In Book One--Will discovered that more than fate brought him to Alamore
In Book Two-- The Cutthroat Prince ran rampant
In Book Three-- Will was forced to outrun a killer to save a Queen In Book Four-- Unrest rose to devour the city in flames of treason
In Book Five-- A traitor's intent begins a grueling war...
So, what all can you expect in book five? How can you read it early? You can expect a lot of action, friendship, and terrible truth. You can expect characters to battle with blades and with their own past as Will is faced with the reality of what his bloodlines make him. You can expect the longest book in the series to date, at about 90k words longer than the prior book. So far the Beta Reviews have included snippets such as 'best yet' and 'favorite of the series' and so many other fantastic bits of feedback. How can you read it early, then? Before its release?
By becoming a Beta or Review Reader! Right now, I am seeking readers who want to read Tyrant of Traitors before it's release and who can help with the following:
Catching grammatical and typing errors in these works
Leaving a review on Amazon upon release
Leaving a review on Goodreads as soon as they finish the book
Optional: joining the 'street team' where you can then share your review in your favorite places to share reviews, such as book groups on Facebook, instagram, booktok, and so forth.
When you agree to help with these matters, you help with a huge portion of this book reaching readers. You help others find the series and help me continue to grow the world of Alamore for more readers. Here is a snippet of the beginning of the book for you to enjoy and decide if you want to join these teams:
The first warmth of spring whispered into the night, intertwining through the branches of the walled castle garden. Music, light, and laughter spilled from the large double doors, thrown wide to cast away the last chill of winter and let the richly clad guests roam the walkways through flowerbeds and hedgerows if they so chose.
None, however, seemed interested in leaving the festivities within the castle’s walls for the first budding leaves. The dancing, the feast, the music—they held people in the spell of grandeur and royal affairs. It intoxicated them in the sense of importance, twisted around them, kept them captive in the cage of bright golds, silvers, gemstones, and majesty.
Or, at least, it held most.
Striding in silence along the stone path of the neatly tended gardens, the solitary teenager paused at the shrill titter of laughter to glance toward the doors of the castle again, lips pressing thin. Flicking a strand of his long, dark hair back from his face, he waited, half expecting one of the richly dressed women to appear through the doors. When none did, his shoulders slackened slightly, his heart slowing, and he congratulated himself again on escaping the party within. It was worth the creeping cold on his exposed face to be well away from the clutching grasps of those who wanted to be deemed important in society.
Sneering slightly, he watched the people mulling nearest the door. They had a desperation to be accepted, noticed, powerful. They mingled with others, they suffocated the air with their senses of self-importance. None of them, though, were of any matter. None would ever hold the titles that he did, never control a country as he would. They were pawns, each one with his or her lineage of pawns behind them. Nothing. No one.
The teenager stifled a cruel laugh as his eyes lit on a broad-shouldered squire who fought the snare of onlookers at the door. The squire fought to extricate himself from the clutches of a girl, grumbling a few inaudible replies as she cooed over him. Standing amongst the silence of the gardens, the teenager’s smirk broadened and he shook his head as the other boy at last freed himself into the darkness, peering around the shadows.
“I take it that Lady Melrayn wanted to get to know the future King’s most favored future knight a bit better?” the slender, dark-haired, teenager asked, stepping from his place beside the willow.
The broad-shouldered squire jumped with a grunt of surprise, wheeling around and reaching instinctively for the sword on his side. He relaxed, huffing out an annoyed sigh on catching sight of the other boy.
His round nose wrinkled in displeasure, his heavy brow furrowing in a near-childish frown above his beady eyes. “Rather she not. She’s got less dowery than a horse thief’s daughter and less looks than a milk maid. Anyhow, I think she’d rather know where Prince Tabius is hiding. They keep on badgering in there, you know. Her especially.”
“And I’d rather she not know where I am, which is why I’m out here,” the Prince of Thornten replied, stifling a cold laugh. “I’m fortunate to have much better options.”
The larger boy shrugged with another grunt. “Told her so much. Don’t think she took it seriously though, just laughed that annoying way she does. I’m glad to get away from her, and the others too, as they keep harping to know where you are. But, hold on, shouldn’t you be in there? This is your celebration, right?”
Tabius’s lip curled into a humorless sneer. “Draccart, as this is my celebration, I think I have every right to leave it whenever I so please.”
Draccart’s face blanched. “Sorry, Tabius, I didn’t mean—”
“No matter,” Tabius replied, cutting across the older boy. His eyes flitted away, to the doorway once more and the pool of light that fell like golden shadows from its open maw. “I’m finding it boring, honestly.” He ran a hand over his dark hair, eyes narrowing. “What I want is to know what ever so important matter my father and my uncle have been discussing since Marl arrived yesterday. Have they given you any insight at all?”
Draccart shook his head. “No. Marl won’t let me in on anything, you know that. What I learn is from what they tell you.”
That appeased some of the restlessness in Tabius’s chest. Good. That was how it should be. Squires, even if they did serve Kings on occasions, didn’t deserve to know more than Princes.
“Maybe we should just ask?” Draccart recommended, squinting back at the doors.
Tabius eyed him. “Just ask? Tell me, Draccart, have you ever actually considered logic before speaking? What do you think they’d do if we asked? I will tell you—they would say whatever it is, is a matter of Kings.”
“Oh,” Draccart muttered. “I guess, yeah, probably so.”
“Entirely so,” Tabius assured him. He scuffed a foot over the path, snorting.
It should be that simple. He was a Prince. He was the Prince of Thornten. It was his right to know what was happening. He’d proven himself responsible time and time again. Hadn’t he been the one who, when the rogues who called themselves the Ridgar had attacked the cities around the country, organized for workers and aid to be sent? That’d been very responsible.
Alright, perhaps his eavesdropping on Marl and his father in past hadn’t been as trustful, and his expeditions attempting to be the menacing Cutthroat Prince had ended disastrously… but that had been child’s antics. Years ago, ready to be forgotten. Well, ready to be forgotten except with where his father was concerned. He seemed to never forget, and therein was the problem.
But it hadn’t been soldiers working under his orders who had lost an heir. Not his plan that had, so badly, backfired when that same heir had joined rogues to burn the cities. Those were blunders of others, things that couldn’t be blamed on him. If anyone was at fault, it would be Marl, for letting that same heir leave in the first place. And yet it was he, Tabius, punished with ignorance while Marl had a seat in council as a King. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair.
If they trusted him, none of these threats would live. He’d have found a way to recapture the heir or, better still, kill him and kill the other. The other. His skin crawled and his eyes narrowed. The other heir, the one who posed such threat by his mere existence. The one who lived in the rumors that were whispered through the streets, who they needed to end.
The crunch of feet over the gravel of the paths broke Tabius from his thoughts. The hair rose over the back of his neck and he spun, eyes straining into the darkness. From instinct and training, his fingers closed over the ornate sword on his side, gripping the handle beneath the bronze falcon claw and black stone of the hilt.
“What’s the matt—” Draccart started.
Tabius shook his head and Draccart followed his gaze, peering confusedly into the shadows. Tabius’s fingers tightened on the sword handle and he exhaled, his thumb unclasping the decorative clasp that locked the blade into its sheath. Another step, louder this time, nearer to them on one of the branching paths.
Beside him, Draccart was less subtle in his surprise, half drawing his sword.
“Halt! Who goes there?” Draccart’s shout wasn’t enough, thankfully, to gain the attention of the party-goers.
Even so, Tabius resisted rolling his eyes with difficulty. Who goes there? Really? This was a feast. Most likely ‘what went there’ were girls or guests, others who’d had to gain a few breaths out of the suffocating mass of riches. And, if it was a threat, did Draccart really believe it would declare itself and waltz out in defeat?
“No need to draw your weapon, Sir.”
The man stepping from the shadows and toward their pool of silver moon’s light held his hands aloft, empty palms exposed beneath his splayed fingers. His traveling cloak brushed the ground, unimpressive, common place after the grand clothing of the feast. A lock of white-blonde wavy hair fell over the man’s brow, almost into his blue eyes. His gaze drifted over Tabius and Draccart, confusion creasing the thin lines of his forehead.
He lowered his hands. “I’m so sorry to have disturbed you, I was merely hoping to find a moment to speak with King Tollien. I only need… need a few moments of his time,” the man said politely, inclining his head to Tabius. His eyes drifted toward the door, the confusion deepening in his expression. “But it does seem I am gatecrashing and I would hate to intrude on this celebration.”
“You’ll address the Prince of Thornten properly or not at all,” Draccart growled.
Tabius shot him an annoyed look. Did he have to be this way right now? This was the most entertaining thing that had happened through the evening.
“Oh, my apologies, Your Majesty,” the man said, brows raising. He stooped into a low bow and the aggravation diminished. Alright, perhaps being acknowledged properly wasn’t the worst thing. Tabius straightened to his full height. He rather liked grown men groveling. It was entertaining to witness.
“You’re one of my father’s men at arms then? If so, you can leave your report with your commanding officer,” Tabius said, ignoring the apology.
The man shook his head and straightened. Tabius thought an offended look flickered over the man’s features for a moment. “I am not a soldier or guard. No, I report to the King himself… Your Majesty,” he added, prompted by Draccart’s threatening hiss at Tabius’s side.
Tabius frowned, glancing back toward the doors. “Well, my father is greeting the guests of our lands.” Or still locked away in a meeting with my gloriously obnoxious King of an Uncle who refuses to let me in on matters of the crown, he thought bitterly.
Still, he kept his face cool, indifferent. “Perhaps I can deliver your message myself?” He didn’t bother hiding the contempt from his features as his eyes traveled over the man’s attire again. “As your presence may not be… discrete.”
The man paused and Tabius’s mood soured again. It could not be plainer that this man, whoever he was, wouldn’t pass on anything to him.
“How about we do this instead?” Tabius suggested, sighing. He turned to Draccart. “Get my father, won’t you? Tell him that there is some strange man in the gardens asking for his time. Or, better yet, Sir Dethark, the captain of defenses, and see how many guards he sends to arrest—”
“No,” the man said hurriedly. “No, that won’t be necessary. I can leave, Prince Tabius, and return later.”
“Or you can tell me who you are and why you think my father will care what you have to say,” Tabius replied coolly. He raised one brow. Younger he might be, but he was the powerful one, the Prince. Let this man squirm beneath his glower.
The man’s cheeks rounded with a puff of nervous air. He pushed a hand over his pale locks, peering past Tabius again, his blue eyes desperate in the glow spilling from the grand feast within. Tabius waited, letting the silence stretch. There was power in patience. He’d seen it when his father stared down without the mercy of words on those who had failed him. Confessions poured from trembling lips if one could just sit, only wait.
“Very well,” the man muttered. He fixed Draccart with a look of silent challenge. “If I reach into my pocket, will your brute think it a threat and murder me?”
Tabius bit the inside of his cheek to keep from smirking. The waspish tone twisting over the prior groveling was more interesting. Draccart and the stranger glowered at one another, the dislike evident.
“It depends, is it a threat?” Tabius asked.
The man snorted, shaking his head. “It’s a message for your father, a response to his requests. If your dog can take it inside, then perhaps you and I can meet with the King, your father, and I need only explain myself once.”
Tabius paused. That was an idea. If he did this, who would question his accompanying this stranger into one of those conversations he was so often kept away from? Wasn’t it the noble thing, the mature thing, to pass along the man’s message? His father wouldn’t be impressed if he shook the answers from this man by the throat. But to bring him information, an answer to some request, likely good news… if he didn’t read the letter first…
“Draccart, take this man’s message to my father and bring him and Marl out here,” Tabius said suddenly, his mind decided.
Draccart started, staring at him. “What? Leave you alone with—”
“I have a blade and the ability to defend myself,” Tabius cut across him. “Don’t question a Prince’s order, Draccart. That is above your station.”
Draccart’s wide mouth clamped shut, his eyes narrowing. The internal battle between obeying and obstinance was etched in obvious dismay over his broad face. His training to submit to orders won and he pulled reluctant fingers from his sword, holding his hand out to the man. “Letter then. Try anything, though, and I’ll flay you.”
The man didn’t give Draccart the satisfaction of a response, only pulled the tight roll of parchment from his pocket and shoved it into Draccart’s hand. Tabius’s eyes paused on the silver wax seal, the shape branded over the note’s edge: a wolf’s head. Thought pulled Tabius’s brows into a frown and he watched the note vanish into Draccart’s pocket, the squire shoving it out of sight without apparent regard.
“You wait here,” Draccart grunted at the stranger. “Move, and I’ll make sure you regret it. Don’t even consider harming the Prince. Got it?”
The man raised pale brows. His lip curled slightly. “Of course.”
Draccart gave him another mistrusting look before spinning on his heel and stamping along the gravel, his boots crunching back toward the golden light and soft strings of music.
Tabius waited for Draccart to vanish once more into the festivities before turning to the man. “That wasn’t a seal of Thornten.”
A small smile pulled the stranger’s mouth. “I’m surprised you could see that well in this light. It’s impressive for you to notice and know your lands that well.”
“It’s my responsibility,” Tabius replied casually. He made a mental note to thank Marl later for drilling him through all of the coats of arms the year before. At the time it’d seemed stupid, now it gave him an impressive advantage. “So, if not from Thornten, where did you ride from?” Tabius pressed.
The man lowered his voice, casting an anxious look around the gardens as if to ensure they were alone. “I rode from Alamore.”
A shiver of anticipation raced across Tabius’s flesh. Alamore? How long had it been since they’d focused their sights there. They’d been distracted with the attacks in the city over the past summer, hemmed in by their own peace agreement before that. It had put a hold on the game of cat and mouse that had been played in the past years with the other heir. He wouldn’t think of that obnoxious lout as the real heir, or true heir, or whatever he might actually be. No.
But if this man was from Alamore… if the hunt was on once more…
His heart slammed harder from beneath his ribs and he pulled himself to his full height.
“Is this regarding William?” Tabius asked, trying to keep his voice casual. “Another chance to attack, perhaps?”
Tabius thought the bewilderment in the man’s stare to be genuine. A strand of disappointment tainted his zeal. “Yes, William of Alamore,” he pressed all the same.
“Oh.” A flicker of recognition crossed the man’s face but was discarded with the shake of his head. “Not at all. No, I came because—”
“I thought I told you to await my orders before making any move, and yet I find you here. I find that you disobeyed me and risked being seen..”
The fury in the low voice made both Tabius and the stranger spin round. Tabius bit back his smirk at the anger that flared behind cold dark eyes in the newcomer’s handsome face. Rich bronze tunic shining with dark obsidian gems alone his collar in the dim light, black hair falling to frame his thin face, King Tollien of Thornten demanded respect with the ominous presence of his rage. He stalked toward them from the open doors of the feast. At his back, Draccart trotted to keep up with the strides of a second black-haired man.
Tabius took a half step back, glancing between his father and the stranger. If there would be bloodshed for disobeyed orders, he’d rather not get it on his cloak.
“I’m sorry, Your Majesty,” the stranger murmured, ducking his head and sinking into a kneeling bow. A note of subservient pleading filled his voice now, one that Tabius was annoyed his own station hadn’t warranted before. “But things have changed and I needed to talk to you. Our plan of waiting won’t work. We can’t risk that any longer. The rumors of the summer? They were true. He really has returned and if he rises to challenge me once the boy has been killed—”
“Not here.” The second black-haired man was stepping forward, eyes narrowed to pierce the shadows that surrounded them. He ran one hand over his beard and jerked his head at the kneeling man. “You know better than to blather in the open, anyone might hear.”
“Marl is right,” Tollien hissed. His features were that of a snarling lion, contorted with anger and power. “On your feet, Count.”
Count? Tabius blinked in bewilderment at the man. A Count? Of Alamore? What was he doing here at this time, now? This had to be important.
The man scrambled upright to obey, head still bowed. “Yes, your Majesty, it’s just—”
“Draccart.” Tollien turned to the squire. “See to it that no one remarks on our absence from the feast.”
Draccart frowned, brow knitting. “How?”
Tollien sighed heavily and Marl stepped forward. “If anyone asks, tell them that I’ve had Tabius and Tollien accompany me to the stables for Tabius’s gift and I wish to bond with my nephew without any of their wretched prying and gawking eyes around.”
Tabius raised an eyebrow, smirking. “Is my gift in the stables?”
Marl chuckled. “I guess you’ll have to check but not yet. Tollien, we can take the south door in. My quarters are secure enough to meet.”
Tollien nodded. “Very well. Draccart, go.”
Draccart made a baleful look toward Tabius before turning and lumbering his way back to the castle. Tabius didn’t move. His breath had caught in his throat. If he was the excuse for the two Kings not to be present, then he couldn’t be present in the hall either. Perhaps now is the time I get to be powerful, I get to meet with this spy.
Though he felt his face was smooth, he noticed Tollien watching him and felt his muscles tighten. Those black eyes were pulling the thoughts from his mind as easily as if they’d been written over his skin.
“I think seventeen is an age enough to learn your duties as King,” Tollien said at last, gifting Tabius with one of his rare if not fleeting smiles.
Tabius glowed with excitement, his heart slamming into his bones to echo each step as he followed the three men across the gardens. Marl led the way, a powerfully built shadow that shouldered through the door ahead and into the dim corridor.
Pride made the Prince walk with a straighter back, a longer stride. As a King would walk. As it should be.
Beyond the walls of stone, guarded by steel blades and loyal blood, the lone rider paused between trees. His eyes traveled over the shadows of the city, the dark chasm around the castle, and bright stains of light that poured through tower windows. Muscles tightened across his jaw, and he pulled lower the shadow of his dark blue cloak. An old fear shivered through his chest, haunting memory rising to echo through the years, replaying before his eyes. The betrayal, the hurt, the terror, the escape. Shedding the life he had lived before for the shadows, for the obscurity and safety of this existence he now claimed.
His white horse tossed his head and struck the forest floor with one heavy hoof. The rider tightened his reins, a silent request at the shining animal to settle.
“What is it?”
The man didn’t start or turn. As silent as the teen had been, he’d still felt his approach. He forced a thin smile and turned his eyes from the tower to his companion. The boy’s open and freckled face was taut, his eyes darting nervously around their surroundings.
“It’s nothing, Treck, nothing you should worry about,” the man assured softly.
Treck shook his head, reaching to rest one hand on the horse’s neck. “I’m not a fool, I know it’s not nothing. Why are we here? What’s going on? We don’t belong in these lands. We should be going back, getting to the others again before they worry.”
The rider smirked beneath his hood. “Come on, lad. The others have survived on their own before, they will again for now. And we don’t abide by crowns and their laws, so why would we live within their lines?”
“Because we’re dead if we’re caught here?” the boy suggested
The man laughed under his breath, a few strands of his golden hair falling over his brow. “And they won’t kill us there?”
“Well, they might have more mercy,” Treck muttered. “If we asked, I think they’d spare us.”
The smirk slipped and the rider’s eyes were pulled once more to the castle in its guard of broken ground. “Perhaps, but should the time ever come for begging for mercy or a blade, I will take the latter. There are worse things than death.”
He felt Treck’s eyes watching him in bewilderment but did not turn. That haunting ache in his chest was festering inside him. It begged him to run, to hide, to leave the past lay in the years already gone. But his days of running were gone. Too long, he had fled. Too long, he had hid from the truth.
“You know him, don’t you?” Treck whispered. “The one we followed here? I mean, you know him as more than just a ruler, don’t you?”
Thorns of fear pierced into the man’s lungs and made it hard to breathe. After several long moments, he managed a small nod, fighting to keep his features smooth. “I do.”
Silence stretched between them once more. Run. The man’s heart pleaded, the voice in his thoughts small, an innocent and scared child. How had he ever been that way? He gritted his teeth. The days of running had long since ceased. There was no victory in retreating into shadow. And now he knew, now he saw what he’d been so blind to before. As father as son, he thought bitterly and his teeth gritted hard to keep back the mixture of snarl and whimper that rose in his throat.
“Hmm?” the man muttered.
“It’s him, isn’t it. He’s the one, the reason… the reason you’re out here, isn’t he?” Treck sounded afraid to give voice to the thoughts, but curiosity had won out.
The cloaked man pondered the question for a long minute. Once, he would have denied it. He would have been vehemently in his refute of the claim. Now, though, years and truths had taught him better. Now, he knew better than to shelter from reality behind the lies he had repeated. He wouldn’t live in fear any longer. He wouldn’t allow his life to be tormented by the past that this man—the man he had followed to this castle, these walls—anymore. “Yes, Treck,” he murmured at last. “I believe he is.”
“And… and you want to kill him?” Treck’s voice had become small, worried.
The hooded figure forced his gaze from the castle, turning his white horse. He shook his head, peering down at the shadowed teenager beside him in his worn grey cloak. “What I want is to never see him again… but I want him to know I’m alive. I want him to never forget that I exist, to make him scared to close his eyes. Sometimes it’s better to be a ghost than to be a murderer. What I am going to do is ensure he remembers who I am, even if we never stand face-to-face again.”
“Why?” Treck questioned.
The man smiled, glad that his blue eyes were shielded beneath his hood. “As I said, Treck, sometimes mercy isn’t merciful. Sometimes mercy is another way people use us. But I won’t be used ever again, and I’d like him to remember that.”
William of Alamore fought hard against the words he wanted to hurl at the sky and the red horse standing above him. But his winded lungs could barely catch enough breath to breathe. Which was perhaps lucky, as the knight roaring with laughter was too close and would likely have some terrible punishment in mind if he heard the words his squire was thinking. He thought of a few words he wished he could tell the knight as well as the horse and fought to inhale lungfuls of spring air. Blinking his burning blue eyes, he wondered how many times he could crash onto his back in the valley before it was acceptable to give up and not rise again. Not there yet, a mocking voice whispered in his mind.
Gasping, he rolled onto his stomach and pushed himself to his feet with unsteady muscles. Disheveled brown hair flopped forward, sweat plastering it to his brow, and he wiped it away with an annoyed movement and turned. The small red stallion waited with alert ears and an expression of innocence over his curved face that made Will still more annoyed.
“Really? You really had to do that?” Will grunted, doubling forward. “If you’d waited another ten seconds, I’d have been off, you idiot.”
He ran a hand over his knee, wincing. That was where he’d taken the impact of the fall. Knee, then hip, then back as he rolled into the lush grasses under the deep purple-grey of the clouded spring morning. Will pulled one arm over the horse’s neck, lifting his shaking leg to find his stirrup. Behind him, he could hear the barks of laughter and it made his face burn bright crimson, nearly the same color as the horse’s sleek coat. Excellent. Humiliation on top of being bruised and battered. That made for a perfect day. His mood darkened even as the sun broke through the trees.
He shook a handful of mane to get the animal’s attention. “I was getting off, you buffoon.”
“He was just giving you a helping hand!”
Will gritted his teeth, refusing to turn around. He didn’t need to see the gloating laughter he knew would fill Haru’s grinning face. It was easy to picture it in his mind though—the knight’s red hair falling forward, his grey-green eyes shining, and that broad smile that accompanied the barking laugh. His knight wouldn’t soon let him live this down. He’d probably tell Will’s best friends, Rowan and Colin, just to rub in the fact that he’d fallen off the horse when attempting to dismount at a canter. He wouldn’t have, though, if Admere hadn’t jerked to a halt in surprise at his rider’s shift in weight. Again. For what felt like the hundredth time.
“Do it again and I’m trading you for a cart mule,” Will warned the horse, hoisting himself back onto the worn leather of his saddle with a groan.
Admere arched his thick neck in silent acknowledgement.
“Care to try that again without falling off?” Haru called and Will forced himself to face the knight at last.
Sure enough, a smile split over Haru’s face under the stubble covering his jaw, his hands folded on the front of his saddle. Considering how sore Will felt, it was annoying to see his knight looking so comfortable, lounged in the saddle of his thick roan warhorse with apparent ease.
“How about you show me how it’s done so I can take a breather?” Will shot back. “I think I about broke my backside on that one.”
“Lucky that your horse is a tiny fellow then,” Haru countered. “Anyway, I already showed you and I’ve done this. Remember? Remember you told me that looked easy and this looked like a waste of time the other day? Remember when you said you’ve been doing this since your first year in the arena and you’d prove it? Quit your complaining. We might not be doing these drills for a while, so think of it as extra practice.”
Will frowned. “And why wouldn’t we be doing these for a while? Decided to show some mercy after watching me fall off for the fifth day running now?”
Haru chuckled. “Alamore no, serves you right for mouthing off to me and telling me that uneven ground wouldn’t be that hard.”
“So, why wouldn’t we be out here?” Will demanded. “What do you know that I don’t?”
“I guess we’ll have to see.” Haru gave him a smug and significant smile.
“Thank you, that wasn’t vague,” Will grumbled.
He could tell Haru was waiting for him to press for answers but he gritted his teeth. He wouldn’t give Haru that satisfaction. That knowing smirk was already plastered over Haru’s face.
Will sighed. “Look, can’t we just come back out and do this tomorrow?”
“Nope.” Haru shook his head. “You have to get used to speed dismounts on uneven ground, Will. You won’t always have the jousting arena there to catch you. Life isn’t going to be as comfortable as the soft dirt all the time. You’ll have to learn that eventually.”
Will huffed. “Right.”
He wheeled Admere in a tight turn. Life wasn’t going to be comfortable? Well, he already knew that. How many times had he nearly died now? And Haru wanted to talk about how uncomfortable life could be? Really? Hadn’t it been less than a year since his last encounter with almost dying? Only a few months, actually, and those memories were quite literally burned into his mind.
The images of escaping a flaming tower as the city turned to smoke around him weren’t going to fade. They still woke him at night, sent shivers over his skin when he stared into the hearths of the castle. He had nearly died in that tower, an elegant trap set by someone he thought had been on their side—Leodin. It didn’t matter that Leodin’s change of heart had saved him, the Ranger of Kings, and the Ranger’s squire Wren. The fear had been real.
And before that? How many times before that had he almost died? It was a concerningly regular event, a side effect of training to become a knight when the blood of royalty ran through your veins. People tended to want him dead for it.
“Well, at least I’m not uncomfortable, right, Ad?” Will asked the horse in an undertone. The horse sighed, shaking his head with a jangle of tack. Will considered a few more choice insults for Haru that he didn’t dare to speak and pushed Admere into a trot away from the knight. Haru had the audacity to lecture him about life being tough? Funnily enough, he’d figured that out by now.
But, Will thought, peering around the valley, that danger had had its bright side. The aftermath of the fires had brought with it a serenity through the land. Word had come to Alamore—from the Ranger, Will was sure—that Thornten wasn’t focused on their ceaseless war against Alamore. The same group of rogues that had attacked Alamore, the Ridgar, had caused even more damage in Thornten lands.
The news that they were focused on rebuilding and the lack of attack meant that the security around the castle had lightened considerably. Haru had even let Will ride the same patrols as the other squires under seventeen, under the promise that he ‘didn’t do anything stupid.’ Another phrase that made Will scowl. Like he intentionally looked for stupid situations.
“Stop moping and get moving!”
Will twisted to look over his shoulder at the newcomer’s shout. Two more figures had joined Haru in the shade of the castle’s wall. Despite the lengthening distance between himself and them, Will thought he could see the broad smile that the black-haired knight wore. But he knew Sir Rockwood wasn’t the one antagonizing him. No. His laughing smile was nothing compared to the evil grin of the squire beside him, his tousled brown hair a mess, lounging in the saddle of his black horse.
Will glanced down at his own horse, bringing Admere to a walk. “Don’t throw me, alright? Not in front of Rowan.”
The horse flicked his head.
“Better be a yes, Ad, or else.”
He knew any scope of threat was relatively empty. Though the horse had tossed him several times over the years, he couldn’t help admiring the small horse’s drive. And, even if he had wanted to switch animals, there wasn’t another horse for him to use. Admere, a small hunt horse despite his thick neck, heavy bones, and large hooves, was his only horse. For nearly a year, since Admere had been returned to him, he and Haru had gone through exercise after exercise to train Admere to double as a warhorse. This maneuver, the high-speed dismount, had been one of the hardest. Hunt horses were trained to stop, wait for their rider to collect game, and remount. Warhorses had to be willing to keep charging forward on command, a warrior in their own sense.
That thought made Will wince, his side aching in anticipation of the next fall.
Straightening in his saddle, he turned to stare at Haru, waiting on his signal. Beside Haru, Rowan gave several signals of his own creation—most of which seemed fairly similar to rude gestures—while Rockwood stared at his pupil, shaking his head in slow resignation.
Haru’s hand fell through the air. Will inhaled, puffing his cheeks. “Right, Ad, here we go.”
The horse needed only the slightest squeeze of Will’s legs to his sides. The valley rushed beneath them in a blur of green waves, an ocean that thundered under Admere’s quickening stride. Will forced himself to slow his breath, urging the horse even as he shifted his weight. Hit the ground running. That was all he had to do. Hit the ground running so long as Admere didn’t pull to another sharp halt. He’d done this countless times in past, leaping from his beloved and lost bay warhorse. One hand slipped to his side, over the hank of black braided mane hanging from his belt and Will set his jaw.
The three riders ahead of him were growing larger, drawing nearer. Now. The time was now.
Slipping his foot from the iron on his right, he pulled his leg over Admere’s hip, focusing his weight to stay centered over the horse’s back. The horse’s stride faltered for a heartbeat.
“Come on, Ad,” Will hissed. “Come on.”
The horse’s ear flicked back, catching the words, and Admere stretched forward. Yes! Will felt the moment of free fall, forced his legs to start running. The ground slammed against his boots and he staggered over the uneven grass, almost falling. Righting himself, he sprinted forward several strides before his momentum slowed.
He doubled forward, gasping for air, success and adrenaline washing across him. Head bowed, he heard Haru’s whoop, Rowan’s whistle, and Rockwood’s hands cracking together in applause. Will staggered upright, grinning, as the red horse trotted back toward him with ears pricked forward and dark eyes questioning.
“Atta boy, Ad,” Will said, reaching for the reins. He pulled himself stiffly back into the saddle, running a hand over the horse’s thick mane. “Atta boy.”
“Nicely done, Will,” Haru called. He waved one hand, gesturing Will to join them. “I think that’s good enough for one day. Might as well end on a note where you’re not breaking your neck.”
“But breaking bones is more entertaining,” Rowan protested.
Haru raised his brows. “Are you really sure? I think your sister would say otherwise.”
“Her crutches were a good laugh,” Rowan said dismissively. He turned to grin at Will, riding toward them at an easy walk. “Weren’t they, Will?”
Will grimaced. “I don’t think so.”
“Boring, the whole lot of you.” Rowan rolled his eyes.
“What are you doing back? I thought you were on patrol?” Will asked, pulling Admere to a halt before the others.
Rockwood chuckled. “We were. You’ve been out here since we left and, when we got back a few minutes ago, Wren told us you two were still back here. We thought we’d come check out your tumbles.”
“Which it sounds like we missed all the good falls,” Rowan said, sighing. He cast Will a dejected look. “You couldn’t face plant one more time? For a friend?”
Will ignored him. “Where’s the rest of the patrol? Ross? Colin? Vancely?”
“We just up and left them in the forest,” Rowan said, shrugging. “Got jumped and figured we’d skedaddle before Rockwood here got all squeamish about the blood and gore of fighting.” Rowan leaned across from his saddle to grip his knight’s shoulder bracingly, his face sympathetic as he stared into his knight’s eyes. “Don’t worry, Rockwood, we can go decorate cakes to sooth your tattered nerves.”
Haru roared with laughter and Rockwood shrugged out from Rowan’s grasp with a snort. “Someone ought to have taught you by now how to be respectful of the knights who teach you, you bloody impudent cad. Your insubordination isn’t going to be that entertaining when you are leading an army someday.”
Rowan snorted. “It’s not insubordination if I’m leading, is it? It’s me being delightfully charming and in charge of a string of killers, because my military will be excellent.”
“Right, keep telling yourself that,” Rockwood muttered dryly. He turned to Will, shaking his head. “They’re in the courtyard.” He held up a hand, forestalling the question written in Will’s furrowed brow. “Ross and Colin were about to join us here but had matters to discuss first.”
“Colin’s in trouble,” Rowan said in a sing-song voice.
Will grinned. “Really? I don’t think Colin has ever been in trouble.”
“Not without you two, at least,” Rockwood agreed. “And no, don’t get your hopes up, he’s not in trouble.”
“But you will be if you don’t get Admere walked out,” Haru threatened, eyeing Will’s sweaty horse.
Will nodded, pulling Admere round. “Right. I’ll meet you back in the walls then, Rowan?”
“No way, I’m coming with,” said Rowan, trotting to join Will and Admere.
“So,” Will said, once they’d ridden some distance from Rockwood and Haru, both engrossed in conversation. “What was Ross talking to Colin about?”
Rowan rolled his eyes, tousled hair flopping forward. “He got some letter from his cousin—you know?—Carnel,” he spat the name with disgust.
Will raised his eyebrows. “He stayed behind because of a letter?”
Rowan snorted. “Come off it, Will, you know what Colin’s like. Making it worse is that Carnel is now asking him to make decisions, it seems. Colin was probably asked some question about the running of Lonnac and had a complete crisis. He’s probably making Ross talk to him about the color of the drapes for a washroom or some stupid thing. Seriously, I don’t know how he’s going to command when he’s a Count there. He cares way too much and he’s not even there.”
Will grinned. “And you’ll be so much better when you’re Lord of Lonric?”
“Of course.” Rowan waved a dismissive hand. “I’m basically a natural. But, I don’t have to worry about it anytime soon as my unfortunate excuse of a father seems to be sticking around. And, so he should, because I don’t want to deal with Lonric yet.”
“I thought you just said you’re a natural?” Will asked, smirking.
“Natural, yes, but I am not ready to wow the world with those talents.” Rowan shrugged. “I’d like to be able to be irresponsible for a change first.”
“Yes, because that’s not what you do daily anyway,” Will replied dryly.
Rowan shook his head. “I have to keep you and Colin in line all the time, so don’t even get me started.”
Will snorted. “Right.”
“You and Colin would be dead without me,” Rowan said firmly. “So, keep that doubt out of your treasonous voice. Do you know how many times I’ve saved you? Like the tunnels? I’m why we didn’t die there.”
“You’re the reason we did nearly die there,” Will countered.
Rowan batted away Will’s words with another waved hand. “You need to watch your cheek. I remember it well. I gallantly saved you both, putting my life in mortal peril, charging into the fight with nothing but my dagger and my wits.”
Will stared at him, brows raised. “I’m starting to think you’ve hit your head one too many times in practice because you’re delusional.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, but let’s put it to a vote,” Rowan said, twisting in his saddle. “Colin’s finally getting his sorry self out here, he can tell you about how I saved us all.”
Will brought Admere to a halt, turning to follow Rowan’s gaze. Sure enough, a figure on a red horse was cantering toward them. Hooves made a steady rhythm over the soft valley floor, the golden-haired teenager urging his large warhorse on.
“Is he smiling?” Rowan asked, eyes narrowed. “It can’t be a good sign if he’s smiling.”
“And why’s that?” Will asked, smirking.
Rowan rolled his eyes again. “You know him, Will. If he’s smiling it means we were probably assigned some stupid work, like an essay about why potatoes are needed to win wars. Actually, more boring than that. He’s cracked.”
“You’re cracked,” Will grumbled.
Rowan gave him a rude gesture.
Will didn’t retaliate, only waited with curious interest for Colin who brought his warhorse to a halt before them, golden hair swept back by the breeze, green eyes glinting with excitement.
“I was hoping I’d catch up before you two got too far away.” He pushed his hair back from his face, beaming.
“What has you so excited?” Will asked, still bewildered.
Colin shook his head, laughing. “You’ll never guess what I have to tell you.”
Rowan smirked, lounging back in his saddle. “You decided the new drapes? They’re pink, aren’t they? Pastel? It’ll go well with the stone color.”
Colin’s brow furrowed, smile faltering. “Drapes? Why would it be about drapes?”
“Ignore him,” Will advised. “What is it?”
“You’re right. That’s probably the best choice.” Colin chuckled, almost bouncing in his saddle. Will stared, taken aback. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen Colin look this eager about anything. His usual composure had been fractured with childish eagerness, his green eyes darting between Will and Rowan. Beside Will, Rowan had one eyebrow raised in a comically bemused expression.
“So, are you going to guess?” Colin pressed.
“Did you fall off and hit your head?” Rowan said slowly. “Because that’s my last guess.”
Colin sighed, pushing a hand through his hair. “No, come off it. Look, here.” He fished in his pocket, pulling out a parchment. He reached across to shove it into Will’s hand.
Will flattened out the tight furl, broken silver wax falling over the front of his saddle. A curling script blemished the pale parchment with dark letters. He felt Rowan shift in his saddle, the better to read it over Will’s shoulder.
I hope this letter finds you well. I write because, when last we met, you told me of your adventures training in Lord Tazral’s court. We discussed the possibility of you and a few of your fellow squires coming to join me here, in Lonnac, to train in such a way and to reintroduce yourself to the estate. Now that we have seen our lands through the hardship of winter, I would be honored if you would consider joining us for such an excursion. I would love to host you.
Of course, your friends would be more than welcome to come as well. It would be the more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned. This will give me a chance to spend more time with you and give you a first introduction to learning to rule over Lonnac yourself.
I await either your arrival or a response.
Carnel Thaydor, Steward of Lonnac”
“Oh, um, that…” Will muttered. He didn’t know what to say. The idea of going to Lonnac, the lands that Colin would inherit once knighted, did seem entertaining. Going there and training under the eye of Colin’s only living relation, his cousin Carnel, however… Carnel might not be terrible but, he could think of a list of people he preferred. Colin’s sleek, blond-haired, blue eyed, cousin was the steward of his estates and, in Rowan’s words ‘obsequious.’
Out of the corner of his eye, Will noticed that Rowan was mouthing the final words of the letter and hurried to find a better response.. “That… that could be exciting.”
Rowan gave him an incredulous stare.
Colin, thankfully, didn’t notice their lack of enthusiasm. He beamed, still bouncing in his saddle. “Isn’t it? His letter arrived this morning and I asked Ross for permission for all of us as soon as I woke up. He told me he would have to consider and I’ve been waiting to talk to him again since then. So, I had a chance after the patrol and—”
“Hold up,” Rowan interrupted, snatching the letter from Will to glower down at it. “Joining us for such a training stay?” He lifted his dumbfounded gawk to Colin. “Training stay? Really? You did tell him, right, that my father kept us captive in Lonnac? That wasn’t a bloody travel abroad and expand our horizons. We were literally prisoners in my father’s home. He gets that, right?”
“He didn’t understand that,” Colin said indifferently. “We didn’t have much time to catch up, so I’m not surprised he misunderstood.”
“Misunderstood hostage for holiday?” Rowan grumbled, shaking his head. “And this here: I would love to host you? You’re the rightful heir of Lonnac. You’d be hosting yourself.”
Will cleared his throat loudly to get Rowan’s attention, wishing he was near enough to aim a sharp kick into Rowan’s shin. It was rather hard to do that from horseback without being obvious.
Colin huffed, reaching to pull the letter from Rowan’s grip and shove it back into his pocket. “Won’t you pay attention for five seconds? Listen! I just got done speaking with Ross and he’s already talked to both your knights about it when Carnel proposed it in his last letter a few weeks ago.” Colin swelled with the air of someone about to announce a splendid gift or the new King of a fine land.
Will was reminded forcefully of Haru’s comment in training, that knowing look, and felt a sinking in his stomach but tried to keep a smile plastered over his mouth.
“They said yes!” Colin announced grandly.
“Yes to what?” Rowan asked, his eyes narrowing.
“They said we can go!” Colin clapped his hands together, startling all three horses and crushing the note. “We leave tomorrow! We’re going to Lonnac!”
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