Hey lovely fans!
At the beginning of August, I decided Blackmark (The Kingsmen Chronicles #1) needed a serious facelift.
Since it was my first major publication back in 2016, it needed some re-editing attention for the language and pacing to be more in line with the other books in the saga now.
Please enjoy a sneak peek below of the fully re-edited first chapter.
I hope to have the rest of the book re-released on all major retailers by early September.
Onward to Glory!
PROLOGUE – ELOHL
￼Elohl den’Alrahel darted through the night, his black cowl raised against the windswept silence of the city. Doubling his pace as he slipped through the darkness, his doeskin boots whispered over the cobblestones as choked alleys loomed around him; hushed streets in the King’s City of Lintesh. The plaque of an alehouse creaked in a snowmelt wind, the rim of the sky lightening against the glacier-shrouded mountains. Dawn was coming, and Elohl’s stomach clenched in a bilious knot as his tense heartbeat filled his ears.
He was running out of time.
His people were running out of time.
Elohl moved on, faster, blending into the shadows as he absorbed the night. With the wyrric senses that were his birthright, a spectral imprint of the city formed in a vast sphere around him as he moved. Scents of piss-pot and jasoune marked a whorehouse; the banging of a shutter spoke of an abandoned home. Dodging a barrel by a tingle to his feet, he avoided a low roofline by pressure near his face. A void at the end of the alley loomed ahead and Elohl had a sensate picture of towering stone – his destination. Approaching, his heart raced as the outer wall of Roushenn Palace coalesced before him.
The palace of the King of Alrou-Mendera.
Elohl’s fingertips touched the wall’s darkness, hacked out of the southern face of the Kingsmount. Coarse, Roushenn’s blue byrunstone granite had been carved by wind and rain, snow and ice over eons, leaving plenty of holds. Climbing by the same instinct that allowed him grace in the darkness, Elohl’s fingers and resinous tips of his boots found purchase. His fingers tingled as he ascended; an image of cracked bones lanced his consciousness and Elohl passed that hold by. His foot throbbed as he stepped to a lip – urging him toward a ledge strong enough to support his weight.
The byrunstone wall yielded its secrets until Elohl was soon up and over. Sensing no sentries inside its reaches, Elohl dropped the last length, landing in thick vegetation. The nighttime gardens were drowned in the whisper of ferns, and Elohl soon found the palace gardener’s entrance, just as Olea had prepared him. Sidling into the shadows of the stone arch, Elohl removed Elsthemi-steel picks from a pouch in his leathers. His touch was softer than featherwisp as he eased his tension tool and pick into the door’s iron lock. He was nearly done when a pair of Palace Guardsmen crunched by upon the gravel walk. Their eyes swept the darkness and Elohl froze in the shadows, fear lancing his gut.
Discovery would mean a stint in the dungeons for invading the King’s fortress tonight.
But Elohl’s charcoal garb was meant for the night, and the guards passed on. The lock clicked and Elohl sighed in through the door like a shroud, his insides tight as tripwire. Torches guttered in iron sconces, licked by ghastly currents in the hall. His breath echoed in the vaulted gables, his hands trembling as if the nightwind blew through him rather than through the vaulted hall.
Inhaling, Elohl took a measured breath to control his emotions. Only his success could halt the march that his people, the Alrashemni Kingsmen, had begun this day. For centuries, the Kingsmen had sworn loyalty to Alrou-Mendera. Elite warriors and peacekeepers for the King, they were the strength and heart of the nation. But in a few hours they would arrive here at the palace, clad for battle to show their outrage at an unfounded accusation. A King’s Summons that demanded each and every one of them re-swear fealty at Roushenn Palace.
Or get charged with High Treason and be put to death.
Received three days ago, the Summons accused the Kingsmen of unspecified crimes. It was an unprecedented edict from an untrusting King – though King Uhlas den’Ildrian had previously trusted the Kingsmen his entire reign. Charging the Kingsmen with treason was insanity, and Elohl tried not to think about what would happen if his people arrived here in a few hours, clad for war as they demanded explanation.
Or if the King ordered his Palace Guard to arrest his nation’s peacekeepers.
Bloodshed could be the only result – bloodshed that Elohl hoped to prevent by his actions tonight. As he moved down the byrunstone hall, he steadied his purpose. Down a corkscrewing stair, he twisted through the labyrinthine bowels of the palace, orchestrated to hopelessly confuse invaders. It was this part of his task his sister Olea had quizzed him on ruthlessly in the past three days, and Elohl moved swiftly through the torch-lit shadows, every turn committed to memory.
At last, he arrived at a pair of massive ironwood doors deep inside the mountain. Taking in their imposing height, he absorbed their carved tableau illuminated by a nearby torch. A stylized wolf and dragon curled around each other, locked in battle and ringed in fire. Snarling with hackles raised, the wolf’s fangs were sunk into the dragon’s neck, while the serpentine dragon pierced the wolf’s belly with its talons. Though both tore at each other, the tableau’s circle was perfectly balanced – as if neither were winning. Awed, Elohl stood a moment, his skin tingling strangely. No one knew what the wolf and dragon signified, nor why certain places in Alrou-Mendera were inscribed with the image.
An ancient sigil from a people long lost.
With a shiver, Elohl roused himself. Setting his attention to the iron lock, it clicked open to his picks, revealing a looming black maw. The Deephouse was a taproom for servants and guards, and Elohl’s nostrils caught the acrid spice of hopt-ale and the syrupy scent of mellon-blume wine as he stepped inside. But the darkness of the stone cavern wasn’t absolute. Elohl froze in the shadows, and setting his back against a stand of kegs, he peered toward the byrunstone bar. The glow of a lantern confirmed his suspicions.
Someone else was here tonight – and they shouldn’t have been.
Four figures stood around the lantern upon the polished bar, their leathers roughshod in the way of mercenaries. Cowled with their heads down, they conversed in murmurs, the edge of a knife catching the light as one gestured at a vellum spread upon the bar. Elohl cursed internally. His destination, the highwall in the furthest depths of the cavern, could only be accessed by the natural stone arch behind the bar. To get to the stair-access, he had to maneuver past the nighttime agitators. Determination snarled through him and Elohl edged along the kegs, his senses tingling. Moving out of the deepest shadows, he kept low – creeping towards the stone stairs.
“Ho, there! Halt!”
A war-roughened voice ripped the darkness and Elohl froze, his pulse thundering in his ears as heads turned. A burly man cursed and pulled a knife as a slender weasel of a fellow hurried to roll up the vellum. But the laughter of a woman came then, blonde hair shining from beneath her thieves’ hood as her leather-buckled figure rounded the bar. The dry-sour scent of cider reeked from her as she sidled close, along with a cloying jasoune perfume as she reached up and uncowled Elohl – her smile lecherous.
“Yurgas! You’ve scared the poor Penitent half to death!” Her blue eyes glimmered as she put a black glove to Elohl’s face, then slid her hand down his neck, stroking his jerkin’s high collar. “You’re built like a heron, lad! So slender and tall. And with such lovely storm-grey eyes. What a waste in a Jenner!”
Elohl blinked, realizing she thought he was of the priesthood, the Jenner Penitents that brewed the concoctions which filled the alehouse. He adopted the ruse, placing one foot behind the other and dropping into a bow, two fingers to his lips in the manner of a Jenner. “My Lords. My Lady. Blessings upon you in this late hour.”
He felt the agitators ease. But if they had ever truly looked at a Penitent, they would have known the young man before them wore no Jenner garb. Elohl’s long charcoal leather jerkin was quadrant-split for fighting, with blackened steel buckles etched with the Kingsmount and Stars. His hood was oiled leather rather than cloth, flowing seamlessly into his jerkin to keep off rain. Even though he’d not worn his sword across his back tonight, only dual longknives on his harness, to politicos his Alrashemni Kingsman garb would have been unmistakable. But Kingsmen were a rare enough sight across the nation that meeting one never happened for some folk. So these brigands believed as they wanted to believe, and saw a Jenner Penitent walking his Mercy in the early hours.
“Here lad.” The swarthy man behind the bar growled. “Have a pull and go. Bar’s closed.”
A thick glass tumbler slid across the polished stone of the bar, straight to Elohl’s fingertips. His nostrils caught the tang of distilled cider and he knew his best option was to play the ruse. With a nervous chuckle, Elohl picked up the tumbler just like a Penitent might if discovered coming down for a drink in the dead of night. “Just a taste, I suppose.”
“Not so pure after all!” The woman laughed, urging the tumbler to his lips. “Have a sip, lad.”
Elohl gazed at the amber liquid, wondering if it would be his last drink this side of Aeon’s Oblivion; or if it would be a mourning for his kin who might see oblivion today. Either way, a drink would ease his nerves. Tossing it back, Elohl clapped the tumbler to the bar with a grimace. Jeers greeted his buzzing ears as he fought to not cough from fumes screaming up his throat.
“Three whole pulls! He drinks like the High Brigade!” The man behind the bar laughed. “Jenner sure can keep his liquor.”
“Ain’t no Jenner.”
A battle-rough voice spoke again from the darkness, and the place in Elohl’s gullet where the cider had passed cooled in terror as he realized his ruse was forfeit. His gaze flicked to the shadows; to the man who had marked him. Elohl’s skin tingled, feeling the man’s predatory gaze like a war commander, and he forced himself to pin the mercenary-commander with a gaze as stern as his father’s. It was a Kingsman’s stare, and the man hesitated in the darkness. But though Elohl had his father’s strong, sinewed build, at twenty years old he was only a Seventh Seal – unfinished. He hadn’t the experience of commanding men to war; he hadn’t matched his skills against a hundred enemies yet.
The mercenary-commander saw it. Stalking into the light, the man’s bear-thick bulk tensed, roped scars upon his left cheek twisting up into a malicious snarl. “If he’s a Jenner, he won’t fight me. If he’s a Kingsman, he will.”
“Now, Yurgas! The lad couldn’t be a Kingsman!” The blonde spoke as her gaze flicked uncertainly between them.
“Oh, he’s a Kingsman.” The brute’s blue eyes were cold as iron upon Elohl. “See that pride in his gaze, that ramrod spine? Pride and training. And Kingsman Greys, even tooled with the right sigils.”
“They’s on to us?” The skinny fellow rasped urgently. “You said they got no clue what’s in for ‘em tomorrow night—!”
“Still your tongue or lose it!” The commander barked.
“I only thought—”
“You didn’t think, so shut your hole. This one’s barely of age, ain’t you boy? Just shy of your Blackmark, scared and pissing yourself.” A cruel smile twisted the commander’s lip as his iron-blue gaze perused Elohl. “Your kin would be here carving out our hearts right now if they knew you were caught in a devil’s lair listening to privileged information. But you’re alone, aren’t you? The Kingsmen don’t know what’s in store for them tomorrow. And so they’ll come to the palace in a few hours, just as you’ve come tonight, without backup. Meaning that your presence here is happenstance. And no one will ever know what happened to you.”
Suddenly, the mercenary-commander lunged – a dagger in his meaty hand. A ripping sensation seared Elohl’s neck and he twisted, the slash cutting only air where his neck had been. Launching to the wall behind the bar, Elohl scurried up as the marauders cursed. A tingle of instinct rippled Elohl and he dropped his right hand just before a knife hit the stone where his hand had been. Regaining his grip, he climbed like the eloi lizards for which he was named – as more knives went whirring upwards.
“Skewer him, dammit!” The commander rasped. “The Lothren will send us to Halsos if tomorrow’s events play wrong because of a single lad!”
Below, two mercenaries began climbing, their scrabbling peppered with grunts and oaths. Though the commander’s words chilled Elohl’s veins with ice, he missed no holds as he angled up the highwall. Cursing himself for missing critical information about the Kingsmen’s fate this day, sparks caught his attention far below and Elohl scrabbled faster, realizing what was about to happen.
“Heave! Hit him, dammit!”
With roars of glee, the mercenaries sent liquor-bottles with flaming spouts whizzing through the air. Smashing upon the highwall, blazing spirits doused the stone to Elohl’s right. Gouts of fire surged as another bottle smashed to his left. Elohl’s only option was up as a third bottle smashed below his foot. His lungs pumped air as smoke choked him, but he was above their throws now. Opening his sensate sphere, Elohl felt for the high corner where the item he’d come for was supposed to be, the item Ghrenna had seen in her vision.
A talisman that had the power to save the Kingsmen from whatever was coming.
Moving with his senses, Elohl found the gap in the wall Ghrenna had described, just below a rift that led out to the night. Anchoring with fingers and toes, Elohl tucked his nose to his shoulder so he could breathe as he reached a hand into the gap. Touching a wooden box, he fished it to the edge. Coughing as smoke burned his eyes, Elohl snugged a finger under the metal clasp and flicked the lid open. His fingers touched a moth-eaten velvet lining, then a filigreed object. Retrieving the item, he squinted at it in the cavern’s red light. An ornate metal clockwork the size of a medallion gleamed in his palm – layered with precious metals like a puzzle, with thirteen spokes like the Jenner Sun.
Elohl’s gut dropped as his chest compressed. The box was just as Ghrenna had described it, but the object was all wrong. Look for a ring of star-metal, of a dragon fighting a wolf around a drop of blood, Ghrenna had told him three days ago, her voice hollow from her trance. But this wasn’t a star-metal ring at all. And as Elohl held it, a sensation suddenly speared him like the clockwork was burning. Lancing up his arm like fire ants, it drove through his body, knifing his heart. Elohl gave a violent tremor, nearly losing his grip upon the wall as his heart clenched. His hand spasmed into a fist around the clockwork as a blistering rage surged through him. But as quickly as the feeling overpowered him, it fled.
And then, the clockwork broke.
A cry escaped Elohl, the despair of a man with all the gods against him. Quickly, he opened his hand but the damage was done; the item was in pieces. Smoke was thick and Elohl choked, his throat burning, his limbs weak from whatever the clockwork had done to him. A mercenary scrabbled for purchase beyond the flames and stuffing the clockwork into his belt pouch, Elohl lifted his chin, smelling the sweet night breeze beyond the smoke. Muscles of his torso and thighs bunching, Elohl hurried up through the rift in the top of the cavern, and emerged upon the roof of the palace.
Doubling over in the grey-opal dawn, Elohl coughed hard, eyes watering from burning vapors as his limbs trembled. Curses pursued him and Elohl hurried across the palace roof, vaulting boulders tumbled from the mountainside. Suppressing his anguish, he coughed hard as he ran. He had to return the item he’d found to Ghrenna; perhaps her vision had changed in the hours he’d been away.
Perhaps a new one had come to explain this unexpected turn.
That thought was all he had to spur him as he ran. Next to a grand dome, Elohl backed over toes first, finding rough handholds where the carving-out of the palace met the Kingsmount. It was hundreds of lengths to the ground from the Upper Tiers, but he made his way steadily down as he managed his breath and fatigue. A tingle in his foot led him left, a pulse in his other foot led him right, until he found a crevasse that got him down to the paving stones behind a weaver’s shop. Dawn blushed the eastern peaks of the Kingsmountains rose and gold.
But the lightening sky could not brighten Elohl’s despairing heart.
Picking up his feet, Elohl ran. A dark shadow melted to his side as he streaked through the dawn city, his twin sister Olea keeping easy pace. His twin was a soothing balm to his torpid emotions, entering his wyrric sphere like sunlight upon a frozen lake. Darting through alleys, Olea’s shadowy form leaped benches and ducked awnings with serenity, longknives flashing in her hands as she ran.
Elohl’s twin was as fine as her blades, her slender height honed into effortless grace as she spoke with unruffled breath, “Did you get it, Elohl? Was it there?”
“No.” Elohl didn’t break stride though his breath was ragged. “The box was there, but not the star-metal ring. This was there instead.”
Ducking into an alley that seeped with the acrid tang of a tannery, Elohl halted, unbuckling his leather pouch. Opening it quickly, Olea’s pale opal eyes narrowed upon the item, her straight dark brows forming a line. Setting her jaw, she looked up, then buckled the pouch to her own belt with fast fingers.
“We’ll discuss this later. I can hear five men following. And – something else.”
“Five? There were only two following me out the top of the cavern—” Elohl glanced back down the alley. But Olea’s wyrric hearing was keener than a wolfhound and Elohl knew better than to gainsay her. They ducked down the alley, back the way they had come tonight as rough stone workshops and taverns now abandoned their spectral nighttime forms. Elohl’s heart sank as he skimmed over the paving stones. Unbuckling his jerkin, he tugged his shirt lacings open as he ran, baring the Inking upon his chest, the black Kingsmount crowned with five stars. He rubbed the still-tender marking, illegally Inked by Ghrenna just three days ago.
Elohl didn’t deserve it; he hadn’t earned it yet.
But they might be the last marks Inked upon any Kingsman now that their task had failed.
Racing under the Watercourse Gate, Elohl found the guards still sleeping from the pith-crest Olea had slipped into their ale earlier. Speeding out into the chatter of the Elhambrian Forest, they streaked to the mossy grotto from whence they’d come. In a group of boulders burbling with a natural spring, a man-sized Alranstone stood, covered in arcane glyphs with three eyes carven into it – the Stone they had come through hours ago. The eye at the top began to open as they approached, some ancient wyrria transforming the gray-blue byrunstone to a gleaming inset of lapis. Splaying his hand towards its blue iris, Elohl called out his name and lineage as he ran.
“Elohl den’Alrahel, den’Urloel, den’Alrashesh! Blessings to the Kingsmen! Blessings to the Alrashemni—”
But before he could finish the words that would activate the Stone, Elohl felt something slide into his mind. Not the rush and tingle of the Stone, this was a smooth current of wyrria, arresting his mind like a tide’s flow takes a ship. Causing the incantation to fall from his lips as it caught him, he stumbled to a halt beside the Stone. Pulling at him, it made him turn like a nightmare; gazing toward the edge of the clearing.
There, in the grey hues of dawn, a behemoth stalked them down. Beside Elohl, Olea was captive also – held by the approaching presence. The black monstrosity chittered as it came, its massive claws clacking like language, segmented legs punching the moss. In the growing light, the scorpion’s chitinous plates glittered like stars, black with a horrible allure. Arching over its broad back, the behemoth’s tail was ready to strike, its high barb shining with a drop of poison in the sun’s first rays.
A man rode upon its back. Dressed in a herringbone-weave leather jerkin so black it ate the sun’s rays except for shining silver studs, the man’s face was hidden inside his deep hood. Maneuvering with only a touch of his hand, he rode the scorpion without a saddle, an enormous longsword with a black-wrapped handle strapped to his back. The man’s dark eyes stared Elohl down from the shadows of his hood – and a quicksilver sensation swept Elohl, rolling him. He collapsed, one knee driving into the earth, his hand upon the Alranstone the only thing keeping him upright as Olea gave a sharp cry and fell to her knees also. Horror swept Elohl as the man smiled deep within his hood – and the quicksilver sensation inside Elohl’s mind formed speech.
I can’t let you leave, boy. Not with what you have witnessed tonight. Open for me. Open your mind. Spill for me what you saw, what you heard…
Vast weaves of silver light slammed into Elohl like a tidal wave hitting a jetty. Terror gripped him as he felt his mind break, shredded open for the scorpion-rider. But suddenly, from his hand upon the Alranstone, a presence went humming through him like a thousand bees. A warming glow filled Elohl as the Stone’s massive eye came fully open, flooding the glade with blue light – and the final words of the Stone’s incantation were thrust into Elohl’s mind.
Trapping Olea’s hand beneath his, Elohl screamed out, “Open Stone of Alran, pass me free!”
Blue light dimming, the Alranstone acquiesced to his command. The black rider’s face contorted in fury as he vaulted from his scorpion, drawing his massive sword with a roar, swiping down to sever Elohl from the Stone.
But he was too late. In a flash and a clap of thunder, Elohl and Olea were threaded into the Alranstone’s core. Elohl screamed in agony as his innards contorted with a searing wrench, his body twisted into a mobius. Sunbursts flared before his eyes as emptiness filled his lungs like being rolled beneath ocean waves. But before he could focus upon any of these things, he and Olea were spat out upon the other side.
Stumbling to their knees in a clearing far from the grotto, breathless and retching.
Copyright Jean Lowe Carlson LLC 2016. No part of this content may be reproduced or shared without the author’s written permission.