For your consideration, dear readers.
The first chapter of A Scabbard of Swords, Book 1 of The Ice Lord of Firesong Vale.
Dawn brightened the horizon’s misty, forested silhouette, mixed slowly into thick, white clouds. Built atop a great cliff, a winding river cut through the heart of the Ashvault Citadel, pouring out from her western, cliffside extent as a roaring waterfall. Her white walls gleamed in the sunrise. Atop silver spires, colorful banners whipped in the wind.
Outside the city walls, intermittent gusts ruffled dozens of tents, scattered on either side of the road. Hung from makeshift drying lines, spatulas, skewers, and assorted utensils clinked softly against one another, a dull chorus of wind chimes. Massive stew pots bubbled over coal fires as people slumbered upon their bedrolls near smoldering campfires, curled under their blankets. A squad of the Ashvault’s brawniest watchmen patrolled the campsite’s perimeter. Horses and mules began to stir.
Outside the city walls, a procession approached from far to the south, obscured by thick forest, wreathed in purple mist. Pulled by a team of six midnight horses, a grand carriage creaked and clunked as it followed the winding road. Eleven figures sat within, garbed in hooded robes. None of them spoke.
One of them coughed and cleared her throat, earning a fierce glare from their leader. He furrowed his bushy eyebrows, adjusted his antlers, and glared all the fiercer.
“Sorry,” she whispered.
Baring his teeth, he spoke in a very high-pitched voice. “Silence!”
She regarded him curiously. “But you just…!”
He covered her mouth with his hand and gravely shook his head. His antlers slid down over his eyes, and he righted them.
She raised her brows, glaring in return as she pushed him away and gestured with upturned hands.
Moving as one, the others pointed through the carriage window. From round the bend, Ashvault Citadel came into view. The watchmen stood aside at their approach, and the soldiers manning the southern wall hurried to open the gates in time for the carriage’s arrival.
Within the city, the Ashvault’s streets bustled. Bellringers pushed their carts toward the frosty town square, as young men and women, dressed in colorful coats and caps, decked the town with garlands and maypoles. They sang cheerful songs as they worked.
Rich smells of hot bread hung upon the air, sprinkled with the refreshing scent of peppermint candies and the sweet hint of assorted berry pies. Hickory- and maple-scented smoke tumbled from dozens of meat smokers, alongside meandering columns that billowed forth from the city’s chimneys and hearths. All along the streets, clumps of old snow lingered.
Far from the Ashvault’s heart, near the eastern edge of town, the city walls cast long shadows over a certain thatch roof. Below it, interlocking logs formed the structure’s walls, with wooden doors and shuttered windows. A stone chimney leaned against one of the walls.
Inside, Cobb held his baby boy close, rocking him back and forth, making soft cooing noises. Cobb was human, swarthy, with black hair and a full black beard. His loose shirt and trousers kept his muscular build and ample, course body hair well hidden.
On a bed nearby, Neep snored quietly. She was orc, and her skin was teal, her ears slightly pointed, her hair a wavy, coal-black tangle. A spot of saliva slipped past one of the paired, tiny tusks jutting up from her jaw, pooling near the pillow.
Outside their home, the grand carriage slowed to a stop. Cloaked entirely in black leather, dark fog rolled forth from under the driver’s hood as he pulled on the reins, and the horses whickered. Gusts scattered the wreath of purple mist, only for it to reappear a moment later. Most of the townsfolk had gathered nearby, a cosmopolitan mix of humans, orcs, dwarves, yetis, goblins, and halflings. They kept their distance, and they whispered amongst themselves.
The carriage door creaked open, and the antlered fellow descended the stairs bolted to the side of the vehicle. He paused at the bottom step, seeking a face in the crowd. Near the front, an orcish young man met his eyes, and they exchanged the subtlest of nods. The antlered fellow raised his hands slightly. “Good people of the Ashvault Citadel,” he boomed, his voice deep and resonant. Pausing to clear his throat, he repeated himself, his voice once again very high-pitched. “Good people of the Ashvault Citadel, your moment of destiny at hand! Beyond those doors awaits your champion of the ages, your hero of heroes! Beyond those doors, lies your chosen.” He reached into his robes and pulled a weathered scroll from inside an engraved, silver case. Unfurled, it nearly brushed the cobblestone underfoot. “As written on the Ancient Scroll of Octhilion,” he began.
Cobb’s front door creaked open, and he peered outside.
The crowd fell silent, gasping at the sight of him and his swaddled child.
“I’m so sorry to ask, but… Would you please move on? My wife is sleeping, you see, and she’s quite tuckered out,” said Cobb.
The antlered fellow quietly cleared his throat and nodded at his driver, but the driver didn’t respond. “Filbert,” hissed the antlered fellow. “Filbert!”
“Mm?” replied the driver, and he swiveled his head. Incense smoldered from within the steel cage affixed to his helm, billowing up from the cloth surrounding it. “Sorry. Can’t hear a thing, what with all this potpourri crackling in my ears.”
“Please,” whispered the antlered fellow, and he nodded insistently at Cobb.
“Oh, right,” said Filbert, and he hopped down to ground level, pausing only a moment to stretch out his aches. Feeling his way toward Cobb as smoke rolled across his face, he found the wall with his left hand and propped himself against it. “Excuse me, sir, but—”
“That’s my name. It’s Cobb.”
Filbert nodded. “Right. Sir Cobb, if you would—”
“Just Cobb. I’m not a knight.”
Filbert waved his hands through the curtain of smoke and coughed. “Just Cobb, if you could just step back inside a moment, there’s a ritual component to this, and right now…” He glanced backward toward the antlered fellow, but the smoke still blinded him. A bit off balance, he returned his attention to Cobb and spoke in a whisper. “Right now, you’re messing it up! So, can you please go back inside?”
Cobb shivered from the cold. “I had planned to, so long as you lot move along.”
“I promise we’ll move along, as soon as you’re back inside.”
Narrowing his gaze, Cobb scanned the crowd. He met eyes with the orcish young man who had previously exchanged nods with the antlered fellow. Cobb bared his teeth, and the young man returned a very rude gesture before turning around and hastily threading his way west through the crowd. “Fine,” said Cobb, and he stepped back inside.
The crowd’s whispers resumed.
The antlered fellow held high the weathered scroll once more. Clearing his throat, his shrill voice filled the air. “As written on the Ancient Scroll of Octhilion:
A chosen will rise, mighty and bold,
When marches forth the Ice Lord’s army!
The chosen will triumph, as foretold,
To leave the Ice Lord broken and barmy!
“Hear my words. Feel the cold kiss of fate,” said the antlered fellow. Just then, chill air blustered through the crowd, causing everyone present to shiver. Without a pause, the antlered fellow approached Cobb’s door, and Filbert stepped aside. The rest of his group exited the carriage and formed a crescent at his back. He raised his hand to knock, but the front door flew open.
“Look, I’ll call the city watch,” said Cobb.
“The city watch, you say?” The antlered fellow smiled and leaned back with wild eyes. “They’re already… here.” He gestured to the crowd.
Cobb caught a glimpse of one of the guardsmen.
The armored watchman smiled and nodded, his helmet slightly misaligned. “‘Ello, Cobb!” he added, and he waved.
“Right,” muttered Cobb. “What is the meaning of this?”
“Yes, the meaning… of this,” said the antlered fellow. He rolled up and stored the scroll before reaching for the infant. “Let me see the boy.”
Cobb flushed somewhat as he stepped back inside, holding his son protectively close. “How… How did you know our child is a boy?”
The antlered fellow leaned in close. “We are the Council of Watchers, and you could say we know a great… many… things.”
“Council of Watchers?” Cobb’s voice caught in his throat. “Surely, you have the wrong house.”
“Our visions are never wrong!” said the antlered fellow. “We will see the boy.” He stepped through the threshold, and the rest of his group followed.
“What’s goin on?” asked Neep, and she yawned as she sat up.
“It’s the Council of Watchers,” said Cobb.
Neep tilted her head. “They ‘ave the wrong ‘ouse.”
“That’s what I told them, but they’re insisting on looking anyway.”
She got to her feet and brushed off her clothes. “You’ve got the wrong ‘ouse.” Neep trudged into the living room and took stock of her guests. “Seriously, you ‘ave it wrong.”
“Our visions are never wrong,” said the antlered fellow. “We—”
“This time they are,” said Neep. “You guys are supposed to appear when the chosen is born, right? Or sumfin like that. But you definitely appear to the birth parents of the chosen, on the day of their birth. Right?”
The watchers exchanged puzzled looks amongst themselves. At last, the antlered fellow nodded at the shushed woman, and she stepped forward. “Yes, that is what we specialize in doing. Reading the signs and arriving within a day of the chosen’s birth.” Awkward silence hung in the air. “So, yes.”
Cobb did his best to contain his laughter.
“It’s, um, what we do. The birth. The arriving.” She cleared her throat. “What?”
Neep’s chortle turned into a guffaw. “Go ahead, love. Show ‘em!” she said, and she pointed at their son.
Slowly, Cobb unwrapped the blanket. “This is our boy, Colby.” He turned the infant’s face to the watchers. He had light gray skin with the texture of sandstone, a sharply squared jaw, and a pair of tiny, curled horns just beginning to poke out from the sides of his head.
The watchers gasped.
“He’s jotun,” said Cobb. “Giant-kin, and he’s already a month old. He’s troll, we think, but we’ll have to wait a couple years before we know for sure.”
“We adopted ‘im,” said Neep, grinning from ear to ear.
The antlered fellow blinked rapidly. “But you two are both…” He gestured suggestively. “Healthy. Why wouldn’t you… You know?” He gestured again.
“Oh, we do plenty of that,” said Neep. “But Cobb’s ‘uman, and I’m orc.”
“What has that got to do with anything?” The antlered fellow regarded her pleadingly.
Cobb leaned in close. “Same reason you can’t breed cats and dogs together.” He glanced at Neep. “But we both want to be parents, so…”
“You adopted.” The antlered fellow glanced between Colby and the crowd. Cold air blew through the log home, rattling the door lightly against the wall. His antlers fell over his eyes, and he put them back in place. “You’re a blacksmith?”
“I am,” answered Neep.
“One of the best in the northern kingdoms,” said Cobb, his chest puffed out proudly.
“You’re a fisherman?”
Cobb crossed his arms. “Fishman, actually. I clean them and sell them; I don’t catch them.”
“How well do you like living here?” asked the antlered fellow.
Cobb and Neep exchanged looks. “Well enough,” he answered. “Why?”
The antlered fellow spoke hoarsely. “How would you like to live in the keep? The northwestern tower would be yours—exclusively! Your son would receive the best education available to anyone across all the known kingdoms. Although you would all be generously provided for, you’re welcome to continue running your businesses, of course.” The antlered fellow’s mouth twitched slightly as he mustered the hint of a smile. “Fine clothes, fine food, your own bathing pool, and a clear view of the waterfall from one of your… turrets.”
Neep regarded him suspiciously. “Oy, what’s the catch?”
“Only a small catch,” said the antlered fellow, and sweat beaded on his brow despite the chill in the air. “A triviality, really.”
“Which is?” asked Cobb.
“If anyone asks, tell them your son is a half-orc. Born from you, Neep. I will bribe the necessary people at the orphanage.” He nodded steeply. “Our augury may have misfired a bit, but your son is the chosen. The people must never doubt that. Do you understand?”
Neep shook her head. “That’s impossible wiffout powerful salt magic, and there ‘asn’t been a proper gourmancer round ‘ere in decades. No one would believe it!”
The antlered fellow tugged at his brooch. “You, uh, might be very surprised what people would be willing to believe.”
“This is preposterous,” said Cobb. “What about when he grows up? He’s jotun. He’ll be ten feet tall before he stops growing. Maybe twelve!”
The antlered fellow gestured imploringly for Cobb to quiet down. “Most people will live their entire lives never having seen a half-orc. It will not be hard to convince them.” Seeing the doubt in their eyes, he leaned in close between them. “If you two want to conceive together, I know someone who can make that happen. But only if you agree to my offer.”
Cobb glanced her way, and Neep’s cheeks turned dark green. She softly cleared her throat. “I’d… I’d fancy that,” she said, and she hugged Cobb close.
“We’d treat the children equally, of course.”
She leaned back. “Of course! That goes wiffout sayin.”
Cobb took a deep breath. Slowly, he faced the antlered fellow and nodded. “All right. We’re in.”
“Wonderful news!” said the antlered fellow, and he turned to the crowd, holding Colby high. “This child bears the mark we have been seeking. As foretold in ancient times, this day of destiny is upon us! Meet Colby, son of Neep the Blacksmith and Cobb the Fishman! Meet the chosen of the prophecy.”
As one, the rest of the hooded figures chanted, “By the hand of the chosen, the Ice Lord will surely fall.”
“…fail. Fall,” said the shushed woman, and she smiled awkwardly. She whispered, “I meant fall.”
The antlered fellow glared at her.