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The Steel Queen
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Sample chapters from The Steel Queen -
Book 1 of the Silk & Steel Saga

Prologue

Jamis stood at attention before the Door. He hated this posting. None passed through the Door save the screaming and the damned…and those that dragged them to their fate. Casting a sideways glance at the rune-covered copper, turned green with age, he shuddered. All manner of beasts and humans had been dragged through that portal…but it was the things that crept back out that haunted his dreams. In truth, he did not know what lay beyond the Door, he never wanted to know. He would have prayed to all the gods to remain ignorant, but down here, who listened to prayers except the Dark Lord? Clutching his spear, Jamis fixed his gaze on the stairs and kept his prayers to himself. Time crawled. His back ached and he longed to lean against the cold stone wall, but he dared not. Just a fortnight ago, he’d watched Emmet flayed alive for sleeping at his post, a bloody reminder to stay vigilant. 

He touched the gorget at his throat, once a talisman of pride, now the collar that chained him to this subterranean post. Clad in silver and covered in runes, the gorget marked him as a guard of the Door. Six year ago, he’d endured a trial of questions from the priests and then watched as a temple seer cast his fortune on rune-carved bones. Most of the questions were lost to memory but the bones had declared him favored by the Dark. Having gained the silver gorget, he received better quarters in a higher tier, and more pay, but now it seemed a beggar’s bargain. So deep underground, in this god-forsaken place, Jamis felt watched…watched by something that bore him nothing but malice.

Footsteps clattered down the stairs and Jamis lowered his spear to bar the Door. 

A young hatchet-faced man in black-and-gold armor appeared. Jamis smothered his surprise. He’d expected one of the guard captains, or a dark-robed priest, but not the general, not down here.

General Haith barked an order over his left shoulder. “Hurry.”

Behind him, two soldiers struggled down the stairs carrying a massive block of dark-stained wood between them. A barrel-chested man lumbered behind, his face masked in black, the head of his great silver axe gleaming in the torchlight. Another execution, Jamis wondered if the axe would claim a criminal, a sinner, or another sacrifice.  

The general halted in front of the Door. “Sion rasmathus.”

The Door trembled and then swung open.

Tendrils of icy air laden with the stench of rot eddied around Jamis’s boots. Sweat trickled down his back like frosty fingers. The general and his party passed through, but Jamis did not look. Curiosity killed down here and Jamis refused to be tempted. Alone in the antechamber, he distracted himself with thoughts of Marisa, and his two little ones, Janelle and Kayla, waiting for him in the city above. He couldn’t wait for his shift to end, to feel the warmth of their embrace, but time seemed to have frozen, shackling him to his duty.

The two soldiers burst through the Door and ran for the stairs. Taking the stairs two at a time, they trailed a sour reek of fear.

Unnerved, Jamis locked his gaze on the opposite stairway, but the rest of his senses remained fixed on the Door. His neck hairs bristled, a soldier’s sixth sense warning that danger lurked behind, yet there was nothing to fight but shadows. He gripped his spear, needing to feel the certainty of steel, knowing he dared not let rumors banished reason.  
An odd, slithering sound came from the stairs. A tall skeleton of a man leaning on an iron staff shuffled into view, his dark robes dragging behind. The cowl of his robe slipped back to reveal a shock of long white hair framing a ravaged face. Broken veins spider-webbed his ruined skin and his cheeks hung hollow like empty sacks, yet the dark eyes glared cold and keen. 

It was the Mordant, the lord of the citadel. 

Jamis fell prostrate, his face pressed to the floor, praying to avoid the chilling stare. Iron clicked on stone, drawing near, the staff stopping beside his face. “Rise.” The sibilant rasp froze the air. “Rise and follow.” 

The imperious voice jerked Jamis like a chain. Drenched in a sudden sweat, he staggered to his feet and bowed to the Mordant, before turning to face the Door. A veteran of a dozen battles, he told himself there was nothing to fear…but the lie coiled cold in his stomach. A rotten stench clogged the Doorway, making him gag as he followed the Mordant across the rune-carved threshold. 

Jamis stifled a gasp, his gaze skittering around a vast cavern carved from nightmares. Red stalactites hung from a vault of rough rock, as if the earth had wept blood that slowly petrified. Beneath the vault of weeping stone, a great golden pentacle stretched across a black marble floor like an altar awaiting an offering. Flaming braziers stood at the five points, filling the cavern with a flickering light. The light did little to dispel the menace. Power pulsed in the shadows, waiting to be summoned.

The Darkness was alive. 

Mortals did not belong here, Jamis wanted to run. Needing a bulwark against his fears, he fixed his gaze on the two men standing beneath the pulsing shadows. General Haith stood at one of the braziers while the executioner cradled his axe above the dark-stained block of wood. 

The block stood empty, waiting for a sacrifice. Jamis wondered if it waited for him, but then a worse fear twisted his guts, remembering those things that had crawled from the Door. Death at the block would be a far cleaner fate. Struggling to keep his dignity, Jamis shambled forward till he reached the edge of the golden pentacle. His footsteps slowed, somehow knowing if he crossed the Dark Lord’s symbol he’d be lost.

“Stop.” the Mordant rasped. 

Jamis froze, clutching his spear, shocked by the reprieve. 

The Mordant began to circle the pentacle, his black robes fluttered behind like a windblown wraith…yet there was no wind. Muttering chants in a strange tongue, the Mordant woke the chamber. Flames roared from the braziers, licking the vaulted ceiling, releasing plumes of red sparks that fell like scorching cinders. The air crackled with power, the breath of a thunderstorm eager to strike. Shadows coalesced overhead, taking the form of gibbering demons. And then the braziers dimmed.  

Darkness pressed down, forcing Jamis to his knees. Crouching low, he held his breath lest the Darkness enter him.

The Mordant handed his iron staff to the general and made his way to the center of the pentacle. Casting a shadow larger than legend, he stood before the executioner’s block. Throwing his head back, the Mordant thrust his hands up toward the red stalactites. His face flushed with ecstasy, he cried, “One lifetime is not enough! Let the bond between us be renewed. May the Dark Lord reign over all of Erdhe!” 

The wizard shrugged the robe from his bony shoulders. Bile rose in Jamis’s throat at the sight of the sagging, ruined flesh, the dark runes burned into the old man’s shriveled skin, but then the Mordant knelt. Understanding struck like a knife. Jamis realized he was not the one slated for sacrifice, but then why was he here?

The Mordant set his head on the block. Jamis stared in shock, unable to believe the lord of the citadel would sacrifice his own life…unable to imagine what such a sacrifice would invoke. He longed to look away, but felt compelled to watch. The executioner swung the half-moon blade in a mighty arc. The silver axe flashed down. Blood spurted and the Mordant’s head toppled to the floor with a gruesome thud. The general strode forward, lifting the severed head by its long white hair; a trophy, a triumph, an offering. 

The dead eyes flew open. 

Two crimson beams of light speared from the Mordant’s eyes piercing Jamis. The severed head began to laugh, a terrible, mocking sound that thundered through the cavern. Jamis screamed, his soul seared by the red light. The sudden stink of urine flooded his nose.

The red light slowly faded like two spent embers. The braziers dulled as if snuffed out by a giant hand. Absolute darkness prevailed. 

Something stirred overhead, a brooding menace unleashed by the sacrifice. Huddled on the floor, Jamis sought to hide within the darkness, but something found him. Pain pierced him, like a hundred frozen daggers stabbing at his heart, inserting slivers of darkness beneath his skin. He writhed across the cold marble floor, screaming in agony, but then it stopped. Gasping for breath, he waited. 

The braziers re-ignited. 

Squinting against the light, Jamis checked his body, but there was no blood and no gaping wounds. His stare raced around the cavern, seeking his attacker, but he found only shadows. Shuddering, he reclaimed his spear, and struggled to stand, wondering what fate awaited him. 

General Haith remained in the center of the pentacle, but the severed head he held aloft had changed. Withered and shrunken, the head had aged a century, as if death revealed the true age of the Mordant. The general stared at Jamis. “Bare your chest.”

Afraid to obey, but too fearful to resist, Jamis dropped his spear and clawed his way out of his armor. Ripping his tunic in haste, he stared at his chest. A dark mark slowly appeared above his heart, like a rune tattooed from beneath his skin. “No!” 

The general laughed. “You have been marked by the Dark Lord. Remember what you have seen here this day. Now go!”
Jamis fled. 

He didn’t remember running out of the chamber or climbing the long spiral of stairs to the surface. Bursting free of the subterranean staircase, he collapsed in the courtyard, gasping for breath. Crisp, clean night air flooded his lungs, but he couldn’t purge the taint he felt inside himself. He clawed at his chest, contorting to peer down at his bared flesh, but the rune remained, like a curse beneath his skin. Convulsing on the cold stones, he emptied his stomach, but he could not 
empty his mind. Twisting his head away from the sour stench, Jamis sought the light of the stars in the night sky. The stars were still there, but his world was forever changed. He’d learned a truth he never wanted to know. The Darkness was real and all the light in the world could not banish the nightmare from his soul. 

Thirty years later…

Chapter 1  Katherine

Kath took the steps two at a time, racing the light from the rising sun to the battlement at the top of Castlegard’s tallest tower. If she hurried she’d have time enough to work out the riddle. The question had been nagging her since dinner last night, but she needed the view to be sure. Rounding the last spiral, she stepped out onto the windswept battlement. A single knight stood watch alongside the brooding gargoyles, his maroon cloak billowing over a silver surcoat. Too old for the field of battle, Sir Bredon’s eyes were still keen enough for the lookout towers. Without turning he said, “Hello, Imp.”

Kath smiled. To the knights and the candidates she was the “Imp”; to the ruined veterans she was “Little Sister”. No one saw her for what she really was. In some ways being invisible gave her an advantage; age was a trap for a girl and a curse for a woman. At fifteen, she wanted to avoid the trap for as long as possible. Crossing the battlement to stand next to the knight, she leaned on the wall, the crisp wind tugging at her unruly blonde hair. “Anything out there?”Sir Bredon pointed to the northern horizon. “A patrol returning from the north but otherwise it’s quiet.” 

Kath spotted the dust cloud on the valley floor. She held her breath; half hoping an enemy pursued the patrol. Peace was boring. 

“No cause for alarm.” Sir Bredon walked a lazy circuit around the parapet, keeping his gaze on the countryside below. “Aren’t you supposed to be somewhere?” 

Kath scowled. “It’s too early to be at the healery. And besides, I have a riddle to solve.” 

“A riddle?” 

“Last night at dinner, Father said that Castlegard could almost defend itself, that any attacking force would have to overcome eleven defenses created by the ancient builders.” The riddle challenged Kath, giving her the chance to prove she knew the castle better than anyone. “I think I’ve worked them out, but I need the view to be sure.” 

The tower gave her a perfect eagle-eye view of the great concentric castle and the broad saddle-shaped valley below. The valley breached the east-west range of mountains that separated the southern kingdoms from the lands of the Mordant. The castle guarded the valley, holding the Mordant’s hordes in check. It made 
sense, but Kath thought the explanation was too simple for a castle raised by the ancient mages. In many ways, Castlegard was itself a riddle; the construction of the inner walls so seamless they looked as if they’d been molded from molten granite. 

Running her hand along the impossibly smooth mage-stone, Kath could easily believe the ballads the bards sang about the making of the castle in the days of high magic. The mage-stone walls showed no sign of wear despite more than thirty generations of use. Magic used to raise such a castle was long since gone from the land, destroyed during the War of Wizards, but Castlegard remained as a marvel of older times. Whatever the truth behind the castle’s origins, legends agreed that Castlegard was invincible and no army had so far proved the claim false.

“Eleven you said?” 

“Some of them are easy.” Buffeted by the chilly wind, Kath tucked her hair behind her ears and wished that she’d worn a cloak. “The greensward makes approaching enemies vulnerable to arrows, and the moat looks peaceful enough but I know it’s deep.” Last summer, she’d probed the murky depths with a broken lance, never finding the bottom. “Three has to be the drawbridges and four the gatehouses protecting the bridge mechanisms. Then there’s the iron gate and the first curtain wall but they probably count as one. It gets tricky inside the first wall.” The eight-sided castle was a series of fortified walls, separated by traps and tricks. The outer walls, raised by the sweat of ordinary stonemasons, were challenging, but the soaring inner castle, raised by the magic of ancient wizards, was surely impregnable. “I’ve heard the knight marshal say there’s nothing but traps between the two walls.” 

Sir Bredon nodded. “Mage-stone’s not the only reason the castle’s never fallen.” 

Mentally mapping a pathway through the gauntlet of defenses, Kath had to agree. “Between the two walls, I count two portcullises, a gated pass-through, an archery cross-fire yard, and a dead-end corridor.” She frowned. “But that only makes nine.” 

“Don’t forget the murder holes over the pass-through.” 

“Ah yes!” She’d heard tales about the murder holes which allowed defenders to rain boiling pitch on invaders trapped within the walls. “That makes ten, but we’re still short by one.” She leaned farther out. It was probably something sneaky, crafted into the pass-through or one of the gates. Her gaze roamed the castle walls, but the last defense remained a mystery. “Do you know what we’ve missed?”

“No, but if the king says there’s eleven then there has to be one more.”

“Perhaps the last defense can’t be seen from above, like a trapdoor or a pit of spikes.”

The knight shrugged, “Makes sense.” 

Kath resolved to explore the walls and ferret out the answer. Setting aside the riddle, her mind turned to a deeper problem. Perhaps Sir Bredon could help since he served on the Council of Candidates. Reaching into the pocket of her squire’s tunic, she closed her hand around her good luck charm and tried to make her voice sound casual. “Sir Bredon, do you know the knight-candidate, Blaine?”

When he replied, his voice was laden with disapproval. “Knight-candidates have no time for skinny girls, especially not the king’s daughter.” Wrapping his maroon cloak around his shoulders, he turned his back on her and strode away. 
Kath scrambled to keep pace, “It’s not what you think,” but he didn’t reply. Walking in the knight’s chilly shadow, she considered ways to break his silence, 
perhaps a bargain of sorts. “Sir Thorlin is slated to spar with Sir Brent on the morrow, a great sword against a battle axe,” she offered. “They say the odds are three to one in favor of Thorlin.” 

Sir Bredon threw her a hard look. “Wagering on sparring rounds is forbidden.” 

“The odds are wrong.”

He raised a bushy eyebrow, his voice gruff. “What does a girl know of odds?” 

“My mornings are spent in the healery.” 

He stopped in mid-stride and turned to stare down at her, a glint of avarice in his dark eyes. “And?” 

“And I want to know about Blaine.” 

He gave her a slow nod. 

“Sir Thorlin has a bad left shoulder, an old war wound from patrolling the steppes. Damp weather makes it ache. He’s been to the healer for a poultice. I know because I ground the mustard seed myself. Sir Thorlin will fight tomorrow, but his left shoulder will not be at full strength. So you see, the odds are wrong, Sir Brent will win the bout.” 

Sir Bredon grunted, “Good to know,” and resumed walking. 

“And Blaine?”

“Tall, lanky, blonde, comes from the farms of Tubor.” He stopped to gaze down at the sleepy village nestled in the valley below. “Blaine came to the castle as part of the peasants’ levy. He’s the son of a pig farmer, but he’s taken well to training. Some of the veterans speak highly of him.” He cast a sideways glance in her direction. “The young buck will have his chance to earn a knight’s maroon cloak. Why?” 

Kath chewed her lip, trying to frame the question. “If Blaine succeeds in the trials, do you think he’ll follow the old ways?”

“A strange question, Imp.” He turned to walk the battlements and Kath fell into step beside him. They completed a circuit before he spoke again. “The king would say the Octagon is built on honor, and so it is, but some of the younger knights stray from the old ways. The maroon is not what it once was. Combat exposes a man’s true mettle. Blaine’s test will come in the trials. From what I’ve seen of him, he’ll make a good addition to the maroon.”

Relief washed through her. Blaine was different from the others, fighting with his mind instead of just the strength of his arm. For her dream to have a chance, he had to be a man of honor. She stared down into the great yard, surprised to find sunlight dancing across the curtain wall. The morning was slipping away, and by order of her lord father, Kath was supposed to be at the healery gaining a “lady’s education”. The thought was enough to sour her stomach. She longed to practice swords with the squires, but that would never be allowed. 

Bidding Sir Bredon a good day, she raced down the tower stairs taking them two at a time. Rounding the last spiral, she found a maroon-cloaked knight blocking her way. Kath glared at Sir Raymond, a sour-faced nobleman from a minor barony in Radagar, one of the few knights she went out of her way to avoid. She tried ducking around him but a mailed arm snaked out to block her way. 

“Can’t keep away from me, aye, princess?” 

He was always taunting her with rude remarks, but so far it was only words, and only when he caught her alone. Kath recoiled against the wall, watching for an opportunity to run past. 

He leered at her. “You’re a skinny, wild thing, but a man could do worse than wed a princess. You hide under that baggy squire’s tunic, but I’ve noticed those young tits of yours shaping the gray wool.” His leer deepened. “Your father thinks you’re 
a child, but we know better, don’t we princess? Maybe this will be the year I ask for your hand. You could do worse than a baron’s son and a knight of the Octagon. What do you say to that, princess?” His right hand reached out to touch her face. 

It was all the opportunity she needed. She spit in his face, aiming for his eyes, and dodged around his outstretched hand. He roared in anger but Kath was already well past. She sprinted for the tower doorway, dashing out into the safety of the open courtyard. He wouldn’t bother her if there were witnesses around. 

Her father would banish Sir Raymond if he knew about the knight’s behavior, but Kath’s greater fear was having her father realize she was old enough for marriage. Better to keep her silence and stay in Castlegard. Time was her enemy. Shaking off the rude encounter, she detoured through the great kitchen, comforted by the smells of fresh-baked bread and the warm greetings of the kitchen folk. She filched a quarter loaf of bread for breakfast, and a handful of leftover meat scraps to feed to the healer’s giant frost owl. It seemed to Kath that if you could win over the pet, the master was sure to follow. 

She took a short cut through the great yard, waving to the crippled veterans. She loved arguing with them about the relative sword skills of the squires and knight-candidates. Without realizing it the veterans were giving her a practical education in the principles of arms practice. Kath absorbed every detail, but there was no time for talk this morning, she was already late. 

A cavalcade of knights thundered through the ironbound gate, shattering the peace of the morning. The returning patrol rode in disciplined ranks, a proud flourish of maroon capes and burnished helmets. Sunlight glinted off arms and armor, making a grand sight. Kath paused in mid-stride, swelling with pride, but then she noticed that the horses appeared lathered and blowing hard. They’d been overridden; something was wrong. A shiver of apprehension feathered down her spine. 

The captain reined in his stallion and dismounted, his voice a beacon of command. “Wounded man here! Get the healer and the knight marshal!” 

Weapons jangled as the knights dismounted. Warhorses stamped and churned, fighting their bridles and whinnying for attention. The yard became a whirlpool of snorting horses and armored men, a chaotic swirl of sweat, leather, and steel. Ignored by the knights, Kath waded amongst them, just a piece of flotsam caught on the tide of curiosity. Making her way toward the central knot of maroon-cloaked knights, Kath caught a glimpse of a man in bloodstained leathers slipping from the back of a warhorse. A flash of bead-embroidery marked him as a stranger, the patrol must have found him on their rounds. She crept closer, angling for a better view. Two knights lowered the stranger to the ground, laying him on his side. A pair of arrows protruded from his back, two circular stains of blood leached into the cream-colored leather. Kath stifled a gasp; the arrows were fletched in gold and black, the colors of the Mordant. 

“Where’s the healer?” The urgent shout echoed through the yard. 

The knights shifted, obscuring Kath’s view. Crouching, she peered between their legs, and found herself staring straight into the stranger’s face. Shock rippled through her. Whirls of tattooed blue covered the man’s skin, turning his face into the snarling mask of a mountain lion. “A Painted Warrior!” She’d heard tales of the renegade fighters of the far north but she’d never seen one in Castlegard. She studied his face, finding the blue tattoos oddly compelling; a fitting mask for war. But beneath the whirls of blue, his flesh was ghost-pale, his breath a ragged rattle from between parched lips.

Her healer’s training took over. Kath scrambled to the side of a warhorse and untied a water skin, then pushed her way back to the Painted Warrior. 

A voice of command split the air. “I need a report.” The stern-faced knight marshal stepped into the central clearing, his one-eyed gaze staring down at the wounded man. “Where was he found?” 

The patrol captain answered. “At the extreme northern end of our ranging, left for dead in the grasslands. We held the horses to a gallop, hoping to get him to the healer in time.” 

The marshal’s one-eyed stare found Kath, pinning her to the ground, a mouse caught by an eagle. Trying to justify her presence, she lifted the water skin. “He needs water.” The marshal gave her a skeptical scowl, but gestured for her to proceed. 

She knelt by the man, gently pouring water over his face and across his cracked lips. The blue tattoos were even more striking up close. The snarling mountain lion seemed more than mortal, like something out of myth, man and animal melded together. And his clothing was almost as exotic, supple cream-white leathers embroidered with glass beads, the pattern showing a pale blue flower on a field of white. Kath wondered at the story behind the mountain lion, behind the delicate blue flowers. The Painted Warrior gasped like a man desperate for life. Startled, Kath nearly dropped the water skin. His eyes still closed, he turned his head toward the cool wet flow, his mouth open for more. She tilted the spout against his lips. Water trickled down the side of his face, but he swallowed more than he lost. 

Overhead, the marshal growled, “Did he say anything on the ride south?”

A knight answered, “Nothing of note.” 

“Get the healer, I want this man saved.”

The Painted Warrior’s eyes flew open, wild and urgent. Kath shrank back but her movement drew the man’s attention. Sky-blue eyes stared up at her and Kath thought she saw recognition in his face, but that was impossible. His gaze drilled into her, latching onto something deep inside, something that she didn’t have a name for. Struggling for breath, his words barely audible, he rasped, “The Mordant seeks to be reborn!” 

His words shivered through Kath, lodging in her soul. 

The knight marshal crouched beside her, demanding answers. “Tell us about the Mordant’s forces. Why were you so far south?” 

A tattooed hand shot out, grasping the front of Kath’s tunic with surprising strength. 

The Painted Warrior pulled her close, his breath sour against her face. “Claim the war helm! Yours…to…use.” His words beat against her with the strength of destiny. 

Then his eyes widened and his back arched in pain. His fist released her, the arm falling limp, the eyes glazing. A death rattle gurgled from his lips, a trickle of blood escaping his mouth and he slumped backward the spark of life gone. 
Kath rocked back on her heels, struck by loss and confusion. She wanted to send a prayer to Valin, but she didn’t even know the man’s name. 

The marshal sighed, “The arrow fletchings reveal more than the ravings of a dead man.” 

Commands were issued and men snapped to obey but Kath sat in a fog. Mailed arms reached past her, lifting the Painted Warrior from the ground. The soldiers wrapped the body in a cloak and carried it away. The patrol of knights followed the marshal to the King’s Tower, a jangle of armor and weapons. Stable boys took 
command of the warhorses, ushering the great beasts out of the yard and sweeping up the dung. Even the old veterans found a reason to leave. A shroud of stillness settled across the yard as if the gods stood watch. 

Numb, Kath sat forgotten on the hard-packed earth. The dying words of the Painted Warrior shivered through her mind, “Claim the war helm.” She shuddered; bound by death to a man she did not even know. She reached for the empty water skin, replacing the stopper and only then noticed the bloody handprint staining her tunic like a blazon.  Death had left its mark. 

 



 

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