Time’s Orphan: Chapter One

I’ve officially sent Time’s Orphan off to the proofreader so it’s time for the first chapter reveal! Note: Although this is book 3 in the Odriel’s Heirs series, each book occurs after a 10+ year time gap, focuses on a different character, and the stories stand alone. If you’d like to catch up on the series, Odriel’s Heirs books 1, 1.5, 2, and 2.5 are currently 0.99 on Amazon or free on Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple. With that, here we go!

Speak of dragons,

And I’ll tell you of warriors

Who walked their flames.

Speak of shadows,

And I’ll tell you of heroes

Who brought the dawn.

Speak of pain,

And I’ll tell you of the Time

Who stole it away.

– The Heir’s Way, Chapter 17, Passage 9



With the bitter ash of fourteen burning towns still thick on her tongue, Emara thought she would’ve gotten used to the salty, iron tang of death. She knelt beside the whimpering soldier, gripping his rough, dirty hands in hers. As her yanaa, her Odriel-gifted energy, coursed through his body, it washed his agony away from him and into her. A fiery pain ignited in her stomach that mirrored the gaping, crimson hole through his middle. His smooth jaw could scarcely grow a beard, and yet here he lay among Faveno’s wounded defenders, breathing his last. She squeezed his hand as his eyelids fluttered one last time, the grimace of suffering at last easing to an empty stare.

As her yanaa retreated from him, the remnants of his pain faded from her own body. Drawing in a trembling breath, Emara shut his eyes with a practiced hand. “May Odriel guide you.”

“Oi! Mari!” Iree, a broad-shouldered blonde, shouted from where she helped an injured soldier into the back of the wagon. “Stop wasting time on the dead ones!”

The relentless thrum of the Rastgol’s war drums carried on the dusty air, a malignant heartbeat pounding through the frenzied city. Shrill cries of the manic residents streamed around their impromptu casualty camp in the middle of Faveno’s main square. The afternoon sun shone on the vibrant greens and blues of the stone houses ringing the plaza—the peaceful, oceanic colors standing in stark contrast to the city’s nearly palpable dread. A salty sea breeze ruffled the crude canvas canopy stretched above them, but it did nothing to relieve the nauseating stench of urine, sweat, and blood.

The reek of a losing battle.

Heavier now with another lost soul, Emara stumbled to the nearby trough and scrubbed the freshly dried blood from her brown skin until her hands stopped trembling. Straightening, she pushed her dark curls away from her face as she surveyed their makeshift camp. The other casualties lay in rows on blood-stained straw pallets—some crying out, others far too silent. Some wore the hodgepodge leather armor of Faveno’s Shields, while others bore only the simple dress of fishermen, tradesmen, and farmers.

“Odriel take me,” Iree swore, wiping the sweat from her forehead before grabbing a white-bearded soldier by his tunic and roughly hauling him up. “Where in the wretched skies are the bleeding Heirs when you need ‘em?” 

“Got their hands full keeping the Dead King’s Lost army in the south, they say.” Emara darted over to help Iree lift Whitebeard into the wagon, the bandages around his leg dark with blood. She sent a ripple of yanaa along his fevered skin, just enough to urge the bleeding to stop, but hopefully little enough to escape his notice. Still, the pain of the gash made her wince.

 “The girl’s right,” the man muttered as they shifted him deeper into the wagon bed. “Last I heard, the younger Dragon holds Gyatus while the elder Drake trains an army in Catalede, the old Shadow protects Aquilond, and the younger one stalks the throne in Austerden, waiting for her moment to assassinate the king.”

Iree spat onto the splotchy brown cobblestones as she pushed up her sleeves, chest heaving. “So you’re saying no one’s coming to save us.” She turned to the driver, a skinny boy of maybe a dozen years. “Cart’s full. Drop ‘em at the docks and come back for another load.”

Emara frowned as she turned to the wounded again, stooping to the unconscious woman next in line and shifting her onto a fresher bed of straw. “Hard to save us when we’ve already lost.”

Carriette, a younger girl with pigtail braids and a sharp chin, scowled from further down the line where she offered a ladle of water to a soldier with a full head of bandages. “Skies above, Emara, do you have to be so negative? It could still happen! The Heirs have beaten the cannibals back before.”

“And you only mentioned the Dragon and Shadow Heirs,” the bandaged soldier said with a weak smile. “Isn’t there supposed to be a third line? An Heir of healing or some such? I could use some of that right now.”

Emara glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, her skin prickling at the mention of healing. But his attention was squarely on the water, and her shoulders relaxed just a touch.

The Heirs’ legendary abilities passed down to their firstborns, but others, like Emara, could be born with random gifts like her minor healing touch. She’d heard of those with the power to make seeds sprout, change the wind’s direction, or share a thought without speaking.

Such smaller gifts of yanaa were also said to be bestowed by Odriel, the legendary spirit-guide. However, while the Time Heir of legend could heal armies, as one of Odriel’s Blessed, Emara could scarcely heal an ugly gash without getting out of breath. But with the Rastgol and the Dead King hunting down anyone with a scrap of yanaa tingling in their fingers—Heirs and Odriel’s Blessed alike—she tried to keep her abilities hidden.

But when everyone was dying around her, that was easier said than done.

“They haven’t been seen in a decade. Definitely dead.” Iree stooped and put a hand to the chest of a pale soldier lying all too still. With a tsk, she tugged his blanket up to cover his face. “And if they aren’t, I would whip their legendary hide for holing up while we’re busting our arses trying to save this place.”

Carriette slumped. At fifteen, she was only two years younger than Emara, but this was her first battle, and she hadn’t quite let go of her childish fantasies. Her eyes still glinted with the hope of Odriel’s chosen protectors endowed with godlike powers of fire, invisibility, and healing. It wouldn’t be long before she understood though—here, there were no heroes coming to their rescue, no happy endings, and no real winners. Both sides always lost in war; one just lost more than the other.

They’d been at war almost as long as she could remember. The Rastgol armies encroached further north and east into Okarrian lands every year. The necromancing Dead King’s army of undead—the Lost—crawled over the south, and the ancient, bloodthirsty man-killers his two commanders had unleashed from their Carceroc prison hunted everywhere else.

She’d lost her mother to the undead early, then from there had followed her grandmother’s merchant tribe as they scurried from town to town, searching for pockets of safety. But there were none to be had.

Still, it did no good to dwell on it.

“But who needs the Heirs when we have the mighty Iree?” Emara called to Carriette, getting a begrudging smirk out of her.

“Oh, you hush.” Iree waved her off as she rifled through a crate of bandages and filled waterskins.

Emara smiled at the image of the burly Iree taking on one of the legendary defenders of Okarria. She didn’t envy anyone who had to face her fury, yanaa or no. “I would bet on you over an Heir any day, Iree. In fact, I—”

Emara flinched as a horn blasted from one of the spires, signaling another Rastgol attack.

The three of them exchanged a tense glance before Emara lurched into action, lifting the crate of supplies. “I’ll take these to the east spire. They’ll be needing it.”

“No, let me.” Carriette’s face hardened with determination as she grabbed it from Emara.

“Wait, I—” Emara started, but Carriette was already striding away.

 “Don’t worry. I’ll get it there.” With that, she took off across the square against the flow of the crowd fleeing for the docks. Emara couldn’t help but smile. Though naïve, the girl was brave; she had to give her that.

Even from their relative safety inside the inner wall, the roar and clang of battle drifted to them on the dusty air. Although the maimed sun, ever chipped by the Dead King’s power, drew high on the fourth day of the siege, the blood-worshiping barbarians only seemed to grow stronger. They battered Faveno’s stone walls in unending waves of horror and violence. Each day, as Faveno’s defenders fell, the Rastgol’s bellowing drums grew louder, grew closer. Too close.

A pair of bony mules pulled the creaking wagon up to their camp in the middle of the square, and the skinny boy waved frantically from the driver’s bench. “This is the last trip! Load ‘em as quick as you can. The last ships are readying to sail north, and word is we’ll lose the outer wall within the hour.”

Already? Emara’s gaze flicked to the smoke curling behind the thick stone walls looming over the rooftops. “How many can you take?” She dried her hands on a stained rag, trying to measure the wagon against the rows of bodies. They’d already sent the walking wounded down to the wharf, but there were still dozens left.

Iree bent over the first in the row, a young man with his left leg missing from the knee down. Grabbing his proffered hand, she hoisted him up and helped him in. “I don’t care if we have to stack ‘em. If they fit, they’re going.”

Emara hurried over, lifting the little girl that had come in earlier with the arrow in her gut. “Hey love.” The girl’s blue eyes flicked open. “It’s okay, we’re getting you out of here.”

“Not that one, Mari,” Iree said, helping another soldier into the wagon. “I saw her this morning. We can’t waste space on lost causes.”

Emara ignored her, sending a pulse of her yanaa into the girl’s wound. The pain of it flooded back to her, and she grit her teeth, careful not to drop the girl. “It didn’t go deep. Take another look, Iree. She’ll be fine.”

Iree turned from the wagon, her gaze sliding from the girl’s face to the bandages around her middle. She lifted the bandage to peek under, and then raised a brow at Emara. “I must have misjudged. Put her in.”

Sweat gathering at her temples, Emara settled the girl in the corner of the wagon before turning to get the next. Iree bent down beside her, each grabbing an arm of a burly man. He groaned as they boosted him into the wagon bed, and Emara let her fingers linger on his wrist. She sent another pulse of yanaa into him, the rot of the infection in his leg knocking the breath from her lungs. She pushed harder, pulling it from him like a parasite. Sweat beaded on her forehead with his fever and nausea turned her stomach, but the furrows in his brow eased. Though the yanaa leached her energy, it was just as quick to return after she pulled away—all she had to do was endure.

“You need to be more careful, Mari,” Iree whispered, her gaze fierce. “There are people here that will give you to the Rastgol in a second if it means sparing their own hides.”

Iree’s counsel needled Emara’s guilty conscience, an echo of her mother’s warnings scorching through her. Though Emara tried her best to hide her gift, the sharp-eyed elder medics nearly always saw through her, but she had neither the time nor the patience to worry about it now. “We should all be careful,” she said, moving to the next patient.

They worked in silence, Emara’s hands lingering on the worst of them, until finally the cart could hold no more. Iree hopped into the front and took the reins from the boy. “Coming, Mari?”

Emara glanced at the spires again, another horn blast splitting the air. “I’ll wait for Carriette.”

A frown dug into the well-worn lines around Iree’s mouth. “It’s your choice, but if we lose the wall…” Her gaze met Emara’s, concern softening her expression. “Don’t linger.”

“Be safe, Iree,” Emara said, her hand to her chest. “And I’ll see you on a sunnier day.”

With a grim nod, Iree clicked her tongue, and the wagon rolled away, its charges dull-eyed and moaning. They were nearly packed on top of each other, but they’d almost managed to get all of their wounded aboard. The ones left here probably wouldn’t see the sunset, Rastgol or no. But perhaps she could still ease their passing.


Emara whirled at the elder medic’s familiar voice. Her gaze narrowed on his thin string of a body and receding gray curls as he limped toward her on his clubbed foot, pulling a younger man with fluttering eyelids.

“Gunther, are you okay?”

A horn bellowed from beyond the wall, followed by two more short blasts, and a bonfire crackled to life on the western spire. A chorus of wails erupted from the square as the crowds of evacuees surged toward the docks, and Emara’s heart sank. “The outer wall… It’s fallen.”

“Yes. Faveno is completely surrounded.” Sweat streaked down the wrinkles in Gunther’s swarthy countenance. “You must go now if you want to get out. The wharf is the only way.”

Emara looked over her shoulder, scanning the knots of soldiers fleeing the walls. “Did you see Carriette on the way here? She was headed for the outer wall.” Her hands immediately moved to grip the wrist of both Gunther and the man at his side. Gunther bore no wounds, but the gash above the man’s waist would need assistance. She squeezed his hand as she urged the blood to stop flowing and the skin to knit. With a gasp, she grabbed her own side, his pain becoming hers.

“Stop that, Emara. Think of yourself now,” Gunther said, grabbing her shoulder. Beside him, the man straightened, blinking with confusion. Gunther gave her a small push toward the wharf. “You must go.”

“What about Carriette? We sent her to the east spire with supplies.”

“On the outer wall?” Gunther winced. “I’m sorry, my girl. It’s too late for her now.”

Emara looked eastward to the spindly stone tower, and then to the fire that burned from the west—where the Rastgol had breached the city. “They’re not there yet. I can make it.” She snatched up her bow and quiver.

“No! There’s no time! You’ll get stuck out there.”

But Emara was already running.

Thanks so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed this sneak peak of Time’s Orphan. Advanced Review e-Copies should be ready when I get it back from the proofreader (hopefully by the end of November)! If you’re interested in one, just drop me a line here or on Twitter/Insta/Tiktok @hayleyreesechow. Time’s Orphan launches on 8 February 2023 and is available for preorder here.

Also keep an eye out for the title and blurb reveal for my YA Sci-fi TOMORROW! 😱 If you’re interested in being part of my street team to help post the reveals and spread the word, please let me know. I could definitely use all the help I can get! 😊 And of course, happy Halloween everyone!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Ten

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.

Burning Shadows: Chapter Nine

Light the Match

The early dawn light crept across Nathollus’ thick red walls, lighting them in a fiery glow amidst the endless plain of brittle yellow. Kaia moved swiftly through the shoulder-high grass in the morning quiet, the cattle pen before her filled with at least a thousand of Idriel’s dead. With their armor, weapons, and the green sheen of yanaa swirling around their clean-picked skeletons, their origins were easy to identify. The dead raised by human necromancers were usually shabbier, poorly armed with their bodies still rotting. These were the progeny of the demon Idriel, the children he had meant to avenge him.

But still, the question arose, how had the Rastgol drawn them here? How were they controlling them? Even as Kaia asked the questions, she knew the answer somewhere deep inside of her. Mogens had called them. She had always thought Conrad was the only one with the power of necromancy, but perhaps she had been wrong. There had always been something deeply unnatural about Mogens… but if he had really survived her dragon fire, then it was not too far a stretch to believe he had some power of necromancy.

She shook her head. That would have to wait. She didn’t have time for guesses. If new Lost rose after they destroyed these, then that would be a new problem—provided they survived this one.

First, she needed to steal two horses while drawing as little attention to herself as possible. And the easiest way to do that was to unseat two riders. Inwardly, she cursed the buffalen that had mangled Klaus’ foot. Stealing was definitely on the Shadow Heir’s list of duties—not hers.

Her gaze skated to a nearby clay outbuilding where smoke rose from the chimneys. A giant smokehouse judging by the scent of roasting meat on the wind. She cocked an eyebrow. An easy place to accidentally catch fire.

Pulse thrumming in her ears and her ribs aching, Kaia crept toward the smokehouse with a careful eye on the Rastgol guards. Two patrolled the Lost paddocks while another was stationed at the door to a smokehouse that faced the pens. Although the building looked to be built with some kind of clay bricks, the door and the roof were both made of wood. Still, she needed to be fairly close to start the fire, or else she’d give away her position. She could send a blaze through one of the fireboxes piped into the building, but they were out in the open, in full view of the guards.

Still searching for options, Kaia gave the smokehouse a wide berth and approached from the rear to find a conveniently unguarded back door, albeit one with a heavy lock. She breathed a sigh of relief. Locks she could do. Moving to the door, she produced a hot blue flame from one of her fingers and melted the heavy iron. The blaze had to be big enough to attract attention. Setting the wooden roof on fire from the inside would be her best bet.

She opened the door, and the scent of smoke and meat flooded out. Kaia let the flame in her hand grow, ready to thrust her fire into the ceiling, when she caught sight of the meat hanging from the rafters. Nausea wrenched her stomach. Where she had been expecting legs of buffalen to be hanging from the ceiling, full human bodies dangled instead, their faces frozen in horror. Men, women, children… hung naked and hairless in the smoke like raw specters, their skin charred and red.

Kaia retched, the horror nearly paralyzing her as tears pricked her eyes. This was the worse fate that Madoc had mentioned. She tore her eyes away.

These truly were monsters.

Gagging again, Kaia sent her gush of flames into the rafters, enveloping the Rastgol’s victims with it. At least she could provide them this dignity, however small. With that, she swung the door closed, using every bit of her self-control not to slam it—not to blast this building into cinders.

She sucked in deep gasps of clean air as the image burned itself forever into her mind. Another gruesome memory that would haunt her nightmares for the rest of her life. Another one she’d never be able to erase. Breath rattling in her chest, she wiped her eyes. She had to stick to the plan. They had to get out of here.

Behind her, the smokehouse was already crackling to life. She had only a matter of seconds to find cover before the guard raised the alarm. Swallowing her revulsion, Kaia ran toward the tall grass just as the first guard shouted, “Fire in t’smokehouse!”

Kaia looked over her shoulder, trying to gauge the response… and nearly ran straight into a trio of Rastgol riders. Odriel’s teeth.

For a moment, Kaia wasn’t sure who was more surprised, she or the Rastgol. But they recovered first.

“An escaped t’slave,” said one, drawing a curved sword.

“Must be the t’one that set fire to the smokehouse,” said the other.

And that was all Kaia had time for. Now that they’d discovered her, she had no choice but to play her hand. Kaia lifted two palms and released a crackling gush of flames into the air. The horses screamed, their eyes rolling. One bolted, another reared, and the third, shockingly, snapped at her with its strong teeth. The one on Kaia’s left flailed so violently it fell onto its back, the rider beneath it. But the one on the right pawed at the ground, its rider drawing his sword.

Kaia dodged as the steel sliced down on her and grabbed the arm of the Rastgol. Wrenching her body, she threw him out of the saddle into the dirt.

He rolled to his feet in a breath, sword slashing. Kaia ducked and weaved, her fingers finding the knife at her belt. She let the Rastgol take another slash and darted inside his guard, burying the blade in his middle before ripping it to one side, just like she had practiced with Klaus so many times. Still, disgust wriggled through her bones as the blood dripped from his belly. She freed her blade and let the man crumple to the ground.

Turning quickly, she grabbed the reins of the strangely stolid horse, its ears pinned peevishly as it pulled against its halter.

“It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay,” Kaia said breathlessly, even as its rider lay bleeding out behind her. The other groaned on the ground while his mount shied away from him. She ran over and grabbed its reins too. “I’m not going to hurt you.” She patted her breeches for something, anything, she could use to win the horses and found the dried periapple slices she usually kept for Sunflash. “How about a treat, huh?”

The shy one took the offering immediately, but its eyes were still wide with nervousness. Still pulling at its halter, the braver one eyed her suspiciously while Kaia continued to stroke its neck. This was the one she needed. She grimaced at the spur scars gouging its flank. “I’m going to get you out of here, okay, brave girl? I just need a ride.” Kaia closed her eyes, trying to communicate with every fiber of her being that she meant no harm.

Perhaps the horse understood her, or perhaps luck was on her side, but the mare lipped the periapple from her palm. With a shaky sigh of relief, Kaia climbed into the saddle, still holding the reins of the other gelding. She tugged on them to make sure he would follow.

Shouts rang through the air in earnest now as the Rastgol tried to extinguish the burgeoning fire with shovels of dirt. Time was running out. Kaia leaned down and patted the mare’s neck. “We’ll have to be fast.”

With a sharp yell, she urged the mare into a gallop straight toward the Lost, the gelding racing along close behind. The gazes of the Rastgol turned to her, and a few arrows began to whistle down from the ramparts. The time for stealth, or her attempt at stealth anyway, was over. And strangely, the realization brought a wash of relief, rinsing the tightness from her muscles.

Now she could do what she did best. Guiding the mare as close to the pens as she dared, she coiled her yanaa within. The Lost churned toward her, whatever power that held them cracked by her presence as they overflowed the paddock, crawling out like a mass of furious mud ants. She thought of the burned village, and the Direfent soldiers, and the bodies in the smokehouse. With those images roiling behind her eyes, she balled all of her worry, anger, and sorrow, into a burning inferno of emotion. And then she unleashed it.

The blast cascaded out from her hand in an explosive tidal wave, devouring the Lost in its path. The gelding whinnied behind her, but still it ran on. Kaia screamed as she pressed even more into her flames, channeling every scrap of yanaa she could and letting it surge from her fingers as the mare charged along the fence line, all eyes on her as she set the Lost ablaze. The fire caught on the dry grass and licked up the clay walls of the fortress, incinerating the dark eyes, the gaping toothy mouths, and the last skeletal bodies crumbling in its heat. Only then did she let her hand drop.

As the mare sped her away from the crackling wildfire, Kaia chanced one last look at the carnage she had caused. The Lost burned and the Rastgol ran frantically this way and that, unsure whether to deal with the fire or the girl that had caused it, but amidst all of the smoke and flame and chaos, one figure stood stock still. Staring at her. Skin festering, eyes growing green, and mouth gaping in a lipless grin. Bile bubbled up Kaia’s throat, her mouth sour with the metallic tang of fear. Even as he shrank in the distance, Kaia knew his rotting form, fresh from her nightmares.

Not Lost. Not Rastgol.


Another volley of arrows rained down just behind Kaia, and she whipped forward, her heart pounding. She glanced back once more but Mogens was gone. Had she imagined it? Should she go back? But she couldn’t spare another thought as a handful of Rastgol riders charged across the plain toward her.

No time. She had to get Klaus and get out of there before—

Another torrent of arrows whizzed by her ear, and she held up a flat shield of protective fire. A line of riders streamed out of the main gate, scores of warriors cutting across the grass toward her.

She grimaced, trying to judge the distance between the riders and the tree where Klaus leaned against the trunk. At this rate, they would intercept her before she could reach him. Apparently, a stable full of burning dead wasn’t enough chaos for them.

She sucked in a deep lungful of burning air, sweat already pouring from her brow, and held out her heavy hand once more, the yanaa sucking the energy from her muscles. Pointing her fingers away and to the rear, she let fire gush into the dry yellow grass.

The blaze continued as she charged straight for the riders, but they did not flinch at the walls of flames that wound behind her. In fact, judging by the metal plating on the front of the mounts, it looked as though the riders were prepared to ram straight into her. They thundered closer under the rising sun, and sweat stung Kaia’s eyes as she took them in. Grins split their scarred faces and the freckled skin of their heads gleamed in the early light. Underneath the vibrations of hooves, the clacking of their bone necklaces punctuated the cacophony.

Kaia gritted her teeth. Almost… there.

“Kaia!” Klaus’ shout nearly cut through her concentration, and she turned the mare sharply across the Rastgol front lines, dragging her sheet of flames with her. As well trained as the Rastgol horses may have been, even they wouldn’t run straight into a sparking screen of fire. They pulled up short, rearing, shrieking, and snapping at the sudden heat.

Kaia allowed herself a small victorious smile. They were cut off. The blaze wouldn’t hold them forever, but it would buy them time. Though she was panting now, Kaia continued dragging her flaming barricade even as she turned toward Klaus. The more fire between them and the Rastgol, the better.

Finally, four horse-lengths from Klaus, she released her fire and slowed the horses.

“Don’t stop,” Klaus shouted, hobbling on one foot out into the grass. “There’s more behind you.”

Kaia barely had time to argue before she was upon him. Grabbing the saddle of the still running horse, his muscles tensed in his arms and shoulders as his good foot found the stirrup and he swung his bad leg over. In a breath, he was astride the beast, still racing away from the flames.

“Well, that was impressive,” Kaia gasped, her chest still heaving as she threw him the reins.

“The perks of growing up on a buffalen farm.” Klaus looked over his shoulder, worry still etching his face. “It’s nearly a half day’s ride back to Direfent, I’m not sure that’ll hold them for long. Even if we make it to the river, we won’t make it across in time.”

Kaia twisted in the saddle, her clothes damp with sweat, to ensure their buffer of flames still churned behind them. “We just need to make it to the banks. If they get too close, I still have flames to spare.”

But two hours later, Kaia could not say the same. She had driven the Rastgol back over a dozen times, her horse shook beneath her, and her body weighed like lead in the saddle.

“It’s just up ahead, Firefly,” Klaus urged. “I can see Direfent from here.”

Sweat dripped from Kaia’s hair as she followed his gaze to the stone walls in the distance. They just had to make it to the banks.

Klaus peered over his shoulder, and his gaze hardened. “But we have another two dozen riders coming in from the north.”

Kaia turned in the saddle, her throat raw from her heavy breathing. “You go on ahead. I’ll take care of it. These will be the last ones.”

“Don’t get too close,” he yelled as she peeled off toward their attackers.

Her energy fading fast, but with Direfent in the offing, she only had to buy a few more minutes. Holding out a hand, she gathered the fire within her. Thoughts of Klaus, injured and fleeing behind her, fed the flames crackling through her veins. She released the blaze in an explosive blast, the hungry roar of the dragon fire tearing through the grass and knocking the riders from their screaming horses.

The horses scattered, and Kaia quenched her flames. They had done it. Now they just had to make it the last—

A figure leapt through the wall of fire in front of the mare, and the horse collided with the man in a sickening crash of muscle and bone, vaulting Kaia from the saddle.

For a moment, the wind whistled in her ears, and then her body slammed into the ground. Air flew from her lungs as pain jolted from her head to her fingers, and black edged her vision. But the panic kept her tethered to consciousness. Ears ringing and vision still blurry, Kaia stumbled to her feet. My… horse. Where’s… the horse?

But there was only a tangled mass of bodies on the ground. The man’s sword had gone straight into the horse’s neck, but it hadn’t saved him from the crush of the beast’s momentum.

Kaia tried to lift her hands to her face, but only one moved. Her other shoulder hung at an odd angle, and pain screamed through her with every movement, scattering her thoughts. Fire snapped at her back along with the hoofbeats of horses and the yells of men. It wouldn’t be long before the Rastgol found their way around the flames.

East. She had to go east. Back to Direfent. Madoc was waiting for them.

She staggered toward the hope of Direfent, and agony shot from her shoulder through the rest of her body. At this rate, she’d never be able to cover the ground in time. Was there somewhere she could hide? How long would it take Klaus to—the sound of hoofbeats was suddenly too close. Kaia turned to meet her new opponent, fire filling her good hand.

But then Klaus’ familiar form came into focus as he slid from his saddle, and she let the fire wink out in a flash of relief. He limped toward her, his worried face filling her doubled vision. “Are you okay? I saw you fall.”

“My… shoulder,” Kaia rasped.

Klaus put his hand on it, and a rattle of pain ricocheted through her body. “Yeah, I’ll have to pop it back in.”

Kaia’s eyes widened. “You have to what?”

“Don’t move.”


But Klaus had already yanked, and Kaia screamed as her vision flashed black with pain once more. His hand steadied her as she swayed on her feet, but surprisingly, the pain had subsided to more manageable levels.

“That’ll do you for now.” With hands at once urgent and gentle, he helped her onto his blowing horse. He pulled himself into the saddle behind her just as a volley of burning arrows flew through the blaze. Klaus covered Kaia’s head with his arms, and the horse took off with a terrified scream.

More arrows fell around them as the gelding raced toward the river. The poor beast made it within sprinting distance of the banks before an arrow found the mare’s flank. The horse bucked and reared, sending Kaia rolling into the dirt once more, vision spinning, and head splitting. But this time Klaus was right there beside her, and with the Rastgol pounding across the field, the adrenaline blotted out Kaia’s pain.

“We’ll have… to run,” she said through heavy breaths, already rising to her feet.

“We should stay and fight,” Klaus countered, balancing on his good foot as he reached for his blade.

“No.” Kaia pulled his arm over her shoulders and half dragged him across the grass. “We can make it.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Klaus’ eyes gleaned the landscape, even as he hobbled along beside her. “And what if they have scouts waiting for us?”

“They won’t,” Kaia choked out, her vision swimming as she tried to focus on keeping herself and Klaus upright. “Madoc will be there.”

“I don’t see Madoc.” Klaus looked behind them. “Odriel’s Teeth. There are at least a hundred now.”

“Just keep going.” Though Kaia’s muscles screamed disobediently, pain lancing from a dozen different places, she kept on, Direfent rising taller and taller among the grass. The hush of the river tickled her ears now. Madoc had better be there.

“Kaia, they’re almost on us!” Klaus yelled over the war drum of so many hooves, the dust of it staining the air. He pulled against her, trying to get her to stop, to turn, to fight.

With one last burst of energy, Kaia threw them forward into the grass, the sharp hooves of the horses only seconds away. “NOW MADOC!” she screamed.

And in a raucous war cry, the soldiers of Direfent rose from the grass and answered.

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!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Eight

Into the West

Kaia jogged through the rustling shoulder-high grass, her gaze scouring the landscape as she cut west. Urgency lent strength to her legs as she waded through the early dawn. Stubby trees dotted the sun-streaked expanse while waves of rolling hills loomed in the near distance. A dry breeze rustled the morning’s early hush through the stretching plain, but it carried no clues of Klaus’ whereabouts.

She had crossed the river to the south of Direfent, and Madoc had pointed her along the fork in the river, down the stream to the Rastgol stronghold of Nathollus. The same way he’d steered Klaus. But that was all the guidance she could get. It had been two days since she’d last seen Klaus, and even on foot, he could cover a lot of ground.

She adjusted the small pack on her shoulders, a clammy sweat clinging to her forehead as she considered what she would do if the Rastgol scouts discovered her. Would she run? Fight? How many could she handle on her own? And what if the Lost found her? If she burned them, the Rastgol were sure to find her.

Her only option was to move as quickly as she could, and get out of there even faster. Letting her feelings and thoughts dry up with scant morning dew, Kaia focused on putting one boot in front of the other, stooping low to stay under the cover of the swaying blades of grass. The plains swelled into low hills, and she skirted a herd of gazelbras leaping in flashes of gold and brown stripes.

She tried not to think about what she would do if she didn’t find Klaus. How long would she look before she was forced to turn back empty-handed? Her heart clenched at the thought and her boot slid into the river shallows, startling a flock of pink-horned storks from their nearby bed of reeds.

Her hands balled into fists with another wave of anger. How dare he leave her alone like this without even the common decency to return when he promised? He better have a good excuse for staying out here, at least. She was already mulling over the choice words she would say to him when she finally found out what had kept him—no matter how long it took. She would search for Klaus until she found him… alive or dead.

Night was falling again before Kaia found Nathollus, and any worries she had of missing it were completely washed back down the river. It was easily twice as large as Direfent. The fading sun cast long shadows from the thick red walls of clay that surrounded the compound. Fires burned from every towering guard post as if to announce its presence to the stars, and even from a distance, Kaia could make out the silhouettes of hulking guards walking behind the turrets. The buildings must have been small though, for Kaia could only see the walls and their warriors. But from what she knew about the Rastgol, perhaps that’s all they wanted her to see—the defenses, the warriors, the arms. Maybe that’s all they were—muscled creatures of death that strode out of the hills fully formed.

That was all well and good, but where was Klaus?

Kaia knelt in the mud, searching in vain for tracks in the failing light—as if Klaus would be clumsy enough to leave tracks in the first place. She, on the other hand… Kaia’s gaze swept along the soft river banks toward the way she had come. Well, she had kept to the shallows the best she could and would just have to hope for the best.

Because she needed to get closer.

Her stomach twisted, but she could see no way around it. If the Rastgol had captured… or killed Klaus, surely the gossip would fly from tongue to tongue. She just needed to get near enough to hear it. And not get caught. If she had to use the dragon fire for any reason, the Rastgol would be on her in minutes, chasing her back to Direfent. But she couldn’t leave without Klaus. There was no room for mistakes.

Squeezing the smooth iron hilt of her sword for reassurance, she moved toward the Rastgol torches beckoning to her in the night. Glancing over her shoulder, she quailed inwardly. Now that she was leaving the safety of the water at her back, she could be ambushed on all sides. And there were sure to be Rastgol sentries hiding in the dark.

Luckily, the years of training with an invisible Shadow Heir had sharpened her other senses. She pressed her ears and nose to the wind, sifting through its contents for anything out of the ordinary. The shuffle of a small animal, the croak of another, a faraway grunt of a larger creature. The scent of smoke, river mud, and below that… yes she could just faintly smell it… the rancid stench of rot—of the dead.

She quickened her pace. The Lost were almost certainly drawn to Klaus. If she could find them, they would lead her to him. She just needed to find them before the Rastgol found her. Stifling a groan, she wiped the sweat from her forehead with a sleeve. What a ridiculously awful plan. This was why they didn’t split up. Klaus was the one with the plans.

The winds shifted ever so slightly, and a deep rumbling carried across the plain. Thunder? Kaia crouched lower, straining her ears, but when she put her fingers to the ground, she felt it instead—a trembling of the soil. Which could only mean something was moving… a big something.

Though she could barely see anything above the grass, her head swiveled as she sensed its direction. A barrage of grunting rumbled through the air, and she gasped with sharp realization—it was not just one something. It was a herd of big somethings. And they were carving up the river bank with the furious drumming of many feet.

Swearing under her breath, Kaia turned and raced through the long grass, the blades lashing at her arms and legs. So much for stealth now. She could only hope that a Rastgol would have the sense not to be in the path of whatever was stampeding her way.

The deep brays drew nearer, and Kaia caught her first look at the creatures. Her eyes widened. While she had gotten a glimpse of the bulky buffalen from afar, this one was massive. The line of its back was nearly a head taller than her, and its large eyes darted to and fro as its thick legs tore through the grass. Even more concerning were the four long horns that protruded from its bulky head—two long and reaching and two curving closer to the short black curls lining its hide.

It veered in her direction, jabbing with its sharp points. Kaia pulled up short, letting it cross in front of her while the rest of the herd crowded up behind. Adrenaline squeezed her heart. If she didn’t get off the ground soon, she would be crushed, or gored, or both.

A wild shout somewhere in the darkness drew her gaze, then another and another. The Rastgol were here. Were they after her? Sweat ran down her cheek as the buffalen pressed together in a solid wall of muscled meat around her. Please, Odriel, at least let the beasts hide me.

Then, she caught sight of a rider still far off in the distance with a torch in her hand. She let out a series of high-pitched shrieks as her horse galloped alongside the herd, and Kaia realized this wasn’t a stampede. The riders were herding these creatures toward Nathollus. Breath rushing out in sharp bursts, she whipped her head around and counted five other torches in the night before dodging another bucking steer. If the Rastgol managed to pen her in with the rest of their cattle, they would almost certainly spot her from up on the walls.

Her heart hammered in her chest as she frantically searched for her escape—a boulder, a hut, a tree… anything. But even the stubby trees couldn’t withstand the onslaught of animals, bowing down under their weight as their hooves crushed the willowy trunks.

One of the animals knocked into Kaia’s shoulders, and she almost fell to the ground. Another butted in on her other side in a sudden crush, knocking the air from her lungs with an audible crack of her ribs. Gasping for air and panic blinding her, she heated her hands just a touch and pressed them against the beasts like a cattle brand. They separated instantly with wild grunts.

Dragging in desperate breaths, Kaia staggered diagonally away from the fortress, providing whatever heat necessary to spur the buffalen out of her way. But she could only go so far before the torches swayed too close.

“Hey, what t’be that?” one of them called in the dark.

Kaia nearly froze. She had to get out of here.

“T’beastie?” another called out.

Finally, Kaia saw it, the buffalen dodging around a tree just sturdy enough to part the stream of their bodies. She raced for it.

“Looked t’human,” said the first.

Weaving through the cattle, Kaia’s legs burned and her ribs ached. A sharp horn tore across her back, and she clamped her teeth down on a cry.

“Where ‘tid go?”

Finally, Kaia reached the pathetic excuse for a tree and pressed herself against the lee side. The shrubby branches fanned out less than an arm’s length above the buffalens’ heads, and the trunk was only half as wide as her shoulder blades, but it was better than nothing.

Another horn raked her arm, and Kaia gritted her teeth through a silent scream, crouching down low. Above all the thundering, her ears still strained for the voices.

“I don’t see t’anymore.” The torch edged closer, somewhere on the edge of the crush of animals.

Stinging sweat mixed into Kaia’s blood, and the dust of the stampede coated her slicked skin. Don’t stay. Move on. She tightened her grip on her hilt. Even if she could take them down without her flames, they were too close to the walls for their absence to go unnoticed, and the herd was starting to thin. Soon they would be able to see her. Keep riding.

A companion torch drew alongside the first. “Eh t’was probably one of those dead’uns.”

Laughter cut across the fading hooves. “Well, if t’wasn’t dead before, t’is good and dead now.”

“You’d think Goldie t’would keep a better eye on ‘em.” A steer swerved away from the herd and the rider broke away to turn it back with a shrill cry.

Time stretched as Kaia crouched at the base of the tree. Trying to quiet her rasping, painful breaths, she counted the torches passing ahead of her in the darkness until she could see all six trailing after the straggling cattle. She waited another few breaths, her back and arm still burning and the right side of her ribs already swelling.

She sighed. This was a setback. While she could still draw her sword, this definitely put her at a disadvantage, and she wouldn’t be able to cover as much ground this way, much less flee with any kind of speed. The odds of this already far-fetched rescue were slimming by the minute. She’d have to be more careful.

Kaia was about to push herself to her feet when someone whispered from up in the branches. “Not yet—stay down.”

All the fear and disappointment suddenly clogged Kaia’s throat in a knot of hopeful recognition.


“Shh! They always have a far-rear scout, and their ears are sharp like you wouldn’t believe.”

Kaia ducked lower, her heart thudding once again in her chest, but this time with joy. The wounds didn’t matter, her weariness didn’t matter, Klaus was here. And now they could leave. Odriel must’ve been looking out for them.

She was about to let out a breath of relief when the flicker of a torch caught her eye. Kaia froze as the horse trotted up not fifteen paces from where she sat.

She resisted the urge to sink farther, keeping her body as still as possible. The woman was already close enough to see the stark white scars peppering her ruddy skin. Her head was bald just like the men, with the same bulging muscles filling out her buffalen-hide vest and her hard, feral eyes glinted in the torchlight.

Kaia had almost thought the Rastgol woman had passed them by when she pulled up short and looked back toward them. She raised her nose to the air as though sniffing it, and Kaia’s stomach twisted. What did she smell? Blood? Sweat? The rations in Kaia’s pack? Surely she couldn’t smell any of that through the lingering odor of the buffalen.

She took another step closer, and Kaia tensed. Would she have to kill this woman?

Then, a shout rang out from the herd, and the woman turned. She spared one last glare for the darkness behind before turning her mount once more and cantering toward her companions.

Kaia waited until she was nearly out of sight before she spoke again. “All clear?”

“We have two hours,” Klaus whispered from somewhere in the dark. “Then the next herd will be by.”

Kaia stood and peered into the branches. She could just barely make out the outline of his body stretched in the crux of the tree, his dark clothes melding with the shadows. “The next herd? How many are there?”

“At least three dozen and they keep two of them running around the walls at all times. It makes for a tight guard.”

“Please don’t tell me you’ve been sitting here counting cattle for two days.” Kaia pulled a knife from her hip and dug into the bark, using it as a foothold to pull herself up the tree. “I’m not sure that’s the kind of information Madoc was hoping for.” She paused, her voice lowering as she found her next handhold. “You’re not hurt, are you?” Her chest tightened at the thought of how she had once found him bleeding and hanging from a cell.

“As intriguing as buffalen are, especially ones this size, I have to say I got my fill of herding them around as a boy.”

Kaia hauled herself onto the branch next to him and peered into his face in the dim light of the moon. Exhausted yes, but still in one piece. “You’re okay,” she breathed, the all-encompassing relief swamping through her in a light-headed rush. “Thank Odriel.” She let her forehead sink onto his shoulder, and then slapped him half-heartedly. “You nearly drove me half-mad with worry.”

“As much as I do love driving you mad,” he pressed his lips to her forehead with a chuckle, “I really didn’t mean to worry you.” He pressed another kiss to her temple.

He stroked the line of her jaw with the back of his hand, and she looked up into his face. “So why didn’t you come back?”

He frowned. “I was thinning the sentries when a bunch of them jumped me. They ran me into the stampede, and I nearly got trampled. Luckily I got out with just the busted foot, and I’m pretty sure they think their hell cows finished me off.”

Kaia’s eyes widened, and she followed his gaze down to where his right boot lay propped up on another branch. At first glance, it didn’t look so bad. No bones poking out, nothing bending the wrong way… but that didn’t mean his foot wasn’t broken. Kaia gingerly prodded it with her fingers, and Klaus let out a low hiss. She felt his good leg to compare. His foot and ankle were at least twice their normal size, swollen tight against the leather of his boot. She wasn’t sure they’d even be able to get the boot off.

Wincing, Kaia drew her hands away. “Can you walk on it?”

He made a face. “Not well. I was going to rest here for another day before trying to hobble my way back.”

Kaia snorted. “Walking for a full day on a foot like that?”

“What choice did I have?”

Kaia settled next to him again in the cramped space, wincing at her tender wounds. “Well, you could’ve not gone off on your own, for one.”

“I could say the same for you.” Klaus’ fingers moved along the gashes in her arm and her back. “Looks like the buffalen didn’t let you escape either.”

She folded her arms. “Well, in case you’ve forgotten, I have extensive experience in saving you, so there really wasn’t a better choice.”

He chuckled at that.

“And now,” she continued, “we can get you out of here and back to Direfent.”

“Not yet.” He wrapped her fingers in his. “Madoc was right, the Lost are here.”

Kaia turned to stare at him, the dark hazel of his eyes intent on hers. She let out a long breath, turning to look at his busted foot once more. “We’ll get you to Direfent first, and then I’ll return for them.”

He shook his head. “That’s too risky and you know it.”

“Then we wait for you to heal and then we come back and take care of it,” she said stubbornly.

“And how many villages will burn in the meantime? How many more Lost will swell their army?”

Kaia hid her face in her hands with a suppressed groan. The plan had been to torch the place, and then run like Idriel himself were on her heels. But with Klaus’ leg, there was no way they would make it.

He peeled her hands away from her face. “Firefly, it’s going to be all right. We can do this.”

Kaia pressed her lips together. “The Lost. Where are they?”

“They have them locked up in some buffalen pens outside the walls, on the other side of the Nathollus fortress.”

Kaia nodded, her mind churning through the changes in the plan. “I burn the dead. Steal some horses. And we ride back to Direfent.”

Klaus raised an eyebrow at her. “With the Rastgol army on our tail? Not exactly the stealthiest of plans.”

“Not even a little.” Kaia poked him in the shoulder with a smirk. “You had a chance to do it your way. Now we do it my way.”

His smile widened, and he took one of her long brown locks between his fingers. “I’m really glad you’re here, Firefly.”

Kaia glanced around their cramped perch. “In this squat little tree in the middle of Rastgol country, about to set a match to the barn while we’re still in it?”

He shook with silent laughter. “And here I thought we were done risking our lives in impossible situations.”

“No,” Kaia whispered, her voice falling. “It won’t ever be done, will it?” Her mind flashed to the nightmares that haunted her—the clawing fingers of the Lost and Mogens’ eyes in the dark. She thought of all the Heirs whose lives had been cut short. Their grandfathers, their parents, the Time Heirs… She thought of Madoc pleading with her to stay and fight with them. “It’ll always be the two of us risking our lives against the world. Finding the most dangerous places in Okarria and rooting out whatever abomination lurks there. Will there never be peace for us?”

Klaus swallowed, his thumb rubbing across the back of her hand. “I don’t know if there will ever be a time when we’re not fighting, or in danger, or you know, in a tree trying to avoid cannibals.” He chuckled, his gaze meeting hers. “But while I can’t promise I’ll always be right next to you,” he squeezed her hand, “I can promise that you’ll never be alone in this. That, no matter what might happen to us, I will do everything in my power to keep you safe.” He trailed his fingers down the braid of copper lying against her cheek. “And that, no matter where I am, my thoughts will always be of getting back to you.”

With that, he leaned forward and pressed his lips to hers. Her heart bursting in her chest, and his heat twisting with hers, Kaia could not have dreamed more perfect words.

But even such love could not banish the pall of death that lay over them. The fear that soaked them. The pain and exhaustion that followed them wherever they wandered. She wanted more for their lives than that.

Even if she had to banish it all herself.

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!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Seven

A Choice

The sun rose without any sign of Klaus, and Kaia’s frustration wilted into fear in the afternoon heat. Her eyes strained for any sign of movement or inexplicable parting of the yellowed grass. Her skin itched for an invisible touch, the lightest brush of the unseen. But there was nothing.

By the time the sun reached its zenith, she had made her decision. She dozed through the late afternoon and took her dinner with Madoc and his men, but from there, she walked through the dusk straight to the armory. Swords, spears, bows, and daggers lined the wooden racks along the walls in the otherwise bare room. She selected a light sword with good balance and belted it around her waist to replace the one lost to the river.

“Going somewhere?” Madoc tipped up his wide-brimmed hat to look at her.

“I’m going to find Klaus.” With the reassuring weight of the sword settled on her hips, she turned to where he blocked the door.

Madoc crossed his arms with a smirk, silvery tattoos trailing up his corded muscles into his short sleeves. “Do ya really need me to tell ya that’s not a good idea?”

“Sometimes bad ideas are all we have left,” Kaia replied, straightening under his mocking gaze.

Madoc chuckled to himself. “I s’pose I see where Klaus has gotten his sudden brash streak, but still, I think he’d put steel to my throat if I let ya go into Rastgol territory.”

“I thought you liked getting under his skin?”

Madoc threw his head back with a laugh. “Well, I s’pose yer right about that. But, I’m losing my ace here. I really don’t see how I’m coming out of this on top.”

“We’re bringing back information on the Rastgol which will help your cause, and we might even torch their Lost army while we’re at it.” Kaia crossed her arms in a mocking imitation of him. “I’m really doing this for you, Madoc.”

He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “That’s if ya come back.”

“I’m the Dragon Heir.” Kaia let an orb of flame spin in her open palm. “We’re either coming back, or I’ll burn the whole place down trying.”

Madoc’s grin widened, his teeth starkly white beneath his dark beard. “I do like the sound of that. But I thought ya wouldn’t use your fire on the Rastgol.”

Kaia rested a hand on the hilt of her blade. “I know this may shock you, but I do know how to use this.”

“Is that so?” He ran a hand through his beard and cocked his head toward the courtyard. Out in the deepening dusk, Madoc pulled his saber from its sheath. The steel glinted in the light of the flickering torches that lined the stone walls. “I’ll tell ya what then, Dragon, ya best me in a duel, and I’ll let ya go on yer merry way.”

Kaia shrugged and drew her blade. “If you insist.” Madoc was a head taller and at least seven stone heavier than her. Judging from the way he had fought at the bridge, he obviously knew how to use his size to his advantage and preferred to be on the attack. “To first blood?”

“Or yield,” he offered.

Kaia smothered a smile. Once, being underestimated might’ve annoyed her, but now she saw it for exactly what it was. An advantage. She held up her blade. “Shall we begin then?”

“After you.”

Kaia closed the distance between them and let her short sword blaze to life.

Eyes widening, Madoc raised his saber to defend himself. “I thought ya didn’t use yer fire on people.”

Kaia smashed her blade against his again and again, the steel ringing out across the square. “Have I burned you yet?”

As an Heir, Kaia was twice as strong as a man, but it was easy to forget when she looked like a normal blusheep girl. She drove Madoc around the grassy arena mercilessly, the sweat beading on his temple as he strove to parry her blows.

In another swirl of fire, she set her empty hand ablaze with a twist of flickering light. Letting her sword extinguish, she thrust her burning hand toward his face and in a knee-jerk reaction, Madoc lifted his blade to parry it. Taking advantage of the opening, Kaia lifted her still steaming blade and nicked Madoc’s neck, just above the collar.

Not just first blood. First blood could have been taken from a finger or a knee. Both easier to reach than the soft, protected neck. This had been to prove something. She had more skills than just her fire. She didn’t need to burn someone alive to take their life. And she was not to be taken lightly.

Chest heaving, Madoc stumbled back on his heavy feet. He brought his fingers cautiously to his neck and observed the red drop of blood on them, gleaming in the light still flickering from Kaia’s palm. Then, he tossed his head back and roared with laughter.

His booming laugh cracked the quiet of the night air until tears ran down his cheeks, and Kaia couldn’t help but smile.

“Okay, Dragon, I deserved that.” He sheathed his saber. “I s’pose Thane’s not the only Heir half decent with a blade.”

Kaia shrugged and sheathed her sword. “Someone’s got to keep him on his toes.”

“Right ya are.”

“And since I won, can I ask a favor?”

Madoc opened his arms wide. “What would that be?”

Kaia’s smile faded, and she nodded to where Gus waited patiently in the corner of the courtyard, his tail wagging as she looked at him. “Look after Gus while I’m away.” She kicked the dust with the toe of her boot. “He seems rather fond of you.”

“Ah.” Madoc straightened, his expression sobering. He whistled sharply, and Gus ran to his side as if he’d belonged to him all along. “I can do that.” He tousled Gus’ ears, and the ragehound’s furry tail wagged earnestly. “And I won’t stop you from going after Thane. But… have you considered what’ll happen if Okarria loses both Heirs? If you’re sworn to protect the land, can you take the risk?”

 “Even if we were to fall, more Heirs would rise in our places.” Kaia twirled the flame in her hands into a long stream, bending it into an infinite loop in her palm. “To go or not to go is just as risky. There is never a choice without sacrifice. Like your request from yesterday… sure, if I burn a man, I could save another. But what would happen to me? To my soul? Would I even be worthy of Odriel’s gift to use it for something so base?” She let the fire spin around her wrist, sending it along her shoulder and down her other arm. “And for Klaus… if I go, perhaps I will be dooming both of us, leaving Okarria in the hands of the Western Guard and its madcap Captain.” She flashed a grin at him, but it fell away under her heavy words. “But if I stay, then I’ll sacrifice the piece of myself that I love the most, and the one person that makes all of my sacrifices worth making.” She let her fire grow into a flower in her palm, its petals blossoming in the night. “So while I won’t burn a man, I will run into flames for the sake of this one.”

Madoc pulled his hat from his head and put it to his chest. “Hell.” For a moment, he looked at the dirt, as though gathering his words from the grass-littered dust. “I see I’ve underestimated ya in more ways than one.” He pointed his hat at her. “When I first heard the stories of you Heirs and what happened in the south, I have to say, I thought it was a sack of bosh. No two people could defeat an army. They’d have to be stupid to try. Although, I s’pose that made sense in Thane’s case.”

Kaia laughed and Madoc chuckled along with her before he stabbed his hat in her direction again. “But yer certainly blessed by Odriel, Guardian Dashul, and regardless of whether ya return, I’m glad to have met ya.” With that, he lowered his head in a short bow.

“And I, you, Madoc,” she said, bowing back. “But since I do plan on returning, I have one more favor to ask.”

He straightened and replaced his hat on his dark hair. “What else can I do for ya?”

She smiled. “When you see the flames, I’ll need your men ready to fight.”

“Oh yeah, and why’s that?” he asked, crossing his tattooed arms.

“Because two Heirs are all well and good, but I too prefer the strength of numbers.”

“A wise Dragon Heir.” Approval glinted in his navy eyes. “Klaus Thane is a lucky man.”

The smile fell from Kaia’s face. “Let’s hope so.”

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!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Six

A Long Night

Kaia stalked Direfent’s wide parapet in the dark of night, glaring at the river below her. Swirling fire between her fingers, she wrestled with the tangles of worry that snarled her thoughts. He had actually left without her. She should’ve gone with him. There were only two of them after all. They didn’t have to be invisible to go unseen, and the western border was so vast, they could’ve taken their time and circled around. Maybe Madoc would’ve wanted to come with his men to get a better idea of the Rastgol’s defenses. There were so many options.

The sentries on either of the corner battlements gave her a wide berth, but Gus’ worried eyes followed her as she paced, his long muzzle opening in a wide yawn.

Torches lined the walkway, throwing her shadow back and forth across the path. Did he have to make a decision so quickly? Couldn’t he have waited for them to get a better sense of the situation? Especially after yesterday’s battle. What if the Rastgol attacked Direfent again? What if the Lost raided another village? She gripped the edge of the battlement, her palms heating the stone as she bit down on a scream of frustration.

“Couldn’t sleep, Dragon?” Madoc walked along the wall to gaze out at the west beside her.

“I’ve slept plenty.” Kaia looked at him from the corner of her eye. Though he had a good-natured manner, there was obviously no love lost between him and Klaus. “Did you send Klaus across the river to spy on the Rastgol?”

Bracing his arms against the smooth stones, Madoc chuckled deep in his throat. “I wish I could take credit for such an excellent idea.” He clicked his tongue. “Get information on the enemy and get Thane outta my hair? If he hadn’t come up with the idea himself, I would’ve said it was a stroke of genius.”

“Did he say why he wanted to go?”

“Something about wanting to see if these were Idriel’s dead or if there was another necromancer he needed to take care of.”

Kaia’s fingers tightened into fists. “It isn’t like him to do something so reckless.”

 “Perhaps not, but I’ve noticed Thane is quite different from the last time I saw ‘im.” Madoc shrugged, a smile peeking out from beneath his beard. “Less restrained, lighter, less insufferable… and perhaps a bit more impulsive.” His grin deepened in his weathered face. “I suppose someone must be having a positive influence on ‘im.”

Kaia blushed at the words, looking quickly away into the night. “Well, if it’s my bad habits he’s picking up, then I suppose I’m partly to blame.”

“Enough of that.” Madoc dismissed it with a wave. “Thane is grown and capable of making his own decisions.” He turned to her. “As are you.”

“Oh, am I now?” Kaia humored him with a narrow-eyed grin.

“Ya know, we could use your gifts here, ‘gainst the Rastgol.” He gestured to the river. “After decades of war, we could finally safeguard the border.”

Kaia shook her head. “I’m just one more sword. I’ve told you before, I don’t use my fire on the living.”

“Even after ya saw the Rastgol don’t share yer reservations?”

Kaia flinched as the boy’s screams echoed through her thoughts, the stink of burning flesh singeing her nose. “My flames are meant for the dead, and the dead alone. It takes a lot of yanaa to burn even one man alive.”

“Bosh,” Madoc snorted. “I’ve seen yer power, and Valente Conrad told me what ya did to his old man.”

Kaia froze. “Valente Conrad was here?”

Madoc nodded. “Not two weeks ago. Seems like a better man than his father. He agreed to lobby the Faveno regent fer more men.” His smile had faded into a glower. “We’re always short these days.”

“I… I see.” A chill swept away Kaia’s heat. She could only imagine what Valente Conrad thought of her now.

“You saw the village,” Madoc said, his voice low and urgent. “Think of how many ya could save. Not just soldiers, but innocents too. There are even rumors that they accept human sacrifices in exchange for a reprieve from their raids.” He spat over the battlements as if the words left a foul taste in his mouth.

Kaia nodded. “The Rastgol are horrific, but…” The memory of Conrad’s screams as she burned him alive branded her with a visceral agony. She swallowed, voice shaking. “If I were to turn my fire against them… I think it would kill me too.”

Madoc paused at that, the frown smoothing from his lips. Sighing, he straightened. “I suppose yer right. I guess I must be desperate if I’m asking one girl to fight an army’s battles,” he scoffed. “No offense, Dragon. Yer certainly an ace up the sleeve, but even that’s no replacement for a good hand.”

Kaia nodded, squeezing her laced fingers. “Klaus and I could never have taken on Idriel’s army without Okarria’s warriors at our back.” She glanced into the empty courtyard. “But now there are so few of them left.”

Madoc crossed his arms. “That there are. The Guards of the State-cities stay close to their homes, and the hands we get here are all fresh off the farm. By the time they’re trained enough to fight, we’ve got more empty bunks to fill.” He tapped his fingers against his thick bicep and leaned against the far wall. “Ya know, fire or not, we could always use a couple more good fighters here if ya’d like to stay on.”

“Even Klaus Thane?” Kaia’s smile widened with mischief.

He grimaced, his face folding comically under his beard. “I was talking about you and yer wolf. But I suppose if he’s part of the deal, we could stomach him.”

Kaia laughed. “I do appreciate the offer, but I’m afraid our duties don’t let us stay in one spot for long.”

“I suppose I should be glad that someone else is watching our backs in the east while we’re facing west.” He shrugged. “Regardless, ya’ll always have a bunk here should ya ever need one.”

His words stoked the warm flames in Kaia’s belly. “Thank you, Madoc.”

“That said, you go back to that bunk, Dragon.” He clapped her on the shoulder. “Yer Shadow will return with the dawn whether ya stay up all night worrying or not.”

Kaia chuckled. “Is that an order, Captain Madoc?”

Turning away, Madoc glanced over his shoulder at her. “Only a fool would give orders to a Dragon.”

Grinning, Kaia returned to her room anyway. But despite his reassurances, sleep did not find her. And in the morning, neither did her Shadow.

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!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Five


Though Kaia’s body bent with weariness, she couldn’t coax herself back to sleep with thoughts of the Lost raging through her splitting head. She hugged Gus to her chest as the image of the Rastgol breaking the seared boy’s neck replayed itself over and over again in her mind. Surely, there must’ve been something she could’ve done to save him. She should’ve seen it coming sooner—burned the bridge as soon as he hurt the boy. Why did she just stand there? But then would the boy have survived the river with his hands bound? Almost certainly not. But at least then she would’ve given him a chance.

Gus licked her cheek with his smooth tongue. It’s over, my girl. Rest now.

“It’s not over, Gus,” she whispered. “If the Rastgol are collecting the Lost somehow, what are we going to do about it?”

Gus laid his head in her lap with a huff, his long furry body taking up most of the bed. I don’t like it when you worry.

She sighed and shifted him away, moving her feet to the floor. Outside, the sun had begun to lighten the sky with swirls of pink and orange. “Maybe I can go find that mender since just laying here isn’t—”

A soft knock interrupted her. She rose to answer it, but the door opened of its own accord before closing with a quiet click.

Kaia crossed her arms. “Didn’t Madoc say you weren’t supposed to be up here?”

“As if he could stop me.” Klaus blinked into view, his smirk only inches from her own.

 “Besides,” he pulled a waterskin and what looked like a bundle of bandages from his shirt, “the menders were busy, so it looks like you’ll have to put up with me as a nurse instead.”

“Is that a needle and thread?” She groaned. “I’m doomed.”

“Don’t tell me the Dragon Heir is frightened of a few stitches?”

“I think I’d rather just wait for the mender,” Kaia said, edging toward the door.

 “First of all, you shouldn’t be on your feet.” Klaus put an arm around her shoulders and guided her back toward the bed. “Secondly, I’m actually very handy with a needle, I’ll have you know.”

Kaia slouched onto the bed, trading a doubtful glance with Gus. “That’s fine, I’ll let you know the next time my breeches need a patch.” She scooted away as he sat on the bed next to her. “Just keep that needle away from my head.”

“Shh… keep your voice down.” Klaus took her cheeks gingerly in his calloused hands, his face leaning close as he examined the wound. “If Madoc finds me in here, he’s liable to throw me out of the window.”

“Would it save me from the stitches?” Kaia whispered.

“Nope.” Klaus thrust the waterskin into her hands. “Drink this first.”

“What’s in it?” Kaia raised it hesitantly to her lips, a sharp, sour smell tickling her nose.

“What’s wrong? Don’t you trust me by now?”

Kaia narrowed her eyes at him. “Maybe.”

His gaze softened with a smile, and he squeezed her knee. “It’s for the pain.”

Kaia nodded and took a swig, bracing herself for the worst. The rancid drink burned her throat from her stomach to her nose, and she spluttered into her elbow. “Odriel’s teeth, Klaus. That tastes like cheap spirits.” She took another swig nonetheless and wiped her mouth, anything to get rid of the pounding between her temples.

“That’s because it is.” Grimacing, he took the skin from her. “It’s all they had left.” He poured some onto the cloth bandages in his hands and pressed it to the side of her head.

A fiery pain lanced through her scalp. “Ach! That stings,” she hissed. “I thought you were supposed to be helping.”

He sighed. “I know, but I have to clean it first. Here,” he handed her the needle, “I need you to heat this too.”

“Where’s Fiola when you need her?” Kaia whined, warming the needle like a match until it glowed red.

Klaus reached out for it, and she pulled it just out of reach. “Firefly…” He rubbed an exasperated hand over his smooth jaw. “I need that.”

“It’s still hot,” she protested with a cheeky grin, a blessed lightness leeching the pain from her skull. “I don’t want you to get burned.”

“Is that it?” Klaus leaned closer, his golden-flecked eyes boring into hers. “Is it the spirits or the head wound that has you acting ridiculous?”

Kaia’s eyes flicked to his lips and back up to his eyes. A warmth spread through her belly, making her heart stutter. “Maybe neither,” she breathed.

“Hmm…” Leaning forward, he plucked the needle from her hand. “Well, regardless, you still need stitches.”

It took another half hour of coaxing and spirits and whining before Klaus finally stitched her wound together. By the time he finished, Kaia’s head still swam, but with the blissful absence of pain instead of the agony of earlier.

Kaia ran her fingers along the side of her head, where Klaus’ neat row of stitches sat just above her ear. “Does it look terrible?”

“It looks perfectly fine.” Klaus took her fingers in his own and kissed them. “Now, you really should get some rest.” He grabbed the flask and the bandages and moved to rise.

“But where are you going?” Kaia tightened her grip on his hand, trying to wade through the spirits that dulled her thoughts. “Can’t you stay awhile?”

He smiled at her wearily, the shadows a dark purple beneath his eyes. “You want to tempt fate? It’s only a matter of time before Madoc busts down the door.”

“He won’t,” Kaia whispered, lying back on her pillow, her head heavy and her senses muffled. “Besides, since when do you follow the rules? What’s really bothering you?”

With a sigh, Klaus lay down beside her, propping his head up on an elbow. Just as he had done nearly every night for the past three months. “I talked to Madoc… about the Lost.”

Kaia’s eyes snapped open. “What did you say?”

He tucked her braid into place, brushing her cheek with the backs of his fingers. “I’m going to cross the river tonight—to try to figure out what’s going on.”

Kaia rubbed her palm against her forehead. “So soon? I guess we really do need to get some rest if we have to leave tonight.”

Licking his lips, Klaus shook his head. “No, Firefly, not we.”

She sat up. “What do you mean ‘not we?’ We do everything together, Klaus. You know that. We’re too vulnerable when we’re separated.”

“Shhhh, relax,” he whispered, coaxing her back to her pillow. He cupped her cheek with his palm, and she leaned into his hand. “It’s just a quick scouting mission. No one will ever see me, and I’ll be back before dawn breaks.”

“So you’re spying now? Where’s Shadmundar when we need him?” Kaia half-joked, wishing that the cat had come with them instead of returning to his magus’ service.

Klaus smiled, but the shadows in his expression deepened. “The Rastgol have eyes and ears everywhere. I’m the only option.”

Kaia pressed his hand against her face, the image of the Rastgol breaking the boy’s neck scraping through her thoughts. “I don’t have a good feeling about this, Klaus. Those people were…”

“I know,” he murmured, kissing her forehead. “Don’t worry. I’ll be careful.”

“I won’t forgive you if you don’t come back.” Her heavy eyelids blinked slowly even as she fought to keep them open.

“So harsh,” he said, flashing a smile.

She pulled on his shirt, the fabric warm against his chest. “I mean it.”

“I’ll come back, Firefly.” He brushed the softest of kisses on her lips. “I promise.”

She curled into the solid safety of him, her exhaustion drawing her into unconsciousness. “Stay for at least a little while.”

“Okay, Firefly.” He wrapped an arm around her, kissing her brow once more. “But just for a little while.”


Twisted dark yanaa warped her nightmares, dragging her worst memories from the darkness and weaving new ones to take their place. Her father pulling the dagger across his own throat, Mogens plunging his blade into Klaus, and Conrad burning alive at her hands. And still there were more. She’d seen the images dozens of times, and yet they still managed to claw fresh wounds. The misshapen faces of the Lost morphed into Klaus’, his eyes filled with that same blackness of death, and as he lunged at her with his black blade, all she could do was scream.

Kaia thrashed, trying to will herself awake, but couldn’t quite swim past the heavy exhaustion that chained her to the nightmare. Warm arms encircled her instead, and the familiar smell of soap and leather calmed her pounding heart. Tangled in the blankets, Klaus’ black eyes still haunted the space between dreaming and waking.

“Klaus…” she mumbled, her arms flailing against the nightmare.

“Shh Firefly, I’m right here.” His hands encircled her wrists, and he brought them against his chest. “It was just a dream, I’m right here.”

The words blew the dark images away like a sharp breeze, and Kaia drifted into a peaceful sea of rest.

But when she finally awoke… he was gone.

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!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Four


“Cut the bridge!” Madoc bellowed, drawing his sword.

Along the western bank, dozens of warriors leapt from the night to charge the bridge.

Before Kaia could process what was happening, the Rastgol launched across the gap between them, his short sword cleaving down on her. Madoc parried the blade and slashed his torch toward the giant man’s face. The Rastgol grabbed his arm instead, locking them together.

“Cut the bridge!” Madoc yelled again, crumpling under the Rastgol’s superior strength.

But the Direfent warriors on the bank were already locked in their own struggle with the dripping Rastgol warriors charging up from the river’s edge.

“They can’t,” Kaia shouted over the clashing steel, Madoc’s straining body too close to draw her blade.

Something yanked Kaia back and brushed past her. With a whistle of air, a gush of blood oozed from the Rastgol’s throat. But as soon as he fell, another Rastgol surged forward to take his place.

“Get back to the bank!” Klaus shouted, felling another Rastgol in front of him.

Kaia looked behind them to find the Rastgol already coming down the bridge from the other end, battering away at Madoc’s soldiers.

Wresting his torch arm from the dead Rastgol, Madoc hacked at the hefty ropes with his sword. “If they take the bridge, their army will be at our walls in seconds.”

Kaia nodded, finally grasping the situation. “Klaus, hold on to something!” She shoved past his invisible body, practically barreling into the solid mass of the next attacker. The Rastgol stumbled back, his eyes blazing as he rushed toward her once more. But before he could take another step, Kaia ignited the bridge in an explosion of fire. The crackling flames chewed through the wooden planks in an instant, and the Rastgol fell away.

Kaia’s stomach flew into her throat as her body dropped through the air with the corpses, the Rastgol, and her companions falling somewhere around her. Then she was underwater, the cold of it shocking her overheated body as the current dragged her under. With fumbling hands she unbuckled her belt, letting her heavy blade sink into the river. Lighter now, she kicked against the undertow, fighting to the surface. But as she gasped for air, a pair of huge hands pushed her under again.

She kicked and clawed at him, but his grip held firm. Finally, she landed a kick and pushed herself away, only for another hand to find her throat. Blinded by the murky water and desperate for air, she pulled the heat from her core till the water boiled around her, and at last the hand yanked free.

Breaking through the surface, Kaia sucked in air with a hoarse gasp, trying to get her bearings through stinging eyes. The current had taken her west, and several Rastgol warriors cut through the water toward her with strong, efficient strokes. Heart drumming, she kicked away from them toward the eastern bank and the clash of steel on steel. The Direfent soldiers struggled to beat the Rastgol back into the river while Madoc pulled himself onto the bank to charge straight into the mob. She hacked at the water with her arms, her gaze searching for Klaus in the chaos, but there was no sign of him. Was he still in the water?

She was almost midway when something crashed against her head. Pain cracked through her skull, and black edged her vision as she went under. Blinking sluggishly, Kaia forced herself to keep kicking. She bobbed up again to see the Rastgol brandishing the plank once more and raised her arms to protect her head. The wood slammed against her arms, another fist crashing into her face. Black spots threatened her vision once more, and she sucked in a lungful of the river. Ears ringing, she coughed and choked as she struggled to gather her senses.

The Rastgol brought the plank up again, and then fell limp into the water. Klaus appeared in front of her, water dripping from his dark hair. “Firefly, are you okay?”

“I-I’m… okay.” Her words slurred together and Klaus’ grimace doubled in her vision.

Klaus wrested the plank from the dead Rastgol. “Just hold on to this and I’ll bring you in.”

Kaia kicked as he dragged her through the water. At last, the cool river mud rose up to meet them, and he pulled her onto the shore, his chest heaving.

“Watch out!” Madoc yelled from the bank above them, pointing to a trio of Rastgol charging down the slope from the battle. Klaus slipped a knife from his belt and disappeared.

Kaia had to do something. She wouldn’t use her fire on people, especially when her allies could get caught in the blaze, but there had to be something she could do. They were here for her after all.

Her head still spinning, she stumbled to her feet, concentrating every ounce of yanaa into her hands. She might not be able to kill them, but she could at least distract them. She thrust her arms into the air. “Madoc! Klaus!” she yelled. “Shield your eyes!”

With that, she released the blaze within her in an explosion of volcanic flames. The column of fire shot into the sky, driving the dusky clouds of darkness from its heat. Focusing her yanaa, Kaia let the fire burgeon across the night, blotting out the stars in a tidal wave of fiery tongues. Dozens of Rastgol turned toward her, their murderous gazes prickling her skin. Good. She could only hope Madoc’s men had the sense to cut them down while their backs were turned.

Returning her focus to the blaze, she fed the eruption, sending another pulse of flames across the sky. The heat of it in the summer night slicked her skin with sweat, but she kept on, pouring every last drop of yanaa into the spectacle. How long she burned, she didn’t know. Until at last, completely spent, she fell to her hands and knees, her last burst of fire fizzling into the dark.

Her chest heaving and her fingers squelching in the mud, she surveyed the battle. The dead and wounded littered the ground, but from what she could tell, Madoc’s men now far outnumbered the few Rastgol still fighting on. Taking a deep ragged breath, she staggered to her feet, head throbbing. If she was going to help now, she would need to find a weapon. But her legs turned to jelly as she walked, and her stomach revolted against the movement. Kneeling, she drank in deep breaths of the still scorched air, trying to keep herself from vomiting.

A rough hand hauled her up by the elbow, and her stomach flipped again. “Steady on, Dragon, lemme look atcha.” Madoc pulled a torch close with a low whistle. “Someone got a good smack at yer head there. But a dozen stitches and you’ll pull through just fine.” Kaia swayed as he pulled her up the slope. “I must say I always thought Odriel a fool fer thinking three warriors could take on an army, but I’ll admit ya got me impressed.”

“Where’s… Klaus?” Kaia mumbled, her words muddied with pain and fatigue. “And are the Rastgol…” She stopped, her gaze stuck on the dozens of pairs of glowing green eyes staring from across the river. “The Lost.”

Madoc grunted, passing off his torch to a passing soldier. “I told ya the Rastgol were attacking with the Lost. It’s a good thing ya torched the bridge, or we would’ve had an even bigger problem on our hands.”

This time, Kaia couldn’t quell the nausea, and bending down, she heaved into the grassy bank.

Gathering her long hair at the nape of her neck, Madoc patted her back. “Definitely a nasty blow to the head. Get it all out there.”

Kaia straightened, and he passed her a flask of water. She poured some into her mouth and spat out the foul taste of bile.

“I do wonder though why ya didn’t just burn through the Rastgol on the bridge.”

A shiver racked Kaia’s shoulders. “Because then I’d be the monster.”

“Ah, come now, don’t be naïve,” Madoc chuckled. “We’re all monsters on the battlefield.”

His words sloshed in her ears, and Kaia shook her head slowly, wincing at the movement. “I think I just need… to lie down.” She sagged from his grip onto the grass, resting her head on her knees.

“Firefly!” Klaus jogged through the soldiers helping with the dead and wounded. “Are you all right?”

Kaia raised her head, the tension sloughing from her shoulders in a flood of relief. Fatigue lined his eyes and mud coated his clothes, but she could see no visible injuries. “Klaus,” she breathed with a weary smile.

“She’s fine, Thane.” Madoc waved him off. “Just a bit of a head wound thickening her tongue.”

Klaus knelt beside her, taking her face gingerly in his hands.

“I’m fine. You’re fine. It’s… fine,” Kaia whispered, closing her eyes to stave off the dizziness.

“Why didn’t you get her to the mender?” he snapped at Madoc.

Madoc raised an eyebrow. “My my, quite the mother hen now, aren’t we?” He shrugged, a shadow of a smile crossing his face. “Well, if ya insist.”

He bent down and scooped her up like a child, striding off toward the fortress.

Kaia groaned at the rocking motion, her stomach turning.

“Wait—that’s not what I meant.” Klaus’ face flushed as he strode beside them. “You’re going to make her sick doing that.”

Madoc ignored him, a smile growing under his beard. “My menders are a touch busy at the moment, so I’ll deliver her straight to her bed and send one by later.” Nodding at the guards, he ducked into the courtyard, and Gus bounded to his side, nosing and huffing at his feet. “In fact, since I’ve got her taken care of, why dontcha run along and make yerself useful. The lady could use her rest.”

Klaus’ voice rose, even his ears turning pink now. “Madoc, you can’t be serious, you know she’s—”

Madoc kicked the keep door shut on the spluttering Klaus, barring it with a smug grin. The door shuddered as Klaus banged on it from the other side, his angry shouts muffled through the solid wood.

That done, Madoc set Kaia on the ground with a deep chuckle. “Sorry ‘bout that, Dragon, I just couldn’t help myself.”

“Couldn’t help yourself with what?” Kaia asked, the pain in her head nearly blotting out everything else.

“Never mind.” He guided her up the stairs with a gentle hand on her elbow. “Let’s just getcha to yer room. Everything else can wait.”

Kaia couldn’t agree more.

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!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Three

A Parley

A sonorous clanging woke Kaia from a string of nightmares filled with burning villages and the keening Lost. She bolted upright in the dark room, her heart thumping and her clothes damp with sweat. Sleep still fogging her senses, her blurry gaze roved the blackness. Where was she? Where was Klaus? And who was ringing a bell in the middle of the night?

Then two paws and an insistent wet nose found their way into her lap. It’s okay, my girl, we’re okay.

Tangling her fingers into Gus’ thick red fur, Kaia’s eyes focused, and she took in the simple spartan room around her—a narrow bed, a round wooden table, a hearth, and the night peeking through the window. Oh yes. Direfent fortress. She wrapped her arms around Gus and buried her face into his neck with a groan, as if to escape the clanging. She could’ve really used a few more hours of sleep, even with the dreams. A harsh rapping at her door jerked her head up once more.

Still fully dressed in her tunic and leggings, Kaia’s stocking feet padded across the cold stone floor and opened the door.

Madoc stood in the hall, his face stern. “Come on then, Dragon. I think you’ll want to see this.” Not waiting for her response, he turned and strode down the hall.

Frowning, Kaia yanked on her boots, belted on her sword, and raced after him. Her mind still churned sluggishly as he led her down the stairwell and into the courtyard.

“Is it the Lost?” she asked. Drawn to yanaa as they were, it wasn’t unusual for them to trail after the Heirs.

“The bell rings when the Rastgol approach the river.” He turned through an archway, and a mob of armed soldiers straightened, already assembled to greet them.

“Oh.” Kaia’s shoulders relaxed. The Rastgol may have been a threat, but at least it wasn’t her fault everyone had been roused from their beds. This wasn’t her problem to fix. “Do you think they’ll attack?”

“No, they’ve asked fer a parley. And they’ve brought hostages.”

Kaia’s eyebrows shot up. “Does that happen often?”

His dark blue eyes caught hers, unreadable in the torchlight. “Never.”

Klaus shouldered his way through the crowd, covering a yawn with a hand. “Your scout tells me he saw only four Rastgol. I didn’t realize the Western Guard was so skittish these days.” Matching Kaia’s strides, he fell in beside her. He nudged her shoulder with his own before bending down to scratch behind Gus’ ears.

She smiled, the sight of him smoothing the tense lines of worry from her brow.

Not looking at Klaus, Madoc scowled. “The Rastgol are a shrewd and bloody-minded people. Ya can bet there are more of ‘em out there in the dark.” Madoc’s men parted before him as he strode through their ranks. He gestured to a handful, and they trailed along behind them. “If they even smell weakness, they’ll ford the river faster than ya can piss yer pants.”

Kaia glanced over her shoulder to see four warriors bristling with weapons bringing up their rear. “Is that what we’re here for? A show of power?”

“Guess again.” Madoc’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “After all, we’ve been doing plen’y fine without yer help so far.” He paused at the small wooden door in the outer wall and turned toward them. His gaze skated across the Heirs to the soldiers behind, and he raised his voice. “Now listen. The Rastgol haven’t asked to speak with us in years, but be on yer guard. It could be a ploy. We’ll meet ‘em on the bridge, and if there’s any sign of aggression, the bridge’ll be cut. Keep yer wits about ya or you’ll find yourself floating down the river. Understood?”

“Yes, Cap’n,” the men chorused.

“And we’re only allowed to bring four on the bridge, so you,” Madoc pointed at Klaus, “will not be seen.”

Klaus gave a mocking salute. “Yes, Cap’n.”

“What of the hostages?” Kaia asked.

Madoc snorted. “Don’t worry about them, girl.” He turned and opened the door. “If they die, it’ll be a better fate than what the Rastgol have planned for ‘em.”

Swallowing, Kaia felt the blood drain from her face. She hesitated as he strode out into the open, his men close on his heels.

Klaus bent toward her ear. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, Firefly.” He squeezed her hand. “You won’t see me, but I’ll be right next to you.”

 “It’s not me I’m worried about.” Licking her lips, she put a hand on Gus’ head. “Stay here, Gus.”

Gus whined, his feet pawing anxiously at the ground, but did as he was told. Come back soon, my girl.

His eyes soft, Klaus squeezed her hand once more before disappearing into the night air. “No need to worry,” he whispered again. The soft press of his unseen lips against her brow prompted a reluctant smile.

Then with a slow, deep breath, Kaia stepped out of Direfent’s protective arms. The fortress balanced not twenty paces from the edge of the steep embankment, and a long rope bridge stretched across the lazily flowing river dividing the dark sea of grass.

Two of Madoc’s men waited to either side of the bridge posts, blades already drawn and ready to cut the lines at the whiff of trouble. Madoc stood with the other two on the suspended planks of the narrow bridge, wide enough for only two to walk side by side. Kaia’s gaze followed the bridge across the broad river to the torch held aloft on the other end. Even from a distance, she could make out four broad-shouldered figures towering over two frailer ones kneeling on the ground.

A shiver crawled along her spine. Two hands squeezed her shoulders, and a warm breath tickled her ear. “Come on, Firefly.”

With a nod, Kaia strode off toward the bridge. She filed in behind Madoc’s two soldiers, but he pointed to his side. “Nope. Dragon, I want ya here next to me.”

Kaia’s brow wrinkled as she obliged. “You know, I’m all right with a sword, but without any Lost here, I would’ve thought you’d prefer a soldier.”

“I figured ya’d want to be here.” Madoc lifted his torch higher and waved it back and forth, its flames blurring. A figure on the other side did the same and started forward across the bridge. “Since they want to talk about you after all.”

Kaia’s stomach sank as she followed Madoc across the creaking bridge. A gentle summer breeze flowed along with the sloshing river beneath them, and Kaia kept one hand on the taut rope that held them in. The bridge swayed as the Rastgol strode across it, dragging two poor souls behind them.

“They’re huge,” Kaia whispered.

Madoc nodded. “They force their kiddies to kill the smaller, weaker ones, so yer typical Rastgol is a head taller than a big Okarrian.”

Kaia’s hand moved to the hilt at her waist. “Is that all?”

Madoc snorted, his face hard. “Not even close. The scars on their faces boast their kill tallies, and they believe that drinking the blood of their slain enemies grants ‘em their strength.”

Her stomach sank a little deeper with his every word. She never dreamed of a day when she would prefer to face the Lost. “So, what do you want me to do?”

“Don’t get close. Don’t let yer guard down. And don’t ever underestimate ‘em.” Madoc halted several paces shy of a white flag tied to the thick rope railing. “I’ll talk, and we’ll leave as quick as possible.”

Kaia nodded and glanced over her shoulder at the two other soldiers once more, wondering if Klaus stood unseen behind them. But what good could he be back there on such a narrow bridge?

Facing forward again, her gaze caught on the hulking warrior now standing at the white marker, and she got her first good look at a Rastgol. He stood at least two heads taller than her, the torch in his meaty hand illuminating his ruddy, freckled scalp. Small sharpened bones pierced his earlobes and hung around his neck and ankles. Dark brown eyes glared from heavy eyebrows, and muscles bulged from every inch of his body underneath the furred hide of his armor. His bulk took up nearly the entirety of the rope bridge, hiding his companions behind him. But perhaps the most striking thing about him was the legion of scars that marked every inch of his exposed skin. The small white strikes covered his cheeks, forehead, neck, and even the backs of his fingers.

This man was a killer.

And he was proud of it.

“My name’s Madoc, Cap’n of the Western Guard,” Madoc called out. “What do ya wish to discuss?”

The Rastgol’s words were slow but clear as a mountain stream, fanged with the sharp burr of a strange accent. “To offer you t’safety from our god-pleasing raids.”

Kaia cocked her head. He wished to discuss peace? That didn’t sound like the war-hungering barbarians Madoc had described.

Madoc laid a hand on the hilt of his sword. “In exchange fer what?”

The Rastgol’s gaze slid to Kaia. “We want t’fire-bringer.”

Kaia tensed, biting her lip. They must have seen her blaze at the village yesterday. But why would they want her?

“She’s not fer bargaining,” Madoc replied calmly.

“Of course, you would t’say that.” The Rastgol reached behind him and yanked their two hostages forward.

Nausea roiled in Kaia’s belly at the sight of them—a boy and a girl only a few years younger than her, their hands bound behind them. They stared at the ground, shaking in the Rastgol’s shadow, their angular bodies sharpened with obvious starvation.

“Would you prefer t’slaves in exchange instead? These t’are but a sampling. You could name your number.”

“She’s not fer bargaining,” Madoc said again.

“Ah, but t’perhaps she is not so selfish?” The Rastgol turned his ice-chip gaze to Kaia. “What of it, Fire-bringer? Would you t’like to save twenty lives? That would t’please your god, no?”

Madoc turned to her, everything about him relaxed, as if they were bartering for trinkets at a summer market instead of lives in the dark of night. “They’re gonna try to drink yer blood to get yer Dragon fire.” He gestured to the bones hanging from the Rastgol’s neck. “And he might even wear yer finger bones around fer good luck.”

She looked at the children trembling in front of her with hollow eyes, and Mackie’s dead body blazed through her mind. Mogens brandishing her father’s mutilated face in a similar bargain flashed through her thoughts. From behind her, Klaus’ invisible hand squeezed her wrist. She’d been a fool once, but she would not make the same mistake twice.

Kaia swallowed, sweat beading on her temple. “I will not go.”

The Rastgol nodded. “We will have you t’one way or the other. But since these slaves are not worth t’saving…” The Rastgol raised his foot and planted it on the boy’s back, pinning him to the bridge. “I suppose it is t’best to be rid of them.”

With that, he took his torch and dug it into the boy’s back. The boy’s tortured squeal shattered the night air, turning Kaia’s blood to ice. “Stop!” Kaia stepped forward, but Madoc grabbed her shoulder even as Klaus’ hand tightened on her other wrist. The scent of burning flesh assaulted her senses, and her jaw clenched. They couldn’t just stand by and do nothing.

The Rastgol lifted the torch, but the boy continued to scream in agony. “Ah, did you have a change of t’heart?”

Before Kaia could find her words, Madoc answered instead, “If that’s all ya wanted to discuss, this parley’s over.” Madoc took a step backward, pulling Kaia along with him, his eyes never leaving the Rastgol.

The Rastgol cocked his head. “So t’is.” Lifting his huge booted foot, he brought it down on the boy’s neck with a crunch. “Then let t’blood flow.”

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!

Burning Shadows: Chapter Two


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!