The First Fight: Chapter Four

the first fight

I’ll probably be renaming this short story “Orla.” Once completed, it’ll be available as a bonus story for anyone who downloads Hal or the virtual ‘box set’ of the duellist series.

For now, however, it’s very much a work in progress. The full version of this chapter is available on Wattpad here:

https://www.wattpad.com/572282857-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story-chapter-four

And below is a short excerpt from this chapter:

 

***

 

“You can’t escape your own beauty, Hal.” Guiding her to the floor, Orla bent down and kissed her. “It’s in every fibre of your being: in your muscles and your skin. In the way you incline your neck or in the way you walk. It’s written in the creases of your eyes.”

“Stop it!”

Orla gazed down at her with grave, green eyes. “I  mean it.” She straightened up and looked away. “My battalion leaves tonight.”

Something held Hal pinned to the floor, too stunned to move: a deep, sudden, desperate thirst for Orla coupled with the slightest, finest breath of relief. Disturbed, she pulled herself upright. “Where?”

“To Yegdan. To the southern provinces. To fight for the Emperor in his glorious war.” Her voice trailed irony. “To reclaim land for the empire from the desert and citizens from its people. It’s a different world down there, though.” She closed her eyes, fastening back her braids as she remembered. “We sleep beneath vast skies, wake to bird call and the wilderness. It…it helps a woman understand herself, it reveals her to herself, Hal.” She seized Hal’s hands suddenly, squeezing them in her own. “Come with me. We’ll fight together, train, eat, sleep. You’ll be free…free of Colvé, of the court and the city with its prying eyes and wagging tongues.”

Hal bit her lip, working at it nervously. She’d always wanted freedom, it was true. Always dreamed of releasing herself from the limits which life imposed. But was that what Orla was offering her? Would she really let Hal follow her own path and walk away, if she chose to, into those vast nights? And besides, there was nothing about strict military discipline, about the blind following of rules and orders which appealed to Hal.

She let go of Orla’s hands. “I can’t.”

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Hal: The First Fight

the first fight

Hal is young, naive and hungry for adventure: a former ward of the imperial court who has exchanged aristocratic privilege for the life of a professional duellist. A chance encounter with a thief leads her into the dangerous underworld of Riverside, and to Orla – a battle-weary soldier. Passions flare as summer heat bakes the city streets. But Orla is fierce and possessive in her love. Will Hal survive it? Find out in The First Fight, a short story…

OK so slight alteration to my plans with regard to The First Fight: I am publishing the first chapter on Wattpad, and you can now read that here:

https://www.wattpad.com/story/145657002-hal-the-first-fight-a-short-story

However, I decided – for the time being – against publishing it on my blog. This is because WordPress require that mature content be reported as such, which would then severely curtail what I could do with my blog in terms of appearing on reader lists etc. As I’m aware of the sensitivity surrounding this issue, I decided to make it exclusive to Wattpad – for the time being. I expect to publish it elsewhere and in other forms in the future.

The story will be somewhat darker and will have  more erotic content than anything else I’ve ever written. This is not a direction I’m taking in general with my writing – it just seemed to fit the mood of this piece.

If you’d like to get an idea of what it’s like – and the first two chapters will be pretty mild – then I’ve posted a sample below.

***

“Duellist, eh?” Orla stretched her arms along the backrest of the bench, and folded her right boot over her left knee. The languid drawl of her voice, the way she took up space as if it were owed to her – it all came across as a kind of challenge. “On the Circle? With the men?” her eyes hinted at contempt.

Hal swallowed, unsure of how much care she should take: of whether to answer the implied insult with her own, or to bite back her words. “Yes,” she said, steadying her voice. “Accounted one of the best.” Unaccustomed to self-praise, she downed a hurried mouthful of ale.

“Ha!” Orla barked. “Duellists. Players. Actors. Entertainers.” And the look she threw at Hal was a clear challenge.

This time, Hal struggled to hold back the irritation which pressed against her sides, struggling for release. “What do you mean?”

She caught the anxious glance which passed between Jools and Kris but ignored it, transfixed by Orla’s cool, contemptuous gaze.

“I mean that’s what it is. A show. If you want to prove your mettle, duellist…if you want to show me you can really fight, come down to the barracks. I’ll give you a duel which will have you running back to your duelling master in tears.”

So she was a soldier. “Why would I want to prove anything to you?” She leaned forward, her heart racing. Something about this whole exchange had shifted or altered: she felt the change but couldn’t place it. And in the slight gestures that Orla now made: in the way her shoulders shifted and the fine muscles of her cheeks flexed…in the way her eyes hinted almost at a kind of hunger, she knew that the soldier sensed it too.

“You’re right.” Orla pulled out a slim clay pipe, dangling it from her lips as she hit strike to flint and lit it. She closed her eyes, drawing down a mouthful of smoke which she exhaled directly at Hal. “You don’t need to prove anything to me. But to yourself? Now that’s another matter.”

Silence balanced between them as Orla smiled, waiting for her words to hit home, and Hal fought against the urge to lunge: to seize the soldier by her shoulders and shake her. They’d only just met and here she was goading, pressing, prying: with no true knowledge of who Hal was or the decisions she’d made, the risks she’d taken.

 

Writing updates – The First Fight

Just a heads up to let people know – I had an idea for a short story which might work as a kind of mini prequel to Hal. It will focus on Hal and on her stormy relationship with Orla so it’s going to be a lot darker and probably – warning – more of an erotic piece than any of the other things I’ve written in the series.

If you like the sound of that, I’ll be posting it here on my blog in (hopefully) weekly installments and also on Wattpad. So watch out for part one of The First Fight this week!

alley-architecture-buildings-246316

Release of The Duellist Trilogy

I think I started writing Hal around 2012 and I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. I knew there was a story there, but I largely wrote for my own entertainment. And as I had a lot of other commitments at the time, I ended up stuffing the thing in a drawer and doing my best to forget about it.

It was only when I discovered the online writing platform Wattpad that I decided it might at least be fun to share Hal with a few other people. And it was a really pleasant surprise when I received some positive feedback, constructive criticism and encouragement. So I thought, what the hell? I’ll carry on writing.

Both Hal and Hannac would have stayed on Wattpad, however, were it not for the help of Rob May (author of the Dragon Killer Series) who set up Firebound Books together with two other independent writers – T J Garrett and Matthew Olney. Rob suggested publishing the books through Amazon, and although I was initially sceptical about the idea, I decided to give it a go. I’m enormously grateful to Rob and Firebound for all that support. With hindsight, I now realise that there was nothing to worry about, and the books have now reached a much wider readership than they had on Wattpad. Publishing on Amazon has given me the push I needed to keep going. I’m now in the process of writing the second part of the Artist Enchanters series (The Fresco and the Fountain) and I’ve got ideas for several other future projects.

The internet has really changed the way people write fiction. I see it very much as a collaborative process, and I’ve changed quite a few of my ideas as a result of readers’ suggestions. In fact, I almost see writing online as akin to the old oral traditions of storytelling in which the narrative might alter with each retelling, or listeners might offer their own ideas which would be incorporated into the plot. This is really what writing on line has given me – the opportunity to learn, to grow and develop as an author and to respond to readers’ suggestions in a way I’d never have been able to do in a traditional context. Add to that all the possibilities for engagement through social media and sites like goodreads or Wattpad, and the idea of writing as a solitary process goes out the window. I feel I have a long, long way to go as a novelist, but I am certain that the interaction I’ve enjoyed with other authors and readers has helped to get me to the stage where I’m now writing my fifth book.

So this is a long-winded way of saying thanks to everyone who’s helped me, whether it was through reading and commenting on Wattpad, helping me with the technical aspects of publishing, buying my work on Amazon or engaging on social media. I am absolutely certain that were it not for that kind of support, I wouldn’t be releasing The Duellist Trilogy today.

Hal – Sample Chapter

A Sample Chapter  of Hal – “Books.” Complete with Hal’s sexy new cover.

Hal Dryad Fantasy Kindle Cover

Books

“Was this the book you requested, Miss Léac?”

The librarian craned down at Meracad from his ladder, swaying beneath the dusty weight of a leather-bound volume. Standing on tiptoes, she studied the engraving on its spine: The Imperial Chronicles, Volume Two.

“Yes. That’s it. Thank you.”

He staggered down the rungs, laying it with reverence upon the reading desk. “Are you certain that you wish to read this?” Grey-flecked eyebrows shot up above a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles.

“And why not?” Her voice echoed around the silent, empty vault of the reading room.

“It is not common reading matter for young ladies, Miss Léac.”

“And who would it be common reading matter for, then?” Try as she might, she could not quite keep the defensive note out of her voice.

He shrugged. “Senators, courtiers…”

“I wish to know how my ancestors lived, Sir. How our empire came into being…why Colvé was built.”

The librarian raised a bony, nervous hand to his thinning hair, patting down a few loose strands. “Of course, Miss Léac. An admirable pursuit, if I might say so. Now I really must be…” he gazed around absently as if he had forgotten what he ought to be doing. “I must get back to my work.”

She sat down and began to leaf through The Chronicles, inhaling the delicate, woody scent of ancient parchment. She disturbed him: she could see it in his milky, half-seeing eyes. Every time she entered the library he studied her, followed her, interrogated her with stammering questions about her choice of reading material. Would she not, perhaps, prefer some courtly romance? That was what the young ladies craved these days. Or Mistress Egré’s latest guide to etiquette. He was not, after all, certain that Master Léac would approve of her choice of books.

Meracad stifled a sigh, pressing down a time-stained page to reveal a fresh chapter in the empire’s glorious history. Would he pass on details of her reading habits to her father, she wondered? Would she now find herself forbidden to enter the library? Colvé was a maze. She ran along its avenues, only to find them sealed.

“I thought it was you.” The voice pulled her from a world of battles and sieges and back into the cool, musty reality of the library. Frowning, she raised her head and stared at Hal Thæc who had planted herself on the opposite side of the desk.

“I’m sorry,” Meracad said, her fingers fidgeting with the edges of the parchment. “I didn’t see you.”

Hal Thæc offered her a lop-sided grin in response. “Must be a good book.”

“It is – The Imperial Chronicles.”

The Chronicles?” Hal feigned a yawn. “They made us read some of those when I was a ward.”

“You didn’t enjoy them, I take it?”

“Well I wouldn’t read them out of choice.”

Meracad closed the book, running her fingers along the impressions upon its spine. “So if you’re not fond of reading, what are you doing in a library?”

Folding her hands behind her head, Hal leant against the backrest of the chair. “It’s cool in here.” Her blue eyes danced with irony. “And it’s hot out there.”

Meracad smiled in spite of herself. The duellist appeared calmer, less frantic than she had done a few days before at Remigius’s party. Cropped, coal-black hair threw the paleness of her skin into relief. Her long-limbed, wiry frame was wrapped in leather vest and trousers.

“The public baths are the place to cool off, I believe,” Meracad said.

“I’ve tried them. They’re full of courtiers.”

“Oh yes. I’d heard you had an aversion to courtiers.”

Hal leant forward, her bare arms forming a frame upon which to rest her chin. “Really? Who told you that?”

The conversation was already sliding into treacherous terrain. Meracad shrugged. “I thought it was common knowledge. You left the court because you couldn’t stand it.”

“I left the court in order to duel.”

The librarian limped forward, hobnails clipping on the polished marble of the floor. Hal raised her head, acknowledging him, Meracad noticed, with a provocative grin.

“Mistress Thæc,” the old man began, “you seem to be making a habit of turning the library into your own private forum.”

“I was sharing my appreciation of The Chronicles with Miss Léac,” she replied, her voice low and lazy.

“Miss Léac’s devotion to the library is admirable. She comes here to read!”

“Miss Léac is to be admired, I agree.”

The librarian turned on his heel and stamped away, fuming. Meracad grew uncomfortably aware of the blush which now worked its way up her neck, and of Hal’s steady gaze.

The duellist leant forward as if conspiring against the librarian. “Why do you love to read so much?” She asked, tapping a finger upon the cover of The Chronicles. Meracad smiled, sensing that the conversation was back on safer ground.

“To take myself beyond this cess-pit of a city.”

The duellist’s eyes rounded in surprise. “You hate it so much?”

Meracad felt her pulse quicken. No one, she had learnt, was to be trusted ─ not maids, dancing tutors, librarians, servants. Not senators, courtiers or her father’s fellow merchants. Gossip ran rife as plague around the city. A single word whispered in a moment of forgetfulness would work its way back to her father’s house. So why did she now find herself so desperate to reveal it all ─ all the misery and frustration ─ to this strange woman?

“Don’t all prisoners hate their cells?” The words slipped out as if on their own accord. And once out, they couldn’t be unsaid.

Hal’s sharp features softened, the easy smile dropped from her face, she ran her fingers through her hair. “Your prison is in here, Meracad.” She put her fingertips to her temples. “Within, not without.”

“Easy for you to say.”

“Why easy? We live in the same city, don’t we? We’re bound by the same rules.”

“Not you. You’re of noble birth. Your privileges are assumed ─ were assumed until you left court. My father clawed his way up to wealth and position. He expects my appreciation ─ he demands my respect.”

The smile returned to Hal’s lips. She stretched with fluid grace. “So you’ll simply do as you’re told then? Lie to yourself that these books offer you freedom, however fake that freedom really is? You’ll marry who you’re told to marry and move from one prison to the next?”

“It might get better.”

“It won’t.”

The librarian was hurrying towards them again, huffing and snorting like a small, irate dragon.

“Miss Thæc, I must ask you to leave! This is a library, not a public house.”

“Well I’m certain Miss Léac would never find herself in a public house,” Hal drawled.

Meracad glared at her, resenting the jibe, wishing Hal gone and at the same time willing her to stay.

Hal rose but kept both hands flat on the desk as she stared down at the merchant’s daughter, her eyes flecked with a cool arrogance. The librarian put a hand to her arm, guiding her away.

“I don’t expect to see you in here soon, Miss Thæc.”

“I don’t expect to return. But if Miss Léac wishes to discuss the empire’s history with me some more, she knows where to find me.”

“Why would I want to find you?” Meracad called out to Hal’s departing back.

The duellist turned round and shrugged. “I have no idea.”

The doors opened, rays of sun channelling through the library’s dusty haze, and for a moment Meracad saw Hal’s sleek form silhouetted against the light. Then the doors slammed shut and all was silence.

“My apologies, Miss Léac.” The librarian bustled forward once more, smoothing his hands down his apron as if to wipe them clean. “The woman knows no bounds, it would seem.”

“No, Sir. She doesn’t,” murmured Meracad, gnawing on a nail. A sudden wave of disappointment descended upon her, like clouds cancelling out a sunny day. The Imperial Chronicles no longer seemed a haven of romance and adventure to which she might escape. Grimacing, she pushed the volume back towards the librarian. “My father will be expecting me. I had better go.”

“Should I keep the book for your return?” His gaze was, she felt, just a little too intrusive.

“No, Sir. That won’t be necessary.”

Meracad threaded her way between the reading desks, eager to escape the suffocating gloom of the library. What had appeared a place of refuge now seemed just one more closed avenue of the maze, an illusion of freedom. Pushing open the door she lost herself amongst the dizzying play of courtiers, merchants, street-hawkers, of children, senators and thieves, the heat so intense it carried almost solid weight. She peered up and down the street but the duellist had disappeared. Biting her lip, Meracad set off in the direction of home, confused and alone.

Hal is available on Amazon: http://geni.us/B00TQCH4VQ/

Extract from Leda – Book 3 of The Duellist Series

I was just writing this scene and realised it works quite well as a stand alone piece. Basically it’s a monologue told from the perspective of Castor, chief villain of the story as he is crowned Emperor. But I think it also reveals some of the major tensions in ‘Leda’. I’m serialising the novel over on Wattpad at the moment. The first parts are available on Amazon.

 http://www.wattpad.com/story/85174329-leda-part-three-of-the-duellist-trilogy

Around him went the priests, swinging thuribles of incense on long brass chains. On the verge of choking, Castor squeezed his lips together, refusing to submit to weakness at this most symbolic of moments. His eyes watered, he held his breath…it was no good. Air starved, he glared up at the temple guardian who circled the throne once more, his beard coiling to his waist, a long, brown swathe of plaited hair snaking down his back. The man’s eyes were sharp with zeal, his voice reverent and low as he muttered incantations, prayers to the spirits, Diodiné now seated amongst their highest ranks. But it was no good appealing to a fanatic like the guardian, Castor realised. Without the incense and invocations, without the vigils, the holy water and oil, Castor could not be Emperor. All of it mattered – every last detail of this painful process. For there could be no question – no single doubt in the people’s minds that he was their ruler.

This was the moment which would end all the gossip, the slander and the lies. For he, and only he was the rightful heir to Colvé, the North, the eastern seaboard, Brennac and the vales and mountains of the West. Even Yegdan and those barbarians would come to understand that soon. He, Castor, third of…it was no good. He had to breathe. He couldn’t stand it any longer. If only that idiot would give up his droning for a moment, would put his stinking incense aside…but it was too late.

Castor coughed into the back of his gloved hand, and found he could not stop. Tears ran down his face, coursing a path through the white powder on his cheeks. When he sealed his lips, his lungs seemed to spasm and flare, birthing yet another cough, until he was crumpled and wheezing, the wide eyes of the court turned upon him, and the temple guardian apparently oblivious to the torture he was inducing in his Emperor.

At last the droning stopped, the incense was set aside and the air began to clear, revealing Castor bent double, shaking and gasping for breath. Once his coughing fit had subsided, he managed at last to sit upright. Was somebody laughing? He listened hard. The priest droned on, his words echoing out into the temple’s stillness. Castor was almost certain now that his future subjects were smirking at him. But who? Who amongst this throng of people could he trust? Who could he not?

To the fore sat his immediate family – his mother, too mad to even care if he were emperor or ironmonger now. She stared lifelessly ahead, her eyes a pale, blank blue, her lips curled up into their habitual smile as she whispered to herself in half remembered words. And his aunt Evelia, fat and sweaty in her black mourning garb. An old traitress who’d hung on her dead husband’s every word and had whispered against Castor in the corridors of the palace with the old court cronies she called her friends. Soon to join Diodiné, if there were any justice. No wonder her private guard accompanied her everywhere – that Brighthair woman – freakishly tall and powerful of build, with cropped auburn hair and a sword swinging from her belt. A former duellist, he’d heard, now retired into court livery and a handsome salary drawn right out of the palace coffers. Well, she’d be losing both once the old bitch had gone the way of her husband.
And beside them, Josen. Could he trust his brother? Did he trust his brother? Castor prickled with unease. Of course he didn’t. Trust a man who befriended scoundrels like Degaré of Dal Reniac and his two thieving accomplices? Who spent his nights amongst the dregs of Riverside stirring up who knew what trouble, and his days fraternising with Senators who ought to know their place? And of course, loved by every woman from the palace to the city walls for his lazy good looks: that head of thick golden hair and those sky blue eyes which spoke charm but hinted deceit. But Josen would know that even a Prince’s neck would fit a noose given enough time.

The guardian was returning, this time with a casket of holy oil. Castor closed his eyes. Just one more ritual; one step closer to confirmation of his absolute power, a power invested in him by the ancestors themselves. He felt the guardian’s thumb slide down his forehead, slick and warm, leaving a trail of the precious substance which dripped down onto the tip of his nose. That added to his discomfort. He wanted to wipe it away, but knew that to do so would be to annul the entire ceremony. And there could be no risk of that – no risk of uncertainty. Not when so many of those now gathered in the temple today had once questioned Castor’s right to the throne.

He opened his eyes, picking them out one by one. There, for example, half hidden behind that column was the Senator, Tobiac Treniac, who had championed the senate’s rule in the absence of a direct imperial heir. Half his thin, rat-like face was shielded by stone, the other watchful – nervous. And with good reason.  And then towards the rear of the temple was the Westerner, Lord Roc, who had declared that his own son had a greater claim to the throne than Castor – some nonsense about imperial forebears. Surely, Castor thought with a grim, inward laugh, a headless son lacks all legitimacy? And then…

His eyes fell upon a strange group, also huddled like conspirators at the back. He made out the frail frame of Senator Marc Remigius, his gnarled old hands wrapped around an intricately carved walking stick. Remigius had been Castellan of Dal Reniac for some time, until the city could be handed over to…Castor started. That must be her. He hadn’t laid eyes on her for, perhaps twelve years. She had been a child then. Now, she was a woman grown – weather tanned like other northerners, but slim and lithe as a young colt or cat. A mass of dark curls tumbled down her back, and her grey eyes were sharp and intelligent. Well, her father had been Bruno Nérac after all: a true descendant of emperors, not like Roc’s jumped up little pretender. Was it possible that her grandfather had been a mere merchant? For there was nothing workaday or vulgar about Leda Nérac. She was an aristocrat – a thoroughbred. Blue of blood and … his pulse quickening, his gaze fell on the two other members of her little entourage. That must be the mother – a good looking woman too. Waifish in build, she wore a simple dress of green satin, her hair threaded through an intricate series of loops and plaits. His attention slid from Meracad to Leda and back again. Wife? Mother-in-law? would it…could it work? Had Josen been right after all? In one brilliant move to control the North, to bring it to heel without the need or expense of war and to suppress all those doubts? For surely no one, not even Roc would dare question his own claim to the throne when it was tied to the Nérac dynasty. No one except…

She was there too. For that must be her. What other woman would have the arrogance to attend her coronation in such attire? He clenched and flexed his fingers. Bastard born and dressed like a man in a great coat and trousers, her hair tied back to reveal a gaunt, almost hawkish face.

The descendant of a rebel and a known whore. A woman who would certainly corrupt Leda Nérac if she had not done so already, who might even seek, through Nérac, her own influence and power. Diodiné had sought to marry Leda to Castor when she came of age, but Hannac and her ‘wife’ had opposed it. How dare they! And how could his Uncle have backed down? Another example of his weakness.

The plaited fool was back again, this time bearing the crown. Once again, Castor closed his eyes. This time, no one would force him to remove that golden circlet from his head, no one could take this honour from him. He rose, the court rising with him, cheering and applauding. He looked over their heads and caught Hannac’s eye. With arms folded and insolent eyes, she stared back. No one.

 

Hal is back on Wattpad!

As I’m currently writing Leda, I decided to repost Hal on Wattpad so that readers have a chance to catch up with the original book. Both Hal and Hannac are, of course, still available on Amazon. But if you fancy a FREE read, then check this out:

https://www.wattpad.com/story/4265211-hal

Hal cover

Leda – an extract

An extract from Part Three of ‘The Duellist’ series, Leda.

If you haven’t had chance to take a look at the first two parts, Hal (part one) is currently on sale on Amazon, so now’s the chance!

2309

Halfway up the stairs, Meracad stopped, raised her candle and listened. No sound other than the wind as it channelled downwards, fluting through chinks around the window panes. Hannac was asleep: every last tenant, servant, child and animal, snoring out the night in beds or on benches, some curled up before the dying embers of the hearth or curled around each other for warmth. Yes, everyone was asleep. Well, almost everyone.

Caught by another chill current of air, the candle flame guttered and died, leaving her stranded in absolute darkness. She sighed, set down her light, and then felt her way on upwards, hands outstretched, fingers tracing the rough stonework of the walls.

She knew when she was at the top though, for a dull, amberish light flickered out beneath a door frame. Meracad knocked twice, and then pressed her ear to the wood. Nothing. Not a sound. She pressed down the handle and stepped inside.

A few candles, burnt almost to their wicks, lit up the cramped space which had once served as Franc Hannac’s private chamber. Now his daughter sat at the same desk, which was littered with ledgers, parchment, half empty inkwells and quills. Splintered by the diamond shaped mullions of the windows, moonlight filtered in, casting a silvery trail upon the floorboards. And it was freezing: so cold that Meracad instinctively drew her shawl more tightly around her shoulders.

Hal looked up, her eyes ringed with shadow. She grew paler every day, Meracad observed, worn down with care for her tenants, her face gaunt and sharp. Her hair hung, loose and unkempt to her shoulders, now peppered with an occasional skein of grey. And her only concession to the cold was the greatcoat which now seemed loose and somehow too big for her: more of a shroud than a garment.

“Hal, come to bed.” Her heart heavy, Meracad edged around the desk and slid her arms around Hal’s shoulders.

Hal shook her head. “I can’t.”

“It’s too late to think about this now.” Sliding a stray lock of hair behind Hal’s ear, Meracad kissed her head. “Look at it in the morning. With fresh eyes. You may find a way.”

“There is no way!” Her voice was hoarse, angry and tired. “If we send tithes to Colvé and Dal Reniac, as we must do, then everything will be gone. All that’s left. We were so careless, Meracad. So wasteful.”

“But Leda doesn’t need our tithes! Marc made sure Dal Reniac was well supplied with grain before he returned to Colvé.”

“As I failed to do.”

“Hal!” This was an argument they had had many times over the last few days and weeks. Meracad was beginning to tire of it.  “You have done everything you could have done.”
“Franc wouldn’t have let his people starve.”

“And neither will you.” Turning to the window, Meracad peered down into the empty, moonlit courtyard. Hal was wrong. Of course, they had not anticipated such a weak harvest. But by all accounts, this was the worst in living memory. First had come a winter so harsh it had transformed the fields to icy wastes, had frozen men and women to the very ground upon which they stood. And when spring arrived at last, it brought no relief: no sun to thaw out the land or warmer winds. Instead, it ushered in a season of cold rain, which pooled in the furrows and upon the meadows. The few seedlings which pushed through the surface drowned, their leaves rotting where they lay. And seeing that, the tenant farmers had ridden back to Hannac, their faces worn with worry, their eyes betraying their fears. Because soon, they said, all that would  be left was last year’s grain stock. And then the draft animals. And then? They spread wide their hands, shrugged and sat hunched in corners, rain dripping from their hats and cloaks.

“Hal, we still have stocks left. There are beets in the cellars, salted meat…”

“Not enough!” Hal groaned, rubbing at her forehead with ink stained hands. “And if this isn’t the first such harvest? Arec told me his great grandfather endured such a famine for three years! Half his family died, Meracad. They ate everything – all the animals. They were foraging for grass and roots towards the end!”

“It won’t happen.”

“Oh, you know that, do you?” She slapped a palm down on the leather cover of a ledger. Meracad jumped. “I know exactly what we have, Meracad. It’s all in here…in these books and papers. We may last to the next spring if we are very careful. But we will go hungry, and some of us…” she sank her face in her hands. “Some of us will not survive.”

Wind rattled the casement: the candles spluttered, the flames bowing low, almost dying. Meracad put her hands to Hal’s and peeled her fingers from her face. Her skin felt like ice. “And you won’t do them any good without sleep, Hal. Come to bed.”

“No! Sleep if you wish.” Hal jerked her way free of Meracad’s touch and folded her arms. “I have to think!”

“You won’t help anyone by punishing yourself like this.”

“Meracad! Please!”

Meracad turned, slamming the door in frustration as she left the chamber. Hannac had become a very lonely place since Leda left for Dal Reniac and Hal had begun to wear herself to death with worry. She felt her way back down the stairs. It was not that she didn’t fear for the future too. She saw desperation in the tenants’ eyes. And there had been no word from Dal Reniac for two weeks. What if, in spite of Marc’s precautions, the city was about to starve too? Leda was so young and inexperienced. But Hal’s silence, her coldness – that was no solution. It were as if she had retreated into herself, like a crab into its shell. This wasn’t the Hal she knew or loved, who filled Hannac with her frenetic energy, her mad, impulsive ideas, her zest for life.

Burning brands lit the corridor below. Grateful for the light, Meracad passed along it to the bedroom and sank down amongst layers of blankets and furs, warmth creeping back into her frozen fingers. She lay for sometime, aware always of the empty space beside her, and of the wind moaning outside. And she thought of Hal, alone upstairs, straining as she peered at the words and numbers in her ledgers, trying to balance them.

When Meracad opened her eyes again, a pale, weak light was struggling through the drapes. She must have fallen asleep, but recalled no dreams, and her head swam with tiredness. The bed was still empty.

Her limbs felt stiff and cold as she rose, wrapped her shawl around her shoulders and padded barefoot  back up the stairs, aware of Hannac now stirring into life, of mutterings and murmurs floating up from the great hall and courtyard. This time, she didn’t knock. Pressing down the handle, Meracad slid quietly into the chamber, and sighed. As she had expected, Hal now slept, slumped across the desk, her hair half covering her face. The candles had burnt themselves out, one having dripped wax onto the sleeve of her greatcoat.

“Perfect. If we don’t starve, we’ll burn.” Meracad almost succumbed to tears, but held them back. That wouldn’t help. Biting her lip, she edged around the desk and laid a hand on Hal’s shoulder, shaking her awake. “What were you thinking of, falling asleep up here with all these candles still alight?”

“Meracad?” Hal peeled herself off the desk and stared wildly around the room, as if it were the first time she’d seen it. At last she slipped her arms around Meracad’s waist, pulling her close.

“Hal.” It seemed ever harder to say the words. “We will survive.”

Leda – ‘The Duellist’ Part Three on Wattpad

The descendant of ancient emperors, Leda Nérac has finally come into her birthright: the wealthy northern city of Dal Reniac. Yet, power brings new responsibilities and dangers. Her distant cousin Castor has claimed the imperial throne, instigating a reign of terror. And famine stalks the Nests, forcing Hal and Meracad to sacrifice all that they hold dear. Will Leda be strong enough to return peace to these troubled lands? Find out in Leda, the final part of The Duellist Trilogy.

http://www.wattpad.com/myworks/85174329-leda-part-three-of-the-duellist-trilogy

 

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Finally, Hal’s back! I’ve started publishing the final part of ‘The Duellist’ trilogy on Wattpad, and of course, once it’s complete and edited, it will be available on Amazon. So here’s the prologue to whet your appetite.

Hal and Hannac are both currently available on Amazon:

Hal: http://geni.us/B00TQCH4VQ/

Hannac: http://geni.us/B00U4W40LY/

 

PROLOGUE: A HOOP OF GOLD

The air was heavy, stale and scented sweetly with death. Sodden with sweat, Castor’s silken shirt and breeches stuck to his chest and thighs. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. This was all so unbearable. Why wouldn’t the old bastard just admit defeat? Diodiné seemed intent on clinging to life as he had clung to his throne. Drawing in each last breath with hoarse, desperate rasps, the Emperor’s withered frame shivered beneath mounds of quilts and blankets as he coughed and wheezed but would not, the spirits damn him, die.

Half curious, half revulsed, Castor stretched out a hand and touched his Uncle’s forehead. The old man’s skin was as rough as leather, as chill as the marble floors of the palace, and filmed with sweat. Recoiling, Castor wiped his fingers on his shirt and rose.

It was far too humble a room for such a royal man to die in, with its plain, whitewashed walls and pallet bed, its stained carpet and threadbare drapes which let in a slim sliver of moonlight. But then that was how Diodiné had chosen to die, having caught, in his final fever, a religious zeal that he had singly lacked in life. On the promise of a seat amongst the demigods, the Emperor had displayed a sudden hatred of luxury: of the court and all its trappings, of grand salons and lush gardens. Instead, he had withdrawn to a mere cell: a forgotten room in a forgotten wing of the palace, admitting no one to his bedside. No one but that wretched bunch of priests who turned up once a day to choke the air with incense, and chant dirges over his fading frame. That was before Castor had reminded his Uncle’s would be guardians that Diodiné having one foot in the grave meant that his nephew had one buttock on the throne. Their resistance crumbled. He cajoled, he threatened: they let him in. Too weak to protest, Diodiné was forced to endure his presence. And so Castor’s lonely bedside vigil was fused with the sweetness of revenge. Because all his Uncle’s sly, dry insults, the half-muttered barbs, the raised eyebrows, smirks and withering looks – they still cut and wounded. But those harsh words and disdain would die along with Diodiné. And then, rising like a new sun over a corrupt, cankered empire, he, Castor, would usher in a fresh era of greatness.

Diodiné had tolerated dissent, had allowed feuds to fester like open wounds, had played off one noble house against the next, granting concessions, fraternising where he should have ruled. But no such decadence would stain the reign of Castor, third of that name. The entire empire would jump to his command, from the lowliest crofter to the most powerful of nobles. He would expand its borders, would bring the Yegdanian barbarians to heel at last, would finally extract true fealty from the North…

A long, racking, phlegm-inflected cough issued from the bed. Irritated, his reverie of power and greatness shattered, Castor paced the room once again before stopping beside an alcove. A crystal decanter and goblet rested on a shelf in its shadows: a treasure he’d smuggled in when the priests’ backs were turned. Well, he was a man after all: could hardly be expected to endure such grief without some kind of balm for his nerves.

But as he reached for the glass, his knuckles brushed against something else which lay, tucked away in the shadows on the shelf. Something cold to the touch and hard. He prised it from its hiding place and held it to the light: a slim circlet of gold-forged laurel leaves. For all his rejection of worldly needs, Diodiné had clearly failed to part with his crown.

Castor stepped back into the room, turning the burnished coil over and over in his hands, imagining all the imperial heads upon which it had rested. And now it was almost his! Just a single breath was all that rested between him and greatness: a final, fading heart beat, a slow glazing of the eyes. So close! And that being the case, how could it hurt?

Closing his eyes, he indulged in the mental image of his coronation: the nobility gathered on one side of the imperial temple, senators on the other. His mother, brother and the soon to be dowager Empress, his aunt, seated at their head, watching proudly. The streets of Colvé thronged with cheering crowds…solemnly, slowly, he lowered the crown upon his own head.

“I’m not dead yet, you know, boy.”

Castor froze, his hands still raised to his forehead, a yelp of surprise and irritation catching in his throat. He slipped the crown off with furious haste, stowing it back on its shelf in the alcove.

“I know that, Uncle,” he said, smiling so tight it hurt. He inched back towards the bed, bent over and peered with feigned concern into Diodiné’s rheum-ridden eyes.

“Then why were you playing Emperor?”

“I don’t know what you mean, Sir.”

“You know very well what you were doing. And it’s still not too late to unmake you my heir.” The words came out as if from some old squeeze box, accompanied with wheezes and rasps. “Your brother Josen has twice your intelligence and charm. Your only saving grace is that you’re a year older than him.”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

There they were. Hovering on death’s threshold, those little cuts and barbs still slipped out. Almost as if his dying wish was to strip his nephew of all self-respect: to gnaw away at his ambition until he formally renounced his claim and passed his entire birthright onto his brother. And in the past, Diodiné might have succeeded in shaking Castor’s resolve. Now, his insults only served to strengthen it. He dropped to one knee at the old man’s side, leant forward, his lips almost brushing the Emperor’s ear. “No. You’re not dead yet, Uncle. But you will be. Soon.”

From distant corners of Colvé, the night bells rang out the late hour. Diodiné’s lips parted as he strained to reply. But what issued was a long series of spluttering coughs, each followed by a desperate bid for breath. Castor dabbed delicately at the blood and spittle which flecked his Uncle’s lips with a handkerchief. He was a patient man, after all. He could wait.