Diamond Stained (Secret of the Jewels #1 ) - J.M.D. Reid

Chapter One

Nineteenth Day of Compassion, 755 EU

The black gloves creaked. The dyed-sable minx leather gleamed. Ōbhin examined them, searching for the crimson stains he always expected, even dreaded, to find on them.

Every morning, he oiled the gloves, keeping them flexible. He never found the blood.

He could still feel the hilt of the dagger in his hand. Feel the impact of blade against flesh. Niszeh’s Black Tones, will it ever leave me?

He shifted as he leaned against the stark-white bark of the oak tree rising above him. Its limbs were drenched with the vermilion he expected to find on his gloves. Broad, red leaves, veined with dark rivulets of scarlet, rustled in a soft breeze. The entire forest appeared stained by violence, the trees corpse-pale. The sight sent a shudder through the young man.

His dark eyes squinted, thickening the worry lines spreading from the corners across his olive-brown face. His skin marked him as foreign as the strange trees found in the heart of the Upfing Forest. His chainmail coat creaked, the smell of pig oil mixed with a hint of iron rust; the scent of a warrior.

“You lookin’ alive, there, Ōbhin?” asked Carstin. The Lothonian sidled up, a friendly grin on his lips. He had the air of an easy-going man with a smile that took nothing seriously. He puffed on the blackroot cigar, dried leaves and herbs wrapped in dark leaf. Coals flared to life at the tip. Smoke curled out of the corners of his mouth.

“Just waiting,” Ōbhin answered, his accent giving a lilting twist to his words. He came from across the sea, a mountain kingdom full of breathtaking vistas. And trees that were their proper color, he thought.

“They say Elohm and his devas fought against the Black here,” said Carstin. “Why all them trees look bleeding. Ripped out the Black’s heart and dropped it here. The Red Heart of the Forest, you see.”

Ōbhin shrugged.

“Talkative as always,” snorted Carstin, teeth gripping his cigar. He was young, like Ōbhin, barely past his twentieth summer. The cigar made him seem older, grizzled. “You’re lucky I can talk enough for the both of us.”

“Lucky indeed,” Ōbhin said.

“Yep, I got all the Patience the Fathers of Elohm harp on ‘bout. Why, my blood might run Yellow.”

“Does Lausi sing in you?” asked Ōbhin, his left hand falling to the pommel of his curved sword, called a tulwar across the sea. He brushed the emerald set in the pommel, felt the gold wires wrapped around the jewelchine. Though only containing twenty-two springs, an umbral weight seemed to press on his shoulders, his eyes shadowed.

Carstin chuckled. “Foreign gods got no power here. This is Elohm’s land.”

Ōbhin’s mood fell as he glanced through the trees to the distant clearing. There, three tents were pitched on the torn-up ground. Bits of ruins peeked out of the dirt, walls crumbling, weathered to mangled stumps. Looming over all was the largest ruby Ōbhin had ever seen. It was twisted like some giant had found it molten and torqued. It thrust ten cubits out of the earth, and who knew how much was hidden beneath the soil.

A shiver ran through him. He felt the Tones reverberating around here. The notes that echoed through Creation and were trapped in gems. What Carstin called “foreign gods” were the personification of those notes, the seven good and the one Black.

“Handsome Baill’s comin’ back,” said Stone, the hulking man leaning against another tree, his maul’s blunt head resting between his feet. Other members of their band shifted as the archer slinked through the scarlet-bright brush towards them.

Ōbhin squinted, twisting the scar that accented his right cheek, a puckered white on the brown-olive of his features. Sometimes, he wondered, how he’d ended up in such a motley band. How had his life led him to rob fat merchants and drunk priests?

Once, he’d protected kings.

He glanced down at the gloves. No stains.

“Look alive,” growled Ust. The broad-shouldered leader of the band of highwaymen ran his hand through his greasy, brown hair. He had pale skin like the rest of the Lothonians, a washed-out beige. His thick beard bristled with a feral eagerness. “Well?”

“Yes, yes, wot you see?” asked Hook. He was second in the band. He gesticulated with his namesake thrusting from a cap of leather strapped to the stump of his left arm. It gleamed as it caught an errant flash of spring sunlight. “How many are there?”

“That fat scholar brought a single strongarm,” said Handsome Baill, his upper lip split by a defect, giving