In a land haunted by the legacy of dead dragons, Rowen Locke has been many things: orphan, gravedigger, mercenary. All he ever wanted was to become a Knight of Crane and wield a kingsteel sword against the kind of grown horrors his childhood knows all too well. But that dream crumbled–replaced by a new nightmare. War is overrunning the realms, an unprecedented duel of desire and revenge, steel and sorcery. And for one disgraced man who would be a knight, in a world where no one is blameless, the time has come to decide which side he’s on.
Targeted Age Group:: 14+
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I originally came up with the idea of persecuted sorcerers as a metaphor for racism and gay rights. As the book evolved, I decided to mostly frame that struggle through the eyes of an outsider struggling to find his place–and his honor–in a world of spectacular violence, wonder, hope, and disappointment.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Despite the dark fantasy setting, a lot of my characters are inspired by actual people that I’ve known or read about. I also like to craft morally ambiguous characters that in some way reflect real problems that plague us in the real world.
“My name’s Dagath.” The robber grinned.
Rowen blinked away the blood washing down half his face and met the robber’s gaze. The wound was still too fresh to hurt but his senses reeled. The robber towered over him, a big man with rotten teeth. He wore mismatched leather armor that he’d probably taken off previous victims, most of which looked too small for him and cracked from poor upkeep, the buckles rusted through. Most striking of all, though, was the fact that the robber was missing an eye but had not even bothered to cover the scarred socket with a patch.
Dagath paused, clearly amused by the look on Rowen’s face. “Men ought to know the name of the man who’s going to kill them. I’d ask yours, but I don’t really give a damn.” He gave his cudgel a few menacing practice swings. “You ready to go to the gods, boy?”
Rowen had struggled back onto his feet but he could do little more. The blow to the head had caught him completely by surprise, stunning him long enough for a second, smaller robber to bind Rowen’s hands behind his back. Rowen might have fought with his feet—on the Lotus Isles, he’d been taught to kick as well as punch—but it took all his willpower just to keep conscious.
Breaking Dagath’s gaze, Rowen looked around and spotted his shortsword lying nearby: a plain but elegant weapon with a waisted, Ivairian-style blade. All Rowen had left from his old life. Dagath scooped it up and whistled.
“Not bad. Probably sell for a nice price in one of the cities. Me, I prefer a good club.” Dagath stabbed the shortsword into the earth and stepped so close that Rowen could smell the stink of the man’s breath, like rotten meat bathed in sour milk. Rowen’s eyes fell on his attacker’s cudgel again.
But the robber did not strike, clearly content to enjoy the moment. He jabbed the tip of his cudgel into Rowen’s chin and pushed his head to eye level. “What, no clever last words? No bribes?” He looked past Rowen at the second robber, still standing behind him. “This is a first!”
“Whatever coins I’ve got, I imagine you’ll get soon enough,” Rowen seethed. “You’ve already got my sword. Besides that, all I’ve got left is in my pack. Go have a look.”
Rowen nodded towards his satchel, which he’d dropped the moment he saw Small Man lying on the road, feigning hurt. Rowen had seen that trick before: a robber called for help, waited until some hapless traveler got close, then stuck a knife in his throat and took what he wanted. Rowen had been ready for that. But in his overconfidence, he had not seen Dagath sneaking up behind him.
Dagath turned, reflexively eyeing the pack. Gathering what strength he had left, Rowen pitched forward and drove his knee toward the robber’s groin. With a look of only mild surprise, Dagath twisted and took the blow on his hip instead. Then he swung his cudgel into Rowen’s knee.
Rowen bit his lip to keep from screaming and fell back down.
He wondered if he would lose consciousness after all. Might be better that way, he thought dumbly, then cursed and fought back the darkness nipping at his vision. Dagath up-ended his satchel onto the ground. Small Man, confident that Rowen was going nowhere, hurried forward to inspect the goods. Both looked disappointed.
Aside from a few articles of clothing, the satchel contained little more than a whetstone, sword-oil, a nearly empty waterskin, a rolled up scrap of parchment, his coin pouch, and two books. Dagath snatched up the coin pouch, yanked it open, and shook out its contents. He gave Rowen a withering look when only three copper coins tumbled out.
“This it, boy?” He threw them on the ground and used his cudgel to poke through the rest of Rowen’s possessions. Small Man retrieved the coins and inspected them.
“I think these are Isle coins,” he said quietly, holding up one to the afternoon light and inspecting the seal. “Looks like some kind of bird balancing on one foot.”
A crane, Rowen thought but kept silent.
He had managed to roll onto his side to keep the weight off his knee. Rowen’s instincts had saved him, allowing him to pivot at the last second. He did not think Dagath’s blow had smashed his kneecap, though the pain made his eyes water.
Dagath frowned and snatched the coin from Small Man’s grasp, inspecting it for himself. “You don’t have to be an Isle-man to have Isle coins, you dunce! They use ‘em all over these days.” He started to discard the copper coin again then changed his mind and pocketed it instead.
“Or maybe he’s an Isle Knight,” Small Man offered. “Might be one hell of a ransom if he is!”
Dagath gave his accomplice so cold a look that for a moment, Rowen wondered if Small Man’s suggestion would be answered by Dagath’s cudgel. Dagath pointed. “Does that look like an Isle Knight to you?” Before Small Man could answer, Dagath returned to where Rowen was still lying in pain. He prodded him with his cudgel. “Well, speak up, boy. You a Knight?”
Rowen’s face turned almost the same color as the blood drying around his gashed forehead. “I’m no Knight. Never been even to the Isles.” Shame surged through him, but he masked it with anger. “Get on with it. Either kill me or leave me, you bastard.”
But Dagath’s good eye sparkled. “You’re lying.” He went back to Rowen’s goods and retrieved one of the books. He opened one then laughed coldly. “I can’t read but I know Lotus Isle scribbles when I see them.” He threw the book to his accomplice. “You’re too grubby to be a Knight and you’re too pale to be a native Isle-man.” He paused, sneering. “Know what I think?”
Rowen started to close his eyes then stopped himself, trying to meet Dagath’s gaze without emotion. He offered no reply. Nevertheless, Dagath laughed. He turned to his accomplice.
“Know what we have here, Sneed? Another exile.” He flashed Rowen another toothy, rotten grin. Sneed nodded but Dagath explained anyway.
Just to taunt me… and gods know I deserve it!
“You see, once in a while, some dumb bastard gets it in his head to sail off to the Lotus Isles and be a Knight. Only they don’t take kindly to mainlanders—so if you want to train, you have to pay. A lot.” Dagath pretended to be lost in thought. “I bet this one was a sell-sword… probably spent years saving up the coin!” He laughed again. “They took his money. Then, once they were tired of him, they kicked him out.” He grabbed a handful of Rowen’s unruly red hair, jerking up so that Rowen was looking at him. “Am I right?”
Rowen said nothing. Dagath chuckled and returned to Sneed. The latter had retrieved the second book as well and was busy leafing through both of them.
“What are they?” Dagath asked him.
“Can’t read more than a few words but this one looks like a whole big list of rules.” Sneed handed the thicker volume back to Dagath, who merely glanced at it then tossed it aside. “This other one”—Sneed half-smiled—“looks like poetry.” He opened a page and held it up. “Pretty pictures, too. Colored ink. There’s a handsome one of a dragon in here somewhere…” He started leafing through the pages again.
“They worth anything?”
Sneed shrugged. “Probably some priest in Lyos would buy them—or some rich ambassador from the Isles, if we can find one.” He paused to think it over. “I bet each one’s worth at least as much as that sword of his!”
Rowen remembered how, on the Isles, illustrated copies of the Codex Lotius could be bought from almost any street vendor for a few copper coins. As for the Codex Viticus, that arduous tome had been forced on him almost as soon as he arrived at Saikaido Temple. Rowen would be glad to be rid of it. If I survive, that is.
At the mention of Rowen’s shortsword, Dagath had gone and retrieved it with his free hand. By now, the failed squire had sat up, straining vainly against his bonds.
“Don’t bother. Sneed’s not worth much but at least he can tie a decent knot.” His smile looked almost genuine. “Almost feel like I should thank you, boy. Any last words? Maybe a plea to the Dragongod?”
Rowen had already tried to stand up and failed but he knew he had to try again. His mind scrambled for some kind of diversion. Then an idea formed. Though ludicrous, he had no choice.
“My father’s a blacksmith in Harso, not far from here,” he lied. “He’s not rich, mind you, but he’s got a few coins to rub together. He was the one who paid for my training. Gods know what he’ll say when he finds out I got kicked out!” Rowen forced a smile. “Anyway, if it’s ransom you’re after, take me there.”
Dagath scowled, clearly trying to decide if his captive was telling the truth. Thanks to years of training on the Isles, Rowen had the arms of a blacksmith, though everything else about him—unkempt hair, plain clothes, the fact that he was traveling alone—made him look more like a sell-sword. Dagath glanced down, studying Rowen’s shortsword again. Though unadorned, the crossguard was brass, the blade high quality.
Kayden gave me that… The thought of his dead brother made Rowen wince but he hoped Dagath mistook his grief for fear.
“He could be telling the truth,” Sneed offered.
“Or he could be stalling, hoping he can get away—or wait us out until somebody comes along and rescues him.” Dagath lifted the hand holding Rowen’s shortsword and used one dirty thumbnail to scratch at his scarred eye socket. “That it, boy? You think some armored Knight’s gonna thunder in and save you?”
“No,” Rowen said, and meant it. He knew as well as his captors that they were too far from the coast, where they might be chanced upon by a patrol of Isle Knights. Lyos was still the closest of the Free Cities but wanting to be left alone, Rowen had chosen to travel there via the most deserted road—a decision he now deeply regretted.
Dagath looked down at Rowen’s shortsword again, then glanced back at the books, visibly weighing the odds, trying to decide if he should be content with his already-impressive haul or push his luck and hope that Rowen himself could be ransomed.
This one’s cruel, not stupid, Rowen realized. He knows if he takes a ransom note to a town—whether I’m lying or not—he might wind up dead. Better he stick with what he already has.
But greed won out.
“Fine, we’ll try it your way. If you’re telling it true, maybe you’ll even have to keep the gods waiting a while.” Dagath lowered his weapons. “Sneed can write some but it’s best the note’s in your scribbles. You know letters?”
Rowen nodded. “I can write.”
Dagath smirked. “Figures.” He gestured with his cudgel at Rowen’s meager pile of possessions. “I don’t want to tear up them books. Sneed, I saw parchment there. Bring it.”
Rowen restrained a curse when he realized the scrap of parchment that Dagath was referring to. He wanted to argue but thought better of it. Sneed brought the scrap. He gave Rowen a faint, nearly reassuring smile as he handed the ancient-looking parchment to Dagath.This one’s different. He’s a robber, sure, but not quite a cutthroat.
Dagath kicked his injured knee to catch his attention. Rowen swore. Dagath said, “Scribble your father, tell him he pays twenty silvers or else he’ll have to bury you in pieces.”
Rowen knew better than to accept too quickly. “Twenty silvers is a lot. I told you, he’s poor—”
“And I’m pretty. What of it? Every town needs a blacksmith. The villagers can pass around a gods’-damned collection bowl if they need to.”
“How will you get the letter to him?”
Dagath shrugged. “Sneed can take it,”
Rowen saw his opportunity. “Then Sneed will bring the coin back himself?”
Dagath’s expression changed. Rowen swallowed a smile. You didn’t think of that, you bastard!
Sneed faced Dagath. “You can trust me …”
“Like hells,” Dagath interrupted. He fell silent. Rowen could imagine what he was thinking. If Sneed did not deliver the letter, then Dagath would have to do it. That would mean leaving Rowen in Sneed’s care.
Of course, as far as Dagath knows, it won’t matter if I get away. He’ll still have a pouch full of silver coins—and if I’m alive, he won’t have to worry about some vengeful father hiring mercenaries for revenge.
He guessed that Dagath had reached the same conclusion. “I’ll take the scribble myself. Harso’s not far.” He turned to Sneed. “Gods hear me, if he’s not here when I get back, I’ll cut out your spine and keep your share.”
Sneed’s face paled. He tried to respond but stammered.
Dagath threw the parchment at Rowen’s feet. He waved to Sneed again. “Untie his hands so he can write. But bind up his feet.” He prodded Rowen with his own shortsword. “Guess I don’t have to tell you what happens if you try anything cute.”
Rowen shook his head.
Sneed bound Rowen’s feet with a length of rope that Rowen had been using as a belt. Sneed’s trembling hands fussed with the bonds securing his wrists. When the bonds went slack, Rowen resisted the impulse to throw an elbow at Sneed’s jaw. He wouldn’t get far with his legs still tied. He massaged his sore wrists, then gingerly touched the gash left on his forehead from Dagath’s cudgel. Sneed withdrew meekly.
Dagath pointed at the parchment. “Write.”
Rowen hesitated, eyeing the poor but familiar handwriting already covering one whole side of the parchment. “No ink.”
“If you start a fire, I can use the ash.”
“You think I’m stupid, boy? Ash doesn’t last.” Dagath sneered. “Best we use blood.”
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