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Abuse of Power (Rise of the Mages 1)
 

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Abuse of Power (Rise of the Mages 1)


  Abuse of Power

  A Novella

  __________________

  Brian W. Foster

  Table of Contents

  1.

  2.

  3.

  4.

  5.

  6.

  7.

  8.

  9.

  10.

  11.

  12.

  13.

  14.

  15.

  16.

  Thanks for Reading!

  Sneak Preview of Rise of the Mages

  About the Author

  Edition Notes and Acknowledgments

  Note: For those readers who budget their reading time by the percent complete, the end matter for this novella, including the sneak preview, takes up about 25%.

  DEDICATION

  For my wife, Amanda,

  without whom there would be no novella

  because I would have never stopped talking

  about writing and started actually writing.

  Copyright © 2015 by Brian W. Foster

  All rights reserved, included the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  1.

  Auggie crept through a moonlit forest.

  Leaves covered the ground, but he found a gap for his foot. Crunch!

  Blast it! He glanced back and mouthed “sorry” to Benj, who narrowed his eyes. They had to be careful. If the men they were tracking discovered them …

  No. Best not to even think about it.

  His next footfall found a patch of moss. Better.

  Life on the edge. Which was better—the threat of being killed or the reality of being stuck in the castle listening to advisors drone on endlessly about taxes and roads and, ugh, sewage? He’d definitely chosen correctly.

  Not that he could put off the inevitable forever, but he’d give it a go.

  Still, it was stupid to track horse thieves himself. The nearest backup was miles away at the garrison and didn’t know about his and Benj’s mission anyway. All it took was a stray arrow.

  Auggie grimaced. That last bit sounded way too much like his father. Argh. Next, he’d be admonishing himself to be responsible and admitting that twenty-six was too old to be gallivanting about the countryside and that he needed to find a nice woman and settle down. Or that he was too much like his grandfather Alton.

  That settled it. No way was Auggie going to abandon his pursuit of the rustlers if it meant giving in to his father’s voice.

  Benj tapped him on the shoulder and gestured at the dense woods. “We’ve been out here for a good hour. How are you going to find the clearing in the middle of this anyway?”

  Auggie kept his voice low. “You didn’t recognize the description the scouts gave us? The huge oak in the middle? A couple hundred yards from a cliff?”

  Benj started to shake his head but stopped midmotion. “Wait. That bandit who robbed Lord Hebert’s country manor a year ago, the one who gave us the slip?”

  If only he paid as much attention to their missions as he did to seducing barmaids.

  “We’ll follow the stream right to it,” Auggie said. “Now, shut up.”

  They soon neared the edge of the clearing and ghosted closer until they found a camp right where expected. In the middle, a man sat on a log facing away from the glowing embers of a fire, and a sentry walked the perimeter of a ring of trees. Two dozen horses, some moving about and others sleeping, stood in a picket line on the other side of the fire. Snores emanated from eight bedrolls scattered about the site.

  Outnumbered five to one and facing tight security, Auggie would have to bring in reinforcements. First, though, he had to make sure the men in the camp were actually rustlers. He caught Benj’s eyes, pointed at himself, and made a circular motion. Benj nodded.

  Auggie kept his profile low and slid from shadow to shadow under a ring of trees. He’d dressed with the mission in mind, wearing dark hues and roughened buttons rather than the normal royal blue and shiny gold trim of his uniform. His blond hair hid under a black cap, and a layer of mud covered the white of his face. Straps fastened a sheathed broadsword to his thigh to keep it from moving.

  Halfway around the circle, he encountered a twenty-yard stretch of turf open to moonlight. He eased onto his stomach and wormed his way forward.

  As he concentrated on the movements of the sentry, his hand found a stick. He pressed without thinking. Crunch!

  Sound seemed to reverberate through the night. The sentry froze, and the seated man’s head popped up to scan the clearing.

  Auggie froze and imagined sinking into the ground. Be the grass. His offending hand inched toward the hilt of his sword.

  Fantastic. Benj was never going to let him hear the end of it. If they were left alive in the first place.

  Auggie’s eyes darted between the two guards, his body tense and ready to launch into action. Should he rise or hide?

  A prone position definitely wasn’t the best way to meet the enemy. But getting to his feet would draw their attention. Any element of surprise would be forfeited. He and Benj would probably get away, but the camp would be deserted by the time they got back with reinforcements.

  On the other hand, he’d likely be killed if they spotted him lying on the ground.

  The man by the fire half rose from his seat. “Did you hear that?”

  “Shh!” the sentry said.

  Everyone froze.

  Auggie barely dared breathe. The green of the grass, even washed out by the moonlight, shone brighter. Each tiny rustle of fabric echoed like a drum. Even the ground pressed more intensely against his skin.

  He felt alive.

  What to do? He wanted to fight, but what if they weren’t the bad guys? He couldn’t risk killing them just because he liked the rush.

  Most of a minute passed.

  “Probably just a branch falling in the woods,” the man by the fire said.

  The sentry glared at him. “Make a loop that way. I’ll go opposite.”

  Fantastic. They’d march right over Auggie’s position. If he didn’t want to kill both of them—or be killed himself—he had no choice but to hide. He crawled as fast as he could without drawing attention to himself.

  The man from the fire approached. His eyes drifted from spot to spot, not lingering long enough to pick out details, and his slumped shoulders signaled his boredom at the task.

  Auggie slipped into the cover of shadows and crawled behind a bush. The man passed without any sign of having seen him. A few minutes later, the two guards met on the other side of the clearing.

  “Guess it was nothing,” the man from the fire said.

  The sentry grunted and went about his rounds, also passing by Auggie’s position.

  Perhaps the best thing about tracking horse thieves was that, when he made a mistake, he only put his own life in jeopardy—well, Benj, too, but he could take care of himself. Not like running a duchy. One year, the duke had counted on much more grain being harvested than turned out to be the case. Hundreds went hungry over the winter.

  Auggie shook his head. He couldn’t imagine so many people suffering because of one simple miscalculation. How could anyone deal with that kind of responsibility?

  He crept toward the horses, keeping his pace steady and his manner unthreatening. An unfamiliar brand adorned the left hindquarter of the first one. Same with the next two. At the markings on the fourth horse, though, he nodded an
d ghosted back to Benj.

  They snuck away from the camp and didn’t stop until far enough away to speak.

  “A circle inscribed by a star,” Auggie said. “That’s the Greenfield’s brand. These are the guys.”

  “What’s the plan?” Benj said.

  “Head to the garrison for reinforcements.” Auggie grinned. “Then come back and round them up.”

  The two pushed their pace until reaching their horses in a shallow ravine where they were hidden. They mounted and hit the road.

  Wind rushing through Auggie’s hair felt great. Not as great as facing an enemy with a sword in his hand, of course, but definitely a close second. He’d have to rank a woman in his arms third.

  If only he could have all three, but Trina just had to make him choose between her and serving in the army.

  His hand tightened on the pommel. There had been no choice at all, really, but to break it off. He’d done the right thing.

  How many times had he told her how he felt? Why couldn’t she have just listened, accepted him for who he was instead of who she wanted him to be?

  Granted, she didn’t like being alone for months at a time, but they could have found some solution. She could have traveled to meet him. He could have visited the castle more often. But she would hear none of it.

  His hand jerked at the thought, startling his horse. Enough! What was, was. Nothing he could do about it so best to forget it. He focused on the rhythm of the horse until reaching the garrison.

  After a quick stop at a horse trough to wipe at the mud on their faces, he and Benj marched into a wood shack and requested an audience with the night commander. A page disappeared into the back and returned a moment later to escort them into an office.

  Auggie saluted a gray-haired colonel seated behind a small desk. “Major August Asher, sir.”

  “Lieutenant Benjamin Flynn, sir.”

  The grizzled colonel didn’t look up from his paperwork. He signed his name and flipped a page. “Report.”

  Grinning, Benj bugged out his eyes and puffed his cheeks. Auggie made subtle pats with his hands trying to get him to stop.

  “Well?” Colonel Witherst raised his head and frowned. With Benj’s face reverted to normal, he caught only Auggie’s movement. “Is that how you were taught to stand at attention?”

  Auggie squelched the urge to throttle his friend. “No sir.”

  “I’m still waiting for your report.”

  “We left Asherton a week ago to investigate accounts of a horse-thieving ring operating near Ruferburg. Scouts related the presence of unknown persons ten miles from this fort. We infiltrated the camp and confirmed at least one horse with a brand matching the stolen property, sir.”

  “Very well.” The older man returned his eyes to the paper on his desk. “Write the location and pertinent details, and I’ll see to it. Lieutenant Ebers will direct you to the visiting officer quarters. Dismissed.”

  Neither of the junior officers moved.

  “Sir, we’ve come all the way from Asherton.” Benj clearly enunciated the first part of the city’s name.

  Colonel Witherst looked at them with an annoyed expression. “Yes. The major relayed that information.”

  “Sir, we’d like to be included in the apprehension of these men, to be in on the fight, to duke it out with them so to speak,” Benj said. “You know, make them rue the day their mothers met their father.” The last word came out hard.

  Not wanting to be caught moving again while at attention, Auggie could only glare at his friend.

  “Major,” the colonel said, “how would you address a request by two officers, both of whom are visibly road worn and weary and unfamiliar with the troops at this fort, to join in a last minute stealth expedition?”

  Auggie barely resisted sighing. “Sir, I would deny the request and tell them to rest.”

  “Good answer. Once again, dismissed.” He returned his attention to his paperwork. As the two junior officers turned to leave, he called out, “Lieutenant.”

  They stopped and faced him.

  Colonel Witherst met Benj’s eyes. “I know well who your friend is. A little tomfoolery is to be expected in the young, but try not to act like a complete idiot.” He bent to sign another sheet of paper.

  Auggie stifled a laugh and rushed outside before letting his guffaws escape. His friend’s expression reminded Auggie of the time his father caught Benj trying to peek at the maid in her bath.

  “I swear,” Auggie said, “when I become duke, I’m making you my general. It’s the only fitting punishment.”

  Benj froze. “You wouldn’t.” He stared with wide eyes. “Seriously, Auggie. You’re joking, right? You wouldn’t be that cruel?”

  Auggie chuckled.

  “I need a drink.” Benj’s pale face shone in the moonlight that filtered past covering clouds. “We passed a tavern in that village a couple of miles up the road.”

  “I’ve been traveling for a week, have barely slept in that time, and am still awake despite it being almost midnight. Besides, note the smell and dampness in the air? It’ll be raining within the hour. I’m not going anywhere except to find a bed.”

  2.

  Alaina grabbed a plate from a rapidly dwindling pile of dirty dishes.

  She washed and dried it as slowly as she could without getting scolded, but all too soon, she finished the last tankard. Maybe no one would notice her just standing around for a while.

  Yeah. Right.

  The cook looked over and smiled. “You’re done? Good. Why don’t you sweep the common room?”

  Alaina tried not to grimace. It wasn’t the woman’s fault. Really. She seemed like a genuinely sweet woman.

  “Yes, ma’am,” Alaina said. “But there are still customers. Would it be better to wait? I could help you prepare tomorrow’s breakfast instead.”

  “Nah, I’m almost done, and it’s slow tonight. Get started, and we can all get off early.”

  Perfect. “Yes, ma’am.”

  What else could Alaina say? That she risked her life every time she stepped into public? That she couldn't even sweep—one of the duties she’d been hired to do—because she was afraid of who might see her? That the thought of walking into the common room made her so nervous she felt like she was going to throw up?

  Regardless of how nice the cook seemed, she'd put Alaina out on her ear for balking at such a simple request. Even if she could come up with an excuse that worked, it would get all the barmaids talking, and attention from wagging tongues was a worse threat than the possibility someone who could recognize her might be at the inn.

  Alaina trudged from the kitchen. Her heart thudded harder than Elrich hitting an anvil with his hammer.

  She stumbled. Best not to linger on thoughts of him.

  Only a few of the thirty tables held customers, and all those wore the plain, dirty garb of farm laborers. No catchers or soldiers at least. She relaxed a bit as she grabbed a broom. As long as no one else showed up, she should be safe.

  Still, she kept her head down as she went about her chore, starting with the area surrounding the fireplace. Was there anything worse than ashes? Even in the best of circumstances, they were almost impossible to fully clean, and the damp night air made the ashes clump and stick to everything.

  A quarter hour of hard scrubbing on her hands and knees left the area spotless. No one would be throwing her out into the cold without a meal for a job like that!

  “You know ...”

  Alaina nearly jumped out of her skin, spinning to find the red-headed serving wench. What was her name? Dona?

  “If you cleaned yourself a bit, looked up more, and smiled occasionally, maybe you could get promoted to serving tables. The tips are good. Better chance of finding a man, too.”

  Any man Alaina met would be after exactly one of two things—to bed her or to collect the reward for capturing her. Or probably, both.

  “I'm fine. Thanks, though.”

  “You’re too good to serve,
huh?” Dona said. “Think girls like me are trash, don’t ya?”

  In the two days Alaina had been at the inn, she'd worked hard at the most menial tasks in the place and certainly hadn’t put on airs of any kind. Why did other women always see her as a threat?

  Alaina wanted to scream that she couldn’t help that men found her looks appealing. She even dressed down as much as she could. Any attempt to refute Dona’s accusations, though, would just draw more unwanted attention. “No. I-I just … I’m fine.”

  “You little ...” Dona looked her up and down before suddenly smiling. “You're so thin! You must be freezing in here. Let me help you.”

  Before Alaina could respond, Dona stuck a poker in the fire and stirred up the coals. Ashes flew all over the floor.

  “How clumsy of me! Guess you'll have to clean it all over again. Oops.”

  Alaina glared at her. It’d serve the wench right if a log flew from the stack of firewood and hit her on the head.

  No! Alaina shouldn’t wish such a thing. Shouldn’t even think of the possibility. Too dangerous. She grabbed her rag and went back to scrubbing. When she finally finished, Dona approached again.

  Alaina placed her hands on her hips. “I'm perfectly comfortable. Thank you.”

  Dona started to respond, but the main door opened. Both the women's heads jerked toward the sound as a huge soldier—seven feet tall if he was an inch—with a filthy face and wearing tones of muted blue and gold ducked under the lintel. Did the mud-coated man ever bathe?

  A gigantic sword swung in a scabbard, and two knives handles stuck up from his belt. His sharp eyes scanned the room. And he looked angry.

  Nasty. Dangerous. A killer. Alaina recoiled. What if he recognized her? Should she run or avert her gaze and hope for the best? She stared at him, hoping for some indication of what she should do.

  The giant turned to another soldier walking in behind him. She couldn’t make out the words, but they were terse and unfriendly. The two moved to an empty table without much of a ruckus.

  “Oh ho,” Dona said. “Setting our sights high, are we?”

  What? Oh.

 
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