December 2022 Newsletter
THE HERETIC ROYAL
Available December 27, 2022!
“Seven thousand years?” Ainsley asked. “You and your tribe have been nursing a grudge for seven thousand years? Really?”
“Yes. Really. It’s my job. I am—”
“The Grudge Holder. Yes. I…heard that part.” She shrugged, suddenly depressed. “At least you have a job. Apparently, I don’t deserve a job because I’m weak and pathetic. I don’t deserve to live because I didn’t fight back against Beatrix when I was still in my crib.”
“Is that what your sisters actually said?”
“It was close.”
He scoffed and flashed that damn smile again. Ainsley had only ever seen him glare or roll his eyes. No one who looked that angry should have a smile so powerful. The smile didn’t make him appear any less angry, but it did make him damn gorgeous.
“You know,” he said, “you don’t have to wait until someone gives you a job. I was holding grudges long before I was given the title.”
“That sounds great, but Gemma never lets me do anything. She barely lets me out of her sight.” She paused a moment before adding, “Except when they’re completely ignoring my existence on the planet and could not care less what I’m up to.”
Ainsley relaxed her shoulders and elaborated, “You know, I followed Gemma to her monastery, fought in a battle that decimated three-quarters of her brotherhood, and came home alive…and no one in my family even noticed I’d been gone. Gemma barely noticed I was there when it was happening. It was Quinn who watched my back. Keeley didn’t even realize I wasn’t around for all that time, and she watches my other siblings like a hawk. My sisters hate me, don’t they?” she finally asked out loud.
“They don’t hate you,” he argued. “I know hate. Revel in it like good-fitting armor. There’s no hate there. Although I do sense irritation.”
“I don’t know why. I’m delightful.”
“Except maybe when you tell your monk sister she’s just a puppet for the gods. I could see how that would get on her nerves.”
“All I do is ask questions.”
“Leading questions. When you aren’t outright saying that she’s stupid.”
Ainsley cringed. “Am I really that bad?”
“Couldn’t even lie to me, eh?”
“I’m known for many things, but lying isn’t one of them. Which is why I can tell you that sitting around, waiting for your sisters to give you a job, is not what I’d call a wise course of action.”
“I followed Gemma into battle without asking first. And then returned to fight in the battle against Cyrus the Honored—”
“I remember. You were good.”
“I was. But still, they treat me like I’m…” She searched for the right word.
“Their younger sister?”
She nodded. “Exactly. One moment, they’re ordering me to shoot arrows into someone’s chest. The next, they’re acting like I still can’t put on my own boots without their help. It’s infuriating.”
“Then take your own path. Find your own way. Stop asking for permission. Definitely stop hiding in trees when they hurt your feelings.”
“I wasn’t hiding.”
“What would you call it, then?”
“Getting a few moments to myself.”
She glared at him across the small space between them.
“Let me guess,” he teased, “you liked it better when I just grunted?”
Gruff didn’t know why he’d felt the need to have a discussion with Princess Ainsley, but he was glad he had. Despite his throat being sore from so much conversation, he enjoyed seeing her smile again. To see her happy. It was a nice change of pace.
She started to ask him something but stopped when they both heard a strange, mournful noise coming from deeper in the woods.
“Oh, no,” she gasped after listening to the sound for a few more seconds. “That’s Gemma’s horse.”
Gruff raised a brow. “Horses don’t sound like that.”
“Ones that were dead and brought back to life by necromancers do.”
He scowled at the mention of that poor animal. It was some undead thing that the queen and her monk sister refused to put down. He didn’t know why. It was barely alive. In fact, at least half of it wasn’t alive at all. Then he’d heard that Brother Gemma had been trained in necromancy before he’d actually seen her in action. He’d watched her raise gutted soldiers from the dead so they could briefly fight for their side. “Briefly” being the key word. Not long after running into a group of their enemies and proceeding to tear them apart with bare hands, those things would crumble into a small pile of bones and goopy remains that would be finished off by crows and vultures. But apparently something had “gone wrong” with that horse. It had not died. Instead, half of it looked alive and healthy and the other half…did not.
His tribe avoided the thing at Sarff’s suggestion. Not that any of them wanted to be around something half-dead. But Gruff believed it should be put down. Humans did it when a horse broke its leg. Why wouldn’t they do the same thing for that poor half-dead animal?
Princess Ainsley got to her feet and made her way deeper into the woods, following the sound. Gruff, of course, followed her. Not because he’d been commanded to keep an eye on her, but because he didn’t want to find her half-eaten remains a few hours from now. He liked the moody royal. In a completely platonic way…in case anyone asked.
As they came around an extremely wide tree that had probably grown in the forest since the beginning of time, they both came to an abrupt stop. Silently, they watched the half-dead horse walking through the woods. Next to it was the Mad Queen of Garbhán Isle.
It seemed the foreigner needed to get away from the princess’s family too. But to spend that time with a half-dead animal. . .?
Gruff shuddered a little, and it must have been more noticeable than he thought because both the half-dead horse and the Mad Queen stopped walking and looked over at them.
“Should I run?” Princess Ainsley asked quietly through gritted teeth. “I feel like I should run.”
He understood that feeling. Reason told him to grab the royal and bolt as if an army of demons were right behind them. But the prey animal inside him, the one Gruff trusted above all else, told him he was safe.
He didn’t understand that. How could it think either of them was safe from those two…things?
When the half-dead and the mostly crazed simply stared at them, Princess Ainsley cleared her throat and said, “Everything all right, Your Majest—”
The Mad Queen’s glower was so brutal that Gruff understood why the princess’s words stumbled to a stop before she tried again. “Everything all right…” She swallowed, before finishing with a high-pitched, “Annwyl?”
The Mad Queen’s face relaxed and she tossed her head to get the hair out of her eyes.
“Everything is fine,” she replied, moving around the horse and stroking the side of the face that hadn’t decayed so badly one could see the horse’s teeth. “I found her going somewhere and I wanted to make sure she was all right.”
The half-dead horse gently pushed past the queen and continued on.
“I think she’s looking for something,” she said, again following.
“We should go with them,” Princess Ainsley told Gruff.
“I can go. You should go back and tell your sisters—”
But she was already following behind the half-dead horse and the Mad Queen. Completely ignoring her own safety, and irritating him beyond reason.
Yes. She was very good at being irritating.
“Which sister are you again?”
“I’m Ainsley. Fourth oldest.”
Annwyl the Bloody glanced back at her. “The archer, yes?”
“Um…yes. How did you hear about that?”
“I hear about lots of things. When you’re insane, no one thinks you’re listening.”
That was such a strange comment, Ainsley didn’t know how to respond. So she didn’t.
“What’s this horse’s name?” the royal asked.
“Kriegszorn. She’s my sister Gemma’s horse.”
“So the monk is a necromancer.”
Ainsley blinked. She didn’t know how the queen had made such a leap.
“Don’t worry,” the Mad Queen went on. “I don’t judge. My son is a necromancer. And we’ve had more than one of his failures running around our home. The worst, though, was the headless dog. I don’t know what happened there. And it just wouldn’t die. But it had no head, so the hole—” She moved her hands around her neck. “I guess, where the food goes down… it developed teeth and some fangs. And it would just eat scraps off the floor…without its head.”
Her entire body shuddered, and she waved her hands as if trying to dispel the memory. “I finally told my son, ‘I don’t care what you do with it, my lad, but you get it the battle-fuck out of my house.’ The next day it was gone, and I was never so grateful.” She shuddered again.
The queen looked back at Ainsley and added, “I must say, I’m very glad this one has her head.”
Unable to hide the disgust in her voice and, probably, on her face, Ainsley replied, “Me too.”
Gruff was glad when the horse finally stopped walking because that meant the horrifying discussion the Mad Queen was having with Princess Ainsley also ended. He really needed that story to end.
They’d arrived next to one of the larger swamps located deep within these woods. For food and fresh water, everyone stuck to the rivers. Both human and centaur. Because the swamps could be dangerous. One never knew what was hiding in those murky waters. Or in the trees, for that matter. Lots of snakes lurked around and in these swamps. Small ones that had enough poison to take down an entire herd of his brethren; and long, wide ones that could coil around their victims to crush them before slowly swallowing them whole.
Like all horses and centaurs, Gruff did not like snakes.
Which meant he was more than ready to exit this part of the woods as quickly as possible. And was about to say as much when he heard a strange sound, different from the strange sounds the half-dead horse had been making.
It was small and if he didn’t have the superior hearing of a prey animal, he never would have heard it.
Shifting to his natural form, he slowly made his way to the edge of the swamp. Carefully, he leaned over, trying to get a fix on where that sound was coming from, when something sprang out of the dark water toward his face.
He didn’t bother to go for one of his weapons but simply caught the thing in his fist, squeezing tight, and forcing the snake’s mouth to remain open so it couldn’t sink its fangs into his arm. While the thing he held twisted and turned, trying to get away or, at the very least, poison him, another snake leaped from the water at Princess Ainsley. Before he could even call out a warning, she had her bow off her shoulder and an arrow nocked. He saw the snake flop back into the water, the royal’s signature shaft extending from the reptile’s throat.
One of the giant swamp snakes slithered out of the water and managed to wrap its upper body around the Mad Queen’s leg. She grabbed its head with both hands and forcefully pried its mouth open until she’d torn the jaw off. She let the rest of the snake’s body slip back to the ground, but she held on to that jaw with all its fangs. Gruff had a feeling part or all of those remains were going to end up in her armor or on the hilt of one of her swords.
Another small snake launched itself from the swamp right onto Brother Gemma’s half-dead horse. It dug its fangs into the thing, but after a few seconds, the snake fell off. Dead. Its body decaying right in front of them.
The half-dead horse, however…? She was fine. She didn’t even appear annoyed.
“I see something!” the princess called out before splashing into the swamp and wading over to some high grass.
“Princess Ainsley!” Gruff shouted. He charged in after her, catching her around the waist and lifting her out of the water, then quickly rushing out again. As Gruff moved, he sensed something leaping out at him, but before he could turn to deal with it, he felt a searing pain shoot across his backside. Just as quickly that pain was gone. When he was once again on land, he looked over his shoulder, expecting to see some poisonous snake attached to his ass, but instead there were whiffs of smoke drifting up from his hide. He could see that some hairs had been singed. Confused, his gaze moved to the Mad Queen. She was standing on the other side of the half-dead Kriegszorn and, with a shake of her head, she said, “Trust me, centaur. You do not want to know what just happened.” She stroked Kriegszorn’s head. “But you do owe this one your life.”
Deciding it was in his best interest to follow the Mad Queen’s suggestion, Gruff lowered the royal to the ground. Before he could yell at her never to do that again, she faced him, her hands cupped together. Smiling, she slowly opened them to reveal what she held.
“What the fuck is that?” he demanded.
“It’s a baby bird.”
The Mad Queen leaned in and, after taking look, grimaced and asked, “Is it?”