First Chapter Award Finalist/Fantasy: To the Past by Susan A. Royal

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To the Past by Susan A. Royal is a Finalist in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category of Works in Progress for the East Texas Writers Guild First Chapter Book Awards.

Award-Winning First Chapter

     The noise came from somewhere in the alleyway behind me. It echoed in the growing shadows that signaled the end of the day. Common sense argued it was nothing more than a stray dog or cat, prowling around outside the tavern kitchen in hopes of finding food scraps. Maybe a night bird stalking its prey. Or the clumsy steps of a tipsy farmer. That’s all.

Only…what if it was none of those things? The thought stopped me in my tracks and left me straining to listen while possibilities raced through my mind.

Susan A. Royal
Susan A. Royal

It sounded again, closer and more distinct this time. I recognized the sound of pebbles crunching beneath a heel. A fist of tension squeezed all the air from my lungs. My nerves grew taut with realization. Not an animal. Not someone stumbling around in the dark, trying to find their way home. Someone moved toward me with purpose.

Halfway through my first mug of ale back at the tavern, I had glanced up to see a familiar face. The stocky young man making his way through the door wasn’t just an acquaintance. We had a history. Not only was Deroc the son of my husband’s closest friend, he’d known me when I masqueraded as a boy on my first visit to the castle.

While the other patrons might notice nothing more than an ordinary young man with a few coins to spend on ale, he’d see past my disguise and recognize me as Lady Erin, the wife of Sir Griffin, knight and seneschal to Lord John. In this world, ladies did not frequent taverns. Not alone and certainly not at night.

Once Deroc saw me, there was no doubt in my mind what would happen. He would insist on escorting me back to our quarters. I could refuse, but if I did, he’d go straight to Griffin and spill his guts about where he’d seen me.

Either way, I’d be in trouble. His appearance left me with no other choice but to slip out a side door and hurry back to the castle, praying he’d been too busy ogling the barmaids to pay any attention to my hasty exit.

He must have recognized me and followed. Damn the luck. Only why lurk in the shadows?

I whirled, staring back into the shadows. “Deroc?”

Silence answered.

“If you’re trying to teach me a lesson by scaring me half to death, you might as well give it up. I know it’s you, so quit playing games.”

“This is no game, my lady.” It wasn’t Deroc.

Panic set my feet in motion. My only thought was put some distance between me and whoever had spoken. The narrow passage between the tavern and the buildings on the other side was filled with jutting angles instead of a straight line.

I stumbled over uneven ground, praying I wouldn’t fall. It was like trying to maneuver my way through a maze in the dark.

After bursting out of the alleyway, I turned left and threw myself against the rough stone wall at the back of the tavern. Every muscle in my body trembled with exhaustion. My lungs were on fire and my heart was racing. I flattened a hand against my chest as if to keep it from escaping.

Less than a hundred yards away, the castle’s dark shape crouched at the top of the hill. Flames from the torches along the wall flickered, beckoning like the signal from a lighthouse. All I had to do was run uphill and through the gates to be safe.

The thought left me giddy with relief. Only one problem. There was no foliage on either side of the path leading up to the gate. Once I left the shelter of the buildings, I’d be running in plain sight of whoever was after me.

My fingers tightened around the handle of my sword for some sense of comfort, but it offered me nothing.

I didn’t even know how to use the damn thing. I pulled it from its oiled leather scabbard, held it in the air and tried to remember the daily sword practices Griffin had expected me to take part in during my brief stint as his squire. What was he always saying about defense?

I pictured him in the practice field, feet apart and sword drawn, standing tall and broad-shouldered, feet apart, it came to me.

“Hold the blade at a downward angle and try to catch your opponent off-guard. If someone comes at ye with his sword drawn, swing your blade down to your left side at a forty-five degree angle and parry the attack away from your lower body,” he’d said. “Always make sure the blade is pointing down towards the ground.”

I could try to catch my pursuer by surprise and land the first blow before I tried to get away. It was worth a try. With a little luck, it might work. I took a deep breath, shifted to the balls of my feet and made ready.

A lean, wiry man, his sword drawn, burst around the corner. Covered from head to foot in dark, nondescript clothing, he wore a dark cap pulled low over his face. I couldn’t tell much about him except for his pale, colorless eyes. They gave me the chills.

And then I remembered seeing him sitting alone in a shadowy corner of the tavern. At the time, I’d been too busy checking out the place to do more than glance.

It had never occurred to me he’d end up being a wild-eyed, sword-wielding stalker. Likely he never expected see me standing in the alley, poised and ready to fight back, either.

Unfortunately for me, though, his reflexes were far better than mine. The minute he saw me, he advanced, swinging his sword like a maniac.

Somehow, I managed to parry his blow, and our blades crashed together so hard it rattled my teeth. His stiff, awkward movements told me he wasn’t much of a swordsman, but being slightly taller and definitely stronger than me gave him a distinct advantage.

A real fight is nothing like what you see in the movies. No slow motion, choreographed scenes. Everything happens all at once and really fast.

No more than a few minutes passed before I found myself gasping for breath, the muscles in my sword arm aching so bad it felt like it was going to fall off. That’s when I dropped my arm, and he saw his opportunity.

My mind kept insisting what was happening was all some terrible nightmare. And I needed to wake up. Only when he slammed me against the rough stones of the tavern, the sharp pain shooting up my spine assured me it was real.

He wrapped his hands around my throat and slowly cut off my air. He stood so close the stench of the ale he’d been drinking made me gag. The sword slipped from my grasp and clattered to the ground. Swirling black spots gathered in my peripheral vision and thudding heartbeats roared in my ears.

In desperation I clawed at his eyes, but he grunted and dodged my fingers. My last bit of strength was gone. I felt myself slipping away, and in those final moments my thoughts went straight to Griffin.

Tears stung my eyes when I thought of Griffin and realized our life together was going to end before it had hardly begun. This couldn’t be happening. I was left with no other choice than to stop struggling and accept my fate.

Only it didn’t after all. The choking pressure from his fingers encircling my throat and the crushing pressure of his body against mine disappeared. I slid to the ground like a rag doll that had lost most of its stuffing.

A few minutes later some part of me realized the groans filling the air weren’t mine. I opened my eyes. My attacker was lying next to me, and someone else stood nearby.

After staring for several minutes, I recognized who it was and managed to speak. “Deroc, it’s you! Thank God.”

“Lady Erin? God’s nightshirt! Are ye injured?” He flung a hurried glance in my direction before returning his full attention to my attacker as though daring him to make a move.

Deroc’s chin was jutted and he flexed his fists as though considering whether or not he should hit the someone already lying on the ground. The stocky, young man glared at him several moments before finally stepping over him and leaning down to help me to my feet.

I swallowed, and my throat felt gritty like sandpaper. “It hurts to swallow, but I’m okay.”

He dragged me away from the shadow of the building and into the moonlight where he checked me from head to foot as if he didn’t believe my words. His eyes widened and his breath hissed when he reached out, brushing hesitant fingers across my neck.

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