I’m going to a writing conference this summer, which makes me excited and nervous. Excited for the potential for learning and networking. Nervous because I signed up for five appointments with professionals: two mentor appointments (one with author Brent Weeks! O.o), two pitch appointments (Am I ready to pitch my books? Have I written a proposal yet? Nope!), and one critique.
The critique is the one I’ve been focusing on for the last month, because it required the submission of the first ten pages of my manuscript by May 1. Now that I’ve submitted it, I thought I would share it will you all, since one of the most common questions I’m asked is when people will get to read my writing.
This is certainly not in its final form, but it has been edited a bunch, and it’s the start of the story, so at least it will make sense. I’m even telling you the (probably definitely temporary) title. So here goes! 😀
I’m sorry I ran away. Sort of. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you I was leaving. That’s more accurate. But you know you couldn’t have kept it a secret.
Raesh paused and smiled, picturing the indignant face his sister would make when she read that line. I suppose I’ll get to see her make that face when I hand her this letter in a few months. He shifted against the jagged boulder at his back and sighed. What was the point of writing a letter when he couldn’t even send it to her? If he did, his father would find out where he was and come drag him home. Not that Danae would let his secret slip on purpose. She was just excitable. Whatever she was thinking flowed right out of her mouth. At eight years old, she still had time to grow out of that habit, but Raesh wasn’t sure he wanted her to. He liked how her words filled the silence when he didn’t know what to say. I miss her.
Raesh blinked, realizing he was staring at the page, hand poised but motionless and thoughts drifting. The always overcast sky, just visible through the trees, had grown several shades lighter since he started to write. He leaned back and stretched his arms above his head with a groan, glancing around at his companions. Except for those posted as sentries, most were asleep. As he should be. This was his third week training with the Shadori Queen’s Guard, and the biggest lesson he’d learned so far was how important it was to sleep whenever time allowed. But here he was, waking early after a short night’s sleep, writing a letter he would never send. Raesh grimaced. And wasting the paper that Braet uses to write to his wife.
Footsteps approached. Captain Traevin strode into camp, back from his morning walk. “Up!” he roared. He kicked any sleeping individual in his path. “No time for food. I want you lazy louts ready by the time my blankets are rolled. We’re in for a fast march today.”
Raesh was glad he was already awake and packed. He shoved the unfinished letter in his bag and hurried to put on his boots and sword belt. He was slinging his pack over his shoulder when Traevin’s voice boomed from the other side of the camp.
“Let’s go, ya sunlit dreamers! Anyone who’s not ready is getting left behind.”
Raesh hurried after the captain, along with the others who were ready, leaving just a couple scrambling for their things. Breakfast on the march—usually some sort of dried meat—was a common occurrence. Braet gave the biggest chunks to those at the front of the line to reward their efficiency. When he was done, he returned to march next to Raesh.
“Did you get your letter written?” he asked.
Raesh hesitated. “I started it.”
“And . . . you intend to finish it?”
“Maybe?” Raesh shrugged.
The two walked in silence for a while, then Braet spoke again. “I don’t know your sister, but from what you’ve told me, she’s going to want all sorts of details when you get home, right?” He waited for Raesh’s reluctant nod before continuing. “Well, you’re going to be here for months before you get your first leave. The easiest way to remember everything you want to tell her is to write it down. Even if you can’t send it to her now, which I still don’t understand.”
Raesh winced internally. He wished he could tell Braet why he couldn’t send any letters home. Braet had been kind to him, giving him extra advice and sometimes even extra food. He seemed to regard Raesh as a little brother to be looked after. At fourteen, Raesh was the youngest of the group. Most of the dozen trainees were several years older than him, and most were stronger and more experienced fighters, so he valued the man’s kindness. Braet had been in the Queen’s Guard for three years. He and Adaen were Captain Traevin’s seconds for this training exercise. Which was why Braet would be forced to report Raesh if he knew the letter from Raesh’s father, approving him to join the Guard at such a young age, was a forgery.
Raesh was debating how to respond when the column pulled to a halt and Braet hurried forward to confer with Traevin. Raesh craned his neck to see what was ahead, but despite being tall for his age, he was still a hand or two shorter than the rest of the trainees. He couldn’t see anything other than more of the same trees that had been surrounding them all week.
A manmade birdcall echoed from the front of the line. Raesh felt his heart beating faster and forced himself to breathe evenly. They had learned the meanings of the different birdcalls on day one, but this one was unexpected for an average training day: great danger. The entire group fell silent and moved quickly into the shadows of the trees on either side of the path.
We’re on a training mission. How dangerous can it be? Raesh pulled a long knife from its place at his belt. A sword would be too unwieldy for sneaking, but he didn’t want to be caught completely defenseless. Maybe it’s a test? But what are we supposed to do—hide or fight? He peered into the shadows ahead, hoping to see Braet returning with more information, but he only saw other trainees, several with weapons drawn. Most looked as nervous as Raesh felt.
Raesh had no idea what was going on, but the men in front of him kept sneaking forward, so he did the same, slipping from tree to tree. The evergreen needles blanketing the forest floor kept his footsteps silent. He avoided stepping on even the smallest twig, but he heard branches snapping all around him as the other trainees moved less cautiously. This was one area where he excelled. Many of the others had grown up in the city, but Raesh had grown up in the woods. After years of stalking deer with his father in the forest around their home, sneaking came as easily to him as breathing.
Eventually, Raesh spotted the likely cause of the ominous birdcall. Two men in the uniform of the Shadori border guard sat slumped against a tree near the edge of the path, feathered with arrows.
Shador and Maurald were not at war, supposedly, but raids were not uncommon. Usually the Queen of Maurald sent a formal—though not heartfelt—apology, claiming the attack was unsanctioned and promising to seek out and punish the offenders. Whether or not she fulfilled her promise—well, most Shadori assumed she didn’t, because the raids continued. But there had just been an attack a week ago. Raesh assumed that’s why a training exercise in the forest that separated Shador and Maurald had been allowed at all. And why Captain Traevin felt comfortable leaving his queen with fewer guards than usual. Two attacks in such a short span of time was unprecedented.
When he reached the tree, Raesh stopped briefly to check the bodies. They were still warm. Which meant the Mauraldians were close. He slipped back into the shadows and picked up his pace, passing other trainees in an attempt to catch up with Braet or the captain. They might need help. These Mauraldians must be better than usual if they could sneak up on the border guard. Raesh moved away from the rest of his group, slipping around to the right. If he was careful, he might be able to flank the Mauraldians. Or at least catch them unaware. That would never happen if he stayed with his noisy companions.
A minute passed in silence as he advanced through the trees, heart pounding. Another minute. Then shouts rang out ahead of him. Not far, Raesh thought, half excited and half terrified. He moved faster, eyes darting between the ground to avoid branches and the forest ahead to catch a glimpse of the action. He heard steel meeting steel just as he saw a form moving through the trees ahead of him. Raesh knelt behind a bush, doing his best to quiet his breathing as he peered through the leaves.
The Mauraldian trampling through the undergrowth hadn’t seen him. When he drew closer, Raesh could hear him mumbling.
“Bloody, thieving shadow walkers. Raho was right. Should’ve brought more men. Blighted witches with their dark eyes and—”
Raesh didn’t wait to hear what other savory words the fair-haired Mauraldian might add. As the man stalked past his hiding place, Raesh flipped his long knife blade up and shoved it into the man’s side, under his ribs and straight into his heart. It was the first killing blow he had been taught and the first time he had attempted to execute it on a person. The sharp blade went in more smoothly than he had expected. The man’s body went limp, and Raesh pivoted to let it fall away from him. It thumped to the ground, and dead eyes stared up at him from a face frozen in surprise.
Raesh wiped his knife mechanically on the man’s shirt. Just like a rabbit, he told himself, trying not to think about the fact that he had just made his first human kill. Or not much different, anyway. He drew a deep breath and took note of his surroundings so he could get back to the body later. Move on. There are others out there.
Raesh moved toward the sounds of fighting, keeping a cautious eye out for any other Mauraldians who might be sneaking around on their own. As he drew closer, he saw a few of the trainees hiding behind trees. He shook his head, assuming they were too nervous to get involved, but one man caught his arm as he passed.
“Captain said to stay out of the way,” he whispered.
Raesh frowned and peered through the trees. He could pick out Traevin, Braet, and Adaen amongst the fighters. They were battling at least twice their number of Mauraldians.
“Why?” he whispered back. “Surely they could use our help.”
The man shrugged. “I’m sure they could. Just following orders.”
Raesh pulled away from the man’s restraining grasp and examined the fight. He wished he had his bow. At least that way he could follow orders and stay out of the way while also helping. Why wouldn’t the captain want us to help?
A pained cry rang out above the other sounds of fighting, and Raesh’s eyes swung to Braet. His friend had dropped his sword and was cradling his arm against his chest. A man Raesh didn’t recognize, wearing a border guard uniform, leapt forward to defend him.
This is ridiculous. They’re outnumbered. Raesh sheathed his knife and pulled out his sword instead.
“What are you doing?” the man beside him asked.
“Helping,” Raesh replied, then took off toward the fight. He stayed close to the edge, circling around to where no one would expect him to be and sticking to the shadows while he decided where to strike.
Braet was fighting again, his sword in his off hand and his face twisted in a pained grimace. He stood back-to-back with the border guard. The two seemed to be holding their own. Captain Traevin danced around three Mauraldians at once. The glee on his face as his sword snaked in and out was like that of a small child with a new toy. His opponents seemed hesitant. Perhaps they were put off by their opponent’s maniacal grin. Raesh certainly found it unsettling. As one man darted forward to attack and was rebuffed, another backed off and looked around as if searching for a way out. Raesh moved in his direction, but Adaen appeared out of nowhere to herd the Mauraldian back into the fight.
That’s what I want to be able to do, Raesh thought with admiration as Adaen threw a few blows into the fight and then disappeared back into the trees. He made the Mauraldians look around in worry. They never knew where to expect him next.
Raesh waited, watching intently. Maybe Traevin and the others had everything under control after all. Braet and the border guard finished off their opponents. The guard joined Traevin, but Braet stayed to the side, clasping a hand to his bloody arm and looking winded.
Then Raesh saw his chance. Adaen had just darted in and out of the fray, and one of the Mauraldians took his disappearance as an opportunity to retreat. Straight toward Raesh. Raesh stepped behind a tree that was directly in the man’s path. Just before he came crashing past, Raesh stuck out his boot to trip him, but this man was more observant than the one he had killed earlier. He leapt over Raesh’s foot and spun to face him, sword at the ready. Raesh swallowed his surprise and raised his own weapon in response.
As soon as their blades met, Raesh knew he was in trouble. He was immediately driven back by the strength of his opponent’s blow. Traevin was holding off this man and two others with no problem! Am I really that bad? But Raesh quickly settled into his forms and saw that he could use his speed to his advantage. He darted about, dodging around bushes and trees, making sure to stay on the offensive. If he had to fall into the defensive for long, he knew the larger man’s size and strength would quickly wear him down. So he settled for being an annoyance.
The Mauraldian used all brute strength. The surprise on his face when Raesh landed his first hit indicated that he had underestimated the boy before him.
“Little demon child,” he growled in annoyance.
Raesh laughed in surprise. “Because I’m better than you?”
“I didn’t say . . . you’re not . . .” The man sputtered indignantly. “You disappear in shadows,” he finally got out. “It’s witchcraft!”
Out of the corner of his eye, Raesh saw Traevin and Braet approaching, but they held back. Raesh was on his own for this fight. He cleared his mind and concentrated on defending himself. I hope he’s as tired as I am. Raesh stepped back and realized he was in a clear area with no trees to dodge behind.
“Watch your feet!”
Raesh didn’t take his eyes off his opponent at Braet’s words. He kept fighting as he searched in his memory for an image of the terrain behind him. The next time he stepped back, driven by his opponent’s attack, he moved to his left to avoid a large rock. Then he quickly fell back a few more steps, shifted his grip on his sword, and launched himself forward, springing off the rock to fly over the Mauraldian’s head. This time he didn’t expect the man to be surprised. Still in the air, he blocked the man’s swipe as he passed, then landed lightly on his feet. Now the Mauraldian was twisted around and off-balance from his overhead swing. Without hesitation, Raesh whipped his sword across the man’s legs, and when he fell to his knees with a cry, Raesh ran him through. The man fell forward with a thud.
Knowing his teachers were watching, Raesh quickly cleaned and sheathed his sword, then turned to face them, his legs beginning to shake from a combination of adrenaline and exhaustion. Captain Traevin stood with his arms crossed. Braet, a fresh bandage on his wounded arm, seemed to be trying to hide a smile. There was a long silence.
“I’m assuming you knew your orders were to stay out of the fight,” Traevin said finally.
Raesh considered lying or explaining why he had disobeyed, but the hard look on the captain’s face told him he should answer the question truthfully and directly. “Yes, sir.”
“And you determined that my orders were inadequate?”
Raesh paused. “Yes, sir,” he replied, but he dropped his eyes this time.
Traevin left another weighty silence before continuing. “Do you know why I told you to stay back?” He waited for Raesh to shake his head. “Because that’s how we defend the queen. Some fight, some stay with her. For what I should hope are obvious reasons.”
“Yes, but she’s not—”
“You follow orders, or you’re done,” Traevin barked. “You’re on double sentry duty every night until we return to Shadorna. Then I’ll decide what further consequences are needed.”
Raesh felt like his father had just yelled at him for something he didn’t do. But what if the orders don’t make sense? He took a deep breath and straightened his shoulders. If he wanted Queen’s Guard training, he would have to follow the captain’s rules, no matter what. “Yes, sir.”
Traevin stared at him with hard eyes for a moment longer, then his expression softened. “You fought well, boy,” he said quietly, then turned to go back to the others.
Raesh followed, and Braet fell in at his side.
He nudged Raesh with his good arm. “This is the kind of thing your sister would want to hear about.”
“Right.” Raesh scoffed. “So she can tease me about getting in trouble?” But the more he thought about it, the more he knew that Danae wouldn’t tease him for disobeying orders. She would be on his side. She would want to have a go at Captain Traevin, telling him just how wrong he was. She was ferocious like that. “Maybe I could tell her about how Mauraldians think hiding in shadows is witchcraft. Or about my friend Braet, who warned me about a rock and ended up saving my life. She’d love you for that.”
“Eh.” Braet waved a careless hand, but he glanced furtively ahead at the captain and lowered his voice. “You were never in danger. If you were, Traevin would have stepped in.”
“Wait.” Raesh frowned. “That was a test? He couldn’t know I would win.”
“Everything’s a test with Traevin. And we could both see you were doing fine.”
“Which is why you warned me to watch my feet?” They were drawing close to where the other trainees were now gathered, so Raesh let himself sink to the ground with a sigh. “Was this whole attack a test?” He rubbed his face tiredly. “Did he know the Mauraldians were there all along?”
Braet hesitated, then knelt next to Raesh. “No, the attack was a surprise.” His brow furrowed. “Last week’s raid and the one today . . . they were both larger groups than normal.”
“There was one more man today,” Raesh said, remembering the man he had killed first. He told Braet where to find the body. “Before I killed him, he mentioned someone named Raho?”
“Raho?” Braet’s eyes widened in alarm. “Shade! Traevin needs to hear about this.” He rose. “You rest. We’ll be burying bodies for a while, I imagine.”
“Then we’ll figure out what’s going on with the Mauraldian raids?” Raesh asked hopefully.
“We?” Braet raised his eyebrows. “Unlikely. You’ve been in training for three weeks. You’ve got a lot to learn. Me? Also unlikely. We’re in the Queen’s Guard, remember? We guard the queen. We don’t do political intrigue.”
Right. And I’m all about following orders.