Blood, Metal, Bone – Lindsay Cummings

Tears trickled down Sonara’s cheeks as she crouched in the shadowy corners of the Soreian royal stables. She’d awoken early that morning to find the word scraped in the sand between the aisles of stalls. Exactly where they knew she’d find it. BASTARD It had been gouged deep, as if drawn with the sharp edge of a warrior’s sword. Many times, Sonara of Soreia wished the goddesses had never granted her life in her mother’s womb. For what was living, when you spent your days tucked away in the shadows, disowned and unwanted? Sonara had scraped the awful word away with a mucking fork, then spent the rest of the morning cleaning out stalls, telling herself she wasn’t going to cry. The damned tears came anyway, pesky drops that fell hard and fast the moment her brother entered the stables. Soahm came as he always did: unannounced and disguised in a cerulean hooded cloak that did little to conceal his true identity. Everyone knew the Crown Prince of Soreia. He stood a few paces away, a pale mare nuzzling at his pocket, trying to uncover the hidden wintermints he’d purchased on his latest journey to the neighboring kingdom of the Deadlands. Soahm’s azure hair and eyes, deep as the sea, were the mark of Soreian purity; a trait that had passed down from generation to generation, marking the worthy from the not. “If I were you,” Soahm said as he stroked the mare’s nose with a bejeweled hand, “I’d consider it a blessing that mother doesn’t look upon you at all. Some days I swear the goddesses are punishing me beneath her wretched stare.” Mother. Sonara flinched at the word.

“Careful,” she said softly. She glanced over her shoulder, where a quiet stablehand hauled hay around the corner. A chorus of nickers followed after it, steeds poking their heads out of stall windows in hope of sneaking a bite. “You’re speaking words of treason, Prince.” But the stablehands and grooms were sworn to secrecy. Their very lives, their children’s lives, depended upon it. The last one who’d uttered a word of Sonara’s lineage was still displayed as an ornament upon the palace gates. “Perhaps,” Soahm said. He shrugged out of his cloak and placed it on a bridle hook just outside the nearest stall. The mare huffed at it, then stuck her head over the polished gate and promptly removed it with her teeth.

The cloak tumbled to the sand in a heap, the fine silk worth more than an entire year’s worths of wages for Sonara. Soahm sighed as he lifted it from the sand, a golden chain dangling from his throat as he shook out the dust. “But these aren’t the words of the crown prince. They’re the words of an older brother, who is doing his utmost to comfort his little sister.” “That could be treason, too,” Sonara said. “Calling me such a thing.” The crown prince held his arms wide. “Then let the queen send me over the cliffs to my death. I don’t fear the Leaping. And besides, when Rhya takes the crown in my stead and spends half the kingdom’s wages on flagons of liquor and ladies in waiting, mother will be begging the goddesses to pull me back from the depths.

” He flashed that summertime smile of his. “You’re my sister, Sonara. You always will be, regardless of how much shared blood runs in our veins.” He’d meant the words as a comfort. But Sonara sniffed, and more tears slipped from her eyes. They were darker than Soahm’s crystalline blue; a brown so deep they were almost black, her pupils scarcely visible in the dim light of morning. She holds the darkness of night in her eyes, her mother’s voice whispered into her memories. The darkness of a demon. “Don’t waste your tears,” Soahm said. He gently patted her shoulder, then tucked her long braid behind her ear.

The strands caught in a ray of sunlight peeking through the gabled stall window, revealing the natural smudges of muddy brown mixed with pure Soreian blue. “Not on a single one of them.” As he spoke, Sonara saw the royal family in her mind, the outline of the Queen, a shimmering crown perched atop her blue braids. And the three other half-siblings, all manicured menaces whose hearts had never known softness, never longed to show compassion. Not like Soahm. “Easier said than done,” Sonara answered. Soahm was older by several years. He’d traveled all across the continent, visiting the neighboring kingdom of the Deadlands, even traveling so far as the White Wastes up north. He’d seen other castles and cultures, dined with kings and queens and learned to wield a sword as any Soreian warrior should. He bore the weight of their kingdom’s future upon his shoulders, for someday, their mother’s crown would become his.

Soahm knew a great many things. But he would never truly understand what it was like to bear the burden of bastard. It was whispered behind Sonara like a devil’s hiss in the city streets. It sung wickedly to her each night in her dreams, when the wind sighed and the stars came out to shed their light on the kingdom below. Sonara was a child without a known father to claim her, with a royal mother who’d never wanted to bear her at all. “Well,” Sonara said, as her tears dried up. “I’ve work to do, and seeing as you’re here…” “Fine,” Soahm said. “But I’m not going anywhere near Duran.” Sonara raised a brow. “Scared, princeling?” Almost as if in response, a great boom exploded against the stall door at the edge of the aisle.

Sonara clicked her teeth and went to soothe the source of the noise. Duran, a beautiful beast with a coat the color of desert sand, mane and tail deep as blackest night, stood at the stall door, pounding his wide hoof against the gate. The entire stable seemed to shake with each kick. Some of the other steeds whinnied or snorted in response, their ears twitching this way and that. Dust kicked up outside Duran’s stall, the lock doubled to ensure he wouldn’t escape. “That’s enough now,” Sonara said, as she stopped just out of his reach. The beast looked at her with eyes that glowed as red as the bleeding suns. He was in the last few months of being a young steedling. His dark heavily feathered legs had grown stronger, his back broader, his thick neck arched and noble. Soon, he’d be fitted for armor with the rest of the young steeds.

They were a tougher, broader breed than the royal procession, bred for war instead of elegance. For death instead of life. Sonara reached into her pocket and plucked out one of Soahm’s wintermints. “Don’t bite me, beast,” she warned him. “Or I’ll bite you right back.” Duran’s ears flattened against his head. But he promptly lipped the mint off of her palm, crunching it down before releasing a wintry huf in her direction. “I can’t believe you touch that thing,” Soahm said, eyes wide. “Steed,” Sonara corrected him. “He’s harmless.

” “Tell that to the rider whose back he broke last week.” Sonara’s stomach sank at the thought of Duran’s future. As soon as he could be tamed, he’d join the steed army, paired with a warrior who’d ride with a heavy hand, a blue sword at his or her side. She’d likely never see him again, and it was that thought that hurt, strangely, worse than any words of cowardice the royal siblings could scribble in the sand. “I have half a mind to take Duran and ride far away from here,” Sonara said as she undid both locks and entered the stall, pushing Duran back a few steps. He tossed his head but relented as she clicked her teeth and stared him down. The beast stilled as she ran a brush across his back in steady strokes, even going so far as to lower his head to her. Sonara sighed and gave him another mint. “Imagine, the life he and I would have in the Deadlands. Freedom, Soahm.

As wild as the winds.” Soahm chuckled from the stall across the aisle. “You, in the Deadlands? If you don’t die of starvation or thirst or getting lost in the endless sands, you’ll definitely die of an attack by outlaws. The desert has eyes, Sonara. And they’re always watching, waiting for their moment to strike.” He shivered as if his memories of traveling to the neighboring kingdom were more than enough to set him on edge. “And their king, I might add, is one who thirsts for blood. He sits upon a throne of bones.” “Laugh all you wish, Prince.” Sonara tossed him a glare worthy of any war mare.

“But I’m plenty capable of surviving anywhere. Outlaws be damned.” “Are you?” Soahm crossed his tan arms over the stall door, gemstone rings glinting in the stray tendrils of sunlight. “Prove it.” Sonara weighed the onyx brush in her hand. Before he could react, she hurled it at him. It spun, bristles over back, until it landed with a dull thud against Soahm’s chest. It left nothing more than a smudge of dirt against his tunic before it fell to his polished boots. “Terrifying.” He arched a blue brow.

“I warned you.” “You’ll need a name, if you’re to be a dangerous outlaw.” “Sonara the Shadowrider,” she mused, catching the brush as Soahm tossed it back to her. Duran huffed and shifted his weight as if he were tired of their game. “Too obvious,” Soahm said. “Something more sinister. Sonara the Stabber? You’d carry a warrior’s sword, of course.” She snorted back a laugh as she brushed Duran. “That’s ridiculous. I’m no weaponsmaiden.

” They paused as a commotion rose outside the carved stable windows. Murmured voices of distant onlookers mixed with the soft sigh of seashells dancing among braided wind chimes. Cheers rose up as hoofbeats pounded against the sand, and a conch blew in three long blasts. Sonara paused to glance outside Duran’s stall window as the royal procession snaked past. Warriors rode on the backs of glamorous steeds as they escorted the Queen of Soreia towards her towering fortress at the ocean’s edge. Sonara glared from the shadows as Queen Iridis rode past. Her long hair was loose, a brilliant natural blue that hung in long coils down her back. “She makes the steeds’ sides bleed from whipping them,” Sonara said. Sonara groomed and fed all the young steeds. She helped train them when allowed, and though Duran was especially stubborn, and though he didn’t like to listen, he’d stolen her heart all the same, far more than any of the other steeds ever had.

“Do you know how many of them she’s turned sour?” Sonara sighed and felt Duran’s hot breath on her neck as he drew her attention away from the window. It was as if he could sense her mood dropping, sense the light within her fading the more she stood in her mother’s presence. Sonara dug her hands into Duran’s mane. “If the devil of a woman ever touches you, Duran…” “That’s it!” Soahm cried out. He clapped his hands together just outside the stall door, so loudly that Duran skittered sideways at the sudden sound. “Some War Steed you’ll make,” Sonara murmured with a smile. Duran’s ears flattened as if he very much disagreed. “The Devil,” Soahm said, crossing his arms atop Duran’s stall door. “Someday, Sonara, you’re going to become the She-Devil, riding on Duran’s back, spreading hell across Dohrsar. And don’t forget the sword.

” He reached to his hip, where his blade was held. Lazaris; the blade of their ancestors. A sword Soahm had trained with since he was only a boy, beautiful in its simplicity. The blade was solid black, with a strip of Soreian blue steel running down the middle, cool as a river. The sword was once their mother’s, wielded as she slew her way to the crown. But Soahm had been gifted Lazaris upon birth, a sword he’d finally grown into with age. Sometimes, Sonara watched from the stables as Soahm trained with the royal weaponsmaidens, who forged blue Soreian steel into weapons capable of withstanding a lifetime of warriors’ hits. When Soahm held Lazaris in the bright light of day, practicing on the elevated castle grounds in full view of the citizens, Sonara hid in the shadows of the stable, and mirrored his motions with a mucking fork. At night, he trained with her on the Devil’s Dunes, the twin moons their only watching eyes. She was not skilled, by any means.

But holding Lazaris gave her a reason to believe in herself. For what was a sword, without a warrior to wield it? Perhaps someday, she’d be strong enough, skilled enough, to earn her own weapon. “Lost in your thoughts, She-Devil?” Soahm asked, drawing Sonara’s attention away from Lazaris. The Queen’s procession faded away and the sound of chewing steeds took its place. A red bloodfly buzzed past Sonara’s ear. “Not quite,” she said, and swatted the bloodfly away. “No, I don’t think that’s the right name. The She-Devil? It doesn’t have much of a ring to it. But it was a worthy try.” Soahm sighed.

“I’ll figure it out eventually.” He turned over a water bucket and sat down on it to keep her company while she worked, his chin propped upon his ringed hands. “Tired already?” Sonara asked, tossing the brush at him again. “You’re becoming lazy, princeling.” “She-Devil,” Soahm said with a wink as he stood to help her. “Definitely a She-Devil.” Sonara leaned against the rough edge of a round pen, watching the royal trainers with longing in her eyes. Duran had already thrown three riders from his back, his tail fountaining behind him in silkiest black as he pranced, feathered legs dancing with each pound of his hooves against the sand. The day was uncomfortably warm. The scent of steed sweat mixed in with the nearby smell of the sea.

Across it, a pasture of golden seagrasses waved in the wind, the sky above darkening. A storm would soon arrive from far across the sea. It would crash onto the shore like a maelstrom, and everyone in Soreia would head inside. “Easy, Yima!” the head trainer shouted. “Don’t give him too much control of his head, or you’ll be thrown, too! We should head in. Call it for the day.” Yima was one of the finest riders, from a noble family of steed breeders in eastern Soreia. Sonara watched from outside the pen, clicking her tongue as Yima, heavy in her blue scaled armor, climbed atop Duran’s back. And dug her heels in deep. “Not so easy,” Sonara murmured beneath her breath.

She saw the telltale shift as Duran’s ears flattened against his head, nostrils flaring. Yima yanked on the bit as she clicked her own teeth at him. The steed’s sides were already bleeding from countless riders and spurs, his breath heaving as he fought against their control. Sand kicked up against Sonara’s legs as Soahm appeared at her side, blue robes flapping in the wind. He often left the castle during morning hours, but she hadn’t seen him in days. Their mother kept him in the castle for hours on end. Taking requests, calling on visitors, learning the ins and outs of what it meant to lead a kingdom, a whole room full of ancient councilmen and women droning on and on about goddesses only knew what. It was a life Sonara had never wanted. Deserved? Half of her blood said yes. But wanted? That was a very different sort of thing.

She would rather stand here now, hair unbound and face freckled from the sun, the kiss of the sea upon her tanned skin. And the sound of hoofbeats pounding in time with her heart as Yima tried to gain control of Duran. “I stopped by the betting house this morning,” Soahm said softly as he watched the steed crowhop past. “I placed ten gold coins on Duran.” “People are betting on whether or not he’ll be tamed?” Sonara sighed. The steed’s reputation had spread across the capital, then. “Well, for what it’s worth, I’d bet on him, too. He’s going to throw her. Any moment now.” Soahm shrugged and leaned over the railing.

“Looks like she’s got it under control to me. But, ah… isn’t watching Yima’s impending doom a fine way to spend your birthday?” “My birthday,” she said with a frown. She’d nearly forgotten. Soahm laughed. Then he frowned, too. “I forgot to bring you a gift.” “No gifts,” Sonara said. Soahm looked at her as if he disagreed. “No gifts, Soahm,” she said again. “Of course,” he said with a wry smile, and pointed back at the round pen.

“The height of the show.” Duran snorted and huffed, tossing his deep black mane. Sweat foamed upon his neck and chest as he fought against Yima’s commands. “I call it in three,” Sonara said. She winked at Soahm and held up three fingers. Across from them, Yima dug in her heavy-booted heels and pulled the reins sharply to the right. Duran’s head turned with her, his body following chase… but Sonara could see him fighting, chomping at the bit. “Two.” She dropped a finger. “You’d better be right,” Soahm said.

Sonara smiled as Yima made the gravest mistake of all. She looked away from Duran’s head, for only a moment, as a flock of fowl soared past, searching for refuge from the oncoming storm. Sonara pointed her remaining finger inside the round pen. “One.” Yima’s body took to the sky as Duran launched her off his back. She hit the sand with a heavy thump, armor clinking as the beast pranced to the corner of the round pen. He snorted and stomped his front hoof into the sand, proud as only a young steed could be. “No one will tame this demon,” the head trainer said with a growl, while the others standing around, who’d been so hopeful before, groaned and booed as Yima brushed her armor off. “I could,” Sonara said softly. Soahm turned around, leaning his back against the round pen as he looked at her.

“Truly?” “The trainer is a fool. He’s not meant to be tamed,” she said. “His spirit is as wild as the wind.” Some days she swore she could feel it, almost sense it in the gentle huff of his breath, when they sat alone in the stall, hidden from the judgemental eyes of the world. Duran was like her. Different to the others. Misunderstood, because he didn’t fit into their perfect Soreian mold. “So what would you do differently, then, little sister?” Soahm asked. Sonara smiled, tilting her chin towards the oncoming storm. The clouds were darkening now, rolling above the angry waves in the distance, where sky met sand and sea.

“For starters, I’d ride him without that heavy armor. Right when the rain hits.” Soahm laughed, for when it came to riding unarmored on a beast as fierce as Duran, that most certainly sounded like a death wish. Couple the storm with it, and any steed’s attitude would change. But Sonara had sensed Duran’s fighting soul from day one. He was born too early, a squalling and scrambling thing, scrawny legs and thin neck and a mare that did not have enough milk to sustain his endless hunger. “He won’t survive the week,” the royal horsemaiden had said, considering the beast a burden. But Sonara had refused to give up on him. She did not sleep for days, so focused was she on filling him with donor’s milk. Bottle after bottle, she’d sustained him.

Duran grew quickly. He cheated death, and in the months after, Sonara spent countless hours grooming him, whispering her hurts and her pains into his fuzzy ears. Kissing him on his velvety snout. Sometimes, soaking her tears into his neck in the dark of night, when her problems surfaced and her demons tried to reel her in. Her soul always felt lighter in his presence. Like he was taking some of the burden off her back and placing it upon his own. Sometimes, she swore he looked into her eyes and saw through to her soul. He didn’t know what she was, a bastard without a true call to a crown. He just knew that she was his. He’d claimed her heart from the moment she laid eyes on him.

And he was hers. “Then I’d open these blasted gates,” Sonara said louder now, watching Duran’s dark-tipped ears flick towards the sound of her voice. “He was not meant to be confined to a pen.” His head turned to her and his blazing red eyes fell upon her face in recognition. He tossed his mane and pranced across the sand, snorting as he stopped before her. Sonara held out a hand, feeling his warm breath dissolve against her skin. Home, her heart whispered. “Then I’d turn him towards the crags, where the seagrass catches the breeze. I’d give him his freedom, allow him to think with his own head instead of a bit. We’d run until the storm broke.

I wouldn’t slow him. And when he grew tired…” she smiled, thinking of the freedom, “we’d stand on the edge of the crags, watching the horizon where the sky meets the sea.” Silence.

.

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