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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 5


Wind swept through the field, gusting against the walls of Castle Teerman and through the many alcoves and balconies overlooking the training yard. Crisp white rippled from within the darkness of one of those recesses like the specters rumored to haunt Wisher’s Grove, but what had caught my attention this morning was no spirit haunting the castle.

It was her, like clockwork.

The Chosen.

The Maiden.

She appeared in the various shadowy alcoves, usually two hours past dawn. Since I was a betting man, I was willing to wager she thought no one saw her.

But I always did.

Other than the times I managed to follow her from the inner wall surrounding the castle while she walked in the garden, this was as close as I got to her.

That, however, would change.

One side of my mouth curled as air stirred to my right. I brought the broadsword up, blocking the blow. Dipping under the next attack, my gaze flicked back to the recess. What sunlight managed to penetrate the alcove glinted off the golden chains securing the Maiden’s veil.

My partner’s footsteps gave away his movements before he struck. Pivoting, I cut his sword down, nearly knocking it from his grasp even though I checked my strength. I glanced at the second floor as I leaned back, dodging the swipe of a thick blade.

Another row of golden chains glinted from the shadows. She must’ve turned her head. For what? Who knew? She was alone. Well, relatively speaking. No one was right beside her, but Rylan Keal, one of the two Royal Guards who served as her personal guardians, stood farther back in the alcove. She was never truly alone. When she was with the Lady in Wait that I usually saw her with, a guard followed. When she was in her chambers, her doors were manned.

I couldn’t understand how she dealt with that—how anyone could. Being constantly surrounded as she was would drive me mad.

Then again, the quiet wasn’t all that favorable either, now was it? Not when too much silence made me think of damp, cold stone, and pain. Made me think of my brother. So, I guessed I was sort of fucked—

Hawke,” the man snapped as I stopped his blade with mine when it was about an inch from my throat.

Slowly, I turned my head toward my sparring partner, giving him what he apparently desired: my full attention.

Unease flashed in the sea-blue eyes of the seasoned Royal Guard who’d likely seen some shit in his time. He took a slight step back, an instinctive reaction he couldn’t help nor even begin to understand. That gut instinct usually sent most mortals scurrying off before they could question the cause, but not him. He caught himself before he conceded further, the skin at the corners of his eyes pulling taut. Irritation quickly settled in the weathered face of the Maiden’s other personal guard.

“You should be paying attention,” Vikter Wardwell bit out, knocking back a strand of blond hair that had blown across his face. “Unless you’re in the mood to lose a limb or your head.”

Dust from the packed dirt whipped around us as another gust of wind funneled through the yard. “I’m paying attention.” I paused, glancing down to where our swords remained locked. I then gave him a tight-lipped smile. “Obviously.”

Tension bracketed his mouth. “Let me rephrase. You should be paying more attention to the field.”

“Versus what?”

“Versus wherever your eyes and attention may be wandering to,” he said, holding my stare. He didn’t look away, not for a damn second. “Masadonia is far more susceptible to attacks than the capital. The enemies you will face here will take full advantage of any distractions.”

My smile didn’t fade. I knew that ticked off the prickly bastard. I also knew he had a damn good idea of where my eyes had wandered to. Which meant I also had to give him credit for knowing exactly where the Maiden was, even though Keal protected her right now.

A whistle sounded, signaling the end of training. Neither Vikter nor I moved.

“Not sure I know what you speak of,” I replied, sparing one more look at our swords before forcing his tip to the ground. “But I appreciate the sage advice, nonetheless.”

“Glad to hear.” A muscle ticked in his jaw. “Because I have more sage advice for you.”

“Is that so?”

Vikter stepped in, his head tilting back to meet my stare. The man was brave, but he didn’t realize he was one of two obstacles that stood between the Maiden and me.

And one of them had to go.

“I don’t give two shits about the glowing recommendations you arrived with from the capital,” he said.

I arched a brow, aware that the Commander of the Royal Guards was eyeing us as the others began filing out of the training yard. “That’s your advice?”

His free hand clenched, and I had a feeling he wanted nothing more than to introduce that fist to my face. “That was just the start of my advice, boy.”

Boy? I almost laughed. Vikter appeared to be in his fourth decade of life, and while I looked as if I were in my second, I hadn’t been a boy in over two centuries. In other words, I was already skilled at wielding a sword when this man was a swaddled babe.

“All it takes is a second for your enemy to gain the upper hand,” he said, stare unflinching. “Nothing more than the length of a heartbeat, given to either arrogance or vengeance, to lose all which truly matters. And if that isn’t something you’ve yet learned,”—Vikter sheathed his sword—“you will.”

I said nothing as I watched him turn his back and stalk across the yard, the cold press of unease settling in the center of my chest.

What he’d said was something I’d already learned the hard way, but his words…

They felt like a warning.

An omen of things to come.


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