Trepidation filled every waking moment of the fourteen long days it took to reach the northeastern stronghold of Ferren’s Keep.
Most of my trip was spent deep in thought, watching the passing of croplands and riverbeds of the country mainland. With the growing rebel attacks, Jerar’s impending war with Caltoth, and my new position close to the border, the Crown’s advisors had decreed that one of the King’s Regiment remain with the future princess at all times. So, like the pack of guards that had once accompanied Darren to the Academy many years before, I now had Paige, a young knight four years my senior, for companionship. She wasn’t very talkative, and what little sentences she did speak were of basic necessity.
When I had tried to expand on our conversation, the girl just frowned. I sensed she wasn’t shy, but it was clear she hadn’t warmed up to me either. The knight was sharp-tongued when she did utter an opinion, and I found myself regretting almost all of my attempts.
Paige was tall, brawny, and almost the female equivalent of Alex in stature. She only packed chainmail and men’s clothes to dress. She had stunning brown locks she kept hidden in a braid to the side, and narrowed eyes that seemed to pass judgment the second they looked at you.
She was lowborn, but she was unlike any lowborn I had ever met. She despised small talk, scoffed at all my suggestions, and eyed every traveler—noble or not—with the same suspicious edge.
The third time I tried to engage her she snapped at me to pay attention to the road, and followed hastily with an unfeeling apology, “my lady.”
I didn’t know what to do. With all of our shared background, I had assumed a friendship was in order. Both of us were women who had risen above our station through hard work, and we were both young and stuck together for as long as the king ordained her presence necessary. It would have only made sense for us to bond—if for nothing else than the eternity we had ahead. But it was clear my companion had other ideas.
The rest of the time we traveled in silence, with the exception of one or two disagreements over direction.
I spent most of the hours enjoying our scenery. Which was very easy as we drew further and further west. Plains gave way to pine and thick clusters of sweet-smelling grass, thin streams joined and became one large coursing current. Foliage sprouted up along the banks, first and foremost my favorite: the dense green tree with its large, shiny leaves and clusters of tiny red flowers that dotted its branches.
The clove tree.
Before I knew it we had arrived at the small village of Demsh’aa. Home.
We were only supposed to be passing through for the night, but much to the chagrin of my traveling guard, I insisted on one extra day to visit with my parents. I hadn’t seen either since my first-year trial four years before.
Paige left me to visit, scouring the local shops to replenish our supplies, and I took a tour of the new changes in my brothers’ and my absence. I was pleased to see how much better we fared. Previously the apothecary had been an extra room in my parents’ house, but because of the coin Alex and I had been sending home (Derrick’s soldier salary was much less than that of a mage), they had been able to purchase a small building close to the center of town, and they had already apprenticed two young girls who had chosen to pursue a local trade instead of a trial year in one of the country’s three war schools.
My parents apologized for missing Alex’s and my ascension, but I had already known it would be too much to leave the store in the midst of the new apprentices’ training. Besides, the mages’ ceremony wasn’t open to the public, and while I was sure they would have been able to attend the feast, it would have been a long journey to take for such a short event. I was just happy my parents had supported my studies.
Of course, I came bearing news…
But it had actually already arrived by Alex’s envoy a week before. Although that didn’t make it any easier to accept.
My father was in a constant state of shock. During my apprenticeship all my letters home had refrained from mentioning Darren—mostly because I hadn’t known what to write—so to hear the prince and I had been falling in love all this time was something my father had never considered.
My mother was much more understanding, stating that she had suspected as much during the week of our first-year trials. “He wouldn’t stop staring at you. I knew there was more to it than your friend led us to believe… I just never expected this.”
It was a hard notion to ponder. A prince of the realm had chosen to take their lowborn daughter not as a mistress but as his wife.
My parents were happy, but confused. And I didn’t have five years to explain exactly how it came to be. To be perfectly honest I was still reeling from the news as well.
Things like that just didn’t happen. Not to me.
We discussed the coming Candidacy, and they promised they would be there to watch Alex and me participate. “The girls should be able to run the shop by then.” We discussed the wedding, and my father was the first to inquire on the absence of a date. When I tried to explain my mother grew quiet.
It was only as I was saddling my horse the next morning that she finally spoke. “Be careful, Ryiah. I can’t imagine the king is pleased with whatever his son did to win you a seat at their table.”
I nodded, mutely. It wasn’t something I hadn’t already considered. My plan was to stay as far away from the king and his heir as possible. Yet another reason to accept Commander Nyx’s offer.
From there it was a swift farewell and a return to the well-traveled dirt road that led up a steep trail to the great forest of the north. King’s Road skirted the base of the Iron Mountains, and the remainder of our trip was uneventful. Paige and I spent each night at an inn along the way, and we made good time.
When we finally spotted a giant stone fortress built into one of the mountains themselves I let out a deep sigh of relief. Next to me, I heard Paige do the same.
It was a magnificent picture. With the setting of the sun just an hour behind us the great keep was made alive by hundreds of flickering yellow dots. The torches lined each wall, up and up each subsequent lookout until the light finally disappeared from a dark shadowy alcove into the mountain itself.
From where we stood I could catch the sheen of metal glittering off the wall’s lowest sentries along the walk. It wound from the fortress’s lowest point to the base of the mountain floor.
I gathered my reins, and then nudged my mare forward.
We had arrived.
“Please state your name and purpose.”
Paige and I declared ourselves to the guard at the edge of the dais, holding our horses in place as we presented our official papers—my summons from Commander Nyx, and Paige’s signed orders from King Lucius.
The soldier and his two comrades examined the documentation carefully, verifying the seals to make sure they weren’t forgeries. When they found what they were looking for, the lead waved us forward with a rattle of chainmail in passing.
We continued along the raised walkway, horseshoes clattering against the paved road, until we reached the fortress’s base: a protruding barbican with yet another set of guards guarding its gate.
We presented our papers again, and the gate was raised. Once more the process was repeated inside with another set of guards and another gate, and then we gave our horses to an awaiting hostler as we followed a steep set of stairs and then a long tunnel into the keep itself.
Spiraling floor after floor, chamber after chamber, everywhere we looked hundreds of supplies flooded the space of each storeroom. A giant well, barrels of grain, great mounds of firewood, weighted artillery, and racks. Racks of swords, knives, javelins, and every type of armor one could hope to imagine: chainmail, breastplates, arm guards, spare tunics, and breeches. The inside of the fortress was armed to withstand a siege.
I had seen it all during my last year of the apprenticeship, but I could tell Paige was impressed now. The frown she usually wore was nowhere in sight. The knight walked around with wide eyes and gawked unabashedly with each step we took.
After the storerooms we passed a locked set of reinforced doors—the Commander’s private meeting chambers and her personal quarters, followed by an open, much larger space for regiment meetings. It was only a matter of minutes before we reached the men’s barracks, a long parade of rows with cots lining the wall for as far back as the eye could see. Beyond them, I knew, were the women’s quarters, and just a bit further, leading out of the tunnel and through another set of guards, was the small village of Ferren, named after the keep because its only entry and exit was through the fortress’s guarded tunnel itself.
Ferren was settled in a small—very minute—valley and decorated by steep, impassable crags on every side. Because of its size and location, it had become home to the kingdom’s best blacksmiths, renowned men and women who furnished the northern defenses and supplied the Crown’s Army with the finest steel one could buy. In some ways, the mass production of Jerar weaponry was the most valuable resource the Crown had, and as such the keep’s village was reserved to local regiment and blacksmiths only—with the exception of a small but hospitable staff for general upkeep.
I led Paige to the women’s barracks and we began to unpack. The door was left open. Both barracks were empty, which meant the regiment was taking dinner in the dining commons on the second floor.
“Ryiah? Is that you?”
I spun around and caught sight of a stocky dark-skinned boy with amber eyes and curling black ringlets at the barrack’s entrance. He was clutching a cloth in one hand and gaping. Ray. One of my old factionmates from the apprenticeship, a young man I had seen just three weeks ago during our ascension ceremony. “Ray!”
“I knew you would take Commander Nyx up on her offer!” He grinned. “And who is this you’ve brought with you?”
Paige gave the boy a stony look. “Her guard. And I do not engage in frivolous conversation.”
He started. “I-it was nice to meet you too.”
My knight went right back to ignoring him, carefully folding her shirts as she pressed them away into a trunk of her now-claimed cot. I felt a surge of irritation. I would definitely be talking to my guard later. In private.
“Sorry about that.” I gave my friend a sheepish smile. “Paige and I had a long ride here. Some of us are more irritable than usual.” Actually she was born that way, but I wasn’t in the mood to explain. “I was just unpacking before I checked in with the commander.”
“She’s still at dinner with the others . . . I could take you there, if you’d like.”
I hesitated. I really wanted to clean up first—granted I’d had a hot bath at most of the inns we’d passed along the way, but I still had a day’s worth of grime coating my clothes and hair.
And if memory served, the wait to one of the two small bathhouses in Ferren was easily an hour, though that had been with sixty visiting apprentices stationed in the keep.
Then again. Why not? The rest of the regiment had just served long hours sweating in armor so I would fit in right alongside them.
“Lead the way!”
A sea of faces swarmed my vision the moment we entered the dining hall. Ferren’s Keep had the largest regiment north of Devon. The count was somewhere close to two thousand when all were in residence—which was never since fifteen of its twenty hundred-men units were always on patrols. Still, its regiment was one-fifth the size of the Crown’s Army, double the size of anywhere else. Most cities’ branches were closer to five hundred.
It was the perfect place to house a large regiment until more northern aid was needed from the Crown’s Army.
That said, it wasn’t the most prosperous. The contents were worn and meals were tubs of wilted produce, dry meat, and stale breads—the product of a city without local farming. That, and five hundred sweat-stained faces fighting over the last scraps of food amidst tankards of ale.
“No better than a pack of ravenous dogs,” Paige muttered.
I opened my mouth to tell her we didn’t look much better, and froze. Even though the crowd was so overwhelming there was one person that caught my attention almost immediately. His broad shoulders and infectious laugh were impossible to miss.
Ian. Ian was here. Ray noticed my direction and nodded. “He arrived two days ago, right after me. Guess Port Langli wasn’t to his liking. Jayson is here too, he’s been promoted twice since his ascension—and if you look hard you should be able to spot Ruth from Alchemy. Ferren’s Keep is a popular post.”
“Well, this is a surprise.”
I spun around and came face-to-face with the leader of Ferren’s Keep, an imposing if slightly short woman in her early forties with a blonde mane cropped close to the ears and steel-gray eyes that missed nothing. The woman knight had one of the most sought after posts in the entire kingdom.
Commander Nyx studied me, arms folded across her chest. “It’s nice to see you took me up on my offer, Mage Ryiah. I wasn’t sure you would after the prince’s announcement. A title can go to some people’s heads.”
I blushed. “It’s not my title yet.”
The woman raised a brow. “And what does the Crown have to say about that?”
“The king has agreed to let me serve on your regiment until the crown prince’s wedding… But I will always be a Combat mage of Jerar. No title can change that.”
“And you don’t expect any special accommodations while you are here? A private room? Or a high position in my regiment, perhaps? Because I promote solely based on performance.”
I stood my ground. “I would expect you to treat me the same as any other mage who enters your keep.”
At this Paige made a choking noise. “Certainly not! My lady, you cannot possibly think the women’s barracks are appropriate! You need a private chamber where I can see to your safety—”
“The barracks are fine.” I scowled at my guard. “I will be surrounded by hundreds of brave women who fight for our country. Who better to protect?”
“Me! The knight appointed by the king himself!”
“Well, your job just got a whole lot easier.”
Paige scowled and said nothing.
Commander Nyx cracked an amused smile, white teeth flashing. I was immediately struck by its oddity—like a sudden dunk in an icy bucket of water. The woman was made of frowns. “I assure you…what is your name again?”
“Paige,” the knight supplied shortly.
“Well, Paige, my men and women are just as capable as your regiment in the capital. Ryiah will be in good hands.” Nyx’s gaze fell to someone behind us and she made a momentary gesture. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a meeting to attend. Ray, Ryiah will be serving on your squad with the rest of the newcomers. I expect you to introduce her to Sir Gavin first thing in the morning. Paige, while you are here you can serve alongside your charge so long as you defer to her squad leader’s command. I believe the King’s Regiment orders only decreed Ryiah’s safe transport to and from my keep, did they not?”
Paige grumbled an unutterable reply as I thanked the commander for her time. Nyx withdrew back into the crowded hall and Paige made a sniffing noise beside me.
“I don’t like the commander.”
I stifled a snort. “You don’t like anyone. You don’t even like me.”
“Well, I really don’t like her.”
Ray and I exchanged weary glances as the knight snatched a half-eaten loaf off someone’s leftover plate and began to devour it all the while giving us an irritable expression. “What?” she spat. “I’m useless so long as you are surrounded by ‘capable’ others. I might as well eat. Or is that something else I must defer to this Gavin to do?”
Ray gave me a sympathetic clap on the shoulder. “I’m off to scrounge up a wash before the rest of the men get to the baths.” He jerked his chin in the direction of Paige. “Good luck with… things.”
As soon as he was gone I turned to my guard with a sigh. “You are going to be stuck with me for a long time. A little cheer once in a while certainly wouldn’t hurt your cause.”
“Cheer is for fools with idle minds. I am neither a fool nor idle.”
And that was the end of that.
The next morning came much too soon. I had spent most of the evening before catching up with some of the regiment women I had met the year prior during the apprenticeship in our barracks. By the time the morning bell echoed down the keep’s narrow walls I was ready to return to sleep.
Five years of the same routine, and I was still not used to early mornings. “Mmmphf.” I shoved the warm blankets aside, and then subsequently cursed as my toes touched the icy floor.
“Missing your accommodations back at the palace, my lady?” Paige‘s tone was anything but sympathetic.
I fixed her with a bleary-eyed glare. “All this hatred you harbor must be exhausting to maintain.”
“You should have listened to me and asked for a private chamber.”
“I thought you didn’t care for frivolities,” I snapped.
She threw her hands up in frustration. “I was the best knight of my rank and spent six years working up to a promotion in the King’s Regiment—and for what? You haven’t listened to one suggestion I’ve made! I told you to keep west and you insisted on that detour—”
“To see my parents!”
“—Then you bombarded me with banal questions about the weather when you should have been paying attention to the road!”
“I was trying to be friendly, and I was paying attention! Contrary to your narrow-minded opinion I am capable of doing both!”
“My only purpose is to serve as your guard, and you insist on harboring this foolish notion of sleeping out in the open with six hundred other women where I cannot possibly fulfill my duty should one of them harbor ill intentions!”
“Those women are soldiers, mages, and knights like yourself,” I countered. “Hardly the type to wish me ill.”
“How would you know? You are too busy smiling at everyone you meet. There are rebels in this great country in case you’ve forgotten.”
“Ferren’s Keep is our nation’s stronghold. It is the last place a rebel would choose to stay.”
“It is exactly where I would go.”
I yanked my chainmail over my tunic a little too roughly. “Well, it is a good thing you are not a rebel.”
Taking a deep breath I forced myself to reign in my temper. In a twisted way she was only doing her job, even if it was in the most grating way she could do it. “I am sorry, Paige. Please understand I wish to comply with your orders but the king did grant me this leave. I can’t exactly go around demanding my own chamber. I promise to consider all future advice.”
The knight tied her hair in a high knot and then looked past my shoulder. “I don’t hate you.”
“W-what?” She had caught me off-guard.
Paige cleared her throat. “What you said earlier. I may not enjoy your company, but I don’t hate you, my lady.”
And that was as close to an apology as I would get. I handed the knight one of her boots, and she took it without complaint.
Neither of us spoke another word as we trudged down the dank corridor and up the stairwell to the top floor of the keep. I was concentrating so hard on my own thoughts that I almost missed colliding with another in passing.
“Ryiah?” The boy did a double take.
Ian. I stopped and gave a nervous smile. “Surprise.”
“What are you doing here? I heard…” He tried again. “I thought you would be at the palace.”
I flushed. Our history and the awkward context of our present conversation were not lost on me. “No—I mean, yes, I will be, eventually, for the wedding, but…”
“She’s here to make her mark,” Paige interrupted, “the same as the rest of you.”
Ian noticed the other woman and frowned. “And you are?”
“The knight charged with her safekeeping.”
I smiled apologetically. “Paige is my personal guard. She was the only way I could serve outside the capital.”
The two exchanged wary glances.
“King’s Regiment?” Ian stared at the girl.
She met his gaze head on. “By Crown orders. To protect the prince’s interests.”
I changed the subject hastily. “You grew tired of Port Langli so quickly?”
He hesitated. “I got a better offer.”
“In Ferren’s Keep?”
“Well, this is where I grew up.” Ian fiddled with a leather cord at his wrist. “Nyx and my parents are good friends. There has always been a position for me here. ”
“Oh.” I had forgotten.
“I suppose congratulations are in order.”
I glanced up and saw Ian’s poignant expression. There was no mistaking his meaning. “T-thank you.”
An awkward silence followed. I was searching my thoughts for the right thing to say, and I could see Ian struggling to do the same.
Just then Ray appeared, sidling between us to grab me by the arm and spare the rest of the uncomfortable exchange. “Ry, are you ready for your first official day as a war mage?”
“Only my whole life.”
“So, you are the infamous Ryiah?”
I stood silently, back erect, as the squad leader circled me slowly, taking in my narrow frame with a studious gleam. I was aware of every fault in my appearance—from the way his eyes lingered on the small tear at my sleeve to the slight pause as he caught my scarlet-red locks—still sticking up all over the place in my rush to make the morning’s meet.
Sir Gavin took in my stubborn chin and the way I shifted nervously under the stare of all one hundred of our unit’s members. He pursed his thin lips and nodded approvingly.
Apparently, I had passed inspection.
“You have quite a reputation,” the knight admitted. His voice was rough and loud, but not unkind. “If I hadn’t been present during the prince’s and your heroics the year before I’m not sure I would believe it now.”
Was that a compliment or an insult? I swallowed and hoped for the former. “Thank you, sir.”
He nodded approvingly. “My squad is one of twenty in this keep. I understand the apprentices served with one of the inner patrols during field training but your experience will be quite different as a true member of the regiment. Commander Nyx has all recruits start with me, and all of my patrols are along the border. It’s a right of passage for newcomers to help acclimate everyone to the more dangerous aspects of our work. For that reason there is a promotion every time someone joins the keep. You will have several opportunities for advancement, so long as you follow orders.”
I perked up instantly.
“That said there are also too many deaths.” The knight’s expression was somber. “Everyone in the regiment understands that all lives are not equal. It is an unfortunate truth, but a mage’s capacity for magic outweighs a soldier’s life ten-to-one. During your apprenticeship this rule was undoubtedly brought up, but never is it so vital as the present. We have less than twelve mages per squad, and with your addition it comes to four Combat in this unit.”
Only four? I counted mentally: Ray, Ian, me, and one other person—the lead mage. Four out of one hundred. Which meant there were less than two hundred mages total in the keep, and no more than eighty of them as Combat.
“You are, of course, expected to engage during any attacks that take place, but you must exercise caution. When we go on patrols, soldiers and knights take the brunt of dangerous tasks, however you will still have more than your fair share of opportunities to partake.” The leader gripped the shoulder of a tall young man standing next to him. “This is Lief and he is the squad’s lead for Combat. You will defer to his call in all circumstances that require a mage’s judgment instead of my own.”
Lief lifted his hand in silent greeting, choppy blond locks framing his square face as he did. He wasn’t much older than the others. Maybe early-thirties at most. And he seemed friendly too.
A nice change from Master Byron.
The squad leader continued. “Now, we have far too many men and women to handle introductions, but I trust you’ll come to know everyone in time. We have two more days at base, and then we will be setting out for another patrol. Five squads service the keep, and the rest regularly patrol specific sections of the border. We spend three weeks abroad followed by one week of respite and rotate with the rest of the units. Should we be called to action, respite will be delayed as long as necessary. Have you any questions?”
I shook my head enthusiastically. “No, sir!”
“Good, and have you and your guard already been to the seamstress and armory to be properly outfitted?”
“Well then I will have one of your factionmates take you. Ray, you were just there the day before, I trust you can show Ryiah and Paige the way?”
“When you three are finished please meet us in the strategy hall. Commander Nyx will be reporting on the latest activity for the squads currently present.”
The boy nodded and led Paige and me away from the crowd, back down the keep steps to the third floor. As we turned the corner of yet another winding passage he turned to me with a hint of old humor.
“So, what do you think? Better than four years with Byron?”
“Are you kidding?” I kept a straight face. “Those were the best days of my life.”