(Please note that the following chapters are pre-final edits. There might still be a typo or two riddled throughout. The Winter King is currently undergoing its final professional edit ahead of its February 6, 2021 release.)
The mouth of the cave gaped larger than Nox’s worst nightmares could ever paint. It smelled worse too. Gnawed bones littered the pathway around patches of snow.
Nox shuddered. From his vantage point, huddled in a thicket of frost-bitten spice berries, he couldn’t deny he’d reached his destination. That was good. It was also really, really bad.
Turning toward the familiar, oft-encouraging face of his friend, Nox recoiled upon finding Nathael’s complexion green, his lips pulled down in a grim frown, and his eyes leaden. Nathael pulled those dead eyes from the cave and tried the limpest smile never recorded in history.
“I think we found it,” he said in a wooden voice.
Nox grimaced and nodded. “I’m afraid you’re right.”
“Now what?” asked Nathael.
Nox swallowed hard. His friend was the brave one, always stalwart, always unshrinking, while Nox followed where he could, too timid to lead. But this had been his idea, and while Nathael had his back, Nox couldn’t bring himself to shirk his responsibilities now, when it well and truly mattered.
He turned back to the pathway strewn with the bones of countless animals, primarily deer. “I must go in.” He pushed through the thicket, shriveled berries dropping at his feet, until he broke free of the wasted undergrowth to stand unprotected. He trembled.
Squaring his shoulders, he wended around the bones, growing increasingly conscious of his considerable girth. He’d never been a small child, and his sweet tooth was inferior only to his discerning palate. Nox liked food. A lot. Perhaps that came of being a baker’s son. Only now did he perceive an unforeseen danger in weighing twice what Nathael did.
He might be eaten.
The faint crunch of footfalls sounded behind Nox. He glanced back to find Nathael tailing him. The encouraging smile was back, though it still lacked its usual luster.
“Y-you don’t have to come,” Nox whispered.
Nathael shrugged and said nothing. As Nox moved forward, Nathael followed.
The two were as close as brothers, though they weren’t related. Nathael had been a waif, orphaned young and half-wild when Nox’s father took him in and offered him an apprenticeship in the bakery. Hollow-legged and quick-witted, Nathael learned fast, developing a special eye for detail so vital in crafting delicate breads and confections.
Nox’s mouth watered just thinking about Nathael’s skills.
The crunch of a bone underfoot shattered his appetite. His knees knocked together.
The cave loomed near; high, dark, and terrible. Nox halted at its border, just where the winter sun lost its claim on earth, and shadows played at the entrance, whispering dread secrets on the wind.
Heart raging like a blacksmith’s hammer, Nox crossed into the darkness, fingers itching for a blade he didn’t own. Only faith had brought him here: faith in something most people scoffed at. Except Nathael, of course. Nathael never scoffed when Nox became serious about something.
The cave sloped into the earth, and the air grew colder and, strangely, less pungent.
Nox licked his lips with his parched tongue.
“Tell me when I need to stop,” Nathael whispered behind him. Nox glanced back but couldn’t tell his friend from the pitch black enfolding him.
“Stay here. It’s close now.”
“Be careful, Nox. May Afallon be your guide.”
Nox nodded before he remembered Nathael couldn’t see him. “Thank you. I’ll be back soon.” He trudged down the tunnel. As he walked, contemplating his mission and his dire need for success, his heart hammered less. His arms began to swing. He’d come here because he must. More than that, he’d come because King Gwynter believed him.
Since Nox was a little boy, he’d harbored a secret dream. A wish of sorts. As he grew, he’d developed a theory around it. Except for Nathael, the few people Nox confided in had scorned the idea.
But King Gwynter didn’t scorn him when Nox stood before the war council and asked to try something insane. It was their only real hope of taking Bayton, after all. And driving the Crow King’s army from that town was crucial.
There was so little time. Even now, though Nox and Nathael had traveled as quickly as they could, the going had been slow. If Nox failed, he would make it back to Dorshen Heights well after events played out. But if he succeeded — if Nox’s dream proved true — victory might become a certainty.
The problem was, though Nox had dreamed and theorized and prayed, he hadn’t a shred of evidence proving he could achieve his goal.
After all, who had ever heard of taming a dragon?
The cry of a crow brought Gwyn’s head up from prayer. He fell still under the elm tree where he knelt, muscles tense and ears straining; but the crow never called again from the neighboring trees in the naked copse. Letting out a sigh, Gwyn watched his breath appear as a cloud under the gloom of a winter morning. He climbed to his feet and wrapped his tattered cloak tighter across his chest.
A dusting of snow had fallen in the night, bringing a chill that ached in Gwyn’s bones. Dead foliage bore the brittle touch of frost. Through the stillness of the cold, he heard camp stirring upstream. Gwyn picked his way along the bank of the frozen stream, eyes searching the solid depths for any sign of a fish. His stomach rumbled, but Gwyn never saw any hope of breakfast.
He breached the camp’s border, hand aloft to alert the sentry seated on a tree limb. The soldier saluted him as he passed, and Gwyn trudged on to the tent he called home. Aluem stood before the flap. The magnificent unicorn tossed his head in greeting, silver and gold twined horn bright under the dismal sky, pearlescent eyes warm. Gwyn rested a hand on Aluem’s muzzle and rubbed.
A voice like rushing wind filled Gwyn’s head. ‘Good morrow to you, fair king and brother. How were your prayers?’
“Peaceful until the last moment. I heard a crow.”
Aluem nodded, eyes reflecting Gwyn’s concern. The unicorn stepped aside to let Gwyn slip into his tent. A table adorned the center of the inner space, cluttered with maps and half-used candlesticks, sealing wax, and a hastily scrawled, half-finished missive.
Gwyn passed the table by and slipped through a second flap into the back chamber, which he shared with Lawen. Gwyn hovered over Lawen’s bed, watching his elder brother snore softly. He must be cold. He had only one blanket and used his tabard for a little added warmth.
“Lawen,” Gwyn whispered, and bent down to shake the man’s arm. “Wake up. Lawen.”
The soft snores faded and Lawen opened one eye. It glinted in the faint light. “Mmm?”
“I heard a crow just outside of camp. It was very close.”
“Mmm.” Lawen turned onto his side in his bedroll. Gwyn reached out to shake him again, but Lawen shot up, as though someone had stuck hot pincers under his back.
“A crow?” Lawen looked around, wild-eyed, hair disheveled.
“Outside of camp,” Gwyn replied, smiling faintly. “Good morning, brother.”
Lawen moaned and rubbed his face. “Was that necessary, Gwynter?”
Gwyn straightened. “It wasn’t a joke. There was a crow. I came back to tell you.”
Lawen slid his hands from his face to shoot Gwyn a glare. “You went off alone again, didn’t you?”
“I was praying.” Gwyn shrugged. “I needed privacy.”
Lawen growled. “Gwynter, you can’t do that anymore. You’re a wanted man! The Crow King has demanded your head! You’re worth ten thousand denn. Ten thousand!”
Gwyn nodded soberly. “Yes, I saw the posters.”
“You promised to keep Kive with you. At least that. Where is he?”
“Kive hasn’t come back from—from hunting, and I needed to speak to Afallon. Urgently.”
“Couldn’t you do it here?”
Gwyn grinned. “Through your snoring? He’d not have heard a single word.”
Lawen scowled, wadded up his tabard, and threw it at Gwyn, who caught it and threw it back. Lawen took the hit full in the face and allowed himself to fall onto his bedroll. He sighed long and wearily beneath the wad of cloth before dragging it from his face.
“In all seriousness, Gwyn, you mustn’t be alone. Please.”
Gwyn bobbed a nod as his cheeks warmed. A night plagued by bad dreams had driven him half-conscious from the tent, out into the predawn world, where he sought solitude. Comfort. Afallon alone seemed able to provide that these days.
“Do you think the crow saw you?” asked Lawen, rising from his bedroll to pull the threadbare tabard on over his head.
“Very likely, though I never saw him.”
Sighing again, Lawen pulled his boots over his britches. “It was only a matter of time, I suppose. We’d best pull back into the main camp. You’ll be safer there.”
Gwyn nodded and moved to his own bedroll to pack it up. He preferred that anyway. Generals Haratin and Leelin had insisted he leave the main body of camp to hide with a smaller contingent in the nearby woods. Magical protections would hold better over a smaller perimeter, and Gwyn’s safety was their foremost concern.
But Gwyn hated to hide, ignorant of his army’s movements, more of a prisoner than a commander. He must lead the armies under his command, for the people expected it, and — just as important — Gwyn wanted to do something, not just stand around like a banner flapping in the breeze.
General Haratin always contended Gwyn was more a symbol than a mortal man. Better that he stay safe and alive rather than risk himself on the battlefield. Gwyn suspected the general’s motivations were self-serving. Haratin wanted charge of the army and the glory of leading it to victory.
How long might it be before Haratin’s thirst for fame allowed the Crow King to buy his loyalty back? The rebellion’s ragtag forces weren’t exactly winning the war.
Gwyn sighed and rolled his bedding. He tied it and tossed it next to Lawen’s bedroll in the center of the tent.
“You did it on purpose, didn’t you?”
Gwyn looked up at his brother looming above him, arms crossed.
“Risked yourself, so we would return to Haratin’s camp.”
Gwyn scowled. “Haratin’s camp, is it?” He inhaled and silently counted until his temper boiled down to a simmer. “Do you know, Lawen, what destroys the seeds of change, the very seeds of hope for liberty and renewal?” He glanced toward the flap, listening to the wind as it picked up beyond the canvas. “At first our forces stood a chance — a genuine, powerful chance, even against such odds as the Crow King and his order. But now we are in shambles. Half our numbers have vanished. Not from bloody battles, oh no. But because of greed. Peasants, soldiers, even knights swelled our ranks just last autumn. A mere year later, we are sinking as a ship caught in the tirades of winter storms. We have no food. We have no proper shelter. Why? Because we haven’t any money.”
He pushed to his feet and turned to face his brother, meeting the green of Lawen’s even gaze. “A just cause is destroyed because those who were at first content to fight for a dream now require distinction, class, power, and most of all, money; while I would dissolve all if it only meant peace.” He closed his eyes and exhaled. “What can I do, Lawen? We have no money. No hope of finding it. No whisper of a chance without it, for it’s true the people are starving. The fields have been left unworked.” He shrugged. “But could I turn such earnest men from the cause? Should I have? Especially the slaves?”
“You’re worrying too much.” Lawen rested a hand on Gwyn’s shoulder. “When this detestable winter mellows, our numbers will swell again.”
Gwyn frowned. “Not by half. And who can blame them? We’ve no proper victories to our credit. All that compels such men as Haratin to remain is the knowledge that the Crow King’s men would sooner burn him than make him a general under the Crow Banner. The best he could hope for on their side is a pardon and a modest parcel of land once we’re crushed.”
“You’re gloomy indeed today, Gwynny.” Lawen squeezed his shoulder. “Have patience and faith. To whom have you been praying?”
A soft smile touched Gwyn’s face, soothing his writhing insides a little. “I do have faith, but I also have fear, and both are in constant turmoil. I can’t say which will win in the end.” He pulled his cloak closer as the wind howled and the tent walls shook. “We’re in desperate need of a miracle, Lawen, and I cannot help but doubt Haratin will be the instrument of it. We need a strategy. We need a true victory. Just one. If we can manage that, perhaps those who have deserted our cause will return. Perhaps they’ll remember that the Crow King is a tyrant still, and our aim remains to topple him.
“That’s my greatest frustration, Lawen. The people of Simaerin have so quickly forgotten that we’re fighting, not to put me on the throne, but to remove a madman from it.”
Lawen shook his head. “It’s both, Gwyn. An empty throne is worse than one filled with a despot. Chaos is a crueler master by far than even tyranny.”
The tent flap flew aside as the wind howled louder. Gwyn and Lawen spun toward it, hands flying for their swords. In the doorway, mouth stained red with blood, stood Kive. He smiled, his pale, blue-tinged skin stark against the tangles of long black hair that tumbled down his shoulders and framed his tattered robes. “Hello, Shiny. Hello, Hawk.”
Gwyn’s smile returned. “There you are. Come here, Kive.”
The fallen Ilidreth skipped into the tent and to Gwyn’s side. “Yes, Shiny?”
“Did you eat well, Kive?”
“Oh, yes, Shiny. I found such nice juicy rats. So plump, with loooong tails.”
Gwyn patted Kive’s head. “I’m happy for you. While you were hunting, Kive, did you see any crows or big rats skulking about?”
“Only one, Shiny, up on the cliffs. But the juicy rat won’t be skulking any longer, Shiny. Such a nice rat.” The fallen fae’s red eyes twinkled.
Gwyn exchanged a glance with Lawen. “Where on the cliffs, Kive? How close?”
“Not close, Shiny. The rat was searching. Searching. Sniffing. But now he’s not.”
Gwyn pushed down a smile. Despite the horror of Kive’s eating habits, his demeanor remained so innocent, sometimes Gwyn forgot to feel the disgust he ought. There was also a kind of relief knowing Kive could dispatch enemy scouts without raising a ruckus.
Sighing, Gwyn patted Kive’s head again and moved to the tent flap. He drew it aside and fixed his gaze on the cliff heights looming in the southern sky, ominous and mocking. Beyond those cliffs lay Bayton, the once-thriving port city long under the Crow King’s tyrannical grip. Last year a group of mage sympathizers had tried to rescue as many condemned mage children as possible, smuggling them from Bayton in the night. But the Order of Corvus — the Crow King’s elite mages — had discovered the operation and slaughtered anyone involved, as well as their families, including infants.
That had been the gale that moved most of Gwyn’s followers to stand against the Crow King. Dubbing magery an evil was one thing. Burning babes was something else.
Since the massacre, dissidents had flocked to Gwyn upon hearing that he openly opposed the Crow King. At the time, Gwyn had made no such move, but those who knew his lineage had published it across Simaerin. Gwyn accepted his role as a rebel, but he still wanted nothing to do with being king.
Right now, it didn’t matter. Gwyn had a war to win; later he could sort out the right way to govern Simaerin. The key was Bayton. Daily, the Crow King squeezed the port city as tight as he could, drawing the blood of mages, or possible mages, or mage sympathizers. He wouldn’t allow food into the city. The ports remained closed. Trade had virtually halted. The people trapped within Bayton’s walls were dying — rebels and loyalists alike.
Gwyn must find a way inside. To do that, he had to breach the walls. Yet the Order of Corvus and the Crow Army stood in his way, defenses in place against any frontal assault.
The only hope Gwyn’s army had lay on Bayton’s north side, guarded solely by the cliffs above. Dorshen Heights. Knowing only nature stood guard there, Gwyn had marched his army in a wide circle around the city and camped on the cliff’s backside. If he could conquer this route, he might attack the one viable weakness in Bayton’s walls.
But getting up there unnoticed proved challenging; his army would be utterly exposed on the heights. It was madness to try. Madness might be all I can use against such odds.
“The conundrum is magic,” he murmured.
“What do you mean?” asked Lawen, standing beside him to consider Dorshen Heights.
“The Order of Corvus is braced against magic. They know how to block it. How to deflect it. Even to outlast it. But just as Dorshen Heights stand by Afallon’s will, our best chance is to forgo magic and try using man’s natural ingenuity as our defense. It will bring us closer. Maybe even close enough. It’s our only recourse, should Nox fail.”
“But, Gwyn, we’re exposed up there.”
Gwyn nodded. “We don’t need forts or keeps, merely a wall of earth to be our shields. We’ll bring weapons for defense, but as I said, if we can reach the top, it should be close enough. From there, Adesta and I should be able to negate the city’s defenses. After that, magic won’t be effective for either side. We’ll level the playing field. It might even shake the enemy enough that we won’t need to outlast them.”
“There are only two of you against a dozen of Corvus.”
“I still think it will work, and we can’t afford to wait any longer. Nox might not return, and our supplies grow thinner, as do our soldiers.”
“You sound mad, you know. It’s a terrible risk.”
“Not if we climb to the top of the heights under the cover of night.”
“The moon’s full, Gwyn. Any crow would spot a force climbing the cliffs, no matter the hour. And lest you forget, magic isn’t an option. We’re blocked from seizing the elements. No cloud cover, no wind noise.”
Gwyn smiled grimly. “There is one force the Order of Corvus cannot block against. So, we shall pray for Afallon to aid us.”