Excerpt

Prologue

So many mistakes had been made tonight. He, before anyone, should have been ready for the unexpected. Made the connection. It was his task and he had missed it. Did not even see it coming.

He had never run from a battle. In fact, he had never run from a fight. When Seris Tinar met his enemies on the battlefield, they were the ones who were afraid. They were the ones who always ran.

His enemies.

Never him.

Not until today.

Fleeing the battle of his life, he fought to keep the despair at bay. He should have stayed. He needed to have stayed. But it was too late. He had to keep running as fast as possible toward his destination. His thoughts raced just as fast as his feet and his heart. The fear of what could happen—what would happen¬—to him and everyone else in the next few minutes and hours kept him moving.

His enemies were not far behind. That much was evident. It was not from their smell but from the cacophony of grunts and guttural noises that gave away their location. They made no pretense of hiding or disguising their pursuit. The pure bravado sent a chill up his spine.

The moon’s brilliant golden glow illuminated his path through the Golden Forest, but the undergrowth and low foliage still blocked his progress, making it difficult for him to run at full stride. The trolls held a distinct advantage in this terrain—Seris, a human, could not barrel through the wooded area as well as the trolls could dodge or just push aside with brute force the obstacles he faced. Having a few minutes’ head start was all that was saving him from being overrun.

Even in this light, Seris could see the blood smeared stains on his hands and arms. But there was no time to stop. No time to wash the stain of the night away. He was the last soldier in the king’s Private Guard now and his grief continued to expand as he raced by trees that the fairy folk used for their towns and villages, trees beautifully lit by the fairies’ golden hue. He wondered when they would be fully aware of the tragedy that happened tonight and how long it would take for them to realize their world—as his—had been horribly altered forever.

His leather boots finally made the distinct sound of striking cobblestone within a large clearing. Instantly he knew he was at the outskirts of Ruim, one of the more prominent towns in Essmor. Even at this late hour it looked impressive, with its numerous streets, shops, homes, and oil lamps by the walkways.

He took a moment to gain his senses. The town lay quiet, its inhabitants undoubtedly asleep in their beds with expectation that the morning would bring just another day.

Fools! You all should have seen this coming, he thought. I should have seen this coming. We brought this on ourselves.

Straining—his eyes darted back and forth. Which way? Running in the general direction of the king’s safe house was one thing. Finding it in near darkness with a band of trolls hunting him down was completely different.

His breath struck the night air in a cloud, and he suddenly realized that his ears and nose were freezing. Leaving most of his ceremonial armor in the forest allowed him to run faster but it did not help with the cold. As a soldier who had fought many battles, letting his muscles harden and give in to the cold just before a fight was a quick way to death. As quick and sure as taking a sword in the chest.

In the near darkness, he scanned the shrubs and trees that separated him from Ruim while his hand swept back through his brown, short-cropped hair—typical for a soldier in the king’s realm—to wipe some of the icy sweat away. With sheer will, he forced himself to slow his breathing in order to concentrate and hear how close his pursuers really were.

The trolls were close, indeed.

Torches!

The flickering of several lights off in the distance revealed their presence. They really did want to be seen.

He had only seconds to make a choice. If the trolls were trying to intimidate him, they were succeeding. He had to focus. The pulse of racing blood pounded in his ears, the sound deafening and distracting. Where was it? His eyes searched each bush and tree once again, looking for the clue that only he and the king knew.

It was too late.

He had stalled for too long—the trolls had passed the outlying brush and were walking into the clearing.

Five pairs of silver, glowing eyes focused on him. They had him. Seris steeled himself, ready to fight to what he knew would be to his death. In this open environment, skilled as he was, they had the advantage. He waited for their charge.

But it never came. They never came.

They waited instead, apparently frozen, on the opposite end of the clearing. The only movement the torch flames, flickering in the cold golden moonlight.

Seris stared, on edge, ready to spring into action. Wanting to end it. “Come on!” he yelled. But they did not move. His hand shook on the handle of one of his golden short-swords, itching to pull it free from its sheath. The rattling unnerving. He was as prepared as he could be for something—anything—to happen . . .

But then, the realization came to him: They did not know! They still had no idea where the queen and baby were hidden! Instead, the trolls tried to find their location by controlling the chase. By controlling him. It was the only reason why he was still alive. Seris slowly drew his sword forward from his back.

That had been their plan all along.

But that was not going to happen.

Eager to finally end the threat they represented, Seris went against the options his mind was trying to convey, against common sense and the rules he knew about self-preservation. Instead, he allowed the momentum of his short-sword to pull his weight into motion, forward, headlong toward the black trolls. Slow at first, his paced quickened with every step.

The silver eyes grew nearer. He wanted to end it. He wanted revenge. He could take down at least two, maybe even three of them before they cut him down. With the terrain and darkness on their side, there was just no other possible outcome.

But, if he were to die, they would not know where the queen was hidden—he would actually win. His final duty.

He took a moment to savor the grim satisfaction when logic finally took over. He was supposed to warn the queen and escort her to safety. That should be his final duty. If he died here in this open field, she would not know about tonight’s treachery and eventually the giant and his army of trolls would find her. She would be left on her own. It was just a matter of time. He feared for the horrors that awaited her and the baby if found.

His plan aborted, he looked around for a new option, for anything that would help him form a new course of action. In an instant, it came to him. There it was! Why had not he seen it before?

The Fairy Tree. Its unique shape stood out so easily from the rest—a large solid base and a split trunk that formed a V as the branches and leaves took over. King Jarym had showed him once before: Look through the dual trunks and line up with the brightest Fairy Tree that can be seen through the open V—the safe house was several miles straight ahead. That fairy folk had agreed to keep that one tree lit so brightly among the others was a testament to their loyalty to their king. After tonight, he wondered how long that loyalty would continue.

Seris looked back to the five dark shadows. They were still waiting, watching to discern the direction he would run. The torches flickered and snapped in the night air. It was his move—time to make a decision. Though it seemed an hour, the decision was made in an instant. Confronting the five trolls at the safe house, a closed environment, would definitely balance the odds—or at least lessen the chance of him dying so quickly.

He lunged for the forest and ran, though not for his own life—he ran for the life of a woman and her child.

After nearly 20 minutes, soft grass, not cobblestone, met the soles of his boots. He paused for just a moment to regain his breath and then looked up at the large beautiful home—the safe house. A secluded, well-protected retreat from the government center had been the most secure location the king could find, and Seris was the only soldier trusted enough to know its location.

Quickening his pace, Seris rounded a corner to the side of the house, glancing back as he did so to see if he had been noticed. While the trolls were out of sight, he knew all too well that his pursuers were not far behind. He was finally here.

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