Please enjoy these sample chapters of our new Romantic Fantasy, An Archer’s Awakening, the first book in the Of Crowns & Quills series. Release is anticipated April 16, 2024.

PROLOGUE

A Thousand Years Ago

Irina surveyed the battle from her mountainside perch.

Banners of cobalt faced emerald and gold, as tens of thousands clashed on the plains below. The clamor of swords and pikes sang with a melody of anger and pain beyond any heard in generations. The height of the lone peak spared Irina from the stench of death, but nothing could deafen the cries in the Reaper’s wake.  

The flesh of her arms pimpled as power coursed through her veins. Magical fire raged from her staff, scorching men and earth alike, leaving blood and madness where enemies stood moments before. 

She poured the last of her energy into the enemy line. Her magical endurance far outpaced anyone alive but still had its limits. She would need to eat, rest, and recover before casting again.

Time to watch the men battle it out.

Irina had spent the last year hunting every Mage she could find and repaying them for her stolen youth. Of the original ten, she’d already killed six. The remaining four scurried and hid like rats across the border in Melucia. She’d never dreamed of ruling or power or war, not before they’d ripped her future from her grip.

Now it was her turn. The thought had consumed her. She didn’t care how many innocents would die in the wake of her wrath. Innocence had died when her mother fell. She would destroy every last Mage and take everything they held dear.

As the enemy lines buckled, something in the sky shimmered. It was distant but growing closer. She shielded her eyes. A brilliant . . . something . . . flew toward her.

She stepped to the edge of the cliff and raised her spyglass. Far to the east, a massive cerulean flame streaked across the sky, leaving a trail of light in its wake that twinkled, then faded. Her breath caught as the form sharpened in her lens. Its outstretched wings dripped iridescent flames. She stumbled back as the beast lifted its head and uttered an otherworldly cry that stilled the battle below. Men on both sides cowered and stared in disbelief. Cries rang up all around her.

“That’s impossible!”

“It cannot be!”

Irina turned toward the robed men nearby. “Get me the orb! Now!”

They jolted, then scattered in all directions. A moment later, one man approached, clad in black and cradling a velvet bag. He pulled his hood back, revealing oily, slicked back hair and onyx eyes. He knelt and bowed his head, holding the sack aloft.

“Your Majesty.”

She snatched it out of his hands and removed a perfect scarlet sphere. Elegant lines of ancient runes lay etched within, like tiny spiders caught in an amber web. They pulsed as though a heart thrummed inside.

“Listen to me,” she said, snapping the man’s gaze to hers. “The spell I’m about to cast will draw on my essence and the magic of the Orb. It will send you far from here and guide your path.”

“It what?” The man’s eyes widened as they darted from woman to orb. “But . . . Your Majesty—”

“There’s no time,” she snapped, looking up at the fast-approaching Phoenix, a bright haze of blue fire hurtling toward her, then turned and clutched the man’s arm. “If it takes a thousand years, bring me back, Danai.”

“Irina—” His hand reached toward her cheek, then snapped back. “Your Majesty, could you not face—”

“If you ever loved me, Danai, bring me back.” She reached down and he pressed his cheek into her palm.”

“Irina—”

The flaming bird bellowed, and the screams of men and beast rose above the maelstrom below.

Irina snatched her hands back and stiffened her spine. “The Phoenix has risen. Even fully recovered, my power might not stand against hers. And I am tired, Danai.” Her voice hardened. “Now, open yourself. My strength is spent, and yours will have to do.”

Irina closed her eyes and chanted in the language of Mages. With every phrase, the pulsing of the Orb grew until its brilliance forced those around to look away. Bright scarlet light flooded them.

Danai peered past Irina as the Phoenix belched fire in massive streams, scorching thousands in a blink. Then the mighty bird snapped its head, looked directly at Irina, and launched itself toward the ledge.

She grasped his wrist, slamming his palm onto the orb, and spoke the final words of her incantation a heartbeat before the Phoenix reached the mountainside.

Irina’s body flared, then dissolved into liquid smoke that poured itself into the Orb.

The sphere of crimson pulsed one final time.

Danai vanished.

The Phoenix dove headlong into the ledge, obliterating everything in its path. Flames billowed in every direction, filling the sky with waves of energy and heat. The world trembled, and the sound of earth rending and rising was heard across the continent. Mountains rose, replacing the battlefield plains, forming a range—a barrier—between aggressor and foe.

Far to the west, on the edge of a distant capital, an ebony stone rose from frozen earth.

A lone man pulled his hood over his head and gawked as brilliant symbols flared white then faded to gold, searing deep into the monolith. Line after line appeared, offering guidance, giving him purpose and direction, a path to restore what was lost. In that moment of chaos and fear, he raised the now-dulled Orb above his head and pledged his life to her cause. To her Return.

CHAPTER 1

Declan

Ten archers stood, their shoulders inches apart, longbows gripped in their right hand with one end resting on the ground. Seven men and three women stared intently across the field. Every quiver was full and slung across their backs. Spare arrows packed ancient barrels a few feet behind.

They stood at the base of the longest mountain range on the continent, but bare chests and shoulders still baked beneath Melucia’s merciless summer sun. A gentle breeze drifting through the forest offered little respite and sweat glistened off foreheads and arms. A few struggled to keep their eyes fixed forward but snapped to attention the moment they saw their leader’s raised brow.

I peered down the line. These were my cadets, my charges. Over the last year, I poured myself into their training and whatever happened next would determine their fate.

No one moved. They barely breathed.

“Archers to the line,” I ordered, my voice as taut as the cadets’ bowstrings.

As one, the unit took two steps forward.

“Ready your bows,” I commanded, and each lifted a bow and drew an arrow.

“Nock.”

Arrows found strings in swift, practiced motions.

“Draw.”

Most drew easily, but a few struggled, their muscles straining.

“Loose!”

Nine thwacks were followed by the rustle of a tenth arrow landing somewhere in the foliage.

“Cease Fire. Parade rest.”

Before I could move, two additional cadets arrived, chatting loudly. One was familiar enough, another second-year who’d risen to lead his own unit of Firsts, but the other man was new. Thousands wore the green of Melucia’s Rangers. Most lived in the massive headquarters compound or in town nearby. It was unusual to see a new face beyond raw recruits raising a bow for the first time.

The newcomer stood over six and a half feet, near my height, and carried himself with the surety of the son of a wealthy nobleman. His deep green tunic and leather leggings hugged an impressive frame.

The whole thing likely cost more than all the bows on the line combined, I thought.

The spectacles that circled the man’s bright blue eyes made him look more like a scribe than any field Ranger I’d seen, but his fitness made me wonder, as fiery red hair fell across broad shoulders.

The pair laughed at some private joke, then surveyed my men. The redhead’s mouth twisted like someone had squeezed a whole lemon down his throat. His gaze shifted toward me, and his scowl deepened. The man’s expression smoothed, and an odd expression filled his eyes.

I shook myself free of the stranger’s stare and stepped from the line, crossing the field to examine the targets. Ten tightly woven thatch shields stood in an orderly row. Each was painted with two white rings encircling a solid red center dot. The mountain’s steep ascent, blanketed in a thick forest, began a dozen paces behind.

Bullseye. Bullseye. Inner ring. Inner Ring. Bullseye, Inner Ring . . .

Forest floor.

Every cadet in the unit had struck the inner ring at least five out of ten times that day. Most had hit at least two bulls eyes. Every cadet except . . .

“Dempsy!” I bellowed, my voice no longer neutral. “Here. Now.”

A scrawny boy of seventeen summers fumbled his longbow, struggling to rest it against a barrel, then thought better and grabbed it before taking off down the range.

“Leave your bow,” I shouted. “Don’t run with your weapon.”

“Yes, sir,” the boy flushed, ran back to the line, leaned his bow against the barrel then resumed his jog across the field. He’d only made it a few yards when the clatter of the bow falling to the ground turned every head.

I had to resist the urge to cover my face with a palm.

Aaron Dempsy was a good kid but, he was the runt of the litter, more attuned to battling ledgers and sums than bandits or wildlife. Gangly arms hung off his slender frame, and a mop of dark, unwashed hair bounced with every stride.

There were only two reasons Aaron had made it through his first year as a cadet: first, he was brilliantly smart and would make a fine scribe for the Command Staff. He scored far above any other classmate in any subject focused inside a classroom.

Second—and far more important to his seniors—he was Captain Whitman’s nephew, which made him the nephew of the commander of all Rangers.

Now, the hapless boy faced the final tests which would either advance him into his second year at the Academy or send him home.

Captain Whitman was a solid man and a fair leader. He demanded excellence and had no patience with failure. Despite Whitman’s reputation for unflinching standards, the pressure to help his nephew pass the five First Year Tests was intense, and I felt it.

Still, Aaron had to earn his place or he would never be accepted by the rest of his cohort.

“Sir,” Dempsy skidded to a stop before me, losing his balance and tumbling forward.

I had to reach out and brace the boy, biting the inside of my cheek to keep from smiling. I painted on an annoyed gaze, then blew out a breath. “Cadet, was there a boar I didn’t see?”

The boy’s nose wrinkled. “A boar, sir?”

“Yes, or a deer or bear? Some kind of animal you thought was a threat?”

“Uh, no, sir. I didn’t see anything in the woods.”

I cross my arms. “Then what were you aiming at? Your arrow isn’t anywhere near the target. In fact, I can’t even see where it landed.”

“I, uh . . .” he glanced past me. “I don’t know, sir.”

The men on the line heard every word, and muffled laughter flowed across the field. Aaron’s head dipped.

“Eyes up here, Cadet,” I snapped, then lowered my voice and leaned in. “Listen, Aaron, you’ve got to hit the target or I can’t pass you. You know what another fail would mean, don’t you?”

Aaron nodded and muttered so only I could hear. “Please, don’t send me home, Dec.”

“That’s Cadet-Sergeant, Dempsy,” I grumbled loudly, then whispered. “I won’t have a choice if you fail again. I want to help you, I really do, but you’ve got to give me something to work with. You don’t have to hit the bullseye, just get inside a ring.”

“I’ll do better, I promise,” Aaron’s voice shook almost as much as his lower lip.

I glanced up to find the men on the line getting restless, so I straightened and raised my voice. “Dempsy, find your arrow and retrieve the others. You’re staying on this line until the sun fries you to a crisp. Got it?”

One laugh rose above the others, turning a few heads of those on the line. I glanced over, annoyed by the interruption, finding the redhead puffed up, a broad grin on his lips, and his companion doubled over.

“Who is that?” I grumbled to myself.

 “That’s Ayden Byrne, Lord Byrne’s son,” Aaron answered, “They’re—”

“I know who the Byrnes are,” I snapped. Then I noticed something odd and murmured, “Where’s his gold?”

“Sir?” Aaron’s brow knitted.

“His collar. It’s bare. I’d figure a prig like that would have his stripes made of the actual stuff.”

“Oh, that. He can’t wear gold. He’s ungifted.” Aaron squinted, covering his eyes with one hand.

“Huh,” I grunted.

“That’s what everybody says, anyway. Must be terrible not having . . .”

Aaron’s voice trailed off. He tried not to glance at my barren collar but couldn’t help himself.

“Dec, I’m sorry. I didn’t—”

“Forget it,” I muttered, my eyes fixed on the redhead. I shook myself free, took a step toward the line, and barked across the field, “You two, either keep it down or step away. This unit is testing.”

The laughing quieted, but the redhead lifted his chin and glared.

I squinted, as if searching for something. “Do you know why he’s wearing Second Year bars? He wasn’t here last year.”

“I . . . I don’t know,” Aaron shrugged. “He could’ve trained in Saltstone.”

“Saltstone?” I cocked my head. “The only Academies there are for Mages or the Guard. That doesn’t make sense.”

“Sometimes, they do different things for the major houses. Maybe—”

“A rich asshole, right.”

My gaze shifted from the redhead to Aaron, whose eyes quickly found his boots.

“He’s not worth worrying over. You have yourself to think about today.”

Aaron nodded without looking up.

I stared a moment longer, then barked loudly for all to hear, “Dempsy, arrows.”

The boy snapped to attention. “Sir, yes, sir!”

When Aaron didn’t move, I added, “Now!”

The men on the line chuckled as Aaron startled and darted into the forest behind the targets, got his feet tangled, and promptly tumbled onto his face. The redhead’s friend pointed and laughed, but his companion’s eyes remained fixed on me, his mouth set in a thin line.

I stepped forward and yelled toward the rest of my unit, wielding one finger in the air like a sword. “You idiots are finished!”

They stilled, eyes wide.

I glared at each cadet in turn, then allowed a grin to tease my lips. “You all passed the Archery Test. One down, four to go. Have a drink or bed a bear or whatever it is you fools do to celebrate but be clear-headed and ready for the Test of Swords at sunrise. Dismissed.”

A relieved cheer rose as they clapped backs and clasped forearms before gathering their tunics and drifting away from the range. By the time Aaron emerged, his arms laden with arrows, a half hour had passed, and the sun was beginning to creep behind the mountains. None of the others remained, leaving Aaron and me alone on the field.

I pointed to one of the barrels filled with arrows and spoke as Aaron shuffled past. “You know your uncle can’t—”

“I don’t want his help, Dec.”

I glanced around, making sure we were alone. I couldn’t afford such familiarity from an underclassman in front of the others. I liked the kid. He was a reminder of how lost and alone I felt most of the time, but it wouldn’t do either of us any favors to be seen going soft on him.

Aaron slumped against the barrel. “This part’s so hard. If I could take a test on history . . . or strategy or tactics . . . anything but fighting and shooting.” He hung his head. “I’m just not built for all this.”

I shook my head and tried to think of a way to encourage the boy. “We’re not exactly a thinking core. Our job is to guard the border and keep the wildlife in check, which means shooting things and knocking sense into others at times. I’m not sure knowing the names of dead kings helps fend off a wolf.” I watched the color drain from Aaron’s face, so I added, “We need scribes, too, and you’ll make a fine one, but you have to pass the martial tests first. If you can’t pass Archery, where there’s no opponent trying to knock you down, how do you expect to pass the others?”

“Stay away from the other man until the round ends?”

I laughed. “Spirits help us if the Kingdom ever invades and you’re on the line.”

“Why would the Kingdom—”

“It was a just figure of speech, Aaron,” I blew out a breath. “Grab your bow. There’s enough light for you to empty a quiver. If you can just hit a ring once—any ring—I can pass you. Just once, Aaron.”

The boy nodded, then turned and retrieved his bow and took his place on the line.

“Take your mark,” I said.

Aaron shuffled to the line, his bow banging against the ground with each step.

I pinched the bridge of my nose. “Just . . . fire at will.”             I’d lost all interest in the formality of the test.          

CHAPTER 2

Declan

By the time I strode into the dining hall, the sky outside twinkled with stars, and most of the food had been put away. Only a handful of Cadets sat at tables scattered throughout. I scanned for other Second Years I might join, but quickly resigned myself to eating alone. To my dismay, I found the redhead and his companion parked in the far corner. Neither seemed to notice me enter.

After a few moments of haggling with an exhausted cook who simply wanted to clean the kitchen and head home for the night, I lowered myself into a chair at a table and began eating. The ale was warm and the food was cold. I blew out a sigh and took a sip, washing down congealed gravy and tough meat I couldn’t identify.

Midway through my meal, I glanced up to find the hall empty and eerily quiet. Most of the candles and lamps had either died or been extinguished, shrouding the chamber in the dim glow from the last remaining hearths still offering warmth. Only two tables remained occupied: one nearby with two officers and one across the hall with Ayden Byrne and his companion.

I focused on my plate, keeping my head down.

“ . . . know there’s something going on here.” One of the officers’ voices rose above a whisper and made its way to me. “The Cap doubled the guard at the crossing and has all the patrols on high alert. What in the Spirits happened?”

I snuck a glance without raining my head. The officer who hadn’t spoken was looking from me to Ayden’s table, probably deciding how freely he could speak in the nearly empty hall.

He turned back toward the other officer. “You know I can’t talk about—”

“Come on, Ross. What’s going on?”

Ross blew out a breath and stared at his companion, then lowered his voice so I only heard snippets.

“ . . . taken from . . . She’s Lord . . . daughter. The whole Triad . . . The Guard in Saltstone is . . . minds.”

“Spirits,” the other officer said.

Ross nodded and sat back, downing the last of his ale. “That’s all I can tell you. Not a word—”

“Come on, Ross. It’s me.”

Ross chuckled and pointed across the table. “Exactly!”

Both men laughed, then stood. As they passed my table, Ross eyed me, but the other man ignored me completely.

A kidnapping?

Crime in Melucia was fairly common, but it usually involved petty theft or other minor offenses. Serious crimes like murder and kidnapping were extremely rare, even in the larger cities. If a nobleman’s daughter had gone missing . . .

Movement nearby made me look up. Ayden’s eyes locked onto mine. I’d been so lost in thought that I hadn’t noticed Ayden and his friend leave their table. The infuriating man had crossed the hall and now stood only a few paces away. A quick scan confirmed that Ayden and I were now alone.

I dropped my head and shoved peas around my plate as though trying to examine their very essence, intent on ignoring the noble arsehole. I managed to scoop a few onto my spoon as Ayden’s voice startled me. I hurled the offending peas across the table.

“Cadet-Sergeant Rea,” Ayden’s voice seemed to savor the words, and an amused smile teased his lips. “Thank you for allowing us to observe your testing today. It was a pleasure watching you work.”

I glanced up. I hadn’t noticed how square Ayden’s jaw was before, and caught myself staring, I quickly looked back into my plate.

Ayden simply stood, watching.

I couldn’t decide which unnerved me more, the little lord’s overly polite tone, his compliment about the testing, or the haughty precision with which the prig spoke. Despite being an orphan without two coppers to rub together, I’d grown up with children of the nation’s upper crust, and this one reeked of privilege as much as any I’d known.

Slowly, I laid my spoon on my plate, placed my palms on the table, and allowed my head to rise. For the second time in the span of heartbeats, my breath caught. There was no smugness to Ayden’s face, no sneer on his lips or glare in his eyes. His friend had borne all of those, but Ayden simply stood with hands clasped before him, his fiery locks stuffed behind his ears.

Those eyes, I thought. How can eyes be that blue?

I realized he was staring again and gathered myself. “Yes, well, thank you, Lord Byrne. I would appreciate it if, in the future, you and your friend kept your jibes to yourselves.”

Ayden’s brows rose. “I am not Lord Byrne quite yet.”

Without another word, Ayden offered a stiff nod and strode away.

“That’s all we need, an arrogant lordling strutting around like some fucking peacock,” I muttered, scooping the last of my peas, and glaring after the man as he vanished through the door.

***

The next morning, I rose before the sun, ate a quick breakfast, and headed to the practice yard, surprised to find a lone figure standing near the edge of the sparring ring.

“Aaron, you’re early.”

The boy shuffled his feet. “I thought, maybe, we could spar and you could count that as my test.”

I couldn’t hide a grin. Aaron was inventive, no doubt about that.

“It doesn’t work that way. You have to face another First Year.”

Aaron’s shoulders drooped. “There’s no way I can win against any of them. They’re all bigger and stronger than me.”

“But you’re smarter than the whole unit combined,” I countered, placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder and drawing his gaze upward. “And you don’t have to win. The rules say you have to finish a round without losing to pass. Next year, you’ll have to win to graduate, but we can worry about that later.”

“What’s the—” his eyes widened. “Oh, really?”

I nodded and pointed to an hourglass sitting on a waist-high stump a few paces from the ring’s edge. “The bouts are timed. If you can stay in the ring and not lose any blood—”

“Blood?” Aaron gulped.

“It’s a figure of speech, Aaron,” I shook my head. “For first years, just hold on to your sword, the same as every other bout you’ve fought all year. Leave the ring or drop your sword, and you’re out.”

“You mean all the other bouts I lost all year?” Aaron muttered a little too loudly.

I balled a fist, then forced myself to breathe. “Do you want to be a Ranger?”

Aaron’s head snapped up. “Of course—”

“Then step up and take your place. Stop acting like you can’t do things. Just do them.”

“Like that’s easy. You aren’t at risk of getting sent home,” Aaron muttered.

“True.” I stepped into the ring, smoothed out some of the sand, then looked back at Aaron. “The others are competing to win, and not just a single bout but the whole competition. The higher they place, the better their standing in Second Year. Find a way to use that.”

“How am I supposed to use their desire to crush me so they can advance?”

I shrugged and resumed tending the sand as though the answer should be obvious.

Aaron flopped onto a bench and stared into the distance.

A few of the other First Years approached and began stretching. By the time the sun crested the horizon, all ten members of my unit had gathered.

“Alright cadets, it’s time for your Test of Swords. No one expects a Blademaster’s performance today. Just stay in the ring and don’t drop your sword. The goal of this test is to disarm your opponent, not harm them. If you draw blood, you lose, though I doubt that will be a problem with the practice swords.” A round of nervous whispers passed through the cadets. They hated using the wooden weapons, but none yet held the skill to wield a real weapon without risking everyone within reach. I cleared my throat and continued. “I’ll pair you for each round. Winner advances. Losers will have additional pairings to ensure everyone has a chance to pass.”

A muscular boy with steely gray eyes spoke, “What if nobody drops or steps out?”

“If time runs out, that would be a draw,” I said. “But if I think you’re gaming, you’ll both lost and have to compete again to survive. Compete with honor or not at all. Understand?”

A chorus of muttered agreement rose from the men and women.

“Anyone else?” I asked. When no one spoke, I called, “Silivan, Wallace, you’re first.”

Cormac Silivan was the natural leader of the group. A mountain of honed muscle, he was as charismatic as he was strong. His smiles landed as easily as his punches, and the men and women of the unit loved him. As Cormac strode toward the ring, he clapped his opponent on the shoulder.

“Best of luck, Lachlan.”

The most reserved man on the team, Lachlan Wallace stood taller than all the others, but where Cormac’s muscles were thick, Lachlan’s were lean and wiry. While Cormac smiled, Lachlan stared with an intensity that could frighten a boulder into running. Cormac was powerful, but Lachlan was swift.

This should be good, I thought as I stepped out of the ring and allowed the competitors to enter.

The other cadets gathered a few paces outside the circle, eager to watch and cheer on their companions.

I glanced up as I gripped the hourglass, a flash of something catching my eye. I craned my neck, peering past the cadets, and spotted Ayden leaning against a tree a dozen paces back. He wore a different tunic and deep blue leather leggings.

Why is he here? And who has two uniforms? I remember thinking, then nearly laughed out loud at the ridiculous question. Why was I thinking about Ayden Byrne at all? I had a test to oversee. I turned back to the men who’d just drawn wooden swords from a rack and entered the ring.

“Ready, fight!”

In the first bout, which stretched nearly until the last grain fell, brawn beat speed. Cormac, realizing time was nearly out, swung wide, forcing Lachlan to parry far from his body, then charged forward, shoving the lithe man so he stumbled and stepped one foot out of the ring.

“Win, Silivan,” I announced to a grumbling crowd.

“He just shoved him out,” one cadet called.

“Yeah, he didn’t use his sword,” another echoed.

I shrugged. “Did you hear me say you had to use your sword? I gave you the rules. Silivan followed them and forced his opponent out before time expired.”

The grumbling continued with whispers of disapproval.

I crossed my arms. “Do you think bandits will fight fairly? You lot need to wake up. We aren’t preparing you to play games. You’re prepping to deal with real-life people and animals who may want to kill you.”

“So I can kick them in the balls?” Meave Gallagher, the feistiest of the three female members of the team said.

I grinned as the assembled men hushed and waited for my reply. “If you can get your boot between their legs, go for it.”

The women’s grins grew as the men’s faces turned ashen. I fought my own grin.

“Don’t draw blood. Stay away from eyes or anything that might cause permanent damage. Otherwise, don’t droop your bloody sword and stay inside the ring. Got it?”

Uneasy nods were the cadets’ only answers.

“Next,” I eyed the group. “Gallagher and Campbell.”

“No balls to kick there,” one of the men quipped as the two women strode forward. Meave turned back and gave all the men a vulgar gesture.

“There’s the lady we love,” another man called out, earning a chorus of laughter.

“Bring those tasty nuts over here, and I’ll show you what kind of lady I am,” Meave called over her shoulder, kicking her heel up as she walked.

The men, now more boys than cadets, lost all sense of decorum.

“Enough!” I barked, quieting everyone, then turned toward the two competitors now inside the ring. “Pick your weapons and take your positions.

I hadn’t meant to glance at Ayden, but his brilliant smile shone through the unit and distracted me. The annoying man still leaned against a tree and was clearly enjoying the banter. He noticed me staring, and his smile widened, reaching his eyes.

I looked away quickly and tried to ignore the heat racing up my neck.

“Ready?” I called, focusing on the women glaring at each other from across the ring. Meave twirled her sword and grinned wildly. Her opponent remained calm and still.

“Fight!”

Unlike the previous bout, Mauve made quick work of her opponent. Fainting left, darting right, and bringing her full weight down through a sword strike that drove Campbell’s weapon to the ground and left her holding her arm.

Two more contests followed before I turned to Aaron.

“Dempsy, Connor,” I barked, indicating the weakest of the men would face a woman whose smile rarely faltered, but who all knew was as deadly as an adder, especially when she wielded a blade.

Aoife Conner wrapped an arm around Aaron’s shoulders and leaned in. “I’ll make this last as long as I can, okay? I want you to look good.”

Aaron pulled away, annoyance flooding his face, but was too terrified to think of a snappy reply.  

I had barely yelled, “Fight,” before Conner shot forward, whipped her sword in a circle that blurred in the air, and disarmed Aaron. His sword hit the sand before he realized it had left his hand.

Aaron gaped at his palm as though it had betrayed him, then glanced up at Conner.

She shrugged. “Sorry, I needed a win. Tricks are part of the game.”

And just like that, Aaron’s hopes of advancing into his second year dimmed.

By the time Aaron lost his fifth bout, I’d had dismissed all the cadets except Cormac, a skilled swordsman Aaron stood no chance of defeating.

Ayden hadn’t moved from his tree, and I caught myself glancing over more than a few times, each gaze earning an annoyingly perfect, toothy grin.

“Aaron, go get some water,” I ordered.

“I’m not—”

“Aaron, you are thirsty. Get some water.”

Confusion remained on the hapless boy’s face, but he did as instructed, leaving Cormac and me alone in the ring.

“Cormac, I need you to do something,” I began.

Cormac was shaking his head with each word. “I won’t throw a round. Honor—”

“I would never threaten your honor.” I fought the urge to roll my eyes. Honor wouldn’t stop a bandit or a boar from skewering the idiot. “We both know there’s no way Aaron can disarm you. A straight up fight is a waste of your time. I want you to work on your evasion skills in this round. Only defend. Practice your forms, especially dodge and parry. Pretend you’re sparring with a king or prince, and you’re not allowed to attack, only protect.”

“But, Cadet-Sergeant—”

“This is for you, not him.” I held up a palm. “Watching you spar against Lachlan made me realize you never have to defend against anyone in the unit. You need that practice.”

A moment of silence passed as we stared at one another. Cormac’s eyes were defiant, but he nodded once.

“Good. Not a word to Aaron. I don’t want him changing his tactics.”

“Whatever those might be,” Cormac murmured.

“Right.” I grunted. “Just work on your own forms, and don’t worry about him.”

“Yes, sir.”

Aaron returned a moment later, looking just as nervous and exhausted as he had before leaving for his drink.

“Alright, take your marks,” I ordered.

“Fight!”

Cormac stared, unmoving.

Aaron waited.

A moment passed, then another.

Still, neither moved.

“You said ‘go,’ didn’t you?” Aaron asked.

I lost my battle with an eye roll. “Yes, Aaron. Time is running. Do something.”

He lunged forward, sword raised above his head like he was some heroic statue that would never actually have to strike an opponent. When he reached where Cormac stood, the big man stepped to the side and let Aaron stumble past. He nearly fell out of the ring without either man touching the other.

Cormac danced to the opposite side and stared as Aaron regained his footing.

I stepped back until I bumped into the bench and sat, wishing I didn’t have to watch.

Aaron shot forward, this time more balanced and wary. He swung to the right, and Cormac parried easily. Then he swung left, where Cormac dodged like a dancer changing partners. Aaron dropped nearly to his knees and swung at Cormac’s ankles. The big man leaped, nearly hurdling over his scrawny opponent’s bent form, then landed lightly on his feet a pace away.

I squinted at the hourglass. There was still three quarters of the bout to go. I blew out a heavy sigh.

When the sand was nearly out, I stood and shouted, “Aaron, attack! You’re almost out of time. Press him!”

Aaron startled, then flew into a gangly blur. His arms flailed and his sword swung, forcing Cormac to dance faster than he had all bout.

Still, the boy never scored a touch on the mountain.

But that had not been a requirement in the rules.

“Time!” I called. “A draw.”

Cormac’s face was an unreadable mask as he left the ring. Aaron remained bent, hands on his knees, desperately sucking in air.

The moment Cormac was out of earshot, I stepped forward and rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Congratulations, cadet. You passed the second test.”

Aaron’s head shot up. “What? Really? I . . . wait . . . you’re serious?”

A smile filled my chest as I nodded. “Yes, Aaron, I’m serious. You needed a draw, and you got one. It would’ve been nice if you’d touched Cormac, but a win is a win.”

Aaron’s head boobed, and his toothy grin made me laugh.

“Aaron, your hair might be beyond cleaning, and the rest of you needs a bath. Get out of here.”

“Yes, sir,” he stiffened, then bound out of the ring and raced toward the compound’s barracks.

I stared after the boy and shook my head.

“You do him no favors, you know.”

I nearly drew my sword as Ayden stepped up behind me. I’d forgotten the man was still watching.

“Why are you here, Byrne? Don’t you have somewhere better to be than watching First Years test?”

Ayden inclined his head. “Thank you for allowing me to observe. I have yet to receive my assignment, so I have a bit of free time. Watching your unit yesterday made me curious about how they would perform in the ring. It was . . . entertaining.”

I wanted to punch him. “Entertaining? These cadets are working their arses off out here. Show them a little—”

“Easy.” Ayden threw up his palms. “I meant no disrespect. You are good with them, and they clearly respect you. This bodes well for after we leave this place and face the real world together.”

Ayden’s sudden shift from smug derision to complementary had my head spinning. There was no mocking in his tone or taunting on his lips. Everything about his words and bearing spoke of honest praise.

I stared, trying to decide if I believed the man.

Ayden’s depthless blue eyes stared back.

“Uh, okay, thanks,” I fumbled, finally tearing my gaze away to focus on the practice sword Aaron had left behind. “I’d better put this away.” I lifted the sword.

“Right. Very important, that sword. Good thought.” A curl twisted the corners of Ayden’s mouth. “Nice chatting with you, Declan.”

Ayden inclined his head, then strode away toward the headquarters building.        

I stared after him, watching curls of sun-kissed hair dangle and wave.

“Arse,” I muttered, as I stepped out of the sandy ring and dropped the sword into an empty slot on the rack.

An Archer’s Awakening will release in April 2024. Stay tuned for announcements!

© Copyright 2024 by 3AussiesPress. All rights reserved.