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KND Freebies: Bestselling epic fantasy THE SWORD AND THE DRAGON by M.R. Mathias is featured in today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

Fantasy/Fairy Tales
Literature & Fiction/Mythology…
and 401 rave reviews!!

The Sword and the Dragon (The Wardstone Trilogy Book 1)

by M. R. Mathias

The Sword and the Dragon (The Wardstone Trilogy Book 1)
4.3 stars – 482 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

When the Royal Wizard of Westland poisons the king, so that his puppet prince can take the throne and start a continental war, a young squire is forced to run for his life carrying the powerful sword that his dying monarch burdened him with from the death bed.

Two brothers find a magic ring and start on paths to becoming the most powerful sort of enemies, while an evil young sorceress unwillingly falls in love with one of them when he agrees to help her steal a dragon’s egg for her father. Her father just happens to be the Royal Wizard, and despite his daughter’s feelings, he would love nothing more than to sacrifice the boy!

All of these characters, along with the Wolf King of Wildermont, the Lion Lord of Westland, and a magical hawk named Talon, are on a collision course toward Willa the Witch Queen’s palace in the distant kingdom of Highwander. There the very bedrock is formed of the powerful magical substance called Wardstone.

Who are the heroes? And will they get there before the Royal Wizard and his evil hordes do?

Whatever happens, the journey will be spectacular, and the confrontation will be cataclysmic.

Praise for The Sword & The Dragon:

“…so many vivid scenes….extremely deep and dimensional characters…”

“…action and mystery packed, with twists and turns in every chapter…”

an excerpt from

The Sword & The Dragon

by M.R. Mathias

Copyright © 2014  by M.R. Mathias and published here with his permission

Chapter 1

Gerard Skyler used his free arm to wipe the sweat from his brow before it had a chance to drip into his eyes. Scaling the towering, nesting cliff for the second time was far harder than he expected it to be. No one had attempted the climb two days in a row before. His body was still sore and raw from yesterday’s climb, but he could not afford to stop and rest. He was more than three hundred feet above a rocky canyon floor. A fall would undoubtedly be fatal. The last thing he needed at the moment was burning eyes and blurred vision.

A few dozen feet above him was the wide, flat shelf they called the “Lip.” Once he was there he could lie down, stretch out his aching body, and relax his muscles before continuing up into the nesting shelves to gather the precious hawkling eggs he sought.

Why the blasted birds nested so high on the cliff and so late in the spring, he could never determine. All of the other avian species he knew had hatched their young and headed north already. Why he was foolishly climbing the cliff a second time was another question he kept asking himself. He already knew the answer though: he was doing it for his older brother, Hyden.

Gerard’s free hand reached up and slid snugly into a small gap above him. As he pulled his weight up, the hold suddenly crumbled. Dust and scree rained down on his upturned face. Luckily, his mouth was closed and he hadn’t moved his feet from their points of purchase yet. He didn’t slip, but he had to contend with his racing heart and the sandy grit that was collecting on his face.

“Damn it all, Hyden! You owe me a dozen pairs of boots now,” he muttered.

He shook his head, trying to face downward so that some of the crud might fall away. Then he stuck out his bottom lip and blew up at his eyes, shaking his head awkwardly. The thought of how silly he looked at that moment almost made him laugh. He fought to contain it.

Having mixed with his sweat, most of the grainy dirt had turned to mud. He finally used the thumb and index finger of his free hand to rub his eyelids. Eventually, he cleared his vision and then reached up for a different handhold. This one held his weight.


Far below, Hyden Skyler paced the canyon floor, looking up nervously at his younger brother’s progress. He was supposed to be the one making this climb. Gerard had already made his own. Their father and uncles decided that Hyden should stay on the ground this year. He was the Skyler clan’s best hope to win the coveted Summer’s Day archery competition, their best hope to come along in a generation.

Hyden had argued vehemently against not being allowed to claim a rightful share of the hawkling eggs. His Uncle Condlin had to physically restrain him when they told him this year’s climb wasn’t going to happen. Hyden had called them all to the settling circle in his anger, even the Elders.

“Why can’t I do both?” he’d argued.

The Elders explained that it was because the archery competition and the egg harvest this year were too close together. Not even the most experienced climber could finish his grueling harvest without a tear or strain. The Elders, who consisted of Hyden’s grandfather, his father, and five of his uncles, wanted nothing to happen to him that might affect his ability to aim. Nothing.

Like most young men who feel like they’ve been wronged, Hyden had been caught up in the moment. The Elders’ arguments made sense to him now that the heat of his frustration had cooled, but it had taken a while. Only after long hours of soothing and explaining did he finally relent. The fact that the prize money from the archery competition was equal to the value of more than a dozen hawkling eggs helped him put things in perspective. The idea of having his name etched permanently into the Summer’s Day Spire had its own appeal. Eventually, he decided to comply with the Elders’ wishes and stay on the ground. If he managed to win the competition, the honor and respect he would gain, not only in his clan, but also among the men of the kingdoms, would far exceed the satisfaction of making his egg harvest.

At one hundred paces, Hyden could put three out of five arrows in the Wizard’s Eye. The other two arrows would be in the King’s Ring, only because the center of the target wasn’t big enough to hold them all. Only on rare occasions did an arrow from Hyden’s bow venture out into the Queen’s Circle, but it did so only because the wind was blowing, or for some other extreme reason. Even on the windiest of days, his arrows strayed no further away from the middle than that. He was as accurate as a target would allow a human to be. To put four arrows in the Wizard’s Eye was nearly impossible. The elven archers who had won the competition for the last four years running had done it, though. If Hyden wanted to win this year, he would have to do it too.

Hyden’s stubborn arguing over being kept on the ground had paid off in a sense. He contested that the financial loss of not being allowed to harvest his rightful share of hawkling eggs would be ruinous to his home and family. He pointed out that the Elders could give him no guarantee that he would win the archery competition. He was only eighteen winters old, with no family of his own yet, but he would have one soon enough, and it was the principle of the matter anyway. By clan law, a large portion of the money generated by the sale of the harvested hawkling eggs went to the individual who harvested them. None of the Elders could deny Hyden, but then Gerard suddenly volunteered to climb in his stead. The Elders reminded the younger of the two headstrong young men that a second climb would be very dangerous, not to mention that all the credit and the yield of the harvest itself, would be Hyden’s, not his. The Elders were pleased, though, that Hyden would still be receiving his due without having to climb.

Hyden had never felt a stronger bond with Gerard; nor had he ever felt more love for him. When he saw his little brother finally gain the edge of the Lip, he couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief. He had never felt this much worry, or concern, over Gerard’s safety in his life. Usually, he was trying to kill him for some reason or another.

Little Condlin, or maybe Ryal, helped Gerard up onto the ledge. Hyden couldn’t tell which of his many cousins was up there. They all looked the same from where he was standing, with their sun-darkened skin, their thin frames, and the thick mop of dark hair all of the clansmen shared.

Hyden had been out behind Uncle Condlin’s hut shooting arrows all week while the other members of the Skyler clan took their turns on the sacred nesting cliff. He wasn’t sure which of his cousins had made their climbs yet. All he knew was that Gerard came down yesterday from his harvest with eight unbroken eggs. From what Hyden heard, it was the best single take so far this year. Gerard strutted around with his chest puffed out the whole evening. Uncle Condlin brought down only seven eggs this year. Hyden and Gerard’s father, Harrap, would have had seven as well, but an angry hawkling caused Harrap to drop one in order to protect his eyes from its razor-sharp talons.

It was a shameful thing to waste an egg, even when protecting oneself. Their father hadn’t been seen since he’d packed his six remaining eggs in a small crate full of “keep moss” two days ago. He had gone off into the woods seeking absolution. The eggs would be safe until he eventually returned. The keep moss, as the name indicated, would keep the hawkling eggs from hatching for as long as they were packed in it.

Gerard and Hyden knew that their father was off in seclusion somewhere seeking forgiveness from the clan’s goddess. He hoped that the White Lady would give his father a sign soon. Hyden had done the same thing last year, after one of his eggs broke in his pack while he was climbing down.

The hawkling eggs were sacred to the clan, and very expensive to the kingdom folk who purchased them each year at the Summer’s Day Festival. The location of the nesting cliff was known only to the Skylers, and though they could have made a king’s fortune by harvesting all the eggs at once, they didn’t. Each clansman able to climb the cliff was allowed one opportunity each year to make his harvest, but only if he spent his share of the days in the off-season attending to the roosts and vacant nesting areas. Loose rock, old nests, and other harmful things such as scorpions and blood ravens, were removed or frightened away so the hawklings would have a safe place to breed and hatch their young each spring.

During the harvest, it was forbidden to leave fewer than two eggs in a nest, so much of the climbing a man did—sometimes his whole harvest—was fruitless. The hawklings were fierce hunters, and their wingspan from tip to tip could be as wide as a man is tall. Sometimes, an angry bird would attack and maim, or even dislodge, a climber. Many a member of the Skyler clan met their death on the rocky canyon floor.

Hyden didn’t expect much from Gerard. The lower nests would all be down to two eggs by now, and the climb took such a toll on a man’s body that Hyden didn’t think Gerard could push himself into the higher reaches today. Two or three eggs would suffice. He told Gerard as much this morning when they broke camp. Hyden would wait until all the other eggs sold, and then would drive up his price. The money from two eggs would sustain him through the winter. Three would provide him not only what he needed, but also what he wanted.

“I’ll get you half a dozen at least,” Gerard bragged. “You’ll win that competition, too. When you do, you owe me a new pair of Valleyan horsehide boots and a wizard’s hat.”

Hyden laughed, thinking about his brother’s simple desires. Gerard’s immaturity still showed itself often. He was just a year younger than Hyden. At least the new boots were a reasonable and responsible request. Gerard could buy himself a wagon full of wizard’s hats and a dozen pair of boots with what he would earn for his own eight eggs. After the Elders took out the clan’s share, Gerard would still have a small fortune.

Hyden found a rock, sat in the shadow thrown by the midmorning sun, and munched on a piece of dried venison. Gerard would rest awhile on the Lip before continuing up into the nesting shelves. The cliff face would be warming quickly now. It would grow as hot as a skillet in the morning sun, but only for a short while. The sun would swiftly put the cliff in its memory and for the better part of the day, its face would be cooling in its own shadow.

Movement from above caught Hyden’s eye. A long, green ribbon on a crooked stick poked up into the air from the edge of the Lip. There wasn’t enough wind to make it do more than flutter lazily. It disappeared as quickly as it had shown itself, and then one of his cousins began the long climb up to make his harvest. Hyden could tell by the bright green color of the climber’s headdress that it was one of Uncle Condlin’s sons. He knew that Gerard’s headdress was red with blue highlights. That was the only headdress he cared to see.

The bright, ornamental hats were worn more to deter the fierce birds than for any other reason, yet each branch of the clan had its own colors and designs. Hyden’s was made of light wire and shaped like an open-winged bird, with red and gold ribbons tied about the frame. Gerard’s was similar, but with red and blue ribbons fastened to it. The headdresses made it appear that a brightly colored bird was already on the climber’s head. They were a distraction at best, and they usually ended up on the canyon floor long before the climber came down. Hyden hated wearing one, especially when the wind was up. He usually threw his off after a while, but one time, an angry hawkling had torn it off his head for him, and nearly caused him to fall to his death.

It was rumored his Great Uncle Jachen’s fatal fall was caused solely by complications with his headdress, but it was still considered an ill omen to start up from the Lip without one. Two of Hyden’s cousins attempted to climb after the wind had blown theirs off the ledge a few years ago. Both boys perished that day, thus reinforcing the ancient superstition.

It wasn’t long before Hyden saw his own red and gold headdress starting up the cliff. It made him smile. Gerard must have taken it from his pack earlier at the camp. Hyden didn’t expect Gerard to wear his headdress. He was proud that his little brother was honoring him by wearing it for this climb. His heart swelled with emotion, and he decided on the spot that he would buy Gerard a wizard’s hat, a wizard’s robe, and a magic wand at the fair, even if he didn’t win the archery competition. It didn’t even bother him when Gerard later let the awkward headgear fall away and tumble down the canyon.

It became clear that the cousin making the climb ahead of Gerard was Little Condlin. Little Con was chubby; slow and deliberate in his moves. He climbed more sideways than upward, as if he was trying to cover the entire width of the cliff. He never extended his reach and he always used caution. Gerard, on the other hand, was quick like a lizard, and before long he was a few hundred feet above the Lip.

The cliff itself was well over a thousand feet high. It looked to Hyden like Gerard was trying to climb to the very top of it. As far as Hyden knew, that had never been done before. An area not too far above Gerard’s current location was so thick with the nesting birds that the gray and brown stone seemed to be striped black with them. It was obvious now Gerard had been completely serious when he’d bragged he would bring back half a dozen eggs. Hyden hoped his brother wouldn’t put himself in a bad spot up there while trying to show off for him. At the moment, Gerard was as high up into the nests as Hyden had ever been in his life.

Gerard could see something glinting and shining. It was a few dozen feet to his right, a little below him, and sitting in an old, broken nest on the other side of a wide, vertical fissure. He couldn’t tell what it was, but it was metallic and golden. For some reason, there were no hawklings screeching at him or making sweeps at his intrusion in this area. He wasn’t paying attention to the hawklings’ activities any more, though. Whatever that thing was in the nest, it was commanding his attention and causing him to lose concentration on his climb. He already had five eggs for Hyden nestled in his padded shoulder bag. He was determined to have the sixth he boasted of, but he knew five would please his brother immensely. He also knew he needed to start back down soon, so as not to be caught on the wall after sunset. Climbing down in the dark was impossible, but that blasted shiny thing was fiercely calling out to his curiosity.

His mind began filling with visions of jeweled riches and praise from his clansmen and Elders. He had to reach it. He wouldn’t be climbing here again until late summer, or just before winter set in. It might not be there then. If he didn’t get it now, he might not be able to find it again, even if it stayed exactly where it was.

He cleared his head by shaking it, then tried to spot a way to surpass the open gap between him and the prize. If he just climbed a few dozen feet higher, he could reach across a narrow place in the fissure, and then he could climb back down to the thing. It was risky, but he told himself he could do it.

As he started up toward the niche, the sun passed over the ridge and sent the whole of the cliff face into shadow. It took him longer than he thought it would, but he finally reached the place where he could stretch across the span of open space. He positioned himself on a tiny ledge, and when he leaned into the cliff, he could stand with all his weight on his feet, leaving both of his hands free.

His palms were wet and slimy from the numerous patches of excrement he’d encountered in this higher, more heavily nested area. He shook his arms at his sides, letting the blood flow back into them while waiting for the muck to dry. A warning began to sound in the back of his mind, telling him that he should already be headed back down, but he chose to ignore it. He gathered another egg on the way up to the niche, so he now had the full half-dozen he’d promised Hyden. All he needed to do now was reach the little treasure beckoning him. Once he had it, he could start down.

After a few moments, he rubbed his hands on his hips briskly. The crusting stuff on them powdered and fell away. He then took turns scuffing the toes of his old boots on the ledge until they gripped with ample traction. He found a good handhold with his left hand not too far above him, and stretched his body out to the right, reaching across the gap as far as he could. He was still at least two feet shy. He harrumphed in frustration and pulled his body weight back over the little ledge.

He repositioned himself so his handhold was lower. This would allow him to reach farther. He tried again but found his right foot was still some inches away from a safe purchase on the other side. As he started to retract himself this time, his left foothold slipped a fraction. His heart fluttered up through his chest like a startled bird. He almost fell, but instinct and common sense took control. After a few deep, calming breaths, he gingerly started easing his weight back over.

He would have to give up the prize and make his way down. It was the only sensible thing to do. If he started to hurry down now, he could still reach the canyon floor by nightfall. Hyden would be happy to take the six eggs and the Elders, along with the rest of the clan members, would praise his efforts and his skill as a climber.

A quick glance back over at the object caused him to change his mind. He was here, and he didn’t want to waste the chance the Goddess had granted him. He would retrieve it, whatever it was.

Gerard squinted. In the shaded light, the object finally revealed itself to him. It was a ring. Golden and shiny, it had a fat, yellow gem mounted on it, and it looked extremely valuable. He rolled his neck across his shoulders. It would be his, he decided. He could reach it and still get down before dark. If not, he could even sleep on the Lip if need be.

He looked at the other side of the fissure and studied it intently. He took in the subtleties, the nooks, the crannies, and the shape of the stone. Then, he sucked in a deep breath, resolved himself, and leapt for it.

Hyden was pacing nervously. His cousin was almost back down to the Lip, but Gerard was still way up in the heart of the nesting shelves. To Hyden, he seemed to be frozen in place next to a wide vertical split in the rock. As it was, Hyden figured Gerard would have to sleep on the Lip this night. Hyden wasn’t sure his brother could even climb that far back down by nightfall. He was about to pull his hair out with worry.

“It’s my fault,” he told himself aloud. He knew no one had ever made it down the cliff face in the dark, and it looked as if Gerard was running out of time. “I should’ve never let you climb for me. Damn the bravado, Gerard! Just get yourself down before it’s too late.”

Hyden stopped pacing and stared up anxiously as his brother stretched across the gap for the second time. He thought his heart stopped beating in his chest, until he saw his brother shudder and slip. Then, his heart exploded like a pounding skin drum.

“Oh Gerard, don’t fall,” Hyden pleaded to no one that could hear him. “Take a breath, and steady yourself. That’s it! Now quit fooling around and get down here before the darkness takes you!”

Hyden’s neck muscles were raw and sore from looking up all day, but he couldn’t look away. Gerard seemed to have regained his composure, and Hyden assumed he was about to start back down. A few seconds later, when Gerard leapt into the open air, across the fissure from one side of it to the other, Hyden was certain his heart really exploded. So violent was the thunderclap that went blasting through his chest, that even he felt the strange and horrifying sensation of falling.

Chapter 2

Of the two brothers, Gerard had the better landing. His lead foot stuck perfectly into the crevice he intended, and his fingers grabbed true in a little crack on the far side of the fissure. He paused only a moment to catch his breath, as if he hadn’t just jumped across a gap of empty space more than seven hundred feet off the ground. Almost casually, he looked down at the little gleaming prize and started after it. It was his.

Hyden didn’t fare as well. He had been looking up at Gerard while pacing. At the same moment his brother had leapt, Hyden’s feet had found a shin-high boulder and his momentum sent him sprawling. He was so transfixed by Gerard’s leap that he didn’t even look down as he fell. It was probably for the best, because he didn’t have to see the pile of jagged rocks into which his head slammed. When he next opened his eyes, it was almost completely dark outside. Blood leaked from the gash in the side of his head and formed a matted clot in his long, black hair. He wasn’t quite sure where he was or what was happening.

“Hyden?” a familiar voice asked sheepishly. “I thought you’d never come around.”

Through his pain, Hyden’s world began coming back to him. It was Little Condlin who spoke to him. His fingers found the split lump over his ear, and a sharp pain shot through him when he touched it. As he caught his breath, Gerard’s leap flashed through his mind.

“Gerard!” he croaked in a panic while trying to climb back to his feet. “Where is Ger—?”

“He’s nearly down from the Lip,” Little Condlin said, not understanding Hyden’s worry. He didn’t seen Gerard risk his life like a fool jumping from hold to hold. He took Hyden by the arm and helped him to his feet.

Hyden winced as the world swam back into focus. It took him a few minutes, but eventually he steadied himself. In the near darkness, he found the boulder he had eaten lunch on and sat down.

“Gerard’s really almost down?” he asked.

“Aye,” Little Condlin grinned. “He’s as good a climber as you are; maybe even better.” He tried to suppress his adolescent mirth, but it was impossible. “What befell you down here?” With that, he burst into laughter.

Hyden snarled menacingly at the fourteen-year-old boy’s wit. It was enough to make Little Condlin’s glee vanish instantly. The boy quickly averted his attention to a dark pile of rocks at his feet.

A few moments passed in silence, but Hyden finally spoke.

“How was your harvest?” he asked.

Little Condlin’s eyes lit up. He was bursting to tell someone of his good fortune this year. “Five eggs, Hyden!” he held an excited hand up, all his fingers extended and wiggling. “Five!”

“Great!” Hyden said, a little more flatly than he intended. He was glad for Condlin, but he was still a little bitter at being cheated out of his own climb. Last year, Little Con harvested one egg. This was his second year of harvest, and five eggs was an excellent yield for a more experienced climber, much less a novice.

“I did just as father told me to do,” Little Condlin rambled excitedly. “I didn’t try to go high like Gerard does. I went way out to the sides.”

“I saw you,” Hyden said, with a nod of respect.

Hyden only retrieved three eggs before nearly falling over the edge of the Lip during his second harvest. The memory made him think about Gerard again. It was almost full dark now. He stood up and started toward the base of the cliff to look for his brother.

“What happened to your face, Hyden?” Little Condlin asked. Even though he was at a safe distance, he made sure that his voice carried nothing less than concern in its inflection.

“I was attacked by big, hairy scufflers,” Hyden deadpanned. His expression didn’t hold though, and thinking about his earlier folly, he broke into a sarcastic grin, “What do you think happened?”

Little Condlin took on a frustrated expression and sighed heavily. He was the fourth of five brothers, so he knew where he stood in the pecking order with Hyden and his other cousins. He had hoped his successful harvest would have gained him a little more respect. Gauging the distance between him and his older, faster cousin, he gathered his courage and prepared to run away. “I think you fell down and busted your fat head.”

“Aye,” Hyden laughed at the boy’s well-placed caution. “I did. I was looking up, watching Gerard act like a fool, and I wasn’t watching where my feet were leading me.” He made a silly face, and his cousin relaxed a little bit.

“Well I have to say, you look quite a bit better than you did before. That bloody knot brings out your eyes.”

Hyden burst out laughing at the boy’s boldness. He started to say something about it, but was cut off by a welcome voice.

“What’s so blasted funny, Hyden?” Gerard said from the darkness, near where the cliff face met the canyon floor.

Hyden felt the wave of relief wash over him. It was followed immediately by a flood of anger. “What’s not funny is what you did up there today! You could’ve gotten yourse—”

His voice stopped cold and Little Condlin gasped loudly. Gerard thrust the ring out of the darkness at them. Even in the starlight, its amber gemstone captured enough illumination to sparkle brightly. It almost appeared as if it were glowing.

“Where did you find that?” Little Condlin asked with a voice full of awe.

“In your sister’s pantaloons,” Gerard replied sarcastically. He was sore, tired, raw in several places, and in no mood for silly questions. He looked at Hyden, judging his brother’s anger. “It was high up in an old broken nest by a fissure. The one I jumped across,” he said in a way to let Hyden know that he knew the risk he had taken, and didn’t want to hear anymore about it. After a moment, he reluctantly handed the ring to his older brother.

Hyden looked at him oddly. It took him a minute to grasp the meaning of the gesture. Gerard had been climbing for him, not for himself. He was offering him the ring. Hyden refused it with a nod.

“You wanted it bad enough to risk your life for it. It’s yours. You earned it.”

Gerard cocked his head and studied Hyden some more. To refuse such an offer could be considered an insult. If Hyden was refusing him out of anger for taking that jump, then he wouldn’t know what to do. Hyden had never insulted him before. He looked deeper and saw so much love, respect, and relief in his brother’s eyes that there was no room for doubt. Hyden truly did want him to have the ring. He took it back and a broad grin spread across his weary face.

“If you refuse these, I’m going to kick you where it counts.”

Gerard took off his pack and thrust it out to Hyden proudly. “Half a dozen, just like I promised.”

Hyden passed the pack to their cousin and grabbed up Gerard in a big bear hug. Gerard hugged him back. While his hands were close together behind Hyden’s back, Gerard slipped the ring onto his finger. After a moment, Hyden held him back by the shoulders and looked him dead in the eyes.

“Don’t scare me like that again.” He pointed to the gash on his knotted head. “You almost killed me.”

It was too dark even to think about starting back to the harvest lodges. They ended up building a fire where Hyden and Gerard camped the night before. The three of them exchanged stories, and had a great laugh at the fact that Hyden was the only one who hadn’t left the ground, but was the only one who fell.

While Little Con boiled some dried beef into a stew, Hyden inspected the eggs his brother brought him. He was pleased beyond words at what he saw. All six of them were safe, sound, and nestled in a bed of fresh keep moss. He made up his mind to buy Gerard a whole wizard’s costume—the robe, the hat, and even a staff, if that was what he wanted. He didn’t think it would be, though. Gerard seemed to have matured a great deal since just that morning. The sparkle of the ring in the firelight and the tired, serious look on his face made him look anything but youthful. Hyden saw a man where only this morning, he’d seen a boy. It was a strange sight to see, because most of the time he didn’t even consider himself an adult yet.

“Wendlin, Jeryn, and Tylen are the only ones left to harvest now,” Little Con informed them. “They’re camped at the other end of the canyon. They probably think I fell, since I didn’t come back to camp tonight.”

“If they thought you fell, they would be out looking for your carcass,” Hyden said matter-of-factly.

“Or dancing a jig,” Gerard added with a laugh.

“They probably saw you come down,” Hyden reasoned. “Same as I did.”

“How could you have seen him, knot-head?” Gerard smirked, “You were busy kissing rocks.”

They all laughed heartily at that. Little Condlin dished the stew into Hyden’s and Gerard’s bowls, then waited for one of them to finish. His bowl was back at his brothers’ camp. Hyden ate a healthy meal while Gerard and Little Condlin were busy climbing, so he slurped a few mouthfuls, then passed his bowl to his young cousin. Gerard, on the other hand, attacked his meal like a starving dog.

“Are you going back to the lodges with us in the morning or what?” Hyden asked.

“Back to Tylen’s camp,” Condlin answered. “Wendlin and Jeryn climb early in the morning. Tylen goes last, since he is the oldest in the clan who’s not on the council.” Little Condlin always spoke of his brothers proudly, but when he spoke of his oldest brother Tylen, his chest swelled bigger than usual. “Tylen’s gonna break my pap’s record this year.”

Hyden knew in his heart that Gerard could have brought back a dozen eggs today if he hadn’t been sidetracked at that fissure by the ring. A climb that high up into the thick of the nesting band was rare. Gerard went higher than anyone Hyden had ever seen. The weather had been exceptional and the hawklings themselves were far less aggressive than most years, but he still wasn’t sure if even he could have climbed as well as his brother today. He would have never risked that leap, that’s for sure. Another thing he knew for certain was Tylen could climb like a lizard, too. If tomorrow was as perfect a day as today had been, then Tylen really might have a chance to break Big Condlin’s record. Hyden kept his thoughts to himself though, because Little Condlin’s chest and head were already swollen enough.

As soon as he finished eating, Gerard lay back and went to sleep. Little Condlin wasn’t far behind him. Hyden took the time after he ate to clean the dried blood from his head. He covered Little Condlin with his blanket and lay down close to the fire. It had been a long and eventful day, and sleep found him quickly.

The next morning, Little Condlin was anything but quiet as he gathered up his things in the predawn light. He woke up Hyden and Gerard with eyes full of excitement and pride. With a mouth full of chatter he wasted no time leaving. He was off to his brothers’ camp in the hopes of catching them before they started their climbs. Gerard wanted to throw a rock at him for waking them for no real reason, but he couldn’t find one that wouldn’t crack his head in half if it hit him.

The day started with much moaning and groaning from both brothers. Hyden’s head hurt badly. It was not so much the actual wound that bothered him, but a deep, inner ache that felt like a hot rock was loose inside his skull. Every little move he made caused the rock to roll around and scald another part of his brain.

Gerard was no better off. Like burning wires cutting through his muscles, his pain spread throughout his shoulders, back and legs. His movements took great effort and came with audible strain, but he didn’t dare voice a complaint. He didn’t want to hear Hyden razz him for whining.

Hyden managed to boil some water over the fire. At least Little Condlin built the blaze up before he left. Hyden added chicory root and some gum leaf to the pot and the warm, thick smell of the brew brought Gerard to the fire with his cup in hand. The dark, flavorful liquid put a little energy into their bodies and helped leech out some of the aches and pains. After a few cups, they felt well enough to break camp and start back to the harvest lodges.

While Hyden doused the fire, Gerard was waiting to go. Hyden went to grab the shoulder pack that held the eggs his brother harvested for him, but stopped suddenly. He heard a sound coming from inside the bag.

“Oh no!” he said, thinking that one of the eggs had broken.

“Are they all right?” Gerard asked with concern. He watched Hyden’s face from where he stood, trying to gauge his brother’s reaction to what he saw as he peered into the bag. He expected to see either relief or anguish spread across Hyden’s face, but what he saw was a strange, somewhat confused look. The odd expression slowly morphed into a wide-eyed grin full of wonder and amazement. The curiosity to know what Hyden was looking at overwhelmed Gerard, and he hurried over to his brother’s side to see for himself.

Hyden reached into the bag carefully. His cupped hand came out with a squeaking little hawkling chick in it. As Gerard knelt down beside him, Hyden worked a piece of jerked venison from his pack with his free hand. He tore a piece off with his teeth and chewed it vigorously.

“Do you think it’s the prophesy bird?” Gerard asked, with a look from the bird to his brother and back. “Or was it just bad keep moss?”

“I—mmm—don’t—mmm—know?” Hyden answered as he chewed. Once the venison was softened, he spat a wad of the chewed-up meat into his hand. He dangled the meat over the little gray chick’s snapping beak and it gobbled the stuff up greedily. Immediately, it started squawking for more. Hyden bit off another piece of the meat, chewed it up, and fed it to the hungry bird. With Gerard’s help, he made a makeshift nest out of his rough-spun shirt. Once the little chick was nestled in, it immediately fell asleep.

By all rights, it was Hyden’s egg that hatched, but it was Gerard who harvested it. Hyden turned to his brother with a serious look on his face.

“You brought it down from the cliff, but it hatched after you gave it to me. I don’t know if it could be the legend or not, but if it is, who is the chosen one? Me or you?”

“The Elders will know,” Gerard said, trying to remember the exact words of the prophetic campfire story. He realized after a moment that it was no use. He had heard the story told a dozen different ways.

The most common version of the legend stated that one day a clansman’s harvest would be blessed by the Goddess in the form of a special egg. Even keep moss wouldn’t keep this supposedly blessed egg from hatching. The lucky clansman and his hawkling were supposed to bond and then go off into the world to do extraordinary things together. They would have adventures far beyond imagining. They would travel beyond the mountains and across the seas, and their lives would be exciting. They would serve the Goddess abroad and possibly earn a place in the heavens at her side.

After Hyden shouldered the pack with the five remaining eggs in it, he carefully picked up the shirt nest with both hands. Gerard led the way out of the canyon and as they skirted the forest, he took extra care to make sure no branches or footfalls hindered his brother’s way. The trail wasn’t long, but it was rocky in places and awkward. It was meant to remain hidden, so it took them a while to make the short journey to the harvest lodges.

They made it to the small group of crude huts by midmorning. They tried to make it to their grandfather’s hut with as little notice as possible, but it was impossible. Tales of Gerard’s leap from the day before had made it back to the lodges already, told by clansmen who watched the cliff face from afar. A handful of younger boys rushed forth to question Gerard about it. Because the clan women weren’t allowed at the harvest, the boys who weren’t yet old enough to climb were starved for attention and ran wild like a pack of scavengers. They wanted to know how well Gerard’s second harvest went, and if Gerard and Hyden knew how well Little Condlin had done. Gerard shooed them away as best he could, but a few of them spied the hawkling chick in Hyden’s hands and grew overly excited. It took only moments for the tale of the gift the Goddess had bestowed upon Gerard, or maybe Hyden, to reach every set of ears at the lodges.

Having just heard the news from a group of his grandnephews, Hyden and Gerard’s grandfather received them well. He quickly ushered them through the door to his shabby little hut. He gave an angry scowl to the line of boys that followed, which sent them scurrying every direction but forward. With that, he pulled the elk skin door closed and tied it fast.

“On the table, boy,” Grandfather said, with an excited grin on his wrinkled, old face.

Hyden set the bundle down gently on the table, while Gerard found their grandfather’s food box and pulled out some bread and cheese as if he owned the place. In council and in public, this man was the Eldest of the clan. All of the Skylers treated him with the utmost respect, but here inside his harvest hut, just like in his home, he was simply the grandfather of two excited boys.

He leaned over the table and studied the chick for a moment, then he brushed the long, silver-streaked hair out of his face and sat down. He motioned for the boys to do the same, indicating Gerard could bring the bread and cheese with him.

“This is a wondrous thing,” he said in his deep, scratchy voice. “Great things will come of this.” He looked to Gerard, then to Hyden, and the smile on his face slowly faded. “But there is the potential for terrible things as well.”

Gerard handed Hyden some bread and cut them both some of the cheese as he spoke.

“The story says a man will harvest an egg and it will hatch for him. Then, he and the hawkling will go off and do great things together.”

“Aye, Gerard,” their grandfather agreed. “That the story does say.”

He stood slowly, then walked to the other side of the little hut and began rummaging through a pile of old furs and leather satchels.

“The story though, is just that. It’s a story. The true legend is written in the old language—the language of dragons and wizards. It may or may not be a true prophesy. The Elders and I have often argued that.”

He stopped speaking suddenly as something came to him. He dug around some more, then pulled an object out of an old bag made from the skin of some shaggy mountain animal.

“Here it is!” he exclaimed. “My father’s translation.” He opened the tattered volume and looked at the pages for a while.

A few long moments passed, so long that it began to appear he forgot the two boys sitting at his table.

Hyden looked at his brother with a grin. He was about to clear his throat to politely remind the old man of their presence, but the hawkling chick did the job for him.

The little featherless bird wiggled his body and rose trembling to its tiny, clawed feet. It extended its neck up into the air, opened its beak, and began screeching for food. Gerard immediately pulled some jerky from his pack and gave it to his older brother. Hyden chewed it up just like before. Once the meat was soft, he gave it to the bird.

“Is this the first time you’ve fed it?” their grandfather asked with a look of childish excitement on his old face. He seemed to have forgotten his book entirely now, and he watched with rapt attention as Hyden took out another piece of chewed meat and fed it to the hungry bird.

“Mmm—no,” Hyden answered as he chewed. “I fed it—mmm—once this—mmm—morn.”

“Then it will be your familiar,” the old man said matter-of-factly. It was the voice of the clan Eldest speaking now, not their grandfather. “It will bond with you alone now, Hyden. You’re its mother.”

All eyes seemed to fall on Gerard at that moment, searching for some sign of disappointment or other ill reaction to the decision. Gerard wasn’t very upset. He had the ring, after all. Besides, he told himself, what respectable clansman wanted to be a mother?

“I and the Elders who are here at harvest will hold a council on this at moonrise,” their grandfather informed them as he opened up the old book again. “Stay near the lodges this night. We will want to speak to you about this… both of you,” he added before Gerard could ask the question that was already formed on the tip of his tongue.

Walking with his face in the old book, the Eldest gracefully shouldered his way through the elk skin door and was gone.

Chapter 3

“Where ye headed, Mik?” Ruddy, the nightshift stable master at Lakeside Castle’s Royal Stables, asked.

“Can’t say,” Mikahl replied. Mikahl was the King of Westland’s personal squire, and the king had told him with much distress in his voice to prepare for a long journey, and to do so quietly. Mikahl was almost certain that by “quietly“, the king meant undetected. Mikahl asked if he should prepare the king’s mount as well, and the answer was firm. “You’ll be going alone, Mik, and the journey will be a long one. No one can suspect you’re leaving.”

The conversation took place a short while ago when Mikahl and the king were alone, just after the feast for the Summer’s Day delegation. The oddness of it was just now starting to sink in. “Just be ready, Mik,” King Balton told him. “I’ll try to send for you and give you more instruction later this night.”

All of this was very cryptic to Mikahl. King Balton, the ruler of all of Westland, seemed afraid. The way he’d cleared the entire dining hall and whispered into Mikahl’s ear with wild, darting eyes, was unnerving. To top it off, the king sent Mikahl out through the back of the kitchens so the bulk of the nobility and the castle’s staff would not see him depart. King Balton had never acted like this before, at least not around Mikahl. It was all very strange and Mikahl was beginning to worry about the king’s health. The man was fairly old, no one could doubt, but he had never acted like this before. Maybe he’d reached the end of his rope?

“Bah!” Mikahl chided himself for thinking such thoughts. King Balton was a great man; fair and wise beyond measure. He had been terribly kind to Mikahl, and his mother, before she died. There had to be something wrong. The sudden journey must be extremely important for it to be so secret and cause the king such distress.

Mikahl looked at the nosy stable master, thought about it for a second, then pulled a small but fancy silver flask out of his saddlebag.

“They never tell me where I’m going or why,” Mikahl lied. “But it doesn’t matter at the moment because I’ve been itching to try this. I filled it from the royal cask at dinner.”

“King Balton’s own brandy?” Ruddy asked eagerly.

“The very same.” Mikahl took a sip and passed it to the man. “Missy, the servant girl, held the table’s attention by leaning over and wiggling her arse while I filled my tin.”

Mikahl pretended to sip and let the stable master slowly finish off the flask. His story worked like a charm. The size of Missy’s breasts was well known to every man on the castle staff. They were so large that even the priests couldn’t keep their eyes off them. In truth, Mikahl drank from the king’s cask often. Doing so was just one of the many benefits that came with his job as King’s Squire.

There wasn’t enough liquor in the flask to put Ruddy down, but it was enough to dull his wits. With thoughts of Missy’s giant breasts swirling around in his head, his mind wouldn’t dwell on Mikahl and his business. At least Mikahl hoped not.

Just as Mikahl finished loading his packhorse, a man peeked through the stable doors. After wrinkling his nose at the fresh, horsey smell, he told Mikahl that King Balton required his presence again – immediately.

As Mikahl followed the scurrying servant through the castle’s myriad of torch-lit hallways, it became clear they weren’t going to the council chamber, or the throne room, or even back to the dining hall. The ancient castle was a monstrosity of towers, hallways, apartments, and gardens, all added one on top of the other. Mikahl was born in the servants’ wing almost twenty years ago. He spent his entire youth running the castle’s halls and corridors, but he still hadn’t managed to see it all. The fourth flight of stairs they climbed told him exactly where they were going, though. They were going to the king’s personal bed chamber. Mikahl had visited the Royal Apartment only once since becoming the king’s squire.

As they topped the stairs and turned from the landing to face the Royal Apartment’s large oak double doors, Lord Alvin Gregory came out. He was extremely pale, and the look of sadness on his face sent a chill through Mikahl’s blood.

Lord Gregory was the king’s good friend and most trusted adviser. He was also the current Lord of Lake Bottom Stronghold and was known across the entire realm as the Lion Lord, or Lord Lion. This was because he fought with great courage, pride, and skill. He was the epitome of bravery and a famous Summer’s Day brawling champion, but he looked nothing like that fierce and brave champion at the moment. His normally bright green eyes were haunted, and his expression was dark and grave.

Mikahl was Lord Gregory’s squire for three years prior to becoming the king’s squire. Lord Gregory taught him the proper etiquette, customs, and everything else he needed to know to serve at King Balton’s side. The days Mikahl spent at Lake Bottom learning from the Lion Lord were days he cherished deeply. The man was his mentor and his friend, and he could plainly tell something horrible was afoot.

Lord Gregory walked up to Mikahl and touched him on the cheek. He looked at the young squire long and hard, then forced a smile. He gave Mikahl a nod that seemed to be full of equal parts respect and regret, then vanished down the stairwell without a word. Mikahl watched the empty air at the top of the landing long after Lord Lion disappeared. The next thing he knew, the servant was pulling him by the sleeve toward the king’s chambers.

The apartment was hot and silent. A dozen candles and a dim flickering lantern barely illuminated the beautifully furnished room. Mikahl expected to see the king sitting in one of his high-backed chairs or on one of the plush divans, but he was in his bed under piles of thick covers.

“Ah, Mikahl,” the king said weakly. A tired smile spread across his slick, gray face. Mikahl almost didn’t recognize this man as his king. Balton Collum looked so near to death that it made Mikahl’s head spin.

A sharp glance from the king sent the servants and the black-robed priest who was attending him quickly out the door. As soon as they were alone, King Balton motioned for Mikahl to come sit at the edge of the bed.

“We haven’t time to parley, Mik,” the old man rasped. “The poison has almost run its course.”

“Poison?” Mikahl was aghast. Who would do such a thing? The king was loved and respected by all. Mikahl was shocked speechless as he slid off the edge of the bed and knelt before the man who was the closest thing to a father he had ever known. He wondered how long the King knew he was poisoned? King Balton seemed a little too accepting of the situation. Was that what all the secrecy was about? Was he dying? The look in King Balton’s eyes said so, but to Mikahl it didn’t make any sense.

“Go to the temple by the north road gate,” King Balton whispered. “Father Petri has something for you to take with you on your journey. Take what he gives you deep into the Giant Mountains. A giant named Borg will find you and lead you to his King.”

As if saying all of that had leeched the life from the poisoned old man, his head lulled to the side. For a long while all that moved were his eyeballs and his heaving chest.

Mikahl wiped a stray tear from his cheek.

“Borg?” he asked. Who in all the hells is Borg?

“—esss. He is the Southern Guardian,” the dying king rasped almost inaudibly. “Go deep into the Giant Mountains, Mik. He will find you and lead you. Deliver Father Petri’s package to the King of the Giants.”

Unable to comprehend anything other than the fact his king was dying before his eyes, Mikahl ran to the door and ushered in the priest and the servants who were attending him before.

He stood there, watching in horror. One of the servants helped King Balton drink from a cup, while the priest started saying a prayer that Mikahl remembered all too well from his mother’s funeral a few years past.

Suddenly, the king’s arm shot up and he pointed directly at the door. Wide, white eyes full of authority and love locked onto Mikahl’s. The king was ordering him to go. After wiping the tears from his face, he went and did his best not to look back. It was the hardest thing he had ever done.

Ruddy, the Stable Master, mumbled something angrily at Mikahl as he reentered the stalls. The man was busy readying two other horses for departure. One was already saddled and the other was waiting patiently for the half-drunken stableman. It was far too late for a jaunt through the woods. Mikahl recognized one of the horses as belonging to Lord Brach and that made him worry.

Lord Brach, the lord of Westland’s northern territories, was Prince Glendar’s constant companion. Lord Brach and that creepy, bald-headed wizard, Pael, never seemed to leave the side of the heir to the Westland throne. Lord Boot-licker, King Balton had often called Brach in private, because the man agreed to everything that Prince Glendar or the wizard suggested. Mikahl was far from a nobleman and he didn’t meddle in the games they played, but he knew Prince Glendar was about to assume the throne now, and the rotten fool hadn’t been in his father’s favor for many years. Prince Glendar would gain the most from King Balton’s death. In Mikahl’s eyes, Prince Glendar or one of his men was most likely the murderer. Why else would they be preparing to ride at this time of the night?

Mikahl suddenly realized the very same thing would be said of his departure. As King Balton’s personal squire, he had enough access to have easily slipped him some poison. He would be a suspect, but Lord Gregory and his wife, Lady Trella, would vouch for his integrity. Everyone close to King Balton knew Mikahl loved and respected his king dearly. The problem was that soon-to-be King Glendar didn’t like Lord Gregory, nor did he know his own father’s heart very well. If Glendar had a part in his own father’s murder, then Mikahl could easily end up being the scapegoat. It didn’t matter at the moment though; his king had given him orders from the deathbed. He would find this giant named Borg and deliver Father Petri’s package to the King of the Giants, or he would die trying to do so.

Mikahl didn’t want Lord Brach or his men following him. He had to find a way to slow them down. He walked over to where Ruddy was working and tapped the unsuspecting man on the shoulder. As the Stable Master turned, Mikahl slugged him heavily across the jaw. Ruddy fell into a heap on the stable’s dirty floor. Mikahl then led the two other horses to the running pen behind the stable. He sent them galloping off into the darkness with a sharp slap on their rumps.

Wasting no time in preparing for his own departure, he mounted his horse, Windfoot, and led his packhorse out the unattended gate that opened onto the cobbled streets of the inner city. He did exactly as King Balton instructed him to do, and went straight to the chapel.

Father Petri was expecting him. The priest seemed both sad and nervous as he led Mikahl and both of his horses up the entry steps and into the chapel.

The chapel’s vaulted ceiling was high overhead and row after row of empty wooden pews spread out to each side. Sitting on a horse whose clomping hoof beats echoed loudly and deeply into the huge and otherwise empty chamber, Mikahl felt very out of place. As they made their way down the center aisle toward the altar, the gods and goddesses all seemed to be scowling down at him from their permanent places in the colored glass along the higher reaches of the walls. One of the horses whinnied nervously and the ghastly sound sent a chill snaking up Mikahl’s back.

“Come, Mikahl,” the priest said. He took the reins of the packhorse from Mikahl and led them out of the worship hall, down a long corridor, through several arched doorways, then into a large, nearly empty room at the back of the church. Mikahl had never seen this room before and it shocked him. It was not the sort of room he would have ever expected to find in a hall of worship. One entire wall was a huge, steel-banded door that resembled a gate. Two of the other three walls were covered with pegs. Hanging from the pegs were hundreds of weapons: swords, crossbows, long bows and pikes as well as shields, helmets, and miscellaneous pieces of chain and plate armor.

“It’s a secret way out of the castle for the king in the event of a siege.” Father Petri answered the question in Mikahl’s mind. “You follow the briar path to the right, along the wall, until you come to the discharge drains. Then follow the smelly stream away from the castle until you are well into the Northwood. Stay away from the city. People are about in Castleview even in the late hours. If you have to, stay in the woods until you reach Crossington. Once you are that far north, you should be safe to go wherever the king has told you to go.”

Mikahl hoped to gain some insight from Father Petri as to whom Borg was and where exactly he was supposed to go, but the priest’s last statement indicated he was unaware of Mikahl’s destination. Mikahl had at least a dozen questions he wanted to ask, but he held his tongue. He did ask the one question that couldn’t wait.

“King Balton said you had something for me. What?” This was all too much for Mikahl to understand, so he tried not to think about it. He knew what he had been told to do. It wasn’t his place to question it.

Father Petri gave a short nod, reached into his robes, and produced an ornate leather scroll case.

“This is the message for you to deliver.” He bent down, lifting something heavy from the floor, and offered it up to Mikahl. It was a long, black leather sleeve, such as might be used to protect a prized longbow or an expensive two-piece staff. Mikahl carefully secured the scroll case in his saddlebag and took the item.

He knew what it was the moment he felt the weight of it in his hands. The consequences of having it came flooding into his brain and he almost dropped it in fear. He had to search deeply in his heart for courage. It was Ironspike, King Balton’s notorious sword. He knew because he had polished it a thousand times as part of his duty as the king’s squire. He had seen firsthand the wealth of gold and jewels inlaid into the leather-wrapped hilt and cross guard. He had seen the covetous looks of those who longed to possess it, and he had seen the fear it could inspire. He had watched the magical blade glow red hot as it clipped Lord Clyle’s insolent head from his shoulders, and he remembered vividly seeing King Balton dispatch at least a dozen of the feral half-Breed giants with it during the Battle of Coldfrost. Its actual weight was slight compared to his old iron sword, but holding it now made Mikahl want to crumble.

“You are not to use it, unless it is to preserve your life, or to maintain possession of the blade.” The priest softened his serious look. “But always remember your life is more important than the sword.”

Mikahl looked at the priest with furrowed brows. This was the deadliest of burdens for him to carry and he knew it.

“To use it would attract men to me like carrion to a carcass,” he said. “How am I to—?”

“We!” Father Petri snapped, raising a hand to halt Mikahl’s protests. His voice was harsh and the man looked distressed to say the least.

“We do not have to understand the tasks we are given, Squire.”

The use of Mikahl’s meager title, and the reference it implied as to the origin of his orders, permeated the priest’s words.

“We have to do as we are told, Mikahl, and do it the best we can.”

Mikahl swallowed hard. He felt the need to be on his way. Prince Glendar, soon-to-be King Glendar, would most likely want Ironspike immediately. Once the sword was found to be missing, Glendar’s cronies and his wizard, Pael, would be after it. Mikahl could see it now: a dozen lords and all of their men would be hunting him, a huge price on his head; bounty men and trackers, coming from all reaches of the realm to try to claim the reward King Glendar would surely offer. Suddenly, the Giant Mountains seemed like the safest place for him to be, and with each passing moment, he found more and more reasons to reach them quickly.

After a brief goodbye, Father Petri cranked open the great door and Mikahl eased out into the night. A glance up at Lakeside Castle put a twist in Mikahl’s guts and a lump in his throat. He lived there most of his life. His mother had been a kitchen hand, and he himself had been in the service of the kingdom in one way or another since he could walk. At first, he had been a message runner and a candle-snuffer. Then, he was a stable hand, and even a scribe’s aide for a while. As he grew older, he began training with the soldiers, and had excelled with his skills on the weapons yard to the point of notice. Lord Gregory took him on as a squire, and he spent almost three years down at Lake Bottom Stronghold learning the proper ways to behave while in the service of royalty. Other than the not so distant traveling he’d done with the king as his squire, he had never been away from this place. Now, he was leaving his home, and he doubted he would ever be able to return.

Because his mother died, he didn’t have any real family here, but both King Balton and Lord Gregory had become father figures to him. He had never known who his real father was, but he had never really been without guidance until now. Now, he was alone.

Knowing his possession of Ironspike was a secret known only to a dying king and his loyal priest, Mikahl realized he would soon be branded a thief of the highest order, or worse, a murderer. Ruddy would tell everyone about Mikahl’s late night preparations. Being the king’s squire meant he would have had full access to the king’s private armory. Not only would he be blamed for poisoning the king, he would most likely be blamed for taking the sword as well. These things were forgotten, though, as he looked back at his home. He was on a journey to meet a giant he didn’t know, with an entire kingdom soon to be on his tail. He couldn’t imagine being any more alone than he felt at that moment. He took a deep breath and sighed at the sheer enormity of it all.

The castle no longer looked inviting or homey. Its looming, massive gray bulk, with the half-dozen squat towers and the few taller, narrower spires, suddenly seemed like a dark upthrust of teeth. Would he ever be able to come back? He took a few minutes to say goodbye silently to his mother and wiped the tears from his cheeks. King Balton’s voice came to him gently and reassuringly. “Think, then act,” it said in his mind. It was one of the king’s favorite sayings. When indecision halted the progress of a situation or things came to an impasse, he would say, “Think, then act.”

Think, then act. Mikahl repeated the mantra to himself.

Reluctantly, he spurred Windfoot away from the stinking discharge stream and went deeper into the Northwood. He rode like that for a while, until he was sure Castleview, the city that grew from the base of Lakeside Castle’s outer wall, was far behind him. It was dark and he was surrounded by the thick of the forest, but he thought he knew exactly where he was. Now all he had to do was figure out a way to reach his destination without being caught.

The distant sound of horses’ hooves pounding on a hard-packed road caused a nearby owl to burst into flight. Mikahl froze, trying to discern over the pounding of his heart, just how close to him those hoof beats were. He realized he was very close—far too close—to the Northroad. He was relieved to hear the rider was racing toward the castle, not away from it. It was probably just a messenger from Portsmouth or Crossington; nothing out of the ordinary.

Mikahl had a choice to make. He could chance the road, make time, and risk being seen, or he could continue through the Northwood, and arrive at the Midway Passage road somewhere beyond Crossington. One way he would be able to enter the Reyhall Forest without being seen, but the other way would take him there a full day sooner. He didn’t want to be seen in Crossington. It was a fairly large town, but the people were always alert to late night travelers. Many a bandit roamed those roads, searching for easy victims t

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