Work in Progress: Ashes and Light, week 2

Ashes and Light
Swords of Charlemagne, Book 3

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So, did Victorian men’s trousers have buttons or hooks at the waist?  That’s what stopped me tonight, and sent me running to the research rabbit hole.  (The answer? Buttons. They had buttons.)

 

Ashes and Light is coming along nicely. I’m into chapter 4, and I might have finished it if it hadn’t been for those darned buttons.  Heir to the Firstborn is also coming along nicely, and I’m finding that I have to leave it for my chaser — I get my words in for Ashes and Light, and then I get to play in Heir to the Firstborn.  Chapter 3 of Heir went live Friday night, and Chapter 4 is already scheduled for next Friday.

 

So, excerpt time. I’m going to throw one in for Heir to the Firstborn. Remember, the only way to get this in real time as I write it  is to support me on Patreon.

 

***

 

Prologue:

The Firstborn was dead.

Since the beginning, the tribes of Adavar had been ruled by the Firstborn, chosen by the Mother Goddess to take up the reins of power once held by Axia, firstborn daughter of the Goddess. It had only been five years since Tirine had ascended to the role of Firstborn, and her rule had been welcomed with great acclaim. She had been well-loved during her years as Heir to Firstborn Riga, showing herself to be a generous and loving person, a fair and impartial judge when necessary, and completely implacable in times of need. She’d stood as Heir for fifteen years, and throughout it all, her affection and respect for her people, her Council, and her Heir were clear to anyone who cared to look.

And now she was dead. Murdered, along with her Council.

It was unthinkable. Unimaginable. And yet….

If, perhaps, it could have been imagined, could even have been conceived of, then perhaps it could have been prevented. But the ritual to choose the Heir had been handed down since the beginning — each candidate entered Aixa’s crypt alone. Only the true Heir would find Aixa’s diadem. There had never before been one who dared to say the Goddess was wrong, and who then somehow managed to convince others to follow him and take up arms against the Firstborn. The very idea was absurd! And so there were no guards in the Palace, no precautions against attack. When Mannon and his men struck in the dark hours before dawn, there was no warning. By the time the sun rose, where once the halls of the Palace that overlooked the sea had been filled with light, the scent of flowers, and the sounds of laughter, now they were filled with smoke, the stench of blood, and the moans of the dying.

And the soft, repetitive swearing of a young woman leading a small group of survivors. There were four of them — the woman, who went before the others, and who was armed with a pair of hooked swords. Behind her were three young men — one of them was unconscious and covered in blood, and was being carried by the other two.

“There. The door isn’t broken. Check there,” she gestured toward a door. One of the young men surrendered his burden to the other and darted forward. He peered inside the room, then nodded.

“It’s empty. And the lock is intact. Mem, bring him in here.” He got out of the way as the other man carried their wounded friend inside, then closed and barred the door. He glanced at the woman, who nodded.

“Do what you can, Jehan,” she said softly. “I’ll guard.”

“You’re the only one armed,” Jehan replied, just as softly. “I’m not sure what I can do, Aleia.”

“Do something,” she said, her voice cracking slightly. He nodded and turned away, moving to kneel next to the other men.

“Jehan, tell me you can do something?” The one Jehan had called Mem whispered, his eyes never leaving the unnatural pallor of their wounded friend’s face.

“Let me see,” Jehan knelt next to the wounded man. He rested one hand on his chest, the other on his forehead, and closed his eyes, tried to push back the sick feeling of terror that had been near constant since the screams had woken him from a sound sleep. He had to focus. Milon needed him.

And they needed Milon. He was Firstborn now. They needed him to put everything right.

***

Aleia listened at the door, trying to force herself to relax. She could hear nothing outside the door, but she knew that meant nothing. She’d heard nothing before the screams started. She closed her eyes, feeling her stomach churn. The swords she held had been her mother’s, and her grandmother’s. The stories in her family said the swords had been made for their distant ancestor, Abin, the first Companion from the Water tribe. As far as Aleia knew, the swords had never been used against another person. Not until today.

She swallowed and looked over her shoulder. Jehan’s was in profile to her, his head bowed as he attempted to save Milon’s life. Memfis was across from him, but she knew the big man wasn’t seeing anything but Milon.
Milon. What weird currents had brought the Heir to the Firstborn to her mother’s canoe? What had made him choose her to wear the Water gem, out of all of her sisters, all of her cousins? She’d never thought to leave the sea, never thought that she’d ever live on land. Never thought she’d come to love anyone as much as she loved these men.

To lose Milon—

No. No, they were not going to lose Milon. Jehan was an excellent healer — all of his teachers said so. He hadn’t finished his training, but it was only another year. He’d put Milon to rights, and then…

And then what? She tensed as she heard shouting from the corridor, but the voices faded away after a moment, and she let out a shaky breath. What were they supposed to do now? She closed her eyes for a moment, trying to think.

To plan, the way she’d been taught.

First things first, they needed to get out of the Palace. They needed to get to safety. Where would be safe?
Someplace inaccessible to Mannon and his land-based troops. Which meant not the Earth tribe lands, nor the Fire tribe. They’d be safe with the Air tribe, but she doubted that they’d be able to get any further than the Solstice Fair village before they were taken.

That meant she needed to take them home with her, back to the sea. If they went out to the deep waters, Mannon would never find them. They could plan further, once they were safe. She nodded slowly, and looked back at the men. Memfis had taken Milon’s hand, and it had to be the angle, or the shadows.

Memfis couldn’t be crying.

“I don’t know what else I can do,” Jehan said, his voice just barely audible to Aleia. “Every time I fix something, two other things go wrong. At least two things. He needs a real healer, not a half-trained one!”

“You’re what we have, Jehan,” Memfis insisted.

“And I’m making it worse!” Jehan’s voice was filled with despair, and at the sound, Milon groaned. From where she stood, Aleia saw Jehan’s olive skin go ashen. But his voice was steady when he leaned over Milon. “Milon, easy. Don’t try to move.”

To Aleia’s shock, she heard a weak chuckle. “Not…” Milon wheezed. “Hurts… hurts too much. Block it? Please?”

Jehan licked his lips. Then he nodded. A moment later, Milon sighed. “Thank you. Mem?”

“I’m here,” Memfis said. He reached out and brushed back Milon’s dark hair. Milon smiled slightly. He blinked, looked up, and frowned.

“Oh. Here,” he murmured. “Mem, we’re here.”

“We’re where?” Memfis asked. Then he coughed. “No. No, we are not here. We’re not. You’re not leaving me, Milon.”

Milon coughed. “Saw it. Saw it in the smoke. You know.”

“No!”

“Don’t shout!” Aleia hissed. “They’ll hear you!”

“Aleia?” Milon raised his voice slightly. “C’mere, Guppy.”

Aleia left the door and joined the others, kneeling down and laying her swords aside so that she could lean over to kiss Milon’s forehead. “Don’t call me Guppy,” she whispered. She sat up and looked at Memfis. “What did he see?”

Memfis and Milon had known each other the longest — they’d been boys together in the Fire tribe city of Forge, training there to be prophetic Smoke Dancers. Milon’s visions had never been wrong. “What is he talking about?”

Memfis swallowed and blinked, his pale amber eyes filling again with tears. “His death. It’s one of the first things we see when we start to dance in the smoke. We see our end.”

Jehan looked up. “You never told me that!”

“You’re part Fire, but you’re not a Smoke Dancer,” Memfis answered. “You didn’t need to know.”

“Mem, promise me,” Milon said, his voice quiet. “Get them out. Promise me.”

“Milon—”

“Guppy is pregnant. You need to see them safe,” Milon continued. He frowned. “Liara… never see her again. Never see the baby. Babies.”

“How did you know?” Jehan demanded. “I only just confirmed it this morning. Yesterday.” He looked at Aleia. “I don’t even know when I am anymore.”

“Jehan, focus,” Memfis murmured. “Don’t panic.”

“I’m not panicking!” Jehan snapped. Then he swallowed and let out a soft huff. “Okay. A bit.”

Aleia looked down, and realized that Milon’s eyes were closed. “Is he—”

“No,” Jehan answered. “Milon, stay with us. We’ll get out of this.”

“Mem.” Milon’s voice was softer. “Get them out. You know how.”

Memfis nodded. “I know. But I can’t leave you!”

Milon smiled slightly. “That’s an order,” he said. “From your Firstborn. Go.”

Memfis looked at if he’d been slapped. “Milon—”

“Go, Mem. They’re coming.” Milon swallowed. “Send word to Liara. Tell her to be safe. That I love her.” He smiled.

“Love you all.”

Aleia leaned down and kissed Milon gently. Then she picked up her swords and moved away, going back to the door so that the others could say their goodbyes. She heard a step behind her, then Jehan came to stand on her left.

“Did you tell him?” he asked. Aleia looked up at him and shook her head.

“You know he always knew more than he should have,” she answered. She shifted both swords to her right hand so that she could take Jehan’s hand. “Jehan—”

“Don’t ask me how I am,” he said quickly. “I couldn’t even tell you.”

Aleia nodded, squeezing his fingers. Behind her, she heard Memfis whispering something, but couldn’t make out the words. She heard Milon’s voice whispering something in response, then Memfis raised his voice. “Jehan, he wants the block removed.”

“I don’t have to,” Jehan said as he turned back. “I can leave it.” He went back to kneel once more next to Milon. Aleia followed him, resting her hand on his shoulder as Jehan looked down at his hands, then took one of Milon’s hands in his. “I can leave the block, and I can put you to sleep. You… you won’t wake.”

“Do that,” Memfis said, his voice cracking. “Give him that much.”

Jehan looked up at Memfis, then back at Milon. Milon nodded, closing his eyes once more. “Please.”

Jehan sat very still for a moment, then reached out and rested his free hand on Milon’s forehead. Milon sighed softly, and his body went limp. Jehan laid Milon’s hand on his chest, then wiped his face.

“Where—?” he started, and his voice cracked. He stopped, cleared his throat, then started again, “Mem, where are we going?”

Memfis didn’t answer immediately. Slowly, he laid Milon’s hand down. He leaned down and kissed Milon’s lips gently, then paused with his forehead touching Milon’s. He straightened and looked at Jehan. Then he looked up at Aleia. “Pregnant?”

Aleia swallowed. “Yes.”

“Is Milon the father, or Jehan?”

“Jehan,” Aleia answered. “The timing is wrong for Milon.”

Memfis nodded slowly. He got to his feet and took a deep breath. “Where are we going?” he repeated. “Down the servant’s way. You two ever been in the corridors?”

Jehan shook his head. “No. Have you?”

Memfis nodded. “Milon showed me. There are tunnels that lead right down to the water. It’s how they bring supplies up to the palace. Milon and I, we’d go down to the docks and watch the ships come in.” He got up and moved to a tapestry in the corner, shifting it aside to reveal a door. “Come on. They’ll start searching the rooms soon, when they realize we’re not among the dead.”

***

Aleia could smell the sea long before they were out of the tunnels. The smell of home. Then they were at the mouth of the tunnels, and she could see the sunlight glittering on the water. They stopped, and she stood between Jehan and Memfis, taking their hands in hers.

“You’re coming back with me,” she said. “The both of you. We’ll be safe—”

“I’m going back to Forge,” Memfis interrupted. “That’s where my path runs.”

“Mannon will find you,” Jehan said. “He’ll look for you, for all of us. Once he knows we’re alive, he’ll hunt for us.”

Memfis snorted. “He won’t find me. Remember, I know my end. It’s a long time from now. And to get there, I need to go back to Forge. There are things I need to do there.” He looked down at Aleia and smiled. “I’ll be all right. Your road is on the waves, Guppy. Take Jehan and go back to your family.”

“I can’t go yet,” Jehan said softly. “I need to go back to the healing center. I need to finish my training, so that… so I don’t fail again. So that when I need to, I can save the people I love.” He swallowed, then looked at Aleia. “Will you come with me?”

“Jehan!”

“I…” Jehan blushed. “I love you. I love you both. I loved Milon, too. I can’t lose you all. Memfis knows his road. Say you’ll take my road with me? It will be only until I finish my training, and then we’ll go to the sea. I… I’m a lousy carpenter. I’ll build a canoe with you, if you want, but it might sink.”

Aleia felt her throat tighten. She slipped her hand from Jehan’s, slid her arm around his back and leaned in to him, mindful of the sword case that she wore strapped to her back. “I won’t let you drown, Jehan.”

He slipped his arm around her. “And I won’t call you Guppy.”

“Let’s go,” Memfis murmured. “Jehan, your healing center, that was the one near the border of Earth and Fire, right? I have money. We can bribe one of the merchants to take us south, and head inland from there. I’ll leave you at the healing center.”

“You don’t have to see us there, Mem,” Aleia protested.

“I promised him I’d see you safe,” Memfis replied. “I’m keeping that promise. Come on.”

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