THE CHRONICLES OF WARSHARD (book 3): ASHEN
Cold slithered across the bare nape of her neck. Adni shivered. A breeze inside the Cinder Mountains? Shadows fled from the flames of Renley’s torch. Fire licked the oil-slick rag wrapped around the long branch.
But Renley’s light wasn’t the only illumination.
Cool blue, like the sky, grazed the jagged cavern walls. Wet glistened on its surface, and thunder roared inside the tunnel system. Somewhere ahead, rapids pounded the rocks.
Finally, she thought, Father’s treasure hunt is almost over.
“Can you hear it?” Her father glanced over his shoulder. His gray beard strained over his face, stretched in a manic grin, its length only a reminder of how long it had been since they’d left home. Three? Four days?
“Rapids?” Renley’s voice seized with excitement. He didn’t see their father for what he was—a greedy madman.
Adni sighed, her breath fogging the cool autumn air. Only the bliss of a hot spring could ease the cold from her bones. After all, it had been months since they’d travelled to one.
Her fingers wrapped around the leather-strapped hilt at her waist – Adni’s eighteenth birthday present. For years, she’d longed for a sword like the knights of Salander. She’d escape from this wretched place and convince someone—anyone—to train her. Once she had the skills, she could join the Salander army, or even the King’s palace guard. She shook her head. After the Insane had been brought to justice ten years ago, there wasn’t much need for armies anymore.
“Yes! We’ve nearly arrived, my boy!” Her father lengthened his stride; flying past the pulley system on the opposite wall, the one delivering fresh rainwater to the nearby village. His fingers tightened around the map he clutched. The dozen gold and silver rings on his fingers winked in the torchlight.
Renley grinned over his shoulder at her. Adni quirked an eyebrow and grimaced. Renley humored their father far too much.
His grin dropped. The flames of his torch turned his green eyes into emerald fire. He turned back to the coming tunnel, a frown curving his wide mouth. Renley was only fifteen, three years younger than Adni. He didn’t understand the hundreds of trips that still waited him when treasure hunting stopped being fun.
“I knew today would end well when I heard songbirds this morning!” Her father rounded a bend in the rock.
They emerged in a large cavern, slick with mist from the pounding of a waterfall. At least it drowned out her father’s insane mumblings.
Her father, Bran, paused by the edge of an underground lake. The brilliant blue-green water twisted into violent waves as it fled down a tunnel near the entrance of the cavern. A jagged hole in the ceiling, just above the tip of the waterfall, blazed with sunlight.
Adni’s heart fluttered.
When was the last time she’d seen the sky? A week? A month? She couldn’t remember. Though several skylights could be found through the mountains, they hadn’t encountered any on their last few trips. She wasn’t lucky enough to have one near their home either.
Her father pumped a fist in the air. She imagined his hoot of impending victory. She bit her lip to keep from rolling her eyes. “It wasn’t ladylike,” her mother always said. Her fingertips brushed the red jewel of the amulet hung around her neck. The precious stone rested on her chest, nestled just below her collarbone. Her mother had given it to her so many years ago she could hardly remember its meaning any longer. Her siblings didn’t have one, but her mother insisted she never take it off.
She shook her head. Maybe father was right about one thing. Her mother had always been eccentric, even in her youth.
While her brother and father raced for the stairs carved into the curved cavern wall leading to the cliff from which the waterfall bubbled, Adni pulled her sword from its sheath.
If her father insisted on forcing her along every one of his journeys, she’d at least take the time to practice her swordsmanship on the open ledge.
The heavy metal pulled her left and right as she twisted it, awkward in her unpracticed hands. It was far different than the wooden sword she’d fashioned years ago from driftwood. Its edges weren’t as jagged, though they were certainly dull.
She narrowed her eyes at the uncooperative blade. She wouldn’t let her lack of strength stop her.
Adni spun, swinging her blade out. The weight tore her off balance. Her stomach flew into her throat, and her eyes widened as her boot caught on a rock.
Her elbows slammed against the rough stone floor.
“Ow.” She winced.
“Adni, what in blue skies are you doing down there?” Renley called over the thunder of the waterfall. He stood at the top of the steps, his eyebrows twisted with worry instead of amusement.
She glanced up, her cheeks burning. Damn. She had hoped they were too busy to see.
“Nothing!” Adni shook her head, her shoulder-length black hair flicking her cheeks. She stood quickly, dusting her thick trousers. Damp clung to her knees.
Renley waved her up the steps.
Adni nodded, but she was in no rush. While Renley disappeared back over the cliff side, Adni sucked in a deep breath. Cold hair filled her lungs. She needed to get used to the weight of her blade. Swinging her sword left and right, Adni steadied herself on the edge of the lake. How else was she going to join the Salander guards and be free of this mountain?
Her heart ached for the thick pine forests and open plains of the six kingdoms where her fondest childhood memories dwelt. It had been far too long since she’d lived in Warshard.
Adni wandered closer to the steps, bending her knees as she parried a non-existing enemy. The blade cut through the air, the metal glinting in the sunlight. She smiled. Her fingers tightened around the hilt. She could do this. She could learn. The native clansmen knew how to fight. Though they usually stuck to their bows and arrows, they were unbelievably fast with a dagger. Someone would teach her. And then she would go. She’d return to the home the Insane Queen ripped away from her ten years ago.
“Adni!” her father bellowed.
She winced. Cold seeped through the warmth blossoming in her chest. She bit back a snarl and sheathed her blade. Damn him, and his treasure hunts. Damn him and his constant need for her presence. Damn him, and everything he made her do.
Adni trudged up the slick stone steps, ready to share her irritation loudly with her father. He’d probably found his treasure and was ready to head home. Only he needed to gloat first of course. He always needed to gloat. Heat boiled through her limbs and tightened her fists.
She reached the top of the steps and froze.
The cliff side was flat and wide. The river leading to the waterfall disappeared into a narrow mouth at the far side of the cliff. Only blackness waited inside.
Where was the treasure?
Her stomach turned. If her father didn’t find the treasure, she’d wish for his gloating, for his rage was second to none.
“Where is it?” her father screamed. His shouts echoed in the hollow cavern, carrying his words back to her over and over until they rung in her ears.
She gritted her teeth. Damn.
“I’m sure it’s here somewhere,” Renley said. His brows turned up as he glanced between them, frantically searching for what to do.
How could she tell him there was nothing to be done? If father’s map lied, and there was no treasure to be found, the best they could do was flee before their father lashed out. Her cheek ached at the memory of his hand on her flesh from the last time he’d been disappointed.
Adni stepped up beside her brother. Her fingers brushed the fur wrapping the wrists of his jacket—similar to her own. His gaze met hers, and his lips pressed into a thin line.
Maybe he was old enough to remember their father’s rage.
“The map is very clear!” Bran twisted to face them, his eyes wide and wild with lust for riches. His teeth gnashed together as he ripped the twine from the parchment. He splayed it between his hands. “It should be here!”
Light filtered behind the map, showing her every detail her father saw. The twisting tunnels, large caverns, waterways, and clues. She couldn’t quite recall where he’d gotten the map, but the waterfall gushing beside a large X was unmistakable. They were at the right spot, with no treasure in sight.
“Maybe we took a wrong turn,” Renley began hesitantly.
“There was no wrong turn!” he hissed. His face twisted in a snarl, fist clenched in front of him. His gaze flickered to Renley before falling back on his map.
Adni narrowed her eyes as she stepped in front of Renley. Her heart clenched with a need to protect her kin. Their father’s gaze didn’t rise from the page. He spun in every direction, looking at the map in every possible light.
“Head back to the camp,” Adni whispered over her shoulder.
Renley’s eyebrows rose as he met her concerned gaze. “What? I can’t leave father now.”
Renley shifted from foot to foot, humming and hawing. “Fine.” He spun for the steps and descended slowly, as if a thousand boulders lay on his shoulders.
She smiled. Ever the drama queen.
While her father’s shuffling and muttering continued, Adni watched her brother go. Someone had to stay with their father and be sure he didn’t hurt himself again. She moved to the edge of the waterfall, pushing her bare fingers into her pockets. Water sprayed a mist at the base of the falls, fogging the edge of the clear water.
Sunlight glazed the surface, a startlingly beautiful mix of greens. She revelled in the sun warming her cheeks, and turned her face to the skylight.
“Where is it?” her father’s shout broke her reverie.
Her full lips twisted into a frown. She opened her clear blue eyes. Her mother always said her eyes might as well be the winter sky.
She looked back down into the lake below, ignoring her father’s fury. Though it appeared still, the twisting current at the far end meant it was anything but. The underwater channel would be a dangerous one. She was sure many had lost their lives thinking it was simply a pretty pool to swim in.
“What is that?”
Adni glanced at her father. He leaned close to the edge, peering over her shoulder. His eyes widened as he leered into the clear depths.
She followed his gaze. Just in front of the waterfall’s spray, something gold glistened at the bottom of the lake. She raised an eyebrow.
Could it be the treasure?
“You found it, my girl.” His mouth stretched into a grin so wide his upper gums showed—pink and red, blotchy with color, just like his yellow, rotting teeth. “My good little Adanza.”
Her nostrils flared. No one used her full name, not unless her father was drunk on the thrill of the hunt.
His fingers clamped down on her shoulders, digging into her skin even through the thick fur trim of her hood. He squeezed, pinching her skin.
She winced, and tried to step away. He held too tightly.
“You’ve always been my special little girl.” His dark gaze shifted from the pool to her face. With his smile so wide, and his face this close, his wrinkles were far more apparent. “You’ll survive it.”
Her eyebrows furrowed. Survive it?
His fingers left her shoulders before his palms slammed into her back. Her breath fled her lungs and her eyes widened. The dark cliff side fell away. Her feet met air. The green-blue water flew up at her, gold glinting just below the surface.
Her heart rose into her throat where a scream ripped free. She hardly heard her father’s cackle above the roaring in her ears.
Her whole body froze as pain and cold slapped her like the hand of winter itself.
Read Ashen for FREE with Kindle Unlimited or buy on Amazon now!