“Sornin, I’m beginning to think that everyone has decided to become honest lately,” Pelya said with a grin as she rested against a lamppost. A breeze lazily carried the sounds of the city through the air.
Sornin responded with a snort. “You shouldn’t ask for trouble, Pelya, especially not at the beginning of our shift. There’ll be plenty to go around at some point or another.” He straightened the collar of his chain shirt underneath his tunic, a nervous habit. They wore the brown and black uniforms of the Dralin City Guard. “And thinking that everyone stopped committing crimes is pure fantasy.”
Pelya stood straight and tugged on her braided black hair, an unconscious habit she had. “Come now Sornin, the weather is pleasant with the heat of summer gone. Fall colors cover the trees and the threat of winter is still far away. We’re in for a long, boring night, so it wouldn’t hurt to let a smile crack those lips of yours.”
He gave her a slight smile, more than most people received. Brown hair framed his narrow face and he always wore a severe expression. Pelya trusted him implicitly though, especially since he had protected her back more than once, as she had his.
They were patrolling the Orange Sash District, named after perfume-laden prostitutes that wore orange sashes to mark their profession. Garishly painted bordellos lined the street and women called out from windows to potential clients below.
Pelya’s unit was in the center of the district where the clientele tended towards middle class workers. Rich, ornate buildings housed a higher class of prostitute in the northern section of the district while run-down parlor houses were in the south.
Pelya checked everyone’s positions, her sapphire-blue eyes sparkling in the late afternoon sun. There were six people in her unit, loosely organized, ready for battle if needed. The fact that they walked without a specific formation made them less predictable.
She had become unit leader on her nineteenth birthday last month and immediately established herself as a charismatic leader. Sornin was her unit-buddy and second in charge. They were one of four units in the squad. The other three units were within hearing distance of the whistle around her neck, which made a piercing signal that carried over the sounds of the busy streets.
Scantily clad men and women on the streets encouraged potential customers to enter the bordellos. Most were respectful to the Guardmembers who watched over them and kept them safe, or as safe as it was possible to keep anyone in the most dangerous city on the world of Ryallon.
“Does your father know that Captain Fallamer has you stationed in the Orange Sash?” Yobi, a veteran Guardsman, asked. He looked up at the puffy clouds in the sky and stretched.
Pelya gave her long braid another yank. “Yes. He’s mad about it too. But he needs to understand that he can’t protect me from doing my job.” She remembered the yelling match they had about it the week before.
Yobi shook his head in amazement. “I wouldn’t want to cross Sergeant Frath Jornin even if I was a captain. I like working for Captain Fallamer, but she’s crazy for giving you this assignment.”
Joll, his unit-buddy, smacked Yobi on the shoulder with the back of her hand. “Watch what you say.” She glanced up at Pelya nervously. Joll was a short, young woman who was intimidated by Pelya’s six-foot frame.
Pelya waved off the concern. “Daddy unnerves most people, and it is a bad idea to cross him.” She winked, more than happy to protect her father’s reputation. They both gulped.
They heard a muffled scream. Joll pointed down the street a side street. “A woman, taken down the alley by a group of thugs!” Before she was done with the sentence, they all had their swords drawn and ready.
Pelya immediately shouted orders. “Watch for surprises and protect each other!” She gave her whistle two sharp tweets and a long one to let the other units in the squad know that they were investigating trouble.
Her unit dashed toward the alley while curious bystanders scurried out of the way. The speed with which the well-trained fighters moved was remarkable. The Dralin City Guard had a system for pursuit that made it difficult to escape. Each Guardmember studied maps of every alley and sewer intensively before they were let lose in a District.
A sharp turn into the murky alley and they could see the kidnappers dragging the struggling woman through the back door of a smog-blackened building, slamming it shut behind them.
The members of the unit dashed forward, stepped to either side of the door and prepared for entrance. Sornin tossed a runeball that would detect any spells or traps on the door. It would even disarm most generic spells. It floated in front of the doorway for a moment, shining with a greenish light as it spun and did its magic. All was clear. Sornin retrieved the ball just as Pelya blew two long tweets followed by a short one to indicate to the rest of the squad that her unit was entering a building. She kicked the old, wooden door, shattering it with one blow.
Pelya moved inside carefully, letting her eyes grow accustomed to the dim light. Sornin was right behind her, sword at the ready. Two lanterns revealed chipped paint on the wooden walls and threadbare runners on the floor. Pelya’s instincts told her the woman would have been taken further than the first rooms on either side of the hallway, so she headed toward a door at the very end. Sornin signaled for the others to be ready for battle. They advanced in staggered formation.
At the end of the hall, Sornin tossed the runeball past his leader. It flashed with red light, disarming a ward on the door. The ball sucked in magical energy causing it to disintegrate, its enchantment used up.
Sornin and Pelya exchanged worried glances. Red light indicated an alarm ward. Even though it was disarmed, anyone inside would know someone was standing outside the door. Pelya felt a little uneasy about walking into a certain ambush, but the circumstances required instant action. If they didn’t engage immediately, the woman would be lost.
With another well-placed kick, she took down the door. Sornin rushed in first while Pelya followed right behind. They moved to either side of the door, clearing a safe path for the rest.
Ten fighters stood back in the surprisingly large and crowded room instead of coming forth to attack. The sight of expensive furnishings, shoved aside for a fight, made it clear to Pelya that this was a place for criminal operations. In contrast to the hallway outside, the walls had fresh paint, wall hangings and expensive carpets.
Sornin yelled in loud, clear tones, “Dralin City Guard! Put down your weapons!”
The fighters lifted their swords higher and crouched, ready for battle. Pelya realized they would face a fight, something she didn’t want. “No one needs to get hurt! We just have questions.” Joll and Yobi came through the door and moved forward, making space for the last two.
A blonde man glared at the intruders from behind a desk at the far end of the room as though they were flies landing on his dinner. He wore a fancy purple shirt, black pants and a fine sword at the hip. Two men next to the desk held the kidnapped woman. A woman in yellow robes was gesturing with her hands and a supernatural wind blew hair about her face.
Pelya and Sornin realized at the same time why the fighters were holding back. “Magic!” they shouted together. In unison, Pelya’s unit cast fast protective spells, taught as standard training in the Guard. It would complement protections already built into their uniforms. They were just in time, saving them from the effects of the spell.
Pelya’s knife flew through the air, its target the spellcaster. The knife was special issue to all unit leaders, made to pierce magical defenses and kill wizards. The wizard had already begun another spell and wasn’t able to dodge the flying blade that pierced his throat and dropped him to the ground.
Five, Pelya thought to herself. It was how many people she had killed in her life, a number she hated. She blew her whistle in two short bursts, the signal that they were engaging in battle. Hopefully, it would be heard through the open doors to outside.
The true battle began. Their foes were not amateurs, but few were good enough to match a member of Dralin’s Guard. Pelya had two men to deal with immediately. Her sword darted through the air faster than her opponents could parry. One fell quickly. Six. A number she hated more than five.
She stalled the other man with rapid parries in order to check on her unit. Joll was down and would never get up again. The rest of the unit was hard pressed. Then two more foes engaged Pelya. She finished off the one she had stalled, seven, and went to the next. A quick move here and another there, the two were wounded. She reevaluated the unit’s situation and realized another of her unit was down. As she killed another attacker, eight, Albin, a third member of her unit also fell. Sornin and Yobi stood with her against three hardened fighters, four others lying dead on the floor.
The man that had been behind the desk was now closer with Albin’s blood on his blade. His brown eyes were cold and ruthless, taking measure of them. His nostrils flared and his brows lowered as he closed the distance. The remaining foes backed off.
Pelya knew that they all stood a chance of dying if they stood their ground. It was against the policy of the Dralin City Guard for every member of a unit to die. At least one of them must return to the squad and report the incident. “Report Yobi! Now!” Pelya yelled.
He took the order and went through the doorway only to find three more fighters blocking the way. Sornin turned and helped to clear the escape route while Pelya stood in the doorway and guarded their retreat.
The stranger with the hard eyes was in front of her. Pelya’s sword clashed against his blade. Sparks of light and color came from their swords showing that both contained magic. He was a swordmaster and his enchanted blade met every stroke of hers effortlessly. Even though she was also a swordmaster, her thrusts and parries became more desperate with each blow. She tumbled around him for better position.
Pelya sensed one of the fighters attacking her from behind. An exaggerated move and a fast dodge put her behind the man. She pushed him forward. Without blinking, the swordmaster killed his own man.
The swordmaster’s blade met hers again with a supernatural speed. Closer and closer it came, as though the blade itself wished to drink of her blood. She could see the man’s nostrils flaring even more as he came on. There was power and experience in his arm. He had spent more time wielding a sword than she. It was not just the enchantment in the steel.
Pelya sensed movement behind her. She made a quick roll backward and to the side. Another fighter behind her missed with a wicked thrust at her back. Every ounce of Pelya’s training, in addition to her natural talent, came into play. She jumped up from the roll just in time to see the mysterious swordmaster kill the man for interfering in his battle.
There is a moment after a person kills someone when they pause to take in the shock of it. The hardest killer may have it down to an almost nonexistent moment, but it is there.
Pelya struck in that moment, a quick thrust, tight and deadly. It missed. Anyone else would have died. The man moved even faster than Gilron Coodmur, the Guard’s weaponmaster.
Pain stung Pelya’s cheek as she jerked her head back and tumbled to the side. The swordmaster’s blade was sharp. Pelya ignored the blood flowing down her chin and the swordmaster’s cruel smile as she parried another of his blows.
The next cut her thigh. Another cut the back of her hand as she tumbled and failed to take out his hamstring with a spinning swing.
He was too fast and his blade bit into her forehead as her sword moved too slowly to counter. Blood flowed past her eyes, impairing her vision.
Pelya’s back grew warm. Time slowed.
Her blade met the man’s sword in slow motion and then darted forward to slash his chin.
The swordmaster was surprised as he parried her next blow. He was more surprised when another cut through his shirt to the skin of his chest.
Time slowed even more as their blades clashed again and again, neither gaining the advantage. The warmth on Pelya’s back increased, spreading into her bones. Shadows watched intently.
They separated. The swordmaster rolled toward the desk while Pelya rolled toward the door. For an instant, the opponents stared at each other with the intensity of suns, memorizing every detail about the other.
The swordmaster dashed through a secret door held open by one of his fighters. It closed behind them.
Pelya took a step forward before realizing that the room was filled with Guardmembers and that the remaining fighters had been subdued. The kidnapped woman was crying into the shoulder of a Guard.
“Pelya!” Sornin said. “Pelya!”
Everything was surreal as she turned to face him. Normalcy came rushing in, causing her to stagger backwards. The heat on her back and in her bones lessened. The shadows slid back into themselves.
Squad Sergeant Herman Melvor came and took her arm in concern. “Pelya. Are you alright? You’re bleed . . . By the Gods . . . Your cuts are disappearing! What healing magic is that?”
Pelya’s mouth clenched shut. The dragon mark on her back prevented her from speaking. It had slowed time and improved her reflexes during the battle. Now it healed her wounds, but it also prevented her from ever talking about it. Most of the time she didn’t even remember it was there, so insidious was the geas that prevented her from revealing it.
Squad Corporal Jecks put his hand on Pelya’s sword hand in a calming motion. “I’ve never seen anyone move so fast, you or him.” Concern lit his grey eyes and filled his thick voice.
Pelya wiped and sheathed her sword at the corporal’s gesture. She still couldn’t respond. Sornin put a supportive hand on her shoulder while Yobi stood behind with his arms crossed. Once of the squad wizards was trying to figure out the secret door while the other helped the squad healer look after the fallen Guardmembers. Pelya realized that Sornin and Yobi were the only ones who survived.
“Report, Unit Leader,” Sergeant Melvor said. Pelya normally called him Uncle Herman. He had helped Pelya’s father raise her since she was a baby. His brown eyes showed that he wanted to protect her, but he was being professional.
It helped. Pelya’s jaw unlocked and she relayed the details of the incident. “The unit heard a woman scream and began pursuit of two men who were dragging that woman into an alley.” Pelya pointed at the woman who was still sobbing into the shoulder of a Guardsman. The Guardsman looked at Sergeant Melvor with pleading eyes.
The sergeant ignored the look, leaving the man to suffer the woman’s tears. “Go on, Pelya. What happened next?”
Pelya was still gulping in air from exertion. “We saw them enter this building. After Sornin checked the door for wards, I broke it down and led my unit into the building. I whistled . . .”
Sergeant Melvor nodded. “We heard your whistles.”
“We went through the hallways to this door and discovered an alarm ward on it. It was deactivated and I kicked in the door.”
“Did you check any of the side doors in the hallway?” Corporal Jecks asked.
“I did not,” Pelya said with a sinking feeling in her stomach. She remembered the fighters who had come behind them. “My instincts told me the woman was in this room at the end of the hall and that we needed to get to her as fast as possible.”
Corporal Jecks nodded. Pelya couldn’t tell if he approved or disapproved. He was hard to read.
“There were about ten armed fighters in the room, a wizard, the kidnappers, the kidnapped woman and the man I was fighting.” Pelya stopped and stared at the secret doorway that the squad wizard still hadn’t figured out.
One of the guardsmen who was examining the bodies of the fighters stood and came over. “A few of these fighters were once soldiers from the Kingdom of Deller. I recognize tattoos on the base of the neck given to everyone who joins their army. Theirs have additional marks to indicate that they were discharged dishonorably.”
“Good work, Private Wibben.” Sergeant Melvor frowned. “Do you have any idea why ex-soldiers from Deller would be here, Pelya?”
“No, Sergeant. We called for them to put away their weapons and said that we just wanted to ask questions, but the wizard cast a spell at us.” Pelya pointed at the dead mage. Her knife was still sticking from his neck.
“Nice shot,” Corporal Jecks said. “That’s your knife, right?” He pointed at Pelya’s empty sheath.
“Yes, Corporal. The odds were against us and the wizard immediately began casting another spell. I truly believed it the only real option.” Pelya didn’t tell him that the wizard was the fifth person she had killed in her life. That was a private number. “We cast our warding spells upon seeing the wizard, which protected us from the first casting. I didn’t know if they would hold up against another.”
Corporal Jecks gave a sharp nod of approval. “Good decision.” Pelya was astonished. It was the highest praise she had heard him give anyone.
“What happened then, Pelya?” Sergeant Melvor asked.
“The fighters attacked us and there was no time to do anything but fight back. They were skilled.” She looked at Joll’s body. It was surreal to Pelya that Guardmembers could be defeated.
Private Wibben stared at the bodies. “They were very skilled to take out three Guardspeople.”
Pelya worked on leveling her breathing. “I ordered Yobi to run for help. He was blocked by three fighters and Sornin went to help him while I watched their backs.”
Sornin spoke to her defense. “Pelya’s the best of us. I thought she would be able to hold off the rest in spite of their skill.”
“You made a good decision,” Sergeant Melvor said. “Getting word to the squad was priority. And I trust Pelya to guard my back any day.” He smiled at Pelya and squeezed her shoulder.
Pelya had a sudden urge to burst into tears, but she resisted it. “That swordmaster attacked me next and all my time was spent defending against him. He killed two of his own men, one to get to me, the other because the fighter tried to kill me.”
“He carried himself like a duelist,” Private Wibben said. “I’ve seen the type. They’re everywhere in Deller. Although he was better than any I’ve seen.”
“Are you from Deller?” Jecks asked.
Wibben shook his head. “No. I’m from Obda to the north of Deller. Their soldiers make a nuisance of themselves and occasionally come to border towns for drinking and wenching.” He looked at Pelya. “I’ve never seen anyone move as fast as either of you. There was magic involved.”
Pelya’s jaw clenched shut again. She couldn’t talk about the mark. With a deft switch of thought, she remembered the swordmaster’s weapon. Her jaw unlocked. “He had a magical blade, superior to the standard guard issue.” She patted the sword at her side. It wasn’t standard, having been a gift from the Guard’s weaponmaster, but it looked like one and few knew otherwise.
“If it makes him move faster, it’s a powerful enchantment.” Jecks looked suspiciously at Pelya. “How did you move so fast, Pelya?”
Her jaw didn’t lock, almost as though the mark trusted her not to reveal its presence. She rewarded its faith by deflecting the corporal’s question. “I don’t think his sword was just magical. I could feel it studying me, testing me. I think it may have had a name.”
The statement drew gasps. Magical weapons and other items were common, especially in Dralin, but a named item meant it had a soul. It could think and influence the person that owned it. They were incredibly powerful, priceless and dangerous.
“We need to know who he is and why he wanted this woman kidnapped.” Sergeant Melvor gestured at the woman who had finally stopped crying and was wiping her eyes with the sleeve of her extravagant dress.
She held her head high. “Because I’m the daughter of Chancellor Divathia.”
“Chancellor Divathia of the High Council?” Sergeant Melvor asked in surprise. He thumped a fist to his chest in salute. “Milady.”
She gathered loose strands of her auburn hair and put them in a makeshift ponytail. “I did my best to fight them off, but they were too strong. They killed my personal guards.” She looked at a rip in the sleeve of her dress. “Mother’s going to kill me for ruining this dress.”
None of the men knew how to respond and just stood there stupidly. Pelya winked. “Blame it on the kidnappers and tell your mother they ripped it just to spite her.”
The woman’s face lit up. “Brilliant idea. That way it’s her fault.” She came over and wrapped Pelya in a hug, nearly suffocating her with the heavy scent of jasmine perfume. “Thank you for saving my life. I saw your unit just before they dragged me into the alley. It took every ounce of my strength to get the hand away from my mouth long enough to scream.” She stood back and looked up at Pelya. “I will see to it that you are rewarded. Mother will want to meet you.”
Pelya gulped. The High Council was the ruling body of Dralin and outranked even the Grand Assembly responsible for running the country of Altordan. The twelve chancellors of the High Council were the most powerful people in the kingdom and it wasn’t wise to attract their attention, good or bad.
The woman sighed and shook her head. “Of course you don’t want to meet her. Nobody wants anything to do with her or me.” She crossed her arms and turned to look at the rest of the room. “Eww. Why am I still in a room with dead bodies? This is disgusting.” She turned back to Herman and held her arms out in an expression of incredulity. “Why am I still here, Sergeant whatever your name is?”
“His name is Sergeant Melvor,” Pelya said. “My name is Pelya Jornin.”
The woman looked at Pelya in shock and then a smile lit her face. “I’m Yancy. Please get me out of this room. These dead bodies are starting to unnerve me.”
Pelya looked to Sergeant Melvor, who nodded. She led her to the alley outside. Sornin and Yobi followed.
“Finish gathering evidence,” Sergeant Melvor ordered Corporal Jecks. “The messengers I sent should have reached Captain Fallamer and she’ll be here soon. I want everything ready to present to her.” He then followed Pelya and the others into the alley. “The captain will want to speak to you Lady Divathia. We’ll arrange to get you home just as soon as possible.”
“Fine, but I want Pelya to escort me. I saw how good she is with a sword, better than any of my guards.” Yancy studied Pelya.
Sergeant Melvor looked distinctly uncomfortable with the suggestion. “I don’t have that authority, milady, but I’m sure Captain Fallamer will allow her to join the escort before returning to finish her report.”
Just then, an officer with short red hair jogged up along with a full squad. Her thin, red eyebrows furrowed in a frown at seeing Pelya, but she turned to Melvor. “Report, Sergeant.”
Yancy ignored the sergeant who began to report the details to Captain Fallamer. She grabbed Pelya’s arm, dragging her next to a nearby wall. “You’re Pelya Jornin, the guard brat, aren’t you?”
Pelya suppressed the urge to punch the woman in the face.
Yancy gasped and covered her mouth. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean it that way . . .” She grabbed Pelya’s arms. “Please don’t be mad at me. It’s just that . . . everyone calls you that . . . I mean . . . that’s not what I mean . . .” She turned around and threw her hands up in frustration. “I’ve gone and messed up again. I’ll never learn. Everyone hates me. I’m so stupid!”
Pelya crossed her arms and set aside her personal feelings. “I have no idea whether or not you’re stupid, but I won’t hold it against you if you are.” She grinned at the look of shock on Yancy’s face as the woman spun back around.
“Oh . . . you . . .” And then Yancy laughed. “I like you, and I’m sorry I called you a guard brat.” She paused and put a hand on her chin. “Mother doesn’t approve of you though. That’s a problem.”
“Yes, well I’m used to people not approving of me,” Pelya said in disgust. “I don’t care, even if your mother is a member of the High Council. I don’t care what anyone thinks of me or of my father for raising me in the Guard.” She became angrier with each word. It was a sore spot with her and to know that she was discussed even within the High Council was offensive.
Yancy folded her hands in front of her and hung her head. “I’m sorry.”
Pelya wiped her face with a tired hand. She was drained now that all the energy pumped into her blood during battle was leaving.
“You’re shaking,” Yancy said while grabbing Pelya’s arms again. “Are you hurt?”
“No. I’m just tired and I killed . . .” Pelya stared back at the doorway, remembering the bodies of the men and the death of her unit mates. She wouldn’t cry though, not until she was safely alone with her father, or Ebudae.
“I’m trying to forget that! Please don’t talk about it. I’m trying to be brave, but I . . . I’ve never seen anyone die until now.” Yancy was pale as a ghost and looked about ready to faint.”
“Lady Yancy Divathia?” Captain Fallamer came up beside Pelya. “I’m giving you an escort to take you home along with a carriage that will be here momentarily. It’s my understanding that you wish Unit Leader Jornin to be in that escort?”
“Yes, Captain,” Yancy said with a slight curtsey. It was a proper gesture and a measure of respect.
“Very well, but she must return as soon as you are safely home. She has a report to make.”
“Yes, Captain. I’ll see to it. Thank you.” Yancy curtsied again.
Captain Fallamer gave Pelya’s shoulder a squeeze. “Come talk to me first thing when you get back to the Guard District, Unit Leader.” She smiled reassuringly.
“Yes, Captain.” Pelya didn’t feel reassured.
If you are interested in the first two books: