Grace has always been there for her mother, ever since she was old enough to bite the legs of those thugs and leeches that called themselves lovers. Ever since she was old enough to understand the world in a way her mother never would.
Now, she comes home every winter with blood money from a year of running with a band of sellswords. No more scrounging in midden heaps and cutting purses for a low court lord to survive the lean months.
But this year, home is as dangerous as the battlefield. Tensions are running through the street courts of her old slums, while a new and daunting lover has confounded her safeguards and gotten at her mum–and now they’re all tangled in a vicious turf war.
Is one lone mercenary enough to protect her own? Can she trust anyone else to do the job?
Grace the Mace – Excerpt II
Cresting a rise, Dalvin called for a rest. Stepping to the wooded side of the path, she cast about for a rock or log to sit on. Selecting a moss-covered lump of firm but indeterminate nature, she sipped from her water flask. Vec leaned against a tree nearby, studying the terrain ahead of them.
Their path wound down between lower foothills, with grasslands sloping to the east, and rocky woodlands rising to the west. The path, its track either faintly visible or painted by Grace’s fancy, rose up through a multi-green patchwork of farmland, then to a walled city, dark on its hilltop.
She breathed in deeply, and the open mountain air smelled sharply of conifers and matted late-autumn leaf litter, of the grasses to the left of their path, of good earth and damp stone and the age of the hills themselves. She didn’t mind cities, with their closeness, commerce, and crowds, but they smelled worse than a soldiers’ camp: stale with the stain of humanity.
Even so, she didn’t mind occasionally trading the freshness for walls and a real mattress. She studied the city in the middle distance. “We’ll make that by, what, early evening? Early enough to resupply and still have plenty of time for drinks and dice?”
Vec looked up at the sun, two hours past its zenith. “If we’re brisk, and if you don’t dally here.”
She took one final swallow and stood, shifting her pack’s strap from one shoulder to the other. “Let’s haul.”
They were still several days north of Urynad, but they’d started early enough to keep ahead of winter’s onset. Grace’s back and shoulders ached under the weight of her pack, its strap digging into her shoulder and chest. Her face and hands stung with cold, and her feet ached in spite of a good pair of boots. Wish I had a horse, she thought, stretching with a sigh. Or at least a pack-mule. She’d been taught how to care for either, and even knew a bit of her way around mounted warfare, but she wasn’t even close to having the money for any such thing.
Even so, she grinned up at the birds that flew in wedge-formation, arrowing their way to warmer lands. The day was crisp and beautiful, her body was young and strong and hale, she’d eaten breakfast and lunch and marched now towards drinks and dinner. Mounts and packhorses or none, hers was about as good a life as any but nobles and merchants could expect.
Vec let out a gusty sigh as they reached the lowest point, his eyes tracking up over the foothills before them.
“Tired, old man?” Dalvin grinned across at him. “Need me to take your pack?”
He snorted. “I wouldn’t say no. But nay, I’m just not looking forward to going home. Don’t mishear me; I like walls and a hearth in winter as much as the next fellow. Even the herbs that old woman stinks the place up with aren’t so bad after a few days, and she can patch up a fever right well enough, which is a boon.” He made a face. “She’ll just be expecting me to go to market for her, and gather any winter herbs, and take care of the firewood. And I’m not looking forward to any winter babes. You’d think people would want to bear their children in the comfort of their own home, but not everyone does. All that, and the only pub of any real size is a two hours’ walk from our door.”
The girl grimaced. “At least I’ve got a city, or I’d go snow-mad. Village folk are such skittish, clumsy fawns. Why do you keep going back?”
The older mercenary shook his head. “It’s where I’ve got to go. I haven’t had a lady for years now, and who’s got the coin to hole up in an inn for a whole season? I talk like I want her to pop off, but once she’s gone, I’ll be one of the poor sons of famine who winters with the band.”
“Your mum’s not passing you the house?”
He shook his head. “That’s going to her apprentice, along with all her coin, she’s made clear to me every winter for the past ten years. Anyway, I wouldn’t have any means to keep the place up in the other seasons. Will you get your Mum’s place?”
Dalvin grunted. “I hadn’t thought about it. I expect she’s willed it to me, but I should probably make sure.” Their one-room house and the small garden around it was one of the few things that had always been there, through thin and thinner; that precious wood-and-plaster barrier between starving on the streets and simply starving. Mum had gotten it when her own da died, and it had never been sold, because without it, she could grow no flowers, and without flowers, she wouldn’t have even the slim trickle of income that she did manage. Paying the taxes on the thing had been an annual miracle.
“I don’t know what I’ll do with it,” Grace realized aloud, “once it’s mine. I guess I’ll just sell it.” Once it’s mine. She took a deep breath against the strange stitch in her chest. She didn’t like to think of losing that one thing she’d never lost. She didn’t like to think of losing Mum. “Ah, what am I saying? I’m a soldier of fortune. I’ll die long before she does.” That brought another odd stab with it. Who will look after her, then? Who will bring home coin to stretch through the winter?
“That’s what I thought, too, when I first ran off to join the Yaa army,” Vec was saying, chuckling. “I was, what—fifteen? I figured I’d fall young and handsome in a hail of javelins. And here I am, near on three decades later, marking my kill-count in dozens instead of ones, and I’ve not lost so much as a limb.” He snapped his fingers. “Chance’s Fair Daughter must like me.”
The girl shook her head sadly. “The Fair Daughter has poor taste.”
He smiled sideways. “No poorer than you.”
She smirked. “I’ve never boasted of my taste in anything but weapons, armor, and teachers.”
“Oh, you only want me for my skills, is that it?”
Dalvin swatted his arm, the muscles of it hard as packed earth. “Of course. Winner takes all. And I want to be the winner, so you’ll show me what you know.”
He grinned, reaching up to straighten his headband. “You’re as strong as any youth I’ve known, girlie, and more skillful than most your age. They think they know all they need know, already. You’re always scrabblin’ for more and better; I’ve seen it, even before you turned to me. If you do live, you’ll have a real name.”
“I’ve already got one.” She smiled. “Grace the Mace.”
“It’ll do.” The older merc scratched at his stubble. “Aye; it’ll do, and folk will learn it. You move like a waterfall—the fearful sort. Not that you don’t have plenty room to learn.”
Her smile grew more satisfied. “Aye, sure,” she said to both sentiments. Not knowing how else to take the praise, she fell silent as they began to pass farms and orchards.
After talking about other people and their works for as long as I have, I’m not sure how to say this, but…
It’s mine! That’s the work of Tirzah Duncan, my own self. That’s the from my novella. Here’s the opening.
Another excerpt to follow!
Cover reveal to follow!