Having fled Spinesend following a calamitous encounter atop one of the city's towers, Rew and his companions face a long journey across a dangerous land to the city of Carff, the seat of Prince Valchon. The treacherous spellcaster Alsayer fled there, along with Kallie Fedgley, but finding them without attracting the murderous gaze of the prince might be impossible.
During the journey, Rew and the others uncover sadistic plots by the princes against each other, and they garner the attention of the king himself. The younglings must sharpen their skills for what is to come, and Rew must command the courage to finally face his past.
In the third book of the King's Ranger series, the shroud of secrecy around the king, his sons, and the terrible necromancy that has kept the family in power is yanked away. The Investiture is just the beginning of a terrible truth that endangers all who know it. The stakes are revealed, and failure means an eternity of damnation.
The King's Ranger is a classic fantasy adventure, perfect for fans of Michael J Sullivan, Brent Weeks, James Islington, and AC Cobble's Benjamin Ashwood Series.
Release date: April 1, 2021
Publisher: Cobble Publishing LLC
Print pages: 341
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Remove the Shroud: The King's Ranger Book 3
Rew stared at the rain as it swept over the dark green hills like a matron’s broom across a dusty floor. Mist billowed ahead of the roaring gale, swept up from the force of the falling water and the raking strength of the wind. Great curtains of water scoured the hills. Stands of trees were alternately visible through the cloudy gray and obscured when another sheet of blowing water lashed across the land in front of him.
On the porch where he stood, cold droplets of water pattered against his face, flung by the fury of the weather. The icy liquid seeped into the thick wool of his cloak. He could feel the damp reaching his skin, and he shivered, but he stayed where he was, watching the storm.
He reached up and wiped his hand across his freshly shaven pate, brushing away the cold water, knowing more would accumulate there in a handful of breaths. Distant thunder rumbled, barely audible over the roar of the wind, a portend that the storm was far from finished.
Rew had spent the last decade outside in the wilderness. He’d spent many a day holed up and watching the rain, but in the forest, he had the protection of the trees. Out there, south of Spinesend, it was all open, sprawling hills, and there was nothing to stop the wailing onslaught of wind and water. It was impressive, watching the violent weather, seeing that ancient magic unleash its fury upon the world. Rew did not enjoy getting rained on, but he gave respect where it was due, and nature had long since earned his respect.
“Any break?” asked Anne.
He’d heard her come out of the front door of the inn a moment ago but had not turned. He shook his head and kept his gaze out on the countryside as she joined him. He told her, “We’ve a few days of it, still.”
Anne grunted, leaning against the railing beside him. “That’s what you said a few days ago.”
“It was true.”
She gave a mirthless laugh and stood back up. She tugged her shawl tighter around her shoulders and complained, “King’s Sake, Rew, it’s wet out here.”
He finally turned and grinned at her. “I know.”
“Then why are you standing out in the cold?” She waved at the torrential rain pounding down in front of them and hammering the roof of the inn like a mad drummer’s beat. “Bressan’s ale barrel is still half full, and I’m sure he’d enjoy your presence at the game board. He’s up twenty to none against Cinda, last I heard, and Raif hasn’t even finished a game with the man before tipping his king.”
“You or Zaine could play him.”
“Zaine doesn’t know how to play Kings and Queens.”
“But you do,” reminded Rew.
“I know how, but I don’t enjoy the game,” remarked Anne. He didn’t respond, and after a moment, she asked again, “What are you doing out here, Rew? We’re not going anywhere until this passes over, and you’re saying there’s more to come… Blessed Mother, even I can see it will be days yet before the roads are passable. Travel on the highway right now would be like wading through soup. We’d need a boat just to make it the half league into Laxton.”
She moved next to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “I know you want to get farther away from Spinesend, but we can’t. We’re stuck here, Rew, so let’s make the best of it. Have an ale. Play Bressan in Kings and Queens.” She gave a short, constricted chuckle. “I cannot believe I just said that. Soak it in, Rew. That may be the very last time I ever encourage you to have an ale.”
“I don’t want an ale, I want to move. It’s not Spinesend I’m thinking of, Anne. I’m finished hiding, and I’m finished running. My thoughts are ahead, on Carff.”
“As are Raif’s,” remarked the empath, fussing with her shawl as the billowing mist began to soak through it. “He’s thinking of his sister—rescuing her or confronting her, depending on the hour you ask him. But that’s not what is on your mind, is it?”
“I’ve given very little thought to Kallie Fedgley, to be honest.”
“You’re thinking of Alsayer.”
“He’s part of it,” acknowledged Rew.
“And… Prince Valchon?” asked Anne. “I don’t understand, Rew.”
Rew reached up to wipe more droplets of water off his head and told her, “Anne, it’s time I face up to what’s behind me, what I’ve been ignoring for the last decade. What I’ve ignored for my entire life, really. It’s time that is over. I can’t tell you everything, and I am sorry for that, but I cannot. I will tell you that Prince Valchon is a part of it. All of the princes are. And now that I’m done running… Pfah. This rain. I feel the need to move, to go, but you’re right. We can’t go anywhere until the storm passes. We’d spend more time pulling our boots out of the mud on the highway or wading across flooded streams cross-country than we would making progress. I know that, but it doesn’t change how I feel. That’s why I’m out here. I’ve finally decided to move forward, but I can't, so I’m waiting.”
Anne nodded. She left unsaid that waiting inside made a fair bit more sense than waiting outside. The kind of waiting Rew was doing wasn’t about comfort, not the kind of comfort that Bressan’s Inn offered. Never again, until it was over, however that might be, would he be comfortable.
They stood quietly for a long time, watching the rain, and then Anne said, “Rew, I will not leave the children. Where they go, I go.”
“So you’ve said.”
“Will you leave us, then?”
He turned to her and offered a wan smile. “No, I won’t. You told me once that the children are a part of it, and you were right. More than you knew, then. More than I wanted. My past, their future, it’s tied together inexorably. You can still feel the bonds, can you not?”
“Their fate and ours are one and the same, though in the end I don’t think anyone will be thanking us for that.”
“But the princes will not forget them…” murmured Anne.
Rew wrapped an arm around Anne’s shoulders and drew her close. “We—both us and the children—are in terrible danger from terrible men, but so are many others. Maybe we could save ourselves. Maybe we could run far enough away and burrow deep enough into hiding to avoid what is to come, but…” He paused, unable to say it.
“But it’s not just about us, is it?”
“No, it’s not. Not anymore. I… For a long time, I wanted it to be. I knew it wasn’t, but I wanted it to be. While I’ve been hiding…”
Anne pulled herself upright, straightening her back and lifting her chin to look him in the eyes. “Life isn’t easy, is it? At least we know what we need to do, right?”
She reached up and grabbed his chin, forcing his gaze to meet her own. “We. I won’t leave the children, and we won’t leave you.”
He nodded, and the smile wavered on his face. She saw the hesitation but did not comment. She dropped her hand and stood beside him. There was nothing else either had to say.
She was guessing that he knew what to do, that his next move had already been planned, but it wasn’t. He knew what he wanted to do, which even he had to admit wasn’t the same as having a plan. It was a wiser man’s game, plotting out the moves, the reactions, the results. He didn’t know what would happen if he was successful, but in Spinesend, he’d realized that he knew what would happen if he did nothing or if he failed. That truth lay behind him. Ahead of them was the unknown, the wilderness, and he’d been drawn to that all of his life. It was only now that he realized why.
“I’m cold out here, Rew.”
He hugged her tight. “Let’s go inside, then. I could do with one of Bressan’s ales, and maybe I’ll give him a go at Kings and Queens.”
“Good luck to you,” said Anne, grinning. “Better you than I. I swear that man sees three or four moves ahead.”
“Perhaps,” said Rew. “The best players hold the entire board in their head, you know? They see where each piece is, and what it can do. They play out several turns in their imaginations, figuring out the possibilities, the potential responses, the next logical moves. Each new position is like a book they’ve already read—at least that’s what I’m told. I’m not a good player, but I’ve learned that to beat the best players, you can’t challenge them at their own game. The trick is to do something they would have never imagined.”
“That sounds like a way to get beat, too,” murmured Anne, leading him toward the door of the inn.
“Sometimes.” Rew laughed. “Sometimes, that’s a way to get beat right quick, but there’s another strategy, too.”
She raised an eyebrow.
“When you’re getting beat, and there are no moves you can make to get out of it, you flip over the board.”
“Attack. Attack!” bellowed Rew.
Zaine, twisting like an eel, slithered forward and delivered a hard thrust.
“Ouch!” cried Raif.
The big fighter dropped the linen-wrapped wooden dowel he’d been using as a practice blade and grappled with the thief. He twisted, lifting her to fling her down on the ground. As he held her high, the thief kicking and wriggling helplessly in his arms, he must have thought twice about it, because, more gently, he flopped her down and then pinned her with his body weight.
“That’s unfair,” cried Zaine, struggling beneath the heavy fighter. “I hit you!”
“Enough,” said Rew, crouching beside the writhing pair.
Raif rose up onto his knees, breathing heavily. Zaine, from her back, tossed a handful of straw at his face.
“You gave him a good blow,” said Rew, pointing to the spot Zaine’s practice dagger had struck Raif, “but the big lad wears armor there. Many of your opponents will as well. But even if he wasn’t armored, that strike would've punctured his lungs but missed his heart. Without Anne’s help, he’d almost certainly die within a few hours, maybe a day, but he’d still have some fight left in him. With a bigger foe like Raif, it’s just as important to get away after you do your damage than it is to land the blow.”
Beaming, Raif stood, brushing the straw off his hands, and declared, “One for me, then.”
Rew rose as well and poked the boy again in the ribs where Zaine had hit him. “Did you hear the part where I said you’d die in a few hours? It’s only worth winning a fight if you live long enough to see the next sunrise.”
Raif shrugged. “Winning is winning.”
Rew frowned at him and shook his head. “Lad, you risk too much. When it’s for real, your armor may deflect some of the damage, and Anne can heal some of the wounds the armor doesn’t prevent, but sooner or later, you’re going to be felled by a blow that you cannot get up from. You fight like this, and it’s not a matter of if—it’s when.”
“What would you have me do, Ranger? I either fight to win, or I do not. We can train on maneuvers and skills, but when it’s real, I only know of one way. I understand what you’re saying, but once the steel is crossed, I don’t hold back.”
“Brave words, but mark mine. You continue like this, lad, and you’re going to pay the ultimate price,” warned Rew. “Don’t believe me? Then go to one of those taverns the retired soldiers lurk in and tell me how many berserkers you find there. Winning is nice, but if you want to survive to be an old man, you’ve gotta think.”
Raif’s lips tightened and he shrugged.
Rew held his gaze for a moment then shook his head and pointed Raif toward the open door of the massive stables they were sparring inside of. “Why don’t you go check on Anne and your sister?”
“I’d rather stay here,” muttered Raif, looking out the open doors, seeing the pouring rain splashing down into the cold puddles and rivulets outside of the stables. A damp, chilly breeze whistled softly through the open doors, and Raif turned to Rew, allowing the weather to make his point for him.
“What Anne and your sister are trying is dangerous. Anne will do her best, but she’s not the guide that Cinda needs. Someone needs to check on them, often.”
Grumbling under his breath, Raif collected his cloak and spun it over his shoulders. “You’ll owe me a mulled wine when I return, Ranger.”
Rew waved the boy toward the door, and Raif strode out into the downpour.
“You think he’ll ever make right on that tally of his?” questioned Zaine, rolling to her feet easily.
Raif, feeling the pride of young nobility, had insisted that he and his sister would pay their own way on the journey to Carff. It was all well and good, except the boy and the girl didn’t have more than a handful of coin between them. All of their wealth had been left in Falvar or lost in Spinesend, and now they traveled with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, Raif’s greatsword, and the provisions Rew had purchased for them on the road. Someday, Raif promised, he would compensate Rew for every expense down to the individual ciders and wines. Periodically, the fighter would update Rew on what he thought was owed, and Rew would ignore him.
Zaine rubbed her backside. “It’s nice that he’s so generous with his imagined coin, but I wouldn’t mind him having a few other considerations. The overgrown oaf doesn’t know his own strength.”
“He’s taking it easy on you,” said Rew, raising an eyebrow. “Didn’t you feel him hesitate before you both went down?”
“Why would he take it easy on me? You didn’t tell him to, did you? I can handle myself, Ranger.”
Rew scratched his beard and glanced down at his feet.
He didn’t answer.
“What?” demanded Zaine, shuffling closer so that even with his eyes down, he couldn’t avoid seeing her.
“I think that, ah, Raif is fond of you.”
“Fond of me?” Zaine laughed. “What are you talking about? He’s fond of—oh. But…”
“But we’re on a dangerous journey, and you don’t have time for that,” suggested Rew. “I know. I’d talk to him, I would, but a lad his age… It’s all they think of, Zaine. It’s best you ignore it, and in time, it should pass.”
Zaine shook her head, kicking the straw at her feet.
Rew frowned at her. “What?”
Flushing, Zaine looked away.
Rew swallowed. “Ah, Zaine, I’m old enough to be your father. Really, you’re a lovely lass, but—”
The girl coughed and started gagging. She stared at him wide-eyed, shaking her head.
Rew raised a hand toward her but didn’t think it appropriate to touch her just then. “Zaine, you don’t need to be embarrassed. It’s common that a young woman sees an older, more experienced man, and—“
“Ranger, I’ve no interest in men,” interjected Zaine.
“Well, of course not,” he said. “I only meant that wisdom can be attractive, but I feel a responsibility toward you and—“
“I like women,” cried Zaine. “I’m… fond of Cinda.”
The ranger and the thief stood staring at each other for a long moment. Finally, he asked her, “Does she know?”
Zaine shook her head, her face still a rosy shade of red. “Cinda’s mooning all over Bressan’s eldest son. Watch her. Every time he bends down to get a mug off the bottom shelves, she’s staring at his backside. Why do you think she keeps ordering ales? She doesn’t even drink ale. Raif keeps taking them, believing he’s teasing her. I’ve thought about telling him just to see what he’d do, but I worry about Bressan’s son. He’s a good lad, and like Raif said, when it comes time to fight, what little thought Raif ever keeps in that thick skull of his flees like a hare.”
“Maybe she’s, ah…”
“Cinda told me what she’d like to do with the innkeeper’s son.” Zaine shuddered. “The only thing that’s holding her back is the foolish notion that noblewomen should only lie with noblemen. Purity of the blood, you know? They put more faith in that than they do the Blessed Mother. I guess she hasn’t heard the stories I have about what those lords and ladies get up to when the other isn’t looking.”
Rew glanced toward the open doors and the pouring rain outside. “I see.”
“Does your font of wisdom, acquired after so many long years, grant you any advice you’d like to share about this situation?”
Rew coughed, scratched his beard some more, and then declared, “I think you should talk to Anne about this sort of thing.”
Zaine chortled and slid her wooden practice daggers into her belt. “Ranger, if my father was still alive, I think the two of you would have gotten along famously.”
The thief turned and walked out the door, breaking into a run and splashing through the ankle-deep puddles as she dashed toward the back of the inn.
Rew sighed. A horse, one of the thoroughbreds the innkeeper Bressan raised for the races, whinnied at him.
“What do you know?” muttered Rew, scowling at the beast, before he, too, dashed out into the cold wet, running to the inn.
Pale, green-tinged white light flickered on and off, bathing the corner of the common room and the hearth in an eerie, spectral wash. The glowing orange embers of a fire in the hearth seemed to pulse and fade in time with the other light, dying desperately with each burst of stark illumination.
Rew bent forward and tapped out the ash from his pipe into the fire. He exhaled slowly, sending the air of his breath over the embers. He felt the coals flare, warming his face. The fire crackled, but he stopped before the charred wood caught flame again. It was night. He was tired, and it was time for the fire to die.
He glanced at Cinda, her face alternately lit and then dark as she practiced summoning her funeral fire, the cold white and green flame dancing across her fingertips and then winking out.
Rew told her, “I’m off to bed. You?”
She shrugged. “I’m finding I don’t desire sleep as often as I used to. When I asked Anne about it, she turned away. What is happening to me, Ranger?”
Rew sighed and settled back down in his chair. “In dreams, your physical body rests and is restored. It is a time of regeneration and healing. But also in dreams, your mind is freer of your physical form than when you’re awake. We’re closer to the plane of death when we dream. As your powers develop, you’ll, well, you won’t need to sleep. Not for your mind, at least. Your body will still require rest to restore itself, but the more you use your power, the less you’ll feel the desire to lie down and actually slumber.”
Cinda frowned, and the funeral fire ignited on her fingers again.
“There is risk in not resting,” continued Rew. “Your mind won't feel the need, but you must force yourself, or your body will suffer. There are plenty of storied necromancers who ignored the mundane concerns of their corporeal form, and that was the ironic end of them. You can summon all of the spirits you want, but your body still needs to eat.”
A wan smile curled Cinda’s lips, and she nodded. “That makes sense.”
“You’ll rest then?”
“You’ll need your strength for when we leave this place.”
Cinda glanced across the dark common room to where a thick, leaded-glass window barred the wind and rain outside. They could hear the rainfall drumming on the porch of the inn, relentless, as it had been for six days now.
“When are we leaving this place?”
“As soon as we can,” replied the ranger. “I know you want to leave, to go and find your sister. I understand, but we won’t make it far in this weather. There’s only misery out there until the storm passes.”
Cinda shook her head, her eyes fixed on her hand. “It is my brother who wants to find our sister, Ranger. We all saw what Kallie did and heard what she said. I have no interest in seeing her again.”
“You don’t? Just a few days ago…”
Cinda let the funeral flame grow on her hand, casting its sharp light over the entire room. “In the last few days, I’ve had a lot of time to think. Raif may choose to ignore it, but you and I both know what will happen when we find Kallie.”
Rew’s lips twisted into a sour grimace.
Cinda’s fire winked out again, and darkness filled the common room outside of the weak glow from the embers on the hearth. Cinda continued, “There won’t be a reconciliation with Kallie, no matter what my brother hopes. All I ask, Ranger, is that when it is time to end her, you do it. You, or Anne, or Zaine, though I hate to put that on her. Do not let my brother be the one who slides the steel into our sister. He’s an oaf, but he should not have to live with that. He couldn’t live with that.”
Rew bowed his head then looked up to meet her gaze.
She was staring at him, the orbs of her eyes gleaming in the darkness. He frowned. It was impossible to be certain in the low light of the room, but were her eyes changing, the iris turning green? Already? Rew rubbed his face with both hands then met Cinda’s gaze again. He cleared his throat and said, “I will do it. You’re right. Your brother does not need that on him. You both have enough of a burden already.”
Cinda, looking decades beyond her years in the darkness, nodded. “What I am becoming is not your fault, Ranger. You tried to steer us away, to find us another path. I see now why you did that. It—It was kind of you, but it is too late now. We are on this road, and we must find the end of it. Do you think we will, in Carff?”
Rew shook his head slowly. “No, I’m afraid the end of this journey is not in Carff. You will have to shoulder your burden beyond there.” He laughed mirthlessly. “If we survive. I suppose it’s worth qualifying everything we say with that grim clause. I am sorry, Cinda. I’m sorry that we could not find another way and that I could not keep you from being drawn into this.”
Cinda smiled at him, her face regaining the freshness of her youth, and he saw the girl he’d first encountered walking from Eastwatch to Falvar. “The burden was mine before we met you. I didn’t know it, but it was there. My father, the princes, they put it there. If we’d never met you, we still would have been in this mess, though not for long. I don’t think we would have survived Falvar without you. No, none of this is your fault.”
Rew shrugged, fiddling with his empty pipe. He did not respond.
“I hope my sister is gone from Carff when we arrive. It will be better for Raif—and for me, I’ll admit—if we never see her again.”
“We have to go, though, don’t we?”
“Have to… That’s not entirely true,” said Rew with a sigh. “There are other ways, other paths we could take. They won’t lead to Kallie, and they won’t lead to answers. You could run, or you could hide. It might work for a time. Maybe even a long time. But there is no changing the truth of who you are and what you’re capable of.”
“Then there is no choice,” said Cinda. “This burden is mine, but I need your help understanding it. I need you to guide me to what it is that they expect from me, what it is they captured my father for. You know, don’t you?”
“I believe so,” he acknowledged.
“But you won’t tell me?”
“You can be a frustrating man, Ranger.”
They sat quietly for a long time until the light from the fire no longer bled past the edge of the hearth.
“Cinda,” said Rew. He heard her turn toward him, but he could not see her in the black of the room. He gathered himself then told her, “You should know that if we walk to the end of this road, then I will use you, much like they attempted with your father. I know what your blood is capable of, and I need it to finish something. Only you can finish this. It is not something that I can do on my own.”
“But you will not tell me what this is?”
He shook his head. “I cannot. It is too much, for now. In time, you will know. Just like you now understand why I tried to avoid this to begin with, you will understand the need for secrecy.”
“Eventually, I will learn everything?”
“Tell me this, at least. If the end of this journey—if what you need—is not in Carff, why are we going there?” asked Cinda. “Not to assuage my brother’s boyish fantasy of reconciliation with Kallie, surely?”
“It is not the end of the road we seek in Carff but the beginning,” Rew told her.
Rew reached up and felt the prickles atop his scalp. He yawned.
“You’re a good man, Ranger,” said Cinda suddenly, “the best I’ve known, I suppose, though maybe that is no grand prize. Still, I will do whatever it is you ask of me. I trust you to lead us where we need to go.”
It was like a knife twisting in his guts. She didn’t know. She couldn’t know. By the time they were finished, it would destroy her. It would destroy him, too, and he couldn’t begin to guess the calamity that might follow for Vaeldon. He couldn’t tell her that, but he thought that if he did tell her, she would still agree to do it. She’d meant it when she had said she would do as he asked. There was some comfort to that. There was discomfort as well, when he wondered if it was merely a convenient story he told himself. It didn’t matter, though. It was necessary. They were taking a terrible risk, embarking on this road, but it was the only gambit he had if he wanted to free the kingdom. When playing against a master of the game board, one had to do what was least expected.
He reached over and put his hand on hers.
“Wherever this road takes us, I will go,” repeated Cinda quietly.
Rew stood and pulled her up as well. “Tonight, all I ask is that we both try to get some sleep. With luck, in a day or two, the weather will clear. When it does, we must be ready to travel.”
Cinda chuckled. “Very well, Ranger. I’ll lie down, and I will try to sleep.”
“Try—that’s all any of us can do.”
In the black of the room, they both walked confidently to the stairs where their rooms were on the floor above. Rew, his senses attuned to his surroundings, stepped easily. Cinda, becoming a creature of the darkness, needed no light, and she followed him up the stairwell to their separate rooms.
“You sure I can’t sell you horses?” asked Bressan, the slender innkeeper and equine breeder.
Rew, cradling a mug of coffee in his hands and leaning his elbows on the railing of the inn’s porch, shook his head.
The innkeeper drew himself up, tucked his thumbs behind his belt, and blew out a puff of air, stirring the prodigious mustache that covered half of his face. “There’s a reason you’re staying up here and not down in Laxton beside the highway, and if it’s not to purchase horseflesh, I’ve seen enough in my years to know what it means. You’re running. It is none of my business, but wherever you’re going, you’d get there a lot quicker with a horse between your legs. I can teach you to ride, if that’s—“
“I know how to ride,” interjected Rew, “but I choose not to.”
“I’ve seen your purse, my man. It’s not about the expense, is it?” questioned the innkeeper. “It’s true that I breed the finest mounts in the Eastern Province, but they’re not all so fine. If you’re short on coin, I’ve got some mares that will be within your range. Old girls that have some spirit but aren’t for the races, eh? Or I’ve got some nags that I’d almost give you so I can stop caring for ‘em. They’ll still get you to where you’re going, though. Four legs are better than two, and that’s the truth.”
Rew shook his head. “I prefer to walk.”
The innkeeper scowled at him, as if offended.
“If a man’s legs can’t get him where he’s going, then maybe he ought not to be going there,” declared Rew.
“That sounds like something a man would say after too many ales,” groused the innkeeper.
“There’s no need to make the hard sale, Bressan. You’ll have buyers soon enough. Buyers for anything with four legs that can carry a saddle, and those folk won’t be worried about how much you charge.”
The innkeeper raised an eyebrow.
“There’s war on the horizon,” explained Rew. “It won’t be long before someone comes along looking to expand their cavalry. They’ll need spare mounts and won’t fuss about the quality, and even those nags you mentioned can haul supplies. You’ll have more business than you can handle.”
“I know,” replied the innkeeper sourly.
Rew glanced at him, holding his coffee mug close to inhale the rich scent.
Looking apologetic, the innkeeper added, “I hate the thought of my horses riding into war. It’s terrible on them, you know? They’re like my children, those horses, and I’d rather sell ‘em to you for next to nothing than put them through that. Blessed Mother, I’ll give them to you if you promise me you’ll ride them away from this brewing madness. I’ve been around long enough, and my pappy and grandpappy before me, to know that when the first man comes along wanting to buy the entire herd, we sell it. They’ll pay up until the fighting starts. Later, they’ll just confiscate any animals we have left. You’re right, could be good coin for me, but half those horses they take won’t be seeing summer. They’re like my children, man. It’s not about the coin. You sure you won’t—“
Rew smiled. “You’re a good man, Bressan, but I prefer to walk. Even if I didn’t, I couldn’t make the promise the horses would be in any less danger with me.”
Bressan nodded to the rolling hills that spread out in front of them. Mist hung like wraiths over a moor. It sparkled brilliantly with the first morning sun they’d seen in a week. A thin line of dark soil cut through the emerald and white landscape, the road leading from the inn to the village of Laxton and the highway beyond it.
“If you mean to walk, you’d best get to it. By tomorrow, if not this afternoon, there will be soldiers on that road coming up from the highway, looking for my horses. The nobles already came before the storm hit, picking over the best of my stock. Soldiers’ll come next. You’re good people, and if you’re going to outrun whatever trouble it is that dogs you, I suggest you start right away.”
“Despite how much you complained about not enjoying the game, you’ve given me more of a challenge on the game board these last few days than I’ve seen in years,” continued the innkeeper. “I pride myself on my game, but I’ve never seen anyone play like you. You move in unexpected ways. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it don’t, but you’re willing to try. I respect that, and I’ll keep your secrets, if anyone asks.”
The innkeeper left the question hanging.
“I don’t think anyone will ask.”
Bressan nodded and turned back to his inn. “Regardless, you’d best be on the road as soon as you can be. I’ll check about breakfast. Then, maybe that’s the last I see of you?”
Rew did not respond.
“Mayhap you’d like a bit of the strong stuff you were drinking the other night for the road? Friend of mine ages it in barrels for years afore he bottles it. Finest spirits coin will buy you, here or anywhere in Vaeldon. It’s wasted on the soldiers. If you won’t take my horses, at least take my liquor. Can’t have those fools wasting everything, can we?”
Rew laughed. “I’ll raise a drink to you on the cold nights, Bressan, in memory of the shelter you’ve given us here and a hope for your horses. I wish you—and the beasts—luck in the next months.”
“I’ll have the girls pack you a couple’a bottles, then. Don’t let your woman see it, though, eh? Sometimes a woman thinks she’s all the comfort you need on one o’ them cold nights. They don’t understand that after some days, a man needs a drink. My thinking, you might have a few of those days ahead of you, friend.”
Rew laughed. “And sometimes a woman is why a man needs a drink.”
The innkeeper grinned and guffawed. “Ain’t that the truth.”
Bressan reached back and slapped Rew on the shoulder before shuffling inside. Through the open door, Rew could hear the sounds of the sedate inn waking. There hadn’t been more than a dozen other travelers staying in the sprawling, comfortable inn the last week, but this morning, Bressan’s staff were freshening rooms, and the ovens were fired up in the kitchen. The smell of baking bread wafted out, stirring Rew’s hunger. More bread than they needed for the guests that were already there, he thought. Bressan spoke the truth. The innkeeper expected more visitors that day.
Sighing, Rew looked down the sinuous dirt tract that led to the highway. It was thick with mud, and even as it dried in the morning sun, it would be hard walking and impossible to cover their tracks. Cross country it was, then.
For two days, they slogged across the rolling hills, the lush turf sodden from the week of torrential rain. Every morning, they awoke covered in cold dew, and within minutes of starting to hike, they were soaked to the knees from striding through the tall, wet grass. The temperature wasn’t freezing, but constantly damp as they were, it felt like it may as well be. Rew began making them change their socks every time they stopped for a meal, and he had Anne check everyone’s toes to make sure hypothermia had not set in.
There were sparse stands of trees where they took shelter from the unrelenting wind and attempted to harvest firewood, but even when they found fallen branches, they were heavy with moisture. It made for pathetic, smoky fires that did little to warm them and much to water their eyes. Anne was able to cook a little, but after a week of Bressan’s hearty fare, her best efforts in the conditions seemed meager.
The children didn’t complain, and even Anne could only offer glum looks and apologetic shrugs as she dished the thin soups she managed to heat over the paltry flames. All of them knew braving the soaked road from Bressan’s inn down to the highway would have been equally as bad, even if it wasn’t for the risk of encountering soldiers from Spinesend.
By the second day, though, beneath clear skies and bright sun, Rew felt it safe enough to return to the highway, and he led the party through the hills until they came across the wide, dirt road. It hadn’t completely dried, but after generations of traffic, the soil was compact enough that it was easy walking. The entire party breathed a sigh of relief as their boots found the road.
“This ought to make travel a lot quicker,” said Zaine, scuffing a boot on the damp dirt and scowling at the thick tangle of grass they’d walked out of.
“Aye, just another four hundred leagues. We’ll be there before you know it,” replied Rew with a grin.
Cinda kicked her legs, trying to move the sodden wool of her skirts. “How do women travel in these? I’d rather my robes.”
“Your crimson robes will tell anyone looking for us that you’re a necromancer,” reminded Rew.
“This garb will tell anyone that I’m a serving wench,” grumbled the noblewoman, leaving the skirts alone for a moment to pull up her bodice, which was cut lower than she was used to.
“It’s a good disguise until we can get further from Spinesend,” responded the ranger. “Wear it until we find a village with a seamstress. Then, you can change. It’s a long walk, and there will be plenty of opportunities to find more suitable travel attire. I hope we’ve evaded pursuit for the moment, but no reason to make it easier for anyone looking for us, eh?”
Cinda grumbled beneath her breath, but she stopped arguing.
Anne, looking down the long, empty expanse, wondered, “Do you think Bressan would have sold us some of those horses? It would have made the journey quicker. He liked you, Rew. I bet you could have talked him into a good price.”
Rew shrugged and did not respond.
Along the highway, as the sun continued to shine down, traffic increased until there was a steady flow of people and wagons. Most of them were moving north, the opposite direction the party was taking. The highway was the main thoroughfare between the capital of the Eastern Territory, Spinesend, and the much larger capital of the Eastern Province, Carff. The cities were the two largest trading hubs in the east, but along the five-hundred-league stretch, there were several other towns both large and small. The way was dotted with roadside inns and stations of varying quality to accommodate the steady stream of travelers, and the party rarely went more than half an hour without seeing someone or something.
At first, Rew and the others had been nervous, peering closely at each group they passed, twitching at anything that might signal an attack. But over the next several days, it became obvious that no one was interested in them, and that if there were watchers on the road, the party had gotten out ahead of them or had not yet found them.
That’s not to say it was a relaxing stroll. The other groups they passed were heavily armed, and most of them had formed caravans for protection. Rew risked asking several of the other travelers what they were worried about, confused how the news from Spinesend had already spread so far. But instead of political unrest, he was told people were guarding against the Dark Kind. Rew hadn’t seen any sign of the creatures near Spinesend, but it seemed rumors of them had infected the land like a plague. After several serious-looking parties mentioned the narjags, Rew began to worry it was more than just rumor, but there was nothing to be done about it except to keep moving, so they did.
On foot, after months of living on the road, even the children were capable of maintaining a brisk pace most of the day, and more often than not, it was the party who was overtaking their fellow travelers. Every couple of hours, though, they would have to hop off to the side of the road as mounted men or horse-drawn carriages thundered past.
Messengers, Rew suspected, rushing to share word of what had happened in Spinesend. They could be working on behalf of merchants and the cabals such men formed, or they could have been spies for the various factions of minor nobility strewn amongst the cities bordering the highway. Rew didn’t know, or much care, but he was powerfully curious at what the messengers might be relaying. Was the news about the conflagration in the tower, about Duke Eeron’s flight, or had there been further disruption after they’d fled? Rew wanted to know, but given the chances some of those tidings might involve him and his friends, he couldn’t bring himself to stop one of the messengers and ask.
So it was with a bit of trepidation and anticipation that they came across a carriage stopped on the side of the road ahead of them. The carriage was painted with a dark blue lacquer, trimmed in gold, and the horse standing beside it would have been the pride of Bressan’s stable. A footman, garbed in a crushed velvet coat and stockings the same shade of dark blue as the carriage, was up to his knees in mud. A wheel was lying, shattered, twenty paces off the road and behind the carriage, and the vehicle had flipped on its side.
Half an hour before and half a league behind, the carriage had flown past them like the king himself was chasing it. Rew did the calculations in his head and decided the vehicle had been on its side for a quarter hour.
“They might need my help,” murmured Anne. “Rew, can we…”
Rew shrugged. It was quite possible whoever was involved in a wreck at such speed might need Anne’s care, and while the empath tended to any victims, he would have a chance to question the footman. The children remained silent, observing the wreck cautiously. Rew was glad that if nothing else, they’d at least learned to be careful over the last several months.
Anne, on the other hand, rushed forward and began chastising the footman and inquiring about his cargo. When Rew and the others caught up, his stomach fell. Anne was scaling the side of the overturned carriage. She looked down at the ranger.
“I’m going to need your help. There’s a woman inside, and it seems she’s giving birth.”
“King’s Sake,” growled Rew. “Maybe we should keep—“
“Right,” he said, shrugging his pack off his back and tugging open the flap. He turned to the footman, who was standing around uselessly. It appeared the man had been trying on his own to right the carriage. Ridiculous. Snapping to get the man’s attention, Rew asked, “Does your mistress have a tent that you can set up?”
The man blinked back at Rew stupidly, and the ranger decided the horse peering around the overturned vehicle showed more intelligence than the footman.
“Where did you sleep last night?”
“I, ah, underneath the carriage,” mumbled the footman. “We didn’t pause long enough to prepare for a proper journey. The lady doesn’t even have her entourage. You asked… A tent? No, we don’t have one.”
Muttering under his breath, Rew glanced at the children and instructed them, “Work with him to set up… something. Use our tarps if you need to. We’ll need shelter for the baby, and judging by the sounds in that carriage, we’ll need it soon.”
Glancing around the open hills, Zaine mentioned, “There’s nothing to string a tarp from, Rew. This isn’t a good place to make camp.”
Rew waved his hand at her irritably. “Figure something out.”
“Of course,” said Raif, and he moved to the back of the carriage, likely just happy to have something to do that didn’t involve helping with or listening to what was going on inside.
Steeling himself, Rew scampered up after Anne and peered down to where she was crouched inside of the overturned carriage next to a woman.
Seeing Rew, the woman tried to shove down her skirts, but Anne slapped the woman’s hands away. “No time for that foolishness. He’s seen worse.”
Grunting, Rew dropped down into the carriage and handed Anne his packets of medicinal herbs, a few waterskins, and the spare clothing he’d pulled out to use as rags. He unstopped one of the liquor bottles Bressan had given him and drank two large gulps. Anne snatched it from him and began splashing it on her hands. Muttering to himself about how much she was using, Rew began arranging pillows beneath the sweating, screaming woman. Anne put her hands on the woman’s stomach, and Rew frowned. The woman was screaming in pain.
“Anne? Are you going to—“
“I need to turn the baby,” she said calmly.
The woman wailed, and Anne was quiet for another minute. Then, she declared, “No, I can’t. I’m putting too much empathy into the baby, and I cannot stop. Rew, you’ve got to turn it.”
Rew stared at her, aghast, unable to even formulate an appropriate curse.
“Wash your hands, Rew,” instructed Anne. She raised an eyebrow at him. “You have touched a woman there before, correct? You know how this works?”
“I’ve touched a woman, aye,” babbled Rew. “Not like this. I, ah… Anne, are you sure?”
“All of you men ought to do this at least once. The world would be a better place if you had some idea of what we women go through,” declared Anne. “We wouldn’t get asked such stupid questions, for one. Of course I am sure, Rew.”
She began giving him instructions, and Rew’s mind went blank.
The next morning, Rew was standing outside of a tiny, road-side way station. The way station had been back toward Spinesend, but the children hadn’t managed to erect a shelter by the time the baby was born, and Anne had insisted. The empath had carried the baby, and Rew had carried the woman. Miraculously, both had survived, and Anne judged they were healthy.
That night, while stripping out of his ruined clothing before realizing many of his other garments had been sacrificed during the delivery, Rew had consumed the rest of the bottle of spirits they’d used as disinfectant and half of another. He’d wished for more, but he’d stopped at Anne’s steady stare. His answering look had been anything but steady.
The mother, grateful at first for the successful birth of her child on the side of the road—within a tumped-over carriage, no less—had grown irritable and demanding several minutes after both she and infant were deposited in the simple way station. She was nobility, and it seemed she thought that meant they ought to act like her servants. For anyone who’d spent time with nobility, her attitude was not a great surprise. A minor family from Spinesend, barely landed, Raif had explained. Rew had lost interest once it became obvious the woman did not know or care who they were, so the ranger stopped paying attention to anything she said.
When he had woken the next day, Rew had hoped to send the woman on her way, but it’d been quickly apparent that wasn’t going to work. Without the carriage, and the woman barely able to walk, they were days away from safety for the baby. While even Anne had started ignoring the noblewoman’s shrill demands, the empath would not abandon the newborn.
None of them were heartless enough to argue with her, so they’d sent the noblewoman’s footman off alone with the horse to secure transportation for his mistress while they waited with her in the way station. The structure wasn’t more than three walls and a roof, with a small hole cut for smoke to escape, but there was plenty of water in a briskly running stream, and it was the only shelter nearby. The woman and her footman had the misfortune to wreck the carriage halfway between villages, and in the new mother’s condition, it wasn’t clear when she would be capable of making the walk.
As they settled in to wait, everyone except Anne and the noblewoman had drifted outside. The way station was too small a space to share with a woman who had such a high opinion of herself.
Once outside, Rew stretched and sipped his coffee, hoping the dark liquid would do its work to quell the pounding in his head. He was considering another cup—he could use it following the inundation of alcohol he’d subjected his body to the night before—but he didn’t want to admit that to Anne, and he was growing concerned they would run out of the dry coffee beans. They’d packed lightly when departing Bressan’s, knowing there were plenty of places on the highway to stop for provisions, but if they weren’t moving, they weren’t getting closer to any of those places. Rew was finding, given his condition, that the problem of the diminishing coffee beans was an easier thing to stew over than what else lay ahead of them.
Behind him, inside the shelter, he heard Anne’s whispered instructions to the new mother, teaching the woman how to latch the child and feed it. Two dozen paces away, Raif and Zaine were working through their morning exercises, looking rather lethargic, but the ranger wasn’t any peppier, and he couldn’t find the energy to chide the children into more effort.
The baby was healthy, and it had the lungs of a lion. Even in his stupor the night before, Rew had not slept long and doubted that anyone else had either. The child was quiet now, biding its time, Rew was sure, for the next moment any of the adults tried to catch some sleep.
Cinda joined him, a mug cradled in her hands. She inhaled the steam rising from it and then covered a yawn with her hand. She asked him, “Back at Bressan’s inn, I got to thinking I no longer needed sleep. It seems I was sorely mistaken. Maybe I don’t need as many hours as I used to, but King’s Sake, I need some. Are all babies like that?”
“Crying all night? Yes, I suppose they are. All the ones I’ve been around, at least.”
“And you’ve been around a lot of babies in the middle of the night?”
He frowned at her.
Cinda grinned then sipped her coffee. She scowled. “Do you like the taste of this stuff? It’s awfully bitter, isn’t it?”
“At Worgon’s keep, where I first drank coffee, we added sugar and milk. It made it quite good. We should have gotten sugar from Bressan before we left.”
Rew didn’t respond.
“You don’t enjoy yours a little sweeter?” she pestered him. “It’s more pleasant, and not even you can argue with that.”
“There’s bitter and sweet in life, lass,” he told her. “You can’t enjoy the sweet without the bitter. I take my coffee black in the morning so that the rest of the day is sweet.”
Cinda snorted, shaking her head at him. “Still feeling the effects of that liquor from last night? I saw you trying to hide the empty bottle. Pfah, that’s why we don’t have any sugar, isn’t it? You and the innkeeper got to be thick as thieves, and it seems it was only your luxuries that made their way into our packs.”
“Black coffee is an acquired taste, and I’ve no doubt by the time this journey is over, you’ll have acquired it,” he advised her. “But for now, if you’re not going to drink it, give me the rest of your cup. You ought to practice with the others. We seem to have made it out of Spinesend safely, but the world is full of danger, particularly for you.”
Cinda shifted uncomfortably then responded, “I tried a bit earlier to draw power like Anne had taught me, but there wasn’t much there. It was easy to draw enough for the funeral fire when we were staying at Bressan’s, but here, it’s like this place is… dead, I guess. That’s not the right world.”
Rew cackled, the sound like glass breaking on the quiet morning. “No, that’s not the right word,” he managed. “The opposite, in fact.”
Looking around, Cinda’s eyes widened. “There’s nothing here, never has been, has there? No settlements, no one dying. That’s why I didn’t feel anything. No souls have departed here.”
“There hasn’t been much here at least since Spinesend was founded, which must have been a thousand years ago,” remarked Rew. “In this place, there’s never been more than souls simply passing through. It’s not strategic, not easily defended, so I imagine whatever battles have happened in the past, did not happen near this way station.”
“I can feel that,” murmured Cinda, still looking up and down the road and at the stand of oak that surrounded the small station. “No one has died here in years, I think. With no one dying, there’s nothing for me to grab a hold of. I have no power.”
“Not much,” acknowledged Rew. “Necromancers draw from the strength of departed souls, conjurers summon creatures from other planes of existence, enchanters imbue their strength into physical objects, and invokers tap their own power, utilizing arcane movements and phrases to amplify what is in their blood. Everyone has to pull from something.”
“Rangers do their best to stay away from it all.”
Cinda rolled her eyes. “What was that magic you cast which hid our flight from the battle between Duke Eeron and Baron Worgon’s men? How did you hide us in the tower?”
Rew’s lips twisted. He explained, “Low magic. Anyone can cast a bit of it if they really try, though some have more of an affinity. Most rangers can manage small illusions and extend our senses a bit. Works better in the wilderness where we can connect with the natural world. Anne’s empathy is low magic as well, though what she does with it is rare.”
“The fire you started on the thatch roof in Umdrac?” questioned Cinda. “Was that low magic?”
Rew coughed, nearly spilling his coffee, which would have been tragic.
“So you’ve a bit of high magic, then?” pressed the noblewoman. “How is that possible?”
Rew sipped his coffee, sighed, and explained, “Low magic is cast through connection. Anyone can do it, but it requires an openness to the world, which less charitable folk might say is why nobility rarely uses it. The strength of the caster of low magic grows as the connection grows. As a ranger, I’ve spent my time out in the wilderness communing with nature, practicing my craft. It means I can cast quite a bit more than I could when I first arrived in Eastwatch.”
“And Anne practices healing,” said Cinda.
“Aye, healing, but her empathy goes beyond that. We’re here in this way station because of her and the connection she’s forging with that new family. Same as when she ran her inn, it was about people, right? Every time she meets someone new, every time she strengthens a bond between herself and another person, through her empathy or just conversation, she increases what she’s capable of. Not much, mind you, but thousands of tiny steps add up. And yes, her healing is the core of it. To get where she is now, she’s had to come a long way. To heal your brother’s wounds, she had to heal many, many more before him. There are few empaths who have experienced what Anne has.”
“I understand,” responded Cinda, frowning, “but high magic isn’t like that at all, is it? It was high magic that started the fire on the roof?”
“No, high magic is not about the connection,” agreed Rew, “and it was how I started that fire. High magic comes from your blood. It’s similar, I suppose, in that your blood is the product of dozens of generations of men and women with talent coming together and mixing those traits until you’re capable of far more than what your ancestors were capable of. I doubt your great grandfather could have banished those wraiths like that or called death’s flame like you did. At least, not untrained, he couldn’t.”
“Interesting. So how did you—”
Rew waved away her coming question and kept talking, hoping she’d forget she meant to ask it. “Low magic, high magic, it all improves with practice. Low magic is like exercising your body, where high magic is like reading a book. Everyone knows instinctually how to move their arm, but a skilled woodworker achieves mastery after many years of practice. Not everyone knows the knowledge contained in books, though. That requires great minds sharing their learnings through the years, and it is in only rare cases that someone new can add to the corpus of general knowledge. That’s why you’re special, lass. You’ve the talent to bring something new,” continued Rew. He nodded to where Raif and Zaine where working through their routine. “That should give you some idea of the difference, but it’s not a perfect analogy. Just like soldiers strengthen their bodies, casters of high magic can do the same. They should do the same.”
He peered at her over his cup of coffee.
“I don’t see you out there training,” complained Cinda.
“I don’t even know how to practice necromancy.”
“There’s been little death, but that doesn’t mean there’s been no death in this place,” said Rew. “At some point through all of the years, I’m certain that someone has died here. And if not on this exact ground, then nearby on the road. It’s safe, this close to Spinesend, but nowhere is completely safe. If all nobles drive carriages like our lady with the baby and her footman, for example, then surely a few of them have perished on the highway.”
“Close your eyes, see what you can feel,” suggested Rew, “and then feel for the echoes. Not just what’s here in front of you like it was during the battle, but what has been here before. It’s easy when you get the hang of it. Here, let me hold your coffee.”
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