The Princess Knight Excerpt
As the two suns rose several days later, Gemma grudgingly rolled out of bed. She dragged on leggings, bound her breasts, and pulled on a loose shirt. She didn’t bother with boots but instead wrapped protective linens around the balls of her feet and the heels. Before walking out the door, she put on her sword belt and added all her weapons. Her swords, her knives, her axe, and as a final touch a sack of heavy rocks.
She groaned in misery at the last bit but she believed it was necessary to her training. If she could move with all this crap, she could move carrying anything during a battle.
With a last heavy sigh, she opened the bedroom door but quickly stopped. Her sister Ainsley was standing there with her bow hanging from her shoulder, a quiver of arrows hanging from the belt around her waist.
“Learning the bow, are we?” Gemma asked her sister with a small smile. “How adorable.”
“Yes, very adorable. Of course, I’ve been learning since I was three and now I’m nineteen so I’ve advanced a bit since those adorable days.”
“You’re nineteen now? When did that happen?”
“Anyway,” her sister went on, “you need to talk to Archie.”
Gemma walked past Ainsley and started toward the stairs, tossing over her shoulder, “Talk to him about what?”
“He’s been telling the older kids they’ll have to cut the younger kids’ throats should we be invaded.”
Gemma stopped and faced her younger sister. “He said . . . what?”
“What part of that statement was not clear? Because I feel I was quite clear.”
“Why are you telling me? Tell Mum and Da.”
“Tell Da, he’ll stab his brother in the face. Tell Mum . . . she’ll make Da stab his brother in the face. Keeley will start screaming. I tried talking to Archie myself but I don’t think he takes me seriously.”
“I have no idea. I mean, some days I’m not sure anyone even notices I’m in the room, much less that I’m part of—”
“Forget it, I’ll talk to him myself.”
“What did you say?” Gemma asked as she again moved toward the stairs.
“Nothing. Nice rocks by the way.”
“Always the smartass.”
Gemma headed down the three flights to the main hall.
Why was Uncle Archie the way he was? It was as if he went out of his way to test the gods themselves. Although even she had to admit, she’d underestimated Uncle Archie. When they’d first arrived here, this was nothing but an abandoned longhouse briefly taken over by the bastards who had invaded the town. When Keeley had taken over she’d tasked Archie with reinforcing it and the surrounding territory against any attacks. It was really just something to keep their father’s insane brother busy while the rest of Keeley’s inner circle made bigger, more important plans.
Then, one day, dwarven stone masons had arrived. Apparently their uncle had great connections with them. They’d met for several weeks in one of the nearby houses. Anytime Gemma walked by, she could hear arguing. Angry arguing that involved cursing and threats.
But when the work began, it was a sight to behold. It was like nothing she’d seen before. There had been no simple reinforcing of gates or adding to battlements. Oh, no. One morning, they all left the longhouse for their daily routines, and when they returned later . . . they suddenly had a three-story tower sturdy enough to withstand boulders hurled at it with great speed. The simple wood gates were turned into massive steel walls that surrounded so much of the nearby territory that the small town became a city that needed a home. Some changes took weeks and months but others took mere days or even a day. The dwarf masons had tools that allowed them to build certain things in a matter of hours. At first, Gemma assumed those sorts of things would be . . . weak. Merely placeholders until something more permanent could be built. She quickly learned how wrong she was.
She also learned that the stonemason dwarves weren’t any friendlier to the centaurs than the blacksmith dwarves. And that the centaurs enjoyed kicking the dwarves with their back legs as if it was an accident while the stonemason dwarves enjoyed dropping their big, short-handled hammers on the centaurs’ hooved feet.
“Sorry!” they’d each toss out as those “accidents” happened.
Keeley, Gemma, and their father eventually had to stop more fights between the two species than they’d ever had to break up between rabid pit dogs and wild hogs from the hills.
Of course, Gemma now understood that her uncle wasn’t merely insane. He was also an engineering genius. He’d accomplished in two years with twenty dwarves what most humans would be lucky to do with one hundred men in fifty years.
When Gemma arrived in the main hall, her parents were already awake. Her siblings were at the dining table, most of them complaining about the early hour. Except those who had a future in farming; they were eating their food quickly so they could join their father in the fields and help him feed the pigs.
Her mother stopped her. She kissed her on both cheeks before adding two more rocks to her sack.
“Do you hate me so?” Gemma demanded.
“Don’t be weak. I used to carry more when I was your age.”
“You carry more now. And you used to carry the same when you were eight.”
“Your grandmother was very demanding,” Emma Smythe reminded Gemma, carefully tucking the stones into her sack and tying it shut. “I’m much nicer than her or my sisters. They think I’m not tough enough on you and your siblings.”
Gemma couldn’t help but smile despite the extra weight. “But they don’t have Keeley.”
“Exactly.” Her mother stood in front of her now, her grin just as wide. “They don’t have Keeley.” And Emma Smythe wasn’t talking about Keeley the queen. Although proud of what Keeley was doing at the moment, her parents were much prouder of her work as a blacksmith. Before all this queenly shit, Keeley’s reputation as a blacksmith had begun to grow far outside their little town. Swords for hire had started to come from all around to get weapons from her and her alone. For a Smythe, that was a high honor.
“I’ll see you in a couple of hours,” Gemma said, leaning over her father so she could kiss him on the forehead before running out the door.
She turned left as soon as she was outside and ran past the local tradespeople setting up their tents and tables. Some soldiers nodded in her direction. Those who reported directly to her saluted and she acknowledged them with a nod but kept moving. Once she was free of town, she moved through the trees and headed toward the hills. She charged up and down the slopes, through the smaller forests and streams. She didn’t stop until she hit the Green Mountains. It was a smallish mountain range some distance from town, which Archie liked—“Makes it harder for them to attack us from behind . . . so we won’t have to kill the children,” he’d muttered, walking by her one day. At the time she really hadn’t thought too much about what he’d said, but now she was really starting to worry that his concern for his nieces and nephews was becoming an unhealthy obsession.
Gemma ran halfway up the middle mountain and stopped. She took a moment to catch her breath before pulling out her sword and axe and dropping to one knee. Burying the head of the axe and the tip of the sword into the ground, she sent out her prayers to the main god of her order, Morthwyl. But, as usual, her plea felt hollow and empty.
Before the past year, it always felt as if she were talking directly to her god. It felt as if he stood before her listening to her words. She could almost feel his hand on her head or her shoulder.
Then . . . nothing. She hadn’t lost faith. That was different. She knew her god existed. She knew he still had a hand in the workings of this world and others. Instead, it was as if he’d turned his back on her and walked away. Yet she continued to pray to him every day. Each kill she made during a battle, she offered to him. Each waning moon, she fasted in his honor. And, most importantly, when she managed to raise a body to do her bidding, she knew it was through the power of his spells.
So why did she feel he had deserted her? What had she done to disappoint him? Was it leaving her order to protect her family? The monks of her order would probably say yes, but she knew what she had done was the right thing. Letting her order murder her family—which was what they would have had to do if they’d come for Beatrix—would have gone against everything she believed as a Smythe and as a war monk. She’d followed her gut, because she had to. It was her only option.
And, two years later, here she was . . . praying to a god who no longer heard her.
With a sigh, Gemma got to her feet and went through her daily drills. She’d been doing them since she’d started with her order, working to perfect them each and every day. At first, she’d thought she’d get bored by them. The first year, she did get bored. But now, all these years later, she found them comforting. The one thing she could rely on.
After finishing her drills, she returned her weapons to her belts and started running up the mountain paths again. She decided to go higher than usual. Which was especially hard, now that she was carrying the extra weight. But she was in the mood. It was a beautiful, cool day and she needed the extra push.
She wasn’t trying for the very top—the air was simply too thin—but the mid slopes would do nicely and would provide the added benefit of revealing where their security was weakest down below.
When she reached the point she wanted, Gemma placed her hands on her hips and gasped desperately for breath. She looked out over the town but her legs began to cramp from the climb, so she turned in a circle, her breath still coming out in harsh—
It came at her from a mountainside burrow she hadn’t seen, the size nearly double that of any male. Giant fangs snapped in her face, the creature’s growls and barks startling her, making her swing her arms out, hands raised to protect her face. Those damn blazing eyes of fire forced her back and back . . . right off the edge of the mountain.
Keeley was bathing with the centaurs in the Eagle River when something crashed into the water from above. She brought her arms up to protect her face from the deluge, assuming it was some poor animal dropped by an eagle or owl that had lost its prey. It was called Eagle River for a reason.
Until Quinn sauntered forward, his tail splashing water on his rump as he stared at the spot where the water had been disturbed.
“What’s wrong?” Laila asked her brother.
Frowning, he glanced at Keeley. “I think that was your sister.”
He abruptly shifted to his human form and dove into the water. It took him a bit, but when he returned to the surface, he dragged a sputtering Gemma with him.
“Gods!” Keeley cried out, swimming over to the pair and helping Quinn drag her sister to the river’s edge.
Once they got her on the dirt, Keeley first ripped off that stupid bag of rocks before placing Gemma down onto her stomach so her sister could bring up any water trapped in her lungs. Which turned out to be quite a bit.
“Are you all right?” Keeley finally managed to ask.
“Those fucking beasts!” Gemma screamed.
“She seems fine,” Quinn drily remarked before sitting on the ground.
Keeley immediately looked up at the sky. Ever since she’d discovered the existence of actual dragons in the world, she’d been terrified they’d attack her lands. She still had nightmares. The one she’d met had been huge! And spit lava! And could talk! Of course, why would a dragon drop Gemma when it could have just gobbled her up in one bite? Like a snack.
“What kind of beast?” Keeley asked her sister. “A dragon? Did you see a dragon?”
“Not a dragon!” Gemma gasped out. “Your damn dogs!”
“Wolves,” Quinn corrected.
Slowly, Keeley refocused on her sister. “The wolves? The wolves aren’t around. Unless you’ve been bothering that nice new pack about six leagues away. But they’re just normal wolves. You should leave them alone.”
“Your wolves,” her sister insisted.
“My wolves aren’t here.”
“They’re up in the mountains.”
Keeley blinked. “How did you know that?”
“Because one of them attacked me!” Gemma screamed hysterically.
“Well, what were you doing up there anyway?” Keeley screamed back.
The siblings glared at each other until they heard Quinn’s raucous laughter.
When they focused their glares on him, he barely managed to get out to Gemma, “I . . . I love how you . . . you thought . . . she was going to be on your side about . . . about . . . this.”
Then he fell back on the ground and continued to laugh.