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Heirs of War

 

Coming soon… a new epic fantasy series, beginning with An Inheritance of Ash and Blood. You can now pre-order the eBook on Amazon.

Read the first chapter below.

 

Chapter 1

 

Sanc

Arbeost, Duchy of Morbaine, 671

 

 

‘Four more!’ Brancat shouted at them.

Sanc lowered his body, arms wobbling with the strain, but he found the strength to push back up.

The boy next to him couldn’t, collapsing breathlessly to the ground.

‘Three more!’ the weapons master demanded.

Sanc stared down at the muddy grass of the training field. He’d landed face first in the dirt more times than he could remember, his body failing him.

Not this time, he told himself. Down and back up, he remembered to breathe as well, something he was prone to forgetting when the pain got too much.

‘Two left. Come on Sanc, you can do it.’

Was that encouragement from Brancat? He couldn’t recall that happening before.

His entire body shook with the effort now, begging him to stop and let it rest. He nearly gave up, but somehow found himself back in the starting position. Brancat didn’t need to tell him he had only one left. He feared that as soon as he bent his arms, he would collapse. He roared with effort as he completed his final press up, then tumbled over onto his back, sucking in air. He felt like he was going to spew up his breakfast. Still, he’d done it. That felt good.

‘On your feet, Sanc. Let’s see you spar.’

Sanc didn’t quite understand. Was this meant to be a reward for finally completing the press-ups challenge? He stood up, limbs protesting at the effort. Brancat handed him one of the wooden sparring swords and took one for himself. The other boys gathered around to watch.

The weapons master towered over him, lean and muscular. Sanc still had the skinny physique of a boy and was a long way off from reaching his adult height. He had watched Peyre shoot up to adult size over the last few years, with a mixture of awe and trepidation. It didn’t seem possible that the same thing would happen to him.

‘Come on then,’ said Brancat. He had the same reluctant tone to his voice that most people had when they spoke to Sanc. He avoided eye contact, and a grimace came to his face, the look one gets when they’re about to do an unpleasant chore they’ve been putting off for a while.

Brancat flicked his sword towards Sanc, forcing him to react. Sanc blocked with his own and stepped to the side. His shoulders protested at having to raise his arms, and he knew they’d stiffen up even worse by this evening.

Brancat followed him, moving left and right, in and out, observing Sanc’s footwork. He feinted in, fooling Sanc, who swiped at a weapon that was no longer there. Brancat had withdrawn his sword, redirecting it to smack at Sanc’s sword arm. He tsked with disappointment.

Sanc decided that attack was preferable to defence and launched a series of strikes. He went low, high, then wide, aiming for a different target each time. Brancat avoided the assault and smacked him on the leg when he was done, but he murmured ‘not bad,’ which was about the highest praise Sanc could expect to get. Brancat then launched a flurry of his own, probing Sanc’s defences. He tested to see where Sanc was too slow, too eager, not strong enough. Another smack at the end of it made clear that Sanc’s defences were breached yet again. Still, Brancat was nodding to himself, as if he had seen something he liked.

‘You’re ready for the test,’ he decided. ‘Maybe tomorrow, if Lord Russell agrees.’

Sanc nodded. ‘Thank you,’ he said, because some appreciation was expected. In truth, Sanc had no wish to take the test. If he passed, he would move up into the main training class with the older boys, and a longer part of the day would be taken up with exercise and training.

Sanc imagined that when his brothers had been declared ready, a great cheer would have gone up, with plenty of slaps on the back and hands shaken. The boys in his group made little reaction to Sanc’s success, save for some sullen looking expressions. Not that Sanc was surprised. Brancat sent them off, his attention already turning to his work with the main class: turning young men into warriors.

If Sanc had little enthusiasm for such things, he now moved with speed and purpose. His free time had begun, and he wanted to make the most of it. The training grounds were on the north-west edge of his father’s estate, between the forest and the river, and so he walked across the wet grass back to the Chateau. The other boys talked and laughed and carried on, returning to their homes that clung either side of Arbeost’s only road, their voices growing fainter as Sanc pressed on. He had no inclination to return to his room and wash, or change out of his clothes, or any such time wasting. Instead, he made his way to the kitchens. One advantage of being the lord’s son was the ability to grab food from the kitchen day or night, and none of the cooks or maids could stop him.

They could tell him off, however.

‘Sanc!’ Brayda remonstrated as he made his way to the pantry. The young maid looked quite put out. ‘You’ve trailed dirt all along the floor!’

‘Sorry!’ he said with a smile. He wasn’t sure what the fuss was about. Surely it was Brayda’s job to keep the floor clean? But he had enough awareness that to say so probably wouldn’t go down well.

In the pantry, he discovered another lord’s son. Along with his constant companion, Umbert, his brother Peyre was conducting his own raid on the food supplies, shoving much more than Sanc would dream of taking into their carry bags.

‘Ah!’ Peyre said when Sanc entered. ‘I suppose we better leave some for short pants here. How was early morning training?’ he asked with a grin.

Since he had turned eighteen last month, Peyre was no longer required to attend training. He no longer seemed to be required to do anything much and so he and Umbert rode off on mysterious expeditions most days, to the gods knew where.

‘Brancat says I’m to do the test,’ Sanc said. ‘Maybe tomorrow.’

‘Good work,’ said Umbert with a smile, giving him the pat on the back he had missed on the training ground.

‘Oh really? I think we should stay to watch that!’ said Peyre.

Sanc groaned inwardly. Why did I feel the need to tell him? The last thing he wanted was to add to the audience tomorrow.

Peyre and Umbert vacated the pantry, leaving Sanc to it. He remembered a time when they would take him on their adventures, at least sometimes. Someone had once told him that differences in age mattered much less as one got older. But Peyre had now become an adult while he remained a kid. The difference between them had grown wider than ever.

He grabbed bread, cheese, and cooked ham, stuffing them unceremoniously into various pockets. He left the Chateau by the same door he had entered, but rather than heading west back to the training area, he made for the forest that stretched out to the north of the estate. Arbeost had been built close to the treeline, allowing its residents to take full advantage of its resources. The Forest of Morbaine was dense and ancient and none too safe, especially at night. But it supplied the timber for their buildings and the ham Sanc had squashed into his hose pocket. His father spent half his waking life in there—obsessed, in Sanc’s opinion, with hunting game.

He walked through the trees that dripped last night’s rainfall onto him, the forest moist and earthy smelling. Not far in, he came to the clearing where Jesper had his hut. As he approached, he heard Rab start to bark. The pup seemed to know that Sanc was coming to visit. He pulled open the door, stepped inside and Rab was on him, his little paws pressed on his thighs and his tongue licking. Tadita came next, an altogether more dignified approach, Rab’s mother nuzzling and sniffing. Finally, Jesper looked up from his workbench, where he was making arrows.

‘Rab’s pleased to see me!’ Sanc said.

‘Hmm. He can smell your lunch, more like.’

Sanc broke off a piece of cheese and gave it to the pup, then gave Tadita a larger portion.

‘Are you alright if Tad and I get going straight away?’ Jesper asked him. ‘We have traps to inspect, and your father is leading a hunt soon.’

‘Of course,’ Sanc agreed. He came here to play with Rab almost every day. It gave Jesper and Tadita some time to go out into the forest and get their jobs done. The pup was a bit of a handful: a blur of energy with no common sense.

Jesper gathered his tools, and he and Tadita left the hut. Sanc spent some time with Rab inside, wrestling on the floor in between bites of lunch. They then left and played outside, running around the clearing, in and out of trees, playing chase and fetch. Sanc could feel the stiffness in his chest and arms loosen as he threw sticks for the dog to run down. Rab pelted along, comically fast, his long muzzle and pointed ears giving him a ferocious look. As often as Sanc came to visit, he could still tell how fast the pup was growing. Tadita was long, agile and muscled, and Sanc could see that Rab was going to take after her.

When Jesper returned, Rab was fast asleep after his exertions. He woke, padded over to say hello to his master and mother, before flopping back down next to Sanc on the floor of the hut.

‘Did you catch anything?’ Sanc asked.

‘A fox got caught in a wolf trap. Otherwise, nothing. I think the wolves have moved out of the area, at last. Easier hunting for them elsewhere, now spring has come,’ said Jesper. ‘How are things with you?’

Sanc thought twice about telling the huntsman. He got butterflies at the thought of all the people he knew watching him. But it was probably rude not to mention it. ‘Brancat says I’m to take the test. Tomorrow, if it’s agreed.’

‘Good. I have no doubts you’ll pass it. Brancat wouldn’t have put you forward if he thought otherwise. You’re not worried about it, are you?’

‘Not the test itself.’ There wasn’t much to be worried about. The test was largely to assess if he had the physical strength to cope with the more intense training that would follow. The weapons element was basic and Sanc knew he had no problems there—he’d been around weapons since he could remember. ‘If I pass, they’ll make me spend more time training.’

‘And what’s wrong with that?’ Jesper asked as he stoked up his fire and readied a pot of water for cooking. Tadita came over to investigate, knowing that such activity could be a precursor to a meal appearing.

‘I don’t want to train any more. I just want to stay here and play with Rab.’

‘But you’re good with weapons, Sanc. You could become a soldier one day.’

‘I don’t want to be a soldier. And anyway, I’m not that good. Not like Esterel or Peyre.’

‘Ha! I know that feeling. I have an older brother, too, remember?’

‘Ketil? The one who found Rabigar?’ Sanc asked, looking at the pup, now curled into a ball. Sanc loved the stories Jesper told about the heroes of Dalriya. When Jesper allowed Sanc to name the new pup, they had settled on Rab, named after the Krykker hero, Rabigar Din. In fact, Jesper had pulled one of those tricks adults used. He’d told Sanc he could name the dog, and then vetoed all the suggestions he didn’t agree with. Still, Rab suited the little fellow so much that Sanc couldn’t imagine him being called anything else now.

‘Aye. Ketil was older and better than me at everything.’

Sanc turned his attention back to Jesper, a man he found to be so quietly confident in everything he did. He very much doubted the truth of that statement and suspected it was said just to make him feel better. He hated it when adults did that. ‘Well, anyway, I already know how to hold a sword and such. I don’t want to waste any more of my time training.’

Jesper raised an eyebrow but said nothing for a while, chopping up food with his knife, then placing it into his pot. ‘Maybe,’ he said at last, ‘you’ll be something other than a soldier. Your father has two adult sons, after all. What would you choose to be instead?’

Sanc sighed. ‘I know you got to choose what you did with your life, Jesper. But most people don’t.’

Jesper pursed his lips. ‘Maybe you’re right. But you’re the son of a duke, Sanc. You get more choices than most.’

‘Not with these,’ Sanc said, pointing with two fingers at his eyes. ‘When you have red eyes, everyone else decides what you are. A freak. Because I’m the son of a duke, I’m a freak allowed to live instead of being drowned at birth. That’s all I’ll ever be.’

‘You might find,’ said Jesper, ‘that those eyes of yours turn out to be a blessing rather than a curse.’

Sanc hated it when adults did that. Pretended it didn’t matter, or it was wonderfully unique. As if he was still a stupid child. He got to his feet. ‘I’m going now,’ he said, heading for the door.

‘Good luck tomorrow,’ Jesper called after him.

 

***

 

Quite a few people had turned up to watch Sanc’s efforts in the test, commenting that it was an important rite of passage from childhood to becoming an adult. Sanc cared little for such traditions. Nonetheless, a part of him took pleasure from there being people interested enough in him to bother.

Peyre and Umbert had decided to watch. Jesper was there, standing beside Lord Russell, Umbert’s father. Umbert had inherited his father’s red locks, while many commented that Peyre was the spit of their father; prompting the older folk of Arbeost to say looking at the two young men was like going back in time.

Sanc knew Lord Russell’s title of marshall meant he had some sort of responsibility for military affairs, even if he was vague on the details. His father’s friend seemed to have a hand in most everything that occurred in the duchy. On the opposite side of the roped-off field, Sanc’s sister, Loysse, stood with her maid, Cebelia. Loysse grinned over at him, seemingly oblivious of all the boys gawping at her. Duke Bastien, their father, was absent, though Sanc was hardly surprised at that.

Brancat had him run a circuit of the entire training grounds. He climbed to the top of the rope wall. He threw the hammer—far enough to pass muster, though he heard Peyre’s voice ribbing him about the lack of distance.

Finally, it was time to demonstrate some weapon prowess. Brancat had chosen spear and shield. It was hardly Sanc’s favourite. He always felt clumsy holding a spear one-handed. Brancat selected one of the older boys for Sanc to fight. He wasn’t expected to win, simply give a good account of himself against his superior opponent. At the end of the contest, those gathered about would decide if he had done enough and won promotion to the next class up.

His opponent was Robert. He had a good three years on Sanc and was much bigger. He had arrived at Arbeost from Guivergne a year ago, sent here by his powerful father to be trained as a warrior. Despite the fact he lived in the Chateau and was treated like another of the duke’s sons, they’d never had much to do with each other. He looked at Sanc the same as most people did, with a mix of fear and disgust.

The two boys got to it. Confident, Robert came for Sanc, using his spear to go on the attack. Sanc moved his feet, something Brancat had drilled into him so much that it had become second nature. He caught Robert’s thrusts on his shield, the impact going all the way up his arm. He struggled, however, to do much with his own spear, concentrating as he was on defence. He would have to show that he could attack as well as defend if he was to impress his audience.

No doubt he telegraphed the effort, forcing himself to lunge forwards; because Robert had gone by the time his blunt spear head reached its target, now empty air. What was more, his opponent had swept his own spear along the ground. Not expecting it, Sanc tripped over the spear and his own feet, landing on the ground rather heavily. He did his best to roll away. But when he got back to his feet, Robert was there. He shoved Sanc with his shield. Still not balanced properly, Sanc fell backwards, landing on his backside.

‘Got you,’ Robert called out, rather unnecessarily.

Sanc heard more than a few titters of laughter. Not rushing, he moved to get up. Robert offered his spear and Sanc grabbed the shaft, his opponent pulling him back to his feet. Applause greeted this show of chivalry.

‘Come on, you little, red-eyed monster,’ Robert said quietly, so only Sanc could hear him. ‘Everyone’s turned out to see a show. Play your part a little. I want your sister to notice me.’

Sanc took his time getting his shield and spear ready. How glorious it would be if I could send the cocky bastard into the mud, he thought. It’s a shame I have neither the strength nor skill to make it happen.

They closed together again. Sanc decided he would try to get some confidence back before he tried another attack. He feinted one way, then quickly moved another, misdirecting his opponent. Robert’s spear jabbed into empty space this time. What exactly happened next, Sanc couldn’t say for sure. He imagined his opponent stumbling over and falling into the dirt. Not possible, of course. But that’s what happened. It was as if a gust of wind came from nowhere and flattened him.

Sanc moved to stand over him. He smacked the butt of his spear into his arse. ‘Got you!’ he shouted. He looked about the training ground nervously. Maybe it was silly, but for some reason, he felt guilty about Robert’s predicament.

No one else seemed to harbour such thoughts, however. Their audience was mainly laughing about it.

‘Check to see if there’s an arrow sticking out of him, Sanc!’ Peyre called out. ‘Only a Caladri archer could have felled someone like that!’

More laughter. Not quite the show Robert had wanted. Sanc offered his hand, and the red-faced boy had no choice but to accept the gesture.

Brancat was one of the few who found nothing amusing. With a shake of the head, he declared the contest was over and that Sanc had passed his tests.

Sanc wasn’t gloating, however. He mainly felt relief. That the test was over, of course. But more so that whatever had happened to Robert had gone unnoticed.

Then he met eyes with Jesper and Lord Russell and realised that he was sorely mistaken. They were both looking at him as a falcon looks at its prey.