This week’s teaser from THE BLOODFORGED introduces a brand new point-of-view!
WARNING: Contains spoilers for THE BLOODBOUND.
There were certain constants in the world. Absolutes. Things you could count on, whatever twists and turns fate might take. Dogs obeyed their masters. Knights fought in battle, with swords and arrows and other pointy objects. And commanders got to choose their own seconds—especially if they were prince of the sodding realm.
So how, Liam wondered, did he end up here?
“Bollocks,” he growled.
Ide didn’t respond. Admittedly, Liam might have mentioned this before.
“Completely unfair,” he added.
That provoked a response, though not quite the one he’d been looking for. “All due respect, Commander, you sound like a five-year-old.”
“There’s gratitude for you.”
Ide hitched a shoulder, her sturdy frame swaying back and forth with the rhythm of the horse. “No use wallowing in it. What’s done is done. I don’t mind so much anyway. Never expected to be made a knight, did I?”
“You deserved it,” Liam said. “You’re a better fighter than half the men under my command, and they’re the cream of the realm.” What was left of them, anyhow.
Ide shrugged again. “I still come out ahead, way I see it.”
See, that was why he’d picked her in the first place. He’d never met someone so levelheaded. Ide was cool as mint in a fight. Afterward, she could put away enough wine to sink a small ship and still beat you at cards. She could shoot a swallow out of the sky, and that was before she’d got her bloodbow. Now he had to put her aside for some random Brownsword he’d never even met? Good job his new second had been recommended by Rig, or Liam might have pitched a proper fit.
Ide was right, though—there was no point dwelling on it. In less than half an hour, she would be relieved as his second, whether he liked it or not.
The landscape rolled past, a dozen shades of brown under an ash-coloured sky. The horses’ hooves drummed rhythmically against dirt packed hard with frost. It was almost enough to put him to sleep. Last night had been spent on the hard earth, and the night before that… Between making love to his wife and staring miserably at the ceiling (fortunately not at the same time, or he might have found himself short one appendage), he hadn’t had much sleep. He wondered how the beds at the inn would be. Nicer than what you’ve known most of your life, most likely. Things certainly had changed since he became Liam White. For the better, mostly. But when it came to things like this . . . diplomatic missions and political appointments . . .
“There it is, Commander,” said Rona Brown, pointing. She’d braided her hair like Alix’s, he noticed, starting behind her forehead and sweeping down one side. Just fashionable enough to mark her as a noblewoman, but subtly. Smart, he thought. The Onnani would go for that, if what Alix had told him was true. He was glad Rona had come along, he decided. He hadn’t been sure at first. He would have preferred to leave her in command of the Pack, the bulk of which had stayed behind in Erroman. It wouldn’t have occurred to him to consult her on courtly matters. It was, he had to admit, a good idea.
“You been to Onnan before, Commander?” Ide asked.
Liam shook his head, taking in the shambling outline of the village as it rose up out of the horizon. “Actually, I don’t think I’ve been this far east before.”
“Not much reason to,” Ide said, “unless you fancy pig farming.”
As soon as she said it, Liam could smell it: the unmistakably delightful odour of pig shit. This just keeps getting better.
The village was typical of those along the highways, little more than a glorified hitching post erected for travellers on their way somewhere more important. Its amenities lined the road like a row of soldiers hoping to be picked for some special duty. Liam spotted a smithy, a baker, a cobbler, and a cluster of market stalls selling vegetables and meat. “Do you suppose they have pork?” he asked dryly.
The Boar’s Tusk was the only stone structure in the village. A handsome whitewashed building of two storeys capped with thatch, it presided over its collection of modest neighbours with the ponderous dignity of a priest ministering to a rabble of peasants. Cheerful bay windows swelled out from the walls on either side of the door. It was posh, all right. Liam suddenly felt awkward. As much as he looked forward to a nice bed, sleeping apart from the rest of the men didn’t seem right. It was easier to ignore at the palace. The Pack barracks were well appointed, as barracks go, and Liam had family to look forward to at the end of the day. Out here on the road, it felt like putting on airs.
Get used to it, he told himself. You’re not one of the lads anymore. He dismounted and handed the reins to Stig. “Tell the stable boy no oats,” he reminded the squire. “And take Rudi with you, all right?”
“Yes, Commander.” Stig summoned the wolfhound with a shrill whistle and headed off to the stables.
The door of the inn opened to eject a plump, swarthy man in a straining doublet. From his dark complexion, Liam would have taken him for Onnani, but he was obviously of mixed blood, because a moustache the size of a small ferret perched across his upper lip. The innkeep, Liam reckoned.
“Your Highness,” the man said, bowing low. “It is a great honour to welcome you to the Boar’s Tusk. My name is Cull, your most humble host. Please, come inside. Your supper is on the stove even now.”
Liam, Ide, and Rona Brown followed the innkeep into a warm, low-lit common room full of empty tables. For a fleeting moment, Liam worried what that said about the food. Then he realised: They’ve cleared the whole place out for us. For you. He almost sighed aloud, offering a silent apology to the poor sods who’d been relocated to gods-knew-where. His gaze took in the rest of the room. A long, curved bar hugged the far wall, and a fire snapped in the hearth. Something sizzled heartily behind a closed door. Bacon, naturally.
The room’s only occupant rose from behind a table near the hearth. He wore Kingsword armour, and had the dark hair, smooth cheeks, and dusky complexion of an easterner. He bowed.
“Commander Dain Cooper, I presume.” Liam hoped it sounded warmer than he felt.
“Your Highness.” The knight bowed again.
“Wasn’t sure you’d make it in time. You ride fast.”
Dain Cooper made no reply.
“Shall I have the girl draw you a bath, Your Highness?” the innkeep asked.
Liam glanced at his companions. “I think we’d rather eat first,” he said, to a vigorous nod from Ide.
The innkeep blinked, surprised by this display of rough manners. Liam was feeling just peevish enough to enjoy that.
The three Wolves joined their newest member at the table. Liam clasped arms in greeting, which seemed to surprise the other man. He introduced Ide and Rona and pulled up a chair.
Then they sat there and stared at each other for a while.
“So,” Liam said eventually. “You’re my new second.”
Brilliant opening. While you’re at it, maybe you could try lighting a fire with soggy straw.
“It’s my great honour, Your Highness,” the knight said.
“I . . . beg your pardon?”
Rona Brown came to his rescue. “The commander prefers for us to refer to him by his military rank, not his courtly one. He only goes by Your Highness at the palace. Just as I only go by Lady Brown at court or at Brownhold.”
“I see,” Dain said, in a tone that suggested he really didn’t. “I apologise, Commander. I didn’t realise.”
“How could you?” Liam said. Since I’ve never clapped eyes on you before they made you second-in-command of my Pack.
The knight shifted in his seat. He wore a look that Liam knew intimately; he’d been seeing it in the mirror for months. A man out of place. Sent where he’d been told, not where he’d chosen to go. Surrounded by people he feared were judging him.
You, Liam White, are a proper prat.