QSFer Arshad Ahsanuddin has a new queer fantasy book out, Book One in the Secret Histories series: “The First Age.”
Mikal despised the idea of working with an Imperial, for reasons both personal and political, but only the invaders’ magic could repair the artifact weapon that was the last link to a family he’d left behind.
Rian was a magician by trade, trying to escape the obligations of his noble birth, and the life his family planned out for him. Living incognito at the border of Imperial territory, he found his solitude interrupted by a mysterious visitor with an impossible commission.
Their meeting will set in motion a chain of events that will irrevocably alter everything they know of the world, and set their two civilizations on a course to ruin.
Mikal chose his steps with care on the rain-slicked rocks above the steep gorge. He pulled his green leather jacket tighter to keep out the cold drizzle. One last barrier ward to verify and then I can go home to something hot by the fire. Why did I ever want this job anyway?
“You did volunteer,” said the voice in his head.
Mikal shrugged. “I wanted to do my part, I guess, and keep the Empire from encroaching on the Heartwoods. I just didn’t realize being a border warden would be so much damn work.”
“You are the first line of defense between our land and theirs. Don’t underestimate your importance. You know how destructive they can be if they decide they want something from you.”
Mikal drew up short and stood perfectly still, his mother’s face flashing into his mind. “Yes, I do.”
The voice apparently saw it, too. “Hatred can be hot enough to temper your spirit and make you stronger, Mikal. But it can also burn you to a cinder, if you let it.”
Mikal snorted. He was just framing his reply, when the ground shifted abruptly under his feet. Off balance, he grabbed for a low hanging branch from one of the scrub trees at the edge of the gorge.
Unable to regain his footing, he pitched forward and tumbled off the precipice into the open air below.
It was a good dream, as dreams went, but Mikal wasn’t fooled. He watched his father and mother laugh together at a private joke. His younger brother Jasra doled out mulled wine to the other guests at the party, pausing occasionally to take a sip for himself when their mother wasn’t paying attention. Mikal smiled woodenly as family friends and well-wishers came forward to congratulate him.
He was twenty years old today. A milestone by any measure. He wanted to join in with the laughter that surrounded him, a celebration of his life and a prayer for good fortune on the road ahead. He wished he could let himself go and fly upon the winds of the good cheer and revelry, but something tethered him to the earth, a deep misgiving he couldn’t name. Something was wrong with this picture, but what?
Then his mother took up her harp and ran her fingers expertly across the strings, picking out a sparse but elegant melody as she raised her voice in song. It was an old tune, a ballad of the West from long before the war, lofty in sentiment but bittersweet in light of everything that came after.
Mikal’s heart beat louder as he gazed at her, overwhelmed by how much he loved her, loved his brother and his father, loved that they were all together and happy. It was perfect.
Which is how he knew it wasn’t real.
Mikal woke, the dream slipping away in tatters of regret. He squeezed his eyes closed against the throbbing pain in his left temple, then finally squinted out of one eye to get a sense of his surroundings. He was lying in a narrow gully below a wall of broken stone to his left. Slowly, he tried to move. His limbs obeyed him, although sluggishly. The pain across his left side remained dull, suggesting he didn’t have any broken bones, but he’d be feeling the bruises for a few weeks.
Struggling to his feet, he glared at the sky, blinking away the droplets of water as it began to rain in earnest. Mikal fastened his jacket against the wetness, but he was already soaked through. He would need to get warm, and soon, or he’d have a serious problem in the cold autumn weather. He automatically reached over his left shoulder for the oiled canvas wrap to shield his bow from the elements, and then he went abruptly still when his hand failed to connect with anything.
He couldn’t have lost the bow. It’s all I have left.
He tried to remember if he’d let go of it when the trail above him had given way. Maybe it’s still up top. He gauged the distance he’d fallen. It wasn’t too bad a climb, if he could get enough purchase on the slippery granite. He took one step toward the wall, stopping when he heard a sharp crack. Lifting his foot, he found a long fragment of broken wood. Heartwood yew, definitely not local to this area. He immediately dropped to his knees and shifted the sodden leaves from where he had lain. His treasured hunting bow lay on the ground where he had apparently landed upon it, the braided steel string hanging loose from the upper span, which was bent into an acute angle, the fractured wood sharp against his questing fingers.
For a moment, he just sat there, overcome with grief. It was too much. After everything he had lost and then given away, to lose this last reminder of who he had been was a devastating blow.
The rain had slackened, but new tears wet his face. He slowly gathered the broken pieces together and wrapped them in the canvas cover that lay in the dirt next to him. Then he got to his feet. Clutching the fragments of his past to his chest, he reached out with his mind. “Help me.”
The familiar voice answered immediately, a soft rustle at the back of his mind. “The damage is too extensive for you to repair on your own. You’ll need assistance, if you can stomach your hatred long enough to seek it out.”
Mikal’s lip curled in distaste as he understood. “Just tell me where to go.”
“You know where.”
Mikal turned to face the east, toward the nearest settlement.
Toward the Empire.
I’m going to regret this.
He squared his shoulders and began to walk.
Arshad Ahsanuddin is a Hematopathologist, a type of laboratory physician specializing in diagnosis of diseases blood, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. He also writes LGBT vampire novels, without a trace of irony. If you enjoyed this work, drop him a line at his website: http://pactarcanum.com
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