Book 4 Preview

Claire hit the ground hard.

It was the second time it had happened. She’d fallen asleep while atop her horse, Azra, and well, her balance was never the best. Bruises already formed on her sides and she hadn’t even seen any action yet. Nothing notable anyway. She was just so tired. The mark and its effects on her were getting stronger. The pendant seemed to barely keep her magic at bay anymore. Her time was running short.

It had already been weeks since she left the palace. She’d made a stop at the Haven to leave Farron’s horse there, hoping that it would be the first place he would stop coming back to Derenan. To say that Maria and her daughter weren’t exactly thrilled to see her and not Farron was an understatement. It was definitely one of the more uncomfortable moments in recent memory. And she’d once faced two Beasts of Old… She’d made a hasty retreat from the Haven, not wanting to expose herself to their stares any longer than she had to, or them to Bahkar and the multitude of other people after her.

She’d crossed the Great Rift a few days before. Only this time, she’d admired the view— from a safe vantage point of course. She may have gotten a little braver, but not about heights. She still didn’t like those. She’d gawked at the enormity of it, the vastness. It was amazing that magic could cause such destruction and permanently alter the very earth. It had given her pause about her mission. Was restoring magic the right thing to do if all it led to in the past was destruction and oppression of humans? Would history repeat itself? Although there may be some selfishness in her reasoning, the land was dying and was about to erupt in chaos once again without magic. At least with magic everyone would have a fighting chance. Hopefully. She had to believe she was doing the right thing. Or else why bother?

The days were colder now. She’d bundled up tightly in her jacket and a thick woolen cloak from the palace. And they were only growing colder on her northern trek. Uru Baya was high in the Solinian Mountains and most likely freezing. But it was where she had to go for answers… and hope.

Claire slowly got up from the hard dirt road and dusted off her clothes. Her joints were stiff from the cold. She groaned as her body protested with pain. Why did things hurt more in the cold? Azra snorted, having stopped when she’d fallen. What a good horse. Claire stroked her forehead.

“Sorry girl,” Claire said in a soft tone.

The sun was sinking toward the horizon. The day was almost over. She’d need to set up camp soon and start a fire. Though that last task was much easier these days with magic. She wondered what Farron and the other Star Children would say if they saw what she used her mighty magical powers for. But it was much handier than trying to use a flint or other means.

Claire smiled as she led Azra from the road into the trees. It had been a lonely few weeks. Her only companions lately seemed to be the scenarios she’d dreamed of in her mind, her memories, and a horse. Though, she supposed it could be worse. She’d definitely had worse travel mates…

After brushing down Azra and starting a fire, Claire sat before the warm flames, clutching her cloak tight around her. There was a small village just before reaching Uru Baya. She shouldn’t be more than a few more days away from there. And then?

She sighed. She was putting a lot of her hopes in Uru Baya. But what if she didn’t find any answers there? What would she do then? Just how would the mark consume her? It was a fate she was not looking forward to, that was for sure. She shook her head of the thoughts. She had to think more positively. She wouldn’t be able to do any of this if she let herself sink down into the deep dark hole of despair.

Soon she found her eyelids growing heavy, even after her horse-top nap. She was too tired to even worry about her safety, sleeping alone under the stars in the woods. But the darkness swallowed her up before she could do anything about it. Just like the night before and the one before that. She supposed if anyone wanted her, they would have gotten her already. Besides, there was always her powers. The world didn’t seem so scary when she had a way to protect herself.

The village of Samota was really more a small gathering of buildings. A sort of hub for the local farms and other even smaller villages in the area. There was one inn that doubled as a tavern and stables. A small market and a spattering of other buildings completed the village. Claire’s breath escaped her like smoke, though her insides were anything but warm. The air was thinner here, making her a little lightheaded. Suspicious glances from the villagers were the first hint that they didn’t get many visitors. Especially lone women. Claire took a deep breath and proceeded to the inn, Azra in tow. She clutched the small purse at her side. She had some gold thanks to Lianna’s insistence, not that Claire protested too much. She didn’t have a lot to her name these days.

After searching for and waking the stable boy napping in a bale of hay, who’d seemed surprised at a visitor, she entered the inn, stomping the dirt from her boots. More wary eyes settled on her, but her diminutive, innocent appearance worked in her favor at times. This being one of them. What could she do anyway? Everyone went about their business, their expressions turning to ones of curiosity. The place was simple, reminding her of the inn she had stayed at back in Lendon, only much less rowdy and crowded. Heavy wooden beams supported the walls and crisscrossed the ceiling. A stone hearth took up most of the back wall, filling the room with a hazy smoke. And best of all, it was warm. She could feel her extremities slowly start to defrost.

Claire walked up to the bar and the old man behind the counter eyed her up and down as he wiped dry a wooden mug.

“A new face,” he said, his voice gruff. His thick gray moustache was trim and tidy, matching his hair. “Not many of those around here.”

She didn’t know what to say to that. She figured the less they knew, the better. His eyes drifted down to her neck where the mark peeked above the cloak. Curiosity was there, but Claire distracted him, saying, “I would like a room, if you have any available.” And she hoped that they did, or else she’d be joining the stable boy in the hay. Claire brushed her cloak aside to show her purse.

The man glanced down and nodded, not asking any questions, much to her relief. He slid a key across the bar. “Two gold,” he said.

Claire’s jaw dropped. “That’s absurd!” she nearly shouted, drawing attention to her once more. “One at most.” Even that was exorbitant. Highway robbery is what it was.

“Where else you gonna sleep?” he shot back, his voice laced with amusement.

Claire contemplated the stables, even if it was to prove a point. She started to turn away, lamenting her stubbornness, when the man sighed.

“Fine,” he said. “One gold.”

She had to stifle the slight smile on her face before turning back to him. Though really, she was just relieved. The stables smelled. She dug in her purse and set the gold piece on the counter. Even if it was still too high for such simple lodgings.

“You weren’t really gonna to sleep out there, were ya?” The man gave her a skeptical look.

“You weren’t really going to charge two gold for this, were you?” She motioned around her. The man’s smug look faltered. “A hot meal and bath better be included.”

The man snorted, amused. “Yeah yeah, off with ya then.”

Claire took the key and headed for the stairs in the back, lugging her heavy pack, filled with what little she did own. The number two was engraved in the brass key. Claire found it at the end of the short hall on the second floor. It was small and dark and definitely not worth the price, but it would have to do. A window above the bed revealed the gray skies outside and a pretty view of the mountains beyond, white tipped and imposing.

After she set her pack at the end of the bed, she sprawled out across it. Its lumps dug into her, but she was too tired to care. The hike up the mountain had been exhausting, even though Azra did most of the work. Her eyes were just drifting closed when a knock came at the door.

With a sigh, Claire hoisted herself off the bed and answered it, preparing for the crotchety owner, but was surprised to find the stable boy doing double duty as other help. Guess it was hard to come by in such a place.

He held up a flint and some logs.

She opened the door wider to let him in. She hadn’t even noticed the small fireplace on the right wall. He silently lit the fire, making the task look way too easy. He gave her a slight smile on the way out in a sort of bashful manner. After he was gone, Claire sat on the edge of the bed and took out her purse. She counted the coins she had left. Even though Lianna had been generous, she would have to be more careful and make it last.

Her stomach growled thinking of the hot meal the owner might or might not provide. There was only one way to find out…

After a rather unsatisfying meal of bland stew, Claire journeyed back out into the cold. She shouldn’t have expected much, she supposed, but at least it was warm and filling. Still, it was a departure from her usual fare these days. Across the street a few stalls were set up for farmers and other tradesmen to sell their wares. After her last stretch, she needed to restock her supplies. Who knew where the journey ahead would lead?

After buying some cheese and a loaf of bread, Claire was browsing the rest of the sparse market when a hand grabbed her by the wrist. Instinctively, her free hand went to the dagger at her side, the food falling into the dirt. Her heart racing, she faced the grabber. Then froze. Relief washed over her instantly. The shadow of a man was tall and menacing, but Claire knew better.