The finale: Of the Arbour teaser

His palms were sweating, and he doubted it had anything to do with the fact that it was already so hot out despite being early in the summer. For the hundredth time in a minute, he wiped his hands on his pants and wished he could scratch the sweat off his scalp.

The professors were still assembling themselves in front of the crowd that stood before the great wooden doors of the Arbour. Clenching his teeth, Sage stole a furtive glance through the little crowd. He couldn’t see Briar in the sea of combed hair and solemn faces, but he spotted Ash further down the line, looking as stoic as ever.

Behind the professors stood the rest of the Arbour’s body. Kell was easily visible despite the number, standing high above the others as the sun caught her hair and turned it to fire. And though he couldn’t see her, somewhere in that mass of people was Arcana.

Murmurs brought his attention back to the line of professors. They seemed to have finally organized themselves into a neat line, squinting against the sunlight. The grandmaster stood at their centre, wearing the same frown he always did despite the delighted atmosphere thick around the two groups of students. It was a joyful day, from the mood to the blue sky and sunlight, but one would never be able to tell by looking at the grandmaster’s sour expression. Sage wondered if the old man was capable of a truly genuine smile, or if he had long ago lost the ability.

“Children,” the grandmaster called, and it seemed as though even the birds quieted to hear his words.

The sweat burst out on Sage’s palms with renewed vigour. Part of him was still unable to wrap his head around this. He had made it. He had survived fifteen years of brutal training to become one of the most renowned and elite warriors in the known world. Continue reading

Dark dreams: Of the Arbour teaser

Letting out a long sigh, he shut his eyes.

And opened them again a moment later when a cool hand touched his face. It took a moment for his vision to adjust, but the infirmary seemed much darker than it had only a moment ago. The beds were all empty and though the candles were lit, the room was swallowed in darkness.

The hand that cupped his cheek was joined by another, and a shadow loomed over him.

Sage squinted through the darkness, but the shadow remained veiled. “Who are you?” he asked.

One hand lifted and fingers combed through his hair. How you look like him, a soft voice whispered. I wish he could see you now.

Sage glanced down at the hands that touched him. Long and slender, with creamy skin marred only by calluses from long years of labour. “Maybe he will see me one day,” he suggested, if only to comfort the shadow. It seemed so terribly sad; he didn’t want it to suffer.

It gave an unhappy sigh and once more cupped his face in both hands. You deserve to know what happened. You deserve to know the truth. Bastard, they call you. Orphan. They are cruel words spoken by cruel children who do not know the truth. You will do great things some day, my son. I know you will. I have always known. You are the sunshine of my life.

The hands slipped away, and the shadow faded into darkness.

Sage jerked forward and reached after it. “Wait! Please, don’t go!”

His words were greeted with silence.

He gave it another moment, then flung the blankets off his bed. He had to find the woman behind the shadow. He didn’t know what was driving him, but he had no choice.

His injured leg bothered him little as he stood and padded across the room. There was no sign of the woman who had spoken. It was as if she had disappeared from the infirmary entirely.

Well, no matter.

Moving slowly so his steps made little noise on the stone floor, he wandered across the length of the room to the door leading out to the rest of the Arbour. The handle was icy when his palm touched it. He winced and pulled his hand back, and listened at the door instead. Silence rang from the other side.

Gritting his teeth, he opened the door and stepped into the bitter cold.

He was no longer in the Arbour. Continue reading

Insomnia Strikes: Of the Arbour teaser

He could see shapes in the ceiling.

Shadows writhed in a sensual dance as the dying embers of his candle spat and faded. What little light remained cast an eerie glow across the worn stone walls of his room, and the edges where the mortar had crumbled and flaked away had shadows like spider legs stretched across the surface. The door on the other side of the room was invisible, swallowed by blackness; for a moment he considered taking the time to relight the candle, then decided that wasting the flint would be ridiculous. Master Korrin wasn’t about to give him more because he thought the shadows on his ceiling would give him nightmares.

He rolled his shoulders and winced as bolts of pain shot down his spine and spread through his muscles. Nightmares weren’t for the waking world—usually, he reminded himself with a small shudder. One required sleep to have nightmares. Continue reading

Sparring: Of the Arbour teaser

He was exhausted.

His muscles trembled when he moved, hopping back and scraping his feet on sharp rock. Lifting his arms was a challenge, but he had no choice—he had to keep going. When it came, and steel crashed against steel, he felt the vibration in his very bones. They seemed to grind together in his hands where he gripped the smooth leather hilt; but he felt no pain in his flesh, where the skin had grown thick and tough with practice. He knew his soles bled—he had seen the smears of brownish red on the stone floor—but he felt nothing. Aside from hot streaks of salt where the sweat slid down his temples and his chest, his flesh was numb; the pain he felt was etched into his bones, coursed through his muscles with each movement.

But he had to continue. What small part of his mind that wasn’t overwhelmed by his exhaustion knew that he had no choice but to keep going.

The crash came again and again. His breath was loud in his ears, and sweat stung his eyes; he blinked it away and pushed back, giving himself even a fraction of a second to catch his breath.

Cain’s cheeks were flushed mottled scarlet, and his curls were plastered to his skull with sweat. Sage could have smiled, if he had more energy. It came as something of a small relief to know that Cain was just as worn out as he.

The reprieve was brief. Eyes narrowed, sword hilt clenched in both hands, Cain let out a guttural roar and pushed forward off the rocky floor. Sage only had a moment to react, and then their swords were once more locked together. One more step back; another swing and block; and the screech of metallic song that made his ears ring.

As he danced around Cain’s attacks, blocking almost mindlessly, he wondered how long they had been at this. Sunshine streamed in dusty beams through the open mouth of the cave. Sage’s sword met Cain’s once more, and when he shoved it away he hopped backwards several steps, both in an effort to dodge Cain’s relentless blows and to better see the sun.

An hour at least since they began the fight. An hour of the most brutal training of his life.

By the gods, how he wanted it to end.

But there was no end. There would be no end until blood stained one of their blades, and Sage had sense enough to know that it couldn’t be his.

A Sordid Past: Of the Arbour teaser

“I gotta question for ya, hero.”

Sage took a moment to count under his breath and convince himself that no, he did not have to murder Malachi, then turned back to the scoundrel. “Make it quick. I have things to do today.”

Malachi smirked and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his trousers. “You and me, we both had ‘em bounties on us by the Mad King. Where’d ya hide all that time? Ya can’t have been in a city. Don’t seem wrong enough in the head.”

There was nothing Sage wanted less than to have Malachi know where his family lived. He would have thought it was obvious, but Malachi had been in deeper hiding, his bounty having been one of the highest in recent history. He wouldn’t have been caught up on the news.

“It could have been a city. Why does it matter anyway? We don’t have bounties anymore.”

“No, ‘cause you killed the Mad King. It’s honest curiosity. Just ‘cause there are things in cities ya can’t find in the countryside.”

Sage glanced over Malachi’s shoulder. Kymbry had slunk silently from the crow’s nest and stood next to Stride. The two were near the dinghies, listening to the conversation with interested and expectant expressions.

“Just get to your point, Malachi. I need to go.”

Malachi had an incredibly mobile face. With one twitch at the corner of his mouth, his sneer was at once curious, lewd, and knowing. “We-ell, ‘member how you met your dear, darlin’ sweet wife? ‘Member how she was a whore in Wanderer’s Point, beggin’ for a fuck to get her fix?”

A muscle jumped in Sage’s jaw. “Say one more word, Malachi.”

“I’m just sayin’, hero, cities are dangerous. Things can happen.”

A hand clapped on Malachi’s shoulder, and the scoundrel snapped his jaw shut. “Maybe you should go, Malachi,” Stride said. His voice was level and cool, but there was something dark lurking in the depths. He loved Maia. Everyone who knew her did. Sage relaxed somewhat, knowing Malachi wouldn’t get away with his insults.

Malachi rolled his shoulder out of Stride’s grip and winked at Sage. “We’ll talk later, hero.”

They remained silent until he meandered away, whistling a bawdy tavern song as he went. Stride waited until Malachi was gone, then set a hand on Sage’s arm and towed him to where Kymbry stood. She moved behind him and began combing out his hair with her fingers without bothering to ask.

“I don’t know why you haven’t just killed him yet,” Stride remarked, watching her fingers move deftly through his son’s hair. “He deserves it, just for that alone. Was he asking if Maia had—?”

Sage’s face heated up and he stared at the clear blue waters beneath the Boar so he didn’t have to look his father in the eye. “Yes. She was a whore, Stride. You know that. Everyone does. She was in Wanderer’s Point for a long time.”

Stride’s eyes widened. “But you and the children—”

He wouldn’t have thought it possible for his blush to deepen, but it must have, for he suddenly felt like somebody had dunked his face in boiling water. “I know,” he snapped, and his abrupt gesture made Kymbry lose her grip on the braid. She smacked his head and started over. “But I don’t. And the children don’t. And Maia is fine.”


Kymbry quickly finished up the braid and patted Sage’s head where she had hit him. “Wandering caravans from the Dunes have remarkable healers,” she said vaguely, and not for the first time, Sage wondered about her part in Maia’s sordid history with Malachi. “Maia is fine, and we would know if Sage was ill after all this time. It shows more readily in men than women.”

Stride winced and a hand automatically went to his groin. “By the One. Don’t get me wrong, lad—I love the girl, but she has some questionable life choices behind her.”

“Please don’t talk about it when we get back.” Sage ran his palm down the bumpy ridge of the braid. He couldn’t wait to get Flynn and go home, partially because these constant braids were emasculating. “Maia is… sensitive. And if Ash found out about her past, he’d never shut up about it.”

His father nodded, but his unease was plain in his eyes.

Loss: Of the Arbour teaser

Sage stole a glance at her bunk. She was invisible beneath her blanket, but he could hear her gentle sighs as she slept, interspersed with the occasional snuffle and snort. It seemed the only time she was at peace now was when she slept, and even then she often woke, sweaty and tearstained, from nightmares.

Sage had forgotten to ask Briar to marry them. And during the Siege of the Arbour, when Cain the Mad invaded the Nation’s last safe haven, Keelin had been escorting a group of five year olds—the Arbour’s youngest students—and Sage’s three children to safety. In the confusion of battle, she had been killed—and Siras, heartbroken and devastated, had blamed Sage.

He stood and trudged to his bed. Siras has spoken little since the Siege, and smiled and laughed even less. There was no real indication she had forgiven him, but none that she hadn’t, either. He looked at her once more as he shed his shirt and crawled beneath his thin quilt. Her face was relaxed in slumber, but not peaceful; it could never be so, drenched and marred as it was with scars and sorrow.

Once the cabin was dark and the only sounds were Siras’ breaths and the creaks and thuds of the ship around them, Sage shut his eyes and began the process of taking inventory. Stride had suggested it, partway through their voyage, as a means for Sage to sleep. It didn’t often work, but the habit was ingrained into him now.

Not one for praying—a habit he found rather ridiculous, but wisely kept quiet when the subject was approached by his more religiously-inclined companions—he simply went through a mental list of those he loved and wished them well wherever they might be. Stride had told him it was similar to a prayer when he suggested it, only the thoughts weren’t directed at any deity. And that suited Sage just fine.

First and foremost was his family. Maia, Ash, and Isobel, back at the Arbour—how big would Ash be now? How much had Bella’s vocabulary grown? And Flynn, somewhere in this scattering of verdant islands, afraid and alone.

His father, Stride, and mother, Carol; Galvyn, former Master of the Arbour, the paternal grandfather he hadn’t known was his until after the old man was murdered.

Briar, across the hall. Siras, sleeping less than a metre away. And with a small pang of regret and loss—Keelin, murdered by mistake.

The professors at the Arbour. General Shal, Commander Ren, Countess Elin, Knight-Commander Vian; his allies during the Revolution.

He sighed and opened his eyes, exhausted but unable to sleep. He was exhausting his list, but there were still a few more names and faces he could use; maybe by then, his body and mind would be tricked into slumber.

His heart clenched as he began the next segment of his habit. The image of a young man, with tousled blonde hair and warm brown eyes, and fingers picked and chewed to nothing; one of his oldest friends, his own firstborn’s namesake, and Maia’s elder brother: Ash. He had been murdered many years ago, at the dawn of the Revolution, for his involvement in an expulsion during their final year at the Arbour—but it had been much more than that, hadn’t it? They hadn’t realized it at the time, but…

Sage rubbed his face and fidgeted, trying to get comfortable on the hard bunk. There was one name left on his list—one that he often touched on in passing, coming to him at random times during the day. It wasn’t unpleasant, but he would rather the ghosts of the past leave him alone, literally and figuratively.

Once upon a time, King Cain the Mad had been a brilliant student—albeit with anger issues—studying at the Arbour alongside Sage. They had never been friends, but their many altercations had been memorable. It had only been at the end, however, with Sage’s dagger buried in Cain’s chest, that all that lay between them had been set aside; because of it, Sage could truly mourn his loss.

He glared into the shadows above his berth and grumbled, “Why can’t you just leave me alone, Cain? I did nothing to you that you didn’t deserve.”

The night passed slowly. Sage lay awake, listening to the wooden creaks of the ship and the sea sloshing against the hull, and the snorts and sighs of the sailors in cabins around them, all peacefully lost in slumber—something that seemed especially determined to elude Sage.

Broken Family: Of the Arbour teaser

He clambered to his feet and automatically took Isobel’s hand when Maia set her down. “Mama, when it snows, will you do something Papa would do?”

Maia swallowed a lump in her throat and ruffled his hair. “I suppose. What is it?”

Carol reddened and hurried into the inn, leaving the three of them on the stoop. Maia frowned after her, then looked back at Ash, expectant.

He grinned, showing off his neat white teeth. “Write his name in the snow!”

Maia stared at him, mind blank for a moment. When she recovered, she asked, “Is that how you learned how to write your name?”


She managed a creaky smile. No wonder Sage had such an easy time looking after three children. He hadn’t ever really grown up. “Girls can’t do that, Ash. Come on. We can talk about Papa later if you want. It’s time to see your grandmother and grandfather from my side.”

He frowned, obviously confused about having more grandparents than Nan and Grandpa, but waddled into the inn before her, dragging Isobel behind him. The pleasant smell of bread and soup floated out to meet them as they went inside, and Maia’s tension eased enough for her shoulders to relax. The inn was sparsely decorated—there were a few paintings on the walls, and the tables and chairs were of a fine enough wood—but the atmosphere more than made up for it. It wasn’t busy yet, but there was a comfortable buzz of talk and laughter mixed in with the scent of food and drink.

Carol waited for them just inside the mudroom and took Maia’s jacket to hang up with the other patrons’. Maia thanked her with a smile and began to scope out her parents in the dim taproom.

“You knew he was going to suggest that,” she said, more of a statement than question.

“I caught Sage and Stride showing him once. I’m terrified for when Ash grows up a bit more. Those three are going to be a terror.”

Maia shrugged. “I’ll visit my parents when that happens. There they are.” She pointed to a pair seated before the crackling hearth, and her stomach dropped when she realized just how long ago she had last seen her parents. Neither of them had any colour left to their hair, and their skin was crackled and weathered. Relief flooded her when they looked up and she saw the same youth and passion in their eyes; they hadn’t really changed, despite the outer shell being different.

“Maia, love.” Her father started to climb from his cushioned chair, then seemed to think better of it and remained seated. “You look so grown up.”

She smiled and stooped to hug him, then her mother. “I’m a real adult now. How are you? Was the trip all right?” She hauled Isobel away from the hearth before she could totter into the fire, and settled herself in the seat opposite her parents. Carol made herself comfortable beside her, holding Ash’s hand so he couldn’t wander too far off.

The trip was fine; apparently they had an easy ride with a few of their neighbours who were also en route to the City. They had been more than happy to take two extra passengers when they heard they were going to meet their daughter, who they hadn’t seen in over five years.

When her father finished his explanation, his eyes settled expectantly on Carol.

“Oh!” Maia adjusted the squirmy daughter on her lap and gestured to her mother-in-law. “Mama, Papa, this is Sage’s mother, Carol of the City. And these are two of your newest grandchildren, Ash and Isobel. Carol, these are my parents, Aberle and Lilith of Lamplight.”

Carol, ever graceful, extended a hand. “We’ve heard only the best things about you and your family,” she said with a warm smile. “We actually have some of your candles at the Arbour. Beautiful things.”

Lilith flushed prettily, looking once more like the woman she had been. “Thank you. Now that we’re finally meeting, I must say that we are so glad our daughter married your son.” She smiled at her husband, and Maia managed to keep from rolling her eyes. Their adoration had terrified Sage upon their first meeting. “We always knew he was a good lad.”

To distract them from embarrassing a man who wasn’t even present to defend himself, Maia plunked Isobel on the table. “Bella, Ash, this is your Grandfather Aberle and Grandmother Lilith,” she said, patting Isobel. Lilith instantly scooped her up and began fussing over her hair, exclaiming loudly that Maia was so lucky to have children with such lovely blonde hair.

Aberle smiled, but it didn’t seem entirely genuine. “You never did explain where your other son is. Or why Sage isn’t here to see us.”

Maia’s throat closed up, mouth suddenly dry. “I—I’d rather not talk about it right now, Papa. Sage doesn’t want it to be common knowledge where he’s gone.”

He nodded. “Later, then. Let’s get some food in us, and you can tell us all about your lovely children.”

She imitated his gesture, feeling suddenly like her insides had been scraped hollow. While her parents and Carol were fussing over Isobel and Ash—the latter of whom positively adored the attention being slathered on him—she quietly excused herself and went outside, hoping the peace of nature in the Willow Plaza could relax her.

She ended up sitting on a bench in a park, facing the open gates to the impoverished residential district, the Pit. There was a cool wind blowing in off the mountain around the City, but she barely felt it; she didn’t even blink as she stared into the Pit, watching the poor and desperate wander about without a real goal.

Only the thought of Ash and Isobel in the Republic Inn, and Sage sailing into unknown seas to find Flynn, kept her from standing and marching straight into the shady alleyways of the Pit. The shadow of her fifteen year old self that still resided somewhere inside her begged her to stand and just go into the Pit. Even from this distance she could see the telltale signs of someone lost in the throes of a high.

It would be so easy. And it wasn’t like she would necessarily get addicted again. She knew how to find dealers, and she could get just enough to calm her down and make her forget about Sage and Flynn and the baby she lost.

Someone shouted her name and she jerked out of the reverie, finding herself in a cold sweat. Running trembling fingers through her hair, she shut her eyes and exhaled slowly.

“This is what happens when you aren’t here, Sage,” she whispered, cradling her head in her hands. “I can’t do this without you.”

The New World: Of the Arbour teaser

When they burst free of the hold, Sage was surprised to see that the sun had barely risen over the horizon. The sky was murky grey, with pale rose and orange sorbet streaking the edge of the earth. The tranquil sea emulated the slate sky, and the Bloated Boar was calm and repaired from the previous day’s storm. Everything was peaceful and relaxed, and at first he couldn’t tell what had Kymbry so…

He frowned and looked at her. She had spent the whole night awake, judging from her frazzled curls and salt-stained clothes from yesterday. Exhaustion lined her face and circled her eyes in blackness. So what had done it?

Then she lifted a trembling arm and pointed to the eastward sky, where the most vibrant colour stained the greyness. East, the rising sun. East, their destination.

Sage’s heart clenched, hopped up into his throat, then plummeted into his gut.

Clearly silhouetted against the early morning were dozens—no, hundreds—of lush green islands, with jagged mountains that pierced the heavens and trees that grew endlessly. White stone blotches speckled the verdant greenness, but none stood near the mountainous islands; all remained near the water that surrounded them. The islands stretched out along the horizon, seeming endless, and the beautiful realization of it hit him like a hammer.

The Kingdoms of Skye.

He cursed under his breath, which seemed to amuse Kymbry. She laughed and leaned against his arm; he stood still, awestruck at the sight before them, and was happy to be her solid pillar for the moment.

“I can’t even…”

“Words can’t really do them justice,” she whispered, and he felt her smile on his arm. “We have some words in the dialects of Skye that help, but the Hands and rulers know god words that are so beautiful one can only see the islands and hear the words and weep with the splendour of it all.”

Sage smiled, wishing this moment—standing on a ship deck at dawn, watching the slow approach of a fabled kingdom—could last forever. He freed his arm and she sighed, instead leaning against his chest, and he draped his arm around her shoulders, suddenly feeling both elated and weighed down with exhaustion. He thought her words summed it up as best as they could.

She pressed her forehead into his ribs. “If you think seeing a scattering of islands from this distance is beautiful, wait until you see the cities. People of the Nation who have returned mad with delusions of grand white cities—and those like me, who have been expelled from their kingdom—are the only ones who can truly appreciate the beauty.”

Her voice trembled, and he felt a small shudder ripple through her; he could only imagine the thoughts that must be swirling through her mind. They were a day away from her home, which she had been away from for thirteen excruciating years. She had been exiled, doomed to sail alone to her death; exiled for thievery, and by her own sister. Yet despite the obvious bitterness and contempt she harboured, she still thought of Skye as her home, its people her own. She never missed a chance to tell anyone who would listen how pitiful the Nation was compared to each of Skye’s five kingdoms.

Sage gave an internal sigh and watched the too-green hills and too-white buildings, waiting as if they would change before his eyes.

He was surrounded by more women than men in his life, and he knew from her stillness and silence that he should comfort her. But what could he say? “Maybe your evil-queen sister forgot what you did?” “Don’t worry; I bet everyone will have forgiven you, and nothing has changed.”

Sage would always be welcome at his home. Unable to really comprehend what she must be experiencing, he remained silent, and the expanding gulf between them was almost corporeal.

Finally, Kymbry pulled away and left his side without a word. He watched, concern roiling in his gut like snakes, as she approached Malachi and led him away, likely to speak in private. Sage suspected theirs was a marriage of convenience, but Malachi knew her better than anyone else, and she could freely share with him her fears and hopes of Skye.

We Shall Drive Them Back: Of the Arbour teaser

The wind whistled over the treetops, threatening to bow the ancient firs to the will of nature. Flakes of snow danced over their heads, clinging to the frost on their armour as they waited. They stood in the mouth of a mountain pass. Rocky cliffs lined either side of the funnel, gradually growing narrower as they peered onward. The air was icy, only adding to the trepidation of the day.

“This is their work, ye know,” one man beside him whispered. His breath blew little white clouds that dissipated almost immediately. “Nymphs. They can control the weather. Contort it to their twisted will.”

The man on his other side mumbled a small prayer to Celeste and Amaranth before staring solidly onward. Snow was gradually filling the pass. It would make it difficult to fight off the advancing worshippers. But it would be northern snow, not those flimsy winters from the woodlands. They had the upper hand by knowing their country; knowing the weather blessed upon them by Moirai.

A shiver passed through him. The pass was cold, even for this season. He wasn’t one to believe the legends about how the nymphs granted their worshippers the power to control nature itself, but it was hard to miss the unnatural air hovering over the heads of his men. They all believed, superstitious as they were.

He snorted softly and shifted his weight between his feet. His toes were freezing in the steel-plated leather boots he wore.

Superstition, he found, was far too prominent in big cities. He had always come to believe that it was the littler settlements that had more practicality, even though common belief said otherwise.

His father had been the most practical man he had ever met. Perhaps that was why he didn’t share the ridiculous beliefs of his men—mere people could not control the weather, and why would the nymphs bother blessing their power on their worshippers?

Well. It was up to him to encourage them once more. The people of Shield were counting on him and his army to keep them safe from the woodland maniacs.

Shaking so the gathering snow slipped from his steel armour, he unsheathed his sword with a metallic ring and marched away from the front line. The hushed babble from the crowd softened until all was silent, and every single wary pair of eyes rested on him.


But what could he say? Yes, he was the hunter of his village, but he did no inspirational speaking when he brought home the pelts of feral creatures in the wilds near home. He never had to raise the spirits of his fellow hunters and fishers. This was all foreign and new to him. And he had no idea what to say about it.

He exhaled long and slow, revelling in the brief warmth his breath filled his helmet with. “I have nay control over what ye all have learned in the chapels o’ your big cities,” he shouted, so his voice echoed off the rock walls of the mountains around them. Several of the nearby men muttered something about him being a runt from a village barely settled, but he ignored it. If they wanted to be petty, they could very well do it. “But where I come from,” he boomed, “we learn that all that is mighty in nature, all that is pure o’ the sky and ocean, that is all Celeste! May our lady guide our hands in battle, and may Amaranth bless our blades under his almighty name!”

His voice shuddered as he hesitated, scanning the crowd to see if he truly had the attention of his army. He had never spoken before such a mass before, but nobody seemed to be mocking his speech just yet.

And he had to keep going. He had to finish it. Remind them just what glorious deities were on their side. “And should this vile weather be the work of Ire, not some silly woodland nymphs who do not even exist! Least o’ not in our fair land!” He waved his sword to the cliffs surrounding them, imposing and dark even in the swirling snow. “Those fairies are nothing to our gods!”

“And what if we all die, General?” someone several lines back shouted over him.

He dropped his sword arm back to his side and glared into the crowd. “Aye? What if we do die? Fide bless our homes and make our women bear sons, aye?”

“Aye!” several voices crooned excitedly.

“And Erudite will bless our souls and bring us wealth from our woodland neighbours!” Exhilaration washed over him; hearing his soldiers, his comrades and countrymen shout their readiness for battle, pump their swords and axes to the air: it made him anxious to get started, to drive the nymph worshippers back to their ancient forest glades.

“Moirai may weep and wash the blood o’ our enemies from our blades,” he bellowed. Birds cawed as his rumbling voice startled them from their winter roosts, and the yells of his men were briefly accompanied by the flutter of many wings. “And it is her word that dictates our destinies this day! Nay nymph nor her worshipper can control who we are, and what we are meant to do!” He flung his arms to the side, and a grin etched his face as the triumphant roars of his men filled his ears.

His second-in-command stepped forward a few steps as the others shouted and roared their excitement for battle. Resting a gloved hand on his shoulder, the smaller man murmured, “They come, sir. What shall ye have us do?”

He glanced over his shoulder and saw the dark specks of the woodlanders arriving in the widening mouth of the pass. At their distance, it was impossible to tell if they were armoured and laden with weapons. Shield was nearby; the nymph worshippers were in lands foreign to them, and this grand army would stop them.

Whirling back to his men, he lifted his arms to the sky and shut his eyes, letting Moirai’s crisp, ice weather kiss his bearded cheeks. “We shall drive them back!” he shrieked, raising his blade to the clouds. “We shall show them just what the Army o’ the Blade is, and why their nymphs do not compare to our gods!”

And with his army at his back and his elegantly crafted blade in his hand, he turned and faced the approaching woodlanders, grinning.

A Sea and Sky Rent in Two: Of the Arbour teaser

Thunder boomed and rolled across a sky licked with tongues of lightning. A low growl rose up from the depths of the ship as it collided with a wave; ocean water sprayed across the deck, salty and stinging, only to mix in with the rain pelting them from a sky cracked open. Shouts were drowned out by the snarl of thunder and crash of waves, but he still heard it when someone nearby screamed his name.

Sage turned just in time to see a monstrous wall of black water, taller than any he had ever seen. Swearing and cursing every deity he could think of, he scrambled across the slippery deck and launched at the mainmast. His fingers curled around the ropes and pressed into the wood just as the wave pummelled the ship and sent it rocking like a toy. Faraway, someone screeched and a dark shape shot past him, tumbling across the slick wooden planks.

Water washed over the edges and fell back to the churning sea, and the ship righted itself. Taking advantage of whatever time he had, Sage released the mainmast and staggered to the stern deck. Several of the crew ran past him, shouting orders and carrying ropes to hastily repair anything that had snapped or been washed away during the latest attack.

Wiping water from his eyes, Sage grabbed the side railing for support and climbed up the steps to the poop deck. “Kymbry!” he said, voice hoarse since the beginning of the storm. “Kymbry!”

The captain faced him, though her feet remained steady and her hands strong on the helm. Rain and waves had flattened her usually large curls to her head, and she looked small, like a rat thrown into a pond, save for the fierce look of determination set on her features. She was a sailor in heart and soul. “What?”

Sage’s head jerked back as the ship rolled again; he clung to the railing, desperate to keep from being flung into the relentless ocean. Lightning flashed, briefly illuminating the otherwise suffocating darkness. “How much longer can this possibly last?” he screamed, waving an arm at the deck below. Dark figures rushed to and fro, desperate to find a moment of respite.

Kymbry turned her face forward, facing the rain and storm. “It won’t be long now!” she called back, rather cryptically. Sage gawked at her, heart beating frantically in his chest. Was this how they were going to die? “Find Malachi and Stride! Make sure Briar is safe! Help secure anything that could be a hazard! Leave this to me!”

He nodded and half-walked, half-fell back to the deck. Rain thrashed him at all angles no matter where he went; shielding his eyes with a hand, he stumbled across the deck, fighting to keep his balance on the rocking ship as well as find his father. The deck heaved again and tossed him forward; he lurched over and slammed onto his chest. Pain wracked his body, but he gritted his teeth and climbed to his knees.

Something thumped his shoulder and hauled him to his feet. “Hold onto somethin’!” a hoarse voice hollered near his head. “Another wave is comin’!”

Sage scrambled forward and grabbed the nearby ratlines for support. “Malachi!”

The man who helped him stopped and slicked once-curly hair over his head. “What?”

“Have you seen—” But before he could finish speaking, another wave—the very one Malachi warned him about—rose over the side of the deck and splashed over them. Sage sputtered and felt his fingers burn as the weight of it nearly ripped him from the ratlines. It washed away, leaving him further soaked and exhausted. Malachi was beside him, having launched himself at the ropes to save himself. Sage spat water from his mouth and stared at the scoundrel. “Have you seen Briar?”

He shook his head, light green eyes bright with terror. “No! Siras was by the bow! I ain’t seen no one else!” He coughed and jumped off the ratlines. “Keep an eye on her, Sage! She could be gone and we’d blame the water!”

Panic shot through him. Briar was capable, and she knew to stay below decks during a storm; Stride was no sailor, but he was strong and eager to help. He didn’t have to worry about them.

But Siras, on the other hand…

With fear pulsing through him, he pushed off the ropes and hurried toward the bow of the ship. Dark shapes flickered in and out of his vision; sailors screamed and bumped past him. Shortly, he arrived at the forecastle and saw his prey just behind the bowsprit. She looked like she was hauling ropes and retying knots, but Sage doubted her integrity and grabbed her skinny wrist.

She whirled around, eyes blazing electric blue in the lightning. When she saw who it was, she relaxed somewhat, but still tried to wrench her arm from his grip.

“I need your help!” he shouted. A ruse—that was all he needed. A lie to keep her by his side.

Siras’ lip curled and she finally pulled free. “No!”

The pain was evident in her voice. Perpetual sorrow.

Sage didn’t want to play the bad guy, but he wasn’t about to lose his best friend. Before she could react, he grabbed her about the middle and hauled her away from the edge of the bowsprit. She shrieked and pummelled him with kicks and weak punches, and even resorted to biting his arm, but he held tight and padded toward the steps leading from the forecastle.

Another wave shook the ship; together they tumbled down the stairs and landed heavily on the main deck. Siras stopped struggling, if only for the moment, and Sage took advantage of it to leap back to his feet and bodily drag her toward the door that led to the cabins below deck.

“Sage! What are you doing?”

“Keep watch of her,” he said, nearly tripping down the final steps into the main hold. Stride was standing a few metres before him, soaked through but jovial even as he helped tie down loose barrels and crates with other seamen. They stood in near-total darkness, but there was just enough light from the flashes of the storm outside that he could see her scarred face, and the blood that trickled down her cheek. “Shit. She hit her head when we fell.”

Stride scoffed and took her from his son’s arms. “We’ll put her with Briar. She’ll know what to do. Get out there and help. One knows Malachi won’t be much use for Kymbry until this storm’s over.”

Sage nodded, and spared another worried glance at the limp body cradled by his father. “She says it’s nearly over.”

“I hope she’s right.”

By the time Sage returned to the main deck, the sailors and Kymbry had succeeded in steadying the ship so it was possible to walk without being ejected over the rail and into the seas. Exhausted and feeling as though his knees were made of rubber, he slicked his long blonde waves over his head and limped toward the stern, to ask Kymbry what else needed to be done.

The captain was expecting him. “Are they safe?”

“Siras looked ready to go overboard!” he called, rubbing his sore shin as he climbed the steps to the poop deck. “But she’s down with Stride now!”

“Good! See that?” Moving one hand from the helm, she pointed to the sky. It looked as though some mighty hand had split the black clouds in two, allowing a stream of pale light through. “Storm’s breaking! Give it ten minutes and we’ll be on calm seas once again!”

Sage grimaced. “Until then?”

A sly smile flitted across her pale lips. “Help me steer the ship!” she said, though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“I’ve never steered a ship before, Kymbry!”

“I’ll guide you! Come here!”

Sage obeyed and crossed the deck to reach the helm. When he neared her, he saw just how exhausted she was. Lines gouged deep in a white face that was normally pristine and smooth; her shoulders and back hunched in an effort to keep her body upright. Normally steadfast and strong, this trip was taking its toll on her.

He had been a student, mercenary, soldier, prophet, slave, gladiator, husband, father, and knight. Why not try helmsman this time?

Gritting his teeth, he shuffled in front of her and took hold of the helm. Kymbry reached around him and held his hands in the correct places. The wood shuddered beneath his touch as the sea battered the hull and rudder at all possible angles, trying to force it in every direction at once. His muscles strained with the effort of keeping it steady; within minutes of taking hold of the ship, he knew why Kymbry wanted help.

But she was a daughter of the water and nature; from what they knew of their destination, it was an archipelago of several hundred islands, and the major method of transportation was through the winding canals. Alone, she sailed from that land to Sage’s home country, the Nation, and survived. There was no reason to doubt her word if she thought the storm was coming to a close.

A quarter hour later, the raging seas calmed enough for Kymbry’s first mate to man the helm and give the captain much-needed reprieve. After a half hour, the rain ceased, albeit rather reluctantly, and a weak sun began to shine through mottled grey clouds. Ferocious winds still rushed to and fro, but Sage was assured that this was excellent—that they could unfurl the majority of the sails to gain maximum speed and be on their way.

Panting from the exertion pressed on them by the storm, Sage wiped his wrist across his forehead and slumped against the railing. “There has got to be a better way of getting to Skye,” he said, squinting up at the ghostly silver woman standing beside him.

Kymbry’s steel eyes hardened at his words. Standing stiff save to squeeze out the water from her thick platinum curls, she said, “Perhaps. But I haven’t travelled this route in thirteen years, and then and now I hadn’t a map. We’ll make do with what we have. Brynn! What’s the status on the cargo?” Apparently finished with him, she moved across the deck, limping only somewhat from her weariness.

Sage watched her go, then resumed a staring contest with the dreary grey sky.