Black Friday is here and we’re discussing the season with RJ Blain’s Kalen from Storm Without End.
Kalen’s throne is his saddle, his crown is the dirt on his brow, and his right to rule is sealed in the blood that stains his hand. Few know the truth about the one-armed Rift King, and he prefers it that way. When people get too close to him, they either betray him or die. The Rift he rules cares nothing for the weak. More often than not, even the strong fail to survive.
When he’s abducted, his disappearance threatens to destroy his home, his people, and start a hopeless and bloody war. There are many who desire his death, and few who hope for his survival. With peace in the Six Kingdoms quickly crumbling, it falls on him to try to stop the conflict swiftly taking the entire continent by storm.
But something even more terrifying than the machinations of men has returned to the lands: The skreed. They haven’t been seen for a thousand years, and even the true power of the Rift King might not be enough to save his people — and the world — from destruction.
Gifts Fit for a Queen
“Go fetch gifts for my Queens, he said. Even a simpleton could do it, he said. Any Rifter could do it in a month, he said,” Kalen muttered, staring up at his trapped foot. Blood rushed down to his head, making his ears throb in time with his heart. Glaring didn’t free his worn boot from the grip of the stone holding him in place. “What in the deeps was I thinking? Oh, right. I wasn’t. Stupid, idiotic, cursed fool.”
He wasn’t even sure how he had managed to get into his predicament in the first place. One moment, the trail leading to Wanderer’s Aerie was there. The next, it was gone, leaving him dangling some ten feet below where he should’ve been and several hundred feet above the last place he wanted to go. Blood oozed from his split lip, trailing around his right eye, and gluing his lashes together.
While the ancestors hadn’t come for his soul yet, after two years of listening to the Rifters claim the wind was the voices of the dead, he thought he finally understood. When he splattered on the rocks below, he hoped his curses would forever fill someone’s ears.
“Hellfires,” he grumbled. Maybe the ancestors were mocking him in his final moments for having the nerve to ride off on one of the Rifter’s prized colts without asking permission. Then again, Hellspawn hadn’t bucked him off until Wanderer’s Aerie had come into sight.
“Thrice-cursed fool.” Letting his arms dangle, he eyed the cliff beneath him. A ledge mocked him just out of reach of his outstretched fingers. Something glinted in the afternoon light. At first glance, the red and yellow stone looked like the rest of the dust-caked, wind-worn rocks making up the Rift. The sharp edge of a clear crystal poked through the grime.
The toes of his trapped foot tingled, sending stabbing pain jolting through his leg each time he moved. Kalen bit his lip and reached out. His fingertips brushed against the glittering stone. Its smooth surface was cool despite the heat of the afternoon sun. He held his breath as he closed his fingers on it, yanking it free of the crumbling cliff. Stones clattered into the gorge below, the noise echoing through the canyon. Kalen froze. When his precarious perch didn’t shift and tumble downwards along with the rest of the rocks, he let out a relieved sigh.
The last thing he needed was the cliff collapsing around him.
Kalen turned his attention to the rock in his hand. Whether or not the Queens would appreciate a sparkling stone was beyond him. Two years of living in the Rift hadn’t done a whole lot to teach him what sort of things the women actually liked. Shaking his head at his folly, he reached up for one of the small pouches tied to his belt. Untying it without dumping out the other shiny rocks he’d picked up over the past two weeks, he stuffed his prize inside and sealed it again. With the stone safely stashed away, he turned his attention back to his predicament.
A gust blasted at him, the voices of the ancestors mocking him with a whispering laugh.
“What do you think you’re doing?” A sickeningly-familiar voice asked from the trail above. A red-headed figure leaned out over the edge. Kalen admired Maiten’s neutral expression, though the man’s dark eyes glinted with humor.
“Just hanging around,” Kalen replied in a neutral tone the match for the Rifter’s expression. “What a surprise. What are you doing here, Guardian Maiten?”
“How many times do I have to tell you to just call me Maiten, foal? A little bit of this, a little bit of that. It seems one of the young colts ran off and got himself lost. You seen him?”
Kalen’s mouth quirked at the corner. “I haven’t seen anyone who’s lost.”
Hellspawn knew his way around better than Kalen did, and Kalen knew exactly where he was: Hanging between a rock and a hard place.
“What are you doing down there, anyway?”
Kalen spat curses at the red-haired man.
Laughter answered him. “We’ll make a Rifter out of you yet. Hang tight, and I’ll get you up.”
“That won’t be a problem,” he replied, staring up at his trapped foot with a disgusted grimace.
It took less than an hour to extract Kalen from his perch and reach the mountain city of Wanderer’s Aerie. The bridge spanning the gap between the spired peaks was packed with dust-covered travelers and merchants seated near their wares. The hum of conversation was lost in the groan of the wind whipping through the canyons.
“Oh, it looks a little busy today,” Maiten said.
“A little?” Kalen asked, staring through the sea of legs before him. “That’s an understatement. I take it you’ve been here before?”
“You aren’t the only one who gets sent out on errands. Let’s get this over with. What were you sent for, anyway?”
“Gifts for the Queens,” Kalen replied, untying his sacks of dried mushrooms and shiny stones from his belt, handing them over to the Rifter. “This was the only place I found that looked like I could actually buy things from on the map.”
“Remind me to scold Breton for not teaching you the concept of bartering. Watch and learn, little foal. Watch and learn.”
There was something mischievous about Maiten’s smile. Kalen shivered, but nodded his acceptance of the Rifter’s offer. Shuddering at the thought of trying to make it through the crowds, he took hold of Maiten’s sleeve and refused to let go, ignoring the red-headed man’s questioning stare.
With his luck, he’d get knocked right off the bridge because no one would notice he was there.
Kalen stared down at Maiten, who lay sprawled in a heap with two women, a robed Wanderer, and a fortune in rumpled silk cloth. “What, exactly, was I supposed to be learning again?”
Several groaned answered him. Where the bazaar had been so busy the press of people had smothered him moments before, jostling and constantly threatening to separate him from the Guardian, no one dared to approach the beleaguered quartet. Kalen prodded Maiten’s side with his boot.
Before he could offer to help the others, the women untangled themselves from the pile and hurried away. Shaking his head at the Rifter’s folly, Kalen held out his hand to the fallen Wanderer. “Please forgive my friend,” he said in the trade tongue.
“You’ve damaged them,” the man growled in reply, voice gravelly from age. Deep wrinkles marred the Wanderer’s darkly-tanned brow.
There was nothing he could say to that. Did a few wrinkles and a little dust ruin silk? He doubted it, but kept his mouth shut. When the merchant refused his help, Kalen prodded Maiten again. “Are you dead?”
Another groan answered him.
“You’re not a Rifer,” the merchant announced, each word spat out in something so close to contempt that Kalen twitched. It wasn’t his fault that the sun refused to darken his skin beyond a golden tan. His eyes alone marked him as anything other than a Rifter, sky blue versus the appropriate brown-black of the canyon dwellers. “Bless the ancestors for that.” Nudging the fallen Rifter earned him a muttered curse. Kalen grumbled, “I worry it’s contagious.”
“What’s contagious?” the Wanderer asked, the man’s voice deepening from worry.
“His stupidity, of course.”
“We can’t all be blessed with intellect and wisdom.” The merchant laughed. “You wear the dust of the Rift as your cloak, for all you are not a Rifter. You have come to trade?”
“I’m looking for scarves fit for a Queen,” he said, staring at the bright colors, which were marred by the yellow sands and Maiten’s fall. Dust and dirt didn’t bother people from the Rift. It blew in everywhere, and was as much a part of the people as their fingers and toes.
“They would’ve been worthy of a gown for a Queen,” the Wanderer lamented. “The contagion surely taints them.”
Kalen glanced at Maiten, his laughter exploding out of him. “True, true. But let us not waste such beauty, when scarves will suffice.”
The Wanderer’s eyes gleamed. “What do you have to trade, young man, you who has been to the Rift but is not a Rifer?”
“How about one slightly used Rifter?”
“Watch your words, scrawny Kelshite,” Maiten grumbled.
Kalen sat down on the Guardian’s back before unhooking the bag of stones from his belt. “A cloth for my goods, kind Wanderer?”
The man pulled out a velvet-lined tray from behind the rumpled pile of silks. One by one, Kalen pulled out a different colored stone from the pouch. “A rainbow set of stones from the Rift, large enough for cutting, for your silks which are suitable for a Queen,” he offered.
Greed lit the Wanderer’s eyes. “Two bolts.”
Kalen snorted. “One stone alone is worth a bolt.”
“Preposterous! Half a bolt at the very best, even wrinkled as they are due to your clumsy friend.”
“Four bolts for seven stones, then, seeing as they’re worth far more together than apart. As a bonus, I’ll remove this Rifter from your blanket.” Kalen struggled to keep from smiling. Rifters didn’t smile when they did business.
“You would rob me blind,” the Wanderer protested.
Kalen dug out a tiny red stone and added it to the pile. “Four bolts. Final offer. I’m sure I can find another—“
Biting down on his gums to keep from grinning, Kalen jumped to his feet and pointed at the silks. “The black, the silver, the yellow, and the red. Come then, Maiten. We don’t have all day.”
The Rifter jumped to his feet. “Where did you learn to barter?” Maiten hissed in his ear.
“That’s a secret,” he grumbled, and pushed away the memories of when he hadn’t lived in the sun-baked hell known as the Rift. For a moment, the merchants hawking their wares and the crowds reminded him of the place he’d never call home again.
“You, dear foal, are doomed,” Maiten announced.
Kalen stared over the ever-thickening crowd of people and swallowed back a curse. As if the incident with the silk merchant had spurred the locals into a frenzy, the bridge was so packed full of people that he was surprised the whole thing didn’t collapse into the canyons far below.
“I don’t suppose I can make some two-hundred scarves from that cloth, do you?”
“Not a chance, foal.”
Kalen opened the pouch and stared at its contents. Counting the stones hadn’t been a priority. He sucked in a breath as a thought struck him. “Maiten?”
“What is it?”
“Please tell me that the Queen’s wouldn’t want found stones.”
The ghost of a smile appeared on the Rifter’s lips. “Or things like those mushrooms you have stashed in one of those pouches?”
“Please tell me that I didn’t cross half of the Rift—”
“Not even a quarter of it,” Maiten stated.
“—for nothing,” Kalen finished.
“I won’t tell you, then. The market is a little busy today, isn’t it?”
It took just under two weeks to return to Blind Mare Run, and Kalen spent most of it muttering curses to himself.
“You better cut the cloth before you take it to the Rift King,” Maiten warned, reining his gelding in. “Try not to ruin it while you’re at it.”
“Thanks,” he muttered, sliding down from the big horse’s back. One by one, he slung the canvas-wrapped bundles over his shoulder before trudging his way into the underground city’s labyrinth of tunnels and chambers. Taking Maiten’s advice cost him an extra hour. When he finished, he stomped his way to the Rift King’s study, ponding on the door with his boot.
“Enter,” the Rift King answered, the man’s voice muffled by the stone door. Kalen wrestled it open.
“I’ve brought gifts for your Queens as you ordered, Your Majesty,” he announced.
“Oh? You didn’t die?” Arik smirked. “Leave it there. You’re behind on your duties. You’re to report to the Royal Stables.”
Kalen’s mouth dropped open. “You don’t want to know what I acquired?”
“No. Now go before I thrash you,” the Rift King snapped.
He abandoned the gems and the silks by the door and backed away from the study, his cheek twitching. Embarrassment warred with rage, but he swallowed back his desire to vent his frustration in a scream.
A month of travel, half of it on the back of a reluctant Rift horse he’d be stuck grooming for a year in repayment, and the Rift King was surprised he had returned at all? It shouldn’t have surprised him. Others – Maiten and Breton included – had tried to warn him.
The ancestors were probably laughing at him.
He hurried to the stable, cursing the entire way.
“Oh, Kalen. You’re back,” Breton said, the tall man’s familiar voice soothing away some of his irritation.
“In one piece, too,” Kalen replied.
“I’m impressed. You better hurry up. The stablemaster is ready to take your head for a trophy.”
Kalen flinched. “What did I do now?”
“Your tack needs oiled, and he’s more than displeased that he’s had to take care of your horse while you’ve been off playing around. Haven’t I taught you better than that?” Breton clapped him on the shoulder hard enough he staggered forward several steps. “We were expecting you back a week ago.”
Kalen’s mouth hung open, but his confusion kept him silent. A shove propelled him down the hall past two stalls. A brown head with black-tipped ears poked over one of the doors. He jerked in surprise. A blood bay in the Rift? He’d only seen black horses and the occasional bright gold chestnut. “What?”
“A man needs to take care of his own horse,” the tall Rifter scolded. Then, Breton smiled. “A good mid-winter to you, foal, and a happy birthing day as well.”
Without another word, the tall man shuffled off, whistling a merry tune.
Meet RJ Blain!
RJ Blain suffers from a Moleskine journal obsession, a pen fixation, and a terrible tendency to pun without warning.
When she isn’t playing pretend, she likes to think she’s a cartographer and a sumi-e painter. In reality, she herds cats and a husband, and obeys the commands of Tsu Dhi, the great warrior fish. In her spare time, she daydreams about being a spy. Should that fail, her contingency plan involves tying her best of enemies to spinning wheels and quoting James Bond villains until she is satisfied.
Please help spread the word: Tweet: #BlackFriday is here. Celebrate the chaos with #holiday #stories and #contests by 26 authors (Nov29-Dec24) http://wp.me/p3SIUp-atz
Thank you Author for taking part in Literary Escapism’s Black Friday!