We are less than a month away from the September 15th release of Sting of Thorns, my urban fantasy novella about fey curses, conflicted loyalties, and magic swords. Check out the first chapter below!
Dredarion Rath reached the stairs to the dungeons and paused. He felt feverish, sweating under his armor, though the halls of the palace were crisp and cool. He inhaled slowly and started down the steps—not because he was ready but because he couldn’t allow any of his people to see their prince hesitate.
The ceiling was so low that he nearly had to duck. The stone steps were timeworn, the gray brick walls chipped and water stained. The graceful opulence that infused every inch of the palace was absent down there. The light fixtures were the only similarity: metallic lanterns imprisoning tiny glowing sprites, though these were in a sorry state. Their feeble, greenish light barely penetrated the dirty glass, and they shrank from him as he stalked past.
At the bottom of the stairs awaited a damp, chilly chamber that turned his sweaty skin cold and clammy. The stench of piss and feces lingered amid the mildewy air, though the cells lining the right wall were empty save one prisoner:
Leigh Morgan, the woman Dredarion had once thought he might love.
She lay on her side on the filthy stone floor, using her arms as a pillow and trying to avoid the shiny red burns around her wrists. Matching ones marked her ankles and neck, left over from his mother’s attempts to torture her for information. Her eyes were closed, but she must have sensed him somehow because they snapped open. He met her gaze, intelligent blue eyes he once could have lost himself in. Before she betrayed him. Before he learned she’d been lying all along.
“Your Highness.” The nearest guard bowed low, but not before Dredarion caught sight of his black eye and wondered if Leigh had given it to him.
“Why isn’t she prepared to travel?” Dredarion snapped.
The guard straightened up, blinking. “We have the chains right there. What more does she need?”
Dredarion stepped closer to him, deliberately slow. When he spoke, his voice was low and subdued. “Do I look like a patient man to you?”
The guard swallowed, knowing trouble when he heard it. “Erm…”
“Do you think I have the time or inclination to catch her when she stumbles from pain? Or perhaps you think I want to carry her when she collapses from the cold?” Dredarion leaned forward, his voice no longer subdued. “Heal her burns, get her shoes and clothes, and if you value your station, be quick about it!”
The guard frantically waved the others toward the cell. They unlocked the door, heaved Leigh to her feet, and dragged her off. She glanced at Dredarion, creases forming on her fair forehead as she doubtlessly wondered what was going on.
Dredarion glared. Her cheeks flushed, and she turned away.
He smothered the concern he felt for her injuries and strangled the urge to hold her. The Leigh who had served as his handmaiden, whose quick wit and cool courage had made him want her as so much more, had never existed. It had all been a ruse so she could infiltrate the palace, free the mud people in the dungeon and those pressed into service in the halls, and take them back through the gate. And she’d succeeded. She’d played him for a fool.
Dredarion turned, seeing a person-shaped blur in the room where the air seemed thicker, the colors not quite right.
“It’s me, Rab.”
Dredarion bit back a groan. “I know, you oaf. Your illusions are terrible. What do you want?”
The air shimmered, and Dredarion’s buffoon of an older brother appeared.
The two of them looked slightly alike. They were both tall and lean, and their faces shared some of the same refined, angular features, but the similarities ended there. Rab had russet hair that always fell in perfect waves, and he’d inherited their mother’s teardrop-shaped amber eyes. His skin was a warm, golden tan, and he favored garish, extravagant clothing. Today’s jacket seemed to be spun of glittering gold with turquoise embroidery depicting peacocks in flight.
Dredarion was far paler, his hair black and eyes dark. He was clad in black from the tip of his collar to the soles of his boots, and though he’d dressed for travel, he didn’t look much different than usual. Lightweight leather armor protected his chest and shoulders, with swirling designs no less elaborate than those on Rab’s attire but far subtler. He’d traded his usual crown for a thin circlet in concession to his journey, pouches on his belt and a leather bag slung over his shoulder carrying everything he hoped he’d need. His cloak was spun of emperor spider silk, harvested in the dead of night, magically enhanced in a ritual that had taken him three days to complete.
“I’m supposed to be attending an emergency war council, but I snuck out to check on you,” Rab said.
“I don’t need checking on.”
“Dred.” Rab shook his head, sighing as if Dredarion’s response was the most piteous thing he’d ever heard. “My dear brother, you don’t have to pretend with me. I know what it’s like to have your heart callously broken.”
Dredarion felt his teeth grind. “Your jaw is about to be callously broken if you don’t stop gibbering.”
“You’re speaking from a place of pain. I’ve been there, believe me! Do you know how many pretty young ladies only bat their eyes at me because they want a political favor? Or remember that warrior monk who came to court last fall? I thought our sensuous affair was the start of true love, but he just wanted to study my sword-fighting technique!”
“Your point?” Dredarion snapped before this devolved into a recital of his brother’s many romantic liaisons.
Rab slung his arm around Dredarion’s shoulder, ignoring his glower. “My point is that it hurts, and there’s nothing you can do about that now. But eventually the pain will fade and you’ll find someone new.”
“Yes, thank you for your incredible wisdom.” Dredarion grabbed his brother’s arm and pried it from his shoulder. “I’ll be sure to write it down so future generations aren’t robbed of its glory. Now, why don’t you get back to that council session? I have a job to do.”
“Right…” Rab’s smile flickered, and he slouched toward the stairs without the usual spring in his step. Then he paused, turning back around. “And Dred?”
Dredarion clenched his jaw and braced himself for more asinine commiseration, but his brother’s face was uncharacteristically solemn.
“You’ll be careful out there, won’t you?” Rab asked.
Dredarion felt a hitch in his chest. “Of course. Though I’m going to a world filled with mud people. They’re hardly a threat to me.”
“Of course.” Rab made to turn.
“You’re the one who should be careful,” Dredarion said before he could stop himself. “The Rashrang are coming, and I won’t be here to watch your back.”
The foolish grin returned to Rab’s face. “You watch my back? Since when?”
Not since we were children, Dredarion thought. Lately I’ve just tried to stab you in it.
“You’d best hurry on your quest then,” Rab went on. “I’d hate for you to return only to find I’ve already led our armies to victory against the Rashrang.”
Dredarion smirked. “I’ll make haste.”
Rab gave an answering grin and then skipped up the stairs. Dredarion watched him go: his brother, whom until recently he’d been scheming to kill and usurp… Dredarion had almost done it too, until he’d had misgivings at literally the last moment and rescued Rab from the attacker he’d manipulated into an assassination attempt. Rab, of course, was completely ignorant that Dredarion had a hand in the plot. Someone so guileless and unobservant had no business being the heir to the throne. It was obvious to anyone with half a brain. Their mother should have seen it. Why she insisted on grooming Rab rather than Dredarion—
He pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed. It didn’t matter now. The Rashrang were coming. His people would be slaughtered and his kingdom burned to the ground unless he could stop them. Unless he could convince Leigh to help.
The guards dragged her back scant moments later. She was a tall woman, her body all lean muscles under deceptively soft beige skin. Her hair was long and such a dark shade of brown that it was nearly black, hanging wild and uncombed behind her shoulders. They’d dressed her in a shapeless brown smock that looked as if it had once been used to scrub floors. It ended halfway down her thighs, displaying her strong, supple legs, the curves of which—
Elder gods curse him. He was still attracted to her.
“Follow me,” he snapped.
He surged up the stairs, hearing the clunks of the guards’ metal armor and the jangling of chains to indicate they trailed behind him. It was a relief to leave the damp, fetid air of the dungeon behind, and Dredarion squinted as his eyes adjusted to the sunlight streaming through the mosaic of colored glass on the high ceiling. Boots stomping across the gleaming patterned tile, he tried to ignore the guards posted along the walls and the railing on the second story above. They wore strained faces, watching and waiting for a threat they had no hope of defending against.
There was to be no grand send-off for Dredarion, no way his mother would tell their people that their only hope of survival rested in Mud World. When he stepped outside, his steed waited, along with a small escort of guards who would take him as far as the portal. A road stretched before him, disappearing into the forest—but not before passing the blackened ruins of the gate Leigh had destroyed, the air still thick with smoke from the funeral pyres. Carrion birds circled above the battlefield though the fallen must have surely been cleared away by now.
Dredarion had expected this sight. What he hadn’t expected was to find his mother waiting for him along with two of her closest advisors.
Standing tall and proud, she showed no hint of nervousness under the threat of the Rashrang. Her black hair was streaked with silver, wound atop her head in a graceful coiffure that supported an elaborate headdress. Gleaming and jeweled, its ornate pattern stretched upward and out, ending in feathers that looked as if they’d been dipped in gold. Her gown was soft ivory in color, looking delicate enough to tear if someone laid a single finger on it, and decorated in embroidered flowers and beaded, golden chains. A crimson cape hung from her shoulders, and her wrinkled hands were clasped regally in front of her.
Dredarion dropped to one knee and bowed his head, hearing the clinks as the guards behind him did the same.
“Rise,” she said.
Dredarion obeyed. His mother’s closest advisor, Loniré, stood to her left. With her owl’s head and thin, feathered arms, she’d always given him the creeps. To the queen’s right stood old Nettif, with his bark-like skin and beard of leaves. They both looked concerned, though Dredarion could only tell because he’d known them his entire life.
“Bring me the mud woman,” his mother ordered.
Dredarion instantly tensed. The guards dragged Leigh forward and she didn’t fight them, her eyes locked warily on the queen.
“I need her hand.” His mother pulled a curved, gleaming knife. “Hold her still.”
Now Leigh struggled. Four guards surrounded her, male and female, all in full armor, and it took every one of them to hold her steady. She still managed to drive her elbow into one of their noses, sending the guard stumbling back with a curse, blood gushing from his nostrils. Dredarion clenched his fists and breathed steadily through his nose, willing his feet to remain rooted in place and not rush to her aid.
His mother took Leigh’s hand and held it tight, making a small cut on the tip of her forefinger. What in the pit was she doing? She hadn’t discussed this with Dredarion when she’d given him this quest. He was supposed to take Leigh to Mud World, use her to find the enchanter Salvador Velasquez, and convince him to come to his people’s aid—through any means necessary. This hadn’t been part of the plan.
His mother held out the knife to Nettif, who took it and gave her a small seed in return. A dull reddish color, it was lumpy and misshapen: a heart vine seed. Dredarion’s skin prickled as his mother summoned her magic. A breeze whipped up around her, stirring her long skirts and obscuring her whispers. Dredarion didn’t need to hear the exact wording to know she spoke a curse.
His breath caught in his throat. No. He couldn’t let her do this. He had to—
“I don’t think this is necessary,” he said.
He kept his voice calm at least, but he hated himself for speaking. Bad enough he still cared about Leigh. He didn’t have to make it obvious.
“I do,” his mother replied simply, and she jammed the seed inside Leigh’s open cut.
Leigh made a strangled cry of pain, jerking back. The vine grew inside her, bulging beneath her skin as it wrapped around her finger. Thorns stabbed outward, drawing blood as they pierced her skin. Dredarion felt a knot in his throat, growing breathless and dizzy as he watched. Thankfully, the growth slowed, and the vine stopped at her knuckle.
“It will keep growing,” his mother said, “up your arm and to your shoulder, then your chest. When it reaches your heart, it will strangle the organ—slowly.”
Leigh held perfectly still, the wind carrying her quick, raspy breaths to Dredarion’s ears.
“Tell Salvador I can stop it.” His mother surveyed Leigh and her wound passionlessly. “But first he must bring me the Evensong Sword.”
The what? Dredarion kept his jaw clenched tight, determined not to make another outburst. This was the first he’d heard her mention the sword. How did she expect this quest to succeed if she didn’t give him even the most basic information? His heart thudded in his ears, and he fought to keep his face blank.
His mother gestured for the guards to pull Leigh away, and then the queen’s gaze fell on Dredarion. He stepped forward, forcing himself not to look at Leigh as she was dragged past.
“The Evensong Sword?” Dredarion kept his voice low, not wanting the guards to overhear. “I thought you were sending me to secure an ally, not chase after a children’s story.”
“I agree, Your Majesty.” Loniré kept her voice equally soft, her beak barely moving. “It’s a waste of resources. We need the prince here in case—”
His mother raised a hand, and Loniré fell silent.
“The sword is real,” she told Dredarion. “Salvador can find it. You must bring him to me.”
Biting down on his protests, Dredarion bowed his head.
“The fate of the Dwencanti rests on your shoulders,” his mother said.
Chest swelling, he raised his head and matched her grave stare with his own. “I won’t fail you.”
She held his gaze, her only response.
Motioning for the guards to follow him, he strode to his steed. The beast snorted, smoke rising from its nostrils, and Dredarion patted its scaled side reassuringly. Then he climbed into the saddle.
He had a long journey ahead and very little time.
If you haven’t already, go read Poison and Honey, the novella to which Sting of Thorns is a sequel. Sting of Thorns releases September 15, 2020 on Apple Books, Kobo, Amazon, and other ebook retailers.