Category Archives: Excerpts

An Excerpt of Chapter 18 of DAGGER

~Book Two of the Hunted Mage Trilogy~

Erick did not pause at the door but shuffled his feet forward to the table. She heard him drop items onto the top and then crept toward him as he began striking a flint.

A spark jumped from the stone to the char cloth and smoldered for a moment before the smith lit a pair of candles from the ember.

The tiny lights flared brightly and the smith gave a yell as they illuminated Miina sitting across the table from where he stood. He threw the flint stone with a jerk as he leaped back a step. It struck her collarbone with an audible thud.

“OW! Damn it, Erick!”

“Damn it, yourself! Why do you creep about in the black?”

Miina rubbed the bruised spot and grinned at him. She let a touch of feral delight crinkle her nose at him.

“Because no one else does! They never expect it.”

He picked up a fallen stool for himself and gave a snort of disgust.

“You are touched! You have something wrong with you.” He made a vague gesture at his head and sat down across from her at the long, plank table. There was a rough cloth sack on the boards. He rummaged until he found a skin and two wooden cups.

“I cannot stay, Erick. I have waited too long already! Ragnor’s sister waits for me to dine with her.”

He pulled the stopper and poured for them both, despite her words.

They drank quietly for a few moments before Erick cleared his throat, refilled his cup and drained it again with a loud slurp.

“This will end badly!” His cup clattered to the table in his huge fist. His brows furrowed in a glare across the table.

Miina rolled her eyes and tipped her head at his words.

“It generally does. You simply cannot hold your wine, Erick. It makes you weepy!”

He made a scoffing sound.

“You know very well what I mean. And that only happened the once. Hold your tongue!”

He poured for them again but did not drink this time. He eyed her across the table and she met his gaze with a determined stare of her own.

“Tell me what you mean, Smith! Tell me again, so that I may feel free to come by the forge and tend to your tasks!”

Erick drew his head back in irritation and it made his beard thrust forward beneath his face and for a moment she envisioned a cat puffing out its tail before it fights a larger beast.

Bristle all you wish, Erick, but you have no say!

“You have not heard the things I have, Karhu! You do not take care enough in your dealings with Ragnor,” Erick muttered with a grimace.

She stirred her wine with a finger as he spoke and, when he paused, flicked her finger at him. Crimson droplets shimmered in the light of the candles and arced through the air to spatter his face and linen shirt. The red dots soaked into the cream colored fabric and grew larger as she replied.

“So sure, are you? I am well-placed to hear a great many things and you…clanging away in your smithy…hear more than I?” she laughed.

A drop of wine fell from his beard as he looked down at his chest and the stains upon his shirt.

“My last clean shirt! Must you always flick things at me when you do not want to hear me?” He drained his cup once more and cast the final drop at her. “My next shirt comes from your share of the fee!”

She laughed again.

“I owe you that much at least. It is hard to get you to clean up so nicely, I should not discourage clean shirts on you! What have you heard that I have not, Erick?”

He brushed at the spots on his linen as he spoke, and, truth be told, he did seem troubled by his words more than the stains.

“I have taken work from a Mage. He is the man Jorma spoke of, before you left for the lakes. Before I met with him I took a commission from Ragnor’s arms-masters. An impossibly large order, and when I refused the Mage’s offer for lack of time…he brought me Ragnor’s man.”

Erick shook his head with a grim look upon his face.

“The man was terrified of this crippled Mage. Ragnor’s warlord! He yielded terms to me so that I could take the Mage’s task first. I came to warn you! If Ragnor has dealings with this Rune-singer, you are better off well out of it!”

She narrowed her eyes as she pondered his words. Her finger swirled a drop of the spilled wine into loops on the dark wood of the table.

//

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An Excerpt of Chapter 25 of Dagger

~Book Two of The Hunted Mage Trilogy~

Aila’s sudden cry brought a surge of motion from the corridor as the guardsman pushed against Wyman’s weight against the door. Eyulf held firm for a moment, and then felt the king’s feet slide backwards against the younger man’s vigor.

With a tug on the iron ring that formed the handle, Eyulf stepped back and stretched his leg out into the widening gap.

The man had little chance to react. The force of his weight against the door was too great to slow him when Eyulf reversed his own efforts. Jalo stumbled and landed chest first on the rough stone of the floor.

Eyulf heard the rush of air leave the man’s lungs as he struck.

“This is a matter between your betters, Jalo! You should never have interfered.”

He thought, for a moment, about the man he had killed on the wall at the riverside.

Eyulf felt the Runes that held Wyman’s Spirit shudder as Eyulf knelt on the fallen guard’s back with one knee.

“What was the name of your man on the river that day, Aila dear?”

Jalo regained some breath and squirm beneath him. Eyulf reached down and wrenched the fallen soldier’s arm up. He looked at Aila with brows raised in a mockery of innocent questioning.

The queen was still sprawled where she had fallen from Eyulf’s shove, but had raised her upper body and supported it with one palm flat upon the stone. The other hand was wrapped about her belly.

“Gent,” she whispered. “His name was Gent.”

Eyulf smiled and drew Jalo’s sword from its scabbard with a silvery ring of metal.

“You should take more care with your husband’s men, my love,” he whispered.

She closed her eyes and shuddered at his words. Or was it pain. Her head drooped and Eyulf had to cock his ear toward her to catch her words.

“Please, Eyulf.”

“Please? Please for what, Aila?”

Her head came and her light eyes glowered at him with hatred.

This meekness is but a game, he crowed silently. I am glad of that. To have her once more, with none of her old fire left, would be unrewarding!

“Please do not kill him!”

The words came through clenched jaws and Eyulf loosened his pull on the younger man’s arm.

“There now. Was that so…”

With a growl, Jalo arched his back and threw his free arm back. With Eyulf’s grasp still firm upon his arm he could do little beside flail blindly at Wyman’s face.

With a dull pop that Eyulf felt through Wyman’s hands, the guardsman’s arm wrenched from its socket just as the elbow of his loose arm struck Eyulf’s jaw.

It was a solid blow. Eyulf felt the pain of it through the Rune’s link and the sudden impact made his own head roll back against the chair where he sat, leagues away.

He had released Wyman’s hold on the man when the blow struck. The warrior rolled onto his back and pushed with his booted feet to escape the king’s reach. He cradled his useless right arm as he slid away with a hiss of breath through clenched jaws. Pain sweat already glistened on his brow.

Eyulf reached up with Wyman’s hand to rub the swelling he could feel throbbing through the magic’s bond.

“You dare to strike your king, man?” The words came slurred from Wyman’s lips. He grinned at Aila and the fallen guardsman despite the pain.

Jalo struggled to rise to his feet and placed himself between Eyulf and where Aila still sat. He dropped the damaged arm with a wince and fumbled the dagger from the opposite side of his belt.

“Your devilry will not hold my King forever, Mage!” Jalo croaked the words through his pain.

Eyulf could see the lump of bone that jutted up through the man’s jerkin.

“You know of that, do you?” Eyulf glanced down at Aila’s pale face and shook his head sadly. “I tried, Aila, my love. I did! I can never let him live now.”

Eyulf swung Jalo’s weapon over Wyman’s head with ease and took pleasure in the casual grace of the king’s body as he used it.

He is just as much a tool as this sword, he thought. The flat of the blade struck the lump of bone at Jalo’s neck. The guardsman dropped his knife and fell with a hoarse scream.

“Who…else…knows?” He closed the distance between them with three careful steps at each word and struck at the injured shoulder once more.

Jalo moved away from the blow with an awkward roll and a hiss of pain, but the blade struck again under Wyman’s firm grip.

An Excerpt of Chapter 8 of Dagger

~Book Two of the Hunted Mage Trilogy~

The sounds of the busy forge quieted as Erick bellowed at Hessu.

“It matters little what they WANT! They cannot have it!” He growled in frustration as he pulled the apron over his head and flung it at the ground. He sat down on one of the anvils wiped the sweat from his brow.

Hessu’s face darkened with anger, but he spoke with his usual calmness.

“You need not yell at ME, Master. You agreed to take Ragnor’s commission and then told me to deal with it. Now they come to me with their wishes and I, in turn, bring them to you. They want more and faster!”

Erick clenched his fists and began to fume with his eyes squinted tightly closed.

“How many,” he said with jaws grinding the words, “do they want now and when do they think they can get them?”

Hessu glanced at his slate and ran his fingers through his hair. The boy’s hands trembled as Erick watched.

I am being unfair to him. It has fallen to him to negotiate with the marauder’s men. I should not be so harsh, Erick thought. He stretched out his hands and could feel the joints in his fingers creak, so hard had his fists been closed.
Bloody iron arrowheads! Ragnor could have a thousand arrows made a day if he would but take bone or flint, but the gods-cursed Mighty Warlord has to have bloody iron!

“They want two thousand in the next fortnight.”

Hessu’s face had gone lifeless as he spoke the numbers to Erick.

He is braced for a storm, Erick thought with a sigh. Have I become such a tyrant?

He reached a huge hand over to the journeyman’s shoulder and shook him.

“I am sorry, lad. It is not your fault and I should not lash out at you for it!”

Hessu accepted his words with the slightest of nods and tapped the slate with his fingernail.

“If we do nothing else but forge arrowheads…the three of us need to craft four dozen each day! The two boys are not yet capable of the task. They can strike for two of us…but we will need to take in another as third…”

Erick raised a hand to stop his journeyman’s words.

“Four dozen each day? Even if a third lad were trained already, we would not have enough hours in the day to turn out that many.”

Hessu shrugged.

“And we have other work partly paid for as well that we dare not neglect. Ragnor’s men are insistent and I am tired of explaining to them that iron is harder to work than bronze. It takes more time. They do not understand,” he said with a grimace.

Erick rolled his shoulders back and twisted his head until it popped. He found that he stiffened quickly as he aged. His thoughts piled upon each other and he felt a headache begin.

“It cannot be helped. We will work as best we can. Can we find a few lads from another smithy to help out until we finish?”
The look of despair that clouded Hessu’s face was answer enough for Erick.

“I have already asked many. Ragnor has commissioned similar orders from all of them. Well, those I would trust to have apprentices trained how we would like them, at least. Every smith and ‘prentice within a days ride will be as hard at it as we.”

And Ragnor holds our city firmly in his grip. We had all better give him what he wants, had we not? Erick thought. He closed his eyes once more.

“When next they come, send them to me. You do not need to deal with them again. Let us begin and we will fill as much of their order as we may.”

He saw the relief in Hessu’s form as the journeyman made his way to the men and boys who stared at the Master with apprehension.

Erick could not hear Hessu’s words, but he watched the dismay and calculation cross their features. Juno knew what they were up against and blew out his cheeks in an exaggerated gust of air with eyebrows raised.

The apprentices were largely clueless, Erick realized. They suspected that the news meant more work for them and that was all. It would take a few words from Juno or Hessu to bring them into the reality of the task.

He stood and stretched, then stooped for his apron.

“HESSU! Stoke the forges! Get them to work!”

His roar made them all jump and they scrambled to the hearths in a frantic rush that made him laugh.

* * *

They spent two long days in a frenzy of activity.

Hessu roused the young apprentices before dawn and they filled the water barrels, refueled the forges and built up the slumbering embers in an exhausted shuffle.

Erick’s entire body ached from the constant pounding of hammer on iron and his head throbbed with the ring of it.

Two days of this and already I feel like a corpse, he thought with a groan as he lifted two sacks of iron ore by the necks and dragged them toward the smithy door. It was the last of their supply. If the cart-load he had ordered did not arrive by midday, they would be forced to stop and wait.

Two days of four dozen arrowheads from each of us! We have done it but we cannot keep to this pace.

He had climbed into his cot for six hours of rest but had not slept for two of them. The tingle in his hands from the pounding of the hammer had kept him from slumber. Even as dawn broke and he rose from his fitful sleep, he found that his hands shook as he ladled water into his parched mouth.

Damn Ragnor!

He reached the first hearth and let the bags fall next to the stone chimney. The lads would empty them into the crucible when the fire was hot enough.

He stepped from one hearth to the next and pumped the bellows at each. He added coal to each of the beds until they all glowed to his liking.

He turned to find a man who watched him from within the deep cowl of his dusty, hooded cloak.

“Mother of God! What are you doing in my forge, man? Get out before you do yourself harm! We are too busy for you today!”

The hunched figure hobbled back a pace and lifted its hands to his hood and drew it back just enough to show Erick the mottled face beneath.

“If you think aught you have here frightens me…”

The voice was raspy and came from lips that seemed melted and were drawn to one side in a crooked smile.

Jesu, God in Heaven…Erick thought with a shiver.

The withered hands reached up to draw the hood back into place and then disappeared into the cloak’s folds.

Erick felt his mouth working as he tried to voice the questions that were striking within his mind, but found he could not make the words come out.

“You are the Master smith here?” The man’s croak was filled with doubt.

Speak, you great dolt! He does not need your stare. He gets stares aplenty wherever he goes, no doubt.

He cleared his throat and answered.

“I am! And my warning stands. I will not have further harm come to you under my roof. So…please! Step outside my doors and I will speak with you when I am able.”

The intruder inclined his head and stared without speaking. Erick could see the glitter of his eyes in the glow of the hearth. They were narrowed to slits and the man’s cheek twitched as his lips pulled into a sneer.

“I thought Jorma had spoken to you and that there would, at least, be some courtesy at my arrival.”
The man turned and limped toward the doorway.

The Mage? Here, now! Of course, he is here when I am at my very busiest and can scarcely…damn it!

Erick motioned to Hessu to take his place at the hearths and hurried after the Mage. He ducked his head under the arch of the door and saw the crippled man leaving the yard.

“Mage!” Erick called after him and felt foolish for it.

It sounds like an insult when I yell it like that. Why din Jorma not tell me his name?

The man turned with a wince and stared at Erick with a hooded stare.

“Smith!” He said the word with disdain.

Erick picked up a bucket that lay beside the fresh water barrel and filled it. The apprentices had filled it to the brim the night before under threat of a beating if they did not.

He offered the bucket and a dipper to the Mage and nodded toward a section of log to sit upon while they drank.

Erick could feel the cool morning air begin to dry the sweat that already gathered upon his brows and arms.

“My courtesy is wanting today. It is true. I did not expect you here, but a message from Jorma that would instruct me when and where we would meet.”

The Mage pursed his lips and sat with a slowness that spoke of great pain to the smith.

“The carter wished me to name a time but I refused. Time presses upon me and I would like my work with completed as soon as I may.” He reached out and took the handle of the dipper and drew it to his lips with a hand that trembled under the weight of it.

Erick held his words until the man let the ladle drop back into the bucket and wiped his lips with a cloth.

“I cannot begin your work.”

The Mage turned a surprised look to him and chuckled quietly. It was an unpleasant gurgle that made the skin of Erick’s neck tighten with in fear.

“That will not do, Smith. Why has Jorma placed me in your care with such confidence if you are unable to meet my needs?”

Erick took a ladle-full of water before he answered with a frown.

“I do not conduct my business by Jorma Cart-boy’s leave, Mage. I have a large order placed by Ragnor’s underlings that taxes my men and me to our limits,” Erick said. He tried to speak the words as bluntly as he knew how, but they sounded petulant in his ears.

It is that bloody stare he has, like a snake. I am too busy to help him now and that is that. Just say it, man!

He grunted and began to stand up when the shriveled hand waved for him to sit once more.

“I cannot. I have too many tasks today as it is. If I dally here longer it will only get worse. I can help you in twelve days or so. I may not finish even then, but I cannot help sooner.”

The Mage laughed.

“I may have a solution for you. If you will but ‘dally’ a moment more.”

An Excerpt of Chapter 13 of Dagger

~From Book Two of the Hunted Mage Trilogy~

The steady clang of hammer on iron made his head ache.

Eyulf drew a forearm across his brow and wiped the sweat from it. With eyebrows seared off and the skin of his brows burned to a waxen lump, the stinging sweat would only drip into his eyes. It could be born now as he rested from his part of the labor, but not as he drew the magic forth and wrapped the metal in its folds. A distraction like that could finish what he had survived in his father’s cellars.

I worry too much. Think of all I have learned since then. I have trebled my knowledge in the last year alone!

The smith rattled around the hearth, banging and clanging incessantly. Eyulf would have to remember to stop his ears with wool if he need hire a smith again. And most likely he would. There were to many magics he would like to test in this way.

The binding of magic to an item was an intricate process, draining of time and it sapped his strength considerably. He could Bind at will in a quieter environment and the Binding would adhere after a fashion.

The problem was one of permanence. If he Bound Elements to wood, or pottery it would hold, but those could be destroyed with ease and his work made useless. To Bind his formulas to metal ensured he could get far more use out of the items and their magic. Metal could still be consumed with enough heat, but it was far more difficult.

The smith motioned to Eyulf with his mallet. It was an impatient movement, discourteous, and Eyulf tired greatly of the blacksmith’s ways.

The man sang constantly, a guttural chant that Eyulf could just discern words out of, but they meant little to him. He had bespoken the man about the habit to no avail.

To call the beat of the hammer on the hot metal, he had said with a scornful look on his face, is the most important part of forging.

The apprentice had seemed apologetic for his master’s brusqueness, and had been almost polite to him when the smith was not about.

He hobbled to the hearth and stood as close to the embers as he could. The heat made his ruined skin tight and it pained him to stand as close as he must.

I must endure, he told himself each time the smith beckoned him. He had three days of the prickling heat, raw against the tender flesh that remained to him, and two nights of renewed terror from his dreams.

The nightmares had left him for a time as he traveled. He thought he had outrun them at last, but flame and weariness brought them back with renewed vigor in his sleeping mind.

I will win out against the night. I must!

Even as he approached the deep well of embers near the center of the smithy, he drew upon the Elements and held them at the ready. Some he could layer upon each other in advance even as he looked at the bands of iron that lay on the edge of the coals.

They could not lay there for too long, the smith had told him, bellowing out his commands that first day. They would not cool properly and they must or they will end up warped and thinned by the hot bed.

‘I will not have my workmanship ruined by your gawking. You must act swiftly so I may roll them as they cool.’  Eyulf mocked the smith’s words as he held his Compound Elements ready over the bands.

It was an experiment only, to build a layer of magic into the material during its crafting. He hoped it would keep the item from wearing with age. If his attempts could make the bands indestructible, then what matter would a bit of warping make.

He had wrapped a ring of Time with a thin wire of Attraction to layer into the metal with a blanket of Fire. The Fire should pull to the residual heat in the metal on it’s own. The Attraction was formed precisely. It would work with the Element of Time to draw Spirit. Eyulf had used some of his own Spirit to prime the Attraction. He hoped it would work as he planned. The longer someone wore the band the more they would want to keep it on.

He could feel the smith’s dissatisfaction. It rolled off the man in ripples. He would have the bands be perfect, but Eyulf’s procedure took too long, and the coals cooled too much to stoke back quickly. The bands cooled further while the embers were refreshed.

But they will be finished by night, Eyulf thought with glee.

He could feel his legs shaking as he made he Elements obey him and Bound them to the hot metal.

Excerpt from Chapter 17 of Dagger

~From Book Two of the Hunted Mage Trilogy~

They walked in silence for some time. Aila’s hand lay on his crooked arm and Wyman’s free hand reached out to brush the new leaves that sprouted upon the shrubbery they passed.

It was a favorite path that lay just outside the town and curled around a pair of small ponds. They did not have a garden at the keep as she was accustomed to from her father’s home. She found she now preferred the untamed woods to the controlled growth of a private garden.

It was a relief to her that they did not speak. All of their words of late had been of spies and war. She weighed and guarded each word she uttered lest she speak of things she was no yet ready to reveal.

How do spies and traitors cope? My mind is all of a tangle with my own small secrets, she thought. She doubted she could juggle the secrets of armies and kings.

She was surprised that they took the time for this walk. Wyman hardly had time to rest and bathe of late. Rumors flew through the countryside of Ragnor’s advance.

He is coming they say, and he cannot be stopped.

She felt a sudden wave of cold pass through her.

The path narrowed and Aila let go his wrist and fell back a step. She watched her husband’s sure stride and felt tenderness rise in her. He bore many troubles for his people.

There was a cost. The occasional slump of his shoulders, the worry lines that collected around his eyes, the silver glint amid the gold of his hair. They spoke of the price he paid to rule.

He deserves to know…what right have I to keep it from him?

She turned the idea over in her mind. She had been unfair to him in keeping her pregnancy a secret from him.

If I can bring him even a sliver of joy to ease him during these stressful days then I ought to do it. It is selfish to withhold the news from him.

There was a rustle ahead. She had fallen behind a pace or two and could see Wyman’s hand reach out to tug sharply at some brush in the path to clear the way for her. He looked over his shoulder and gave her a loving smile.

Yes, she decided.I must tell him of our coming child.

He would see the need to keep the news secret a while longer. She could not tell him of Eyulf, of course, but if she could get Wyman to keep quiet about the baby then it would buy Avitus time to deal with the mage.

“Wyman. There is something of which we must speak.”

He turned to face her and his face was angry, his eyes narrowed to slits in his face. She had rarely seen such a look on his features and never one directed at her.

“Yes. There is, that!”

There was venom in his voice and she felt her stomach tighten with anxiety.

“Avitus told me of your affair with the mage. I wonder that you thought you could hide it from me, but your game is over.”

She felt a lump of dismay form in her throat. It seemed to lodge her words deep in her throat and left her gaping at him.

No, no, no, she wailed in silent terror.

“How dare you take him back you your bed? Am I not enough for you that you find your old lover and invite him to our keep to renew your dalliance?” Wyman growled at her through clenched teeth.

“No! I did not invite him here! He came without my knowledge,” she cried out.

“LIES!”

She gave a start at his shout. His voice filled with a rage she had never heard. She reached out and took his hand.

“Oh, please, Wyman! You must believe me.”

His hand slipped within her grasp. She looked down at her hands and saw blood drip from their clasped hands and patter to the dirt of the pathway.

“Wyman…what has…?”

It was a long branch, thick with thorns, wrapped around his  bicep. It wound about his arm just above his elbow and was pulled tight to drive each jagged barb deep into the flesh and muscle.

She let go his hand to pull at the thorny vine but Wyman grabbed her wrist in a huge hand and squeezed. She cried out in pain.

“Do not touch me, woman. Hands that have caressed a burned and crippled thing such as he will not touch me! Did you think you would escape punishment for defiling yourself?”

Her vision clouded with the pain of his crushing grip. The bones in her wrist felt as if they ground together. The pain brought tears flowing from her eyes to drip off of her trembling chin.

Aila lifted her free hand to his upper arm. She took the end of the bramble but when she lifted I away and tried to peel the tiny barbs away from his skin the vine writhed in her fingers and dug back into his muscle.

It is like a snake, she thought.I must get it off of him.

She dug at the thorns but could not get a hold of the strand again. She felt the thorns slice at her fingertips. They stung with sweat and blood as she tried to peel back the vine with a growing desperation.

Wyman’s gaze bore into her. She dared to look up at him once and saw a sneer of disdain and loathing on his lips.

“I have not defiled myself, my love! I would never…”

He twisted her wrist with a tug. She cried out at the pain. His grip was like iron.

Aila instinctively reached for his hand to pry his fingers back from her wrist but he just laughed.

“Did you think that Avitus would keep your dirty secret for you? That is laughable. He is loyal to his king.”

Her gaze clouded with tears and pain but his words brought a trace of anger to her mind. It was a glimmer of indignation amid her terror and grief but she reached for it.

“I…have…not betrayed you, Wyman!” It was a feeble retort but it hardened the resolve she felt grow.

“Did you offer to bed him to have him keep your secrets, Aila? How depraved will you become before it all comes crashing down around you?”

She raised her chin defiantly at the words. The anger she felt surged at the accusation.

“I never did! How dare you think it Wyman? I am yours! Only!”

“Lies! I am sick of them. I can see them all now…I was so blind to your deceit. Well…no more!” Wyman’s voice was a shout of hatred now. “I should kill you for the mockery you have made of our marriage!”

“I am with child, Wyman!”

There. She had done it. He would listen now, she was sure.

“Do not speak to me of that burned devil’s spawn! Avitus told me of your plan to get with child by that freak and pass it off to all as mine! It will…not…be!”

Wyman twisted her wrist back with each snarled word until she was bent to the side.

Huge black storm clouds roiled in above her. The forest grew dark around her.

It is not true, she thought.Why can he not see?

“The child is YOURS, Wyman! I have never…”

His free hand whipped forward, swift as an asp, and slapped her. The back of his hand hit her above the eye and she rocked back on her heels.

Thunder rumbled overhead and the shadows of the trail grew deep. Her eye throbbed. When she turned back to Wyman it already swelled to cloud her vision. She could not see her husband’s face anymore but his grip was still hard upon her wrist.

“Wyman it is not true. I know not why Avitus says that it is!”

Wyman’s growl was his only answer for a moment then he tugged her around with a rough yank. She spun a half-turn away from him and his lips were close to her ear.

“Consider yourself fortunate that I only put you aside. I should kill you for your infidelity, but I will banish you instead and let you forever live with your twisted lover.”

No no, no, sweet Jesu, Wyman! It is not so!

She reached for him with her free hand and this time he did not shove her away. She put a trembling hand on his cheek.

“Wyman, please! Do not believe these lies!”

His face was cold and hard beneath her touch. His jaws were clenched and bulged with anger.

“You will regret your sin, woman. I shall take a wife and she will bear me a son and you will watch and know what may have been!”

She dropped her hand to grasp his shoulder and could not find it. Thunder rumbled once more.

“I wish you gone.” The whispered words reached her, just at the edges of her thoughts.

“I wish you gone,” Wyman said.

“Take your sin-swollen belly and go,” came the whisper.

Lightening split the sky and she looked up to see Wyman’s face, gray and sunken. His eyes stared lifelessly past her.

“Take your sin-swollen belly and go.” It was his voice but his jaws moved woodenly, their movements out of joint with his words.

What is this? What has happened to him?

Her hand sought his shoulder again and then the lightening flashed once more.

There was a shadow in the brilliance. It gripped her wrist with one hand and a silver-veined staff in the other. The whisper came again on the edge of another peal of thunder.

“You will regret your faithlessness.”

There was a glow about the figure now. She saw a cloak with a deep cowl and she saw the burned and ruined skin of the hands that gripped her wrist and the wood.

“You will regret your faithlessness.”

She looked up as Wyman’s voice echoed the ragged whisper.

“You will regret…”

Wyman’s jaws worked falsely beneath his empty eyes. Her gaze dropped to his mouth, then his throat.

“NO! Stop it!”

There was nothing below his neck. It was a mass of gore and tendons that straggled down from his head and wrapped around the staff it was impaled upon.

The runes that covered the wood glowed with a silver sheen but for where the blood dripped from the strands of muscle and veins. Where the blood ran and touched the symbols they glowed crimson.

She saw within the hood now in the brightness of the glow around them both.

“Eyulf! What have you done? Why?”

The skin on his face pulled back into a demonic smile. He twitched his fingers and the lines of silver pulsed along the staff. Wyman’s jaws creaked up and down.

“I told you why,” Wyman’s head snarled at her. “I will take him from you…if I cannot have you back!”

He pulled at her wrist and drew her closer to him. His lips pursed in anticipation of kissing her.

Lightening tore through the sky and flashed full on the hellish remains of his face.

Aila screamed.

* * *

She woke with a violent lurch and a cry on her lips she was not certain she had uttered aloud. The scream from her nightmare made her throat feel thick and closed up in her panic. Her breath was harsh in her ears

Excerpt of Dagger…

~From Book 2 of the Hunted Mage Trilogy~

She lay still for an hour then rose to make her way around the camp, a fist wrapped around a length of her skirts to keep the excess cloth from rustling or snagging as she crept.

The soft whicker from her horse betrayed their approach. She slipped behind the closest tree and made her way slowly toward her mount, kept her body concealed in the deep shadows of the boles. She could see three men approach their camp from the fields, their forms visible in the starlight outside the shelter of the grove.

There was no trace of Miina in her motions now. Karhu pushed the thoughts of the courtier to the corner of her mind as she reached her pack and drew her dagger silently from its sheath. Her sword she bared, careful to keep the blade from touching the metal rim of the scabbard.

She stepped between the sleeping bodies. They were lumps barely illuminated by the dying embers of their small fire and stood by the edge of the light facing the path the men seemed to have taken. She simply stood and listened intently, eyes closed to protect her sight from the firelight.

She knew she left herself at a disadvantage staying near her companions, but she could not bring herself to leave them. Should there be more than just these three assailants, the older couple would have need of her. The thought was wholly Miina and she pushed it aside and waited until she could hear the rustling approach of men through the grove.

They paused, as she knew they would. They could see her standing in the half-light. It was probably too dark to see that her kept eyes closed still, but a woman standing alone, with sword and dagger bared was unnerving when they slipped in by cover of darkness.

For the briefest moment, she panicked. Her face was fully visible. If they turned away now, her identity as Miina was useless. These men may be simply bandits, hoping for easy spoil from the travelers, but if they were soldiers, if they had duties within Ragnor’s court, then her guise was useless to her.

Now they must come within the circle of light. She must kill them. She brought her dagger hand up and gestured toward the ground before her.

“Why do you wait?” she called out. Launo gave a snort as he woke and sat up on the other side of he fire.

“Mistress?” Kalle’s voice called out with a muffled sound. She looked back at him and saw his big eyes peering over the edge of his blanket.

“Get up, but keep the fire between us. Launo, throw some more wood on, quickly now! We have guests,” she barked, and turned her face back to the trees. She heard them move forward and step out of the thicket.

They were soldiers, not bandits she saw. They moved well, their training evident. One man stepped forward while two emerged to either side, far enough apart that she could not see them all with ease. She shifted her body to keep the cart between her and one of the men while she watched the other two.

Bandits would have been better, she thought.

Soldiers who took up raiding in this manner were underpaid, simply bored or both. They looked for entertainment as well as gain and it made them far more dangerous than mere thieves.

“You have a moment to leave this camp,” she stated. “After that, you are responsible for the deaths of your men, not I!”

She lied to them, boldly, brashly. She would not let them leave the grove alive. Her mission demanded their lives now.

The first man into the clearing laughed at her. She could see no insignia upon his worn leather armor, no emblem of who his lord may be, but that did not surprise her. She would have removed all such markings herself, had she been employed by a king and decided to pillage traveler’s camps by night.

His nose had been broken, perhaps several times and hung, twisted above his mouth, turning the smile there into a sneer. He gestured to his two companions to approach her from either side and they obeyed, their acquiescence another sign of soldiery. They obeyed without hesitation.

She could hear the hushed, worried voices behind her as Launo dropped some of the kindling he had gathered for the morning’s fire upon the embers. The tiny flames that sprouted from the smaller bits of wood as they began to smolder cast flickering red shadows across the faces of their invaders. They looked like beasts.

They are little more than that, Karhu thought.

She had given them warning and they had ignored her. She half turned to look over her shoulder at Launo and saw him but a pace away, scythe in gripped in hands tight with fear, his eyes wide. She smiled at him and shook her head.

“I have them,” she whispered. “Stay behind the fire and protect your family. I will need more room to tend to them. You will not be safe this close to me.”

It was Kalle that threw wood on the fire. The boy darted around the flames adding chips and smaller sticks to the pile and stirring up the coals from beneath the ash layer that had built up since their dinner. He the threw the last of the smaller wood on the flames as they grew and put the knotted end of one thick bough into the flames, leaving the handle of the brand angled out toward Miina.

Clever lad, she thought. Always have extra weapons to hand!

She let her gaze linger over the small family huddled by the fire. Pudgy, florid Launo stood before his wife, his ashen face fierce. Kielo stood behind him with her cooking blade in one fist, the other hand clasped around the tunic of the baby holding tightly to her skirts. Kalle was furthest back just along the shadows of the trees and inched along the line of firelight. His eyes shifted from her and moved past to watch the men behind. His face grew suddenly afraid.

She wanted to time her movement just so. Too soon and he could stop short or worse impale himself on her blade and it would take precious moments to remove the sword from his body. Too late and he would run within the circle of her swing and strike her arm aside or could take the force of the blade on his upper arm, protected by the flaps of leather riveted to the shoulder of his armor.

If she were stronger, the leather covering the shoulders would not have helped him enough. The same type of blow from a man, with more strength to the strike, could cut through the leather to damage the arm.

She could hear him as Kalle’s eyes widened. The man’s sudden intake of breath and quick steps to close with her were loud in the stillness. She spun around and used the momentum of her body to swing her sword arm in a wide arc. He strode toward her, arms raised to grab her, dagger in one hand.

She had his pacing aright. The tip of her blade dug a neat furrow across his chest as it sped through the last of her turn. A heartbeat after, her left hand whipped around, dagger rigid in her fist. The tip of the knife found the newly carved seam and, with the weight of her spin behind it, plunged into the side of his chest, almost beneath his raised arm. The leather had been weakened enough that the force of her thrust broke through, though not with ease.

She felt the jar of the strike through her arm and shoulder and could feel the shudder of metal as the blade struck a rib and slid over the narrow bone and past. It was done in an instant. She yanked her hand back the moment she felt her momentum cease. To wait would let his muscles clench with pain and try to keep her blade stuck fast in his side.

A rush of air and blood came with her blade and she knew she had punctured his lung even before his ragged wheeze sought to take more air. It was a slow death, but death would take him as his lung filled with blood from the wound.

He fell to his knees and tried to draw a breath. She brought her knee up as he fell and struck his chin a sharp blow.

It was a space of moments. She could see Kalle give a start as he watched her brutal strike then dart into the blackness at the edge of the grove.

The remaining warriors stopped short and drew their blades, as far from each other as they could be without letting Launo get behind them. They were cautious and that was bad for her. As soon as one lunged at her the other would have a chance to strike unseen.

They were sure of themselves; she could see it in their eyes.

They have made a habit of this, it seems, she thought, but they have never hunted bear on these secret nightly jaunts.

She narrowed her eyes at the man closest to her and grinned at him as she stooped for the limb Kalle had left in the fire pit moments ago. It was a sapling, she found, as she grabbed the wood from the fire. The boy had shaken the dirt free from the roots earlier in the evening, but even still damp from the earth the roots had begun to burn a bit in the moments it lay in the embers.

She threw the brand end over end at the soldier. He yelled as the charred roots struck his chest and sparks flew up into his beard and face.

Karhu turned to face the last assailant the moment she threw the makeshift torch, but she could hear the flapping of the second man’s hands on his face and chest, his curses rising in volume.

The last man already darted toward her. He sped toward her with a growl, arms spread and sword low, an experienced fighter. He slowed before he reached her and slid to her left, well beyond the range of her sword. She would not last in a prolonged fight with the two of them so she made step forward, much closer than he expected her to be.

He made a swipe at her with his blade. It’s longer reach should have been an advantage to him but her sudden closure made for a sloppy strike. She used the flat of her own blade to beat his aside and stepped closer still.

The blade clinked sharply against hers and yielded, just a hands breadth, enough for her to wrap her left arm around his right. She pulled his sword arm down and hugged it against her hip.

It was a dangerous game for her to play against a man. She was strong, but lacked the weight she needed to grapple with him in this manner. It was only his surprise at her maneuver that kept her safe for a moment.

She lifted her sword and beat the pommel against his cheekbone. He had a helmet on his head but it was little more than a small metal cap with strips of leather bound to it. He wore it to protect his head from a blow from above, but never his face. He let out a roar of pain and rage. She heard his drop to the ground behind her as his other hand wrapped around her waist. He squeezed her, tried to crush her ribs, but she did not give him enough time. Her sword arm was still free and she struck him again with the pommel, and a third time. She felt his arms loosen as his head wobbled back. His knees buckled and he fell as she stepped away.

An Excerpt From Chapter Eight of Huntsman

From Chapter 8

 

The manse fairly sparkled in the torchlight. Aila puffed a stray lock of wheat-brown hair from her face and lowered herself to the bench by the hearth.

For but a moment, she told herself. It had been a busy day and for just a breath or two, she allowed herself the luxury of sitting. There was time before the guests began to arrive and if she did not admire the work of her labors now, she knew she would not.

Armed with her mother’s exacting lists, and her small army of servants behind her, Aila had waged the week-long battle against the busyness of the harvest time and the year’s hold on the keep. All chores suffered until the harvest was in.

Rushes, newly pulled from the bales stored away, gave an herbal scent to the hall before her. The hearthstones, newly scrubbed, looked bright, cleansed of the accumulated soot of the summer’s fires.

She had seen to the whole house, not just the hall, while her mother had tended the servants lifting the pole into place in the garden, and ordered the grounds cleared of the autumn’s debris.

The maids aired and refreshed their few guest rooms as well. Most beds would lay empty tonight. The food would be laid out when the steam was thick in the saunas and their guests would arrive soon after their own baths.

Their home was as ready for their Kekri Night guests, within and without, as she could make it.

Aila had gained a new perspective on her mother’s many tasks.

She rose from her bench as an elderly servant entered through a door just behind Aila. She could hear the wheezing breath, a chest cold the older woman had been unable to rid herself of, and could smell the poultice she wore to fight the ragged cough.

“I am ready, Helmi. Please have Riikka lay out my clothes.”

“I beg your pardon, my lady but he would not wait…” Helmi’s voice held ill-concealed annoyance.

“You look even lovelier than I remember, Aila.”

She felt a flash of warmth as she heard his voice, the rush strewn hall around her seemed to grow dimmer.

Aila turned slowly to meet his gaze. Haste to do so would be unseemly.

No! Helmi, why did you bring him now? Aila could see herself in her mind, dirty, tired and unkempt. She thought to excuse herself, to flee the hall as quickly as she was able then refused the idea. She felt a surge of indignation.

If you are so bold as to arrive this early and insist upon entering my hall, then you shall view me disheveled, sir!

Eyulf stood before her, bowed slightly at the waist as was fitting for such an occasion.

He was leaner than she remembered as well, not unwell, to her eyes, simply thinner than last winter. His clothes were over-large for him and had the look of being recently unpacked from a chest; creases and lines across his frame.

Deep shadows surrounded his eyes and he met her look with rather more wariness than before. She had the image of a deer in her mind, poised to bolt though as she took in the guarded look of his features. Her thoughts toward him softened at that.

She smiled as warmly as she dared. He rose from his bow and took the fingers she proffered in his hand. He raised them for a moment and brushed them with his lips. He also squeezed her hand slightly as he did, highly improper but unnoticed by Helmi’s rheumy eyes. She tried to keep her smile from widening while the old woman watched them. He had thought of her. She could sense it in his touch.

He released her hand slowly, more slowly than he ought. He held himself with more confidence than he had before his journey to the Mages.

“Eyulf, you flatter me. I am exactly as I was before you went away, though slightly more soot-smeared. I wish you had waited until I was more presentable.” She lowered her hand to clasp both at her waist, as proper as her mother could wish.

He drew back a step and smiled at her, although it still held a wary look that she disliked. His gaze darted about the room between glances at her.

“I could not, Aila. I have been away far too long and I refuse to wait. The soot is lovely.”

She narrowed her eyes at him.

“I wonder, Eyulf, how you have gained such a honeyed tongue. You were not so well-spoken the last time we met.”

His smile faltered for an instant, then crept back across his features. She saw her Eyulf once more in that smile.

“I learn much, Aila, not just magic,” he said. He raised an eyebrow at her and grinned.

Aila could sense Helmi’s indignation growing behind her with each moment and she turned halfway to face the older woman.

“I will come presently, Helmi. Please, see to my clothing.”

Helmi’s eyes widened. Aila’s raised hand silenced her protests. She waddled from the hall as quickly as she was able but Aila had no doubt that the old woman would head straight to her mother and report Eyulf’s early arrival.

He looked over his shoulder for just a moment to see Helmi depart and held out his hand to her once more.

She took it and entwined her fingers through his. She raised his hand to her face and pressed her cheek against it.

“I have missed you so, Eyulf!” She felt the finger of his free hand brush the stray hairs back from her face. Her mother would be appalled should she hear of it, and would see for herself soon enough if Helmi had her way.

“And I you, Aila. You have no idea how much.” His eyes shifted, taking in the room again and then his head twisted to the door. He gently drew his hand back from her grasp, and she sighed.

He is right to show caution. He has indeed grown from the brash boy I knew last summer,  she thought.

A devious thought passed through her mind. How had his lessons changed him?

“I thought you had little time to spend on aught but your studies, Eyulf, dear. Now I find you skilled in secret meetings. What am I to think, my love, but that you have another woman of the court in keeping somewhere?”

His laughter rang across the hall. It changed her mock pout to a smile as he threw back his head at her jest.

He has not grown so refined after all, she thought.

Shadows on the wall outside the hall warned her. She stepped back from him and composed her face a moment before her mother strode through the arch, followed closely by a scowling Helmi.

Her mother wore her blandest face, one that Aila knew well, and dreaded. Stray strands of her gray streaked brown hair that had come loose from the long braids she habitually wore and the gray woolen dress she wore spoke of her labors in the gardens.

“Eyulf, what a surprise!” The look on her mother’s face showed no surprise at all that Aila could see. She hoped that Eyulf knew enough of her ways by now to realize it. Always, her games came first.

Her fears proved unfounded as Eyulf turned and bowed.

“Lady Sirpa! It is always a pleasure to see you.” Eyulf fairly gushed at the older woman. His bow and clasping of her hand were perfectly timed. Aila hid a smirk behind her hand at her mother’s surprise.

She, too, remembers the Eyulf of ten winters ago. This evening’s entertainment has just grown far more lively,  Aila thought. Eyulf rose from his bow.

“I apologize for my intrusion this early, Lady Sirpa. My mother sent a cart ahead with provisions she wished to share with your household over the Kekri night.” Eyulf gestured at the hall. “My remembrance of your hospitality last summer hastened my steps, Lady.”

Sirpa’s eyebrows arched at his words and skipped to Aila for a moment before she could catch herself.

“I regret not having the welcome cup ready for you, Eyulf. We are just finished with our tasks for the Kekri night celebrations.” Sirpa reached out to take hold of Eyulf’s arm and began to walk, steering him deftly out of the hall and into the passage beyond as she spoke.

I want more time with him!

He spent most of each year in the north with Mage Arnett but he had come home from time to time. Aila had spoken with him a mere handful of times in ten years.

And only twice in the two years we have been betrothed, she thought with a grimace.

“How have your studies fared through the winter? I hear shocking things about the Mages and must know if they are true.”

Eyulf seemed to falter at the question and for the first time since she had heard his voice, he seemed to lose his composure.

Helmi stepped to Aila’s side as her mother drew Eyulf away, and tugged at her sleeve. She slipped her arm free from the maid’s stiff fingered grip on the cloth. She wished to hear his response.

Eyulf had stopped in the center of the passage and looked everywhere but at her mother as he answered.

“I… my studies go well, uh, Lady. I am… pressed… to excel. I know not what you have heard, Lady Sirpa,” he stammered.

The maid grabbed her arm once more. The subtle movements of her mistress were lost on Helmi as she hauled Aila in the opposite direction.

“Come, mistress! Come away and let me make you presentable! Your young man does not want to see you this way,” Helmi grumbled, as they made their way to Aila’s room. “He did not come all this way to court a drudge. You have cobwebs in your hair, mistress!”

Oh! The scandal, Helmi. What will people think if they knew…?  Aila wailed to herself.

She turned before they turned the corner and could make out the shadowed forms of her mother and Eyulf as they walked. It looked as if Eyulf turned to watch her departing as well.

You are wrong, Helmi, she thought. My Eyulf loves me more than that.

She passed the hobbling Helmi and sped along the hall, her weariness of moments ago forgotten now. She burst into her room to find Riikka twirling in front of the dressing table with Aila’s gown held up against her body, head cocked in an effort to view herself in the small mirror in its stand that rested atop the table.

The maid paled at Aila’s sudden entrance and began to sputter apologies. Aila cut off her words with a rushed embrace and half twirl with the dress pressed between them.

“Eyulf arrived early and came to me in the hall,” she whispered to the girl. She could share this with Riikka. Aila was only three years older and found the younger woman easier, by far, to confide in than Helmi. She wanted to share the moment with Riikka before Helmi entered the room and scolded them for their silliness.

“Mistress! What did he say? Is he much changed from last summer?” Riikka’s muffled squeak from within the gown’s folds sounded as excited as Aila felt.

Even Helmi’s entrance and reprimands did not dampen their excitement as Aila dressed for the evening.

//