Todd Fahnestock is a writer of fantasy for all ages and winner of the New York Public Library’s Books for the Teen Age Award. “Tower of the Four,” “Threadweavers” and “The Whisper Prince Trilogy” are three of his bestselling epic fantasy series. He was a finalist in the Colorado Authors League Writing Awards for the past two years, for “Charlie Fiction” and “The Undying Man.”
His passions are fantasy and his quirky, fun-loving family. When he’s not writing, he teaches Taekwondo, swaps middle grade humor with his son, plays Ticket to Ride with his wife, scribes modern slang from his daughter and goes on morning runs with Galahad the Weimaraner. Visit him at www.toddfahnestock.com.
The following is an excerpt from “The Undying Man.”
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
2020 Colorado Authors League finalist for Fantasy/Science Fiction.
Ree was going to betray the man who’d saved the empire. She could feel him on her tongue as he approached, a light tingle, and she could taste him, the coppery tang of blood. Her pulse beat faster in her neck. Her stomach twisted like a knotted rope.
As a Ringblade, she had faced duty and death without flinching. She’d fought warriors to the bloody end with her weapons, her wits, and her training. With borrowed clothes, a smile, and a handful of lies, she had worn identities like hats, slipping among enemies who would have quickly knifed her if they’d but known the truth. She had made love to men, spending her body upon them, only to cut their throats an hour later while they lay dreaming. A Ringblade was trained for these things. A Ringblade moved events. It was her purpose.
But she feared the coming of the Whisper Prince.
She turned her face toward the door where Grei would emerge. The royal infirmary housed two dozen beds. Azure curtains hung on wooden poles between the patients to give a modicum of privacy. Moans and soft crying of the victims of the Phantom War filled the room as healers moved from patient to patient. A pungent concoction of medicines rode the air, not quite covering the smell of blood and injury. It smelled of spiced chicken soup, vinegar, and open wounds.
It had been an hour since the Ringmother had visited and made her promise.
“You betrayed us,” Selicia had said. “But you can return to the Sanctum. You can stand alongside your Ringsisters once more, if you can prove yourself.”
“What must I do?” Ree had said.
“The Whisper Prince must be brought under control…”
Ree hadn’t been able to sleep since.
Throughout her youth, she had been invulnerable. Out of all the other young girls in Moondow, she’d been chosen to receive Ringblade training. Out of the fourteen girls inducted to Sanctum that year, she was one of only two who’d survived the training. After, she had risen to prominence among her Ringsisters. Ree had been a model for all Ringblades.
Then she had fallen from grace. She’d betrayed her order to save her birth sister, Salandra. She’d braced the Slink Lord Kuruk in his own domain.
That was the moment Ree lost her implacable sense of invulnerability. Her fighting prowess had been laughable against Kuruk. Her mental strength had crumbled like a castle built on sand. He had chewed her arm off, chewed into her mind, and driven her near to madness. He’d driven her like a stubborn beast, beat down her will. When Grei had finally set her free, there had been almost nothing left. Now, the only pain that remained was her severed arm, and it was a blessed relief by comparison to Kuruk’s mental flames.
One of the twin doors opened at the end of the long room, and Grei entered. When she saw him, the tingling and the taste of copper on her tongue vanished. A lifetime ago, in that fate-filled Lateral House in the wet city of Fairmist, she had kissed and cut the Whisper Prince. After, she had licked the blade as she had been taught, cutting her own tongue as she invoked the blood bond. Her blood had mingled with the blood of the Whisper Prince, and now she could track him wherever he went when she thought of him, concentrated on him. She would always know when he was near. Even in the grips of Kuruk’s torture, she had felt him coming. His approach was the tingling, coppery taste of hope.
He had been her mission in her first lifetime, before her soul had aged a thousand years, before she’d known what loss and sacrifice truly was. Now, he was her mission again. That was all it was. That was how she had to look at it.
The Whisper Prince must be brought under control. Selicia’s final words floated in her mind. And he will not listen to me. You must become his confidante. You must use every talent available to you.…
Grei stopped at the foot of her bed. He looked like nobility. He wore baggy gray pantaloons, a green doublet of Thiaran make, and his right hand was covered with a green glove. She’d gotten a glimpse of that hand at the Temple of the Faia, when she was half-mad and desperate to give him the secret knowledge to defeat the slinks. It had been horribly burned, shrunken into a skeletal claw. Both of them had sustained grievous injuries to their right arms. Grei, at least, could still use his.
“How are you feeling?” he asked.
“Free,” she croaked. She cleared her craggy throat and managed to speak in a more normal tone. “Kuruk is out of my head.”
He sat down on the edge of the bed. His nearness was like a cool, comforting cloth. He’d saved her. He’d saved them all.
Grei held an oak branch, absently gripping, turning it, gripping it again. It was about two feet long and pocked with smooth nubs where smaller branches had been, almost as though they had been filed off. As she watched, he whispered softly and brushed his hands over the rough bark. It crumbled away like dried leaves, revealing the smooth bronze wood underneath. For a moment, she couldn’t speak. What he could do was miraculous. She wondered if she’d ever get used to that.
He’d just been a brave boy when she’d kissed him in Fairmist. Now he was something different. He had faced down living nightmares and sent them running. He had walked the Dead Woods and emerged alive, communicated with goddesses, overcome Highblades, and outmaneuvered Ringblades. He’d captured the loyalty of the imperial champion, two princesses…
…and at least one crippled, emaciated former Ringblade.
She wanted to help him. It was a pressure in her chest, a debt that needed paying. She wanted to defend this boy who had saved her life and her sanity. But instead, she was going to manipulate him.
She was a Ringblade, and she had a mission.
“You’re a hero, Grei,” Ree said.
“Ah,” he said. “Like the emperor?” The mild words were gilded with rebellion. It was the official story about the Phantom War: Emperor Qweryn had died to unmask the slinks, opening the way for the Whisper Prince to banish them. The empress wanted the people to see that. So did the Ringmother.
Ree forced herself to focus. She must lead him gently. Grei was smart; he would catch her if she wasn’t careful.
A sweet lie, then. They were more easily swallowed. She had done this a hundred times, but an unbidden thought broke her concentration.
He would hate her for this. If he caught her lying, she would become the enemy. The slinks had enslaved the empire for seven years with a lie, stealing sacrifices under the cloak of a terrible deception. Grei had shattered their hold, sent their leader running. He’d also fought his way out from under the lies that kept Thiarans compliant with the slinks, lies crafted by the emperor and the Ringmother. Grei despised them for that.
Ree swallowed, trying to calm herself. It didn’t matter what Grei thought of her. She was a Ringblade. She had a task to perform.
Grei ran his hand over the wood a second time, whispering, and the thick branch bulged at one end and sloped to a slender width at the other.
“You are the Whisper Prince,” she said. “A hero to all Thiara. You saved us.” She said it with conviction because that part, at least, was from her heart.
“It’s on the lips of every citizen,” he replied evenly. “So it must be true.”
“The emperor played his part, as did—”
“The emperor bought peace with lies, with bloody sacrifices, then he created abominations to fix his mistake. Now the empress wants to start all over again.”
He didn’t look up at her, but instead concentrated on the branch. Which, frankly, she didn’t understand. Was shaping the wood a type of meditation? At the slender end, he coaxed the branch into a round knob. It looked like the beginnings of a fence post.
“The empress is a liar,” she agreed, calculating. Ree knew how to change a person’s mind. All Ringblades had studied influence and seduction. Agreeing with Grei to start would pull his angry emotions to the surface. There, she could acknowledge them, touch them, mold them. “The people are stunned, scared. They needed strength. She gave them a lie. What they really need is you to tell them everything is okay again.”
“And if everything is not okay?” he said.
She gave a breezy smile. “Well, first things first.”
Grei kept shaping the wood.
“She is their leader.” Ree shrugged. “She wants to show them strength. They need to see strength. Should she weep and tell them how close we are to ruin?”
“She wants power,” he said. “She doesn’t care about the people.”
“Powermongers always want power.” She agreed again, looking for some way to soften the ground around his distrust. “But the empire bleeds from its wounds. If someone doesn’t stand up, give the people strength, they will panic. That’s what people do.”
“I should probably join forces with Via,” he said softly. “Do you think that might mitigate the lies?” He stopped, stared at the branch, and remained quiet.
That was exactly the answer she wanted, the answer she’d been told to secure. But it was too quick, too calmly given. Grei was baiting her, so she cocked her head, thoughtful, and said nothing. It was best to wait, best to draw out his anger.
“When I first met you in Fairmist,” he said, “I wanted to stop the lies. I wanted to stop the sacrifices. What good is it to win the Phantom War if we start all over again? One lie, two, three… How soon before we justify a ‘necessary evil’? And after that, what? A ‘necessary sacrifice’?” He shook his head, began working at the branch again.
Logic wasn’t working. It was time to bring fear into the mix.
“Have we really won the Phantom War?” she asked as though it was a philosophical question. “Yes, we learned the truth. We drove Kuruk away. But I saw the heart of his deception, and I still have nightmares about it. About his imaginary slinks,” Ree said. “Everyone else, they didn’t see what I saw. They were only told the slinks weren’t real. That’s almost impossible to believe without proof. Whispers run throughout the city: ‘Is the empress lying about the slinks? Do they still roam free in the shadows?’ Panic, like I said. Panic will bring ruin as surely as war. Standing next to someone you dislike for five minutes…” She paused for effect. “Maybe that’s a small price for security.”
He smoothed the knob as flat as a fan, then drew four lines from the center to the edges. The lines became crevices, then splits in the wood, creating five smooth sticks poking out from the center. It was as though the branch was made of clay to him. “Truth cannot be built atop lies,” Grei said.
“And what about trust?” she asked softly. “Taking counsel from those you trust.”
“Those I trust…” he murmured, not looking up. “Like you, I presume?”
His acerbic tone was a lash across her face, hot and stinging.
She’d been inside his head, and he’d been inside hers. He’d seen her naked soul: She believed in him. She had sacrificed everything to come to him and give him the secret he needed to defeat Kuruk. He had trusted her then. She’d felt it, seen it.
Now she tried to push the pain away and made her face appear as it should. But he wasn’t looking. He didn’t see the smile she had crafted for him.
“Selicia told me you were awake,” he said.
Her smile faltered.
“I presume those are her words coming from your mouth.”
Ree swallowed, a cold feeling settling into the bottom of her stomach. She wasn’t manipulating Grei. The Ringmother had manipulated her. From the moment Ree had begun speaking, Grei had known her real purpose. He’d seen through her poor performance because he’d been warned. With every word, she’d shown him she was the last person he should trust. She’d shown him she was bought and paid for.
She lowered her gaze. Selicia didn’t want Ree to convince Grei to join forces with the empress. Selicia had wanted to isolate him, to show him that he had no friends here.
Ree was a fool. There was no place for her back at the Sanctum; not now or ever. The dream had been dangled in front of her to achieve a purpose, and Selicia had accomplished it. Grei looked at Ree and knew she was false. If he’d ever had faith in her, he didn’t now.
Ree’s first, desperate thought was to spin a new web of lies. She’d been trained to take a situation like this and create a new lie, a believable one
But if he saw through her second deception—and he would see through it—there would never be another appeal. She would brand herself as his enemy forever.
She trembled. Exposed and vulnerable, like that girl she’d been when the Ringblades first came for her, she did what she had been trained over and over not to do. She let go of the trappings of the Ringblade, and she told the truth.
“You…you saved my soul,” she said hoarsely. Her heart felt like it was breaking. “I would do anything for you.”
He paused in his work and looked up, into her eyes now, as though he could smell the truth like a wolf scenting game.
Her eyes burned with tears, but she held his gaze. She let him see her remorse.
She wasn’t a Ringblade anymore, and she never would be. She was a maimed, starved nobody with no home. “I…I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
He watched her without speaking, like he was considering making room in his heart for her. Then he turned his attention back to his work. He massaged the sticks on the branch, making each longer, thinner, and she suddenly saw the shape of a human hand emerge, fingers of wood. The entire branch was an arm from the elbow down. It took her breath away. That was the same shape and length as the arm she’d lost.
“W-What are you doing?” she said.
“Give me your…stump,” he said.
She hesitated, then slowly held it up. It was short and awkward. White bandages wrapped it, and he gently unwound them. The burned wound was scabbed and red. Flakes of black flesh still clung to it.
“I’m so sorry about this,” he said softly, looking at the damage as though he could see every raw nerve. His compassion pushed at her like a hand on her chest, and she dared to hope. If he could see the deception in her heart, could he not also see her devotion?
She watched as he lifted the wooden forearm to her elbow and lined them up. The wood felt hard on her wound, then he whispered, and a cooling sensation spread over her flesh.
He ignored her, kept whispering, closed his eyes. A numbness spread through her severed arm to her shoulder.
She suddenly gasped as her flesh separated at the end of the stump like the tentacles of an octopus, then grasped the wooden forearm. The sight made her dizzy, and she bit her lip to keep from crying out, but there was no pain. The tentacles of her flesh grew, creeping like water down the wood until it covered the fingers.
He let out a pent-up breath. It felt as though a hundred needles suddenly stuck into her flesh and bone, as if he had been holding her pain back and couldn’t anymore. She hissed, clenching her teeth as she clenched her fist.
She stopped, stunned, and the pain became an echo in the back of her mind. The fist on her new hand had clenched. She raised it up and unclenched it. She could control it. By the Faia, she could feel it.
“Baezin’s Blood…” she breathed.
Grei recovered himself, but the wrinkles around his eyes were tight.
“I don’t want to help the empress,” he said. “Or Selicia. I don’t want to fight their war of lies. I want to heal the wounds they’ve made.”
He left the infirmary and closed the doors behind him. Ree curled over her new arm and cried.