The Druid’s Daughter is a new monthly web serial of a short Prequel to Bound By Blood, Book 1 of the Rogues of Magic Series.
Rhiannon Valeran’s long blonde hair whipped behind her, and her mare’s hooves thudded against the hard ground. She left the healing house behind after saying goodbye to her mother, who wouldn’t return until later that day. Trees blurred past her, it would only take a couple of hours to get back to the palace in Larenth.
“Hey, wait for me!” a voice called.
She turned to see Edward Rohn, her best friend and appointed bodyguard, trotting toward her on his black stallion. With his short brown hair, green eyes, and black armour, he looked rugged and handsome all at once.
Ann grinned. “Not my fault you can’t keep up.”
“I can keep up, I just can’t keep you safe if I can’t see you.” Ed glanced around uneasily, as if he expected something to jump out at them.
Ann couldn’t understand why he seemed so on edge. They were on the old road surrounded by dozens of trees, the air thick with the heady scent of grass and wet leaves.
She rolled her eyes. “Since when have I needed you to keep me safe?” Her father insisted one of the Black stay with her at all times for protection. Ann usually made sure it was Ed. At least that gave them the chance to spend more time together.
His lips curved into a smile. “I could list every time, but we’d be here a couple of days.”
Ann snorted. “I protect myself just fine, thank you. I’m the druid’s daughter. Spirits, if I hear that name one more time I’ll scream.” Yes, her father might be the archdruid—the most powerful man in the five realms—and she might be his heir, but she didn’t have to like it.
Ed brought his horse to a halt beside hers. “We shouldn’t linger.” His eyes scanned their surroundings in every direction, still wary.
“Hardly anyone uses this old road to the city anymore. What are you so nervous about?” Ann smirked, reaching over to prod him in the shoulder. “Not frightened of being attacked by bandits, are you?”
“There’re worse things than bandits around here. We should move.” He glanced around, still on edge. “Your father’s peace treaty to unite three of the realms may not go over well with some people.”
“You’d think that after the realm wars tore the lands apart, they’d be glad of it,” Ann replied, though she knew not everyone liked the level of power her father wielded. A sudden chill ran over her—a warning in the air—and she stopped her mare, Miri, who no doubt sensed it too. The white horse snorted, her hooves scraping at the ground.
Ed pulled his sword from the sheath on his back. “Ann, get moving.”
She rolled her eyes again. “I’m not leaving you.” She hated it when he became overprotective. She knew he was only doing his job, but when they were alone, they usually acted more like partners. Ed might be one of the Black Guard—a group of elite warriors trained in magic and combat—but he’d also been her best friend for over a decade. She wouldn’t leave him to face a potential threat alone. “It’s safer if we stick together.”
Ed’s jaw tightened.
Rustling filled the air as something bounded through the trees. Three giant, hulking men dressed in bedraggled clothing appeared, each carrying a different weapon.
Wonderful, it had to be ogres. They were just as big as their cousins, the giants, only much more stupid. One came bounding toward her.
Ann raised her hand. Heat flared between her fingers as a fireball formed. “I’d back off if I were you,” she warned, but the ogre kept on coming, almost crashing into Miri.
Ann urged the mare forward and dodged it as another ogre lunged at Ed, who thrashed at it to drive it back.
Ogres, like giants, were damned strong, and had a tolerance for magic which made it harder to kill them. Ann had encountered a few of them on her travels with her father over the years, but why were they attacking her now? She didn’t look out of place in her riding leathers. Ed’s armour was covered by the long black leather coat the Black were known for wearing.
Ann sighed. She only had one Black with her, and she wasn’t flying a Valeran banner. How could they even know who she was to see her as a threat?
Maybe they don’t know, and think we are unsuspecting travellers.
She hurled a fireball at the first ogre, who ducked and growled as he avoided it. The tree behind him exploded.
I hope that peace treaty involved the dryads, or I may have caused some problems. She pulled out one of her knives as a third ogre came at her.
He slammed into Miri before Ann had the chance to throw the knife. Miri screamed as she and Ann were knocked over.
Ann hit the ground hard, knocking the air from her lungs. She rolled, stopping a few feet away from Miri, who struggled against the ogre.
More heat flared between her fingers. With one hand, she sent the first ogre crashing to the ground, and with the other, she flung her blade at the second one. It embedded itself in his neck. He grunted and yanked it free, tossing the blade away.
Ann glanced over at Ed, who fended off the two others. She felt something else at the edge of her mind. Eyes watching her, watching them. A chill ran down her spine as her senses prickled. Who would be watching them?
The ogres are a diversion, she realised.
Another fireball knocked the ogre back. She hurried over to Ed’s side and gripped another knife. “Enough of this!” she snarled, fire flickering between her fingers. “What do you want?”
Something snapped. A man with greasy black hair, dark eyes, and pale skin moved out of the trees. He wore a tattered cloak over muddied trousers. A silver ring flashed on his finger which bore a seal. It looked like two circles interlocked with each other. “Bravo, although I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. You’re gaining quite a reputation for yourself, Lady Rhiannon.”
“Sorcerer,” Ed spat. “I can practically smell the tainted magic on you.”
Ann scanned the newcomer with her mind, sensing he was indeed a sorcerer. Strange, there weren’t many of them residing in Caselhelm nowadays. Most had retreated to Asral due to her father’s laws restricting the use of sorcery.
“What do you want?” Ann demanded, putting her hands on her hips. “For an attempted kidnapping, you haven’t executed your plan very well.”
The man sneered. “Oh, I’m not foolish enough to kidnap you.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Then what do you want?” She pulled out another one of her knives, ready in case he tried to catch her off-guard. Orbs of fire flickered between the fingers of her other hand. Her magic was ready, bubbling below the surface. One thing she had learned from Ed over the years was to be prepared for anything.
“This was a warning. We won’t have that treaty controlling all the realms, you have no idea what it will do to Magickind.” The man’s dark eyes narrowed as he glared at her. “If you don’t stop the treaty, we will.”
“What are you talking about?” Ann demanded. “The treaty is designed to bring peace to all the realms—something we haven’t had in centuries.”
“You have no idea, do you?” He laughed.
“No idea about what?” More fire flared between her fingers.
Ed moved to her side, his sword still drawn. Ann, let’s get out of here, he said. Please, I don’t like this.
“That treaty will give them too much control over us,” the sorcerer hissed. “Are you willing to let that happen? You have no idea who the real enemy is, do you?” His ring glittered in the sunlight.
Ann took a step forward and opened her mouth to ask more questions. Movement caught her eye, she spotted a woman with black eyes that looked like buttons pinned onto her face lurking between the trees. She stared at Ann, a faint grin on her face. Her pale skin shimmered like moonlight, and her long black dress curled around her like wisps of smoke. Power crackled in the air around the woman. Her long black hair billowed around her as she hovered above the ground.
“Who…?” Ann asked, wondering what in the name of the spirits the woman was. She’d never seen any Magickind who looked like that before.
The sorcerer scurried away, but Ann barely noticed him as she frowned at the woman. “Who are you?”
The woman laughed and vanished in a swirl of smoke.
“Hey, come back!” Ann ran over to where she had been hovering.
“Ann, what are you doing?” Ed hurried after her. When he reached her, he touched her shoulder, concern etched on his face.
“Didn’t you see her?” Ann stared at the ground, half-expecting to find some trace of her there but found nothing. No lingering traces of magic. No disturbances within the earth. The woman might as well have not been there at all.
“Who? The sorcerer? He ran off.” Ed sheathed his sword in the scabbard at his back. “Do you want me to go after him?”
“No, not him. The woman!” Ann stared at him, incredulous. “Didn’t you see her?”
Ann looked at the spot the woman had been in again and reached out with her mind.
Nothing. The elements didn’t detect any traces of the stranger’s energy either, which seemed odd. All Magickind left lingering traces of energy, whether they used magic or not.
“Ann?” Ed squeezed her shoulder. “There wasn’t anyone there. Perhaps you imagined it, or you caught a glimpse of one of the fleeing ogres.”
She glared at him. “There was someone else here. I saw her.” It was unlike him to doubt her word. Why didn’t he believe her?
A crow squawked overhead and swooped down, landing at Ed’s feet. In a flash of black feathers, the crow morphed into a dark-skinned man with a bald head and a chiselled face. He wore a black tunic and leather trousers. “Thought I spotted you two down here. What are you doing?” He glanced around as if expecting to see something.
“Fighting off ogres, maniacal sorcerers and an invisible woman,” Ed remarked, clapping him on the back. “What are you doing here, Jax?”
“I’m on my way back to Larenth,” Jax said.
Julius Jaxson, or Jax, as he was commonly known, had grown up as Ed’s his foster brother. He was a fellow member of the Black, sworn to protect the archdruid as Ed was.
Ann moved away from them, muttering words of power as she went.
“Ann, what are you doing?” Ed asked again once he had caught up with her. “There wasn’t anyone else here, I would’ve seen them. Maybe you thought you saw someone when—”
“I don’t think I saw someone, I know. There was a strange-looking woman watching us,” Ann replied.
“I didn’t see anyone.” Ed sheathed his sword.
Ann turned to Jax, giving him a pointed look. “Did you see anyone else as you flew toward us?”
“No, just you, Rohn and that man you were talking to,” Jax said. “Oh, and some big-looking guys running away, I think they were ogres.”
“You’re sure you didn’t see a woman? Dark hair, odd-looking black eyes?” Ann would have expected Jax to have least seen something. He had a much greater vantage point in the air.
Ed and Jax glanced at each other. “No.” Jax frowned. “Did you hit your head? Ed said you fell off your horse, maybe we should take you to a healer and get you checked out.”
Ann rolled her eyes and slipped a fallen knife back into her boot. “No, I saw someone watching us.” She picked up her other discarded knives. “But I couldn’t sense what she was. What did that damn sorcerer mean? Why would anyone have a problem with the treaty?”
“Not everyone is happy about it,” Ed said. “You know some people like things the way they are.”
“Yeah, they’re not happy about the changes,” Jax agreed.
Ann sighed. “I need to talk to my father, to find out what all this means.” She frowned at Jax. “Where have you been, anyway?”
Jax was often sent to gather intelligence for her father—thanks to him being half shifter, he was good at blending in and not being spotted.
“To the border between Caselhelm and Asral. General Reevus sent me to check on Lord Byron. He’s been gathering a lot of people around it.” Jax brushed a few lingering feathers off his clothes. At age twenty, he still struggled with shifting from one form to the other. Sometimes he still had feathers attached to his skin, and other times he tore his clothes. But he’d become better as shifting and having his clothes shift with him.
Ann winced at the mention of Orla, her father’s former demon mistress. “What did you find out?”
“Not much. I couldn’t get too close.”
“Let’s head back. I don’t want to stay in these woods any longer than we have to,” said Ed, calling his stallion over.
Ann glanced back at where she’d seen the strange woman one last time as Ed mounted his horse and Jax swung up into the saddle behind him.
Faint laughter carried on the air, and Ann took off in the opposite direction to find the source.
“Ann!” Ed called after her.
She ignored him and carried on running. Branches and leaves caught in the fabric of her tunic as she pushed past the trees. She needed to find out what that woman was. The stranger appeared beside her, making Ann gasp.
“Soon, the house of Valeran shall fall. The stars will darken, and your path shall be revealed,” the woman hissed, vanishing as quickly as she’d appeared.