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Here's the first chapter of The Darkest Autumn, my upcoming fantasy novel:
Vetch loved the crisp mornings of Seventh Day. It was the beginning of a day of free time. This was his time to enjoy time away from the constant training he faced as he got older.
Being a younger son his career had been chosen: he was to train as a squire. That meant his days were filled with hour after hour of grueling physical drills and tedious instruction. It was a hard life, but since he had begun as a squire five years ago on his eleventh birthday, the bullying he had endured had gone away.
He looked forward to his eighteenth birthday when he would be eligible for knighthood. If he proved himself after that point, he would be knighted. But that was still nearly two years away.
Today he and the five other young squires of Sir Donal had passed through the Upper Valley Wall and into the higher reaches of the Lower Valley.
In their company had come three maids, the teenage daughters of noble families. Vetch admired them from afar, admiring their figures and the way they sat sidesaddle on their horses. Dunn, one of Vetch's best friends, had convinced the girls to join them. He had even gone so far as to dare the maids to come without a chaperone, which they had done.
They reached the blackberry brambles that grew alongside a portion of the Ambria River not far from the Great Stone Bridge. The squires dismounted and spread out to pick berries. The light armor they wore even during their free time would shield them from the thorns that protected the berries. Even better, the beginning of autumn meant that the scorching heat of summer didn't bake the young men in their gear.
Having filled his pouch with sweet, tart berries, Vetch moved slowly out of the brambles. He had to be careful, the sharp thorns were quite talented at finding hands or hair to catch on. He walked over to the baskets and dumped his pickings.
Vetch heard sweet, feminine laughter. From the brambles, the maids were looking his way and sharing a private joke. Amongst them was Lina, a lovely black-haired girl of the same age as Vetch. He thought her the most beautiful girl in the world. She caught his eye and smiled, and he shyly turned away.
"If you sit next to her, she isn't going to mind," Gilder said as he walked up with his own load of berries. "If you talk to her, she's even going to talk back."
Vetch glared at his one of his two best friends. "I'm not afraid of her," he said.
Gilder chuckled as he dumped his berries into the basket. "I'm not going to argue courage with you, but if you aren't afraid, why don't you talk to her?"
Vetch frowned as he tried to think of a retort. Before he could say anything, Gilder continued, "Listen, I'm not insulting you. I'm your friend. I'm encouraging you."
Vetch hung his head.
Before Vetch and Gilder could continue, they heard the sound of a horn. Both boys looked downslope towards the rest of the Lower Valley. There lay the town of Ravenna, and beyond that the final wall of the mountain domain of Ambria. As they gazed downwards, the horn sounded again. This time, the Ravenna town bell followed, ringing constantly.
"It's not on the hour. And there is no pattern in horn or bell..." Vetch said in a whisper.
"The town's under attack!" Gilder shouted.
From other brambles emerged the other squires, Dunn, Rok, Arrog, and Lench.
"To horse! We'll go help them," Dunn said.
Besides Rok, Dunn was the tallest of the squires. Naturally athletic, he was the one that Vetch worried most about taking Lina out from under him. On the other hand, Dunn was Vetch's other best friend. Just two years ago Vetch and Dunn had pledged to always stand by each other's side in battle.
"No. We must get back, protect these young ladies, and attend our master," Arrog ordered. He was the oldest and by custom, the others had to defer to him.
"I don't think so," Gilder said. He brushed past Arrog and vaulted onto his horse. "The town's in a panic. People need our help."
"I agree," Dunn said as he too vaulted onto his horse.
"Duty dictates that we return to our masters," Lench said as he grabbed the bridles of Gilder and Dunn's horses "Sir Donal will be expecting us".
Vetch wasn't surprised by Lench's behavior. These days he always followed Arrog's lead.
"Let go of my horse," Gilder said with a snarl. "People could be dying."
"We're going back to the Upper Valley," Arrog said as he put his hand on his sword hilt.
The air became tense with the threat of violence. To Vetch the world had turned surreal. For the first time in a hundred years, the town was under attack. Yet his friends were arguing, nearly to blows. Frozen in indecision, he looked at Lina. Her lovely brown eyes filled with emotion, she mouthed the words, "Do something."
Courage filled Vetch's heart. For once he was the one to speak up while his friends debated. "Stop fighting!" he projected with the commanding voice all of them had been taught. "Those who want to go up the mountain with Arrog can do so. We'll split up! Anyone who thinks going to town is the right thing to do, go!"
Lench released the bridles. Dunn and Gilder wheeled their mounts and began their descent toward the town. The other young men and women began to mount up.
"If you go to the town, you'll be reneging in your duty," Arrog shouted as he began the ride toward the Upper Valley. Reminded of his duty, Vetch thought of their liege and master, Sir Donal. What would he say if they abandoned duty and went to the defense of Ravenna instead?
The maids and the other squires, Rok and Lench followed Arrog. Lina turned back and caught Vetch's eye. She smiled at him before riding away.
Her smile made Vetch heart beat with pride. He had done the right thing, had kept friends from blows. Now it was time for yet more courage. Instead of following Arrog, Vetch went the other way towards Ravenna, following Dunn and Gilder.
Vetch knew Sir Donal would punish him later, but he also knew he was doing the right thing.