Monday, 29 August 2016

The Borderlands: War – Chapter Two

In the lead up to my next release, The Borderlands: War, I'm posting the first three chapters. Here's Chapter Two – enjoy! Be sure to add the book to your 'to read' list at Goodreads.

The Borderlands: War is the second book in The Borderlands trilogy.

The Prologue can be read here, Chapter One here.

Chapter Two

Dale sat at the foot of the long dining table. The great hall's dim candlelight did little to hide the questioning glances from the dinner guests.

“Take the humble turnip.” Ma’r Warmston sat to Dale's left, her jowls wobbled when she spoke. “Many wouldn’t consider it a delicacy, but no other vegetable is as versatile. It absorbs other flavours willingly. Try it, Princess, tell me what you taste.”

Dale popped the cut of turnip into her mouth and was rewarded with an unexpected peppery richness that made her eyebrows rise. “Delicious. I can see why you were chosen to be our cookery master.”

Ma’r Warmston gave her a wink and gulped the rest of her ale before calling Jenna over to refill her tankard. The capacity for dwarfs to drink still amazed Dale. “It takes skill to make something out of nothing." Ma'r Warmston wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "The war has taken more than its fair share of our produce and my stores are low. But we’ve got turnips coming out of our ears in the kitchens. This war will be won on turnips just as much as your magicks and prophecies, Princess, mark my words.”

Ma’r Warmston’s voice echoed in the vast dining hall as a sudden silence descended and all eyes turned to Dale. Roughly fifty people sat in attendance. The council leaders and various elders had finally returned from the warfront to mark the special occasion. They'd greeted her politely on the terrace, but each of them failed to hide the unmistakable doubt in their eyes. The talk of war had been brief and full of empty hope, and Dale’s questions remained unanswered. The councillors’ drawn faces and slouched shoulders told her all she needed to know. The Unseelie gained ground with every new day, and the Seelie no longer believed Dale would be their saviour. A year ago, when she'd first arrived, the Seelie people were overjoyed to finally meet the chosen one – the young sorcerer to be. But they had seen no further proof of her special abilities, and many whispered they were all doomed.

“How goes your training, Princess?” Ma’r Sivylla, master of healing, took the opportunity to ask the question on everyone's mind. Her voice carried from the middle of the table, easily reaching the ears of every guest.

Dale tried to answer but her voice caught in her throat. She didn’t know what to say, how to respond. How could she tell them she could barely summon an illumination spell?

“Dalendra is progressing well, Ma’r Sivylla, particularly in combat.” Her mother spoke from the head of the long table where she sat on the large chair. Her white dress, inlaid with silver, matched the colours of her crown. Tonight, she looked every inch the queen she was, her head held high, blond hair rippling past her shoulders. One thing Dale cherished above all else in the Borderlands – she had a mother who loved her.

“Combat? Is this right, Princess?” Sa'r Conaril, the combat master, asked, a look of surprise on his face. Like the other masters, he'd been away at the Verge for so long he had no knowledge of Dale's skill in magic, combat, or anything else for that matter. Clearly, her mother had done little to enlighten them. A thread of irritation made Dale purse her lips, but she took a deep breath. Her mother would only do what she thought best for her.

Dale nodded at the combat master. “I enjoy it.” She was supposed to excel in sorcery but it was in combat Dale had found solace. She understood it. The balance, the movement. The hum of a sword when she swung it through the air. It was like a dance, and it gave her a sense of freedom, similar to sailing. When she practiced with her sword her worries dissolved.

“Oh, yes, she is a fine one,” Jaral spoke, his amethyst eyes gleaming their usual cheekiness. He wore his blonde braids up tonight, accentuating the angle of his eyes and cheekbones. No wonder the girls all loved him.

Dale chewed a lip, wondering what effrontery would come out of his mouth next. Jaral rolled up his sleeve and showed a bruise on his forearm. “This is what I got when I tried to best her the last time we trained. She’s accurate and swift with the sword, there’s no doubt of that.”

“Mmmm, but you’re lazy on your feet, Jaral Ap Xilandoryl,” Sa’r Conaril replied.

Jaral put a hand on his heart and looked overly offended, but everyone laughed and Dale could have hugged him. Trust Jaral to ease the tension.

Her eyes found Rhys, sitting next to her mother, his gaze as stoic as ever and Dale’s blush returned. She took a sip of her wine. She’d not said a word to Rhys yet. The last time they’d seen each other they'd kissed. And now if she were to speak with him her tongue would turn to stone, or worse, she’d say something entirely stupid. She glanced at him and his gaze hadn’t moved. She took a larger gulp of the wine.

Sa’r Conaril continued, “I look forward to the trials and seeing how you have advanced with the sword, Princess.” His eyes smiled with warmth and he raised his tankard.

Dale raised her wine in return. At least there was one skill she was confident in and she’d be able to prove her worth in some small way in the trials.

“Odd, I don’t remember any mention of this skill in the prophecy. Sorcery, yes. But not combat. How would you explain this, Princess?" Sa’r Atapole, the philosophy master asked. His silk philosopher's cap sat lopsided as usual.

Dale looked down. She had no idea how to explain it. And why was Sa'r Atapole asking anyway? He already knew about Dale and her skills, or lack thereof.

“As you know, Sa’r Atapole,” the queen spoke. “Dalendra has yet to visit the prophecy. You will remember it is customary for changelings to view it after they have been re-bonded.”

Sa’r Atapole’s eyebrows knitted close, making his little eyes even smaller. He was the only master among them with round ears – a Novu. Aside from Balak the horse master of course. But Balak hadn't attended the dinner. “Is this wise, your Majesty?" Atapole asked. "I assumed you’d have shown the princess long before now, given the circumstances.”

“I think it best that none of us assume too much, Sa'r. We all know our goal, but there are many little steps to be taken in order to achieve it. If we trip over our feet and fall, it will never be attained.” The queen’s eyes burned with something close to anger, wisps of red tendrils lashed in her aura for an instant before they were quelled. “Now that Dalendra is of age, she shall indeed visit the prophecy. But not before she is sacramentally re-bonded to the Borderlands. In any case, it's my expectation that viewing the prophecy will spark her latent powers.” The queen smiled, but Dale’s stomach knotted. What if her powers decided to remain latent forever? What if it was all a huge mistake and she wasn't the one the prophecy meant at all?

The main course was cleared by the servers – townsfolk who lived down in the city. Dale knew most of them and had befriended some. Everyone had their job to do in this world, but none were looked down on. Not like back on Earth where people were judged according to their social status. It was another thing Dale loved about the Borderlands. Besides, she usually helped clean up. Not tonight though.

A dwarven elder who Dale had never seen before cleared her plate.

"Thank you," Dale said.

The elder gave her a broad dimpled smile and bobbed in a quick curtsy. "Helgda Ap Borugal at yer service, yer worship."

Dale's eyes widened as the little woman waddled off. Despite being a princess, Dale had never been curtsied too. Her questioning gaze caught Jenna, also clearing, who gave Dale a shrug and whispered, "Helgda's come in with the other refugees from the north this morning. Says she wants to serve in the palace."

Dale nodded and gave Jenna a smile as she moved on then risked another glance at Rhys. His focus was now, thankfully, on Sa’r Aethyll, deep in conversation with the elder Sa’r Goriel on his left. Rhys’s hair still hung in dark brown curls that framed his perfect face. But there’d been some changes in him. The line of his shoulders had broadened, and he wore the shadow of a beard now along his defined jaw, which served to heighten his dark brooding nature. It was little wonder he’d been so popular at St. Nino’s. Dale’s heart fluttered just by looking at him. Could she really blame Prudence Feathertop for her crush back at school?

Dale opened her second sight; Rhys’s aura was a mess. An orange-red glow emanated from him, and was pierced haphazardly with blue and green spike-like shapes. Rhys was trying and failing to get his emotions under control. Something like gladness washed through her. At least she wasn't the only one battling emotions. But what was bothering Rhys? Perhaps he was worried about the ceremony to come. She snapped her vision back and wished the formalities would draw to an end so that the ceremony at midnight could get over and done with – when she and Rhys would be exchanged. Him, bonded back to Earth where he came from, and Dale to the Borderlands where she was born. Changelings no longer. Rhys turned his head and his black eyes found hers. A blush as hot and turbulent as wildfire swept under her skin. But a loud cheer made her break his gaze and turn, and she resisted the urge to fan her face.

An elaborate cake was presented for dessert. It took up a large section of the table and Dale’s mouth fell open. It was truly a work of art – a replica of the palace. White icing with delicate carvings of birds and forest scenes, exactly like the opulent facade of the palace, decorated the cake. Five levels of it stood almost as tall as a person, well a dwarf at least, and at the very top sat a single arched room with a small green crystal inside – the Emerald Tower where the prophecy was housed.

Dale looked at Ma’r Warmston whose smile was as wide as her large head. “Is this your work?”

The old dwarf nodded. “Aye.”

Dale shook her head. “It’s beautiful!”

“Want to know the secret?”

Dale nodded at the cookery master.

“Turnip flour,” she said, tapping the side of her nose.

Dale laughed.

“Ladies, gentleman.” A hush spread along the table as Dale's mother, Queen Anwyn of Arcadia stood and called for attention. “Tonight we are here to celebrate the coming of age of my daughter, the Princess Dalendra of Arcadia. Too long, she was away from me. But she was kept safe, just as we planned, and now that she has returned, I know I have won the best daughter a mother could wish for.”

Dale’s heart bloomed with warmth, still unaccustomed to such outward maternal love.

“And we are also here to celebrate the coming of age of Rhys. Rhys has proven to be a strong sorcerer, a wise leader and a firm friend. Tonight they shall be exchanged and re-bonded to their birth worlds. Dalendra to the Borderlands and Rhys back to Earth. At times, Rhys will have to return to his birth-world, but he will always be welcome back to the Borderlands.” The queen’s eyes glinted with moisture. Rhys had been a comfort to her; she had reared him as her own son.

“But now, let us forget our troubles and celebrate with Rhys and Dalendra by enjoying this marvelous cake.”

A cheer went up and Ma’r Warmston cut the cake into squares revealing the creamy sponge inside. Dale felt just a little regretful that the perfect palace had been destroyed. A shiver shook through her, and she wondered if it was an omen, but her magic was so unreliable, she couldn’t trust the feeling. Still, a sense of panic gripped her heart and a vision came to mind of the beautiful palace walls overrun with Unseelie monsters. But was it a vision from the past, or the future? She closed her eyes; the world seemed to spin.

“You like it, Princess?”

Dale blinked and looked down at Ma’r Warmston waiting expectantly for her opinion of the cake – a plate of it sat in front of her.

She had no appetite, but Ma’r Warmston was the last person she wanted to offend. She took a bite and closed her eyes again. It was a perfect balance of sweetness, a warm moist texture. “It’s delicious, Ma’r, thank you for baking it.”

A strum sounded and Liandrial stood at the other end of the table with his lute in his arms. “When you have finished your cake, follow me to the ballroom. My brothers and I would like to play a few tunes for your enjoyment.”

Dale wiped the crumbs from her mouth and rubbed her fingers on the napkin, careful not to ruin her new silk dress.

“And now we will have dancing. Do you think, Dale?” Agathina had walked by her side and grabbed her hand. A moment later they entered the lofty ballroom. Intricate woodcarvings made up each wall with hundreds of lanterns placed in crevices producing a soft golden light that reflected on the polished wood floor. The townsfolk all joined them; most had changed into their best clothes – gowns and tailored suits reminiscent of a Disney film. The free spirits popped into existence everywhere. Two gnomes danced together like a couple of drunken sailors until a bright green sylph tripped them up with her foot. A group of sprites jigged together in circle nearby, Esme wasn't among them.

Agathina clutched Dale's hand, her eyes wide. “It’s so beautiful!”

On the narrow stage Liandrial strummed his lute while his three brothers joined on their instruments and an upbeat tune began. The music had an instant effect on Dale. Miles away at the Verge a war was being waged at this very moment, and soon she would be re-bonded to the Borderlands. After, she’d be taken to see the prophecy which would bring its own series of consequences. But right now a rush of happiness radiated through her and she couldn’t help but tap her foot.

“May I have this dance?” Jaral stepped in front of them and Dale turned to smile at Agathina. It was a wonder the girl didn’t faint. But when Jaral extended his arm, it was Dale’s hand, rather than Agathina’s that he embraced with his own. Agathina’s smile morphed into a frown and Dale’s heart sank. Couldn’t Jaral see how much she liked him?

“Yes, of course, Jaral,” Dale responded politely, and Jaral swept her on to the floor, and the circle of sprites clapped.

The band picked up the tempo and others joined in the dancing.

Jaral held her close; she could feel the strength in his arms. His purple eyes sparkled as much as the amethyst buttons on his vest. He smiled and his fangs glinted in the candlelight.

“How does it feel to be the centre of everyone’s attention, my beauty?”

Dale shook her head. “You know I hate it, Jaral.”

“I do, but I like the blush you wear, it brings out the colour of your eyes. They are like the emeralds in your dress. So beautiful.”

She grinned, and he swung her around as she laughed. Jaral was always so flowery with his compliments. But he wasn’t truly attracted to her. He seemed to talk that way with most people, the girls anyway. She caught the look on Agathina’s face and a stab of guilt pricked her heart. Perhaps she should tell Jaral to ask Agathina for a dance next. Yes, that’s exactly what she would do. A knot of excitement tightened her belly at the thought of her friend finally in Jaral’s embrace.

When the song finished Dale opened her mouth to suggest he dance with Agathina, but Jaral placed a finger on her lips, silencing her, then held her hand fast and led Dale through an archway and outside to one of the many balconies that lined the exterior of the palace. This one was decorated with flowers and vines in the woodwork in which small silvery birds appeared to flutter by the flowers. The city sparkled beneath.

“I thought you could do with a respite from the prying eyes of the masters.” Jaral winked.

Dale looked over the city. She took a deep breath as her shoulders relaxed. Yes, it was good to have a moment away from everyone. The night air was cool, and the moon shone full and bright in the sky – a different moon to the one she knew back on Earth. It was larger and gave off a strong bluish-silvery glow. Down in the city there were fewer lights now that most people had gone to the Verge. War with the Unseelie remained a constant threat; everyone in the Borderlands knew how to wield a sword.

“I’ll be leaving with the council when they go,” Jaral said. His voice seemed different; no jesting for a change.

“I know,” Dale said, and sadness clouded her heart. She would remain here with her mother. All the other novices would be leaving with the masters when they returned to the Verge to rejoin the war. Officially, the novices had to undergo a series of trials in front of the masters before they left. But Dale knew who would pass the trials. And who would not.

“The news from the front is not good.”

Dale swallowed. “We’re not winning are we?” For the longest time they had managed to stall the enemy, and even take back lost ground, but Dale got a sense now that things had changed. She hadn’t had time to talk about it with her mother. The moment the last of the leaders had returned to Arcadia the queen declared a war council and had closeted the councillors away for hours of strategizing. Jaral was invited to the council meetings now. A master in waiting, just like Rhys.

Jaral shook his head. “The Unseelie are strong. They seem to be acquiring power from a mysterious source. We’ve had many casualties and they continue to gain ground.”

Sadness gripped Dale's heart. All those people. “And I’m supposed to be the answer, but I can’t even do the simplest of spells.” Her vision blurred. “I couldn’t even save Cat. How do people think I can save the Borderlands?”

“People don’t …” Jaral looked at her, sympathy heavy in his eyes.

“You were going to say that people don’t think that anymore.”

He looked down. “I’m sorry.”

Dale turned and placed her hands on the balustrade. “It’s all right. I don’t think I believe it either. But how am I supposed to convince my mother? She believes I’m the saviour, the one who will fight with some great font of power and save us all.”

Jaral stood behind her. The warmth of his aura radiated onto her back. He put his hands on her shoulder and gently spun her around. “Dalendra,” he said softly, and he looked down into her eyes.

Dale’s breath shuddered. She wasn’t accustomed to him being so serious.

“You must believe in yourself. Wait until you see the prophecy at least, then you will see you are meant to be here, and that you will lead us to our salvation. I still have faith in you.” His hand drew a line against her jaw and held her chin up slightly. “And may I request one boon of you?”

"What?” she whispered. A mix of nerves and passion seemed to swirl in her mind. Jaral was no longer the fun friend she knew and trusted, he was something else entirely, a man.

“One kiss. Let me be the first to kiss the woman.” He leant forward and his warm lips caressed her own. Dale tried to step back as shadowy thoughts of Agathina and Rhys urged her to stop this, but then a tingling erupted in her belly, her chest, her knees, and she suddenly felt breathless. Jaral’s hand cupped her neck and before she knew it, she was leaning into his kiss. His lips, so full, so warm. Her loneliness dimmed as it never had before.

“Dale, oh!”

Dale pulled back. Agathina stood at the doorway. Her mouth open, eyes alarmed. Dale stepped away from Jaral. “No,” she whispered. So many times her friend had confided in her. Agathina had been in love with Jaral for so long and here was her best friend betraying her.

Agathina’s shocked expression converted to a snarl as she looked over them. “Your mother says it's time.” She turned and left without a word.

“Agathina, wait!”

But Jaral grabbed Dale’s hand and spun her back. “Thank you,” he said, “I shall treasure that always.”

They stood in the throne room. A dais held the simple wooden throne made of detailed leaf carvings. Different timbers had been used for each individual leaf giving a sense of colour and depth only matched by the forest floor in autumn. A chandelier of glass blown in the shape of leaves hung above and gave off a dim golden light, like morning sunshine. Rhys and Dale faced each other on the mosaic of the moon, in the centre of the throne room. From this distance, Dale could see a new scar on Rhys's cheek. A battle wound? Rhys held his gaze, and Dale tried to return his stare but her eyes betrayed her, flicking to the familiar faces in the circle around them – the councillors, elders and masters, Jaral and Agathina whose confused expression would not leave her face. A hot wire of guilt wound through her when Dale thought of the kiss moments before. Why had she let it happen?

Dale’s emotions churned and a queasiness gripped her stomach. Tensions pressed heavily now. The hope of her mother; the doubts of everyone else. Jaral’s kiss. Agathina’s hurt. The way Rhys’s eyes didn’t move from her. It all weighed down, and the idea of running off to go sailing in Joy seemed very appealing. She wished Cat were here, she wished Ness were here. Suddenly, her sprite appeared behind Rhys. Esme jumped on the spot in her usual way, purple strands of hair bouncing as she clapped her hands. At least someone was happy.

“Friends,” her mother’s voice filled the space of the throne room as effortlessly as a summer’s breeze as she took her seat on the throne. “It is time for us to make the exchange."

Dale took a deep breath. Her mother had warned her she might experience strange emotions, and even physical consequences like nausea. She had to prove she could stomach this at least.

The moon shifted into place in the glass of the domed roof above and the queen lifted her arms. “Aerem, ignem, terram, aquam, aether. Secundo, spiritus est. Et pro quo mutatum est incipere!”

Dale’s second sight opened and she saw through to another plane – the true realm. A wind whipped at her hair, and Dale walked through a murky fog. Light flew in gusts like water, or the spray from her boat. Images flew past – Victoria, the woman who she thought was her mother back on Earth, her twin sisters and her brother Benny. Her heart ached when she saw Benny's face, she'd truly loved him – but they were Rhys’s family now. The iron gates of St Nino’s school and Prudence with her plastic friends. An image of Gareth and Cat sailing on Joy. Tears formed and she blinked them back. She had to keep walking; this was all she knew.

An owl flew past, and then a shadow appeared in the wind. She walked toward it. Rhys. His eyes burned in their usual way and an image came to her of the time when he’d kissed her. Or was it Jaral? Rhys stopped looking and walked past, the fog enveloping him swiftly.

And then everything changed.

She stood in a field of daisies. She knew this place. It was in the Borderlands, on the very edge of their boundary. The Forbidden Forest – a place that belonged to the First, and Dale had an urge to enter, but like all Seconds, and Thirds, she was forbidden entry. Even if she wanted to explore the forest, the shields would stop her from entering. Still her feet carried her toward it. Her toes gripped the soft daisy flowers and moved her closer.

The trees grew clearer. They were very old, their gnarled and twisted branches filled the canopy. Her heart pumped fast, with fear and joy, and she wanted to go on. She was at the border, at the very spot where the shields surged like a vast mirage. She paused. If she were to go in, she’d be breaking the laws set by the First, but she couldn’t stop moving forward. The shields obscured her view, like hazy glass, but something lurked beyond. Perhaps a deer. The mirage moved again and now the shadow seemed more like a man. Dale’s hand reached out to touch it, and everything turned to white before sleep and dreams and darkness took her.


The Borderlands: War will be available for purchase in a matter of days! In the meantime, be sure to add it to your TBR list over a Goodreads.


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