An Heir to Thorns and Steel is a serialized fantasy novel updating once a week for free on Tuesdays, and again on Thursdays and Saturdays if tips reach $15 and $20, respectively. Single reviews of existing stories posted to Amazon count for $5 toward the tip total.
Blood Ladders, Book 1
The drake came to a halt on the outskirts of Erevar several days later. I had suffered more than usual on the last leg of our trip, and the genets were keeping me up when we entered the city.
But oh, Erevar. I could have wept. The drake had not taken two steps onto the first of its stone roads when several humans walked past—strode past, shoulders back, eyes bright and focused, talking in congenial tones. From the back of the beast I watched their heads as they joined the flow of traffic leading into the city. Everywhere I looked I found humans: engaging in discourse, walking with purpose, conducting their affairs unfettered. Dressed poorly or well, passing in and out of houses and businesses, resting beneath the shades of the palms and sharing ripely aromatic fruits that wafted their exotic perfumes to me on the fresh breeze that skated the river. There were elves also; though rarer they were far easier to spot, numinous and beautiful, leaving after-images.
I noted only one anomaly, and we had penetrated deep into the city by the time its consistency caused the observation to coalesce: all the humans were marked on the forehead. The colors varied, some in bold, stark inks and some in gilt or white, but all of them, from the eldest to the newest babe, had a blood-flag mark on his or her brow.
Was it all a lie, then, their seeming contentment, their health? Perhaps they were better-kept slaves. Pets, like the genets. By the gray weariness that settled on me I knew I had expected more… had hoped that perhaps here was a place not only of justice for the oppressed, but also of secret truths, a place I could sift through the extremes of the stories of saints and tyrants and see what remained.
I closed my eyes, surrendering to disillusionment. I had seen all I needed to see of Erevar. Leaning heavily on Kelu, I said, “Where do we go?”
Kelu glanced up and down the cross-street. “Toward the manor, I am guessing.” She slapped the drake’s neck with the reins and it flowed back into the streets, slinking around the slower pedestrians, wagons and horses. Almond tightened her arms around my waist, and cradled between them I let myself be carried toward the master of the city. I had not even the energy to wonder if he would be kind or cruel. If my adventure ended here I would not fight it. We rode through the mingled smells of the city, of palms and mangos and sweat and the sea, of sun-baked clay and the distant musk of genets and horses. I thought then that the conversations around me seemed subdued, as if the pulse of the city had been depressed.
“My master is here to petition the blood-flag Sadar,” Kelu said, rousing me from my stupor. I opened my eyes and found a soldier at the head of the drake, a glittering elf in fancifully sculpted armor, all flared metal and enamel arabesques. The silver cloisonné sigil on his breast trapped my gaze in its whorls of blue and green.
The soldier stepped closer, squinting up at me. “Petition days are at week’s end.”
“Please sir,” Almond whispered. “He is in dire need, and we have heard of the generosity of the blood-flag Sadar.”
The guard sighed. “Pass on,” he said. “But I fear you will find little aid here today… or perhaps ever again.”
“Sir?” Kelu asked, ears flipping forward with a sudden tension.
“The blood-flag defends the city,” the guard said, the cadence of the words evoking ritual and foreboding.
Almond’s arms tightened. Kelu bristled and asked, “Do you know the terms?”
“No,” the guard said. “The lord’s aide will know. Go you to the manor proper and present yourself at the door. They will tell you whether there is a master left to petition.”
“Thank you,” Kelu said and urged the drake on. As we loped down the long path through the ornamental gardens, I asked, “The blood-flag defends the city?”
“A more genteel way of taking people’s property and wealth from them,” she said. “Instead of killing everyone and destroying all the buildings, they duel.”
“Dueling,” I said. It seemed a sensible alternative to rapine and pillage. Not civilized, certainly… we’d outlawed it for a reason. But my standards for civilized behavior in elves were far lower, and for people who couldn’t be killed dueling was surely just an exercise.
“Horrible, horrible,” Almond whispered against my back, so soft I almost lost the words to the wind. “Oh.”
“At least one good thing about this,” Kelu said. “That guard talked to me.”
“Like a person,” I said.
“Yes. So maybe he is what they say he is when they smear his reputation.”
The drake carried us to the front of the manor. The road curved around its facade, the better to offload passengers from carriages, and the entrance was on the second floor, accessed by exterior stairs that coiled up to a broad balcony. Our arrival, unannounced and without entourage, inspired confusion; the servants hesitated before approaching us, and only one trudged on to greet us. Beneath the silver-inked sigil on his brow his face was drawn, and his green, blue and silver livery hung awkwardly off shoulders hunched with fatigue. “You have come to see the lord of Erevar?”
“Yes,” I said, having recovered some sense of curiosity.
“Is it too late?” Kelu asked.
“I don’t know,” the man said. “He is still in the arena. You are welcome to wait here, but we don’t know how long it will be.”
“How long has it gone on?” Kelu asked.
“Since dawn,” the man said. “It is a line duel, with fire.”
Kelu’s jaw dropped.
“I don’t understand,” I said. “What is a line duel and what’s fire to do with it?”
The man looked up at me, considering. Then he said, “It means that the entire family of the challenging blood-flag has called our master.”
“A line,” Kelu said, her voice husky. She cleared it, then said, “When one of the challengers is cut down, then someone else from his family replaces him… but the defender can’t rest or be replaced. The one still standing at the end keeps the city.”
“That’s… ” No words supplied themselves to describe the senselessness. “Since dawn?”
“Since dawn,” the man said. “We are fortunate that our lord is good with arms and is well-loved by his chosen.”
“And the fire?” I asked.
“Means that the victor may destroy the losers,” the man said. “The parts are tossed in the fire to burn so they may not regenerate.”
My gorge rose.
“Which way is the arena?” Kelu asked.
“Follow the road past the fountain to the east, behind the manor,” the man said. “It is the only round building on the estate.”
“Thank you,” Kelu said.
“Pray for our master,” the man said. “If he falls, this dream of Erevar will die. Even your kind have gentler lives here, genet.”
“I don’t believe in God,” Kelu said, “but I’ll hope for the best.”
As the drake turned his head to the east, Almond whispered, “Are you sure we should go? We could wait in the manor….”
“We need to know if he’s alive or dead,” Kelu said. “If he’s dead or about to die, we need to get out of here as fast as we can. Someone who hates e Sadar enough to request a line duel with fire is not going to be any friend to us.”
“We don’t have to stay,” Kelu said, exasperated. “One look should be all it takes.”
Numb with horror, I hoped she was right.
The only round building off the trail past the fountain was a thing of incongruous elegance, unexpectedly large. It was not so much round as faceted with dozens of slightly angled stained glass panels in blue, green, garnet and frost, and surrounding it were low ivory-trunked trees with slim curling limbs heavy with narrow leaves. The pattern of pale green shadows and fragments of colored light on the ground dizzied my eye, so that when the drake came to a halt outside Kelu had to tug on my pant leg to attract my attention.
“Come on,” she hissed. “Let’s get this done.”
I slid off the back of the drake, almost crumpling. Almond grabbed the yoke of my shirt on the way down, steadying me, and even the drake turned its head to peer at me with narrowed eyes. They had to prop me up as we walked toward the tall, thin doors, inlaid with colored glass in a filigree frame. The two guards waiting there looked at us—what a sight we must have presented!—and simply opened them. We entered the arena of the blood-flag Erevar, and left forever at the threshold my innocence in the ways of elven warfare.
Okay, all my martial artists, soldiers and fight enthusiasts. This next scene is just for you. :D