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       The Farmer's War (Golden Guard Trilogy Book 3), p.1

           Elise Kova
 
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The Farmer's War (Golden Guard Trilogy Book 3)


  Table of Contents

  Prologue

  Epilogue

  1. Craig

  2. Daniel

  3. Craig

  4. Daniel

  5. Craig

  6. Daniel

  7. Craig

  8. Daniel

  9. Craig

  10. Daniel

  11. Craig

  12. Daniel

  13. Craig

  14. Daniel

  15. Craig

  16. Daniel

  17. Craig

  18. Daniel

  19. Craig

  20. Daniel

  This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters and events in this book are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons living or dead is coincidental and not intended by the author.

  Published by Gatekeeper Press

  3971 Hoover Rd. Suite 77

  Columbus, OH 43123-2839

  www.GatekeeperPress.com

  Copyright © 2017 by Elise Kova

  All rights reserved. Neither this book, nor any parts within it may be sold or reproduced in any form without permission.

  Content Editing: Katie Ackley

  Line Editing: Rebecca Faith Heyman

  Cover Art: Merilliza Chan

  ISBN (hardcover): 9781619846425

  ISBN (paperback): 9781619846432

  eISBN: 9781619846449

  Printed in the United States of America

  Contents

  1. Craig

  2. Daniel

  3. Craig

  4. Daniel

  5. Craig

  6. Daniel

  7. Craig

  8. Daniel

  9. Craig

  10. Daniel

  11. Craig

  12. Daniel

  13. Craig

  14. Daniel

  15. Craig

  16. Daniel

  17. Craig

  18. Daniel

  19. Craig

  20. Daniel

  Epilogue

  Prologue

  Daniel Taffl was never going to lie about directions ever again.

  It wasn’t that he’d wanted to lie, or had even intended not to tell the truth. It had just sort of come out that way. At worst, he anticipated an extra day added to his mission through the forest. As it turned out, the punishment for slanting the truth would be far more severe.

  Stuck in a spiked pit in hostile territory with one of the most tiresome men he’d ever met, a giant angry cat prowling and growling from the only entry above, was a whole new level of wrong.

  Daniel looked over at unconscious man lying across from him, propped against a boulder. Lieutenant Craig Youngly had been hand-picked by Major Raylynn Westwind to be her personal apprentice, yet still he claimed not to care about rank and file. Someone who had more power than most men could dream of, albeit by virtue of proximity to those more powerful even than himself, and he had no interest in honoring the hierarchy that set him apart. In living up to his claim, he had proven himself a most annoying sort.

  Luckily, right now, the Lieutenant was passed out. Daniel found he preferred this version of the blonde-haired man, who in this state lacked the ability to tug on his very last nerve. Yes, the silent version of Lieutenant Craig was the best version.

  Daniel’s ire faded some as his eyes fell on Craig’s haphazardly bandaged leg. Blood had already soaked through the cotton and puddled on the stones around his appendage. Daniel was no cleric, and his clumsy attempt at getting the wound on the mend had put the other man through enough trauma to knock him out.

  It would have been a satisfying little victory in successfully shutting him up, were the situation not so grim.

  He tilted his head back, watching stones and dirt crumble free from the opening and into the pit as the giant cat continued to pace—slower than before. Eventually, it would tire of the prey that eluded it. But even when it did, they would still be left with no food, minimal shelter, and the increasingly likely failure of their mission on behalf of the prince’s Golden Guard.

  Daniel closed his eyes and gave a long sigh, releasing his tension and ignoring the desire to sit back in frustration. There wasn’t time for throwing up his hands and giving in. Even in the most dire situation, one could find opportunities with an open mind. If Daniel ever wanted to see his betrothed again, he needed to focus on getting out of this predicament alive.

  His mind betrayed him with that brief thought. Willow. What was she doing now? All the woman had asked of him was that he fight and return home alive. Now, he was risking his life for the possibility of a more secure future in the form of Imperial favor and gold—gold beyond his soldier’s pittance, and gold they didn’t technically need.

  Daniel wanted to make Willow proud. He wanted to keep safe. But he also wanted to do everything he could to succeed in a place where no one expected a farmer’s son to survive even a single day. He wanted to make something of himself.

  Daniel’s eyes opened anew, and his mind went to work.

  1. Craig

  Any of the soldiers who thought him lucky for his closeness with Raylynn Westwind had very little idea of what the woman was actually like.

  “You were so sloppy.”

  Sure, she had a song-like voice, lilting and deceptively easy on the ears. And fine—perhaps when she moved, it was with the intimidating grace of a dancer moving to the twin rhythms of death and seduction.

  “I realize,” Craig replied dryly.

  “I mean, look at you.” Raylynn drew a line through a splatter of blood that covered half his right arm. Her figure could make men weak in the knees even when she was fully clad in armor, a fact that was often reason enough to draw jealousy from other men… and women. “You’re a mess.”

  “I realize,” Craig repeated.

  “I taught you better than this, you know,” she said with a laugh that contrasted brightly against the haze of gore that hung heavy on the battlefield.

  “I realize.” It was automatic—Let her talk it out. She’d exhaust herself eventually.

  “But there really is no helping you, is there?” Raylynn stopped at the field’s edge. A shift in her demeanor signaled that Craig was no longer about to get the verbal lashing he’d been bracing himself for. “See that my tent is set up just there, and let the other lieutenants know we’ll be camping here for the night. Find Jax, and tell him we need to regroup, count our losses.”

  The moment Raylynn wandered off to the next recipient of her reprimand, Craig executed her orders to the letter. First, he located the soldiers in charge of Raylynn’s things. Then he found Jax among the other Firebearers—torching bodies and foliage alike.

  “Well, if it isn’t Raylynn’s favorite toy come to call.” The Western man didn’t spare Craig so much as a glance. “To what do I owe this high esteem from her golden holiness?”

  “If you know it’s me without looking, maybe that same magic will tell you why I’m here.” Craig crossed his arms, silently proud of himself for not being goaded into remarking on the man’s “favorite toy” comment… this time.

  “I assume she’s settling in and wants to know the state of the Black Legion.” Jax finally tore his eyes away from the pyre that had been working its way up a tall tree. Northern structures—glorious treetop cities—were reduced to ash and cinder by the blaze. Another city had been subsumed by the flames of war, and Craig had long since stopped feeling much at all over it.

  It was not mere coincidence that the fire seemed to dim when the dark-haired man turned his
way.

  Jax was abrasive, downright mental, hilariously unhinged, and as a fallen lord, he had nothing left to lose. Atop it all, he was one of the most powerful Firebearers Craig had ever laid eyes on. He didn’t need to be a sorcerer to know that tumbling with the major would be akin to fiery suicide. The only man who could claim to be Jax’s superior in magical skill would be the Fire Lord himself—the Crown Prince Aldrik.

  “Well, let’s go, little toy.” Jax patted Craig on the head like a child. “If there’s one thing you never do, it’s keep a lady waiting. Especially this particular lady.”

  Craig grit his teeth and followed behind. His hands smoothed his hair back into place, blond strands ruffled more from the battle, he assured himself, than from Jax’s interference.

  “Took you long enough,” Raylynn said dryly upon their entry to her tent.

  Knowing he wasn’t the one being addressed, Craig stepped to the side of the canvas-walled abode, closer to Raylynn than Jax. The two majors held equal commissions in the army, the golden bracers on their forearms elevating them to a league above the rest. The only reason Craig could even stand among them as anything resembling an equal was a direct result of Raylynn’s favor for him.

  “Bodies don’t burn themselves.” Jax shrugged then stilled. “Though, it’d be mighty convenient if they did… Could you imagine? A man gets cut down, his heart stops beating, and then boom! A self-cleaning battlefield. Just fires left and right—”

  Raylynn held up a hand, stopping the Firebearer’s pyromantic fantasies. “The Legion?”

  “The Black Legion holds strong. Only a handful of casualties.”

  Craig had to focus on keeping his mouth still so he didn’t mirror the Western man’s words right along with him. Seven battles, two cities and three outposts conquered since they left Soricium, and the report from the Black Legion was the same every time: a handful of casualties and overall strength. This was the might of sorcerers. A single member of the Black Legion could stand against three regular infantry. It was becoming expected—this report, the major’s words. Commonplace, even.

  The world was lucky that those with magic were genetically outnumbered at least five to one. If not, sorcerers could very well be running things, and everyone knew that would lead to ruin. All one had to do was look at the War of the Crystal Caverns for proof.

  “At least someone on the field was competent today.” Raylynn cast a sideways look at Craig.

  “Oh-ho, what’s this? Lover’s quarrel?” Jax hummed and hawed. The look on his face was bordering on lewd, and it took all Craig had not to roll his eyes in distaste.

  “Lovers? Mother, no. He’ll have to become far more competent in battle before I consider taking him to bed.” Raylynn laughed at the notion; while Craig hardly thought of her as a potential conquest, he felt defensiveness rise involuntarily.

  “The lady made no complaints after our last skirmish,” Craig reminded her, not without a silent flicker of pride. The fearlessness still surprised even himself.

  “He grows bold!” Jax clapped his hands with a wide grin. “Maybe there’s hope for him yet, Ray.”

  “He certainly wants us to think so.”

  “You still chasing after one of these?” Capturing Craig’s eye with a teasing smirk, Jax held up his arm. Strapped around it was the most beautiful thing Craig had ever laid his eyes on: a golden bracer. Craig schooled his features before answering.

  “I know they can only be offered by one man.”

  “That’s a yes, then.” Jax leaned against Raylynn’s table nonchalantly. “You know, I have an idea for you, Craig. If you do something for me, I’ll put in a good word for you with the prince.”

  Anything that seemed too good to be true usually was—especially when it came to Major Jax Wendyll. Craig remembered the last time Jax had offered him a “promotion”. It came with six weeks of overseeing latrines. “What’s the catch?”

  “No catch. Do something for me, and I’ll do something for you. Simple.”

  “What do you want me to do?” Craig was wary, but cautiously optimistic. A year and a half was enough time to earn someone’s trust. And it had been at least that long since Raylynn had taken him on as her sort-of page, student, apprentice, steward… whatever their relationship was.

  “Something simple.” Jax glanced at the table. “Like, delivering a letter to Baldair.”

  “You want me to deliver a letter?” Craig couldn’t help but feel the man was making up the whole idea second to second, and Jax did nothing to dissuade this notion. In fact, he seemed perfectly serious.

  “Yes, I want you to deliver a letter to the prince. Oh, and it’ll actually be of the utmost importance.” Jax rounded the table to where Raylynn stood, lifting one of her quills and commandeering some of her parchment.

  “I don’t think you’ve done anything of importance in your life, Jax,” she said under her breath.

  Jax responded with an overdramatic gasp. “You wound me, fair lady! And here I thought we were friends.”

  Raylynn snorted and continued laying out tokens on the map, cross-referencing reports and updates she’d gathered from the other lieutenants on their forces. “We’re not very much friends if you take away the best sword I have.”

  In the wake of genuine surprise, Craig’s chest swelled with pride. There might be hope for him yet apparently, even after his “sorry” performance on the field.

  “If he’s the best sword you have, you really are carrying things on the front line by yourself.” Jax folded the parchment he’d scribbled on before Craig had a chance to glance at its contents. He broke off a piece of sealing wax, placing it in the center of the paper and pressing his thumb into it. The wax melted by magic, leaving the indent of his finger as he pulled it away.

  “Showoff.” Raylynn yawned for emphasis of how impressed she wasn’t.

  “I am just the best, aren’t I?” Jax grinned wildly at Raylynn before handing the letter to Craig. “Get that to the prince in less than ten days, and you’ll have my vote of confidence to wear a bracer.”

  “You’re really doing this?” Raylynn sighed, finally pulling up her eyes from the documents. “We sort of need him here… you know… for the actual war.”

  “We’ll be fine. You can fight circles around him anyway, right?” Raylynn didn’t object to Jax’s assessment and Craig kept his mouth shut. It wasn’t even an affront to his pride; Raylynn could fight circles around anyone in the army who could hold a sword. With the exception of, perhaps, Prince Baldair. “You can always find a new pet, Ray.”

  Craig cringed. Raylynn sighed.

  “Don’t you have someone in mind?” Jax nudged the woman. “Exchange this one for a new, younger swordsman with actual talent? Perhaps even find one this time who’s gifted in bed?”

  In a way that only Jax could, he struck a chord with Craig’s personal… accomplishments. Even if he put his ego aside and looked at it objectively, Craig had never heard a word of complaint from any woman he’d entertained. If he hadn’t been worried of the potential fallout, and if she’d expressed even a passing interest, Craig would’ve shown Raylynn Westwind just how good he could be. Any man with eyes would do the same.

  “I doubt the one I have in mind would be any more gifted.”

  The realization hit Craig with sobering clarity. She has someone else in mind.

  “I hear he has a betrothed waiting for him back in the Capital. Sentiment distracts men and makes them too eager for heroics or too cowardly in the name of self-preservation.”

  A betrothed. Craig began to mentally list off soldiers he knew to be engaged, unconsciously comparing himself—his swordsmanship, of course—to each.

  “So a sword of a different nature has caught your eye,” Jax carried on as if Craig had vanished long ago.

  But Craig hadn’t disappeared. He was still very much engaged in the banter, and th
e twin task of narrowing the list of his potential replacements at Raylynn’s side. He’d been studying under the woman for nearly two years and they’d been through over thirty battles together. He wasn’t about to lose his place to some upstart.

  But he also wasn’t about to throw away Jax’s offer and lose his latest chance at a golden bracer.

  “… it’s not a standard issue blade,” Raylynn continued.

  All at once, he knew the identity of his would-be replacement. His fist tightened around the piece of parchment in his palm, mind formulating a quick and precise plan of attack. “Major Jax, I will deliver your letter.”

  Jax blinked, glancing in Craig’s direction. “Oh, you’re still here?” The Western man seemed genuinely surprised. “Or have you gone and returned already?”

  “I will be back before you even realize I’m gone.” Craig gave his strategy one last mental review before launching into it with confidence and persistence. “But seeing as I am to trek through dangerous territories, I think it best if I have a partner.”

  “Can’t handle it?” Jax raised his eyebrows, half mocking and half weighing Craig’s valor. “Not very Golden Guard-like of you. If we can’t trust you to deliver a letter, then—”

  “You can trust me. I’m assuring the letter’s delivery.” Craig tried to think quickly without backpedaling. “If I fall, I’ll have a second to carry the mission forward.” Jax didn’t look entirely convinced, but he also didn’t comment further, leaving Raylynn to chime in on the matter.

  “Who did you have in mind?” It was obvious she was already way ahead of him. She had been the whole time, the tiniest of teasing smiles playing across her lips.

  “Daniel Taffl.”

  Craig didn’t know much about the Easterner, but was sure of two facts above all: Daniel spoke regularly of the “love of his life” back in the Southern Capital, and he had a custom-forged rapier that could turn even Raylynn’s head.

  Raylynn was one for constant tests—mental war games to keep Craig on his toes—and this time, her growing smile suggested he’d passed this one with flying colors. It was a test Craig didn’t want to pass, because it meant he had competition. “Very well. Have this Daniel fellow brought here to join you on Jax’s twisted little quest.” She dismissed him with a wave of her hand, pretending as though she’d never heard the name before.

 
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