Unedited sneak peek of the first book in the WOMEN OF THE ETERNAL series, War Wine!
Another sun rose and set in the Mal’ek Desert before Wine and Samsara started to notice tufts of dried grass beneath their feet again. Within a few hours, they stopped at a small tavern for directions to Swallowdale and to refill their waterskins. Being out of the desert and immediate danger put a spring in their step, and smiles graced Wine and Samsara’s faces as they turned their feet to their destination.
Wine and Sern were eight years old the last time she had seen her cousin. Her uncle was handfasted that summer, and Wine was the flower girl alongside the handfaster, Sern. She could still smell the rosemary and honeyed mead that floated through the warm breeze. The ceremony had been beautiful, and the party afterward resulted with the children running off to play in the cornfields until the adults called them home.
They followed a well-worn dirt path, kicking up dust clouds as the front door came into view. Abruptly, it swung open wildly, and a young man coughing and waving smoke away from his face stumbled out. Ginger hair stuck up at odd angles, soot smeared across his cheeks. When he cleared the air enough to see, surprise flit over his face, then scrutiny.
“Sorry, I’m not entertaining anyone today. Come back again another-hang on.” He stepped towards Wine, eyes narrowed. “I know you.”
Wine couldn’t help but grin, Samsara folding her arms behind her. “Sern, if you can’t recognize these locks from the Aegis Sea, what kind of cousin are you really?”
Sern blinked, utterly bemused, until recognition dawned on him.
“Espe?!” He flung his arms around Wine, crushing her in a tight hug as she squeezed him back. “You turnip, how are you? What are you doing here? And just what in the Beyond happened to you…?”
Sern held her at arm’s length, taking in her appearance properly. Wine hadn’t realized how disheveled she was: caked in mud and grass, blood splattered sand, bandages peeking out from under the collar of her shirt, and Athos knew what else lay crusted on her. Sern’s eyes fell to Samsara, and he offered his hand.
“Well met, miss…?”
“Samsara,” she replied, shaking his hand firmly, “pleasure to meet you.”
“Come come, make yourselves at home, please,” Sern said, ushering Wine and Samsara inside, a wary eye scanning the immediate area before shutting the door behind him.
“When was the last time you tidied in here?” Wine asked, eyes devouring the interior. Massive shelves were bolted to the walls, preventing them from keeling over under the sheer weight of books. Tomes lay in jumbled stacks beneath tables and in corners, piled on counters and chairs, many dusty while even more looked newly binded.
Beneath the mess lay a beautiful wooden interior. Tall church candles found a home in the windows and reading nooks, a large fireplace with smoldering embers burned in the middle of the room. What seating that wasn’t holding books or scrolls were covered in furs and wool blankets. Wine grinned at Sern.
“Looks like the single life suits you.”
He laughed, embarrassed, as Wine picked up a book and read over the title. “I’m glad you kept practicing. I thought you would’ve dropped it after what Aunt Eleanor said to you.”
Sern rolled his eyes, taking the book from his cousin and setting it on a shelf. “It takes more than that to get to me now. Living alone gives me room to experiment and study, and I still get my dosage of human interaction. The villagers come to me for potions and poultices, and in exchange, they give me food or others goods I may be in need of.”
“What are you doing with all these? Surely you haven’t read them all?” Samsara asked, turning over a book to admire the cover of roses and thorns drawn meticulously on it.
“I’ve been reading and collecting since I was young, actually,” Sern replied, peering over at the werecat. “That one is a book of herbs that can be used for both poisons and antidotes. Be careful with that, please, it’s quite old.
Samsara set it back down gingerly as Sern turned to Wine. “So Espe-”
“Um, Sern.” Wine sat down heavy in his chair, Samsara taking a spot up by the fireplace. “I…I don’t use that name anymore. It’s Wine now.”
Sern frowned. “As you like…Wine. What brings you in from Keld? How’s Auntie Jiwa?”
Wine leaned into her hands, a surge of grief hitting her.
“Sern, she’s-she’s dead. All of them, two years ago. Raiders hit us and…you know, everyone says it won’t be them, but…” Wine looked up at Sern, eyes spilling over. “We were wrong. They murdered every one of us. Da. Mama. Even Micah and Eamon. Everyone. From what I learned, no one survived, but me.”
His eyes went bright as her words sunk in. “But-but we’ve heard nothing here. Not even from the merchants! How could no one find out?”
Wine relayed her journey briefly, Samsara’s eyes watching her closely as Sern’s face went as white as a ghost.
“I-I am so sorry, cousin. I would have come for you, I could have rescued you…”
He moved to Wine’s side and hugged her tightly for a long moment, Samsara averting her eyes. “If you had not ended them yourself, I would set out right now to do so. You’ve given our family a measure of peace.”
“Sern,” Samsara said, her voice quiet, “we came to see if you would have more information on what has happened to the north. To Empress Calla. With Fort Warcton so close, I was hoping there would be a better well of gossip here than in the valleys.”
Sern rose to his feet and began pacing the room. “You were right to come. It’s been tense the past few days, with magic and arms forbidden among us common folk. It’s become difficult helping anyone who needs it – have to be subtle, indiscreet. No one wants to be hauled away by the brutes in Warcton because they wanted to treat a boil. Speaking of,” he looked up at Wine and Samsara, “the knights have gone completely mad.”
Samsara frowned. “How so?”
Sern shook his head, distaste on his face. “Breaking into homes, terrorizing anyone and everyone, raiding our stocks. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, but they’re causing panic and stress. People end up endangering themselves or one another.” He inhaled deeply before continuing. “I am almost positive the knights are under a spell or curse of some kind. Violent tendencies, harsh personality changes, it’s all too sudden.”
“What have you heard about this elf that’s gotten himself into the Emperor’s throne?” Samsara asked, her tail twitching to and fro.
Sern returned to pacing. “His name is Savus Pantomime. Heavy drinker, can be unpredictable with even the simplest things, and not native to Eibolen. His audiences are known for being unjust and terrifying.”
“And no one can do anything about this?” Samsara pressed, looking between the cousins. Sern shrugs.
“I haven’t heard of anyone stepping forth, and I’m unsurprised. From what I gather, he is a formidable figure. No simple farmer or merchant would stand before him.”
Samsara rubs her face vigorously. “I will not let Calla sit within a homemade-prison because of some elvhen usurper.”
“We could do something about it.”
Samsara and Sern turned to Wine simultaneously, her eyes bright. Wringing her hands, she leaned forward, resting her elbows on her knees. “We could do something about it.”
“Are you mad?” Sern asked her incredulously. “Do you have any idea what that entails? We could be imprisoned, murdered, robbed, cursed – the list is endless!”
Wine rubbed her arm, nodding. “I know.”
Sern threw his hands in the air, shaking his head. “And yet you want to press forward?”
She shot a look at her cousin. “Nothing about this is right. Persecution, injustice, innocents losing their lives. By the Beyond, my own cousin falls into the list of wanted people! I sat,” Wine hesitated, pulling a long, shuddering breath, “I sat helpless for too long, Sern. I can’t sit and do nothing, not when I am able to do something. If there are troubles on the road, I will face them head on.”
“Well,” Samsara started slowly, rubbing her chin, “a couple of horses to the north is no walk in the plains, but if the merchants can do it, why not us?”
“Wait wait, you’re not really considering this, are you?” Sern asked, bewildered. The pregnant silence told him everything he needed to know, and a long sigh escaping him. “Alright then. I guess we’re going to be those people.”
“Hang on,” Wine started, frowning, “you can’t go. You’re needed here.”
Sern laughed, threading himself between the books to a tiny kitchen. “It’s only a matter of time until I’m not needed anymore. As you said, I am on the wanted list. If I’m going to be hunted, I might as well give them a good chase.”
The evening had started to settle in as Sern made them dinner. Wine felt safe, huddled in between Sern’s books, a blanket over her mending shoulder while she ate the rabbit stew and bread provided. Samsara and Wine helped Sern set up a sleeping area for them within the shelves, the door to the garden barely a foot away. Wine didn’t mind – the night air that crept under the wooden door was gentle and sweet-smelling.
While Samsara made herself comfortable, Sern approached Wine, looking anxious. “Cuz, could I have a word?”
They stepped out into the garden, where vegetables and herbs grew as thick as Sern could get them. He glances over the maze of plants, before turning to Wine.
“You know I’m going to ask, so let me get it out of the way. Why the name change?”
She didn’t answer immediately, instead resting her arms over the fence that penned in the garden. From behind Sern’s home, Wine could see the stretching fields of wheat and corn waving lazily, the smell of smoke and cooking meat winding between the houses.
“It hurts, Sern. It hurts so fucking much.”
The pain in Wine’s voice was thick and pointed, grasping for words that could describe the bloody thorns that rested against her heart. She tipped her head backwards to stare at the sky, trying to blink away the tears threatening once more.
“I can’t be Espe. Maybe ever again. It…it hurts too much.”
Sern pulled her into a tight hug, sobs emitting from Wine’s face in his shoulder. Rubbing her back, Sern shut his eyes. “I’m sorry, lass, I’m so sorry.”
They stayed there for a while until Wine slowly extracted herself from Sern’s arms, wiping her face with her sleeve.
“I’m really glad you were home, Sern.”
He slung an arm over her shoulder, jostling her gently. “Me too. Let’s make some tea before bed.”
A thick smoke hanging in the house made Wine wake up in a panic, nightmares from the camp washing over her until she remembered she was in Sern’s home. Samsara lay stretched out beside her, fast asleep, as a meaty smell drifted over their bed. Grabbing a bowl of water for her parched throat, Wine followed the smoke to a small fire in the back, where Sern was tending to spit roasted rabbits.
“Good morning. Sleep well?” He looked over Wine’s disheveled appearance.
“Better than I have in a long time,” she replied, nursing her bowl. Wine nodded to the rabbits. “A bit early for rabbit, don’t you think?”
Sern smiled, turning the carcasses over the flames. “I’m working on provisions for us. The sooner we leave, the better.” He peered around the garden, looking for nosy neighbours before continuing in a lower voice. “I saw Imperial colours being marched around earlier, probably looking for magic, since they confiscated all the weapons last week.”
He flashed Wine a wry smile as he rose to his feet. “Where else would a sorcerer go but to a sleepy little village to hide, hm?”
“How have they not found you yet? Surely they’ve come knocking before?”
Sern shrugged halfheartedly. “I have a few personal tricks up my sleeves. And no, I won’t tell you what they are.” He winked at Wine, pulling an adamantine knife from his belt.
“Where did you get that from? That’s a pricey knife,” Wine commented, watching him cut the rabbits from the spit. Sern turned it over in his hands, nodding.
“A fellow sorcerer sent it to me as a thank you gift for helping him figure out a cure for fish boils. It seems like such an overpayment, but when I wrote to him, he wouldn’t hear anything of it.” Sern shrugged, and continued with his slicing. “It never dulls and I use it all the time. I’ll take it. Why don’t you wake up Samsara? We can leave as soon as this is done.”
Wine finished her water and headed back inside, waking the sprawled out Sam and explaining the plan. Together, they packed up the few things they had with them, adding the dried fruit and smoked meat Sern brought inside. As Wine helped Sern tidy up his books, scouring the room for anything useful for the trip, Samsara jolted to a stop by the window. Her eyes narrowed dangerously as Wine surfaced from a tower of papers.
“Imperial knights. They’re here.”
Samsara moved aside to let Wine peer out the window down at the heart of the village. A band of knights dressed in indigo and gold stood menacingly by the well, their captain demanding something from an older farmer. Terrified, the old man shook his head, only to be shoved aside by the knights. Samsara and Wine pulled back to see Sern, who was pasty white.
“We won’t make it in time.”
Sern glanced at his books, before grabbing armfuls and dumping them into a seemingly empty corner of the room. A soft whoosh, and they disappeared.
“I had hoped to do this a bit more carefully, but time is of the essence,” he muttered, shoving several chairs in the invisible pocket. Wine looked outside again to see a grumpy looking woman with her arms crossed over her chest speaking with the knight-captain, before pointing directly towards Sern’s home.
“Shit – time’s up, they’re coming right now.”
Eyes wild, Sern waved his hand over the room. Books vanished, scrolls melted into their shelves, while the remaining furniture turned to ash. With a pained look, he turned to the corner again.
“Follow me, quickly!” Sern dived into the corner and, like the rest of his belongings, disappeared just as the front door crashed open. Knights rushed through in a cacophony of steel and dust, the captain close behind, to find only Samsara and Wine standing there grimly among the ashes.
“Who are you two? The broad down there told us a sorcerer lives here. Where is he?” The captain’s breath smelled of rotten fruit and meat, but it was his eyes that horrified Wine: the irises were bright red, almost painfully so, and looked as if they would glow like the full moon.
The captain stepped close to them, glaring at Samsara. “Well? Unless one of you is him?”
Samsara held up her hands. “We’ve been traveling since before the desert, we have alibis at the inn before Swallowdale. This is what we found. Werecats can’t use magic, anyways.”
He pushed into Samara’s space, eyes narrowed dangerously. “I don’t give a fuck where you’ve been, flea bag. Anyone can say anything with the right amount of persuasion or gold.” The captain rounded on Wine. “You, Red! The woman said you were family. Where. Is. He?”
Wine felt her knees shake, and her hands were sweaty as she stared the knight-captain down, weighing her odds heavily.
“It appears he’s moved on, and erased evidence of himself. I have no idea where he might be, and we know as much as you do. Looks like we all missed him.”
The captain grabbed the front of Wine’s shirt, tearing slightly as he jerked her towards him, brows furrowed deeply. Visions of the bandit camp flashed through Wine’s mind and she shuddered, trying to suppress the sudden jolt of fear as his crimson eyes met hers.
“You are a liar,” he hissed. “You know where he went. Where the fuck is he, or is magic worth more than your pretty hide?”
Wine did her best to keep her expression deadpan. This was just like the camp. She could do this.
“If I knew, I wouldn’t tell you regardless. Not that you’d catch him, what with the magic and all.”
The knight-captain growled, furious, before shoving her away into Samsara. He swung around to his men, who were kicking the piles of ash as if it were sand at the beach.
“Men! We’re done here. You,” he jabbed a finger at one of the men, who snapped to attention, “Red goes with us. I’ll be damned if she doesn’t know something, and if the Emperor finds out we left an accomplice behind, it’s all our hides. She can learn to talk the hard way.”
The knight saluted. “Yes, Knight-Captain Gerrart!”
Samsara made to grab for Wine’s arm, but the captain stepped between them, sword tip digging into the werecat’s abdomen.
“You have ten seconds to get out of here, or I turn you into a fucking rug.”
Gerrart’s hatred oozed in his voice. Samsara met Wine’s eyes, who gave a minuscule shake of her head. Resigned, she bared her teeth at the knight-captain.
“Not unless you catch me first, filthy human.”
Wine’s heart slowly slid to her stomach as she watched Samsara take off out the doorway, the knights brandishing their weapons halfheartedly after her. When the werecat disappeared from view, a heavy feeling set itself on her shoulders, and she suddenly felt very, very alone.
Gerrart gave Wine a cursory glance layered with malice, before gruffly calling a retreat. Two knights took up position on either side of Wine, two more in the rear guard, and they marched out of Sern’s home and into the square once more. They dragged her through the homes of a few more people, looking for weapons or Sern that everyone knew, including the knights, weren’t there.
The sun was high in the sky when the knight-captain ordered them all back to their base, and a cold stone dropped into Wine’s throat.
They were taking her to prison.