To celebrate the release of Knights of Rilch next Tuesday, I’m putting up the first chapter a week in advance. (Warning! First chapter contains major spoilers if you have not read Coldness of Marek!) AND, the giveaway for four sets of Serengard Trading Cards ends on release day, so if you haven’t entered yet, check it out!
Serengard: Book Two
KNIGHTS OF RILCH
TEV DIDN’T RECOGNIZE THE MAN’S face from this distance. He was a Seren, like many who came through the port towns, but he stopped Malcom in the street and said more than a word to him. That made the hair on her arms prickle, and the instant Malcom turned toward her, the pallor of his skin set her on edge. He hadn’t looked like that since the day they left the cliffs.
“He asked me which month I came here, and I couldn’t remember.” Malcom jerked his nose toward the short little man. “I made one up, but…” He shrugged, petrified fright still stamped on his face.
Tev kept her voice calm. “Have you noticed him anywhere before?”
“No. Wait… Where’d he go?”
“I see him.” Tev slipped around the corner of their tiny flat into the market square—if you could call the sorry mess a market. The man led her through a confusing maze of alleys and stacks of barreled fish, his footsteps fast for someone of his stature. As were hers. Even before she reached him, she knew what was wrong by the few glimpses she caught. His hair was cut close to his head. His fingernails were clean. He was not the kind of man who came here in search of refuge, but he was no slave trader either.
That made him a spy. A hunter.
Tev followed him all the way to the docks, into a narrow passageway between buildings, and grabbed his arm. She was stronger than him and tossed him against the wall without difficulty. He pulled a knife, but she already had one against his throat. She took his with a smile that she hoped gave him chills.
Tev tucked his blade inside her waistband. “Who are you working for?”
He didn’t blink. “Aren’t you forgetting to ask my name?”
“I know your type. I know you’re looking for someone. You can look elsewhere.”
One of his eyebrows raised slowly. “No need to get unpleasant. I can’t think what I did to upset you.”
“You were talking to my son. A man such as you might want to ship him off for the army. He’s too young. Keep your petty fingers off.”
“How old is he?” He was skilled, turning the conversation back on her.
Tev tried a different approach. “You know there’s reward money on most of the people in these parts, but you also know most of us are vicious enough to kill you before you collect, so there’s no reason to be this far west unless you’re looking for family. True?”
A slow grin split his features. “I’m not falling into your little traps, lady.”
Tev let the ghost of a smile drift across her own lips. “Your loss, sir.”
She stabbed him quickly, just below the knee. He cried out in surprise and pain and reached down to grasp at it.
“Should have answered me the first time,” she hissed at him through her teeth.
“You’re a cold woman.”
“You’re not the first to tell me that.” Tev smiled and flicked her long, dusty-auburn hair behind her. She slid an arm under his shoulder. “Not to worry. I’ll have you fixed up by evening, in time for the man to get home. He’ll want to talk to you.”
“Who’s the man?”
“He’s the nicer of the two of us. But he can be mean, too, I promise. Don’t make a sound. Smile and nod. I’ll keep this knife close to your gut all the way.”
No one noticed her limping companion. There were a lot of injured in the moor towns. The only sufficient work was in the mountains, cutting granite, laying road in the cuts, or—if you were lucky—hauling out the scrap. When people were too hurt to work anymore, they came to the moors. Tev had avoided them at first because there were ports nearby—too much access to the world—but she’d soon learned inland was far worse. The Drei had gravitated toward the Four Cities of the former kingdom of Serengard, and those left in the foothills were bitter and suspicious, especially of Serens. And while Tev was slim enough to fit in amongst the slender Drei, her brother had the stocky Seren build and hair far too blond.
Here, there were plenty of drifters and criminals. No one asked, no one told, and no one expected justice for any wrongs done.
She dropped the body of the man on the floor of their tiny dwelling. Malcom’s eyes went wide, and she put a finger to her lips. He had seen a lot in his thirteen years, but he hadn’t seen her let blood the way she was trained to. Not up close, anyway.
“The cellar,” she told him.
He swung open the hatch and helped her lower the man down.
“Are you going to kill him?” Malcom asked.
“Shh.” Tev let the light glint off of her blade. The rest of her was hidden in shadow. She knew she didn’t look all that menacing. She had a tiny frame and a face covered in freckles. They kept her looking younger than her thirty-four years. “I’ll probably have to. He refuses to tell me why he’s here, and we can’t take risks.”
“Can’t you at least wait until he gets home?”
“I might.” She didn’t want to ask Mikel. He came home late every few nights, his deep sword scars well-hidden by a mixture of dried sweat and marble dust. He slipped out with Malcom, and they played at weaponry behind bawdy houses full of patrons too drunk to notice. He didn’t sleep. He didn’t even eat that much. But he seemed happy enough. She didn’t like to disturb his calm.
Besides, it wasn’t his job to protect Malcom. It was hers.
“Did you like the feel of that blade in your leg, Seren?” Tev snapped at the man.
He bit his own lip hard enough to make it white. “I don’t care what you do to me, woman. I’m not here for you.”
“You’re here for the boy.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Tell me who wants him?”
Tev looked up at Malcom. “Go check the windows.”
It was a good distraction for him. She tore the man’s sleeve, stuffed the fabric in his mouth, and made a long, shallow cut up his arm. He didn’t even scream. Not a good sign.
“Did Otreya send you? Are you here to steal him away for the old man? Or have you a more sinister purpose?”
He just shook his head.
“You probably find it quite convenient that you’re in my cellar. If you know who the boy is, you know who had him last. Is it his guardian you seek?”
The flash of recognition was unmistakable. Yes. He was looking for Mikel. And he knew who she was: Kierstaz Orion, alive and well in the slums of Dreibourge. Dermed. Well, she hadn’t meant to let him live anyway.
Tev removed the fabric, leaned close to his mouth, her blade playing on his throat. “Who sent you?”
He smiled, a hideous smirk, and she felt the ripple of instinct run up her spine. “Princess. He’s going to be so happy that you’re still living. We all thought you long dead.”
She gouged his throat quickly, but it still took him a minute to die—a minute in which Malcom completed his task and came back. He saw her hands, wet with fresh blood, and gulped. She couldn’t blame him. His true mother had protected him from the desperate side of life, and his father had been a horrid bastard whom he needed to be protected from.
“We’ll wait until dark to get rid of him,” Tev told him. She climbed out of the cellar and replaced the trap door. It took a few minutes to wash her arms and change her dress. She rinsed the fine dagger as well. It was long and thin with a hitch on each side of the blade, an inch from the hilt. She would have loved to keep it, but it could be recognized.
Malcom stood by the door when she came out of the washroom. He already wore a slight smile on his face. “We should go to the tavern. Blend in. He likely has companions.”
Goblins, the boy was smart.
“He most certainly has companions. Not to worry,” she told him.
It wasn’t quite dark yet, but they had to move. Tev opened the door slowly and slipped out. She reached for Malcom. He took her hand but shook her free as soon as he was in the street.
He was growing tall. It was getting harder to pretend she was his mother. Thank Allel he hadn’t inherited his father’s solid, square jaw or clear, dark eyes, but he did have nicely shaped hands and a swarthy chin that made him look more man than youth. Striking. Everything about Tev was half-tinted—soft freckles, auburn lashes, sandy skin, and a turned-up nose—the look of a girl who would never grow up. Then again, she didn’t look much like her true brother either.
The tavern was filled to brimming with senseless chatter and the tinkling of unskilled musicians, but Tev liked that. It would be easier to hide, and she wouldn’t have to listen to Malcom talk to his friends tonight. The other boys here liked him, and the girls liked him more. The sight of him flirting was always enough to make her stomach turn over. It was the one thing about him that reminded her of his father—his power over people. The boy should be too young to know how to incite that kind of worship from others.
Tonight she tipped her head and led him to a dark corner of the room. Mikel would know to look for them here when he came home. If he did come home tonight. The chance that he might not made her shiver. They might need to run again. Mikel was tired of running, but she didn’t want to leave him here.
“Tell me if you see anyone,” she told Malcom.
He knew how this went. They’d done it in many a village. He was taller, so he watched. She was stronger, so she fought. The hilt of her mid-sized Desert dagger—one she’d taken from an assassin many years ago—slipped into her fingers. She used to think it meant something to her, but like most things she held onto, it failed her much of the time.
“You are sure he would come here?” Malcom said.
“Shh.” Tev frowned at him. She wasn’t sure. She wasn’t even sure Mikel would come back at all this week. He sometimes stayed in the cuts until his food ran out. She didn’t need him; she only needed to know he was safe, and the cuts were as safe a place as any. She suspected that he only came back for Malcom now anyway.
“There,” Malcom said quietly.
“By the Derm.”
“They followed us?”
“Or they were here all along.”
“Who do you think…”
Tev scowled and led the way to one of the back doors. As soon as they were through it, she whirled against a wall. Malcom did not have to be told to do the same on the opposite side. Her heart thrummed. How long had the hunters been searching? These past three years? Would killing all of them force Otreya to start over at the beginning?
The door burst open, and a couple of drunks staggered through. Malcom jumped, threw himself back. He’d almost tackled one of them. Steady, Mal. Tev glanced intentionally away, into the alley, to remind him to watch his back. Malcom was skilled, but he was green, like a man of the long dead and forgotten Guard who hadn’t been blooded.
Another minute dragged past. Waiting was no good. Tev cocked her head to one side and slunk across the alley into the shadows. Malcom followed, his footsteps quiet on the soft mud of the street. Now she had to decide: go north up to the cape, where the shanties were; go west to the sea; or go east, inland—toward the border, the Four Cities, tyranny, and certain death.
East. The only place they wouldn’t expect Malcom to be.
She didn’t have a chance. Twenty feet ahead of her, dressed in black and clothed in shadow. Not three, but five. She turned, and there were two behind them to block the alley
“Tev,” Malcom rasped.
“I see them.”
But there was someone else—a prisoner they pulled out into the road. Mikel. These men weren’t half as tall as him, yet somehow they had him tied with heavy cord and his face shoved into the dirt.
Tev’s hands filled with a rush of blood and her arms throbbed with the new heat.
“Give us the boy and we free him,” one of the dark figures said.
“Don’t do it, Tev,” Mikel said. His head rolled as if he had been drugged.
By the Treacher. Tev blew air through her teeth. She knew how to get out of this. She’d done it before. But people always got hurt. Best plan was to be the one doing the hurting. “I don’t care about the boy. Take him if you like.”
“He’s nothing to you?”
“He’s just a slave boy, has to fight his own battles, same as anyone else.” She spit in the dirt, not sparing a glance for Malcom. “That all you want from me?”
“Yes, that’s all.”
Good. They didn’t know who she was. Her first kill had been fortunate—that one must have been the leader. She sauntered close enough to take in the height and build of each man in front of her, walked up to Mikel, kicked at the dirt under his nose. “Where’d you find this one? Is he drunk? He’s supposed to come home sober.”
Tev used the moment to draw her daggers from inside her waist. If the men closest to her saw her move, they realized her intent a moment too late. She drove a weapon through each of their ribs before they could meet her offensive. Those behind had enough time to ready themselves. Three of them were on her in a moment before she’d drawn her sword. Instead she took a knee and turned about in a circle. Her arms twisted and turned fast enough that they couldn’t follow her movements.
Was Mikel up yet?
She heard another moan and knew Mikel was out of the dirt and taking one of them on. Good because there were the two behind Malcom that she hadn’t looked twice at. A haze formed in her vision and helped her focus as she kept her mind on the end of her sword. It was over in a moment, and she whirled to find Mikel standing in the street next to Malcom.
“Is that all of them?” she asked, her voice low. The block was silent, but it wouldn’t be for long.
Mikel nodded and held an arm out. He staggered slightly, but there were two corpses next to where he’d knelt. Another was in the midst of crumpling. Malcom held out a sword, his own. It dripped with blood, as did hers.
Tev slid her arm under her brother. “Can you walk? What did they use on you?”
“I don’t know. Knocked me out. I didn’t even see them.” He shook her free, rolled his head around on his neck. “I can walk, Tev.”
Malcom stood stock-still. The sword in his hand dangled, and then he dropped it. Mikel caught him in his arms just before Tev got to him and took his face between her palms.
“Mal? Speak to me. Malcom.”
His eyes rolled back in his head. She tore open his shirt as his breath grew shallow.
Excerpt Copyright © 2014 by Rachel O’Laughlin.