AN ECHO OF FIRE
A Fireheart Novel
© 2023 Amber Lynn Natusch
YOU CANNOT TRUST KAPLYN. GET OUT NOW!
I looked down at the note in my hand, then back at the warded divide between the Midlands and Daglaar. In the four years I’d resided in the Midlands, I had received weekly letters from my father. And then those letters had stopped. A week went by. Then two. Then three. Then that final fateful note arrived and sent me fleeing without a second thought.
A blast of cold mountain air rushed through the woods and caught my oxblood wings, snapping them wide. I may have only been half Nychteríde, but that half craved the blast of freezing air to ride. My wings twitched, begging to take flight again.
It was time to go home.
With a steadying breath, I reached over my back and pulled my staff from between my shoulders, the one my father had given to me as soon as I was old enough to wield it. I may have been escaping newly hostile territory, but the one I was returning to would not be much better; not after what had happened to me the night my father sent me to Kaplyn for safekeeping. Or so he’d thought.
What a difference four years made.
I was older, stronger, and wiser now, but that didn’t mean that the feelings of those residing in the training camp had changed. Despite what Delphyne thought, I wasn’t foolish enough to think otherwise. Kaplyn’s seamstress—and mother figure to me—had warned me against returning for that reason.
“Have you forgotten what they tried to do to you? Why your father brought you to the Midlands?” she asked me. “They broke you, Ariel, and they will try again, given the chance.”
I looked down at the thick brown leather pants and halter she’d crafted for me and felt a pang of fear and guilt in my heart. They’d always been her way of telling me she loved me. Apparently enough to let me flee without alerting her lord. Enough to give me the blessing stone to keep me safe.
“This will help guide you to what you desire and send you on the safest path possible,” she said, her voice low and full of resignation as she placed the shiny black stone in my palm. “It will also guide you back, should you ever desire that.”
With sadness in my heart, I gripped my staff tightly in one hand and the stone in the other and stepped through a hole in the wards. Come mischief or mayhem or certain death, I would learn why my father had sent that letter—what trouble the Nychterídes now had with the Neráides.
If I didn’t, I feared I might meet the fate I’d narrowly escaped the last time I was in Daglaar.
I ran through the woods with as much stealth as my weary body could muster. I knew there would be warriors patrolling the border—likely more now that the treaty had fallen—and that could prove problematic. I didn’t know what allies, if any, I still had in Daglaar, and I had no intention of finding out the hard way. I knew from past experience that assumptions could kill, like assuming your best friend would never press a blade to your throat while those that would see you dead cheered him on.
Getting to camp undetected and quickly was the name of the game.
Since the day I’d arrived in Daglaar, I’d never been fully accepted by the Nychterídes as a people. Being of mixed descent, I strongly resembled their Minyade enemies, from my colored wings to my paler skin (though it shared the same olive undertone as theirs) to my light sage-green eyes. Those differences came with a price.
Most in the settlement and the villages beyond had tolerated me because I was the general’s daughter. Their loyalty to him was strong because he’d been the one to restore Daglaar after the gods cursed our people and turned their backs on us. He’d taken a lawless, barren land, given it order, and created an army capable of protecting it. For over one hundred years, he’d kept the Nychterídes fed and safe. For this, he was their general—their leader—a king without a crown. In return, he only ever asked for three things: loyalty to Daglaar. Loyalty to him. And loyalty to the Nychterídes.
It was that final request that seemed undermined by my existence.
Many of the warriors in camp resented me, for various reasons. For being part Minyade. For being a female trained to fight instead of to serve them. For being Kade’s daughter. I would often hear rumblings from those I trained with about how favored I was; how the half-breed received special treatment, from the food I ate to where I slept. How I lived in relative luxury compared to them in my father’s home on the mountainside. In retrospect, perhaps they had a point, but I’d been too young and naïve then to see it. After living on Kaplyn’s estate, I realized their grudges seemed somewhat valid. Perhaps Father should have let me live with them.
I wondered if it would be one of them I’d encounter on my way to the settlement. Father would have the younger soldiers patrolling the border—soldiers my age. The possibility that one of them could have been involved in the attempt on my life was not lost on me. If I was caught, they’d undoubtedly finish what they started four years earlier and dispose of my body before anyone realized I’d even reached the woods.
My return home would be cut short.
So I continued in silence through the woods with my staff drawn and my senses sharp.
Halfway to the mountain, I heard the crack of a branch underfoot. I hid behind a tree and surveyed the woods but saw nothing. Not willing to wait for disaster to strike, I took off in a sprint, less focused on stealth and more on speed.
The closer I got to camp, the more certain I became that I was being followed. Footfalls far heavier than my own echoed through the trees. The ground shook with every step as they grew louder and nearer, an ominous sign at best.
Fear drove me forward, pushing me hard. I hadn’t come all that way to be stopped so close to my destination. I would see my father. There was no other option.
Only yards from the tree line that opened to the clearing at the center of camp, I dared a look back. Darting from shadow to shadow was a massive Nychteríde, gaining on me. I could not see his face, but it didn’t matter. He was no ally, that much was clear. All I needed to do was make it to the clearing. Once there, I could find my father.
I broke through the trees to a familiar sight. Rows of tiny stone cabins rimmed the base of the mountain. Black-winged warriors were scattered throughout the camp. Their collective attention turned to me the second I came into view; weapons were drawn in an instant.
“Baba!” I shouted, still running from whomever had been chasing me. I was fast and in motion, two things that would work in my favor, but not forever. I needed to find a friendly face in a sea of potential enemies.
Fifty yards away stood the large stone building that housed the training area where I’d spent so much of my childhood. I breathed a small sigh of relief as I bolted toward it, knowing that if my father wasn’t there, then Baran, the warrior entrusted to train the Nychterídes, should be. He could deliver me safely to my father. It was my best shot at making it to him fully intact.
I threw open the thick metal-covered door and ran into the vast space to find neither Baran nor my father anywhere in sight. What I did find was a group of warriors I knew all too well. The ones who’d tormented me growing up.
Fear spiked in my veins yet again.
From deep in the crowd, Tycho stepped forward. There was no love lost between him and me. Our mutual dislike began the day I arrived in Daglaar and he shoved me to the ground in front of the others. I doubted his temperament had improved much since then.
“So the Minyade’s returned…” he said, twirling a broadsword in his hand. “You look good, Ariel.”
He was much larger than he’d been when I last saw him. I tried not to focus on that as he walked toward me.
“You look the same. Possibly uglier.”
He snarled and clenched the pommel of his sword. “We’ll see how good you look once I’m done with you.”
He ran at me, weapon poised to strike. I threw my pack aside and clutched my staff, ready to parry his blow. It was carved from a special tree from the Midlands, its wood immune to both fire and steel. Wood strong enough to damage a warrior with skin of stone like the Nychterídes possessed—one of their greatest defensive traits.
I called forth my scales, gifted to me by way of my mother’s blood. In a cascade of iridescent armor, they covered my skin. Tycho hesitated for a moment at the sight.
“Minyade whore,” he muttered to himself before raising his sword again.
“Tycho!” someone shouted from the far side of the room and my heart dropped to my gut. I’d have recognized Hemming’s voice anywhere. I dared to let my gaze drift from the enemy before me to find him storming toward us, his narrowed grey eyes full of fury. “She’s mine…”
I held my breath as he pushed his way through the crowd, his formidable frame even larger than I remembered. Broader. Stronger. I took a breath to steady myself for the danger to come—for him to try to finish what he’d started before I fled Daglaar.
Hemming gave Tycho a challenging look, then whispered something that made him stand down. Tycho said nothing as he took a step back, relinquishing his position as well as his weapon to Hemming. But his silence belied his rage. Tycho wanted another shot at me too, but like last time, it had been stolen by the male standing across from me.
My childhood protector.
My best friend.
And the one who’d tried to kill me.
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