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Excerpt Reveal: The Warden by Daniel M. Ford

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For fans who have always wanted their Twin Peaks to have some wizards, The Warden is a non-stop action adventure story from author Daniel M. Ford.

There was a plan.

She had the money, the connections, even the brains. It was simple: become one of the only female necromancers, pass as many certifications as she could, get a post near the capital, then… profit. The funny thing about plans is that they are seldom under your control.

Now Aelis, a daughter of a noble house and a trained Magister of the Lyceum, finds herself in the far-removed village of Lone Pine. Mending fences and delivering baby goats, serving people who want nothing to do with her. But, not all is well in Lone Pine, and as the villagers Aelis is reluctantly getting to know start to behave strangely, Aelis begins to suspect that there is far greater need for a warden of her talents than she previously thought.

Old magics are restless, and an insignificant village on the furthest border of the kingdom might hold secrets far beyond what anyone expected. Aelis might be the only person standing between one of the greatest evils ever known and the rest of the free world.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Warden by Daniel M. Ford, on sale 4/18/23.


ONE

THE TOWER

Now, standing in front of the tower, it was far too real.

“It’s in ruins,” Aelis said, trying desperately to grab at authority by turning her dark eyes on the village boy who’d led her to the place.

“The walls are sound,” the boy protested, feebly. “It just needs a roof, is all.” He was already backing away from her, and once he was a couple of yards away, he turned and ran, his feet pounding dust and rocks into the air.

Aelis turned back to the squat tower. She could see cracks and holes snaking up the gray stone structure, crumbling mortar, and rugged ivy climbing up the rounded wall. After two weeks on increasingly bad roads in a mail carriage, she had hoped there would at least be a comfortable bed waiting for her. Might drown inside that tower in a storm.

Crows hopped about, squawking, eyeing her as she jerked on the lead of the borrowed packhorse to get it started up the track that wound toward the rotting doors. The tower was a good mile or more from the village’s center, situated on a hill that overlooked the path that led to the cluster of homes that surrounded the green of Lone Pine.

“Enough for privacy. Close enough I can be fetched quickly in a crisis.” Aelis took a deep breath. “Far enough away that they can pretend I’m not here.” If only I wasn’t. Aelis had a brief vision of the cobbled avenues of Antraval, wide enough for carriages to pass one another without troubling the foot traffic, and she thought briefly about knocking down the tower and using it for paving stones just to have the feel of them beneath her feet.

“At least it’s far enough away not to smell the sheep shit.”

She gave the packhorse another tug and was delighted to find an intact hitching ring bolted to the front wall. The tower was perhaps twenty-five feet tall, with the door—that had once been strong, solid oak bound in iron but was now rotting boards bound in rust—six feet of that.

She looped the packhorse’s lead through the ring and gave it a light hitch. She tested the ring itself and was rewarded with a shower of dust and stone chips as she pulled it out.

Carefully, shielding the horse from it, she tucked the ring back into the now gapingly empty spot in the stone and bit her bottom lip as she considered the problem.

Raising her hand and flexing her fingers, she spoke the single word, the simplest expression of the abjurer’s art; a ward. It wasn’t much—a conjurer could’ve fixed it rather more permanently—but it should stop the ring from pulling out easily. She tugged again, found it snug.

“Well. Won’t last forever, but at least I can get unpacked without chasing this horse.”

She decided to leave the silverand brass-bound chest atop its back for later and instead gathered her saddlebags, bulging with books, and slung them over one shoulder. Then she untied a wooden writing case and tucked it under her free arm.

Aelis thumped the door with her bootheel, and humphed as it swung open without so much as a proper ominous groan, though it did tilt badly.

“Hardly appropriate for a wizard’s tower.” The interior was a mixture of light and dark, mounds of furniture hidden beneath dust-covered sheets.

A sudden shadow darted in the murk.

Aelis threw down her burdens, whipped her leaf-bladed sword clear of its sheath, and was halfway into a personal all-purpose ward when a small goat pranced up to her, yelled at her for disturbing it, and went clattering out the front door.

Not before treading on her bag of books and leaving a fragrant trail of piss right down the front steps, though.

Carefully, very carefully, Aelis lowered her sword till it touched the ground before her, and spoke a two-word dispelling—just enough to make sure the spell she’d gathered discharged harmlessly.

The goat, standing a few feet outside the open door, turned back to stare at her.

“I’m going to have you for dinner,” Aelis said, pointing the tip of her sword at it before sheathing it with care. “And I’m going to wear your hide when it gets cold.”

The goat yelled again, an ugly and grating sound, and trotted off, unconcerned with her threats.

“As if I’d ever wear goatskin,” Aelis murmured as she bent to pick up the dropped books and case.

It took her till near nightfall, and many a curse and a fervent wish that she could whip up an undead servitor or two—just one would’ve gone a long way—but Aelis got her gear unpacked, or at least stowed carefully, and one of the two rooms in the bottom floor of the tower swept and washed. She was leery of the rotting ladder leading up to the second floor, not to mention the suspicious-looking buckles in the boards that she could see a foot or so above her head. There had been nothing usable in the tower save the niches built into the walls, where she’d assembled her library, reasoning that unpacking books would make a new place feel more like home.

It wasn’t a large collection, no more than two dozen volumes. Aelis wished she’d had room for more, but the post carriage had strict limits, and more space simply could not be had at any price.

She did take some satisfaction in how well lit the place was, as she’d set out candlesticks in silver holders carved with her family arms, three lamps with carefully trimmed wicks, and her alchemy lamp, set to a soft white. A nagging voice suggested to her that replacing any of these valuable supplies would be difficult, but Aelis convinced herself that for one night it was necessary.

She certainly wasn’t frightened of the dark gathering outside her tower, though night was coming on faster this far north than it would have at midsummer at home.

Aelis’s mind flashed with images at the thought of the word home. People in light summer silk and linen. Entire townhouses lit by alchemy lamps, each room a different brilliant color. Iced wine, squid and prawns pulled fresh from the sea and barely tossed in a pan, then salted and doused with citron juice.

Aelis sat up from the folding chair she’d assembled and realized that her stomach was growling. She surveyed what she’d unpacked, as if food would turn up.

“If it’s going to,” she said to no one in particular, “I’d prefer something light. Perhaps a selection of cheeses—one blue, one crème, one hard and ripe—and some pickled fish.”

Nothing replied to her request, and Aelis sighed and stood. She picked up her swordbelt from its place at her chair, buckled it back on, and started for the door.

“I thought it was always cold up here. Nobody told me I’d sweat. I’ll have to send for lighter clothing,” she muttered, before sighing. “Send where? How? I’ve no birds, no mirror, and if I sent a letter ordering one, by the time any new robe reached me it would be fall.” She considered the wardrobe she’d brought; mostly black, accented with blue and green. All but her most formal robes were divided for riding and cut carefully for her to make use of her sword, dagger, or wand as necessary. She’d sent home gowns and formal dresses as well as anything that had too much thread of gold and silver and gemstones worked into it.

Aelis sighed and slumped back into her chair. Her hunger hadn’t abated, but something about the thought of trudging all the way back to the village on foot, with dark upon her, made hunger more appealing than searching for supper.

“Wait.” She laid a finger over her lips. “They’re supposed to provide me with food. That’s in the basic agreement . . .”

She stood up, seized the nearest candlestick, and walked briskly to the door. It hung slack on its hinges and didn’t properly close but Aelis had bound it in place the same way she’d plugged a hole in the roof against the weather; by a simple ward.

She released the ward with a flick of her fingers and a single spoken syllable and pulled it open, wondering what might lie beyond it, warm and fragrant, in a handmade basket.

“It might not be prawns and squid, but surely they’ve fresh bread, butter, cheese, sausages.” For a moment she was taken with the idea of a fat goat sausage she could lay across a fire and eat with bread.

When the door finally opened, she looked down. No basket on the stoop; nothing. But no matter. She stepped outside, down the three short stairs, and looked to the left. Then to the right. Then she walked all the way to the end of the path, carefully lowering her candlestick to the ground.

Conscious that she might look ridiculous waving a candlestick over the grass and the stones, were anyone there to watch, Aelis straightened and walked with her head high and her back stiff until she was through the door to her tower.

“Well,” she sniffed. “Surely a simple oversight. No doubt they’ll correct it in the morning. They had better,” she added. “I’m not about to go down among them and ask for supper now. Besides . . . surely many of them are after their sleep now. Rise with the sun and go to sleep with the moons, aye?”

It was only then that Aelis realized she’d forgotten to unpack her orrery, but her walk outside had shown her only scudding clouds and a brief glimpse of Elisima’s green moon waning to a thin slice. That task could wait for the next day.

Instead, she set down her lamp by her chair and looked over the bookshelves, quickly selecting Aldayim’s Advanced Necromancy. Deftly, her fingers found the long black silk ribbon sewn into the book and flipped it open, laying the heavy wooden covers on her lap.

Correct identification of specimens is the foremost task of the would-be necrobane. Herein one finds all the necessary and telltale marks that distinguish what force has animated a corpse, an amalgam, a gestalt, or a spirit and to what end . . .

“Nothing like Aldayim and undead identification to put off the appetite,” Aelis murmured, hunching over her book and soon forgetting about the tower, the heat, her empty stomach. About everything, in short.

━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━

Six weeks to the day before, and eight hundred miles or so to the south, Aelis had burst into her adviser’s office, trembling with shock and anger.

“Lone Pine? Where in all the seventy-seven hells is Lone Pine? What is Lone Pine?”

“Good morning, Miss de Lenti,” Urizen said. Aelis hadn’t sent word ahead or asked for an appointment, and so she found the wizened little gnome standing on his desk, papers arranged on a stand in front of him. His hands were folded behind his back, and a pen floated in the air over the exams, occasionally dipping to the page to make one mark or another. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Lone Pine. I’m posted there. Why?

“Those decisions are made far beyond me, Miss de Lenti.”

“How many graduates this year?”

“Nearly three hundred. A truly impressive class.”

“How many passed tests in three Colleges?”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“Urizen, I know you know the answer to that much, at least. How many passed tests in three Colleges?”

The pen floating in the air gently settled onto the desk. The gnome pulled his spectacles free from where they perched on his long, thin nose, breathed on them, pulled a silk square from his pocket, and began polishing them.

“You’re stalling. You could clean those with a simple wave of your hand and the lightest bit of Conjuring.”

“What you know about Conjuring would fall through the holes of a sieve,” Urizen shot back. “And . . . eleven.”

“Eleven graduates tested successfully in three Colleges,” Aelis repeated. “And they are sending one of them to the frontier.”

“The frontier is a dangerous place.”

Aelis held out an arm to show the green and blue silk stripes against the black of her robe. “Do I have a red stripe here?”

“Oh come off it, Miss de Lenti.”

She only just stopped herself from correcting him with Lady de Lenti. Urizen finished polishing the spectacles and turned his gray eyes to her, the white whiskers at the sides of his face bristling. “Invokers are hardly the only Wardens prepared to face the dangers of the frontier—”

“There has to be a reason for this, Magister,” Aelis interrupted, her voice too like whining for her taste.

“Well, yes. Obviously, the Committee thought your talents matched a need there.”

“Ressus,” Aelis snarled. “That son of a bitch still believes women shouldn’t practice necromancy, and he could never stand that I was the best student among the class. I’ll—”

“Do nothing,” Urizen said quickly. “Because you do not know that for sure and because I am treading perilously close to violating professorial ethics, not to mention confidentiality standards. I remind you that the identities of the assigning committee members are strictly anonymous, even to one another.”

“It has to be him. I know it. I feel it in my bones,” Aelis said, not quite ready to slink away in defeat.

“Let me remind you that his full name is Archmagister Ressus Duvhalin, Chancellor of the College of Necromancy. Yours is considerably smaller.”

“Could you at least tell me,” Aelis said, “where the remaining ten graduates who passed in three Colleges are posted?” Then, unable to stop herself, she added, “If any of them have been sent to the forest primeval like I have, I’ll eat my hat.”

She saw the gnome only just suppress his laugh. “You’re not wearing a hat.”

“I’ll buy the most expensive gods-damned hat I can find and pay a chef to prepare it for me, then.”

Urizen sighed. “I am not going to get through this stack of first-year Magical Theory exams unless I help you sort this out, am I?”

“Afraid not.”

“Some days, Miss de Lenti, I curse the moment I was assigned to advise you.”

Aelis smiled. “You don’t mean that, Magister Urizen.”

“Oh no, Aelis. I do. It just so happens that those days don’t quite outnumber the moments when I’ve thought otherwise. I’ve seen you overcome too many challenges to go to pieces over a temporary assignment.”

“Two years is a broad definition of temporary, Urizen. And no one even tells us what factors into whether we are reassigned, or where . . .”

“Aelis.” Urizen stepped down off his desk with slow dignity and walked up to her. For all that the gnome’s head barely reached her navel, he had an unnerving way of forcing her to look down and meet him eye to eye, a presence that put him in command of their exchanges. “It may well be that this is your assignment and nothing can be done about it, in which case I will expect you to pack your equipment, go north, and do the best job you can possibly do, no matter how dirty your hands have to get while you are there.”

“And do what, trap myself into another posting in some even more forsaken place? Get attached to some pioneers?” Her voice drifted into a sigh.

“Tomorrow, Lady de Lenti un Tirraval, you will have to take an oath that binds you in service to the Magisters’ Lyceum and to the Estates House and the Crowns. If you do not wish to take that oath . . .”

“And let the last five years of hard work go for nothing? Why would you—”

“If you do not wish to take that oath,” Urizen’s voice cracked like a whip, and Aelis quieted instantly, “no one will force you to do so. Should you decide to take it, you will be bound by your honor and your power to carry out the tasks assigned to you whether you like them or not.”

Stunned by the force of her mentor’s tone, Aelis merely whispered, “I am no hedge wizard.”

“Then prepare to accept your assignment with a modicum of dignity and professionalism. Maybe even grace, if you can find any in the wine fugue you currently occupy.”

Aelis’s back straightened with the precise caution of the drunk who believes no one else can tell they’re drunk.

“I apologize, Magister,” she began, slowly and formally.

“Oh,” the gnome sighed, waving a hand vaguely in the air. “I remember my own graduation week.” Urizen smiled then, his face wrinkling, showing his age. “At least, that is, I remember the stories other people told about my graduation. Go,” he said, waving a hand. “Get a decent meal and some rest and sober up a bit, and I’ll send a bird with news. If I learn any.”

“I will. And thank you, Magister,” Aelis said, giving him a short formal bow before turning for the door. She stopped just outside in the long, dusty hall, poked her head back in, and added, “Actually, Magister, I lied to you just now.”

Urizen was already clambering back up to look down at the papers on his desk. “About what?”

“I’m not going to sober up.”

━━ ˖°˖ ☾☆☽ ˖°˖ ━━━━━━━

She awoke in the chair she’d been reading in, with Aldayim open on her lap. Reflexively, after wiping at her eyes with the back of her sleeve, she looked back into the book.

. . . depending on whether the particular specimen is animated by its own will or by that of a necromancer determines how the necrobane proceeds . . .

“With a Lower Order Banishment of the animating will or a selection of Suppressing and Severing,” Aelis murmured as she gently pulled the silk ribbon into place, closed the book, and placed it back into its empty spot on the shelf. “If the former, a Lower Order should be all that is required, given that a spirit still clinging to its corporeal remains is not likely to be sentient enough to be aware of the power available to it,” she went on, as she stood and stretched, cracking her back and shoulders.

“These chapters of Aldayim were always a surefire soporific,” she added as she massaged her lower back. “No more sleeping in chairs,” she chided. “Can’t have the people see me hobbling about and deciding I’m some kind of horrid crone.”

She thought back to her passage through the village green. As soon as the people had seen her black robes, they’d scattered, children grasped and pulled away by their parents. The way the crowd melted made the remarks she’d so carefully labored over on the ride up turn to ashes in her mouth. The only people who’d stuck around were the two innkeepers, Rus and Martin, and then only to quietly help her load up their packhorse.

“Oh fuck,” she suddenly spat. “Their horse. I ought to have brought it back . . .”

She paused only to grab her swordbelt and buckle it on as she headed for the door. She dispelled the much weakened ward holding it closed with a flick of her hand, threw it open, and looked to where she’d left the horse. Her ward was good enough to hold the horse’s lead to the ring, but not, apparently, the ring to the wall of the tower, for the horse had ripped it free and then dragged lead and ring down along the path, where it was happily grazing.

In a rush, she swept forward and patted its neck. The horse ignored her and kept grazing. It seemed none the worse for wear, so she gathered up the reins, twisting them in her fist, and, with some urging, led the animal away from its grazing and on to the walk back to Lone Pine proper.

The village seemed deserted. She glanced up at a mostly cloudless sky, with the sun bright and one half of Anaerion’s red moon hanging low in the sky. Not too late in the day, then.

The inn, with its central location by the village’s crossroads, didn’t appear to be busy, possibly not yet open for the day. But as she led the horse on, she heard a throat clear and then a voice call out to her.

“Finally remembered to bring our Pansy back, eh?” She turned to find Rus—a compact man of middle years, bald and sharp-eyed—carrying a large basket over one shoulder. “She would’ve come in handy this morning.”

“I am abjectly sorry,” Aelis said, drawing herself up to her full height, which was still an inch or two shy of Rus. “In the rush of everything last night, I simply forgot.”

“It’s alright,” he said as he walked up to the horse, set the basket on her back, and began securing it to the pack frame. Aelis caught a glimpse of its contents; rabbits, gutted and ready to be skinned. “She’s none the worse for wear, and a smart enough beast. She’d’ve come home in her own time. Probably got at the verge around your tower, I expect.”

“She did,” Aelis agreed. “Pulled the hitching ring right out of the mortar.”

Rus ran his hand along the horse’s brown neck. Pansy lowered her head to nuzzle at his hand, and then at his pockets, before turning back to the grass. “It’d help you to learn, and to remember—folk here treasure their beasts only just below their kin. You’ll do nothing to improve on the impression you made on these people if you let them think you’re careless around animals.”

Aelis stifled the first thoughts that came to her about the opinions of the people who’d written to the Lyceum for a Warden and then run away as soon as she’d arrived, and forced a smile to her face. “I’ll do well to remember that, goodman Rus.”

“Just Rus, please,” he said. “How did you settle in? Is the tower in decent repair?”

“In point of fact,” Aelis said, “it’s a crumbling heap. The door is out of frame, I haven’t tried to go to the upper floor, the roof lets in daylight, the weather, and likely enough any number of birds, and I’ve not bothered to examine most of the furniture.”

“Well,” Rus said with a shrug, “you’ll want to fix most of that before winter. Snows come early out here.”

Aelis stood and stared at him for a moment. “How do I . . . fix it?”

“Folk here’ll give you the loan of tools, I’m sure.”

I have passed the Tests of three Colleges of the Magisters’ Lyceum. I am an Abjurer, a Necromancer, and an Enchanter and have few equals of my own age within those disciplines, but I am not a gods-damned carpenter, mason, thatcher, or hod carrier, Aelis wanted to scream.

“I believe,” she said instead, carefully, “that the finer details of the agreement to post a Warden here indicate that the residence is to be well maintained.”

“With all due respect, Warden, you’ll find perhaps three people here, not counting Martin and me, who know how to read the contract made on their behalf. Further, their lives are about to become far too busy to go providing a good deal of free labor on the tower of a wizard they’re all terrified of.”

“What do you mean, their lives are about to become too busy?”

“With the turn of the season coming on, some of the folk who raise the real long-haired sheep you may’ve seen around are going to have to do their second shearing. Some folks’ll be culling their herds, everyone’ll be harvesting, there’ll be markets to drive animals to. And before all that’s done, pioneers and explorers and salvagers will be coming down out of the frontier and the lost territories, looking for lodging and splashing gold about as they pass through. It’s a busy time.”

And that all sounds just fucking delightful. Not for the last time, Aelis bit her tongue to drive away thoughts of bright plazas and glittering parties. “I see.” By now, Rus had finished securing his basket and took up the horse’s lead, but manners seemed to dictate he wait till she finished and let him go.

She didn’t. “This is a more delicate question,” Aelis said. “But, ah, the tower is not equipped with a kitchen, or food storage. There are things I can do to deal with the weather or a stuck door,” she added, “but I can’t conjure food out of the air.”

“I know you can’t,” Rus said with a grin. “No brown stripes on your sleeves.”

Aelis laughed, but rather humorlessly, as even the word food had seemed like an aggressive lure to her stomach, which began reminding her, rather powerfully, that it had been more than half a day since she last ate. “True. And even if I had passed a Conjurer’s test—”

“I’ve eaten conjured food a time or two,” Rus said, a smile creasing his blunt features. “And I’m sure we’ve got something you could break your fast with. Though it’ll be nothing like what a lady of your stature is used to.”

“I give you my word upon my family and my power,” Aelis said, “that I will offer no complaint to any food I can eat within the next hour.”

“Well, if you’d be so kind,” Rus said, “back up at the top of the hill behind the inn there—” he pointed to where he’d come from—“there are some more baskets like this one. I sure could use some help bringing them down, and I’d like to get Pansy here rubbed down and into her stall as quick as I can.”

“Of course. Won’t take but a moment,” Aelis said. Squaring her shoulders, she set aside the pangs in her stomach and trotted up the hill. Urizen did say I’d probably have to get my hands dirty, she thought to herself.

Copyright © 2023 from Daniel M. Ford

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