What would you do if your god stood before you, spoke directly to you, and told you to kill the woman you love?
I LOVE swords and sorcery stuff. Dragons, wizards, elves, orcs, and all that fantasy land fun. I played World of Warcraft in high school. I watched all the Lords of the Rings movies (and then read the books--don't judge me, I was 11 when the movies came out). I love everything Game of Thrones, again, I'll admit to the show starting me on the books. So what is a girl to do if she is known for steampunk and paranormal, but she really wants to write about knights and ogres? The answer is apparently take a stab at the new genre and hope my readers are into it.
Harper, Sword Maiden for the illustrious Goddess of the Open Ocean, has returned to the fabled city of Griffon’s Rock at the end of the Last Road to rest for the winter months after a disappointing year treasure hunting. Her rest is cut short by a mysterious storm of divine origin, an attempted horse theft of her beloved mount, and the sudden appearance of a beautiful southerner who seems determined to capture Harper’s heart.
As the snows begin to fall, the intrigue and romance heats up. The object of Harper’s desire, the mysterious rogue Calista, appears destined to get everyone into fresh trouble with a mystical stew-brewing ogre, a greedy guild of Dwarven thieves, and finally an exalted march out of the snowy north bent on divine retribution.
Harper must decide if her growing love for Calista is real or a product of the lies she’s been told. Before the spring thaw, Harper will choose between the woman she loves and the Goddess that is the source of her magic.
So here it is, the first chapter of my fantasy adventure epic where a pure-hearted knight struggles with her faith as she falls in love with a cold-blooded assassin. Divine Touched is available: Kindle, Kobo, Nook, and Paperback
The Last Season for an Old Friend
The first storm of autumn darkened the sea to the northwest, rolling in like gray mountains across the sky, carrying with it the scent of the winter to come. The Last Road wound its way up through the granite, heading north along the coast, with the rocky shore to the west and the groves of stone berry trees to the east. Ahead, tall like a tooth of the Gods, stood the Screeching Peak, snow already dusting its jagged cap, stark white against the foreboding gray sky.
Harper walked slowly, careful to keep to the right of her warhorse, Aerial. The great gray mare, sixteen hands tall and stout like a brawny north man, was finally to be retired. Her coat was lined with scars equal to Harper’s, although the final wound to end her career left only the tiniest mark, no bigger than an arrowhead. Aerial was only seventeen seasons with plenty of career left before her until she lost her left eye to a stone dart of all things at the end of summer. The armored head-crest she wore in combat would have blocked most projectiles much larger, but the stone dart found its lucky way through, given more force by attacking opposite a charge. Harper tried her best to heal the wound, dropping her attack when Aerial reared, yet even her magic couldn’t spare her beloved horse’s eye. Enough remained to stitch together a milky globe that Aerial could barely make out shapes with should Harper pass her hand in front of it. The rest of her company had already ridden ahead, giving Harper private time with Aerial for the last return to Griffon’s Rock.
Tears rolled freely down her cheeks, pausing momentarily on the shelf of her high, refined cheekbones before tumbling free. Harper was part Sylvan-born on her mother’s side, giving her slightly tapered tips to her ears, delicately triangular facial features, and an innate sense for magic. As she wore her honey colored hair long and typically free flowing, she passed easily for an exotically lovely human woman with the exception of her eyes. They were an otherworldly combination of green and blue such as a northern ocean after a violent storm when the world below the waves is churned to the surface and lit upon by rarified light breaking through the gray dome of storm clouds. Some said they shone with an inner light, although Harper was seldom near a reflective surface to verify.
Though Aerial had long since lost the need for a lead rope, Harper rested her hand on her equine friend’s flank as they walked together. The ocean crashed against the granite shore down the boulder-strewn slope to their left and the autumnal winds blew through the golden leaves of the stone berry orchards to their right allowing them both to walk blind, guided north only by the sounds surrounding them.
Aerial sniffed at the air, flaring her nostrils to take in the scent of the approaching storm and rain striking saltwater to the north. Harper followed suit, breathing in deeply the blessing of the Sea Queen. Maraline, Goddess of the Open Sea, spoke to her followers like Harper through the ocean’s song. Harper tried her best to see the approaching storm as a sign of a good resting season to come, a fine farewell to a friend’s long service, before Aerial and Harper would finally part ways.
Griffon’s Rock rose out of the base of the Screeching Peak like a shining jewel among worthless gravel. The city itself, the wintering home of Harper’s company, was built from the ruins of the Dwarven City State that had inhabited the mountain a century before. The Dwarves had come to rely on the griffons that lived among the peak as their staple herd. Their end came when the dragons, who also fed upon the griffons, took umbrage with the Dwarves pillaging their food supply. The Dwarves were exterminated under the flame of the dragons and the dragons starved slowly after, consuming the last of the griffons without leaving generations enough to replenish the reduced numbers. The city of Griffon’s Rock and the humans who inhabited it learned the lessons of foolish dragons and greedy Dwarves, focusing instead on the easily fostered crop of stone berries: the hearty, tree-grown nuts the griffons had once eaten. The shells of the stone berry were so hard only the griffon’s beaks could crack them, or, as the people of Griffon’s Rock learned, metal nut crackers in the precise shape of a griffon’s beak. The nut within was often crushed, mixed with water, and turned into a gruel for marching troops or high quality mash for warhorses. The armies of the nation of Vaelandria marched on their stomachs as the old proverb went. And the stomachs of Vaelandrian horses and men alike were filled with stone berries grown by the people of Griffon’s Rock. The secondary industry of Griffon’s Rock was to offer winter housing for mercenary companies.
The treasure seeking season was coming to a close, although earlier than Harper might have liked. Harper’s crew, the Dagger Falls Company had been beset by misfortune the entire season from spring’s first thaw until they’d finally given up their endeavors a week ago. More fortunate companies would continue their work until the first snow, which wouldn’t be for another two weeks, collecting coin and treasure for their benefactors before retiring to Griffon’s Rock. The haul the Dagger Falls Company managed that season was embarrassingly paltry, and Harper didn’t look forward to making their report.
They’d lost their Jack early in the season. Felix, a street urchin who had risen through the ranks of thieves guilds to turn adventurer and mercenary at the first opportunity, had served ably as the company’s Jack for four seasons. Early in spring, when they were working as caravan guards to make their way into the east, a brigand ambush had struck the wagon train, felling Felix beneath a hale of arrows.
The company tried their best to replace the talented Jack with little success. Mettler, a grandiose figure with a flourishing rapier as his favored weapon and a bright orange sash tied around his head at all times, had hired on once they’d finished the caravan escort duty. The next job, and Mettler’s only work with the company, was a reclaiming of a captive nobleman’s daughter. Mettler was to scale the stone manor’s wall, enter through an open window, and sneak through the mansion to open the gate for the rest of the company. The loud crash that followed from within, the shouting of guards, and then the frantic pounding on the interior of the keep’s massive oak door told the company Mettler had failed miserably in his task. They’d gained entrance to the keep when the guards burst out the front door in great numbers to see if the foppish Jack was acting alone. The Dagger Falls Company battled well, slaying the guards through force of arms and dumb luck, and ultimately freed the nobleman’s daughter in a distinctly ham-fisted fashion.
The second replacement Jack they’d hired on, and the one who managed to follow them the rest of the summer, was a Havvish woman—Havvish being the diminutive people having arisen from the union between a Gnome and a Brownie that supposedly took place two millennia ago—less kind origin stories for the relatively new race said they sprang from a swamp of particularly irritating water. Short to the tune of around four feet tall and delicately built, their work as Jacks was legendary and so the company felt themselves fortunate to find one available for employment. Unfortunately, so too are the Havvish people known for drinking, gambling, stealing anything not nailed down, and talking all waking hours and many slumbering hours as well. Brandinne was talented at her work, there was no doubt about that, fighting well with her crossbow and daggers, setting brilliant traps, and flicking locks from their mountings with little more than a look, but she drove them all to the edge of madness with her prattle and stink-weed pipe smoking. Sven and Athol, the two brothers whose family was the company’s benefactor, seriously considered stuffing Brandinne into a sack and drowning her on so many occasions that Harper actually started to fear for the Jack’s life. Toward the end of the season, when they were camped at the edge of the Rusted Plains, Athol had stepped into a leg-turn trap, having somehow found his way toward Brandinne’s side of the camp in the dark. The trap that cleverly combined sticks and ropes in such a way that would turn an ankle if stepped into, had served as a non-lethal warning. Athol claimed he was sleep walking. Brandinne superficially accepted this excuse, but the damage to the group’s cohesion was done. Brandinne took her earnings and left them in the next town.
On the next job, Harper’s trusted mount and warhorse of great import to the company’s success, took the stone dart to the eye when they were to clear out a colony of goblins that had taken up residence in a town’s only functional mill. The Dagger Falls Company took a vote, declared the season hexed beyond repair, and retired to Griffon’s Rock to spend the winter months searching for a new Jack and better fortune for the spring thaw to come.
Harper finally strolled through the gates of the city’s massive walls, once built by talented Dwarven masons. The cobblestone streets, brick buildings with thatched roofs, and hearty agrarian people all felt familiar and safe to Harper. The citizenry of Griffon’s Rock were abuzz with preparations for the return of the mercenary companies. At least two dozen or more companies took their winter rest in Griffon’s Rock, bringing with them wealth spent liberally on drink, entertainment, finery, and, if any was left over, supplies for the next season. The town greeted the companies with great hospitality, plied them with food, drink, and wanted wares, and then sent them on their way the following spring, picked clean of nearly every coin. Harper was different. As a Sword Maiden of the Sea Queen, she spent her winter months at the temple to Maraline, healing the sick, performing miracles in the name of her Goddess, and growing the flock of the faithful. Her wealth remained her own, saved in the temple’s coffers, spared by her duty to her faith.
She walked the familiar narrow alleys along the outer wall to the livery where she would finally dip into her mountain of savings to provide comfort for an old friend who had served well. The livery master came out to greet her, dressed in the stained brown clothes of his work, his equally filthy hair pulled back into a long braid. He smelled strongly of the stables, of sweet hay, pungent horse manure, and leather tack.
“Greetings to you, Lady Harper,” the stable master said, raising his hand in a three fingered salute meant to show fealty to an agent of the divine.
“Greetings, stable master,” Harper replied. “I have need of new service.”
“New or returned service, my lady?”
“Aerial has lost use of her left eye in the course of duty,” Harper explained, gently turning her horse’s head to show the stable master the truth of her words. “I wish her to rest in a retirement well-earned, paid for by the coin she helped acquire.”
“Begging your apologies, lady, but we do not provide horse ‘retirement’ services here.” The livery master fidgeted a bit, not wishing to look upon Harper when delivering the news. “Perhaps you should see to the butcher or one of the slaughterhouses for such a thing.”
The implication struck Harper like a cold knife to the stomach, which she had experienced and hadn’t enjoyed. “No, not in the sense of retire from this world,” she said.
“Begging apology again, but what other retirement might a horse be offered?”
“To rest well, eat in peace, the occasional freedom to run across an open pasture, and then sleep in a dry stable.” Harper held Aerial’s head close to her own, breathing deeply of the warm, familiar smell of her beloved friend. “She has earned all of these things and more. Will you see to her comfort as a loyal servant of the Sea Queen?”
The livery master, still appearing baffled beyond understanding, nodded his agreement. “I do not understand your purpose in this, but if this horse is a servant of the Sea Queen, I will care for her as I would my own daughter.” The livery master took the offered bridle, gave the horse a perplexed look, and led her into the stable.
Harper considered correcting the livery master before he departed, to tell him she meant he was a loyal servant of the Sea Queen as she had seen him come within the crystal-lined walls of the temple, but she thought better of it. Aerial could certainly be called a favored child of the Sea Queen and if that helped the livery master understand the request better, then Harper was glad to see it done.
The first rains of the coming storm struck her before she could even turn to take her leave. She tilted her head back to take in the blessed storm, bathing in the baptismal of her faith as she walked the streets toward the Thundering Dawn Inn. People gathered beneath awnings, at windows, and even dared to stand at the edge of the road to watch her pass, Sword Maiden of the Sea, drenched and happy. Harper knew this was as close to the divine as many would come. Few witnessed Gods and fewer still received the personal boon that was magic of the holy—Harper had done both.
She was but a child of single digit years, the daughter of a fisherman in Anilthine, when she beheld Maraline in all her glory. A blockade had shut the city’s bay to the world over a trade dispute, keeping Harper’s father on shore to fish from the docks with a pole like a common angler. She had joined him at the edge of the jetty, the manmade barrier of piled rocks to partially close off the bay to the wild waters of the ocean. On that fateful day, she went to see the hulking ships of a rival city bobbing along the lazy blue waves as she’d heard they were fantastically different. She was nearly out of her father’s line of sight, although not entirely as this would raise his voice and she didn’t want that, but she had wanted a closer look at the great warships. At the furthest edge of the jetty, where the sea spray washed over her whenever a wave crashed against the rocks, she finally saw the whole of the armada blocking in their fair city. A storm unlike anything she’d seen before or since, rose like a spear in the sky, slicing across the open ocean as no weather could. The men upon the blockade ships shouted, attempted to raise anchor and set sail, but it was all in vain. The storm slashed through their ranks with determined vengeance, shattering ships with lightning, colossal waves, and sail-tattering winds. Standing amidst the storm, gigantic like the statue of the Goddess within the city’s square, was the Goddess Maraline incarnate. She walked along the ocean, smoothing the water as she went, creating a causeway in escort of a lone ship. She passed by the jetty, a few dozen yards only separating Harper from the Goddess of the Open Sea. She was magnificent, beautiful, glowing like the noonday sun set to bounce off the water. Harper felt her power in a way she’d never felt anything before. The touch of the moment lingered, found a resting place in her, and dwelled there like a flame. Her father ran to her, attempted to collect her from the end of the jetty, but he too was struck by the power of the Goddess and, like his daughter, could only hold his ground in awe of witnessing the divine. The ship the Goddess had personally escorted through the blockade held a high priestess with the power to raise the dead, or so the stories went. All Harper knew was that she must devote her life to this great and powerful lady of the ocean.
The ember of the divine planted in her from proximity to the Goddess had remained, growing slowly, the source of Harper’s magic and anchoring her connection to the deity she served. The rain soaked her hair, made heavy her linen tunic, and seeped into her leather riding boots, but she didn’t care. The rain also grew the ember of the divine within her and she felt closer to the Goddess because of it.
Alarm rose out of the west. Someone was ringing the great iron bell above the western walls, calling aid to the docks and the lighthouse. Harper snapped out of her reverie. People were rushing toward the sound of the clanging bell. Harper joined them in the charge, sprinting through the puddles collecting in the street. The lateness of the hour and the darkness of the storm clouds left little light to follow by. The storm prevented any torch from gaining purchase, leaving the help called by the bell to flow through the streets almost blindly.
When she broke free of the city, Harper got her first look at what raised the alarm. The great stone lighthouse on the edge of the jetty lay dark, likely losing its light under the ferocity of the storm. White-capped waves smashed upon the rocks, rolling out of the angry North Sea in gray mountains of water. Amid this turbulent hell of livid water, the remains of a ship was being battered against the rocks beneath the lighthouse. Cargo crates, barrels, debris, and people bobbed as black dots amid the choppy water of the bay, washed over from time to time when a colossal breaker roared clean over the jetty.
Great pyres of pitch laden logs began lighting around the bay, finally granting light enough to effect a rescue. Men with ropes and floats rushed to the docks and onto the jetty. They struggled hard to pull the sailors from the angry gray waters even as the spray and wind threatened to pluck the rescuers from the wooden planks of the docks and granite boulders of the jetty.
Harper rushed to their aid, making her way down the path toward the lighthouse. She slid her slender, two-handed sword from the scabbard across her back. The beautiful, holy weapon imbued with the power of the Goddess sprang to life when the rain struck it. This was no accidental squall of the coming season. The blade recognized the hand of the divine in the waters. What could the Goddess wish to destroy on that ship, Harper wondered. She braved the crashing waves at the end of the stone precipice the lighthouse was perched upon, raised the beautiful blade of the Goddess high above her, and bathed the entire bay in the soft blue glow of the guiding light of the Sea Queen.
Rescuers did their best to work by the light, hauling man after soggy man from the waves by the light until the storm finally battered the last of the ship into little more than kindling, and the entire hulk disappeared beneath the darkened waves.