Archive | October 2015

Girl in the Red Hood – Chapter 4

Forgotten Daughter

Liesel felt nervous until she finished her chores and set off into the woods the next day. What if he didn’t come? The boy was certainly unusual, but there was a warmth about him that Liesel found herself craving. She really didn’t see how she could survive much longer without a friend.
Liesel had never known the meaning of loneliness before her mother died. She’d grown up with friends all over the city, and even after Amala had fallen ill, the girl always been able to find one of her grandparents to follow around the house or through the fields. And while Liesel wasn’t prone to idle chatter, she liked hearing other people speak. Living with the silent Warin was beginning to take its toll on her. She walked even faster as she sent up a prayer to the Maker that Kurt would indeed return.
To her delight, he was already standing where she’d left him, staring up at the small patch of sunlight and wearing a thoughtful look.
“You said yesterday that your grandparents’ home has lots of sunlight. There are other places around the world like that as well, are there not?”
“Yes,” she walked up as close to him as she dared and looked up at the beam, too. Without turning, he simply nodded.
“I knew it. Father was wrong. You know how I knew?” He finally turned his serious golden-brown eyes on her, and without waiting for a response, grabbed her wrist and began dragging her deeper into the forest. Liesel allowed him to lead her, although a wiser voice in her mind that sounded much like her mother’s wondered how far she should let this strange boy lead her into woods she barely knew. And yet, the heat of his hand was comforting in a way Liesel had never felt, and she didn’t want to hurt his feelings, so she let herself be led along until she heard water.
Without warning, they burst out of the trees and into a clearing that laid just at the edge of a waterfall. Liesel gasped as she looked up at the waterfall and saw a large patch of blue sky above it. Unimpeded, blinding sun spilled down into the water that lapped the sand not far from their feet. The roaring of the water was mesmerizing as it crashed down into a sparkling blue pond three times wider than Liesel’s cottage. The waterfall itself was about as tall as the church steeple back her in old city, and it was nearly as majestic in its bearing. Liesel found herself grinning ridiculously as she looked up in awe at the clear blue sky she’d missed so much.
“What is this place?” She had to nearly yell for him to hear her over the crashing of the water. He waved her over to a log on the other side of the clearing, a bit further from the noise.
“I found it when I was small. My mother had told me stories of places with lots of open sky, and I wanted to see for myself. My father says this is as big as it gets, but I never believed him.” He looked at her, his eyes suddenly burning with curiosity. “Tell me,” his voice was reverent. “Tell me about all of those other places!”
“Well,” Liesel thought for a moment. “I haven’t been to many of them myself, as I’ve only lived by the mountain, but I’ve read stories…” He nodded eagerly, so she continued. “In one kingdom, the rulers have greater powers than our king, or any other king, possesses. The man who is king now made a grievous mistake when he was a prince, and his entire kingdom was thrust into darkness. They would have all perished if it hadn’t been for a merchant’s daughter, who brought the magic back with the strength of her heart. Then there-”
“Wait, it was good magic?”
“Of course it was good magic. The next place they went-”
“But there is no good magic!”
Liesel huffed, finally tired of his interruptions.
“Are you a magician?”
“No,” he grimaced at her.
“Well then, how do you know that good magic doesn’t exist? Now, do you want to hear the stories or not?” Nodding, he got up from the log and flung himself down on the sand at her feet, closing his eyes and putting his hands behind his head. Mollified, Liesel continued.
“One of my favorites is the kingdom where the ocean meets the land, and the ocean folk are half human and half fish.” Kurt sat straight up, sand spilling out of his wild hair and down the back of his shirt. He was so focused he didn’t seem to notice, though.
“Tell me about that one!”
“I could tell you better if I had the book my grandmother gave me. It’s filled with drawings and stories from when she and my grandfather traveled the world. I could bring it tomorrow, and you could see for yourself. If you can’t read it, I can-”
“I can read,” he scoffed as he stood up and skipped a rock across the water. Liesel felt a bit guilty. She knew the story by heart, as she did every story in the book, but she hadn’t been sure he would want to see her again after this. By promising to bring the book, she knew she could buy herself at least one more day with him. With the hope of another meeting, she leaned back on the log and lifted her head towards the sky, allowing the heat of the sun’s rays to wash over her whole body. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been this gloriously happy. Time quietly passed as they sat in silence. Liesel tried to quell the questions that were raging inside of her, but finally she gave up and asked just one.
“If your father is so sure there aren’t places with open sky, why doesn’t he leave the forest to see for himself? It’s only a day and a half’s ride to the edge of the forest.” To freedom.
“My father doesn’t ever leave the forest. He has too much to do taking care of the family.”
“Oh. Do you have a large family?”
“You could say that,” He stared out at the waterfall. Liesel shook her head to herself in confusion. Never had she met anyone so determined to be mysterious. Not long after, it was time for her to leave. When they stood to go, Liesel hated staying goodbye to the waning sun that was now beginning to sink. More slowly than the first time, they made their way back to the edge of the forest. Liesel realized as she lifted her skirts that the run had put more tears in her dress than she would be able to mend in one night. It had been worth it, though, she smiled to herself. When they were near the path, he stopped.
“Don’t forget to bring your book tomorrow,” he said before turning to go.
“Wait!” Liesel had an idea and spoke before she had time to lose her nerve. He turned and looked at her with an open expression. “Would you like to come back with me…just for a few minutes? You could meet my father, and I could show you the book there.” But he was already shaking his head.
“My father wants me to stay out of the town.” The disappointment must have been evident in her face, however, because he added more kindly, “But I will be back tomorrow.” And with that, he was gone.

***

“I don’t think you could stand out any more if you tried,” Kurt shook his head as he handed the book back. It had met near disaster the first day Liesel had tried to carry it to the waterfall. She’d caught her dress on a bush and nearly dropped the book in a puddle. From then on, Kurt had taken to carrying it for her. Every day, they read another story, and every evening, he asked her if she was coming back the next day. Liesel had enjoyed it immensely, having someone else as interested in her beloved book as she was, but she was somewhat concerned about what she would do when they ran out of stories. It had been a week already, and there were only a few dozen left. The more she got to know the boy, however, the more she dared to hope that he would want to visit even after all the stories were gone.
“A girl walking through the forest alone in a red cloak, carrying a book is just asking for trouble,” he continued with a frown. Liesel smiled and stood up straighter.
“Not so much a girl. I turn fourteen today!” Kurt held his hands up and gave a mock bow.
“My apologies, my lady. Happy birthday. Now, may I have your permission to return home?” Laughing, Liesel curtsied back and turned back towards her own home. It had been the best week she’d had since her mother had been well. Kurt was indeed different from any boy she’d ever known back at home. He still had an untamed look in his eyes, and his walk could only be described as stealthy. The paths he led her down were imperceptible to her eyes, and he would often stop and listen for sounds she never heard. But for an inexplicable reason, she felt safe in his presence.
Liesel’s mother had warned her about boys when she’d turned twelve.
“They’re like wolves, Leese. They have little on their minds aside from eating and chasing girls. You’re turning into quite the pretty young woman. Don’t be giving them reasons to think you want them to chase after you. When you are old enough to marry, your father and I will find you a good one, but don’t be paying these hooligans any heed now while you’re young.” She had nodded at some of the boys Liesel had once played with, as she continued to hang up laundry on the line in their yard.
“What about Father?” Liesel had asked. “Wasn’t he a hooligan once?” Amala gave a loud laugh.
“Now where did you hear that?”
“Grandfather.” Amala had rolled her eyes.
“Fathers always think young men are hooligans…all of them. That’s why the Maker gave girls mothers, to help them find the true men among the boys.”
Liesel sighed. How she wished Amala could meet Kurt. She was sure her mother would have liked him. He was different from the boys she had grown up around. His wild ways were a bit alarming at first, but he was gentle. He was careful with his words. Liesel could see him weigh his thoughts before speaking. How she just wished she could hear more of what he really thought instead of having to guess at his silence so often.
As Liesel neared the cottage, she knew something was wrong. The door was ajar, and she could hear a strange wailing from the inside. Sucking in her breath, she steadied herself for what she was sure to find. It was the fifth time that week her father had come home in such a state.
Sure enough, as she pushed the door open, he let out another wail. She set the book in a cupboard where it would be safe before turning to face the mess on the floor. Warin lay stretched out on the ground, flailing his arms about as he groaned. Liesel could smell him from where she stood.
“Where ha’ you been?” he moaned at her when he finally realized she was walking towards him. “I been callin’ you all day to make it stop!” Feeling her face flush with anger, Liesel hated the way he slurred his words.
“I wouldn’t have to make it stop if you didn’t spend so much time at the tavern,” she muttered as she expertly grabbed him behind the arms and started dragging him towards his bed. His hair was covered in dirt, and one eye was black. Liesel could only guess he‘d said something foolish to one of the burly travelers who often frequented his favorite tavern.
“Don’t you sass me, daughter!” he yelled loudly and tried to point at her. Choking back a gag from his stench, she managed to haul him up onto his straw mattress before removing his boots and shoving his feet onto the bed with him.
“There are some people in this world who can handle a drink now and then,” Amala had told her once, shaking her head after Warin had spent too much time at a tavern back in the city. “And your father is not one of them.” Liesel had always thought her mother wise in every way, but she was tempted to wonder sometimes where that wisdom had gone when she’d accepted Warin’s marriage proposal at the tender age of seventeen. Her grandparents certainly hadn’t approved of the match, not even her grandmother. For all Amala’s talk of listening to a mother’s sense to choose a good man, it seemed she hadn’t followed that sound advice herself.
To be fair, Warin wasn’t a bad man. Even in his drunken stupor, he’d never once tried to hit his wife or daughter. He’d always seen to it that they were well provided for, even if that meant spending hours nearly freezing in the woods in the dead of winter just to bring meat home for supper. When she was little, he would even lift her up onto his shoulders as they walked through town so she could see everything from above. Long gone were those days, however, and long had it been since Liesel and Warin had shared any kind of special bond. Amala had been the love that tied them together. And now Amala was gone.
When Warin was finally quiet, passed out on his bed as if death had taken him, Liesel cut a few slices of bread and cheese and went to sit on her own mattress, tucking her knees under her chin. Her chest tightened, and the food suddenly felt dry in her mouth. No. Liesel tightened her jaw and then began chewing again. She wasn’t going to let the sadness take her. She wouldn’t let the tears have their way, because if she gave them permission to come now, they would never stop. So she tried to think about home.
If she had been at home, and her mother had stayed well, Amala would have served Liesel a blueberry tart for breakfast in bed, as she did every year on her daughter’s birthday. The day would have been spent looking at cloth in the tailor’s shop, and Liesel and Amala would have chosen some for Liesel’s new dress. They would have gone out to her grandparents’ home for supper, and her grandmother would have made her favorite sweet bread with honey and milk. Then her grandfather would have told her tales of when he was a young man traveling the world, and her parents would have presented her with a new pair of shoes and some little bauble they’d picked up from one of the traveling merchants who came to town from distant lands.
Instead of making her feel better, however, the memories only made Liesel feel worse. Tearless sobs shook her body as she lay on her mattress in the dark. There was no blueberry tart or sweet bread this year, no new dress or new shoes. Her mother was never going to push the hair back from her face and greet her in the morning with a smile. She would never see her mother’s face again. Instead, she was stuck in a forest without light. The people ostracized her, and her father seemed to need the drink more than he needed her. Her grandparents were miles away, and she hardly knew her only friend. Maybe fourteen wasn’t so special after all.
The next morning didn’t start out any better.
“Don’t be tellin’ folks about what happened here last night,” Warin warned her as he rubbed his head. “A man’s entitled to a drink every now and then. Best we forget about it and begin anew.” With that, he’d pulled on his coat and left for work, not looking at his daughter enough to see the glare she’d been aiming at him all morning. She didn’t know why she’d hoped he would remember her birthday this morning. It wasn’t as if that was something he was ever likely to do on his own. And yet, she’d foolishly hoped.
Liesel spent the rest of the morning cleaning the cottage and tending to the horse. She slammed the cupboards and cottage door as much as possible, and their loud protests made her feel just slightly better. She was still in the same sour mood as she set out for the woods to meet Kurt, and only when she’d nearly reached their meeting spot did she remember that she had forgotten the book. Sure that Kurt would want nothing to do with her without the book, she decided to dawdle as she went, not paying attention to where she was really even going.
“There you are,” Kurt’s voice broke the silence as she kicked a pebble. “Why are you all the way over here?”
“I forgot the book!” Liesel huffed.
“So you’re getting yourself lost instead?” Liesel sent him a scathing look before turning back to find the pebble. Kurt reached out finally and took her by the elbow, forcing her to look at him. His voice was gentle this time, though.
“Liesel, what’s wrong?” Liesel felt her chin tremble as she weighed whether or not to tell him.
“I hate this place!” She finally spat out. “It’s dark and ugly here! Not even the flowers grow, and everything dies!” She wanted badly to tell him about her father, but the shame was just too great. Words of anger were much easier.
“Well, at least you’re in a bright red cloak,” Kurt’s voice was teasing. “I still think it’s strange, but at least I’ll be able to find you if you make it a habit of getting lost like this.” She just glared at him. “I’m sorry,” he apologized, all of the jest gone from his tone now. “It was a stupid joke.” He thought for a moment before taking her by the wrist. “Come with me. I want to show you something.” She said nothing, but let him lead her. The invisible path he took seemed to have no markings or reason to its twists and turns, but she was used to his odd methods of getting around the forest by now.
After what seemed like an endless walk, he let go of her wrist and bent down next to an old hollow log.
“What do you think this is?” he asked softly. Liesel stared at the log with contempt. She had the idea a lesson was coming, but she really couldn’t care less.
“Something dead.”
Kurt gave a faint smile. Silently, he lifted the log enough for her to spot something furry beneath. In spite of herself, Liesel leaned in to get a better look. Then she gasped in delight. A fawn was curled up, hidden by the shadow of the aging wood. It looked soft and sweet as it stared up at them with trusting eyes. Softly, Kurt lowered the log again.
“Her mother will be back soon,” he whispered. “It would be best for us not to distress her.” For the first time that day, Liesel allowed herself a small smile. The fawn stayed nestled in her bed as they left. She was the very picture of serenity, something Liesel hadn’t felt much since her mother fell ill. But even more comforting than the baby deer, however, was Kurt’s affection towards it, the care he took to keep the creature comfortable, and the desire to spare the mother anxiety. The sweetness of the moment was like a healing balm to Liesel’s wounded soul.
“Thank you,” she mumbled as they walked, suddenly embarrassed of her petulance. It wasn’t Kurt’s fault her father was a drunk, and although she truly did hate the forest, there was no reason to insult his home to his face. To her relief, he gave her a broad smile, the biggest he’d worn since they’d met.
“I’m not done yet.”
They continued exploring for the rest of the day. Liesel was in awe at the amount of life the shadowy woods sheltered. A nest of baby birds hidden in the shelf of a crooked tree, and flowers that bloomed without sun were all placed near her normal path, but without help, she never would have seen them. He showed her how to find berries that were safe to eat, and a poisonous plant with healing milk.
“It looks lifeless at first,” Kurt conceded as he held his hand out to help her climb the cliff face of the waterfall. “But these woods harbor more life than one could ever know.”
“I believe you,” Liesel puffed as she struggled up the steep incline behind him. “Why exactly are we going up here again?” The sun that covered the forest floor at the base of the waterfall was warm and unadulterated. The cliff itself, however, had enough trees resting atop it to escape all direct sunlight of its own. Still, Kurt pushed them higher.
“Just think of it as your birthday gift.”
By the time they reached the top, Liesel could tell it was much higher than she’d originally guessed. The cliff face was at least twice as high as her old church steeple at home. Perhaps even more. Her dress was stuck to her body with sweat, and she was breathing so hard she could barely speak.
“What,” she huffed, “are we looking at now?” As she stood up, she had to work to keep her face from falling. All she could see was more forest on both sides of the thin river that fed the waterfall. Kurt just smiled, took her by the shoulders, and turned her around. Liesel nearly fainted with joy. From the top of the waterfall, she could see that they were surrounded by miles and miles of green treetops. But to her left, to the west, she could see the outline of a mountain.
“My mountain,” she whispered as she fell to her knees. “You gave me my mountain.” Tears coursed down her cheeks, but she let them fall. They were tears of joy. The contours of the four peeks were mostly hidden behind thick gray clouds, but she could see just enough to recognize it as hers.
“Why?” She suddenly turned and looked up at him. “Why are you being so kind to me?” He didn’t answer immediately, just returned her stare as a troubled shadow fell over him. His young face suddenly looked old.
“It’s the most I could do,” he finally muttered. “The life you were chosen for is hardly the one you deserve.” Liesel had no words with which to reply. Her first reaction was to attribute his cryptic response to her mother’s untimely death and unattached father, but something, an undertone in his voice, send a shiver down her spine. An instinct somewhere deep in her stomach warned her that something was very, very wrong. But what could she do? She’d already tried to escape once.
She looked back at Kurt one more time. He was staring out over the treetops again though, and didn’t see her gaze. His set jaw looked as if it had turned to stone, and he had his lanky arms crossed defensively across his chest. If nothing else, she decided, she could take comfort in knowing that he cared. They might be powerless to stop the lonely end that seemed to be determined to take her, but through it at least, she would have a friend. And for that, she would be grateful.

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Thanks for reading! If you’ve got a minute, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below. To read more of this sample, click here to go to Chapter 5. To buy this book, you can find links to all the major retailers here! It’s only $3.99 in ebook format, and $8.99 in print! If you like to get free reading material, including chances to beta read books like this, just join my email list!

Girl in the Red Hood – Chapter 3

Finding the Sun

“You’re not readin’ that book again, are you?” Warin called through the doorway. Liesel paused, trying to come up with something to say. She had nothing, however, by the time her father walked inside. “You’ve read that blasted book every day for the past month,” he shook his head at her. “You’re goin’ to bring both of us to madness if you don’t leave this house sometime.”
Despite Warin’s rare show of paternal love the night her mother died, Liesel and Warin had spoken less in the month that followed than ever. He’d never even asked about the wolf, just accepted what the hunter had told him. Then he’d gone on as if nothing had even happened. The wolf attack, her mother’s death, even his new job at the blacksmith’s stall merited only a few words. And Liesel was fine with that. In fact, she was more than fine. She knew he missed Amala, and she knew he was grieving, but it did little to lessen his accidental participation in her mother’s death. Warin had never even apologized. He’d simply gone on as if the whole thing had been just an accident.
The funeral had been small, just a grieving husband and daughter, the Holy Man, and the aloof mayor, although Liesel wasn’t sure exactly why he was there. Perhaps he felt some guilt for playing a part in Amala’s death, she thought at first, although one wouldn’t know it from the number of times he yawned while her mother was buried. It was about all Liesel could take to have him present, and it helped her realize even more how much she needed to escape Ward.
She was desperate enough to break the silence she’d kept towards her father the night after the funeral. Liesel had begged and pleaded with him to take them back to the vineyard.
“You could even move back to the city,” Liesel had followed him around as he mucked the tiny stall that stood behind the cottage for their horse. “You wouldn’t have to worry about me. I could live with Grandmother and Grandfather! We-”
“No,” Warin had been sudden and fierce in his refusal. “We’re not goin’ back.” Seeing the look in her eyes, he leaned down. “And don’t you even think of naggin’ me about it ’cause my mind is made up. We’re stayin’ here. Best for you not to question the wisdom of my decision.”
“You only ever think about yourself,” Liesel had hissed at him, trying desperately to keep her tears at bay. Immediately, she regretted her words. He turned away silently, but not before she saw the raw pain in his expression. Still too angry to apologize, however, Liesel had stomped away and had gone for a walk instead.
Ward was not a large village, but there were enough people milling about to call it bustling. The mayor had mentioned that while they couldn’t farm for the lack of sunlight, the townspeople made their living by hosting travelers who were taking the shortcut through the forest to the capitol city. Instead of growing their food, the people had their supplies brought in by wagon from the sunnier places outside of the forest. This struck Liesel as expensive, but she quickly realized they could afford it through their many inns, as well as animal stalls, taverns, and wells. Liesel passed by the tailor’s shop, the swordsmith, the butcher, two bakeries, and the church as she walked.
It should have been a pleasant outing. The market was full, and neighbors chatted happily as their children scampered through the streets. The more she walked, however, the more Liesel realized she was not the only one looking. The villagers were looking right back at her as well. The adults didn’t even attempt to hide their stares, and some of the children pointed.
Liesel felt herself blush, probably red enough to be visible even in the gray of the forest evening. Had word gotten out about her fit at the healer’s? Or was this how they treated all new people? It wasn’t long before she’d decided to return to the cottage as quickly as possible. Since that day, she hadn’t left the cottage except to get water from the well or gather kindling for the fireplace. Her grandmother’s book had been her sole comfort and companion. Warin didn’t allow reading in the evening, as he said it wasted precious candles, but during the day, the book was her only friend. And now her father wanted to take even that.
“Why don’t you go outside?” He frowned at her beneath his dark, bushy eyebrows. Liesel raised her own eyebrows in response and looked pointedly at her hand. Her father snorted. “Won’t do you any good hidin’ inside when the entire village is in the forest, girl. Wolves mostly stay to themselves. You probably just surprised the one that got you, that’s all. Now I want you out of this house for the time bein’. Go.”
It wasn’t without irritation or the temptation to say something sharp that Liesel left her beloved book in the cabin. But arguing with her father would be pointless while he was in such a mood. Slowly, she made her way down the narrow dirt path to the main road. She wasn’t going back to the town by herself, that was for sure. The open stares had made her feel like she had the plague. So she began down the road in the other direction, the one that would eventually lead her towards the sun. She might not be able to escape the town for now, but she could pretend, even if just for a while.
After about twenty minutes, a change brought her to a halt. It took her a moment to recognize it for what it was, though. On the other side of the road, deep in the foliage, almost too deep to see, one thin beam of sunlight shined down through the otherwise canopied ceiling. Liesel felt her breath catch in her throat. After a month in the depths of an eternally gray forest, she was starved for something bright.
After pausing for a moment, Liesel set her jaw and lifted her skirts delicately to begin chasing the bit of sun before it disappeared completely. The forest floor was littered with dead branches and dry pine needles. As she slowly hiked over pile after pile of dead brush, Liesel started to wonder at the wisdom of her decision to make the journey in a dress, but when she finally reached the spot, it was worth it. The sun was weak by the time it made it through the tree tops, all the way to the ground, but its warmth was delightful. Liesel stood where it trickled down onto her face, imagining she was back on the vineyard, when a rustle in the bushes behind her made her heart stop. Nearly frozen with fear, she turned slowly towards the sound. The forest was suddenly eerily silent as Liesel held her breath and waited. Was it a snake, or perhaps a wolverine? There was a story of one of those vicious little creatures in her grandmother’s book, one that had attacked a man and taken his arm. Or could it be another wolf? Trying to gather her wits, unable to wait any longer, Liesel lifted a large stick and spoke, but her voice sounded dry and hoarse,
“Who is it? I know you’re there.” She immediately felt rather foolish, considering the noise might be an animal just waiting to pounce. It was no animal sound, however, that came from the brush in response.
“Only if you put down the stick.”
Liesel nearly dropped the stick in shock. It was a boy’s voice.
The boy stepped forward slowly, his eyes wary. His dark brown hair was messy, roughly chopped off as if cut with a dull blade, or perhaps just cut very carelessly. The clothes he wore had holes in several places, and looked just a little too short, although that wasn’t unusual for boys about Liesel’s age, which was what she guessed him to be. The way he moved, however, was the most unusual thing about him. The grace with which he placed his feet as he cautiously stepped towards her was almost feral. Neither of them spoke for a long time. After her legs began to hurt from standing so still, Liesel finally gathered the courage to speak again.
“Why were you watching me?”
“I was wondering why you were in the forest alone. Women don’t walk these woods alone.” His voice wasn’t deep, but it wasn’t a young boy’s tenor either. Liesel raised her chin a bit defensively.
“And what if I like to walk in the woods?” It was a strange thing to say, as Liesel did not actually like to walk in the woods, these or any others, but it annoyed her that this boy would tell her what she could and couldn’t do. He just shook his head in disgust.
“It doesn’t matter. Women don’t walk these woods alone. Actually, they don’t walk in them at all. It’s not safe.” The way his brow furrowed made Liesel feel somewhat foolish. Of course she knew it wasn’t safe. Her first night there had proven that. She sighed in resignation.
“We just moved here, and my mother died.” Her voice cracked a bit. “No one will talk to me, and I don’t know why. Then I saw this patch of sunlight, and I just…I needed something familiar. I needed to escape, even for a little while.” The boy watched with wide eyes as Liesel shed the first tears since the night her mother died. Suddenly unable to stand, she fell, crying, on a low boulder nearby. She was immediately angry with herself. She had sworn not to break, not to give her father another reason to reprimand her, and now she was doing just that in front of a complete stranger. Sniffling, she wiped the traitorous tears from her cheek and tried to give him a confident smile.
“I’m sorry.” This time, his voice was less suspicious and his expression was softer.
“I’ll be fine. And my name is Liesel.” Liesel struggled to make her voice less tremulous as she looked back up at the small patch of sunlight that filtered through the distant treetops. “I just wish there was more sun. It would be a little more like home.”
“You lived somewhere with lots of light?” The boy was obviously trying to stay cautious, but Liesel could tell his curiosity was getting the better of him. As she nodded, a sudden longing took hold of her. She desperately wanted him to stay, where just a few minutes before, she had hoped he would just let her run back to the cottage. Though he still looked tentative, his eyes were kind, and he was giving her more attention than anyone else had since she’d arrived.
“I lived on a vineyard with my grandparents.” Unconsciously, it seemed, the boy stepped closer as she spoke.
“What did it look like?”
“Their vineyard is at the foot of a mountain, so you can see for miles from their front door.” She smiled at little at the picture. “The sky is endless. Below it, you can see the city, as well as other towns that lie down the road behind it. The vineyard is green, and laid out in rows, and the air is warm and dry.”
“You miss it.” The boy stated matter-of-factly. Liesel nodded again.
“I never knew I could miss someplace so much.”
“You don’t like it here?” This time it was a question, as if the thought had never occurred to him that someone might not want to live in the woods.
“No,” Liesel shook her head so emphatically a tendril of yellow hair fell out of her hood. “Not even flowers grow here. I miss the sun and the colors. I miss my grandparents.” He frowned thoughtfully. “Besides,” Liesel gave one final sniffle and stood up to dust off her dress, “as I said, no one in town will talk to me.” The boy dropped his eyes immediately, as though guilty. Liesel almost asked, but stopped herself, afraid she might scare him off. She wanted at least one person to talk to, even if he was an odd boy from the forest. “Do you live in town?”
“I live in the woods with my family,” he said uneasily. It took everything in Liesel not to ask all of the questions building up inside her head, but she decided against it, again fearing she’d frighten the shy boy away. She couldn’t think of why he could be so nervous. She wasn’t threatening by any means, at least in a way that she knew of. She had picked up that stick, of course, but really had not the slightest idea of how she would have used it had he been an animal. He must simply be shy, she decided. Unsure of what else to say without overwhelming him further, Liesel finally said,
“I suppose I should go home soon. It’s getting dark, and my father will be expecting supper.”
“Wait,” he half turned towards her as if waking from a stupor. “Will you be coming back tomorrow?” Liesel weighed his expression before answering. Was he trying to avoid her, or did he really want to see her again? She sighed.
“Truthfully? Not if I can help it.”
“Why?”
“I…,” she paused, “I am afraid of the wolves.” It felt foolish to talk about the wolves in broad daylight with another person, one who lived in the woods no less. She hadn’t talked to anyone about the wolf bite, not even her father. She’d tried to tell him, of course. No matter how hard she worked, however, the moment she tried to tell him about the actual wolf, aside from what the hunter had told him, her voice caught in her throat, and she just couldn’t get the words out. To her surprise, the boy snorted and shook his head.
“I’m here. They won’t attack.” Liesel thought that was one of the strangest things she’d ever heard anyone say. She looked dubiously at the boy again. His voice was beginning to change, but he certainly didn’t have the body of a man yet. What did he think he was going to do if one of those giant beasts found them? He looked so confident, however, that she decided not to challenge him.
“Well,” Liesel bit her lip hesitantly. “Do you want me to?” Her heart beat unevenly as the question rolled off her tongue. If he said no, she would be spared the dangers of the forest that might come with a companion who thought himself impervious to wolf attacks. And yet, there was something about him that drew her nearer, made her want to look more deeply into those kind eyes and draw out their secrets.
“I suppose it would be alright.” He shrugged carelessly, but Liesel didn’t miss the nervous glance he threw up at her while staring at the ground. She couldn’t hide her smile.
“Then I suppose I’ll be back.” Liesel turned to head back towards the road.
“One more thing,” she turned to see him staring after her with a quizzical look. “Why is your cloak red?”
“My mother liked red. Why?” He shook his head.
“It’s just an odd color to wear in the forest, unless you want everyone and everything to see you.” Liesel touched the cloak gently. He was right of course, but…
“It was my mother’s when she was a girl.”
“Huh. I still think it’s strange.” And without another word, he was gone. For the first time since she’d arrived in Ward, Liesel felt warm, and it wasn’t from the rays of the sun she’d basked in either. Having someone to talk to, and better yet, someone who wanted to see her again, made her feel just a little at home in a way she hadn’t felt since the her grandmother’s last embrace. By the time she got home, Warin had already returned from the blacksmith’s where he worked. He was already pulling his boots back on, however.
“I forgot the cornmeal today while I was out. Come with me. You can tell me what else we need. Your mother always did these things,” he muttered. As angry as Liesel still was with her father, she felt another stab of pity for him. He had depended on Amala in so many ways. Nodding, she smiled, and for once, it wasn’t forced. As they left the cottage, she decided not to tell him about the boy just yet.
“So, lass, have you made any friends?” Mayor Odo’s voice made Liesel jump and then cringe. How had he found them? His house was on the other side of Ward. “Ah,” he laughed, “I can tell you have by that expression. Who did you meet?” His smile was friendly enough, but there was something in his eyes that made Liesel think otherwise. Unfortunately, her father chose that moment to suddenly be as interested in her welfare as the prying mayor. She could see him giving her a long sideways look as they walked. She sighed.
“I don’t know his name, actually.” It was only as she spoke, however, that she realized it was true. She had given the boy her name, but he’d never shared his. An idea formed, so she continued to talk. “He’s about my age though. He has hair the color of bark, and brown eyes. He’s probably half a foot shorter than my father. Do you know him?” Perhaps the nosy mayor might be helpful after all. She was dying to know the boy’s name. “Oh, and he said his family lives in the forest.” At this last mention, the mayor’s face suddenly paled. Even Warin noticed.
“Is there something wrong with his family, Odo?” He scowled at the short man. The mayor shook his head vehemently.
“Oh, no! Kurt’s family is very nice.” Liesel allowed herself a small smile. So his name was Kurt. It fit him, she decided.
“What do they do out there?”
“They’re hunters,” Odo examined a sack of potatoes very closely while he answered Warin’s question.
“I thought you said huntin’ in this area is forbidden!”
“It is, but…Kurt’s family is very old. In fact, they own much of the land around the town. It’s best just to leave them alone.” But her father was already shaking his head.
“Liesel, I don’t want you-”
“No, no, no!” Odo interrupted him. “She’ll be perfectly fine. The family just tends to keep to themselves, that’s all. The boy needs a friend, though. He’s a good boy. Liesel will be the perfect friend for him with you living at the edge of town and all.” Liesel held her breath as she looked at her father. While she’d never been one for disobeying direct orders, she didn’t know if she could keep her sanity and live much longer without some conversation. To her relief, however, Liesel’s father finally nodded his head in assent.
“I suppose that will work then, if it gets you out of the house sometimes.” Liesel grinned in spite of herself. Her father had succeeded in separating her from her beloved book, but Liesel was suddenly very glad to have a reason to leave the cottage. Besides, she thought, she might not have to give up her book after all. She had an idea.

———————————————————————————————————

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Girl in the Red Hood – Chapter 2

Forgotten Daughter

By the time the sun rose, Liesel knew the fields they passed were not her grandfather’s. They were flat, unlike the rolling hills of her grandparents’ land that lay at the foot of the mountain. Her mountain. She watched sadly as its sharp crags softened into blurs, and her eyes strained to see them as their cart rolled along. The dark blue shadows became less pronounced, and the green tree line turned gray. Green rows of vineyards gave way to golden wheat and barley as the land slowly dipped down, and soon the trees came into view.
The trees were nothing like Liesel had ever seen. Her grandparents’ vineyard had small clusters of wooded land here and there on their property, large enough for her grandfather to find some game in, but they were nothing compared to these.
These woods towered so high they looked from a distance like a great dark cloud hovering over the ground. Their depths seemed measureless, and they stood blacker than anything she’d ever seen before. There were no smaller trees leading up to the giant trunks. The grass simply ended at the bases of the ancient sentinels that guarded the entrance to their wood.
A chill moved down Liesel’s back as they turned right off the main road onto a smaller one that led into the dark domain, leaving the sunlight behind them. There were no flowers growing beneath the trees. Liesel could only imagine that the lack of light choked the life out of anything that might begin to sprout here beneath the twisted canopy. By the time they’d been in the forest an hour, no sunlight reached the forest floor, just the shadows of branches, which entwined themselves with a surprising thickness.
As her courage thinned, Liesel tried to remind herself why they were venturing into such a strange place to begin with. Her mother didn’t stir as Liesel gently tucked a stray piece of hair behind her pale ear. She hadn’t stirred in a long time. After watching her for a moment more, Liesel sighed and pulled out her grandmother’s book.
It had shocked Liesel when her grandmother had pressed it into her arms. The book was Ilsa’s most guarded possession.
“Reading is a privilege, Liesel,” her grandmother had sternly told her when she was a young child, protesting the reading lessons Ilsa insisted on giving her. “Most people do not have such a privilege. But believe me, in all the places I’ve been, in all the disasters and miracles I’ve seen, reading has been the key to unlocking the most wonderful of secrets.” Opening the book to a random page, Liesel began reading to distract herself from the increasing darkness they continued to ride into. Written in her grandmother’s own hand, with pictures drawn by her grandfather, Liesel marveled again at all the places they had ventured to to record such wonderful adventures. If she tried very hard, it was possible sometimes to pretend the path her family journeyed was an adventure in her book. But then, some strange sound from the trees would startle Liesel, and she would have to start trying to pretend all over again.
When night fell, or Liesel guessed it had fallen, as it was darker than she had ever known possible, Liesel’s father stopped the cart horse and started a fire, cursing quietly into the night as he fumbled with the tinder. When the fire was finally of a decent size, he began to roast some salted fish they’d brought with them, and Liesel once again checked on her mother.
What had become a year of endless sleep for her mother had begun more abruptly than Liesel could have imagined possible. When it had happened, they’d been working in their herb garden together, a task both Liesel and Amala enjoyed. The garden was small and neat, nothing compared to the size of her grandmother’s garden out on the vineyard, but decently sized for a garden in the city.
“Keep working on that mugwort, will you?” Amala had slowly risen and begun to walk back to the house. “I’m feeling a bit overheated. I think I’ll go lie down for a few moments.”
“Are you sure, Mother?” Liesel had begun to rise to follow her mother inside, but Amala had waved her back down, her brown eyes smiling warmly at her daughter. “Thank you, no. I’ll be fine. I just need a bit of rest, that’s all.” That was the last smile her mother had given. A moment later, Liesel heard a thump and the sound of pottery breaking. Running in, she found her mother unconscious on the floor. She’d feared the worst at first, thinking her mother dead, but then she saw the shaky, shallow breaths Amala stilled forced in and out. Sprinting into the street, Liesel had screamed for someone to let the town healer. Women had gathered to do what they could, but upon the healer’s arrival, nearly all hope was lost. A slumber malady, the healer had called it, a sickness without a cure. Liesel had felt as though she might pass out as she stared down at her mother on the bed, white as the Holy Man’s robes and as still as glass.
Upon the their friends’ urging, Warin and Liesel had moved out of their city cottage and into Amala’s parents’ home on their vineyard at the foot of Liesel’s beloved mountain. From there, Liesel’s father and grandparents had sent word to towns near and far, begging the healers to come up and examine her mother. And many had come, although Liesel sensed it was generally in hope of the reward promised by her grandparents to the one that could cure Amala, as opposed to a common sense of integrity. Despite the generous reward, however, soon there were no more healers, just a woman clinging to life with little more than the ability to swallow and breathe. There had been little hope.
“We’ve seen this before, Warin,” Liesel had once heard her grandmother whisper softly to her father.
“Yes, yes,” her father had brusquely replied. From the corner that she’d hidden in to eavesdrop, Liesel could imagine him rolling his eyes. “And the fairy of the land healed the fair maiden and they lived happily ever after.” His voice was thick with mockery, but Liesel knew too well it was how he hid the pain.
“But it’s true!” her grandfather had insisted. “If you would only be willing to go to them and ask for the fairy-“.
“I’ll not be runnin’ about the land, chasin’ after a daydream while my wife draws her last breaths!” Warin had bellowed. “We’ve been through this before! There is no magic!” The stubborn outburst was no shock to Liesel, who’d heard Warin’s countless rants before. That was why it had surprised Liesel so much though, when her father had listened to the stranger instead.
Just a few days before their secret escape, Liesel had been chasing a runaway chicken in front of her grandparents’ house. Out of the corner of her eye, she’d been watching a man walk up the long road from town. Considering the vineyard was the last piece of land before reaching the mountain, she knew he could only have been heading for them. He’d stopped for a moment before starting up the path to their door, studying her for an unusual length of time. Hesitantly, Liesel had waved, which gave him the courage, or audacity, as Warin had put it, to come up to the house and talk to the girl as if she was of age. Liesel had found it quite enjoyable though, despite her father’s later grumbling. Thirteen was a strange age to be. She was expected to do the work of a woman, but was ordered around as the babies were. And this man seemed to read her mind.
“You’re a little old to be chasing chickens, aren’t you?” He’d smiled easily as he walked up the dirt path to the house. Liesel felt herself blushing as she returned the smile,
“Yes, but if I don’t, no one will.”
“Well, that’s a good way to think of it if nothing else,” he’d laughed. His clothes were simple, but clean. In fact, their detail suggested a bit of authority, someone with more influence than a simple tradesman. He spoke clearly and smiled pleasantly, but Liesel hadn’t missed how his eyes traveled up and down her the way her grandfather eyed a horse he might purchase. “Is your father nearby, perhaps?” Liesel had fetched her father from the field, wondering the whole time what the stranger could want. He answered her question when he introduced himself to Warin.
“Good morning, sir! My name is Izaak,” he’d greeted her father enthusiastically. “What a lovely vineyard! And your name is?” Liesel nearly let out a giggle. Whatever he wanted, this man was not off to a good start.
“Warin,” her father had grunted. “What do you want?” Izaak looked slightly taken aback by Warin’s brusqueness, but recovered his smile quickly.
“I’m not familiar with this countryside, I must admit. I’ve never seen anything quite like your land-”
“It’s not mine,” Liesel’s father had turned and started walking back to the fields. The thin stranger followed.
“So, you aren’t a farmer?”
“Blacksmith.”
“And you’re out here because…?” Warin turned sharply to face the man.
“Look, I’m busy. What do you want?”
“I must confess,” Izaak finally lost his smile and sighed. “My village suffered a great sickness last winter. Many died, and there are few to take their places. I’m looking for strong men who could move out to work in our village.” Liesel felt the first ripple of unease when she saw her father’s eyes light up at the mention of moving. While Warin had agreed to live at the vineyard, everyone knew he hated living with his wife’s parents. Then disappointment settled into his face.
“Interestin’ as that sounds, my wife is ill. We’ve had healers from all over to see her, but none could help.” The man’s eyes brightened again.
“Ah, but since the sickness, we have a new healer! She came to us from the Far East with herbs and salves few around here have seen! And I know she hasn’t been to see your wife yet because she refuses to leave the village.” The moment he mentioned the new healer, Liesel knew they were going. It wasn’t long before all of the details of the move were settled between the two men.
“Liesel,” her father had called to her as the thin stranger left. “Don’t tell your grandparents quite yet. I’ll tell ’em when it’s the right time.” The right time came two nights later, apparently, when her grandfather was gone hunting, and her grandmother was powerless to stop him. And now they were in the middle of a forest without light.
“We’re almost there,” Liesel whispered to her mother before laying a goodnight kiss on her cold cheek. Leaving the vineyard was the last thing Liesel had wanted to do. As she stared into the fire her father had built, however, Liesel decided that maybe it was worth a try. She would do anything to have Amala back.
They rose early again the next morning and continued along the road. The further they traveled, however, the more uncomfortable Liesel felt. These woods felt sick. Though no direct sunshine had penetrated the trees the first day they’d entered the great forest, it had still been light enough. But on the second day, even the brightest spots made the forest appear the way the sky had during the darkest storms back on the vineyard. Liesel looked down at her bright red cloak, suddenly glad for the vivid color in such a dull place.
They arrived at the town late that afternoon, or what Liesel guessed to be afternoon at least. Glad to see signs of life after their strange, solitary ride, Liesel smiled at the first passersby she saw. Men, women, and children came out of their thatch roofed cottages to stare at the newcomers, but oddly enough, no one returned her smile. Further into town, a small child raised her hand to wave, but her mother pushed it down and hurried her out of the street. Soon the houses grew closer together, and shops, stalls, and larger buildings all blended together until they could see what looked like a town square up ahead.
“Father,” Liesel called in a low voice. “It doesn’t look like there was an illness here recently.”
“What do you mean?”
“All these people…the shops are full, and people are everywhere.”
“Bets are they’re like us,” Warin said with a shrug. His nonchalant attitude didn’t fool Liesel, though. She could see him looking at the people as well, a small frown furrowing his brow.
When they reached the well in the center of the town square, Warin pulled the horse to a halt and instructed Liesel to stay with her mother. He was on his way up to the steps of the largest building Liesel had seen yet, when a rather rotund man walked purposefully towards them, Izaak trailing nervously after him.
“You must be our new blacksmith!”
“Which is odd, considerin’ I just passed one up back there,” Warin frowned at Izaak, his lilting accent making his displeasure even more obvious. “You said there had been an illness that wiped out the village.” Izaak paled a bit, but the other man, unfazed, stepped forward with an overly friendly smile.
“We can always use another blacksmith, especially as ours is getting along in years.”
“And you are?”
“Odo, town mayor.”
“Well, Odo, we’re here to see your healer.” The mayor’s sweaty smile faltered for a moment before reappearing on his face. “Surely you’d like to see your new home first-”
“The healer. Or we’re leavin’.” Liesel felt a small flicker of hope in her heart. Perhaps this healer might know something the others didn’t. And when Amala awoke, she could convince Warin to leave the forest and take the family home. The mayor looked a bit unnerved, and paused before answering. Finally, though, he glumly nodded and turned, motioning for the family to follow. Warin hopped back up into the cart and clucked at the horse. Just two streets over, they stopped before a small cottage.
It looked no different than the other cottages, with the exception of an herb garden that lined the path to the door. Liesel felt another stab of unease as she glanced at its contents. The garden itself was barely larger than her mother’s had been, and she recognized every plant in it. Most of the plants looked sick, which Liesel guessed was from the lack of direct sunlight. The weedy plot hardly looked like it belonged to an herbalist from another land, just as the woman walking out of the house to greet them hardly looked like she was from the Far East. She had pale skin, as did everyone else in the forest village, mousey brown hair pinned back carelessly beneath a dirty blue cap, and a thin face with dull eyes.
As Warin gently lifted his wife from the back of the cart, the mayor fairly sprinted over to whisper in the woman’s ear. Her eyes widened a bit, and she looked over the mayor’s shoulder to glare at Izaak. By then, Warin was heading up the path. Liesel didn’t miss the look of panic that flitted across the woman’s face as she opened the door for them to walk inside.
The cottage room was dark with just one candle to see by, but there really wasn’t that much to see. Liesel had been inside the healer’s house back in her old city, a building that was full to the brim with dried plant pieces in jars, other plants hanging upside down to dry, a large variety of mixing bowls, mortar and pestle, and a large pot to boil mixtures in. This house had only one shelf of jars, and most of them were covered with dust. The mayor cleared the table so Warin could lay Liesel’s mother on top of it.
“What-” the healer began to ask, but Izaak interrupted her.
“Remember the sleeping sickness I told you about, Doffy?” The woman stared at him blankly until a look of nervous recognition came to her face.
“Oh…oh, yes.” She walked over to her shelf of jars and stared up at them for a moment before pulling four down. Grabbing the dirty mortar and pestle from another dusty table, she went to work grinding and mixing the herbs. Liesel watched intently as she worked, running through the plants and their uses her head. Her mother had been an expert with herbs. Although this mixture of herbs the woman had concocted seemed a bit simple for the kind of illness her mother was suffering, nothing was too alarming until she pulled out a dried clipping of a dark green branch with spiky leaves and fluffy orange buds.
“No!” Everyone jumped when Liesel cried out. “That’s fox heel!” Everyone, even the healer, stared at her as if she’d spoken another language. Only then did Liesel realize how rude it must seem for a girl to correct a grown healer. But Liesel knew all about that plant. She’d nearly eaten it when she was two. Her mother had looked over just as Liesel had raised it to her mouth, according to the family story. They kept it in the garden because it could heal skin wounds, but it was absolutely never to be eaten. Amala had run so fast she’d dropped and broken a clay bowl to keep Liesel from touching it to her tongue. When she was older, Amala had taught Liesel how to safely apply it to a bruise, but never was it to be eaten or drunk, according to her mother.
“Crushing the flowers into the herb makes it poisonous,” Liesel explained softly as her father’s look of shock turned into a glare.
“Liesel, outside. Now.” Liesel felt her face redden with embarrassment as she followed her father out the front door like a small child. Warin bent down to look her in the eye. “Just what do you think you’re doin’?”
“I told you,” Liesel whispered. “Fox heel is dangerous.”
“You think their healer doesn’t know her own trade? That a girl of thirteen knows better than she does?” Liesel felt resentment rise in her throat. Glaring back at her father, she huffed.
“They lied about the sickness. There’s obviously been no blight here. They lied about their healer being from the Far East! Doesn’t it seem that they might lie about this, too?”
“One more word out of you, girl, and you’ll regret it!” Warin gave his daughter a withering look.
“I don’t care!” Liesel shouted, tired of watching such foolishness play out. “If you let them give that rubbish to Mother, she’ll die!” She could be just as stubborn as her father when she wanted to be. Warin stared at her in awe for a moment before giving her a sneer and stalking back inside. Liesel took off after him, darting around his large frame, just in time to see Doffy prepare the mixture for a tea. Without a second thought, Liesel knocked the spoon out of the woman’s hands.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but I’ll not let you poison her!” she yelled. Two strong hands grabbed her from behind, however, and Warin said,
“I apologize for my daughter’s behavior. She’s just upset about her mum being sick. Please, do what you need to do. She’ll see eventually that she needs to trust those who know better than her.” After giving the mayor a nervous glance, the healer lifted another spoonful of the mixture out to prepare the tea again. Liesel felt like her heart had stopped beating and dropped into her stomach as she watched the woman mix the poisonous orange tinted tea. Tears began to slide down her face as she realized she was going to watch her mother die. She shrieked for her father to stop them, pleading with him to save Amala’s life. Warin put his hand gently but firmly over his daughter’s mouth as he continued to restrain her.
“It’ll be alright, Leese,” he whispered kindly into her ear through her weeping. “I know you’re frightened, but this woman will save her. She’ll be better. I feel it in my gut.” All too soon, the deed was done. Amala had swallowed the tea, and the family was taken to their new cottage.
“The old tailor lived here,” the mayor had explained. “He passed away three years ago. It’s yours now. Let Izaak help you carry your wife in so she can rest.” Liesel watched it all with dead eyes. The mayor and Izaak left soon, and then it was just their family. Liesel sat with her mother, holding Amala’s hand as Warin emptied the cart.
“Is she showing any signs?” he asked hopefully. It was all Liesel could do to stay silent in response, when all she wanted was to scream. She glared instead and shook her head. “Well, then I’m off to the butcher’s. Take care of your mother. I’ll be back.” Liesel silently loathed his hopeful tone, ignoring his wave as he left. It wasn’t long after that that Amala’s breathing slowed and her hands grew cold. Through the blur of her tears, Liesel finally saw her mother’s gray-blue eyes flutter open for the first time in a year.
“My Leese,” Amala’s hand shook as she lifted it to touch Liesel’s face. Her voice was raw, but it was sweeter than Liesel remembered. Liesel grabbed her mother’s hand and held it to her cheek.
“Mother,” she sobbed, “I tried to stop them, but they wouldn’t listen! Father wouldn’t listen!” In some part of her mind, Liesel wondered why she was blubbering about the tea when her mother’s eyes were finally open. Didn’t that mean she was better? Besides, there were so many other things she wanted to tell her about that had happened in the last year, but all she could do was sit there and cry like a child.
“I know, sweet girl,” Amala’s voice was faint. “I couldn’t see you, but I could hear.”
“You could hear?” Liesel frowned in confusion. Coughing, Amala nodded.
“I could hear everything.”
“Since the day you fell sick?”
Amala nodded, wincing as though in pain.
“But are you better?” Liesel held her breath. Amala coughed deeply again in response, as if to answer her question.
“No, love. I’ll be gone soon.” She drew a shaky breath. “But it seems the Maker has given me a few moments with you before I go.” Liesel felt a new flood of tears wash down her face.
“Now, there’s no time for that,” Amala gently scolded her daughter. “Your father will need you. He won’t take care of himself without your help. And you,” she gently tapped Liesel’s nose, “be careful. You’re so beautiful…and men will notice. Men aren’t always what they seem.” She took a shaky breath and caressed her daughter’s face once more. “I love you, my sweet girl.” And with that, Liesel’s mother was gone.

***

Liesel sat perfectly still for an immeasurable time, staring at her mother’s ashen face. But deep inside, the part of her that dreamed couldn’t be still. It couldn’t accept that this was how it ended. Words began to echo in her head, some from her mother. There were other voices that were there, too, however, and eventually, there was one command that drowned out all of the rest.
Whatever you do, you must escape those woods! Her grandmother’s voice commanded desperately. Come back to me, no matter what!
Grandmother had been right. They had come to this wicked village, and the healer was either completely incompetent or she had just poisoned Amala purposefully. With all of the lies that had been told, all of the desperate looks the townspeople had been giving one another after seeing her, something in the town of Ward was very wrong.
Without knowing what she was doing, Liesel found herself out of her chair and running. Night darkness was beginning to cover everything, but it didn’t matter. Liesel knew which direction the vineyard was in, and she wasn’t stopping until she got there. It didn’t matter that she could no longer see more than five feet in front of her, nor did she care that she had no supplies. All Liesel could think about was going home, running into her grandmother’s arms, and leaving this wretched forest behind forever.
But soon it was too dark, and Liesel’s skirt caught on a low branch, causing her to trip. Her hands stung as they scraped against unseen sticks and dry pine needles, and she stubbed her toe on a rock. Wet earth stuck to her as she began to rise, but something made her freeze halfway up. Her breaths were ragged and heavy from her run, but she tried to quiet them as she strained to listen. She was almost sure she’d heard breathing that was not her own.
Turning slowly, still on her hands and knees, the girl nearly fainted as she realized she was not alone. The silhouette of a creature stood out against the shadows. A growl slipped out, so slight she wasn’t even sure she’d heard it. Fear made her blood turn cold, and all thoughts of the damp ground and her scratched palms forgotten, Liesel took off again, even faster this time. A tiny voice in her head wondered what she was doing, why she was even in the forest, and screamed at her that no sane girl of thirteen years would be where she was, but she ignored it completely.
She’d only taken a few strides, however, before she was flat on her stomach, the creature crouching on her back. For the first time, Liesel found her voice, screaming as loudly as she could for help. A heavy paw was shoved expertly onto the back of her neck, shoving her face into the ground, cutting off her cry for help as a snout with gleaming white teeth lowered itself down beside her face to growl a warning. It occurred to Liesel that she was going to die.
A part of her wondered if this was the Maker’s way of secret mercy, saving her from a long miserable life in that horrid village without her mother. The rest of her, however, was terrified. What kind of pain could a creature like this inflict upon a human, particularly one that wasn’t yet fully grown? What kind of gruesome things could those teeth do?
In the brief second before the bite, Liesel wondered which side he would attack her from. The neck? The side? A warm pang from her right hand surprised her, however. Without thinking, she turned her head as best she could to look through the darkness at her hand as the warm blood trickled down it. It hurt, but it wasn’t the killing lunge she’d been expecting. And even stranger was that the animal wasn’t continuing the attack. As soon as he bit her, he’d moved few feet away, a low growling still in his throat.
Despite the blackness of night, she could make out the contour of a wolf, the biggest she’d ever seen. His coat was silver, and it almost gleamed in the gray haze that filled the dark woods. Liesel had seen wolves before, but only from a distance, and with the comfort of her grandfather’s expert crossbow nearby to protect her. His claws were difficult to see, but they looked longer than anything Liesel had ever imagined.
At that moment, she locked eyes with the beast, and as soon as she did, she began to shake. The eyes into which she gazed were unmistakably human.
She didn’t have time to linger and ponder his unusual eyes, however. One second, the wolf was watching her intently, as if surveying its strange work, and the next moment, it was lying lifelessly on the ground, an arrow in its heart. Liesel watched in horror as the human eyes closed.
“Are you alright?” a man’s voice called from a distance. As heavy footsteps approached, Liesel found herself incapable of answering him. She couldn’t even lift herself up off the ground. She just lay there trembling uncontrollably, scrunching her eyes shut as though that would make the horror disappear. “That’s a nasty cut there,” the deep voice kindly said. Gently, Liesel felt herself lifted by strong arms and cradled like a child. “Do you live in Ward?” he asked. Liesel racked her memory, trying to remember the village’s name. Ward sounded right. Even if it wasn’t, she didn’t really care. She just did her best to nod.
“What are you doing out here alone?” She could hear the frown in his voice. Liesel finally opened her eyes and looked at him, but couldn’t answer through her chattering teeth. His expression softened. “Well, no matter. We’d best get you home. I’m sure your mum’s worried something awful. I know my wife would be.” He didn’t see, but Liesel felt a tear roll down her cheek. Yes, Mother would have worried.
As he carried her, he talked. Liesel found his voice soothing. He was a hunter, he said, and his name was Paul. He didn’t usually come this far east, but the buck he’d been chasing had led him outside of his normal grounds. He had a family back in higher country, including a daughter about her age, and he didn’t like to leave them for long. She began to drift in and out of slumber as he carried her back and chatted away.
It wasn’t until they were at the edge of the village that she realized she’d fallen asleep.
“You, man!” The hunter called out. “I have a girl here, and she’s not well! Do you know where I might find her family?”
“I’m new here. I wouldn’t know.” Liesel’s eyes were closed, but she recognized the worn, rough tone of her father’s voice. Instead of its usual arrogance, however, it was hoarse and broken. A small piece of Liesel’s senses returned, enough to feel pity for the man. But with the pity came rage as well. It was he who had dragged them to this place of death, and he’d been the one to hold her back when Amala still could have been saved. And he knew it, from the sound of his voice.
“If you please,” the hunter said, uncomfortably shifting her weight in his arms. “I found this girl in the forest. She was being attacked by a wolf-”
“Girl?” Warin’s voice lifted slightly. “I been missin’ mine since I came home and found her mother dead.”
“I…I’m sorry,” the hunter said softly. “I found this child in the woods, like I said, bitten by a wolf. Perhaps the pain of losing her mother was just too much…” He stepped forward again. “If you would just look and see if she’s yours.” Liesel heard her father rouse himself from the stoop slowly and walk towards them.
“Aye, she’s mine. Don’t know what the fool girl was thinkin’, runnin’ into the woods alone at night.”

Despite his harsh words, his voice was soft and gentle. Familiar arms lifted her from the hunter’s. Liesel wished she could find her voice to thank the stranger for his kindness.
Her father didn’t put her into the bed, and Liesel couldn’t look to see if it was because her mother’s body was still there. Instead, he simply carried her to a wooden chair in the corner of the room and cradled her as he had done when she was young. The last sound Liesel heard that night was Warin’s quiet sobbing as he held her close. Her last thought was a desperate one. She still hadn’t escaped the woods.

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Thanks for reading! If you’ve got a minute, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below. To read more of this sample, click here to go to Chapter 3. To buy this book, you can find links to all the major retailers here! It’s only $3.99 in ebook format, and $8.99 in print! If you like to get free reading material, including chances to beta read books like this, just join my email list!

Girl in the Red Hood – Chapter 1

Grandmother’s Warning

“You don’t understand!” Liesel watched in alarm as her grandmother ran after her father and grasped his arm. She’d never seen her grandmother so upset. “People that go to that town…they never leave! You can’t take Liesel and Amala there!”

“And why not, Old Woman?” Warin demanded gruffly. He tossed another sack into the wooden cart before turning to face his wife’s mother. The burly man crossed his arms across his chest defiantly. “Once and for all, if it’s so dangerous, surely you’re willin’ to share those secrets you guard so closely, if only to keep your daughter and granddaughter near.” Liesel didn’t know what secrets her father spoke of, but she wished her grandmother would tell him. The idea of moving to a village her grandmother hated terrified her. Despite her wishes, however, her grandmother just stared up at him desperately, her mouth open and her jaw trembling. But no words fell from her lips; just a silent fear that Liesel could feel from where she stood. A strange pain that the girl had never seen before filled her grandmother’s hazel eyes. Warin watched the older woman as well, nodding impatiently when she failed to answer.

“That’s what I thought. Liesel, make sure your mother’s comfortable. We’re goin’!” Liesel hurried to the back of the cart to make sure Amala was well tucked in beneath the blankets she and her father had piled upon her. As she did, Liesel could hear her father muttering about superstitious foolishness under his breath as he stalked back inside for another bag. “Just an old woman making up stories to keep her children near.” He threw a disgusted look at his mother-in-law as she paced back and forth in the darkness of the early morning.

Liesel wished it wasn’t so early. She would have liked to see the large cabin once more in the glow of the morning sun, rather than the flicker of torchlight. This darkness felt alien to her.
“I know why you’re leaving now!” Ilsa suddenly stopped pacing and yelled, so angry her voice shook.

“My husband is gone hunting, so you think you can sneak out of here like a thief in the night!”

“A thief?” Liesel’s father stormed over to where Ilsa stood and glowered down at her. “We finally hear of a healer that could cure your daughter, and when I try to take her there, you call me a thief?” His face was red, even in the light of the flame, and each angry word cut Liesel’s heart like a knife. She wanted so much to plead for him to stop, to wait until her grandfather came home. He knew much more about the forest than her father did. Shouldn’t they ask him if he knew about this village in the great forest before they left for it? But she knew from experience that her pleas would only make her father angrier.

“Liesel!” Warin barked, still holding Ilsa’s glare. “We’re leavin’!” With that, he threw the last bundle into their rickety cart, jumped in, and clicked at the horse. Liesel stood frozen in terror behind it as it began to roll away. Without a word, Ilsa turned and ran inside the house.

“Grandmother!” Liesel shrieked, unable to move her feet. She could hear the cart stop behind her, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t leave her grandmother. Not like this. As the shriek left her lips, Ilsa sprinted back out of the house clutching a large, colorful, bound leather book to her chest. She shoved it into Liesel’s arms.

“Whatever you do,” she sobbed fiercely to her granddaughter, “You must escape those woods!” Warin’s large arms closed around Liesel’s waist before lifting her and roughly dropping her into the back of the cart. Ilsa still cried out. “Come back to me, no matter what!” Tears streamed down the girl’s face as she watched her grandmother fall to her knees, wailing as she grew smaller and smaller in the distance.

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Thanks for reading! If you’ve got a minute, I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below. To read more of this sample, click here to go to Chapter 2. To buy this book, you can find links to all the major retailers here! It’s only $3.99 in ebook format, and $8.99 in print! If you like to get free reading material, including chances to beta read books like this, just join my email list!

 

Before Beauty – Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Author’s Note: This is a sneak peek of my novel, Before Beauty. If you read any or all of the preview chapters on my blog and wish to purchase the entire book ($3.99 ebook/$8.99 print book), you can do so through your preferred store links here.

In the months since the almost wedding, Megane had tried her best to stay out of Isa’s way. Launce had stopped his teasing and replaced it with muttered threats about what he would do if he ever got his hands on Raoul. Deline had taken over Isa’s hardest chores, and had suggested as many ways as she could think of to get Isa out of the house. Picnics were planned, the horses were taken for rides in the country, and her favorite dinner was made more often than ever before. Despite their well-laid plans, however, outings were quiet and awkward as the other three attempted to draw her into their jokes and stories.

To Isa, there was simply little to say, and everything that should be said could be spoken at home. Leaving the house was perilous, fraught with reminders that other people were still living their lives, happy, continuing to move through time. That Raoul was still living his life in the city without her. To Isa, time would stand still forever.

The most disastrous of their attempts to get her outside happened on the Marchands’ own front porch, four months after Ansel had set out on his journey. There had been a snow the night before, ridiculously early for the season. Still, the ground looked pretty all covered in white, and Deline hoped the new scene might cheer her daughter. So Isa had been goaded into accompanying her mother to the tailor’s shop, much to her disdain, and they were just returning when Margot, their neighbor, caught up with them. As the plump little woman ran toward them, the look on her face promised juicy gossip. Sure enough, before any greetings could be exchanged, Margot was speaking.

“Have you heard?” Her voice nearly squeaked with excitement. “Have you heard about young Master Raoul?” Though she managed to keep her eyes on the ground, Isa’s heart beat unevenly. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her mother give her an uneasy look.

“Isa, why don’t you go inside and prepare some tea? I could use a warm drink, and I believe our guest could use one, also.” But Margot shook her head, her words tumbling out faster than Isa could walk.

“No, I believe Miss Isa should hear this, and she’ll know just how fortunate she is not to have married that horrible young man.”

“Margot, I—” her mother tried to interject, but the older woman just kept talking.

“I was just down to the butcher’s shop this morning when Harriet Bissette skipped into the town square to show off her ring. Can you believe it, Isa? He gave her exactly the same ring that he gave you!” His grandmother’s ring. Isa’s thumb instinctively moved to rub the spot that for six months had been occupied by the silver band. Not so long ago, he’d placed that ring on her own finger. Suddenly, it was hard to breathe.

“. . . Less than a year, and he’s already proposed to a second girl!”

“Really, Margot!” Deline protested, but their neighbor babbled on.

“Isa, you should count it a blessing that you two were not wed! You have a lovely face, my dear, but with your lame leg and hand and all, you wouldn’t have been able to hold him. Better to be alone and keep your dignity than to know your man is off chasing other women because you can’t satisfy him!” And with that, she spotted another neighbor who might not know the news, and was gone before Isa or Deline could say anything else.

Isa bolted for the door before any other well-intentioned friend or relative could find her and ran upstairs as quickly as her ankle would allow. Deline was faster, however, and she followed her daughter into the attic before she could get the door closed.

“I don’t want to talk about it!” Isa threw her things down on the bed and went to stare out the window.

“Isa, you knew it was bound to happen.”

“That doesn’t mean I want to hear about it. This is why I don’t leave the house!”

“You can’t stay locked up in this attic forever. Listen, we’ve tried to be kind to you, to be sensitive to things that remind you of him. But you can’t live the rest of your life hiding from the world!”

“What if I don’t want to be part of the world?” Isa felt finally turned and faced her mother. “Thanks to our hero prince, the world thinks I’m good for nothing anyway! There’s a reason all the women my age are expecting children, and their little sisters are getting married, and I’m not. Is it so much to ask that my nose not be rubbed in it? That I get to just stay where I’m wanted?”

“But you can’t do that!” Deline was now just as loud as Isa, her voice quivering.

“And why not?”

“Because you were born for more than that!” Before Isa could reply, however, Launce burst into the room, out of breath.

“Mum, Isa, Father’s home. Something’s wrong.” In a flash, Deline was downstairs. It took Isa longer to make her way down the wooden steps, but when she finally did, she could see that something was indeed wrong. Ansel’s face was pale, and no matter how many blankets Megane and Launce piled on him, he shivered. What frightened Isa the most, however, was the wild feverish look in his eye. He looked like a dog cornered in an alley. It was ten minutes before his teeth stopped chattering enough to speak a single sentence, which was directed at Megane, asking her to take care of his horse.

“Let Launce do it,” Deline told him as the girl bounded off. “She’s been dying to see you, and the horse will take at least half an hour.”

“I know,” Ansel finally looked up from the tea they’d placed in his hands. “But I have something I must tell you all, and I’m afraid it will frighten her.” At this, they all stopped what they were doing and stared. Isa felt a chill touch her heart. For though he spoke to them all, it was her he was looking at.

“We must pack what little we can with great haste. Take only what you need. I will send a message to Marko. We are leaving tonight after the sun sets.” Dumbfounded, Isa looked at her mother and brother, but they seemed as much at a loss as she was.

“We’re doing what?” Launce was the first one to find his voice.

“We’re leaving with the Caregivers tonight. All of us.”

“But . . . why?” Deline frowned.

“Father,” Isa put her hands on her father’s arm and knelt close to him. “What happened” Her touch seemed to calm him, but when his eyes met hers, they were wild with worry.

“Isa,” his voice was hollow and old. “It’s all my fault. I’ve done something terrible, and I cannot undo it. This is the only way I know how to save you. I . . . I was caught out on the mountain when the storm hit. I was afraid I would freeze, so I took the only familiar path I could find.” Ansel swallowed loudly before looking beseechingly at the rest of his family. “I sought the shelter of the Fortress.” The silence was deafening as a familiar feeling stirred in Isa’s heart. She suddenly knew what kind of turn her father’s journey had taken.

“The place is surely cursed,” Ansel spoke again, shaking his head at his tea. “I used to laugh at such superstitions, but there was hardly a light in the entire stronghold.”

“The servants?” Deline placed her hand over her heart.

“Shadows . . . phantoms. I don’t know. There are no bodies to serve the prince, but the spirits are certainly not lacking. And they do his bidding as well as any staff.” He shivered with the memory. “And then there was the prince. I don’t know how, but he somehow escaped the enchantment. At least, he still has a body. I couldn’t see much for the darkness. He saw me, however, and he demanded to know about my family.”

A sob suddenly wrenched itself from Ansel’s body. “He said he would send a plague upon you all with his power if I did not obey! Isa, forgive me!” Her father dropped his tea cup on the floor and clutched at her hands desperately, his brown eyes desperately searching hers. “I tried so hard to shield you. I told him nothing of your injuries, only your strengths, and as little as I could. And yet, . . . he has demanded that you come to the Fortress to stay with him.”

Horror washed over Isa. Even under a curse, would he never stop? Why couldn’t he simply let her be? As the fear moved through her, however, it was quickly replaced with an even stronger emotion. How dare he? How dare this man threaten her family, using them as leverage to wage this strange war upon her?

“We can make him leave his hiding hole to come here and face us like a man! We could gather a militia!” Launce was fuming when Isa realized they were still talking.

“No, we do not know the true strength of his power,” Ansel replied. “It would be best if we simply went with the Caregivers. They are our fastest way of escape. I don’t think he’ll be able to reach us on the third day if we leave tonight. We’ll be nearly out of the kingdom by then.” Isa quietly stood and slipped back up to her attic. Her family meant well, but their attempts would be fruitless. They didn’t know the true power the prince wielded. She did.

The accident had taken place fourteen years before, when she was only nine, but the day was etched into her memory like writing on a tombstone. Lean and nimble, she’d weaved her way through the crowd to the street to see the handsome young prince as he rode by. She’d seen him from a distance a number of times when visiting the Fortress with her father, but this was the closest she had ever been to him. She’d been bumped from behind, however, and it sent her sprawling right into his horse’s path.

How noble he’d looked when he jumped down to help her up. It took her a moment before she could shake the giddy fog from her mind, and by then he had left her side. Instinctively, she’d run and grabbed his sleeve, unaware at the time that it was inappropriate to touch a sovereign.

The pain had been excruciating, but what she’d never told anyone was that the pain hit before the horse’s heavy hooves ever touched her. The moment he shook her off, a white hot pain had shot through her, as if he’d taken a branding iron and made her blood burn. The animal that had trampled her seconds later had left its mark for the rest of the world to see, but Isa could still recall the first pain more than that of her broken ankle and wrist.

If the prince had threatened her family, Isa had no doubt that he had the ability and the intentions to carry through with his plans, Caregivers or not. There was no other choice. Isa would have to go to the Fortress.

She nearly went back downstairs to tell her family when she quickly realized they would never listen. Her father would die before he let her go, and her headstrong brother would probably get himself killed as well. She would need to leave before they had a chance to try anything foolish. So she returned to the family, but stayed quiet. Her father was instructing them on how to prepare for their journey.

“We must bring as little as possible and go about our business as normal for the rest of the day. I don’t want anyone aware that we’re all leaving. Only the Caregivers themselves will know.”

“And our mercantile?” Everyone turned to see little Megane standing in the doorway, her face white.

“I’m sorry, Megs,” Ansel sighed and held his arms out to her. “I didn’t see you standing there. No, we will have to leave our shop. But it will be alright. We will have one another, and we will set up a new life in the new land where Marko takes us. But we must not tell anyone, you understand? Anyone at all.” Megane nodded seriously, her golden curls and round blue eyes shining brightly in the fire’s light. “That’s my girl,” Ansel put his hand gently on her head before dismissing them all to do as they were told.

With a tight throat, Isa managed to grab both of her parents in a hug before gathering her things. They hugged her back, but Isa was sure they simply believed her to be afraid. They didn’t know it was probably the last embrace they would ever share.

Wiping her suddenly watery eyes on her sleeve, Isa finally turned and headed back to her room. She had few belongings of any real value. A silver hairbrush from her parents and a change of clothes were all she could find to put in her bag. Megane had left her own bag open on her bed, so Isa slipped her favorite childhood doll inside of it. Her sister had always admired it, and though Megane was nearly too old for dolls, she might find it a comforting reminder of Isabelle after she was gone.

She needed an excuse to leave the house, particularly as her father had just returned with such urgent news. Immediately, her thoughts went to her horse. After losing her ability to run and dance, Ansel had taught his daughter to find respite in the freedom of riding. It had become a way of escape for Isa over the years, giving her a chance to feel the wind rush past her as she moved unhindered over the earth. Her parents would think nothing of her spending one last evening in the countryside with her horse.

“I’m going out for a ride,” Isa finally announced to her family. It took all of her will to steady her voice as she spoke. “I . . . I need to think.” They nodded understandingly, and her mother threw her favorite green cloak around Isa’s shoulders.

“Use mine. It’s warmer than yours. We’ll be leaving just after nightfall, so be back soon.” Trying to smile, Isa nodded and headed out to the stable. Using the special step her father had made for her, she was soon on her horse and headed toward the mountain.

Isa had never feared the mountain. As a child, she’d run up and down its familiar face with her brother and friends like mountain goats. More hill than cliff, its slopes were gentle, and its peak was rounded off at the top. It would take a few hours to get to the Fortress because of the melting snow drifts that still stood from the night’s storm, but the path would be easy enough to find. An ancient tree marked its beginning, towering over all of its counterparts. From there, the path ran right alongside a stream carved every spring by snowmelt.

It felt strange to begin up the path again. She hadn’t visited the Fortress since the incident with the prince. It was too strenuous for her ankle, and her father thought it best if she wasn’t near the prince. The last time she’d set foot on this path was when she was young and free, able to run and dance without a care in the world. And now she was headed right into the domain of the man who had taken it all from her, strong leg, strong hand, even her wedding.

Isa couldn’t help but shudder as she tried not think about what he could possibly want from her. Did he know who she was, or did he simply choose to pour out his wrath on the first passerby he could find? Though the stories of the Fortress monarchs had always painted them with at least decent senses of honor and chivalry, Isa had heard stories of how the rulers of other lands treated their wives and concubines. She wondered if that was what he wanted of her. Isa was never left alone with her fear, however, for her anger at what he had done, what he might want her to do, burned deep inside as well.

As the slope got a bit steeper, Isa had to focus more on guiding her horse along the snowy trail. As they walked, Isa began to sense that she wasn’t alone. She looked around warily, hoping to spot a harmless animal in the brush or the trees, but she could see nothing. The forest was silent. Not even squirrels chattered. She tried to focus on the road ahead, pushing her horse just a bit faster. The closer she got to the Fortress, though, the more she felt the prying eyes.

When she spotted the Fortress entrance, Isa thought she’d made it. Just at that moment, however, something large flew out of the bushes and slammed into her, knocking her off her horse.

“Launce!” she gasped as she stared up into the face of her brother.

“What are you thinking?” He angrily ignored her question. “I thought you might get curious, but I didn’t think you’d actually be stupid enough to take the bait!”

“If you get off me, I’ll tell you!” Launce sat back enough to allow her to stand up. Isa scolded herself silently. She should have known her brother wouldn’t let her leave without a goodbye. Actually, she knew he wouldn’t let her leave at all. That was why she’d slipped out of the house when she thought he was out visiting his sweetheart one last time. Apparently, he’d been able to read her better than she thought. Isa took a breath.

“Father might think we can outrun the prince’s powers, but he’s wrong.” Launce stared back at her with unforgiving eyes.

“So I’m supposed to let you simply run off to live with the madman prince?” For the first time, Isa wondered if she would actually be able to follow through with her plan. Launce was strong, and though she was tall, he was a whole head taller. It would be nothing for him to pick her up and take her home against her will.

“Would you sentence Megane to a slow death of sickness and pain?” she asked. His eyes widened a bit, so she continued. “Because he’s strong enough. Launce, I felt it! When the prince touched me in the street all those years ago, I felt his power! It was more painful than I can describe. I don’t know what he wants me for, but I do know that I want none of it near Megane. Or Mother or Father. Besides, if I don’t do as he says, do you think he’ll really spare me? My fate is sealed either way.”

Isa sighed and leaned against her horse. “But the rest of you have a chance, particularly Megs. Let me do this for her. Please don’t take it away from me.” Isa drew in a shaky breath and added, “I don’t think either one of us could live with ourselves if something happened to her.”

The icy look had melted off of Launce’s face, leaving the torn, helpless expression of the little boy Isa remembered from long ago. She breathed an inner sigh of relief as she saw her words sink in. Launce had always been protective of her, but they had grown up as a team. Megane was, on the other hand, the baby. Pranks they’d played on one another were simply not played on her. The unspoken rule was that she was to be protected above all else. And this was Isa’s only hope for convincing her brother to let her go. She knew she’d won when she saw tears welling up his eyes.

Without another word, her little brother pulled her into a hug, and Isa clung to him, the fear and anguish of separation suddenly crashing down on her.

“You must keep Father from coming for me,” she sniffled into Launce’s shoulder. “You have to remind him that whether I stay or whether I go, the prince will have me in sickness or captivity. I’ll be a happier captive if I know the family is safe.” Launce finally pulled out of the embrace, still glaring at her. But he helped her back up on her horse and gave her a stiff nod before turning back down the path.

Feeling even more alone than before, Isa turned off the main road and the Fortress came into full view. The great stronghold was nothing new to Isa. She’d visited it many times with Ansel as a child, but never had it been so empty. The lofty battlements looked cold and foreboding without the soldiers at their posts. And the great front gate was closed. It seemed the prince wanted her to ask permission before entering his domain, to be reminded of just how small and insignificant she was. The old resentment flared up as Isa stared at the distant, lofty gate. Prince Everard might be forcing her to come, but that didn’t mean she was going to play by his rules.

Isa turned her horse abruptly away from the front entrance. Skirting the outer wall, she headed around to the back of the Fortress, hoping the hole hadn’t been patched up. The bushes had grown since she’d last visited, but to her relief, the gap hadn’t been discovered. The servant children had shown her the opening in the outer wall once, how they used it to get in and out of the Fortress without their parents’ knowledge. It was covered by a dense thicket of foliage, barely big enough for Isa’s horse. But once she made it through, she was very glad she’d come this way.

Much less intimidating, the servants’ entrance was smaller and had fewer grandiose architectures. If she’d gone further down the road, Isa would have made it to the servant’s gate. What had been open for her father, however, must have been visited by some sort of spirit keeper, for the back gate was now closed. Isa rode through the open fields, noticing for the first time a strange set of great statues that filled half of the meadow behind the Fortress.

They seemed innumerable, large effigies lined neatly up in perfect rows and columns. Snow covered most of the figures, but there was something eerily human about them. They most definitely hadn’t been there when she was little. Each one had unique features, carved of stone and yet giving the impression that they could get up and walk away whenever they pleased.

Isa finally arrived at the royal stables, where she took as long as she possibly could to feed and groom her horse. As she worked, she seriously considered sleeping in the stable. Her animal was warm and familiar. He was safe. But, Isa reminded herself, she had not abandoned her family to hide in a stable. She had come with a purpose, and no one would be safe until she fulfilled it.

“Good night, my dear friend,” she softly rubbed the horse one last time. “I’ll come see you as soon as I can.” And with a deep breath and a prayer, Isa left the stable and headed for the servants’ door of the Fortress.

The moment Isa crossed the threshold, her nerve nearly fled. The sun was almost set behind her, but the darkness before her was thick and terrifying. It was like a black fog had filled the once pristine, shining marble halls. The air smelled deeply of mildew and dust. After letting the door close behind her, she simply stood there, hoping her eyes would somehow adjust to the blackness. Somewhere deep down, despite her fear, Isa hoped this entrance would annoy the prince. She couldn’t bear to give him the satisfaction of making her feel insignificant. Not any more than he already had, at least.

Isa finally found one single candle sitting on a table not far from the door. She nearly lost both the candle and her balance, however, when something cold brushed her arm. Her hand shook a bit as she held the flame up, trying to see what had touched her. There was nothing but the empty hall to see. Isa nearly screamed when two more breezes gave her gentle pushes from behind.

It was then that she remembered Ansel’s warnings about the shadows. Drawing Deline’s cloak about her as tightly as she could, Isa decided it would be best to do as they wished. Ansel had seemed to think they meant him no harm, but he really hadn’t been there long enough to know for sure. Isa was pushed through a number of large empty halls and up several flights of stairs before she was allowed to rest. To her relief, a door was finally opened that led not into another hall or passageway, but rather a small room with a dim fire in a large hearth.

The fire didn’t completely chase away the darkness, but it lit the room enough that Isa could see that it had once been a very grand room. The tapestries and carpets that were now filled with moth holes and covered in dust had obviously once been very beautiful, and were most likely made of rare fabrics. An oversized bed with tall posts at each corner filled much of the room, its head against the wall, next to the fire. A large wooden writing desk was placed near the windows that faced south.

“Thank you,” Isa whispered to the shadows, a tear coming to her eye as she recognized the lights of Soudain in the distance at the foot of the mountain. There were the sentries, the ones that stood guard at the town entrance at night with their torches. Her father had been right. The shadows at least weren’t malicious. If she was to be trapped in this place, at least she could sleep with her beloved city in sight.

That seemed to be the end of the shadow’s kindnesses, however. Before she knew it, Isa was being pushed over to a large wardrobe in the corner of the room. She gasped as it opened on its own to reveal a large variety of dresses. Like the once lavish room, these gowns had been incredibly beautiful at one time. But they, too, smelled like wet dust. Isa stared stupidly at them for a moment before she realized why she was there.

“Am I supposed to put one of these on?” She felt silly asking the empty room. In response, however, the shadows nudged her one step closer to the wardrobe. “These are all far too extravagant for me,” she shook her head. “I don’t need anything like this.” Again, she received a push. It seemed she had no choice. After glaring behind her, hoping the shadows would catch her annoyance, Isa picked the simplest of the gowns. If she was going to be introduced to the man who had tried three times now to steal her life, she would not be made a fool in princess’s rags.

The gown she chose was simple but still luxurious. It was dark blue with a white bodice, with intricate silver stitching adorning the skirt just below the waist. Despite the craftsmanship, however, the dress smelled as awful as the rest of the Fortress. Still, Isa was forced to wear it. She could feel pulls and pushes at her sturdy boots, but she refused to let those leave her feet. She wasn’t entirely sure that she’d be able to walk through the length of the palace without them.

“You can do anything else to me that you wish,” she scowled at the fussing shadows, “but those aren’t coming off until I’m ready for bed.” Eventually, they left her boots alone and began to fuss with her hair, which admittedly, was rather messy from her journey up the mountain in the cold wind.

Finally, she was ready. Isa was getting used being pushed or pulled from all directions, so she went willingly when they prodded her out the door once more. This time, much to her relief, the halls were just a bit brighter. Someone or something had lit torches and placed them along the walls. With light now to walk by, she moved somewhat confidently. Until she walked right into the prince.

His shout of surprise was the first real sound Isa had heard since leaving her horse. It mingled in the air with her own startled cry as they both fell back a step. Immediately, Isa half knelt, half fell into a curtsy. As much as she meant to be brave, a deep fear quickly wriggled into her heart. She would soon find out what awful plans he had for her, and she suddenly didn’t know if she could bear it.

“Your Highness!” her voice quivered strangely. “I apologize.” It took him a moment to recover his own voice, but when he spoke, it was surprisingly rich, rude as his words were.

“Are you Isabelle?”

“Yes, Sire.” As if any other sane woman would sneak into the cursed citadel. An awkward silence ensued as she continued to kneel and he stood over her. Finally, he demanded to know why she hadn’t arrived during the day.

“I beg your pardon?” Isa had to keep herself from looking up in response to the strange question.

“I told your father that you needed to come during the day!” His voice was petulant. Isa had nothing to say to this. “He didn’t tell you, did he?” the prince asked. Isa shook her head. “You came on your own, didn’t you?” For fear of giving away her family’s plans, Isa remained quiet. There was another long pause before the prince cleared his throat, his voice a little less sullen when he spoke again.

“Isabelle, you may stand when I talk to you from now on. I dislike speaking to the floor.” As she stood, Isabelle dared to look at her prince for the first time in fourteen years. She nearly gasped aloud. He was the nothing like she’d expected. His hands were hidden in the folds of his clothes, but the part of his chin that showed was thin and pale, nearly chalky. Most of his face was hidden by the hooded cloak he wore, but even through the thick fabric, she could see his nearly emaciated frame. He was so bent he was nearly the same height that she was.

With a start, she also realized he stood and moved the way her grandfather had done before he died. But her grandfather had suffered from severe joint pain for years, and the prince should have been only twenty-seven, four years older than herself. It seemed her father had been wrong. The curse had touched the prince as well. This couldn’t possibly be the hero prince the children sang songs about, the one who had slain dozens in battle. And yet, here he was.

“You weren’t supposed to be here for two more days,” he growled again. “How did you get in?”

“The servants’ entrance, Sire,” Isa tried to keep the small smile off her face. At least she had succeeded in doing something her own way. “I thought it only appropriate, as I’m to be your servant.”

“It’s true that—Look up at me,” he interrupted himself, suddenly removing his hood. “I want to see you better.” Isa couldn’t have looked away if she’d wanted to. His face was gaunt. Dark circles seemed painted below his eyes, and his skin appeared fragile. It looked as if someone had stretched it too thinly over his sharp cheekbones. His golden hair was long and unkept, making his ashen cheeks look even more sunken.

But what really drew her gaze were his eyes. They were the only parts of his face that stood out more than his thin nose, but not because they were frightening as the rest of him was. The prince’s eyes would have been gray if not for the thin rings of blue fire that encircled his pupils. They blazed in a strange, beautiful rhythm that made her want to look closer. Unfortunately, she realized, those beautiful, extraordinary eyes were suddenly glaring at her with a very real hatred.

He remembers me. So he hadn’t brought her to the Fortress for revenge. The surprise and hate on his face was so intense that Isa would have wilted under it, had she not been battling similar feelings of her own. They stood glaring at one another for a long moment before his expression became more controlled. When he spoke again, his voice was slow and deliberate.

“Yes, you are my servant, but not the kind you think.”

“Then, Your Highness, what am I here for?” He stared strangely at her for a minute longer before answering.

“You’re here to help me break the curse.” Isa nearly fell back a step. She had imagined many horrible endings to her time with the prince, but none of them had involved breaking a curse. She was both relieved and horrified.

“I can do that?”

“We’ll see. Now, I assume you’re tired from your journey. You will be served supper in your chambers tonight, but tomorrow, you will dine with me.” And with that, the prince turned slowly and began to limp away. Still in shock, Isa stared as he paused one more time. “Oh, and one more thing. You are safe on the Fortress grounds by day, but you must never venture out after dark. I cannot protect you then.”

*

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Before Beauty – Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Author’s Note: This is a sneak peek of my novel, Before Beauty. If you read any or all of the preview chapters on my blog and wish to purchase the entire book ($3.99 ebook/$8.99 print book), you can do so through your preferred store links here.

Ansel wrapped his cloak around himself even tighter as he started down the mountain. His journey had taken even long than he’d thought, and the eve of his return looked like it might be have to be postponed. The black clouds above him were heavy with snow, and he still had a long descent ahead of him. Even in good weather it would have taken him two hours to make it down to Soudain, but the biting wind whistled eerily as if to promise it would take him much longer than that.

The trip had not been encouraging. The other cities and towns Ansel had visited were also suffering. Trade and travel had slowed to a crawl after the Fortress went dark. Without the protection of the Fortress and its kings, fear had driven many of the smaller towns to close their borders, and those that had remained open saw few tradesmen or merchants. Ansel would be forever grateful that the darkening of the Fortress had spared his daughter’s life, but he now hoped that he had enough in his own mercantile to feed his family, much less those who came to purchase food throughout the winter.

Another large gust of wind interrupted Ansel’s thoughts, and when he looked up, he realized white flurries were already beginning to descend. Within moments, it was nearly impossible to see the road. He quickly considered what he should do. There were no mountain cottages this high  up the mountain that he could seek shelter in. In fact, the only thing that he could possibly reach before the blizzard fully struck would be the Fortress. And the Fortress was dark.

More icy mountain air hit him as he considered this. After the Fortress had closed, the townspeople had whispered to one another of curses and all other sorts of dark magic. Ansel had paid little attention to it, simply thankful that whatever had happened had kept Isa alive. Besides, he was a practical man. He didn’t have the time to sit around fretting about gossip borne of daydreams. Now that he was suddenly faced with the choice of visiting the great Fortress, however, Ansel had to admit that he felt a bit of unease. Even if there was nothing to the rumors, his family’s last run-in with the prince had turned out to be more than disastrous.

Still, he reasoned, he had no choice. No matter how he felt about the prince, he had friends there among the servants. Surely when they saw who was knocking upon their doors, they would be willing to open up and provide him simple respite in their quarters until the storm passed. The prince need not even know.

It wasn’t long before Ansel was able to make out the post that marked the way to the servants’ entrance. He coaxed his tired animal onto the dirt path, which was now nearly invisible for the snow. Soon he was at the stables.

Ansel should have felt relief at making it safely to a shelter, but a wave of anxiety hit him as he pushed open the heavy wooden door. There were a few dim torches lit, but no grooms came to greet him. Everyone knew that like his father, the prince was an avid horsemen. He surely would have left at least two groomsmen to watch over his favorite warhorses in such a storm.

“Hello?” Ansel called out. No one answered. His disquiet grew as he guided his horse into an empty stall. The other horses whinnied at him. They looked strangely thin for the king’s animals. Peering closer, Ansel saw that they had feed in their troughs, but not much. The Fortress must be suffering from food shortages as well, he realized. In accordance, he took only enough to give his beast a few mouthfuls. He would pay the steward back when he found him. After brushing his animal and making sure he had clean hay, Ansel bundled back up to make the cold trek to the servants’ entrance.

The Fortress’s greeting was eerily similar to the one he received in the stables. When no one responded to his knocks, Ansel let himself in. As soon as the door was shut, he realized that not one candle was lit. Not only was it as dark as night, but it was just as quiet, too. No voices echoed down the stone halls. There were no whispers of children, or even footsteps to break the silence.

Something, a suspicious feeling kept him from calling out, so instead, he felt his way down the corridor to where he knew the servants’ kitchen would be. There was one lone candle lit on the long wooden table and a weak fire in the large hearth. As long as Ansel had been visiting the Fortress to do business and speak with friends like the steward, there had always been people and food in this place. Women were always chasing giggling children away from the freshly baked bread, and hungry young men Launce’s age were always hanging about looking for leftovers.

But now, aside from the small strange flames, there was no one. After a long, uneventful wait on the threshold, Ansel slowly walked into the large room. He found some old bread and aged cheese in one of the cabinets. The food was so dry it was nearly inedible, but Ansel was hungry enough to try and stomach it.

A flicker of light against the wall caught his eye. There was something about the way the shadow danced that unnerved him. It was too much like a human shadow. Shaking his head, he went back to eating. The exhaustion and cold must be getting to him, he thought. When the shadow moved again, however, more boldly this time, Ansel froze with food still in his mouth. Fear made his limbs feel strange, and he began to shiver harder than he had outside.

After a long moment of staring, he finally gained enough courage to swallow the rest of his bite. Standing up slowly, he faced the strange silhouette. It was really too large to be cast by the poor flames of the hearth or the candle. After he’d stared at it for a long moment, it moved again, jumping three feet down the wall toward the door. Another long minute later, it moved once more. Ansel got the feeling he was supposed to follow.

The game continued out of the kitchen and down the hall toward the servants’ chambers. As he followed, Ansel got the feeling that this shadow wasn’t the only one. The further he walked, the more invisible eyes he felt on him. Even stranger than that, however, was the sensation that the eyes were familiar. And though the situation should have sent him running back into the storm, he instinctively felt he could trust the strange apparitions. Either that, or the ancient food he’d just eaten was meddling with his ability to reason.

Unlike the shadows, however, the Fortress itself was as unfriendly as he’d ever seen it. The darkness was nearly suffocating. Walking in it felt like walking deeper and deeper into a tomb. The air was musty and damp, and it smelled as if neither a door nor window had been opened in decades. What had happened to the kingdom’s beacon of shining light, the sacred place of protection? What kind of power could overcome it? This thought set him trembling more than anything else he’d encountered. Perhaps the gossip was not as farfetched as he’d first believed.

The shadow kept him moving quickly down the corridors, but he paused before the throne room. There was one light, the brightest of any he’d seen yet that shone through the high windows above the throne. All the other windows were covered, their tapestries drawn closed. It was moonlight, Ansel realized, that was coming through the highest of windows. The storm must have abated.

As his eyes began to adjust to the new light, he realized the grand room had been decorated and left that way. He could only guess it had been set for the great coronation ceremony, as that was the night everything had gone dark. He had turned to go back into the hallway when a voice spoke from behind him.

“And how is it that a commoner escaped the curse of the Fortress?” Ansel slowly turned to see that the throne, though hidden in shadow from the moon’s rays, was not empty. A dark figure sat hunched in it. Its voice was soft and terrible.

“I beg your pardon, my lord?” Ansel timidly called back.

“All of my servants, my soldiers, and even my home itself were cursed into this blackness. No one has come nor gone for months. And yet, you come in as if you own the place.

“I beg your forgiveness, Sire,” Ansel quickly knelt and bowed his head. So the prince had survived. “I sought shelter from the storm. If I’d stayed outside I would have died. I did not mean to intrude.”

“What is your name?”

“Ansel Marchand of Soudain, Your Highness.”

“And what are you doing out in such a storm?”

“I sit on Soudain’s city council, and I was sent to visit other parts of the land to inquire about their matters of trade.”

“So you thought it would be acceptable to trespass on sacred ground for this?” At this question, Ansel swallowed hard, praying his response would not be considered inappropriate.

“I beg your pardon, Sire, but was the Fortress not a place of asylum for the weary in the days of old?” The prince thought for a moment.

“It does seem that the Fortress has spared you, though I cannot understand why. But perhaps,” The prince spoke slowly, “you can be of use to me.” Ansel’s heart skipped a beat. What on earth could the prince need with him? “But first, I need to know why you were willing to enter a place that is cursed. What makes your life so worth living that you are willing to risk meeting with phantoms?”

Ansel’s words stuck in his throat. After narrowly escaping the royal edict meant for Isa, he could not tell the prince about his family. So he remained silent.

“You would defy your prince?” For the first time, the terrible voice rose in tone, which made it only more awful. Still, Ansel would not speak.

“If you are unwilling to answer me, I will have no choice than to find out for myself. I supposed you have heard of my strength?” Of course he had. Though few knew how the monarchs’ power worked, everyone knew their kings, and sometimes their queens, wielded a special gift. It had been the very reason Destin was the most feared kingdom in the realm. And it was most definitely not the kind of power Ansel wanted involved with Isa. Everard continued.

“It wouldn’t be difficult for me to find whomever or whatever you’re protecting. It also wouldn’t be difficult for me to share the sickness of this place with them.” This was more than Ansel could take. Defenseless against such a threat, he closed his eyes and spoke, his voice barely above a whisper.

“I have a family, Your Highness. I promised them I would come home safely.”

“Tell me about this family.”

“You wouldn’t be interested in the family of a common merchant, Sire. We are much like other families of our kind.” The prince thought for a moment before replying,

“No, I don’t think you are. You’re too careful, too protective of them. Oh come now, don’t be so surprised. I’ve given my life to studying strategy and defense, and you, Tradesman, are putting up all your defenses. Now, I truly do want to hear about your family. As you can guess, I get few visitors at the moment. Entertain me.” Ansel swallowed hard before answering. King Rodrigue had despised weakness, and after his son’s attempt to weed out Ansel’s daughter, it appeared the prince despised it as well. Ansel chose his words carefully.

“My wife is a shrewd woman, and runs my store as well as I do. She has also taught all of the children to be of use there. The youngest, Megane, is just a child, but she already shows a talent for weaving. Launce, my boy, is twenty, and he’s training to take over the mercantile one day. My oldest daughter . . . ,” Ansel’s voice faltered for a moment. What if the prince knew her name? What if he remembered her? “My oldest daughter has a strong heart and a quick mind like no other.” The prince held up his hand, and Ansel stopped.

“A strong heart, you say. What is this daughter’s name?” Ansel faltered again before answering.

“Isabelle, Sire.”

“And what about her heart makes it so strong?” The prince’s voice was cynical, but Ansel detected a keen interest in it. His heart pounded as he struggled to answer Everard’s question.

“She . . . suffered an injury as a child, but she never gave up. She was determined to be strong once again, and she is. Isabelle never gives up hope.” Ansel prayed that would be the end of the prince’s interest in his daughter, that the assurance of her strength and productivity would be enough, but he had no way to know. The prince’s expressions were hidden in the dark. It seemed like a very long time that the two men sat there in silence, one kneeling and the other hunching in his throne. Finally, the prince spoke.

“So, Ansel Marchand, I have an assignment for you.” His voice was quiet and terrible again.

“Yes, Sire?”

“When the road is clear enough to return, you will go back to your home. Isabelle will gather her things and say goodbye to her family and friends. Then you will bring her back here to me before dusk on the third day. Three days should be more than enough time for her to do so properly.” It was as if Ansel’s heart had stopped and his lungs had collapsed. He fought for his voice as he threw himself at his prince’s feet.

“Your Highness, please! There must be some mistake! Take me! I will stay here in the stead of your servants! I will do anything you ask of me! But this I cannot do!”

“You can,” the prince said testily, “and you will.”

“No!” Ansel rose to his feet, his voice shaking as rage overcame his fear. “I will not give my child to you! You may sit here in the darkness of your great Fortress, but outside of it, you are nothing! If you were, the trade routes would no longer be filled with robbers and vagabonds, and Destin would once again thrive! You, Sire, cannot make me do such a thing!”

“Oh, but I can. Have you forgotten my threat? I may not leave the Fortress, but that doesn’t mean my power is limited by gates or byways or walls. With just a wave of my hand, I can send this dark sickness upon your whole family as well. I’m sure your daughter who is strong of heart wouldn’t want such a thing to befall her brother or sister or mother. No, sir, I don’t think you’re willing to risk your entire family’s well-being for that of one.”

Ansel’s knees gave out, and he collapsed onto the cold stone floor, cursing himself for ever setting foot in the wretched citadel. It would have been better if he’d died in the storm.

“Take him away,” the prince flicked his hand, and invisible beings grasped Ansel by the arms and dragged him out of the throne room. The unseen hands were gentle as they laid him in a bed that smelled of dust. He struggled to get up, but they firmly held him in place. Eventually, he could fight no longer and his fatigue won, but even in sleep he could not escape the torment of the guilt that consumed him.

In the middle of the night, he was awakened by an idea that had slipped errantly into his dreams. Cautiously he sat up. It appeared the shadows had left him alone once he’d stopped struggling. Silently, he hurried to put on his boots and winter coverings. They were not entirely dry yet, as the fire the shadows had built in his room was very weak, but he hardly noticed. There was a way to get Isabelle safe.

In three days’ time, she and the rest of the family would be far away, and the prince would have to end these vile, constant attempts on her life. Ansel wondered if the prince knew about his attempted escape as he sneaked out to his horse. The animal stamped its feet, seeming as desperate to leave the place as he was. Less than an hour later, they were on their way. Snow had made the mountain road nearly impassible, but the merchant could not have cared less. Isa would be safe, his family would be together, and Heaven help the man that tried to stop him.

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Before Beauty – Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Author’s Note: This is a sneak peek of my novel, Before Beauty. If you read any or all of the preview chapters on my blog and wish to purchase the entire book ($3.99 ebook/$8.99 print book), you can do so through your preferred store links here.

“Your eyes are sparkling,” Deline smiled at her daughter. Isa beamed back.

“It’s perfect.” And it was. The dress was simple, but it was everything she could have hoped for. The gauzy white made her feel like she was floating in a cloud. Her arms were covered in lace, and her veil made the world look like the clouds filled the room. Best of all, the long gown covered all but the toes of her shoes. If she stood still and buried her hand in the layers of white material, it was impossible to see the crook of her ankle or how her left wrist turned inward.

“No, Baby,” her mother wiped a tear from her eye. “You’re perfect.” Isa fought the tears that threatened to spill down her own face. She still couldn’t believe this happiness was hers. At one time, she’d thought it never would be.

It was hard to imagine that just months ago, she’d been running for her life. After receiving a midnight letter from a friend at the Fortress, Isa’s father had dragged the family out of bed, whispering severely that there were to be no candles or fires lit. Deline had wept as Isa’s father and brother had bundled her up and buried her beneath a load of supplies in the horse cart and fled the city in the dark of night. For three days, they had waited up in a deserted mountain cottage before Deline had been able to send word that Isa would be safe again. The Fortress had gone dark, and the royal order had never been carried out.

Still, when they had returned, the neighbors said Ansel should send his daughter with the Caregivers. It had been a close call. While years had passed since the Fortress monarchs had shown true interest in the welfare of its poor, everyone had hoped their new king would bring about a more merciful reign. Instead, Isa had very nearly been killed in her sleep by the first edict of the young prince. No one knew when the Fortress would awaken, the neighbors said, and then what would become of Isa? No, her father had argued, much to Isa’s relief. Isa was staying with them.

It wasn’t that Isa disliked the Caregivers. They seemed kind enough. Merchants by trade, they would come with great varieties of foreign wares, many which her father sold in his mercantile. They didn’t just trade for money, however. Everyone knew the Caregivers by the black metal rings they wore. Those rings, they claimed, were a sign of asylum for anyone who needed sanctuary. Unbeknownst to the king and his elite, those who could not provide for themselves were smuggled out with the Caregivers to their own country, where they were given fitting jobs, food, and shelter.

This was all fine and good, but it had always bothered Isa that those who left were not allowed to contact their families. It was too dangerous, Marko said. Marko was one of the Caregivers who visited Soudain most. An old family friend, Ansel often purchased his goods for the mercantile. Marko was a good-natured man, and since they were small children, he had never come to the mercantile without sweets for Isa and her brother and sister. He was fiercely built for a tradesman, and would have frightened her if she hadn’t known him for so long. His long hair was always pulled back into a tight knot at the back of his head, and he smelled of campfire smoke. Marko had visited not long after the Fortress went dark, and he had strongly advised Ansel and Deline to send Isa with him as well.

“It’s too dangerous to leave her here!” He’d argued, gesturing in the direction of the Fortress with one of his large arms.

“I will not send my daughter off by herself to a place I have never been and will likely never see,” Ansel had answered his friend in a steady voice.

“You could come with her! We would happily take you back with us, all of you!”

“It would be too conspicuous,” her father had shaken his head. “I’m on Soudain’s city council. They would notice when I left. No, I will care for my daughter. She will be safe with her family.”

That had been the end of that discussion, even when other acquaintances and friends had urged Ansel to send her away, and Isa was grateful. After a few weeks, the Fortress had remained dark, and the urgings had stopped. Life began to return to normal. Well, better than normal for Isa. Raoul had asked her to marry him.

Isa smiled to herself as her mother repinned her dress one more time. Tonight, everything would change. Tonight, Raoul would return from his journey with his father, and she would become the wife of the future chancellor. She imagined, as she often had in the last months, what it would feel like to see him again. They’d exchanged letters, she more than he, several times since he’d gone. His father kept him busy with political meetings and social events, so his letters were far and few between, but such was the life of a chancellor. She was fine with that. It was simply a pleasure to write to him, something most women wouldn’t have been able to do. But tonight, she would have no need for quill or paper. This would be the night she would wed the one who had been able to see past her brokenness.

“Now, we have no time for crying,” Deline wiped both her face and her daughter’s. “The guests will be here soon, and I can already hear your aunt ordering everyone around. I will be back up when it’s time.” Isa watched as her mother left, and felt a familiar pang. She would miss her mother. Most women would have been nearly beside themselves with worry, trying desperately to get their grown daughters married, particularly if they were Isa’s age and still unwed. But not Deline.

“You’ll always have a home here,” Deline had told Isa the day she got engaged. “No matter how old you are or how many years pass, you can always come home.” With those words in mind, Isa carefully practiced the wedding dance steps as she waited impatiently. She had decided to forgo her sturdy walking boots in favor of the beautiful white slippers her father had commissioned the tailor to make for her. They would make dancing more difficult, but she was determined not to give anyone a reason to smirk or whisper. She would be as beautiful and graceful as any bride this night.

“Isa,” Deline finally opened the door. “He’s here. It’s time.” Taking a shaky breath, Isa tested her ankle once more before beginning down the stairs. It seemed like the whole city was there, crowded into her parents’ home. Friends, neighbors, and family smiled at her as she slowly descended, but they weren’t the ones she was looking for. There. Her groom stood by the door next to his father. Straight backed, he held his head high. His brown coat was clean, despite having just returned from a long journey, and his black boots shined. Slicked back with oil, his neatly trimmed hair matched his boots. What she was most interested in, however, were his eyes. Dark brown, nearly black they were so dark, they reflected the light of the dying sun as sunset passed through the shuttered room. And they were looking right back at her.

As soon as she saw him, she remembered just how handsome he was, why all the other girls had been so jealous when he proposed to her. That a crippled girl should have the son of the chancellor was unthinkable. She who couldn’t walk evenly didn’t deserve the responsibilities of being his wife. And yet, he had chosen her. Isa walked as carefully as she could, making sure not to teeter in front of the crowd, until she was finally standing before him.

His dark eyes were wide and his face was taut, as though he was afraid. She shared the feeling.

Cautiously, she curtsied.

“My lord,” she uttered the first words of ceremony, just as she’d been practicing for months. “May my life strength be bound to yours.”

“Isabelle,” he whispered, “we need to talk. Alone.” Isa stared back at him, momentarily unsure of what to say or do. Not only had he failed to give the ceremonial response, but he’d called her Isabelle. He hadn’t called her Isabelle since they were children. Something, she quickly realized, was very wrong. Nodding slightly, she began to tremble as she turned to walk to the back door of the house. Whispers and gasps went up as they walked. In addition to all her other woes, Isa miserably admitted to herself that wearing the silken slippers had been a bad idea as she struggled toward the door. After a few slow steps, Raoul stiffly offered her his arm. Silently, everyone watched them leave.

Isa’s mind was spinning. They should have begun the ceremonial dance by now. She felt as if she were stepping out of one of her daydreams and into a nightmare. As they sat on the garden’s low stone wall, she realized she didn’t want to hear what he had to say.

“Isabelle, we’ve been apart for some time now,” Raoul began slowly, his gentle voice strained. Isa nodded silently, staring at him with fear knocking her heart about in her chest.

“You know my father took me along so I would learn how other chancellors and governors lived. He says that living here can sometimes blind us to the traditions people of our station must carry on. It’s too easy to get wrapped up in what we desire for ourselves, and what we truly need in order to best serve the people.” Isa nodded again. She had known this, as he’d written about it in one of his first letters.

“We saw many other administrators while we were gone. Eight, actually. Some lived like lords, and others had little more than their people. But they all had had one thing in common.” Raoul dropped his eyes the ground. He didn’t go on. It took Isa a moment to realize he was talking about her.

“Their wives,” she quietly whispered. Raoul nodded. It was a moment before Isa was could speak. “So, you’re saying I’m unfit to be a chancellor’s wife.”

“Now wait–” he began to correct her, but she held her hand up angrily.

“I can read and write, which is more than you can say for many men in this wretched town. I can figure the sums of the treasury better than you can! How is that an unsuitable match for a chancellor? What more could you possibly want?”

“I need a woman who could rule in my stead if something happened!”

“No! No, what you mean is you want a mindless ninny who can stand by your side without having to lean on you for support! A flawless flirt who can charm visiting politicians with her grace and allure! You want a woman without a crooked hand or a lame foot!”

“Belle–”

“Don’t call me that!” She was shouting now. “Just tell me one thing. Was this your idea or your father’s?” He stared at her for a long moment before softly saying,

“It was my father’s wish for me to see how others lived, but it was my choice to live like them. I want what’s best for this people.”

“Then take what you want and go.” Isa’s father was suddenly beside him. “But before you do, I want you to know that neither you nor your father are ever welcome in my mercantile or my house ever again.” Ansel wore a look of deep hatred Isa had never seen before. “Men without honor have no place in my home.”

With a weak nod, Raoul looked silently down at her hand. Isa realized what he wanted, and angry tears spilled down her face as she yanked the ring off her hand and shoved it at him. No words seemed to come to the young man as he stared down at the silver band, so after a long moment, he simply turned and walked out the back gate. Isa and her father sat in silence for an immeasurable amount of time before she was finally brave enough to speak.

“Is everyone still inside?”

“No, your mother cleared them out after I asked Chancellor Dupont what his son was up to.” Isa nodded, and before she knew it, her father had drawn her close and held her tightly. She could hold back no more, and before long, she realized she was wailing. She’d felt pain before, like the day the prince had shoved her into the way of the rearing horse. She’d felt grief when she’d realized she could no longer dance. She’d felt sorrow when the other children left her alone to find more suitable play spots, places she could not walk to or climb.

But Raoul had always been the one to tell her it was alright, to stay with her when the others had run off. He had been the one to ask her to dance at all the town festivals when no other young men dared to. Raoul had been the one to nickname her Belle. He had been the one who believed she was worth marrying, despite her handicaps. But he had lied. And none of the pain she’d ever known compared to this.

Isa cried into her father’s shirt until she could no longer sit up straight. It wasn’t until she was tucked into her own bed that she realized she’d dozed off. She was still in her white dress, but she didn’t bother getting up to change. Instead, she lay in bed and listened to her parents in the next room over.

“Did he say why?” Her mother asked.

“Some nonsense about how it was acceptable for his son to befriend a crippled girl, and even ask her to go dancing sometimes.” Ansel’s voice was low, but Isa could hear the dishes they were collecting clatter and bang a lot louder than necessary. “But as Raoul’s father, it was his responsibility to direct him toward important matters, now that he’s a man. He didn’t say as much, but I can tell you right now that Isa’s the reason he took him on the trip, to show him what a chancellor’s wife ought to be.” At that moment, a dish shattered and Ansel cursed. Isa’s parents were silent for a long time before Deline spoke again.

“I’m worried about her, Ansel. I’ve never seen her like that.” Isa’s father gave a loud sigh, and Isa could imagine him running his hand through his graying hair.

“Me, too. But she’s a strong girl. She’ll get through it. She has to.”

Dawn was slow to come the next morning. Isa had drifted in and out of a tearful slumber. The light, however, brought little relief. Finally, Megane got out of her bed and crawled in with Isa. Isa held her little sister tightly, which released another set of tears. Megane watched her anxiously, but was silent until it was time to get dressed.

“You should fold that nicely,” she said as Isa crumpled the wedding dress and threw it in the drawer. “Then it won’t be wrinkled for the next time.”

“There won’t be a next time, Megs.”

“Why not?”

“Because men don’t want crippled women for their wives,” Isa spat out the words before she remember whom she was talking to. Megane’s eyes grew wide and she hurried out of the room. Isa felt badly for speaking to her sister in such a way, but she couldn’t chase the bitter words from her mouth.

As she collapsed back onto the bed, she felt her anger grow. Not just for Raoul, but for all the girls who had told her cripples don’t get husbands. For all those people who stared at her sympathetically every time she walked the city streets. For all the women who had nudged and winked at her as the wedding day had approached. For her small bed that should have been empty last night. But most of all, for the prince.

If it hadn’t been for him, she never would have been a cripple. She would have continued to dance, to run, and to grow and laugh with the other children. She would have been called beautiful by more than Raoul as she became a woman. She would have known the touch of a loving husband by now. It didn’t matter that no one had seen the prince since the Fortress had gone dark. Isa suddenly hated the man with a vengeance she didn’t know herself capable of until that instant.

The day didn’t improve things any for the family. After they spent all day cleaning up what should have been a wedding feast, Ansel came home from the city council meeting with grim news.

“The chancellor wants someone to visit the other cities and towns to see if their tradesmen have suffered as we have since the Fortress went dark.”

“And let me guess,” Deline sighed. “He chose you.”

“He’s just angry that you stood up to him last night!” Isa’s younger brother, Launce, muttered into his stew.

“I believe you’re right,” Ansel said to his son, “but whether he’s angry or not makes no difference. The other council members agreed to it. I leave tomorrow.”

“How long will you be gone, Papa?” Megane asked.

“Quite a while, Sweetheart,” Ansel lifted his youngest daughter out of her chair and into his lap.

“You’re not going all the way to the western hills are you?” Deline frowned. “Surely they wouldn’t make you go that far!”

“Unfortunately, yes. I’ll probably be gone until the leaves change color. But don’t worry,” he kissed his wife. “I promise to try and be back before the first snow.”

So Ansel left the next morning with all his provisions in saddle bags on one of the family horses. Goodbyes were tearful, all except the one he exchanged with Isa. Isa felt as if there were no more tears left to shed in the whole world. The rest of the family watched as he made his way east toward the mountain pass, but Isa turned and went back inside. Looking at the pass meant seeing the Fortress as it rose up out of the mountain side. And looking at the Fortress meant looking toward Prince Everard.

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Before Beauty – Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Author’s Note: This is a sneak peek of my novel, Before Beauty. If you read any or all of the preview chapters on my blog and wish to purchase the entire book ($3.99 ebook/$8.99 print book), you can do so through your preferred store links here.

“Find Solomon for me,” Garin instructed one of the servant girls as she ran by him. As far as any guest was concerned, the coronation ceremony was going splendidly. The aromas of the seven course feast were wafting out of the kitchens, filling the halls with the smells of wild boar, aged cheeses, and spiced stews. Candles lit every corner of the Fortress, making it as bright as day. Wine flowed freely, making the guests even merrier as they awaited the coronation of their beloved prince. Unfortunately, Garin had a feeling the guests weren’t the only ones enjoying the drinks tonight.

He wound his way through the guests as he quietly searched for Ever. It shouldn’t be so hard to locate the man who was an hour away from being crowned king. Garin was thankful that none of the guests seemed to suspect anything. Even before they had begun to partake in the drinks, their faces had been alight with the hopes and dreams that rested on Ever’s shoulders. King Rodrigue had been a good king by most standards, and Garin had sworn his loyalty to him without question, just as he had done with Rodrigue’s father and his father before him. But Everard was different. Even those who knew little of the incredible power that flowed through the prince knew he was special.

Ever had always been different. Though his father had missed the prince’s birth, as he’d been off on a campaign against one of the border lords, Garin had been there. The queen’s labor had been difficult and long. Garin had done his best to keep the Fortress servants productive, though it was difficult with Louise’s screams echoing down the stone halls.

There was a strange sensation in the air, one of anticipation. The Fortress had not felt like this on the day of Rodrigue’s birth. Garin hadn’t felt anything like this in a long, long time.

“What are you up to?” he’d muttered to the Fortress as he made his way to the queen’s chambers, squeezing between the serving girls as they ran to and fro bringing clean blankets and whatever else the midwife ordered. There had been no words in response, only an even stronger tugging at his heart, one that bid him to walk more quickly. As soon as he stood outside her door, the screaming stopped. A baby began to cry, and Garin strained to hear what the midwife was saying. Seconds later, a chambermaid scurried out, nearly running right into him.

“Begging your pardon,” she curtsied. “But I was just sent to find you. They think you should see this.” Garin entered the room, the privacy curtains now closing the queen off from his view. The midwife had already expertly cleaned the child, and was swaddling him as Garin approached. No words needed to be said. Garin nearly gasped as he drew closer.

Inside each of the child’s eyes was a bright ring of blue fire against the gray irises, encircling the pupil. No child had ever been born with the strength of the Fortress so evident, not like this. What made it even more surprising was the weak fire Ever’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather had all held. The queen had no fire at all. Garin knew immediately that this child had a purpose, one that the Fortress hadn’t given to a king in generations. He also knew it was his job to help the boy find it, for his father, as passionate as he was, would be too blinded by his own agenda to value what truly set the child apart.

In the week after Rodrigue’s death, Garin’s fears had been rekindled, his concern that the king’s myopic focus would have disastrous consequences in one as powerful and sensitive to the world as Ever. With each day that the prince came closer to being crowned the king he was meant to be, he’d seemed closer to losing himself. Each day he’d trained harder and eaten less than the one before, and each night he had sleep terrors that made him cry out and wake in a cold sweat. Each night, he had called out about the girl.

Garin wasn’t the only one concerned for the prince. The other servants, though less familiar with the ways of the Fortress than he, had become increasingly unnerved by the prince’s erratic behavior as well. And when the prince could not be found an hour before his coronation, Garin had a sick feeling in his stomach that it was going to all come crashing down that night.

“You sent for me, sir?” Solomon came hurrying up to the steward.

“Yes, I did. Do you know where the prince is?” The man grimaced a bit.

“Forgive me, sir, but I’m not supposed to tell you.” Ah, so Ever was going to play that game, was he? Garin huffed impatiently.

“Well then, why don’t you tell me where he isn’t?” Solomon relaxed a bit. Glancing up at the king’s study, he said quietly,

“The prince is not in his chambers or with his guests.” He paused before adding, “He is also not drinking wine.” Garin sighed and nodded as he headed up one of the spiraling staircases, away from the bustle of the grand entrance, where guests were still being received.

“Your Highness,” he cracked the ornate wooden door. “You’ve never had more than a few glasses of wine. Are you sure this is a good evening to begin something stronger?” Opening the door further, he saw Ever out on the small balcony that overlooked the back lawn. Ever was slumped against the door frame. His powerful shoulders were hunched over as he spoke.

“The crowds made it too hard to think.” His words were slightly slurred.

“Yes, they often do that,” Garin agreed cautiously as he joined the prince on the balcony. Ever’s face was twisted into an emotion that tugged at the steward’s heart. Despite the savior Prince Everard had become to many, defeating the dark forces of the north, Ever, the young prince was still there underneath, and he was grieving.

“But the quiet is even worse. Still,” Ever finally stood and walked back to his father’s desk. “I have finally figured it out. I understand why Nevina led her men to attack. I understand why my father died. And it wasn’t my fault!” He suddenly slammed his hand down on the desk with a bang.

“You’re right, it wasn’t your fault.”

“It was their fault!”

“Their fault?” An uneasy feeling stirred in Garin’s heart.

“Call my advisers, Garin,” Ever ordered, taking another swig from the flask in his left hand. “I’m going to stop these threats once and for all!”

“Sire, it’s the night of your coronation. Surely this can wait until tomorrow,” Garin suggested hopefully.

“No, it cannot. My father always said our enemies would be waiting, and he was right. We must cut them off now!” With a sigh, the steward did as Ever demanded. It didn’t take long for all of the prince’s advisers to gather in the king’s study.

“You all know my father believed the strength of the Fortress was our great secret in defending our land,” he began, his words still slightly blended. His advisers exchanged wary looks. “He taught me to look for weaknesses in our lines, to search for the chinks in the armor of our great armies. After much thought, I’ve realized that the lack of strength in our armies wasn’t what allowed the enemy to inflict such vicious casualties.”

“Your Highness,” General Acelet stepped forward cautiously. “The darkness in our enemy’s power was one we hadn’t anticipated.” But Ever waved him off.

“Just hear what I have to say. Our chink wasn’t in the strength of our men, but in the weaknesses of our people. We have too long coddled the unproductive citizens, the weak that inhabit the streets of our cities and live off the hard work of others.”

“Sire,” Garin gently reminded him. “They haven’t lived off the grain of the Fortress in years. Your father cut off assistance to the churches years ago.”

“It doesn’t matter!” Ever turned to his steward and jabbed a finger at him. “If we did not have these beggars, these diseased and lame lying in our streets and in our churches, Nevina never would have dared to attack us. There wouldn’t have been a weakness to pursue! And I’ve decided it will never happen again!” As Ever uttered his next words, Garin felt sick. “I command that our land be purged of its weakness. You will all go out and make sure those who cannot contribute to our strength are no longer a threat to Destin’s well-being.”

“Your Majesty,” General Acelet’s face was white and his voice quivered. “You can’t be suggesting we kill our sick and crippled!”

“That is exactly what I’m saying, General!” Ever bellowed. “You are to begin tonight, after the coronation.” He strode unevenly up to his favorite general and leaned his face so close to the man their noses nearly touched. “And if you don’t have the manhood to carry out my orders, then I’ll have to find someone else who will.”

“Please, Your Highness,” Dagin, the horse master, pleaded. “It is late, and the ceremony is about to begin. Please allow us to wait until the morning to reconsider and discuss this again.”

“If one more soul questions my order, then he will find the same fate as the diseased that will be soon cleared from the streets,” Ever barked. “Now, it’s time for my coronation. Garin?” Nodding blankly, Garin struggled to quickly help Ever into his ceremonial robes, which had been haphazardly tossed over a chair earlier. The other men each bowed to the prince in turn, their faces pale and full of fear. They hurried off as quickly as possible, leaving Garin to his charge.

Garin searched desperately for something, anything that might change the prince’s mind, but from the look on Ever’s face, there was much drink left in his body, and addressing him would only make him angrier. So Garin kept quiet, but that didn’t mean he would sit idly by as Ever stained his hands with innocent blood. If Garin could not prevent all of it, perhaps he could put off some.

As soon as the prince was dressed, Garin excused himself. Running back to his chambers, he whipped parchment and a quill from his desk. The ink smeared as he wrote in haste, but the words were legible. He gestured to the first servant he saw.

“Give this to Edgar. Tell him to take it to Ansel Marchand in Soudain. And tell Edgar that if he values his position here at the Fortress, there must be no delay. That goes for you, too! Now hurry!” As soon as his message was dispatched, Garin tried to regain control of himself. In all his years at the Fortress, he’d never felt such a sense of dread wash over him. The prince who had always been the Fortress’s favored one, more than any other king, was quickly bringing something evil upon them all.

What can I do to stop this? He begged the Fortress silently as he walked quickly back to the throne room, where the ceremony was beginning. As he took his place in the back, he noticed many of the other advisers returning as well, from similar errands he was sure.

Ever had somehow managed to get himself down the aisle and before the priest without rousing much suspicion from the guests. Now, as he stood before him, laying his hand on the Holy Writ, Garin felt a pang of sorrow. This should have been an eve of joy, not one of murderous bloodshed. The kingdom had waited for its beloved prince, its jewel to become their sovereign since the day he was born.

Before the prince could utter the ceremonial vows, however, the priest abruptly withdrew the Holy Writ and took a step backward. Uneasy murmurs spread over the crowd as the old man’s face pulled into a frown and his eyes became engulfed completely with blue flame.

“Everard, son of Rodrigue, son of Damien the Fourth, the Fortress has declared you unfit to wear this crown.” A gasp went up from the assembly. “From the day of your birth, you were gifted with a strength unknown to other men. Because of your callousness, however, what has never been done before will take place tonight.”

The old man raised his head and turned his fire-laden eyes upon the ceiling. “The Fortress will go dark, and you, Prince Everard, will be a prisoner of your own making. Before life can be found in this sacred place once again, a new strength must be found. What has been broken must be remade. The one who was strong must be willing to die. Only then can the Fortress and the kingdom have the protector they deserve.”

As the priest finished speaking, a dreadful grinding sound filled the hall. Garin fell to his knees, trying desperately to block the noise as the lights began to go out, one by one. The world around him seemed to rise, and rushing winds burst through the great doors, and as it swept through the people, each one began to disappear. Then all was silent, and there was no light.

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Before Beauty – Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Author’s Note: This is a sneak peek of my novel, Before Beauty. If you read any or all of the preview chapters on my blog and wish to purchase the entire book ($3.99 ebook/$8.99 print book), you can do so through your preferred store links here.

“My prince,” a young man knelt at the entrance of Ever’s tent. Ever gave him a quick glance and a nod before returning to the map that was spread out before him and his favorite general.
“Acelet, I understand what you’re saying, but the plan won’t work if we move out a moment before dawn. I won’t give them the upper hand of the night. The whole reason we planned this for the morning was so they won’t be able to use the hawks. We’ll have more than enough time to send scouts ahead and split our men here.” General Acelet’s sharp eyes followed every move Ever’s hands made on the map. Impatience was in the general’s face when he finally jerked his chin at the disheveled figure still waiting in the corner of the tent.

“You’re one of the king’s men, aren’t you? What are you doing here?””

“Prince Everard, your father bade me to deliver this!” For the first time, Ever looked directly at the man who thrust a sealed, water stained parchment at him. His voice shook and his clothes were tattered. Something must have gone very wrong. His father had been adamant that their regiments not communicate between campaigns.

“Where is Corbin? Why did the king send you instead?” The young man could have been no older than seventeen. His thin shoulders shook as he spoke, though whether from fear or being soaked by his rainy trek, Ever couldn’t tell.

“Corbin is dead, Sire. I barely made it out before they took the camp completely.”

“Dead?” General Acelet stared at him in disbelief. “That man has been the king’s favorite messenger for twenty years.” He frowned at the skinny boy. “I find it hard to believe that the enemy could get close enough to kill one of the king’s favorites.”” The young man paled and glanced at Ever. Seeing that he was expected to speak, he went on, his voice still trembling.

“The king’s campaign was unsuccessful. We took too long to reach the valley, and it was nightfall by the time we arrived. Princess Nevina was upon us before we could set up the defenses. Her men burned our supply wagons on the first night, and the hawks have kept us trapped in our own tents ever since. Not that they needed the monsters,” his eyes clouded. “The darkness the princess sends over us is . . . too much.” He finally looked straight at Ever. ““Your father says he cannot master it.” Fury rippled through the prince. All thoughts of the map aside, he strode over to the trembling young man and grabbed him by the shirt.

“I don’t know what game you think you’re playing,” he snarled, ““but no matter who has bought your allegiance, you will regret blaspheming my father’s name with such insults of weakness.”

“Sire!” The young man desperately pointed to the letter still in the prince’s other hand. “I beg you, read the letter! I cannot read, but the king spoke the words as he wrote them. I heard as I waited in his tent!” Ever glared at him a moment longer before dropping him at Acelet’s feet. When he finally held the wax seal up to the candlelight, he could see that the seal was still unbroken, so the young man could not possibly have read it. A wolf with jewel shaped eyes stood over the corpse of a serpent, baring its teeth and crouching for another pounce. An uncomfortable voice in his head wondered if the messenger might be telling the truth, but he dismissed the thought before it was complete. Breaking the seal, he read what his father had hastily written.
“Everard, our campaign has failed. Their hawks have multiplied greatly since our last encounter. Whether through informant or traitor, they knew the location of our first encampment, and were upon us before the first night had passed. We lost many men to the hawks and even more to the arrows they rained upon us in the dark. The siege would have been manageable if their arrows had not burned our supplies, also. Their worst weapon, however, has been the dreams. More men have gone mad with each passing night from the visions of confusion and blackness that the abominable princess sends. And those who avoid sleep grow mad with exhaustion. I am finding my own thoughts difficult to follow as I fight the darkness. It is with shame that I admit I cannot match her power. We cannot wait until tomorrow. You must come now.”

For the first time since he had become a man, Ever felt a cold shiver of fear run down his back, despite the misty heat of the spring rain. His father had never been as powerful as Ever was, but he’d never been rendered helpless in battle. Was he completely unable to protect anyone but himself? Numbly, the prince read the letter again. He could feel Acelet’’s eyes on his face, keenly measuring his reaction.

“What does the king say, Your Grace?” Ever straightened his shoulders and cleared his face of all emotion.

“Nevina has apparently gathered numbers greater than we had anticipated,” he answered carefully.

“Will we be moving out earlier then?” Ever took a deep breath before shaking his head.

“No. I will not give her the advantage of the night the way my father did. I can protect us here, but not in the mountain passes. We’ll move in the morning as we planned.” Acelet bowed his head in acknowledgment and excused himself to finish making arrangements, taking the unfortunate messenger with him. Ever returned to the bench and looked at the map again. As he traced the paths his men would take the next morning, his mind drifted back to the days of planning he’d spent with his father. He couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. They’d been so careful.

“I don’t want Nevina close to the Fortress. She knows too much,” King Rodrigue had stated before they’d even discussed any strategies. “I want to cut her off in the desert valley just north of the border. If my men and I wait in the valley before she arrives, you can bring your men through the mountains to close in on her from the east side.”

“How do we know when she plans to attack?” Ever had wondered.

“Acelet has sent spies, but he believes it will be within two weeks. If we leave soon, we should be prepared to strike by the time she reaches the valley. Even if she guesses that we’ll cut her off, she will expect to see our forces coming from the south, directly from the Fortress.

“You’ll wait here,” his father had pointed to a crevice on the backside of the mountain. “Instead of coming from the south, you’ll be poised to pour down from the east.” Ever nodded. He knew the place well. There were large caves there that would shield the men from view, should Nevina send her hawks in for a closer look. The large caverns would allow him not only to hide two hundred men from Nevina’s spying eyes, but they were close enough together for him to shield his men’s minds from her visions as well.

“I’ll send a runner to the valley to let you know when we’ve arrived,” Ever had begun, but his father was already shaking his head.

“No messengers. No communications of any sort. You may be able to shield your men in the caves, but you cannot be expected to do it for travelers as well. I will be too busy to look for messengers. Without our protection, the runner could easily be discovered. Nevina would have the information out of him in minutes.”

His father had been so confident in their plans. And he had every reason to be. King Rodrigue had never lost a battle. Small skirmishes happened often with some of the border lords, but few kings were foolhardy enough to challenge Rodrigue directly. With the strength of the Fortress and the harsh determination of its monarchs, Destin’s borders had not been breached in over two hundred years. Most of the king’s great battles had been fought coming to the aid of their allies in neighboring lands.

Ever’s father had followed in the footsteps of his fathers, and it had served him well. King Rodrigue had known nothing but the study of warfare since boyhood under the watchful eye of his own father. When Ever and his father had drawn plans up against Nevina, there had been no bravado in the king’s schemes, nor had there been a false confidence. The preparation had been as straightforward and focused as his plans always were.

And yet, as they’d strategized in the king’s study, Ever hadn’t been able to ignore the waning light in his father’s eyes. The glowing rings of blue fire had been growing dimmer for years, but Ever had lacked both the courage and the heart to bring it to his father’s attention. It would have drawn both shame and outrage to question the Fortress’s power that resided within him. Besides, the Fortress wouldn’t allow his father to falter in the midst of his greatest battle. Ever had been sure of it.

But now, here on the mountain as that battle raged, Ever felt the fear stir within him as he reread the lines his father had written. The Fortress had indeed allowed his father’s power to weaken, enough for him to call for help in a way he never had before, enough for his men to die horrible deaths of fear and fire as the king cowered in his bed, hoping his son would save him. Every weakness Rodrigue had ever despised, he had assumed in sending that letter.

In his weakness, Ever decided, his father must have succumbed to the shadowy deceptions of his enemy. Those suggestions of hopelessness and confusion must have galled him into sending the messenger. And Ever knew that when his father was once again in his right mind, he would look back on Ever’s decisions now and judge them as harshly as he ever had. Ever had been right in telling Acelet to stick to the plan. Besides, it didn’t matter if things were as dire as his father described. His men would not survive the night outside the caves. They would have to wait until dawn.

The next day, everything went as planned. The sun was bright and hot, and as soon as its rays touched the mountain paths, Ever’s men fanned out. They crouched along the rocky paths, awaiting Ever’s signal to move. Ever lay down on a ledge that jutted out over the valley and crawled toward the edge to get a better view. It seemed the situation had gone from bad to worse since the messenger had been sent. Throughout his father’s camp, Tumen’s yellow banner fluttered brazenly over the tents. Those of his father’’s men that he could see were sitting cross-legged on the ground, chained to one another and watched by large guards. Not only had Nevina attacked his father, but she had beat him soundly. It was alarming how quickly her strange band of ragtag vagabonds had grown into an army of hundreds.

Still, from the arrangement of her regiments, it was clear that Nevina expected him to come from the south. Ever breathed a sigh of relief as he realized he still had the upper hand. The dark princess might have many men, but her powers were limited. As terrifying as they were, most of Nevina’s monstrous hawks could not stand to fly by day, and her men’’s arrows did not shoot as straight without the dark of night to guide them. Without the winged scouts to circle the skies, the enemy wouldn’t see Ever’s men until it was too late. Satisfied, Ever gave Acelet the nod. The general, in turn, motioned to his archers to begin the assault.

Their arrows filled the morning sky, sending the enemy scrambling as Ever’s footmen began to descend upon the camp. The prince poured his strength into his men as they moved. He could feel Nevina attempting to fill their minds with visions, but she could not penetrate the shield he had created around them. Her rogue forces were caught off guard as Ever’’s men surrounded them. In just minutes, his father’s men were freed, and the valley once again belonged to Destin.

Most of the enemy had fled in fear by the time Ever followed his men down into the valley. He surveyed the carnage and was somewhat surprised at how little blood had been shed. None of his own men had been lost, although he had no idea what kind of damage had been inflicted upon his father’s men before he’d arrived. The same couldn’t be said for Nevina. Although it seemed that the princess had escaped unscathed, her numbers were devastated. Acelet had the captives that remained rounded up and executed on the spot.

And yet, in spite of the enormous victory, Ever’s stomach churned as he entered the king’s tent. King Rodrigue tossed and turned in his makeshift bed, moaning. Beads of sweat ran down his white temples. His appearance was so shockingly altered that even the healer hesitated before walking to his side. The arms that had been hard as rock when the king had left the Fortress were now thin and shaking. The king’s face was haggard, and his features emaciated. When he turned to look into Ever’s eyes, he didn’t look like the most feared king in the region, but a frightened old man.

Ever immediately ordered everyone out. The healer grumbled, but Ever still sent him away. The prince couldn’t understand how the king had lost all of his strength to Nevina’s power so quickly, but he could see that the blue fire in his father’’s eyes was nearly extinguished. This was something only the power of the Fortress could heal, and the only two persons with that strength were staring at one another from across the room.

Ever needed to work fast. Pulling his gloves off, he knelt by his father’s side. Taking his father’s hand, he clutched it tightly in both of his. Closing his eyes, he focused on the dim light his father was still clinging to. He caught his breath as the enemy’’s power bit back at him. He hadn’t known his father could suffer the power of evil like this. The princess’s darkness had indeed grown. The desire to tremble filled him greatly, but he could not give in. He tried with all his might to reignite the fire in his father’s eyes, but every time he pushed, it flickered dangerously.

“Son,” Rodrigue rasped. Ever opened his eyes to see his father staring at the wineskin of water on his small bedside table.

“Father, I need to draw her power out. I need you to help me.” Ever felt as if he were talking to a child. His father shook his head, however, looking again at the water. Frowning, Ever let go of his hand and gave him the water instead. After the king drank, he whispered,

“Why didn’t you come?” The look that passed through Rodrigue’s eyes pierced Ever to the heart. Was his father actually blaming him?

“You know I couldn’t have protected my men in the pass at night. If we had tried, my men would have been in the same position as yours.” His words were as close to a rebuke as he had ever dared to give his father, but the frustration that welled up in him was nearly more than Ever could take. After thinking for a moment, the king nodded heavily and laid his head back down. Ever picked up his hand again, but the king withdrew it.

“Everard, my mistake was not arriving too late, as you might think. My mistakes have been years in the making. My eyes are dimming. I know you’ve noticed. I’ve left my people unprotected. I could see it in the Chiens’ eyes when Nevina took the camp.” He grabbed Ever’s shirt and pulled himself up, suddenly glaring at his son through leaden eyes.

“The Fortress has chosen a new king, one that will be a better king than I. But it will reject you, too, if you ignore the cry of our people. You must protect them!” Exhausted, he fell back into the bed. Ever tried once again to take his hand, but the king whispered, ““Just let me go, Son. The spirit of the Fortress will carry me to my fathers, and I will rest with them. It’s your turn now.” And with those words, the king was gone. In a dirty tent with one candle to light the room, the great warrior king had admitted defeat and left his son to pick up the pieces.

“Your Highness,” Acelet knelt at the doorway of the tent. “The grief of the kingdom is with you.” Ever swallowed hard and finally stood, still staring at his father’s body.

“How are the survivors?”

“Not well, Sire. I’m afraid I must ask you to go to them. Many have gone mad from the dreams. There’s nothing else I can do for them.”” With a nod, Ever turned sharply and left his father’s body. He had work to do, and he was suddenly grateful for the princess’s poison. The work of healing would occupy his mind for now. Deep down, however, he knew he would have to mourn sooner or later. For all the monsters he could slay, for all the darkness he could pierce with his light, for all the unearthly strength that he possessed, he did not know how to mourn. And it terrified him.

. . .

The king was properly lamented by the kingdom, but Ever had an uneasy feeling that it was more out of respect than true affection. Although the Fortress courtiers and servants wore black and offered him all the right words in the wake of his father’s death, he often heard them speaking excitedly of his upcoming coronation when they thought he couldn’t hear. This irritated him more and more as the week drew to a close.

“Shall I tell them you wish to be left alone until the midday meal?” Garin calmly gestured to the manservants present that they could leave. Ever put his head in his hands and took a deep breath before answering. Although his annoyance at one of his barons still lingered, he sought to control himself. His father had taught him not to share too much with his servants, but Ever had never quite been able to sever the connection he had with the Fortress steward. During the early years when he was still too young to be of much use to his father, Garin had been there. And he needed him now more than ever before. The prince sighed.

“I’m supposed to meet with the Duke of Sud Colline in an hour,” he wearily told his steward. The duke was prudish and had been since they were boys. If Ever was too blunt, his distant cousin was just as likely to speak for an hour without actually getting to his point. Garin put his hand on Ever’s shoulder and spoke softly.

“I don’t think it would be too much to ask that your subjects give you time to mourn. It’s only been five days, and the funeral is tonight.”” Ever groaned, and Garin walked to the door. “I’ll speak to your cousin. If he is not satisfied with my words, then he shall simply have to remain unsatisfied.” Ever couldn’t help the small smile that escaped his lips. Garin smiled back and bowed before leaving the prince alone. Unfortunately, while the silence allowed him to elude his courtiers, it made it even harder for him to avoid his own thoughts.

The sensation settled upon him quickly as he wandered over to the balcony that overlooked the mountain. He’d heard others wonder at the terrace’s purpose, as it showed nothing of the kingdom or its boundaries, but it was one of his favorite spots in the Fortress. It faced the peak of the mountain, just higher than the slope the Fortress was built upon, rather than the valley and its city that spread out below. It gave him the illusion of solitude more than any of the other windows in the citadel. The lush green tree line abruptly ended below the bare summit. During the warm months the summit was covered in nothing but dirt, but in the winter it was covered in crisp, clean snow.

He closed his eyes and imagined how the snow would feel now. He’d hiked there once as a child. Though it was still considered part of the Fortress grounds, no one went that high. He’d been young, only nine, too young to venture out on his own, but old enough to know better. Still, he recalled how the snow had felt as he buried his bare hands in it, how quickly they’d numbed. If only he could feel that numbness now. If only he could shove his heart in the snow and leave it there. It didn’t matter what he desired, however, as the guilt was going nowhere fast. His father had always lectured him that guilt was pointless.

“It forces you to look inward,” he’d growled once when he’d caught Ever apologizing to a servant. “It leaves you open, susceptible to attack by others. When you are focused inward, you’re distracted. A distracted king is a king begging for enemies to show their faces.” And Ever had tried. He’d learned over the years how to ignore the feelings that welled up within him. It was hard, as it is for any child born with strong affections as he had been. But he’d trained himself to push those feelings away, to lock them up by focusing on what needed to be done. And yet, this guilt he couldn’t push away.

It’s not fair, he thought to himself as he turned back to prepare for the funeral. He’d gone over every detail, every scenario in his head. He’d searched for any way he possibly could have saved his father. But each scenario he’d imagined still ended the same way. He’d listened to his father’s instructions down to the letter, and in the end, he knew he’d made the right decision to wait. He simply could not have protected his men in the night. They would have all suffered the same fate as his father and his men. And yet, that did not erase the guilt that now coursed through his veins and made his face run hot and his eyes moisten at the corners.

The funeral was perfect down to the last detail, thanks to Garin. The tapestries had been drawn, shutting out the light of the fainting sun. Candles lit the huge hall only enough to see the casket at the head of the room. The black coffin had been polished so well that Ever could see his dim reflection in its sides as he approached it. His father lay there in his military robes, a gold braid draped across his chest. In his hands he held a scepter carved out of chestnut wood with a small crystal at its tip. The royal priest uttered words of tribute to King Rodrigue, describing to the kneeling mourners the king’s great feats and his daring victories, but all Ever could focus on was his father’s face. It was stern now, as it always had been, except for the night of his death. Then, it had been full of fright. Just like the girl’s had been.

Ever nearly took a step backward when her face flashed before his eyes. He had tried his best to push her away, but her midnight blue eyes, wide with terror, had followed him in his dreams every night since his father’s death. It was all her fault.

He’d never had a reason to feel great guilt before she’d stumbled, literally, into his path. He felt his anger burn suddenly as he struggled to keep up with the priest’s words. He was sure the guilt over his father’s death would have been easier to push aside if it hadn’t also been for the lingering guilt brought by the nameless peasant who haunted the dreams of her prince.

Ever had been thirteen when it happened. The day had started out beautifully. It was the morning of the Spring Holy Day, and he was out exploring the Fortress’s lands, as usual, before it was time to watch the annual procession. He remembered it so well because he’d nearly fallen out of a tree from shock when his father suddenly appeared in the clearing below him.

“Everard,” Rodrigue had called. “I can feel you’re near. I want to speak with you.” Ever knew it must be something of great importance. His father never fetched him personally. He always sent a servant instead. If it had been a servant calling him, Ever might have dropped out of the branches right in front of him for fun, but he knew pranking his father would end badly. He climbed down instead.

“Yes, Father?”

“Ah. Garin said you’d be here. I want you to return to your chambers and prepare for the procession.” Ever knew better than to question his father, but he was confused. The procession was still two hours away. As if Ever had spoken his thoughts, his father answered them. “This year you will be riding in the procession with me.” As they began to walk back toward the Fortress, Ever had turned and looked up at his father in wonder. He’’d never been allowed to hold a place in any of the capitol processions.

“You are old enough,” King Rodrigue continued, “to be seen as a leader. When you take the throne one day, I want them to be confident in your strength and ability to protect them. If we begin showing them now that you are indeed serious about your duty, they will accept you readily, even hungrily when I am gone.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Before we leave, there are expectations you must know about, duties that if you neglect them today or any other time, could be disastrous to your future rule. Do you understand?” He’d turned a gray eye and glared down at Ever through the blue rings of fire, and Ever had nodded ruefully. He had a feeling he wouldn’t like these rules.

“First, you must remember that you are to be present with the people, but you are above them. And that includes the servants. You are not to speak with them unless giving an order. While I wish you would adopt these habits in court, the way I’ve been telling you to for years, you cannot forget them in public. You know our strength makes us responsible for these people. We must protect them from our enemies at all costs, but to be vigilant we must be removed. You cannot be scanning the horizon for spies, so to speak, when you are giving your attention to one or two peasants in particular. Distraction makes us vulnerable.”

“Will we be looking for spies during the procession, Father?”

“We are always looking for spies. You are no longer a child, Everard, and today is the day I expect you to begin acting like a man. Now go to your chambers and the tailor should have your clothes ready. You will meet your mother for the procession when you’re finished. I will be there soon after.”

Ever had done as he was told. When he arrived on the Fortress steps, his mother was already on her horse. He bowed to her, and she gave him a small smile and nod before turning to instruct one of her ladies-in-waiting about the smelling salts she needed to forget the stench of her mount.

The procession was grander in person than Ever had imagined. He’d only ever seen it from balcony windows. His horse was stationed behind his father and mother’s horses. All around them, tall flags with the royal wolf seal were raised up high on green velvet squares edged with gold braided trim. The procession always began at the Fortress, moving down the mountainside and into Soudain. Once in the town, it snaked through prominent streets before returning back up the mountain in a giant loop.

Since the monarchs were always at the end of the procession, the first performers would be returning to the Fortress before the royals even left. His father’s best soldiers were scattered in groups of six throughout the performers, and more were stationed along the procession path. They wore no bright colors. Gaudy men had never been of any use in battle, his father always said. They were too easy for the enemy to see. Instead of wearing the Fortress colors of blue, green, and white, his father’s men simply had the image of the wolf impressed upon their chest plates in black silver, burned into the metal by the finest artisan blacksmiths in all of Destin.

Ever had to remind himself to look regal. He’d never been allowed to visit the capitol city before. Soudain was too full of distractions to be good for a prince, his father had always said. Until now. Now the streets glowed with the brilliant orange of the setting sun, and flames lit the tops of the lampposts that stood on every corner. Families crowded one another on the edge of the streets to wave to their rulers. They always bowed low before his father, and Ever couldn’t help but notice that their smiles nearly disappeared when he turned to glance in their directions. Fear, he decided, was the overarching emotion they wore. To Ever they remained bowed, but he noticed many of them dared a peek at their prince. A number of them, particularly the girls, gambled a smile. He would nod and turn back to the street, hoping his actions were as his father expected.

As his horse rounded a corner, a movement in the crowd caught his eye. A few boys were pushing to get to a better spot in line. One of them shoved too hard, and a girl who was standing at the edge of the crowd was knocked right into the street. Without thinking, Ever hopped off his horse and bent down to help her up. She was lanky with auburn hair and large midnight eyes. Her dress was simple, but neat and tidy, which meant her family probably belonged to the skilled worker class.

As soon as his hand touched hers, he felt his face redden with shame, and he could feel his father’s icy glare on his back. So much for staying removed from the crowd. Helping the girl stand, he nodded quickly at her and turned to get back on his horse. His father would have some choice words for him later. He didn’t dare look at the king. The procession had come to a halt as the people watched the actions of their young prince with a sudden pride, but none of their opinions mattered. He had failed his father.

Eager to be on his way and ready to forget the whole ordeal, Ever was nearly on his horse when he felt a tug on his sleeve and a gasp from the crowd. Turning, he saw the girl had lost her bewildered expression of shock, and had followed him to his horse, and even dared to do what his servants did not.

“Thank you, Your Highness,” she looked up at him with eager eyes. Anger pulsed through him. Why couldn’t she just let him alone? Impatient to be rid of her, he roughly pushed her hand off his arm. As he often did, however, Ever forgot the amount of strength that ebbed through him. What he’d meant as a simple brush shot blue fire from his arm to hers. She fell backward, right in front of a cart horse. The horse startled and reared, and with two sickening cracks, landed on the girl’s wrist and ankle. Ever watched in horror. She screamed as the villagers rushed to her side.

“Everard!” His father’s voice was sharper than he’d ever heard it. Slowly, he tore his gaze away from the mess he’d made to look at the king. “On your horse!” The fury in his words was unmistakable, and Ever miserably nodded and did his best to finish the procession. But as he rode, he could hold his head high no longer, and every time he closed his eyes, the look of pain on the child’s face was there before him. To make things even worse, Ever’s father was not kind that evening after the celebration was over.

“Not only did you deliberately disobey me, but you made the situation worse with that wretched temper of yours! Now we have one more cripple to live on the streets and beg, one more unproductive citizen to waste precious resources on!” Ever doubted she would live on the streets, judging by the clothes she was wearing, not that his father would ever notice that kind of thing. But his father was right. He’d added one more helpless, unproductive citizen to his kingdom, one more thread of weakness for the enemy to target. His mother said little about the incident, except to complain that the pause in the procession had been bad for her hair. Garin and Gigi were the only ones who seemed to understand how he felt.

“And is the young prince wanting some hot cider tonight?” Garin had slipped in that evening, as he often did when his duties were done. Despite the enormous load of work that King Rodrigue placed on the steward, he always seemed to have time for Ever. That night, however, not even Garin could cheer him up. The boy had shaken his head as he stared sullenly into the fire.

“Come now, Your Highness,” Gigi, the Fortress’s head kitchen matron slipped in from behind Garin. Despite his protests, she set a cup of steaming cider down beside his bed, and proceeded to adjust the pillows around the boy. “Tomorrow will be a better day.” She smiled gently at him from underneath her mop of silver curls. She patted his cheek affectionately with a soft hand before wishing him goodnight, leaving him alone with Garin. Garin walked around the room straightening chairs as Ever sipped his drink. The only sounds were the crackle of the fire and the scrape of furniture against the floor.

“I did something bad today,” Ever finally spoke, his voice cracking twice. Instead of denying it, as all of the courtiers had done, however, Garin spoke with painful honesty.

“I heard about that. How badly do you think she was injured?”

“It looked pretty bad,” Ever admitted. Garin just nodded. He waited a few moments before speaking, and Ever found himself strangely anxious to hear what the older man would say. Disappointing his father had been bad enough. He didn’’t know if he could bear to have the steward disappointed in him as well.

“We all make mistakes, Sire. Some, unfortunately, cannot be mended as easily as others. I have found, in my humble experience, that when we hold positions of power, our mistakes often hurt more than just ourselves. They hurt others. It is something we must live with.” He was quiet for a moment before adding, “But the important thing is that we learn from our mistakes. What you did today was indeed unkind. But you will be no better off if you simply regret it. You must learn from it so that you never hurt another like that again. Everyone makes mistakes, Ever, but a true leader takes the knowledge he gains with him, and he applies it toward his future.

“Now,” Garin gave Ever a smile, his eyes crinkling kindly in an expression very different from the one the king had worn when they’d parted. “It’s time for you to sleep. Like Gigi says, tomorrow will be a new day.” Ever had hoped their kind words would make sleep easier, but the moment he shut his eyes, he saw the look of hurt and betrayal in those dark eyes again.

The incident took longer to forget than he’d hoped, but eventually, with the help of his father, he learned to shut it out, along with any other distractions that bothered him or might steal his attention from defense of the kingdom. For that was his duty, his father said.

“Other kings live in soulless buildings, cold and austere, castles that provide little motivation for defense other than their own personal comforts. But this place, our Fortress,” he ran his hand lovingly over the marble walls as they walked. “This Fortress is the source of our strength. It is what sets us apart from others of our rank. It must be protected at all costs, and its kingdom as well. There is no other like it, and there never will be again. And it knows,” he had turned a sharp eye to his son, “when we lose our focus. Keep your eyes on the horizon, Everard. You never know who might be coming to steal that focus and this Fortress from you.”

It hadn’t been an easy road. Ever’s father, always able to focus on the horizon, was like a statue with eyes that never wavered, or even closed for that matter. Ever didn’t have that kind of vision, the ability to block out all but the goal. Instead, he was inclined to notice the slight changes in seasons, or when a servant was acting differently because of an illness or suffering.

From a young age, he’d loved exploring the Fortress grounds. He found a peace, a quiet communion of the soul with the colossal citadel when he was deep in its sheltering greenery or underneath its stone arches. It took great effort for him to throw off the childhood desire to pause sometimes and simply exist in the secret places of his beloved home. It was somewhat painful to treat the servants like people other than his friends, particularly those who had been just that during his solitary childhood years. And yet, his father said, it was what he must do in order to protect it all from the destructive forces of those who would destroy such a paradise.

Little by little, under Rodrigue’s guidance, Ever gained the ability to focus as his father did. His strength, which had been unusual since he was a small child, was honed, and by the time he was a young man, he’d been wrought into the warrior prince not even his father could have dreamed of. The girl’s face had faded into little more than a bad memory by the time he was twenty-six years old. She only surfaced when he was tempted to feel guilt, which thanks to his father, wasn’t often. She had reappeared, however, the night his mother died.

Ever had been out riding his horse, training with some of the archers, when a distant figure waved him down from a great distance. As he approached, Ever could see Garin’s thin frame, and something in his stomach had turned uneasily. While he’d obeyed his father and cut sociable ties with most of the servants, he’d not been able to tear himself from Garin. Out of respect for his father, they didn’t flaunt their communication, however. If the steward was coming out to find him personally, something had to be wrong.

“Your Highness,” Garin had bowed in his saddle as he rode up to the men. “I think you might want to call today’s practice short. I have . . . a message for you.” Dismissing his men, Ever guided his horse over to walk beside Garin’s. The older man’s graying hair was messy, as if he’’d pulled it back in a hurry, and his clothes, for once, were rumpled. “Your Highness . . . Ever,” he finally turned to the prince. “I’m afraid I am not quite obeying your father’s order, but I thought you should know before he called you.”

Ever gawked at the steward. While Garin often stretched boundaries and rules, he had never disobeyed King Rodrigue outright. “Your mother has died,” Garin continued in a quiet voice. “You know she hasn’t felt well in weeks, and today she slipped away from us while she slept. Your father wanted me to wait until he could tell everyone, but I thought you should at least have time . . . .” His voice faded, but Ever nodded unhappily. As much as Ever had become his father’’s protégé, he still was unable to completely block feelings like Rodrigue. Garin had known he would need time to think before he was called before the entire court to hear the news.

Garin had gone after that and left Ever time to be alone before the courtiers were gathered for the official announcement. He struggled to pin down a name for the emotions that flooded him. That there were emotions was undeniable, and none of his father’s training could banish them. Many feelings swirled around in his mind as he thought. Strangely, what bothered him most, he finally decided, was that he was not sad.

Ever had spent years watching his servants interact with their families, and as a young child, had even interacted with them when his father wasn’t looking. The parents would call, and the children would respond with shrieks of delight, running to their parents for hugs and kisses. It had never been so with his family. His father had shown him affection in his own way throughout the years by preparing him to be the best king he knew how. Queen Louise, however, had never seemed to feel the maternal affection he saw in the servants and even the mothers of noble blood. Ever and the queen were amiable, and greeted one another always with respect and kindness, but there was never anything more. Guilt, he realized, was the emotion that ran through him. He felt guilty because he recognized very quickly that her death did not bring him pain. He would have felt more pain if Gigi had died.

On the night of his mother’s death, the girl’s face had visited him in his sleep for the first time in years. The pain in her eyes and her look of utter heartbreak broke his heart. He might have been able to ignore her in his wakeful hours, but at night, he was hers.

He wasn’t yet completely recovered from the queen’s death when his father had announced that it was time for him to pick a bride. All the eligible women and girls of proper status and bloodlines from the surrounding kingdoms were invited, and within a week, they had arrived at the steps of the Fortress, each aspiring to be the next princess of the most powerful kingdom in the land. Ever had watched them descend from their great coaches, each girl glittering more brightly than the one before her, decked with diamonds and pearls and silks.

“You look as if someone has just handed you a prison sentence,” Garin had teased him while they prepared.

“Any chance my father will rely on the Fortress tradition to choose one?” Ever had asked glumly. Garin’s smile vanished, and he shook his head.

“I doubt it. As much as your father loves the Fortress, there hasn’t been a queen chosen the old way in three generations. Your father will be evaluating the political strengths of each union, rather than the girl herself.” Ever could only nod. He’d suspected as much.

His mother had been a duchess from a neighboring country, and her marriage to his father had joined their armies as allies. It was a wise political match, to be sure. Still, Ever was decidedly against having the same relationship with his wife as King Rodrigue had fostered with his mother, one of polite greetings and farewells in passing. And yet, it seemed an unavoidable fate. Within an hour, he was presented to the court and was obligated to begin dancing.

The weather was fair, and the moon shined brightly on the balcony on which dozens of couples twirled in time alongside him. Fortunately for Ever, though there were many, many girls, he was a good dancer, and making conversation was easy for him. Beautiful faces and lovely smiles surrounded him, and sweet greetings and giggles filled his ears, blending together despite his attempts to remember which princess or noble lady belonged to which land. He’’d had no idea as to how he would choose one, but as always, he worked to honor his father’s wishes. His confusion aside, the evening was fairing tolerably until he suddenly found himself face-to-face with a woman he more than recognized.

Princess Nevina was indeed a beauty, but not in the typical sense. Nothing about her was delicate. Her dress, made of black, silky feathers sewn together tightly with gold threads, was cut low to reveal her generous proportions. Her arms were also bare, and boasted sturdy muscles, not large, but rock solid. Her hair was dark like her dress, and her eyes were a surprising green against her bronze skin. Every move she made was lithe, and her eyes glowed brightly as she looked Ever up and down shrewdly before accepting the hand he’d automatically extended.

“Everard,” her low voice was smooth. “It’s been a while since we’’ve met on such amiable terms. I think in our separation you might have outgrown your father.

“Perhaps so,” Ever’s voice sounded strange in his own ears, tight. He had not expected the Tumenian princess to be among the invited guests that night. As they began the dance, he dared an accusatory glance at Garin, who shook his head ever so slightly. That meant his father had invited her. Had he lost his mind?

The princess of Tumen and the prince of Destin had not last parted on pleasant terms. Introduced as young children, as most of the royal children were at this ball or that tournament, they had gotten to know one another well enough. Nevina was unlike the other children, however, in that the moment Ever laid eyes on her, he’d realized she had a deep strength akin to his own. But where Ever’’s strength had always been one of light and life, the young princess’s power was heavy, nearly sickening. She seemed to be aware of her effect on him, too, as she’d smiled when Ever had to ask Garin to accompany him back to his chambers early, away from the tournament festivities.

He’d been seven at that first meeting. As they got older, not only did he train himself to resist her powers, but to even mute them as well. They didn’t see each other often, as Tumen’s continuous push for influence among the surrounding nations strained its relationship with Destin. It wasn’t until they were eleven that the two young royals met again, and much to Nevina’s outrage, not only did Ever stop her attempts to torment him, he’d stopped her attempts at tormenting anyone else at the gathering as well.

Their encounters had been sporadic over the next ten years. When he was a young man, diplomats had begun to report that Tumen had given up its ambitious goals, and desired nothing more than peace, but Ever was skeptical. Even if her father was seeking to give up his ancestors’ dark power in order to obtain peaceful relations, Ever never doubted for a moment that the princess had every intention of keeping and using those powers to boost Tumen’s strength, with or without her father’s blessing. Only recently, her schemes had been interrupted by an unexpected arrival.

“Come now, Prince,” Nevina gave a little laugh, jolting him out of memories and back to the present. “Let bygones be bygones. Our kingdoms have grown beyond their conflicts, have they not?”

“I certainly hope so,” Ever responded curtly. He doubted it, however, as he watched the gold fire dance around her green eyes.

“Then dance with me as you would a woman who might actually deserve you,” she drew herself closer to him. Ever’s heart beat even faster as he tried to keep a chivalrous distance between them, looking desperately for his father over her shoulder as they turned.

“I hear things have changed in Tumen,” Ever tried conversing again, desperate to keep her from continually pressing her body against his. It was distracting, and he could see people beginning to notice. Court gossip was inevitable, but this was one tryst he did not want gossiped about.

“If you’re speaking of the birth of my brother, then yes.” Her eyes tightened just enough for him to see the gold fire roar in spite of her calm appearance.

“I’m sure there are many men desirous of your hand.” Ever’s voice was polite, but Nevina didn’t miss his words’ significance. “You have much to offer.”

“Pray tell then,” the princess purred. “Why exactly am I here?”

“Sire,” A small voice interrupted their spin. Sending up a prayer of thanks, Ever stopped dancing and released the princess so he could turn and talk to the boy who suddenly stood beside them. It was inappropriate behavior for a servant, but the boy was young, and Ever was grateful for the break in the conversation. Before he could appropriately reprimand the boy, however, Nevina had reached down and slapped him across the cheek. Ever couldn’t keep the indignation from his face as he turned to look at her.

“You dare touch my servant?” His voice carried loudly, and for once, he didn’t care. The music stopped as everyone watched.

“Prince Everard!” She gaped back. “His impertinence was an insult to me and my kingdom. If anyone should be apologizing, it should be you. In my country, our servants know their place!”

“I don’t care how you abuse your useless Chiens! My people are in the service of the Fortress, and you will not touch them!”

“So this is the strength you boast of, you who are revered far and wide.” Her voice was suddenly cool and quiet, and somehow, even more unnerving. “And yet, you do not have enough control over your own to allow you a single dance with me. Your Fortress is weakening, Everard Perrin Auguste Fortier.” Her mouth had curved up in a strange smile, and her eyes were nearly closed as she spoke. He realized suddenly that she had been waiting for this, the opportunity to test and push him. She wanted his kingdom and was searching for any chance to challenge him for it. This revelation infuriated him even more.

“Get out of my home. Leave my kingdom, and do not return,” Ever growled.

“Oh, we will be leaving,” Nevina’s captain of the guard was suddenly at her side, glaring at him. Nevina’s golden flames blazed even more brightly as he spoke. “We cannot, however, allow this insult to our sovereign to go unchallenged.”

“Soon,” Nevina’s voice was a purr once again, “as you watch your men fall, Everard, remember who it was that caused the bloodshed. Know it was your own weakness and cowardice that was your undoing.” Ever gritted his teeth as she then waved her hand dismissively. “Let’s take our leave of this place, Captain. We’ll be back soon enough.” With that they turned, Nevina’s skinny Chien girl hobbling along behind them as quickly as she could.

And that was where it had all begun. Within an hour, the guests had been dismissed, none of them announced as his bride. For that, Ever was grateful, but he had little time to revel. He was immediately called to his father’s study. It was there that they chose spies, ran through battle scenarios, and had agreed to break the army into two camps, one on the mountain and one in the valley. It was on that eve that King Rodrigue had insisted they have no communication between the camps before they engaged their enemy from the north.

“Father, there is one thing I don’t understand,” Ever had hesitated before returning to his chambers when they were through. ““Why was she even invited? Was I supposed to ask for her hand in marriage?” His father had sighed.

“It was a foolish hope on my part. Our relations have been better these past few years. I believed we could forge a union between our powers that would prevent future wars of this sort.”

“But their power is not like ours,” Ever frowned. “It’s one of deception and darkness. The Fortress would not abide that sort of queen.”

“Everard,” his father had fixed his gaze on him in a strange way. “I’ll be honest with you. Where I once felt the strength of the Fortress run through my blood, there is emptiness now. I do not feel its direction anymore. It’s up to us now more than ever to protect our home in these strange times.” It had been on that night that Ever had noticed the extreme dullness of the fire in his father’s eyes, the slight trembling of his arms and hands. And yet, he’d remained silent.

Now he was dead. And as Ever stared into the casket in which his father lay, he could see nothing but the face of the girl.

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