Genre: Coming of Age Fantasy / Epic Fantasy
Page Count: 427
An Elondrian ambassador and his wife are kidnapped by the overlord of Cylmar, and Ayrion finds himself being whisked away in the middle of the night to save them.
Not even given the chance to tell his tribe that he is being sent on a secret mission, Ayrion and Room Eleven find themselves being forced to sneak behind enemy lines.
Unfortunately, as Ayrion’s luck usually holds, nothing goes according to plan.
With this being Ayrion’s first time to lead a mission, he doesn’t want to fail, but the deeper into enemy territory they get, the more likely that outcome becomes.
WARNING: There are a couple of darker scenes in this book from the previous four as Ayrion now reaches his late teens.
“QUIET,” I WHISPERED AS I PEEKED out from the tall reeds along the bank of the Pyruvian River. This was one of the few narrow spots that could be forded without drowning during the late summer months before the fall rains set in.
“You don’t actually plan on us getting in that, do you?” an irritating voice whispered from the darkness behind me. “It’s filthy.”
I grabbed a handful of reeds and squeezed, imagining that it was Dakaran’s neck that I was strangling. Taking a moment to regain my composure, I slowly backed out of the thick undergrowth and made my way over to where the members of Room Eleven were waiting with the horses.
“It looks clear enough,” I said, keeping my voice low in case there were patrols on the other side. “The water’s not too swift. If we are to cross, looks like we found the right place.”
“How can you tell?” Gellar asked. “I can’t see the hand in front of my face.”
Barthol raised his hand and acted like he was going to slap Gellar, and Gellar flinched. “Fine,” Gellar said. “Point is, if we can barely see each other, how are you able to tell if this is a safe place to cross?”
“My eyes,” I said, pointing at my face, not thinking about the fact that they probably couldn’t see me. “Living underground for so long has given us Upakans the ability to see where others cannot.”
“That’s a rather helpful gift,” Fipple said, moving his hand away from his face, trying to determine how far he could see.
“I hate agreeing with the recruit here,” Waylen said, nodding toward Dakaran, “but I don’t relish the thought of paddling myself across the river in the middle of the night, horseback or not. If it escaped your attention,” he said, grabbing his hefty midriff, “I’m not exactly built to go floundering across a river like a water vole.”
“Nonsense,” Gellar said with a sharp smile as he tightened the end of the braid on his red beard. “As big as you are, you should float no problem. In fact, we could probably use you as a buoy to tie the horses off.”
Dakaran started to laugh, and Fipple grabbed his mouth. “Shhh. Don’t forget where we are,” he whispered.
“Yes,” Barthol agreed, turning in Fipple’s general direction, “we don’t want to alert your countrymen that we’re coming.”
Fipple released Dakaran and turned, his eyes hot. “Cylmar hasn’t been my country for a very long time.”
Barthol raised his hands. “My mistake.”
Mjovic, or Stumpy, as we affectionately called him, was the only one who hadn’t given an opinion about the water, or the darkness, or whether or not to use Waylen as a buoy. He stood quietly next to Dakaran, his dark skin helping him blend in with his surroundings, that and the simple woodsmen outfits we were wearing. We had traded in our crimson-and-gold Elondrian uniforms for dark-brown leathers and hooded cloaks.
I was certainly missing my black leather jacket, but unfortunately over the last two years, I had outgrown it. Even though I kept telling myself I’d get a new one, I never seemed to get around to it, what with all the time I now spent with the Lancers.
“Don’t forget why we’re here,” I said.
“We’re here because we were ordered to be here,” Fipple groused, adjusting his topknot.
“We’re here to rescue the ambassador and his wife.”
Dakaran snorted. “Hang both of them. Anyone stupid enough to try meeting with the overlord of Cylmar deserves what they get. Besides, I’m not getting in that water, and that’s that. I’m the crown prince—”
“Out here, you ain’t nothing but another recruit,” Barthol huffed. “Your father done tossed you to the wolves, boy. The sooner you get to realizing that, the better off you’ll be.”
Dakaran looked at me as if expecting me to take his side and tell them that he didn’t have to go.
“Sorry,” I said with a slight shrug. “Barthol’s right. In the Lancers, titles mean nothing for those of us commissioned as common foot soldiers. The king told Overcaptain Tolin to treat you as any other recruit.”
Dakaran ground his teeth. “I don’t think this is what my father had in mind, us sneaking around in the middle of the night, swimming through muck-infested waters, risking our lives for an idiot and his idiot wife.”
“Then I guess you shouldn’t have forced Overcaptain Tolin’s hand and demanded to go.”
“Did you think I was going to let you leave me behind to do all your duties while you’re out gallivanting around the kingdom? Over my dead body.”
“Afraid it’s not your choice,” Gellar said. “Nor ours, unfortunately. We got our orders.”
“We do tend to get the short end of the straw when it comes to assignments,” Waylen pointed out.
“Or maybe,” I added, “we should look at it as: of all the people the overcaptain could have chosen for such an important mission, he chose us because he knows we’re the best.”
The others looked at each other, then at me. “Nah.”
“More like we were picked because we’re the most expendable,” Gellar said.
No matter the reason, we didn’t have time to sit around and debate. We had a mission to complete, and I wasn’t about to let Room Eleven’s reputation down by failing to finish it, not after Overcaptain Tolin had given me the charge of leading this mission.
We had passed through Belbridge the previous day and stocked up on supplies before crossing. There was no telling when we’d next come across another town large enough to purchase from, so we thought it prudent to stop. Besides, the bridge at Belbridge was the main crossing point between the two kingdoms, and it gave us an opportunity to scout out the other side before moving upstream to find a safe place to cross on our own.
With a mission this important, the king had spared no expense. They sent us by ship south through the Bay of Torrin and then west between the mainland and the Copper Islands, where we continued on around past the Isle of Delga to the coastal town of Laneer. From there, we purchased horses and started north along the Pyruvian River.
The river would eventually split farther north at the bottom of the Black Hills, one branch leading into Cylmar, the other into Elondria. From what I’d heard, there had been a lot of debate over who owned the rights to the Black Hills. More importantly, the rights to the ore in them. Several battles had been fought between the two kingdoms over that very subject.
In fact, it was the sole reason the Elondrian ambassador and his wife had been sent to Cylmar in the first place—to work out negotiations between Overlord Saryn and King Rhydan. Apparently, those negotiations consisted of the Cylmaran overlord kidnapping the ambassador and holding him for ransom, stupidly believing that would earn him the upper hand in the negotiations.
“Let’s get going,” I said, untying my cloak. “We need to get across while the clouds are thick enough to hide the moon. I want to be on the other side and several miles inland before the sun rises. As close as we are to the Belbridge crossing, I don’t want to take the chance of running into patrols.” I rolled my cloak up and stuffed it into a weather-sealed satchel before turning to look at the others. “What are you waiting for? Strip!”
“Are you crazy?” Dakaran shot back. “I’m not taking my clothes off.”
“You will if you don’t want to chafe all day by riding in wet ones.”
It was a good thing it was dark, because the sight of seven naked men climbing down the embankment would have drawn the entire Cylmaran army. This was one time I was not very thankful for my Upakan sight, and I did my best to not look at the others as we carefully walked our horses down the embankment and slowly waded into the water.
As warm as the evening was, the water felt refreshing. Dakaran was the next to last in, and only after Barthol threatened to toss him in if he didn’t get a move on. Barthol’s looming presence behind him was no doubt the only thing keeping the prince from trying to bolt. That, and the fact that his father had made his appointment to the crown conditional on his service to the Lancers. If he didn’t finish his commission, he wouldn’t inherit the throne.
From the bank to the reeds was extremely rocky, so we decided to walk our horses down into the water before mounting. I waited at the edge for the others to find their way down the embankment, Dakaran purposefully taking his time. I shook my head.
It had been a little over two years since the king had first requested that I join the Lancers on a temporary basis; two years since Noph had turned over Sandstorm to Sapphire, Reevie, and me; two years of weekly visits to the palace in hopes of getting His Royal Pain in My Backside ready for his upcoming commission in the Lancer Corps.
I watched as Dakaran fumbled his way down into the river, a scowl on his face the entire way. I didn’t think anything could be worse than trying to run a tribe of street kids, but nothing could have prepared me for working alongside a prince who had lived his entire life in the lap of luxury, only to find himself demoted all the way down to a simple lancer recruit. I wondered if his whining would ever end.
I hated dropping this burden on my roommates, but as Tolin said, there was no one else in the entire garrison capable of handling such a charge but Room Eleven. I wasn’t sure if he was trying to pay us a backhanded compliment or simply butter us up. My guess was the latter. The only upside to having Dakaran there was that Captain Henzlow had refrained from sending us on Warrens patrol out of fear of something happening to the young princeling and him getting blamed for it.
Once everyone had finally made it in the water, we mounted and let the horses do the brunt of the work as we focused on keeping our clothes out of the water. There were several bridges spanning the border river, but each was manned by guards on either side—Elondrians on the east side, Cylmarans on the west—which made traveling across impossible if you wished to remain unseen. Even though we weren’t wearing our lancer uniforms, it would have seemed strange to have a full company of men crossing from Elondria into Cylmar, especially when tensions between the two kingdoms were so high.
I was the first out of the river, quickly sliding out of my saddle to dry off as best I could with a spare shirt before dressing and climbing up the embankment on the other side to see if there were any signs of a river patrol nearby. Crawling along on my hands and knees, I reached the top and took a moment to stare out across the flat plains ahead.
There was no one for miles in either direction.
Quietly, I crawled back down the embankment where the others were now dressed and waiting.
“What did you see?” Barthol asked.
“Not much.” I took a quick swallow from my waterskin, then hung it back on the side of my saddle. “I don’t see any patrols.” I looked up. The clouds were still covering the moon. “Best we get a move on while we still can.”
Using a long stretch of rope that had been tied to the back of Stumpy’s saddlebags, we mounted and turned our horses northwest. With the rope, I was able to guide them safely forward, keeping a slower pace as I did, making sure the horses didn’t step in a hole. Over the last two years I’d spent in the Lancers, my horsemanship had grown. I remembered how nervous I used to be around them. Now, I found I rather enjoyed riding, not that I got the chance to spend much time in the saddle. Most of my lancer duties were within the confines of the garrison, which made me long for patrol days.
There was nothing quite so relaxing as spending a morning or afternoon slowly trotting through the streets of Aramoor.
I spared a quick glance back over my shoulder. The others looked ready to fall out of their saddles. Deep yawns and drooping eyelids let me know there was no way they were going to make it through the night without stopping. But I wanted to make sure we were far enough away from the river and the Cylmaran patrols that traveled the road alongside it before we stopped and set up camp.
A mile or two farther in, we reached a small outcropping of rock, which looked like it might help shelter us for the night, so I pulled to a stop. “We’ll catch a few winks before heading on. I’d say we’re far enough from the river that no one should spot a campfire.” The fire would keep the wolves away—wolves and any other sort of animal hunting these lands at night.
Prairie grasslands stretched for miles around us, though a forest lay to the north along the lower foothills. There was the occasional copse of hardwood scattered between us and the forest, providing enough deadwood for our fire. It didn’t take long to gather up what we needed, and soon enough we had a small pit dug and a fire stoked.
With the light from the blaze, we set up our blanket rolls, keeping our backs to the rock. No one seemed much in the mood for food. Even Waylen forwent his usual evening snack in exchange for crawling into bed and shutting his eyes. I took first watch to give the others a chance to sleep.
I crawled up on the rocky embankment behind our camp and stared out across the open landscape, not seeing much more than the grass. If I squinted hard enough, I could just make out the shadow of mountains off to my right. Or it might have just been a passing cloud formation. It was growing hard to tell.
The air out here smelled different. It was clean. The city had its own smell. I wouldn’t say it was sour—some quarters were. It was mostly just different. Still, I had to admit, living inside Sandstorm Manor seemed to cut back quite a bit of the less pleasant aromas, as the people living there had the wherewithal to afford proper sanitation.
I suddenly found myself missing home. I wondered what Sapphire and Reevie were up to. No doubt snoring away in their feather beds and soft linen sheets. They had no idea where I was, and I had been forbidden to leave any word. The mission was supposed to be a secret, which, according to Overcaptain Tolin, meant absolutely no one could know. I hated to think what Sapphire and Reevie were going to do when I didn’t show up on Seventhday as I usually did. Even without any unforeseen complications, this mission was going to take weeks. I felt bad, but there was simply nothing I could do about it.
My duties as a co-chief of Sandstorm had begun to slip over the last year. Now that Dakaran was being pushed into service, the king had insisted that my time spent in the Lancers go from part-time to something more permanent.
It wasn’t a choice I wanted to make, but one I had a feeling was coming. My co-chiefs also suspected as much and had begun to plan ahead, starting by limiting my duties at Sandstorm. I was still expected to try to make Sapphire’s dinner parties when I could, since they were the main source of income for our tribe, but with me being required to stay in the garrison, it was difficult. She was doing a remarkable job following Noph’s example and building a network of contacts who used our tribe to facilitate anything from secret meetings to undisclosed shipments of goods, and a wide variety of other arrangements, just so long as they weren’t of a more personal nature.
After Kore’s initial attempt to take over our tribe, and the consequence of that choice left him bedridden for nearly a month, Rockslide had kept mostly to its own borders, at least where Sandstorm was concerned.
Wildfire was a different story. It seemed neither Red nor Kore could make it through a single Guild meeting without nearly coming to blows.
If it were up to me, I would have liked to have found a way to get rid of the tribes altogether. Integrate them through the orphanage into proper homes, or possibly use Queen Ellise’s funding to help get them apprenticeships. The queen had been very good about keeping her word to Master Fentin and Mistress Orilla. The orphanage was running at capacity, and our work with the local merchants was proving rather profitable as well, not only for the kids, but also for the merchants. There was even talk of opening a second orphanage.
The queen had gone above and beyond her initial offer of a monthly stipend and arranged for members of the aristocracy to sponsor kids themselves, encouraging them to put their charitable coin to good use. I was surprised by how many of the upper class were willing to participate, having always looked on them as nothing but conceited, selfish stuck-ups. Many turned out to be very generous.
A groaning noise below brought me out of my musings, and I barely got a chance to smile before whoever did it was snoring once again, blending his voice with the others. Even Dakaran looked at peace, probably one of the only times he ever did.
I yawned, finding it rather hard to keep awake myself. After a while, my eyes drooped, and I shook my head, even going so far as to pat my cheek to keep awake. I’d gotten little sleep on the journey so far. I never did well away from my own bed, my own routines. It was hard to sleep when your surroundings were constantly changing. In fact, the only thing that seemed to stay the same was my roommates’ snoring.
The clouds passed overhead. Whatever storm had been brewing had evidently gone around us. The moon was only half-full, but more than bright enough to light the open land we were traveling through. I could see movement off to the west, possibly wolves or coyotes. Whatever they were, they didn’t seem to know we were here, or care.
I yawned again, then shook my head. Sleep was doing its best to take over, and I was doing my best to fight it. I thought it was winning. I raised my hand and stared at the black onyx ring on my first finger and the white rune crest at its center. A smile broke across my face.
Four years I’d been waiting to wear it. Four years it had taken before my fingers had thickened enough. My father had said the day I could wear this ring was the day I would be considered an Upakan warrior. It was still a little loose on a couple of my fingers, but I found that I could wear it quite comfortably on my first finger without fear of it slipping off.
I wondered what my family was doing. I wondered if my father would be proud of the man I’d become. There were times when I found it difficult to remember their faces, which scared me. I didn’t want to lose those memories.
“You ready to get some sleep?”
I startled from my perch, nearly falling off the side as I turned to find Barthol climbing up over the rocks to join me.
I took a deep breath to steady my nerves. “You’re getting quieter by the day. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were Upakan trained. Oh, wait, I guess you were.”
Barthol chuckled and took a seat beside me, letting his long legs hang over the side. Even with my growth spurt, Barthol still stood a good head and a half taller, and twice as wide in the chest. We sat in silence a while before I finally noticed him staring.
He pointed at my chin, then rubbed his own thick black beard. “I like it.”
“You do?” I asked, rubbing at the growth on my face. “You don’t think it looks strange?”
“Makes you look older.”
I smiled. I had always wanted a jawline beard, ever since seeing Captain Talbot’s the day we had sparred in front of the garrison. It had taken me nearly six months to grow it long enough to be noticeable, but I had finally managed it, and to be honest I was quite proud of the way it had turned out. I looked at least nineteen or twenty, even though I was only halfway through my seventeenth year.
“The other lancers look at me different now that I have it. Like I actually belong. I don’t get mistaken for a simple runner anymore.”
“Who are you kidding?” Barthol said with a grin. “You’ll never belong.”
“Speak for yourself.”
He smiled. “I was.”
I yawned and looked back down at the dwindling fire. “Guess I’ll turn in.”
Barthol nodded. “Get some sleep while you can. No telling when you’ll get another chance.”
I bid him good night and climbed down from my perch and back to where the others lay around the fire. I threw a couple more logs on top, then crawled into my bedding between Stumpy and Dakaran. Dakaran was the only one not snoring. It didn’t take long before my own drowsiness won out, and I drifted off.
I woke to a hand on my shoulder.
I groaned as I peeked through my lids to see the sky lightening in the distance. The stars were all but gone. “I am now, I suppose.”
Dakaran grunted. “Good. What’s for breakfast? I’m starving.”
I wanted to roll over and pull my blanket over my head, but we needed to get a move on. The sooner we reached the capital city of Ecrin, the sooner we could rescue the ambassador and his wife. We hadn’t been gone a few weeks, and I was already missing Aramoor.