Free Fantasy Feature May 2022 | Legends of Lasniniar: Goddess Almighty

Legends of Lasniniar Goddess Almighty coverFelara watches over the Light Elves’ wood from above, unseen. She knows Iarion wanders somewhere beneath the ancient trees.

Willful, mercurial, and more than a bit fey, some of her Unborn siblings consider her in danger of becoming obsessed with the elf that freed them from the Void.

Others might even argue she crossed that line some time ago.

None of that matters to Felara. She follows a vision only she can see.

A stand-alone origin story from the World of Lasniniar epic fantasy series by Jacquelyn Smith.

Now, you can read it for free on this site for one month only. This short story also comes in ebook and paperback format–both on its own, and as part of the Void Walker Lasniniar Collection.


Legends of Lasniniar: Goddess Almighty

Jacquelyn Smith

Felara glared down at the shimmering, rainbow dome of magical energy from a great height. A scowl marred her otherwise flawless pale and angular features.

No one could see her, of course, even if they had bothered to look. Her own magic made sure of that. The Light Elves’ ancient forest that lay beneath the shield also housed winged Sky Elves, who might become suspicious if they caught her lurking about. Her violet eyes narrowed as she stared at the golden and silver accented treetops that were barely visible beneath the curtain of light.

Iarion was somewhere down there.

A cold wind that smelled of rain to come stirred her straight, silver hair around her chin and pointed ears as she continued to float in midair. She always knew exactly where Iarion was—except for when he was inside Melaquenya. The shield that protected the Light Elves’ wood also blocked her own magic. Her scowl deepened.

She had lost track of how much time had passed since she and Iarion had first met. After all, what was time to one of the Unborn? She had spent much of that time befriending the legendary Light Elf—showing up to visit him whenever he wandered beyond the borders of the forest, but only when it suited her. She sniffed.

No need to make him think she was hanging around, waiting for him to summon her…

Felara knew she was in danger of becoming obsessed. Some might even argue she had crossed that boundary some time ago (her tedious sister being one of them).

But she had reasons of her own for taking interest in Iarion, and she cared little for the opinions of others, even her own Unborn cousins and siblings. If they were too foolish to see the significance of Iarion’s continual interference in the fate of Lasniniar, then that was their problem.

Before Iarion had come along, Felara and her kind had been locked away beyond the Void. Now, for the first time in millennia, they were finally free.

Not that any of them were grateful to him for it.

No, the Unborn saw freedom as their right. And it was of no interest to them how that freedom had come about. Iarion was nothing in their eyes—a mere insect, like any of the other people of Lasniniar.

That was what they told themselves, anyway—for the time being, at least.

Felara knew her own kind well enough to realize that would eventually change. And the brief glimpses she had observed of the potential future only confirmed her suspicions.

She drew her gaze from Melaquenya with obvious reluctance. If she wanted to out-maneuver her cousins and siblings and turn things to her own advantage, she would have to become more of a presence in Lasniniar.

…Which meant she needed more power.

She had her own magic, of course. Like any of the Unborn, it was a part of her. But her ability to affect the outside world was limited. No, something greater would be needed for what she had in mind.

What I need is to become a goddess.

* * *

Felara tapped her chin with a pale, slender finger as she considered the problem. A hawk shrieked somewhere in the distance. The smell of rain was stronger now. Clouds rolled in from the east, carrying the salty tang of the sea with them and casting the land below in shadow. A part of her infinitely complex mind took note of all of these things as she continued to focus on the matter at hand.

Yes, it was definitely time for her to make her move toward goddess status.

Many of the other Unborn had stumbled into godhood already. The humans of Lasniniar had no magic of their own. They hungered for something that might put them on equal footing with the insular elves that they held in such high esteem. Converting them into worshipers had been easy.

Felara already had a few devout followers of her own scattered about the lands. Unlike many of her fellow Unborn, who seemed to prefer instilling fear in their worshipers to overwhelm them, Felara was an opportunist.

She traveled around the lands and rescued people from dire situations whenever it struck her fancy—for a price, of course. Usually, the poor humans were so grateful for her unlooked-for intervention, they practically fell over at her feet to promise their undying devotion.

But those followers—however devout—were few and far between.

Perhaps I’ve spent a bit too much time with Iarion.

Felara wrinkled her nose at the private admission. While she had been busy observing and befriending the single object of her interest, the rest of the Unborn had been busy building new religions and consolidating their power base. Now she would have to catch up.

Her gaze swept the land below as she considered her options.

She immediately dismissed the elves. They already had the Quenya to fuel their magic, and knew full well that the Unborn were not truly gods. Her violet gaze drifted to the Jagged Mountains. Her lip curled.

The dwarves were no good either. They had practically no magic of their own, but they were devoted to Galrin—the First Father of their kind. And if her interactions with Iarion’s friend Barlo were any indication of the average dwarf, they were far too suspicious and stubborn for her liking.

She stifled a sigh. That only left the humans.

Greater Men had a longer lifespan, which made them more appealing, but most of their souls had already been snatched up by one of her cousins. She could try to convert some of them, but it would be terribly bad manners. And with the amount of growing power the Unborn had at their disposal, they were nothing, if not courteous to one another, even as they each vied for more followers. At this point, a direct confrontation between any of the Unborn would rent Lasniniar asunder.

That only left Lesser Men.

Felara’s gaze drifted northward to the stretch of land beyond the Barrier Mountains before shifting east toward the Daran Falnun, nestled between the Mountains of Fire and Mountains of Shadow. She could even make out the clusters of tents that marked each tribe, even though they were countless leagues away.

Strangely, the nomadic Lesser humans in the north were less susceptible to conversion than their more civilized Greater cousins. It seemed that after being manipulated by the Fallen One Saviadro for countless generations, they had become more wary since his downfall about pledging their allegiance to anyone who was not one of their own. No, there was nothing useful there…

Felara twisted in midair to face south. She gave her hand an idle flick as an unsuspecting hawk soared in her direction. It veered wildly off-course with an undignified squawk of protest.

There were the desert tribes, but they were insular, and rarely left the Shifting Sands. She had also sensed another power walking among them from time to time—something that had a similar feel to the Quenya, although she had no idea how that might be. The Light Elves’ source of magic never left their wood, and there were only perhaps two or three of them that had the ability to use that magic in the world beyond those borders—Lady Iadrawyn and her two daughters.

Felara’s lips twitched in amusement. Spending time with Iarion hadn’t been completely without merit… She had learned a great deal from him about the Light Elves and their magic—without ever seeming to ask.

Her violet gaze traveled farther south, beyond the stretch of sand dunes that divided the continent to the savanna that lay beyond. The People of the Plains made their home there—more tribes of Lesser Men—but they were also closely allied with the elves who lived in the jungle to the west. They even referred to their elven allies as ‘Children of the Gods’, so no help there.

…Another insight from Iarion, since his mate, Lodariel had come from the same jungle. Felara’s expression soured at the thought of Lodariel, just as it always did. Not that she considered Iarion’s mate to be any sort of competition. No, like Barlo, she was merely a stubborn obstacle.

Western Lasniniar was useless, of course. The primitive Lesser Men tribes who made their home in the Tangle Wood and called themselves Direlings had also been duped by Saviadro, who had attempted to resurrect himself as a god over their kind.

…Until Iarion had come along and changed everything.

Felara stifled a sigh. All that remained was the southwest. Her cousins and siblings had already been at work there as well, but humans seemed to breed like rabbits. Perhaps there was still some faction that had been left unexploited…

Even though she knew she was far more creative in her thinking than the rest of the Unborn, she had her doubts. But still…

At least I have a starting point.

Invisible to all but herself, she vanished before the first drops of rain began to fall.

* * *

What self-important, small-minded people!

Felara hovered unseen above the city of Cinder with an air of bemused curiosity. A lingering smog hung over the buildings. Some of it drifted from the occasional belching of fire mountains on a chain of islands to the west. The rest came from the chimneys of the cluster of buildings that were the informal capital of Southwestern Lasniniar—among the Riverfolk, at least. The shepherds who roamed the highlands to the east couldn’t be bothered with such things.

Many of the homes were opulent manors with fountains and courtyards. Smaller houses belonging to poorer folk crammed against one another on the sprawling outskirts, beyond the shops and homes of the merchant class. It seemed many of the humans longed to be close to the center of power and wealth.

Felara shook her head to herself. Truly, humans were fascinating, albeit in their own way. She knew Iarion would be disgusted by many of the things she had seen.

The men of the Riverlands ruled with an iron fist. In all other parts of Lasniniar, women were free, and in many instances considered equal to the men they lived with. But here, they were little more than chattel, meant to serve the men in every way possible.

Girl children were abandoned on the hillsides outside the towns and villages, and left to die of exposure. Felara rolled her violet eyes. Clearly, the men weren’t thinking that part through. What was going to happen when all they were left with was a bunch of withered crones and only male children?

The whole idea made no sense to her. The Unborn did not procreate—they did not have that ability. Their limited sense of family had been shaped by various alliances they had formed, back when the world was new. But Felara knew well enough where babies came from.

She had tried to determine the cause of this strange phenomenon by watching and listening unseen. As best she could determine, all this seemed to be a reaction to some woman—or creature, depending on who was telling the story—who had once ruled the Riverlands and made all the lords serve her.

Some of them claimed she had been beautiful. (Which made Felara question the part about forcing the men to serve her.) Others said she had been a hideous beast, who used magic to get her way.

They all called her the Khashada.

Felara frowned. It was strange. None of the Riverfolk spoke Elvish, and yet, they all called this woman by the same Elvish title.

It meant ‘mistress.’

She would have to ask Iarion about it sometime. Based on some of the snatches she had heard, she suspected he had met this Khashada woman, and yet he had never mentioned it.

In any event, the men of the Riverlands were a waste of time—unless she wanted to appear to them as a male. She could do that, of course. She could even try to find out more about this Khashada woman and make herself look like her, if she wanted to. That might turn a few heads…

Felara smiled to herself as she imagined the chaos that would ensue. But no, it was too high-profile. It might work for a little while, but if it ended up goading some of her cousins’ loyal followers to flock to her own banner instead, it wouldn’t end well.

Ugh. This place is useless.

Practically everyone interesting had already been recruited to serve one of her cousins already. Even her adoring brother had managed to build a decent following, and he was practically useless. No one seemed to trouble themselves with converting the women. Then again, most of the women seemed too downtrodden to be of much use.

Felara left the area without a second thought. She reappeared a moment later over the village of Eastern Reach. It was the only one of the larger Riverland settlements she had yet to visit. It hugged the southern coast, bordered on the east by the Rune River, which formed the natural boundary between the Riverlands and the Highlands. The air was cleaner here, and held a damp, mossy scent beneath the usual smells of burning firewood and pitch. Felara descended toward the village to get a closer look.

The afternoon sun warmed her invisible features from the west. Below her, women and children bustled about on errands and chores along the packed-dirt streets. Men strode about here and there. Each one wore a sword at his hip and a superior expression.

Felara rolled her eyes.

Boring.

Was there nothing in the Riverlands of interest? If she had to resort to wooing the Highland shepherds… She strained her pointed ears to listen to a snatch of conversation coming from a small cluster of swaggering men.

“Sorry about your father, Corvin,” a fop with blond curls trailing artfully over his left shoulder said in a fawning voice. “I heard the news this morning.”

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” The man named Corvin arched an eyebrow at him.

Unlike the rest of the men standing around him—and almost every other human in the Riverlands—Corvin’s shoulder-length hair was as dark as a raven’s wing. It complemented his pale features nicely. Felara’s eyes narrowed. She had a feeling the look wasn’t natural, although why anyone would bother do to such a thing was beyond her. She suspected he only wanted to draw attention to himself.

The man with the blond curls responded with a blank look.

Corvin rolled his eyes. “I believe you meant to say, ‘Sorry about your father, Lord Ashburn.’” He adjusted the collar of his own tunic with a sniff. It had clearly been dyed to match the color of his green eyes. Its tailored cut hugged his muscular frame.

“That’s right!” One of the other men gave Corvin a hearty clap on the shoulder. “With your father dead, you’re Lord Ashburn now.”

“And Astor is your heir,” the man with the curls blurted as he seemed to get up to speed. Corvin rewarded him with a dark look. “Until you have children of your own, of course,” the fop hastened to add.

For a moment, Felara thought Corvin might strike him, but he seemed to regain control of himself.

“Yes, my so-called half-brother has inherited a good deal of the Ashburn wealth.” Corvin’s expression soured. “Everyone knows Father was devastated after Mother died. Marcella found him easy prey, I’m sure. He always doted on her… And her son.”

An awkward silence followed his words, making Felara suspect Lord Ashburn’s second wife probably wasn’t as ruthless and conniving as Corvin implied. Still, no one dared to argue the statement.

Corvin gave a sudden, careless shrug. “No matter. Marcella was a weak thing. She couldn’t even survive childbirth. Her whelp is nothing more than a scrawny milksop. Even if he can withstand the rumors about his questionable birth, I doubt his health will last long enough for him to enjoy his inheritance.”

Corvin’s green eyes glimmered. “Now, who’s up for the Dancing Dragon tonight? I’ve heard Madam Shonda has found a few new wares for us to sample. We can even invite Astor to come with us, in honor of my father’s memory.” His expression turned sly.

“Really?” a man with a scarlet cape asked with a look of surprise. “Astor is never interested in joining our games. Some of us have even wondered…” His face flushed and his eyes dropped as he trailed off. The other young men carefully looked away.

“…Whether Astor is even interested in women.” Corvin spat in disgust. “Yes, I know. I’ve thought it too. Well, I won’t give him a chance to say ‘no,’ will I? He can help us break the new girls to harness. And if anything were to happen to harm his delicate constitution…”

He lifted his broad shoulders in a seemingly innocent shrug as his fingers tightened around the jeweled hilt of his sword. The rest of the men exchanged knowing smiles.

“I don’t know, Cor—Lord Ashburn,” the man with the curls said. “Madam Shonda doesn’t like it when we’re rough with the girls. Last time she threatened to ban us, remember?”

Corvin snorted. “She might have been able to kick us out before, but I’m Lord Ashburn now.” He drew himself up with a sneer. “I can do anything I like. A ruling lord is above reproach—as are his associates.”

“He’s right!” The man with the scarlet cape grinned while the others elbowed one another with eager looks. “Three cheers for Lord Ashburn!”

Felara stopped listening. She had heard enough.

Finally, she had found something interesting.

* * *

The Dancing Dragon was a well-kept establishment, tucked away in a discreet corner of the village. A sign with a painted red dragon hung above the wooden door. The heavy curtains covering the large front window were closed. There was nothing about the exterior to advertise it for what Felara suspected it must be—a place where women danced and sold their wares under the protective eye of Madam Shonda.

Felara had heard of such things, but she had never actually visited a brothel place before. She strode through the closed door unseen, passing through it as if it were no more than mist.

What she found on the other side nearly stunned her into visibility.

Wooden chairs had been stacked atop matching tables and shoved against the walls to clear the overlapping plush rugs that covered the floor. The air held the lingering traces of incense. Every lantern and candle had been lit, filling the large room that lay in front of the bar with light. Women in homespun dresses and long skirts stood in rows facing the stage.

Each one of them held some kind of weapon.

“…And when you throw him off balance, that’s when you strike,” a firm, alto voice said from the stage.

Felara watched as a slender figure with short, blond hair demonstrated with a thrust of his sword through the air. All of the women in the audience followed suit, some of them with grunts or war cries.

Felara’s violet eyes widened. Here she was, thinking to swoop in and save the day, and possibly gain a few new followers out of it, only to find someone was already training these women in self-defense!

For a moment, it perturbed her.

Until an entirely new set of possibilities formed in her mind…

“Thank you, Astor,” an imposing woman stepped forward to speak. “I think that’s enough for today. We still need to get everything ready for tonight’s patrons.”

She was older than all the other women in the room, but was striking all the same. She had maintained her curved figure, and her silvering, blond curls hung in a tumbling mass that reached beyond her waist.

Felara guessed this must be Madam Shonda. She blinked as the name ‘Astor’ sunk in.

Wait, Corvin’s half-brother is teaching these women self-defense?

Felara’s eyes narrowed as she focused on the figure standing on the stage while the rest of the women began to scatter with obvious reluctance.

Astor was tall—about as tall as Madam Shonda. He was lean and slender in a set of plain leather breeches and a billowing, undyed tunic. Unlike Corvin, his hair was closely cropped, and ash blond. It looked oddly coarse and thick to Felara. She wondered if that was what Corvin’s natural hair looked like under all that dark dye.

Astor stood with casual grace, his sword held in a familiar grip. The weapon was clearly well cared for, but the hilt was rather plain. Unlike his half-brother’s, it had no pommel stone or fancy grip. He reminded Felara of a wildcat—a dangerous animal, completely at ease in its surroundings. She watched Astor sheath the weapon and stride off stage with a speculative look.

If Corvin hoped to convince everyone that Astor held no claim to their father’s fortune, he had a difficult road ahead of him. Despite their different frames and the color of their hair, Astor’s pale face held a marked similarity to Corvin’s. Not only did they have the same strong nose and narrow chin, but Astor’s long-lashed green eyes were a dead match for his half-brother’s—minus the casual cruelty.

Felara tried to sort her scattered thoughts. These women trusted Astor to help them learn how to defend themselves in a world where no one would come to their aid. Astor was the target of Corvin and his cronies, who seemed to have no affiliation with any of Felara’s Unborn relations. No matter how things played out, her hands would remain clean.

This just might do.

The seeds of a new plan began to form in Felara’s mind as she toyed with the possibilities, moving invisible pieces around until everything fit in a satisfying fashion. Her lips stretched in a smile.

Yes, I think this will do quite nicely.

* * *

Felara watched as Corvin and his mob arrived at the Dancing Dragon with Astor in tow. The sun had already set, and the brothel was just opening its doors. Astor’s tense shoulders and carefully blank expression shouted louder than words his reluctance to join his half-brother and his friends, but no matter how good he might be with his sword, he was badly outnumbered.

The rest of the young men jostled him as they strode along, each seeming to try to out-do the other in terms of bawdy jokes in an effort to make Astor flush. Felara’s nose wrinkled. Despite the spiced scent many of them wore, it was clear several of them had been drinking already. The smell of ale soured their breath and their raised voices filled the early evening air with raucous laughter.

Corvin looked like a cat who was about to get his fill of cream. He led his small army of friends with his chin held high, surrounding himself with the arrogance of his new station. His green eyes glimmered and an unpleasant smile hovered on his lips, especially when he glanced over his shoulder at his beleaguered half-brother. A dark tension hung over him and spread throughout the rest of the crowd—an unspoken promise of things to come.

Madam Shonda stepped aside with a brief expression of surprise as Corvin and his crew filtered through the front door of her establishment. They were her first customers of the evening, and with the size of the mob, they were pretty much guaranteed to be her only customers. Felara caught a fleeting glimpse of alarm in the imposing woman’s blue eyes before she seemed to master herself. Corvin gave a nod to one of his men, who slid the solid wooden bar on the door home with a rough scrape once everyone was inside.

“This will be a private party, Madam Shonda,” Corvin said with an air of authority.

The women inside the brothel had all frozen in tableau at the arrival of Corvin and his men. Dancers in gauzy dresses with plunging necklines stopped moving on the stage as the fiddler who played for them skirled into startled silence. The woman behind the bar stood stock-still with a rag in her hand.

For a moment, Felara thought Madam Shonda might protest, but she gave Corvin a reluctant nod of acceptance. Her blue gaze stayed well away from Astor, who was still being gripped by both arms by Corvin’s grinning cronies. Madam Shonda gave the fiddler a nod over her shoulder and the music started up again.

The rest of the women slowly returned to life, but Felara thought their movements seemed more stilted than before. She felt her pale skin prickle. The air of the brothel was tinged with fear.

The men started with drinks, of course. Corvin knew better than to rush things. Even though several of his fawning friends seemed to require little encouragement for what their leader had planned, many of them would need to fortify themselves first.

The atmosphere of tension eased somewhat as Madam Shonda’s women danced and served drinks. Corvin’s men were all hands, but that hardly seemed to be anything new. Madam Shonda looked on, her shoulders still tense with wariness. None of the women gave any sign of recognizing Astor, and Astor was too busy trying to brush aside the constant prodding and insults from his half-brother’s friends. Felara watched him carefully.

Unlike the rest of the men, most of Astor’s ale ended up on the floor when no one else was looking.

He put on a good show of being every bit as drunk as his companions, his tankard usually running empty at around the same time. And the serving women helped by pretending to pour more for him, even when his tankard hadn’t run dry. A few of them risked a look in Astor’s direction from where they danced, but he gave no outward indication of interest.

Outside, there were the occasional muffled thumps of other potential patrons knocking on the barred front door. Corvin’s warning look told Madam Shonda not to answer.

As the evening wore on, Corvin and his men became more rowdy. They raised a toast to the departed Lord Ashburn, and drank to the new Lord Ashburn’s good health. Some of the men were just about to break out into another round of bawdy songs, but Corvin’s raised hand made their warbling voices fall silent, along with the fiddler, who accompanied them.

“We also need to raise a toast to the new Ashburn heir.” Corvin’s smile was dangerous. “Where is my dear brother, Astor?”

Several of the men hauled Astor to stand in front of where Corvin was holding court on a padded chair near the stage. Astor’s expression was unreadable, but his pale cheeks were flushed. He did not struggle against the men who gripped his arms, but his raised chin and squared shoulders practically shouted his defiance at the rough treatment.

Felara rubbed her hands together with a smile. Now things were going to get interesting…

Corvin looked his half-brother up and down with a smirk. “You are the Ashburn heir now—until I have a son, of course. Or until the rumors about you being a bastard are proven true.” He lifted his broad shoulders in a careless shrug. “Either way, I think it’s time you start acting like an Ashburn. I can’t have people thinking I have a womanly milksop for an heir. I do have a certain reputation to maintain.” He raised his chin.

“Of course.” Astor’s tone was deceptively mild. Corvin’s voice was a full register lower, making Astor’s sound high by comparison. Astor’s lips twitched. “We wouldn’t want anyone to compare the two of us and find one of us lacking.”

A frown flickered across Corvin’s features as he tried to unravel the meaning of Astor’s barb. “Yes. Exactly. I’m glad you understand.”

“What is it you want me to do?” Astor asked with a tilt of his head. His agreeable manner seemed to take his custodians off guard. Their hands on his arms and shoulders loosened.

Corvin’s lips stretched in an unpleasant smile. “Oh, nothing you might not enjoy—assuming you really are an Ashburn. You see, the fine women of this establishment have become accustomed to certain treatment from the Ashburn heir.”

Corvin leaned forward, his dark hair gleaming around his shoulders in the candlelight. “If we are going to keep everything running smoothly now that I am Lord Ashburn, we must make certain we are consistent in our courtesies, mustn’t we? We can’t have anyone thinking our family is becoming lax in its duties now that Father is gone. We need to do our part to keep the women of Eastern Reach in line.”

Astor raised a blond eyebrow at him in inquiry.

“Don’t worry.” Corvin’s voice turned silky. “You won’t have to undertake this task alone. I’ll be right here to lend you my expert advice, and I’m sure my friends will be able to be of assistance as well.”

Several of the men elbowed each other with drunken smirks. Corvin laced his fingers in his lap and leaned back in his chair before continuing.

“I want you to show every one of these fine ladies a good time—just like I always do.” He pointed at Madam Shonda.

“Starting with her.”

* * *

Felara held her breath as she waited for Astor to respond. While she could choose to intervene now, she knew from experience that it would be better to wait. Let things get as messy and hopeless as possible before stepping in to offer her services. Her violet eyes glimmered as she continued to watch things unravel unseen.

A tense silence followed Corvin’s words. The air was heavy with the mingling scents of perfume, incense, ale, and sweat. Once more, all of the women were frozen. Everyone’s eyes were on Astor, including Corvin’s.

“I see,” Astor said in a soft voice. “Well, if that’s the way you want it…”

He shook off the hands on his arms and reached down for his belt.

Corvin’s green eyes widened in disbelief. He seemed to radiate both an exultant pleasure to have dominated his half-brother, and a sullen disappointment that Astor had given in so easily. The rest of the men murmured in surprised approval as a woman in a pale-blue dress uttered a low whimper of fear.

“Astor—” The woman’s voice broke as she turned the man’s name into a plea. Madam Shonda silenced her with a look.

“You dare to speak to an Ashburn out of turn?” Corvin demanded. He jerked his pointed chin in a stiff nod to his men, who immediately seized the woman’s arms. “Very well. You will be next.” The woman was too terrified to struggle.

Corvin’s green eyes flashed as he turned to face his half-brother. Astor’s unexpected acquiescence seemed to have ruffled his temper. “Get on with it then. My friends will help to pin them down.”

“Is that the way you always do it?” Astor asked in a dry voice.

Corvin smirked. “You’ll learn all the ways of the Ashburn heir before the night is through—assuming you really are my half-brother.”

Astor nodded. “As you wish.”

His slender, callused fingers continued their journey to his belt as he held his half-brother’s gaze. They hovered over the burnished silver buckle.

Then, before anyone could so much as blink, his sword was suddenly out of its sheath and singing through the air. The man on his right gripped his spurting neck, his face suddenly pale. The one on his right crumpled a moment later as Astor’s blade cut deep into his side.

For a moment, everyone else seemed to be frozen in stunned silence. But Astor kept moving. His bloodied blade flickered in the candlelight as it wove from one victim to the next with smooth accuracy. Men cried out in drunken surprise and thumped to the floor.

Then, total chaos ensued.

The rest of Corvin’s men seemed to come to themselves and began reaching for their own weapons. But Madam Shonda and her women had also returned to life. Some of the women pulled small blades of their own from hidden pockets of their skimpy clothing. The woman behind the bar bent down to retrieve a heavy cudgel. Madam Shonda snatched a sword from the belt of one of the men who had been holding her before he could react.

The men were all well-trained, but they were both drunk and caught off-guard. The women had less experience, but fought with fierce desperation.

Some of them seemed to remember Astor’s lessons, but many of them quickly resorted to using blind fury to keep the men at bay. Blood spattered the wooden tables and chairs, and soaked into the women’s filmy dresses and the plush carpets beneath their slippered feet.

Corvin watched the scene unfold with a look of stunned disbelief from his makeshift throne near the stage. A few of the women had fallen, and some were wounded, but his men were not faring well. Astor stalked among them, moving like oiled silk and leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. None of Corvin’s men had managed to land a single blow on him.

Felara blinked. Things had escalated much more quickly than she had anticipated. In fact, she was starting to wonder whether the women would need her to step in at all…

“What in Lasniniar is going on here?” Corvin finally demanded in a roaring voice as he flung himself to his feet. “Can none of you manage to keep a handful of upstart wenches in line?”

His words seemed to have a rallying effect on the men. They pressed together in a knot and fought back-to-back, moving toward their leader as the effects of the ale seemed to wear off.

“Astor!” Corvin called out over the din of clashing weapons and cries of pain. “It seems you weren’t man enough to take my place as heir. Will you also hide from me behind the skirts of these women?”

“I was merely waiting for you to be ready,” Astor said as he made his way through the battling crowd. No one blocked his way. “You seemed a bit preoccupied.”

“It seems I misjudged you,” Corvin said with a scowl. “I had always planned to end this night with either your death or disgrace. I should have done it sooner.”

He drew his sword with a hard smile. “No matter. It will all end the same way.”

* * *

The mingling scents of sweat and blood filled the air with salt-tinged copper. Men grunted and women cried out as they fought. Even though the rest of the brothel continued to swirl with the chaos of battle, Felara only had eyes for Corvin and Astor. The others were merely pawns who would either rise or fall with their chosen leader. A man’s sword passed through her like smoke as Felara worked her way closer. She ignored the annoying shiver its passing left behind.

She had more important matters to attend to.

Corvin and Astor faced each other with their swords drawn. Now that Felara could clearly see them side by side, without all of Corvin’s men crowding around, it only made their similarities and differences more apparent.

Corvin had the clear size advantage. He was roughly two inches taller than Astor, and was bulky with muscle, while Astor was lithe and lean. Corvin’s tunic clung to his broad frame while Astor’s billowing tunic only served to emphasize his compact form. Astor circled Corvin on light feet—a panther stalking an unruly bear.

Astor’s coarse, blond hair was spattered with blood. Meanwhile, not a single dark lock on Corvin’s head was out of place. Still, Corvin’s pointed chin was starting to sprout the beginnings of a pale fuzz of whiskers that caught the candlelight, while Astor’s remained completely smooth. Their matching green eyes were locked.

“We’ve never sparred, have we?” Corvin’s voice was calm.

Astor smirked. “You could never be bothered.”

Corvin lifted his broad shoulders in a shrug. “You were so much younger, and probably a bastard besides. It hardly seemed worth my time to squash you.”

Astor cocked his head. “Do you really believe that? Or have you just been telling yourself that lie long enough that it’s become habit? Even a blind man could see our resemblance.”

Corvin gave a smug smile. “Not if that blind man wants to stay on the good side of a ruling lord—especially if that lord is generous.”

Astor grunted. “I suppose I should have known.”

“That’s always been one of your problems, brother,” Corvin mocked. “You always expect everyone to play fair.”

He lunged forward with a sudden swipe at Astor’s legs. But Astor had somehow managed to sense the coming attack, despite his half-brother’s seemingly casual speech. He leaped over the slashing blade with nimble grace. He followed up with a slash of his own, aiming at Corvin’s unprotected side.

But Corvin’s speed belied his size. He brought his own sword up just in time to parry the blow. He flashed Astor a grin.

“You’ll have to do better than that.”

Corvin suddenly went on the offense. His blade whistled through the air as he hammered at Astor with a series of heavy, rapid blows, putting his full strength behind them.

Astor managed to dodge or deflect all of them, but he was being driven backward toward the knot of Corvin’s men. Eventually, he would have nowhere to go. Corvin’s green eyes glimmered in satisfaction.

“You fight like the coward that you are.” He punctuated each word with another blow, his sword ringing against Astor’s. “All you do is defend! You can’t dodge me forever, you know.”

Astor snorted. “I’m the coward? I’m not the one who needs a small army of his friends to pin down a woman to have his way with her. Is that the only way you can get anyone to pleasure you?”

Corvin flinched as if he had been struck. Astor pressed his advantage.

I’m not the one who abuses people while they’re defenseless. What, are you too afraid someone might stand up to you if you gave them the chance? What would you do then? People might actually see you for what you really are.”

Corvin’s pale face flushed. He began lashing out at his half-brother once more, but his strikes were no longer as controlled. But Astor wasn’t finished.

“I’m not the one who has to hide behind all my friends and play the bully to compensate for his tiny—”

Corvin uttered a furious roar and threw himself at Astor. Astor spun aside to avoid the rush, sending his half-brother slamming into the backs of his own men. Still, the point of Corvin’s sword sought out Astor’s side…

Felara gave the blade a mental nudge, using only a tiny whisper of her magic.

The sound of tearing fabric could be heard among the clashing sounds of battle. Astor stumbled backward toward the stage and placed a hand to the cut in the side of his tunic to check for blood. His fingers came away clean. He recovered his stance and prepared for his half-brother’s next attack.

But Corvin’s sword hung limp at his side. His mouth gaped in surprise.

His green gaze was fixed on the front of Astor’s tunic.

* * *

Felara rubbed her hands together with a smile. Yes, this was what she had wanted to see…

“You—you’re a woman?” Corvin spluttered.

Astor followed the line of his half-brother’s gaze to look down at the front of his oversized tunic. Sure enough, it was now filled out by a pair of breasts.

Astor’s face flushed and his—her—free hand returned to where Corvin’s blow had landed. Felara grinned, knowing what she would find. The bindings that had kept her chest flat had been cut. Astor uttered a string of curses in what was now obviously a woman’s voice. The rest of the battle slowly drew to a halt at the sound of Corvin’s startled words as everyone turned to look.

“I’m your sister,” Astor said with a trace of annoyance. She pulled off the coarse wig to reveal a long, ash-blond braid. It unwound from the crown of her head to swing past her shoulders. She tossed the blood-spattered wig aside. “…Half-sister, anyway.”

“But… How?” Corvin shook his head in disbelief.

Astor shrugged. “When I was born, my mother knew she was dying. She begged her maidservant to raise me as a boy in secret, to keep me safe. You were so much older, and couldn’t be bothered with a half-sibling. Father was heartbroken when my mother died. He had no interest in me, so when Darcelle told him I was a boy… No one else ever knew.”

For a moment, no one spoke.

Corvin looked his half-sister up and down with a fresh perspective. He seemed torn between his own lascivious nature and disgust. “And to think I was actually worried about removing you as my heir…”

Astor gave him a tight smile. “You were right when you said I wasn’t man enough to be the Ashburn heir. But I’m still more man than you’ll ever be.” She raised her sword.

“You actually think you can beat me?” Corvin scoffed.

“Why not? You seemed to have no problem facing me before, when you thought I was your brother.” She coked an eyebrow at him. “Or are you afraid of having a woman show you up in front of all your friends?”

Corvin flashed her a dark smile. “Actually, I’m looking forward to demonstrating what happens when a woman forgets her place—not that any of your little trollop friends will live long enough to remember the lesson.” He turned his head to address his men.

“No quarter!” he called out. “I don’t want any of these wenches to leave this building alive. Do whatever you like with them, just make sure none of them are breathing when you’re done.”

“What, no witnesses to Lord Ashburn’s fine bravery?” Astor mocked.

“Shut up, woman.” Corvin practically spat the last word. His sword darted toward Astor.

Astor danced out of reach. “Very original,” she said in a dry voice. “I’m sure I’ll be crying myself to sleep tonight.”

“That might be difficult, considering you’re going to be dead soon.” Corvin spoke through gritted teeth before swinging his sword once more.

Astor continued to deflect Corvin’s increasingly wild blows, but there wasn’t much room to maneuver by the stage. Corvin smiled as he realized he was backing Astor into a corner. His blade sang toward his half-sister’s throat.

Astor barely managed to lean back in time. Her shoulders pressed against the wooden edge of the stage.

Felara continued to watch, trying to gauge the right moment for her divine intervention. If Astor—assuming that was the woman’s real name—was going to be the leader of Felara’s new group of followers, Felara didn’t want to undermine her by getting involved prematurely. But if Corvin actually won…

The combatants were moving too quickly now for the kind of delicate interference Felara had performed earlier. Whatever she ended up doing would have to be dramatic enough to create a distraction. She bit her lip, considering.

Meanwhile, Corvin continued to rain down heavy blows against Astor. One of them got through the blond woman’s defense, cutting into her arm. Blood stained the homespun fabric of her tunic.

She shook off the pain with a grimace and continued to defend. Corvin’s next flurry of attack was intense. His green eyes shone with a fey light at the sight of Astor’s blood. Like Felara, he was completely oblivious of the fate of his men or the women they were fighting. He flung his head back to shake his dark, sweaty hair from his eyes.

Felara smirked.

A trace of dark hair dye was starting to form along his brow.

Astor uttered a low chuckle as she noticed it too. “That stuff’s going to sting when it gets in your eyes,” she said to him, jerking her chin in the direction of his hair.

Corvin raised a self-conscious sleeve to his brow to wipe it. Dark stains marred his tailored, green tunic. A faint look of panic crossed his features as he raised his free arm to dab at his hairline once more, coming away with even more dye.

“I don’t suppose you usually bother to work up much of a sweat,” Astor observed, her voice rich with amusement. “Your hair’s going to be a mess before we’re through here. Not a very dignified look for the new Lord Ashburn.”

“Shut up!” Corvin snapped. He seemed torn between focusing on the battle and dealing with his hair crisis before any of his men noticed. His green eyes settled on his half-sister and narrowed.

“This is all your fault.”

He threw himself at her once more, with practically no regard for his own defense. Astor did her best to keep him at bay, but Corvin fought like a man possessed. Another cut opened up along Astor’s thigh. Her pale features were grim with determination as her sword flickered through the air in an effort to block each blow.

Her eyes widened in panic as Corvin got his free hand on her long braid and pulled her close.

* * *

Felara held her breath. Corvin’s face was only inches from Astor’s. The tip of his blade sought her throat, but she held it off with her own. Her sword arm was trembling from the strain. Felara drifted closer to watch.

“I will let you live,” Corvin said. His breath was sour with ale. Dribbles of dye-darkened sweat trickled down his pale face, making him look like he had some kind of strange affliction. His green eyes glimmered. “But I will only let you live on my terms.”

Astor held his gaze. For once, she seemed to have no clever retort. She certainly didn’t need to ask what Corvin’s terms would be. Corvin’s lips stretched in an unpleasant smile. Astor gave him a measuring look.

“No.”

Felara let out the breath she had been holding. Astor would be of little use to her if she simply gave in to Corvin now…

Astor brought the heel of her boot down hard on Corvin’s instep. He shifted his weight onto the other foot to compensate with a grunt of pain, allowing her just enough of an opening to slide away from his sword. Corvin stumbled backward with a curse.

Astor went on the offense immediately. Her blade was a silver blur as it wove a series of intricate patterns through the air, each one landing somewhere against Corvin’s flesh. Raised as a lord’s son, she had been given the same opportunity to train in swordcraft as her pampered, firstborn half-brother. As a woman, she had always known her life might depend on how hard she practiced.

Corvin never had that motivation.

Still, he was no slouch with a blade. Once he got over his surprise at her barrage, he began deflecting her blows and trying to lash out with a few of his own. But he was much larger, and had already expended most of his energy on his previous attacks. As time wore on, it became clear that Astor had merely been waiting for him to tire himself out all along.

Her sword cut deep into his legs, driving him to his knees before her. He gaped up at her with a look of bewilderment. Astor stood over him. The tip of her blade now rested against his unprotected throat.

She stared down at him, her green eyes unreadable. Her half-brother looked a pathetic mess at her feet. His long hair was a tangled mass of dark, greenish blond. Dark hair dye stained the shoulders of his green tunic and trickled down his face. Blood was pooling into the plush carpet beneath his knees.

“I will let you live,” Astor said in a rough voice. “But only on my terms.”

Corvin did not dare to turn his head to see whether any of his men were watching, but Felara suspected he wanted to. What would they think of him now?

Corvin glared up at her. “Really. And what would those terms be, sister?

Astor held his burning gaze. “I will allow you to remain Lord Ashburn, on the condition you use your power to better the lives of the women of the Riverlands.”

Felara stroked her chin at the idea. Astor was more clever than she had credited. She knew better than to try to claim the position of Lord Ashburn herself. Even if she somehow managed to keep her gender a secret and continue her role as second son, people would wonder what had happened to Corvin if he suddenly disappeared. Not that Astor might not be able to get past the suspicion, but it would make it difficult for her to pursue her own agenda on behalf of the women.

“Ha!” Corvin uttered a bleak chuckle of amusement. “You really think I would agree to such a thing?” He spat at her feet and sneered up at her. “Even if you somehow managed to keep me on a leash, I would only find a way to kill you the moment you let your guard down, you cowardly bi—”

Astor gave a quick flick of her wrist.

The rest of Corvin’s words died in his cut throat. Blood bubbled from his lips as he slumped over onto the carpeted floor. His green eyes rolled upward to hold Astor’s until the light faded from them. Astor lowered her bloody sword and pulled a rag from her belt to clean it as she watched. Her movements were mechanical.

“You could have just killed him outright,” Felara observed as she shimmered into visibility. “Why bother making him an offer?”

Astor’s eyes were glued to her half-brother’s still form. Her pale face was waxen with shock. “I know he was a monster, but…” Her shoulders lifted in a shrug. “I couldn’t just kill him in cold blood—”

Her face suddenly turned an interesting shade of green. Felara grimaced as the woman she had hoped to name the leader of her new religion began to retch.

* * *

Felara resisted the urge to roll her violet eyes. This was not going at all the way she had planned. She wrinkled her nose as the smell of Astor’s stomach contents reached her. Unfortunately, it seemed Astor had in fact swallowed some of the ale Corvin’s men had forced on her earlier. Felara stepped back to give her some space to regroup. Astor didn’t seem to have taken notice of Felara before she had started heaving. Felara didn’t much care for the idea of making her big debut in a pool of Astor’s vomit.

She turned to survey the rest of the room. Perhaps she could perform some timely, divine intervention there…

Her slender brows puckered in a frown. All of Corvin’s men had already fallen in battle. The women were busy tending to their moaning wounded. Stifled sobs filled the air as some of them mourned their fallen sisters. Felara bit back a sigh of annoyance.

None of them needed her help.

She could try to do something about the wounded, she supposed, but those who had survived would all heal on their own anyway. She saw no reason to waste her currently limited magic on that. Besides, if she healed one of them, she would have to heal them all.

“There, there,” Madam Shonda said to Astor. The proprietor of the brothel had gone to join the other woman near the stage. Her dress was spattered with blood and her long, graying blond curls were disheveled. “Let it all out.”

She gave Astor a motherly pat on the back as Astor stood hunched over with trembling arms braced against her thighs.

Astor took several deep breaths before straightening. She wiped her mouth with the back of her bloodstained sleeve. “I think I’m all right now. It’s just that I’ve never…” Her green gaze drifted inevitably to her half-brother’s corpse and the other men she had slain.

Madam Shonda gave her a brief smile. “It’s not quite the same as in practice, is it?”

Astor shook her head. Her long, ash-blond braid swished behind her shoulders. “No. It’s not. And even though I’ve wanted to kill him for so long, it’s not anything like what I thought it would be.”

“Still, it needed to be done.” Madam Shonda gave Astor’s arm a squeeze. “Never forget that, Astor.” She tilted her head. “Is it really Astor?”

Astor licked her lips and made a face at the taste of her own mouth. “Actually, it’s Esmé—not that anyone other than my mother and maidservant ever knew it.” She turned to face Madam Shonda with a frown. “But you knew I wasn’t a man, didn’t you? I never told you, but I always felt like you knew for some reason.”

Felara’s mind went back to the moment when Corvin had ordered Astor to have his way with Madam Shonda in front of his men. Madam Shonda had shown no sign of distress. It made sense. If she had known Astor was really a woman, then she also knew she had no reason to fear.

“Esmé.” Madam Shonda shook her head with another smile. “That will take some getting used to. Well, Esmé, you’ve done a very good job at disguising yourself, but there’s one thing you could never hide from someone who knows women as well as I do.”

Esmé gave her a curious look.

Madam Shonda’s lips twitched. “It’s your hips. They sway a bit when you walk.”

“Oh.” Esmé’s face flushed.

“So what are we going to do?” Madam Shonda asked. “Corvin and his men are all dead, but even if we somehow manage to get rid of the bodies and set everything to rights by morning, people will come looking for them. Everyone knows that Corvin and his lot came here. None of us will talk, of course, but…” She gave a helpless shrug.

Felara nodded in agreement. Yes, trying to cover up something like this would be difficult over the long term. In addition to Corvin’s men, there were also the dead women to consider. Surely their families would wonder what had happened to them—not that any of the ruling lords would care, of course. Unless any of the dead women also happened to have been working extra jobs for them on the side… Felara made a face.

A cover-up was not in her best interest.

Right. Time to take charge of this fiasco.

A trace of movement caught her eye. Someone was by the front door of the brothel, easing the wooden bar aside. Felara recognized the long, blond curls of the fawning man who had come close to offending Corvin earlier in the afternoon. His sword was still in his belt and there was no sign of blood on his clothing. Felara’s eyes narrowed. Presumably, he had hung back while the fighting had been going on, and was now trying to make his escape.

None of the women had noticed him yet.

Felara aimed to keep it that way. She gave a negligent wave of her hand, encouraging the women to remain preoccupied while the man slid the wooden bar aside. Then she made all of them turn to look just as he slipped off into the night.

Esmé drew her sword and started running after him, but Madam Shonda put a hand out to stop her.

“He’s already gone,” she said. “Besides, what would you do if you caught him? Kill him? He didn’t even look like he had fought.”

Esmé blanched at the suggestion, so soon on the heels of her first kills. “I was thinking of taking him prisoner.”

“And then what would we do with him?” Madam Shonda pressed. “Hide him in the basement until the end of his days?” She gave Esmé a chiding look.

Esmé’s shoulders slumped. “It seems we have no choice then. Or at least, I have no choice.”

Madam Shonda frowned at her.

“I must leave Eastern Reach,” Esmé continued. “You can tell everyone that I killed all these men. You can claim the blond man was hysterical. I’m guessing it won’t be far from the truth by the time he finds someone to blab to.”

“All of them?” Madam Shonda raised a sardonic eyebrow.

Esmé shrugged. “Tell the town guard I turned out to be the follower of one of the new gods. I killed them all with my magic.” She waggled her fingers in an arcane gesture. Felara nearly choked at the suggestion.

Madam Shonda folded her arms across her chest. “You would leave us here to face the guard alone?”

“I don’t want to.” Esmé flushed. “But if I stay here, they’ll kill me. And there’s no sense in all of us going on the run. I don’t even know where I’m going to run to.”

“You think it will be safer for us here?” Madam Shonda shook her head. “You saw what Corvin’s men did to us. Your brother was a wicked man, but he is by no means the only wicked man in Eastern Reach. If word gets out about what happened…” She drew herself up. “Either we will be accused of being the accomplices we are, or we will find ourselves with a new Corvin and Company to deal with.”

Esmé blinked. “But your homes and your families are here…”

“Families who prefer to act as if we don’t exist.” Madam Shonda raised her chin. “Our work might put food on the table, but most of these women get only harsh words and rough treatment by way of thanks. Many of them have moved out to make their home here, at the Dragon.”

“So you think you should all throw your lot in with me?” Esmé’s green eyes widened.

“And why shouldn’t we?” Madam Shonda demanded. “You’re the one who taught us how to take care of ourselves. If you hadn’t, how many more would we be mourning right now?”

Several of the women looked up from where they tended to the fallen and wounded to nod in agreement. The expectant looks on their faces seemed to make Esmé take an involuntary step backward.

“But I don’t even know what to do, or where to go!” Her voice held an edge of panic.

Felara knew her moment had finally come.

* * *

“Perhaps I can help you there.” Felara stepped forward, allowing a pale glow to suffuse her angular features. An unseen breeze stirred her silver hair around her chin.

All the women gaped. Felara allowed herself a smile of satisfaction that was both suitably benign and godlike. She carefully schooled her expression to avoid making a face at the brothel’s charnel house stench.

“That voice…” Esmé frowned. “You spoke to me earlier.”

“I sought to weigh your worthiness in the death of your brother.” Felara raised her chin in a regal manner, carefully glossing over the part where Esmé had lost control of her stomach contents.

“You are a goddess?” Esmé uttered the question in an awed whisper.

“I am Felara,” she said, as if that explained everything. She was always careful where the truth was concerned. “I have seen the plight of the women of the Riverlands. I came here to help you.”

“You will help us?” Madam Shonda said in a wondering voice. Felara inclined her head with a gracious nod. “Are there other women who will join us then?”

“There will be others,” Felara said. Her voice echoed through the brothel in a ringing tone. “You are the first.”

Esmé lowered herself to her knees at Felara’s feet with a look of relief. “Tell us what you wish.”

Felara’s violet gaze swept the room. The other women watched Esmé and quickly followed suit. In a matter of moments, every woman in the room was kneeling.

Felara suppressed a smile of satisfaction. Esmé was a natural leader, and the other women looked to her—Madam Shonda included. But Esmé’s world had been turned upside-down. She knew she needed to do something, but she had no idea what. As the sheltered second ‘son’ of Lord Ashburn, she had likely never seen much of life beyond Eastern Reach. And with no mother of her own to turn to, she was in desperate need of guidance.

…All of which played right into Felara’s hands. She resisted the urge to rub her hands together with glee.

“Leave Eastern Reach under the cover of darkness and cross the Rune River,” Felara intoned. “There is an ancient city waiting for you in the Highlands to the northeast, on the northern shore of Stone Lake. You will make you new home there—free from the tyranny of men.”

The abandoned city had been there all along, of course, but Felara deliberately made it sound as if she had built it long ago, just for them.

“The children—” one of the women said, tugging at Madam Shonda’s sleeve.

Felara bit back a question and settled for a divine but curious look.

“Some of the girls have children sleeping upstairs,” Madam Shonda explained. “No boys. The men always want to keep those for themselves, even when they’re bastards.” She made a face.

Felara gave a magnanimous wave. “Bring them with you.” Another thought occurred to her. “And if you should find any abandoned babes on the hillsides during your journey, take them as well. From this day forward, you will seek out any women in the Riverlands in need of shelter and take them in, under my protection.”

“There are a few street urchins, I know,” a woman Felara recognized from earlier said in a soft voice. Her pale-blue dress was torn. “I think I can find them fairly quickly, if someone can pack for me.”

“And I would like to bring Darcelle, my mother’s old maidservant.” Esmé made the request with quiet dignity, but there was a pleading look in her eyes.

“Yes, and Favrielle’s husband has thrown her out again…” another added.

“Bring them all!” Felara said in a grand voice. This might just turn out to be an even better idea than she had thought…

Esmé’s green eyes shone with fervor as she nodded in agreement. She rose to her feet with a bow.

“It shall be as you command, goddess.”

Felara watched in satisfaction as her new followers scattered to do her bidding.

Yes, this had turned out quite well after all.

* * *

Legends of Lasniniar: Quicksilver

Copyright © 2022 by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover design by Jacquelyn Smith

Cover art copyright © Akv2006, MerryDesigns, Vi73777, Wimstime/Dreamstime


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