Hi, everyone! This will be the last sampler of "Casting Shadows". In less than a month, it will be available on Amazon in print and Kindle only. Enjoy!
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The cooling season was nearly done. The marching was not over, though. Seewald ordered us to continue the course and it was slow-going as a large group. It took weeks just to get past the outskirts of Vicroy. We had to bury some dead and tend to the sick. At times, when Seewald decided not to trek, we all practiced Tommel was in front of us and attacked trees, bushes and each other.
Then, we were off again.
I had made progress as the strength, confidence and dexterity in Henry Chase grew into quite the character. This meant that he had promises to uphold and men to inspire. I had to keep my end of the trade with my commanding officer first. If Seewald stated that there was shelter to be had, I had to keep the masses satisfied. I kept up the pretense that a safe haven was ahead, even if I did not believe it myself.
Many times, I wondered if Seewald was using me as a scapegoat. If I kept the group moving without complaint, Seewald achieved his goal. Being who break their word, on the other hand, do not brood well in the Klenard Army. Snitches, thieves and liars always made their rounds on the end of a fist or managed to get a foot in their face.
Does Seewald see a larger use for me?
Like a shield against the public eye, Andrew managed to stand beside me for the walk. Most of the time, he said nothing except the occasional inquiry about how I am faring. He did not lecture me the same way ever again, though. His wisdom did not seem to count for anything.
He was wrong and I knew it. Faith in me was strong. If I were to fall, there was nothing he could do except walk away and not keep his attachments. If I were to fly, there was every opportunity to exploit my status.
Why does he bother me?
Each time we stopped for a rest, Andrew stepped aside and generally shot arrows into a target on a tree. There was always a large circle around me. Men wanted to know how I felt and why. What had I heard from the officers? Will Seewald tell me anything else?
Mostly, they asked me about their destination. Was it really a shelter? Will we have hot food and water? Will the borders be easy to patrol?
I tried the best I could to answer their questions. I felt that, if I could inspire these men to do their duty, then the rest will follow easily and I might save the time and make me the fool later. Already, Seewald was slow in bringing the promised goods, but he did give us more time for hunting and gathering. To live off of the land made it simpler than waiting for rations to come.
Just when the cold season was about to cross over and the Giving Season a chore, we reached the foot of the southern hills of the Ellsworth Mountains. Seewald had us set up camp for the night. As we worked, all of us noted that he kept looking eastward. He took out an eyepiece and glanced through it every once in a while. When he was questioned, he’d dismiss the inquirer rudely and continue the exercise.
I thought it would not hurt if I tried. “Colonel, what is it?”
“Oh, it’s you.” He put the tool down. “It’s nothing. Just an inkling.”
“Of what exactly? Is it something we can watch?”
“I doubt it. It might just be a bird hanging over our heads.”
I pointed out the crows in the dead tree branches. “Could these be the culprits?”
Seewald was not amused. “Off with you, Chase. Go hunt or find a stream. Make camp and follow the guard schedule.”
Unfortunately, something sat heavy in my stomach. When I returned to Andrew, I expressed my concerns to him. At first, he wanted to ignore me. He was focused on getting some officer’s tent up and had the whip to his arms one too many times. Then, when I persisted, he listened. At the end of my explanation, though, he too appeared a little upset. I thought it was the same concerns I had, but Andrew was annoyed at my nagging.
“He might sense something we do not,” he rationalized. “He could have seen something we did not. Who knows? Why do you care?”
“Because there is something odd about a man who looks over his shoulder constantly,” I replied stoutly. “I don’t know about you. I am staying close to Colonel Seewald.”
Andrew scoffed at the declaration and shooed me away. “Go find your apostles. They will follow your every word.”
Stung by his words, I walked away. Andrew was right. Being alone brought all of the men to my feet. However, out of all of them, I did not trust anyone…except for him. He alone would have listened to my concerns about Seewald.
Well, I had to do it on my own.
It did not take long. A few nights, I figured someone was going to make a move. It was going to be Seewald crossing the lines into Tommel or someone sneaking into the camp to get him. I could not believe any one of us would stab him in the back.
Not yet anyway.
I was vigilant and soon found my hunch to be right. God divined the time to be when I was the most alert. I was on a four-hour guard shift a few nights later.
My life as Henry Chase was going to change forever.
Since I was quick with the sword and knife, the men liked me to keep above ground. Each time, I took a position in the trees, covered in bear piss and a light brown blanket. I scanned the horizons once in a while, but mostly kept my eyes trained on Seewald’s tent. I did not trust anything.
Towards the end of my shift, I decided that I was perhaps imagining things and lessened my sights over Seewald. None a single soul neared the Colonel’s resting place except for his guards. They changed out every hour and always uttered the password without an intruder.
It is not them.
Seewald had not exited his tent once.
Tommel must send someone to our camp.
And there it was.
On the other side of the tent, there was a shadow. His thin frame slithered left and right and blended in with the corners of darkness. There was a pause. Then, it brazenly walked out and went under the cloth.
I scrambled to my feet and screamed. “Intruder! To the Colonel’s tent!”
My mind had one clear purpose: to save Seewald. I jumped out from the branches and landed as I was running. I did not stop and soon became one of many who surrounded the cloth house, swords drawn. When Seewald’s guards met us outside, they grasped a man I never thought I’d see.
It was Douglas Alexander, the Duke of Valp.
“Put your weapons down!” Seewald exited. He held the lone torch in his hands. “I think it is clear what has happened this night. We all know the penalty for treason and attempted assassination on an officer of the Klenard Army. Her Majesty, the Queen, does not require a trial.”
The tension was so thick, I could have cut it with a knife. Each one of us stood still, waiting for the order to strike the death blow. All of us wanted a piece of the Due of Valp. However, Seewald knew this and seemed to have considered his options carefully. He handed his light to one of the guards and walked around us, hands behind his back. His blue eyes lighted on each of us before he stopped.
“Chase, step forward.” When I did, he continued. “I have heard you have been a pest these past few nights.”
“Sir?” I was confused.
Seewald looked at me severely. “Lad, it is a daft person who sees that you are being protective of this camp and its commander. You are a gift to man. Tonight, you are promoted to Lieutenant. Throw the death strike, man. Make it quick.”
A round of mumbles made their way around the group. Many were envious of my position, but none questioned it. They felt that, with my wisdom, I deserved it. To Henry Chase, it was a matter of duty. He will accept the position and the task.
Seewald offered me his own sword. I put mine away and took his, all the while studying my query. I noted that Alexander did not take his eyes off of me. He had no shame in his actions. His smile told me everything.
Enraged by the revelation, I punched him in the stomach. Alexander crumpled to the mud. His guards grabbed him again when he tried to escape. Immediately, the rows of swords rose.
Uncle Samuel knows something. But what? What value does Seewald have, other than proving something?
My uncle was no fool.
He found out that Henry Chase is Princess Eleanor Brutrose.
Well played, Uncle. Now, you are going to lose your best piece. The Queen shall be taken.
I kneeled before Alexander. “Do you want a priest?” I asked softly, making the last offer to be free of his sins. “You can be shriven before meeting your Maker.”
Alexander pulled me to him. “I know who you are, Your Royal Highness,” he whispered in my ear, laughing. “You are an abomination, the devil-incarnate from hell itself. Return to the fires, bitch. Burn.”
Hot white anger burned inside of me instead. It was not only Princess Eleanor that was frightened as a rabbit, understanding the consequences of his words. Henry Chase was also disgusted. Nobody damned me and lived to tell the tell the tale. I am a daughter of King Gerald and the Tommel cousin of the Chase family of Brenton.
I rose slowly, as if I was contemplating my next move. Then, suddenly, I threw Seewald’s sword to one side. I took the knife out of my boot and struck true. The blade went straight to Alexander’s heart as he uttered his last laugh on this plane. The abrupt change in him as the Angel of Death took him was astronomical.
Nobody moved, almost as dead as the man before them. Alexander’s eyes no longer sought danger. The hands no longer shook to free themselves. The blood pooled down his shift and stiffened. After a time, his legs were wet with his remaining excrement and piss.
“The Duke of Valp is dead,” I announced, wiping my knife clean before returning it to its home. My hands remained crusted with his lifeline. “Long live the Queen. Long live Queen Jayne!”
The cheers shook the night, as well they should. Inside of me, though, a point had taken another turn. The Duke of Valp might have lost his life, but he won something else. Uncle Samuel sent him on purpose and they both understood that Alexander’s life was forfeit. This exercise was not a matter of who was killed, but how easily information could be transferred.
Uncle Samuel had found me. He aimed to teach me a life lesson. As a woman, I was of no use and could learn nothing. As a man, I was a worthy opponent and have to kill early. Those closest to us will have to suffer if they are in the way of our aspirations.
Taking out Alexander was too easy. It woke something animalistic in me. I wiped the blood over my forehead, into my eyes. It cleansed me of my innocence. It erased all of the mistakes I made in the past.
I screamed like a wolf like the rest of the company. I did not do it for myself. It was the victory won. It was the hurdle I passed over. Nothing will stop me.
King Samuel will never take Klenard. I will kill him too.was slow-going as a large group. It took weeks just to get