It is way too early to be up and — checks watch — I’ve been up more than an hour already, thanks to BratCat. So let’s start the day off with a mug of coffee and a snippet from Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2). I know I’ve posted an earlier version of this before but, with the book now available for pre-order, I thought I’d start regular snippets. So, here goes.
A cold wind, as cold as his master’s heart, whipped through the trees, stripping them of the few leaves still clinging to their branches. The moisture in the air felt like knives cutting through his exposed skin. His breath frosted on his beard, making each breath torture. With fingers stiff and swollen, Gareth adjusted the woolen scarf his wife had knitted for him a lifetime ago around his lower face. It might not be much but it was the best he could do for the moment.
If he did not find shelter soon, he feared for his survival. Under normal circumstances, the cold would be no problem for him. A simple spell and he would be as warm as he wanted. A second spell to warn off any predator thinking him easy prey could then follow. Such simple spells, ones even a youngster could master with a little work. Simple the spells might be, but they presented danger he dared not risk. Any magicker nearby would sense the energies being manipulated and that.
And that, he knew, could well lead to not only discovery but to death.
Since he had no desire to die until his very old age, he had only one choice. He had to endure the cold and hope to find shelter soon. Until then, he would ignore the cold seeping into his bones the best he could and pray no wolf, or worse, decided to make a meal of him.
Another gust of wind cut through the trees. Shivering, Gareth pulled his fur-lined cloak tighter around him. Then he reached up and readjusted the scarf wrapped around his lower face. When his good wife pressed it into his hands that last time, he had seen the fear reflected in her eyes. Even without him telling her, she knew they might never see one another again. Nothing he said would have reassured her, so he said nothing. He simply held her close for a moment and then he left, wondering if he would ever return to their comfortable home and the life he’d been forced to leave behind.
By the gods, he would find a way to return, assuming he did not freeze to death first.
He trudged forward, each step carefully placed on the snow-covered trail. Plodding along at his side, the dappled gelding whickered in ill-temper. It shook its head, pulling against the reins. Gareth knew the gelding liked the cold no more than he did. Yet another reason to find shelter before the temperature dropped any further. If he lost the gelding, his days truly were numbered
“Soon,” he soothed as he ran a hand down the gelding’s neck. “We’ll find someplace warm soon.”
As if in answer, mocking and bitter, a gust of wind almost knocked him from his feet. With a curse, he fought for balance. Damn the gods above and below. If only he had not answered the knock at his door a fortnight before. If he had ignored the knock, he would be warm and safe now instead of wondering if the next breath he drew would be his last.
Gareth drew a deep breath, wincing as the cold burned his lungs. He was a fool. Much as he wanted to believe he could have avoided this thrice-damned mission by ignoring the knock at the door, he could not have. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, he had known the summons would one day come. That was the price to pay for practicing the black arts. Blood magic was only part of his repertoire, one that would earn him a quick death should the Imperial courts learn of his activities. But should they ever discover his other talents, death would not come quickly enough.
Still, so many years had passed from that fateful day when the baron offered protection to the night a bare fortnight earlier when his life had been changed and, Gareth feared, not for the better. Years in which he had grown complacent, perhaps even over-confident his master would never call on him and his special abilities. Now he had to pay for those years of protection, no matter what the cost to him or those he cared for.
Slogging through the snow, Gareth knew the chances of successfully completing the task set for him were slim. Otherwise, he never would have been sent for. The baron preferred keeping him and his pets close to hand. Many times over the years, those pets had helped ferret out danger to his master and had brought Gareth rewards like most never dreamt of.
All that paled when compared to the knowledge of what the Baron would do should he fail in his mission, a mission Gareth never would have been forced to accept but for the failure of that bastard’s son, Wolf. Had the Baron asked his opinion sooner, Gareth would have told him not to trust anything so important to a skinwalker. Their kind was well-suited for violence and terror but not for stealth or patience. The bloodlust that marked skinwalkers all too often led to them making mistakes. The fact Wolf and his pack were now dead only validated Gareth’s concerns.
Not that such validation helped him now.
Nor did the knowledge that, even though Wolf and his pack might be dead, others would soon share their fate. Wolf’s failure to complete his mission meant the deaths of all those the skinwalker and his pack cared for. The baron did not accept failure and his punishment was swift and deadly. He would make examples of those who failed him, or their survivors, often killing them himself and then displaying their heads for all to see.
Gareth had no intention of letting that happen to his dear wife and children.
Nearing the tree line, he glanced across the open fields and training rings. Beyond them lay the Citadel. The home of the Order of Arelion had been built for easy defense. Resting atop a tall hill, almost a mesa, three sides formed cliffs leading down to the river. The fourth side, the side he currently surveyed, was nothing but open land, easily watched and guarded. Anyone approaching, either across the fields or by the trade road, would be seen long before they reached the main gates.
The baron knew that as well but cared not. He had given Gareth one order: watch the Citadel. Report who came and went and, should the opportunity arise, kill the girl.
All of which was much easier said than done, as Wolf and his pack discovered. At least Gareth had one tool Wolf had not. He had his pet.
At the thought of his only companion other than his horse, Gareth turned to the gelding. A slight smile touched his lips at the sight of the black raven perched on the pommel of the saddle. Except, if one looked closely enough, they would see it was not a raven. In fact, it was not even alive, not in the strictest sense of the word. The bird was a construct, something created from blood and magic. Gareth’s blood and magic, as well as the blood and bone of others, human and animal. Bound to Gareth, the construct was as much a part of his as was his heart or brain.
That alone was enough to turn his blood cold as he once again looked toward the Citadel. Whatever his master might do to him should he fail paled when he considered what the Order would do should they discover him spying on them. They would begin by destroying the construct and that would be akin to destroying a part of himself. It might be easier losing a hand or arm than to lose the construct in that manner.
The Order did not understand the glory and the power of blood magic. They were too closely bound to the Lord and Lady, too blinded by devotion to see the power they could wield if they would just allow themselves to stray a little from the Codes. Because of that, they would strip him of his magic, of all that made him. He had no doubt if he failed to answer their questions, they would imprison him – or worse. They might allow him to live, a paled shadow of himself, stripped of all magic, but his family would not be so lucky, if such an existence could be called lucky. His master would make sure his loved ones paid for his failure.
Tempting as it was to run, he knew better. He should have trusted his instincts when the messenger came, telling him the Baron wanted to see him. In that moment, every instinct screamed for Gareth to gather his family and run and hide. It had warned him not to open the door. But ego had overridden common sense and now he found himself in a situation with only two possible outcomes, a situation where death might be the best outcome he could hope for.
He could not dwell on that. If he did, he would fail. Cursing slightly, he shook off the doubts and gathered his thoughts. He had a job to do, one he would see to completion. No other outcome could be considered.
Standing in the shadows of the trees, he closed his eyes. The world seemed to shift under his feet. A moment later, he looked out of the construct’s eyes. He heard the sounds of the forest around them through the construct’s ears. It was time to set the raven to watch. Once he had, he could locate a safe place to set up camp and, hopefully, get warm.
Pulling his senses back to his body, Gareth opened his eyes and extended his left arm. He watched as the construct hopped onto his gloved fist, much as any well-trained living bird would. The raven cocked its head to one side as he held it close. The feathered head rubbed against his cheek and Gareth smiled slightly. The bond between them was strong and growing stronger. That meant the raven could keep watch on the Citadel while he kept out of sight. That was the best plan, the only plan, he had been able to come up with on such short notice. The Baron might not approve but his master was not the one risking life and limb in an attempt to keep an eye on the Order.
“You know what to do, my pet.” His gloved fingers caressed the construct’s head. “Watch them. Let me see any who come and go. Look for the girl. She is our target. Find her. Our lives depend on it.”
The construct nodded, and almost human-like gesture, and unfurled its wings. A moment later, Gareth lifted his arm and watched as the bird took flight. It would keep watch and let him know should trouble near. He might even get lucky and their target would show herself. Not that he expected it to be that easy. After all, she had managed to survive this long, despite everything his master had attempted to find her. But Gareth held out hope. He could do nothing else.
As the construct winged every closer to the Citadel, Gareth turned and moved deeper into the trees, the gelding pacing after him. If he wanted to be warm that night, he had best find some place to set up camp, especially since the sky showed every indication of more snow moving in.
Hopefully, there would be a cave nearby he could ensorcel, one where no one could see his fire or sense his magic. Then he would be safe to practice his craft and find a way to complete his mission without losing his life in the process.