Trust anyone, even an enemy...
...Trust no one, not even a friend.
A fantasy epic of the strength and limitations of love and loyalty: between friends, lovers, kin, strangers- and enemies.Nine years after the loss of her sister, and near obliteration of her clan in an ill conceived raid, Brede, a plains' nomad, is living unwillingly in the marshes. The sudden ending of a decade long drought, brings with it many changes; rumour has it that the rain was bought at the price of a King's head, and the sword needed for such a sacrifice is missing.
Change comes for Brede in the arrival of Tegan, a wounded mercenary.
Brede's discovery, first of the Dowry Blade and a stolen horse, and then of Tegan's history, sets in train a journey to the capital in search of her missing sister and leads to an unexpected role in the Queen's household, and a powerful lover.
|Product dimensions:||6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.88(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The way down the hill was steep, the track slippery in the rain. The horses scattered stones from beneath their hooves; the warriors blinked water from their eyes and slid in the mud, anxious as much for what might be out in the blinding rain as for their footing.
The noise of the rain and of the new-born stream running down the path, deadened their hearing. They knew that if they were attacked, they would not hear their assailants coming, and with the litter bearing their injured leader to hamper two of the horses, there would be no question of running.
They had removed their identifying badges, their banners. Rain darkened, their clothes merged with the landscape – but the horses would be noticeable from a distance; and in this place even so few horses meant only one thing, and so they were as conspicuous as if they rode in full battle gear, glittering and loud with banners.
Brede slid on mud and gravel, her breath coming in hard painful gasps that did not know how to let the air out again. She fell, scraping hand, knee, elbow, face. Rolling herself tight against the vast roots of a fallen tree, she pressed herself to the dead bark, fingers digging for purchase in the mossy growth between the reaching limbs. The harsh gasps stilled sufficiently that the hissing of breath would scarce be distinguished from the rain. She closed her eyes, as though that could make her less visible, and prayed to anything that was listening and kindly disposed, that this new band of warriors had not seen her as she careered round the edge of the hill, away from the much larger company she had already avoided.
What were they all doing, still skulking about up here? The battle had been miles away and days ago, and there was no telling which side was which, not that it would mean much, no one was exactly a friend anymore, the Marshes had been disputed land for far too long for that.
Breath slowing, but her heart still painful in it dipping and pounding, Brede listened for any hint of pursuit, and heard voices – indistinct, but quite close. She didn't dare raise her head to check, simply praying that the mud and rain would disguise her sufficiently that the riders would pass her by. She shivered, cold, wet and afraid, and wondered whether she would ever get down from the hill and back to where Adair would be watching, and her mother would be pretending she was not terrified by an absence of nearly two days.
Involuntarily, Brede remembered the rebellious sheep she had been tracking, the ewe and her adolescent lamb, bent on adventure at the worst possible time. She had found them, or what was left, after some marauding group of warriors had made a supper of them. That was the way things were, and had been for years. Brede hugged the ground even closer as a horse knocked a shod hoof against the far side of the great tree, and her heart pounded in response.
Maeve pushed wet hair out of her eyes and then dropped her hand to steady the litter hung between the horses stumbling on the path down to the marshy valley, where perhaps there was a village. She watched Corla riding slowly back up the barely discernible trail, silently willing her to bring good news. Almost without thinking she checked her limping band of warriors; Cei moving up to ride at her shoulder, ready to take his turn on foot; Balin and Inir slightly ahead, Riordan a way behind, watchful of the horizon. She looked with more deliberation at Tegan, white-faced and still, within the tight wrapping of the makeshift litter. She listened hard, trying to hear Tegan's breathing over the roar of rain, watching for movement, her intent gaze noting the water pooling once more in Tegan's eyes. She reached to wipe it away, and Tegan, woken from her uneasy sleep, reached out a hand and tangled her fingers into Maeve's.
'Your hands are freezing,' Maeve said, worried that Tegan could still feel icy to her own hands, which were numb with cold. She glanced up anxiously as Corla's horse crowded her.
'There must be a village,' Corla insisted. 'This is a track that leads somewhere, and I can smell smoke.'
'Another burnt village?' Cei muttered sourly. Maeve glanced up at him, angry that he voiced her own fear. Corla offered Cei the battered leather hat with which she had so far protected her thin pale hair.
'No,' she said, patiently, 'cooking.'
Cei grinned. 'You must be sure, if you're willing to giving up your most treasured protection.'
Tegan loosened her hold on Maeve and reached out.
'I'll have that, then Maeve can stop waking me to mop my eyes.' Tegan's voice was faint in the roar of the rain, and Cei had to strain to hear her next words; 'Corla will be right.'
'So there's a village. That doesn't mean there's a welcome, we don't know if we're over the border yet,' Cei insisted.
'We need a village,' Tegan said tersely, 'and a welcome, and somewhere warm – a healer would be – a good idea.'
Maeve looked at her sharply, and slowed the lead horse to a gentler pace.
Brede tried to untangle the sounds of hooves, how many were there? Five? Six? Moving on, thank the Goddess; she could hear the bridles, even though they had done their best to muffle them. She lay and waited until she could hear nothing but rain, and lay a few minutes more to be sure, then slowly lifted her head and stared down the hill, at the group of warriors heading straight for her home.
Brede counted the horses. This group was too small for an army, too closed up for a scouting party, too slow for a group of messengers. She turned quickly and started down the slope, heading for a way only someone on foot would risk, one that in this weather she would prefer not to have to try. She cursed the warriors for their instinct for the landscape.
The gatekeeper waved urgently to attract Brede's attention as she hesitated at the brink of the mud stirred water – the river had risen alarmingly since she went out. Brede blinked water from her eyes and followed his exaggerated arm waving. Despite Adair's attempts she was soaked to the waist by the time she was across to the gate.
'You look as though you've something to report,' Adair said cheerfully.
Brede shuddered at the clinging weight of her clothes.
'Warriors – only about seven as far as I could tell, but definitely headed here.'
'They won't get across the river now,' Adair said, gauging the strength of the flood eating away at the far bank.
'Oh, they will. They've got horses.' Brede stared at the wider branch of the river, on the far side of the village, trying to judge how swollen that reach had become. Adair followed her gaze.
'They'll not get that far, not unless their horses were bred of giants.' He grimaced, and started towards the gate. Brede made to follow and help but he waved her away. 'Get yourself dry. I can manage.'
Adair closed the gate, and pulled the extra bars into place, his mind on Brede, not the work in hand.
Corla was first to glimpse the smoke she had smelt. She slowed, trying to work out what lay ahead. She felt a presence at her shoulder and looked up at Balin. His bulk sheltered her for a moment. He turned his eyes down the hill towards the swollen turn of the river.
'Is that a village?' he asked. Corla raised her shoulder, the sodden woollen coat sticking to her back, cold against her flesh.
'It looks like a fort.' Balin persisted, and Corla bit her lip as his words solidified her anxious uncertainty into ramparts and walls, that had been uncertain blur until now.
'Marsh dwellers don't like outsiders,' she said.
'It's not just that, surely. Those walls mean business.'
'But there are fields look, someone's been growing crops – and there are too many sheep to just be provisioning a fort – this is a settlement not an outpost.'
'I wish I knew whether that was a good thing.'
Maeve rode up behind them.
'Walls – and a gate and a guard.' Balin hesitated. 'Only one guard.'
'Then why are we waiting?'
'They'll not let us in, Maeve.'
Maeve eased her tense shoulders, and looked back up the hill, to the stand of trees that could have been their shelter for the night. She stared at the uncertain plain beyond the village.
'We didn't come this way before, this valley doesn't look as though there's been a battle here – not recently.'
Corla and Balin waited for her decision, pretending not to hear the uncertainty in her voice.
'If we go on, we have to cross the far branch of the river tonight.' Inir offered, resting his hand on the shuddering neck of Corla's horse. 'We'll not manage it. The water looks high, the horses are exhausted, and there's Tegan –'
Maeve's eyes flickered to Tegan, asleep, or unconscious. She looked again at the steep rise of the hill, and flexed a knee that was complaining at the cold and the damp and the incline.
'We have to risk the village,' she said quietly.
There was no welcome for the bedraggled group of mercenaries at the gate.
Maeve twisted her gloved hands about her sword hilt, lower lip caught between her teeth. She stood over Tegan, willing her back into consciousness.
Tegan sighed, and turned her head. She focused on the tall palisade beyond Maeve's tense shoulder.
'You're not dragging me back up that hill,' she said weakly. 'We'll make camp out of reach of any archers and wait.'
'For curiosity to bring them out to us.'
Tegan shivering with bone-deep cold. Maeve reached within the tightly wrapped oilcloth, seeking any sign of warmth in her shuddering body. Tegan clenched her teeth at the effort it cost her to still the trembling; hating the fear in Maeve's face.
'I've no intention of dying out in the rain,' she said.
With no way of keeping a fire alight, the warriors huddled together, horses tethered close outside their leaky canvas shelters, protecting and warming them slightly with their animal bulk. They spent a miserable, wakeful night, and by morning would almost have been glad at the sight of a hillside bright with enemy banners. They would sooner have fought again than spend any longer shivering in the rain.
The village paths resembled a mire. The only fire that belched warmth with any success was in the forge. The smith kept her apprentice hard at work all morning, making up for her truancy of the previous days. It was not until the rain died out at noon that Faine finally sent Brede out to the camp by the gates to find out why the warriors were still there.
Faine followed Brede as far as the gate, and stood close beside Adair as he pulled the bars free. She glanced out at the bedraggled shelters on the edge of the rapidly rising river as Brede shouldered her way through the meagre gap Adair allowed her.
'Lock it.' Faine said firmly, refusing to allow her anxiety for Brede to show.
Brede didn't hesitate when she heard the gate's locking bars pushed back into place behind her. She strolled down from the raised ground of the village's defences, to the three dripping shelters ringed by wretched looking horses. She ignored the man on guard and ran her hand down the shoulder of the nearest horse. It barely flicked an ear in response to her touch. She waited for the guard to challenge her, but he stood unmoving between her and the shelter.
'What are you doing here?' she asked, looking up at last. Riordan shrugged.
Brede tried again.
'Why do you want to come into the village?'
Riordan shrugged again.
'You've been told not to speak to me then?' Silence. Brede lost patience and pushed past and under the dripping shelter.
She blinked, trying to adjust her eyes to the dimness of the light within. She took in two crouching figures, and one lying, and to either side of her, crowding the space, and settling her hackles up, a giant, and another man. Someone missing, she registered, without quite realising it.
'Is there anyone here who is willing to talk to me, or shall I go back to my mistress without knowing what you want?'
One of the crouching figures rose to her full height. She was a little taller than Brede, and Brede was tall. The warrior's head grazed the damp cloth of the shelter, setting a soft trickle of water across her shoulder.
'We need someone who knows something about healing. We need somewhere warm for our injured companion. We won't ask for anything else.'
Brede measured out the words, listening to the tight control in the woman's voice, balancing need against ask, and wondering how much might be taken without need, without asking.
'This village has a wall for a reason. Will it be rebels, foreigners, or the government next at our gate, demanding retribution for any help we give you?'
The woman shrugged. Brede glanced at the sword strapped at her back, out of her way, but very much to hand if need be, and at the recumbent figure, and the woman crouched at her side. She nodded.
Brede took another look at the horses as she passed – she missed horses.
Brede warmed her chilled bones at the forge and watched the smith work, and Faine allowed her to keep silent, while she concentrated on her hammer work, each content to let the moment drag.
Faine finished the repair she had been working on and plunged the hot metal into the trough. The steam curled thickly into the air. She put down her tongs, wiped her hands on a rag and turned to Brede, breaking in on her reverie.
'Tell me then.'
'One of them is injured; they want aid and warmth, nothing else.'
'Probably, but they don't look after their horses.'
'And you didn't tell them how to treat them better? All right, I'll speak to Keenan – finish this for me.' Faine indicated the work she wanted Brede to do, and strode away in search of her fellow Elder.
Brede bent her back to the work, wielding her hammer with almost as much skill as her mistress. She had been nine years in the learning. Today those nine years shouted at her. Perhaps it was the horses. The village had a team of oxen for their ploughing; twelve score sheep and assorted dogs, but there had been no horses since a raiding party stole Brede's one remaining beast.
The sparks flew from the rough metal. The ore belonged to Finley, but it wasn't Finley's pattern that Brede's mind followed as she hammered, and cooled, and heated, and hammered again; refining the metal, and with it, thought.
Brede welcomed the heat of the fire, the sweat building on her skin.
Nine years, she hissed, suddenly angry where she had been content, bending the metal to her will. Nine years in one place, never travelling, only setting foot out of the village for her self-imposed scouting after danger; playing the obedient daughter, wasting her youth.
Brede was her father's daughter, a nomadic impulse was in her blood. She longed for open spaces, speed and noise; but that need was incomprehensible to her Marsh kinsfolk.
Brede cooled the metal once more, and inspected it critically. She wasn't satisfied with her work, and returned the piece to the fire, seeking yet more heat. She worked the bellows rhythmically, patiently.
The warriors at the gate unsettled her. It was months since they had seen so much as a smudge of smoke from the war that ran its course somewhere out beyond their valley. Every incursion smelt of another life, a life she longed for. The sorry group of horses raised ghosts for her, and brought into sharp focus the lack of movement her life had taken on since she came to the Marsh.
Brede hit the metal a touch too hard. She swore, brought back to the matter in hand. She inspected the barely formed blade, sighed, and continued.
She had been pretending to herself that she didn't care what happened to the strangers, but she did care.
She wiped the sweat from her eyes. She breathed in the smell of hot iron, harsh on her tongue, a smell she had learned to enjoy. She took up the metal, holding it just above the surface of the water in the trough. The heat forced the water into hissing movement before the metal touched it. She slid the piece into the water, gently, letting the liquid caress the metal. The steam, rising, dampened her face, setting a light sheen on her skin, prickling. The metal darkened, the water quietened. Brede put down the tongs and stretched her cramped back. The anvil wasn't the right height for her. Faine was shorter than her apprentice and it was Faine's forge.
Faine kept her words to Keenan as brief as Brede's and paced impatiently while he considered.
'Send Adair out to bring their leader in to talk.' He said at last.
Faine frowned, and nodded to Darcie, lurking in the corner of his father's hut, eyes aglow with excitement.
'Go to it,' she said sharply. 'You take gate duty – keep the gate barred until they are ready and only the one comes in, mind.'
Darcie scampered away.
Faine returned to her pacing. Darcie was gone longer than she had anticipated, and she was beginning to think he had misunderstood the message, when he returned, towing a tall slender woman by the hand.
'Where's Adair?' Keenan asked.
'Out with my people,' the woman replied. Keenan sat more upright and let his glare travel from her to Darcie.
'Who is at the gate?'
Keenan huffed through his moustache. 'All right then.' His gaze returned to the warrior. 'Tell me properly what you're after.'
'We have a wounded companion; we need a healer to take a look at her. We'd be grateful for somewhere warm for the night.'
'And in return?'
'We can pay.'
Keenan shook his head impatiently. 'There's nothing much we need money for.'
'Possibly. Depending what it is. Start by telling me what you're doing here, and where the rest of your force is.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Dowry Blade"
Copyright © 2016 Cherry Potts.
Excerpted by permission of Arachne Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Mosaic Of Air,
Trying To Tell You ...,
The Ballad Of Polly And Ann,
The Bone Box,
Member Of The Family,
Baby Pink/Electric Blue,
Behind The Mask,
Penelope Is No Longer Waiting,
Reason To Believe,