The King's Swordsman

Following the adventures and misadventures of a swordsman called Thorrn on the world of Oberrot. The series is told from his perspective, and in first person.

Book 1: The Tenets in the Tattoos. Publication date: 9th August 2021

Book 2: Title to be announced. Publication date: September 2021

Book 3: Title to be announced. Publication date: October 2021

Book 4: Title to be announced. Publication date: January 2022

Book 5: Title to be announced. Publication date: February 2022

Book 6: Title to be announced. Publication date: March 2022

Book 7: Title to be announced. Publication date: Summer 2022

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The Tenets in the Tattoos

Author: Becky James

Copyright 2021

Chapter 1

I darted into Gavain’s range. Ducking, I swung my practice blade to the side and scored a clear hit on the side of his chest. My best friend staggered back a pace and shook himself, grinning. Blond hair plastered flat with sweat, he rubbed his side and shook his hands off. “Best you can do? You wouldn’t have cut through ribs into anything vital with a weak swing like that.”

“No, but you would be incapacitated enough for me to take your head off,” I countered, smiling. Gavain was excellent to spar with, and big enough to take even my hits. He had a bad habit of drawing back to recover, and I wasn’t about to let him. I pressed forward, swinging and prodding with the sword, keeping him on the defensive, taking longer and longer strides to shove him backwards into a retreat.

Gavain grimaced and lunged forward. I saw it coming and rolled to the side. His blade missed me and thwacked into the field, tossing dirt in my face. “Left yourself open to that!” he crowed. I swore at him, rubbing my eyes clear to inspect my clothes. “What? You’ll have a bath after.” I swore at him again. If he had muddied my jacket, especially on this important day.

“Special Forces, to me!” my father Captain Shard barked, his voice echoing through the field. With that, we quit immediately, saluted each other, and jogged back to gather in formation around him.

“You’re too showy. You’re all big dramatic movements and wide wild swings. You need more speed if you’re going to do that,” Gavain argued, turning towards me, but my head buzzed like a travel mancer’s lodestone too much to think of a response.

Soon, she would be here.

We approached our friend Aleric who gave me a prompt slap on the back. “What did you do to your face?” he whispered underneath Captain Shard’s closing remarks.

“He did it. Gav, you’re brushing off my jacket.” I complained, earning a laugh from Gavain. I narrowed my eyes and shoved his arm. “I’m serious. It better not need a proper clean. You know what day it is today!” He pretended to stagger to one side as a result of my push, bumping into someone else and causing a ripple in the formation.

 

“Boys!” Captain Shard snapped. “Shardsson, stay after dismissal.”

Gavain smirked. “Oops,” he said with a slight chuckle. I balled my fists. “Don’t worry. She’s here to meet you, not see your jacket.”

 

“Take it and brush it off. Please,” A quick inspection as I shucked out of it revealed a bit of dirt on the collar, but hopefully that would come off easily.

 

“If it means that much to you,” With a mocking salute, Gavain took my jacket. He and Aleric walked toward the baths with the rest of Special Forces.

 

I approached my father alone. “Captain. My apologies for that.”

His lips thinned, eyes holding mine in an unflinching stare. “I know today means a lot for you. King Gough is excited about the arrival of Rose’s daughter, as well. I had to give my personal assurance to the royal family that Special Forces can defend them within the city, despite not having an incident for two score years.” He shook his head, the very edges of his lips tipping up. “I had to swear that all our fighters are professional, calm-headed, focused, and dedicated.” My father raised an eyebrow at me.

“Yes, Captain.” I saluted. “I won’t let you down.”

“See that you don’t. You’ve not done irreparable damage … so far, anyway.” He touched my shoulder briefly. “I wish you well when you meet the daughter of the king’s soul. I feel for sure she must be the one.”

I nodded, my stomach trembling with excitement. I saluted the captain once more. “If that’s all, sir, I’d like to prepare.”

“Prepare? You’ll do fine the way you are. Just be yourself, Thorrn.”

“Aye, sir.” Being dismissed, I hurried to the baths. I walked a quick march, keeping my head up and forward across the training grounds and toward the castle. Messenger boys and girls darted through the castle gates and out in a streak along the path to the city gates, then beyond to their destinations. I slowed as I passed through the gatehouse, putting my head into the guard post, which was ostensibly unoccupied except for a pair of boots on the table. I rapped my sword hilt on the lintel; the boots jerked off with a strangled oath only to be replaced by a lined and worn face. I shook my head at the Regular, giving him my best glare. The Regulars formed the main part of the castle army, with Special Forces the elite force protecting the king and his interests directly. The soldier muttered and mumbled something, pulling at his green uniform.

“Name?” I demanded. I made a mental note of it and walked on; it wasn’t my place to discipline the Regs, just order them around if I happened to be the commander in the field. But slacking behaviour wasn’t to be tolerated. Especially not today.

The castle courtyard seemed emptier than usual for just before mid-sun. The myriad of entrances into the castle buildings were quiet with only a trickle of movement. Functionaries whispered news of the daughter of the king’s soul and a mystery until now. “Arriving soon—and by magical means, no less,” I overheard.

“Well, of course. She’s not going to walk up the city hill, is she? And now that the king’s put a ban on slaves in the city itself, it’s not like she can take a palanquin.”

The air cooled as I passed into the gallery of the castle proper. The long gallery acted as the main artery to the building, a focal point and workspace both. It gave access to the King’s Lake, the garden set inside the castle, and the mess hall. The main stairs dominated the gallery, leading up to the working level of the building.

Nerves patted my stomach, turning it away from the enticing smells coming out of the mess hall. I shook out my hands and took a deep breath, taking the stairs two at a time up towards the baths. I had to wait, as a stream of messenger lads chased each other down the spiral stairs from the hospitality and residential levels. The stairs wound up beyond those, past the library, and up beyond that even further to the Royal Apartments and the Last Tower.

One messenger swept by me so fast and dizzy from the turns that he stumbled. I grabbed the back of his shirt to steady him. “Let me go, sir. I didn’t do nothing!” he exclaimed, trying to pull away.

“I’m not an Upholder, go to. Just play somewhere else.” I released him, smiling to myself. He sprinted away, calling after his friends.

I paced to the baths, squinting against the bright light opposite from the Sun Room, a completely glass room used to impress and host dignitaries. The dinner tonight would be in there, one in honour of the daughter of the king’s soul. She wasn't royalty herself, but her mother's status as the soul of the king made her a person of extreme interest in the court. I pressed my chest to feel the card of the invitation and panicked when I couldn't find it. I relaxed when I realised I had put it in the pocket of my jacket, and Gavain had that. Hopefully the dirt would come out. I shouldered my way into the men’s baths, letting out a breath of relief.

The tiles rang with raucous shouts from Special Forces. Heads snapped up at me from the large bathing pool, coils of steam curling above them. I waved, and the men went back to their conversations. I pulled off my shirt looking for a clear rack space to neatly fold it in, letting the noise roll around me. Gavain and Aleric already sat with the rest of the contingent, leaning back along the edges of the steaming pool. The door opened again, and Special Forces looked up; it was merely a courtier, who backed out when he realised his error. Truth be told, I preferred the baths quieter than this; a lot of people avoided mid-sun, when the baths would be bursting with heavily tattooed swordsmen.

I had to scrub my hair fast in the wash area to catch up. I slid into the pool and waded toward them. Gavain’s nose wrinkled. “That smells like lyneal.” he observed.

“It’s supposed to make your hair shine.” I sat next to them, back to the edge of the baths, scanning the area quickly out of habit.

Gavain scooted away. “It’s giving me terrors of being laid up in the barracks and maltreated by Tabreksson. Yuck. I can almost taste the medicines on my tongue.”

“Yes, but they work.”

“Probably because they taste so bad our bodies accelerate the healing process to spare us.” Gavain’s lips pinched. “Take it like a man, three times a day, exact proportions.” He mimed picking up a droplet of water. “Too much.”

“Who’s that meant to be?” Aleric asked, brow furrowed.

“Aubin Tabreksson, you dolt.”

I grimaced. “He could come in here, you know.”

Gavain rolled his eyes. “Your jacket is fine, by the way.”

I let out a breath. “Good. First impressions count for a lot; I hope to make a very favourable impression on Rose’s daughter.” My hands trembled just thinking about it.

“The son of the Special Forces Captain? You’ll be fine.”

“Don’t forget, I’m his very best swordsman too,” I said, dunking my head under to wash the lyneal off. “Did it work?” I asked, catching Gavain and Aleric exchanging glances. “What? I know I’m not supposed to get stuff in here, but it’s just lyneal.”

“Nothing. What’s she like, then, the daughter of the king’s soul?”

“I have no idea. She’s never been to Oberrot City. That means she almost has to be my soul, because I haven’t found her yet and she hasn’t found hers. It has to be, right?” I had had no success finding my soul thus far, even away on missions, and I had waited for turns and turns now.

“Don’t ask me, I’m not a soul-searcher. I found Zelora when we—”

“Yes, I know, Gav. You don’t have to remind me.”

“And you thought Zel was yours.” He snorted. My heart creased with remembered grief; the hope rising in my chest and how it was dashed to splinter against hard reality. I closed my eyes briefly.

“The daughter of the king’s soul will be something else,” Aleric murmured, raising his eyebrows at Gavain.

I straightened up. “She’ll be beautiful and adroit, the perfect companion, well-kept, and sociable. She’ll dress well and keep abreast of city fashions—and maybe even inspiring some herself. She’ll be able to talk with any lord from any station, making connections all across the land.” I said proudly. Gavain and Aleric raised their eyebrows at each other, making me scowl. “What?”

“Sounds like a lot. Too much for you, maybe.”

“We’ll be perfect together,” I retort hotly.  

“That's a courtier’s soul, not the captain’s best swordsman’s soul,” Aleric laughed.

Soul pairs were best thought of as one spirit inhabiting two bodies. The spirit sought to experience both sides of a trait; a clash of opposites sometimes taken to extremes. But at its true essence, the spirit would be the same. A pair could consist of someone brave and someone craven, but when it mattered most, the true trait would be revealed into them both. Finding one’s soul was normal and expected and should have been easy in the foremost city on Oberrot. After all, being separated by continents was rare.

The bond was not that of lovers; marriage and unions were sought elsewhere, with the romantic notion that pairs could fall in love with partners who also happened to be pairs. The bond between pairs lasted throughout their lives, allowing the partners to experience each other’s strong emotions if they were close, sometimes even share dreams, and move in a similar fashion. You were only complete in this life when you had your soul by your side; at a score less two turns, it was almost unheard of to still be bereft of your soul at such a late age. Something I was reminded of constantly seeing everyone else with theirs.

"What's adroit mean, anyway?" Aleric asked.

“I have no idea, but it sounds good. She’ll be very useful for when we go travelling to see other barracks and how they do things, adapting my own ideas ready for when my father decides to step down.”

“Oho,” Gavain chuckled. “Now we get into it. Back to angling for the Captaincy.”

“Sure. I am the best. I’ll be the youngest second in command ever promoted and from there, the best captain Special Forces has ever seen. But for that, I need my soul by my side.” I smoothed my hair down. “Or is it better sticking up a bit?”

“There’s a lot around here that’s stuck up,” Aleric muttered.

“Huh? Oh, the back?” My hands shook settling my hair. I mastered them. I needed a change of subject. “How are your tattoos doing, Al?”

“Argh. This one itches,” He lifted his forearm, which was bright with a range of insignia and symbols. “It’s alright everywhere else, but this is right on the elbow crease. It keeps catching and opening.” He patted around a bright green mark; an intertwining circle ringed with swollen red skin.

“Huh,” I lifted my forearm. “I remember that, actually. When I had the Rushia campaign added—”

“Yes, Thorrn, yes. No one’s been on more missions away than you. We know.”

I touched the small tattoo. Our markings signified and celebrated our rank and accomplishments, repeating across our bodies. “I only meant that that campaign tattoo went into my elbow crease and yes, it was slow to heal. That paste stuff works wonders.”

“I’ll be sure to get some. If the ink falls out, the Lorekeeper will have to do it all over again. No thanks.”

After the baths, the men re-joined the women from the contingent. We all went down to the mess hall, but I excused myself to return to the Barracks. The Regular at the guard post gave me a simmering scowl, but at least he marked the movements at the gates. The training grounds were empty, with practise weapons and bales cleared away. Heat shimmered on the cobblestones to the barracks I shared with my contingent. Inside, I took a breath, thankful for the stillness and the quiet that was so rare to find in here. I went straight to my bunk close to the door; close to promotion. The placement in the barracks marked a man's level in the contingent. It was an open position, as our contingent had been without a sergeant for a while since Philo had been moved to the training contingent.

I felt that I danced along the edge of that promotion, except I couldn’t be promoted. I balled my fists. Technically, I couldn’t even call myself Special Forces. Entry to the most coveted section of the army reserved for protecting the king and his interests around the world involved some kind of test; something that involved one’s soul. Without one present, my father, Captain Shard, had pointed to my accomplishments and record for King Gough to grant me entry, but that was by dispensation. It didn’t sit well with me that my cohort had had to endure something I hadn’t. That I seemed to get in by exemption rather than prove myself as they had. No matter. Once I had my soul by my side, everything would be smoothed over.

I dressed in my best shirt. I stood at parade attention in front of the mirror knowing full well that I could keep this stance for a half-day, but I found myself nearly doubling up with nerves. Today! I would meet my soul today!

I paced back through the castle gates - that Regular was going go cross eyed glaring - and waited in the courtyard. I wanted to meet the cavalcade at the King’s Lake, but I had been told by my father to give the king’s soul Rose and her daughter some time to arrive and settle. I paced back and forth. I didn’t want to sweat into my fresh reds, but nervous energy twitched and tumbled in my limbs. Before I knew it, I had begun practising a form I found difficult, trying again and again to execute it the way my father continually berated me to do it. I could almost hear Gavain laughing and taunting my efforts. I went harder and faster, closer and closer to the corner—

I threw a punch just as someone emerged through the corridor. I landed a solid hit on his cargo. Gasping, I lunged and caught him, but bottles tumbled and crashed to the floor. “Gods! Are you hale?” I asked, my brows creasing with worry.

“Damn and blast. Lost it all!”

I set the king’s Apothecarist, Aubin Tabreksson, on his feet. His usually scowling face flashed pure hatred before a more neutral expression fell back into place on his face. He seemed unhurt and more upset that his bottles were broken. “Are you well, though?”

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“I was practising. You're too quiet, so I didn’t hear you coming.” My mouth thickened as it always did around the Apothecarist.

“That’s my fault, is it?” He brushed himself off. “Look at this mess. Do you have any idea how long it takes to steep turbrot? Of course you don’t.” He shook his head and bent down.

I knelt down to help. “Let me—”

“Don’t.” Aubin interrupted, grabbing my wrist hard and halting my hand stretching for the shards of glass. “You’re lucky you didn’t get any of that on you.” I frowned at the veiled threat, then realised he meant the contents of the bottles. It stank of mould and decay. I backed away, not wanting to get any on my uniform. He smirked, adding, “It’s highly acidic when it isn’t diluted. If that had splashed on you, well, we wouldn’t be talking. You’d be screaming.”

“Why are you carrying that around, anyway?”

“It has medicinal qualities. That means it fixes people,” he said slowly to me, as if I might have trouble understanding. “It’s not poison. No matter what you might have heard.” He pulled out gloves and gingerly cradled the broken bottles. “It’s expensive, though. Damn and blast.”

“I … How can I make amends?” I nearly bit my tongue. I swallowed, feeling the weight of mockery piling up between us.

He gave me a look as if he was sizing me up for a casket before shaking his head. "I'll add it to your balance sheet." He picked up the sheared edges in curt movements.

“I …” I balled my fists. “I can make a full report to Captain Shard.”

Aubin chuckled. “I’m not going to tell your father. Sir,” I flushed. I felt the sting of sarcasm when he lingered on the ‘r’ in calling me sir. I always felt like I lost a conversation with Aubin, as if it were a bout rather than a bandy of words.

 

“What are you doing hereabouts anyway?” he asked.

“Classified.”

“Oho, is it.” He smirked again. “Laying in wait for assassins, no doubt.”  He cocked his head. Moments later, I heard approaching footsteps. A small group.

My heart pounded. Her.

“Can ... can you clean that up later?” I herded him by the small of his back toward the corridor. His eyes narrowed, but he inclined his head, and then I had to bolt from the shadowed corridor toward the King’s Lake to present in front of the wide colonnade.

Here they were at last! King Gough himself seemed to be showing the girl around, his voice sonorous in explanation. I had my back to them, my heart thumping. Now, the moment had arrived, and it was all I could do to lock my knees upright.

“And here,” announced Rose, her voice quivering with anticipation. “Is a member of Special Forces we’d like you to meet.”

“Is this some sort of set up?” There was an edge to her voice, one that made me frown. She was likely tired after her long journey. I smoothed my face.

“Not ... exactly, dear. Remember when I told you about things called ‘souls’?”

My eyes bulged. How could she not know? I swallowed hard, trying to maintain my composure. It was difficult when nerves rattled my bones and made my heart pound fast in my chest.

“Oh, yeah. Sure.” That surly snarl came again. I dismissed the thought with a shake of my head. I could not be having such ideas about my soul! I steadied my heartbeat as if going into battle.

“Shardsson. Report!” Gough commanded. I whirled around to face them in an attention stance.

I had to use all my training to stay still. At first, I wanted to rush to them, rush to her, but when I saw them, I was hit by confusion. King Gough stood beaming in the doorway to the gallery, an expression he made seldom but which brightened his face when he did. Next to him was his soul, Rose, dancing from foot to foot. I had not seen much of her except to identify her by sight.

Between them stood a little girl. The relationship with Rose was obvious, with the same nose and roundness to the cheeks. She was the size of a child, coming no higher than the epaulettes on the King’s shoulders, he himself being dwarfed by my height. She wore her hair loose in a tangle around her shoulders and sported culottes instead of a dress. Her red face was locked in a tight scowl. At first, I feared her deformed, but the frown smoothed off her face and she regarded me with suspicion. Her eyes, a watery pale colour, took me in with arresting frankness.

I went down onto one knee, staring at the floor to buy myself time. She was so small; definitely couldn't be my age despite the acute look in those round eyes. Besides, the soul of the next Captain of Special Forces would be, well, taller than that! This could not be my soul.

“Who are you ... Um. Do I know you?”

Rose squealed with glee. I raised my head just as the girl tumbled red-faced towards me. I stood up and forced myself to stand still. “My lady, no. This is the first time we have been introduced.” I tried not to let my bearing show any of my disquiet. There had to have been a mistake. This definitely couldn’t be her; she was nothing like how she was supposed to be. Loss tore my heart open. At least I was used to being alone. I picked up the burden once again.

She stared into my eyes. “I ... Sorry, but, I mean, it does feel like I have met you, or I do know you from somewhere, I can’t …” She gulped.  

“I regret that you are mistaken,” I said firmly. Still, manners were manners, and while I’d have to ask a courtier like my sister Sylvia to be sure, the daughter of the King’s soul was probably due the same kind of greeting as a lady. I slowly put out my hand palm up to take hers so I could bow over it. It hovered between us, unanswered.

“Yeah. Probably,” She shook her head.

Rose looked between us. “But … You must be souls! This isn’t right. Gough, are there any other men around the same age who have yet to find their soul?”

Disappointment closed my throat. This girl was not my soul either. Finding another potential candidate felt incredibly unlikely after all these turns. Crashing expectations soured my stomach. I knew it wasn’t her fault, but my anger couldn’t help turning her into a target. What kind of soul partner would she make, anyway? All she looked to be was well-fed rather than well-bred.

I still proffered my hand, holding it out in mid-air. Rose motioned her daughter to try again. I could have told her not to attempt to re-engage. It was clearly never going to be a match. We were too different; short, round, and rumpled to my towering height and hard-won form.

The girl peered up at me under her stubby lashes. I felt something stir in me, the familiar longing. I thrust it down and away, as I always had throughout my life. She bit her lower lip. She looked at my hand and flushed a little. I stayed still, setting my stance to be stone. She reached out.

We both gasped as our hands touched. Hers clutched onto mine, and I hastily snatched my hand away. She overbalanced and stumbled. I waited to make sure she would not fall on her face, then took a step back. My heart beat too fast. Her face lit up and she rushed toward me.

I retreated, bowing in haste to Gough and Rose. “My King. My Lady.” I nodded at the girl. “Lady.” I turned smartly on my heel and marched off.

“Wait! What?” Rose called after me.

“I was so sure they would bond,” Gough said with a deep sigh.

I closed my ears to them, my heart beating faster with every step I took.

 

***

If you want the full Part 1, a 32,900 word self-contained story emcompassing Chapters 1-8 and bonus content, I am giving it away on my Story Origin page. You can download it to read it on your Kindle or other e-reader! 

 

 

If you would like to be an early access reviewer, email me at becky@beckyjamesauthor.co.uk for your copy!