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Heir of Thunder: Stormbourne Chronicles, #1

Heir of Thunder: Stormbourne Chronicles, #1

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Heir of Thunder: Stormbourne Chronicles, #1

Length:
417 pages
3 hours
Released:
Sep 26, 2016
ISBN:
9781622531547
Format:
Book

Description

The Lord of Thunder has passed, leaving daughter Evelyn Stormbourne to overcome her kingdom's greatest enemies, but first she must embrace her dominion over the sky.

"...it's got swords and horses and dirigibles and pirates and magic and caravans. A fun mix of Lord of the Rings-type high fantasy and steampunkish tech (did I mention there are dirigibles??), blended into a delightful Europe-inspired universe that feels at once new and familiar. ... All in all, this was a delightful read and just the kind of heroine-centric fantasy adventure I've always loved." ~ Mary Fan

The Lord of Thunder's sudden death leaves his daughter, Evelyn Stormbourne, unprepared to rule Inselgrau in his place. Weeks before Evie's ascension to the throne, revolutionaries attack and destroy her home. She conceals her identity and escapes under the protection of her father's young horse master, Gideon Faust. Together they flee Inselgrau and set sail for the Continent, but they're separated when a brutal storm washes Evie overboard.

In her efforts to reunite with her protector and reach allies on the Continent, Evie befriends a band of nomads who roam the world in airships fueled by lightning. She also confronts a cabal of dark Magicians plotting to use her powers to create a new divine being, and she clashes with an ancient family who insists her birthright belongs to them.

If she's to prevail and defeat her enemies, Evie must claim her heritage, embrace her dominion over the sky, and define what it means to be Heir of Thunder.

EVOLVED PUBLISHING PRESENTS the first book in the "Stormbourne Chronicles" series of young adult fantasies, where you'll discover an extraordinary new world, epic adventure, and memorable characters. [DRM-Free]

Books by Karissa Laurel:

  • Heir of Thunder (Stormbourne Chronicles: Book 1)
  • Quest of Thunder  (Stormbourne Chronicles: Book 2)
  • Crown of Thunder (Stormbourne Chronicles: Book 3)
  • Midnight Burning (Norse Chronicles: Book 1)
  • Arctic Dawn (Norse Chronicles: Book 2)
  • Molten Dusk (Norse Chronicles: Book 3)

More Great YA Fantasy from Evolved Publishing:

  • Kingdom in Chains by J.W. Zulauif
  • Two Moons of Sera by P.K. Tyler
  • Dream Warriors by D. Robert Pease
  • The "Chosen" Series by Jeff Altabef and Erynn Altabef

Released:
Sep 26, 2016
ISBN:
9781622531547
Format:
Book

About the author

Some of Karissa’s favorite things are coffee, chocolate, and superheroes, and she can quote Princess Bride verbatim. She loves to read and has a sweet tooth for speculative fiction. Sometimes her family convinces her to put down the books and take the motorcycles out for a spin, or they’ll haunt flea markets, searching for rusty scraps to reuse and re-purpose. Karissa lives in North Carolina with her kid, her husband, the occasional in-law, and a very hairy husky named Bonnie. Karissa is also the author of the adult Urban Fantasy series, The Norse Chronicles, where she puts a modern twist on ancient myths. The first book, Midnight Burning is available now. Her first effort with Evolved Publishing will be the Stormbourne Chronicles, a Young Adult Fantasy series.


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Book Preview

Heir of Thunder - Karissa Laurel

BOOK ONE

EXODUS FROM INSELGRAU

Chapter 1

A rumble of thunder woke me. I shifted under my quilts, turned towards my window, and searched the sky for clouds. Storms always made me smile; made me feel a little less lonely. Black clouds, lightning, and rain reminded me of better times, when thunder was a regular event in our household. My father used to make the loveliest thunder—more like percussion in a heavenly orchestra than cannonade and ordnance. I had never mustered the necessary energy to expulse that kind of force. My attempts always sounded more like the blast of a large pop gun.

Another report rippled through the air, but it sounded wrong this time—a little too sharp and cold for something as organic as thunder. A third, angry blast proved the source was nothing harmonious with nature. The clamor had a cadence, a rhythm, and when I slid out of bed, the vibrations from it quaked through the stones under my feet.

Boom!

1... 2... 3... 4.... I counted off a half-minute and—Boom!—another explosion. I counted a half-minute again, which concluded with another detonation.

My bedroom door flew open, and Gerda rushed in still wearing her rumpled nightgown. The braid she wore for sleeping had slackened during the night, and stiff rust-colored curls sprang around her face. Fear and worry crackled from her like static from a wool blanket. Evie, my dear, you’ve got to get dressed. She pulled me to my feet and yanked my sleeping gown over my head.

What’s going on? I asked.

Gideon was just at my door. He told me have you out to the stables as quickly as possible.

Did he say why?

He did not, but I won’t be the one to contradict him. The look on his face was murderous.

How is that different from any other day?

Boom!

Gerda didn’t laugh, and that worried me more than the persistent racket. What in the world is making all that noise? I asked.

I haven’t had the time to look, but whatever it is, it can’t be good.

I figured out that much for myself, I said under my breath.

If she heard me, she chose to ignore it and tossed me a pair of wide-legged trousers disguised as a skirt.

I slipped them on while she scurried to unearth my boots. I take it we’re not using the carriage?

Gideon said you would be riding.

What about you?

Gerda backed out of my wardrobe, wide rump first, and turned to face me. A stern expression hardened her face as she clamped her hands to her hips, and in a sharp tone said, "You are our main concern, Evie. Let’s get you safely away, and then I’ll worry about myself."

Safely away from what?

Boom!

Glass shattered in a room somewhere below us and the whole house shuddered.

From whatever is making that horrible clatter. Quit asking questions and get dressed! Gerda rarely lost her temper, especially not with me.

Her abnormal temperament stirred me into action. I wrestled a high-collared blouse over my head, buckled on a wide belt, buttoned up a short suede waistcoat, and laced up my favorite riding boots.

She shoved me onto a stool beside my vanity and yanked my hair, forcing it into a tight braid. Your hair’s straight as a stick and slick as a snake. I can never seem to weave it into a proper plait, even when I have plenty of time and my hands aren’t shaking.

Forget it. I’ll twist it up like usual. I reached back to take over the familiar routine, but Gerda smacked my hands away.

No, I’ve almost got it. She grunted once and yanked again.

I winced but had the sense to keep my protests to myself.

There. She retrieved a ribbon from one of her ubiquitous pockets, wrapped it around the end of the braid, and double-tied the knot for reinforcement. I don’t want any of it coming loose while you ride.

I reached back and patted the careful arrangement. Thank you, Gerda. Now, you get dressed and we’ll go.

No! She stomped a stubby foot. "Gideon was clear. He only wants you. You must go. Now."

Another explosion rocked the floor, and Gerda stumbled against the wardrobe. She leaned on the heavy piece of furniture until she regained her footing. The house shook and groaned as something structural gave way. Yells and shouts carried up from the lower floors.

Are you going to meet us? I asked. My heart raced, dancing a flittering beat. Do you know where we’re going?

I don’t, but Gideon will take good care of you.

Tears welled in my eyes, but the steely look on her face kept them from falling. What will you do?

I’m going to get dressed and gather up Stephen and our boys. We’ll be out the door a short bit after you.

Then why can’t you go with me?

Now’s not the time for whining, Evelyn. Be a good girl and do as I say. She used the same mother-hen tactics she had employed when I’d proved to be a tempestuous child. It set the proper tone to rouse me from my panic.

Hug me, I said. I’ll miss you.

She threw her thick arms round me and pressed me into her abundant bosom. I’ll miss you too, my girl.

I inhaled her scent—a mixture of all the herbs in her garden, and especially comfrey, her favorite cure-all.

She squeezed me again and broke away. Gideon will keep you safe, if you’ll listen to him and not let your impetuousness get in his way.

She gathered my raw silk cloak from its hook by the door and tossed it at me.

I snapped it from the air and swirled it over my shoulders. When the cloak caught a beam of sunlight streaming from the window, the fabric shimmered with rainbow swirls like a soap bubble.

"Go now. Hurry." Gerda yelled her final command over the screaming of tortured metal, as if a giant-toothed creature had bitten into the soul of the house.

I hugged her again and dashed out the door.

In the hallway, several of the house’s other occupants hurried past me in various states of dress. Tolick, the all-purpose houseboy, ran toward the stairwell. He had managed to button on his trousers but had neglected to remove his nightcap.

On the bottom floor, I turned for the kitchen.

The cooks had abandoned their breakfast preparations. A large porridge pot bubbled over on the stove, and thick strips of bacon burned on a griddle. A babble of excited voices drifted in from distant corridors, but no one came my way as I scurried toward the rear door of the kitchen. Beyond the exit, my route led me through Gerda’s garden, a sanctuary of herbs and vegetables protected by a stone wall enclosure rising high overhead. Thick vines of ivy and budding wisteria climbed the tops of those barriers. She would need to prune them soon, but we were all running, fleeing these familiar walls.

Would we return before the ivy took over? Would the house survive long enough for it to matter?

I ran past the garden’s iron gates and my breath puffed in thin, vaporous spurts. Spring had arrived less than two weeks ago, and the mornings still lingered in the recent days of winter. I pulled up my hood and wrapped my cloak tighter around me as a shield against the cold.

At that moment, I could have turned around for an unobstructed view of my house, but that would have meant witnessing its destruction. The house cried to me, but what relief could I offer? A feeling of helplessness settled in my gut like curdled milk. Father would have known what to do, but I was merely his daughter, his masterwork left incomplete by an untimely death.

I hacked a derisive cough at that thought. As if death ever comes at an appropriate time.

Curiosity overrode my fear. I slowed, stopped, and turned on my heel. As I wheeled around and looked up, my heart plummeted to my feet.

The house stood ablaze, smoke billowing from several of the first floor windows. Its wooden floors and beamed ceilings would surely feed the flames and turn the billows into a monstrosity of acrid, black plumes. The exterior might survive the fire—an ancestor had constructed Fallstaff from large granite blocks that had withstood tide and time for hundreds of years—but it wouldn’t survive the volley of explosive fodder from the trebuchet now installed on the front lawn.

One of my father’s war manuals showed illustrations of that vicious machine, but I had never seen one in reality. Someone with a brain for engineering had rigged this one with a system of levers, pulleys, and gears. A steam engine automated its processes, and every few seconds a conveyer belt fed another iron missile into a waiting bucket attached to a long wooden arm. From this distance, the trebuchet looked like an assemblage of toothpicks and hungry metal teeth, yet its ammunition tore holes through Fallstaff’s stone and mortar like a moth devours a wool sweater.

A group of men stood around its base, guarding the machine with rifles and crossbows. No one tried to engage them or fight back, as all were too concerned with escape. From that distance, they appeared as little more than stick figures.

I stepped closer in hopes of recognizing their uniforms or gear.

Evie, what are you doing? Gideon’s unmistakable bellow interrupted my thoughts. My father’s young horse master waited at the gate of the small paddock beside the stables, clutching two reins in his fist. One leather line led to his giant black stallion, Gespenst—a Dreutchish name meaning specter, or ghost. The other tether led to my horse, Nonnie, a gray-coated mare with a dappled rump.

Gideon, what’s happening? I jogged toward him. Something exploded behind me, and the aftershock sent me stumbling, but Gideon’s free hand shot out and latched around my elbow. I locked eyes on his stoic face and refused to look back.

This is no time for an explanation, he said. Mount up, we’re riding south. He tossed my horse’s reins in my direction and slid onto Gespenst’s back with an ease that demonstrated his familiarity with the saddle.

Nonnie snorted and rolled her eyes, announcing her displeasure over the noise and brusque treatment she had inevitably received from Gideon as he’d arranged her tack.

Nonnie and I managed most of our adventures on nothing more than wild oats and a few apples lifted from the larder. This journey would undoubtedly last longer than any we had taken in all our years together, and she must have felt some of the same trepidation as I. She stomped an eager hoof as I mounted, and when I nudged her forward, she fell into a canter behind Gideon and his horse.

Gespenst bore saddlebags stuffed to the brim. The tip of Gideon’s compact repeating crossbow, Sephonie, poked from the edge of the flap.

I thought of my own crossbow, which I’d never felt a need to name, and wondered if it had made its way into Nonnie’s packs. Gideon could take a stag from horseback with one shot; I could shoot a slow-moving rabbit... if I had time to focus and plenty of solid footing.

I had no idea where we’d go, but at least we wouldn’t starve on our way there.

Chapter 2

The sounds of demolition faded as we rode, but the smell of my burning home lingered in my nose for hours. Gideon and I rode in silence throughout the morning, the sight of his broad back growing familiar as the day passed.

He wore a long suede coat, dark riding breeks, and tall leather boots. His honey-brown hair trailed between his shoulder blades in a long, loose tail. His hair was the only soft thing about him. Rigid angles composed his shoulders and face, and one deep dimple accented his left cheek. It appeared whenever he grimaced.

I had no memory of ever seeing him smile.

We rode south through a thick forest. In summer, the rowans and oaks unfurled their leaves in a canopy thick enough to block much of the sunlight. On this early spring day, however, the first tender and newly sprouted shoots sifted the sunlight over us in lacy patterns that softened Gideon’s austere figure.

Even then it took me the whole morning to work up the nerve to speak to him again.

Gideon? I prodded Nonnie with my knee, moving her into a trot. When she brought me even with Gespenst, I reined her back to a walk. Can’t you tell me anything?

He peered at me from the corner of one, cold eye. There’s a stream about a half mile ahead. We’ll take a break then.

I nodded and dropped back into place at Gespenst’s rear.

We followed nothing resembling a trail, and Gideon seemed unconcerned with the one we left as we traveled, but when we reached the water, he took care to lead his horse downstream a short distance before dismounting in the midst of a thick copse of cattails.

Gespenst slurped the water in greedy gulps, and Nonnie went to join him after I slipped from her back.

Gideon dug in one of his packs and retrieved two strips of venison jerky. He tossed one to me before crouching and shoving his water skins into the stream. I didn’t have time to do this before we left. Make sure you fill yours now. We won’t stop again until sunset.

The recent snowmelt from the mountains caused the water to rush in a torrent and come to the bank’s edge.

Gideon had filled both his skins before I finished digging mine from Nonnie’s saddlebags. I knelt and drank straight from the stream, sipping from cupped hands. Several icy drops dribbled down my neck, and I squealed at the shocking cold.

He spun in my direction, grasping a dagger in his fist, and assessed our surroundings with a wary eye. What is it?

Sorry, I said. The water was cold.

He grunted and turned back to his bags, stuffing the dagger in a sheath belted to his hip.

Do I get to know where we’re going? I wanted to slip off my boots and shove my toes in the water, but he probably would have disapproved.

On a normal day, his consent or displeasure meant little, but something horrible had happened, and he risked much by taking responsibility for my safety. He deserved a little consideration and respect.

We’re going to Braddock.

Braddock? I had never traveled beyond of the borders of our estate, except for occasional trips into the village, but I had studied the maps in Father’s library and heard stories of his travels many times. Braddock was situated at the extreme southern tip of our island—at least a day’s travel by train, longer by horseback. Why are we going there?

To get a ship.

A ship? My voice sounded small and shaky. I coughed and tried to clear my throat. Will he always feed me information like this—one tidbit at a time?

He stopped his busy work in the saddlebags and answered, keeping his ever familiar back to me. Yes, we’ve got to get you as far away from Fallstaff, and Inselgrau, as possible. Where did you think we were going?

"I don’t know! My panic returned, and my heart crept into my throat. I felt bad enough leaving Fallstaff, but taking a ship meant leaving Inselgrau altogether. Gideon might as well have said he was taking me to the moon. I don’t understand what was happening back there, and I’m not likely to figure it out on my own. Won’t you tell me something, Gideon? ...Please?"

He wore his arrogance like a shield, a façade. I suspected he wanted to keep people away, although I never understood why. When I’d asked him that question, I had expected more of his usual aloofness, but instead he exhaled and his shoulders sagged.

He met my gaze, and the granite in his hazel eyes softened, turning from stone into stormy skies—no less fearsome, but somehow more approachable. You’ve been sheltered, he said. You loved him, and I don’t want to ruin your memories.

Are you talking about my father?

He rubbed his smooth jaw and looked away. I suspected the people of this island would look to fill his place with one of their own after his death. He glanced at me again. The hardness returned to his eyes, as well as the set of his chin. They don’t want another Stormbourne ruling them. I’m surprised it took the people this long.

That doesn’t tell me much. What complaint do the people of Inselgrau have against my family? What offense have we committed? I still don’t understand.

No, I don’t expect you do, and we don’t have time for me to explain it. We need to get around the next town before sundown. I don’t know if we’re being followed, but I don’t want to take chances. We need to keep moving.

The train would be faster.

Obviously, which is why it’s most certainly being watched. And the coach-ways. As long as we stay off the main roads, horseback makes us a lot harder to follow, and we need to be invisible for as long as possible.

A chill trickled down my spine, and I turned away from him before he could see on my face the sickness caused by his words. In my haste to escape, I hadn’t considered the consequences of leaving Fallstaff. My house had been crashing down around my ears, and survival had been my only concern. It was still my primary goal, but it came at the cost of abandoning my home and the people, like Gerda, whom I considered family, especially after my father’s death.

I was young, inexperienced, and lacked powerful allies, the kinds that could have established a counterattack or resistance. How could I have known such a thing would be needed? The only men at arms my father had kept were a small group of trained fighters he had called his Crown of Men. Where were they in my time of need? Why had my father’s horse master been the one to take charge of my security?

Why... why... why? So many questions. So few answers.

Evie? Gideon said my name in a soft way.

I waved him off and busied myself checking Nonnie’s tack and stowing my water skins. His sympathy did little to ease my nerves. Mostly, it made me more uncomfortable.

Ready? he asked.

I nodded and mounted Nonnie, and we fell into place once again behind Gespenst.

For the rest of the day, we kept to ourselves in the hazy twilight of the constant forest. As nightfall approached, we skirted the edge of a small village called Valsparre. Once we had put the town to our backs, Gideon brought us to a halt.

We’ll stop here for the night, he said.

I slipped down from saddle and prepared to make camp, although I had almost no experience with such things. Nonnie seemed glad when I released her from her saddle and bit, and I led her beside Gideon and Gespenst to a nearby stream.

We won’t camp near this creek, he said. It drowns out distant noises, and I wouldn’t be able to hear if anyone’s approaching. When the horses are finished here, come back to the place where I first stopped us.

What are you going to do?

I’m going to start a fire, get some water boiling. I don’t know about you, but it might be nice to have something hot in my stomach. It’s going to be cold tonight.

He was right. The first and most audacious stars already twinkled overhead. The night would grow chilly without cloud cover to hold in the earth’s heat.

The horses dawdled at the water long after they finished drinking. I stayed with them, reluctant to return to Gideon’s somber company. I had chewed on his words for the entire afternoon, and couldn’t balance his statements with my own knowledge. My father had been stern and rigid, but fair and loving. He’d spent countless hours with me, showing me things in his massive collection of books, teaching me how to run a household. He had begun to outline his management of the kingdom, but he never advised me about what to do if I ever needed to flee Inselgrau.

Perhaps Gideon had always been his contingency plan for me in such an instance. Surely, he never expected to die so suddenly, not when there was still so much I needed to learn. Something was wrong, though, no mistaking that. Something had gone terribly wrong, if people wanted to destroy Fallstaff and chase the last Stormbourne away from her home.

Gideon would come looking for me if I didn’t return soon, so I surrendered to the darkness and cold and headed back to camp. I had seen enough disapproval on his face for one day, and Gerda’s warning about not annoying him echoed in my memory—no need to inspire his further annoyance.

Tomorrow, I’ll teach you how to build a fire and set rabbit snares, he said when I returned. I’ve already set some while you were gone. I packed enough dry goods to get us through tonight, but we’ll have to gather food when we can.

I nodded and sank to the leafy ground on the opposite side of the campfire.

A small pot bubbled and steamed on the fire. Hunks of carrots and potatoes swam in a thin broth—vegetables that would withstand the jostling of saddlebags, so it made sense for Gideon to pack them. He had also thrown in a few strips of jerky and a handful of wild onions.

I inhaled, savoring the stew’s homey smell, and my stomach grumbled. You still don’t know if anyone followed us?

He shook his head. I don’t, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. We’ll take turns sitting up tonight, watching, just in case.

For the rest of the night we did everything in silence: eating, spreading our blankets, disappearing into the darkness to take care of private necessities. Through some unspoken communication, possibly voiced in Gideon’s stiff posture, I knew he intended to take the first shift of the watch. I rolled up in my scratchy wool blanket and tried to sleep, but my thoughts ran in circles filled with memories of my father.

I examined each one as it popped into my head, and tried to find something that might support Gideon’s claims. If our people were unhappy with my father as their king, it was new information to me. Either Gideon was wrong, or my father had been careful to keep me ignorant about what went on beyond the gates of Fallstaff.

I hoped it was the former, but my hasty escape and the hard ground under my spine tended to support the latter theory.

Go to sleep, Evie, Gideon said.

How’d you know I was awake?

I can hear you thinking all the way over here.

How do I turn off my thoughts after a day like today? How can you expect me to sleep?

He shifted and leaves beneath him crackled. You’ll regret it tomorrow if you don’t.

It’s not that easy.

It is. Focus on your breathing and nothing else. Empty your mind. Concentrate on the blackness at the backs of your eyelids. You’ll be out in no time.

Does it work for you?

Every time. Like Magic.

***

I came awake with a screech when someone shook my shoulder. A hand covered my mouth, silencing my protest.

Gideon whispered into my ear, It’s me, Evie. Don’t scream.

In the darkness, my other senses took over and, for the first time, I noticed his scent—leather, horses, wood smoke, and something else... probably sweat. His natural fragrance suggested masculinity and strength.

He eased his hand away and said, You’ll need to take over for a while.

I nodded and rubbed my eyes. The tip of my nose was cold and my breath formed thin clouds. I scooted closer to the fire, which burned low but warm.

He motioned toward the flames. There’s some tea left in the pot. You’re welcome to it.

Thank you. I reached for my mug and braved a look at his face. His expression seemed compassionate, although it might have been a trick of firelight.

He immediately curled up in his blanket. Wake me when you feel sleepy again. I only need a couple hours. And if you hear anything, wake me up right away. He rolled onto his side and his breathing evened into deep, somnolent breaths.

The tea tasted bitter and wild, but sipping it kept me occupied and awake. The rest of the night passed in a rush, consumed by more fruitless worrying.

A misty morning light had infiltrated our camp by the time Gideon awoke. You stayed awake all night? he asked when I came back from seeking privacy in a distant thicket.

I shrugged.

You shouldn’t have done that.

Is his voice always so unnecessarily sharp? I didn’t intend to. Morning came quicker than I expected.

His face softened, but in the next breath his mouth turned down. I hope it doesn’t affect your ability to keep up with me today. It’s going to be a hard ride to get us to Braddock in two days’ time.

I’ll be fine. I turned to go check the rabbit snares.

I came back toting two squirming gray and brown hares, and held them up for his inspection. I would have skinned them, but I really don’t know how. Besides, I don’t have a knife.

Gideon paused in his packing and studied the rabbits. We’ll have to remedy that. He crouched and pulled from his boot a short, sharp knife. With a subtle flick of his wrist, he sent the blade stabbing into the soil between my feet.

My breath caught at the unanticipated gesture.

Pick it up, he said. See how it feels.

The knife was heavier than it looked, but the short hilt fit my palm. I had never trained with weaponry, and now found myself wishing I hadn’t led such a sterile life.

Keep the knife in your boot like I did, he said.

I smiled in thanks, but wiped it away in an effort to mirror his serious mood. You don’t need it?

I have more. I’ll skin the first rabbit. You watch and then do the other. His knife flashed, and he slit the poor creature’s throat.

I blanched at the red splatter and the steam rising from the still, warm body. My throat swelled, but I choked back the tears. I hadn’t cried over the destruction of my house, or my separation from its inhabitants. I wouldn’t cry over a dead rabbit, either.

Your turn. He looked toward the other rabbit.

I took a deep breath and hardened my heart. Somehow, I managed to complete the task without succumbing to the revulsion simmering in my gut. The carcass wasn’t cleaned as quickly or neatly as his, but I removed enough skin and left enough meat on the bones to make the bother of roasting it worth the trouble.

I held out the meager offering. Breakfast?

He grabbed the rabbit from me and stabbed it onto a spit he had whittled from a slim branch. He studied my face for a moment, and I wondered what he saw. Hopefully you’ll get better with practice.

He had rarely spared a kind word in the past, so I shouldn’t have expected anything different now.

While the rabbits cooked, I slipped away to water the horses again and refill the water skins. When I returned, Gideon managed a small nod of approval.

Well, that’s progress.

Juices from the meat sizzled on hot coals. It wasn’t roast pheasant or lamb kebobs, but it smelled almost as good. Tasted almost as good, too. I craved a cup of the fine tea Gerda always made in the mornings, but I pushed the notion away. Gideon’s herbal mixture would have to suffice, and it probably provided more nutrition anyway.

The rabbit had a gamey flavor, but my hunger overruled the unpleasant taste. We threw our gnawed bones into the fire when done, and smothered the flames with handfuls of dirt until it stopped smoking.

My rear end protested when I climbed into the saddle. Nonnie and I had spent a lot of time riding together, but never for a whole day, and never so strenuously. Gideon and I fell into our places, him at the lead and me at his back.

How does he know where to go? How does he know what to do?

No matter. If Father had trusted him, then that was enough for me. It had to be. Without resources and connections, I had almost no options. Staying with Gideon seemed the most certain way to ensure my survival.

My father had obviously kept me shielded and naïve, and I had never questioned him. I had lived a happy life, never knowing the detriment of my complacency. No more. Those days were gone, maybe forever. I sat up straighter in my saddle, throwing my shoulders back and raising my chin. Like a snakeskin, or a molting insect husk, I would shed the soft, contented girl of before. I’d develop a tougher hide... and perhaps a set of teeth and claws to go with it.

We stopped again in the early afternoon before we crossed the Tamber, a river bisecting Inselgrau from northeast to southwest. Maybe the lack of evident pursuit had drained some of Gideon’s urgency, because he seemed less anxious to move on. In fact, once he finished refilling his water skins, he stretched out under a copse of ancient willow growing near the bank, and closed his eyes.

My unease around him was out of character. I considered myself smart and friendly, but something about his somber moods and arduous work ethic lent Gideon a cold and unapproachable aura. Even my father, the king of a nation, had found reason to laugh from time to time. What kinds of things inspired Gideon’s humor? I dismissed the question. If he ever expressed amusement, he would most likely temper it with sarcasm. How could such a young man be so constantly morose?

I spied a soft pallet of grass and ambled over to it. My sore rear end protested as I plopped down. The horses grazed between us and seemed glad for the break. The idea of falling asleep in the middle of the day, in such a wide-open spot, stirred my unease, so instead of trying to nap, I drew Gideon’s knife from my boot and studied it again. The blade was shorter than the length of my palm and almost black in color, blunt along the spine, but lethally sharp at the blade. It had sliced through the rabbit skin earlier like butter. Hard, molded leather comprised the hilt, bound with rawhide strings. A thumb rise and a small quillion braced the hilt against the force of a stabbing grip.

Oh, yes, I knew the anatomy, but nothing about its practical use. I had spent so much of my life in books, but perhaps I had never really

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