The Kingmaster – Chapter 1

Kyen of Avanna stood in the shadow of his own statue.

The statue smiled down, posing with an arm on his sword, with his cloak flared, with a confident lift to his chin. In the shade he cast, the living warrior drooped.

A line of blazing light, curving from one rooftop-studded horizon to the other, split the washed-out sky over the two warriors’ heads. It cast the shadow over Kyen, bleached the cobblestones, and glared off the pale buildings edging the city square. A man in breeches led three horses behind the statue. The clops of hooves on paving stones rang through the empty space. Across the square, another swordsman appeared with two paper-wrapped packets in hand. He ambled up to Kyen’s side.

“Kyen!” Seeing the look on Kyen’s face, his grin faded. “Kyen?”

The clopping of hooves receded.

“Kyen?”

With a growing scowl, the swordsman waved a hand in front of Kyen’s face. He drew in a great breath. “I said, KYEN!”

A woman with a grain basket on her head cast them a wary glance and hurried on.

Kyen blinked. His stormy gray eyes drifted to the other swordsman. “Oh. Hello, Finn.”

“Don’t you ‘hello’ me. Are you going deaf or what?”

Kyen’s eyes, finding the two packets in Finn’s hands, lit up. “Sandwiches? I’m starving!”

Finn passed him a packet and sat on the statue’s pedestal with a huff. Kyen joined him. Tall, skinny, and black-haired, Kyen cut a sharp contrast next to Finn, a younger, shorter, brawnier redhead.

Kyen ripped the paper off his sandwich and stuffed it into his face.

“I called your name like ten times,” said Finn.

“Yoo ih’?” Kyen asked with his mouth full.

“Yeah, I did.” Finn jerked his sandwich’s paper off. “Right in your ear.”

Kyen swallowed to say—”I’m sorry”—before chomping another bite.

“I think it’s getting worse,” said Finn.

“Wha’s geh’ing worse?”

Finn fixed Kyen with a serious frown.

Kyen stared back, oblivious. “What?”

Finn shook his head and turned his frown on his sandwich.

“You don’t want to go back, do you? Is that it?” Kyen poked the last third of his sandwich into his mouth as one bite.

“No.”

Kyen chewed while he waited for Finn to say more. When he didn’t, Kyen swallowed and pressed him. “Then what? You’ve been out of sorts all morning.”

 “It’s just—trade counsels, treaties, grain accounts, nobles, etiquette, dances—argh!” Finn buried his hands in his red hair. “How am I going to stand it, Kyen?”

” You’re smart. You’ll do great.”

“I’d rather be doing this—” Finn waved his sandwich at the city square; a piece of tomato flopped out and splatted on the paving stones. “Eating sandwiches. Wandering the wilds. Hunting bandits. Living among my people. I’m not… I’m not going to be able to do that anymore once I’m king. It’s the end, Kyen.”

Kyen stooped, picked up the tomato, wiped off the street grit on his pants—most of it—and popped it in his mouth. He chewed thoughtfully.

“You’ll get to be with your father, though, and your sisters.”

Finn snorted. “All ten of them! I know I’m just being stupid, but…” He gazed sullenly at a cart entering the squared. It tottered under its load of hay. “My life is over.”

“Can I?” asked Kyen, staring at Finn’s sandwich.

“I’m not hungry.” Finn passed the sandwich over. 

Kyen stuffed the entire half in his mouth and chewed with a look of bliss on his face.

Finn glowered across the city square.

A castle wall of beige sandstone dominated the far side. Two life-sized stone griffins flanked the gatehouse, a square-ish tower with battlements and turrets, where two guards in red livery stood at attention. Above rose the castle keep, an imposing block of a fortress standing several stories high.

Hopping from the pedestal, Finn turned his back on the castle. He started across the square. Kyen, still picking crumbs from his tunic and eating them, hurried after him.

“Eh, Finn? We need to go that way.” Kyen pointed over his shoulder at the castle.

“I know, but I want one last night as a free man.”

“That doesn’t sound like a good idea…” said Kyen. “I promised your father, the king, I’d have you back by sundown. Today!”

“Relax. A day late won’t make any difference. I refuse to end my career as a wanderer without one last hurrah!” Finn brandished a fist at Kyen.

Kyen looked dubious. “Does this mean we’re staying at an inn?”

Finn nodded.

“Stale bread. Bad ale. Hard beds. Fleas and rats. That’s going to be some hurrah,” said Kyen.

“Not just an inn. Thee inn.”

Finn stopped. At the far end of the square, a pale building with hazel shutters sprawled out in both directions. Wheatberry Inn: read the golden lettering painted beneath a wheat stalk. Beside it, an arch opened into stables where carriages lined up—carriages coming, going, hitching, loading.

“Isn’t this where the grainbarons and nobility stay when they visit your father?” asked Kyen.

Finn grinned and rubbed his hands together.

From the nearest carriage, a footman helped a man of great, velvet-wrapped girth down to the ground. Two young ladies alighted after him; their amber tresses hung in curls, their soft slippers sparkled, the deep poof of their skirts swished. Their whispers and giggles carried over the neighs, clops, and wheel creaks to the two swordsmen.

Kyen froze at the sight of the ladies.

“Time to make my impression,” said Finn.

“No,” said Kyen. “We are not staying here. No.” He turned to leave.

“Kyen.” Finn caught his arm.

“Do you know what those are? They’re princesses!” Kyen said in a fierce whisper. 

“That’s the whole point!” Finn whispered back. “I’m set to be coronated after the next harvest. Do you know what happens after that? I have to marry. If I’m not ready to choose, I’m gonna get arranged to some princess I’ve never met. She could be a fiend underneath!”

“Your father”—Kyen wagged a finger at Finn—”charged me to keep an eye on you. I don’t approve of this.”

“I’m just scoping out my options. Nothing more.” Finn smiled and shrugged. He slipped away towards the inn.

“Finn!” Kyen hurried after him. “Finn! Just promise me—if they find out who I am, we’re in big trouble.”

“Relax.” Finn tugged at his tunic and smoothed his hair. “They won’t even notice you.” 

He ducked through the doorway before Kyen could get another word in.

With a groan, Kyen slunk in after him.

Subtle conversation, sweet perfume, and savory kitchen scents enclosed the two swordsmen the moment they stepped into the common room. A long table accommodated a montage of patrons: navy, burgundy, cream, and brown silks; swathes of delicate lace; curls of ribbons in cascading ringlets; hats with towering crowns or enormous feathers.

Kyen looked pale.

Finn swaggered up to the innkeeper’s counter. Leaning against it, he rested a hand on the pommel of his sword and surveyed the room. A nearby brunette with rows of bows down her dress looked up at them.

Finn winked at her.

She stiffened and looked away.

Kyen buried his face in his hand.

“One room, please,” Finn said to the innkeeper, setting down a stack of gold coins.

The innkeeper stared. “The charge for a single night is only five coin.”

“Oh. Forgive me.” Finn cleared his throat. “I shouldn’t forget the tip.” He set another stack of coins—this one twice as big—next to the first. “Have our rooms ready by sunset. And a meal. Good man!” Patting the innkeeper on the shoulder, Finn sauntered back out the door.

“Sorry.” Kyen winced at the innkeeper then darted out after Finn.

The innkeeper stared as his door swung closed behind the two swordsmen.

Outside, Finn ambled to the stable archway. He beamed and nodded as a young noblewoman and her handmaiden walked past. The two gave Finn an uncertain look before hurrying away.

Kyen turned his face to the wall as they passed. Once they’d gone, he came up next to Finn.

“Do you realize how ridiculous you’re being?” Kyen asked in an undertone.

“I’m not a war hero like you. I have to compensate with a little extra charisma.” Finn winked at another young lady staring at them through the window of her carriage. Kyen blocked the view of his face with his hand. 

“You want my reputation? Take it. Please,” he said. “We’re supposed to be back at your father’s!”

A crash of glass and a muffled scream burst out overhead. Both swordsmen covered their faces as broken shards rained down. 

Finn frowned as the last splinter shattered to the ground. “What the—?”

He and Kyen looked up.

The rear half of a lion scrambled through a broken window on the second floor. Its plumed tail snaked in after it.

Kyen and Finn looked at each other.

“That wasn’t just a griffin,” said Finn.

(Continue to Chapter 2 Here!)

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The Kingmaster – Chapter 2

More screams pierced the air overhead.

The two swordsmen drew their blades and dashed together into the inn. The rumbles, thuds, and shrieks from above drew uncertain glances from the dining nobles. Every head turned as the two swordsmen ran through the common room.  

“Everyone outside!” yelled Finn.

Noblemen and women abandoned their chairs to crowd towards the door.

Kyen dashed up the stairs with Finn on his tail.

On the upper floor, a door banged open.

A handmaid ran screaming past them and down the stairs.

Kyen and Finn pressed themselves against the wall and took turns stealing a glance through the doorway.

The griffin inside sniffed at the four-poster bed. Its coppery wings crowded the bedroom, brushing against a dresser, knocking candlesticks from the mantle, bumping against an armchair, before settling to the griffin’s back. 

Finn looked down at his sword. “What I wouldn’t give for a good spear right now. Will our longswords even work on that thing?”

“A thrust will cause a mortal wound,” whispered Kyen. “But if we don’t hit its heart or head, we’ll be meat ribbons before it drops.”

“What if we barricade it in? Hope it flies away?”

“Outside?”

Finn swore and smacked his forehead. “And I just told everyone to go outside! They’re all going to be gathered around like gaping idiots! What are we going to do?”

“You’re the strategist,” said Kyen. “Think!”

A scream issued from the bedroom.

“A maiden’s in there!” Finn dashed past Kyen.

“Finn!”

When Finn entered, the griffin rounded on him. A young maiden cowered in the corner, half-hidden beside the dresser. Finn leapt the four-poster bed to plant himself between her and the griffin.

The griffin’s slitted eyes fastened on him. It stalked forward.

Clutching his longsword with both hands, Finn backed away. His back hit the wall beside the maiden. She whimpered beside him and covered her face with her hands.

The griffin growled. Its tail swished back and forth, thwacking the wall. Its hindquarters bunched up. Its pupils narrowed on Finn.

Kyen charged through the door. With a yell, he plunged his sword in behind the griffin’s shoulder. The blade barely penetrated the griffin’s body, wedged in the rib cage.

The griffin roared and spun on Kyen. Its head and forepaws smashed through the end of the bed. Kyen’s sword, stuck in the griffin, ripped out of his hands. 

Kyen stumbled backwards. 

The griffin sprang after him.

Kyen dove out of the way. He hit the ground on his belly. Snatching up a broken bedpost, he scrambled away. The griffin lunged after him. He threw himself against the wall, bracing the bedpost. The blunt end caught the griffin in the chest, stopping it short. A swipe of its claws slashed inches from Kyen’s face.

“Get her out!” Kyen yelled. He pressed himself back as another swipe of claws breezed past.

Finn seized the maiden’s hand. Yanking her to her feet, he ran her behind the raging griffin and shoved her into the corridor ahead of him. The maiden’s knees buckled. She cringed to the ground and started hyperventilating.

“Stand up! Stand up!” Finn pulled her up, but she sank back. Hauling her upright, Finn pressed her up next to the doorway and propped her there.

“You have to run!” He yelled at her, but she gasped and sobbed and hid her face in her hands.

Another roar shook the walls.

With a growl of frustration, Finn started for the doorway, but a loud crack like a lightning flashed out. Finn stumbled backwards, shielding his eyes. A thud shuddered through the walls.

Blinking and squinting, Finn told the maiden, “Don’t move!” He re-entered the room. 

“Kyen!”

Kyen stood, pale and shaky, with the bedpost still clutched in his hand.

The griffin lay against the opposite wall, wings crumpled from an impact. Kyen’s blade had been jammed through the griffin’s chest up to the hilt. A single great breath shuddered through the griffin. Then, it lay still.

“Kyen! Are you alright?” Finn dashed up.

Kyen nodded, swallowed.

Finn sheathed his sword. They both stood, regaining their breath, staring at the dead griffin.

Finn looked at Kyen.  “Did—was it—” 

Kyen nodded. 

“Why in all Ellunon would a griffin come in from the plains?” asked Finn. “They hunt horses, not people, and never in cities.”

Stepping forward, Kyen gripped his sword. He set a foot against the body and pulled—pulled hard. The blade jerked free.

As Kyen wiped the blade off on the bedsheet, Finn stepped forward.

A welt the size of a black apple stood out on the griffin’s feathered mane. At its center protruded a little black dart.

Finn plucked out the dart and held it up to the light. Dark metal composed a thin shaft, short and needle-like, with a plume of feathers as a tail. The tip had broken off.

“Who in their right mind would hunt a griffin with a Nalayni blow dart? How stupid!”

Kyen sheathed his sword and came for a look. Seeing the dart, he frowned, and his brows drew together.

“They must have made it mad.” Finn chuckled. Handing it to Kyen, he walked to the hallway where the maiden still whimpered.

“It’s alright. You’re safe now.” Finn took hold of her hand as she straightened away from the wall. When she saw the dead griffin through the doorway, she turned the color of the sheets. Her breath squeaked in and out as shallow gasps.

“Don’t look at it. You’re safe now.” Finn, taking her elbow, tried to pull her away. She didn’t move. “Help me with her, Kyen! She looks like she could faint!”

“Coming!” Kyen ripped a piece off the bed sheet, wrapped the dart up in it, and stuck the bundle in his pocket. He hurried to take the maiden’s other elbow. Kyen caught her arm as she fell in a faint.

“I got her. I got her.” Finn scooped the limp maiden up in his arms. He staggered under her weight and straightened with an effort. Kyen eyed him dubiously taking the stairs ahead of Finn as Finn carried the maiden down to the common room.

“She is so—heavy!” said Finn through gritted teeth. 

The two swordsmen brought her outside. 

“Aliza!” The velvet-girthed man ran from the crowd. The handmaid hurried behind.

“She’s unhurt.” Finn lowered the maiden to the ground. “Only fainted.”

The handmaid gathered her mistress in her arms, weeping and stroking her brow. 

“Oh! Thank you! Thank you, young sir!” The man wrung Finn’s hand up and down.

Finn flushed and, resting a hand on his hilt, grinned broadly. “You’re welcome! Ah, and don’t forget to thank—Where’d he go?”

The spot at Finn’s side where Kyen had stood offered empty air. Not single black-haired head could be seen throughout the crowd.

“Argh! Excuse me!” Finn extracted his hand from the man’s and pushed his way through the spectators. Beyond them, Finn scanned the empty street.

Kyen stood several stone’s throws down the road. His head turned this way and that towards the empty roofs and clear skies.

Finn dashed down the road to join him. “Kyen, what is it?”

Kyen stopped, his vacant eyes straying further down the road.

“Kyen? I said, ‘Kyen!'”

“Hm…?” His gaze drifted over to Finn’s face. “Oh. Hello, Finn.”

“What are you looking at?” Finn gazed up at the rooftops.

“What? Are we looking at something?”

“You were looking at something.”

“I was?”

“What did you see?”

“I don’t know.” Kyen squinted up with Finn. “What are we looking at again?”

“Never mind. Come on.” Finn walked off.

The two friends walked back up the road, skirting around the crowd outside the inn, ignoring the whispers and stares that followed them. Finn walked past them all and re-entered the city square.

“Where are you going? The Wheatberry is that way.” Kyen pointed over his shoulder.

“I don’t want to go back there.”

“Too much charisma?” Kyen grinned. “You probably won yourself a wife with that rescue. That maiden will be sweet on you forever.”

“Shut up. I’m not in the mood.”

The two friends crossed the city square to where the castle’s gatehouse waited. The yellowing arc hung low over the rooftops behind them. Kyen’s statue threw a long black prong that jabbed towards the gatehouse’s arch. The two guards nodded to Kyen and Finn as they entered the gate tunnel. Kyen nodded back, but Finn slunk past without looking at them.

A drawbridge, spanning a moat, reached to another gatehouse and the castle’s inner wall. With the deepening shadows, the gate tunnel seemed a gloomy mouth, the teeth of the portcullis protruding above and the drawbridge extending out like a tongue. Chill vapors rose off the moat. Their boots clunked on the wood as they walked.

Finn stopped in the middle of the drawbridge.

Kyen, when he noticed, looked back.

Finn stared up at the tunnel. Desperation shone bright in his eyes. “Can’t you tell dad the griffin ate me?”

Kyen smiled. Returning to Finn, he said, “Your father is aging. If you don’t accept the crown, it will pass to one of your sisters. Do you really want that responsibility to fall on them?”

“Well, thanks. That lightens my burden.” Finn skulked over to glower into the moat.

Kyen followed him.

“My sisters would do a better job ruling the kingdom than me anyway,” said Finn.

Kyen stooped. Picking up a pebble from the drawbridge, he offered it to Finn.

Finn took it and hurled it with a violent snap of his arm.

They watched it sail through the air.

It plunked into the water.

“I just don’t want to screw up!” said Finn. “I screwed up today. I sent everyone outside into danger. I engaged the griffin without an effective weapon—or even a plan. Talk about being an idiot! People could have died. You could have died!”

“Nobody did, though.”

“Only because you had my back.”

“Exactly,” said Kyen. He put a hand on Finn’s shoulder. “You won’t be doing this alone. When you’re king, I’ll still have your back. As often as you like. You’ll have your father—may he live many long years—at your side, to train you, counsel you, guide you while you’re a young king. And you have your sisters. You’ll never be short of counsel.”

“And my chief duty as king will be to argue with them all,” said Finn. “My sisters have differing opinions on everything!” He bent to snatch up another pebble.

“Much of it full of wisdom and insight,” replied Kyen.

Finn, arm upraised for another throw, halted. He lowered his arm instead, turning the pebble over in his fingers. After a moment, he let it drop back onto the drawbridge.

“You’re right.” Finn sighed. He turned back towards the castle, walking with his head still hung.

The two swordsmen passed under the arch of the last gatehouse and came out into the bailey—the courtyard between the walls and the castle keep. The road at their feet cut across a wide grassy lawn before meeting the broad steps and the double doors of the keep. The setting Arc cast the height of the keep in orange while leaving the rest of the courtyard in a cool, dim twilight. One of the double doors of the keep stood open. 

At the foot of the steps walked a man not much taller than Finn but twice as broad. He wore rich velvet robes with a griffin—King Veleda’s Crest—embroidered on the corners. Age had faded his red hair and wiry beard to a dull, brick red. Clinging to two of his fingers, a little girl with flaming red hair walked with him.

“Dad!” Finn’s face broke into a grin when he saw them. He ran to meet them.

Kyen hung back, smiling.

Another red-haired girl poked her head around the open door.

Her face lit up with a cry of: “Finn’s here!” She bound down the steps to meet him. A stream of young girls poured from the open door behind her. Finn skidded to a stop in the dust when he saw them. 

“Finn!”

“It’s Finn!”

“He’s back!”

The girls’ cries rang through the courtyard as they swarmed him. Each had long, flowing locks in various shades of red: from deep auburn to strawberry blond and every hue in between.

“Did you find a princess to marry?”

“Will you play dolls with me?”

“Have you missed us?”

“Did you bring me any presents?”

“You look taller. Did you grow an inch?”

“No, he looks the same to me!”

“It’s brother! He’s back!”

“Finn! Finn! Finn!”

Finn looked from one sister, to the next, to the next, opening his mouth, but not a word escaped before the next question assaulted him. He shut his mouth and began doling out hugs.

King Veleda, smiling on them, walked up to Kyen. Finn’s tenth sister kept hold of her dad’s fingers. She stared at Kyen with wide eyes.

“Welcome, Kyen,” said the king.

“Thank you, your majesty.” Kyen dipped his head respectfully.

“Can you welcome our guest, Adelaide?” King Veleda smiled down on his youngest daughter.

Half-hiding behind the king’s leg, she waved her fingers.

Kyen made a gallant bow. “Thank you, Princess Adelaide.”

Adelaide hid her face in the king’s hand.

The king chuckled at her. He turned to Finn.

Finn stood, blushing in embarrassment, as his many sisters chattered away around him. They’d begun arguing over whether or not Finn had found a princess to wed while the two youngest demanded piggyback rides.

“You’ve returned my son whole and unscathed by the looks,” said King Veleda.

“As you charged me, your majesty,” replied Kyen.

“I feel a deep gratitude for your service to him,” said the king. “Touring the land, experiencing life beyond the castle, benefiting from your friendship and experience—you’ve done all Veleda a great service. My boy will become a better king because of it. Ah—”

“Come on! Get off! Enough’s enough!” Finn attempted to shoo off his sisters and part a pathway through them. They crowded closer. One jumped on his back.

King Veleda chuckled and exchanged a smile with Kyen. “That is, Kyen, you have my thanks.”

“You’re welcome, your majesty.”

Finn, finally extracting himself from his sisters, narrowly escaping their catching hands, dashed over.

A chorus arose behind him.

“Look, Kyen’s come with him!”

“It’s Kyen!”

“Kyen!”

Kyen paled. “Oh no.”

King Veleda chuckled, watching the warrior back away as the gaggle of red-headed maids closed in on him.

Finn, slightly out of breath, stopped next to his father as Kyen bolted.

Kyen fled on to the lawn with a stream of little girls on his tail. The girls spread out, circling around Kyen, closing in on him.

Kyen turned back, jogging a few steps backwards, watching the girls surround him. They dove, chased, and lunged, but Kyen ducked, weaved, and dodged each attempt to tag him. Their voices carried across to where Finn and the king stood watching.

“Hold still!”

“That’s alright. I’m quite fine as is.”

“You’re too fast!”

“No, thank you, I don’t need a hug.”

“It’s not fair!”

“You don’t receive welcomes very graciously, Kyen!”

Little Adelaide left her father’s hand and ran out to join the game.

“It’s good to have you home, son,” said King Veleda. 

“It’s good to be back,” said Finn, with a genuine grin.

They both turned their attention to Kyen. One of the older girls snuck up and tried to grab him from behind. Without a backwards glance, he jumped aside at the last moment, leaving the girl to clasp empty air.

“How is he?” asked King Veleda.

Finn sighed. “It’s getting worse.”

King Veleda nodded.

“I’m afraid for him,” said Finn. “Especially if he wanders back into the wilds alone.” 

“A swordsman of his talents never lacks usefulness. Would he stay on at Castle Veleda if I asked him?” asked the king.

“No…” Finn shook his head. 

“Perhaps I’ll offer just the same. We are the closest thing to family left to him now.”

“You can try.”

“Ladies!” King Veleda called. 

All the red-headed girls paused the chase to look to their father. 

“Come along!”

They all dashed back to regroup around Finn and king.

Still out on the lawn, Kyen slumped over to prop himself on his knees. He grinned at them as he tried to get his wind back.

Twilight was deepening into night around them. The king herded his flock of maids towards the doors of the keep.

The girls chattered incessantly.

“Are you here to stay, Finn?” asked Clarissa, the next oldest to Finn.

“How long? How long?” chimed in the twins – Elenora and Lionora.

“I’m here to stay for good this time,” said Finn.

 A chorus of “Yay!” and hand-clapping arose around him.

“Will you play dress-up with me and my dollies?” Adelaide tugged at Finn’s tunic.

“Uh… sure,” said Finn, looking embarrassed.

“And tea! Tea parties!”

“Inside, ladies, inside!” cried King Veleda. “Run ahead and see the servants prepare to accommodate Kyen as our guest.” 

Finn stood aside as his family mounted the steps to the door. He allowed his father to pass in first then waited patiently as all his many sisters streamed in after.

Finn turned to enter himself but stopped. He looked back.

The lawns and roadway stood empty in the twilight.

Finn growled in frustration. “Argh! I’ll be right there, dad!” He called through the doorway then dashed off down the path.

Ahead, the gatehouse guards were already lowering the outer portcullis for the evening. The clang of steel on stone rang out as Finn dashed across the bailey. His feet thunked against wood as he crossed the drawbridge. He pushed past a surprised guard and bound up the steps to the rampart of the outer wall. On the wall top, Finn leaned out between the merlons—the stone teeth—that rimmed the top of the outer wall.

“I hate it when he does this.” He scanned the empty city square below.

Past the square, far down the main highway stood Kyen like a miniature warrior on the street corner.

Finn cupped his hands to his mouth.

“KYEN!”

Kyen turned and waved.

Finn swung his arm over his head in response.

The distant warrior disappeared around the corner.

Slumping against the stones, Finn huffed a sigh and dangled his arms out over the wall.

“Ow!” Finn flinched. 

A tiny black dart protruded from his forearm. 

Finn frowned. He plucked it out of his skin. He held it up to the failing light.

As he did, all expression drained out of his face. His auburn eyes grew cold.

Clenching the dart in his hand, he turned to descend the steps.

On the far away road, Kyen walked. A cloth bundle lay unwrapped in his hand. In it nestled the black dart taken from the griffin. He looked at it long and hard with a grim set to his stormy eyes.

More screams pierced the air overhead.

The two swordsmen drew their blades and dashed together into the inn. The rumbles, thuds, and shrieks from above drew uncertain glances from the dining nobles. Every head turned as the two swordsmen ran through the common room.  

“Everyone outside!” yelled Finn.

Noblemen and women abandoned their chairs to crowd towards the door.

Kyen dashed up the stairs with Finn on his tail.

On the upper floor, a door banged open.

A handmaid ran screaming past them and down the stairs.

Kyen and Finn pressed themselves against the wall and took turns stealing a glance through the doorway.

The griffin inside sniffed at the four-poster bed. Its coppery wings crowded the bedroom, brushing against a dresser, knocking candlesticks from the mantle, bumping against an armchair, before settling to the griffin’s back. 

Finn looked down at his sword. “What I wouldn’t give for a good spear right now. Will our longswords even work on that thing?”

“A thrust will cause a mortal wound,” whispered Kyen. “But if we don’t hit its heart or head, we’ll be meat ribbons before it drops.”

“What if we barricade it in? Hope it flies away?”

“Outside?”

Finn swore and smacked his forehead. “And I just told everyone to go outside! They’re all going to be gathered around like gaping idiots! What are we going to do?”

“You’re the strategist,” said Kyen. “Think!”

A scream issued from the bedroom.

“A maiden’s in there!” Finn dashed past Kyen.

“Finn!”

When Finn entered, the griffin rounded on him. A young maiden cowered in the corner, half-hidden beside the dresser. Finn leapt the four-poster bed to plant himself between her and the griffin.

The griffin’s slitted eyes fastened on him. It stalked forward.

Clutching his longsword with both hands, Finn backed away. His back hit the wall beside the maiden. She whimpered beside him and covered her face with her hands.

The griffin growled. Its tail swished back and forth, thwacking the wall. Its hindquarters bunched up. Its pupils narrowed on Finn.

Kyen charged through the door. With a yell, he plunged his sword in behind the griffin’s shoulder. The blade barely penetrated the griffin’s body, wedged in the rib cage.

The griffin roared and spun on Kyen. Its head and forepaws smashed through the end of the bed. Kyen’s sword, stuck in the griffin, ripped out of his hands. 

Kyen stumbled backwards. 

The griffin sprang after him.

Kyen dove out of the way. He hit the ground on his belly. Snatching up a broken bedpost, he scrambled away. The griffin lunged after him. He threw himself against the wall, bracing the bedpost. The blunt end caught the griffin in the chest, stopping it short. A swipe of its claws slashed inches from Kyen’s face.

“Get her out!” Kyen yelled. He pressed himself back as another swipe of claws breezed past.

Finn seized the maiden’s hand. Yanking her to her feet, he ran her behind the raging griffin and shoved her into the corridor ahead of him. The maiden’s knees buckled. She cringed to the ground and started hyperventilating.

“Stand up! Stand up!” Finn pulled her up, but she sank back. Hauling her upright, Finn pressed her up next to the doorway and propped her there.

“You have to run!” He yelled at her, but she gasped and sobbed and hid her face in her hands.

Another roar shook the walls.

With a growl of frustration, Finn started for the doorway, but a loud crack like a lightning flashed out. Finn stumbled backwards, shielding his eyes. A thud shuddered through the walls.

Blinking and squinting, Finn told the maiden, “Don’t move!” He re-entered the room. 

“Kyen!”

Kyen stood, pale and shaky, with the bedpost still clutched in his hand.

The griffin lay against the opposite wall, wings crumpled from an impact. Kyen’s blade had been jammed through the griffin’s chest up to the hilt. A single great breath shuddered through the griffin. Then, it lay still.

“Kyen! Are you alright?” Finn dashed up.

Kyen nodded, swallowed.

Finn sheathed his sword. They both stood, regaining their breath, staring at the dead griffin.

Finn looked at Kyen.  “Did—was it—” 

Kyen nodded. 

“Why in all Ellunon would a griffin come in from the plains?” asked Finn. “They hunt horses, not people, and never in cities.”

Stepping forward, Kyen gripped his sword. He set a foot against the body and pulled—pulled hard. The blade jerked free.

As Kyen wiped the blade off on the bedsheet, Finn stepped forward.

A welt the size of a black apple stood out on the griffin’s feathered mane. At its center protruded a little black dart.

Finn plucked out the dart and held it up to the light. Dark metal composed a thin shaft, short and needle-like, with a plume of feathers as a tail. The tip had broken off.

“Who in their right mind would hunt a griffin with a Nalayni blow dart? How stupid!”

Kyen sheathed his sword and came for a look. Seeing the dart, he frowned, and his brows drew together.

“They must have made it mad.” Finn chuckled. Handing it to Kyen, he walked to the hallway where the maiden still whimpered.

“It’s alright. You’re safe now.” Finn took hold of her hand as she straightened away from the wall. When she saw the dead griffin through the doorway, she turned the color of the sheets. Her breath squeaked in and out as shallow gasps.

“Don’t look at it. You’re safe now.” Finn, taking her elbow, tried to pull her away. She didn’t move. “Help me with her, Kyen! She looks like she could faint!”

“Coming!” Kyen ripped a piece off the bed sheet, wrapped the dart up in it, and stuck the bundle in his pocket. He hurried to take the maiden’s other elbow. Kyen caught her arm as she fell in a faint.

“I got her. I got her.” Finn scooped the limp maiden up in his arms. He staggered under her weight and straightened with an effort. Kyen eyed him dubiously taking the stairs ahead of Finn as Finn carried the maiden down to the common room.

“She is so—heavy!” said Finn through gritted teeth. 

The two swordsmen brought her outside. 

“Aliza!” The velvet-girthed man ran from the crowd. The handmaid hurried behind.

“She’s unhurt.” Finn lowered the maiden to the ground. “Only fainted.”

The handmaid gathered her mistress in her arms, weeping and stroking her brow. 

“Oh! Thank you! Thank you, young sir!” The man wrung Finn’s hand up and down.

Finn flushed and, resting a hand on his hilt, grinned broadly. “You’re welcome! Ah, and don’t forget to thank—Where’d he go?”

The spot at Finn’s side where Kyen had stood offered empty air. Not single black-haired head could be seen throughout the crowd.

“Argh! Excuse me!” Finn extracted his hand from the man’s and pushed his way through the spectators. Beyond them, Finn scanned the empty street.

Kyen stood several stone’s throws down the road. His head turned this way and that towards the empty roofs and clear skies.

Finn dashed down the road to join him. “Kyen, what is it?”

Kyen stopped, his vacant eyes straying further down the road.

“Kyen? I said, ‘Kyen!'”

“Hm…?” His gaze drifted over to Finn’s face. “Oh. Hello, Finn.”

“What are you looking at?” Finn gazed up at the rooftops.

“What? Are we looking at something?”

“You were looking at something.”

“I was?”

“What did you see?”

“I don’t know.” Kyen squinted up with Finn. “What are we looking at again?”

“Never mind. Come on.” Finn walked off.

The two friends walked back up the road, skirting around the crowd outside the inn, ignoring the whispers and stares that followed them. Finn walked past them all and re-entered the city square.

“Where are you going? The Wheatberry is that way.” Kyen pointed over his shoulder.

“I don’t want to go back there.”

“Too much charisma?” Kyen grinned. “You probably won yourself a wife with that rescue. That maiden will be sweet on you forever.”

“Shut up. I’m not in the mood.”

The two friends crossed the city square to where the castle’s gatehouse waited. The yellowing arc hung low over the rooftops behind them. Kyen’s statue threw a long black prong that jabbed towards the gatehouse’s arch. The two guards nodded to Kyen and Finn as they entered the gate tunnel. Kyen nodded back, but Finn slunk past without looking at them.

A drawbridge, spanning a moat, reached to another gatehouse and the castle’s inner wall. With the deepening shadows, the gate tunnel seemed a gloomy mouth, the teeth of the portcullis protruding above and the drawbridge extending out like a tongue. Chill vapors rose off the moat. Their boots clunked on the wood as they walked.

Finn stopped in the middle of the drawbridge.

Kyen, when he noticed, looked back.

Finn stared up at the tunnel. Desperation shone bright in his eyes. “Can’t you tell dad the griffin ate me?”

Kyen smiled. Returning to Finn, he said, “Your father is aging. If you don’t accept the crown, it will pass to one of your sisters. Do you really want that responsibility to fall on them?”

“Well, thanks. That lightens my burden.” Finn skulked over to glower into the moat.

Kyen followed him.

“My sisters would do a better job ruling the kingdom than me anyway,” said Finn.

Kyen stooped. Picking up a pebble from the drawbridge, he offered it to Finn.

Finn took it and hurled it with a violent snap of his arm.

They watched it sail through the air.

It plunked into the water.

“I just don’t want to screw up!” said Finn. “I screwed up today. I sent everyone outside into danger. I engaged the griffin without an effective weapon—or even a plan. Talk about being an idiot! People could have died. You could have died!”

“Nobody did, though.”

“Only because you had my back.”

“Exactly,” said Kyen. He put a hand on Finn’s shoulder. “You won’t be doing this alone. When you’re king, I’ll still have your back. As often as you like. You’ll have your father—may he live many long years—at your side, to train you, counsel you, guide you while you’re a young king. And you have your sisters. You’ll never be short of counsel.”

“And my chief duty as king will be to argue with them all,” said Finn. “My sisters have differing opinions on everything!” He bent to snatch up another pebble.

“Much of it full of wisdom and insight,” replied Kyen.

Finn, arm upraised for another throw, halted. He lowered his arm instead, turning the pebble over in his fingers. After a moment, he let it drop back onto the drawbridge.

“You’re right.” Finn sighed. He turned back towards the castle, walking with his head still hung.

The two swordsmen passed under the arch of the last gatehouse and came out into the bailey—the courtyard between the walls and the castle keep. The road at their feet cut across a wide grassy lawn before meeting the broad steps and the double doors of the keep. The setting Arc cast the height of the keep in orange while leaving the rest of the courtyard in a cool, dim twilight. One of the double doors of the keep stood open. 

At the foot of the steps walked a man not much taller than Finn but twice as broad. He wore rich velvet robes with a griffin—King Veleda’s Crest—embroidered on the corners. Age had faded his red hair and wiry beard to a dull, brick red. Clinging to two of his fingers, a little girl with flaming red hair walked with him.

“Dad!” Finn’s face broke into a grin when he saw them. He ran to meet them.

Kyen hung back, smiling.

Another red-haired girl poked her head around the open door.

Her face lit up with a cry of: “Finn’s here!” She bound down the steps to meet him. A stream of young girls poured from the open door behind her. Finn skidded to a stop in the dust when he saw them. 

“Finn!”

“It’s Finn!”

“He’s back!”

The girls’ cries rang through the courtyard as they swarmed him. Each had long, flowing locks in various shades of red: from deep auburn to strawberry blond and every hue in between.

“Did you find a princess to marry?”

“Will you play dolls with me?”

“Have you missed us?”

“Did you bring me any presents?”

“You look taller. Did you grow an inch?”

“No, he looks the same to me!”

“It’s brother! He’s back!”

“Finn! Finn! Finn!”

Finn looked from one sister, to the next, to the next, opening his mouth, but not a word escaped before the next question assaulted him. He shut his mouth and began doling out hugs.

King Veleda, smiling on them, walked up to Kyen. Finn’s tenth sister kept hold of her dad’s fingers. She stared at Kyen with wide eyes.

“Welcome, Kyen,” said the king.

“Thank you, your majesty.” Kyen dipped his head respectfully.

“Can you welcome our guest, Adelaide?” King Veleda smiled down on his youngest daughter.

Half-hiding behind the king’s leg, she waved her fingers.

Kyen made a gallant bow. “Thank you, Princess Adelaide.”

Adelaide hid her face in the king’s hand.

The king chuckled at her. He turned to Finn.

Finn stood, blushing in embarrassment, as his many sisters chattered away around him. They’d begun arguing over whether or not Finn had found a princess to wed while the two youngest demanded piggyback rides.

“You’ve returned my son whole and unscathed by the looks,” said King Veleda.

“As you charged me, your majesty,” replied Kyen.

“I feel a deep gratitude for your service to him,” said the king. “Touring the land, experiencing life beyond the castle, benefiting from your friendship and experience—you’ve done all Veleda a great service. My boy will become a better king because of it. Ah—”

“Come on! Get off! Enough’s enough!” Finn attempted to shoo off his sisters and part a pathway through them. They crowded closer. One jumped on his back.

King Veleda chuckled and exchanged a smile with Kyen. “That is, Kyen, you have my thanks.”

“You’re welcome, your majesty.”

Finn, finally extracting himself from his sisters, narrowly escaping their catching hands, dashed over.

A chorus arose behind him.

“Look, Kyen’s come with him!”

“It’s Kyen!”

“Kyen!”

Kyen paled. “Oh no.”

King Veleda chuckled, watching the warrior back away as the gaggle of red-headed maids closed in on him.

Finn, slightly out of breath, stopped next to his father as Kyen bolted.

Kyen fled on to the lawn with a stream of little girls on his tail. The girls spread out, circling around Kyen, closing in on him.

Kyen turned back, jogging a few steps backwards, watching the girls surround him. They dove, chased, and lunged, but Kyen ducked, weaved, and dodged each attempt to tag him. Their voices carried across to where Finn and the king stood watching.

“Hold still!”

“That’s alright. I’m quite fine as is.”

“You’re too fast!”

“No, thank you, I don’t need a hug.”

“It’s not fair!”

“You don’t receive welcomes very graciously, Kyen!”

Little Adelaide left her father’s hand and ran out to join the game.

“It’s good to have you home, son,” said King Veleda. 

“It’s good to be back,” said Finn, with a genuine grin.

They both turned their attention to Kyen. One of the older girls snuck up and tried to grab him from behind. Without a backwards glance, he jumped aside at the last moment, leaving the girl to clasp empty air.

“How is he?” asked King Veleda.

Finn sighed. “It’s getting worse.”

King Veleda nodded.

“I’m afraid for him,” said Finn. “Especially if he wanders back into the wilds alone.” 

“A swordsman of his talents never lacks usefulness. Would he stay on at Castle Veleda if I asked him?” asked the king.

“No…” Finn shook his head. 

“Perhaps I’ll offer just the same. We are the closest thing to family left to him now.”

“You can try.”

“Ladies!” King Veleda called. 

All the red-headed girls paused the chase to look to their father. 

“Come along!”

They all dashed back to regroup around Finn and king.

Still out on the lawn, Kyen slumped over to prop himself on his knees. He grinned at them as he tried to get his wind back.

Twilight was deepening into night around them. The king herded his flock of maids towards the doors of the keep.

The girls chattered incessantly.

“Are you here to stay, Finn?” asked Clarissa, the next oldest to Finn.

“How long? How long?” chimed in the twins – Elenora and Lionora.

“I’m here to stay for good this time,” said Finn.

 A chorus of “Yay!” and hand-clapping arose around him.

“Will you play dress-up with me and my dollies?” Adelaide tugged at Finn’s tunic.

“Uh… sure,” said Finn, looking embarrassed.

“And tea! Tea parties!”

“Inside, ladies, inside!” cried King Veleda. “Run ahead and see the servants prepare to accommodate Kyen as our guest.” 

Finn stood aside as his family mounted the steps to the door. He allowed his father to pass in first then waited patiently as all his many sisters streamed in after.

Finn turned to enter himself but stopped. He looked back.

The lawns and roadway stood empty in the twilight.

Finn growled in frustration. “Argh! I’ll be right there, dad!” He called through the doorway then dashed off down the path.

Ahead, the gatehouse guards were already lowering the outer portcullis for the evening. The clang of steel on stone rang out as Finn dashed across the bailey. His feet thunked against wood as he crossed the drawbridge. He pushed past a surprised guard and bound up the steps to the rampart of the outer wall. On the wall top, Finn leaned out between the merlons—the stone teeth—that rimmed the top of the outer wall.

“I hate it when he does this.” He scanned the empty city square below.

Past the square, far down the main highway stood Kyen like a miniature warrior on the street corner.

Finn cupped his hands to his mouth.

“KYEN!”

Kyen turned and waved.

Finn swung his arm over his head in response.

The distant warrior disappeared around the corner.

Slumping against the stones, Finn huffed a sigh and dangled his arms out over the wall.

“Ow!” Finn flinched. 

A tiny black dart protruded from his forearm. 

Finn frowned. He plucked it out of his skin. He held it up to the failing light.

As he did, all expression drained out of his face. His auburn eyes grew cold.

Clenching the dart in his hand, he turned to descend the steps.

On the far away road, Kyen walked. A cloth bundle lay unwrapped in his hand. In it nestled the black dart taken from the griffin. He looked at it long and hard with a grim set to his stormy eyes.

More screams pierced the air overhead.

The two swordsmen drew their blades and dashed together into the inn. The rumbles, thuds, and shrieks from above drew uncertain glances from the dining nobles. Every head turned as the two swordsmen ran through the common room.  

“Everyone outside!” yelled Finn.

Noblemen and women abandoned their chairs to crowd towards the door.

Kyen dashed up the stairs with Finn on his tail.

On the upper floor, a door banged open.

A handmaid ran screaming past them and down the stairs.

Kyen and Finn pressed themselves against the wall and took turns stealing a glance through the doorway.

The griffin inside sniffed at the four-poster bed. Its coppery wings crowded the bedroom, brushing against a dresser, knocking candlesticks from the mantle, bumping against an armchair, before settling to the griffin’s back. 

Finn looked down at his sword. “What I wouldn’t give for a good spear right now. Will our longswords even work on that thing?”

“A thrust will cause a mortal wound,” whispered Kyen. “But if we don’t hit its heart or head, we’ll be meat ribbons before it drops.”

“What if we barricade it in? Hope it flies away?”

“Outside?”

Finn swore and smacked his forehead. “And I just told everyone to go outside! They’re all going to be gathered around like gaping idiots! What are we going to do?”

“You’re the strategist,” said Kyen. “Think!”

A scream issued from the bedroom.

“A maiden’s in there!” Finn dashed past Kyen.

“Finn!”

When Finn entered, the griffin rounded on him. A young maiden cowered in the corner, half-hidden beside the dresser. Finn leapt the four-poster bed to plant himself between her and the griffin.

The griffin’s slitted eyes fastened on him. It stalked forward.

Clutching his longsword with both hands, Finn backed away. His back hit the wall beside the maiden. She whimpered beside him and covered her face with her hands.

The griffin growled. Its tail swished back and forth, thwacking the wall. Its hindquarters bunched up. Its pupils narrowed on Finn.

Kyen charged through the door. With a yell, he plunged his sword in behind the griffin’s shoulder. The blade barely penetrated the griffin’s body, wedged in the rib cage.

The griffin roared and spun on Kyen. Its head and forepaws smashed through the end of the bed. Kyen’s sword, stuck in the griffin, ripped out of his hands. 

Kyen stumbled backwards. 

The griffin sprang after him.

Kyen dove out of the way. He hit the ground on his belly. Snatching up a broken bedpost, he scrambled away. The griffin lunged after him. He threw himself against the wall, bracing the bedpost. The blunt end caught the griffin in the chest, stopping it short. A swipe of its claws slashed inches from Kyen’s face.

“Get her out!” Kyen yelled. He pressed himself back as another swipe of claws breezed past.

Finn seized the maiden’s hand. Yanking her to her feet, he ran her behind the raging griffin and shoved her into the corridor ahead of him. The maiden’s knees buckled. She cringed to the ground and started hyperventilating.

“Stand up! Stand up!” Finn pulled her up, but she sank back. Hauling her upright, Finn pressed her up next to the doorway and propped her there.

“You have to run!” He yelled at her, but she gasped and sobbed and hid her face in her hands.

Another roar shook the walls.

With a growl of frustration, Finn started for the doorway, but a loud crack like a lightning flashed out. Finn stumbled backwards, shielding his eyes. A thud shuddered through the walls.

Blinking and squinting, Finn told the maiden, “Don’t move!” He re-entered the room. 

“Kyen!”

Kyen stood, pale and shaky, with the bedpost still clutched in his hand.

The griffin lay against the opposite wall, wings crumpled from an impact. Kyen’s blade had been jammed through the griffin’s chest up to the hilt. A single great breath shuddered through the griffin. Then, it lay still.

“Kyen! Are you alright?” Finn dashed up.

Kyen nodded, swallowed.

Finn sheathed his sword. They both stood, regaining their breath, staring at the dead griffin.

Finn looked at Kyen.  “Did—was it—” 

Kyen nodded. 

“Why in all Ellunon would a griffin come in from the plains?” asked Finn. “They hunt horses, not people, and never in cities.”

Stepping forward, Kyen gripped his sword. He set a foot against the body and pulled—pulled hard. The blade jerked free.

As Kyen wiped the blade off on the bedsheet, Finn stepped forward.

A welt the size of a black apple stood out on the griffin’s feathered mane. At its center protruded a little black dart.

Finn plucked out the dart and held it up to the light. Dark metal composed a thin shaft, short and needle-like, with a plume of feathers as a tail. The tip had broken off.

“Who in their right mind would hunt a griffin with a Nalayni blow dart? How stupid!”

Kyen sheathed his sword and came for a look. Seeing the dart, he frowned, and his brows drew together.

“They must have made it mad.” Finn chuckled. Handing it to Kyen, he walked to the hallway where the maiden still whimpered.

“It’s alright. You’re safe now.” Finn took hold of her hand as she straightened away from the wall. When she saw the dead griffin through the doorway, she turned the color of the sheets. Her breath squeaked in and out as shallow gasps.

“Don’t look at it. You’re safe now.” Finn, taking her elbow, tried to pull her away. She didn’t move. “Help me with her, Kyen! She looks like she could faint!”

“Coming!” Kyen ripped a piece off the bed sheet, wrapped the dart up in it, and stuck the bundle in his pocket. He hurried to take the maiden’s other elbow. Kyen caught her arm as she fell in a faint.

“I got her. I got her.” Finn scooped the limp maiden up in his arms. He staggered under her weight and straightened with an effort. Kyen eyed him dubiously taking the stairs ahead of Finn as Finn carried the maiden down to the common room.

“She is so—heavy!” said Finn through gritted teeth. 

The two swordsmen brought her outside. 

“Aliza!” The velvet-girthed man ran from the crowd. The handmaid hurried behind.

“She’s unhurt.” Finn lowered the maiden to the ground. “Only fainted.”

The handmaid gathered her mistress in her arms, weeping and stroking her brow. 

“Oh! Thank you! Thank you, young sir!” The man wrung Finn’s hand up and down.

Finn flushed and, resting a hand on his hilt, grinned broadly. “You’re welcome! Ah, and don’t forget to thank—Where’d he go?”

The spot at Finn’s side where Kyen had stood offered empty air. Not single black-haired head could be seen throughout the crowd.

“Argh! Excuse me!” Finn extracted his hand from the man’s and pushed his way through the spectators. Beyond them, Finn scanned the empty street.

Kyen stood several stone’s throws down the road. His head turned this way and that towards the empty roofs and clear skies.

Finn dashed down the road to join him. “Kyen, what is it?”

Kyen stopped, his vacant eyes straying further down the road.

“Kyen? I said, ‘Kyen!'”

“Hm…?” His gaze drifted over to Finn’s face. “Oh. Hello, Finn.”

“What are you looking at?” Finn gazed up at the rooftops.

“What? Are we looking at something?”

“You were looking at something.”

“I was?”

“What did you see?”

“I don’t know.” Kyen squinted up with Finn. “What are we looking at again?”

“Never mind. Come on.” Finn walked off.

The two friends walked back up the road, skirting around the crowd outside the inn, ignoring the whispers and stares that followed them. Finn walked past them all and re-entered the city square.

“Where are you going? The Wheatberry is that way.” Kyen pointed over his shoulder.

“I don’t want to go back there.”

“Too much charisma?” Kyen grinned. “You probably won yourself a wife with that rescue. That maiden will be sweet on you forever.”

“Shut up. I’m not in the mood.”

The two friends crossed the city square to where the castle’s gatehouse waited. The yellowing arc hung low over the rooftops behind them. Kyen’s statue threw a long black prong that jabbed towards the gatehouse’s arch. The two guards nodded to Kyen and Finn as they entered the gate tunnel. Kyen nodded back, but Finn slunk past without looking at them.

A drawbridge, spanning a moat, reached to another gatehouse and the castle’s inner wall. With the deepening shadows, the gate tunnel seemed a gloomy mouth, the teeth of the portcullis protruding above and the drawbridge extending out like a tongue. Chill vapors rose off the moat. Their boots clunked on the wood as they walked.

Finn stopped in the middle of the drawbridge.

Kyen, when he noticed, looked back.

Finn stared up at the tunnel. Desperation shone bright in his eyes. “Can’t you tell dad the griffin ate me?”

Kyen smiled. Returning to Finn, he said, “Your father is aging. If you don’t accept the crown, it will pass to one of your sisters. Do you really want that responsibility to fall on them?”

“Well, thanks. That lightens my burden.” Finn skulked over to glower into the moat.

Kyen followed him.

“My sisters would do a better job ruling the kingdom than me anyway,” said Finn.

Kyen stooped. Picking up a pebble from the drawbridge, he offered it to Finn.

Finn took it and hurled it with a violent snap of his arm.

They watched it sail through the air.

It plunked into the water.

“I just don’t want to screw up!” said Finn. “I screwed up today. I sent everyone outside into danger. I engaged the griffin without an effective weapon—or even a plan. Talk about being an idiot! People could have died. You could have died!”

“Nobody did, though.”

“Only because you had my back.”

“Exactly,” said Kyen. He put a hand on Finn’s shoulder. “You won’t be doing this alone. When you’re king, I’ll still have your back. As often as you like. You’ll have your father—may he live many long years—at your side, to train you, counsel you, guide you while you’re a young king. And you have your sisters. You’ll never be short of counsel.”

“And my chief duty as king will be to argue with them all,” said Finn. “My sisters have differing opinions on everything!” He bent to snatch up another pebble.

“Much of it full of wisdom and insight,” replied Kyen.

Finn, arm upraised for another throw, halted. He lowered his arm instead, turning the pebble over in his fingers. After a moment, he let it drop back onto the drawbridge.

“You’re right.” Finn sighed. He turned back towards the castle, walking with his head still hung.

The two swordsmen passed under the arch of the last gatehouse and came out into the bailey—the courtyard between the walls and the castle keep. The road at their feet cut across a wide grassy lawn before meeting the broad steps and the double doors of the keep. The setting Arc cast the height of the keep in orange while leaving the rest of the courtyard in a cool, dim twilight. One of the double doors of the keep stood open. 

At the foot of the steps walked a man not much taller than Finn but twice as broad. He wore rich velvet robes with a griffin—King Veleda’s Crest—embroidered on the corners. Age had faded his red hair and wiry beard to a dull, brick red. Clinging to two of his fingers, a little girl with flaming red hair walked with him.

“Dad!” Finn’s face broke into a grin when he saw them. He ran to meet them.

Kyen hung back, smiling.

Another red-haired girl poked her head around the open door.

Her face lit up with a cry of: “Finn’s here!” She bound down the steps to meet him. A stream of young girls poured from the open door behind her. Finn skidded to a stop in the dust when he saw them. 

“Finn!”

“It’s Finn!”

“He’s back!”

The girls’ cries rang through the courtyard as they swarmed him. Each had long, flowing locks in various shades of red: from deep auburn to strawberry blond and every hue in between.

“Did you find a princess to marry?”

“Will you play dolls with me?”

“Have you missed us?”

“Did you bring me any presents?”

“You look taller. Did you grow an inch?”

“No, he looks the same to me!”

“It’s brother! He’s back!”

“Finn! Finn! Finn!”

Finn looked from one sister, to the next, to the next, opening his mouth, but not a word escaped before the next question assaulted him. He shut his mouth and began doling out hugs.

King Veleda, smiling on them, walked up to Kyen. Finn’s tenth sister kept hold of her dad’s fingers. She stared at Kyen with wide eyes.

“Welcome, Kyen,” said the king.

“Thank you, your majesty.” Kyen dipped his head respectfully.

“Can you welcome our guest, Adelaide?” King Veleda smiled down on his youngest daughter.

Half-hiding behind the king’s leg, she waved her fingers.

Kyen made a gallant bow. “Thank you, Princess Adelaide.”

Adelaide hid her face in the king’s hand.

The king chuckled at her. He turned to Finn.

Finn stood, blushing in embarrassment, as his many sisters chattered away around him. They’d begun arguing over whether or not Finn had found a princess to wed while the two youngest demanded piggyback rides.

“You’ve returned my son whole and unscathed by the looks,” said King Veleda.

“As you charged me, your majesty,” replied Kyen.

“I feel a deep gratitude for your service to him,” said the king. “Touring the land, experiencing life beyond the castle, benefiting from your friendship and experience—you’ve done all Veleda a great service. My boy will become a better king because of it. Ah—”

“Come on! Get off! Enough’s enough!” Finn attempted to shoo off his sisters and part a pathway through them. They crowded closer. One jumped on his back.

King Veleda chuckled and exchanged a smile with Kyen. “That is, Kyen, you have my thanks.”

“You’re welcome, your majesty.”

Finn, finally extracting himself from his sisters, narrowly escaping their catching hands, dashed over.

A chorus arose behind him.

“Look, Kyen’s come with him!”

“It’s Kyen!”

“Kyen!”

Kyen paled. “Oh no.”

King Veleda chuckled, watching the warrior back away as the gaggle of red-headed maids closed in on him.

Finn, slightly out of breath, stopped next to his father as Kyen bolted.

Kyen fled on to the lawn with a stream of little girls on his tail. The girls spread out, circling around Kyen, closing in on him.

Kyen turned back, jogging a few steps backwards, watching the girls surround him. They dove, chased, and lunged, but Kyen ducked, weaved, and dodged each attempt to tag him. Their voices carried across to where Finn and the king stood watching.

“Hold still!”

“That’s alright. I’m quite fine as is.”

“You’re too fast!”

“No, thank you, I don’t need a hug.”

“It’s not fair!”

“You don’t receive welcomes very graciously, Kyen!”

Little Adelaide left her father’s hand and ran out to join the game.

“It’s good to have you home, son,” said King Veleda. 

“It’s good to be back,” said Finn, with a genuine grin.

They both turned their attention to Kyen. One of the older girls snuck up and tried to grab him from behind. Without a backwards glance, he jumped aside at the last moment, leaving the girl to clasp empty air.

“How is he?” asked King Veleda.

Finn sighed. “It’s getting worse.”

King Veleda nodded.

“I’m afraid for him,” said Finn. “Especially if he wanders back into the wilds alone.” 

“A swordsman of his talents never lacks usefulness. Would he stay on at Castle Veleda if I asked him?” asked the king.

“No…” Finn shook his head. 

“Perhaps I’ll offer just the same. We are the closest thing to family left to him now.”

“You can try.”

“Ladies!” King Veleda called. 

All the red-headed girls paused the chase to look to their father. 

“Come along!”

They all dashed back to regroup around Finn and king.

Still out on the lawn, Kyen slumped over to prop himself on his knees. He grinned at them as he tried to get his wind back.

Twilight was deepening into night around them. The king herded his flock of maids towards the doors of the keep.

The girls chattered incessantly.

“Are you here to stay, Finn?” asked Clarissa, the next oldest to Finn.

“How long? How long?” chimed in the twins – Elenora and Lionora.

“I’m here to stay for good this time,” said Finn.

 A chorus of “Yay!” and hand-clapping arose around him.

“Will you play dress-up with me and my dollies?” Adelaide tugged at Finn’s tunic.

“Uh… sure,” said Finn, looking embarrassed.

“And tea! Tea parties!”

“Inside, ladies, inside!” cried King Veleda. “Run ahead and see the servants prepare to accommodate Kyen as our guest.” 

Finn stood aside as his family mounted the steps to the door. He allowed his father to pass in first then waited patiently as all his many sisters streamed in after.

Finn turned to enter himself but stopped. He looked back.

The lawns and roadway stood empty in the twilight.

Finn growled in frustration. “Argh! I’ll be right there, dad!” He called through the doorway then dashed off down the path.

Ahead, the gatehouse guards were already lowering the outer portcullis for the evening. The clang of steel on stone rang out as Finn dashed across the bailey. His feet thunked against wood as he crossed the drawbridge. He pushed past a surprised guard and bound up the steps to the rampart of the outer wall. On the wall top, Finn leaned out between the merlons—the stone teeth—that rimmed the top of the outer wall.

“I hate it when he does this.” He scanned the empty city square below.

Past the square, far down the main highway stood Kyen like a miniature warrior on the street corner.

Finn cupped his hands to his mouth.

“KYEN!”

Kyen turned and waved.

Finn swung his arm over his head in response.

The distant warrior disappeared around the corner.

Slumping against the stones, Finn huffed a sigh and dangled his arms out over the wall.

“Ow!” Finn flinched. 

A tiny black dart protruded from his forearm. 

Finn frowned. He plucked it out of his skin. He held it up to the failing light.

As he did, all expression drained out of his face. His auburn eyes grew cold.

Clenching the dart in his hand, he turned to descend the steps.

On the far away road, Kyen walked. A cloth bundle lay unwrapped in his hand. In it nestled the black dart taken from the griffin. He looked at it long and hard with a grim set to his stormy eyes.

(Continue to Chapter 3 here!)

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Coming February 15, 2021!

The adventure is over.

Kyen’s companion, Finn, returns to Castle Veleda to prepare for his coronation, leaving Kyen to fade back into his life as a lone wanderer.

When Finn is attacked, it falls to Kyen to rescue his friend’s mind from the grip of a dark weapon—a relic of the Black War—wielded by a man calling himself the Kingmaster.

Kyen is joined by Princess Adeya of Isea whose desperate ambition to become a summoner is her only escape from an unwanted marriage; and by Prince Galveston of Eope whose sense of honor allies him with Kyen while he tries to court the unwilling princess. Together they search for the only way to restore Finn and stop the Kingmaster: finding the last, living summoner in Ellunon.

Yet, the Age of the Summoner ended years ago. With all the summoners lost, dead, or powerless, the Kingmaster’s dark strength keeps growing. Kyen realizes that —he may not only fail his friend, Finn—he stands to lose far more than his life as the Kingmaster’s plots close in around him.


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