Sneak Peek - The Lost Kestrel Found
A lot happens in this book for various characters, especially the Princess of Fal Carrach. Below is an excerpt of book 6 – I hope you enjoy it!
The strong gusts of an early morning wind lifted the raptor as it winged its way around the Highland peaks and into the valley. On most mornings, the raptor hunted. But not today. Today the raptor felt an unfamiliar urgency. Its strong wings, spanning seven feet, propelled it a thousand feet above the ground. The white feathers speckled with grey on the bird’s underside blended perfectly with the sky. When visible, the raptor was a dangerous predator. When hidden, it was deadly, shooting down through the thin air like an arrow, its sharp claws outstretched for the kill.
Today it searched for different prey, yet it did not know why. It knew only to obey the urge pulling it to the east, an urge so strong it drowned out its instinct to hunt.
The sun radiated off the orange, black, and brown feathers covering its back. As it dodged around the mountaintops, a monstrous shadow trailed along, darkening the ground as it passed over the Highlands. A beautiful sight, but also treacherous. The rugged land hid untold riches -- gold and silver, precious jewels and more. But, as the old saying went: If the Highlanders don’t get you, nature will. For centuries, many in search of treasure stole into the Highlands, hoping a few days’ work would lead to a lifetime of luxury. For most, these dreams of fortune shattered before their eyes, the hard steel of the Highlanders or the rugged terrain bringing these adventurers back to a cold, stark, and unforgiving reality.
The raptor knew that this age-old story played out even now. For almost a decade the Highlanders had battled against reivers seeking to take the treasures of the Highlands as their own. Fighting for their homes and their homeland, they had waged a losing struggle, the invaders’ greater numbers and use of Dark Magic inexorably crushing the people’s spirits as their populace dwindled and they were forced into the higher, more inaccessible passes for their own safety. Until now. For though defeated, the Highlanders had refused to be conquered, hoping for better days. Hoping they would be given the opportunity to repay the debt they owed the reivers who had taken so much from them. Hoping that perhaps the legend would come to life. Hope was a powerful thing. It had sustained the Highlanders during even the darkest of days during the last decade. And now their hope was becoming something more. It was taking shape and solidifying. It was becoming tangible. Becoming real.
The raptor could sense the change occurring within the Highlands, for the mountainous Kingdom was the raptor’s domain; now its only home. Once, not too many years in the past, raptors lived in every Kingdom from the Western Ocean to the Sea of Mist. But no more. Nobles and wealthy merchants paid dearly for the feathers of the mighty bird. Rumors of their magical powers abounded. Some believed the feathers, when ground down and mixed with a few select ingredients, served as an aphrodisiac. Others insisted that drinking the strange brew gave wisdom. Still others thought it brought luck or riches or strength.
Although no one had ever proven the truth of these myths, the old beliefs died hard. As the years passed, so did these majestic birds, until none remained except those in the Highlands, protected by the harsh weather, the rough landscape, and the Highlanders themselves, for the raptors had a special place in their hearts. The raptor represented all that it was to be a Highlander: strength, resilience, resolve, fortitude.
The raptor gazed at the lush valley of green that stretched between the mountains for more than a league. A dark smudge appeared in the very center. Skimming over the treetops, the raptor’s strong wings drew it closer, until the smudge became a huge rock that rose hundreds of feet into the air and dominated the valley. From a distance, it resembled a small mountain cut off from its brothers and sisters by encircling forest. But as the raptor approached, riding the warmer air currents with its outstretched wings and gliding slowly upward, the markings of man became clear.
To the untrained eye, the monolith appeared to be no more than a huge rock thrusting out of the earth. In truth, it was the Crag, the stronghold of the Highlanders. The Crag had never fallen to an attacking army. Many had learned that lesson the hard way, leaving behind broken bodies and crushed spirits. Carved from the mountain, it was a formidable sight. The Highlanders had built their fortress on top of a long-dead volcano, taking great slabs of black stone from the plateau to form its walls. During the night, the citadel receded into the darkness, undecipherable from the gloom.
Eight towers formed the Crag’s perimeter, joined together by the outer curtain. Or rather, they once did. Half the towers had crumbled, now nothing more than piles of stone. The wall was a hundred feet high and forty feet thick, yet along its base half a dozen holes that were wide enough for several draft horses to walk through standing next to one another had been blasted through the stone into the inner courtyard.
In the center of the outer ward stood the central stronghold. Built in the shape of a square, its inner curtain stood fifty feet higher than the outside wall, its corners again supported by towers. All these towers had been destroyed except for one, which stood on the eastern side closest to the sea. Known as the Roost and rising higher than all the rest, on a clear day it was said that from its great height the Highlanders could peer halfway across the continent and gaze upon the shores of the Heartland Lake.
True, the Crag had never fallen to a foreign army. But it had been betrayed almost ten years before. Delivered by one of their own like a lamb being led to slaughter. The Marchers attempted to fight off a surprise attack of not only reivers, but also Ogren, Shades, and warlocks. Despite their staunch resistance, the Marchers were too few against an overpowering force, and they had no way to defend themselves against the Dark Magic of the warlocks. Talyn Kestrel, Lord of the Highlands, perished while defending the Crag. Though many Highlanders escaped thanks to the efforts of the doomed Highland Lord, none had returned to this place since the fall of the Marcher fortress.
The massive raptor began to circle what was left of the Crag, enjoying the warm sun on its back. Normally a solitary creature, the raptor was surprised to see a handful of other raptors settled onto the broken towers of the Crag or drifting on the gusts of wind that swirled around the keep. The raptor landed gracefully on the open window at the very top of the Roost, remembering the last time it had been here on that final night that the Highlands had been free so long ago.
A small boy had lived in the room. The raptor had felt a connection to the boy immediately, yet it did not know why. It had watched the boy escape two assassins that night, eventually making his way safely out of the Crag and into the surrounding forest. The raptor had stayed with the boy until he had met two people it knew would protect him. And since then the connection to the boy remained, growing stronger with each passing day.
The raptor had found that same boy several times in the intervening years. Each time the predator did, it felt pride for what the boy had become. There was a strength to the boy, a determination, which it recognized within itself. The boy was the Highlands, and the Highlands him.
For a time the raptor perched on the Roost watching, waiting. For almost a decade the Crag had sat abandoned, the once mighty fortress quickly covered by moss, ivy, and undergrowth, the forest trying to reclaim its stolen territory. But the raptor didn’t think that would be the case for much longer. It sensed a new beginning. Blood was beginning to flow in the Highlands once again, a people beginning to stir.
With its sharp eyes the raptor glimpsed something in the distance that triggered a territorial response. The raptor launched itself from its place on the Roost, using its powerful wings to draw closer while also finding the warmer drafts of air to gain height on the intruder. The raptor followed its instincts, as it was known for attacking from above in a blinding display of speed and skill, much like the Highlanders themselves who were known as the most fearsome fighters in all the Kingdoms. It was said that to risk the wrath of a Highlander was to risk death. The same could be said of the raptor.
When the raptor identified the encroaching beast, it flexed its sharp claws in anticipation. This was a creature worthy of its attention. A blood enemy. Raptors had not seen a dragas for centuries, since the time of the Great War, yet through the collective memory of the species the raptor knew every inch of the flying dark creature; its strengths, its weaknesses, its preferred method of attack. Therefore, the raptor knew how to combat the larger animal, seeking to ignore the thick scales across its back and focus instead on its soft underbelly. All while trying to avoid its long, spike-like claws and sharp teeth.
To invade a raptor’s territory immediately invited a challenge, but to be a creature such as this invited a swift death. Raptors had no patience for creatures of the dark. Judging the time was right with the sun shining brightly behind it, the raptor dove silently toward the dark creature, extending its claws. At the last second, the dragas sensed the attack, halting its progress in the sky and trying to dodge the raptor as it hurtled past. The massive dark creature proved largely successful, though the raptor did succeed in catching one of its claws across the beast’s belly, slicing deeply into its flesh, a dark black blood pouring out.
The dragas instantly pursued the raptor, roaring in anger, its cry of rage reverberating off the mountain peaks. Though the raptor was faster over short distances, the dragas used its larger wings to stay close to its attacker, snapping at its tail feathers with its serrated teeth. In a quick burst of speed and a tilt of its wing, the raptor caught the dragas by surprise as it looped underneath the dark creature, again running a claw along the beast’s belly, leaving another long, bloody wound in the monster’s hardened hide. Incensed, the dragas roared once more in fury. The dragas turned swiftly to hunt its prey, but its pain mixing with rage blinded it to what was occurring around it.
It was then that the monster learned its mistake. The dark creature had thought it was fighting one raptor, not realizing that there were more in the sky. The first raptor had distracted it, giving the other raptors the time to position themselves for their deadly attacks. When the dragas sought to turn on its first tormentor, a second raptor swept by, its claws tearing into its thin, leathery wing. Before the dragas could respond to that attack, another raptor dove down and sliced a gaping hole in its other wing, followed by two more raptors that plunged their sharp claws into the wreckage that was once its belly.
Against one raptor, the dragas stood a chance. Against five, the conclusion was already determined. The dark creature roared its defiance a final time as it plummeted down toward a Highland peak, its tattered wings no longer able to keep it aloft. The raptors circled above it, watching the dark creature’s back break against the hard stone, before lazily turning in the sky, enjoying the warmth of the sun before settling back onto the Crag.
The raptors would protect their territory as they had for centuries. But this time, the large raptor that took its place once more on the Roost sensed a difference. Change was coming. A reckoning was coming. And the raptors would be ready. Until then, they would watch and wait. They would protect the home of the Highlanders from the creatures of the dark, just as the Highlanders protected them.
A Difficult Path
Rynlin Keldragan stood atop the Breaker, the harsh, cold wind seemingly trying to tear away the cloak he had pulled tighter around himself. Carved from massive blocks of granite, the Breaker rose well over three hundred feet in height and was one hundred feet wide, stretching from the western Highlands to the coast and the Winter Sea. It gave the defenders the space they needed to repel any attack from the north. But there were no defenders now, and there hadn’t been for quite some time.
The tall Sylvan Warrior, dark hair and short beard speckled with grey, hated being here. The memories always returned, a continuous stream running through his mind. Nightmares, in all honesty. It had been the most important battle of the Great War, the most important event in the history of the Kingdoms. He could recall the events of a millennia ago as if it were yesterday.
The Sylvana were first called together one thousand years before to fight an evil in the far north, which had invaded the Charnel Mountains. At the time, those mountains were known as the Northern Peaks and were a beautiful sight to behold. Little did they know how the world would change now that the Shadow Lord had appeared, seeking to conquer the Kingdoms. In the beginning, the rulers of the different lands didn't view this new threat at the very edge of the Kingdoms as a serious threat, the mountains and the Northern Steppes standing in the way. So only a small army made up of soldiers from the closest Kingdoms marched into the Northern Peaks to defeat this new danger. The fighters did the best they could, but were heavily outnumbered by the Dark Horde, composed of the creatures the Shadow Lord had twisted for his primary purpose: desolation and destruction. The soldiers fought valiantly, yet could only delay the inevitable advance of the Shadow Lord’s servants and hope that help would come.
The other Kingdoms soon realized the great peril they were in, but it would take weeks, if not months, for them to call together their armies and march to the north. At that time, druids still held sway over the land, and often served as advisors in the courts of the different kings and queens. The chief druid, a woman named Athala, suggested that the Kingdoms send their best warriors to her, and they would fight the Dark Horde until the massed armies of the Kingdoms could take the field.
The other rulers thought it was an excellent idea, and the greatest warriors of that time met Athala on the Northern Steppes, as the Dark Horde was pushing hard for the south and would soon break out of the Northern Peaks. When that happened, the Kingdoms would have little chance of stopping them. Athala called her small army of only several hundred Sylvan Warriors, naming it after a mythical band of legendary soldiers who, the stories told, appeared in times of need and fought for those who had been wronged.
The Sylvan Warriors met the Dark Horde at the edge of the Northern Peaks, fighting desperately to hold back the Shadow Lord's advance as they battled for three days and three nights. Despite the overwhelming number of terrifying creatures that swept down from the north, the Sylvana refused to yield, giving the Kingdoms the time needed by sacrificing their blood, sweat and tears. In the end, the Sylvan Warriors succeeded. They forced the Dark Horde to retreat. Before the Shadow Lord could recover, the armies of the Kingdoms arrived and drove him even deeper into what was then already being described as the Charnel Mountains, the verdant, green landscape having begun to turn a sooty black as the Shadow Lord’s presence started to corrupt the land.
But the Kingdoms couldn't destroy the Shadow Lord. They could only defeat him. So the rulers of the Kingdoms again followed the advice of Athala and made the Sylvan Warriors a permanent fighting force with no ties of allegiance to any Kingdom. The sole purpose of this elite group was to fight the Shadow Lord no matter the odds, and they had done so ever since.
Rynlin wiped at his eyes, telling himself that the tears that had formed came as a result of the biting wind, though he knew the truth of it. So many good men and women had died fighting against the Shadow Lord and his monstrous horde of warlocks, Ogren, Shades, the lightning fast Fearhounds and Mongrels, and other hideous creatures that had come from the north seeking to conquer the Kingdoms. So many friends. Gone. And virtually none remembered by those who had benefited from their bravery and constancy.
Yet even with the formation of the Sylvana, the Kingdoms still feared the Shadow Lord’s return. Therefore, after the conclusion of the Great War, they had built the Breaker and formed the First Guard, soldiers from the different Kingdoms charged with serving a year on the towering barrier, watching, waiting, and preparing for the next attack so that when the Shadow Lord once again sought to claim the Kingdoms for his own, and all assumed that he would, the Kingdoms would be better prepared to defend themselves and able to muster their armies and march north. But as the years passed no attack had come, and the Kingdoms began sending fewer and fewer soldiers to serve in the First Guard until, eventually, no one stood atop the Breaker anymore.
Rynlin shook his head in frustration, recalling the sacrifices made so long ago to ensure that the Shadow Lord and his Dark Horde did not conquer the Kingdoms. The Sylvan Warrior believed the truism that those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it. So seemed to be the case now with the Shadow Lord and his dark creatures stirring once more. Many of the Kingdoms failed to recognize the danger or willingly ignored it, worried more about the happenings in their own Kingdom thanks to the machinations of the High King rather than, at least to their own eyes, a yet to be confirmed threat to the Kingdoms as a whole. Myopic fools. By the time most realized the danger it would be too late.
Under Rynlin’s gaze, the Northern Steppes stretched for leagues into the distance, the dark smudge of the Charnel Mountains far to the north. Though Rynlin couldn’t see it, he could feel the evil pulsing from the very center of the begrimed, jagged range of towering peaks. Blackstone. The lair of the Shadow Lord. The Sylvan Warriors were weaker than in any other time since their formation, several falling prey to the creatures of the Shadow Lord during the last year and thereby reducing their ranks even more. Would they be able to hold back the Shadow Lord as they had in the past? Would the Kingdoms heed their call to arms? Would the Breaker hold back the Dark Horde?
So many questions. So many worries. To say nothing of the fact that his wife had taken on a task both critical and dangerous, and he was in no position to help her. And what of his grandson? He continued to take risks, more than he should or, in fact, needed to take, never considering the possibility that eventually he would pay the price for doing so. But there was nothing Rynlin could do about that. His grandson had started along a certain path, reluctantly at first, but with courage nonetheless. With each step his grandson took along that road, Rynlin felt as if the boy’s ability to choose diminished, his fate having already been sealed.
His wife’s favorite saying came to mind: “You do what you must do.” He had hoped that his grandson could avoid what the prophecy suggested would happen. But all the signs pointed to the prophecy’s inevitable, deadly conclusion. The final battle between the light and the dark, his grandson in the very middle of it pitted against an opponent with unimaginable power who had never been defeated in single combat. An opponent who was the very source of Dark Magic in the Kingdoms. How could he expect his grandson to overcome that?
Rynlin pushed his maudlin thoughts from his mind. There was nothing he could do for Thomas right now, but there was something else that he could do. And taking action clearly was a better alternative than standing on top of a frigid wall allowing his fears and worries to consume him.
Taking a quick glance to the east, he saw several large kestrels circling above the northern peaks of the Highlands. The massive birds called the Highlands their home. They represented not only the Highlands, but the people living there. The people his grandson now led. They were tough, resilient, and they did what was needed even when that wasn’t the easiest path.
Rynlin grinned. That certainly applied to his grandson. Thomas would, indeed, follow his own path. If that led him as the prophecy predicted to a final contest against the Shadow Lord, so be it. His grandson would do what was necessary. His people would expect no less of him, just as he would expect no less of himself.
In the meantime, Rynlin would see if he could offer some assistance to ease the burdens weighing on his grandson. A bright flash of white light engulfed the Sylvan Warrior. When the blinding radiance cleared, a giant hawk gripped the crenels of the Breaker with its sharp talons. With a screech that echoed through the Highlands to the east, the bird launched itself from the black stone, its powerful wings driving it steadily toward the Charnel Mountains.