I have finished the first draft of the final book in the Ashborne Chronicles. The book will be titled Sure as Stone. Although I still have a lot of editing to do, I thought I’d tease you with the first chapter. Spoilers for anyone that hasn’t read the series yet!
Bound in String
The summer sun loomed high over Laughing Lake, where the air smelled of lemon tarts and tempered steel. Anvils cried, Godwin sang, and the princess listened. Her lips turned up just as her brow turned down. All the while, a delicate breeze sighed through the boundless forest.
Princess Ally lay by my side on the docks. Her hair shone gold in the daylight as it cascaded over her shoulders. A loose gown hung over her pale body. The purple fabric rippled as the wind passed by. With eyes closed, Ally spoke like milk and honey. “I wanted to bring you here, Kat,” she said. “This place is special to me. I used to come here every morning as a girl. Sun or storm cloud, I came. The way the trees swayed and the birds chattered, I thought the forest spoke to me.” She paused to let us listen. The wind swelled behind the great oaks and blossoming cherry trees. But I heard nothing in the way of speech. “There is magic in the woods and water,” Ally said.
“There is magic in everything if you choose to see it,” I said.
“Or in nothing if you choose not to,” Godwin said. Ally glared at the young knight, but his lips spread into a cheeky smile. As a servant girl passed with a tray of sweets, he plucked a marzipan cake for himself and a honey cake for his lover. The servant curtsied and left before I could take anything for myself.
After taking a dainty bite of her cake, Ally wiped the crumbs from her lips and spoke again. “Whatever you choose to see, I figured this would make a welcome reprieve from the hardships of the road and the worries of war.” Godwin groaned. Ally ignored him. “My brother handles Teris’s affairs. We can afford one day to ourselves I think.”
“Your brother Alister?” I asked. She shook her head.
“Alister is at war with father,” she said.
“Where I should be,” Godwin muttered. Ally grabbed Godwin’s hand tight in her own.
“You belong by my side,” she said. “Leave the fighting to the…” Her voice trailed off. Cheeks tinged red, Ally turned her attention to me. “My younger brother Wesley directs the capital’s affairs. He is a gentle soul. You should meet him sometime.”
“I’m sure I will.”
“That would be lovely,” I said. Ally agreed. And yet, she sighed from deep in her chest. She threw the rest of the honey cake in her mouth and stared off into the hazy, blue horizon. Before her lips could dip into a frown, Godwin kissed the top of Ally’s hand. A warm glint sparkled in Ally’s precious, blue eyes while my gaze dimmed and dropped into the inky depths of Laughing Lake. “I thought much of you when I was in the Southern Lands,” I said. “I learned much there. I met many new friends and faces. But your company is something I missed.” I spoke to both Godwin and Ally, but I looked only at the princess.
“We missed you too,” Ally said. Godwin laughed.
“How many sleepless nights did you spend wondering what became of her?” he asked Ally. She smacked his arm. Godwin leaned towards me. “Too many to count,” he said in a hushed voice.
Ally stood up and walked down to the edge of the docks. Her hips swung and her gown fluttered about her thighs. She kicked off her sandals and dipped her toes into the cool lake. I followed after her, as did Godwin. Liquid hills radiated from the water as I plunged my legs in.
“Ignore Godwin,” Ally said. “Tell me about your journey. I learned only so much from the letter you sent.”
And you will learn only so much as I want you to learn, I thought. I told them of the great structures that marked my way, such as Hyacin’s floating gardens and the Pyramid of the Sun, and Aurora’s Great Temple and ancient, stone ruins. I told them of the people I met: the gruff Captain Bilgewater, the prim and proud Malador Nul, the mysterious Yvonne Umbray, and Ivan Willow with his bloated belly and ego. I skipped over my meeting with the Warlock Cabal. The princess of Vindan didn’t need to hear about my attempt to unite Norgrad and the Southern Lands against Vindan. Instead, I told them how I stole the gold ring from Yvonne’s fingers. Godwin grinned from ear to ear.
“I taught you well,” he said. Then his brow scrunched together in confusion. “But all that trouble for a plain, gold ring? You traveled halfway across the world to steal something you could find anywhere?” It might’ve looked like any other ring, but the Light Ring carried more value and more power than all the gold in the world. “How did you even know it was yours?”
I extended my hand. On top of the ring was etched a tiny, cursive “Ashborne.” Only an illusion, of course. Neither dirt nor blade could mar the ring’s perfect, gold surface.
Godwin shrugged. “Still quite the effort for such a small thing.”
“I had help,” I added. “A young scribe named Oriel Zara studied the ring’s history for me. She scoured through thousands of pages to trace its path from hand to hand through the ages. Of all the people I met, she and her lover Lara Serls became my greatest friends.”
“Her lover?” Godwin asked. “Another woman?” He snorted. I scanned Ally’s face for a response. Her eyes sunk into the depthless waters, but she said nothing.
“The Southerners are more progressive and more tolerant,” I said in a stern tone. Godwin scratched his shaggy head and rolled his eyes.
Ally cleared her throat with a polite ahem. “And what of the warlocks’ magic?” she asked. “You said we haven’t seen what you’ve seen. What have you seen, Kat?”
“You would not believe me.”
“Probably not,” Godwin said. “I’m going swimming. Will you join me?”
“The water is no place for a Kat,” I said. I thought of Piper. If she were not locked in a dungeon somewhere, she would’ve laughed. Godwin offered a short smile and turned to Ally.
“Not now,” she said. Godwin pulled off his shirt and dove into the water. All the while, Ally lacquered his body with a furtive, unblinking stare. When Godwin disappeared under the water, she shook her head and wiped her lips dry.
I closed my eyes and turned my face to the sun. Orange streaks soaked through my closed lids while the heat scattered my thoughts. My shoulders relaxed. I sighed.
“You didn’t tell me what you’ve seen,” Ally said. “Godwin might not believe you, but I will know if you’re lying. I can read you better than he can read his name on a scroll.”
“And how well is that I wonder,” I said.
“Hey, I heard that!” Godwin shouted before he dove back underwater. After a sweet giggle, Ally asked me again to tell her. Her cornflower eyes grabbed me in a gentle grasp I could not resist.
“First and foremost,” I said, “The warlocks are keepers of wisdom. They collect knowledge and study the workings of the world. Magic is merely a testament to their intellectual prowess. To manipulate the world around you is to understand it intimately.” When I paused, Ally did not speak. She nodded and waited. Skeptical as he was, Godwin swam up to the dock to listen.
“As one of the warlocks told me, much of what they do is theater. Through their studies, they have created powders and potions to feed flames and melt steel. But there is more.” A servant walked by to offer glasses of wine and water. We all refused. The servant curtsied and left us to our conversation. When she had gone, I continued. “I saw small things. I saw chairs slide across the floor with no hands to push them. I saw candles light with no fire to light them. I saw a hundred petals float like clouds in the sky. Simple things. Astounding, but simple. And then I saw other things. Things that cannot and should not be possible.”
A shiver scrambled up my spine as I relived the not so distant memories. “I saw spikes and stone walls spring from the floor. I saw fire and lightning materialize out of thin air. I heard shouts loud enough to shatter glass. I…felt tentacles of sand rip through flesh as easy as a blade through water.”
A short, shaky chuckle gathered in Godwin’s throat. He looked at me and at Ally, but neither of us joined him in laughter. “I don’t believe it,” he said. “You were always a skilled storyteller.”
Stories are easiest to tell when they’re true. But I let him think what he wanted. As Godwin swam off into the lake, Ally looked at me with her brow pursed and mouth ajar. “You’re right,” I imagined her say, “That cannot and should not be possible.” But she stayed quiet.
I don’t know why I even mentioned magic. At best, magic was a fantasy up north. At worst, it could get me killed. Talking to Ally and Godwin about it was as good as talking to myself. I wanted to talk to Piper. I had seen so much in the Southern Lands and understood so little. She knew more than she had told me, and magic was only one subject we needed to discuss.
“Have you heard anything of Piper Upwood?” I asked Ally. She shook her head. “You must have spies in Norgrad.”
“All I know is she’s not dead. Other than that…well, I’m sure she’s fine.” I wasn’t so sure. King Audric might have been her nephew, but he was known for his cruelty. And for all the stories that drifted through the kingdoms, Ally had the scars to prove them.
Ally laced her fingers through mine. Somehow my worries slipped out of mind. For the moment, I forgot about Piper and focused on the friend at my side. A warm tingle surged in my chest as I looked at Ally.
But she didn’t meet my gaze. Her pulse throbbed through her fingers as she watched Godwin with insatiable desire. She adored him, lusted for him, loved him. And for all her attention, Godwin gave it back twofold. To think, Godwin once had eyes for me alone, and Ally only considered the young knight a servant to tease and command as she saw fit.
“It must seem strange to you,” she said, sensing my thoughts. “Godwin and I.”
“Uh…yeah. You sent a letter, though. I understand I guess.” I watched Godwin kick towards the lake’s dark center. The slosh of his strokes faded. He swam farther and farther until I wondered if he’d ever come back.
“You guess?” she said. “Maybe I didn’t explain too well in the letter. I’m a better speaker than writer I suppose.” She explained just fine. I just didn’t want to hear the explanation again. But already Ally’s voice shook with excitement. She wanted to tell me. “Four was quite the intimate company. I think you and I grew much closer during that time.”
In more ways than one, I thought.
“When you left,” Ally said, “That intimacy remained, but I grew closer to Godwin. Before you were even in the picture, he always flirted with me. Constant compliments, nervous glances, flowers, and so on. You know.” I nodded. “A princess is wise to avoid such men.”
“They’re all after one thing,” I said. Ally laughed.
“That, and power. I am princess. Whomever I marry becomes a prince. I’ve always pushed men away, lest they make me a tool for their own aims.” A silky curl of blonde hair fell across her cheek. She brushed it behind her ear and smiled. “After all that we suffered together, I learned trust. I let myself be vulnerable with him. I trusted him not to manipulate me.”
“I don’t think Godwin has the ambition for that,” I said.
“Or the brains,” she added with a wink. I chuckled despite my disinterest in the conversation. “With you there, I felt safe. I’ve seen you fight. Neither man nor woman nor beast can kill you. Anyone who’s seen you can say that. Even Alister would struggle against you.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” I said.
“Still, the point remains your departure left us weak. When you were with us, a band of twenty men attacked us, bringing our numbers from twelve to four. Without you…well, if the three of us met such a group again, we would not have survived. Every night I stared into the dark forests, searching for the slightest sign of trouble. I couldn’t sleep. I feared sleep even. But Godwin refused to sleep until I did. He thought I should not suffer alone. He thought I might fall asleep if he kept me company.” She giggled to herself. “Most nights he fell asleep on my shoulder. I came to enjoy his company more than I thought I could. Eventually, I faked insomnia so he would stay up late and fall asleep in my arms. One night, when the others had retired, we embraced each other by the fire. We didn’t say a thing to each other. We merely looked at each other. But something nothing need be said. Each of us knew in our own way, after all those days and nights, together, we—”
“Ally, I know.” She turned to me. A shallow wrinkle divided her brow. “You don’t need to explain anything to me. You’re with him. That’s all that matters.”
“No. That’s not all that matters,” Ally said. “It’s important that I know what you think.”
“Why?” I asked. “You’re royalty. You can do whatever you want.”
“But you’re my friend,” she said. Though tender, her words stung. Until now, I had never considered friendship an insult. But I had tasted something more, and I didn’t want to go back.
With a lopsided smile, I said, “What I want is for you to be happy. If Godwin makes you happy, then who am I to tear you apart?”
“I’m glad to hear it,” she said, “Because I need to ask you something.” The forest trembled as a gust of wind snaked through the trees. Cherries dropped from their branches and rolled into the glittering water without a sound. “On the day of the wedding, will you stand beside me as my maid of honor?”
“Of course I will,” I said without hesitation. Ally grabbed me in a tight embrace. I nestled my head into her mane of golden hair. She smelled of jasmine and honeysuckle. As I squeezed her tight, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I did both. Soon Ally laughed and cried with me.
When Godwin returned, bare-chested and face flushed, he beamed at the two of us. “She said yes then?” I said I had. “Wonderful!” Godwin clapped me on the back and kissed Ally’s cheek. He sang a merry tune of his own making. I ignored the song as best I could. Even so, my stomach shuddered as I heard mention of church bells and lovers’ hands bound in string.