Happy Sunday, Everyone. This week, I’ve got the great pleasure to host my friend, Jay Requard!
Jay has a new book coming out! It’s called Atenia. Have a look at this cover:
To help celebrate the launch of Atenia, Jay stopped by the Blog to share an excerpt. Buckle up, and I’ll let Jay take the wheel…
Chapter 1 – The Wraiths
Haidra tried to shut her mouth, anything to steady her rapid breath or the pounding in her chest. She struggled to strike the flint to the stone at the correct angle, fingers too numb to grip the gray chip properly as she scratched against the iron nail she had found in the dirt. The night air, cold and stinging, bit at her bare face as she worked to light the torch between her knees, half-sunken in the wet grass. The sun had not come yet.
“Please, Crook, please,” she whispered to the shepherd guarding the living, hoping the archers on the palisade did not spot her. She had covered her dark hair in a black shawl, smudged her face in coal ash and stinking mud, and dirtied her clothes to not stick out against the edge of the northern fields where the queen-regent’s grain was grown. No thought on the starvation she was about to inflict on her neighbors, she scraped and scraped and scraped until a spark leapt onto the oiled cloth.
A wisp of acrid smoke, a shred of hope, she struck until the small points of light became a sputtering flame. Scooting back so the torch did not burn the inside of her dress or legs, Haidra snatched it up by the other end and ran for the wheat. The stalks caught the moment she stuck the red coal into the lengths. The fire spread in an instant. Columns of black smoke sprouted at multiple places.
The reality of what she had done caught.
She had kept her promise to him, her father, to the ruin of everyone else.
Haidra dropped the torch and covered her mouth with her hands. “Oh, no.”
Watching in horror as two season’s worth of hard work charred to the root, her shock broke when a horn sounded in the distant hills to the north. Unsteady on her feet, Haidra stumbled away from the fire, toward the palisade gates she had slipped through earlier. Surprised by the lack of guards rushing to meet her, she arrived at the entrance to Atenia’s northern walls as the first line of spearmen appeared. Armored in shining mail and capped in conical iron helms, they leveled their pikes forward.
Hiding in one of the bushes to the side, Haidra followed the direction of their focus to the highway road. Her eyes adjusted to the gloom.
Three black points charged down the strip of road. Unable to discern any details of the riders’ garbs, strange spots of illumination bobbed in front of their hoods. Closer and closer, the distance eaten up by the seconds, she gasped.
The lights in the riders’ hoods were their burning eyes.
“Spears at attention,” called the gate sergeant, sword out as he walked in front of their formation. “First line, kneel! Second line, at the ready!”
Of their thirty, fifteen took a full-step forward and knelt on one knee. They placed the butt of their pikes beneath them, anchoring the poles to allow better leverage of the points. The last fifteen raised their weapons high in both hands, up by their temples.
Lifelong witness to violence in the streets between her neighbors and the law, Haidra braced for the impalement.
A flash in the distance broke her expectation.
Ahead of the three riders drove a wedge of light, its illumined point flush to the dirt road but throwing up dust like the marauders behind it. Grim voices above the crackle of the flaming fields, the three riders moved their hands in a unified gestures. The wedge shot ahead of them.
“Hold!” called the sergeant. “Hold!”
Magic smacked into them with a thunderclap. Light exploded as the whole troop collided into walls, the earth, and farther distances, while those who remained on their feet reeled out of formation. The sergeant fell to his knees, his sword a crutch.
The riders neared. Two men and a woman by their obvious frames, they wore matching shirts of blackened mail, steel gauntlets and greaves fitted to strong, sinuous limbs. The two men came armed, one raising his ax high while the other, at the point of their trifecta, wielded a shining longsword. The sorceress among them stood on her saddle, a shade from the depths of Haidra’s worst nightmares.
The three wraiths won the charge, running over a trio of men as they cleaved into the stunned soldiers beside them. The sorceress launched from her horse with a graceful flip, landing among the survivors. Her comrades let their horses carry them forward a bit more before they slipped off. Haidra watched in amazement as the woman with burning eyes unleashed a rapier and small target. Without hesitation, she pierced the sergeant’s throat. Using her small shield in quick defense, she withdrew and went at the next spearman.
The three wraiths tore into the guards, felling them by swords, ax, and rapier.
The bloodshed entranced Haidra as decapitated heads cracked the dirt, the choking screams of the less fortunate men silenced by hard, heavy hackings. The black spirits slew without word, strain, or mercy.
An alarm sounded farther down the palisade to the east.
The wraiths broke apart, the ax-slinger collecting their horses while the sorceress and swordsman roved the gate area.
“Where is he?” the swordsman called, tall and broad in the shoulders. “Where’s Arverin?”
“That’s my dad,” Haidra whispered without thinking.
The sorceress searched the opposite hedgerow from where Haidra hid, the glow of the blazing fields making her seem shaped of soot. “Maybe the archers spotted him when he was lighting the fields.” Her red gaze wandered to the wheat, its smoldering line now halfway to the other side of its borders. “We should try to find his children. I think he had a daughter.”
“I’m his daughter,” Haidra said aloud this time.
The two wraiths faced her, the red points within their hoods fixing like real eyes. Neither raised their weapons.
The sorceress spoke, “Come out. We won’t hurt you.”
Stepping from behind a dense shrub despite every doubt, arms over her chest for the lack of knowing anything better to do, Haidra revealed herself to the creatures. They stood statue-quiet among the dead, which she dared to look at in horror. The stench of their offal soaked in the burning air, making the sight of their exposed guts worse. The heat of the wheat field, its smoke, blew upon the night wind to leave an overpowering scent of burnt bread.
“Who are you?” the wraith with the longsword asked.
“Arverin,” Haidra answered quickly. “Arverin the mender. I’m his daughter,” she said, trying not to stammer. The black robes of the wraiths writhed at the hems, the ragged bits snaking on their own accord.
“What’s your name, girl?” the swordsman, harsher this time.
“Haidra,” she said, swallowing so her guts did not come up. “My name is Haidra.”
“I’ll carry her on my horse,” the sorceress replied, “but we need to get to cover. The entire city will be on high alert.”
The taller wraith made for the inside of the palisade gates. “Good.”
The third of their number, the ax-slinger, recovered their black horses. The slight details of their garb sharpened the longer Haidra had to study the trio. Clearly in possession of a single head, two arms, two legs, the lack of tails provided enough to know she dealt with something like a mortal, removing her worst fears of whatever lay underneath.
The swordsman said something to the ax-slinger in a foreign tongue familiar to her ear. Heard in the markets near the bakery where she worked and spoken by the desert folk from below the Southern Sea, she knew it was Eaith, the traders’ speech from Arbikk.
The sorceress appeared, ushering Haidra to the side of her black beast.
“Quickly up,” she said, not unkind like the swordsman but with an equal authority. Haidra did not argue as she put her foot in a stirrup. The sorceress provided a small lift of support with her strong, thin arms. She deftly leapt into the saddle next, positioning in front of Haidra with perfect ease. Taking the reins, she squeezed her lithe legs into her horse’s flanks.
“Which way?” the swordsman asked.
Haidra pointed south to Idrian Street, the main road through the city and the only way she knew to make sense of. “Down that way. To the third street on the left, and then we go through the alleys to get to my house.”
The sorceress shifted her head to the left in her hood. “What happened to your father? He was the one who was supposed to meet us here.”
The question quieted Haidra, her scattered thoughts falling into clear, violent clarity. She remembered climbing through the window of their hovel, knees scraping on the sill. Her father tried to wrestle a sword in a knight’s hand, already bleeding badly as he kept the intruder at bay.
His shrieks echoed someplace inside her heart.
The swordsman spoke, “Answer, girl.”
Haidra tried to speak, to say what had happened, what she had witnessed.
The sorceress sighed at her fellow wraith. “Lady Haidra.”
The swordsmen said nothing for a few seconds, then tried again. “Lady Haidra, where’s Arverin?”
“I don’t know,” she said, too scared to answer with the truth. “I don’t know what happened to my daddy. The guard came and…”
“Then we cannot take you home,” the swordsman said. “Did your father have any friends who kept his secrets?”
“We can go to Mr. Ecktor’s house,” Haidra answered. “He’s a cobbler in the rebellion. My father said he was involved.”
“We’ll need your help getting to this cobbler,” the sorceress said, both a firm order and gentle request. “We need to get there if we’re to keep you safe.”
Arms tight to the sorceress’ waist, gnawed by exhaustion, Haidra mustered a nod.
The entire night mashed into slums, darkness, the noise of stray animals yowling, infesting Low Corner, and of blood and her father’s frantic eyes. The city’s damnable gloom, stinking and persistent, blunted the sourest bits. Alongside the pain came a strange pride, steeped in odor of the burnt kernels saturating the night air.
One last chill mustered before the sun’s coming, waking her to the truth again as the singed scent spread.
She had done it, and she ruminated in pride and horror.
For her dad, the fields burned.
She had done it.
Jay Requard is an author of Epic Fantasy and Sword & Sorcery located in New York City. The winner of the 2016 Write Well Award for his novelette Mask of the Kravyads and a runner-up for the Manly Wade Wellman Award for the novella War Pigs, he also helped found the publishing house Falstaff Books as one of its original authors and, for a little bit, an editor. His most recent series include A WAVE OF LIONS and the upcoming Urban Fantasy series, THE BLESSED & POSSESSED.
He is also the host of PONDERING THE ORB, a YouTube show dedicated to books, music, and more, as well as WHERE NO BUBS HAS GONE BEFORE, a Star Trek: The Next Generation podcast.
He walks the roads of adventure with a wonderful wife, a son he adores, and a star-cat named Mona Underfoot.
You can find out more about him here: https://linktr.ee/JayRequard
Here’s another look at that cover:
Huge thanks to Jay for stopping by this week. Atenia comes out on Tuesday, April 25th. There’s still time to Pre-Order at Amazon!