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Kingfisher: Slave to Honor

 

a magical realism / medieval fantasy series

Dear Agent or Publisher,

The last six years writing the Wycaan Master series have been a lot of fun and I may yet return one day to the world of Odessiya. To be honest, I feel a little guilty turning my back on the characters having had such a definitive influence on their destinies. Some have been known to grumble and I need to remind them they would not be where they are if not for me.

Between the third and fourth books, I took a break to write a new story, an adult medieval fantasy that enabled me to engage in more complex, darker characters, and edgier plots and subplots. The manuscript has worked its way twice through the Berkeley Writers Group  (they are very forgiving!) to provide the cleanest possible manuscript.

Below is a brief synopsis and the first four chapters. I am happy to send more information upon request. I have written a 2nd and 3rd book in the series, as well as a prequel about one of the most enigmatic characters. I am in this for the long run. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions. I also hold all rights to the Wycaan Master series.

 

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Alon

Kingfisher: Slave to Honor (120,000 words). 

Bishmahir is a deeply flawed hero. Trained by monks to be a noble leader and serve an emperor, he is now consumed by revenge and fury as he tracks the slave trade across a continent to rescue his incarcerated sons. Leaving a trail of dead slave traders in his wake, he arrives in Cassia, a volatile country ruled by the Lancecross family, but run on the hard currency of slavery.

When he rescues a young prince from thieves, Bishmahir becomes embroiled in political mire and must decide between searching for his sons and trying to prevent a civil war that will result in the senseless slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent lives. In cultivating the potential he sees in young Rowan Lancecross to become an ethical king, he just might banish the guilt he feels for the homeland he left in ruins.

Brynn, leader of the gang of thieves, aims more than a crossbow’s quarrel at Bishmahir’s heart. Her love and humor will help Bishmahir to slowly recover his humanity. But her past is dark and painful, her humor and sexuality masks mental as well as visible scars. Brynn does what she must in a cruel world to survive until she finds in Bishmahir a genuine chance at romance, but one fraught with danger and risk.

At the other end of Cassia, a young girl does not fit in. Anja resists the enigmatic world of the abbey but is drawn to the dark promise of her growing power and skills as a ruthless warrior. Violently torn from the safe, ancient school, an overriding wave of anger and a craving for revenge sets Anja on a path to destroy the Lancecross family.

At stake is the danger of civil war in the hands of a power hungry and violent patriarchy, while somewhere in Cassia, two young slaves surreptitiously look over their shoulder for the father they hope will one day find and rescue them.

 

Chapter 1

I have unleashed thousands of arrows on the battlefield but never from the deck of a swaying ship. My thick ash bow creaks in anticipation as I draw back the bowstring and peer along the arrow’s shaft. The feathered fletching grazes my cheek, begging to be released, but I wait to see the whites of the pirate’s eyes. My target is a huge brute of a man waving a curved cutlass and braying for his ship to get close enough to our small stout Argosy trading vessel. I steady my feet. He must never board this ship.

 

“Blessed Lir,” a weather-beaten old salt wheezes next to me. “They be twice our crew in number.”

 

There are few fighters among this crew. Most are simple, warm-hearted sailors, and I have become attached to them as we cross the sea to the land of Cassia. The old sailor fumbles his arrow and it falls to the deck.

 

“Hold steady,” I say. “They won’t be as many when we cross blades.”

 

“Archers!” cries our captain, her speckled snowy-grey hair similar in color to the sails billowing above us. “Let the Easterner shoot first. Wait for my order.” Leaning close to my ear, she whispers. “An accurate shot will buoy my crew’s fragile morale.”

 

I nod. I have selected a dozen targets. “Let them hold their fire until I empty my quiver.”

 

“You won’t have long, my friend.”

 

“I don’t need…”

 

My bowstring sings as I release my first arrow. I do not wait to see the man collapse. Already a second arrow is nocked and released as my mind enters a detached clarity.

 

The pirate captain barks as he sees me. “The black bastard! Take him do–oooow!”

 

His voice ends in an abrupt squeal as my arrow pierces his throat and our crew cheers. My quiver is soon empty and the enemy pared down by twelve. I am irritated. I had fourteen arrows.

 

“Now,” I say.

 

“Fire!” The captain’s command sends a wave of black arrows arching up towards the sleek pirate ship.

 

After several volleys, there is a pregnant lull as the distance between the ships closes. Then the captain unsheathes a stout sword and cries to her crew. “Prepare to be boarded. Follow The Six.”

 

The Six are half a dozen huge men who serve as her loyal, permanent crew. They are all strong, bawdy, and completely devoted to her. I suspected at first that they were the reason why no drafted sailor questioned a woman being captain – a first impression quickly dispelled. She exudes respect, walks the deck with ease, and commands her crew with a stern, but fair hand.

 

The cabin boy hovers near me and I smell piss. His eyes are wide and his face drips with beady sweat. “It’ll be okay,” I say, the father in me rising, and I pass him my bow and quiver. “Stay below and keep these safe. You have no place in this fight.”

 

He glances at the captain. She nods, but the tilt of her head suggests she does not appreciate someone else giving orders on her ship. I apologize. Taking charge is a deeply ingrained habit for I have led armies and ruled a country under my emperor, my Sun-Above-The-Mountains. But that life is over, and I must focus on the fight at hand.

 

There won’t be room to swing a broadsword on this small, and soon to be, chaotic deck. I draw my curved dirk, Throatslitter, embracing the cold ivory hilt. I carry many weapons, but this is my favorite. In my other hand, my battle sickle hisses with anticipation as I flick it.

 

The Six spread across the starboard side of the ship. They appear calm while the men around them stare wide-eyed with fear. I study the pirate ship now looming before us, and plant my feet directly opposite where their crew is extending a gangplank. Our sailors move aside, relieved to let me through.

 

The boats thud together. Someone has taken command and barks orders, as half a dozen men throw grappling irons with ropes and swing across. A pirate scrambles along the gangplank, screaming an indistinguishable war cry. It stops abruptly as he blinks and stares up at me blocking his path to glory and plunder.

 

“Long way from home, yeh black devil.” He tries to sound defiant, but I detect a quiver in his voice. “Come all this way fer one final swim?”

 

I stare back, saying nothing, and he blinks several times. Everyone watches as he swings his sword in a skewed arc. I brush it aside with Throatslitter before slicing through his neck with my sickle. His head rolls down and I hear it plop into the ocean. Blood fountains from his severed neck but, curiously, his body remains erect. I raise my right leg in a side swing kick and send it crashing down. As my foot returns to the narrow plank, I step forward … and the battle mist descends.

 

It is always this way. My movements are deeply ingrained from decades of relentless training and I need only focus on the techniques of my adversary. I plow my way through a morass of fighting men, barely distinguishing friend from foe. But most of the pirates have boarded our ship and I return to fight aboard the Argosy. Then two members of The Six flank me and we become an organized wedge swelled by a grateful crew. The remaining pirates retreat and our men swarm across. I follow, but my battle fury has subsided and my interest is only to minimize casualties on our side. Blood congeals on my clothes and skin. Not mine, I think, but I must wait to confirm.

 

I have seen the revenge meted upon vanquished aggressors after countless battles. Men once cowering lash out at their routed attackers with extreme violence. Bones are broken, limbs slashed, and bodies thrown overboard. Only the cook is spared and roughly dragged back to our ship. He had better not burn any food.

 

I lean against the railing near the pirate ship’s bow hearing the occasional clash of steel mingle with curses and pleas. The sun burns down and, as I wipe my face on my sleeve, I sense danger. The contorted face of the first man I had shot, the one who had brayed for blood, looms over me. The broken shaft of my arrow still protrudes from his shoulder and there is blood around his lips. He holds the other half of the arrow, waving the splintered edge in my face.

 

“Want your fucking arrow back? So sorry I broke it.” When I do not reply, he continues. “Thought one little needle would prick Big Rufus? Snapped it, I did. Now I’m gonna snap your neck, you black devil.”

 

He begins to lunge, but stops when I do not raise my weapons.

 

“It’s over. You lost,” I keep my tone flat. “There’s no one left fighting. Why die needlessly?”

 

He freezes. I suspect few are equal to him in physical stature and even fewer address him without fear.

 

“Ain’t worried about dying. Pirating doesn’t offer itself as a long-term profession.”

 

I frown at his vocabulary. “You’re an educated man. I can hear it. Why’re you doing this?”

 

He stares, licks his lips, and one eye twitches. “There comes a point, black man, when you kill enough men, fuck enough women, that–”

 

“What happened to you?”

 

The twitching increases and his chest heaves. He is losing control. “I was once an ambitious officer in a huge fucking army, following orders that haunt me every night. I–”

 

“We’ve walked the same path.” I stand and face him, now fascinated. “It doesn’t need to end like this. We–”

 

“It ends this way! It must!” Spittle foams at the corners of his mouth. “You can’t escape what –” His eyes drill into mine and his expression changes. “You’re haunted too. I-I see it. How do you keep…going?”

 

I glance around noting our crew standing and staring. This is absurd. No one moves to intervene. “I have people to live for. I still have a mission.”

 

“A woman?” He spits blood. “She’s probably fucking some other bastard by now.”

 

“She’s dead. But we have sons and they are slaves. I must find and free them.”

 

He nods. “Yeah, makes sense.” Then there is a wave of relentless twitching and his shaggy head shudders. “Fuck ’em though. Fuck ’em all. You die now.”

 

“You don’t sound like you mean it. You want me to kill you?”

 

“I don’t fucking care either way. Look what I’ve become. Look what’s left.”

 

He raises a short-shafted axe and the sun catches it. I spin away and my battle sickle rises to block him. I would like to draw my sword to fight such a strong man, but I still hold the battle sickle and dirk.

 

He advances and shows considerable agility for his size and the fact he is wounded, wielding the axe from hand to hand. When he sees I can repel him, he draws a second axe. I realize we have moved to the center of the ship and the crew make way, watching. It is surreal. No one raises a blade or bow. It feels like a final rite.

 

“Last chance,” I say. “It doesn’t have to end like–”

 

“FUCK YOU! Fuck you for not being…devoured…for not giving in. Fuck you for surviving.”

 

His next swing, with his right hand, is erratic and instead of blocking him with my left, I shift inside and duck, the curve of my battle sickle latching onto the handle just below the axe head. I step in and unbalance him leveraging his own momentum. He staggers and I swing a round kick that sends him spinning into the ropes that surround the edge of the ship. He doubles over and grunts. Then the tension from his weight on the ropes springs him back toward me. I crouch, the tips of my knife and battle sickle on the wooden deck, and then thrusting my legs into the wooden planks, I leap into the air. Throatslitter slashes up under his chin. Bright red blood spurts up to ignite in the harsh sunlight. He twists round and collapses back onto the rope.

 

I step forward and grab his matted hair, wrenching his head up to look at me. His nose is bloody and broken, and his eyes bulge.

 

“Fuck you,” he whispers, and I nod, accepting it as a sign of respect.

 

“Find peace.” I crouch and link my left foot around both his legs. As I rise, I flick him over the side of the boat and watch his body hit the water and disappear.

 

The crew cheers, but I have no enthusiasm for the victory. That man could one day be me. One day very soon.

 

 

Chapter 2

Sweet Mother. Breasts? When did that happen?

 

Anja stared at her reflection in the mirror, something she rarely did, and shook her head. She hated when the Sisters made her wear girl clothes and she wasn’t happy about having breasts. She couldn’t climb a tree or straddle a horse in a dress or long skirt, and breasts would get in the way when she sparred with sword or staff. Dresses were stupid: breasts inconvenient.

 

“Oooh. Look at you in a tight dress. Someone’s becoming a woman,” Beth cooed.

 

Anja’s arm covered her chest and she grimaced at her own reaction, but her friend either didn’t see or ignored the gesture. There was little privacy in the abbey and Anja was irritated even if it was Beth, her best friend, who had disturbed her reverie. Beth was large, plump, and had difficulty sparring and following the rigorous exercise routines, which was undoubtedly because she had big breasts. Still, Beth was going to be an excellent healer and had already completed all the training for their year and the next two. She spent extra time in the apothecary, helping to make herbal mixtures and salves, which were sold throughout the north of Cassia.

 

“Want me to draw eye marker on you?”

 

“No,” Anja glared at her friend.

 

Beth went silent but soon recovered. She did not do silent for long. “You had such a pensive look on your face. What were you thinking?”

 

Anja sighed. “About my mother. It was at this time of year that she left us. Went off for a Heart of Winter ceremony like the one we’ll celebrate tonight and never returned. I don’t remember, I was still crawling.”

 

“What happened to her?”

 

“I don’t know. Father would never say, but he always knew she would leave, just like he knew the Sisters of the Night would come for me too. He had warned that everything would change once my brothers were conscripted. He was right.”

 

“Wow. My parents never knew the Sisters would come for me. They just turned up. Were you scared?”

 

“No. Fear’s for wimpy girls, not the sister of the Brampton twins.” It was true. Her father had told her there was nothing to fear and she trusted him. She didn’t want to be with a bunch of girls, of course, but her father had promised she would learn to fight with sword and bow. He had told her that she would be trained to disappear, to embrace darkness and to become one with the earth and he proudly declared she would become a powerful woman, a strong healer, and maybe a leader, just like her mother.

 

“I thought I was going to join my mother,” Anja added as an afterthought and gazed back into the mirror. “That never happened.”

 

Her mother? Anja had no actual memory of the woman and had to rely on her father’s paintings. He had spent scarce coin on canvasses, brushes and paints, knowing his wife would one day leave.

 

Anja recalled one painting showing her mother’s long, black hair swirling behind her in the wind as she rode Suskie. Another was a close up of her face as she aimed a bow and arrow, the sunlight catching her alabaster complexion. These portraits were all he had to remember her by and to show their children. He had spent hours standing behind the easel pouring his love into preserving that physical memory.

 

“You look like her, no? I remember you saying something…” Beth’s voice trailed off as Anja pulled out a locket from her dress. The gold disc was attached to a chain, but she never wore it, frightened a Sister might confiscate it. “Ooh, you never showed me that,” she said peering over Anja’s shoulder.

 

“It’s a miniature of a painting my Pa showed only me. It was my favorite. That’s why he made this for me to take. See, my mother is naked, sitting in the big oak chair, nursing a baby, me. My father said I would suckle for hours, giggling between swallows, making both of them laugh. Hearing our laughter was the most beautiful music to ever fill his ears.”

 

“That’s so sweet.” Beth said and then promptly withered under Anja’s glare. Anja didn’t do sweet…ever! Beth, to her credit, recovered. “Y-you should wear it tonight around your neck. No one will notice.”

 

Anja sighed as she peered into the mirror. She never shared secrets like this. Sister Vernana would say it must be the influence of this being the darkest night of the year and the ceremony they were about to participate in. Anja shook her head to clear all the mushy feelings. She was thin, tall for her age, and shared her mother’s dark black hair and pale skin. Kids in the village had taunted Anja about her complexion, claiming she was a ghost, though of course they never said this when her brothers were around.

 

“I do look like her,” Anja said and felt her throat tighten.

 

She had also inherited her mother’s combative temper according to her father. He reminded her of this whenever she got into trouble, which was quite often.

 

The Sisters would all wear black dresses while the acolytes and students wore dark grey at the ceremony. Some of the older girls would wear black paint around their eyes and sometimes around their lips, though that was frowned upon. Anja wondered why these girls would want to draw on their faces in the first place.

 

“I bet your mother was such a lady when she wore a black dress and eye paint. It would so contrast with her pale skin,” Beth said. “You too. Please let me–”

 

“No,” Anja snapped and then, inexplicably, swished her dress. “Oof! I wish I didn’t have to go to this stupid ceremony.”

 

Beth winced. “I love the Heart of Winter ceremony. It’s so powerful.”

 

“Really? We will honor that darkness by lighting up the night sky with blazing bonfires. How does a fire honor the darkness? Seems more likely to banish it.”

 

Beth giggled. “I remember you saying that once before. Wasn’t that the first time you got birched?”

 

Anja winced. She had difficulty sitting for a week after rolling her eyes at the esoteric lecture. She would not do that again in a hurry.

 

“Think of the feast if nothing else,” Beth suggested. “There’ll be baked potatoes and other roots, and maybe fish if the fishermen caught enough.”

 

The villagers sold their produce to the abbey and would seek healing, protection, and justice. But they never lingered and were not invited to stay. Anja thought they feared the Sisters and wondered why no one discouraged their fear. When she asked, her teachers were clear that a Sister should know her place in the community. She was there to serve and protect the people, and should never exploit the position she held. Anja was fascinated by this unexpressed power, but further questions were discouraged.

 

“Anja! Anja! Are you listening? I’m telling you, everyone’s talking about it. She returned last night. She’s in the abbey! I’m so excited. I saw her. She passed me near the Abbess’s office and actually gave me a nod.”

 

“Who? What are you babbling about?”

 

“Why, Sister Elanore, silly. She’s been gone for two years. There are rumors she was in Tartessia advising the king himself.”

 

“The queen, more likely,” Anja said. “You know the Sisters prefer to cast their nets on women rather than men.”

 

“Just sharing what I heard. Some students think she isn’t staying long either, that she’s only here to send some of the younger Sisters out on missions. Things are happening. The lords of Cassia dance.”

 

“I wish she’d choose me,” Anja said. “I want out of here.”
 

“What? How can you say that? Here we’re safe. We have a warm bed, hot food, and we learn so much. Do you know how much healing lore is kept in the abbey? I could stay here forever and never learn everything.”

 

Anja stroked her friend’s arm. “Oh Beth, we’re such good friends–”

 

“Best friends,” Beth admonished.

 

“Best friends,” Anja repeated, “but we’re so different. I want to ride a horse and see new lands. I want to train with warriors and test myself against the best.”

 

“You are very good with weapons, not like me. You can beat most of the students now, except maybe Trish and Meredith. Still they’re much older than you and allowed to eat meat. But there’s more to life than fighting.”

 

Anja looked back into the mirror and sighed. “I just wish I could be free.”

 

She felt her friend staring at her. Then Beth shook her head. “Oh Anja. Be careful what you wish for. Sometimes wishes come true.”

 

Anja nodded and looked back into the mirror as her friend waddled off. Once alone, Anja put the locket around her neck. She held it in her palm and kissed it before letting it fall between her breasts. I’ll find you, mother. One day I’ll leave here and find you. And then I’ll want answers.

 

Chapter 3

The crew carries chests of jewels and coins onto the Argosy and, once laid in the center of the deck, the captain orders them back to the pirate ship for weapons and other more practical supplies. A short while later, I smell the dense odor of burning oil and hear the crackle of wood being consumed. Black smoke swirls through cracks in warped planks seeking the blue sky.

 

We stand in silence and watch as the pirate ship becomes engulfed in flames and then, with a sharp hiss, the main body sinks under the ocean. Only the smell of charred bodies remains. When I look back, the crew is standing in a circle. I join them and see three piles, one each of coins, treasures, and weapons. In addition, there are six small heaps of coins and a few gems with a man standing by each.

 

“We fought well,” the captain says. “We defeated pirate scum who outnumbered us two-to-one. We were victorious.” Cheers ring out. She waits and then raises a hand when it does not subside. “But we suffered our losses,” she continues, her voice soft but authoritative. She looks at one of the men standing over a small pile. “Who do you remember?”

 

“I stand for young Jenkins, Capt’n. ’e lives…lived just down the street from me. ’e ’as a wife and two little ’uns. ’e’ll get ’is portion and me wife an’ I’ll look out for ’em best we can.”

 

“Swear it before this crew.”

 

“I swear it, Capt’n. On me watery grave, I do.”

 

The captain turns to the second man who likewise swears to bring the coins to the family of the man he represents. It is a solemn process; one I have no doubt bonds her crew. There is an earnest volunteer for each dead sailor.

 

The captain then lifts her arm in my direction and praises my courage. Men nod, testify to my prowess, and confess they owe me their lives. But I recall nothing beyond my own blurred fury.

 

“Yeh saved me arse back there,” one man says, seeing my confusion.

 

“Thought I’s a gonna when I fell,” another added. “Yeh stepped in front o’ me ’till I found me feet.”

 

“I ’ad three of ’em cornered, but was glad yeh ’elped,” a young freckled-faced man says, his forehead streaked with sweat, and a stain on his breeches rapidly drying. There is a round of laughter and taunts that I shouldn't have rescued him.

 

The captain then offers me first share of the treasure. I take some gold coins, a few small blades, and replenish my quiver. I also select a small one-handed crossbow, which conveniently comes with quarrels, oil, and cleaning brush. I have taken less than expected, and this is met with approval. Many know of my quest and those with families, in particular, hold a healthy respect for my obsession.

 

But all I want is to reach the land of Cassia and search for my sons. No captain or crew member looks out for them.

 

****

The winds are generous and now, a few weeks since our clash with the pirates, the captain leans on the rails next to me. “Tomorrow we enter Lancecross Harbor. Port assessors will board to list and tax our cargo. They’ll also inspect our passengers.

 

“Tonight, you’ll be taken by rowboat to a cove not far from here where we smuggle anything we’re meant to deliver in secret. I can’t vouch for your safety beyond there. The whole area teems with smugglers, pirates, soldiers and others, all of whom you would be loath to meet.

 

“Head north with haste and you’ll reach Lancewood Forest before light. Only then should you rest.”

 

“Will I be safe there?”

 

The captain snorts, the sound of her voice salty. “I fear you’ll never be safe. Those obsessed with a quest rarely live to see it realized. I’ve told you I think there’s little chance your sons survived. I doubt less than a third of the slaves ever make it to market, and if your sons are anything like their father, I doubt they came meekly.”

 

I stare into the water, knowing that the brooding will soon consume me. Perhaps the captain senses this as she lays a hand on my arm.

 

“From your stories, I suspect you should be dead a dozen times already, no? If you have learned to survive and adapt, then maybe your sons have too. Do they know their father? Do they appreciate his past and understand his talents? If so, my friend, they will never stop glancing over their shoulders.”

 

She pauses and stares ahead of us. “Cassia is a big and complex land. There are twelve kingdoms, each with a family that will have you believe they’ve ruled for ten thousand years. I know little of those further north, or whether they have slaves. I fear that each kingdom does and that you must slowly work your way through Cassia.” Again she faces me. “May I offer some advice?”

 

I smile. “Have you not been doing so already?”

 

“I’m impressed with your swordsmanship, your accuracy with the bow, and your ruthlessness with that dirk. But it won’t be enough. You’re big, black and your eyes are slanted in a land where people are pale and their eyes round. You’ll stand out and be noticed. You’ll ask questions and others, in turn, will ask theirs. If you mete out your own justice, others will mete out theirs. If you openly challenge the slavers, you will make many rich and powerful enemies.

 

She calls to a nearby man with instructions I do not understand about the sails. I see her eyes follow him for a moment as he goes about his work. Then she continues our conversation.

 

“Cassia has a hierarchy. There are knights and lords, advisors and kings. Use your non-fighting talents. Better a lord offers you your sons in gratitude than you spill blood and perhaps lose all your lives. This land is rooted in traditions and chivalry and, in this respect, has not progressed in centuries. Take time to learn it and then use it to your advantage. You should sleep now. The night will be long.”

 

She pats my arm and walks away. I ponder her words as I retire to my hammock. A long night awaits, and I must evade the nightmares if I am to find rest.

 

****

The moon is three-quarters full but mercifully masked by thick cloud cover as the rowboat silently leaves the ship’s side. Thunderclap, a huge sailor and one of The Six, rows me to shore. He is a mute and very loyal to the captain. When the pirates attacked, he never left her side, dispensing death in clinical silence.

 

His huge tattooed forearms quiver as he strains against the oars. My eyes are fixated on a bare-breasted and well-endowed mermaid swaying a strange and oddly inviting dance as Thunderclap flexes and releases his biceps. On his other arm is an ominous old hag who, I am sure, is alternately laughing and smirking at me in rhythm with Thunderclap’s effort.

 

I finger a leather bag the captain gave me. It contains an oilskin with a map of Cassia and a book describing the histories of the different kingdoms. She also ensured my various purses were all full and continued to insist this was inadequate payment for what I did to protect her ship. The crew also bid me a warm farewell.

 

When the bottom of the boat scrapes on gravel, Thunderclap jumps out and pulls us to land. I thank him and he puts a heavy hand on my shoulder and squeezes it. The crew claim the mute sailor speaks to them with his eyes and in that moment, I believe them. I thank him, and he nods as he points for me to make haste.

 

I traverse the beach in quick strides. The clouds are thinning and the prospect of moonlight is worrying. When it does finally break through a good while later, I see the silhouette of the forest ahead. I quicken my pace and soon the trees close in around me. Relieved to have not encountered anyone, I welcome the greying dawn and reach a river. I find a small natural cave beneath a huge tree where the river’s insistent erosion has exposed half its roots, curl up in my cloak and fall asleep.

 

 

Chapter 4

Jarring voices, too close for comfort, immediately wake me. I squint at the sunlight stabbing between the tree roots and try to ascertain how many men are involved.

 

“Since when does a lord travel wivout money on ’im, eh?”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, and since when does a young lord travel alone?” Another voice chimes in. “Shouldn’t yeh ’ave guards an’ squires an’ all?”

 

“Maybe I do.” He sounds confident and young, the clipped articulation of his words mocking those he addresses. “Knights could be riding up behind me as we speak, or maybe I have archers hiding in the woods. Perhaps I have a demon army hiding under the roots of this very tree. I advise you to check.”

 

What?

 

“I fink ’e’s all alone. Run off an’ ’ad ’is pleasure wiv a tavern ’hore. Look, me lord, there’re five ov us an’ one ov yeh. So, if yeh wanna live, give over yeh coin. Fink it a toll fer crossing that bridge there, eh?”

 

“But my father owns that bridge. He owns all the bridges for a day’s ride and beyond. How about I let you have a week’s free crossing, generosity of the great House of Lancecross?"

 

I think of the captain’s advice to find allies in the noble houses and silently check my weapons.

 

"Get ’im off his ’orse, boys,” a woman’s throaty voice calls. Her tone suggests she is in charge. “There’ll be ovver riders along soon.”

 

A few shouts are exchanged, iron unsheathed, and then two blades clash. There is a grunt and a squeal as I step out onto the road. Facing me are four disheveled men of different ages and size. Nearby, a young woman with flaming red hair leans nonchalantly on a bow that is also red. A full quiver hangs from a shapely hip.

 

“He suggested you check under the tree,” I say, keeping my voice deep. “Demon army, I believe?” I draw my sword, slowly enjoying the dramatic rasp, while the curved battle sickle is already in my other hand. It has a beautiful, dark rosewood handle, with a black leather band woven around it, and a green gem on the butt of the hilt. The blade is engraved with Iphezian weave. I took it from a man in Iphezia who had vehemently objected to a black man walking on his side of the street. I like to think I helped him change his mind since he won’t ever object again.

 

“Just the one ov yeh?” a pock-faced boy says, though his voice squeaks.

 

“Four of us,” I correct him, nodding to the young nobleman. “This daring knight, and my friends Mountain Steel,” I flick my sword twice and all hear its ominous hiss as it slashes air, “and Iphezia.” The battle sickle hadn’t previously been named, but I like the sound of it.

 

“I see only a black man and this pup,” a red-faced, bearded man says as he swings a hammer at the young nobleman.

 

It misses, but hits his horse’s rump causing it to whinny and bolt. The young man squeals and barely manages to hold on. The horse gallops onto the bridge then stops as the woman fluently fires an arrow and the boy falls, rather regally I think, from his horse and into the river. We all watch the splash as a duck flies off squawking its disgust. The river is very shallow and the lad seems to float with the current. He is either buoyed by a bubble of trapped air under his tangled cloak or held above water by the riverbed. Thankfully, his head faces the sky.

 

The woman turns back to me, another arrow already nocked. “We can finish yeh wivout...” her distinct green eyes stare at the small one-handed crossbow I took from the pirates and now point at her. Iphezia is sheathed. She flashes me a beautiful smile. “Or we can be on our way. Come boys, we ’ave a lot to do today.”

 

Without another word, they retreat into the woods, shuffling backward as they keep their eyes on my crossbow. I watch carefully, fearing they might yet jump me or worse, the redhead might shoot me from behind a tree. I hear the young man struggling in the water and wade in after him. He is heavy, laden down with wet clothes and weaponry, but the current is not strong and the river shallow. I drag him to the riverbank.

 

He has the arrowhead and splintered shaft protruding from his shoulder and there is a nasty gash on his head probably from the fall. I strip off his cloak and weapons before wrenching out the arrowhead. This produces a guttural cry and a considerable amount of blood. I tear his cloak, noting the fine material, and staunch the blood flow.

 

I look behind quickly sensing a presence. The redhead is perched on the tree root, watching me. My hand goes to draw Throatslitter but she holds up both hands, palms facing me. Her bow is slung safely across her back.

 

“If I’d wanted to kill yeh, I’d ’ave done so by now.”

 

“So why are you here?” I glance around.

 

“I’m alone,” she says, “and curious.”

 

She pulls a stray strand of red hair behind one ear and smiles. Scintillating green eyes sparkle at me, and I find the freckles on her cheeks enchanting She has most of her teeth, which flash as she smiles.

 

“Curious?” I ask.

 

“Thinking of moving on. A girl doesn’t last long alone. These boys are okay, but not the greatest company. I fucked Therno, their so-called leader, a few times and then took over the band. Next time ’e came for meh, I ‘ad one dirk at ’is throat and the other at ’is balls. We made a secret pact that we’d let the others think ’e’s still sticking me and I wouldn’t cut ’is balls off. It worked well and occasionally I threw ’im a bone to keep ’im well trained whenever I wanted it. But I’m bored and, like I said, ready for a change. They’ll be fine without meh.”

 

The boy groans and I pour some water on the wound and clean it, all the while keeping an eye on the woman. Then I take the small skin of visk I sip at night and splash a few drops on the bloody skin. He gasps and his eyes bulge.

 

“You’ll live,” I say. “Lie still and rest."

 

“No more of that…”

 

“It cleans your wound, but I only have a little and enjoy it too much to waste on the likes of you.”

 

I help him get more comfortable and offer a carrot. I have little food with me. I throw one to the redhead.

 

“Thank yeh. I should get back to mah boys. I’ll leave ’em at dusk. We were gonna raid an ’amlet further north. I’ll send ’em off and return to yeh at night. Try not to shoot meh when I come.”

 

“We’ll see,” I say and can’t help but enjoy her raspy laugh.

 

“Hey,” the boy calls to her. “You shot me.”

 

She offers a mischievous grin extenuating her dimples. “Aye, but I didn’t kill yeh. Must like yeh I reckon.”

 

They both laugh and I am confused. Cassia seems a strange land to me right now. I watch her jump nimbly from the tree root and walk off. She swings her small hips, on purpose I’m sure, and both the prince and I are intrigued. The boy crunches his carrot and winces.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“My head.”

 

“You took quite a knock. Chomp quietly.”

 

“I haven’t thanked you yet,” he says a few moments later.

 

I nod. “Are you really a nobleman?”

 

“A prince actually. My father is brother to the king of Cassia. I am third or fourth in line to the throne, depending whether you count women. It’s complicated. You’ve not been in this land long, right?”

 

“Just arrived,” I reply.

 

“What brings you here?”

 

I hesitate. Sharing my story with sailors is one thing but I fear the slave traders hearing that I am now in Cassia will complicate my search. Still, if he is who he says he is, this young man could access the important information I need to find my sons. Again, I recall the captain’s wise words.

 

“You don’t have to tell me for now,” the young prince says. “But at least share your name?”

 

“Bishmahir,” I say and he screws up his face.

 

“That won’t work in Cassia,” he stares at the river. “We should call you … Princefisher, for your noble aid.”

 

I find his grin engaging. “Do you not aspire one day to become king?”

 

“I would,” the boy's nod becomes a wince and he clearly regrets the movement. Then his expression hardens and his voice steels. “Yes, I will one day rule Cassia.”

 

I see a flash of metallic blue and orange dive into the water. I point and we both see the regal bird resurface, a small fish wiggling in its beak. “Then I prefer to take the name Kingfisher.”

 

He puffs up his chest preparing to make a proclamation.  “An excellent choice. I, Prince Rowan of the great House of Lancecross, welcome you, Master Kingfisher. The kingdom of Cassia awaits.”