VLOGANOVEL: Nightblade Episode One

I’ve started a second VlogaNovel project concurrent to my bigger one, Simulator. This one is called Nightblade and it’s a fantasy serial that I aim to publish once a week for the forseeable future. Be sure to tune in to see exclusive behind-the-scenes content and watch a new serial adventure take shape from idea to finished book.

Here’s the outlining I did during this hour:


ONE-LINER

A young, unassuming forest daughter is forced to leave home for some reason and through her wits and courage, rather than tremendous fighting force, travels her way across the Southern Kingdoms finding adventure and seeking fame as a legendary thief named Nightblade—though she starts out quite hapless and unimpressive.

SEASONAL ARC

THE GIRL is a simple forest daughter expected to marry a logger and raise children, but has grown up loving tales of roguish figures who travel the land taking what they wish, being good to the common folk and never sleeping in the same bed twice in a row. She runs away from home and travels across THE KINGDOM to find a “master thief” to train her, acquiring companions and having many adventures along the way, trying to keep her coinpurse and her throat intact. She swiftly discovers that the world is not as romantic as she thought and soon becomes convinced she had better just go home and become a logger’s wife again. But just as she sets out on the road back home at last, word reaches her of a master thief who may be looking for an apprentice.

EPISODE PARAGRAPHS

EPISODE ONE:

THE GIRL lives in the forest with cruel parents who hate her inquisitiveness and can’t wait for her to be married off and out of their hair, and who plot to marry her to a merchant’s son so they can get a good dowry. She’s almost resigned herself to this fate, until she meets a wizard in the woods who is on the run from the law. He doesn’t want anything to do with her but through their conversation he inadvertently rekindles her interest in leaving her bumfuck little town and she helps him to escape as well. Once they’re free from the town, she wakes up the next morning to find him vanished and herself out on the road all alone. Crap.

EPISODE TWO:

THE GIRL travels along the road alone, unable to go home because her village knows she stole crap and helped the wizard escape from the law. The law nearly finds her out in the wilderness, but she’s able to avoid them thanks to her woodcraft and finds a caravan which she manages to join up with and hide from the law in. A YOUNG BOY becomes interested in her (not like that, he’s twelve you creep) and determines to run away from HIS home and join her when they reach the next town, but his parents are totally awesome and THE GIRL would feel bad if he came with her. They hit a checkpoint before the next town, and while she’s trying to hide from the caravan, she realizes the best way to do that and not endanger the caravan is to run away again, and leave the boy behind (echoing what the wizard did to her at the beginning of the episode).

EPISODE THREE:

THE GIRL heads to a GREAT CITY she visited once when she was a child. Like all country bumpkins, she is overwhelmed by how big it is and is nearly robbed, but fortunately is targeted by the worst pickpocket in the history of the trade and catches him, forcing him to spill some secrets that keep her from further robbery attempts. He insists on tagging along with her in her quest to find a “master thief” to train her (a person he insists doesn’t exist, but she believes has to exist). While they search he attempts to instruct her in pickpocketing, with disastrous results and the episode ends with the two of them fleeing the city guard.

EPISODE FOUR:

There’s an exciting escape from the city guard which culminates in THE GIRL seeing the wizard who abandoned her riding from the town in a carriage, and she and her new little pickpocket sidekick jump into the carriage because he can’t call them out because he’s on the run from the law, too. Once they’re out on the road he tries to get them to leave, threatening to set them on fire, but THE GIRL convinces him to keep them in the carriage just until the next city. There’s cool character establishment with all three of them, but then they’re ambushed in the woods by Mystics, and their driver turns out to have betrayed the wizard. He flees into the woods, and THE GIRL and her sidekick chase him into the darkness.

EPISODE FIVE:

THE GIRL and her sidekick are caught by the Mystics, who turn out not to be child killers as they feared. One of the Mystics is a kindlier person than the rest and offers them transport to the city they were headed for, but THE GIRL soon finds this is just an excuse to interrogate her about the wizard. So when they’re a day away from the city, she uses a bathroom break as an excuse to flee the Mystics and make her way into the city herself. But the city is not the one they were headed for, but a great military encampment of the kingdom’s army, and a huge contingent of Mystics to boot, and they look like they’re gonna make a war.

EPISODE SIX:

THE GIRL and her sidekick want to book it and head for the city that was their first target, but they’ll never get far enough if they don’t nick some rations so they decide to steal them from the army. Of course they’re fucking idiots and they are spotted, and very nearly caught before her sidekick has the bright idea to steal some horses as well, upon which they’re able to flee thanks to a fortunate fireball (or some magical shit) that blasts their pursuers and lets them escape into the night. They figure it was the wizard but aren’t brave enough to go seek him out, so they follow the road toward their destination city and reach it after a good few days’ travel. When they reach the city some local army guys recognize their horses as being military, but at some point during the ensuing confusion, THE GIRL and her companion scamper off.

EPISODE SEVEN:

THE GIRL and her companion look through the city for some kind of Thieves’ Guild, because she wants to be all badass, but of course no such stupid ass thing exists because seriously, how could there ever be a Thieves’ Guild that called itself that, because like every king worth his salt would wipe the motherfuckers out. She’s starting to get disheartened when the city’s alarm bells go berserk and they find out the city is under attack—from the very army that they only recently escaped from, for reasons they don’t know. The siege on the city is incredibly dangerous and as soldiers are pouring through the streets killing people left and right, it looks like it’s all over for THE GIRL and her companion, until we find out that THE GIRL has pickpocketed some explosives that she uses to get out of the jam.

In the second episode of the Nightblade Episode One VlogaNovel experience, I hope to complete the Episodes breakdown of the first season, outline the characters, and then maybe (MAYBE) get some words down in the first draft. Stay tuned, it’s going to be fun.

Here’s what I got done in this hour’s work:


EPISODE EIGHT:

Loren and her sidekick are desperate to get out of the city, but the gates are locked so they come up with a daring (and probably stupid) plan to sneak out by dressing up as soldiers and joining the next counterattack. They steal armor from two corpses and find a group of soldiers ready to make an attack, but as soon as the gates open and soldiers start pushing outside, they’re all blasted with arrows and magic and Loren and her sidekick realize, “Fuck this.” But just as they’re about to break and run back inside the city, the wizard from before scoops them up and runs them through the enemy’s lines and free from the city. As they escape and begin to have their ride off into the sunset moment, Loren despairs at ever finding a master thief to train under and begins to think she should go back home, but then the wizard tells her he knows someone and he’ll take Loren to her, if Loren will pay a price.

LOREN NELDA

Loren Nelda

Loren Nelda

ONE-LINER: Loren comes from a simple background, but is uncommonly intelligent, ambitious and dreams of an epic life, but finds that the world beyond her forest is both more vast and more complicated than she ever imagined, which subdues but cannot extinguish her desire for adventure and a place in history.

SEASONAL ARC: Loren is born in THE FOREST to cruel parents who see her as a means to a comfortable old age via her dowry, but don’t care about her well-being and not only discourage but actively suppress her dreams of doing anything else but being a wife. When she gets a chance to adventure she snaps it up, but finds that the character tropes she’s been raised on are far less complex than the real world, which is also more dangerous and less caring about her as an individual than she’s grown up believing. She attempts to push through this discouragement and assume what she sees as her destiny, but finds out that there is no one to help her as she thought there would be and if she wants to achieve her dreams, she will have to carve her own place in the world. And just as her doubts are about to overcome her and she thinks she should go back home, she finds out that actually, such a mentor DOES exist and her hopes for an epic life are rekindled.

GEM NOCTIS

Gem Noctis

Gem Noctis

ONE-LINER: Gem is a hapless little wannabe pickpocket who accompanies Loren in hopes of finding a better place to incompetently ply his trade than GREAT CITY where he meets her.

SEASONAL ARC: Gem is a bad pickpocket who’s grown up on the streets of GREAT CITY and barely avoided dying several times because of how bad of a thief he is. He has no higher ambitions in life and no prospects for a bright future, so when he meets Loren and finds out how driven she is to become great at what he does, he signs up in hopes that some of her wannabe epicness will rub off on him. He constantly battles with feelings of inadequacy because he’s neither as intelligent nor as physically capable as she is, but he provides good companionship and will eventually find his own self-worth in friendship and loyalty instead. By season’s end he will be totally devoted to keeping Loren safe and helping her find her greatness, though this will create some tension in future seasons as he waffles back and forth between being happy as a supporting character and wanting more glory for himself.

We’re going to wrap up outlining the three main characters in the Nightblade series in this hour, including character sheets with defining characteristics, inner conflicts, outer conflicts, and then really delve into the outline for Episode One specifically. Tune in to see a story created from scratch and gain great insight into the writing process.

Here’s what I got done in this hour:


XAIN FORREDOR:

Xain Forredor

Xain Forredor

ONE-LINER: Xain Forredor is an elementalist wizard who is on the run from the law and finds himself wrapped up in the journey of Loren, and who is fleeing a dark past and trying to turn it into a brighter future where his actions are not so costly and ruthless.

SEASONAL ARC: Xain begins the season on the run from the law for attacking someone with his magic, a rival wizard who was a noble and had significant political connections. He accepts Loren’s help and then immediately abandons her, not only because he’s afraid she’ll slow him down but also because he considers himself a danger to her. But after Loren reappears in his life more than once, he feels a strange connection to her and decides to let the course of their fates run together for a time. By the end of the season he has determined to help Loren achieve her dreams if she will help him finish the job he started of killing the rival wizard.

EPISODE ONE OUTLINE:

CHAPTER ONE

We meet Loren, a forester’s daughter living in the birchwood forests at the heart of Selvan.

Her dad is being a dick and asking her to keep working on splitting the logs the men have chopped that day, when her mother has already told her she needs to get ready for a dance in just a few hours because some merchants’ sons will be there and she needs to get a boyfriend, pronto.

She doesn’t even want a boyfriend, but she knows her mom will give her hell if she disobeys.

Her dad is a REAL asshole and threatens to hit her, cowing her into working on the logs. While she’s chopping and wondering how she’ll get ready for the dance in time, she spends  a lot of time daydreaming about fleeing the village and becoming a rogue wandering the countryside.

That’s when she sees a man in a blue outfit darting between the trees at the edge of the village.

CHAPTER TWO

Loren drops the axe and pursues the man into the trees. He spots her and tries to run, but Loren knows forests better than he ever could. She tracks him down and springs upon him in a glen. When she surprises him, he nearly blasts her with a bolt of fire but redirects it at the last minute.

Loren is stunned to have met a wizard (they’re very rare). She wants to know all about him, but he’s nervous and anxious. She figures out he’s on the run from the law.

Though he wants to be on his way, she can tell he has no supplies or food and barely knows where he’s going. He says he’s heading for Cabrus, a city that’s not too far. All of her dreams spring to the forefront and she says she wants to go with him. The wizard refuses, but when she offers to give him supplies and food if he’ll bring her, he relents.

CHAPTER THREE

Loren goes back into the village to steal supplies. Her father finds her and wants to know why the FUCK she hasn’t finished with the logs yet. She’s trying to make excuses when her mother shows up and asks why she isn’t ready for the dance yet. Mom and dad start arguing and Loren takes the opportunity to steal away.

If she had any doubts about running away before, they’re gone now. She goes into their house and steals her dad’s travel sack, which he uses rarely, and fills it with food. Then she takes his travel boots and a new coat to replace the wizard’s glaring blue one. She also grabs a knife (this will be hers for the rest of the series).

But Loren knows that to get far, you need to be able to hunt on the road. That means she needs a bow and arrows, which her family doesn’t have. The wizard can probably hunt with magic, but she wants to prove to him she’ll be useful. So she determines to steal a bow from one of the huntsmen in the village.

CHAPTER FOUR

The huntsman in question has a crush on her. She pretties herself up and approaches him, asking if he’ll dance with her that night. He promises he will, if she’ll let him. She says he’ll need to get her a bouquet of daisies to earn her affections.

She slips into his parents’ house while it’s empty. She’s never been in before and doesn’t know where things are kept. But a few minutes’ quick search reveals the bow and a quiver, but there’s no arrows inside. Panicking because she’s afraid of discovery, Loren ransacks the house until finally finding two quivers of arrows in an upper cupboard. She takes one and leaves the other so the family won’t have nothing.

Trying to sneak out of the house, she runs into the young huntsman’s father. She could probably talk her way out, but she panics, and smacks him on the head with the bow, knocking him out cold. She slips out of the house and nearly runs into her father, who gawks in anger as she hightails it for the trees.

CHAPTER FIVE

She’s on the run now and quickly makes it to the glade where the wizard is waiting. She makes him throw off his blue coat (too visible) and put on the travel one she stole. Then they’re running through the forest, away from her father who screams as he chases them. But Loren is a damn good forester. She cleverly leads the wizard on a course that would be impossible to track.

Impossible to track for most people, that is. Her father has been doing this a long time, after all, and he springs upon them unawares. He grapples the wizard while promising to beat Loren within an inch of her life. Loren sees the wizard about to blast her father and screams no—she doesn’t want to kill him, after all. In a moment of hesitation, the wizard is overcome and borne to the ground by her father.

Until Loren kicks him off and draws an arrow, aiming it at his head.

Her father has his hands up in surrender. Loren tells him she’s leaving and never coming back. He calls her a little whore, disowns her, the whole nine yards. Loren tells him if he chases her and the wizard, she won’t hesitate to plant a shaft in his head.

They book it through the forest, Loren hiding her distress from the wizard, and make it to a main road beyond the forest’s borders. The wizard offers to take the first watch to make sure they really aren’t followed.

Loren wakes up the next morning to find the wizard gone.

LOREN NELDA:

Loren Nelda

Loren Nelda

Age: 16

Distinguishing Feature: round face and large eyes

Hair: Auburn

Eyes: Forest Green

Height: 5’8″

Key Character Traits: Naive in a self-aware way, excellent foresting capabilities, surprising street smarts, a little too trusting, quite dextrous, too talkative

What is the Goal of this Character?: To become the world-famous thief Nightblade

What is the Character’s plan to achieve the goal?: Loren wants to find a master thief who will be able to instruct her in the ways of thievery.

Family Background: Both parents emotionally abusive, father physically abusive, so dismissive of her goals and aspirations that after a while Loren stopped sharing with them and never told anyone about what she wanted to do for fear someone in the village would tell her parents. So when she leaves and that’s no longer an issue, she’s far too free with the information and tends to gush whenenver she gets talking.

Habits/Vices: Braids her own hair when she’s nervous, gets angry easily when someone won’t give her her way

Education: Not much. No formal education.

Personality: A strong tendency to become overawed at things others consider simple, and a tendency to gush effusively about things she finds interesting.

I’m live writing online again! This time we’ll be wrapping up the outlining for Nightblade Episode One and beginning the FIRST DRAFT! Tune in to watch and comment LIVE, and I’ll answer any questions or comments on air.

Here’s what I got done in this hour: I wrapped up Xain’s character sheet, threw together a crude map and GOT INTO THE FIRST DRAFT! WHOO-HOO!


XAIN FORREDAR:

Xain Forredar

Xain Forredar

Description: Xain is a troubled and somehat ruthless elementalist wizard who is on the run from the law at the beginning of the series. He encounters Loren by chance and swiftly attempts to abandon her, but after their paths draw together on multiple occasions he decides to try to use her to achieve his own ends.

Age: 35

Distinguishing Feature: Burn marks on the backs of his hands

Hair: Curly black

Eyes: Light brown-grey

Height: 5’8″

Key Character Traits: Willing to push the bounds of morality to achieve moral ends. Somewhat ruthless and focused on his objectives, which are good objectives.

What is the Goal of this Character?: Xain’s goal at the beginning of the series is to kill a rival wizard who threatened Xain’s family.

What is the Character’s plan to achieve the goal?: He’s trying to get enough breathing room from the law to find the wizard so he can kill him, and he plans to use Loren to achieve that end.

Family Background: Xain was, like many wizards, brought to a court to learn something of magic. It was there that he met the rival wizard (a Mindmage) and their rivalry began. Xain grew to love a fisherman’s daughter, married her and had a son, but had to leave them in the care of the noble who took care of him when he went on the run.

Habits/Vices: Xain likes to drink. He fell into the habit when his hands were burned, and never really kicked it.

Education: Fairly well-educated. Xain was trained by a wizard in the noble’s court and quickly learned much of magic, history and the politics of the land’s kingdoms.

Personality: Xain is dark and brooding, driven to complete his quest of vengeance. He is somewhat more ruthless than a normal man, not willing to compromise his own values but willing to endanger the lives of others to achieve noble ends.

THE MAP:

First Map Sketch

First Map Sketch

CHAPTER ONE

Loren let the axe fall, and the log split down the middle with a sound like a skull cracking open.

She heaved a sigh and hoisted the axe up to her shoulder, wiping sweat from her filthy brow as she surveyed the pile of logs still awaiting the kiss of her axe. They were many. Far too many, if she had any hope of going to the village dance that night. She let her eyes wander further, rising to gaze upon their tiny house where a thin plume of grey emerged from the smokestack. Loren had not seen her mother all afternoon, and if anyone could rescue her from several more hours of backbreaking labor, her mother was the only one. But mother would be preparing sweet cakes and buns for the dance until it was near time to begin, hoping to lure with taste what her daughter could not seem to attract with batted eye and smooth skin.

Chet hailed Loren with a shout and a raised hand as he emerged from the smithy. Loren gave a wan smile and waved back. Chet would happily take her, though she stood three fingers taller than he and could beat him in arm wrestling. Chet’s eyes never strayed far from Loren when she was there to observe. But Chet and his parents could not bring the dowry Loren’s parents wanted, and she feared the young man would only suffer disappointment if he persisted in his relentless affections.

“Has a holiday come? Why else do you to stand there gawking, girl?”

The voice concealed ugliness within its depths, and belonged to her father. At once, not even pausing to answer, Loren stooped and batted the log’s halves aside with the blunt side of her axe. She fetched another and stood it upright on the stump before she dared raise her eyes to his.

“Sorry, father,” mumbled Loren. “I was only resting for a moment.”

“You’ve some nerve resting when work’s still to be done,” he growled. He stepped in close, the way he liked to—close enough to strike at a moment’s notice, though the mere threat of his hamfists often proved more effective than an actual blow might have. Close enough to faint with the stench of his sweat, Loren could no more raise her axe and chop than she could pull a tree from the ground, roots and all. She took a half step back, but he followed. She gulped, her whole body tensing in anticipation of the strike that could come at any time. Over father’s shoulder she could see Chet. He’d stopped walking, his eyes fixed on her, the look on his face dark. She prayed he’d not be foolish enough to try and intervene.

“Father, what shall I tell mother? She said I’m to ready for the dance. If I don’t go, she’ll be angry.”

“And what do you think I’ll be, if you persist in your disobedience?” her father said. His voice had grown very like a snarl. “You think to prance and lark across the grass while I remain and break my back doing your work?”

She knew better than to deny it. He’d say she named him liar, and then he’d strike for sure. “I don’t want to go to the dance,” said Loren. “Only mother—”

“You chop,” he said. “And if you rest again before your fingers bleed, I’ll see to their letting myself.”

He still didn’t move, forcing Loren to step anxiously around him to raise her axe and bring it down on the log. He waited for her to split two more before finally stumping off toward the center of town, vanishing around the corner of Miss Aisley’s house. Chet still stood, staring at her. She gave him a weak smile and a quick wave before lowering her head to the logs again. When she raised her eyes, Chet had gone.

As soon as her father had vanished from sight, the fear in Loren’s gut churned to rage. As always she hated herself for it, for the fact that she could only summon such anger when he’d left and his hamfists no longer threatened. If only once she could bring this hatred to bear when he stood close and the axe lay in her hands.

She tamped the thought down. You have a kinslayer’s heart, she spat at herself. She was lucky to feel only fear when her father approached. If even once she gave in to her dark thoughts, the constables would kill her slow and spread her name across all of Selvan as accursed.

She thought of that, the constables spreading the tale of her misdeeds across the kingdom. As they always did, her thoughts turned to the wide open lands beyond her little forest, as far out of reach as the tops of the birches. Loren could not remember a time before she dreamed of wandering the world, seeing the great cities of the nine kingdoms and the smaller ones too, strange mountains whose names she did not know and swift rivers that ran straight for miles.

Her dreams ran further, and she saw herself in a cloak of black with a brace of daggers at her waist. She roamed the land on a spirited palfrey, slipping into a city and robbing its nobles blind before vanishing with the morning mist. And as she slipped between the city’s gates, the guards stared at each other wide-eyed in fear and whispered the word Nightblade.

Her mind shied away. Years had taught her to forget her childish wishes. She was fifteen now, a woman grown. She had no time for flights of fancy that would bring only pain, the pain of wanting and not having. If ever she had a hope of escaping her parents and the forest, that chance had long gone.

It’s the next episode of VlogaNovel! This episode is the first one completely devoted to the first draft—HOWEVER, in the last episode I worked on the first draft for the first twenty minutes! Before you watch this one, you should go check that one out! Watch me write the heroic fantasy Nightblade from beginning to end, with all the outlining, cover design and formatting there for you to see! Find out exclusive behind-the-scenes information about the book series, available nowhere else.

YOU CAN PRE-ORDER THE BOOK HERE: http://garrettbrobinson.com/nb-1

Here’s what I got done this hour:


Second Map Sketch

Second Map Sketch

CHAPTER ONE (CONTINUED)

The axe fell, the log split, and she knocked the pieces aside. No more logs lay within arm’s reach, so she stepped around the stump to the pile and stooped to pick up another one.

She turned around to the stump once more, and that’s when she saw it. A thin figure in a bright blue coat, darting through the woods at the edge of the clearing. The man—for she could see it was a man now—moved from tree to tree like a hunted animal, looking over his shoulder but throwing not so much as a glance in her direction.

Loren looked over her shoulder into the village. She couldn’t see her father anywhere. Nor were any of the other villagers looking her way.

Anxiety roiled in her gut. Her mind raced with the possibilities of what would happen if she were caught. Then she threw those thoughts aside, flung her axe to the ground, and ran into the woods where she’d last seen a flash of blue vanish behind the trunk of a tree.

CHAPTER TWO

By the time Loren reached the spot she had seen him last, the man had disappeared. She knelt at the base of the tree and inspected the ground. Crushed blades of grass told her the direction of his flight. She threw a last, hesitant look over her shoulder. No one stood near the stump, or anywhere within eyesight for that matter.

She would only leave for a moment. She would return before anyone could tell she had gone. A few minutes, that was all.

She followed the trail of crushed grass between the trees. Her feet fell swift and silent as a tomb. She hid her progress well, following lines of sight in advance and placing herself well outside them. She did not run clumsily from tree to tree, pausing at each as she had seen the man doing. Loren was a daughter of the forest. She knew how to move swiftly and avoid detection at the same time.

Only a few short minutes passed before Loren spotted the man again, his telltale blue coat standing out like a beacon fire between the brown trunks. She slowed her pace to match his and peeked out only when he moved, face turned forward, heedless of her pursuit.

A few quick glances gave her his measure. Neither short nor tall, he looked of a height to match her own, though more than twice her age. His hair was longer than most men in the village, falling in dark curls. Dirt covered every inch of him. His boots looked fit for the road, but his clothes bore rips and tears from travel.

A town man, then, or even one from a city. Loren wondered what he was doing here. Running from something, certainly. He bore a panicked look that Loren knew well, the same look she saw in the eyes of Chet’s prey when she accompanied him on a hunt. The movement of his feet, the jerking of his hands, all spoke of panic and fear.

Loren wondered what—or who—chased this man, other than herself. She looked over her shoulder as they ran, but could see no sign of pursuit.

She had let herself grow careless, and as she stood staring in plain sight, the man paused at another tree trunk and turned. He saw her. His eyes widened, and he gave a sort of strangled yelp. His pace redoubled, he vanished into the darkness beneath the boughs again.

“Wait!” she cried, too late. He was nowhere to be seen, and her voice would not carry far in the forest.

But if he hoped to evade her, he would soon find that to be folly. It had taken Loren only seconds to see his unease beneath the trees, his steps more accustomed to paved streets and wooden floors than dirt pockmarked with tree roots and animal holes.

She struck wide, making for a thick copse of trees she knew stood nearby. The man would see them and avoid them, but Loren could pick her way through the trunks as though they were an open road. If the man followed the curve of the copse, she could catch him on the other side.

Her feet devoured ground faster and faster, her breath rising in excitement. She could feel the pulse of her heartbeat in her ears. She was a wolf on the hunt, and her little blue rabbit could not imagine what hunted him.

She burst out the other side of the copse of trees, exultation bursting in her breast at the look of shock upon his face. She gave a cry of joy, but it turned to a yelp of fire as he raised his hands and a bolt of fire erupted from them.

Loren skidded on her heels and crashed to the ground, but she need not have worried. The man shouted and twisted his hands, and the bolt of fire turned aside, crashing harmlessly into the dirt yards away from her. Still, she flinched at the impact, and though a wave of heat washed across her face, she shuddered.

“What do you think you’re doing?” said the man. “I nearly killed you!”

For a moment, Loren shook too hard to reply. The man’s shoulders heaved with deep breaths, his eyes fixed on hers. They were a curious color: a light brown verging on grey, a sharp contrast against the dark curls of his hair. She kept her eyes on them as she stood and brushed the forest soil from the seat of her pants.

“Why are you running?” was the first thing she thought of to ask.

The man blinked as though he had just remembered something. He looked over his shoulder, but the forest lay empty.

“There’s no one there,” Loren went on. Her own breath still came steady. It took more than a short jog to rob her of her wind. “I looked as I chased you. No one is following you.”

The man snorted. “Oh, they are,” he said. “You may sleep assured of it and bet your last coin, if a gambler you may be.”

“Not yet,” said Loren. “But foresters have little opportunity to wager with wizards.”

One of his eyebrows arched ever so slightly. “Though ample opportunity to raise their daughters with quick tongues and quicker eyes, it would seem.”

“You are a wizard, then,” said Loren, smiling.

“Do not take such pleasure in your guess,” the man said, scowling. “You saw my flame.”

“And a Firemage as well,” said Loren, undeterred. “In that case your flight is even more curious, for who could you fear?”

He glanced over his shoulder again, and his feet twitched as though itching to run once more. “Because a man does not wish to harm the constables, does not mean he fears them. Though it may look ignobler to flee, no one would praise my honor or my bravery if I caught them with my blaze.”

Loren felt her eyes grow wide and sought to hide it, clearing her throat and trying to look calm. “Constables? Are you…dangerous, then?”

The man’s eyes widened for a moment, and then his mouth twisted in a smile before barking a sharp laugh. “Dangerous? A slain patch of dirt lies to hand to prove it. Were I of less skill, that patch of dirt could have been your remarkable green eyes.”

Loren blinked. “What about my eyes?”

The man raised his hands. “I mean no insult. They are green, not ugly. I have never seen their color.”

Loren felt a growing sense of frustration tugging at the back of her consciousness, and her hands rose of their own accord to tug her hair into messy braids. She sought within for the source of her unease and found it. He was trying to distract her.

“I’ve not forgotten my question, Firemage,” she said. “Why do the constables pursue you?”

His face grew dark, and for a moment Loren grew afraid. But the shadow passed, and he tossed his hair back. “It is none of your concern, and you will withstand their questions better if you do not know.”

“From whence do you come, then?” Loren pressed, determined that he should not leave without revealing something, at least. “Where are you bound?”

He did not answer for a moment, but only looked over his shoulder again.

She must get him talking again. “I am Loren, a daughter of the family Nelda,” she said. “If your purpose must remain a secret, surely you can tell me your name. I am sure the constables are free enough with it.”

“That they are,” he growled. “It is Xain.”

He gave no family. Loren knew a thousand reasons for a man to bear no family name, but her first thought was bastard. The word sent a thrill through her. No husbandless mother bore a child within the Birchwood Forest—fathers and hefty axes saw to that.

“Well met, Xain,” said Loren. “How closely are you pursued, and for how long?”

Xain’s gaze turned from over his shoulder to focus on her again, and his eyes narrowed. “For a girl, you bear remarkably little fear.”

Loren stood a little straighter for the moment. “For a woman, you mean. And no man my age can beat me at arm wrestling, nor can any two years older in the village. Nor can they climb as high, nor run as fast. What would I fear from you and your pretty blue coat?”

Xain balked, then looked down at his coat and laughed. “I feared it looked ridiculous, and am nowise surprised to find it so. But when one must flee in haste, one must seize upon the garment closest to hand.”

He had managed to distract her again. Well, Loren would see if she could turn the tables upon him. Her mind whirled. He had come from the east, and made for a southwesterly course. Only two great cities lay to the east, until the road met the ocean and the bay of the High King’s Seat. And the closest town to the southwest was…

“Cabrus,” she said, gratified to see him give a little start. “You must be making for Cabrus. There’s nothing else the way you’re going.”

“The road is long,” Xain grumbled. “Cabrus is scarcely a dot on the great maps of the realm.”

“Because a place is a waystop does not mean that men do not make for it when occasion rises,” countered Loren. “And you do not deny it. But you will never reach it.”

She saw his nostrils flare and his hands clench at his sides. A little thrill ran down the small of her back. “Do you mean to lead the constables to me, then?”

Loren shook her head quickly. “I bear you no ill will, and  you saved me from your flame.”

“I sent it after you also.”

She shrugged. “A weight on either side of the scale clears the account. But as for you, only your boots can bear the long road there. Your stomach will not, even if both those pouches at your belt hold nothing but salted meat, which I doubt. After the Melnar, you’ll find no other fresh water on the road. Thirst and hunger will take you before you ever glimpse the walls of Cabrus.”

Xain’s mouth twisted in another scowl. He held forth a finger and whispered a word Loren could not hear. A ball of blue fire sprang to life above his fingertip. “I can hunt. A bolt of fire or thunder will serve as well as an arrow; the squirrels know no difference.”

Loren felt her cheeks flush in embarrassment, but she tried to hide it. “Water, then. You may command thunder, but I do not think you can draw the rain from the sky, unless you are Dorren in disguise.”

He smiled at that. “You have the advantage there. And yet, if you are correct the constables will catch me, and I can always beg them for a drink. They are most accommodating once you are within their grasp.”

Loren felt her pulse quicken. A half-forgotten dream screamed at the back of her mind, a destiny long she’d long abandoned.

Welcome back to VlogaNovel, where I live video stream my writing process on my independent books. I decided to take a quick break from the first draft and bang out a cover. Basically, I want to put the title up for pre-order and be able to promote it. VERY hard to do that without a cover. Check out how I put my cover together and tweak it to perfection.

Nothing to show this hour because the cover isn’t even basically together yet—I’ll post something in the next hour!

In this episode of VlogaNovel I continue designing the cover for Nightblade, available for pre-order here and publishing this Thursday, July 17th 2014! If you’ve wondered what goes into designing a cover for a self-published book, I hope to provide you with some valuable insight.

Here’s what I got done in this hour—THE COVER!

Nightblade Episode One

Nightblade Episode One—Click to Pre-Order

Remember, you can pre-order it here! https://garrettbrobinson.com/nb-1

Welcome back to VlogaNovel, the show where I live-write my books for you to see! I’m getting back to the first draft of Nightblade Episode One, and I hope to chunk out 2,000 words this hour. Tune in to see the book come to life from idea to finished product!

REMEMBER, you can pre-order it here: http://garrettbrobinson.com/nb-1

Here’s what I wrote this hour:


CHAPTER TWO (CONTINUED)

“Maybe you’ll not need their courtesy,” she said. “If you will stay here and conceal yourself beneath the boughs of the trees, I shall run back to my house and fetch you water and provisions, enough for two to make the journey to Cabrus.”

His brow furrowed, and he looked over his shoulder yet again. That tic had begun to annoy Loren, and she sniffed.

“Why?” said Xain.

“Because I want you to bring me with you.”

He took two quick steps backward. “That is what I feared. No. I will not.”

“Then you’ll never reach Cabrus.”

Xain’s mouth soured. “I’ll find a way. I’ve made it this far.”

“Following the King’s road and the river that runs beside it, I don’t doubt,” Loren said.

“Why?” said Xain. “I’m wanted, and not for tea. If they find you with me, it will go ill for you.”

Loren took a deep breath and looked back toward her village. Then she unlaced the cuff of her sleeve and pulled it back from her wrist to halfway up her upper arm. Black welts and bruises shone like beacon fires against the pale skin of her forearm.

She saw a flash in his eyes—not only anger, but recognition. His gaze rose to meet hers.

“I’ll await you an hour. Then I move south, and if I die of thirst, so be it.”

“I’ll take less than half that,” said Loren. She turned and vanished beneath the trunks of the birches, hoping it looked as magical to him as his fire was to her.

CHAPTER THREE

Loren approached her village quick and quiet, as though laying an ambush. Fortunately she had long years of practice; often she returned knowing her mother and father would be looking for her bearing ill wills and ready fists.

Many had gathered in the open space to the west of the village. There the sun as it set pierced the thick canopy of branches and cast everything in a ruddy orange glow that lasted long into the evening, perfect for a merry gathering. Such a gathering was afoot now, with some folk readying tables for food and young children tramping a wide open space in the grass for dancing. But Loren could not see her parents.

Her heart sank. Neither her father nor her mother were very sociable, nor had they any friends in the village to visit. If they were not helping set up the dance, they were like to be in the house.

She stalked slowly around the village edge, flitting from tree to tree like a bird, keenly aware of the passing minutes. No one appeared to look out for her, but that could change in an instant if her father took it into his head that she had lazed off once again. He would start shouting, and then some of the others like Fay and old Kris would seek Loren out and deliver her to him. The old, meddling ones who believed it a child’s duty to obey her parents, even if those parents were unworthy of the disobedience.

She reached to the village’s east end, and there she saw something she had not expected: two men, strangers, in brown and red traveling garb. They stood talking to Chet and Bo, another young man from the village. Chet’s eyes were hooded and his brows close, but Oren spoke animatedly and gestured all around. The strangers listened patiently, only occasionally giving a comment or a prompting question.

The constables, thought Loren. They had to be. It would be too great a coincidence to imagine any other strangers could arrive at the village on the same day a fugitive mage passed close by.

She must fetch her supplies and be off quickly. Loren had a talent for lying, but she did not prefer to put it to the test just now. Although…

She thought twice about it, reached a decision, and emerged from the trees to approach the strangers. Chet’s eyes seemed to brighten as he saw her, and his face grew less stern.

“Loren!” said Bo. “These men are constables. I’ve never seen a constable in the village before, have you?”

“Not here, but once in the city,” said Loren easily, dusting her hands as though she’d just come from the axe. She held the hand out to the men. “Well met, strangers. What brings you so far into the woods?”

One of the men stood tall and thin, but muscular as any village man. The other was shorter than Loren by several fingers, but his chest was barrel-wide and muscle bulged beneath the folds of his clothes. Both had boiled leather pauldrons, dyed a dull red and worn over long, simple tunics of brown. The taller one only stared at her outstretched hand, but his companion reached across and took her wrist in a firm grip.

“Well met,” said the short one. “I am Corin, and my stalwart friend is Bern. We seek a man traveling through these lands. When last we saw him he seemed to be heading this way, and we wondered if he had appeared in your village.”

Loren’s eyes widened. “Oh, a man in a blue coat?”

Every man there started in surprise, the constables and the village boys both. “You’ve seen him?” growled the taller constable, Bern.

“In the woods, yes,” said Loren, nodding emphatically. “As I foraged for herbs I saw him amid the trees. When he spotted me he fled, and I could not keep his pace. Soon I lost sight of him.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Chet’s eyes draw together once again. He knew Loren’s skill in the woods, for it near rivaled his own. She felt a small flush of pride at that. Chet knew that no man should be able to evade her so easily in the woods, especially a man on the run in a foreign land. She would have to have words with Chet, but he was not yet such a fool as to countermand her before the constables.

“When was this?” said Corin. “My lady, this man must be brought to his justice. Tell me, when and where did he run?”

Loren tittered, putting just enough giggle into it. “Oh, you are too kind, constable. I am no lady, as you must well know. It could not have been longer than a quarter hour since I saw him.” She made a great show of thinking hard upon it. “As for where, I can answer you easily. He fled that way, though his path swung about wildly.”

She thrust a finger to the north and east, directly away from the birch copse where Xain awaited her.

Corin and Bern traded glances, and then Corin gave Loren an earnest half-bow. “You have provided our lord a great service. If indeed we should find this wizard, we will return with a purse of his gratitude.”

“A wizard?” said Loren, her eyes shooting wide. “Truly?”

“A purse?” said Bo.

Bern scowled at his shorter companion. “My friend speaks with a looser tongue than he might. Our lord would prefer that the lot of you forget his words.”

“Of course,” said Loren, nodding emphatically. “I’ll say nothing. Nor will the boys, lest they catch my hand much faster than they might wish.” She stepped forward and held a stern fist beneath Bo’s nose, and he quailed. Chet, she knew, needed no such encouragement.

With a few more hurried words of haste, the constables ran to the northeast as fast as their legs would carry them. Bo wandered off toward the preparations for the dance, leaving only Chet to fix Loren with a knowing look.

“The wizard outran you, did he?” Chet said. His eyes seemed amused, but his tone betrayed nothing.

Loren shrugged. “Well, I let him, of course. How was I to know he was worth a purse? I tired of the chase and gave in easily.”

Chet’s arms folded at that, his eyes growing thoughtful. He believed her, or at least mostly did—why would he not? To further his mind down its path, Loren smiled at him and placed a warm hand on his arm before turning back to the village. He watched her go and did not follow, for which she was grateful. She had no desire to lie to him more than she must, and time grew ever shorter.

“Loren!”

Her stomach dropped to her boots. She actually quivered where she stood, and the bruises on her arm flared with pain again. When she turned he stood there, his face twisted and mean with fury.

“Where did you run off to?” he said.

She tried to talk, but her throat cracked like desert sand. “Constables, father,” she said, gesturing vaguely. “Two constables came, looking for a man.”

His eyes flitted away to Chet for only a moment. “What worth are two constables and their man?” he said. “If they find him, will they chop your logs?”

He stepped toward her. It was all Loren could do to stay where she was. She wanted to run, to turn and flee, to vanish into the woods and beg Xain to take her even without the supplies. But she stayed. He got close, the way he liked, close enough to strike, and she craned her neck up to look at him.

“I’ll go back to the logs, father.” She could no longer keep the quaver from her voice. If he would only let her return to her work, she could slip into the house and get what she needed and then she need never fear his meaty arms and rank breath again.

“You’ll go to the house,” he said in a growling whisper. “That’s twice you’ve tried to leave me your job, and that’s twice too many. You go to the house, and I’ll give you a lesson so that next time your feet will stay planted and your arms will swing.”

“I don’t need a lesson, father—”

His fist met her gut, and her nose crashed into his shoulder as she tried to double over. It wasn’t his hardest blow. He’d save that for the house. He wanted her to be able to walk there, after all.

Welcome back to VlogaNovel, the show where I live-write my books for you to see! I’m getting back to the first draft of Nightblade Episode One, and I hope to chunk out 2,000 words this hour. Tune in to see the book come to life from idea to finished product!

REMEMBER, you can pre-order it here: http://garrettbrobinson.com/nb-1

I tweaked the cover slightly. Here’s what I wrote this hour:


Nightblade Episode One

Nightblade Episode One. Click to Pre-Order.

CHAPTER THREE (CONTINUED)

“You’re far too free with your tongue when it comes to speaking back to your elders,” her father hissed. “To the house. Now.”

She heard footsteps approaching from far to her right, and her head shot up to see Chet striding toward them, his face a mask of fury. She looked into his eyes, pleading without words for him to stop, to turn around. He ignored her. Her father had not noticed Chet yet, but Loren did not want to be there when he did.

And then Loren heard a voice she was seldom pleased to hear: her mother, crying shrilly through the forest air. “Loren, where is your dress, you witless child?”

Loren took the opportunity to step back, and her father turned away. “She’s still chopping for me,” he said. He thrust a meaty finger at Loren as though she’d done something wrong. “She’ll need to go all night at the rate her lazy hands move.”

“You know we need her to dance,” said her mother. “How you think we’ll get her wed, I’ll never know. Not when you never let her try her luck with a man.”

“The men can come to her,” said her father stubbornly. “Let’em watch her chop. A man needs a strong woman who can work, and she’ll keep getting me her logs besides.”

With her father distracted, Loren looked back again. Chet had stopped his advance, but he stood with folded arms and anger painted clearly on his features. He wouldn’t leave as long as he thought her father might start again, Loren knew.

“Aye, a man does, and a man knows it, but a man does a different sort of knowing when he chooses a wife,” her mother said. She strode up to Loren’s father and shoved her face into his, full of all the anger Loren could never summon around the man. “We’ll never get the dowry we need without someone seeing a little of her skin. Loren, you get in the house and get that dress on, and if you tear it, I swear to you I’ll lock you and your father in the house for an hour and blow a treehorn to cover the noise.”

Loren gulped, glancing fearfully at her father.

“What are you looking at him for?” her mother screeched. “Go!”

Loren remembered Xain and went. She very nearly fled, but she kept herself at a walk. She had never let them see her run, and never would. As she retreated, her mother and father turned to bitter, hate-filled argument behind her. She didn’t know if Chet still stood guard, but she dared not look back for him.

The moment she passed in through her front door, anger ballooned in her gut once more. She should have struck back. Oh, her father would have been terrible in his wrath, but then Chet would have stepped in. Chet, who Loren knew loved her. He would have beat her father to within an inch of his life, and mayhap beyond. And Chet would not have been a kinslayer.

But such thoughts would help her little, not when Xain waited and her hour had nearly half passed.

Loren threw from her bed the ridiculous green gown her mother had bought. Its arms, like those of her tunic, hung long to hide bruises from a suitor. Loren threw it to the floor, rubbed dirt into it with her boot heel, and then spat on the pretty cloth for good measure.

In her parents’ room sat a cupboard, and in its top cabinet Loren took the travel sack she knew her father kept there. Two skins of water sat near the house’s front door, awaiting her father’s trip upriver the next day. She threw them into the travel sack, along with father’s smelly, thick cloak of dark green. Her own cloak joined it, forming a soft lining around the sack’s leather interior to shield the rest of the contents. Food she took next, salted meats and several loaves of good hard bread, still fragrant from Miss Aisley’s oven.

Loren thought of Miss Aisley with a pang of regret, and her thoughts turned to those she would miss, thought she might shed no tear for her parents. Dear, foolish Chet, of course, and even old Kris who was decent enough when he didn’t take it into his head that she was a disobedient scamp. But the names she would miss far underweighed the others, those who heard and saw what her father did to her and never raised a finger or even frowned at him.

No, she would be well quit of the Birchwood Forest. It would not miss her, nor she it.

Loren hesitated before her final acquisition, tucked in an old chest atop a shelf in the kitchen. The chest held useless knickknacks in the main, but one item she might use. A long and curved dagger, its sheath made of leather cracked with age. She had drawn it once when she was a young girl, and quickly hidden it away again before her mother could find out. The blade bore strange, twisting marks engraved in black. No hunting or cooking knife, this; it was a weapon, as any fool could see.

The night she drew the dagger was the first night that she lay in her bed and imagined herself in a black cloak and whispered the word Nightblade.

Now, though, she feared to lift it from its resting place atop an old leather book with blank pages. Could she really take it? Loren knew little of such things, and yet she would have wagered that the dagger was worth more than the rest of her parents’ possessions combined, and the house as well. But then, they might never notice it was gone. Not in fifteen years had Loren once seen them bring it forth from the chest. Never even had she seen them bring the chest down from its shelf.

She made up her mind. Her hand closed around the dagger’s hilt. She almost threw it in the sack, but again she paused. Then she untied her simple belt of rope and ran it through the sheath’s loop.

A plain forest girl she might be, but with the dagger at her waist she felt like a different person. Now, truly and forever, she was Nightblade.

She had wasted too much time already. One thing more she needed before she could set off and find Xain again. The wizard could hunt with his fire, yes. But Loren would be under the care of no one, not when she left this village forever. And what if the wizard left her once they reached Cabrus? Or died on the road? No. She must be able to forage for herself.

She needed a bow. And she knew exactly where to get one.

She dropped her brown cloak over the dagger and slipped out the door, making for the trees once again.

CHAPTER FOUR

Loren hoped to find Chet’s home empty, but her hopes fell when she approached the rear of the house and found him fletching an arrow with a knife and gutstring. She could not hope to avoid being seen if she wanted to gain the house. But she still had her tongue. She stepped from the trees and made for him.

Chet looked up almost immediately, and his stern face softened at the sight of her. His close-cropped hair fairly glowed golden in the sun directly overhead, and his bare arms glistened with the effort of his work. Though her face remained impassive, she quailed a little inside.

Once, she had thought that she might take Chet for a husband, dowry or no. They would find a way to pay it, or they might run away together. But that dream had grown dimmer and dimmer as the years passed, and had guttered out when Chet’s mother fell ill. Now, six years later, she was as near to death as ever, and yet just as far away. A huntsman could never muster the coin her parents demanded, and Chet would never leave his home—not then, and not now, not with her and Xain.

All these thoughts flitted in and out of her head in an instant, and then she put on the face she knew she must wear: unconcerned and gently happy to see her friend. “Chet,” she said. “Shouldn’t you be dressing for the dance?”

“Shouldn’t you?” he said. “That cloak is not the dress your mother chose, I think.”

Loren shrugged. “I should wash before donning it. I’ll make for the river and bathe before making myself the fair young flower mother wishes she had.”

Chet put down his arrow, a little too hastily, and stood. “I’ll come. It’s dull work, this, and does little to calm my temper.”

So that’s why he fletched rather than prepared for the dance. She knew Chet’s temper burned bright and long, though it took long to stoke. She had wondered what would happen if her father ever sparked it for true, but now she would never know.

Loren cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “I think you presume much, friend. A woman’s bathing is no time nor place for a young, fair-haired man, not when no bond of marriage lies between them.”

That had the required effect: Chet’s face turned red as a beet. “I meant…I would wait atop the bank, of course.”

Loren laughed lightly to put him back at his ease. “Don’t fret so. Will you dance with me tonight?”

“Will you have my hand?” He stepped closer.

“I would not ask you to cruelly refuse,” she said. She let her mouth drop to a demure frown. “But my parents may object. They require such a great dowry, and they may refuse to let me be seen with one who cannot offer it.”

Chet glowered. Loren loved and bemoaned how easily she could sway his mood; a symptom of young love, she supposed. Now, at least, it suited her purpose. “They could not deny me as simple a thing as a dance. Not even he—”

It would not do to have him too angry. “Fetch me your own dowry,” Loren said. “Weave it of dandelions and lilacs, and place it upon my head. Then I’ll give you your dance, and you can give me mine.”

He flushed again, but gentler this time. “This I can do, and gladly. But no dandelions and lilacs lie near the river.”

“I am astute in my planning, then.”

He chuckled. “Very well. I’ll see you at the dance, then. Denying myself the sight of you in your dress will sweeten the pleasure of its revelation. Ready your hair for my dowry.”

He wandered off to the south east. Loren watched him go, catching a spring in his step that had not been there earlier in the day. She kept her own gentle smile in case he turned around, but her insides churned with sorrow. Chet, her only true friend in all the world. Chet, foolishly and incurably in love with her. Yes, she would miss him more than all the rest of them, and more than the forest she called home as well.

As soon as he had gone, she slipped in the back door of his house.

His mother’s room lay quiet and still. She slept as often as not, but even if she lay awake Loren did not fear to be seen. Chet’s mother was senseless and her voice was weak. She would think nothing of seeing Loren in the house, or if she did and cried out no one would hear.

So Loren went to the rack on the wall and pulled down one of Chet’s hunting bows. She took the one of poorer make—it would serve for rabbits and squirrels, and she needed nothing else. She stooped to a low shelf where two quivers full of arrows waited. She took one, but left the other. She would not make Chet a pauper, unable to hunt. She would take only what she absolutely must.

Nightblade must always have such honour, she thought.

She was nearly to the house’s back door when disaster struck. It swung open, and Chet’s father stepped into the frame. Old and stooped, he was a kind, genial man who nonetheless seemed never to have noticed Loren’s existence. That was no longer the case. He stood rooted to the spot and gawked at her, his old, watery eyes slowly growing wider and wider. He opened his mouth to cry out.

She had the bow in her hands. Without thinking, she leapt forward and slapped the bow into his temple. He fell to the dirt floor, an angry red welt springing to life on his forehead.

Loren stifled her cry with the back of her hand and dropped to one knee. She placed a palm on his chest and felt a strong heartbeat beneath. Thank the trees.

Welcome back to VlogaNovel and the hour when I MIGHT finish the first draft of Nightblade Episode One? It’ll either be this hour or the next hour for sure. I’m live-writing this whole book for you and releasing one episode a week, so stay tuned and see how I take a book from idea to published novel!

PRE-ORDER IT: http://garrettbrobinson.com/nb-1

I DID IT! Here’s what I wrote this hour:


CHAPTER FOUR (CONTINUED)

Her eyes went to the heavy red welt on his forehead. Chet. He’d have forgiven Loren for fleeing the village, even for doing it without telling him. But he could never forgive this. Could he?

No matter. Chet was picking daisies for her dowry, and soon she’d be in the forest, never to return. She shot to her feet and ran out the door.

She made it almost to the trees. Perhaps if she’d kept going, she’d have made it. But she couldn’t leave like this. So she stopped beneath the low branches of an oak and turned for one last look at her home, such as it was. Her eyes roved across the simple houses, the smoke from the smithy, the pile of wood outside her house, her father.

Her father.

He stood by the chopping block, her axe in his hand. And just as her eyes found him, his own eyes raised to meet hers.

He stood dumbstruck for a moment. He took in her cloak, the sack hanging from her shoulders, the bow slung across her back. His face contorted in fury.

Loren turned and ran into the woods, her heart pounding. As soon as the village fell out of sight, the terror in her veins turned to rage.

CHAPTER FIVE

She pounded through the woods, wasting no time to cover her trail or silence her footfalls. A daughter of the woods she might have been, but her father, too, called the forest home, and he had spent much longer beneath her boughs. Even at her best Loren knew he could track her easily. She had to rely on her speed and hope her father’s age would give her the advantage.

She circled around the village border, and soon she plunged due south toward where Xain waited by the copse of birches. He couldn’t have known it, but if her father had gone from the chopping stump straight for the trees, he could have caught her easily. But with any luck, he had followed her trail into the trees and followed her same wide, curving path around the village.

Every odd noise sent a gout of terror through her insides, spurring her steps until her breath came as a wheeze and her heartbeat sounded as thunder behind her ears. But then her mind would reflect upon the sound, and tell her that it was only a bird taking flight, or a doe fleeing in terror at the sound of her headlong rush. Even in her terror and her haste, her instincts could tell her what her mind could not.

It seemed an eternity before she saw the white bark of the birches far ahead. The sun beat down upon her, and beneath her tunic sweat soaked every inch of her. She flung herself between the trunks, dodging and weaving through them. Her travel sack caught on branches again and again, and she slung it off her back to carry at her side instead. In a few breathless minutes she came out the southern side to find the forest empty.

Panic seized her. Where had Xain gone? She scanned the floor for his tracks for a moment, but then she heard the snap of a twig and he rose from behind a fallen log.

“I’m pursued,” she said quickly.

His eyes flashed. “The constables?”

“No, I sent them the other direction. But my father spied me as I left the village bounds.”

He muttered something under his breath that sounded like a curse. Loren thrust a hand into her travel sack, wrapped it around cloth and tugged.

“Here,” she said. “Leave your jacket—it will only get in the way, and shine out like the sun besides. Put this on.”

He obeyed without question, throwing the jacket into the dirt and donning her father’s green cloak. He made no comment, but she saw his nose wrinkle at the smell. She was grateful for his silence; a city man he might be, but it seemed he was not one of those who considered the “common folk” to be beneath him.

“Come, and quickly,” she said. “Try to follow my path exactly. The track I take us on will be difficult to follow. Mayhap we can lose him.”

“I have no quarrel with your father,” growled Xain. “We should split up.”

Loren’s stomach spun circles. “I had no quarrel with your constables, and yet I would have gone with you nonetheless. You cannot leave me!”

He looked over her shoulder, and something in his gaze softened. “I will not harm him if he should catch us.”

He would deserve it if you did, she thought. But she said nothing. It was enough that he would follow her.

As they carried on south, the land fell away before them. Soon the sloping land lent speed to their hurried footsteps, and Loren used it to their advantage. But once the land began to level again, she swerved suddenly right and up a low rise. At the top, broken rocks formed a sort of circle. The Giant’s Crown, some called it, and the ground grew hard and stony beyond. She followed the rocky terrain as long as she dared, but when it turned north she abandoned it and plunged once again into the trees. But it was not long before a small forest stream sprang up at their feet. They ran down its speedy flow, splashing through the shallows at the edge. It slowed them, but water bore no marks of passage. When the stream, too, turned the wrong way, Loren led Xain to the grass again.

Here the trees were sparser, and she imagined she could feel her father’s eyes on her back as she ran. Her steps came faster and faster still, but soon enough Xain began to tire and flag behind her. She had to slow her pace to match him, and every hampered step seemed an irredeemable loss.

“You must hurry,” she said. “He will find us.”

Xain did not bother wasting the breath to respond. He could move no faster, and they both knew it. Finally he stumbled and fell, his ankle caught upon a protruding root, and in that moment her father struck.

He leapt at them as if from nowhere, emerging from the shadows between two thick oaks. His hand lashed out, cracking against Loren’s cheekbone. She fell to the ground with a cry and fought back to her feet quickly before he could pin her down and strangle her. But he let her be, and when she rose she saw the reason why. He’d chosen instead to fall upon Xain, landing on the wizard’s back and wrapping a thick arm around the thinner man’s throat. Xain’s face turned red immediately and edged toward purple. He fought to bring a hand around, scrabbling for her father’s face, but her father caught the hand and twisted it, prompting a screech of agony from Xain.

Hearing that screech of pain, Loren at last felt the fear within her turn to anger. Never had her father hurt another in her presence—except when he and her mother fought, and Loren did not care who won as long as each dealt the other as much hurt as possible. But now her father’s arms threatened to crush the life from the one chance she had ever had, the only man who Loren truly believed could save her from the life of pain and obscurity she feared.

The rage turned white-hot, and Loren drew the dagger. She leapt at her father, raising the blade high. She had never struck another person with a weapon, but she thought she knew the way of it: it had a sharp edge, after all, and sharp edges were good for only one thing.

But her father saw her coming and released Xain, scrabbling to his knees and away from her wild swing. He roared like a bear brought to bay. The sound dampened Loren’s sudden burst of fury, and she hesitated a moment. That moment was more than enough, and like a snake her father leapt forward. One hand gripped her wrist to hold the dagger safely helpless. His other hand curled into a fist that he drove into her gut.

Stars erupted at the edge of her vision, and Loren doubled over. Her father squeezed her wrist until the dagger dropped to the grass, then let her follow it. She gasped at the pain in her sternum, blinking as she fought to clear her vision.

“Useless whore,” said her father. “Spawn of soiled seed. You have been a plague and a pox upon your family since the day you first clawed air into your lungs to poison it.”

He kicked her. The hard leather of his boots felt like a falling tree trunk. She screamed, trying to roll away. But he only kicked her in the back.

She could not see. She could not think. Where was she? Who was this man, and why did he want to hurt her so? Why did some part of her mind scream that he should love her, should pick her up and cradle her in his arms and promise to take the pain away? Instead he only gave her more and more.

Her eyes finally focused and fell on Xain, whose lips moved furtively from several yards away. His hand curled at his side, and Loren saw the flash of fire within it. His eyes glowed with a pale white light.

“No!” she cried. “Don’t kill him!”

Xain froze. His lips stopped moving, and the fire wisped out in his palm.

The shout drew her father’s gaze. His ugly, beady eyes fell on the wizard, and his lips split in a grimace. His teeth had spots of blood, and in a moment of madness she thought it was hers. But no, he must have bit his tongue when he dodged her.

He leapt catlike upon Xain and bore the wizard to the ground once more. This time he wrapped his hands around Xain’s throat, digging his fingers in deep where no force on earth could pry them loose. Xain’s eyes bugged forth as though they would burst from their sockets. He gasped a phrase, and blue lightning sprang into being, but it vanished before he could unleash it. His legs kicked wildly beneath her father, thrashing in death throes.

He would not have been here if it were not for Loren. He might have died on the way to Cabrus, and then again he might not. But she had brought him to this place and summoned her father’s wrath, and now Xain would die for it.

She could not allow it. She saw the dagger lying near her fingers, and thought of her childish dreams. Nightblade could not allow it.

She fought to her knees. Her bow still hung on her back, its string unbroken in the fight by some grace of the gods. Her fingers felt like wood, but she forced them around the bow’s haft and pulled it free. Shakily she brought an arrow to string and half-drew, then took two stumbling steps forward. This time her father had eyes for nothing but Xain’s face growing swollen and blue.

Loren kicked as hard as she could, and something in her father’s face broke under her boot’s heel.

He fell away, rolling over and over to put distance between them as he screamed in rage. In a blink he had regained his feet, but there he paused. Loren’s arrow was at full draw, its head aiming straight for his heart.

Slowly, her father’s hamfist hands came up on either side of his head. For every inch they climbed, the fury in his eyes redoubled.

“No more,” said Loren. It came out as a whisper, so she tried again. “No more will you torment me. I am leaving, father, and I mean never to return.”

“You mean to defy me?” said her father. “You will do your duty as a daughter or—”

She pulled just a little harder on the bow, gaining another inch of draw. Her father’s voice fell to silence.

“You have never done your duty as a father,” she said. “I feel I owe you nothing.”

“You owe me everything,” he said. “I could have killed you in the cradle. I could have killed you when I woke up today, and taken my morning shit on your corpse. I made you, and now I see I made you worthless.”

“Then when I leave you shall suffer no great loss,” she said. She felt that his words should have stung, but she was beyond them. They were only a stronger flavor of the same things he had said all her life. And in this moment, now that another life beckoned her, she could not bring herself to feel under his sway any longer.

Xain had finally regained his breath, and he came to stand at her side. He muttered, as his eyes glowed white a ball of lightning hovered in his grasp.

“You think you can escape me?” her father said, changing tack. “I knew these lands better than my own face years before I spilled you between your mother’s legs. Nowhere in Selvan can you hide from me. Ready yourself for sleepless nights by a bright fire. For if you close your eyes in sleep, if for even a moment you let yourself sit in darkness—”

Loren loosed the shaft. It sank into her father’s thigh. He collapsed to the ground without a scream, but with a gut-deep grunt of pain.

“Chase us now,” said Loren.

And she turned and walked away from him, stopping for only a moment to retrieve the dagger and replace it in its sheath. She did not turn to see if Xain followed her, but after a moment she heard footfalls behind her—to her forester’s ears, they sounded loud as a dragon’s.

Her father’s hateful, bitter screams followed them for a long while, even long past the time when she could no longer understand the words within. They echoed through the woods, unrestrained as the trees grew thinner and thinner still. Finally the sounds died away just as they reached the flat plain that lay between the forest’s edge and the King’s road to the south.

The sun hung low in the sky by the time they reached the road. Loren had only seen it twice in her life before. Its hard-packed dirt felt odd beneath her feet.  Not far beyond it, they heard the whispering sigh of the Melnar as it babbled its way toward the High King’s Seat.

“The King’s road at last,” said Xain. They were the first words he’d spoken since the fight with her father, and they came hesitant and raspy from his throat. His bruises there would long remain, Loren knew. She feared to look at her ribs and see her own marks, and said a quick thanks in her mind that nothing had broken.

But the road would not let her think of her hurts for long. “Is it as long as they say?” she asked Xain.

“I do not know what you have been told,” he said. “But I would imagine it is longer. Follow it west from here, and you will come to every capital city in the nine kingdoms. Follow it east, and soon enough you will find yourself at the High King’s Seat.”

“But we do not go that way.”

He frowned. “No. We do not travel upon the road at all. Fast though our path might be upon it, watchful eyes would spy us far too easily. We must cut across and follow its course south, but far from its edge.”

Loren nodded. “How far will we go tonight?”

“Your arrow was well placed,” said Xain. “And if I know constables, we need not fear their pursuit until the morrow. We will make for the river and camp upon its bank.”

Loren would have traveled all night, eager to prove her willingness and her worth as a traveling companion. But her heart nearly melted in relief at Xain’s words. A bone-weariness had set upon her, nothing she could explain with the miles behind her boots. For the first time she had stood up to her father, and she had come out alive—if not unscathed. Her mind had not yet decided what to think of the encounter, and settled instead for a comfortable numbness.

She led the way across the road. She walked it easily enough, but Xain did an odd thing: he skittered across the packed dirt, as though even placing a foot upon it would invite the watchful eyes of every constable in Selvan. Once they had crossed, however, he resumed his normal stuttering gait.

The sun neared the horizon as they reached the bank of the Melnar. Loren walked downstream for a minute until she found a large rock beside which to camp, then returned and led Xain to it. Once they returned, she threw her travel sack down upon the dirt and fell down beside it, resting her head on the soft, silty dirt of the riverbank.

Xain slumped against the rock, and for a long time they sat there. Neither said a word nor looked at the other. But eventually Loren felt her stomach rumble, so she dug into the pack and fetched some salted meat. She cut it with the hunting knife she always kept in her boot—the dagger at her belt was meant for a different kind of flesh, she knew—and split it with Xain.

She pulled out more salted meat and one waterskin for him. He drank thirstily, then refilled it from the flowing river. He chewed sparingly at the meat, then wrapped up the remainder and placed it into the bags hanging at his belt. Loren felt great relief to see he knew how to ration himself. She would not have to mother him, at least.

The sun had vanished beneath the horizon, but dull orange still glowed in the sky when Xain spoke next, and for the last time of the night. “You can never go home, can you?”

Loren thought hard upon it. “He might die. My mother, too. Not today—that arrow wound will heal clean long before his temper does. But one day. We never grow younger. One day I might return. But why would I?”

“Do you have no other…” he let his voice trail off. “No. I am in the wrong to ask. Some wounds must wait before we can clean them.”

She wondered what he meant by that, but before she could ask he turned away and lay upon the ground, building himself a little pillow of torn grass. He fell asleep faster than she could believe.

She built her own pillow and lay upon it, but sleep would not come. She could only stare at the numberless stars as they appeared in the inky blue above, her mind racing and standing still all at once. She could not think of home. She could not remember her mother’s face. She could recall Chet, but not his voice. And she could not envision Cabrus or any place else that lay ahead, either. There was only the here and now, and the quiet bubbling of the river close at hand.

She did not remember when she started crying, but once it began it lasted until she fell asleep upon her pillow of grass. And when she woke, Xain had taken his meat and his water skin and gone, leaving her alone by the riverbank.

 


Welcome back to VlogaNovel and the episode where I write my front and back matter for Nightblade Episode One, PLUS start editing the book (a length process to be sure). Tune in to watch live and ask questions about the process in the comments, which I will answer ON AIR.

PRE-ORDER IT HERE: http://garrettbrobinson.com/nb-1

In this episode of VlogaNovel, I continue my live creation of Nightblade: Episode One with the editing process! Watch as I edit the book live in preparation for its release TOMORROW and ask questions or comment LIVE to have me answer your question on air.

LINK TO PRE-ORDER: http://garrettbrobinson.com/nb-1

Welcome back to VlogaNovel, where I live-create my next book for your reading pleasure! I’m continuing the editing for Nightblade: Episode One in preparation for its release tomorrow! Tune in to catch my updates on the book as they happen, and chime in with comments which I’ll answer LIVE on the air.

PRE-ORDER IT HERE: http://garrettbrobinson.com/nb-1

Welcome back to VlogaNovel, the live streaming web show where I live-create my next book for your reading pleasure. This should be the last hour of my rough editing pass, and after that I’ll begin my final copy edit read-through out loud, which doubles as my audiobook reading. Stay tuned to see a book come together LIVE from idea to finished product, just in time for it’s release TOMORROW! YAAAY!

PRE-ORDER THE BOOK FROM ME HERE: http://garrettbrobinson.com/nb-1

Here’s the final edit!


CHAPTER ONE

Loren let her axe fall, and the log split with the sound of a skull cracking open.

She heaved a sigh and hoisted the axe to her shoulder. One hand rose to wipe sweat from her filthy brow, streaking it with dirt. She surveyed the pile of logs that awaited the kiss of her axe. There were many. Far too many, if she had any hope of going to the village dance that night. Loren did not care overmuch for dances, but they were certainly preferable to chopping logs.

Only a dance could unite the village where Loren had been raised, a tiny cluster of homes in the woods of Selvan, too small a place to warrant a name. Often Loren went days or weeks without speaking to most of the other villagers. Other than Chet, of course.

She let her eyes wander, gazing upon her tiny house where a thin plume of grey emerged from the smokestack. Loren had worked all day without seeing her mother, the one person who could rescue her from several more hours of backbreaking labor. Mother had sweet cakes and buns to prepare, hoping to lure with taste what Loren could not attract with looks.

Far past the house, Chet emerged from the smithy and hailed Loren with a shout. Loren gave a wan smile and a wave. Dear, foolish Chet. He would happily have taken her to wife, though she stood three fingers taller and could beat him in arm wrestling. But Chet could not bring the required dowry, and Loren feared the young man would waste away with his relentless affection.

“Why do you stand there gawking, girl?”

Her father’s voice dripped with malice. Before answering, Loren stooped and batted the halved log aside with the blunt end of her axe. She fetched another and stood it upright before she dared raise her eyes to his.

“Sorry, Father,” mumbled Loren. “I only rested a moment.”

“Why, when work’s still to be done?” he growled.

He stepped in close, the way he liked to—close enough to strike at a moment’s notice, close enough for Loren to faint from the stench of his sweat. Now she could no more chop her log than she could uproot a tree with bare hands.

Loren took a half step back, but her father followed. She gulped, her whole body tensing in anticipation of a strike. Her arms burned with the bruises he’d left the day before. Over his shoulder she could see Chet. The boy had stopped walking, his eyes fixed on her, a dark look on his face. She prayed he’d be wise enough to stay away.

Perhaps distraction might work. “Father, Mother said I’m to ready for the dance. If I don’t, she’ll be angry.”

“And you think I won’t if you persist in disobedience?” said her father. His voice had grown very like a snarl. “You think to prance about in a gown while I break my back doing your work?”

She knew better than to deny it. He’d hit her for sure. “I don’t want to go,” said Loren. “Only Mother—”

“You chop,” he said. “And if you rest again before your fingers bleed, I’ll see to their letting myself.”

But he didn’t move. Loren had to step around him to bring her axe down on the log. Her father waited for her to split two more before finally stumping off toward the center of town, vanishing behind Miss Aisley’s house.

Chet still stood, staring at her. She gave him a weak smile and a quick wave before lowering her head again. When she raised her eyes, Chet had gone.

The fear in Loren’s gut churned to rage. As always she hated herself for it, hated that she could only summon such anger when her father’s hands no longer threatened. If once she could bring it to bear when he stood close and the axe lay in her hands…

She stamped the thought down. You have a kinslayer’s heart, she hissed in her mind. If she gave in to such dark thoughts, constables would kill her slow and accurse her name across the kingdom.

Thoughts of constables turned her mind to the wide lands beyond her little forest. They seemed as far out of reach as the tops of the trees. Loren could scarce remember a time before she dreamed of wandering the world. Always her dreams had contained great cities, strange mountains whose names she did not know, and swift rivers that ran straight for miles.

Now her waking dream ran further, and she saw herself in a cloak of black with a brace of daggers at her waist. She rode a spirited palfrey with a gilded harness that bore emeralds the color of her eyes. She slipped into a city and robbed its nobles blind before vanishing with the morning mist. And as she slid out through the city’s gates, the guards quaked in fear and whispered the word Nightblade.

Her mind shied away. Years had taught her to ignore childish wishes. She was fifteen now and a woman grown. She had no time for flights of fancy that could bring only pain, the pain of wanting and not having. If ever she had hoped of escaping her parents, the hope had died long ago.

The axe fell, the log split, and she knocked the pieces aside. No more lay within arm’s reach, so she moved to the pile and stooped to pick up another log.

As she grasped it and stood, she saw a thin figure in a bright blue coat. It darted through the woods at the edge of the clearing. The man—for she could see it was a man now—moved from tree to tree like a hunted animal, looking over his shoulder. Then he vanished into the forest.

Loren looked again toward the village. She couldn’t see her father anywhere, nor were any of the other villagers looking her way.

That blue coat was no woodsman’s garment. The man came from beyond the forest, from the lands Loren had seen only in her dreams. What was he doing? Where was he going?

She knew only one way to find out.

Anxiety roiled in her gut. Her mind raced with the possibilities of what would happen if her parents caught her. But a voice within cried, Go! She flung her axe to the ground and ran into the woods where the flash of a blue coat had vanished.

CHAPTER TWO

By the time Loren reached the spot she had seen him last, the man had disappeared. She knelt at the base of the tree and inspected the ground. Crushed blades of grass told her the direction of his flight. She threw a last, hesitant look over her shoulder but saw no one.

She would only leave for a moment. She would return before anyone could tell she had gone. A few minutes, that was all.

She followed the man’s trail. Her feet fell swift but silent as a tomb. Loren prided herself on her woodcraft, and knew how to move swiftly while avoiding detection.

Only a few short minutes passed before Loren saw the man again. His telltale blue coat stood out like a beacon fire between the brown trunks. She slowed her pace to match his and peeked out only when he moved.

She needed only a few glances to take his measure. Neither short nor tall, his height matched her own though he looked more than twice her age. He wore his dark curled hair longer than most men in the village. Dirt covered every inch of him. His boots looked fit for the road, but his clothes bore rips and tears from travel.

A town man, then, or even one from a city. Loren wondered at his purpose. Running from something, certainly. The dirt spoke of hiding in ditches and under the roots of trees. He bore a panicked look that Loren knew well from the eyes of Chet’s prey when she hunted with him. His furtive feet, his jerking hands, every movement showed fear. Loren looked behind as they ran, but could see no sign of pursuit.

Eventually she grew careless. The man turned when she stood exposed, and his eyes fell upon her. He gave a strangled sort of yelp, redoubled his pace and vanished.

“Wait!” she cried, too late. He was gone, and her voice would not carry far in the forest.

But if he hoped to evade her, he would find that a folly. Loren had seen his unease beneath the trees, his steps used to streets and floors than a forest floor.

She struck wide, making for a thick copse of birches she knew stood nearby. The man would avoid them, but Loren could pick her way through the trunks like an open road. She could catch him on the other side.

Her feet devoured ground faster and faster, her breath rising in excitement. She could hear her heartbeat in her ears. She was a wolf on the hunt, and her little blue-coated rabbit could not escape her.

She burst out the other side of the copse, exulting at the look of shock upon his face. She gave a cry of joy, but it turned to a yelp of fear as the man raised his hands, eyes glowing, and fire bolted toward her.

Loren skidded on her heels and crashed to the ground. But at the last moment, the man twisted his hands. The firebolt turned aside, crashing harmlessly into the dirt. Loren flinched at the impact, and though a wave of heat washed across her face, she shuddered.

“What do you think you’re doing?” said the man, the pale white glow fading from his eyes. “I nearly killed you!”

For a moment, Loren shook too hard to reply. The man’s shoulders heaved with deep breaths, his eyes fixed on hers. They were a curious color: a light brown verging on grey, a sharp contrast against the dark curls of his hair. She could see now that he wore a short blade on his belt and a few pouches of leather. But one of them was cloth, and it hung small and curiously heavy; it bore coin, Loren suspected. When she had composed herself, she stood and brushed soil from the seat of her pants.

“Why are you running?” was the first thing she could think to ask.

The man blinked as though reminded of something. He looked over his shoulder, but the forest lay empty.

“There’s no one there,” said Loren. Her own breath still came steady. It took more than a short jog to rob her of her wind. “I kept a careful as I followed. No one pursues you.”

The man snorted. “Oh, they do,” he said. “You may sleep assured of it and bet your last coin, if a gambler you might be.”

“Not yet,” said Loren. “But foresters have little opportunity to wager with wizards.”

One of his eyebrows arched. “Though ample opportunity to raise daughters with quick tongues and quicker eyes, it would seem.”

“You are a wizard, then,” said Loren.

“You saw my flame,” said the man. “It renders your guess less impressive.”

“A Firemage as well,” said Loren. “Your flight is curious, then, for who could you fear?”

He glanced behind him once more, and his feet twitched as though itching to run. “A man need not fear his pursuers to wish them no harm. Though it may look ignoble to flee, who would praise my honor if I caught constables in a blaze?”

Loren’s eyes grew wide. She cleared her throat and tried to look calm. “Constables? Are you…dangerous, then?”

His mouth twisted in a smile before barking a sharp laugh. “Dangerous? A slain patch of dirt lies to hand to prove it. Were I a touch slower, that patch of dirt could have been your remarkable green eyes.”

Loren blinked. “What about my eyes?”

“I mean no insult,” he said. “I said they are green, not ugly. I have never seen their color.”

Loren felt a growing sense of frustration, and her hands rose of their own accord to tug her hair into a messy braid. He was trying to distract her.

“I’ve not forgotten my question, Firemage,” she said. “Why do the constables pursue you?”

His face grew dark, and for a moment Loren grew afraid. But the shadow passed, and he tossed his hair back. “You will withstand their questions better if you do not know.”

“From whence do you come, then?” Loren pressed. “Where are you bound?”

He only looked over his shoulder again.

She had to get him talking. “I am Loren, a daughter of the family Nelda,” she said. “If your purpose must remain a secret, surely you can tell me your name. I am sure the constables are free enough with it.”

“That they are,” he muttered. “It is Xain. Well met.”

He gave no family. Loren knew a thousand reasons for that, but her first thought was bastard. The word sent a thrill through her. No husbandless mother bore a child within the Birchwood Forest—fathers and hefty axes saw to that.

“Well met, Xain,” said Loren. “How closely are you pursued, and for how long?”

Xain focused on her again. “For a girl, you bear remarkably little fear.”

Loren stood a little straighter for the moment. “For a woman, you mean. No man my age can beat me at arm wrestling, nor can any two years older in the village. Nor can they climb as high, nor run as fast. What would I fear from you and your pretty blue coat?”

Xain balked, then looked down at his coat and laughed. “When one must flee in haste, one must seize upon the garment closest to hand.”

He had distracted her again. Perhaps she could turn the tables upon him. She thought hard about what she knew, and her mind whirled.

He had come from the east and made for a southwesterly course. The east road ran straight through two cities to the bay of the High King’s Seat. And the closest town to the southwest was…

“Cabrus,” she said, gratified to see him give a little start. “You make for Cabrus. There’s nothing else the way you’re going.”

“The road is long,” Xain grumbled. “Cabrus is scarcely a dot on the great maps of the realm.”

“A place may be a waystop, yet men make for it when occasion rises,” said Loren. “And you do not deny it. But you will never reach it.”

She saw his nostrils flare and his hands clench at his sides. A little shiver ran down the small of her back. “Do you mean to lead the constables to me, then?” he said in a grim voice.

Loren shook her head. “I bear you no ill will, and  you saved me from the flame.”

“I sent it after you also.”

She shrugged. “A weight on both scales clears the account. But as for you, only your boots can bear the long road there. Your stomach will not, even if both those pouches at your belt hold nothing but salted meat, which I doubt. After the Melnar, you’ll find no other fresh water on the road. Thirst and hunger will take you before you ever glimpse the walls of Cabrus.”

Xain frowned. He held forth a finger and whispered a word. His eyes glowed with pale white light, and blue fire sprang to life above his fingertip. “I can hunt. A bolt of fire or thunder will serve as well as an arrow; the squirrels know no difference.”

Loren’s cheeks flushed. “Water, then. I do not think you can draw the rain from the sky, unless you are Dorren in disguise.”

He smiled at that. “You have me there. Perhaps you are correct, and the constables will catch me. I can always beg them for a drink. They are most accommodating once you are within their grasp.”

Loren felt her pulse quicken. A half-forgotten dream tugged at the back of her mind, a destiny she’d long abandoned.

“Maybe you’ll not need their courtesy,” she said. “If you stay here, I shall run and fetch you water and provisions, enough to make the journey.”

“Why?” said Xain. He looked over his shoulder yet again.

“Because I want you to bring me with you.”

He took a quick step backward. “That is what I feared. No. I will not.”

“Then you’ll never reach Cabrus.”

Xain’s mouth soured. “I’ll find a way. I’ve made it this far.”

“Following the King’s road and the river that runs beside it, I don’t doubt,” Loren said.

“Why?” said Xain. “I’m wanted, and not for a feast of honor. If they find you with me, it will go ill for you.”

Loren avoided his eyes, uneasy. Then she unlaced the cuff of her sleeve and pulled it to her elbow. Black welts and bruises shone like beacon fires against her pale skin.

She saw a flash in his eyes—not only anger, but recognition.

“I’ll await you an hour,” he said, grumbling. “Then I move south without you, and if I die of thirst, so be it.”

“I’ll take less than half that,” said Loren. She turned and vanished beneath the trunks of the birches, hoping it looked as magical to him as his fire was to her.

CHAPTER THREE

Loren approached her village quick and quiet. She had long years of practice; often she returned to find her mother and father bearing ill tempers and ready fists.

Many villagers had gathered in the open space to the west. There the sun as it set cast everything in a ruddy orange glow long into the evening, perfect for merry gatherings. Such a gathering would soon be afoot. Some folk readied stout tables for food, and young children tramped a wide space in the grass for dancing. But Loren did not see her parents.

Her heart sank. If they were not helping set up the dance, they were like to be in the house, and that was where she needed to go.

She flitted from tree to tree like a bird, keenly aware of the passing minutes. It took longer than she wanted to reach the village’s east end  where her house sat far from any other.

There she saw something she did not expect: two strangers in brown and red traveling garb. They stood talking to Chet and Bo, another young man from the village. Chet’s eyes were hooded and his brows close, but Bo spoke animatedly and gestured all around. The strangers listened patiently, only occasionally giving comment or a prompting question.

The constables, thought Loren. They had to be. It would be too great a coincidence for any other strangers to arrive today. She had to fetch her supplies and be off quickly. She did not think anyone else in the village had seen Xain, but the constables might yet find his trail leading southwest. Although…

She thought hard for a moment, reached a decision, and emerged from the trees. Chet’s face brightened as he saw her and grew less stern.

“Loren!” said Bo. “These men are constables. I’ve never seen a constable in the village before, have you?”

“Not here, but once in the city,” said Loren, dusting her hands as though she’d just come from the axe. She stuck a hand out to the men. “Well met, strangers. What brings you so far from any building made of stone?”

One of the constables stood tall and thin, but muscular as any village man. The other was several fingers shorter, but his chest was barrel-wide and muscle bulged beneath his clothes. Both had boiled leather pauldrons and breastplates, dyed a dull red and worn over long, simple tunics of brown. The taller one stared at her outstretched hand, but his companion reached across and took her wrist in a firm grip.

“Well met,” he said. “I am Corin, and my stalwart friend is Bern. We seek a man traveling through these lands. When last we saw him he headed this way, and we wondered if he had come to your village.”

Loren’s eyes widened. “A man in a blue coat?”

They all started. “You’ve seen him?” growled Bern, the taller constable.

“In the woods, yes,” said Loren, nodding with vigor. “As I foraged for herbs I saw him amid the trees. When he spotted me he fled, and I could not keep his pace. I soon lost sight of him.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Chet’s face grow stony, and it made her flush with pride. Chet knew that no foreign man could escape her in these woods. But he was not such a fool as to counter her before the constables.

“When was this?” said Corin. “My lady, this man must be brought to his justice. Tell me, when and where did he run?”

Loren laughed, putting just the right amount of giggle into it. “Oh, you are too kind, constable. You know well I am no lady.” She made a great show of thinking hard upon his question. “It could not have been more than a quarter hour since I saw him. As for where, he fled that way, though his path swung about wildly.”

She thrust a finger to the north and east, directly away from the birch copse where Xain awaited her.

Corin and Bern traded glances. Corin gave Loren an earnest half-bow. “You have provided our lord a great service. If indeed we should find the wizard, we will return with a purse of his gratitude.”

“A wizard?” said Loren, her eyes shooting wide. “Truly?”

“A purse?” said Bo.

Bern scowled at his shorter companion and spoke for the first time. “My friend speaks with a looser tongue than he might. Our lord would prefer that the lot of you forget his words.”

“Of course,” said Loren. “I’ll say nothing. Nor will the boys, lest they catch my ready hand.” She stepped forward to hold a stern fist beneath Bo’s nose, and he grimaced. Chet needed no such encouragement, she knew.

With a final hasty thank you, the constables ran off. Bo wandered toward the dance preparations, leaving Chet to fix Loren with a knowing look.

“The man outran you?” Chet said. His eyes looked solemn, but his tone betrayed nothing.

Loren shrugged. “Well, I did not give him full chase. How was I to know he was worth a purse? I tired of my run and gave in, for why should I continue?”

Chet’s arms folded, and his eyes eased. To further his mind down the right path, Loren smiled and placed a warm hand on his arm before making for the village. He did not follow, for which she was grateful. She had no desire to lie more than she must, and time grew ever shorter.

“Loren!”

Her stomach dropped to her boots. The bruises on her arm flared with pain again. Her father stood there, his face twisted and mean with fury.

“Your logs lie idle, and your axe with them,” he said.

She tried to talk, but her throat cracked like desert sand. She tried again. “Constables, father,” she said, gesturing vaguely. “Two constables came, looking for a man.”

His eyes did not waver. “What worth are two constables and their man? If they find him, will they chop your logs?”

“They offered a purse.”

He stepped toward her. It was all Loren could do to remain rooted. She wanted to flee, to vanish into the woods and beg Xain to take her even without the supplies. But she stayed. She would not run. Her father got close, the way he liked, and she craned her neck up to look at him.

“I’ll go back to the logs, father.” She could not keep the quaver from her words. If she could only make him let her go, she could take what she needed and slip away again, never more to fear his meaty arms or rank breath.

“You’ll go to the house,” he said in a growling whisper. “That’s twice you’ve tried to leave me your job, and twice too many. You’ll go to the house, and I’ll give you a lesson. Next time your feet will stay planted, and your arms will swing.”

“I don’t need a lesson, father—”

His fist met her gut, and her nose crashed into his shoulder as her body tried to double over in reflex. It wasn’t his hardest blow. He’d save that for the house.

“You’re far too free with your tongue when speaking back to your elders,” her father hissed. “To the house. Now.”

She heard Chet’s footsteps, and looked up to see the boy striding toward them, his face a mask of fury. She met his eyes, pleading without words for him to turn around. He ignored her.

And then Loren heard a voice she was seldom pleased to hear: her mother, shrilling in the forest air. “Loren, where is your dress, you witless child?”

Loren took the opportunity to step back, and her father turned. “She’s still chopping for me,” he said. He thrust a meaty finger in Loren’s face. “She’ll need to go all night at the rate her lazy hands move.”

“You know we need her to attend the dance,” said her mother. “How you think we’ll get her wed, I’ll never know. Not when you never let her try her luck with a man.”

“The men can come to her,” said her father stubbornly. “Let them watch her chop. A man needs a strong woman who can work.”

With her father distracted, Loren risked another look at Chet. He had stopped his advance, but he stood with folded arms and anger clear in his features. He wouldn’t leave as long as her father stood by, Loren knew.

“A man does, and a man knows it, but a man does a different sort of knowing when he chooses a wife,” her mother said. She strode up to Loren’s father and shoved her face into his, full of all the anger Loren could never summon. At the same time, her sharp-nailed fingers leapt out and seized Loren’s bicep, pinching into the skin. “We’ll never get the dowry we need without some boy who can afford her seeing a little skin. Loren, you get in the house and get that dress on, and if you tear it I’ll lock you and your father in the house for an hour and blow a treehorn to cover the noise.”

Loren gulped and glanced fearfully at her father.

“What are you looking at him for?” her mother screeched. “Go!”

Loren remembered Xain and went. As she retreated, her mother and father’s conversation dissolved to bitter, hate-filled argument behind her. She didn’t know if Chet still stood guard, but she dared not look back for him.

The moment she passed through her front door, anger swelled in her gut once more. She should have struck back. Her father’s wrath would have burned like flame, but Chet would have stepped in. Together they could have beat her father to within an inch of his life, and mayhap beyond. And if Chet did it, he would not be a kinslayer.

But such thoughts would not help, not when Xain waited and nearly half her hour had passed.

Loren threw from her bed the ridiculous green gown her mother had bought. Its arms, like those of her tunic, hung long to hide bruises. Loren threw it to the floor, ground dirt into it with her boot heel, and spat on the pretty cloth for good measure. Then she went to gather the things she really needed.

First she took her father’s smelly, thick cloak of dark green. She donned her own cloak, throwing the cowl back to let her auburn hair fall down her back. In her parents’ room sat a cupboard, and from its top cabinet Loren took her father’s travel sack. His cloak went into the sack, forming a soft lining around the interior. Two skins of water sat near the house’s front door. She threw them into the travel sack. Food she took next, salted meats and several loaves of good hard bread, still fragrant from Miss Aisley’s oven.

Loren thought of Miss Aisley with a pang of regret, and her thoughts turned to those in the village that she would miss. Dear, foolish Chet, of course, and old Kris who was decent to her when she did not wish to go home. But the names she would miss far underweighed the others, those who heard and saw what her parents did to her and never raised a finger or even frowned.

She would be well quit of the Birchwood Forest. It would not miss her.

Loren hesitated before her final acquisition. It sat tucked in an old chest atop a shelf in the kitchen. The chest held useless knickknacks in the main, but one item she might use. A long and curved dagger, its sheath made of leather cracked with age. As a young girl she had drawn it, and then she hid it away again before her mother could find out. The blade bore strange, twisting marks engraved in black. It was a weapon, no hunting or cooking knife, as any fool could see.

The night she drew the dagger was the first night she lay on her straw pallet and imagined herself in a black cloak and whispered the word Nightblade.

Now, though, she feared to lift it. Could she really take it? Loren knew little of such things, and yet she would have wagered the dagger cost more than her parents’ whole house. Then again, they might never notice it had gone. Not in all her life had Loren seen them bring it forth from the chest. Never had she seen them bring the chest down from its shelf.

Her hand closed around the dagger’s hilt. She almost threw it in the sack, but she paused. Then she untied her simple rope belt and ran it through the sheath’s loop.

With the dagger at her waist she felt like a different person. Now, truly and forever, she was Nightblade.

But she had wasted too much time already. She needed only one thing more before going to Xain again. The wizard could hunt with his fire, yes. But Loren would not let herself fall under his care when she left. What if the wizard left her once they reached Cabrus? Or died on the road? No. She must be able to forage for herself.

She needed a bow. And she knew where to get one.

She dropped her brown cloak over the dagger and slipped out the door, making for the trees once again.

CHAPTER FOUR

Loren hoped to find Chet away from home, but that hope fell when she found him out back fletching an arrow with a knife and gutstring. She could not hope to avoid him. But she still had her tongue, and it had served her once already. She stepped from the trees.

Chet’s stern face softened at the sight of her. His close-cropped hair glowed golden in the sun, and his bare arms glistened with his work.

Upon past years, she had thought to take Chet for a husband, dowry or no. They would find a way to pay it, or they would run away together. But that dream had grown dimmer and dimmer as the years passed, and had guttered out when Chet’s mother fell ill. Now, two years later, she was as close and far to death as ever. A huntsman could never muster her dowry, and Chet would never leave his home to run away—not then, and not now with Loren and Xain.

All these thoughts flitted in and out of her head in an instant, and then she put on the face she knew she must wear: unconcerned and gently happy to see him. “Shouldn’t you be dressing for the dance?” she said.

“Shouldn’t you?” he said. “That cloak is not the dress your mother chose, I think.”

Loren shrugged. “I must wash before donning it. I make for the river to bathe before making myself a fair young flower.”

Chet put down his arrow a little too hastily and stood. “I’ll come. This is dull work, and does little to calm my temper.”

She knew Chet’s temper burned bright and long, though it took long to stoke. She had often wondered what would happen if her father ever sparked it true, but now she would never know.

Loren cocked her head and narrowed her eyes. “I think you presume much. A woman’s bathing is no time nor place for a young, fair-haired man who holds her in no bond of marriage.”

That had the required effect: Chet’s face turned red as a beet. “I meant…I would wait behind the bank, of course.”

Loren laughed lightly. “Don’t fret so. Will you dance with me tonight?”

“And will you, with me?” He stepped closer.

“I would not have asked if I meant to cruelly refuse,” she said. “But my parents might object. They require such a great dowry, and they may refuse to let me dance with one who cannot offer it.”

Chet glowered. “They could not deny me as simple a thing as a dance. Not even they.”

Loren both loved and bemoaned how easily she could sway his mood; a symptom of young love, she supposed. She had long known she could, but she rarely had the need. But it would not do to have him too angry.

“Fetch me your own dowry,” Loren said. “Weave it of dandelions and lilacs, and place it upon my head. Then I’ll give you your dance, and you can give me mine.”

He flushed again, but gentler this time. “Pretty flowers of a crown for a pretty flower of a girl? This I can do, and gladly. But no dandelions and lilacs lie near the river.”

“I am astute in my planning, then.”

He chuckled. “Very well. I’ll see you at the dance, then. Denying myself the sight of your dress will sweeten the pleasure of its revelation. Ready your hair for my dowry.”

“I will.” She touched his arm as she had before—for the last time, she thought. Her fingers lingered for just a moment at that.

He wandered off to the south east. Loren watched him go, catching a spring in his step that had not been there before. She kept a gentle smile in case he turned around, but inside she quailed. Chet, her only true friend in all the world. Chet, foolishly and incurably in love with her. She would miss him more than all the rest, more than the forest itself.

As soon as he had gone, she slipped in the back door of his house. His mother’s room lay quiet and still. Loren chanced a look through the door and found her asleep. That was lucky. A sudden scream might undo everything.

Loren went to the rack on the wall and pulled down one of Chet’s hunting bows. She took the one of poorest make—it would serve for rabbits and squirrels, and she needed nothing grander. Loren strung it quickly and slung it on her back, then stooped to a low shelf where two quivers full of arrows waited. She took one, but left the other. She would not make Chet a pauper, unable to hunt. She would take only what she must.

Nightblade must always have such honour, she thought.

It was time to go. She had what she needed, and would not be beholden to the wizard to hunt for her. Her throat grew dry as she realized she was about to leave her home forever, to fend for herself out among the nine kingdoms. How could this be, when only that morning her greatest aspiration had been to find a way out of chopping logs?

She made for the back door, and disaster struck.

The door swung open, and Chet’s father Liam stepped into the frame. Old and stooped, he was a genial man but never seemed to notice Loren’s existence. That was not the case now. He froze on the spot and gawked at her, his watery eyes growing wider and wider. He opened his mouth to cry out.

She had the bow in her hands. Before she could think, she leapt forward and slammed the bow into his temple. His eyes fluttered and closed as he fell to the dirt floor, an angry red welt springing to life on his forehead.

Loren stifled her cry with the back of her hand and dropped to one knee. She placed a palm on his chest and felt a strong heartbeat.

Her eyes went to the heavy red welt on his forehead. Chet. He could have forgiven Loren for fleeing the village without telling him. But he could never forgive this. Could he?

It doesn’t matter, she thought. Soon she’d be in the forest, never to return. She shot to her feet and ran out the door.

She made it to the trees and almost kept going. But at the last moment, she couldn’t leave without a final look. So she stopped beneath the low branches of an oak and turned to her home one last time. Her eyes roved across the simple houses, the smoke from the smithy, the pile of wood outside her house, her father.

Her father.

He stood by the chopping block, Loren’s axe in his hand. And just as her eyes found him, he saw her.

He stood dumbstruck for a moment. He took in her cloak, the sack hanging from her shoulders, the bow slung across her back. His face contorted in fury.

Loren turned and ran into the woods. As soon as the village fell out of sight, the terror in her veins turned to rage, far too late to do her any good.

CHAPTER FIVE

She pounded through the woods, wasting no time to cover her trail or silence her footfalls. She could hide her trail from most, but her father, too, called the forest home. He had spent many more years beneath its boughs than Loren had, and she knew he could track her easily. She would have to rely on speed and hope that Father’s age would give her the advantage.

Every odd noise sent a gout of terror through her. But then her mind would reflect upon the sound and tell her that it was only a bird taking flight, or a doe fleeing in terror. Even in her terror and her haste, her instincts could sense what her mind could not.

It seemed an eternity before she saw the white bark of the birch copse far ahead. The summer sun beat down through the leaves, and sweat soaked every inch of her. She weaved through them, and her travel sack caught on branches again and again. She slung it off her back to carry at her side instead. In a few breathless minutes she emerged from the copse to find the forest empty.

Panic seized her. Her hour had not yet passed. Where had Xain gone? She scanned the ground for his trail, but then she heard the snap of a twig and he rose from behind a fallen log.

“I’m pursued,” she said quickly.

His eyes flashed. “The constables?”

“No, I sent them the other direction. But my father spied me as I left the village.”

He muttered a curse. Loren thrust a hand into her travel sack, wrapped it around cloth and tugged.

“Here,” she said. “Leave your coat—it will get in the way, and shine out like the sun besides. Put this on.”

He obeyed without question, throwing the garment into the dirt and donning her father’s green cloak. She saw his nose wrinkle at the smell, but he made no comment.

“Come, and quickly,” she said. “Try to follow my path exactly. The track I take us on will be difficult to follow. Mayhap we can lose him.”

“I have no quarrel with your father,” growled Xain. “We should split up.”

Loren’s stomach spun circles. “I had no quarrel with your constables, and yet I would have gone with you. You cannot leave me!”

His eyes darted back and forth. “Very well. But if he should catch us, I will not raise a hand against him first.”

He will raise his, I assure you, she thought. But she said nothing. Xain would go with her, if she said nothing further to scare him off.

As they went south, the land fell away before them. The sloping land lent them speed, and Loren used it to their advantage. Once the land began to level again, she swerved suddenly right and up a low rise. At the top, broken rocks formed a sort of circle. The Giant’s Crown, some called it, and the ground grew hard and stony beyond. She followed the rocky terrain as long as she dared, but when it turned north she abandoned it and plunged once again into the trees.

Before long a small forest stream sprang up at their feet. They ran down its speedy flow, splashing through the shallows at the edge. It slowed them somewhat, but water bore no marks of passage. When the stream turned north, Loren led Xain out of the water again.

Here the trees were sparser, and they had to run long distances over open ground. Loren imagined she could feel her father’s eyes on her back as she ran. Her steps came faster and faster still, but soon Xain began to tire and flag behind her. She had to slow her pace to match him, and every step seemed an irredeemable loss.

“You must hurry,” she said. “He will find us.”

Xain did not bother with an answer. He could move no faster, and they both knew it. After a time his ankle caught upon a protruding root and he stumbled, and in that moment her father struck.

He leapt from the shadows between two thick oaks. His hand lashed out, cracking against Loren’s cheek. She fell to the ground with a cry and struggled up before he could pin her down. But he did not come. When she rose she saw him atop Xain instead, wrapping an arm around the thinner man’s throat. Xain’s face turned red and edged toward purple. He fought to bring a hand around, scrabbling for her father’s face, but her father caught the hand and twisted it, prompting a screech of agony.

Hearing that screech of pain, Loren’s mind turned to ice. Never had her father hurt another in her presence—except when he fought her mother, and Loren only wanted each to hurt the other as much as possible. But now her father threatened to crush the life from her one chance, the only man who Loren had ever truly thought could save her from the life of pain and obscurity she feared.

Icy rage turned white-hot, and Loren drew the dagger. She leapt at her father with the blade held high. But her father saw her coming and released Xain, scrabbling to his knees and away from her wild swing.

He rose and roared like a bear brought to bay. The sound dampened Loren’s sudden burst of fury, and she hesitated a moment. That moment was enough, and like a snake her father lunged. One hand gripped her wrist to hold the dagger helpless. His other hand curled into a fist that he drove into her face.

Stars erupted at the edge of her vision, and Loren doubled over. Her father squeezed her wrist until the dagger dropped to the grass, then let her follow it. She gasped at the pain in her eye, blinking as she fought to clear her vision.

“Spawn of soiled seed,” said her father. “You have been a plague and a pox upon me since the day you first clawed air into your lungs.”

He kicked her. The hard leather of his boots felt like a tree trunk. She screamed, trying to roll away, but he only kicked her in the back.

She could not see. She could not think. Where was she? Who was this man, and why did he want to hurt her so? Why did some part of her mind scream that he should love her, pick her up and cradle her in his arms and promise to take the pain away? Instead he only gave her more.

Her eyes fell on Xain, who crouched several yards away. The wizard’s lips moved, and his eyes began to glow. He held a hand curled at his side, and Loren saw the flash of fire within it.

“No!” she cried. “Don’t kill him!”

Xain froze. His lips stopped moving, and the fire wisped out in his palm.

The shout drew her father’s gaze. His ugly, beady eyes fell on the wizard, and his lips split in a grimace, revealing spots of blood.

He leapt catlike upon Xain and bore the wizard to the ground. This time he wrapped his hands around Xain’s throat, digging his fingers in deep. Xain’s eyes bugged forth as though they would burst from their sockets. He gasped a phrase, and blue lightning sprang into being, but it vanished before he could unleash it.

Loren’s heart broke. Xain would not have been here if not for her. He might have died on the way to Cabrus, and he might not. But she had brought him to this place and then brought her father’s wrath, and now Xain would die for it.

She could not allow it. She saw the dagger lying near her fingers, and thought of her childish dreams. Nightblade could not allow it.

She fought to her knees. Her bow still hung on her back, and by some grace of the gods its string was whole. Her fingers felt like wood, but she forced them around the bow’s haft and pulled it free. Shakily she brought an arrow to string and half-drew, then took two stumbling steps forward. This time her father had eyes for nothing but Xain.

Loren kicked as hard as she could, and something in her father’s face broke under her boot heel.

He fell away, rolling over and over to put distance between them as he screamed in rage. In a blink he regained his feet, but there he paused. Loren’s arrow rested at full draw, aiming straight for his heart.

Slowly, her father’s hamfist hands came up on either side of his head. For every inch they climbed, the fury in his eyes redoubled.

“No more,” said Loren. It came out as a whisper. “No more will you torment me. I am leaving, father, and I mean never to return.”

“You mean to defy me?” said her father. “You will do your duty as a daughter or—”

She pulled just a little harder on the bow, gaining another inch of draw. Her father’s voice fell to silence.

“You have never done your duty as a father,” she said. “I feel I owe you nothing.”

“You owe me everything,” he said. “I could have killed you in the cradle. I could have killed you when I woke up today, and moved my bowel on your corpse. I made you, and now I see I made you worthless.”

“Then when I leave you shall suffer no great loss,” she said.

She felt that his words should have stung, but she was beyond them. They were only a stronger flavor of the same things he had said all her life. And in this moment, now that another fate beckoned her, she stood under his sway no longer.

Xain had finally regained his breath, and he came to stand at her side. He muttered, and as his eyes glowed white a ball of lightning hovered in his grasp.

“You think you can escape me?” her father said, changing tack. “I learned these lands years before I spilled you between your mother’s legs. Nowhere in Selvan can you hide from me. Ready yourself for sleepless nights by a bright fire. For if you close your eyes in sleep, if for even a moment you let yourself sit in darkness—”

Loren loosed the shaft. It sank into her father’s thigh. He collapsed to the ground without a scream, but with a gut-deep grunt of pain.

“Chase us now,” said Loren.

She turned and walked away from him, stopping for only a moment to retrieve the dagger and replace it in its sheath. She did not turn to see if Xain followed her, but after a moment she heard footfalls behind her.

Her father’s hateful screams followed them for a long while, long past the time when she could no longer understand the words. Finally the sounds died away just as they reached the flat plain between the forest’s edge and the King’s road to the south.

The sun hung low in the sky by the time they reached it. Loren had only seen the road twice in her life before. Its hard-packed dirt felt odd beneath her feet. Not far beyond, they heard the whispering sigh of the Melnar as it babbled its way toward the High King’s Seat.

“The King’s road at last,” said Xain. They were the first words he’d spoken since the fight, and they came hesitant and raspy from his throat. His bruises would long remain, Loren knew. She feared to see her own marks on her ribs, and whispered a quick prayer of thanks that nothing had broken.

But the road would not let her think of her hurts for long. “Is it as long as they say?” she asked Xain.

“I do not know what you have been told,” he said. “But I would imagine it is longer. Follow it west from here, and you will come to every capital city in the nine kingdoms. Follow it east, and soon enough you will find yourself at the High King’s Seat.”

“But we do not go that way.”

He frowned. “No. We do not travel upon the road at all. Fast though our path might be upon it, watchful eyes would spy us far too easily. We must cut across and follow its course south, but far from its edge.”

Loren nodded. “How far will we go tonight?”

“Your arrow was well placed,” said Xain. “We need not fear your father’s pursuit. And if I know constables, we will not see them until the morrow, if then. We will make for the river and camp upon its bank.”

Loren would have traveled all night, eager to prove her willingness and her worth as a traveling companion. But her heart nearly melted in relief at Xain’s words. A bone-weariness had set upon her. For the first time she had stood up to her father, and she had emerged alive, though not unscathed. Her mind had not yet decided what to think of the encounter, and had settled instead for a comfortable numbness that drained her of energy.

She led the way across the road. She walked it easily enough, but Xain did an odd thing: he skittered across the packed dirt, stepping lightly as though placing a foot upon it would invite the watchful eyes of every constable in Selvan. Once they had crossed, however, he resumed his normal stiff gait.

The sun neared the horizon as they reached the bank of the Melnar. Loren walked downstream for a minute until she found a large rock beside which to camp, then returned and led Xain to the place. She threw her travel sack down upon the dirt and fell down beside it, resting her head on the soft, silty dirt of the riverbank.

Xain slumped against the rock, and for a long time they sat there. Neither said a word nor looked at the other. Eventually Loren felt her stomach rumble, so she dug into the pack and fetched some salted meat. She cut it with the hunting knife she always kept in her boot—the dagger at her belt was meant for a different kind of flesh—and split it with Xain.

She pulled out more salted meat and one waterskin for Xain. He drank thirstily, then refilled it from the flowing river. He chewed sparingly at the meat, then wrapped up the remainder and placed it into the bags hanging at his belt. Loren felt great relief to see the wizard to ration himself. She would not have to mother him, at least.

The sun had vanished beneath the horizon, but dull orange still glowed in the sky when Xain finally spoke. “Will you never return home?”

Loren thought hard upon it. “He might die. My mother, too. Not after today—that arrow wound will heal long before his temper does. But one day. We never grow younger. One day I might return. But why would I?”

“Do you have no other…” he let his voice trail off. “No. I am in the wrong to ask. Some wounds must wait before we can clean them.”

She wondered what he meant by that. “What of you? You do seem on a course that bears return. What will you do? Run forever?”

He did not answer, only turned away and lay upon the ground with a little pillow he made of torn grass. He fell asleep faster than she could believe.

She built her own grass pillow and lay upon it, but sleep would not come. She could only stare at the numberless stars as they appeared in the inky blue sky. Her mind racing and standing still all at once.

She could not think of home. She could not remember her mother’s face. She could recall Chet, but not his voice. And she could not envision Cabrus or any place else that lay ahead, either. There was only the here and now, and the quiet bubbling of the river close at hand.

She did not remember when she started crying, but once it began it lasted until she fell asleep upon her pillow of grass. And when she woke, Xain had taken his meat and his water skin and gone, leaving her alone by the riverbank.

CONTINUED IN EPISODE TWO

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Welcome back to VlogaNovel, the streaming web video show where I live-create a book for your reading pleasure! We’re nearing the end of Nightblade: Episode One, and I’m reading the book through one final time before publication. While this serves as a final copy edit, it will also serve as my audiobook recording for when the book comes out on Audible and possibly other audio services, such as Podiobooks. Tune in to hear the book read live.

PRE-ORDER THE EBOOK HERE: http://garrettbrobinson.com/nb-1

Welcome back to VlogaNovel, the streaming web video show where I live-create a book for your reading pleasure! This is the FINAL VLOGANOVEL EPISODE of Nightblade: Episode One, and I’m reading the book through one final time before publication. This is both a final copy edit, and my audiobook recording for when the book comes out on Audible and possibly other audio services, such as Podiobooks. Tune in to hear the book read live.

PRE-ORDER THE EBOOK HERE: http://garrettbrobinson.com/nb-1