For those of you that have liked my author page on Facebook, you know that I promised to release the first few snippets of my current work in progress, Outspoken, this week. It’s taken a bit longer than I would have liked, but I’m finally living up to my word today and posting a sampling of my favorite bits, as well as some recommended by the BETA readers. If you would like an introduction to these characters before I begin, follow this link to a post I made about 2 weeks ago.
The mug steams on the worn wood table while I vigorously rub down the black leather, polishing it to a shine. Occasionally I stop a moment to catch my breath, carefully sipping the hot broth from the mug. The scent is tantalizing, like something my mother used to make, and I imagine the salty taste as I swallow cautiously to keep from choking. When I can see the sacks under my eyes reflecting back at me like a mirror image, I stop. If he finds something to complain about with this… I grumble to myself.
Phillipe walks in, humming under his breath. He heads straight for one of the many sets of tack hanging from the wall near the door, entirely oblivious to my presence. His floppy grey hat sits cockeyed on his head, laying low over his ears. Large, doe-like brown eyes accentuate his childish, pale face – one that’s certainly never seen a razor’s blade.
I stand while his back is turned, hefting Lorcan’s saddle and moving silently to the doorway before spinning to face him. He continues his droning, the tune becoming more cluttered as he struggles to balance everything on top of the saddle. A smile flits its way onto my face, and I lean against the doorpost, waiting. When he finally turns towards me, his hum becomes a high-pitched, nearly feminine exclamation. He jumps straight up like a scared cat, landing back against the wall with a startled expression. I laugh silently, stepping closer.
He pants heavily, still in shock as I reach out to balance the reins over his shoulder again. I wink at him, ruffling his hat on his head when he finally pulls himself together. Smooth, kid. Smooth.
“Deordhan! What are you trying to do, give me a heart attack?” He blushes and slaps my arm lightly. I just chuckle again, and after glaring another moment, he joins in with me.
The howling winds and drumming rains blur my senses, blinding me to the world around us. I fight to stay alert, my limbs trembling terribly from the cold. The perfect cover for a horse thief. It doesn’t get much better than this, if your goal is to go undetected. It’s almost funny, how these things work. Everyone knows of the thieves and raiders here. They don’t even bother covering their tracks anymore. And yet, Sadach lets it fly because of his friendly relationship with the foreman. Every other town would be reduced to kindling in an instant. No conversation, no visit from the ‘gallant’ Lord, just swift retribution dealt out by Lorcan and the others. Everything gone. Turned to blood and ash, like my home.
Dona’s head flies up, and in a flash I’ve drawn my sword, stepping outside the circle of horseflesh and shaking my head, hoping to free the hair glued to my forehead. I can feel the man more than see him through the water falling like a curtain between us. He bends over one of the tied sets of reins, using his cloak as a shield. Nice try, pal. Your tactic is commendable. Your thought process, on the other hand…
I glide across the wet ground, keeping to his left so as to remain hidden behind his cloak. Just before he manages to work the knot loose I jump him from behind, grabbing him and holding my blade against his throat. His hands fall back, and I force him to step away with me. I feel him gathering his breath as he struggles, preparing to call for help, and cut him off by pressing it tighter. He falls still, hands raised defensively in front of him as he pants helplessly. Maybe next time you’ll be a bit more wary of your surroundings, eh?
My mind reels, searching for some way to tie him without letting go as I blink the water from my eyes. Just as I’ve chosen my plan of action, the hard, thin edge of a saber is pressed against my spine. The collar of my shirt pulls tight, and I curse myself inwardly. Only a fool could disregard his own advice mere moments after giving it.
“I’d let him go if I was you.” The assailant growls at my shoulder. I let a breath hiss between my teeth, thinking quickly. Without a moment’s hesitation I throw the man away, setting him to spiraling violently towards the mud.
In the same exhale, I flip around on one foot, using the mud to help me twist away from his sword and ducking under his arm so that he’s forced to turn me loose. His balance tilts, and I use my momentary advantage to leap to his side and knock him over with my elbow. I turn instinctively, knowing the other must be on his feet by now.
His steel flashes before me, his shadowy form thrusting towards me with a shout. I jump to the side, hardly keeping my balance and lashing out with my cloak, wrapping it quickly about the blade, wrenching it away from him before he’s had the chance to recoil. Once more he calls his friend for help as his feet slip out from under him, affording me the chance I need. He comes to rest sitting in the mud behind Elisha, who watches us intently while the other horses shift nervously. Elisha flicks an inquisitive ear, and I nod, tilting my head down and to the side slightly. The wonderful beast understands perfectly, folding his legs without hesitation and plopping his rump down on the man’s legs, effectively pinning him. He hoots and hollers, throwing a temper tantrum like a five year old banished from the pantry, and Elisha snaps his tail at him in annoyance. And then there were two. Where’s the other one got off to?
The clash of metal on metal rings in my ears, echoing from the stone walls of the training yard. Amaladh grunts as he blocks my swing, doubling over when he doesn’t move quickly enough to defend himself against my next attack. I smile a bit, sweat dripping between my eyebrows and making my hair stick to my head in clumps. He looks up at me, his chest heaving as he pants for air.
“I just… don’t get it. How… did a slave like you… become so adept with a blade?” He gasps, attempting to pick himself up. To the left of us, Lorcan grunts, lashing out violently with his training rapier and finishing his spar. Amaladh glances at him, but I avert my eyes, my lips twisting into a sour kind of smile as the dark knight’s piercing blue eyes probe my skull. Memories, memories. How he wishes he could burn them with that glare of his. How he wishes he hadn’t taken pity on a poor stable boy all those years ago…
“Some fool thought it a fun and gallant idea to teach the mute slave a thing or two. Never thought anything would come of it. But he was wrong.” Lorcan barks just a bit too bitterly, and I wince. He drags a sleeve across his face to mop up the sheen of sweat and turns away, leaving Amaladh with a stunned, quizzical look on his face. The training yard falls silent, everyone seeming to pause, looking between him and I. The tension lays thickly around us, like a suffocating hand wound about our throats in the humid air. My head pounds with my pulse as I try to ignore the questioning glares, and the knights gradually fall back to their training exercises. Amaladh shrugs it off lightly, returning his focus to the much-needed practice.
I fend him off half-heartedly, teaching him with every block and blow how to handle himself. I train him as I train the horses: with action, motion, and silence. I use my movements and reactions to help him find a stance, learn to be effective with his motions. Like with Elisha, it becomes a playful, dangerous dance, with our combined breaths, the clank of metal, and the scuffle of feet supplying our beat.
Every bruise my dulled blade leaves upon his flesh serves as a lesson, each deflected attack a reminder. I press forward, strengthening my offence until he’s forced to use his feet, occasionally swinging high or low to get him out of his comfort zone. The look of flustered concentration on his young face tells me he knows I can end it any time I choose, but I allow him to continue, waiting for him to either make the final move, or tire until he’s unable to continue.
“You’re right. You’re right. I’m sorry. You know I’m just worried about you, Luci. You’re like family to me, always have been, always will be. He’s a snake, and I don’t want to see you hurt again. I never did like him.” He shoots a stony, vicious glare at Lorcan, still out cold on the cot. For some reason, his stance makes me picture him as a pouty child, hands on hips, sticking his tongue out and glaring at me for taking the last cookie or making some snide comment. I laugh, and he raises his brows in confusion, causing me to laugh even harder.
“What? What’s so funny?” He finally bursts, planting his hands on his hips, which only reaffirms the picture in my head. Oh, how I wish I could tell you Caillte! You’d laugh even harder than I.
“Luci, no fair! You’re always making jokes in that brilliant head of yours, and I never get to hear them.” He pouts, and Lorcan stirs in the corner. I silence myself, settling for a smile and ruffling his dirty-blonde hair like I did when we were kids. I miss it too Caillte. I miss the talks, the jokes, the sarcasm. I’d give nearly anything, if it meant talking to you again.
The crowd gradually thins, and I can feel sleep dragging at my eyelids. But I refuse to give in, determined to get my dance with Ilow. As the current song comes to an end, I find myself at her side. I quickly flip towards her, catching her eye and bowing with a nervous smile.
“May I have this dance?” I ask as gallantly as my shaky voice will let me. She nods and giggles, and I gently take her soft, warm hand in mine, suddenly grateful for mother’s bothersome dancing lessons. Father strikes up a slow tune and I thank him in my heart, pulling her close and swaying with the music.
“You look beautiful tonight, Ilow.” I whisper, half hoping she doesn’t hear.
“Just tonight?” She whispers back playfully. I spin her with the music, letting her fall back lightly into my arms and dipping her backwards.
“Always.” I breathe, our noses nearly brushing. A flush paints her cheeks as a perfect smile graces her lips, and tongues of flame dance in her eyes as I lean in to kiss her. But before our lips can meet, her skin begins to burn against mine. She pulls away from me, a scream ripping from her throat as she bursts into flames. I reach out to her, calling out her name, but the searing pain of her heat drives me back, blistering my flesh. As I look around desperately for help, everything seems to catch flame, the bonfire breaking free of its pit to envelop the town.
Screaming, agonized faces come at me from the fiery, swirling, flickering flares, burning me and attempting to take me away with them. Everyone I know, everyone I love, is swathed in pain and fire, and my feet take flight in terror. I sprint across the boiling ground, screaming for help with tears streaming down my face.
“Save us! Save us! Don’t leave us behind!” They scream above the roar of the fire, but my legs refuse to stop until out of nowhere a giant black steed appears before me, her eyes glowing red, with thick, dark smoke pouring from her nostrils and blood dripping from her lips. Her rider is clothed in black, laughing wickedly beneath his hooded cloak and lashing out at me with a whip crafted from orange flame. It grabs at me, pulling me closer to the laughing beast until he has me by the collar, and Lorcan’s face appears beneath the hood. He laughs at the terror in my eyes, and I scream as fire closes in around us.
I start from my slumber, breathing hard and bathed in sweat. My body trembles, and it takes a moment for me to realize that it was just a dream, a hellish nightmare. But it was far more than that. It was real. They’re gone, all of them. And I did nothing to save them. I ran. I saved my own hide, and for what? To end up a helpless, worthless slave. What a waste. I’m not worthy of this life I’m living. I should have been the one trapped in the flames, not them. Why, Elyon? Why keep the prideful coward? Why the mute slave? What good could I possibly be to you? Why couldn’t I have died with the others, so much more deserving than me?
I roll off the cot, hardly managing to get my feet beneath me before I hit the ground. My legs carry me unsteadily down the dark barn aisle, stumbling towards the one place I know I can find solace. Elisha starts when his door squeaks open, but his presence is calming. The guilt and pain swirling within me subside, fading into the background of my conscience as I slowly stroke his neck. His strength seeps in through my fingertips, giving me the power to wrestle my shadows back into the darkest corner of my mind and lock the door.
“You alright there, Deordhan? You seem stiff today.” He grunts, and I smirk, watching the beads of sweat roll down his forehead, dripping into his eyes and forcing him to blink them away. Careful, pup. You’ll break your own concentration. But good on you for noticing – you’re learning. You don’t spar with inanimate swords, you spar with their handlers. The better you learn to read people, the easier these battles will become, and the safer you’ll be… whether steel is involved or not. After maintaining eye contact long enough to send the message, I push off of him, allowing myself to fall back just far enough to twist loose his hold and disarm him. He shakes his head good naturedly, retrieving the tool and trotting back.
“Alright, alright. I said nothing of your ability. No need to rub it in. But really, Deordhan, you look very sore today. Are you certain you want to keep going?” The childish quality to his empathetic tone brings a lop-sided smile to my face, and he chuckles.
“Not that you’d own up to it, if you didn’t. You’re the hardest working, most confident man I’ve ever met…” He smiles winsomely, stepping closer and lowering his voice before finishing. “But what I can’t seem to figure out is if that’s actually what you are, or what your fear turns you into.”
“Cai, what are you doing?” Pip’s laugh brings my focus back to them, and I look up to find Caillte pulling her close with a mischievous smile. He guides her hands into position, and together they start to sway with the music. I smile and keep it up, giving them a nice tune.
“But Cai, what if they see us?” She giggles, worried, but too happy to show it.
“Everyone’s done and gone. And I told them I’d take care of the evening feed.” He assures her, smiling broadly and resting his chin on the top of her head as she rests on his chest.
“But what if someone comes back?” She prods, slowing her movement and pulling away slightly.
“Then we’ll say I’m teaching you. Now dance!” He growls jovially, spinning her around and dipping her low. She squeaks, afraid he won’t catch her, and we all laugh together. They dance through this song and the next, the love so bright in their eyes that I nearly have to avert my own. They look as though they could go on dancing forever beneath the shade of our tree, until the hasty clip-clop of a horse’s hooves ring from the cobbled path into the yard. Their cheeks turn bright red as they shove away from each other, trying to act normal as a hurried, panting Amaladh comes trotting in on horseback. I quickly stop my strumming, climbing to my feet as a rock settles firmly in the pit of my stomach.
Pain. Some call it a good thing, it proves you’re still alive. Others call it by its proper name, for lack of a better definition. We’re all acquainted with it on some level. Some know it only distantly, making it a new and terrifying experience every time. Some deem it an enemy, something to fight off with every fiber of their existence. Still more declare it a necessary evil, something unpleasant at first, but that builds character and makes its host stronger, purer, like precious metal in the crucible. I call it home, as it’s the only constant I’ve found in life. And yet, no matter the name we give it, every single one of us will avoid it at every opportunity, run from it whenever we’re able. No man chooses pain, when given another option. It’s the great leveler of our world… the one thing everyone knows, the one thing everyone gets, the one thing everyone fears. We can’t escape it. It’s at the root of every struggle we face. Pride leads to the fall, the fall causes pain. Memories bring grief, and grief causes pain. Sin and mistakes conduct punishment, punishment leads to regret, and regret to pain. And at the head of it all stands the two forces everyone longs for, fights for… Love and hope. But when your hope is crushed, and your love is stolen away… all that remains is pain.