Excerpt: With Pride

Kristof took the mug of ale that Ödön held out to him, grateful to have something to ward against the chill as they trudged through the unrelenting snow. It had become so heavy and treacherous they’d been forced to dismount and lead the horses. “Even with all this damned cold I can smell goblins.”

“Scouts said there was a pack of them killed around here about a week or so ago. Even the Goddesses couldn’t get rid of that stench.” Ödön grimaced and gulped at his own ale. “Thankfully we’re not far from Guldbrandsen now, unless we have wandered very far off course. Never thought I’d see it.” He smiled faintly, his grizzled, scarred face briefly showing a hint of the handsome youth he’d once been. “Wonder if it’s as impressive as everyone says.”

“I doubt it,” Kristof replied. “Is anything ever as impressive as it sounds?” He made a face when Ödön cast him a reproving look. “I suppose if anything was capable of living up to rumors, it would be Guldbrandsen.” Castle Guldbrandsen, seat of the royal family and the notorious Legion. Technically Kristof was part of the Legion, being a Paladin, but he’d always lived and served at home. His duty was to his mother, Lady Sina, High Priestess of the Temple of the Sacred Heart, ruler of the Reach of the North.

His brother Domonkos was meant to have become Duke of Stehlmore; Kristof should have remained at home, protecting the family lands, marrying and siring children to help continue the line. He should not complain; he was far from the first to have life plans altered by greater duties. It had been quite the blow for Domonkos, to hear that the title he’d been preparing for his entire life would no longer be his because he must replace their sister Éva as Steward to their mother, while Éva would likely be bedridden the rest of her life, and even if she were not she would still never be strong enough to reclaim her duties. So he had no right to be angry. That did not make the anger go away.

It did not help that he knew nothing of the Princes of the Blood save rumors that found their way to the Reach. He’d never had cause to meet one as the Temple of the Sacred Heart managed quite well without them most of the time, and the few occasions they had been called there he had been elsewhere attending other matters.

From all he had heard, they were arrogant, deviant, and far too aware of their own importance. And he was expected to marry and devote the rest of his life to one of them. The truly grating part was the way everyone, even his mother, acted as though he should be happy to throw away the life he’d already planned, just toss it away like it did not matter. Did anyone care about the way they had callously demanded he throw away his own desires and ambitions for a life he’d never been trained to live and did not want?

No, of course not, and so he trudged through the snow toward his unhappy fate. The worst part was that he did not know even know his fiancé’s name. He knew only that he would be marrying a Prince of the Blood, and that the marriage would happen within days of his arrival, with celebrations to come when the weather warmed. It would have been nice to at least meet his fiancé and come to know the man before he was dragged to the Temple.

The stench of goblin grew stronger, ruining the taste of the ale, which should be a crime. It was exceedingly good stuff, from one of the several barrels that had been a wedding present from Domonkos. He gulped the rest of his ale down quickly and handed the mug back. “Let us hope the stench remains our only problem. I’ve no desire to encounter goblins.” He fought a shudder at the thought, the memory of teeth and claws, the vile smell, and the burning, wretched rash and blisters they caused, called goblin rot.

A goblin was not the worst thing to have ever bitten him, but that did not make the experience more bearable. “Thank you for the ale. A warm fire and a barrel of that, I might almost achieve a good mood again.”

“Cheer up, lad,” Ödön said, clapping him on the back. “You’re a good sight wealthier and more powerful than you were a few months ago and set to marry one of the most notorious men in the kingdom. You’ll live in Guldbrandsen as royalty yourself and be part of the heart of the Legion. Only you could be sour-faced about all that.”

“I am grateful for the opportunities granted me by king and the Sacred Heart,” Kristof replied.

“You’d rather fuck a goblin.”

Kristof snorted. “I’m not that desperate for a way out of this marriage. I’d rather go celibate than see or smell another goblin.” Ödön cast him a look. “Oh, shut it,” Kristof said and shoved him away. “I’d like to see you choose ‘fuck a goblin’ over literally anything else in the world.”

“I wouldn’t have to fuck one because if somebody ordered me to marry a Prince of—”

“Goblins!” Someone behind them shrieked before the sound was cut off with a sharp gasp and a wet, crunching sound.

Kristof let go of his horse’s reins and whipped around, drawing his sword and pulling his shield from his back. He raised it just in time to block the long, glinting claws that came slashing down at him. The stench of rot and offal filled the air, mingling with screams.

The goblin came at him again, claws gleaming like metal, melting snow making its purple-gray skin gleam. It snarled and spit, bared yellow-black teeth, its fetid breath making Kristof nauseous and dizzy. Kristof blocked its rapid-fire strikes, stumbling back in the knee-deep snow, struggling to stay up and fervently hoping there wasn’t something behind him because he could barely keep up with what was in front.

His teeth practically rattled when the goblin came at him again, anger adding new force to its blows. The screech of its claws raking down his shield made him shudder, but the move cost the goblin recovery time and that was all the chance Kristof needed. He lunged, slamming his shield into it and kicking it into the snow, then drove his sword into its soft, unprotected gut.

The smell that immediately followed made him want to throw up. Kristof yanked his sword out and stumbled away before he did so, turning around and plunging into the chaos to drive off the rest of the goblins. Unfortunately, there were just too many, and the nasty little monsters were impervious to magic. “Fall back!” Kristof bellowed. “Did someone blow the horn?”

“I did,” a young-looking soldier said as he frantically wiped away the viscous, oily, purple-red goblin blood covering most of his face. It was already turning red and blistering. The poor man would be weeks recovering from goblin rot.

They gathered with the remaining men in a tight circle, protecting the civilians who huddled in the middle of it. “Form a chain!” Kristof bellowed and raised his own sword. As one he and the other Paladins began to chant, magic glowing blue-gold, glowing brighter and brighter until it flared bright enough to be painful then leveled out and held.

The goblins would eat through it like acid on metal, but it would buy them precious minutes. Behind Kristof, the young man raised the distress horn to his lips and blew it again. The notes of it had not even faded when they heard an answering cry, a voice that carried so loud and clear the speaker might have been right beside them. Kristof looked around and saw them cresting the hill, two figures on roan horses wearing dark red tunics emblazoned with a thorn and rune crest: Princes of the Blood. Kristof’s stomach gave a lurch, dread settling in it like a sharp-edged stone.

They raced down the hill, leaving their horses at the bottom and running across the snow so fast it was hard to follow them. They acted as though the snow was no more bothersome than grass, moving with such speed Kristof could barely track them. The goblins dropped like practice dummies, making wet, squelching sounds, the putrid smell of them filling the clearing and making the men all around him throw up. Kristof breathed carefully, tried to focus on other things, but Goddesses he would give anything never to breathe that smell again.

When the fighting finally ceased, Kristof broke what remained of the protective chain and waited as the Princes approached. One was tall and broad, though still smaller than Kristof in stature. He had dark, red-brown skin and red hair worn long and scattered with a handful of tiny braids. His eyes were the yellow common to all the Princes, and his nose looked as though it had been broken more than a few times.

The other man was … tiny. He looked like a piskie, small and slight and pretty with pale, white-blond hair like sugar floss around his head and skin damn near the color of the snow around them. Only the eyes fractured the piskie image, gleaming a feral yellow as they looked Kristof slowly up and down. The man knelt in the snow to scrub his sword clean, then rose smoothly and walked toward Kristof as he sheathed it. “Hail, your grace. How are you and your men?”

Kristof looked around the field where at least fifteen of his men had been slaughtered, a few ripped apart, the limbs and heads thrown callously aside. Damn goblins to the very depths of Hell. “How do you think, Highness?”

The other Prince spoke, shooting the piskie Prince a quelling look. “I am sorry we did not arrive sooner, your grace.”

Piskie moved in closer, looking Kristof over again. He barely came up to Kristof’s chest, and he would be shorter still out of his boots. Kristof’s armor probably weighed more than Piskie. It was like standing before a child playing at being his father—except no child had that kind of delicate, but hard-edged beauty, the dangerous eyes that looked out over bodies and blood with such cold indifference.

Piskie reached up and grasped the collar of Kristof’s tunic, tugging him down. Kristof tensed, braced for pain, and tried to ignore the damnable fear that ran through him, colder than the foulest blizzard. His body rippled with surprise when Piskie licked his cheek, and only then did he realize that he had been cut at some point in the fight. Lips fastened on his skin as Piskie sucked and licked all the blood away. Kristof tried to relax, but as anticipated it hurt, like needles and flame raking over his cheek, a deep ache that spread through his entire body. He had secretly hoped that being close the Princes of the Blood would not unsettle and pain him as much as being near demons did, but that hope had proven futile.

Despair and fear choked him; Kristof fought them back. He had been ordered to marry a Prince of the Blood, and nobody would set him free of the obligation because he was afraid. Because he was a pathetic coward who could not overcome the fear of a bad encounter or the pain that everyone else seemed to endure so effortlessly. A thousand times he had wanted to ask how everyone else managed it, but doing so would reveal his own pathetic weakness, and he could not risk that.

How was he supposed to endure being married to a demon, to being fed on by them, for the rest of his life?

Piskie abruptly released him and Kristof drew a ragged breath. “Waste not, your grace,” Piskie said, throwing a smirk over his shoulder as he turned and walked away, barking orders to the soldiers on the hill, calling for bodies to be gathered and the rest of Kristof’s party to be escorted to the castle. Kristof glared after him. If that was an example of the Princes of the Blood, he would be happy to give his title away to the first fool willing to take it.

“Do not mind him, your grace.”

Kristof turned away from Piskie to regard the other Prince. “Several of my men are dead and most of our supplies have been damaged beyond repair, and all he does is—” He broke off and lifted his still-ungloved hand to touch his cheek, still hot and sore where Piskie had licked it clean. His entire face was beginning to feel feverish. “People are dead and wounded. He could pretend to care.”

“I promise he is not as callous as he can seem at first, your grace. But he is not my concern—you and your people are. I can only offer our most sincere condolences for your loss. I hope that the rest of your stay proves more propitious. We are honored to have you, for it has been many years since we’ve been graced with the presence of a Duke of Stehlmore.”

“It is an honor to serve, Highness,” Kristof said. “If you will excuse me, I must see to my men.” He did not wait for the Prince to reply, simply turned and joined the cluster of his men standing guard as others tended the wounded.

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