Suspense R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author SCI FI
Justen is single-born in a world of twins, one always male, one female, who share a telepathic connection. Ostracized among other royals for his bizarre birth, half a soul, a single consciousness, he battles to be accepted. A force grips him, an anger that presses him to develop the clarity that comes natural to twins. When the king disregards succession and names the seventeen-year-old the realm's heir apparent, Justen's survival depends upon mastering his emerging arcane powers and consolidating support, while facing threat of rebellion, assassination, and foreign encroachment.
Urban Fantasy
Chapter 1 Prologue ~ D anael's   vision   overflowed   into   her   brother's   mind,   of   the   two   lying   in   the   bloody grass,   headless.   Sobs   caught   in   both   of   the   twins'   throats.   More   than   any   time   in their   lives,   the   two   known   as   Dan,   their   name   of   clarity,   prayed   her   sight   proved   to be only vivid imagination. But the visions always came to pass. When   she   and   Danen   were   selected   to   take   word   north   of   the   duchy's   seizure, their   master   didn't   have   to   explain   the   danger.   Many   preceded   them.   The   duchy's captors   slung   the   eviscerated   corpses   over   the   castle's   outer   walls   as   an   effective warning against another attempt. “They   won't   string   us   over   the   wall.”   Danael’s   voice   broke.   “Not   knowing   of   our death— Our lords won't make another attempt to get word north, for weeks.” The   two   old   geldings   they   rode   were   blowing   hard.   Dan   were   told   they   couldn't be   provided   proper   mounts   for   their   trek,   for   fear   of   arousing   suspicion.   The   two nags tired within two kilometers from the pen they had been hidden that morning. Dan   knew   the   two   old   horses   well.   They   had   long   been   retired   from   daily   duty, occasionally   put   to   use   by   messengers   between   the   castle   and   the   mines   when   the news   wasn't   urgent.   The   mounts   held   their   heads   high   at   first,   proud   to   again   be meaningfully ridden. But exhaustion struck them quickly. They   weren't   even   out   of   sight   of   the   hills   that   surrounded   High   Coast.   It   would be    a    miracle    if    they    survived    the    hard,    five-day    ride    to    Sea    Steppe,    especially considering   the   mountains   they   must   traverse.   If   Dan   weren't   caught   in   the   open   by the   Ardentian   troops   who   patrolled   the   plains,   they   would   likely   be   left   afoot,   when the poor horses collapsed, loyal to their human masters to the end.    The   thought   of   the   horses'   deaths   made   the   tears   run   fully   down   Danael's cheeks.   The   emotion   grasped   her   chest   tighter   than   thoughts   of   her   own   death,   and that   of   her   brother's.   She   looked   over   at   him.   Danen   knew   her   mind   through   the clarity   that   bound   them,   but   the   ever-practical   twin   scanned   the   horizon   for   the wisp   of   dust   that   would   give   away   a   patrol.   While   the   terror   of   their   predicament raged   as   dramatically   in   his   mind,   he   refused   to   accept   their   death   as   inevitable.   He chose to believe Danael's vision could allow them to avoid her presight. “We have to rest them.” He gave her a mental  nod .   Within   five   minutes   they   reached   a   depression   edged   by   a   knotty   bramble   little more than head-high to the horses. As good a place as any ,” he said. The   horses   headed   for   the   feeble   shade   without   needing   to   be   reined.   Dan climbed   from   their   saddles   as   laughter   jolted   the   brisk   air.   They   knelt,   as   though anyone    who    might    overlook    them    could    miss    the    horses.    Danen    realized    how ludicrous   it   was   to   hide.   He   stood   and   placed   his   hand   over   his   mount's   muzzle,   to discourage the stable-bred horse from calling out to its kind. Dan   held   their   breath   and   listened   to   voices   floating   through   the   brush.   They stood frozen. The moments stretched painfully. Finally, Danael said, “ I'll crawl around the bramble and see .” He   nodded   and   grabbed   her   reins.   She   circled   the   stand,   cringing   at   every   tiny snap   underfoot,   pausing   after   each   sound   that   floated   to   her   across   the   thick   of vines.   She   crawled   her   way   to   the   edge   of   the   rise   and   peered   over.   Her   heart stopped   at   the   sight   of   the   Ardentian   troops,   packing   up   from   midday   repast,   taken against the shade of the bramble. Danael   dropped   to   the   ground.   How   had   she   and   her   brother   managed   to   ride so   near   without   being   seen   or   heard?   Which   way   would   the   warriors   ride?   She   and Danen would be discovered unless the troop rode due east. She   needed   to   breathe.   She   sucked   in   air   as   slowly   as   she   could,   paralyzed   with fear   she   might   make   a   sound,   though   the   troop   raised   their   own   din   as   the   riders joked, fastening saddle bags and tightening cinches. The   troop's   commanders   already   sat   in   their   saddles,   and   reined   their   horses   to their   left,   south.   Danael   pressed   herself   into   the   sand.   As   each   pair   of   warrior-twins passed,   she   waited   for   each   to   look   down   at   her   in   the   shadows,   or   down   the depression where Danen stood holding the horses. New   tears   flowed.   She   blinked   them   away   and   turned   her   head   to   follow   the backs   of   the   last   pair   in   the   column.   The   riders   kicked   their   horses   into   a   trot,   then a faster gait. None looked over their shoulder. Danael stood and ran to Danen. “What should we do?” she whispered. “Not much we can do but ride on.” “We can hide here until dark.” Her suggestion was more a plea. “Six   hours   to   sunset.   Three   more   hours   until   Second   Pass   and   we   have   a   moon to walk by.” “I, I don't look forward to the dark of First Pass.” During   the   pitch   black   of   the   moonless   sky,   even   the   bigcats   remained   close   to their   dens.   During   Third   Pass,   when   the   second   moon   rose,   was   there   truly   enough light to ride safely. Danen   nodded.   “Longer   this   takes,   the   sooner   we   run   out   of   food   and   water, eh.” “Aye. We best go. They're gone. Likely keep riding away from us.” “I know,” he said. “I'm scared too.” They   rode   less   than   a   kilometer.   Climbing   a   dune,   Danael   looked   south.   The Ardentian column raced after them, dust swirling. Dan   kicked   and   pleaded   with   the   geldings   to   run,   but   the   Ardentian   battle mounts caught up with them in minutes. Encircled   by   the   troop,   Dan   sat   in   their   saddles   staring   back   at   the   passive expressions   facing   them.   Danael   thought   of   the   corpses   hung   from   the   walls,   the stench, flies, and circling vultures. The   geldings   blew,   heads   drooped,   relieved   their   latest   exertion   was   over.   They reached   back,   threatening   to   bite   the   ankles   of   their   riders,   to   encourage   them   to give them water. Danael's heart ached to get down and answer the horses' thirst. What   would   happen   to   the   two   old   geldings?   She   hoped   the   warriors   would   free them   of   their   tack   so   they   could   enjoy   some   time   on   the   plains   before   they   made their way back to their stables. They won't harm them, will they? ” she asked Danen. She   felt   his   shudder,   the   pain   of   his   tightened   muscles,   his   disappointment,   and fear. The   commanders   of   the   troop   kneed   their   horses   forward.   Danael   mentally practiced   what   she   had   planned   to   say,   to   explain   why   they   were   out   alone   on   the plains.   She   stole   a   glance   at   Danen,   to   comfort   him.   She   didn't   see   the   warriors' swords flash from their scabbards, but she heard the shhh  of the steel. It   was   quick.   Dan   felt   the   blades   at   the   same   moment,   so   neither   had   to   feel   the wrenching pain of their twin. Chapter 2 ~ I n   the   two   years   since   Justen's   ascension   to   the   king's   council,   he   struggled   to   find time   for   his   own   pleasures.   But   he   couldn't   leave   without   performing   this   minor chore.   The   beggars   stood   patiently,   faces   turned   politely   for   the   ground.   Justen often   chatted   with   them,   but   today   he   was   impatient   to   be   on   his   way   for   the heights.   He   pulled   coins   from   the   pouch   at   his   belt   and   handed   four   midsilvers   to each of his regulars, receiving their usual, subdued, “Thank you, m'Lord.” There   were   two   Justen   didn't   recognize.   Shaika   throated   a   deep   growl,   hackles bridging,   as   he   stepped   up   to   the   strangers.   Justen   tried   to   read   the   hound,   but   the emotion   was   subtle,   instinctive.   She   pressed   against   his   leg,   encouraging   him   to stay away from them. He   handed   them   five   largecoppers   apiece.   Their   weathered,   ruddy   complexions made   them   appear   older   than   their   auras   suggested.   Their   features   were   harsher than   the   common   Plainsman,   with   high   cheekbones,   prominent   noses,   penetrating dark   eyes,   thick,   black   brows.   Their   clothes   though   worn,   appeared   less   soiled   than those   of   the   average   beggar.   These   hadn't   been   at   Sea   Steppe   long.   They   still   kept their   heads   covered,   as   one   would   away   from   castle   or   manor.   Their   strong   hands had   not   known   peace.   Well-worn,   working   hands.   But   the   two   didn't   bear   the   years of unkempt stains from living outdoors, sleeping on the ground, in shop doorways. The   inconsistencies   piqued   Justen's   curiosity   more   than   his   hound's   concern worried   him.   What   was   it   about   these   two?   He   considered   reading   them,   but   only for   a   second.   The   exiled   experienced   enough   degradation.   But   these   weren't   in   the same   straights   as   his   regulars.   On   the   road?   Perhaps   temporarily   found   themselves in hard times. The cliffs waited. He turned and marched into the grass. The   cool   breeze   nipped.   The   sun   warmed.   Even   if   he   was   cold   on   one   side   and overly   warm   on   the   other,   it   was   still   better   than   the   drudgery   of   court   for   the afternoon. Behind   the   granite   walls,   monotony   dulled   his   mind.   Walking   down   a   hall   or hurrying   up   a   staircase   he   didn't   notice   the   scraping   of   feet   or   the   swishing   of   silks. The   constant   hum   of   conversation   and   activity   was   hypnotic.   It   took   a   shout   or   a slamming scabbard to bring notice. Justen   reveled   in   the   current   menagerie   of   sounds,   smells,   and   sights.   He   could see    the   scurrying   rodents   in   the   tall   grass,   hear   their   rush   to   escape   Shaika.   Two   in panicked   flight   crisscrossed   to   keep   the   hound   confused   about   their   direction.   The dust   stirred   from   the   winter-brown   grass,   mixed   with   the   living   smells   of   the   green undergrowth and decaying vegetation. The   breeze   whistled   off   his   ears.   He   changed   the   tone   by   turning   his   head,   and played   with   it   for   a   moment.   He   focused   on   the   different   sounds   of   his   soft   boots, scraping through the grass, the crunch of gravel, the rasp of stone against stone. How   would   it   feel   to   share   these   sensations   with   a   sister?   Everything   screamed his   solitary   existence,   even   his   name,   representing   just    a   single   child.   Would   he   live the   entirety   of   his   life   alone?   A   year   from   reaching   his   majority,   such   a   worry   wasn’t worth the time spent fretting. Finding   a   match   to   accommodate   four   individuals,   two   sets   of   twins,   was   a chore.   Shared   consciousness   demands   mutual   consummation.   Twin-pairs   destined to   mate   twin-pairs,   a   symbiosis   of   emotions.   The   hunt   for   suitability   took   much consideration. Why were arranged pairings banned? He would never reconcile that in his mind. It'd   be   much   simpler,   if   not   romantic.   There   was   little   romance   anyway.   After coupling,   they   might   never   see   their   mates   again,   as   each   set   of   twins   remained within their own clan, brother and sister raising her twins. Finding   a   mate   for   him   would   be   harder.   No   woman   could   leave   her   brother unmated to extend Dyfydian rule. He would be the last. Justen   had   been   skirting   the   cliffs   for   fifteen   minutes.   He   reached   his   private place,   high   on   a   headland   that   reached   as   far   out   into   the   ocean   as   any   point   within several days’ ride. In   three   directions,   ocean   extended   across   the   horizon.   The   wind   never   calmed here.   The   surf   below   roared,   only   the   screech   of   birds   discernible   over   it,   their   calls at a pitch, anxious over his intrusion. Standing   at   the   edge   of   the   outcropping,   he   leaned   out,   into   the   wind.   The waves   crashed   against   the   rocks   forty   meters   below.   The   earth   careened   into   the pummeling   clouds.   The   tangle   of   gulls   floating,   diving   along   the   cliffs,   added   to   the exciting rush of vertigo that tightened his gut. Northwest,   the   pier   and   docks   jutted   into   the   bay.   A   ship,   braving   the   threat   of sudden winter storms, followed the coastline. Justen   stepped   back   and   sat   between   boulders   to   get   out   of   the   wind.   He   leaned against    the    weather-smoothed    surface    of    the    stone    and    settled    down    with    his simple meal and text. Shaika lay close in the sandy turf for a nap. It   only   took   moments   to   lose   himself   in   the   politics   of   his   predecessor   four- times removed, the people and events that solidified his family's dynasty. ~ T he   sun   hung   low.   If   he   didn't   leave   soon,   the   portcullis   of   Eastgate   would   be lowered,   locking   him   out   for   the   night.   He   stood   reluctantly,   muscles   tight,   joints stiff from sitting in one position. He had to hurry. Shaika   off   his   hip,   he   worked   into   a   run,   picking   his   way   around   the   crags   and rocks.   The   land   fell   steeply,   leveled   out   for   a   kilometer,   easier   ground   where   he picked   up   his   pace.   The   land   rose   again   as   they   approached   the   walls   of   the   castle. Justen   could   make   out   the   gate   hidden   in   the   shadows,   and   the   guards   at   the entrance. Still   a   half-kilometer   away,   he   couldn't   rely   on   them   keeping   the   portcullis open,   even   if   they   saw   him   coming.   Ignorant   warriors   followed   orders   to   the   letter, incapable   of   applying   common   sense,   if   they   had   any.   He   pressed   into   a   sprint.   The spikes of the portcullis came to view, descending from the battlements. “Go, Shaika.” Perhaps the hound's appearance would make them hold up for a moment. Shaika    reached    Eastgate    in    seconds.    Over    Justen's    heavy    breathing,    her insistent   bark   echoed   within   the   granite   barbican.   The   progress   of   the   portcullis stopped,   and   Justen   mentally   praised   his   friend.   As   he   neared   though,   he   realized something   wasn't   right.   She   maintained   an   angry   crescendo.   Justen   pushed   his pace to his endurance. He   ran   under   the   half-lowered   portal   and   fear   for   his   friend's   safety   struck   him like   a   blow   to   the   chest.   Shaika   had   taken   her   task   seriously.   Four   warriors   circled her, their swords drawn, ready to strike. “Stop!” Justen's   shout   resounded   against   the   arched   passageway.   The   two   lower-ranked warriors   backed   away   and   lowered   their   weapons.   Shaika   quieted,   and   sat.   But   the two other warriors shifted toward Justen. Shaika growled. No   one   moved   for   a   moment.   It   gave   Justen   time   to   think,   and   catch   his   breath. Sweat   stung   his   eyes.   He   wiped   his   brow   with   his   sleeve   and   blinked   to   clear   his vision. He   couldn't   sense   any   recognition   from   the   two   warriors   who   challenged   him. They   wore   the   entwined   red-and-white   cords   of   Warren   Port,   not   the   Dyfydian- blue   of   Sea   Steppe.   Neither   could   he   recall   seeing   them   before.   But   even   if   they   had never    met    him,    he    wasn't    someone    anyone    of    the    realm    couldn't    identify    by description.   There   was   no   one   taller,   thinner.   Called   scrawny,   and   much   worse   to his back. But, for his hike he dressed more like a peasant. No silks. The   angry   warriors   were   big-boned,   shoulders   as   wide   as   Justen's   stallion's. They    wore    their    yellow-brown    hair    cropped    short,    tied    at    their    napes,    donned darker    leathers    prevalent    in    the    north.    A    ragged    scar    split    the    brother's    lip, reaching the edge of his nose, perhaps an old training accident. More likely a tavern brawl. Justen   sensed   their   seething   hatred,   desire   for   blood   and   compensation   for   a slight. Harelip leaned forward, shifting the grip of his sword. Avoid   a   defensive   posture.    His   great   grandsire   frequently   expressed   the   benefit of that strategy. “Now   that   my   hound's   under   control   we'll   go   and   let   you   get   on   with   your business. I apologize for the inconvenience.” He    stepped    to    make    his    way    around    them,    but    the    warriors    squared    their shoulders to him. Blazes. They intended to do as warriors do, press their authority to its maximum. The   rage   welled   within   Justen's   gut.   The   emotion   didn't   originate   here.   It   wasn't new.   He   still   failed   to   understand   it.   As   though   it   grew   from   others'   emotions, energized and magnified by—What? The intensity far exceeded the situation. Justen drew more strength into his aegis to fight the anger. “I'm of the king's household, returning late from an errand,” he said. Claiming to be an heir to the throne, dressed as he was, would be unbelievable. The   two   warriors   still   looked   for   a   way   to   draw   at   least   symbolic   blood.   Justen lifted his hand to display his signet, to prove he belonged. “See?” If   they   bothered   to   look   at   it,   the   ring   would   have   made   it   clear   he   was   neither an   intruder,   or   just   of   the   king’s   household .   The   enormous   sapphire   alone   would shout out his station—a ring no one below the highest caste would wear. They edged their stance broader. Shaika growled, hunched, preparing to lunge. “Heel, Shaika.” The   command   brought   her   to   his   side.   Justen's   aegis   welled   with   the   power behind    the    anger.    He    reached    out    to    the    warriors    mentally,    pressed    calming emotions upon them. He willed them to step back. Without   another   word,   without   consent,   he   led   Shaika   past   them.   They   turned to   continue   facing   him.   None   uttered   a   word.   But   most   importantly,   neither   did they   try   to   stop   him.   Justen's   bristling   aura   filled   the   chill   air.   He   focused   every sense   behind   him,   listening,   feeling   the   four   pairs   of   eyes   boring   into   his   back. Hatred emanated from two of the warriors—relief from the others. The   only   sound   within   the   gatehouse   walls   were   the   shuffle   of   Justen's   soft boots,   and   the   click   of   Shaika's   nails   on   the   cobblestone.   The   muscles   in   Justen's shoulders and neck tingled. Rivulets of sweat trailed down his back. Let me never cross the path of those two Warrens again. Distance   from   Eastgate   brought   some   comfort.   Preoccupied   still,   Justen   walked almost   the   length   of   Keep   Street   before   he   noticed   the   bustle   of   activity.   A   throng   of dismounted   riders   filed   into   the   stables.   The   shadows   had   darkened,   yet   even   a half-furlong   away   it   was   obvious   the   riders   wore   neither   plains   nor   northern-styled clothing. They moved like guests, politely following their hosts' lead. No   merchant   caravans   were   expected.   Through   the   iron   lattice   of   the   Westgate portcullis, others struck a camp. Where did they come from? The   voice   of   the   king's   secretaries   rasped   from   inside   the   stables.   They   would   be unpleasant   to   be   around   the   foreseeable   future,   most   immediately   angry   about   the timing   of   their   visitors'   arrival.   Tarel   were   castle-bred   and   strongly   believed   sunset sent   brother   and   sister   to   their   berths.   They   hated   burning   an   unnecessary   torch,   as though pitch was sacred. Tarel   would   be   more   unpleasant   tomorrow.   There'd   be   hell   to   pay,   a   caravan making   its   way   to   the   very   gate   of   the   realm’s   capital   without   warning   from   a contingent guard. Justen   could   guess   the   very   words   the   secretaries   would   use   the   next   day   in court.   Be   fewer   equestrians   around   Steppe   for   some   time.   They'd   be   joining   their warriors on the plains. With   the   new   excitement,   Justen   felt   the   unexplained   anger   flow   away.   It   was difficult   to   keep   from   turning   and   running   for   the   king's   chamber.   Justen   was   eager to   see   how   his   beloved   mentor   would   take   the   news,   if   the   newcomers   were   indeed not   Plainsmen,   or   Northerners.   It   had   been   generations   since   southern   merchants crossed the border. Justen   had   a   likely   excuse   to   visit   the   stables.   He   needed   to   see   after   Shaika.   It wasn't   a   good   excuse,   but   then,   he   didn't   really   need   one.   He   stepped   into   the   fold of new arrivals, studying their faces and attire. Darker-skinned.   The   men   for   the   most   part   bearded.   They   wore   no   leather except   for   their   boots.   Terra-colored,   flowing   garments.   They   weren't   obviously armed. The folds of their clothing had to hide blades of some kind. He liked them without an introduction. Their auras were warm and open. Most   of   the   guests   followed   the   corridor   to   the   right,   for   the   common   stables. Only six stepped deeper into the royal stables. All   of   the   mounts   were   lean,   and   not   the   same   boring   Northern   brown.   They were    gray,    dun,    chestnut,    or    black.    Hands    taller    than    a    Northern,    perfectly muscled. They would be good runners. Look forward to racing Shadow against them. Silvers    to    be    won.    Justen    could    anticipate    better    competition    than    he    was accustomed.   Had   to   get   the   races   underway   before   their   owners   spent   much   time   in the commons, hearing of Shadow's speed. Though   trail   dusty,   every   mount   graced   handsome   bridles,   and   the   quickly-shed tack   was   of   light   design,   excellent   for   the   horse,   if   not   the   best   for   the   rider.   The Northern   rider   preferred   a   heavily   padded   saddle,   better   for   his   own   backside.   The visitors    chose    to    see    to    their    horses    personally    instead    of    leaving    them    to    the stable's servants. His respect for them grew. These were horsemen. Justen   searched   for   Tarel.   After   assigning   servants   to   see   to   the   Southerners' needs,    they    must    have    withdrawn.    Justen    considered    introducing    himself,    but decided to hold back. He wasn't properly dressed to represent his king. He   grabbed   a   stool   and   a   curry   brush   and   sat   against   a   stall   door   to   groom Shaika.    As    he    brushed    the    thistles    from    the    hound's    coat,    he    considered    the magnitude   of   this   visit   from   the   Desert   South.   Contact   was   broken   long   before   the Purge. When had the last southern caravan made its way to Sea Steppe? The   ancient   king   would   certainly   share   his   excitement.   If   it   wasn't   for   protocol, he probably would be in the stables to welcome them. Justen   studied   the   pair   who   appeared   to   lead   the   group.   Tall   and   thin.   The   man, though   younger   than   Justen   would   expect,   wore   a   short-cropped,   peppered   beard. His   sister   had   removed   the   draping   from   her   head   that   freed   a   single,   jet-black braid   intertwined   with   a   gold   chain,   which   trailed   down   the   middle   of   her   back. Striking   features,   high   prominent   cheekbones,   narrow   chin,   coal   black   eyes   that danced with the flame of the wall sconces. A   much   younger,   identical   pair   stood   close   by   unpacking   their   mounts.   They had   to   be   the   leaders'   progeny.   Their   features   stood   out   as   boldly   in   the   torchlight. Probably close to his age, if perhaps a year or two younger. The   girl   had   been   stealing   glances   his   way   earlier,   but   must   have   felt   Justen studying   her,   for   she   turned   on   him.   Instead   of   either   of   them   looking   away,   their eyes held. She broke the silence, but not the grip she held on him. “Would you help me? My mount's skittish, and he's kicked at me lately.” She   had   a   soft,   tired   voice,   as   if   she   needed   to   clear   her   throat.   She   held   up   a hoof pick. Justen was already off the stool and halfway to her side. “Since   leaving   the   plains,”   she   continued,   “we've   learned   to   check   them   often. We   ride   on   stones   constantly   in   the   hills   without   half   the   problems   with   lameness as we've had since coming north.” Yes. From the desert south. Justen   nodded,   having   trouble   finding   his   tongue.   “The   clay.   Smallest   pebble. Stuck.   Bruise   the   furrow.   Of   course   they're   usually   fine   as   soon   as   you   clean   it   out, if you get it early enough.” She   accepted   his   obvious   statement   without   darting   a   look   at   the   rafters.   He was glad to help, even though she didn't need it. He loved the chance to play along. He   took   the   pick   from   her   and   stepped   up   to   face   the   horse.   If   he   was   a   kicker, which   Justen   very   much   doubted,   he   wanted   the   animal   to   know   who   was   working on   him.   He   spoke   softly   into   the   black   stallion's   ear,   scratching   its   chin.   It   was   a magnificent   animal.   Similar   build   as   Pulse,   Shadow's   brother.   Slightly   stockier   than his   own   stallions,   a   marvelous,   wide   star   fell   across   the   side   of   his   face,   mane meticulously   braided   and   clamped   with   silver   tips.   Colorful   beads   woven   into   his forelock. Justen smiled. An animal well cared for by his rider. “Do you start with the front right?” Justen asked. She answered him with a blank look. “Well   then   that's   probably   part   of   your   problem.   Horses   like   routine.   They'll   get to   where   they'll   lift   their   leg   as   soon   as   you   side   up   to   them.   I   recommend   you always start front right, and move up the left.” Justen   felt   almost   giddy,   enjoying   a   chance   to   instruct.   He   stood   against   the horse.   Leaning   over,   he   pressed   into   its   shoulder   and   prepared   to   gently   slap   its   leg. As   he   expected,   the   horse   lifted   his   leg   without   the   prompt,   and   Justen   scraped   the hoof. When he looked up, the girl was immersed in flooding Shaika with attention. Justen's    first    surprise    was    that    the    hound    had    been    so    easily    befriended. Secondly.   How   easily   he   was   taken   in.   With   a   smile,   he   continued   scraping   the stallion's hooves. “What's his name?” she asked. That    moment    the    stable    masters    entered    from    the    common    stables.    They ushered   in   several   youths   toting   supplies   for   the   guests.   When   the   stable   masters caught   sight   of   Justen,   their   faces   washed   with   horror.   The   woman   emitted   an audible gasp as they rushed to him. “My   Lord,   please—”   the   old   woman   stuttered,   about   as   distressed   as   Justen   had ever seen her. Before   the   master   could   finish   her   plea,   the   mother   of   the   girl   showering   Shaika with attention stepped forward. “It's   quite   all   right.   The   boy’s   doing   an   excellent   job.   I've   been   listening   to   him, and he certainly knows his—” The   southern   woman   stopped,   no   doubt   catching   the   stable   masters’   frozen expressions. The   master   gave   one   of   the   stable   hands   a   subtle   gesture   to   take   over   for   Justen. The boy stepped up to him with a bow, and retrieved the hoof pick from him. “We'll finish up here, my Lord,” the stable master said softly. Justen   wasn't   sure   if   he   was   more   uncomfortable   for   being   caught   acting   unlike a   highborn,   being   brought   to   terms   by   the   stable   master,   his   current   dishevelment, being   taken   by   the   girl,   or   the   fear   that   the   newcomers   would   think   he   intended   to mislead   them   about   his   identity.   The   elements   together   raised   new   sweat   across   his back.   His   face   felt   sun   burnt,   probably   well   complemented   by   the   orange   hue   from the sconces. The    merchant    leader's    brother    broke    the    quiet    with    a    chuckle.    He    stepped forward   and   bowed   curtly.   “We've   obviously   mistaken   you   for   someone   you're   not. We   apologize.   Let   me   introduce   my   family.   We   are   Cas—Casis   and   Casia   of   Jattis.” He   motioned   to   his   sister,   and   then   to   their   young   copies   to   step   forward.   “This   is Mar—Marik and Maria.” Justen   returned   their   bows   and   introduced   himself   simply,   omitting   his   title and family name. The   man   looked   left   and   right,   clearly   looking   for   the   expected   twin.   No   matter how many times Justen experienced that, the reminder always twisted his gut. “Lords   Cas,”   Justen   rushed   to   say.   “You   have   much   to   do.   I   best   get   out   of   your way.” The man dipped his head. “I   look   forward   to   speaking   to   you   again   soon,”   Justen   continued.   “I'm   very happy to see people of the south visiting Sea Steppe. I bid you welcome.” The   heat   tinged   deeper   in   his   cheeks.   He   must   have   sounded   like   a   granite gargoyle. The   man's   gentle   smile   broadened.   “Thank   you.   There   were   many   among   my people   who   thought   we   were   fools   for   venturing   north.   At   times   during   our   journey, I found myself agreeing with them. Your hospitality thus far is a good sign.” Justen   cleared   his   throat.   “There'll   be   those   who   aren't   as   happy   to   see   you   as   I am.   Generations   of   hostility   on   the   border   won't   be   erased   easily.   To   this   day   desert marauders nip us from the south.” The man bristled, but someone from his party called out for him. “If you'll excuse me,” the merchant said. “I hope to see you tomorrow.” The    two    siblings    turned    as    one    and    withdrew.    The    two    younger    Jattisians lingered.    They    both    wore    uncomfortable    expressions.    Justen    sensed    they    were interested   in   continuing   the   conversation,   but   not   quite   sure   how.   He   tried   to   put himself in their place, far from home in a strange land, full of curiosity. He    returned    to    his    stool.    The    two    watched    him    groom    Shaika,    as    Justen searched   for   something   to   say.   His   conversational   skills   were   his   worst.   The   king frequently   told   him   he   needed   to   learn   the   art   of   small   talk.   The   old   gentleman would   look   to   the   sky   and   shake   his   head   in   frustration   at   times   over   Justen's impatient words. The   king   once   snapped,   “Words   are   like   condiments   and   wines,   to   be   savored and   shared.   As   a   good   meal,   you   don't   just   jam   a   chunk   of   meat   into   your   mouth   in one uncouth bite and walk away chewing.” Justen   understood   the   analogy,   but   struggled   to   apply   it.   It   escaped   him   how others   could   be   impressed   with   pointless   conversation.   Life   is   short.   There's   so much to learn and experience. How could people waste time thrashing the bushes? “It’s been warm for this time of season.” The weather was always safe. “Yes,” Maria agreed. “It was wonderful all the way here.” Again it turned quiet. “Of course every morning we had a dusting of frost as we got farther north.” Three heads nodded. “He sure is beautiful,” Maria said, looking at Justen's hound. “She,” Justen corrected. “Her name's Shaika.” “A beaut.” “Thank you. She's pretty special. This long hair can be a challenge, though.” There were agreeing nods, and again, quiet. “Casis   says   your   lord   may   send   us   away.   That   this   trip   is   a   big   gamble,   but   if   it works   out,   we'll   be   opening—   He   hopes   your   lord   will   allow   us   to   go   about   our trade. Do you think he will see us?” Maria's words came out in a stream. “I   know   for   a   fact   my   lord   will   be   eager   to   meet   you.”   Justen   spoke   to   them both, but his eyes remained on the striking girl. “Must   a   treaty   be   struck   between   our   lords,   first?   Mother   said   that   if   we're allowed to trade, our proceeds may be heavily taxed.” “Well—”   Justen   chose   his   words   carefully.   “You're   the   first   to   cross   the   border in   generations.   Most   will   be   excited   about   your   arrival.   It   could   mean   the   beginning of peace on our borders.” The girl's eyes narrowed. “Our   tax,”   Justen   continued,   “is   simple   and   fairly   levied.   Though   some   still complain   it's   too   high.”   He   smiled.   “But   I   promise   you   it's   reasonable.   It   covers   very little   of   the   cost   of   protecting   merchants,   such   as   you,   on   the   road.   It   entitles   you assistance   from   any   castle   or   manor.   A   treaty   won't   be   an   issue.   You'll   be   embraced, not discouraged.” Maria's   expression   softened,   but   remained   pensive.   Perhaps   she   expected   a platitude, and by the way he was dressed, certainly looked like no political expert. “It   would   be   nice   to   have   someone   like   you   at   our   side,”   Maria   said,   “when   we meet your king. I hope it's as simple as you suggest.” Justen   stamped   down   a   grin.   They   moved   on   to   lighter   subjects   while   Justen continued   working   on   Shaika.   She'd   get   a   good   grooming   tonight.   Mar   sat   cross- legged   with   him   on   the   hay-strewn   cobblestone.   For   all   three   of   them,   there   seemed an   urgency   to   connect.   They   told   him   of   their   trek   over   the   rough   hills   below   the Divide. “I   was   amazed,”   Maria   said,   “of   the   colors   and   contours   of   the   mountains, foothills,    and    craggy    outcrops.    But    the    plains    had    their    own    beauty.    Waves    of yellow   and   burnt-orange.   The   plateaus   stretched   hundreds   of   kilometers,   to   fall over cliffs into deep, lush valleys.” “My   favorite,”   Marik   said,   “were   the   forests   and   peaks.   We   passed   a   petrified forest north of the marshes.” Justen   listened   closely.   Most   of   his   travels   took   him   north   and   west.   He   knew little    of    the    terrain    farther    south.    Had    never    even    come    across    a    detail    map covering the land south of High Coast, their most southern stake. “We   left   home   three   weeks   ago,”   Maria   said.   “Has   been   challenging.   First   the hills.   Then,   the   trail   disappeared.”   She   raised   her   hand,   her   eyes   wide.   “Those blasted, crevasse crossings.” Justen   found   himself   seized   in   a   very,   less-than-masculine   giggle,   even   fell   back into   the   threshes   for   a   moment.   The   two   first   looked   at   his   sudden   mood   with irritation,   but   quickly   mirrored   smiles.   Maria   struck   Justen   sharply   on   the   knee with Shaika's brush. “Ouch,”   he   said,   rubbing   his   knee.   “Sorry.”   He   pulled   out   sprigs   of   straw   he could feel sprouting from his head. “I didn't mean to laugh at you.” Maria    squished    her    lips    together.    “That's    okay.    First    we've    heard    in    three weeks.” Justen    said,    “Never    thought    about    how    difficult    it    would    be    to    cross    the southern   plains   with   wagons.   We   pack   everything   we   need   on   our   mounts   and   draft animals. Imagine the narrow trenches of the watershed slowed you down a lot.” Marik   nodded.   “Lots   of   shoveling.   We   had   to   tear   down   carts   for   their   planks, which   we   used   as   a   bridge   at   each   crossing.   After   a   dozen   or   so   though,   we   got rather efficient. The depth of some the crevasses was a pain.” “And   they   meander,”   Justen   said.   “If   you   travel   in   a   straight   line   you   can   cross the   same   one   several   times.   Hard   to   avoid   them.   Some   of   the   narrow   ones   are overgrown with grass. You can't sleep in the saddle.” Maria   looked   as   though   she   was   in   her   own   world,   brushing   Shaika.   Marik   told Justen   of   the   things   they   hoped   to   sell,   and   of   their   home,   as   the   stables   emptied. Someone had taken care of Mar's mounts. A   wind   whistled,   soft   at   first,   but   the   gusts   soon   shook   the   storm   doors.   Hay floated down from the rafters. “It's late,” Justen said. “And that storm sounds ugly. We best get to the castle.” Mar retrieved their belongings, hung over a nearby stall. “We still have to find where the two of you will be sleeping.” Justen   walked   toward   the   south   doors,   but   paused   when   he   realized   only   Marik followed.   Maria   stood   quietly,   facing   the   common   pens,   Shaika   at   her   side.   From the   other   side   of   the   rails,   the   braided   stallion   stamped   and   threw   his   head   like Ghost    did    when    she    waited    for    her    slice    of    apple.    The    silent    communication   between   Maria   and   her   stallion   was   as   crisp   to   Justen   as   the   sound   of   a   twig snapping underfoot in a snow-covered forest. The   young   women   had   a   very   strong   aegis.   She   and   Marik   probably   shared extraordinary clarity. The   reverie   complete,   Maria   hurried   to   catch   up,   with   the   very   content   hound tagging   at   the   girl's   heels.   At   the   door,   Justen   shuddered   at   the   howl   of   the   wind. Mar   pulled   together   their   cloaks   and   slung   into   their   packs.   When   there   was   a consensus   nod,   Justen   opened   the   door.   They   were   immediately   buffeted   by   wind and rain. In   the   pitch   black,   the   three   padded   their   way   across   the   courtyard   against angry   gusts.   Step   by   tentative-step   up   the   stairs,   onto   the   landing,   Justen   searched for   the   iron   latch   hidden   in   the   dark   recess   of   the   granite   wall.   His   hand   finally wrapped   around   it,   which   was   cold   as   ice.   He   pulled,   but   the   wind   pushed   it   back, only   to   fling   it   at   him   a   moment   later.   Justen   stumbled   back.   Marik's   arm   wrapped around    him.    Instantly    from    the    connection ,    Justen    felt    a    calm,    quiet    aura—a peaceful clarity of thoughts and images. The   three   hurried   across   the   threshold.   Marik   helped   him   pull   the   giant   door shut.    In    the    shadows,    neither    Marik    nor    Maria    looked    concerned    about    the emotional trespass created by the contact. Justen's mind moved on, and he groaned. “Did you hurt yourself?” Maria asked. “No,    I    was    just    thinking    about    your    encampment,    the    pier,    and    the    docks. Sounds   like   the   worst   storm   we've   had   this   season.   I   hope   everything   got   secured   in time.” “We're very efficient striking a camp,” Marik said. The   rumble   of   thunder   echoed   for   a   five-count.   A   severe   shiver   racked   Justen, only partially caused by the cold. He wiped rain off his face. The   orange   glow   of   a   sconce   far   up   the   hall   shimmered   off   the   damp   stone. Justen   led   them   to   the   main   commons.   Surprisingly,   the   hall   wasn't   empty   despite the   late   hour.   A   couple   servants   wiped   down   benches,   and   a   few   other   Jattisians lingered after their meals. There   was   still   some   food   laid   out   on   the   serving   tables,   but   Justen   and   his friends   were   more   interested   in   warming   up.   Unfortunately,   the   great   hearth   that monopolized   the   center   of   the   broad   chamber   had   been   smothered   due   to   the storm.   Justen   expected   that,   but   there   were   still   pitchers   aligned   across   its   ledge, still warm to the touch. Mar chose a dark, bitter ale. “This'll    make    a    chunk    of    cheese    taste    good    and    sweet,”    Maria    mumbled, hunching her shoulders in a shudder. Justen   preferred   his   drink   on   the   lighter   side.   He   sniffed   at   the   pitchers   until   he found   a   mulled   wine.   He   crushed   two   slices   of   an   orange   into   his   mug   before pouring. The   three   sat   at   the   base   of   the   hearth,   which   still   held   the   heat   of   the   earlier fire.   They   were   quiet   for   several   minutes,   allowing   the   drink   and   stone   to   replace the chill. Justen gulped down the last of his mug, ready for food. Each   piled   a   trencher   high,   sat,   and   attacked   their   food,   their   talking   mostly done.   Mar   would   smile   and   nod   to   pairs   of   their   people   as   they   straggled   out   of   the commons. When   they   finished   eating,   Justen   led   Mar   down   the   hallways,   dark   with   the few   sconces   that   hadn't   been   blown   out   by   the   wind.   A   squire   showed   them   to   their assigned chambers. Justen pointed to a lighted alcove. “The   bathes,”   he   said.   “Suggest   you   otherwise   not   explore   on   your   own.   The castle is a labyrinth.” Mar nodded sleepily. “I'll    hunt    you    up    in    the    morning.    Court    isn't    scheduled    until    after    midday repast, so there'll be plenty of time to give you a personal tour.” I hope. Two   excited   though   sleepy   grins   rewarded   him.   He   returned   their   bows.   Maria knelt   next   to   Shaika,   scratching   her   along   the   sides   of   her   neck.   She   gave   the   dog   a hug, and spoke into her ear, too softly for Justen to hear.   © R. Mac Wheeler 2017
Fantasy Dystopian
R .  Mac Wheeler Multi - Genre Author
Lord’s Clarity Chapter 1 Prologue ~ D anael's     vision     overflowed     into     her brother's    mind,    of    the    two    lying    in    the bloody    grass,    headless.    Sobs    caught    in both   of   the   twins'   throats.   More   than   any time   in   their   lives,   the   two   known   as   Dan, their    name    of    clarity,    prayed    her    sight proved   to   be   only   vivid   imagination.   But the visions always came to pass. When   she   and   Danen   were   selected   to take   word   north   of   the   duchy's   seizure, their    master    didn't    have    to    explain    the danger.      Many      preceded      them.      The duchy's     captors     slung     the     eviscerated corpses   over   the   castle's   outer   walls   as   an effective        warning        against        another attempt. “They   won't   string   us   over   the   wall.” Danael’s    voice    broke.    “Not    knowing    of our     death—     Our     lords     won't     make another    attempt    to    get    word    north,    for weeks.” The   two   old   geldings   they   rode   were blowing      hard.      Dan      were      told      they couldn't   be   provided   proper   mounts   for their   trek,   for   fear   of   arousing   suspicion. The   two   nags   tired   within   two   kilometers from   the   pen   they   had   been   hidden   that morning. Dan    knew    the    two    old    horses    well. They    had    long    been    retired    from    daily duty,      occasionally      put      to      use      by messengers    between    the    castle    and    the mines   when   the   news   wasn't   urgent.   The mounts    held    their    heads    high    at    first, proud    to    again    be    meaningfully    ridden. But exhaustion struck them quickly. They   weren't   even   out   of   sight   of   the hills     that     surrounded     High     Coast.     It would   be   a   miracle   if   they   survived   the hard,      five-day      ride      to      Sea      Steppe, especially     considering     the     mountains they   must   traverse.   If   Dan   weren't   caught in   the   open   by   the   Ardentian   troops   who patrolled   the   plains,   they   would   likely   be left      afoot,      when      the      poor      horses collapsed,   loyal   to   their   human   masters   to the end.     The    thought    of    the    horses'    deaths made   the   tears   run   fully   down   Danael's cheeks.    The    emotion    grasped    her    chest tighter   than   thoughts   of   her   own   death, and   that   of   her   brother's.   She   looked   over at    him.    Danen    knew    her    mind    through the   clarity   that   bound   them,   but   the   ever- practical   twin   scanned   the   horizon   for   the wisp    of    dust    that    would    give    away    a patrol.      While      the      terror      of      their predicament   raged   as   dramatically   in   his mind,   he   refused   to   accept   their   death   as inevitable.   He   chose   to   believe   Danael's vision    could    allow    them    to    avoid    her presight. “We have to rest them.” He gave her a mental  nod .   Within    five    minutes    they    reached    a depression    edged    by    a    knotty    bramble little more than head-high to the horses. As good a place as any ,” he said. The   horses   headed   for   the   feeble   shade without     needing     to     be     reined.     Dan climbed    from    their    saddles    as    laughter jolted   the   brisk   air.   They   knelt,   as   though anyone   who   might   overlook   them   could miss     the     horses.     Danen     realized     how ludicrous    it    was    to    hide.    He    stood    and placed   his   hand   over   his   mount's   muzzle, to   discourage   the   stable-bred   horse   from calling out to its kind. Dan   held   their   breath   and   listened   to voices    floating    through    the    brush.    They stood     frozen.     The     moments     stretched painfully. Finally,      Danael      said,      I'll      crawl around the bramble and see .” He   nodded   and   grabbed   her   reins.   She circled   the   stand,   cringing   at   every   tiny snap   underfoot,   pausing   after   each   sound that    floated    to    her    across    the    thick    of vines.   She   crawled   her   way   to   the   edge   of the     rise     and     peered     over.     Her     heart stopped    at    the    sight    of    the    Ardentian troops,   packing   up   from   midday   repast, taken against the shade of the bramble. Danael    dropped    to    the    ground.    How had   she   and   her   brother   managed   to   ride so    near    without    being    seen    or    heard? Which   way   would   the   warriors   ride?   She and    Danen    would    be    discovered    unless the troop rode due east. She   needed   to   breathe.   She   sucked   in air   as   slowly   as   she   could,   paralyzed   with fear   she   might   make   a   sound,   though   the troop   raised   their   own   din   as   the   riders joked,       fastening       saddle       bags       and tightening cinches. The   troop's   commanders   already   sat   in their   saddles,   and   reined   their   horses   to their   left,   south.   Danael   pressed   herself into    the    sand.    As    each    pair    of    warrior- twins   passed,   she   waited   for   each   to   look down   at   her   in   the   shadows,   or   down   the depression    where    Danen    stood    holding the horses. New    tears    flowed.    She    blinked    them away   and   turned   her   head   to   follow   the backs   of   the   last   pair   in   the   column.   The riders   kicked   their   horses   into   a   trot,   then a    faster    gait.    None    looked    over    their shoulder. Danael stood and ran to Danen. “What should we do?” she whispered. “Not much we can do but ride on.” “We    can    hide    here    until    dark.”    Her suggestion was more a plea. “Six     hours     to     sunset.     Three     more hours   until   Second   Pass   and   we   have   a moon to walk by.” “I,   I   don't   look   forward   to   the   dark   of First Pass.” During   the   pitch   black   of   the   moonless sky,   even   the   bigcats   remained   close   to their   dens.   During   Third   Pass,   when   the second     moon     rose,     was     there     truly enough light to ride safely. Danen   nodded.   “Longer   this   takes,   the sooner we run out of food and water, eh.” “Aye.   We   best   go.   They're   gone.   Likely keep riding away from us.” “I know,” he said. “I'm scared too.” They     rode     less     than     a     kilometer. Climbing    a    dune,    Danael    looked    south. The   Ardentian   column   raced   after   them, dust swirling. Dan     kicked     and     pleaded     with     the geldings   to   run,   but   the   Ardentian   battle mounts caught up with them in minutes. Encircled   by   the   troop,   Dan   sat   in   their saddles     staring     back     at     the     passive expressions   facing   them.   Danael   thought of   the   corpses   hung   from   the   walls,   the stench, flies, and circling vultures. The     geldings     blew,     heads     drooped, relieved    their    latest    exertion    was    over. They    reached    back,    threatening    to    bite the    ankles    of    their    riders,    to    encourage them   to   give   them   water.   Danael's   heart ached   to   get   down   and   answer   the   horses' thirst. What    would    happen    to    the    two    old geldings?   She   hoped   the   warriors   would free   them   of   their   tack   so   they   could   enjoy some   time   on   the   plains   before   they   made their way back to their stables. They    won't    harm    them,    will    they? she asked Danen. She   felt   his   shudder,   the   pain   of   his tightened    muscles,    his    disappointment, and fear. The   commanders   of   the   troop   kneed their    horses    forward.    Danael    mentally practiced   what   she   had   planned   to   say,   to explain   why   they   were   out   alone   on   the plains.    She    stole    a    glance    at    Danen,    to comfort   him.   She   didn't   see   the   warriors' swords    flash    from    their    scabbards,    but she heard the shhh  of the steel. It   was   quick.   Dan   felt   the   blades   at   the same   moment,   so   neither   had   to   feel   the wrenching pain of their twin. © R. Mac Wheeler 2017