Songs in the Night - Chapter One

Songs in the Night

Book One of the Song Giver Series

Release date: April 3, 2021

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©2021 Laura Frances




ETAN



The stars refused to shine, and in their absence, the dead lingered.


Soldiers sat hunched over dying embers, their sun-scorched faces glowing red in the crackling light. Eyes shifted at the grind of my steps as I walked a winding path between the tents. But their deep-throated murmurs continued without end, prayers rolling over swollen lips, tumbling past chipped, broken teeth. They gripped idly at wounds, blood-caked knuckles curling over patched up gashes. Little did we rest that night.


As I moved from shadow to shadow, in and out of the moon’s pale glow, a stone sat heavy in my stomach. I tried to block out the sounds of grief. I was still young, and I’d not yet learned the wisdom in embracing sorrow. In allowing it space to breathe. My fists clenched to the point of pain.


We'd come to aid a cluster of villages along the border at Gregthain, to drive Sithian traffickers back into their own land. We rode only as a band of two hundred warriors. It wasn’t meant to be an all-out war, only defense of the people living on the outskirts. But the enemy was prepared, hordes waiting on the mountain and in the forest. Nearly five hundred in number. The sickening, low blast of their war horns resonated in my skull long after the battle was done. It was a sound I’d never heard in that first year, a deep, bone-rattling noise rising as from the far depths beneath.


At last, the king’s tent came into view. Wider than the others. Taller. Blue banners decorated the canvas, with torchlight at the front. Knights flanked the entrance, stony eyes glowing in the flicker of fire. I stopped beneath a nearby tent’s looming shade, halted by a memory: my father’s words the night of the king’s gift.


“You were meant to protect. Since you were a boy, I always knew there was more to you than service.”


“If that’s so,” I replied, “it’s only because of your example. You are as much a warrior as any man who bears a sword. The king knows it. Why was this honor not given to you?”


“It’s enough that he knows”, said my father. “Not every man is meant for glory.” He held me at arm’s length, pride drawing tears to his eyes. “But you, Etan, are a crown upon my head. Your rise honors me more than my own could ever do. Your mother...she would be proud.”


The absence of his strong grip dropped my shoulders, and I shuddered in a chill rising from the valley. Would he say such things if he could see me now? Would my mother be proud of my actions? I drew in a long breath through my nose, and it churned in my chest. Aching. My fingers found the chain at my neck, where it disappeared beneath my tunic, hiding the medallion of a budding steel rose. My one trinket that once belonged to my mother. Her voice whispered through my thoughts, a memory.


“Take care, little bear, that ambition does not blind you.”


My gaze shifted to the guarded tent.


As a child, I never feared the king. He’d been good to my father, always treating him fairly and revering him more as a friend than a servant. But this night, I trembled at the thought of standing in his presence. The events of the day replayed in my thoughts, going over every condemning detail.


A raging battlefield. The clash of steel against steel, and the guttural screams of men when blade hit flesh. High mountain peaks looming to the west, and a rising sun cresting in the east, illuminating the night’s carnage. Glowing soft over blood and bone.


The king fought in our midst, caked in sweat and mud, the glint of his swinging blade blinding as the sun slipped over the horizon. The morning mist rose around him as a shroud, tendrils hooking to drag him under. But he would not fall.


I was ordered to lead a few wounded away from the battlefield. We’d nearly reached the crest, all four surviving the arduous climb up a steep slope, when I looked back. My gaze fell on dozens of Sithians pressing in on the king, laying waste to the soldiers gathered to protect him. Among them, a single enemy foot soldier weaved his way through the chaos. Untouched. Unseen by those surrounding. He made for the king, and it wasn’t malice he wore, but a fierce determination. Full acceptance of the path laid at his feet. A bringer of death.


That night, as I stood gazing at the king’s tent beneath an ink-dark sky, towering and sturdy in my youth, I struggled to weigh the worth of one life against the next. Wrestled to find peace in the choice I had made. Had I not left the wounded, the king would surely be dead. But the climb stole the last of their strength, and an ambush at the top took their lives.

Would I have been enough to save them? Or would my body have joined the earth with theirs, useless now against the cold ground?


I straightened my spine, feigning confidence where I felt none. Sir Belin opened the tent at my approach, sporting a nasty gash across the bridge of his nose, disappearing into the thick gray of his beard. The old knight’s scowl raised the hairs on my neck. His nephew had been among those I left on the hill. I hadn’t known it then, only later, when his cry split the cold, still air.


I avoided his gaze and bowed to enter.


The king stood in the glow of candlelight, his back turned, dressed down in a simple untucked tunic and pants. No robe. No crown or armor. This was the man I had grown up knowing, humble in sovereignty and might. He was unharmed, as far as I could see, apart from the fatigue and aching muscles we all felt. His strong arms crossed over his chest, one hand raised to his mouth, slowly stroking at a short, brown beard.


Traveling in the king’s company since childhood often blurred the lines of decorum. But as we stood quiet in the wake of the day’s horror, far off moaning reaching our ears within, death crushed my courage. Guilt sent my knees to the ground.


“I owe you a great debt,” murmured the king. My chest caved, bending me forward. His words served only to shame me. “It’s a debt I owe to many,” he continued softly, “but none as young as yourself. Your father will be proud.”


His tone hinted of truth. Of honesty and affection. He was never wasteful with praise, but to accept it would be wrong.


“I’m sorry, master.”


His turn upset the nearest flames, and his heavy gaze fell on me. I kept mine low.


“How many times have I told you not to call me master? You are not a servant, Etan.”


“I am,” I said to the ground, to the dirt at his feet. “I am your servant. Like my father.”


He studied me, then sighed. I sensed his approval of my loyalty.


“Son, stand up and look me in the eye.”


I was taller than the king at my full height. I rose but didn’t lift my head.


“Eyes,” he commanded. I looked up.


Fire greeted me. Burning power behind a kind, knowing gaze. I struggled to hold it.


The king stepped closer, into the brighter glow of a candelabra. His blue eyes shone as crystal. Glittering like the sea that surrounded his palace. Warm like the waters that lapped on his shores. They were eyes of legend, already famed in lands across the water.


But on this night, the night at the beginning, they carried a sorrow so powerful my knees trembled to behold it. I’d known him since my birth. He’d held me the day of my first breath, standing by the hearth of our small quarters, smiling down with as much pride as my father...so my mother said.


But never had I seen his eyes so pained. He knew more than he let on. Understood what would come.


“You risked your life today to save mine,” he said. “The very air I breathe is a gift you have given me.” His palm pressed to my heart, and his voice dropped to an insistent plea. “There is a great deal of courage buried here. And more spirit than most men I’ve known in my lifetime. But son...” His gaze bore into mine, searching me out. My heart pounded beneath his hand. After a few seconds, he stepped back.


“You saved my life,” he said again. “Understand that I am truly grateful. But today, trust was broken. And broken trust is as cracked armor: a fracture in the very thing that protects us.”


I felt Belin’s sharp glare at my back, and defenses rose in a rush of heat. “Sire, he was invisible to the other soldiers. I watched him. And when I reached the valley floor, a force tried to keep me from you. An unseen barrier following him in. It didn’t lift until I killed him.”


The king nodded, brow furrowing as he paced over a faded rug. “Sithians wield many powerful weapons. That you reached me at all is a wonder.”


“It was sorcery, sire.” The word left my mouth as a whisper, but I knew it to be true. I’d felt it when I pressed through the madness. The air around me suddenly thick and rippling, reacting as my shoulders drove through it as if through a malleable wall. The effort called on every ounce of my strength.


“Indeed,” the king answered solemnly. “I felt it too.” He looked over my shoulder, to Belin.


“Sorcerers once governed their provinces, until they were called back to their own land. Sithian Lords were greatly feared.” Slowly, he ambled past me, holding on Belin as the two shared in what seemed a distant memory.


“It would appear they have returned,” came Belin’s gruff voice, “if the boy was indeed protected.”


It was true; he had been a boy. Five years younger than me at the very least. Standing in the king’s tent, I still felt the impact of my blade through his back. There had been a moment, when the barrier of protection lifted, that he rolled to his side, and our eyes met. I’d thought of my father, of the grief my death would bring had it been me bleeding on the ground. That boy must have had a father too.


I shook off the image of his tear-stained grimace. “But their oath was fulfilled. My father told me...it’s been years since they returned to Valk.”


A shadow crossed the king’s face. A dark-winged memory.


The entrance flew open, and Maledin rushed in with a blast of cool air. He was a young, lean-muscled knight the others called dainty. But I’d fought at his side countless times that first year. A lean build made him fast. Deadly.


He dropped to a knee and bowed his head. Between breaths, he said, “Majesty, we have word from the villages.”


I moved toward him. “What news, Maledin?”


The young knight lifted his face to the king, and my heart sank. There he wore only defeat.


“Tell me good news,” implored the king.


Maledin shook his head, working the muscles in his jaw before words would yield. “I cannot. Dozens have been taken. While we were under attack, men raided the villages. Their dead...they outnumber ours.” His eyes grew dark. “They’ve taken children, sire.”


The silence that followed draped thick like sweltering heat. The king erupted.


“What game is this? Would Dreonine stoop to attacking my men as a diversion? As a distraction while they steal my children!”


“We must follow them in!” I exclaimed. “They can’t have gone far if they’ve taken so many. Send word to the citadel. Call in more men.”

Belin fixed a glare on me before turning to the king. “We should return the dead to their families. If our army crosses into Sithia, it will be an act of war.”

“What was today,” I shouted, “if not an act of war!”

Belin bristled at my tone. “Some of us,” he hissed, stepping into my space, “prefer not to rush carelessly into the heat of battle before considering the situation fully. A war with Sithia is the last thing our kingdom needs.” He pivoted his attention to the king. “Send a message to King Dreonine, my Lord. If he’s not behind these attacks, he has no reason to shield those who are.”


Maledin jumped to his feet. “Are you suggesting we can reason with the Wicked King? Are you mad?”


“Sire, you saw their strength today with only limited numbers,” I pressed. “Sending a message will only give him time to gather a stronger force. We must act now.”


“You challenge me before the king!” the older knight growled. I tensed. My rise never settled well with Belin. To him, I was a servant’s boy. My business was with horse dung and troughs. I held my gaze on the king. I believed he agreed with me. Drew on my childhood at his feet, playing with his dogs under the music of his warm laughter as my father prepared his clothes; standing at his high window, listening to stories while my father readied his room for sleep.


I believed, then, that my connection was the strongest. That no other knight compared to the bond between the king and me. I believed many things. And while the king did love me, I wish now that I had better known my place.


“It’s not a challenge,” I answered Belin, “but reason. Sense.”


“And I suppose you know better than your superiors, now that the stable dust has cleared from your eyes.”


Maledin shot forward, but I stopped him with a palm to his chest. “You insult the man who saved our king!”


“Enough!” The king’s bellow drew all our eyes. Softer, he said, “That is enough.”


He pinned a chastising look on Maledin and me, and my face burned when his eyes slid to mine and held. It was Belin’s order I had disobeyed. It was Belin who bore the fracture of distrust when he sent his nephew with me. But was the life of the king not some payment for my sin? I regretted Belin’s pain, but men die in war. Good soldiers fall. It had been the king’s life in the balance. I’d been left with no choice.


“Sir Belin,” the king said, “has a point. I do not wish to start a war with an entire kingdom if only a small band are responsible.”


The words hung in the air, and I wrestled with the impulse to snatch and rebut them. Belin raised his head, pleased. I shook mine.


“That was no small band, Your Majesty. They held us in battle through the night. Their numbers multiplied even as we struck them down.” I moved closer, imploring. “Call in more men. And not only soldiers. We need not fear their strength or their power. Should you ask it, you would command an army one hundred thousand strong.”


His lips tugged at the corner, suppressing a sad smile. I realized I was looming over my master and stepped back, lowering my head.


“One hundred thousand,” he echoed quietly.


“Indeed,” said Maledin, moving around Belin. “No king is more beloved.”


“This is madness,” Belin whispered, wide eyes trained on the ground. They jerked up. “We’d be marching to our deaths.”


Silence fell at the words. Despite myself, worry crept into my heart. I was inexperienced, that much was true. But I wasn’t as foolish as Belin might have thought. I did pause in that moment and wonder. The power I’d fought through had been impossibly strong. Perfectly controlled. Such force could destroy us in greater numbers. Doubt wriggled into my once sure confidence. How did anyone defeat that kind of strength?


When the king finally spoke, the words reached us gently. But the tone of authority resonating just beneath muted all our tongues.

“Our children face great horrors as we speak. They shiver with fear in the hands of wicked men. Women,” he said, “whimper for help in a strange, foreign land. I do not fear Sithia’s Lords. Nor will I risk all-out war if it can be avoided. I fear only failure, and what the innocent suffer while we stand in this tent debating.”


The air shifted, displaced under the weight of his quiet rage.


“One day, I may call on that hundred thousand. As for now, send riders to gather the army. We’ll rally in the Great Forest, waiting for Dreonine’s answer. In the meantime, let us deal with our dead.”