Release Date: July 2012
A cursed destiny. A band of warriors. And one troubled kingdom.
It is whispered in Agathia that the legendary warriors of the mist-cursed by the gods-can be summoned only when a champion is needed and the cause is just. Gideon, their captain, knows this to be the one path that will lead his men to redemption-lest they face an eternity of damnation.
Years have passed since anyone has journeyed to the river's edge, but times are desperate. Oppressed by a cruel guardian whose dark magic threatens to destroy her people, the beautiful and courageous Merewen calls upon the bespelled warriors. In Gideon she finds more than a champion, and in his arms, more than protection. However, their enemies are fighting with a power darker than anything than they imagined, and should Gideon fail, she will lose everything she holds dear-including her heart.
RIVER OF THE DAMNED
The Warriors of the River are a legend, their origins lost in the misty shadows of the past. In dark times, it is whispered, the warriors can be summoned from beneath the roiling currents when a champion is needed and if the cause is just.
However, the cost will be high and the risks great, for if the battle is won, the champion faces judgment by the same gods who had once condemned him to the cold chill of the mountain river. If his performance is found worthy and valiant, at long last the warrior will make the final journey to the great hall where the noble knights of the past dwell for all eternity. However, if the champion is found lacking still, he returns with his brothers to the river.
If the battle is lost, regardless of fault, both the champion and the supplicant will be condemned to the netherworld. Together they will wander without hope and without light, lost in cold darkness until the ages have passed and all that exists ceases to be. Only the powerless and the desperate dare approach the Warriors of the River to plead for their cause.
Many years have passed since last a worthy supplicant journeyed to the river's edge, but times are dark and desperation has once again come to the people of Agathia. There is a disturbance in the mists, and the waters grow restless. Someone comes, bringing either disaster or redemption.
The Warriors of the River ready their weapons and prepare to meet the enemy.
Merewen tripped over a twisted knot of tree root jutting up in the narrow game trail and pitched headfirst to the ground. It wasn't the first tumble she'd taken racing through the night to reach the river. This time, though, she didn't-in fact couldn't-immediately push herself back to her feet. As she waited for her pulse to ease and her lungs to fill, she leaned back against the tree for support and used the hem of her cloak to wipe away the trickle of blood on her knee.
If it hurt, she didn't notice. Lately, pain and fear were her constant companions, her chest aching from more than just breathing the thin air of the mountains.
"A few seconds' rest," she whispered into the darkness. Whether the words were a prayer for a respite or a promise that she wouldn't give up, she didn't know. Probably both were true.
All too aware that time was quickly passing, she settled her cloak back over her shoulders and started upward again. If her enemies had discovered her absence, they would've already sent the hounds racing after her, hungry for a chase and the taste of fresh blood. The deep blue of her cloak might hide her presence among the deep shadows of the woods, but nothing would hide her scent from the pack, especially given the traces of blood she'd left behind.
She hurried her steps, well aware that if she didn't reach the river before the moon rose, all would be lost. At times it seemed as if the very woods themselves conspired against her. Low branches blocked her way. Roots and rocks tripped her. The undergrowth sprouted vicious thorns just to tear at her clothing.
At the crest of the next rise, her hem became entangled in brambles as she brushed past them. Pausing to yank her cloak free, she heard a distant sound, one that gave her hope for the first time since sneaking past the sentries to run toward the woods.
Merewen closed her eyes and listened with everything she had as she sorted through the sounds of the night. She ignored the soft rustle of a small creature dashing through the underbrush, the whisper of an owl riding the air currents, and the breeze dancing its way through the leaves overhead. One by one, she acknowledged the sounds and discarded each of them, until all she heard was the distant rush of water down the mountainside.
Her destination was close by. With renewed vigor, she ripped her hem free and hurried forward, fighting the urge to run. She'd come too far to risk another fall that might prevent her from reaching the water's edge.
Ahead, the trees thinned out and the path widened. The roar of the water drowned out all other noise as at last she cleared the forest, stepping out on a rocky shoreline blanketed in a heavy mist. As she waited and watched, the mists swirled and parted, revealing the river at last. Merewen compared the reality of the scene before her to the descriptions in the ancient text she'd found buried on a back shelf of her late father's library.
As if it were burned into her memory, she pictured the faded script, the words blurred with age and difficult to decipher. It had taken her hours, days, and even weeks to work her way through the worn pages. At first, she read to keep her mind occupied and off her father's illness. Once he passed into the afterlife, she read to ease her grief. And finally, she read with desperation, hoping to find a way to save her people.
The words, written by an unknown hand, spoke of a narrow path up the mountains that led to the far edge of the forest. Beyond the trees lay a clearing surrounding a deep pool. Its waters fed the river right where it began a long tumble down the mountainside.
The rising moon outlined everything before her in stark shades of black and white and silver. Merewen took a cautious step forward and then another until at last she reached the edge of the wide pool. For a moment, she averted her eyes, not yet prepared to see if the text had been fabricated from truth or lies.
With shaking hands, Merewen drew a piece of paper from her pocket and gently unfolded it. She'd carefully copied the words written there directly from the old text. Even though she had them committed to memory, she couldn't risk any mistakes, not when there would be only this one chance to get them right.
For on this one night, all things rested in balance as spring was reborn into the world. On this vernal equinox, twelve hours of light would be followed by an equal number spent in darkness. The full moon would add its special powers to her plea. All these things promised her hope of success, something she'd had very little of for a long time.
There was no time for delays. She had to look; she had to know if she'd come to the right place. Edging closer yet to the damp rocks where the water lapped at the edges of its boundaries, she took a deep breath and looked down, gradually moving her gaze outward from the shore to the deepest part of the river.
The water was mirror smooth and midnight black, the moonlight reflecting back only her darkest thoughts. Had she journeyed this far, risked so much, on a fool's mission? No, she wouldn't believe it. Now wasn't the time for doubts that would weaken her resolve and her words.
It was almost time to begin, but standing on the edge so far from the center of the water didn't feel right. She studied her surroundings, noticing for the first time a stone outcropping that jutted out over the pool off to her left. Her feet were already moving in that direction before she made a conscious decision to go.
The mist had left the rocks damp and slippery, making it difficult to walk. Her heart climbed into her throat as she slowly made her way, sidestepping across the narrow ledge to where the rock widened out over the pool below. There she hung her cloak on a branch of a tree that twisted up and out from between the rocks above. With the crumpled paper in hand, she drew a deep breath and walked out to the very edge.
She ignored the queasy knot of fear in her stomach. With a deep sigh, she cleared her throat before reading the words, at first in a soft whisper, then stronger, offering her plea to the darkness. As she reached the end of the first line, she became aware of the heavy silence surrounding her. Gone were the normal sounds of the night, leaving behind only the muted burbling of the river itself. It was as if the entire world held its breath in anticipation of what was to come.
The words, awkward at first, now poured from her mouth as she raised her hands upward toward the full moon directly overhead. The black sheen of the water swirled into silver, reflecting only the night sky above and giving no clue what lay beneath the surface.
"Mighty warriors, dwellers of the deep, hear my plea and awake from sleep. Darkness and fell deeds now haunt this land. Lift your swords for my people. This I command."
They were daring words, she knew, as she repeated them for the third and final time. When the last one died away, she held her breath, waiting and watching for some sign that the Lord and Lady of the River had heard and would release the warriors from their hold.
Nothing. Silence, at first, but then slowly the normal sounds of the night returned. The nearby call of an owl startled her, almost causing her to lose her balance. She quickly backed away from the edge of the drop-off, retreating to where she'd left her cloak. Disappointment tasted bitter.
Given the late hour, there was little chance that her absence had gone unnoticed. She had no choice now but to return to the keep and face the consequences of her follies. She shuddered at the thought of her uncle's wrath, well aware that he would likely order her beaten for disobeying his orders. She still bore the bruises from her last attempt to defy him, but someone had to stand up to his tyranny.
She looked to the moon's cool face one last time before leaving the river's edge. Oddly enough, she felt comforted by the pure silver light that streamed down from above, less lonely, less desperate.
"Thank you for listening," she whispered in the cool night air, feeling a little foolish.
No sooner had the words left her mouth than a ripple slithered across the surface of the pool. She froze, uncertain that she'd really seen anything at all. Then it happened again and again until the water churned and frothed with a deepening roar.
Fear mixed with wonder at the sight unfolding before her. Could it be that her plea for help had indeed reached the ears of the gods? Just as abruptly, the river stilled but thrummed like that last moment of peace before a storm exploded over the keep, bringing with it a flash of lightning and the crash of thunder as if the gods themselves were at war.
Then an arm brandishing a sword burst forth from the deepest part of the river. Merewen wanted to run, but her feet remained frozen in place. A second sword appeared, this one oddly curved but just as deadly. Within a handful of heartbeats, three more joined in, bringing the total to five. With the appearance of the last one, all started moving in her direction.
The manuscript had been vague on the details of what Merewen should expect, other than to say the warriors known as the Damned should not be called upon lightly. Now she knew why. One by one, five men strode from the river. Not a single drop of water fell to the ground from either their weapons or their clothing. How could that be?
And their eyes were a horror to behold-pale to the point of having no color and glowing with the cold chill of death. They spread out, leaving her no avenue of retreat if she'd been foolish enough to think she could outrun one of them, much less all five.
The middle warrior took one step closer to her, his sword held up in challenge. "Woman, why have you called us?" Merewen met his hard, pale gaze head-on, holding it for what seemed like an eternity. Then she did what seemed the sensible thing.
4.5 STARS! TOP PICK - Night Owl Reviews
"An excellent start to what promises to be an electrifying and passionate series!" --Jill M. Smith, RT Book Reviews. 4 Stars!
"My Lady Mage . . . shows Morgan at her story-telling best."