Catastrophe! The Murghi is Gone!

Heron had barely slept since leaving Tanamre. After five exhausting days of travel, the tents of the Norin camp finally loomed before him.

No rest awaited him once through the checkpoint.

He drove his wagon past the raiders on guard at the gates, jumped down and dropped the wagon reins into the hands of the closest server. Without bothering to grab his gear, he strode into the heart of the camp, where King Thorn’s council tent stood. He poked his head around the leather flap and sighed. King Thorn wasn’t there.

Wolf, the king’s eldest son, sat on his father’s cushion briefing the raiders on their duties for the day. Wolf looked up. “You’re back?” He hitched in a breath. “What happened to my sisters?”

Heron brushed the question away with a flick of his hand. “I need to see the king. Urgently.”

Wolf’s sky-blue eyes darkened. “That doesn’t sound good. He’s at Red Sands. With Clay.”

“Got it.” Heron hurried out. Normally a fifteen-minute walk to the red sand dunes, Heron covered the distance in five. He stopped below the rim of the closest grass-speckled red dune to catch his breath.

Muffled by wind and sand, from across the dune, he heard the king say. “Son, I’m well aware of how you attacked that ostrich when you went out with Lynx. But you’re not taking that kind of risk again. Not on my watch.”

Heron shook his head in wonder. Their commonplace conversation was almost surreal, given the news he had to impart. Still, that didn’t stop a stab of pain in his chest region at the mention of Lynx—the woman he loved but could never have.

Best to not think of her.

He drew in a sharp lungful of dry air and crested the dune. In the limited shade on the leeward side of the dune, King Thorn knelt next to Clay. He drew something in the sand with a stick. Face concentrated in thought, Clay stared down at whatever it was. Heron cleared his throat to get their attention. “Sir…”

“I thought I said we were not to be disturbed.” King Thorn looked up, frowning. His sun-weathered face cracked into a smile. “I’ll make an exception for you, Heron.” He stood, his full height only chin-level to Heron. It didn’t matter. King Thorn was always the most imposing man in any tent.

“Thank you, sir.” Heron thumped his right fist against his heart, the Norin sign of deference and fealty to their king. Then he smiled at Clay, who grinned right back. His smile faded. “I have a report to make.”

“I’m sure you do.” King Thorn squinted up at him. “You look exhausted, raider.” The king gestured to a stunted thorn tree. It cast a small circle of shade on the hot sand. “Let’s sit.” Despite all of Heron’s futile shuffling, the king steered him into the shade. Only when he’d sat with his long legs stretched out before him did his monarch squat down next to him in the remaining patch of cover. Clay grinned wryly and settled for a spot in the sun.

King Thorn spoke first. “How did it go with my daughters? Were the Chenayans welcoming? What did you find out at the camp?”

“If you can call manhandling Lynx ‘welcoming,’ then yes, sir, I suppose they were.”

Clay yelped. “They dared manhandled our Lynxie!” The fresh scars on his face from his recent egg raid burned red. “Is the moron who did that still standing?” King Thorn dropped a firm hand on Clay’s leather-clad knee. Clay’s mouth clamped shut. Father and son looked at Heron expectantly.

“It was General Axel Avanov who had her roughed up.” Heron shook his head, still not quite believing what had happened.

“Axel Avanov!” King Thorn leaned forward, almost brushing Heron’s face with his black ostrich feathers. “Are you certain?”

“It was him, all right.” He pointed to a spot next to his right eye. “Ruby. And as arrogant as a hyena cub. Bastard chased me out of the camp before I could say goodbye to Lynx and Kestrel. Winds! If I ever lay eyes on him again, I’ll slit him open from asshole to appetite.”

“Graphic,” King Thorn said. “But you’d have to fight me for that honor, raider. As you would for any Avanov who dared sully my lands with his shadow.” The king rubbed his blond stubble with a scarred finger. “No doubt he was the one who sent those guardsmen to attack us.”

Heron’s fists clenched before he could stop them. “All the more reason to slaughter him, if I ever get my hands on him.”

Clay cleared his throat. His pale blue eyes darted between Heron and King Thorn. “I know I should be worried about Avanov, but I’m more concerned about Lynx. Is she okay?” Clay paused, short but heavy. “And Kestrel?”

Few people loved Lynx more than Clay did. Heron forced a smile to comfort the lad. “Lynx knows how to take care of herself. And as for Kestrel—” He shrugged, not wanting to speak ill of her in front of her father and brother. “She’s…adaptable, too.”

“So, Avanov was the general Mott sent to Tanamre.” King Thorn mused, looking off into the distance as if he and Clay weren’t here. “Now, why would he do that? If Axel Avanov is half as brilliant as everyone makes him out to be, why was he tormenting us instead of fixing that mess in Treven?”

Unsure if it was a rhetorical question, Heron replied, “Mess, sir?”

King Thorn shook his head sharply and faced Heron. “Just after you left, I received an emissary from King Jerawin of Lapis. According to him, the war in Treven has turned into a bloodbath—for the Chenayans.”

Heron hissed in a breath, barely containing his joy. King Thorn ignored him and continued, “Jerawin is considering taking up arms with Chad to drive the Chenayans out of Treven.”

King Thorn’s words fell into a pool of stunned silence. Even Clay’s mouth gaped.

Finally, Heron breathed in. “Would we join forces with them, sir?” Suddenly energized, he hopped up onto his haunches. “If we won, it would be the first defeat the empire has had in…forever.” An opportunity for freedom from Chenaya was irresistible—

His face fell and, with it, his mood. Lynx—and Kestrel—were now in brutal Avanov hands. That changed everything. He slumped back down onto the sand.

King Thorn clasped the hilt of his short sword. “I'm well aware of the potential, and it is very tempting. However, I cannot be rash with my people’s safety.” The king fixed Heron with a sharp eye. “That includes my daughters.”

As much as Heron longed to let his feathers and braids cover his burning face, he didn’t break eye contact with King Thorn. To do so would dishonor both of them. “I—I don’t know what I was thinking when I suggested that, sir.”

“I know exactly what was going through your mind. You’re a raider. It’s your job to look for opportunities to make war on the Chenayans.” King Thorn’s voice softened. “But I’m a king. It’s my job to balance that war with peace, thus ensuring you have something let to fight over.” The king stood and brushed sand off his leather trousers. “Clay, you have an egg raid in a few days. We need to practice.”

Heron leaped up. “Sir, I wish I could say my report was done, but I have worse news.”

King Thorn sank down onto the sand again. Lips pursed, he drilled Heron with his icy eyes. “Then let’s hear it.”

Heron crouched down and licked his lips. This was it. The moment of truth. He said slowly, “Onyx is dead, sir. Killed by guardsmen while I took Lynx and Kestrel into the Chenayan camp. Before that, Lynx had instructed Ash, Buzzard, and Onyx to reconnoiter the area. When I reached our rendezvous point, Ash and Buzzard were waiting for me, with Onyx’s body. Or what was left of it.” Heron held himself still as King Thorn buried his fingers in his eye sockets. Face a storm of emotion, Clay hunched down into himself. The lad and Onyx had been close.

Finally, King Thorn said, “I will tell his parents. But first, the murghi. Is it accounted for?”

The Norin poison. The covert weapon that had kept them safe for centuries. A raider would give up his life before he relinquished the poison to the Chenayans—which is probably exactly why Onyx had died. But no matter that the murghi had been taken off Onyx’s dead body, as leader of that detail, the responsibility for protecting the poison ultimately fell with Heron. He shifted, then sighed. “No, sir, it’s not. They have a vial.”

Both Clay and King Thorn gasped. Two sharp, panicked sounds. 

King Thorn recovered first. He skewered Heron with steely eyes. Heron expected nothing less. “If it wasn’t for that poison, Norin would have been destroyed centuries ago.”

Heron was all too aware of that. He met King Thorn’s glare. “We tracked Onyx’s killers for days, sir. Almost got them, too, except for…” His voice trailed off, as frowning, he tried to frame the words to describe what he, Ash, and Buzzard had seen outside Tanamre. Even after days of preparing for this meeting, he still had no idea what to say to his king.

“I’m waiting.” King Thorn’s voice was hard and demanding.

Heron punched his chest. “They flew away, sir. On a… a craft that floated in the sky.”

King Thorn’s eyebrows shot skyward, too. He folded his arms, bleeding disbelief from every pore.

“Not just floated, sir.” Heron knew his voice sounded desperate, but he couldn't help it. “It had some kind of power. And something—I don’t know what—that steered it.”

“That’s fantastical,” King Thorn said flatly. “Nothing like that has been heard of since the Burning. Crafts like that which survived the war were dismantled as part of the peace. Such things no longer exist.”

“Sir!” Heron leaped to his feet and thumped his heart with his fist. “I would never lie to my king.”

King Thorn continued to stare at him as if he had gone mad.

Sweat broke out all over his body. If his king chose not to believe him, he could be banished, driven away from all he held dear. He pulled in a calming breath—Ash and Buzzard had seen the craft, too. Surely, King Thorn wouldn’t doubt them all? Still, King Thorn drilled him with those chilling eyes.

He tried again. “Sir, the craft was fantastical. But it was also real. Tanamre crawled with guardsmen. But once we lost the bastards who killed Onyx, we passed through there on our way home. Most of the troops had gone.” He paused to study King Thorn’s face. The disbelief had gone, and a distant expression clouded the king’s eyes. “I have no idea what they’re up to, sir, but it’s not good.”

After what seemed like an eternity, King Thorn stood and faced Heron. “They’re Chenayans, and it is never wise to underestimate them.” Heron’s heart began beating again when his king clapped him on the shoulder. “Rest now, raider, because, after the egg raid, I want you to take point on the caravan. You’re to lead us to Lapis.”

King Thorn had just given him control of the speed and direction of the caravan! Heron didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the honor. Instead, he punched his chest again. “I won’t fail you, sir.”

“I don’t doubt that.” King Thorn stared off to the east, toward Lapis. “I'll send a rider to King Jerawin to warn him of this new craft.” A skilled rider on a fast horse would arrive in Lapis in about a week. “But the sooner we get to his court, the better. He and I have much to discuss.” The king’s shoulders sagged. “The presence of Lynx and Kestrel on that train to Cian makes everything far more complicated.”

Heron fingered the sword strapped to his waist. “Sir, Buzzard, Ash, and I were talking. What if we attack the train? We could rescue Lynx and Kestrel. With no troops worth mentioning at Tanamre, and now with your news about Treven, we could do it.”

King Thorn took a long time to reply. “Heron… Son, I know how you feel about my daughter. And how she feels about you. Winds know, I would choose you as a son-in-law over the bastard she must marry any day.” The smile he gave Heron brimmed with empathy. His voice hardened. “Raider, the Chenayan Dragon may be wounded, but it’s not dead. With those air monstrosities you describe, it can still rain fire on our heads.”

Heron looked down at his boots. That explained why King Thorn was king, and he a mere raider. He straightened up. “Thank you, sir. I know you’re right. It’s just… hard.”

Clay suddenly spoke, “Heron has a point, though, Da. Why can’t we take advantage of the Chenayans, if they’re occupied in Treven?”

King Thorn sighed, then clapped Clay on the shoulder. “How did your sister persuade me to let you raid again?”

Clay picked a twig out of the sand and rolled it in his fingers. “By threatening us all with death if you didn’t.”

“Precisely. She held the best position in that fight. I, the ostrich, was exposed on all flanks. She, the raider, maneuvered me against a cliff. After that, her kill was easy.” King Thorn’s arm slid around Clay’s shoulder. “You will do well to remember that.” He gestured to Heron with his other hand. “As will you.”

Heron and Clay grinned ruefully at each other.

King Thorn cracked a smile too, but it quickly faded. “So, until the Winds drop a massive bargaining chip to use against the Chenayans into my lap, we will proceed with caution.”

Clay’s jaw set into a hard line. “What kind of bargaining chip?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” King Thorn’s eyes twinkled. “Axel Avanov falling out of the sky, perhaps.” The twinkle vanished. “Though I’d be hard-pressed to keep the animal alive long enough to use him as bait.”

“With all due respect, sir, you’ll have to get in line to kill Avanov,” Heron said. “If the Winds are ever that kind, Axel Avanov is mine and he won’t survive the encounter.”

Brimming with high-stakes adventure, romance, and intrigue, the seven-book Crown of Blood series is complete. You can dive into them all on Amazon.