Warrior's Ransom: The First Argentines, Book 2
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A loyal knight is on a quest to save a dynasty from itself in the thrilling sequel to Knight’s Ransom by Wall Street Journal bestselling author Jeff Wheeler. After a pilgrimage to the East Kingdoms seeking a blessing from the Fountain, source of the land’s magic, Sir Ransom Barton returns home in search of two dreams: Claire de Murrow, the heiress he loves, and a patron for his warrior skills. Unexpectedly, Ransom finds himself in the favor of Devon, the notorious Elder King. Brought into the ruler’s mesnie and given two wards of his own, Ransom is devoted to his privileged new position. He’s also privy to the running of the realm and to all its courtly intrigues—notably, the machinations of the king’s three remaining sons, all engaged in a manipulative battle to become heir to the throne. As Ransom is thrust into the middle of poisonous family conspiracies and betrayals, allegiances are shattered, and Ransom fears he may end up serving his worst enemy—or worse, face exile for demonstrating loyalty. Drawing on his developing powers, Ransom takes up arms against the dark forces coming in a war that will test the limits of his courage and determine the fate of the dangerous and fractious Argentine dynasty.
Release date: May 18, 2021
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Warrior's Ransom: The First Argentines, Book 2
The Chandleer Oasis
Heat, sun, and sand. Those were the three daily facts in Ransom’s life as a caravan guard. But guarding the caravan was far better than being one of the camel handlers. He loathed the smell of the beasts, their noisy grunts, and their slow pace. There were twelve camels to defend, each laden with heavy burdens on their way to the outermost borders of the East Kingdoms. The head of the caravan—a merchant by the name of Kohler of Genevar—whistled an idle tune from the back of the lead camel.
Ransom rode a piebald destrier. It had a grayish coat that looked as if it had been splotched with ink. And while the incongruous coloring made the beast less elegant than others he’d ridden, he was grateful for the animal’s relentless energy. Its previous owner had named it Dappled, which suited the coloring. It had borne him across the vast desert toward the Chandleer Oasis, their destination. His contract with Kohler would end at Chandleer unless what Ransom sought could not be found there and he had to go deeper into the East Kingdoms. It had been a year since he’d left Kingfountain following the funeral rites of Devon Argentine, the king he’d served, and they were almost to their first destination.
“Ransom!” barked Kohler.
He lifted his head at the merchant master and saw his arm pointing southward.
“What do you make of it? Bandits?”
His view was blocked by the train of camels, so Ransom urged Dappled forward, coming ahead of the lead camel. Kohler was wrapped in cloaks and headgear, layer after layer, to protect against the sun and wind. Ransom wore his armor beneath his own heavy robes for the same reason. He didn’t like the smothering feeling of it, nor did it stop the sand from chafing his skin, but he’d learned from the ways of the desert people.
There were twenty or so riders approaching from the south. His stomach clenched with dread. Although there were twenty in their party as well, he was the only experienced fighter.
“How far is the oasis?” Ransom asked.
“I’d thought we’d get there by nightfall,” Kohler said. “That’s a lot of men for bandits.”
“You have a lot of camels. They’ve no doubt been watching the caravan road.”
“Close enough to Chandleer but still too far, even if we get the camels running.” Kohler hawked and spat. “I’d hoped tales of our last run-in with thieves would be enough to frighten off any more vultures.” Kohler lowered the scarf from around his mouth, revealing his bearded face. “Can you handle that many?”
“I guess we’ll see,” Ransom said. He heard the trickle of water, a sound that didn’t exist in nature here in the desert. He’d sworn his loyalty to Kohler as part of the contract, and because he had, he felt a swell of Fountain magic whenever he was called upon to protect the caravan.
“Hup!” Kohler called out, signaling for the other camel drovers. “Like before. Tie the camels together so they cannot run. Grab your spears.”
Some of the servants began to murmur with concern, but they had done this before. Ransom saw a few glance his way, offering looks of encouragement. He might be an outsider, but he’d proven himself as their guardian. The one everyone called when a scorpion wandered into camp or a thief attempted an attack. Serving a merchant felt different from serving a king, but this had taught him more about his power: it required him to serve someone else. When he had no master, the stores of strength faded and he felt darkness rise inside him. A darkness with which he was now familiar and that he feared.
Ransom rode south to face the riders, at the same time removing his cloak so his armor could be seen from a distance. He did this without really expecting it to affect them. The desert tribesmen were a hardy people, accustomed to living in difficult circumstances with oppressive heat and lack of water. Even if these men had heard stories about his prowess, the prospect of plundering a Genevese caravan was likely too tempting for them to ignore. Kohler was prosperous and would only become more so after this journey was done.
Ransom put on his helmet. His jousting helmet was in his saddlebag. This one covered the top of his head with a nose guard in front, but it was otherwise open at the eyes and mouth so he could see and hear better. He cinched the strap beneath his chin and rolled his shoulders back, preparing his muscles for battle. His position gave him a powerful advantage. He was on the crest of a dune, which would require them to attack uphill. And their horses would be more wearied from the ride.
Dappled grunted, sensing the approaching danger. Ransom kept his eyes fixed on the incoming riders, the first of whom lifted hornwood bows. He waited, gazing at them. Black shafts lifted up into the sky and came pelting down around him, sticking into the sand. One came straight for his chest, but Ransom didn’t flinch. He felt the ripple of magic and twisted at the last moment. Several more volleys of arrows came, and soon black fletching and shafts littered the ground nearby. He waited, unperturbed. So did his mount, which was an unusual beast and seemed to share its rider’s confidence.
When the bandits began riding up the rise, Ransom finally reached down and drew his bastard sword, the one he had received from the armory in Tatton Grange in Westmarch. His lips felt chapped as he licked them. He observed the riders, looking for the leader, trying to sense which man he should target. As his gaze fixed on one specific person, a sense of understanding crept down Ransom’s back. This was no well-organized or outfitted crew. They were a ragged band, with fur pelts sewn into their clothes, and those not holding the bows held curved scimitars. The leader rode straight at Ransom, his aim unfaltering.
Ransom felt the rushing of the falls inside his mind. He leaned forward in his saddle, listening to the thump of hooves on sand. Only twenty. He’d faced more than that when Lord DeVaux’s men had ambushed him all those years ago. It was the voyage that had begun to twine his fate with that of the Argentine family, although his connection to them had been severed with the death of Devon Argentine, the Younger King. Still, even a year later, his mind lingered on what he’d left behind. On whom he’d left behind. He gripped the reins loosely in his left hand and glanced down at the braided, fraying bracelet he wore there. Many of the strips of leather had broken loose during this journey. The silver ends with the Gaultic design had tarnished. But Claire de Murrow, the woman he admired above all others, had given it to him, and so he’d kept it, doing his best to keep it intact.
He hadn’t heard from her or about her in a year, but the thought of her soothed his soul like nothing else.
Shouts came from the attacking raiders, whooping cries meant to frighten him. He wasn’t afraid. He simply lifted his sword, waiting patiently for them to get close enough.
As they swarmed him, Ransom began to fight. He killed the leader in the first pass and heard him topple from the saddle and bite into the sand. He deflected another scimitar and countered with a killing thrust. His ears heard every sound, every snort, every cry of rage, every moan of pain. Dappled flailed hooves, striking the horse of an advancing rider and biting another horse that came too close. Some of the raiders had rushed past him, heading to the caravan. Ransom blocked and parried, swinging Dappled around in a circle. He killed three more, leaving the remaining attackers rushing toward the caravan.
He whistled for Dappled to charge and went after them. The sleek stride of his powerful warhorse quickly overcame the band. He lopped off one man’s arm as he passed and rode alongside another, who shrieked in panic when he noticed the knight bearing down on him. The man turned aside, forsaking the chance at plunder, and Ransom let him go.
Ahead, he saw the servants gripping spears and standing before the camels worriedly. The beasts brayed with concern, but they were tethered together in a circle and could not flee.
He killed three more men before they reached the caravan. The survivors fled down another hill, realizing they’d die if they didn’t abandon their objective. He’d killed eight of the attackers, and his breathing had hardly picked up. It almost frightened him how efficient he was at killing people. The darkness inside him swelled with pride. He tamped it down.
Kohler grinned down at him and offered a salaam, a gesture of respect from the desert world. “I don’t think we’ll have any more trouble before we reach the oasis.”
* * *
The Chandleer Oasis was an impressive sight in the middle of the desert. On the horizon, red- and orange-hued mountains jutted up from the dunes, forming a natural barrier to the east. The oasis was fortified, with a series of sandstone walls mixed with vibrant palm trees. The group reached it as the sun went down, and the guards opened the gates, allowing them to join the other caravans that had braved the distance and were taking a much-needed rest.
There were many natural pools of water throughout the enclosure, enough to provide all the men and beasts with essential refreshment. Ransom refilled his flask and gulped it down, taking in the sights around him. There was a palace within the oasis itself, a grand structure with outer corridors, archways, and sculpted stone fashioned into dazzling parapets. Many travelers had set up their tents outside the palace, and Ransom helped his group do the same. Once the tents were up, Kohler broke off to speak to some of the other merchants in Genevese. Some of the other merchants had warriors with them too, and Ransom saw a few knights talking amongst themselves. One saw him and tapped his thumb against his chest in a familiar gesture. Ransom smiled and returned the salute.
Three knights walked up to him.
“Where do you hail from?” they asked in Occitanian.
He didn’t want to announce himself, not sure how far his reputation might have spread. Although he’d been cleared of any wrongdoing after Devon’s death, he knew it hadn’t prevented people from whispering about him.
“A small castle in the country,” he replied, matching their language. It wasn’t a lie, as he’d won a small castle in Occitania at a tournament. “What about you three?”
“Much the same,” said one of them. “How long have you been in the desert? It seems a good long time?”
“Over a year,” Ransom answered.
“I took a ship from Brugia months ago,” said another. “King Lewis is dead. It’s said he died of apoplexy. The Black Prince is king now. Had you heard?”
Ransom almost physically flinched. The old king was the one who’d sent a cloaked woman to kill Devon. She was the same woman who had probably killed Claire’s father. Ransom had seen her face, and she bore an uncanny resemblance to Queen Emiloh. He suspected the woman was the queen’s daughter, born before her marriage to Devon the Elder. He had told no one.
“No,” Ransom answered, shaking off the memories. “I’m surprised to hear it.”
The knight shrugged. “We’ve been talking about going back to Occitania,” said the knight. “The new king will need as many knights as he can take on. Might be another war with Ceredigion, eh?” He spoke the name of Ransom’s country with a tone of open contempt. “You returning after this trip? Or continuing on to the East Kingdoms?”
“I don’t know,” Ransom said. “My contract ends here.”
“Bah, who cares about a contract,” said one of the other knights. “It pays the most to serve yourself.”
The sentiment rankled Ransom. Their king, the one who’d died, had made a show of Virtus—the virtues of knighthood, which included honesty, valor, and integrity—but clearly it had failed to make an impact on his own knights. Or at least these three. “If that’s how you see it. I must be on my way.”
“You could come with us if you want,” offered one of them.
He didn’t but thanked them anyway and started walking toward the palace. The building was constructed of polished marble, and it struck him with wonder that such a place should exist in the middle of a vast desert. The gate stood open, and the armed warriors who guarded it stood by, allowing him to enter.
Torches in brackets lined the inner walls, holding back the coming dark. As he entered, servants approached with trays of apricots, figs, and cups of a pink drink. He took some of the fruit and waved away the drink. A few birds flitted around the indoor trellises, which were thick with fragrant star jasmine vines. He stopped and inspected them, inhaling the sweet fragrance, and noticed several of the merchants had preceded him inside. Kohler was among them. His robes and turban were gone; in their place, he wore his costly raiment, and his dark beard stretched into a massive grin. Laughter continued to emanate from the men as they shared experiences and stories. The celebratory atmosphere reminded Ransom of the end of a tournament, only this was a prize for merchants rather than knights—a reward for having endured the difficult journey.
A servant walked by with a tray of another kind of fruit. It had a mottled green rind and pink flesh. The bystanders took wedged slices and ate from them, spitting black seeds onto the marble floor. Other servants came and swept up the seeds.
Ransom continued to walk around, observing the guests and admiring the wealth on display. He wondered who ruled and defended such a place. It was a mystery to him, and it made him feel even more out of place than usual. Although he wasn’t sure what he was looking for, he felt a mental nudge when he saw a set of doors at the far end of the luxurious hall. He walked to the doors and then outside into the gardens. There were others there, merchants roaming the space together. Beautiful dark-haired servants continued to offer delicacies to eat, skewered meat and green olives.
Ransom kept walking. Because of the fall of night, he couldn’t see the mountains in the distance, but he imagined it was a splendid view during the day. Fountains shimmered throughout the garden, seemingly lit from within. His pulse quickened, and he felt a stirring in his heart. He’d come leagues through harsh terrain to reach this place. A pilgrimage to the East Kingdoms was, according to the deconeus of St. Penryn, a way for the Fountain-blessed to understand their calling. If he was lucky, the Fountain might also recognize him with a gift.
He walked past at least three different fountains, but the tugging sensation continued to draw him deeper into the gardens. Soon the glowing water sources were behind him. He wandered down a garden path, following it by instinct, and arrived at a small, nondescript well. A lip of stone surrounded it, and a wooden structure topped it, with a rope securing a jug to the wood. This was where servants came to draw water.
He glanced back, finding himself secluded from the other visitors and servants, and then rested his hand on the wooden structure. At first the only sound was that of distant laughter, but the sound faded, and in its wake came the rushing of waters, the noise of the falls outside the palace of Kingfountain. His skin prickled with awareness. It felt like he wasn’t alone.
Ransom dropped to one knee by the edge of the rim. His chest began to heave as he felt emotions rush through him, unfamiliar, powerful.
It was a thought, but it was not his own. Ransom didn’t hesitate. He grabbed the sturdy rope and lowered the jug down into the well until he heard it splash into the water. After securing the rope, he gripped its fibrous length and began to lower himself down. The darkness engulfed him. He felt the strain from the weight of his armor, but he clenched his teeth and went down quickly. The water touched his legs, then his hips, and then he was hanging there, wondering how deep it went.
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