A Path Through Fire and Blood: A Story of the Witchbreed

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The world seethes with unrest... Roanaan and its northern neighbor, Liseré, have been locked in a game of cat-and-mouse for months. To draw her enemy out, the Roanaan queen unleashes her vicious witch-hunters on a small community of witchbreed residing in the southeast region of Liseré. No one survives the massacre, except for one woman. Forced by the Liseré border guard to heal one of the hunters, and thereby preserve any military information he possesses, witch and former flesh-worker, Belda Anglois burns for vengeance. But retribution against those who destroyed her world may come at a price she cannot pay... This is an approximately 21,000 word novella set just before the events of IN THE BLOOD and BENEATH THE SKIN. Fans of Philippa Ballantine, Tamsyn Muir, Lois McMaster Bujold, Tamora Pierce, Samantha Shannon, and Sharon Shinn will delight in this dark adult fantasy.

Fantasy / Adventure
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

The night was ripe for death, winter’s most plentiful fruit. Frigid air burned Captain Derex Söhm’s throat each time he took a breath. It came laced with faint traces of woodsmoke and animal dung. Söhm brought his cloth mask up to cover his nose and mouth. The fabric dampened further with each exhale. The horse beneath him stamped a hoof with anxious energy. Söhm realized he was gripping the reins until his leather gloves creaked. With a sigh, he relaxed his hands and patted the animal’s neck. Witch hunts always made him tense with anticipatory excitement. Looking towards the sky, he saw the moon was a finger’s breadth from its apex. Almost time and then… He touched the talisman at his throat – a beaten copper disk engraved with a stylized angel.

Ahead of him stood their objective. The tiny community of witchbreed had settled into their beds several hours ago. The long, wooden dwellings stood in a semi-circle around a central gathering place: a collection of hewn logs set at regular intervals around the remains of a substantial fire. Animal pens were just visible at the back of the houses. Earthy scents of hay and dung softened the burn of the frosty air.

The entire compound had been built in the hollow terminus of a forest-shrouded ravine. The gorge’s steep sides protected the settlement to the east and west, while a sheer wall of rock shielded the back end. Not so much protected as boxed in. Söhm smiled at the thought. This should be a short night’s work.

Behind him waited the cadron of twelve mounted soldiers under his command, each one a hardened witch hunter. To his left sat the two highborn knights General Krommer had saddled him with. He slid his eyes towards them, lips crinkling into a thoughtful frown. Lady Ottilde Drönswick sat closest to him, her black-gloved hands calm and firm on the reins of her mount. Her black-brown hair was caught back in a tight braid coiled and pinned at the nape of her neck. Like the rest of the cadron, soot-blackened her pale face to further camouflage her in the night.

Söhm ran his gaze up and down her body in assessment. When he had first laid eyes on the tall, broad-shouldered noblewoman, he had not known what to think. She had the face of a princess and the wiry, lean musculature of a street fighter. A woman knight was a rare occurrence. Few noble families wished to sacrifice their daughters to the rigors of combat. And few of the girls whose families allowed them to train endured the backbreaking labor meted out to those who would carry the shield. Lady Ottilde had earned hers two years ago and, by all accounts, had fought with both ferocity and skill in the Pleinour War since then.

Söhm shifted his gaze beyond the noblewoman to Chroy Hess, crown prince of Roanaan. The young royal sat his mount with quiet confidence. Only child of Queen Kuonrada Hess and Roanaan’s darling, Chroy was the mirror image of his late father. Blonde hair – now dirtied with soot and mud – a strong, square face, and dark-green eyes. Söhm had heard good things about the prince from his former commanders. Though he had been more sheltered from danger than the average aristocrat, all the reports regarding the prince spoke of his brave spirit and tactical skill.

Since the two knights had been assigned to his cadron three days ago, he had yet to find fault with their glowing records. Both were obedient and intelligent, brave, but not foolhardy or reckless. All knights were required to participate in a witch hunt within two years of their shielding. This would be the first witch hunt for both the prince and Lady Ottilde, though neither of them knew it. It was Söhm’s practice never to tell his novice recruits the true purpose of his specialized cadron – to hunt down and exterminate those proven to be of the cursed witchbreed. He had found younger soldiers squeamish about killing women and children, whatever evil the supposed victims might possess. If things went well, however, Söhm might welcome one or both of them as permanent members to his team.

“This is a military camp?”

Söhm glanced again at Lady Ottilde. Her large, blue eyes looked black in the night as she stared at him, brow creased in concern.

“This is where we are ordered to attack.” Söhm turned away, refusing to acknowledge her continued doubt.

“Enemies can appear in all sorts of guises, Tilly,” Chroy murmured.

Söhm frowned at the pet name and directed a sharp scowl towards the two knights, just catching their gloved hands sliding apart. He met Chroy’s gaze with frosty eyes. He did not tolerate nonsense, romantic or otherwise, from his subordinates. Prince he might be, but Chroy was also under his command and subject to his orders. Söhm deepened his frown into a scowl as the staring contest between him and the prince continued.

At last, the corner of Chroy’s mouth lifted in a half-smile and he nodded. Odalay deliver me from young lovers. Söhm faced the target again, face stony. Some would say age had hardened his heart – at fifty-one he could not disagree – but, even as a child learning to walk, he had been the man of the house. And had learned early to behave as one. Romance and similar frivolous pursuits had their uses, he supposed, but not in his life and certainly not among his subordinates.

His eyes scanned the clearing, alert for any sign of movement. Their success depended upon secrecy and quick work. Söhm looked up at the sky again. The orders demanded they wait until the moon reached its zenith – when the Roufe border guard unit assigned to this particular area would head towards the east. Then, they had two hours to complete the raid and get back to the ship that waited offshore.

This was a calculated attack. Liseré’s King Talin had thus far not entered into open hostilities with Roanaan. He defended his borders, including the contentious Pleinour Islands — but refused to send his army onto Roanaan soil and had managed to keep Roanaan’s forces off his land. But Kuonrada had grown impatient with the cat and mouse games. Her strike against the compound, while insignificant in of itself, was meant to provoke Talin. Bring the bloodshed to his door. But Kuonrada had not wanted the innocent hurt. Her spies had combed Liseré’s southern border for a community like this — unprotected except for their despicable magic and the border patrol cadrons that made regular rounds along the coast. Witchbreed rats were fair game in Kuonrada’s eyes.

Through the reaching branches of the trees, stripped of their summer splendor by late fall’s chilly breath, the sky was thick with stars. The white face of the moon hung over their heads, and Söhm took a deep breath. “It’s time.” He looked over his shoulder and jerked his head to three men standing a little apart from the others. They trotted to the compound, their horses’ hooves muffled by rag swathes. Two of the riders loaded their bows while the third used flint and steel to light the treated arrowheads. With practiced ease, the two archers shot their flaming arrows into the roofs of the cottages bookending the others. Soon, the crackle of burning thatch and thick smoke filled the air. Söhm nudged his mount forward and drew his sword at the same time. “Kill anything that moves.”

A panicked cry rent the night, followed by a door being flung open. An old woman burst from the smoke-filled interior of one of the houses, her mouth stretched in a scream. The closest fire-starter cut her down and the old man who followed her from the cottage. Per his command, the members of his gesch slew not only the witchbreed but the animals in the pens.

“What is this?”

Söhm turned to glare at Ottilde, who had come to a stop as soon as the old woman appeared. Her eyes were wide and filled with shock and outrage. “It’s a witchbreed commune, Drönswick. Now get hunting.” He did not wait for an answer but took off after a gaggle of men running towards what appeared to be a supply shed.

He ran one man down, his massive warhorse crushing the witchbreed’s bones. His sword separated a head from a body then swung around to stab another man through the heart. The last man in the group tried to unlock the door to the shed, but Söhm swung his sword like an axe and cleaved the man in the skull. He crumpled to the ground, his hand still reaching for the door handle.

With a last satisfied look at the fallen witchbreed, Söhm faced the rest of the chaos. A tussle on the far southeastern end of the compound drew his attention.

Söhm squinted through the smoke and darkness. Prince Chroy held a struggling woman by her neck in the crook of his left arm. A knife glimmered macabrely in his right hand, poised to strike. Before him, hands held out in supplication, was, not another witchbreed, but the Drönswick woman. Both knights had dismounted and left their well-trained horses to graze close to the forest’s edge and the path that meandered into the dark trees. “Odalay’s teeth,” he cursed and nudged his stallion towards the two knights. There was often one young recruit who needed hardening before killing witchbreed.

As he drew closer, his horse stepping daintily over fallen bodies, he heard Lady Ottilde pleading with her prince.

“Chroy, please. She’s done nothing!”

Chroy shook his head. “She’s witchbreed, Tilly, a monster.” The prince pulled his arm back further and swung it forward to strike. As Söhm reached his charges, the prince stopped and let the hilt slide from his grasp. The arm holding the witchbreed woman in a chokehold went slack, freeing Chroy’s captive. She stumbled away from him with a cry. At first, Söhm thought Chroy had lost his nerve, until the prince followed his weapon to the ground and brought both hands up to clutch at the knife hilt sprouting from his throat. He crumpled to the ground, blood leaking from the wound and darkening the frozen earth around him. The witchbreed woman fell back with a small cry. She scrambled to her feet and ran. Söhm paid her no mind, confident another member of his gesch would take care of her. His attention remained riveted on the prince.

He vaulted from his horse and ran to kneel by the younger man’s side, but it was too late. All life had flowed out of Chroy’s face and now steamed on the frozen ground. Söhm turned slowly to pin Lady Drönswick with wide, disbelieving eyes. She had assassinated the Crown Prince of Roanaan. “What the fuck have you done?”

Ottilde stared at Chroy’s body as if in a dream. One hand gripped the stone pendant she always wore. Her entire body shook violently.

“Drönswick!” he bellowed, breaking through her eerie paralysis.

She raised eyes as big as fists to him. Tears leapt free and spilled down her cheeks. “I couldn’t let him do it.” Her voice climbed up the slopes of hysteria.

“You side with the witchbreed against your own people?”

Her mouth worked soundlessly.

Söhm snarled and stalked towards her, sword raised to strike her down. She backed up, drawing her weapon and raising it in defense. Söhm swatted the blade away and made to grab her arm. A sharp blow between his shoulder blades sent him flying to the ground where something hard and unyielding struck him on the side of the head. The last, thin cries of the dying witchbreed followed him into oblivion.

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