A Place to Rest
Intent on their quarry and blinded with bloodlust, the Rastgol flew into an ambush of raining arrows and flashing steel. But wounded and head-sore as she was, Kaia took in almost none of it. In seconds, two of Madoc’s men had her and Klaus by the arms, dragging them to the safety of the short bluff before jumping back into the slaughter. Though one-legged and bruised, Klaus still leapt to his feet with his blade drawn, ready to cut into any Rastgol that made it over their small ledge. But they didn’t have to wait long before the cheers of Madoc’s victorious soldiers echoed down the river, with no other casualties to be seen besides the battered Heirs.
At last, Klaus collapsed beside her, his bravado crumbling with an exhausted sigh. Scrapes and scratches covered his face and arms after his tumble from the horse. Still, he looked at her with a widening smile on his face. “Okay, so tell me, how did Madoc know to be waiting for you?”
Dizzy with pain and relief, Kaia squeezed her head with her hands in a vain attempt to keep it from spinning off of her shoulders. “You don’t think the huge smoke signal was enough warning?”
He chuckled and laced his fingers in hers. “Now he’s never going to let me live this down.”
“Ya got that right!” Madoc’s rough voice shouted gamely as he crested the ledge. “But at least tell me ya took care of our Lost problem while ya were on yer lil holiday.”
Kaia nodded. “They were Idriel’s Lost the Rastgol managed to shepherd together somehow.” She lifted her chin at the smoke curling in the horizon, the image of Mogens still burned into her mind. “But they’re gone now. So if you see any freshly raised, that will mean a new necromancer we’ll need to know about.”
“I must say, Dragon, I didn’t know if ya’d actually deliver on yer promise.” He gazed around the battlefield. “But torching an army of dead and cutting down the Rastgol cavalry on the same day?” He nodded approvingly. “And you even had time to drag Thane back with ya.”
Klaus picked up a pebble and threw it at Madoc, hitting him square in the chest. “I would’ve made it back if not for my busted foot.”
Madoc waved him off, swaggering in the glow of his victory. “Sure, Thane, whatever ya say. Just when ya go, be sure to leave the dragon here with us. We’ll take right good care of her.” He spread his arms. “After all, a dragon with an army atter back? Okarria could be no safer than that.”
Turning to Kaia, Klaus’ brow furrowed. “Did he ask you to stay?”
“He—” Kaia started, but a happy bark broke through her thoughts. Across the river, a red blur ran out of the castle walls, tearing down the bank.
“Oh no, Gus, wait there!” Kaia called.
But he would wait no longer. Gus hesitated for only a moment before plunging into the river, his legs beating the water furiously as he swam across. My girl! My boy!
Kaia started to stand to go after him, but Klaus put a hand on hers. “It’s okay, Firefly, he’s making it just fine.”
And sure enough, a few moments later, Gus ran up the near bank, whimpering with giddy joy. He leapt from Kaia to Klaus, wriggling and licking their faces. You’re here, you’re here, we’re here!
“There’s my Gus.” Kaia laughed as he shook off his thick red fur and sprayed them with river water. “Thanks for looking after him, Madoc.”
“We got along just fine, the pair of us. Seemed to make himself right at home,” Madoc said with a wink.
Klaus’ eyes narrowed.
“Enough, Madoc.” Kaia held up a hand, a stab of pain piercing through her skull. “Do you think you could spare a mender this time?” She glanced at Klaus with a weak smile. “My usual nurse looks a little banged up.”
“I s’pose ya’ve earned that much.” He gestured to Klaus with a dismissive hand. “And I guess we can let Thane in too.”
“Madoc, as soon as my foot heals, I want to see you in the training square,” Klaus said.
Madoc straightened. “You’re on, Thane.”
Klaus and Madoc continued their bickering while Kaia laughed and hugged Gus’ neck, soaking in the brief moment when they were safe, if only for a little while.
Kaia awoke at midday and made her way to the mess hall. Her sore muscles protested every movement, while her arm hung in a loose sling, but for the first time since they’d arrived, her feet were light and her mind was clear. The curving stairwell echoed with the boisterous shouts of the soldiers still celebrating their victory with food and music and cheer. But when she stepped into the cavernous dining hall, a wave of quiet whipped through the crowd as all eyes turned to her.
Madoc approached, his booming voice echoing across the silence. “Guardian Dashul, what ya did for us yesterday will not be forgotten. Here in Direfent we have a tradition—once ya’ve proved yerself in battle we say ya’ve earned your ale.” A boy handed him a red earthen mug already filled to the brim. “As such, yer mug will always hang over our fire, to show yer blade will always be welcome here with a hot meal and a stout drink.”
He thrust the mug into her good hand, and Kaia fingered the letters carved into the side, taking a moment to make out the word: Dragon. She chuckled softly.
Madoc raised his own mug. “To our very own Dragon, Odriel protect whatever fool dares challenge us now!” The soldiers raised their steins in a rumbling cheer, fists slamming their tables with wild abandon. “Drink up, Dragon.” With that, Madoc crashed his mug into hers, and she raised the drink to her smiling lips, trying not to spit out the foul concoction.
“You know it’s tradition to drink the whole thing,” Klaus said, leaning on a wooden crutch with a smile.
Kaia hid her grimace behind her mug. “You’ll help me right?”
“Not a chance,” he laughed.
She wrinkled her nose at him. “You’re just jealous you didn’t get a mug.”
Madoc held out a hand and took her by the elbow. “Now, my lady, I do believe there were a few things ya wanted to discuss.”
But Klaus knocked his hand away with his crutch. “You mean, my lady.”
Kaia’s eyes crinkled as she tried and failed to smother a grin.
“Oh, is that right? Last time ya tried to win a lady, I recall ya changed yer mind.” Madoc rubbed his beard with a bemused smirk. “And ya know, now that Guardian Dashul has met a room of real men, perhaps she’ll be changing her mind.”
Laughing, Kaia switched her mug to her sling hand, and looped her arm in Klaus’. “He speaks the truth, Madoc. We are a pair, the two of us.”
“So you say.” He shrugged, mischief still gleaming in his eyes. “But I haven’t seen any sparks between the two of ya, perhaps you’ll find—”
Then Klaus’ crutch was clattering to the floor, and his arms were around Kaia, his mouth on hers, and her back bending as he dipped her low in a deep kiss. Her arm wrapped around his neck as another wild cheer went up over the crowd—the whistling, banging whoops almost as loud as the first.
By the time Klaus let her up, Kaia had to hide the breathless blush of her smile against his chest. He curled his arm around her casually, pulling her tightly to him. “We are a pair,” he said, looking from Kaia back to Madoc. “So if you don’t mind, I’ll have the honor of escorting her to our table.”
Madoc threw his head back and laughed, long and deep. “Perhaps ya grew up all right after all.” Stooping, he picked up Klaus’ crutch and handed it to him.
Klaus accepted it and pressed his lips to Kaia’s forehead. “I may have had some help.”
Madoc’s grin glided to Kaia, and she smiled back.
Their food tucked away and the music faded to a dull roar, Kaia leaned on Klaus’ shoulder in a wash of contentment, her fingers stroking Gus’ long ears beside her. She looked up as Madoc slid into the chair across from them.
“Okay Dragon, this is my last deal. You can have the whole castle to yerself, and we’ll make you Cap’n—Cap’n Dragon! Doesn’t that have a ring to it?” His third stein sloshed in front of him, the other two showing themselves in the pink of his cheeks and the pitch of his voice.
Kaia laughed. “We already told you, Madoc, we’re only staying until we’re well enough to ride.”
“Bah!” Madoc waved his arms in the air. “Ya can’t say it wasn’t nice having some real muscle to back up just the two of ya.”
Klaus exchanged a glance with Kaia. “Of course it was, Madoc. But we can’t spend all of our time here. You and your soldiers protect the west. We have the rest of Okarria to cover.”
“I know it.” Madoc sighed. “You’re right of course, but sometimes I do miss the strength of a real Okarrian army, ya know?”
Kaia leaned forward in her seat, the seed of the idea that had been taking root finally flowering. “Exactly.”
Madoc and Klaus both looked at her. “Exactly?”
Kaia met their questioning gazes one at a time. “Two Heirs are all well and good, but we need more. When it comes to war, we’re lost without a real army at our backs. An army that doesn’t exist, because Okarria barely has enough soldiers as it is.”
“Right, but what do you want to do?” Klaus asked.
“I want to build a school. A place where people can train to defend Okarria should the time come. Just like when we were young, Klaus.” A wistful smile played on Kaia’s lips. “A Triennial for all, every year. Taught by you, and me, and the Dracour. We’ll teach them to fight and then send them on their way.”
Madoc let out a low whistle. “Ya think you could spare some of those swords for me?”
Kaia nodded. “If they’re looking for a place to do good, we’ll send them here, or to the Guards of the State-cities. That way, when we need warriors, we’ll know where to find them.”
“It’s a good idea.” Klaus bent his head closer to hers. “Is that what you really want?”
She squeezed his knee under the table. “We’ll still wander and aid where we can. But with a school, we’ll have a place to go back to. A place where we can rest and be safe for a time, while still helping our people.” She paused, biting her lip. “What do you think?”
“A damn good idea,” Madoc said, pounding the table with a large hand. Another soldier called to him, and he staggered to his feet, still waving a finger at Klaus. “I still have no idea how a woman like that puts up with a man like you.”
Klaus waved him off, his gaze still on Kaia’s. “I’m in.” He took her hand in his and kissed the inside of her wrist. “When do we start?”
Kaia’s eyes flashed. She could already see the stone walls of the school take shape in her mind. It would be their place of rest—their home. Nestled in the Naerami mountains, a short ride from her fierce Dracour teachers, they would attract students from the land over. They would come to learn from the Heirs, and they would leave with knowledge and strength and purpose.
She cocked her head at him. “Think we can have it ready for the next Triennial?”
“Well, you know I kind of have a standing date for the Triennial, so I might be a little distracted.” He tickled her side with a smirk.
“Oh yeah?” Kaia laughed. “Well, you better watch out, because your date might just catch you by surprise the next time around.”
“She always surprises me.” He pulled her closer. “In the best ways.”
And there, on the edge of the wild country, surrounded by steins of awful ale and the tuneless warbling of raucous soldiers, Kaia’s heart filled with the warmth and safety of love. With a love like this, they could raise mountains.
And they would.
Thanks so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed Burning Shadows. If you have time to leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or your favorite book site, I would be so grateful to any words you’d be willing to leave. Even just a line or two can make a huge difference. Reviews are vital for any author, but as an indie author especially, encouragement from readers like you keeps me going and gives these stories wings. If you’re interested in reading more, you can find the first chapter of Idriel’s Children here. You can also connect with me on Twitter or Instagram @HayleyReeseChow.