Pride (Arden #4)

Read the rest of Arden’s story here.

Arden awoke to a searing pain in his back and a healthy dose of humility. Even the slightest movement brought a fresh wave of agony and a reminder of his failure. Arden wasn’t sure which hurt more.

He tried to rise to his knees, but the pain brought him crashing down again, face-first in the mud of the riverbank. His brother’s sword had cut him deep; his back was afire from shoulder to hip. I never should have let my guard down. The pain was made worse by the knowledge that it was his own fault.

Moving his head slightly, so as to avoid agitating is back, he looked around. Night had fallen, so the Mask’s camp was illuminated by flickering torches. He was in a makeshift prison, surrounded by inward pointing stakes and tied to a boulder set deep into the mud.

Rough hands grabbed him gently. Then another smaller set of hands began to smear something on his wound. It was cool and soothing, but the pressure on his cut still brought him pain. He squirmed under the care, letting a groan out from between clenched teeth.

“Try not to move, Arden.”

“Jaron?” Arden had thought the old fisherman to be dead.

“Yes, and Taro.”

“Where’s Hus?” Arden asked, not wanting to know the answer.

“Dead.  The Mask’s men shot him as we were climbing out of the river.” That was Taro’s voice, obviously younger. There was anger in it, and Arden couldn’t blame him.

“I’m sorry,” Arden said, “and not just about Hus. I never should have put us in this situation. I was a fool to think that we could hunt down the Mask without the garrison from Kingston.”

“What’s done is done,” Jaron said. “Now we must hope that they can find us.”
Taro stayed silent, likely because he didn’t agree with his father’s forgiveness.

“We shouldn’t try to escape,” Jaron continued. “Jon has no doubt told the militiamen where we went. Assuming the Mask doesn’t move camp in the morning, they should be able to find us easily.”

“Why did you think this was all a good idea?” Taro hissed, no longer trying to disguise his rage. “You told us that you knew the Mask. You said that you could anticipate him. Except you got led by your nose into a trap, and Hus is dead!”  His voice rose as he spoke, the last word said with such vehemence that one of the Mask’s men came over to see what the problem was.

“Our friend is rather badly wounded,” Jaron told the pirate, and it seemed to work, as the guard returned to fire, where the Mask’s crew was eating.

“Why?” Taro repeated, hissing the word.

“The Mask is my brother,” Arden said. And I never stopped to think that maybe he knows me as well as I know him.  He hadn’t thought of that, and he had paid the price. “I thought I knew what he would do.”

“Well, he baited you. It seems he isn’t as proud you thought he was,” Taro said.

“His pride is the only reason we’re alive right now,” Arden said. “If we die out here, we don’t bolster his reputation. And if there is one thing my brother cares about, it’s his reputation.”

“So the reason we’re alive is so that he can kill us later, in public?”

Arden nodded, moving his head as much as his wound would allow. “Which is why we must hope that the militia finds us soon.”
***

Arden woke to the bustle of the Mask’s men breaking camp.  The makeshift prison had been removed, and all of the pirate’s tents were down.  Jaron and Taro were still tied to the boulder with him, but were wide awake when he rose.

“Feeling better, Princess?” Jaron asked.

He was.  Jaron had taken Arden’s shirt and ripped it into makeshift bandages, which Arden now wore.  The pain was still there, but it was no longer debilitating, and Arden was able to stand.

“Much better,” he said.  “I see that we’re moving.”

Taro nodded, his mouth set in a grim line.  “I’ve tried to leave behind as much of a trail as I can,” he said, “but I can’t guarantee that the militia will be able to find us.”

“They may not have to,” Arden said.  “If I know my brother, we’ll be going to them.  He doesn’t know that we sent for the garrison.  He likely thinks that Crickhall is ripe for the taking.”

“The entire town?” Jaron was incredulous, “with only these men?”

“Crickhall may have a larger population but few of them can truly fight.  Besides, my family isn’t known for our small egos.”

The three prisoners were forced to march in the middle of all the pirates, dragging the boulder with them.  They walked a short ways through the forest until they came to the spot on the river where the Mask kept his boats.

“You can sail with me, Arden,” he said, cutting Arden free from the boulder and tossing him into the bottom of his boat.  “It will be so lovely to catch up.”

There was nothing Arden would have liked less.

“Where are we going, Tymon?” Arden asked from the bottom of the boat.

The Mask stiffened.  “Don’t call me that.  I am the River’s Mask.”  He certainly looked the part, standing at the prow of the boat, in black leather and his hideous iron mask carved in a demon’s visage.

“Your name is Tymon,” Arden said.  “Stop with this ridiculous persona.”

“Tymon died years ago.  I am what is left.  I am the king of this river.”

“And do you mean to take Crickhall as your keep?”

Tymon drew his sword and thrust it quivering into the timbers of the boat.  “When I take Crickhall, I will truly rule this river,” he said.  “We were born to be kings, Arden.  How can you forget where we come from?”

Arden shook his head.  “We were never meant to rule, Tymon.  We were the fourth and fifth sons.”

“And we survived,” Tymon said, ripping the mask from his face as he turned to face Arden. “When our lands were burned and our brothers were killed, we survived.”  Arden could see a crazed light in his eyes.  “We were born to be kings, and I will carve out a kingdom along this river.”

Arden saw motion in the trees to either side of the river, and his heart soared.  “Do you truly believe that you can just take this land, and no one will stop you?”  he asked.

“No one can stop me.  Through my veins runs the blood of–”

He was cut off as the militiamen of Kingston stepped from the trees and unleashed a storm of arrows.  One carved a bloody furrow along his cheek, and another struck his shoulder, tossing him into the river.  The current bore him swiftly downstream and out of sight.

Arden was left clutching the demonshead mask as the men of Kingston, swept the pirates into the river.  He tried not to think about his past, about his lost birthright, but his brother had thought of nothing else.  Tymon had always thought himself a king, but kings drowned the same as all other men.

Read the rest of Arden’s story here.

Rings

The emerald ring was pretty enough, but the man offering it wasn’t.  The jewel’s face was cut into a dozen starry faces, his cut with a dozen angry scars.

“A magic ring,” he called to Kaira, “a ring that could change your life!”

What a fool.  Magic didn’t exist.  It had died with the Old Heroes, legendary men who had called down lightning and waged war with burning swords.  If anyone possessed magic, it wouldn’t be this decrepit old merchant.  And if the ring was magical, he was hardly smart for shouting about it.  If the old stories were true, that was the kind of thing that people killed over.

Nowadays, it was the kind of thing that people were arrested over.

As Kaira stepped past the old man, she saw a group of guards pushing their way through the crowded market towards the man. She could make out their bright white uniforms as they cleared a path. As they approached, the old man’s face lit up, probably at the sight of more potential customers, as he offered them the ring.

Damn fool.

“Magic doesn’t exist.”  One guard, seemingly the leader of the other two, stepped up to the merchant, pushing down the arm that had been offering the ring. “And the queen doesn’t think kindly towards those who would sell lies to her subjects.”

“They aren’t lies.”

Kaira groaned. Damn fool, she thought again. All the merchant had needed to do was apologize and allow the guard to take the ring. That would have at least given him a chance to escape the queen’s dungeons.

“If magic is real,” the guard said, “then you shouldn’t have any problem magicking yourself out of the dungeons.”

The old merchant kept his smile as he drew himself up and said, “I expect not.”  His insolence was going to ensure that he had an accident before he ever reached the dungeons. What a fool.

“You’re coming with us.”  The two guards who had yet to speak grabbed the merchant and pulled him away from his stall.

“Wait!” the old man cried. He was squealing and squirming in their grip, making a rather pathetic scene. “Let me talk to me daughter. Then I’ll go quietly.”

They released him. “You have one minute,” the guards told him.

Kaira looked around for the man’s daughter, confused, until she realized he was approaching her. Now she was the one who felt like a fool, for staying to watch instead of disappearing into the crowded market.

“I love you,” the old man said, grabbing her hand. He smelled far cleaner than he looked, like an odd mix of fresh fruit and cooked meat. Kaira tried to pull away, but his grip was immensely strong. “I won’t hurt you,” he whispered; then, louder, “tell Mama what happened.”  He pressed something into Kaira’s palm. “I hope to see you soon.”

As the old merchant was led away, Kaira slowly opened her palm and saw another ring nestled there.

***

 

Kaira slowly turned the ring in her palm. It was heavy iron, etched with odd spiraling symbols, and reflected the warm light of the lantern beside her.

She sat on the edge of a cliff, her feet dangling off over the sea. It was dark out, the sky above her and sea under her were a deep, dark blue. At the moment, she was seriously considering throwing the ring into that azure abyss.

It was useless, right?  If the old merchant was to be trusted, it was magical, but if she was to believe everyone else she had ever met, magic didn’t exist.

Kaira slipped the ring onto her finger for the fourth time and, as before, nothing happened. There was no rush of magic, no moment of clarity or burst of flame. If this was magic, it was nothing like the stories.

She stood and started along the cliffside. She loved walking here, straddling the land and sea. She walked, one foot in front of the other, until a rock turned under her foot. With milling arms, she attempted to keep her balance, but failed, and fell tottering off the cliff.

What a damn fool, she thought. She had always been dangerously curious and daring, but this was as embarrass in a death as they came. It was odd, but, as she fell, it was that thought that dominated her mind. It was less of an oh shit I am about to plummet to my death, and more of a wow, I am stupid.

The ground opened up beneath her feet and was replaced by the dark sea, but, after a moment, she realized that it wasn’t getting any closer.

Kaira looked back at the cliff and saw that she was still level with the rock, her face only feet from the stony cliffside. She was hovering impossibly in the air.

Perhaps there was magic after all.

Up, she thought, and she began to rise, the cool sea breeze rushing past her as she flew.  Exhilaration coursed through her. Magic was real, and she could control it.

She settled back into solid ground and twisted the ring from her finger. She could use this ring, but if magic was real, it could change the world. She replaced the ring on the hand and stepped off the cliff. At first she had trouble, but within minutes she was soaring through the night sky.

***

 

Ezard sat on the damp cell floor, picking at the scab that was forming on his left forearm. Would the girl come to find him?  Would she even discover the use of the ring?  She had been curious enough to watch his arrest; hopefully she would be curious enough to seek him out.

It was unlikely, and he knew that.  He began to curse his decisions.  Why in the ten hells had he given his only piece of magic to a random girl instead of using it himself?  Sure, the guards had bows, but he still could have escaped.

He moved to the window of his cell.  Soft moonlight filtered through onto his face.  The dungeon was cut into a massive cliff face that ran along the sea.  He had been lucky enough to be given a cell on the edge, near the sea.

He drew another ring from deep within his boot and slipped it on his finger.  It was gold and wire-thin, very difficult to see.  He placed the ringed hand on the wall of his cell and pushed, the veins on his neck standing out with the effort.

After a moment of straining, the wall began to crack and crumble; pieces at first, the massive chunks of rock tearing free and falling into the sea.

***

Kaira was flying towards the cliff-side prison, wondering how in the ten hells she was going to find the merchant in the maze of cells, when a part of the cliff gave way.  She turned towards the hole in the cliff, using the ring to guide herself lower in the air.

The merchant stood in the mouth of the new cave.  His ragged, baggy shirt had been removed, and he didn’t look nearly as decrepit as he had in the market.  Moonlight shined on thick, corded muscle.  His scarred face, framed by his long ragged beard and hair, looked less aged then it had.

“I was hoping you’d come,” he called.

She swooped in and landed next to him.  “You told me you’d see me soon.”

“So I did.”

Kaira held out a hand.  “Can you teach me about this magic?” she asked.

He smiled, as if it was the question he had been waiting for.  “I can, indeed.”