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Blood Oath (The Darkest Drae #1)
Author:Raye Wagner & Kelly St. Clare

Blood Oath (The Darkest Drae #1)

Raye Wagner & Kelly St. Clare



1





“What’s on the menu tonight, Ryn?” a man heckled from the far end of the crowded bar.

I didn’t acknowledge him straightaway, sliding two hazy tankards of Dyter’s brew to a couple men still too young to be enlisted.

I glanced across the crowded room, wiping my hands on my apron. Recognizing the hunched man, a regular at Dyter’s, I hollered back, “What do you think is on the menu, Seryt?”

He held up his stump of an arm and, with a drunken grin, replied, “Roasted chicken? Grilled mutton?”

A burst of uproarious laughter followed his quip. Smart arse. Chicken or mutton? After two generations of famine?

“Potato stew,” I called over the ruckus, sighing inwardly as my belly rumbled. Talk of meat made me ravenous even though I ate better than most in Harvest Zone Seven, thanks to my mother’s green thumb.

Ever since King Irdelron started hunting the land healers, the Phaetyn, ninety years ago, the land had been dying, slowly but surely. He’d hunted them because he wanted to live forever and allegedly drank their blood to do so. The Phaetyn had been extinct for almost two decades, and the famine worsened every year without their magic. Now, the peasants of Verald worked relentlessly to fill the Draecon emperor’s food quota. And when the emperor’s quota was filled, the other kingdoms in the realm got their portions. After that, we, the peasants, got to keep or trade what was left—mainly potatoes. Yay.

Suffice it to say, no one really loved our king. Disliked might be a more accurate term—and loathed more accurate still.

“Potato and what soup?” the same man wheezed. He’d had enough of Dyter’s brew to think he was funny—my favorite type of intoxicated male.

“Seryt, do us a favor and shut your gob,” Dyter, my boss and friend of the family, boomed from the kitchen.

Those who heard the exchange grinned and continued their buzz of conversation. The crowd here was in an unnaturally excited mood tonight. I only recognized a third of the people in the tavern, which meant many had traveled from the other Harvest Zones and maybe even the other two kingdoms to be here for the meeting. To see so many different people here was a rarity. The kind of rarity that could draw attention from the king’s soldiers. Or worse. I hoped Dyter knew what he was getting into by holding the meeting here.

I pulled my stiff cinnamon-brown hair up and fanned the back of my neck. The extra people crammed into the Crane’s Nest tonight made it hotter than usual.

“Al’right, Ryn?” my friend, Arnik, asked from where he sat on the other side of the bar.

I smiled and dropped my hair. If I didn’t watch myself, he’d be up trying to help, and he was too big to weave in and out of the patrons without causing a fight. “Just warm in here.”

With plenty of rain, like today, the humidity and the stench of male sweat mixed with sweet fermenting ale beat down my patience almost as quickly as the senseless, roundabout arguments of the newcomers.

“Excuse me, is there any stew left?” a man asked. His voice was so quiet it didn’t immediately register.

I shoved two more tankards down the line before turning his way. Wiping at the bar with my dishrag, I blinked as I took him in. I blinked again, but the apparition didn’t change.

There before me was a man who was not young. The difference between him and the eighteen and nineteen-year-olds either side of him was plain. But neither was he old and wrinkled. I scanned him anew. He didn’t seem to be maimed—though I couldn’t see his legs. He’d asked me a question, so his brains weren’t addled to the level of insensibility. He had sandy-blond hair and an open smile, yet something in the set of his shoulders and his blue-gray eyes spoke of secrets.

My mouth fell slightly ajar. I’d never seen a twenty-something man. He was totally illegal. He was meant to be away fighting in the emperor’s war! A thrill ran through me.

“Is there any stew left?” the man repeated, his smile slipping.

It was possible I was gawking at him. I couldn’t wait to tell Arnik I met an illegal person. “Let me check for you,” I said, straightening.

“Thank you. I’d appreciate that,” the man said, and he dropped his gaze back to his brew.

I hustled through the low door into the kitchen so I could go and stare some more at the twenty-something man. There was always more stew in the caldron over the fire in the kitchen, and I filled a wooden bowl and hastened to set it in front of him. That was how desperate I was for a bit of excitement; I was sprinting for stew now.

I stared as he held out his payment. There in his palm was a single coin. We mostly accepted carrots, apples, and potatoes as trade for the meager food and brew we offered. Not wanting to appear odd, I plucked the stamped piece of gold from his hand, holding it gingerly.

“My thanks to you,” he said with a nod. He was being jostled on both sides by Arnik’s exuberant pals, but the strange man didn’t seem bothered in the slightest. That was how I knew he was older. In my experience, any male under twenty took it as a personal insult to be pushed around.

He dragged his spoon through the thick broth and overcooked vegetables. My staring was on the weird side, I knew. I could see his eyes shifting as he avoided my regard.

“You from around here?” I prodded, not put off by his discomfort. This was by far the most interesting thing to happen in a year. At least.

“Here and there.” He grunted and put a heaping spoonful of stew in his mouth.

“Where?”

Dyter grabbed my arm. “Ryn, there’s a load of dishes larger than the Gemond Mountains back in the tub. I need you to get started on them, or we’ll be here all night.”

“I’m not sure Mum meant for me to do dishes when she sent me to work for you.” The old coot was the closest thing to a father I’d ever known so I didn’t hesitate to try to get out of the work.

Dyter gave me a pointed look that made the scar on his cheek tighten. “I’m sure she meant for you to do anything other than kill her gardens.”

“Hey! I’m good at weeding.” I scowled, and it bounced straight off his stocky frame. He knew me too well.

He patted me on the shoulder, turning it into a push that propelled me toward the kitchen. “Sure, you are, Ryn. Sure you are.”

I whipped my dishrag over my shoulder, accidentally smacking him, and headed to the kitchen. The mound of dishes that waited for me had spilled off the counter and onto the broth-sticky floor. With a sigh, I grabbed a pot off of the top of the pile and started on the enormous task.

I’d only worked at The Crane’s Nest for a few months, though I’d known Dyter forever. After fifteen years of gardening, Mum announced I’d never be able to do more than weed and move dirt, so she sent me here.