A Warrior's Redemption
A tragic secret.
A trial of pain.
Gust holds a secret close to his heart, and it festers like an infected wound. While part of him wants to tell Lance so they can deal with it together, he fears what it will do to his friend. The last thing he wants to do is hurt the man he is falling in love with. And it never seems the right time as they pursue Ulfr’s warriors and elude hunting parties of royal soldiers.
Lance wants nothing more than to confess his love and undying loyalty to Gust. But he fears rejection. He has Gust’s friendship and dares not ask for more. He’s not yet a man worthy to ask for more. And as he continues on his self-imposed mission to cut down Ulfr’s warriors, he begins to wonder if he will ever find the redemption he so fiercely seeks.
When word of a new Scourge reaches them, their journey brings them to the war-ravaged kingdom of Grekenus. It is there that Lance is forced to face the actions of his past, and once again his life hangs in the balance. Now it is only Gust who can defend him against those thirsty for blood… and to Lance himself.
- 1 To Be Read list
Publisher: Independently Published
Tropes: Antihero, Redemption Arc, Reluctant Hero, Villain to Hero
Word Count: 92000
Languages Available: English
Series Type: Continuous / Same Characters
Queen Cleptra of Cairon admired the porcelain vase that her lady-in-waiting had won during the snake festival two weeks before. She’d given all her servants time off during the celebrations, along with a few extra days afterward to continue such pleasures. She’d been unable to attend the festival herself beyond a customary appearance during the first day, and enjoyed the true privacy a nearly-empty palace presented. She’d seduced her wife many times in various sundry areas out of sight of disapproving eyes.
She smiled in memory.
“Isn’t it simply perfect, madam?” Aslog said.
“It is, indeed. It appears so delicate, I hesitate to even touch it.”
“I said the same to the tradesman. He assured me it’s stronger than it appears. Certainly, we wouldn’t want to drop it on marble or stone floors. But it will survive a tumble on dirt or grass.”
“Let us not test it, shall we?”READ MORE
Aslog chuckled. “I had no intention to. It is too precious. I kept it as safe as if it was my own babe because I wanted to gift it to you.”
Cleptra regarded her. “Are you certain? Perhaps your mother would enjoy it? Or one of your sisters?”
Aslog laughed. “No, indeed, madam. My mother and sisters would enjoy weaponry much more. I managed to win a couple of daggers and a very nice axe that I plan to send to my family. My father would admire such a vase, however he is always away from home for one reason or another and wouldn’t have time to fully appreciate it. Please, madam, it would gratify me if you would accept this gift. I saw it and thought of Queen Sifus. Her countenance reminds me of porcelain at times.”
Cleptra made a sound of agreement and peered closer at the vase. Fine blue lines ran along its length like cracks, emphasizing the painted flowers, leaves, and vines.
“How can I resist when I agree with you? My wife will adore it even more than me.”
Aslog clapped her hands. “Wonderful.”
When the young woman had come to Cleptra’s court, she’d been worried the Swene would not find a home in Cairon. It had taken her own wife almost five years to find her footing. It wasn’t simply Aslog’s pale skin, dark red hair, and bright green eyes that distinguished her from the darker folk of the south, nor her almost manly stature and height. The kingdoms of Swenen and Cairon were markedly different, not just in environment, but in culture and society. Yet the daughter of Lord and Lady Jorvikr had, from the first, given every indication of wishing to learn and absorb all that was around her. She’d taken to the language of Coptin readily and eagerly studied with their minstrels and scribes.
It was a common tradition among the kingdoms to send sons and daughters abroad to learn and make connections. It also wasn’t lost on her that Lord Jorvikr might one day wish to marry Aslog to one of Cleptra’s nobles. Cleptra couldn’t be more pleased with Aslog’s progress over the last three years, and to continue the woman’s presence in Cairon wouldn’t be something to bemoan.
A faint ringing caught her attention. She pulled out the seer stone from one of her many pockets concealed in her dress.
“Aslog, a bowl of water, quickly.”
Aslog hurried and without delay set a bowl of water on the table Cleptra designated, one under the window in her private chambers.
“Thank you. Now find my wife.”
“Of course.” Aslog hurried out the door.
Cleptra sat at the table and placed the stone into the water. A heartbeat past before Lord Semsey’s handsome face appeared. She smiled at first and then let it fade when she noted his tired eyes, strained face, and the slump of his shoulders.
He was a formidable man of considerable height and strength who’d made a name for himself on the battlefield. They were cousins and friends since childhood. There was barely a year between them, and at one time, they’d been inseparable. At first, their families had hoped for a union but Cleptra’s desires had been elsewhere. She’d always been thankful that he’d loved her like a sister. The last thing she’d ever wanted to do was hurt him.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that they trusted each other implicitly.
“Kamen, it is good to see you,” she said.
He sighed. “Aye, as it is good to see you.”
“My wife will arrive shortly. May she join us or do you have a wish for privacy?”
“No, it is best for you both to hear.”
His grim tone had her stiffening. “What has happened?”
“I’d rather not say it twice.”
She bit back her instinctive order and nodded. “How is your wife? Your son?”
A ghost of a smile crossed his face. “They are well. My son is a true horseman. He would live in the saddle if he could.”
“My wife will kill herself with worry but she is also proud.”
“As she should be. I will keep my eye out for a grand horse suitable for your son.”
The door opened and Queen Sifus rushed inside followed by Aslog. Her wife was a pale beauty from Swenen with blue eyes like stars. She was paler than Aslog and her hair was like a sheet of gold that Cleptra adored running her fingers through. The moment they’d met ten years before at the Hill of Tarran, Cleptra had been struck and never once looked at another woman from that day onward.
“Aslog, please leave us. I will summon you when you are needed.”
Aslog curtsied and left, shutting the door gently.
Sifus stepped to Cleptra’s side and greeted Kamen warmly.
“This has to do with Ulfr, doesn’t it?” Cleptra said. “I haven’t heard from my captain after I sent his unit to Thebys’s aid days ago.”
“He came too late.”
Cleptra’s eyes widened as alarm beat in her breast. “You mean—”
“The town is fine,” he hurried to say. “Gods. Give me a moment to sort my mind.” He took a deep breath.
It wasn’t often that Kamen was out of sorts. His family, as well as hers, had deep ancestral connections to Thebys, and he, especially, felt as protective over the town as he did over his own lands and people. He’d received several messengers from Thebys over several weeks and each had brought successively disturbing news. The first letter claimed that they had a warrior in their midst who was greatly injured, one of fair skin and possible Swenen origins. Then another messenger arrived later claiming the warrior was part of Ulfr Blackwolf’s warband. Thebys had learned that crucial piece of evidence when the warrior killed Ragel.
Cleptra’s expression tightened in memory. Ragel was her nephew and though she’d born him no love, the news of his death had been a blow to her brother. Kamen had delivered the news immediately to her after reading the letter. Although it was a relief to hear Ragel’s treachery was at an end, there was also grief. Thebys begged for protection and soldiers in the same letter since they suspected Ulfr and Scourge would come to kill the warrior. It sounded as if there was a vendetta between them.
“You said you would send soldiers,” Cleptra said into the silence. “A unit, if I remember correctly. Were they in time to assist?”
His expression grew more strained. “Ulfr ambushed my soldiers and killed all of them. I only learned about it days after the fact.”
“Oh, my dear,” she said with compassion radiating from her tone.
Kamen ran a hand over his eyes.
Sifus set a hand on Cleptra’s shoulder and squeezed.
“That’s not the worst of it. The latest messenger from Thebys revealed the identity of the warrior they healed and the one Ulfr was after.” A shudder went through him. “It was Scourge.”
Cleptra narrowed her eyes.
“His real name is Lance.”
Cleptra found it disturbing and puzzling to realize the monster inside the black armor was just a man. A man that was once a child. How did he end up in Ulfr’s hands?
“I traveled to Thebys immediately to hear the words from the council and from the citizens themselves. I arrived a couple days ago and am still here. It’s true, Cousin. Scourge, I mean Lance, killed Ulfr, and due to his ferocity, the rest of the warband retreated and scattered. Then he left with one of their healers. A man named Gust. It seems Gust left willingly, wanting to help Lance accomplish his goal of hunting down every single one of Ulfr’s warriors.”
“I don’t believe it,” Cleptra said.
“I didn’t believe it at first either,” Kamen said. “But when I heard the same events told by different people, I could no longer deny what was before me. Even Gust’s aunt, the healer Kissa, told me what Lance had done. She clearly wasn’t pleased that her nephew had joined Lance and was grudging in her words, and that inclined me to believe her.” He cleared his throat. “While there are certainly mixed opinions about Lance, they all agreed on one thing—he saved them. He trained them in swordplay, in tactics, and dueled Ulfr to save their town. He helped them build fortifications and, after a few early incidents, never caused harm to any townsfolk.”
“What earlier incidents?”
“The sheriff explained them to me. Lance only fought when in defense of someone else, and he didn’t kill anyone. The sheriff is a grounded and law-abiding man, and I have no reason to doubt his word. And, though I know it is rather fanciful to say, many of the townsfolk believe Lance’s horse, Brutus, is divine. The stablemaster Maged swore to the truth of this, and their priestess confirmed it with certainty.”
Cleptra raised an eyebrow and said nothing.
Kamen continued. “I actually find what disturbs me the most is that Lord Khepi did not heed Thebys’s pleas and apparently none of the messengers sent to him have returned.”
Cleptra looked away, troubled.
Kamen pressed on. “Ulfr had to have help to travel so far a distance in such a short time. Our soldiers would have arrived at Thebys and helped them if given a few more days. As far as I know, Ulfr rarely travels into Cairon and not so deeply inland. I have sent messengers to the various northern towns and villages asking for any information on Ulfr’s presence before the attack but I don’t expect to learn much.”
“No. Likely not.” Cleptra shook her head and met his gaze. “The only way I know to travel such great distances without actually traveling them is with two seer stones and divine words known only to a few. Priests and priestess travel that way more than any other. I always suspected Ulfr had a powerful benefactor. If there is truth in this mode of travel, I will be certain.”
Kamen nodded. “What would you have me do?”
“No matter what Scourge did on behalf of Thebys or if his horse is divine, we cannot allow him to roam free,” she said. “Though Ragel was a disgrace to his family, my brother wants revenge for his death. It doesn’t matter that he stripped his son of his titles and family connection, therefore removing any legal protection. I have not yet told him who killed his son, and I won’t until I’m sure what I want the outcome to be.” She shook her head. “I will not have such a dangerous and unpredictable creature in my kingdom. I want him either found and imprisoned or routed. I also want Lord Khepi brought to me to answer for his neglect. He signed an agreement just as you did, Kamen, to protect those towns and villages within sight of your borders. He failed and I demand to know why.”
Kamen said nothing, waiting for her command.
Cleptra could only swallow her wonder at what truth lay behind Scourge’s change of heart. If the dreaded Scourge had truly forsaken Snet and embraced the gods of light then that was cause for celebration. But she wouldn’t allow her hope to run away with her. She would need hard proof that he’d truly changed his ways.
“Rest this day, my cousin. Set out when you regain your strength. Take my captain and his soldiers with you. Go to Khepi’s manor and bring him to me. Kicking and screaming if you must, or tied up and gagged. I don’t care. I demand answers. I will also gather what soldiers I can and send them to locate Scourge.” A sigh escaped her. “I fear the task will prove difficult. We have little professional soldiers left.”
Sifus gave her a hard look but said nothing. It was an old argument and not one either would ever win. It was probably the one and only regret Cleptra had upon marrying her wife. Sifus’s birthplace was constantly attacked by the horde, a wild people just beyond the empire’s northern borders. Due to their marriage and the emperor’s stubbornness, Cleptra was obligated to send soldiers to help with the campaign to expand north. The emperor would not take no for an answer.
“I will do as you say, my queen. I will have the stone with me always if you need to speak to me again.”
“Thank you, my dear.”
He managed a smile. “You’re forever welcome, Kelpie.”
She scowled at the childhood nickname and cut the connection. She sat there for a long moment and only sighed again. Sifus sat on the table facing her and caught her eye.
“This is cause for hope. If the dog of Mad Blackwolf can break his chains than anything is possible.”
“I pray to the gods that you are right.”COLLAPSE