A baby’s laughter.
A mind uncaged.
Lance is known as Scourge, the warrior in the black armor, the dog of the warlord Ulfr Blackwolf. He was just a boy when Ulfr found him and molded him into the perfect weapon. He slaughters and pillages on command, merciless and numb, devoid of emotions. Then a baby girl laughs at him during a raid.
And everything changes.
When Gust, a talented healer, is out deer hunting and stumbles across a magnificent horse bearing a mortally wounded rider, he has no idea that his life is about to change forever. Gust applies all his skills to his patient, determined to save the rider’s life, and is rewarded when the man opens his eyes.
As friendship, and more, bloom between warrior and healer, so does the danger over the horizon. Ulfr has not forgotten, and Lance must take his first steps on the long road to redemption.
The baby shouldn’t matter. But she did.
He easily held her small body in his broad hands. He knew the baby was a girl because she was naked. She kicked her legs as if she wanted to dance, and her wide amber eyes gazed at him in seeming fascination. He stared down at her, wondering why she didn’t scream. Didn’t babies scream? Adults certainly did when they saw him. He didn’t like the sound. All he wanted to do was silence the noise.
The baby stared at him a moment before her mouth curled up at the corners, and she laughed. He froze at the unusual sound. With eyes alight, she grabbed her feet and continued to laugh. It was… all the things foreign to him. It wasn’t cruel or dark but careless, showing a freedom he’d never known. She wiggled in his hands, her pale, pink body flush with life and potential.
Battle roars and the cries of the dying met his ears again, in stark contrast to the little life he held. He wrenched his gaze away from her and looked around the charred hut and over the collapsed roof. The light from the fires consuming the village illuminated the destruction and the blood splattered on the walls and floor. It was a view he was accustomed to, one he understood. The weight of his sword was one he only noticed when it wasn’t there. He returned his gaze to the baby. This was something he didn’t understand. She was confusing.
She laughed again as goosebumps broke out over her body. She was cold. He scanned the area and spotted a blanket that only had blood on one corner. He wrapped her as best he could, another thing unfamiliar to him, and his black armored gloves made the action awkward. Then he pressed her against his steel chest. He wanted her to survive. He didn’t know why—he just knew he didn’t want her to die.
A young woman lay on the floor at his feet, one he thought was dead. It appeared she had only been knocked out. She lay on her side, one arm stretched out to him, her normally golden skin sickly pale. Her dark brown hair was short, barely reaching past her ears, and one side of her head was caked with blood. The southern part of the kingdom of Grekenus didn’t seem too fond of hair as most of the men in the village were bald and beardless while the women grew hair no longer than their chins.
“Please don’t kill her,” she said, dark eyes wide and dazed. “Don’t kill my daughter. Please, I beg you.”
She spoke in Spart, the native language of the kingdom. He knew it well enough to communicate effectively.
He looked at the baby and then back at the woman. If he wanted the baby to survive, she needed a caretaker. Since the woman was her mother, who better? He strode over to the woman where she struggled to rise and grabbed her arm. She winced at his grip as he tugged her to her feet. He shoved the baby into her arms before dragging her outside.
“What are you—?”
“Silence,” he said curtly. He observed the chaos through the smoke and beyond the fires. The broken dead littered the ground and fire ate everything it touched. A horse galloped toward them, one that belonged to the village since there was neither a saddle nor bridle on the beast. He let go of the woman and pointed to the ground.
“Stay.” Then he strode in front of the horse and held up his hands. The beast reared on her hind legs, neighing in fright. Unlike with humans, he knew how to speak to horses. It wasn’t long before he’d calmed her and had her under control. He petted her neck and muzzle, whispering kind words. The frantic look in her eyes eased, and he led her over to the woman and the baby. She swayed on her feet and had stayed where he told her to, not that he’d doubted she would. The hope for escape let her trust him.
He quickly found a length of rope and looped it around the horse’s nose and neck.
She didn’t question him this time. She struggled to follow his command, and he realized the horse was just too tall for her to mount without help. He shoved her up, and she sat unsteadily on the horse’s back, her daughter clutched to her chest. She stared at him, and he noted the blood from her head now stained the side of her face and dress. She would see nothing of his face since his black armor covered every piece of flesh, and his eyes were barely visible through the narrow visor slit of the helmet.
“Go.” He slapped the horse’s rear and the mare bolted. The woman leaned over the horse and let the mare lead them away from death.
Another warrior, part of the warband, nocked an arrow and leveled it at her. He strode over and kicked the warrior’s knee, sending the man crashing to the ground with a scream of pain. The arrow flew wide. Another warrior was about to give chase on horseback, and he dashed over to grab the sword from his hand before shoving the warrior off the saddle. A few other attempts were made to stop the fleeing woman, and he stopped them all, causing various injuries and not caring in the least. He had no affinity to any of the warriors in the warband. He had no affinity to anyone… except the tiny girl.
He still couldn’t figure out why. He wondered if he ever would.
He stood there, on the muddy ground soaked with blood, staring after the woman. The smoke burned his throat and stung his eyes. The scent, the noise, the mess of battle he knew like he knew his name. He’d never been curious about anything beyond his current life. Now he did.
He hoped she took good care of her daughter.
He blinked and turned around. The warlord Ulfr, known throughout the Nifdem Empire as Mad Blackwolf, stalked over to him, expression like a thundercloud, his black, bushy beard and thick head of hair obscuring most of his ruddy face. He wasn’t as tall as Lance, although he was much broader, and there wasn’t a weak bone in his burly body. The quality of his black long-sleeved tunic, trousers, and boots showed a hard but fruitful life, and a few glistening red splatters indicated he didn’t leave all the fun to his warriors.
A few of the warriors that Lance had attacked hobbled after their commander, scowling and muttering curses. All the men sported beards of one length or another. Lance remained clean shaven since the helmet made having a beard quite painful as it tugged on the strands and chafed his skin.
“You will explain to me why you disobeyed a direct order!” Ulfr said when he reached Lance. He spoke in Taris, the official language of the empire. His clenched fists and tight jaw indicated his fury, and the rest of the men and women in their warband cowered at such a sight.
Not Lance. He didn’t feel fear.
Lance took off his helmet, long honey blond hair sticking to his face, pressed there by the constriction of the helmet and sweat glistening on his pale skin. Frosty blue eyes stared at Ulfr, eyes hollow from years of war and brutality. Yet, if Ulfr had looked closer, he would have seen a spark of life newly lit in the void.
Lance tucked the helmet in the crook of his arm and smoothed back his hair, the armor grinding and clanking.
“I didn’t want the baby to die.”
Ulfr blinked. “What?”
Lance frowned. He knew Ulfr had heard him clearly enough. “I did not want the baby to die,” he said, slower this time. “She couldn’t survive on her own, so she had to have her mother with her.”
Men and women gathered around them, filthy warriors stained with the evidence of their raid and slaughter. Everyone wore trousers and tunics, though some of the women chose more form-fitting clothing that extenuated their feminine attributes. The ethnicities in Ulfr’s band were as varied as the colors of their wardrobes. Though none dared wear purple or, worse, silver and purple combined. A person could be killed for being so presumptions. Only imperial royalty wore those colors.
Several men were retying their trousers, having violated their victims before killing them. Lance observed the crowd with a detached eye. He knew what would happen now. He’d known it the moment he made the decision to save the infant.
“You disobeyed me!” Ulfr gripped the collar of Lance’s breastplate and yanked him closer until their faces were inches apart. “You showed mercy when I told you all to slaughter those who don’t give us tribute. These people spat on us as if they were better, and so they deserved their punishment. You’ve followed my orders before, Lance. Why not now?”
“I told you.”
Ulfr shoved him away. Lance stumbled back two steps before standing still, like an oak tree against a high wind.
The complete slaughter of a village or town wasn’t what Ulfr usually did. He wouldn’t raid if they paid him. Normally, if they resisted, Lance would only kill one or two people to make a point, and then the villagers would hand over whatever Ulfr wanted to make him go away. This village had done that in the past, and yet they recently decided to fight back against Ulfr’s protection racket. They paid the ultimate price, an example to all who dared defy Mad Blackwolf.
The village was close to the border between the kingdoms of Grekenus and Cairon, and mostly safe from the ravages of the civil war, since it was deep into the protective territory of one of the kings. And yet sometimes, like that day, warlords got through. Ulfr’s band had had scuffles with army units now and then over the years that gave Lance more of a challenge, but none recently.
“You disobeyed me for a wench and her spawn?”
“I did not want the baby to die,” Lance repeated.
“You will go after her.” Ulfr pointed in the direction the woman had fled in. “You will redeem yourself and escape my wrath but only if you go now.”
Every single man and woman there gaped, eyes wide.
Ulfr’s eyes bulged and his face grew red. “You ungrateful maggot! Who raised you? Trained you? Who saved you from becoming crow food or sold into slavery? You owe me your loyalty!”
Lance stared at Ulfr. Yes, all he said was true. But there was no way Lance could ever hold his sword over the neck of that baby and kill her. Her laugh echoed in his mind and seemed to unlock something. Something scarred shut.
No, she would live.
He dropped his helmet to the bloody mud, followed by his sword, which had taken countless lives without mercy or hesitation. He stood before the warriors, those he’d trained and slaughtered alongside. Despite living with them, killing with them, he didn’t know them at all. He never cared to.
“I am done,” he said.
I adore fantasy romance and the cover and blurb for this sounded perfect. It reminded me a little of some of the Roman gladiator stories, the children trained to be killing machines from adolescence.
Which is basically the theme of this book.
Fantasy stories are usually all about the world building, and this was very well done, with maybe a couple of slip-ups on some twenty first century idioms, but it’s fantasy so in their world they may use them.
So definitely five stars for the background and the world.
Where this story came a little unstuck in my opinion was the plot and the romance. The author is completely upfront that Lance–the warrior–is child-like in his simplicity because of his training with the war lord who got his cruel hands on him at an impressionable age.
The problem is that this isn’t really resolved enough to make the budding romance–which there is very little of–believable, even being a trilogy.
The plot is also quite obvious and if the romance had balanced this it would have been a five star all the way though.
If it hadn’t been described as a romance I would have easily have given four stars, but it is, so I would knock another star off for that.
Having said all that if very slow burn is your thing with great world building this would be a good book to read.
3.5 pieces of eye candy
M.D. Grimm has wanted to write stories since second grade (kind of young to make life decisions, but whatever) and nothing has changed since then (well, plenty of things actually, but not that!). Thankfully, she has indulgent parents who let her dream, but also made sure she understood she’d need a steady job to pay the bills (they never let her forget it!).
After graduating from the University of Oregon and majoring in English, (let’s be honest: useless degree, what else was she going to do with it?) she started on her writing career and couldn’t be happier.
Working by day and writing by night (or any spare time she can carve out), she enjoys embarking on romantic quests and daring adventures (living vicariously, you could say) and creating characters that always triumph against the villain, (or else what’s the point?) finding their soul mate in the process.
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