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First pages

Prologue

The General

Night had fallen and the tension in the air was palpable as I made my way through the halls of the Kingdom that we had just conquered. Conquered wasn’t exactly the correct word as we hadn’t met much resistance. A few townspeople and soldiers were all that stood in our way, we chopped through them with ease and speed. It worried me how easily we had taken the second most powerful kingdom in all of Nirra. There was no sign of King Jasper, the royal family or most of his personal soldiers. No matter, I would find them; it’s what I did best.

I walked without looking at the faces of the men that scurried out of my way. Plastering themselves against the stone walls, their heads bowed in fear, not even one of them dared to meet my gaze as I continued moving towards the library at the end of the hall.

Fear and respect are what I strived to install in my men. Fear never to cross me or question me, and respect for how easily I could cut down an enemy or a wayward solider.

My fighting skills had developed quickly over time, I was born to fight. I was born for war. It was just something that came naturally to me. I had trained my body to be a machine and trained my mind to be just as strong. Sometimes fear didn’t just come from what men saw me do to my opponents or anyone that defied me, but what others whispered about me. I fueled the gossip; it protected me as no one dared to challenge the general. I hadn't worked this hard to be the general to just let it slip through my fingers. But being at war left me with a life of solitude on the road; I didn't interact with the other men, their lives where short lived, no point getting attached. So once I left the confines of my tent my mask came on and I was no longer Draco the son of a whore but General of the most powerful Region—Embruss, ruled by King Allistair.

The whispered word General was sung from each soldier’s mouth as I continued my walk down the long hallway. My footsteps were not loud as I walked with a grace and quietness that served me well in battle. An opponent wouldn’t know I was upon them until it was too late. Not many men could master such a craft, and not many that were my height and size. Drills every morning kept my fitness level at a high peak, and spending most of my life fighting for survival kept me strong. Most of my childhood I was homeless and lived in the nearby forest that sat just on the edge of the capital of Embruss. I learned to be quiet to become one with the forest.

I stopped at the end of the hallway facing two large solid wooden doors that were torn from their hinges. Walking inside the room that once was a library I stood upon a floor carpeted in papers that the men had torn apart. They paused as I entered, abandoning their tasks and turning to me slowly; once again most didn’t meet my eye.

“Draco, what do we owe the pleasure?” Kyle stepped forward, pulling his body up to its full height he was trying to show me no fear but he hadn’t completely succeeded. I could see the annoyance that my appearance was causing to him and his men. Kyle was in his early thirties, five years older than me, he didn't like that someone younger was higher in ranks, but like everyone else he still had to show me respect and follow my orders.

“I came to observe Kyle and make sure the men were being thorough in their search.” I didn’t meet Kyle’s eyes; instead I removed my black leather gloves slowly from each finger, knowing my slow pace would make his blood boil. Picking up a fallen chair I set it straight and sat down. Only then did I look up at Kyle and notice the anger visible on his face. I smirked—“Please continue”— and the noise exploded as every man went back to their task. Kyle turned sharply on his heel and left the room.

I watched as they continued to tear down every book shelf, checking for secret passage ways that may lead to where the royal family could be hiding; this search had gone on now for three weeks and not as much as a clue had been found. The first two days confirmed the castle was empty, after that we searched the grounds while others like Kyle’s men went from room to room pulling them apart. The castle was big and a lot of ground had to be covered. But I knew we were close to finishing our search. Time and patience would find them, it always did. We had conquered many regions, most stayed and fought for their kingdoms, some ran. The ones that ran I hunted down and executed. No one was to be left alive. Only this time was different, King Jasper had to be captured and returned to Embruss for his execution.

My own king, King Allistair, always had a close relationship with King Jasper but their alliance turned bitter after the murder of my king’s wife. Fingers were pointed, war was declared and since that day we had never stopped. I looked back at the men as they continued their task, dark circles under their eyes showed their exhaustion. When was the last time we were home? Months, maybe a year. Time lost its value on the battlefield but at moments of peace it started to tick again.

For our king time would never have stopped and now I knew he would be filling his fat face with food and wine celebrating his victory. I sent the news back once we had taken the castle and I was awaiting word from the capital. I thought him a fool to think of this as a victory, yes we had taken over another Kingdom but the royal family had not been slain and that did not give me any peace. I also had a second reason for conquering each region. It was one that no one knew of and one that I often thought Allistair had forgotten. Yet in rare moments he would show his true pain, the mark that was left on his soul. Not many people knew about his child, most people that did were either dead or silenced in another way. The knowledge was passed to me when I became the general and the importance of my task and silence was imperative, yet the general before me had not found what we searched for and neither had I. It seemed at times that the king had lost hope, yet he never ordered us to stop.

Once every book shelf was ripped from the walls and no secret passage way was found, the men turned to me waiting for orders but I didn’t give any. Kyle could do with a bit of work. I rose and slipped my black gloves back on, making it painfully slow on the men before making my way back into the hall. It was there I found Kyle talking to two soldiers, their words silenced as I stepped out and Kyle fell into step beside me. I didn't react to his presence, thinking maybe he would go away.

“The castle has been checked from top to bottom, they aren’t here, maybe we should rejoice and let the men celebrate what they have worked hard for.”

I stopped and faced Kyle. I could see him cringe slightly. Good, I thought, it’s about time. “There is nothing to celebrate. One night a long time in the future you Kyle, will be asleep in your bed. You will have long forgotten the missing family and that’s when they will strike, if they believe they are out of sight they will also believe they are out of mind. Jasper is not a stupid man and neither is his son, these are the men that built this kingdom and had the largest following anyone has ever seen, their armies were indestructible, and yet we stroll in and take it so easily. So I will not rest until they are found and neither will you.” I was breathing down his arrogant neck with anger and frustration.

For the first time Kyle showed true signs of fear. “But, General, the castle has been searched,” he said with a slight tremor in his voice.

Our conversation had caused some of the men to leave the library and slowly file out into the hall. I didn’t look up or acknowledge their presence, as my attention was taken up with a rat that raced along the floor alongside the wall, the sconce was the only source of light and it outlined its small shadow. I watched it, and slipped a dagger out of my sheath. Kyle’s face paled and the men around stood frozen watching me, not one of them dared to interfere. I let the dagger go and the rat squealed as it pierced its body. Reaching down while retrieving my dagger I watched the rat’s lifeless body as it fell to the cold stone floor. I cleaned my dagger wiping it on one of the soldier’s stiff arms who stood close to me, before placing it back in its sheath.

“I hate rats; they have no place on the higher levels of the castle. They belong in the dungeons.” I gave one harder look to Kyle. “Have the dungeons been searched?” I asked and Kyle looked at his men for answers.

“Yes, General,” one spoke up, but he sounded unsure.

I pointed at two guards nearby. “You and you come with me.” I removed a sconce from the wall as the two guards looked at each other stupidly, much to my annoyance, but they finally reacted and scurried to catch up with my long, purposeful strides as I made my way to the dungeons. Most castles had the same layout and I hoped this one was no different. Turning left into the staff quarters I moved to the back of the rooms until the stone wall fell away, revealing a circular passageway that was dark. The intense smell rose from the bowels of the castle letting me know this was the way. The sconce lit the passage as we came to stone steps and descended under the castle.

***

The stench in the dungeons was overwhelming. Both guards coughed, turning their heads to the side, trying to get away from the smell of death. But there was no getting away from it. I didn’t notice the smell as much, as death was something I had been around since I was a child. When I robbed a man at the age of ten killing him was vital so no-one could identify me. It was kill or be killed. I moved throughout the cells taking my time shining the light into each one, anyone that was left here was long dead, chained to the walls with no escape, rats scurried across the floor, and it was a haven for them. Not one survivor was found.

I reached the end of the wooden walkway that acted as a bridge, to let bodily fluids run under and into the bowels of the castle’s sewerage. If you didn’t die down here from hunger, you would surely die of infection. One large steel door faced me, no handle was visible, but a small key hole was all the decoration that was on the door. I studied it for a moment longer as the two guards continued to stifle their coughs into their sleeves. Heavy footsteps sounded behind me, the footsteps I recognized almost instantly, they were ones that shadowed my every move and ones I wished gone. One day I knew that wish would be granted if not by my own hands then someone else's.

“The poor bastards.” Kyle’s words were muffled as he covered his mouth with his sleeve. He stopped beside me; I didn't acknowledge his presence but continued to study the door as if he wasn't there.

“What do you suppose is behind it?” Kyle asked.

I still didn’t turn around, but his questions were irritating me. “I don’t know, I can't see through steel,” I said, as the soldiers behind us stifled their sneers, the movement of Kyle’s head snapping towards them made all laughter cease. I smirked then removed the dagger from my waistband and moved it around the small gap in the door. It just barely let my blade in, and then it hit steel on the other side. Whatever was behind the door was important. I just knew it, I felt it. My instincts were never wrong before and I knew they wouldn’t be now. Taking a closer look at the keyhole, I noticed the key would have to be twice as big as a normal one, but it would take forever to find it, and I wasn’t prepared to wait. Knocking on the wall beside the steel door let me know it was solid; we would need to blow the door down.

“Get me explosives down here and men who can use them,” I said, not looking away from the door. No one moved until I looked over my shoulder the two guards that had come with me left together almost jogging out of the dungeons. Kyle looked around the other cells, shaking his head and coughing with the stench. I hoped he choked on it.

It took about twenty painful minutes for the explosives to be placed around the door, and everyone took a step back.

“Ready,” the guard said while looking at me for consent, a nod of my head was enough for the man to push down the leaver and the explosion rocked the dungeon, sending rubble and dust rushing towards us. Everyone was still for a moment, no-one could see through the cloud of dust. After a few moments it started to clear and then I made my way cautiously to the door, an excitement building in me; one that I had never felt before and one that shocked me, but I truly felt something important was behind the door. As I rose and reached the door I could see it was dented in areas but it was still intact. Whoever designed it was really keeping something worth hiding behind this door.

“Again,” I shouted, the want to see what was hidden behind the door making me grumble.

“You will bring the whole castle down, that explosion just shook the foundations, and it won't take another blast,” Kyle said.

“If you’re afraid then leave,” I answered and then watched as Kyle turned a slight shade of pink, the men in the room didn’t snicker like they normally would when I cut Kyle down. No, they were afraid too.

“Again,” I repeated, retreating away from the door as the second set of explosions erupted. My heart started to pound, as I knew it had worked this time with the noise of the steel door bouncing off the wooden walkway, the sound of wood splintering and steel grinding rang out throughout the dungeons. Once again I had to force myself to wait for the dust to clear but I couldn't wait any longer as my interest was too intense. I started to move towards the door, drawing my sword just encase someone or something waited inside the room.

Kyle shadowed my steps, the smell was the first thing that hit me, and this time I couldn’t ignore it, I covered my mouth with my arm as Kyle bent over at the waist, bringing up his food.

What I saw before me deflated my excitement.

A small body lay crumpled on the ground, the chains that had imprisoned it, dug into the flesh on the ankles and wrists, the smell of rot and decay was overwhelming. I moved closer examining the body further, long brown hair in knots was plastered in long dirty ropes down it's back, old blood giving the hair a tint of red. I could see a large gash at the side of the skull but no fresh blood seeped through. I couldn't tell if it was a male or female or even alive for that matter. With the amount of blood loss I couldn’t imagine it surviving. I looked around the small cell; food that had long ago rotted sat in bowls alongside water the color of rust, a film of slime on top. No shoes covered the person’s feet, they were black with dirt, and insects raced along the body. As I moved closer the stench become unbearable; the smell of feces was strong and now it was very visible, not two feet away from where the body lay. A crate under the person served as a disposal for human waste, but the person must have been unable to move, maybe too weak with the hunger or even deranged from being left in this ten-by-ten cell. Its bones jutted out on its back, the threadbare clothing allowing the shape of the spine to be seen. Why was this person kept away from all the rest? I thought, yet I figured I may never know, as whomever it was looked dead. I pushed the leg gently using the tip of my boot, and my heart jumped but I didn't move as the leg flinched ever so slightly.

Taking a step back, I waited, watching closely for signs of life. There it moved again.

“Get someone in here now,” I called to Kyle who was still bent over bringing up the bile from his stomach. I took out a small pick, and popped the locks on the ankles and wrists, removing the shackles. The flesh was pink and raw.

More guards had descended into the dungeons and all were watching and waiting, not one of them moved forward.

“Don't just stand there looking at me, take the body out carefully, it's alive,” I barked as fiercely as I could, and three men moved forward quickly, they recoiled at the smell but pushed on under my watchful eye.

“Be careful with it, I want it kept alive,” I said before leaving the dungeons. I needed fresh air to wash the stench of death from my lungs.

 

***

Tents in stripes of red and gold had been set up around the castle, and I moved with purpose to the largest tent that sat right in the middle, our flag with the lion’s head flapped in the wind on top of my tent. Two guards were stationed at the flap door.

“General,” both greeted, but I didn't respond and just entered the tent. I didn't bother to remember their names as they all became faceless men that I just directed in war. Any friends that I did acquire I made sure they never joined the army, no matter what fight Ron and Al put up and they put up quite a fight. They were brothers, both standing over six foot tall and as wide as three men, we often joked about what their mother must have fed them, but they were my friends. I let a smile touch my face which was something I never allowed once on a battlefield but in the safety of my tent I allowed it while removing my armor. I stripped off my breast plate, and pulled the tunic over my head. My bare chest was crisscrossed with wounds from battles that I had fought while in the army and before it, no new ones had been placed on my body, I made sure of that, practicing until my body would tremble with fatigue. I left on my black trousers and boots, while reaching the freshly poured basin of water. Taking a large scoop I splashed my face, wetting the ends of my black hair, that had grown just to my jaw line. Once it was down to my shoulders but I cut it as often as I could, not wanting anything to get in my line of vision. I let out a heavy sigh, at the thought of Al and Ron. I missed their company, not that I would ever tell them that. While drying off with a fresh towel a young girl entered with her head bowed, her hands filled with a tray of food, I didn't turn to her but continued my cleaning ritual, once again I didn't ask her name and she never spoke. I noticed she hadn't moved but stood frozen. I turned, catching her assessing look of my bare chest, her eyes wide taking in my scarred body. A blush rose in her checks at being caught; she was young, maybe sixteen, and her face portrayed her innocence. She bowed her head, looking at the ground as she raced to the table, her hands shaking and the cutlery rattling on the tray. Once the tray had been safely set down the young girl rushed from the tent.

I placed a clean top on before eating my meal. I ate mechanically, never really tasting the food. There wasn't much I enjoyed apart from battle. It was the one thing I was good at, everything else fled my mind once I got on the battlefield and became a killer.

Chapter One

The Girl

“Beautiful faces are a distraction from the evil we can’t see.”

 

Blackness surrounded me, nothing else, but I could feel fear, confusion, hopelessness, hurt and pain. I wondered often if I was dead. But the answer was clear. No. The pain was too much and I soon realized the more aware I became, the worse it got. I wasn't sure how long I had been here in this place of nothingness. Yet soon voices filtered in and out, piercing through the black hole that had become my new home. I focused on these voices, they kept me away from all of the emotions, and they became my lifeline. Words ushered around me, some voices became familiar, one in particular stood out against all the rest, it was a rough voice, that of a man, General was said by others every time I heard him speak and that one word told me he was important yet feared. When he was around, he wouldn't stay long and then it would be the whispers of women, some talked of nothing but simple things and others cried over wounds that were not visible to the eye. Nothing was said in full sentences or maybe my ears weren't working properly, it felt like my body wasn't working at all. I wanted to get up and see where I was. I wanted to see the people that spoke around me, yet the darkness would keep me under, stopping me from moving, from seeing, so all I could do was listen.

“Any progress?” It was that man again. The one they all seemed to fear. Yet I had never heard him mistreat them, his words were always sharp, but that shouldn't have caused the fear that I could almost taste.

“No General, but she is healing very well” the woman said with a quiver in her voice.

“I can see that, I have eyes,” he barked and then silence fell. A few moments passed before the woman spoke again.

“Bastard,” she said under her breath. A cloth was pressed against my wrists. They were still sore but I knew they were healing. I was just glad it was nothing like the pain I had felt at the start. I had heard the women who cleaned my wounds now, talking to another girl, describing how badly I’d been hurt. She had said the wounds where raw then wide open and the smell had her believing I was rotting away. She had cried as she told the girl how she had placed a damp cloth on my lips to let a few drops wet them. The other girl never answered, and the only response I had heard was the shuffle of clothes.

At another time I had heard them saying they had found me chained up in a room and that the general wanted me alive to question me. They spoke of some royal family and a war, but none of that made sense to me.

I tried hard to remember why was I there? Or who put me there? But even my name was something I couldn't remember, yet all this information seemed to float around me, out of my grasp, the blackness would consume me if I tried too hard to reach it.

The woman, who continued to clean me, hummed a sweet melody. She didn't have the best voice, yet it soothed me. I felt a memory coming on, but it would suppress itself once I reached for it, as if it knew how badly I needed to know. I was starting to become irritated, I wanted to open my eyes so badly or to say something but my mouth refused to co-operate. Maybe my eyes would if I pushed all my focus on such a simple task, and I did. Nothing happened for a while but then light slipped in bit by bit, but my eye lids fluttered closed just as quickly, protecting me from the harsh light. I could hear an intake of breath close to my face.

 

“Suzette, go get the general. She is stirring,” she said, and then I could feel a damp cloth on my forehead, my eyes opened and this time the light was gone, in its place was a fuzzy image of white swirls of cotton. My vision began to focus and it was a woman’s blouse, the frills stitched with beautiful designs, it was her body that was blocking out the light. My eyes finally focused on this woman's soft green eyes. She was about fifty or maybe more, her stout frame leaned over me, and her large bosom was almost in my face, it was covered with a blouse buttoned to her neck, but there was no mistaking the large lumps that stretched the buttons almost to breaking point. Her hair was covered with a white hat, her face lined with wrinkles, but a gentle smile greeted me.

“Welcome back,” she said quietly, while still patting my forehead. I couldn't respond but just stared at her. She was not what I pictured from all the time her voice had filtered through my mind. She seemed to stiffen and I knew why, the man they called the general was here. I don't know what it was, but the air seemed to change whenever he was around. She stepped back and the light streamed in, hurting my eyes. I shut them tightly.

“Close the tent flaps and light a candle,” the general ordered. I could hear him moving towards my bed, it wasn’t that he had made any noise, but it was once again how the air changed in the room, now I could hear his breathing close to me.

“The light is gone, you can open your eyes” he said, there was no softness in his words, no it was an order and I obeyed. I opened my eyes slowly and the general came into focus. He was sitting on a stool parallel to my abdominal, his back was poker straight, yet I could tell he was tall even though he was sitting. He was handsome, very handsome, with a pale complexion, jet black hair that just fell to his jaw line, and a straight nose and lips that would be nice to see smile, only now they were set in a line. As I assessed him, he didn't shy under my gaze but kept still until I reached his eyes and it was me who had to look away, they were the most stunning yet frightening eyes I had ever seen, their depths blacker then anything I could describe. I felt his scrutiny as he now assessed me but I squirmed under his gaze feeling very exposed.

I wanted to sit up, feeling uncomfortable lying down as this man’s eyes roamed over every inch of me. But it ended quickly, much to my relief.

“My name is Draco. I am general of the Embruss army, I retrieved you from the dungeons of the Operlium Kingdom,” he said this in a monotone, never taking his eyes off me. He paused, waiting for me to say something. When I didn’t, he continued. “Now I wish to know the purpose for your stay in the Dungeons.” His dark eyes flashed, why I was sure, but my heart raced and fear washed through me, he hadn't threatened me but I couldn't help but fear this man. I wanted to tell him that I didn't know why I was there but my mouth wouldn't co-operate. He studied me, waiting for an answer. He moved in closer, a cold smirk on his handsome face, making his features harder and sharper.

“I didn't become the general for my charm,” he said and let his words linger in the air. My heart pounded harder against my rib cage and I looked around for the lady that had been kind to me, she seemed frozen in the corner of the tent, terror etched into her face as she clutched the damp cloth to her chest. It soaked into her white blouse, turning it a light color of gray. Cold fingers grasped my chin, pulling me away from the woman, making me look into the general’s dark eyes.

“I will get my answers,” he said, before letting me go.

“Feed her before she fades away and then all my work was for nothing,” he told the woman, who bobbed her head quickly and added, “Yes, General.” When he left she came to me, dabbing my forehead with the cloth that was now warm from being in contact with her body. I didn't need to be wiped down but the woman was too upset to even think clearly.

“You poor child, what will become of you?” she said, shaking her head slightly. She left then, leaving me alone with the image of Draco and a fear I didn't understand.

***

Over the next few days Draco didn't return and I was fed small bits at first. I had to learn the hard way as I ate too quickly at my first meal, my stomach cramped and I brought it all back up. The woman who cared for me was called Diana; she stayed with me, holding my hair as I continued to get sick. Once it stopped she explained to me that I must eat little bites slowly, so I did. I never spoke and started to look forward to my time with Diana, she talked a lot and I soaked everything up, but the anxiety of waiting for the general to return never left me, it lingered like a heavy cloud. I tried to ignore as I listened to Diana.

She was a widower, her husband killed in battle, she never had any children so she became a nursemaid tending to the sick and wounded. She told me my wounds were very bad and they feared I would die; she was stunned that I had pulled through.

“You’re a strong one, birdie, there's a fight in you,” she said, as I drank another bowl of soup. It wasn't bad but that was all I was getting and I wasn't sure what it was. Diana said it would give me strength and put a bit of flesh on my bones.

And I really needed to fatten up, I was all bones and found it hard to look at my stick thin legs and arms, even my fingers looked like bones with flesh thrown over them, my skin was a yellow color. I feared to see my face, no one offered me a mirror and I never asked for one. I ate what they gave me and listened as Diana talked about the wars and life before. She wasn't always a nursemaid but helped her husband in their bakery, her cheeks would become rosy as she recalled happier times. Her face was so animated that sometimes I found myself smiling. But no words had come to my lips; I didn't try to speak as I found it so much more entertaining just listening. The other nursemaid was younger, maybe seventeen, and she had a hardness about her, she was the girl who spoke of things the soldiers had done to her against her will. She was taken when another Kingdom was claimed, and you either swore allegiance to your new king or you died. I think Suzette had exaggerated that. I couldn’t imagine that they killed anyone for not swearing allegiance from one king to the next. According to Suzette once you swore allegiance you were given a job, and this was the one that was assigned to her. She was pretty with blond curly hair, her body was curvy. She would have made me feel worse then I already did, with my stick thin body. But hearing what the soldiers had done to her, I decided I was better off the way I was. At times I tried to show my sympathy through small gestures like touching her arm gently but she didn’t like it, in fact she didn’t seem to like me at all. I often heard her calling me a lazy lump whenever Diana left her in charge of caring for me; thankfully it wasn't often as she was far from gentle when cleaning my wounds. I would never whimper or make a sound, no pain could compare to what I had experienced at the start.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Aoife Marie Sheridan has loved reading from a very young age, starting off with mills and boon books given to by her grandmother. Her love for romances grew, by the age of 14 she had read hundreds of them. Aoife's first book Eden Forest (Part one of the Saskia Trilogy) took first place with Writers Got Talent 2013. Aoife continues to write tales of fantasy and romance. To find out more about Aoife Marie Sheridan you can visit her at: Amazon Page: http://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00B5W8SK6


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