For any of you that have been patiently waiting to read a few chapters of this novel I won’t shut up about, you’re in luck! Of Blood and Briar is moving right along, and I’ve got enough written that I can finally share some of it with you.
Behold, the first two chapters of my next standalone adult fantasy novel, Of Blood and Briar.
Please note – this is an early first draft. Things will change. Edits will be made.
Content warning: Alcoholism, domestic violence, adult language.
CHAPTER 1 – THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Shortly before my fourteenth birthday, the small village of Calderon came alive with excitement. Whispers circulated through the small town like a plague, spreading from person to person until the only thing the villagers seemed able to talk about was the arrival of our King, Amadis Rastus. He was traveling south, showing off the lands to a foreign delegate, and was set to spend a night on the outskirts of our humble village.
Calderon was nothing special, a small dot on the map you’d miss if you blinked. It hugged the Gulf of Arista and only survived due to the plentiful bounty of fish and crab hauled out of the sea to be traded to cities far bigger than ours. However, on the long winding coastal roads, it was a comfortable stop for the weary, but it wasn’t often we had visitors, and rarer still that we hosted the king of Efraymir himself.
I was still just a boy, too young to truly understand the excitement, to comprehend the importance of such a visit. What I knew of our village was that it perpetually smelled of salt and fish, that it was quiet and peaceful, and that suddenly it was filled with a restless energy that had infected everything.
“Calder, are you excited?” my mother, Isabel, asked one night. She sat by me at the table, holding a squirming baby in her arms, my sister, Neva. A tiny hand rose to grasp a lock of dark hair that had gotten within reach and she yanked down hard. My mother yelped and I stifled a laugh, not wanting to upset my father working nearby, his gnarled hands fussing over a pile of netting. I glanced to him nervously, to the half-empty bottle at his feet, a familiar dread squirming to life within my stomach. His cheeks were red, his brow furrowed, lips curled back in a grimace, but his dark eyes remained on his work.
“What do you mean?” I asked quietly, looking back to my mother. She arched a brow.
“King Rastus will be here tomorrow, remember?” she chided, her voice edged with annoyance. “You should consider yourself lucky. Some people go their entire lives without seeing the king. You should be excited that you get this opportunity. He’s an important man and you get to see him in person.”
I opened my mouth to reply but my father cut me off with a loud grunt. “Don’t fill his head with that horse shit, Isabel,” he demanded gruffly. “He’s useless enough as it is. And fuck King Rastus, the worthless bastard. What has he ever done for us this far south?”
The words struck me like a slap across the face and I winced, biting my tongue to stop the burning tears flooding my eyes. My mother had gone still, her lips drawn in tight as she glared at my father. She reached for my hand and gripped it tightly, thumb brushing across the top of my fingers with reassuring strokes.
My father looked up from the netting, the harsh lines of his face etched deep by the light from the flames flickering in the hearth. He was a rough man, shaped and molded by salt, and sand, and sea. Hours spent in the sun had brought out a warmth in his olive skin that could not be found in his eyes, and he stared at my mother coldly. He glanced to our clasped hands and his frown deepened. “If you’d quit coddling him, he might be of some fucking use to us.” He reached for the bottle at his feet and brought it to his lips, drinking deeply. The bitter smell of alcohol floated through the air, stinging my nose as I sucked in a shaky breath. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stood, mumbling curses as he tripped over the netting he’d been trying to fix.
His irritation was a storm cloud filling the room, stifling in its intensity, making it hard to breath. Fear churned in my gut, squeezing my lungs tightly as I looked for a way out, a way to escape his seething disappointment. My mother shoved Neva towards me. “Calder, why don’t you take your sister to your room, okay?” She was looking at me intently, pleading for my obedience, my silence. It was a look I’d grown accustomed to, a silent warning that my father was on the verge of teetering over a ledge he so often straddled.
I pulled Neva tightly against my chest and fled, keeping my eyes locked to the ground as I shuffled down the hall to my room. I closed the door as quietly as I could and tucked myself and Neva into the corner, not bothering to light a candle. I wanted to wear the dark like a blanket, to have it drown out the venomous words I knew I’d hear from the other side of the door, but being out of sight did not mean I was safe from his spite, from the damage those words could cause.
My mother had told me once that the day I was born was the proudest my father had ever been. He’d begged Vidalis for a boy, a son that he could take with him on the long voyages out at sea, a son to help support the family, a son that could be anything other than what I was – weak, scrawny, useless. I had too gentle a soul to stomach the work he did, barely able to stand the sight of a gutted fish or the feel of the ship as it bobbed in the waves. What use was I to a man that lived for the sea, that had placed all his hopes and dreams on having a son that could take over his legacy?
“You bore me an idiot, Isabel,” my father spat, his bitter words echoing down the hall. “A useless stupid idiot of a son.”
“Don’t say that,” she demanded, her voice trembling. “Calder is your son. Your son. Why can’t you just accept that? Why must you hate him? He’s just a boy!”
His laughter was a dagger straight through my heart and soul. “No. No, that is no son of mine. What good is he to me, huh? He’s too weak to support this family. He can’t work on the ship, he can’t fish, he can’t hunt. He can’t do anything. Would have been better off drowning the boy. And Neva too for all the good she’ll do us.”
The sound of a palm colliding with weathered skin made me wince. I sucked in a breath, held it in tight, held Neva tighter.
“You stupid fucking bitch.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, but I couldn’t close my ears, couldn’t escape the heavy thud of his fists, the pained whimpers of my mother, the shattering of a bottle, and the inevitable slamming of the front door as he fled into the night.
It felt like years before I heard the soft sounds of footsteps in the hall. My bedroom door creaked open and I heard her whisper my name. “Calder?”
“I’m here, mom.”
She sank down beside me in the dark, wrapped her arm around my shoulders, and pulled me close. I knew she was hurting, but I also knew she’d ignore it as she had time and time again, that she’d disregard her own pain in order to stave off mine. “I love you, Calder. You are everything to me, you know that? Everything.” She kissed the side of my face with a ferocity that broke through my hurt, a gentle salve for my wounded soul. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” I said, my voice breaking. I clung to her in the dark and wept; for her, for me, for the pain I’d caused our family.
Despite the hurt and the fear, I’ve longed for that night, longed to have my mother’s arms around me, the warmth of my sister pressed against my chest. I’ve longed to hear her whispered affections just once more before those words would be forever lost to fire and blood.
If only we’d known what lurked out in the vast sea, what shadows gathered, perhaps we would have cherished that moment more, would have held each other a little tighter.
But it was too late.
It was always too late.
CHAPTER 2 – THE BRIAR KING
From my perch atop a rocky cliff, I could see them winding across the landscape, a swirl of dark armor and fur clashing with the green and gold worn by King Rastus’ soldiers. Banners whipped back and forth violently in the strong breeze, a blur of greens and golds and vibrant reds, moving too fast to make out the symbols embroidered on them.
It was a small procession, nothing more than a dozen soldiers, a few carts overflowing with supplies, and some horses. Two men led the procession, but they were too far away to make out many details. It lacked the fanfare and gilded exuberance I had been expecting. With the way people in Calderon had talked, I’d half expected them to arrive riding horses made of gold. Still, I’d wanted to see them up close, to see what made our king so special that the people of Calderon could do nothing else but talk about him. I raced back down the hillside, my dark tangle of curls lashing my skin as I ran. I could taste salt on my lips, the breeze heady with the smells of the nearby sea, a strange mix of salt, and dirt, and decay.
The main thoroughfare was already clogged with people, their excited conversations filling the streets with a low buzzing hum. I darted between them, pushing my way through the crowds as I searched for the perfect spot to get a good look at the king. I spotted my mother on the opposite side of the road, rocking Neva as she chatted with an elderly woman that lived just a few doors down from us. That image of her standing in a flowing yellow dress, black curls carried by the wind, her bright smile filled with joy and warmth – it was an image that’d be forever burned into my mind.
She spotted me then, graced me with a wide smile. I was filled with such love for her, unable to imagine a world without her in it, and I smiled back, waving as I moved a little further up the road. I hunkered down at the feet of strangers, visitors from surrounding villages lured to the coast to the see the king. Waiting patiently is not a virtue gifted to the young so I rooted around, finding rocks and sticks to play with while I waited, the excited conversations taking place around me a soft buzz in my ears that I paid little attention to.
It wasn’t until I heard the clop of hooves and the creaking of wheels, the clanking of armor and the snap of banners in the wind, that I looked up. The two riders that had been leading the procession were close enough to see, and I watched them approach, eyes wide with wonder. The rider furthest from me was tall and lean, sitting straight in his saddle, surveying the gathered crowds with eyes the color of honey, his smile warm and welcoming. He wore a beautiful dark green doublet trimmed in gold, his cloak fanned out over the back of his horse, looking like dozens of fall leaves carefully stitched together. I could tell from the familiar colors alone that it was none other than King Amadis, but the man at his side was a mystery.
The rider closest to me was a giant of a man, all harsh lines and muscle. He wore dark brown armor lined with white fur that looked very out of place in our seaside village. He had a broad, bearded face and wide shoulders. His hair was dark, a strange bluish-black streaked with gray, but his skin was frightfully pale, as if he’d never seen the sun a day in his life. Icy blue eyes darted this way and that, looking over the crowds with a strange apprehension. I had not known it at the time, but I was staring at King Anlaf of Vermund.
Sitting in front of him, clinging to the saddle horn and looking fearfully at the crowds, was a boy about my age. He had the same features as his father, dark hair and light skin, but his eyes were black as the night sky and he had the gangly build of a boy yet grown, all limbs and little substance.
They rode by slowly, Amadis waving cheerfully while Anlaf gave cursory nods to the people of Calderon. I locked eyes with the boy riding with King Anlaf, and he stared at me with pointed interest, as if I were a strange creature he meant to study. I flashed him a smile and he quickly looked away, turning his attention back to the road ahead, chin held high.
I stayed for a while, watching the procession pass, but when I realized they had no intention of stopping, I slipped away to find something more interesting to do. Barefoot, I ran through town and down the hill until gritty sand shifted beneath my feet, wedged itself between my toes. The wind had died down, giving my tousled locks a break from the onslaught. The crashing waves were a dull gray, the sand a harsh white, littered with driftwood, rocks, and seashells that had been dragged to shore during the high tide.
I combed the beach, finding anything of interest – a green stone streaked with white, a few interesting shells, a scraggly piece of driftwood – and hauled my finds further down the beach. I spent time building sandcastles, knocking them down only to rebuild them after they’d fallen. It was only when a small bright purple crab went by that I stopped. I got to my feet in a hurry, chasing after the crab as it scuttled down the beach. I caught up with it and bent down, carefully picking it up and bringing it back to my ruined castle. With my foot, I made a large depression in the sand, plenty big for the crab to move around in, and set it down. I watched it, enthralled by the way it moved, by its many legs and small, but ferocious, pincers. Each time it tried to climb out of the hole, I’d gently redirect it, pushing it back the other way with a piece of driftwood.
“What is that?” a shrill voiced asked. I glanced over my shoulder, surprised to see the same dark-haired boy that had been on the horse. He was staring at the purple crab, dark eyes wide with wonder. An older boy trailed after him, looking about nervously as he approached.
I looked to the crab, quickly redirected it, and turned my eyes back to the boy. He didn’t look much older than me, but his clothing was finer than anything I’d ever worn. It was obvious by the way he carried himself that he thought he was someone important. He strode forward with purpose, stopping at the edge of the pit I’d formed, hands on his hips. “It’s so odd looking. What is it?” he asked again, glancing at me with obvious distaste.
“It’s a crab,” I answered, confused. It hadn’t occurred to me that someone might have never seen one, that the ocean wasn’t part of daily life for others. “Have you never seen one?” I asked curiously.
“A crab,” he said slowly, tasting the words. “Dren, come over here,” the dark-haired boy yelled, waving his friend over. The older boy approached cautiously, tugging down his sleeves as he crept closer, casting cautious glances between me and the roaring ocean. He was blonde, thin, and freckled, his skin much lighter than mine. “Look at this thing.”
“Henrik, we really ought to be heading back. This is foolish. We shouldn’t be here.”
“Oh, shut up. My father won’t even notice. Too busy with his kingly duties,” Henrik scoffed. Before I could comprehend what he was doing, his hand darted out and he grabbed the crab, hoisting it out of the pit.
“Carefu-” I was cut off by a shriek as the crab’s pincer clamped down on Henrik’s finger. He cursed and flailed, flinging the crab to the ground. It hit the sand and righted itself, scuttling away as fast as its legs could carry it.
It wasn’t fast enough.
“Stupid creature,” Henrik spat. He chased after the crab, his face red with anger. “Stupid, stupid.”
“H-hey,” I called. “What are you doing? Leave it alone.”
“Teach you to hurt a prince.” A fine leather boot was raised high and brought down with terrifying ferocity as I watched, horrified by what I was seeing. There was an audible crunch as his heel smashed into the shell of the crab, crushing it into the sand. A pincer reached out, twitched, and fell still.
I sat in silence as the realization of what he’d done washed over me, the realization that he’d just killed a creature simply because he could, because it had slighted him. I was flooded with an uncharacteristic anger, an emotion that I had long stifled, and I leapt towards the prince with a growl.
My sudden rage threw him off-guard and as I slammed into him, we both tumbled to the sand in a flurry of limbs and flying fists. Henrik was shrieking again, screaming for help as I pummeled him. I was too wrapped up in my fit of rage to hear the words of warning being thrown at me, to hear the approaching footsteps.
It was only when a rock smashed into my brow, knocking me onto my back, that I returned to my senses. My head was spinning as I propped myself up on my elbow, and through squinted eyes I could see Dren standing over me, holding the green and white rock I’d found in the sand, streaked with blood. My blood.
I swiped my fingers across the expanse of skin above my right eyebrow and my fingers came away drenched in red. My mouth opened, closed, opened again, and suddenly I was a fish fighting for air, bleeding out as I struggled to move, to speak. I could see them talking, could see their lips move, but their words were lost to me, a dull ringing filling my head and drowning out all other sound. I watched through blurred vision as they retreated, kicking up sand as they left me bleeding on the beach.
I managed to stagger to my feet, stomach lurching as it threatened to upend my breakfast. My limbs were growing weak, my vision dimming as I forced myself to take a step. Blood was soaking the edges of my shirt, sliding down my chest in warm rivulets. I became overly aware of the gritty white sand stuck to my blood covered fingers and the need to wash them off scratched just beneath the surface of my panic. I tried to speak, tried to call for help, but my voice had turned to a whimper. I managed a few more steps before collapsing, and I watched as my blood turned the white sand around my head a nightmarish crimson.
If I’d known that day the impact Henrik would have on my life, if I’d known the pain he’d cause, the monster he would become, I would have taken that rock in hand and ended him while I’d had the chance. I would have raised it up high and let it fall, descending again and again until nothing remained but blood-soaked sand.
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