If you missed my April newsletter, you can check it out archived here, and you can sign up via the little subscribe button at the top of the page if my musings and giveaways aren’t yet coming right to your sweet, sweet inbox each month.
I included in that newsletter a sneak peek (but I spelled it “peak” because I’m a fucking moron) of my next series, a sword and sorcery trilogy I’m calling Blightwood, the first book of which is titled Throne in the Dark, and I wanted to post that excerpt here as well.
This is from very early in the drafting stages, so a lot might change, but I’m more confident with my drafts now, and I want to get some feelers out for the kind of audience who might like these books. They’re not quite as whimsical or silly as my normal stuff, a little darker, a little more romance-heavy, and a little more taking-itself-too-seriously. But sometimes you need that, or at least I know I do.
For your consideration, Dear Reader, please enjoy a sample of Throne in the Dark, slated for a late 2021 release.
What you seek is in the woods, deep. Go. Mend. Now.
Esme’s eyes popped open, the dusky, twilit sky a pall of lavender, a waning, half moon hanging in it. She was alone, only surrounded by trees, ferns, and a single blackbird sitting on a branch above, but the voice had been so clear.
“Siela.” Esme jumped to her feet so quickly she nearly ended up back on her knees. She took off, her long, black braid trailing behind, then skidded to a stop in the fallen leaves. Protection. She sprinted back to her hut, grabbing her staff from its spot beside the door. Abandoning her altar and half-finished ritual, she ran once more for the depth of the Timberwoods just as the voice had said to do. Every dusk Esme prayed to the moon goddess, and finally an answer had been given.
The direction had been clear, well, sort of, but the task not so much. She had been asking Siela for a sign for the three hundredth and thirty third day in a row, and could now only assume she would know it when she saw it. Away from the path that would lead into the city of Bronzecross with a half day’s travel, Esme rushed deeper into the Timberlands where the elms grew as thick around as goliaths and even the fullest moon was blotted out by their broad leaves. She picked her way nimbly over fallen branches and skidded down embankments in the dark, not bothering to conjure a light at her staff’s end, the way sought out for her if she simply felt for it in the shadows.
The sky had gone completely dark when she finally found it, or rather, him. The urgency to run left her, and she was filled with a wholly different impulse. Stop, stay, mend.
“What has happened to you?” Esme went to where he lay on his side. He didn’t answer or even react to her voice as she came close, the pained groan that escaped compulsory, and she could tell he had been biting it back. His form was turned toward one of the mammoth fallen trees to shield himself and for good reason: she could smell the blood, and there was a lot of it.
Esme leaned her staff against the tree and knelt at his back, rolling him toward her with some effort. She inhaled sharply at the wound in his belly, a blood-covered hand pressed firmly to it. Even in the dark it was ghastly. He had managed to unbuckle his leather armor and pull it away, and the only patch of moonlight that broke down through the trees illuminated thick, black gore soaking through his tunic. Siela had been right to send her—he was close to death—at least, Esme hoped she was right.
He mumbled a few incoherent words as she rifled through her hip pouch. There was no time to bring up a light to help, and she wouldn’t want to waste energy to conjure anyway with his wounds so egregious.
“I’m here to help,” she told him, moving away his hand and pulling up his tunic to fully inspect the wound. It was even worse than she imagined. “Don’t worry,” she said, perhaps more to herself than him. “I’ll patch you up in no time.” Or be with you as you die, floated through her mind, but those words would help no one said aloud.
Esme rubbed calendula root between her hands, palms tingling as she assessed the gash. It was deep and wide, but even more concerning was the movement within. A spell of some sort emanated out of the wound but one she didn’t recognize. The Timberlands could be unsafe, but by the looks of what she could see of him in the dark and the sword abandoned between him and the tree, glowing with the faintest violet color at its hilt to suggest enchantment, he should have been capable enough.
Unless he’d been in the Blightwood. Esme blinked and glanced up at the trees. She’d lost track of time on her mad dash here, and she hadn’t bothered to watch for the right direction. The border between the Timberlands and the Blightwood was murky at best, and perhaps impossible to see at night—that was something she’d never tried. It was dangerous enough to seek it out and stand fifty paces away to marvel at the way the trees changed and the air thickened during midday, but crossing over at night? That would be asking for death.
Esme shook her head and focused back on her patient. Where the blackness of the blood did not touch, she could tell even in the shadows that his skin was deeply tan as she rubbed her pale hands together above it. A mercenary, she assumed, as she didn’t recognize his armor either, probably one of the men hired from the south by the crown to clean up the Timberlands for hunting and safe travel. Likely he thought he would earn coin here by cutting down northern raiders and return home, but perhaps he’d found something worse, one of the darker creatures from the Blightwood. Well, she would help to send the poor man home one way or another, she only hoped it would be by ship.
Hands clean, Esme finally laid them on his stomach, and her skin immediately crawled with a dark, chaotic magic. Her arms trembled at its pulsing desire to slither inside and eat away at her. “Necrosis,” she whispered. “What dared do this to you?” Then she set her face stony: this would not happen in her forest. She called on Siela and turned inward to expel it from his body.
A hand wrapped around her wrist, shocking her out of the spell before she could even begin. For a moment she was sure someone else had come upon them, but the unusually strong grip belonged to the injured man. “You don’t know what you’re doing,” he rasped, arm trembling.
“Well, if not I’ve wasted quite a bit of my life training for it,” Esme huffed. “Now let me go so you don’t die, you fool.”
The man took a ragged breath that sounded something like a laugh, then he groaned. “They’ll be here soon. If you don’t run, you’re the fool. Save yourself.”
“Nonsense.” She tugged her hand from his, and his arm dropped lax onto his chest. Esme took a moment to listen to the forest, and when she heard nothing, she pressed her hands onto his stomach again, ignoring the dark magic that threatened to crawl up her arms if she showed any weakness. She called on Siela to close the wound, simple and nowhere near enough to save him, but it would stop the bleeding and keep him alive long enough to decipher the real problem.
His skin stitched itself up in a raised, thick scar, and he stifled a cry between grit teeth. Wound healing was painful when done this quickly, and she would much rather take her time, but it was effective. His muscles tensed under her hands, and she pressed down to try and alleviate some of the pain, cursing that she didn’t have an extra moment to apply a salve to dull it.
With that done, it was time to find the cause. She’d encountered all sorts of poisons and magics in her duties at the temple, though less frequently anything of necrotic origin. She clenched her jaw, imagining the dark magics needed to do something like this. Was it not enough to kill a man? Why make him suffer so slowly and painfully? But then that was exactly what the things in the Blightwood wanted—what the creatures called bly wanted.
Esme glanced up for a last look at the moon through the sliver of sky in the trees above before closing her eyes against the dark of the forest. The necrosis was sealed inside him now, and she would have to go in and find it to flush it out. The world around her fell away, the breeze on her face, the slippery skin under her hands, the whip-poor-wills calling far off in the trees, all of it was gone, and as if the ground had been pulled out from beneath her, Esme too began to fall.
Wings unfurled where her arms had been, her body changed in an instant, and Esme caught herself on the winds that whipped through his aura. Like an owl on the night sky, she was flying through the magic that made him alive, the same magic that ran through every living being. It pulsed and gusted like the currents atop a mountain, but Esme held strong against the turmoil that his aura had become in the wake of whatever had been set upon him. This wasn’t the way she had been taught, not exactly, but there was no time to stand above it all, look down, and pluck out what was to be fixed—she needed to dive in, to be part of it, to fly. It was dangerous, the priestesses said, but there was no priestess observing her now, just Siela’s words. Seek and mend.
Then she noticed a strange something beside her on the winds, a line of misty darkness that ran through everything around her. For a moment she was terribly concerned, this thing was so entwined with his existence she didn’t think she could remove it if she had a lifetime, but unlike the necrosis that had tried to attack her and was causing such turbulence now, this was simply existing along with him. Perhaps not meant to be there, but it had been for a very long time, and it was not her query.
No, there it was, the necrosis, significantly darker, malicious, deadly. A black sludge cast itself over a particularly strong gust that shot off before her, enveloping the current and battering itself against the man’s aura. It slammed into a crosswind and jumped to it, spreading. Esme ducked to miss the blackened current, swooping under it and then back around for another look. It was growing quickly, so at least it would be an easy target, and as she passed over the reckless wind, dropped a restorative spell. The twinkling lights fell from her wings and tore holes through the sludge, breaking it apart over the current it sailed on, but then it mended itself as if she had done nothing, barely slowing its progress.
Esme faltered, the owl-like body her consciousness possessed tumbling head over tail, struggling to right itself. She pulled back out and into her true, human form as it too wavered in the dark forest. The necrosis hadn’t breached her own body, but it threw her for a loop quite literally. She pressed harder into his stomach, but this time he didn’t tense under her hands. With a quick glance at the shadow that was his unmoving face, she dove back in. Guide me, she prayed. You brought me here, now please, show me how to save him.
She soared downward, catching a healthy current. With her sharp, animalistic eyes, she searched the whole of who he was, the magic he was made up of, for the answer, knowing it would be buried somewhere within. Esme had been warned away from reading others like this, from getting distracted, from mingling. Inner existences were messy, they were impossible to understand, this she knew, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t worth trying, and for a brief moment she let herself feel what was there inside him. All of the same things inside everyone, pain, joy, anger, love, and then as if being struck she came upon something unique and achingly familiar that had no name: he was lost too. But Esme had no time to dwell on the shared sentiment as a flash of light lit up the corner of her eye. The umbrastone, of course.
Esme slammed back into her human body once again with a force that almost knocked her over, and she dug into her hip pouch with slippery, bloody fingers. It took a full cycle of imbuing the umbrastone with healing magic each dusk, laying it out on her altar each night, and pouring holy water over it each morning to make, but certainly this was the reason she’d been inspired to craft the thing in the first place. It could draw out the necrosis, a powerful source of radiance the dark magic would much rather imbibe, trading places so that it would fill his body with its own healing properties. If only he could last long enough for it to work.
The man had gone limp, but the winds of his aura had not stopped—he still had a chance. She pressed the stone atop the scar, whispering a prayer to Siela and pushing in one last restoration spell atop it, and it seeped into his skin.
There. She breathed, and she waited. Beneath her, he was still, and her fingers dug into his stomach. The forest buzzed with cicadas, leaves rustled over the ground, an owl called somewhere far off in the sky. And then he took a breath.
Esme’s shoulders fell, and she almost dropped her head into her hands but stopped at the sight of the blood on them. The umbrastone had begun to glow, calling to the necrosis, and it should have properly lit crimson blood coating her hands, yet they were still covered in a deep black. She wiped them off on the ground and peered down at his stomach again. She had never been much farther than Bronzecross, but the city attracted all sorts, and the path through the Timberwood saw journeymen from all over as well, yet even with a longer moment to look over his armor, she didn’t recognize its style. Taking a closer look at his skin in the odd light of the umbrastone, the color appeared different than that of the humans and even the elves to the south.
Still on her knees, Esme watched the umbrastone begin to darken, her opportunity to discover where he was from waning, but it would take a few more moments before he would come to consciousness again. She flexed her fingers, surprised how invigorated she still felt. She had more than enough energy to conjure a light now to really look on him, but a rustling in the trees made her decide against drawing attention to where they were.
Instead, Esme leaned toward his face, still in shadow. The outline of it, turned to the side, showed a sharp jaw with a pointed and smooth chin. His hair wasn’t the chestnut or ginger many of the southerners had, but very light, almost grey, which was strange as everything about him—the hardness of his stomach and the smoothness of his skin—said he was young. Poking out from the tousled mess, he wore something like a crow’s feather, though when she looked closer realized it was actually just his ear, long and pointed like an elf’s.
Sliding her least bloody finger over his face, she pushed the hair that had fallen into his eyes away to reveal a sharp cheekbone and a light eyebrow against exceptionally dark skin. And then her hand was caught as the man’s eyes flew open. With a strength he should not have had, he sat bolt upright into the only ray of moonlight to break through the elms, his grip on her tight and unyielding. Under the silvery light, his face was finally illuminated, and a strangled cry caught in her throat: bly.
All of the stories ran together in Esme’s mind, paralyzing her—tales to make children behave, threats that the bly would spirit her away to their labyrinthine caves for a short but excruciating life of torture before being cannibalized alive. She had never seen one, they had only been depicted monstrously in cautionary tales as having purple skin like a bruise, eyes and hair the color of blood, fangs set into animal-like jaws, and claws for tearing hearts from chests. If not for the accounts from older soldiers, she might not have believed they were real at all as an adult, but even the holy knights of Selia spoke of bly as demonic beings with a lust for only blood and torment, possessing neither a modicum of goodness nor reason, and nigh impossible to strike down without banishment spells.
He clearly saw the fear on her face—she’d done nothing to hide it—and he smirked. “You see, human? You only saved your own undoing.”
His skin, she saw now, was not deep brown like that of the southerners but indigo, yes, like a shade a bruise could be, but also the color of violets at dusk. Sharp and cruel, the cut of his jaw and cheekbones sliced through the moonlight, casting deep shadows over his face, but his mouth only curled up in the same way any man’s would, and his hair, shorn close to his neck but longer in front to fall into his face was a stark contrast to the rest of him, silver and not red. His ears tapered to points like those of the elves, and his eyes, well, no—they were not crimson like the tales claimed either, not bloody like the thing they craved most. Pale, dusty blue, his eyes were identical to an elf’s and barely different than a human’s. And though her arm was still trapped in his grasp, nothing about him said he was about to take a bite out of it.
“You should have left me to die so you might survive yourself.”
Esme swallowed. “But you told me to run.”
His smirk faltered, and his eyes narrowed, surveying her.
“You didn’t ask me to stay, to help you. If you wanted to hurt me, you wouldn’t have told me to leave. I shouldn’t…I shouldn’t be afraid of you.” Esme was trying to convince herself as much as she was the bly, but then she glanced down to his stomach where the stone was still glowing. Blood had begun to seep up to the surface of his once-healed wound. “Not to mention—”
He winced, clapping his free hand over the scar, his grip on her weakening as he doubled over.
“My spell hasn’t finished its job. Now lean back or you’ll undo all of my hard work.” She slipped her hand from his grip as his eyes unfocused and gently guided him back against the fallen elm. “Stay put, it needs at least another few moments to draw out the necrosis, and if you interrupt it, it may not work at all. I know it’s painful, but you can distract yourself by telling me what terrible thing did that to you.”
He grimaced, both hands over the stone so that its dull light was eclipsed. “Pray you do not find out,”—his eyes moved over her robes—“Priestesses are good at that sort of thing, right? They were close, so hopefully you’re in your god’s good graces.”
Esme listened to the forest for a long moment. She knew the Timberlands even if she’d only called them home this last year, the sounds lulling her to sleep each night and waking her each morning. The creatures were quieter now, but perhaps it was only the bly’s heavy breathing drowning them out. There didn’t seem to be anything else there, but the absence was equally distressing. She shook her head and tried to move his hands away from his stomach. “I’m not a priestess. My name is Esme. Well, it’s Esmera, really, but you can just call me Esme, everyone else does. What’s yours?”
“Why would I tell you that?” He fought to keep the wound covered then relented.
“Because it’s polite,” she said, running a finger along where the gash had reopened and focused another skin sealing spell there. “And I’ve already been inside you, so we’re as good as friends as it is.”
He lurched with a laugh then inhaled sharply at the pain he’d caused himself. Guiltily, she held back her own desire to chuckle. He opened his mouth, taking a breath to speak, but a snapping twig in the forest made them both start.
“Demons,” he said, voice barely above a whisper as he reached for his sword. “They’re here.”
“Do not move.” She pushed against his shoulder to hold him to the tree. She was nowhere near as strong as he appeared to be, but he looked up at her like she had pinned him down with a stake. “The spell needs barely a moment more. If you ruin it, the necrosis will flood back in, and I cannot possibly treat it again before it kills you. Please, I don’t have another umbrastone.”
“Umbra?” He looked on her anew, silvery brows knit as if the pain had gone completely, then snorted. “We will both be dead either way if I don’t finish them off. They’re weakened, and you’ve done enough for me. I can end them before they get you.”
Esme tipped her head—this was not what any of the stories said. Bly were cruel and vengeful and consorted with demons. Even the novels hidden at the back of bookshops that told of the rare bly who overcame their lust for blood to fulfill another kind didn’t speak of them this way. This was…selfless and even kind. “Get me?” She let a smile crawl up her face. “What makes you think they could possibly get me?”
If you’re interested in finding out what happens to Esme and her patient, subscribe to my newsletter below or keep checking back. Vacancy books two and three are coming in May and late summer of this year, and then Blightwood‘s book one should follow, so I’m hoping for a fall 2021 release of Throne in the Dark. It’s a long way off, and yet so close. Here’s to a prolific year!