Sorry this has taken so long to post! I've been working like a fiend on Court's Fool and it's going to be a massive book. I hope you enjoy this free chapter!
FYI this is NOT edited and is subject to change.
Copyright 2020 © Frost Kay
Blood sprayed across her face. Sage jerked her blade back as the warm, Scythian lifeblood ran down her hand and forearm. The warrior gurgled something unflattering and bared his scarlet stained teeth before his life-force fled his body. His last breath froze the in the winter wind for a moment before being swept away.
She stared at his body strewn across the first skiff of snow winter had to offer—his body an ugly reminder of what the days ahead of her held. Sage crouched and wiped her slick fingers on the warrior’s leather jerkin, her eyes surveying the chaos and violence that rolled like the raging sea around her. She scarcely registered anything but her own heart beating frantically in her ears. Her lip curled as she spotted an Aermian soldier pinned down but fighting wildly.
The frigid wind whipped across her face as she stood, and she caught Rafe’s eye signaling her next move and then sprinted toward her uncle, leaving Rafe behind. He’d catch up soon enough.
A warrior spotted her and lunged into her path from the right, swinging a massive battle ax. Sage dropped onto one knee and slid in the muddy snow. Time seemed to slow as the ax cut through the space above her head, the slick soft sound of metal slicing the empty air. It was a sound she’d become familiar with; she’d managed to escape with her life for over three months, incurring more scars than she could count.
She twisted in the snow, then swung her sword backward, catching her enemy above his ankle, severing his Achilles tendon. The man bellowed and crashed to knees. Pain echoed in every line of his face as promises of revenge fell from his chapped lips.
Sage pushed herself back to her feet and continued to run, the mud beneath her boots threatening her balance. She wobbled for a moment, then steeled herself, before she crashed into the melee surrounding Hayjen. Breaching the madness her uncle had waded into upped her chances of death or worse—capture—a hundredfold. Her fingers squeezed the hilt of her sword, and she shoved the small prickle of terror away. It had been her constant companion for so long, her sense of fear had dwindled to almost nothing.
Except for the warlord, her mind whispered insidiously.
Her jaw clenched, and she narrowed her eyes on the Scythian about to cut Hayjen down from behind. The rush of her footsteps must have given her away, but not soon enough to change the outcome she had in mind for him. The warrior spun toward her, his black dreads flaring around him, as she sprinted up the remains of an old war machine and launched through the air. By the time she hit the ground, the warrior fell beside her. It wasn’t guilt, or shame, or rage that fueled her—just a blank numbness and an animalistic need to save her family.
Hayjen was a mad man. Scythian warriors came at him from every angle, but her never slowed, never faltered, even as some of their blows struck true. A pair of hands seized Sage from behind and pulled her against an armored chest.
“My lord, will be so happy with my catch.”
Doubtful. The Scythian warrior wouldn’t take her anywhere.
He grabbed a fistful of her braid and yanked her head back. She hissed and spun toward the bulky warrior. He smiled at her, pulled her hair to his nose and inhaled, his whole-body shuddering in delight.
Sage lashed out with her dagger, cutting off six inches of her braid as well as two of his fingers. The warrior stared blankly at his bloody hand, then began to tremble. Now came the worse part: the berserker rage. It was a blessing and a curse. The rage made the warriors stupider, but they also became virtually unstoppable.
She geared up to take on the swelling monster of a man when Rafe attacked the man from behind, dispatching the warrior without more than a flick of his wrist. He eyed Sage, seemingly scanning her for wounds, before slanting his gaze toward her uncle.
In unison, they attacked. It felt like coming home.
Every movement she made was calculated, and, no matter where she turned, Rafe was always at her back. Her arms shuddered with fatigue by the time they reached the center of the mayhem and closed ranks with Hayjen who was covered in scarlet. His blood or their enemies’, she didn’t know.
“It’s time to come in,” she said, her voice rusty from disuse.
Hayjen shook his head, his ice-blue eyes searching the battlefield. No doubt for another hopeless fight. “I can fight.”
“Just because you can, brother, doesn’t mean you should. The next wave of soldiers are coming,” Rafe rumbled softly.
Hayjen shook his head and took one step forward.
“You’re done.” Her whisper cut through the air like her blade, icy and hard as steel.
Hayjen froze and glanced over his shoulder, his face pinched in stubbornness. “No.”
“No?” she repeated, some of her numbness burning away as her rage surfaced. “I will drag you back myself. Get your ass back to camp.”
“Is that an order, my lady?” he sneered.
Hayjen snarled but took no further steps to wage war.
Sage glanced at Rafe, palming her blades. “Are you ready?”
Rafe graced her with a chilling smile that set the hair at the nape of her neck on end. “Any time you are, little one.”
White flurries dropped from the dark clouds above, swirling in a Pagan dance as their trio finally set foot in their camp. Soldiers bustled from tent to tent or lounged in intimate groups. Pots and pans clanged together as the camp’s cooks prepare dinner, while horses whickered in the background. It was almost cozy if one could blot out the sound of the Scythian war drums and stench of death that followed Sage wherever she went. Her right knee buckled, and she wobbled before regaining her balance. She’d pushed herself too hard during this last round, and that was dangerous.
“You need to rest,” Rafe said softy. She lifted her eyes and followed his gaze to the fiilee Fiilee mulling at the far edge of the camp.
Sage nodded and rolled her aching right shoulder. She wouldn’t be surprised if her entire arm was one big, ugly bruise. The Scythians hit harder than anyone she’d ever sparred with before, with the exception of Rafe. But her friend never fought with the hatred and rage that the warlord’s warriors were capable of. They were madmen on the battlefield.
Her mind flashed to the memory of Zachael cutting down a massive Scythian warrior. The weapons master kept on moving, so he didn’t see monster push his guts back into his belly and force himself to stand, his predatory gaze latching onto Zachael’s back. Sage had and she’d attacked. It took herself and three other men to bring him down.
A shiver worked through her, but she ignored it as Hayjen broke from their group. Her eyes narrowed on his back. Oh no, he didn’t.
“A word,” she bit out.
Rafe’s eyebrows rose, and he passed her a knowing look. “I’ll meet with you and Tehl tonight.”
Sage nodded curtly but never took her gaze from her uncle’s stiff form. “Follow me if you’ll please, Hayjen.” The or else was implied.
She turned her back on him and stalked toward her tent. Soldiers scurried out of her way with polite nods or bows, and she swiped sweaty strands of hair from her face, not about to force a smile for the friendly faces she passed. Too much weighed on her shoulders. Too much anger teemed beneath the placid surface of her expression.
Her tent came into view, and she didn’t slow as she pushed through the tent’s outer entrance flaps. It was blessedly empty for once. She stopped at the edge of the round table that dominated the space and studied the map and the small pieces representing their soldiers and the warlord’s forces. Her chapped lips thinned at the sight.
Scythia was winning. Their own forces were like locusts. The enemy never faltered, but kept advancing.
Hayjen entered, his footsteps stopped behind her.
Sage closed her eyes and tried to grab the inner threads that barely leashed her temper. She faced Hayjen and leaned against the table, eyeing her uncle. He looked awful. His light blue eyes had sunken into his pale face that now had too many sharp angles. He’d lost weight. So much so, that, despite his burly build, he reminded her of a scarecrow. Ropy muscle wrapped around his bones in a grisly sight. For a moment, her anger dwindled, cooled by empathy.
“When was the last time you ate?” she asked
Hayjen’s brows wrinkled, confusion evident on his face. Cleary, he expected another line of conversation. She’d get to that.
He rubbed his bristly jaw, and her stomach lurched. He’d wiped his blood on the short strands in a macabre painting on his chin. It was enough to set her off. Bile flooded her mouth. She’d warred for hours today, and nothing made her want to heave than seeing his blood smeared face.
“I can’t remember.”
His comment snapped her out of her thoughts, and she swallowed hard, her breathing shallow. “That’s not good,” she gasped.
Hayjen frown. “Are you all right?”
Sage waved him away and shoved her nausea down. She wouldn’t puke over something so stupid. “Funny, I was going to ask you that same question.”
His lips firmed into a thin, white line. “Nothing to report.”
She laughed, the sound sarcastic to her own ears. “Nothing to report. I find that interesting.”
He shrugged. “It is what it is. Now, I’d like to take my leave.”
Sage glared at him. “We haven’t talked.”
Another damn shrug from him. “Nothing to talk about.”
Her eyes turned to slits, and she slapped a hand against the tabletop. The small figurines rattled. Then she stabbed a finger at her uncle. “This needs to stop,” she growled. “You almost died today.”
“Men are dying every day.”
“But you’re trying to die. That’s different.” Hayjen stiffened and she took a closer to him. “How do you think that would make Lilja feel?” Her aunt’s name seemed heavy upon her tongue.
Her uncle jolted and glared at her. “Don’t.”
“Don’t what? Say her name?”
Sage forced herself to laugh. “You and I both know what she’d say if she saw the way you were fighting. You’re being reckless. She’d hate that.”
Hayjen trembled, and his fingers curled into fists. “Stop it.”
“Stop telling the truth? Never, and neither would my aunt.”
“Enough!” he bellowed.
Now they were getting somewhere. Anger, she could work with—numbness, not so much.
Sage circled closer to him. “What did you think you were doing out there? Other than courting a death wish? Did you think you could fight your way through the warriors?”
“Did you think you could reach the warlord on your own?”
His upper lip curled and he bared his teeth. “You know nothing.”
“You’re wrong.” Her throat tightened as the words tried to stick in her throat, but she forced them out anyway, despite how they tasted like ash. “I know pain. I know suffering. I know loss. And I miss her so damn much.” Sage rubbed her chest, her gaze earnest. “I can’t imagine what you are suffering—”
“No, you can’t,” he bit out.
“But I know she wouldn’t want you to give up like this.”
“How am I giving up?” Hayjen exploded, throwing his shaking hands in the air. “I am giving Aermia everything.”
“No, you’re not! Aermia doesn’t need soldiers who wade into the fray, heedless of their orders or the lives of the men around them.”
“I’ve only risked myself.”
“Wrong,” Sage shouted. “You’ve left your battalion short a man and without the direction of someone who’s skilled in battle. They’re boys without experience, Hayjen, practically children.”
“They’ll die with or without me.”
Sage jerked at his callous words. “Do you even hear yourself? She’d be so disappointed.”
Holy rage lit in Hayjen’s eyes, and he approached her quickly, stabbing a finger into her leather chest piece. “You’re a child! How would you know what she wanted? You knew her for a year. I spent twenty years of my life with that woman. I knew her backward and forward, just as she knew me.”
Sage slowly lifted her hands and clasped his fist between her fingers as he towered over her. “I know.” He tried to pull away, but she tightened her grip. “I know you miss her.”
Hayjen choked, a sob gurgling in the back of his throat. “There’s not a word to express what I feel,” he said raggedly.
Squeezing his hand, she let go and hugged him, her cheek flush with his metal chest piece. “When I came back from Scythia, I contemplated dying.”
There they were. The ugly words that shamed her so much.
Sage continued on: “The pain seemed like too much, the emotions too bright and sharp, the nightmares too terrifying. What scared me the most was the isolation. I could be in a room full of people, and, yet, I’d feel alone, empty.” She licked her dry lips. “I haven’t suffered your tragedy, but I can recognize pain and self-destruction. You wear it like war paint.”
“He needs to die.”
She pulled back and craned her neck to look her uncle square in the eye. “You and Lilja helped save my life when I couldn’t even see why it was worth saving.” Emotion swelled in her chest, and tears flooded her eyes. “You both gave me a life and showed me love that I could have never imagined, and I’ll be damned if I don’t fight for you like you fought for me.”
Her words lingered between them, and a tear slipped down his cheek. “You are not alone. You are loved.” Her bottom lip wobbled. “I refuse to let him destroy your life. Don’t let him win. Fight!”
Hayjen’s whole body began to shake, and he snatched her up into a rib-crushing hug. She hugged him back fiercely, wishing she could imprint how much she cared for him into his skin. Hayjen silently wept, and Sage let her tears loose.
They grieved together.
Slowly, some of the tension in his body released, and he pulled back, his pale eyes overly bright in his haggard, dirty face.
“I don’t feel alive,” he whispered. “I feel like I died with her.”
More tears flood Sage’s eyes. “You’re not gone yet.”
“I see so much of my sister in you.” Hayjen smiled wobbly and swiped at her cheek, her salty tears lingering on his fingertips. “And Lilja.” Her name was said with reverence.
“We may not have shared blood, but she was blood. She changed my life.”
“She was my life.” Her uncle scraped a hand through his hair until the ends stood up, making him look so boyish it caused her heart to clench. “I’ll do better tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow and all the other tomorrows after that.”
Sage knew he would. She had let him rampage for long enough. Today wasn’t the end of his pain, not by any means, but it was a step in a healthier direction.
“Get some sleep.”
Something haunted flashed through his eyes. “It’s not so simple. The horror doesn’t go away when sleeping.”
Nightmares were miserable. “I’ll have Mira mix something for you.”
He nodded and lifted the tent flap, then glanced over his shoulder as he left. “Love you, baby girl.”
Sage pinched the bridge of her nose to keep from crying. That was the first time he’d used the endearment since Lilja’s death.
“I miss you,” she whispered to the empty war chamber.
Wiping her face, she inhaled deeply to get a hold of herself, then latched onto her cold determination to destroy the warlord.
Sage flicked a glance at the map. Scythia might be winning, but the tide would turn.
If she had to cut every single warrior down herself to get to the bastard on the Scythian throne, she would. The warlord had claimed that he’d made her what she was today.
In that moment, he was right.
He’d twisted her into a killer.
In response, she’d forged herself into a weapon.
Sage pulled the necklace from her shirt and stared at the dainty poison ring hanging from the dull, silver chain. Lilja had given it to her before they rode out months ago. Sage toyed with it until the poisonous needle lunged from its hidden position, a translucent poison seeping from the tip.
It was only a matter of time until she destroyed the warlord.
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