greydon. “Come to dinner with me?”
Greydon nodded his assent.
Eyes bright, Zeph asked, “Can I see your horse?”
Zander’s smile turned wry. He said to Greydon, “Think Helios is up for a visitor?”
“I don’t know,” Greydon teased. “Maybe it’s your backside we should ask.”
They burst out laughing at Zeph’s worried look.
“Did he buck you off again?”
“Yep, and it took an hour to catch up to him. He’d lathered himself into a mess. Fulk swore at me for another hour.” Zander smirked, thinking of the burly stable marshal who’d taken him into his care before the quest, and now helped train the warriors. The warriors reciprocated by mucking stalls and caring for the dozen horses owned by Elder Warrin.
Zeph grinned. “Helios likes me.”
Across the field, the warriors carried the swords to a small locked shed. Next up for that group was wrestling. Zander was scheduled to help Greydon, but he could spare a few minutes. He waved Greydon toward the outbuilding. “I’ll join you soon.”
Zander led Zeph down the row of stalls to Helios’s box at the end. Zander had conquered his fear of riding during the quest, but the spirited war horse still threw him every time he mounted.
“All right, Zeph. As long as he’s in the stall you can sit on him.”
The horse nickered as Zander held a carrot on his opened palm. A white circle scarred the center, a reminder of his near-death in the quest.
Zephyr climbed over the rough slats and slid onto the horse’s back. He leaned forward and laid his head of red curls against the black neck. When Zeph whispered to him, Helios’s ears flicked back, as if he understood. After a few minutes, Zeph slid off. “I need to get back to Alexa.”
Zander’s twin treated Zeph like a younger brother, but Zander sensed that Zeph held secrets, and as much time as Zeph spent with Alexa, Zander might need to use his gift. He rolled his shoulders. Stars, he hated seeing other’s secrets, but Moira gave him the ability for a reason, and if using it protected Alexa, he’d do it.
Zeph turned to leave, and Zander said, “See you tonight?”
With a short nod, Zeph ran off, and Zander trekked to the outbuilding. He hesitated inside the door. He and Greydon had recruited the young men from the festival tourneys. They sought competitors that fit with their group. It wasn’t always the winners they saw merit in. Zander looked for those past their quest who worked hard, had morals, and could take orders.
Pulling off his tunic, Zander joined Greydon’s wrestling group. An hour later, soaked with sweat, Zander gratefully quit when Fulk hollered, “Break for noon meal, you pieces of scum, and get your asses over here to set up the tables.”
Tired as they were, the men scrambled to obey. The giant of a man’s vocabulary could make anybody cringe. In the months before the quest, Zander had frequently been the recipient of Fulk’s colorful swearing, but the stable marshal hid a kind heart behind his rough exterior.
After the shared noon meal, Zander had a few moments to relax in his room at the stable. He’d finally gotten around to cleaning the small window, and the patch of warm sunlight stretching across the room was welcome.
“Hey, lazy,” he said to the coyote lounging on the blue coverlet covering the narrow bed. Shadow had grown large and sleek, his golden fur tipped in black. His blue eyes matched Zander’s.
Zander rubbed under Shadow’s neck. “You have another hour to sleep before we train.”
Almost a year ago, the coyote had been a gift from Moira. On the first day of the new year, all the sixteen-year-olds in the village began a time of magic in which they earned tokens for good behavior and omens for bad. Moira gave each quester an animal patron to help them in the subsequent quest. He couldn’t imagine life without Shadow. They hunted together, and Shadow responded to hand signals. He was even learning to deliver messages to the other warriors. When they went to war, he’d be invaluable.
Smiling down at his companion, Zander slung a dozen bows over his shoulder. He’d spent more of his dwindling winnings for new ones, and he couldn’t wait to see the warriors’ faces when they saw them. They couldn’t win a war if they didn’t have suitable weapons. Zander broke out in a sweat. Even with the best bows, he wasn’t at all sure they could win.