Here you can find an opening excerpt of “The Crimson League,” from Chapter 1, “Bedtime Story.” Great way to check out the novel and see what it’s all about, as it’s on sale January 1-11 for just 99 cents on amazon.com! For even more info, you can visit the NOVEL INFO PAGE here.
THE CRIMSON LEAGUE
The autumn wind’s whistle died with a choke as Kora Porteg slammed her brother’s window. The tattered curtains fell lifeless against the wall. Kora made no habit of attacking windows, not in the quaint little cottage she’d called home all her seventeen years, but she was alarmed, and bitterly disappointed, at the state of this particular one.
“For the last time, Zacry, you can’t leave your room open to the world.”
“Things aren’t that….”
“Things are that bad! You should know. You steal Mother’s paper enough.”
“I understand about half of the paper, they make everything so cryptic. And I haven’t snagged one in two weeks. She’s started torching them.”
Torching them was probably best, Kora thought as she watched Zacry climb, unrepentant, into bed. He spent most days sneaking away to find news of the resistance, though he managed to hide the pastime from most people, his mother among them. He went filling his head with heroics, and him only eleven…. His new hobby frightened Kora, who forced her demeanor and her voice into nonchalance.
“Father would want you to read. To read books.”
“Well, Father’s not here, is he?”
Kora’s normally pale complexion lightened two shades. She jumped at her brother’s statement, and a strand of chestnut curls fell from the bun at the back of her neck. She stared out at a robust harvest moon, which just allowed her to descry the line of the unpaved road to Hogarane, the nearest village. Then she drew the curtains closed.
“I’m sorry,” Zacry murmured to Kora’s back. “I shouldn’t have said….”
“Well, you, you’re right. But still, Zac!”
“Why don’t you tell me a story?”
Kora took a seat on the edge of the bed. “Will you pick up a book tomorrow? Not the paper?”
“Yes.” The surrender was guilt-won, but Kora accepted it.
“What story, then?”
Their father had told the tale many times when they were younger. Kora began the same way he always had:
“Centuries before you were born, the God-blessed kingdom of Herezoth….”
“God-forsaken’s more like it.”
“The God-blessed kingdom of Herezoth,” Kora continued, “was home to many sorcerers. You could always tell a sorcerer because he was born with a special mark.”
“That’s right. People say the mark was a triangle because to do sorcery, you needed three things: power, will, and knowledge. You had to be born with the power to cast spells, and not everyone was. You had to truly will the spell to be cast; you had to concentrate, to focus your mind on what you wanted. That applies to more than ancient magic, Zac.”
Zacry’s eye roll said Kora needn’t make her agenda more explicit; he’d promised to read a book, hadn’t he? And he went to school each day. Not that he had any other option beneath the new regime, but he worked diligently in lessons. His sister went on:
“Lastly, a sorcerer needed the right incantation. If he didn’t know that, he could want to cast the spell more than anything and possess the world’s strongest magic. It wouldn’t matter a jot. Some sorcerers specialized in writing spells, but that required an understanding of magic’s subtleties that only a few ever mastered.”
“What happened to the sorcerers?”
“At first they lived with the normal folk in peace. They kept to themselves. They had their own court, their own laws to govern magic. The Hall of Sorcery was high in the mountains, and people say only the magicked ever saw it. They say you needed magic to find the path up to the peak where the Hall’s tallest spire broke the clouds. The court’s members were called Councilors, and their most famous leader was Brenthor. He was a wise man, and just. People like us weren’t afraid to go to him, offering money for help or begging for his aid. To this day it’s said Brenthor honored every honest plea. That’s probably an exaggeration, but we know for a fact he used the money from those who paid him to build houses and grow food for the poor. He advised those sorcerers who wrote spells to put them down in books, which he stored in a library next to the Hall. The king himself asked Brenthor for advice, many times. It was Brenthor who led the king’s warriors when they put down the Sorcerers’ Revolt.”
Kora paused, waiting for Zacry to ask about the Revolt. The question came, and Kora pulled her brother’s blankets tight against him; he wiggled them loose as she said, “A sorcerer came before the magic court when Brenthor was off consulting with the king. This man’s name was Hansrelto, and he was cunning, proud, and cruel. He thought magic had dignity, and that Brenthor was wrong to serve the king, to sell incantations. A number of sorcerers thought like Hansrelto, and they rallied behind him, but it was Hansrelto by himself who showed up at the Hall. He knew Brenthor was gone, and that no one at the court could challenge him.
“Hansrelto wanted sorcerers to rule Herezoth. He asked the court to follow him in an attack on the king and Brenthor’s policies. Brenthor’s second-in-command, a young sorceress named Mayven, was in charge the day Hansrelto came. She debated him, she called his views maniacal, but because Hansrelto thought all magic users had rights, he cast no spell against her. He’d come to marshal the court, and he managed to take a third of its members with him when he left, blowing apart the doors and destroying the front-most pillars. Legend holds a corner of the building collapsed.
“Mayven understood how dangerous Hansrelto was. She wasted no time in uniting her sorcerers against him while Hansrelto terrorized the villages nearby, destroying homes, killing livestock, forcing the people to submit to his new order. Finally, Mayven’s army was put together. Brenthor took command when he returned with five thousand footsoldiers: the king had offered all assistance he could give. The battle took place at the foot of the mountains, and was bloody and long, and most of the magicked died. The ordinary soldiers fared little better. Only eight hundred survived, because Hansrelto cast devastating spells that took out people by the dozens. Brenthor triumphed in the end, but Hansrelto escaped to a nearby cave. Brenthor cast an enchantment on the entrance, a spell that would instantly kill Hansrelto if he walked out.
“Hansrelto died in his prison, but he had already damaged relations between the magicked and the world, damaged them beyond repair. Hansrelto changed how people thought of sorcery. They became scared. They saw what magic could do in evil hands. Brenthor’s bravery meant nothing to them, so they forgot it. Mayven’s body wasn’t found, but no one heard from her again. Most think Hansrelto injured her and she left the battle to die. Perhaps that was best, because anyone who could cast spells was shunned after the revolt. Using magic of any kind was grounds for death. The few sorcerers that were left hid themselves. Magic arts were lost to time, or so it seemed.”
“Until Zalski,” said the boy.
“Until Zalski. He was the son of the king’s chief adviser. He bribed the royal guards, as many as he could, offering positions of power. Some he threatened in secret. However he did it, he had enough support to overthrow the royals. No one stood against him, not when he started casting spells. That was just two years ago.”
“Two years,” mused Zacry. “I was nine. It seems longer than two years.”
“Of course it seems longer. He’s taken three-fourths of what we’ve earned for the past fifty months. It’s his way of keeping us weak, so we can’t rise up. Even down here he’s managed to get Farmer Byjon on his side, and since Farmer Byjon controls everything….”
“But people did rise up,” said Zacry. “You’ve seen the wanted posters: the Crimson League. They stopped that caravan of quartz from reaching Zalski three months ago. They’ve killed as many soldiers as they’ve lost.”
Kora shifted her weight from one side to the other. “They have courage,” she admitted. “The Crimson League is brave, if nothing else. And they deserve better than the deaths that wait for them. But if you don’t think Zalski has fifty men to replace every one they take from him….”
Zacry stared stubbornly at his sister, as he did every time this story devolved into the same argument. “I believe in them.”
“Just don’t believe too loudly, for all our sakes. Now, that’s enough for tonight. It’s late. Sleep well, Zac.”
Kora kissed her brother and went out to what passed for a sitting room, its wooden walls and floor bare except for a portrait of her family. Not long ago comfortable chairs had filled the space, and shelves where her parents displayed books and heirlooms, or the occasional vase of flowers. All had been sold, even the rug, everything but a small table and the portrait, where Kora’s father looked down to make her heart wrench each time her eyes met his. She found her mother seated on a stool, weaving.
“I need you to go to town this week.”
That caught Kora’s attention. “Into Hogarane? Alone?” She hadn’t walked to town by her lonesome since Zalski’s coup.
“The roads are still safe by day, despite what befell your….”
“I know what happened, Mother.”
“I hate to send you, but there’s no way around it. I’ve got too much to do here to go myself. I’ve fallen behind somehow, and the more time I can weave, the more cloth I’ll have to sell. I almost have enough to go to market. I have to make it there by the end of the month; we owe taxes on the fifth.”
“What do you need?” Kora asked.
“Flour, but no more than twenty cups. It spoils much too fast. And eggs, as many as you can get with what’s left over from the coin tin.”
“I don’t understand, did something happen at the general store?”
“Their chickens died. Some kind of disease spread through the coop. And then, the wheat here won’t be harvested for a fortnight. The word came out this afternoon.”
“What’s this, Monday? I’ll go on Wednesday.”
“Be back well before dark. Hours before, I mean it.”
Both women glanced at the portrait, and Kora assured her mother, “I won’t dally.”
“I know you won’t. That’s why I’m letting you go.”
Kora nodded, and lowered her voice. “Did you pick up the Letter today?”
“In the flour bin.”
“The flour bin?”
“I didn’t want your brother finding it. Throw it in the hearth when you’re finished.”
The Letter was the monthly paper of the resistance, known for its stories about those suffering under Zalski’s regime: disappearances, deaths, quiet arrests made public through no other forum. This issue’s featured story was that of a teenager forced to flee his home village up north after breaking an uncle out of jail. The man had been arrested for failure to pay taxes; neither he nor his nephew had been captured.
The boy Kora read about was only four years older than her brother. To contemplate that froze her heart, for Zacry’s thirst for news was turning into an obsession with the damn Crimson League. He was already darting off to places he had no business being on his way home from the schoolhouse. Kora followed him once out of curiosity, wondering what had been making him late. He went to the local tavern, crouched beneath the rear window to listen to conversations between the men who stopped in to complain to one another before they rushed home to families who never seemed to have quite enough food for a decent dinner. Perhaps, Kora thought, if they drank less at the tavern they might find larger portions waiting. But they needed to come together, to commiserate, and no one wanted old Dane, the barkeep, to starve.
Another story was about the Crimson League’s latest escapades.
The administration has been silent on the events of 1 October, but witnesses describe an ambush on one of Zalski’s fuel transports, which contained both wood and coal. The shipment’s destination is still unclear, but wherever it was going, it never arrived. Five masked men outside of Yangerton, ignoring the presence of two families returning to the city, attacked two soldiers moving three large crates. No deaths were reported, though the masked men, who declared themselves members of the Crimson League when they shot an arrow with a crimson-dyed feather into the transport wagon, took the crates.
Each month Kora expected the Letter to shut down, to fail to appear in the district, which would likely be the only sign when the army found its writers or its editors. After reading the current issue, as the kitchen stove was unlit, Kora watched the newsletter blacken and curl in the flames of the sitting room fire.
“I’m worried about Zac,” she said. Her mother barely looked up from her weaving. “He thinks of nothing but resisting. He only talks about the Crimson League. You heard him, he went on about them over dinner last night.”
“Don’t be too severe. He’s young, but he remembers better times; he’s old enough for that. I for one am glad he’s got a conscience.”
“He’ll get arrested. Maybe not until he’s my age, but mark my words….”
“That’s enough, Kora. Your brother has the sense to guard what he says in public. You can talk to him yourself if it’ll make you feel easier, but don’t chastise him. That’ll only make him worse. Now, help me straighten out these threads.”
Kora bumped the living room table, lifting one end off the floor.
“Careful! I know that isn’t your grandmother’s table, but I’ve grown fond of it.”
Kora took ten minutes to get the threads sorted, then announced, “I’m going to bed.”
“Me too. Take a glass of water to Zacry, won’t you? He forgot again to fix one.”
“He always does.” Kora poured the drink and eased open her brother’s door. The window she had slammed was shut no longer; the curtains billowed in the breeze. She glanced at the bed, and had light enough to see that no shadow of a head fell across the pillow.
Eavesdropping at the tavern by day was one thing. To sneak off to God knew where afterZalski’s curfew was another.
“Zacry Porteg, I’ll whip your hide I will.”
Kora placed the glass on the bedframe and climbed outside.
The night was cool and clear, the full moon high. Kora sprinted to the road, wondering which direction to take, but a cursory glance revealed a human shape just in her range of vision, heading toward the river, the Podra. She cursed beneath her breath and followed. Her legs were longer, and she overtook Zacry within minutes.
“What are you playing at?” she demanded.
Zacry looked at her in terror. “Don’t tell Mother!”
“Oh, stop it. You know I’m not a snitch. Just where do you think you’re going?”
“The riverbank. Opal….”
“Your friend from school?”
“Opal told me people hide stories for the Letter half a mile from the general store. In a tree, so they can’t be connected to anyone specific.”
“How would Opal know that?”
“Her father’s the local correspondent.”
Kora was stunned. “Opal’s father writes for the Letter?”
“A real important issue’s coming out,” said Zacry. “At least, Opal thinks one is, ‘cause her Pop’s been real nervous. Listen, he stores his work in that tree and someone from the paper picks it up. Let’s go look.” Kora’s eyes narrowed. Her brother sensed her reservation, for the night was too dark to read it plainly. “Please, Kora….”
“Oh all right. If it’ll stop you leaving home again as soon as I drag you back.”
They left the road to cut quicker to the Podra and found themselves in a wheatfield. The stalks, as tall as Zacry, closed them in. They walked in the harvesters’ lanes between the rows. Kora noted, “This is Farmer Byjon’s land. The tree’s on Farmer Byjon’s land?”
“It must be,” said Zacry. “Ha! I wouldn’t mind him taking the blame if Zalski gets his hands on an article.”
Farmer Byjon had a knack for muscling people out of the property he wanted. He kept a riverside path in good condition for public use—mainly to stem hostilities—but to skirt around his fields to find its start would take the siblings well out of their way.
“As long as Old Byjon doesn’t find us,” said Kora. And she felt an inexplicable tingling in her limbs, a sensation that had nothing to do with the farmer.
Kora yanked her brother to the dirt. Five seconds passed. Ten. She felt through the earth bodies coming from behind, shuffling through the wheat stalks. Nearer and nearer they came; were they walking in her row?
No, they were one lane over. A male voice spoke.
“Why does he want us searching the riverbank? It won’t be here.”
“No, it won’t, but I don’t ask questions. Neither do you.”
Kora heard an exasperated groan. A third voice said, “Let’s just get this done, shall we?”
A troop of six men passed on Kora’s left, two yards away. From the earth she could see their trousers, their boots, but not with any distinction. Her mind started racing: were these men soldiers? They moved with military discipline, and they looked to be wearing uniforms, dark army uniforms….
Then they were gone. Zacry hazarded a whisper.
“We have to get those notes.”
Opal’s father may have left no name on his documents, but he worked in the village as a scribe of legal proceedings, mainly property and tax transactions. His writing would give him away.
Kora and Zacry ran bow-backed after the soldiers, their heads below the level of the wheat. The troop moved without urgency, and the siblings circled around it to come upon the river through the fields. Brother and sister stepped as close to the edge of the last row of stalks as they dared, peering out to look for the proper tree while a cloud moved before the moon and gave them a bit more cover. One oak they passed, then another; the first was too thin to be the one they wanted, the second too solid. A bolt of lightning, however, appeared to have struck the third. Even in the dark, the damage was obvious.
The soldiers were catching up; Kora could hear them coming down the bank. Before she could yank her brother back, Zacry sprinted forward, still bent low, in a beeline for the tree. He took maybe five seconds to grab the papers, five seconds in which Kora failed to breathe, before he took off with his loot. Zacry angled his flight away from the approaching troop, to dive through the edge of the wheatfield thirty feet from his sister. Both of them lay flat. They could not leave; the uniforms were too close. Kora watched the men comb the burned and twisted trunk, watched them dig around the roots, but they never turned to the stretch of unharvested grain just to their left. Her heartbeat pounded inside her ears, and though she was certain the strangers would hear it, they did not.
Even when the troop moved on, Kora’s body felt tense and heavy. She and Zacry inched toward each other, and Kora nodded in silent approval of her brother’s daring. They made their way home without speaking a word, darting from landmark to landmark, constantly peering over their shoulders. Kora had never felt so relieved as when she closed Zacry’s window behind her. Her brother’s eyes were sparkling with excitement. He looked like he wanted to cheer.
“We did it!”
Kora collapsed on the bed, but she smiled at him, a forced smile. Part of her wanted to beat him senseless, but how could she, when his insanity had saved a good man’s life? “Give me the notes,” she said. Zacry clutched them to his chest. “I’m bringing them to Opal’s dad tomorrow,” she insisted. He handed them over. Curiosity got the best of her, and she was more disappointed than she would have thought to find them in shorthand, which she had never learned to read. She jumped to her feet, to bear down on her brother. “If you eversneak out again….”
“I couldn’t, could I? You’re gonna check every night.”
“Bet your bottom I’m gonna check.”
“This was the first time, I promise. I just had to see what was there. You understand, don’t you?”
He looked so pathetic, so innocent. Kora sighed. “I guess so,” she said, patting him on the shoulder. “Go to sleep, Zac. To sleep, you have school in the morning. And don’t you tell a soul what we did, not even Opal. I mean it, not anyone. Someone could overhear. You know what’s ridingon keeping this secret?”
“Our necks, that’s what riding on it. Yours for sure, you’re of age. Listen, I’m not stupid.”
Kora patted his shoulder again. “I know you’re not. What I don’t understand is why Opal told you about her father.”
“We’re best friends. We tell each other everything.”
“Almost everything,” Kora corrected.
“Right, almost everything. No one at school knows about her Pop but me. She only knows ‘cause he’s not as careful as he should be with his work. He tossed some notes in the fire once, but the logs had burned down. The parchment didn’t light, so Opal found it. And then she followed him one Saturday when he left the house. He usually tells her where he’s going, and that time he didn’t, so that’s how she found the tree. He should’ve waited ‘til she’d gone to bed.”
“You should go to bed,” said Kora. “I don’t need to know anything else about Opal’s pop.”
Kora bid Zacry good night. Back in her room, the smallest of the house, she took a quill and inkbottle and sat on the floor. The moon gave her just enough light to see what she was doing. She wrote on top of the first page of shorthand, “The army almost found these. They were combing the bank. Act with caution.”
She let the ink dry and stuffed the pages beneath her mattress, her mind racing. Why would Zalski’s army patrol south of the village, and what were they hoping to find? Had they been tipped that the Letter stashed its work there? How close was Zalski to shutting down the paper? The Letter was all Kora had, all anyone had, to know what truly was happening throughout the kingdom.
She climbed into bed fully clothed, burning for answers, filled with dread of the coming month, when the paper’s next issue should come out. She prayed that the night’s adventure had satisfied her brother’s thirst for heroics, at the very least. Kora prayed to the Giver, Herezoth’s one and supreme deity also simply addressed as “God,” who in his justice took as well as gave and had seemed in a taking mood of late; whom the priests said used believers and non-believers alike as instruments of his benevolence and compassion, speaking to the human heart and inclining human will rather than directly interfering in the world he had created; who rewarded or punished in the afterlife according to one’s willingness to be an Instrument. She entreated him to grant Zacry the wisdom to keep from trouble, knowing all the while the only way her prayer would be answered would be for her to watch over and to teach him. But how could she? How could she when the government required children his age to spend nearly all day at school, and she had no choice but to pass what few hours he was home helping their mother sort thread, prepare and repair the loom, wash and fold cloth for sale at market? Soon she grew distracted, breaking off her prayer midstream as her mind tried to picture what could possibly become of her family. All the while, she never forgot the notes on which she lay.
Kora knew she would not rest that night. For the life of her, she could not foresee Zacry learning to keep his head down. She could not foresee any future for him but one that ended all too soon, unless….
Kora almost smiled from nostalgia to remember the legend of the Marked One. Her father first told her the story when she was eight, and it had not impressed her, because as gifted a storyteller as her father had been, this particular tale lacked any and all precision. In Herezoth’s darkest times, he said, when the kingdom was suffering worse than it ever had before or ever would, a hero would appear to save the kingdom’s future, with special instincts or powers from the Giver no one else in history had displayed.
“What kind of suffering?” she asked, picturing a famine or a flood.
People weren’t sure about that; there were disagreements. Most said the suffering would come as the result of black magic.
“So who’s this hero supposed to be? A knight? A good sorcerer like Brenthor?”
That last was a common guess, at least among those who held the black magic theory. All the legend itself said was that he would have some kind of mark on his face to identify him; thus, the hero was called the Marked One. Some held Brenthor himself had been the Marked One, with a distinctive mole above his lip hidden by a moustache.
Kora had always deemed the legend too ridiculous even for a child to accept, though her best friend, a boy named Sedder, had been fascinated when she asked him if he knew of it and he said no. As for the hero, she could not imagine a concept as fantastically mundane as the “Marked One.” She always pictured a noble knight in white or perhaps gold armor on a shining steed, with a sword in his hand and a birthmark, perhaps the sorcerer’s mark, on his cheek. Every fairytale she had ever heard featured such a warrior. And thousands by now had to be praying for his arrival.
If he were to come, Kora thought with scorn, the Giver had better send him soon, so he could fix things up north in the capital. How much worse could conditions get before they matched those so broadly painted in the legend?