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“Morgan Rice has come up with what promises to be another brilliant series, immersing us in a fantasy of valor, honor, courage, magic and faith in your destiny. Morgan has managed again to produce a strong set of characters that make us cheer for them on every page.…Recommended for the permanent library of all readers that love a well-written fantasy.”--Books and Movie Reviews, Roberto Mattos (regarding Rise of the Dragons)ROGUE, PRISONER, PRINCESS is book #2 in Morgan Rice’s bestselling epic fantasy series OF CROWNS AND GLORY, which begins with SLAVE, WARRIOR, QUEEN (Book #1).17 year old Ceres, a beautiful, poor girl from the Empire city of Delos, finds herself forced, by royal decree, to fight in the Stade, the brutal arena where warriors from all corners of the world come to kill each other. Pitted against ferocious opponents, her chances of survival are slim. Her only chance lies in drawing on her innermost powers, and making the transition, once and for all, from slave to warrior.18 year old Prince Thanos wakes on the isle of Haylon to discover he has been stabbed in the back by his own people, left for dead on the blood-soaked beach. Captured by the rebels, he must crawl his way back to life, find who tried to assassinate him, and seek his revenge.Ceres and Thanos, a world apart, have not lost their love for each other; yet the Empire court teems with lies, betrayal and duplicity, and as jealous royals weave intricate lies, they each, in a tragic misunderstanding, are led to believe the other is dead. The choices they make will determine each other’s fate.Will Ceres survive the Stade and become the warrior she was meant to be? Will Thanos heal and discover the secret being withheld from him? Will the two of them, forced apart, find each other again?ROGUE, PRISONER, PRINCESS tells an epic tale of tragic love, vengeance, betrayal, ambition, and destiny. Filled with unforgettable characters and heart-pounding action, it transports us into a world we will never forget, and makes us fall in love with fantasy all over again.“An action packed fantasy sure to please fans of Morgan Rice’s previous novels, along with fans of works such as The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini…. Fans of Young Adult Fiction will devour this latest work by Rice and beg for more.” --The Wanderer, A Literary Journal (regarding Rise of the Dragons) Book #3 in OF CROWNS AND GLORY will be released soon!
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ROGUE, PRISONER, PRINCESS
(OF CROWNS AND GLORY--BOOK 2)
Morgan Rice is the #1 bestselling and USA Today bestselling author of the epic fantasy series THE SORCERER’S RING, comprising seventeen books; of the #1 bestselling series THE VAMPIRE JOURNALS, comprising twelve books; of the #1 bestselling series THE SURVIVAL TRILOGY, a post-apocalyptic thriller comprising two books (and counting); of the epic fantasy series KINGS AND SORCERERS, comprising six books; and of the new epic fantasy series OF CROWNS AND GLORY. Morgan’s books are available in audio and print editions, and translations are available in over 25 languages.
Morgan loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.morganricebooks.com to join the email list, receive a free book, receive free giveaways, download the free app, get the latest exclusive news, connect on Facebook and Twitter, and stay in touch!
Select Acclaim for Morgan Rice
“If you thought that there was no reason left for living after the end of THE SORCERER’S RING series, you were wrong. In RISE OF THE DRAGONS Morgan Rice has come up with what promises to be another brilliant series, immersing us in a fantasy of trolls and dragons, of valor, honor, courage, magic and faith in your destiny. Morgan has managed again to produce a strong set of characters that make us cheer for them on every page.…Recommended for the permanent library of all readers that love a well-written fantasy.”
--Books and Movie Reviews
“An action packed fantasy sure to please fans of Morgan Rice’s previous novels, along with fans of works such as THE INHERITANCE CYCLE by Christopher Paolini…. Fans of Young Adult Fiction will devour this latest work by Rice and beg for more.”
--The Wanderer,A Literary Journal (regarding Rise of the Dragons)
“A spirited fantasy that weaves elements of mystery and intrigue into its story line. A Quest of Heroes is all about the making of courage and about realizing a life purpose that leads to growth, maturity, and excellence….For those seeking meaty fantasy adventures, the protagonists, devices, and action provide a vigorous set of encounters that focus well on Thor's evolution from a dreamy child to a young adult facing impossible odds for survival….Only the beginning of what promises to be an epic young adult series.”
--Midwest Book Review (D. Donovan, eBook Reviewer)
“THE SORCERER’S RING has all the ingredients for an instant success: plots, counterplots, mystery, valiant knights, and blossoming relationships replete with broken hearts, deception and betrayal. It will keep you entertained for hours, and will satisfy all ages. Recommended for the permanent library of all fantasy readers.”
--Books and Movie Reviews, Roberto Mattos
“In this action-packed first book in the epic fantasy Sorcerer's Ring series (which is currently 14 books strong), Rice introduces readers to 14-year-old Thorgrin "Thor" McLeod, whose dream is to join the Silver Legion, the elite knights who serve the king…. Rice's writing is solid and the premise intriguing.”
Books by Morgan Rice
THE WAY OF STEEL
ONLY THE WORTHY (Book #1)
OF CROWNS AND GLORY
SLAVE, WARRIOR, QUEEN (Book #1)
ROGUE, PRISONER, PRINCESS (Book #2)
KINGS AND SORCERERS
RISE OF THE DRAGONS (Book #1)
RISE OF THE VALIANT (Book #2)
THE WEIGHT OF HONOR (Book #3)
A FORGE OF VALOR (Book #4)
A REALM OF SHADOWS (Book #5)
NIGHT OF THE BOLD (Book #6)
THE SORCERER’S RING
A QUEST OF HEROES (Book #1)
A MARCH OF KINGS (Book #2)
A FATE OF DRAGONS (Book #3)
A CRY OF HONOR (Book #4)
A VOW OF GLORY (Book #5)
A CHARGE OF VALOR (Book #6)
A RITE OF SWORDS (Book #7)
A GRANT OF ARMS (Book #8)
A SKY OF SPELLS (Book #9)
A SEA OF SHIELDS (Book #10)
A REIGN OF STEEL (Book #11)
A LAND OF FIRE (Book #12)
A RULE OF QUEENS (Book #13)
AN OATH OF BROTHERS (Book #14)
A DREAM OF MORTALS (Book #15)
A JOUST OF KNIGHTS (Book #16)
THE GIFT OF BATTLE (Book #17)
THE SURVIVAL TRILOGY
ARENA ONE: SLAVERSUNNERS (Book #1)
ARENA TWO (Book #2)
ARENA THREE (Book #3)
BEFORE DAWN (Book #1)
THE VAMPIRE JOURNALS
TURNED (Book #1)
LOVED (Book #2)
BETRAYED (Book #3)
DESTINED (Book #4)
DESIRED (Book #5)
BETROTHED (Book #6)
VOWED (Book #7)
FOUND (Book #8)
RESURRECTED (Book #9)
CRAVED (Book #10)
FATED (Book #11)
OBSESSED (Book #12)
Download Morgan Rice books now!
Listen to THE SORCERER’S RING series in audio book format!
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Copyright © 2016 by Morgan Rice. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Jacket image Copyright Kiselev Andrey Valerevich, used under license from Shutterstock.com.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE
CHAPTER TWENTY SIX
CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN
CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT
CHAPTER TWENTY NINE
CHAPTER THIRTY ONE
CHAPTER THIRTY TWO
CHAPTER THIRTY THREE
CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR
CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE
CHAPTER THIRTY SIX
“Ceres! Ceres! Ceres!”
Ceres could feel the chant of the crowd as clearly as her own thudding heartbeat. She raised her sword in acknowledgment, tightening her grip as she did, testing the leather. It didn’t matter to her that they’d probably only learned her name a few moments ago. It was enough that they knew it, and that it was reverberating through her, so that she could feel it almost as a physical force.
Across the Stade, facing her, her opponent, the massive combatlord, paced the sands. Ceres swallowed at the sight of him, fear rising up in her, as much as she tried to suppress it. This, she knew, could very well be the last fight of her life.
The combatlord paced like a caged lion, swinging his sword through the air in arcs that seemed to be designed to show off his bulging muscles. With his breastplate and visored helmet, he looked as if he could have been carved from stone. It was hard for Ceres to believe that he was just flesh and blood.
Ceres closed her eyes and steeled herself.
You can do this, she told herself. You may not win, but you must face him valiantly. If you are to die, you must die with honor.
A trumpet blast rang in Ceres’s ears, rising up even over the baying of the crowd. It filled the arena, and suddenly, her opponent was charging.
He was faster than she thought such a big man had any right to be, on her before she had a chance to react. It was all Ceres could do to dodge, kicking up dust as she got out of the warrior’s path.
The combatlord swung his blade with two hands and Ceres ducked, feeling the rush of air as it passed. He hacked down like a butcher wielding a cleaver, and when she spun and blocked the stroke, the impact of metal on metal rang up her arms. She did not think it possible a warrior could be that strong.
She circled away, her opponent following with a grim inevitability.
Ceres heard her name mixed in with the cheers and boos of the crowd. She forced herself to stay focused; she kept her eyes fixed on her opponent and tried to remember her training, thinking through all the things that might happen next. She tried to slash, and then rolled her wrist to send her sword around the parry.
But the combatlord merely grunted as her blade took a nick out of his forearm.
He smiled as if he’d enjoyed it.
“You’ll pay for that,” he warned. His accent was thick, from one of the far corners of the Empire.
He was on her again, forcing her to parry and dodge, and she knew she couldn’t risk a head-on clash, not with someone this strong.
Ceres felt the ground give way beneath her right foot, a sensation of emptiness there where there should have been firm support. She glanced down and saw sand pouring down into a pit below. For a moment, her foot hung over empty space, and she thrust out blindly with her sword as she struggled to keep her balance.
The combatlord’s parry was almost contemptuous. For an instant, Ceres was sure she was going to die, because there was no way to fully stop the answering stroke. She felt the jarring impact of the blow against her blade. It only slowed it, though, as it slammed into her armor. Her breastplate pressed back into her flesh with bruising force, while at the spot where it ended, she felt pain flare white hot as the sword cut along her collarbone.
She stumbled back and as she did, she saw more pits opening around the floor of the arena, like the mouths of hungry beasts. And then, desperate, she had an idea: maybe she could use them to her advantage.
Ceres skirted around the edges of the pits, hoping to slow his approach.
“Ceres!” Paulo called.
She turned and her weapon-keeper threw a short spear in her direction. Its shaft thudded into her slick palm as she caught it, the wood feeling rough. The spear was shorter than might have been used in a real battle, but it was still long enough to thrust its leaf-shaped head across the pits.
“I’ll take you a slice at a time,” the combatlord promised, edging his way around.
With an opponent this strong, Ceres thought, her best hope was to try to wear him down. How long could someone that huge keep fighting? Already, Ceres could feel the burn of her own muscles, and the sweat that dripped down her face. How much worse would it be for the combatlord she faced?
It was impossible to know for sure, but it had to be her best hope. So she dodged and she jabbed, using the length of the spear as best she could. She managed to slip through the massive warrior’s defenses, yet still, it only clattered off his armor.
The combatlord kicked up dust towards Ceres’s eyes, but she turned away in time. She spun back and swept the spear low, toward his unprotected legs. He jumped clear of that sweep, but she managed to slice another wound along his forearm as she drew the spear back.
Ceres jabbed low and high now, aiming for her opponent’s limbs. The big man parried and blocked, trying to find a way past the probing point, but Ceres kept it moving. She jabbed it in toward his face, hoping to at least distract him.
The combatlord caught the spear. He grabbed it behind the head, yanking it forward as he stepped aside. Ceres had to let go, because she didn’t want to risk being pulled onto the big man’s sword. Her opponent snapped the spear across his knee as easily as he might have broken a twig.
The crowd roared.
Ceres felt a cold sweat up her back. For an instant, she had the image of the big man breaking her body as easily. She swallowed at the thought and readied her sword again.
She grabbed the hilt with both hands as the next blows came, because it was the only way to absorb some of the power of the combatlord’s attacks. Even so, it was impossibly hard. Every blow felt like she was a bell being hit by a hammer. Every one sent shockwaves running through her arms.
Already, Ceres could feel herself tiring under the assault. Every breath came ragged, feeling like she dragged it in by force. There was no question now of trying to counterattack, or do anything but step back and hope.
And then it happened. Slowly, Ceres felt the power welling up inside her. It came with a warmth, like the first embers of a brush fire. It sat in the pit of her belly, waiting for her, and Ceres reached for it.
Energy flooded through her. The world slowed, moving at a crawl, and she suddenly felt she had all the time in the world to parry the next attack.
She had all the strength, too. She blocked it easily and then swung her sword around and slashed the combatlord’s arm in a blur of light and speed.
“Ceres! Ceres!” the crowd roared.
She saw the combatlord’s rage growing as the crowd’s chanting continued. She could understand why. They were meant to be chanting for him, proclaiming his victory, enjoying her death.
He bellowed and charged forward. Ceres waited as long as she dared, forcing herself to stay still until he nearly reached her.
Then she dropped. She felt the whisper of his blade passing over her head, then the rough sand as her knees touched down. She threw herself forward, swinging her sword around in an arc that slammed into the combatlord’s legs as he passed.
He tumbled face first, his sword spilling from his hand.
The crowd went wild.
Ceres stood over him, looking at the awful ruin her sword had made of his legs. For a moment, she wondered if he might manage to stand even like that, but he collapsed back, turning to his back and lifting one hand as he begged for mercy. Ceres held back, looking around for the royals who would decide if the man in front of her lived or died. Either way, she resolved, she would not kill a helpless warrior.
Another trumpet blast came.
A roar followed it as the iron gates at the side of the arena opened, and the tone of it was enough to send a shiver through Ceres. In that moment, she felt like nothing more than prey, something to be hunted, something that had to run. She dared a glance up toward the royal enclosure, knowing this had to be deliberate. The fight had been over. She’d won. That wasn’t good enough, though. They were going to kill her, she realized, one way or another. They would not let her leave the Stade alive.
A creature lumbered in, larger than a human, covered in shaggy fur. Fangs stuck out from a bearlike face, while spiny protrusions stuck out along the creature’s back. Its feet held claws the length of daggers. Ceres didn’t know what it was, but she didn’t need to in order to know that it would be deadly.
The bear-like creature sank to all fours and ran forward, while Ceres readied her sword.
It reached the fallen combatlord first, and Ceres would have looked away if she’d dared. The man cried out as it pounced, but there was no way he could roll out of the way in time. Those giant paws smashed down, and Ceres heard the crunch of his breastplate giving way. The beast roared as it savaged her former opponent.
When it looked up, its fangs were wet with blood. It looked at Ceres, bared its teeth, and charged.
She barely managed to step aside in time, slashing with her sword as it passed. The creature gave a bellow of pain.
Yet sheer momentum tore the blade from her hands, feeling as though it would tear her arm away if she didn’t let go. She watched with horror as her blade spun across the sand and into one of the pits.
The beast continued to advance, and Ceres, frantic, glanced down at the spot where the two broken sections of spear lay on the sand. She dove for them, grabbing a section and rolling in one movement.
As she rose to one knee, the creature was already charging. She couldn’t run, she told herself. This was her only chance.
It slammed into her, the weight and speed of the thing lifting Ceres from her feet. There was no time to think, no time to be afraid. She thrust with the broken section of spear, striking with it again and again as the bear-beast’s paws closed in on her.
Its strength was terrible, far too much to match. Ceres felt as though her ribs might burst with the pressure of it, the breastplate she wore creaking under the creature’s strength. She felt its claws raking at her back and legs, agony searing across her.
Its hide was too thick. Ceres struck again and again, but she could feel the tip of the spear barely penetrating its flesh while it tore at her, its claws ripping across any exposed skin.
Ceres closed her eyes. With all she had, she reached for the power within her, not even knowing if it would work.
She felt herself surge with a ball of power. She then threw all her force into her spear, thrusting it up into the space where she hoped the creature’s heart would be.
The beast shrieked as it reared back away from her.
The crowd roared.
Ceres, smarting from the pain of its scratches, scrambled out from under it and stood weakly. She looked down as the beast, the spear lodged in its heart, rolled and whined, making a sound that seemed far too small for something so large.
Then it stiffened, and died.
“Ceres! Ceres! Ceres!”
The Stade filled with cheers again. Everywhere Ceres looked, there were people calling out her name. Nobles and ordinary folk alike seemed to be joining in the chanting, losing themselves in that one moment of her victory.
“Ceres! Ceres! Ceres!”
She found herself drinking it in. It was impossible not to be caught up in the feeling of adulation. Her whole body seemed to pulse in time with the chanting that surrounded her and she spread her hands as if to welcome it all in. She turned in a slow circle, watching the faces of those who hadn’t even heard of her a day ago, but who were now treating her as though she was the only person in the world who mattered.
Ceres was so caught up in that moment that she barely even felt the pain of the wounds she’d suffered anymore. Her shoulder hurt now, so she touched a hand to it. It came away wet, although her blood was still bright red in the sunlight.
Ceres stared at that stain for several seconds. The crowd was still chanting her name, but the pounding of her heart in her ears suddenly seemed far louder. She looked up at the crowd, and it took her a moment to realize that she was doing it from her knees. She couldn’t remember falling to them.
From the corner of her eye, Ceres could see Paulo hurrying forward, but that seemed far too distant, as if it had nothing to do with her. Blood dripped from her fingers to the sand, darkening it where it touched. She had never felt so dizzy, so light-headed.
And the last thing she knew she was already falling, face-first, toward the floor of the arena, unable, she felt, to ever move again.
Thanos slowly opened his eyes, confused as he felt waves lapping at his ankles, his wrists. Beneath him, he could feel the gritty white sand of Haylon’s beaches. Salt spray occasionally filled his mouth, making it hard to breathe.
Thanos looked out sideways along the beach, unable to do more than that. Even that was a struggle, as he drifted in and out of consciousness. In the distance, he thought he could make out flames and the sounds of violence. Screams came to him, along with the sound of steel clashing on steel.
The island, he remembered. Haylon. Their attack had begun.
So why was he lying on the sand?
It took a moment for the pain in his shoulder to answer that question. He remembered, and winced at the memory. He remembered the moment the sword had plunged into him, lancing into his upper back from behind. He remembered the shock of it as the Typhoon had betrayed him.
The pain burned through Thanos, expanding like a flower from the wound in his back. Every breath hurt. He tried to lift his head—but he only blacked out.
The next time Thanos woke, he was face-down on the sand again, and he was only able to tell that time had passed because the tide had risen a little, the water lapping at his waist now rather than his ankles. He was finally able to lift his head enough to see that there were other bodies on the beach. The dead seemed to cover the world, stretched out on the white beaches as far as he could see. He saw men in the armor of the Empire, sprawled where they had fallen, mixed in with the defenders who had died protecting their home.
The stench of death filled Thanos’s nostrils, and it was all he could do not to throw up. No one had sorted the dead into friend and foe yet. Such niceties could wait until after the battle was done. Perhaps the Empire would leave it for the tide to do; a glance behind showed blood in the water, and Thanos could see the fins breaking through the waves. Not large sharks yet, scavengers rather than hunters—but how large would they need to be in order to devour him when the tide rose?
Thanos felt a wave of panic. He tried to haul himself up the beach, pulling with his arms as though trying to climb across the sand. He cried out in pain as he pulled himself forward, perhaps half the length of his body.
Blackness swam in his vision again.
When he came to, Thanos was on his side, looking up at figures who squatted over him, close enough that he could have reached out for them if he’d had the strength left to do it. They didn’t look like soldiers of the Empire, didn’t really look like soldiers at all, and Thanos had spent long enough around warriors to know the difference. These, a younger man and an older, looked more like farmers, ordinary men who had probably fled their homes to avoid the violence. That didn’t mean they were less dangerous, though. Both held knives, and Thanos found himself wondering if they might be as much scavengers as the sharks. He knew there were always those looking to rob the dead after battles.
“This one’s still breathing,” the first of them said.
“I can see that. Just cut his throat and be done with it.”
Thanos tensed, his body getting ready to fight even though there was nothing he could have done then.
“Look at him,” the younger man insisted. “Someone stabbed him in the back.”
Thanos saw the older man frown slightly at that. He moved around behind Thanos, out of his line of sight. Thanos managed to keep from crying out again as the man touched the spot where blood still flowed from the wound. He was a prince of the Empire. He wasn’t going to show weakness.
“Looks like you’re right. Help me get him up where the sharks won’t get him. The others will want to see this.”
Thanos saw the younger man nod, and together, they managed to lift him, armor and all. This time, Thanos did cry out, unable to stop the pain as they pulled him up over the beach.
They left him like driftwood, past the point where the tide had left seaweed behind, abandoning him on the dry sand. They hurried away, but Thanos was too caught up in the pain to watch them go.
There was no way for him to gauge the time that passed then. He could still hear the battle in the background, with its cries of violence and anger, its rallying cries and its signal horns. A battle could last minutes or hours, though. It could be over in the first rush, or keep going until neither side had the strength to do more than stumble away. Thanos had no way of knowing which this was.
Eventually, a group of men approached. These did look like soldiers, with that harder edge that only came to a man once he’d fought for his life. It was easy to see which of them was the leader. The tall, dark-haired man at the front didn’t wear the elaborately worked armor that a general of the Empire might have, but everyone there looked to him as the group approached, obviously awaiting orders.
The newcomer was probably in his thirties, with a short beard as dark as the rest of his hair, and a spare frame that nevertheless held a sense of strength. He wore a short, stabbing sword on each hip, and Thanos guessed that it wasn’t just for show, judging by the way his hands hovered next to the hilts automatically. His expression seemed to Thanos to be silently calculating every angle present on the beach, watching out for the possibility of an ambush, always thinking ahead. His eyes locked on to Thanos’s, and the smile that followed had a strange kind of humor behind it, as though its owner had seen something in the world that no one else had.
“This is what you two have brought me out here to see?” he said, as the two who had found Thanos stepped forward. “One dying Imperial soldier in armor too shiny for his own good?”
“A noble though,” the older one said. “You can see that by the armor.”
“And he’s been stabbed in the back,” the younger pointed out. “By his own men, it seems.”
“So he’s not even good enough for the scum who are trying to take our island?” the leader said.
Thanos watched as the man moved closer, kneeling beside him. Maybe he intended to finish what the Typhoon had started. No soldier of Haylon would have any love for those on his side of the conflict.
“What did you do that your own side would try to kill you?” the newcomer asked, quietly enough that only Thanos could hear him.
Thanos managed to find the strength to shake his head. “I don’t know.” The words came out cracked and broken. Even if he hadn’t been wounded, he’d been lying on the sand a long time. “But I didn’t want this. I didn’t want to fight here.”
That earned another of those strange smiles that seemed to Thanos to be laughing at the world even though there was nothing to laugh at.
“And yet here you are,” the newcomer said. “You didn’t want to take part in an invasion, but you’re on our beaches, rather than safe at home. You didn’t want to offer us violence, but the Empire’s army is burning homes as we speak. Do you know what’s happening up that beach?”
Thanos shook his head. Even that hurt.
“We’re losing,” the man continued. “Oh, we’re fighting hard enough, but that doesn’t matter. Not with odds like this. The battle still rages, but that’s just because half of my side are too stubborn to recognize the truth. We don’t have enough time for distractions like this.”
Thanos watched as the newcomer drew one of his swords. It looked wickedly sharp. So sharp that he probably wouldn’t even feel it as it plunged into his heart. Instead, though, the other man gestured with it.
“You and you,” he said to the men, “bring our new friend. Perhaps he’s worth something to the other side.” He grinned. “And if he’s not, I shall kill him myself.”
The last thing Thanos felt were strong hands gripping him under his arms, yanking him up, dragging him away, before he finally lapsed back into darkness.
Berin felt the ache of longing as he trekked along the route home to Delos, the only thing keeping him going, thoughts of his family—of Ceres. The thought of returning to his daughter was enough to make him press on, even though he’d found the days of walking tough, the roads beneath his feet rough with ruts and stones. His bones were not getting any younger, and already he could feel his knee aching from the journey, adding to the pains that came from a life of hammering and heating metal.
It was all worth it, though, to see home again, though. To see his family. All the time he’d been away, it was all Berin had wanted. He could picture it now. Marita would be cooking in the back of the humble wooden home, the scent of it wafting out past the front door. Sartes would be playing somewhere around the back, probably with Nasos watching him, even if his older son would be pretending that he wasn’t.
And then there would be Ceres. He loved all his children, but with Ceres there had always been that extra connection. She had been the one to help out around his forge, the one who had taken after him most, and who seemed the most likely to follow in his footsteps. Leaving Marita and the boys had been a painful duty, necessary if he was to provide for his family. Leaving Ceres behind had felt as though he’d abandoned some part of himself when he left.
Now it was time to reclaim it.
Berin only wished he brought happier news. He walked along the gravel track that led back to their house, and he frowned; it wasn’t winter yet, but it would be soon enough. The plan had been for him to leave and find work. Lords always needed bladesmiths to provide weapons for their guards, their wars, their Killings. Yet it turned out that they didn’t need him. They had their own men. Younger, stronger men. Even the king who had seemed to want his work had turned out to want Berin as he had been ten years ago.
The thought hurt, yet he knew he should have guessed that they would have no need for a man with more gray in his beard than black.
It would have hurt more if it hadn’t meant that he got to go home. Home was the thing that mattered for Berin, even when it was little more than a square of rough-sawn wooden walls, topped with a turf roof. Home was about the people waiting there, and the thought of them was enough to make him quicken his steps.
As he crested a hill, though, and the first view of it came, Bering knew that something was wrong. His stomach plunged. Berin knew what home felt like. For all the barrenness of the surrounding land, home was a place filled with life. There was always noise there, whether it was joyful or argumentative. At this time of year too, there would always have been at least a few crops growing in the plot around it, vegetables and small berry bushes, hardy things that always produced at least something to feed them.
That was not what he saw before him.
Berin broke into as much of a run then as he could manage after so long a walk, the sense of something wrong gnawing away at him, feeling like one of his vises clamped around his heart.
He reached the door and threw it wide. Maybe, he thought, everything would be all right. Maybe they had spotted him and were all just ensuring that his arrival would be a surprise.
It was dim inside, the windows crusted with grime. And there, a presence.
Marita stood in the main room, stirring a pot that smelled too sour to Berin. She turned toward him as he burst in, and as she did, Berin knew he’d been right. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
“Marita?” he began.
“Husband.” Even the flat way she said that told him that nothing was as it should be. Any other time he’d been away, Marita had thrown her arms around him as he’d come in the door. She’d always seemed full of life. Now, she seemed…empty.
“What’s going on here?” Berin asked.
“I don’t know what you mean.” Again, there was less emotion than there should have been, as though something in his wife had broken, letting all the joy out of her.
“Why is everything around here so… so still?” Berin demanded. “Where are our children?”
“They aren’t here right now,” Marita said. She moved back to the pot as though everything was perfectly normal.
“Where are they, then?” Berin wasn’t going to let it go. He could believe that the boys might have run down to the nearest stream or had errands to run, but one of his children at least would have seen him coming home and been there to meet him. “Where is Ceres?”
“Oh yes,” Marita said, and Berin could hear the bitterness there now. “Of course you would ask after her. Not how things are with me. Not your sons. Her.”
Berin had never heard his wife sound quite like this before. Oh, he’d always known there was something hard in Marita, more concerned for herself than for the rest of the world, but now it sounded as though her heart was ashes.
Marita seemed to calm down then, and the sheer speed with which she did it made it suspicious to Berin.
“You want to know what your precious daughter did?” she said. “She ran away.”
Berin’s apprehension deepened. He shook his head. “I don’t believe that.”
Marita kept going. “She ran away. Didn’t say where she was going, just stole what she could from us when she left.”
“We have no money to steal,” Berin said. “And Ceres would never do that.”
“Of course you’ll take her side,” Marita said. “But she took… things from around here, possessions. Anything she thought she could sell in the next town, knowing that girl. She abandoned us.”
If that was what Marita thought, then Berin was sure she’d never really known her daughter. Or him, if she thought he would believe such an obvious lie. He took her shoulders in his hands, and even though he didn’t possess all the strength he’d once had, Berin was still strong enough so that his wife felt fragile by comparison.
“Tell me the truth, Marita! What’s happened here?” Berin shook her, as if somehow that might jolt the old version of her back into being, and she might suddenly return to being the Marita he’d married all those years before. All it did was make her pull away.
“Your boys are dead!” Marita yelled back. The words filled the small space of their home, coming out in a snarl. Her voice dropped. “That’s what’s happened. Our sons are dead.”
The words hit Berin like a kick from a horse that didn’t want shoeing. “No,” he said. “It’s another lie. It has to be.”
He couldn’t think of another thing Marita could have said that would have hurt as much. She had to be just saying this to hurt him.
“When did you decide that you hated me so much?” Berin asked, because that was the only reason he could think of that his wife would throw something so vile at him, using the idea of their sons’ deaths as a weapon.
Now Berin could see tears in Marita’s eyes. There hadn’t been any when she’d been talking about their daughter supposedly running away.
“When you decided to abandon us,” his wife snapped back. “When I had to watch Nasos die!”
“Just Nasos?” Berin said.
“Isn’t that enough?” Marita shouted back. “Or don’t you care about your sons?”
“A moment ago you said that Sartes was dead too,” Berin said. “Stop lying to me, Marita!”
“Sartes is dead too,” his wife insisted. “Soldiers came and took him. They dragged him off to be a part of the Empire’s army, and he’s just a boy. How long do you think he will survive as a part of that? No, both of my boys are gone, while Ceres…”
“What?” Berin demanded.
Marita just shook her head. “If you’d been here, it might not even have happened.”
“You were here,” Berin spat back, trembling all over. “That had been the point. You think I wanted to go? You were meant to look after them while I found the money for us to eat.”
Despair gripped Berin then, and he could feel himself starting to weep, as he hadn’t wept since he was a child. His oldest son was dead. For all the other lies Marita had come out with, that sounded like the truth. The loss left a hole that seemed to be impossible to fill, even with the grief and anger that were welling up inside him. He forced himself to focus on the others, because it seemed like the only way to stop it from overwhelming him.
“Soldiers took Sartes?” he asked. “Imperial soldiers?”
“You think I’m lying to you about that?” Marita asked.
“I don’t know what to believe anymore,” Berin replied. “You didn’t even try to stop them?”
“They held a knife to my throat,” Marita said. “I had to.”
“You had to do what?” Berin asked.
Marita shook her head. “I had to call him outside. They would have killed me.”
“So you gave him to them instead?”
“What do you think I could do?” Marita demanded. “You weren’t here.”
And Berin would probably feel guilty about that for as long as he lived. Marita was right. Maybe if he had been here, this wouldn’t have happened. He’d gone off, looking to keep his family from starving, and while he’d been away, things had fallen apart. Feeling guilty didn’t replace the grief or the anger, though. It only added to it. It bubbled inside Berin, feeling like something alive and fighting to get out.
“What about Ceres?” he demanded. He shook Marita again. “Tell me! The truth this time. What did you do?”
Marita just pulled away again though, and this time she sank down on her haunches on the floor, curling up and not even looking at him. “Find out for yourself. I’ve been the one who’s had to live with this. Me, not you.”
There was a part of Berin that wanted to keep shaking her until she gave him an answer. That wanted to force the truth from her, whatever it took. Yet he wasn’t that kind of man, and knew he never could be. Even the thought of it disgusted him.
He didn’t take anything from the house when he left. There wasn’t anything he wanted there. As he looked back at Marita, so totally wrapped up in her own bitterness that she’d given up her son, tried to disguise what had happened to their children, it was hard to believe that there had ever been.
Berin stepped out into the open air, blinking away what was left of his tears. It was only when the brightness of the sun hit him that he realized he had no idea what he was going to do next. What could he do? There was no helping his oldest son, not now, while the others could be anywhere.
“That doesn’t matter,” Berin told himself. He could feel the determination within him turning into something like the iron he worked. “It won’t stop me.”
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