Kaia’s muscles cramped as Madoc pushed them hard across the empty plains, the dusk giving way to night before they arrived at the fortress of Direfent nestled into the crook of the wide Faveno river. A dense thicket of brick houses and shops grew up around the broad stone walls that surrounded the inner compound. A handful of square, sturdy buildings glowered in the night from above the walls, with higher towers overlooking the narrow rope bridge that ran across the sluggish water. Faveno’s far bank marked the beginnings of the wild country, but it looked much the same as western Okarria—fields of long golden grass peppered with the occasional stubby tree.
With a yell and a whistle from Madoc, the iron gate creaked open before them to reveal the torchlit courtyard—a rectangle of grass hemmed in by the stone buildings. In moments, a gaggle of eager young hands swarmed around them, offering to take their mounts. Dismounting, Madoc barely paused to toss his reins to a waiting stable hand before striding away.
“Come on then,” he said in his rough voice, waving a hand in their direction. “I ‘spect yer hungry.”
Gus ran after Madoc with a happy bark before Kaia even had a chance to get her bearings. “Does he ever take a second to catch his breath?” Kaia dismounted and rewarded Sunflash with a piece of dried periapple from her pocket.
“Madoc? Certainly not,” said a nearby stable girl, taking Sunflash’s bridle with an admiring smile. “He’ll leave ya behind if ya don’t hurry.”
Leaving Sunflash in the care of the girl, Kaia turned to where Klaus waited beside the door Madoc had disappeared into. Though exhaustion pooled in deep shadows beneath Klaus’ eyes and travel had rumpled his dark clothes, he stood tall with Odriel’s Tooth hanging from his belt. He beckoned her with a tilt of his head, a worn smile playing on his lips.
But even with his solid presence to ground her, Kaia’s eyes trailed up the towering structures of the fortress, feeling small and brittle beneath their stolid walls.
“So, have you been here before?” she asked.
A muted ruckus of laughter and talk filtered through the thick wooden door out into the night air.
“My father brought me here to train often when I was young.” Klaus followed her gaze around the still bustling courtyard. “And then I might’ve come back later to… test my skills.”
“No wonder Madoc is so fond of you.”
“It’s hard not to be.” Klaus opened the door for her with a smirk, and the noise unfurled like a cloak in a stiff wind.
Kaia’s stomach twisted at the sound of the crowd. “Do we have to go in?” She would just as soon have followed Sunflash into the stable and curled up on the hay.
“You mean you don’t want to go into a crowded hall filled with rowdy soldiers after riding for two days without rest?” Klaus leaned against the door jamb, playful sarcasm slicking his words. “But you were always so popular.”
“And you wonder why they don’t like you.”
“It’s a jealousy thing.”
“I’m eager to hear Madoc’s side of it.”
Anxiety rippled across Klaus’ brow. “You don’t want to hear about that. Besides, the more he talks, the longer you have to stay.”
“Hmm… you might be right there, but it’s going to come out sooner or later.” She smiled as he squirmed. “Let’s get this over with already.”
“That’s the spirit.” Klaus gave her a mock bow, gesturing with a hand. “After you, my lady.”
“Oh stop.” Kaia ruffled his hair and walked past him into the hall. The room was even bigger than she expected, with a dozen mismatched tables scattered from one end to the other. Soldiers crowded at each one, eating, knocking mugs together, or gathering around a hand of cards. Earthen steins decorated the walls above the bar at the far end, and the sizzle of a kitchen hissed through the adjacent batwing doors. The glow of firelight crackled around the room from torches, lamplight, and three separate fireplaces, while a handful of young servers darted in and out with platters and steins. A trio of gruff voices sang to a fiddle’s lively strings somewhere in the corner, and the smell of frying meat and tart cider saturated the room.
But even in the cheerful chaos, it didn’t take long for the Heirs to attract attention. A ripple of murmurs and nudges flowed through the noise as the sea of eyes turned toward them. Kaia stiffened, memories of acid-tongued villagers tensing her muscles. But before she could say anything, Madoc was beside them.
Stepping between the Heirs and the crowd, he waved at the rest of the hall. “Mind yer own business, ya sorry busybodies,” he called, baring his teeth in a broad smile.
With a chorus of husky chuckles, the soldiers called Madoc a few good-natured names of their own before returning to their chatter.
Madoc turned back to Kaia. “Don’t mind ‘em, we don’t have many pretty young lasses among our ranks, so don’t be afraid to tell ‘em to stuff their eyeballs back in their heads… or anywhere else.”
A blush heated Kaia’s cheeks as she looked at the soldiers once more and saw that Madoc might’ve been right. They had more curious grins on their faces than the furtive glances of fear or awe. Relief eased the tension from Kaia’s shoulders—this she could handle—she might even call it a pleasant change of pace.
With a small cough, Klaus took a step closer to her, placing his hand gently on the small of her back. She had to suppress a smile at the gesture. Though she and Klaus had been together for some time now, they rarely found themselves in the company of others, and especially not a crowd of strangers. This was new territory for them.
Madoc ushered them to a table in the corner already set with a trio of plates and mugs. Beneath one of the benches, Gus already gnawed on a buffalen bone the size of his head.
They had hardly sat down when Madoc got right to the point. “So ya followed the Lost here?”
“That’s what we said, isn’t it?” Klaus countered, taking a bite out of a hunk of bread.
Madoc took off his wide-brimmed hat, and Kaia was surprised to see he was younger than she had first thought him to be—maybe seven or eight years older than her own nineteen years. He regarded them with stormy blue eyes below his mop of dark waves. “That’s what ya said. But I’m thinking ya could be driving them west on purpose.”
“Why would we do that?” Kaia asked.
“Because no one lives out in the wild country. It seems like it would be the perfect place for them without having to go through the trouble of actually killing ‘em.” A husky edge in Madoc’s voice challenged her to contradict him.
“That’s a load of bosh,” Klaus said flatly.
Kaia narrowed her eyes. “When the Lost are raised, the worst part of the person’s soul is raised with it. The dark yanaa compels them to kill and destroy. Even if we drove them out, they would return.”
“Dark yanaa?” Madoc drummed his thick fingers on the table, releasing a long sigh. “So that’s why the Rastgol want them.”
“The… what?” Kaia turned to Klaus, her brow furrowed.
“You probably know them only as the barbarians,” Klaus explained. “A blood-worshipping, cannibalistic clan, they’ve mostly stayed on their side of the river after the monarchy defeated them in our grandparents’ time. But they still harry our borders with their raids.” Klaus gestured to Madoc dismissively. “Hence the Western Guard.”
Madoc nodded with hooded eyes. “They breed for strength, are mercilessly brutal, and are obsessed with yanaa. As ya’ve witnessed yerself, their raids have increased lately, and we suspect they’ve been… collecting the demons.”
Klaus’ mouth tightened. “But how could they control them? Do they have a necromancer?”
The blood drained from Kaia’s face as the memory of Lord Conrad driving his army of Lost across these very plains scorched her thoughts.
“With force? I don’t know. In their last raid, they set a score of them loose on a village, and then slaughtered the villagers as they tried to escape.” Madoc leaned back, crossing his muscular arms. “But perhaps Odriel sent ya here to burn two matches at once.”
With Gus snuffling at her side, Kaia reached down to pet him. “Two? The Lost and—”
“The Rastgol, of course,” Madoc finished for her.
The image of Conrad burning at her fingertips swirled with Mogen’s flame-scarred face. “The Dragon’s Rage was a gift to burn the Lost. I don’t use my fire on the living,” she murmured.
For a moment, Madoc stilled, arching an eyebrow at her. Underneath the table, Klaus squeezed Kaia’s knee.
“A… noble notion.” Something like amusement glinted in Madoc’s eyes. “But all the same, perhaps ya should stay a few days. At the very least, we could use yer help with the Lost streaming across the border, and we could provide sturdy walls, warm meals, and a soft place to sleep.”
Klaus and Kaia shared a glance, their exhaustion sitting between them like an unwelcome guest. Klaus gave her a tepid shrug. Though she much preferred just the two of them, if the Lost were here, this is where they needed to be.
Kaia turned to Madoc and nodded. “Just a few days.”
“Excellent.” Madoc clapped his hands together and stood, motioning to the nearest server. “Have a room readied for the lady, and a spot in the barracks for her companion.”
Klaus’ eyes slid to Kaia’s with the whisper of a smile. “Well, we really don’t need separate—”
“Barracks.” Madoc pointed a stern finger at Klaus as he stalked away. “And that’s only because I’m feeling generous today, Thane.”
Kaia stifled a snort. “So are you going to tell me what you did to the leader of the Western Guard or do you want me to hear it from him first? I bet he has the better story.”
Klaus ran a sheepish hand through his dark hair. “I might have entered the Western Guard dueling tournament under a false name, slightly cheated in the final, and then turned down the prize of a kiss from Madoc’s younger sister.”
Kaia nearly spat out her cider, choking on a laugh. “Oh is that all? How did you turn her down?”
“Well, she was leaning toward me…” He winced. “And I didn’t terribly like what I was seeing so I… disappeared.”
Holding her sides, Kaia gasped with laughter. “No wonder he hates you.”
“I was only fifteen,” Klaus protested with a scowl.
Wiping the tears from her cheeks, Kaia nodded. “I can’t even blame him. Fifteen-year-old you was maddening.”
“Oh?” Klaus leaned toward her until his lips were only inches from hers, the smell of sweet cider tickling her nose. With slow, careful fingers, he tucked the copper braid hanging down her cheek back behind her ear. Golden flecks gleamed in his hazel irises as they glided from her eyes across her freckled cheeks, to settle on her lips. “And how am I at two and twenty?”
Suddenly breathless, Kaia’s face burned with heat, her pulse rippling under her skin in quickened beats. “Still maddening,” she whispered.
“Good.” He leaned back with his usual smirk and took another bite of his bread.
Kaia missed his closeness as soon as he drew away, still heady with his scent and warmth. Gus’ begging nose leaned into his lap, and Klaus ruffled his fur with a grin, his gaze always coming back to her in their endless dance.
“Definitely still maddening,” she breathed.
But it was a good madness.
Thanks so much for reading! New chapters posted Mondays and Thursdays! Also, if you’ve found a typo, please feel free to give a shout, and I’ll be sure to correct it. Thanks again!