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HEROES AND SCOUNDRELS - A Wizard's Sacrifice excerpt

Thabean parted the mossy screen and peered at the Lair. Far below, Meylnara’s creatures moved in and out of an immense cone composed of shrinking layers, each a dozen feet high and gleaming white, even under the pregnant clouds. Roughly stacked logs served as a wall round the compound.

“My arse hurts,” Dealn complained around a mouthful of nuts. “Couldn’t you put more padding down?”

Thabean shifted on the branch, his own backside aching after the hours they’d spent lodged in the canopy, surveilling the Lair. “Next time bring a pillow.”

“I would if you’d let me, Pip.”

Thabean arched an eyebrow. His brother, who topped him by a head and had twice the breadth of shoulders, had teased him for being small as long as Thabean could remember. Eyes twinkling, Dealn dumped another handful of nuts into his mouth.

“Must you masticate like that?” Thabean asked as crunching ground against his ears.

“I must. You want some?”

“I want you to eat quietly.”

“Is that a Caleisbahnin?” Dealn leaned forward. Below, one of Meylnara’s creatures carried a man, limbs frozen stiff as a statue. Cresting the stacked logs, the minion dropped him. A loud oof followed a crack and a thump as the seaman tumbled into some ferns at the base of the wall. Staggering up, he pressed a hand to his ribs and scowled.

“Put feelers into the Caleisbahn camp,” Thabean said. “Find out why they’re sending emissaries to Meylnara.”

“Looks like the fellow got an icy reception. Did you see how his limbs were frozen, and the bitch wasn’t anywhere about?”

“Residual hold. It wears off.”

Mingled disgust and worry tightened Dealn’s mouth, and Thabean grasped his brother’s shoulder. Ever since Thabean had received the Elixir, Dealn’s concern had fringed all their private moments. Wizardry was a death sentence, even if it didn’t always kill the wizard right away.

Below, the pirate roared and rushed the wall and kicked and hand-chopped at a protruding log. Bark flew from furious blows, but when the man retreated, hands and forearms bloodied, the wall remained solid.

“A barrage of boulders couldn’t bring that wall down, sir pirate,” Dealn said.

“He can’t hear you.”

“Ha ha, Pip.”

The seaman settled on a fallen log, legs crossed, breathing slowly. After a time, he returned to the jumbled pile and began to climb with more composure but no less determination.

“Elesendar, there’s another one.”

A shout rang as a minion tossed a second man over the wall, this one with dark brown skin and a spear. “That’s no pirate,” Thabean muttered, wondering which wizard had sent secret emissaries. The Caleisbahnin paused to watch the newcomer land in the ferns, then resumed his climb. Rising, the dark one spotted the seaman, shouted again, and charged. The Caleisbahnin sprang clear just as the spear thunked into the wall. Dagger in hand, the dark one leapt upon the seaman. Unarmed, the pirate parried and struck with arms and legs. A crack echoed, and the dagger spun into the underbrush. The dark one staggered back, holding his wrist, teeth bared. The Caleisbahnin grinned, and the second man plowed through snaking undergrowth to slam the seaman into a tree. Roaring, the Caleisbahnin shoved him off, and the pair rained blows upon each other with fists and feet. 

Dealn grinned and chomped more nuts. “Good fight.”

“But who are they, who sent them, and what prompted their conflict?”

Whistling, Dealn shook his head. “I don’t know, but now it’s getting really interesting. Look at her.”

A third creature stood atop the log pile, a woman struggling in its jaws. The combatants paused, their gaze following her scream. When she crashed into the ferns, the dark one yanked his spear loose and charged the seaman. The woman scrambled toward them, yelling.

“What language is that?”

“I know it not,” Thabean replied. The woman put herself between the men, hands out. She was tall and graceful, a froth of black curls capping her head. Even with mouth and eyes taut with fear and bloodied from her fall, she was lovely. Thabean gritted his teeth; taking the Elixir required a vow of chastity, but a man still had appetites, even when he chose to go hungry.

“Shrine, I’d like to have that lady grateful to me,” Dealn said, crunching another handful. “She looks threatened by those scoundrels. I think a rescue’s in order, don’t you?”

Thabean rubbed his ears, a buzzing at the edge of his awareness, like the nag of a forgotten word. “They’re using mindspeech!” Only wizards and their ministers could use the Council’s secret language, although the Weavers were rumored to have developed telepathy as well. “We’ll move closer.” Wrapping a cocoon of air around Dealn, he floated them down the greslet trunk. Pale green light melted into deep shadows as they descended through the canopy layers. When they stood among the roots, Thabean released the Woern and stepped out of the void he’d created to hide his power from Meylnara’s awareness. Grinning, Dealn preceded him, and they stole through the underbrush. When they drew near, the strangers’ silent speech resolved in Thabean’s mind.

“Move, Highness!”

“Where do you think we are, Lieutenant? Stand down!”

Peering over a vine-draped log, Thabean found the woman staring down the spear-wielder.

“Listen to your princess, weaver,” the Caleisbahnin said. “She’s clever.”

The dark man sprang around the woman, brandishing the spear. Dodging, the seaman rushed the woman and locked his arm under her chin. “I’ll snap her neck,” he promised.

Dealn started to rise, but Thabean held him down, a finger to his lips. “Let’s see how she handles this.”

Ignoring the arms round her head, the woman splayed her fingers and gestured for calm. “He’s only threatening me because you’re trying to kill him, Lieutenant. Stand down—I command it.”

The soldier hesitated, then lowered the spear. “If you harm her, I will gut you!”

Chuckling, the seaman stepped away from the woman. She expelled a breath and looked between them. “Gentlemen, we have come to this place on the wrong side of history. That was Meylnara.” The pirate’s grin widened at the soldier’s gape, but the woman continued, “Elesendar has brought us here—it’s His will that we are here, together. We need each other.” The seaman flourished a mocking bow; the soldier glared. The woman swallowed, her face etched with worry. “Is Vic still alive, Gustave?”

The Caleisbahnin sobered. “She was sorely wounded, princess, but Meylnara spoke of keeping her, so I do not think she intends to kill her. They took her deeper into the compound as they carried me out.” 

She surveyed the wall. “There are several hundred Kragnashians in there at least. Even if we can get back inside, I doubt we could free her without being caught. We need help.”

“From whom, Highness?”

Dealn raised his eyebrows, and Thabean returned a grin. As boys they’d played heroes and scoundrels; as men they often were both on the same day.

“If that is Meylnara, the Council may be nearby,” the woman replied.

“Agreed. The compound is fortified against attack,” the seaman said. Reluctantly, the solider nodded.

“Then we find them, and we ask for their help.”

Thabean cocked his head at Dealn, then rose out of the underbrush, using the Woern to pull Dealn after him. Hand on sword hilt and as tall as the soldier, Dealn struck an imposing figure, but the strangers’ gapes fixed on Thabean as he alighted. “And if you found a member of the Council, what would you say?”

The woman donned composure like a veil, her lips curving, but she withheld a full smile like a crafty jeweler hides his best diamonds. “First, sir, I would ask his name,” she said aloud in her strange language but letting him Hear her as well.

“Thabean Graystone, Second on the Council.”

Her eyebrows shot up, dismay flickering over her features before she restored her courtier’s mask. “Sir Thabean. My name is Bethniel.” 

“Princess Bethniel? Of what land?”

“One far from here, sir, in your Unknown.”

“And why are you in Direiellene, Highness?” he said the title mockingly.

Pink stippled brown cheeks. “My sister and I, we heard of your war and came to help. These men”—her blush deepened, and he wondered how thick a lie she spun—“are with us.”

“A princess, a soldier, and a Caleisbahn seaman. The soldier and the seaman might be useful, but you, Highness, and your sister—another princess, I presume? What help can you give?” And where on Knownearth were they from?

“My sister—she and I aren’t blood sisters—she’s an Oreseeker. Lieutenant Lillem and I are from even farther away. Commander Gustave is a Caleisbahnin, as you guessed. He . . . guided us here.”

Thabean smirked, his curiosity piqued at her careful phrasing. He suspected she cleaved to the truth, but only in a barrister’s sense. “You Heard a question I had, but you did not answer the one I asked.”

She straightened her shoulders, raised her chin. She was tall; he had to lift his chin to meet her gaze. “Sir, in my country I’m heir to a throne. But my sister is a warrior, and I promise she can help you defeat Meylnara. We . . . where we’re from, there’s a sort of prophesy about her—”

He laughed. “A prophesy! My lady, you were doing so well. Captain.” He turned to Dealn. “We’ll leave these three to their fate.”

“Wait, sir, please!” The veil shrank away, leaving her features taut with fear again. “Meylnara holds my sister captive. She’s badly hurt, and we don’t know what Meylnara intends to do to her. I will serve you”—she flashed a warning glance at the soldier—“however you desire to gain your aid.”

He raked his eyes over the woman. Elesendar, what a beauty—before the Elixir he’d have enjoyed competing with Dealn in the wooing of her. His brother’s size gave him the initial advantage, but Thabean’s wit had often won the day. “My lady, even if I were willing to aid you, it’s impossible. All the Council put together have been unable to penetrate this wall. I’m sorry, but your sister is lost.” 

“I do not accept that. Will you take me to Saelbeneth? I would plead my case to her.”

“Saelbeneth does not grant such favors, my lady.”

“At least point us in the direction of the Council!”

“I could lead them back,” said Dealn casually. “Clear them through the sentries.”

Thabean frowned at his brother. This so-called princess was stunning—he couldn’t have her, but why deprive Dealn of his chance? “All right. I’ll take you to our encampment, and I’ll ask Saelbeneth if she will meet you.”

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