Excerpt for The Runaway Queen, A Fire and Fury Prequel Novella by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Runaway Queen


A Between Fire and Fury Prequel Novella


Shantal Sessions

Chapter 1


He looked at her the way he always did. Feral eyes narrowed, head cocked, studying her slightest movement, as if he were stalking prey. “Will you join me in my chamber tonight, My Queen?” the king asked, sipping wine from his goblet. “It’s been too long.”

Rosamund pushed her plate away and put her hands in her lap. She’d been nauseated the last few days, vomiting after meals. Looking at him from across the table, she dabbed her lips daintily with a napkin and attempted a feeble smile. She worked hard to act the part of regal queen, always trying to please him for fear of retribution, but she couldn’t, not tonight. Her face was cold and clammy to the touch, yet she felt as if she had been in the sun for hours, practicing her archery or walking through the gardens on too hot of a day.

As she stared into those bestial yellow eyes, a frightening thought struck. Like a brick falling from the battlements to the ground, almost hitting her, it startled her into sudden realization. Perhaps he was trying to kill her, ever so slowly, by putting poison into her food, a little at a time.

“I am not well, My Liege,” Rosamund said as graciously as she could. “As you know, my stomach has been unsettled as of late.” Of course, he would know. He had placed spies in her household. It was impossible not to notice the presence of new women assisting her and the disappearance of some of her trusted ladies-in-waiting, dear friends who’d come to the castle with her when she married the king.

“Yes, I had heard that,” King Colestus said, creasing his brows in mock concern, his voice smooth as silk. He continued to stare, those harsh amber eyes boring into her, fingering his long black goatee in an odd, sensual way, his gaze settling on the top of her breasts exposed by her gown. “Still, I miss you greatly.”

Rosamund took a deep breath, trying to be a well of patience, and gave him a false smile. If she weren’t so scared of him, she might’ve laughed. The endearment was nothing but a farce, a pageant of insincerity. She could not think of another person in the world who cared less for her, and he did not miss her. He was never alone in the dark hours of the night when his rapacious appetites arose. She had seen servants scurrying battered young whores down the long halls of the castle away from his bedchamber.

He just needs an heir by me, Rosamund thought callously. Colestus had admitted it to her the first time on their wedding night, as he’d forced himself upon her, his brutally honest words spilling onto her face, like his wretched seed between her legs.

Rosamund stood, but felt unsteady and placed a hand on the table to find her balance, willing herself not to faint. Bile rose in her throat, so disgusted she was by him. She swallowed hard and tried to think of a way to excuse herself gracefully without Colestus thinking that she’d rather be a million leagues away.

“I will send Lady Alimaida to you when I am ready to do your . . . bidding.”

May that be never, Rosamund fumed as she gathered her gown in her hands and began to walk out of their private dining chamber, passing him. The textured walls and velvet draperies were blood red and trimmed in gold, accentuating the amber eyes that followed her. Not a muscle twitched as Colestus sat in a mahogany, ornately carved and padded chair. There was not a space on the armrests, nor the legs of the table that didn’t boast the carving of a ferocious animal, fangs bared for the kill.

As Rosamund passed Colestus’s steward, Guerra, he muttered, “Cold, barren . . . why shouldn’t the king do away with you?” The insult, coming out of the mouth of man who fashioned himself in the image of his king, was not a surprise. She ignored him, raised her chin proudly, and walked out of the room to her ladies-in-waiting who waited in the great hall for her return. As they took the long route to her chambers, Rosamund allowed a hidden desire to swirl in her mind: she wanted to run away. She’d always been the good wife, willing to put up with whatever frightful conditions her husband forced her to live under. What choice did she have, or any woman have, for that matter, but to stay and be faithful to her vows? Colestus always had certain appetites that she had never become accustomed to, but his attitude toward her was changing. His rage, which usually simmered, at least around her, began to boil. Meaner and more aggressive with her in private, she worried that his animosity would explode in public. She hoped not. What he did to her in private was humiliating enough.

Rosamund tossed and turned in bed that night, still fighting waves of nausea. Needing fresh air, she reached over and opened the thick red curtains hanging from her canopy. Why was everything in this castle so bloody red? Colestus had ordered her bed placed in a corner of the room far from any windows, and it was often hot and stifling. Of course, that’s the way he liked it. In his chamber, he kept her uncomfortably close to a roaring blaze, a look of beatified ecstasy in his eyes as he gazed at her naked body in the firelight and the shimmer of her blood and sweat mingling as it ran down her sides.

Forcing the memories to the back of her mind, through a door she always tried to keep locked, she padded quietly to her dresser for a sip of wine and listened for Lady Alimaida’s deep breathing. Her loyal head lady-in-waiting always slept in the same room, unless the king came. Rosamund knew, even during those times, that Alimaida was right outside the door pacing, and always the first to rush to her aid.

The lavish bedchamber was befitting the Queen of Edmira. A large room with closets built into the lower half of the walls, they stored dozens of exquisite gowns and jewelry. Each closet door was made of dark wood and elaborately carved with impossibly detailed chiseling on her four-poster bed, dresser, tables, and stools throughout the room. A chandelier made of pure gold hung in the middle of the room, always alight with candles.

Rosamund had spent many sleepless nights puzzling over Colestus’s order to keep the room lit until she studied the murals above the closets. They could not possibly induce sleep. But that, of course, was not the point. The artist had rendered horrific scenes of Colestus in various stages of battle, stabbing, hacking, chopping, and impaling his enemies. He wanted to make sure they could always be seen. Rosamund understood the message clearly, what he wanted her to remember every night. She took another sip of wine, trying to calm herself, hoping his chamberlain would not come knocking on the door. What new fetish would Colestus inflict upon her? Rosamund sighed and shook her head in resignation, cursing her parents for selling her to the king.

Before they married, Colestus had spent most of his years as a young man fighting for the throne. His claim was very distant, laughably so; most believed he should not have been fighting for it at all. His family descended from the youngest son of the revered and ancient King Alexander, Prince Roland, but this line was not considered as legitimate and was almost always under attack from stronger claimants. Colestus and his family had taken the throne by force, regardless of their more distant bloodline. To cement his grasp on the throne, Colestus needed to marry into a royal line that descended from Prince Dane, the oldest son of Alexander. By marrying a woman from the higher lineage, he could boast the beginning of a new bloodline that fused two royal families together.

After scouring the country, Colestus had chosen Rosamund for her ancestry, of course, but also for her ivory skin, thick chestnut hair, and startling light blue eyes. It was not lost upon him that the women in her family were known to be excessively fertile, producing both boys and girls aplenty. Colestus offered her family a fortune and they jumped at the chance to have their daughter singled out, but Rosamund was mortified. She had always thought she would marry Gregory, the young man from a neighboring manor who had always loved her, who stole kisses from her when she was a child, and who had enchanted her as a young teen.

The king, now in his forties, married Rosamund when she was fifteen. The wedding took place in the grand cathedral. At the time, she thought it was so extraordinary that it bordered on the magical. How could something so beautiful not be the harbinger of a bright future? When Colestus presented her to the people on his balcony, they roared with approval, cheered, and showered her with rose petals. Perhaps this wouldn’t mean the end of her happiness after all.

That was five years ago, before she knew the torture of his chamber, and she had not yet borne him a child.

Guerra was probably right. She was barren, and because of it, Colestus would eventually kill her and then find a wife who could give him what he needed — a proper heir. Rosamund climbed back in bed but kept the curtains open so the air would flow. Pulling a pillow toward her and clutching it tight, tears ran down her cheeks. As she wept into the pillow, she’d never felt more trapped in her life. Rosamund wanted to live, but not like this. She had tried, but the circumstances in her life made it impossible to banish the idea of running away, even though she knew that she’d never have the courage to follow through. An escape would be impossible to work out alone, and she was unwilling to risk the lives of the few people she loved to help her. In addition, there were too many eyes upon her, always watching, people placed in her service that she hardly knew and could never trust. Yet the thoughts continued to purl and eddy in her mind. What would it be like to be the fastest horse in the pen, of being able to outwit and outrun anyone?


Chapter 2

The castle of kings in Edmira was built on a steep mountain of granite, a lone crag amidst rolling hills, pine trees sprouting thickly from its sides. The architecture of the castle did not contrast with its location in the least. A tall, narrow building at least six stories with lofty towers and turrets, the castle needed no wall for protection. The High Castle Road, a single path of switchbacks through impenetrable terrain provided the only way in or out. Edmira was a fertile land surrounded by towering, jagged, and uninhabitable mountains, but the meadows and forests approaching them were the loveliest places on earth. Rosamund preferred to ride her horse to one of them every day.

Hardwin, the castle’s best stable hand, always accompanied her. A sturdy chap with an easy smile, he wore his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and sprigs of straw the same color as his hair clung to his simple clothing. He and two of the king’s guards had taken to riding with her since none of her ladies enjoyed the outdoors very much and the king preferred to hunt.

“And how is your little cherub today?” Rosamund asked Hardwin once they stopped to rest their horses.

“Oh, she’s the apple of her old man’s eye, got me wrapped around her pinky finger,” Hardwin said, glowing with pride over his fifth daughter. “She just gets fatter every day. My wife is so pleased. She had worried so much for some of our other daughters who were not so healthy as babes. But we’ve not lost one yet, a rarity to be sure.”

Hardwin and Lady Alimaida were the only servants left in Rosamund’s employ who’d come with her as a teen bride to her new home at the castle. He and his family lived in a nearby village that supplied most of the goods shipped to the castle. His wife was the most talented dyer of fabric in the region. Even the king preferred the colors she concocted. When Rosamund went to visit Hardwin’s family with gifts for their daughters, his wife tucked her baby in a sling while stirring fabric in huge vats of water. The older girls were often sent scampering through the meadows to find the plants and insects to provide color for the dying, while Hardwin always lifted the wet fabric out of the vats to dry. Hardwin himself was loyal to a fault to his family and to his queen.

“I do love a chubby baby,” Rosamund said, grinning at him. “And little Annabelle has the cutest dimples in all the world. You are blessed, Hardwin.”

“Thank you,” Hardwin said, clearing his throat and looking around uneasily when one of her guards glowered at him. “Shall we, then?” he asked, tugging on the reins of his horse to turn and follow the trail through the forest.

“Race you to the meadow!” Rosamund shouted as she blasted past him, standing in the stirrups and giving her horse plenty of slack from the reins to run. How she loved to ride fast. It made her forget Colestus and concentrate only on the task of staying on her horse. It was hard to do and not every woman welcomed it. Lady Alimaida reminded her constantly that is was risky and not royal behavior, least of all for the queen.

It felt so good to run free, the wind whipping through her hair and fluttering her cloak behind her.

There was something a little dangerous about it that made it all the more enticing, all the more worth doing. There was always a chance that something could go wrong. The horse could stumble, she could hit a branch, or lose her balance and fall, but everything became more alive. Her heart pounded, her cheeks flushed, and her breathing increased as her body worked to stay atop the animal. Rosamund had never felt anything else like it in the world. It must be like when the healers gave their patients a dose of poppy syrup. They felt no more pain, smiled, and laughed as if they hadn’t a care in the world.

“My Queen!” Hardwin yelled when he caught up to her. “You mustn’t sprint like that. It’s dangerous.”

“But she’s such a fine animal and so capable, aren’t you, Merry Lightning?” Rosamund protested, leaning around the horse’s neck and rubbing the animal’s jaw.

“Merry Lightning?” Hardwin said with some scorn. “That’s not a proper name for a horse.”

“It is if the horse is sweet, lively, and wickedly fast. Besides, I’ll shorten it to Merry, anyway. I couldn’t resist the name or the opportunity to outrun you, Hardwin,” Rosamund said, smiling. When she noticed Hardwin’s expression, his features tinged with worry, she sobered and sat straight in the saddle. “What is it, Hardwin?”

As the guards let their animals wander to graze, he sidled closer to Rosamund so only she could hear what he had to say. “I worry what the king might do to you or to me if you hurt yourself. The man knows how to hold a grudge.”

“Oh, that’s silly,” Rosamund huffed in opposition. “This precious creature can’t hurt me. Besides, I’m a competent rider. I’m in control, no matter how fast I’m going.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Hardwin sighed in frustration. He shifted uncomfortably in his saddle and glanced to make sure the guards weren’t looking. He reached toward her neck, but stopped short, knowing it wasn’t proper to touch the queen. “You have a bruise just there.” He pointed to a spot on his own neck.

“That’s none of your concern,” Rosamund said sharply, as she pulled her cloak tighter around her neck.

“There’s no sense in trying to hide them. I’ve seen them before,” Hardwin said sheepishly, his face red with embarrassment.

“I had hoped to keep it from those I care about,” Rosamund whispered, staring at the ground. Then realization shook her. “Has he threatened you?”

“Apparently, he wants you healthy . . . for your ability to carry an heir, of course,” Hardwin clarified, it seemed, in an effort to spare her feelings, but he was still unable to look her in the eyes. Rosamund thought that the real reason must be because he wanted to inflict damage on a healthy body, not anyone or anything else. She swallowed hard thinking of those ravening, unnatural appetites.

“I see,” Rosamund said, hot tears prickling her eyes. She couldn’t escape Colestus, not even here. “I won’t do anything to jeopardize you or your family, Hardwin. I promise.”

“That’s not my concern,” Hardwin said. “I can take care of my family. I know how to keep them safe if such a threat arose. I . . . I. . .” He stuttered miserably. “I am worried for you. He doesn’t deserve you.” He shook his head and looked at her, his brown eyes woeful.

“I think I would like to ride to that overlook.” Desperate to change the subject, she gestured with her head toward a precipice jutting from the mountainside. “I’ll be riding fast, Hardwin. The king can say what he will, but I will do what I want out here,” Rosamund hollered over her shoulder, spurring her horse to action.

“But My Queen!”

“Don’t worry, Hardwin, I know you will be right beside me.”

***

They rode back to the castle in relative quiet enjoying the beautiful day, and Rosamund could feel the tension release from her neck and shoulders. She even felt the hint of a smile working its way toward her cheeks as she watched children running alongside them, screeching and laughing, darting into fields and skipping through tall grasses. The setting sun, its reflection bright and brilliant across Lake Sugunia, one of many giant lakes in Edmira, cast the world in a golden glow when they reached the High Castle Road.

Once outside the stable, Hardwin helped her dismount and pulled the horse by the reins into the shelter, lanterns burning bright. Rosamund walked by the animal’s side rummaging for an apple she had tucked into a pocket inside her cloak. Once the horse was inside the stall, she produced the apple and let it nibble, its grainy, wet tongue tickling her hand. Then the horse swooped the apple into its mouth and used hard, flat teeth to grind it quickly and swallow.

“You need all the food you can get to run so fast, isn’t that right, Merry?” Rosamund said, beaming, and rubbed along the horse’s jawline and behind its ears. “I never knew a girl who could turn her back on a sweet apple.”

“You turn your back on me all the time.”

Rosamund froze upon hearing the king, his voice dripping with malevolence and a strange, unexpected twinge of envy.

“My Liege,” Rosamund turned toward him, her eyes wide with fear and curtsied low, her head bowed. “I had no idea that you would be riding today. I’m sorry if I disturbed you.”

“What are you talking about, you stupid woman? I ride every day,” Colestus said, his jealous expression shifting from Rosamund to Hardwin, trying to gauge the nature of the relationship.

“Of course.” Rosamund tried to smile and make light of his insult. “We must just miss each other, My Liege.”

“Obviously.”

Colestus walked toward her fingering his riding gloves. When he got close, he tucked them in his belt. He cocked his head and analyzed her with slit eyes, like cracks in a rock, even sniffing her. Colestus leveled hard stares from Rosamund to Hardwin and back again. He lifted his hand to scratch his chin, but then raised it across the front of his body and leveled a back-handed punch to her left cheek. The force of the blow sent her spiraling to the ground, her face in the straw, staring at the horse’s front hooves as the pungent scent of manure rushed up her nostrils.

“My Queen!” Hardwin exclaimed, lurching forward.

“Stay where you are, stable hand,” Colestus raised his hand in warning. “Let her writhe in her shame. She has dishonored me.”

“How have I dishonored you?” Rosamund uttered a mangled protest, her face stained with mud and tears, as she turned over and looked up at him.

“You reject me and do things without my permission,” he said blandly. He towered over her with arms folded across his chest, a smirk on his face while he paced through the straw.

“How am I supposed to ask permission to do anything if you’re nowhere to be found?” Rosamund asked.

“Just stay in the castle and do my bidding, you damn wench,” he seethed and shook his head in disgust.

“And you.” The king shot Hardwin a look of loathing and pointed at him. “You’re lucky you still have a job. Never take her riding again.”

Hardwin nodded in shocked assent.

Colestus assessed the damage done, nodded, and walked toward the door. The stable master appeared, saw the queen sprawled on the floor, his mouth agape in surprise. He quickly rearranged his features as the king approached and they began talking about tomorrow’s hunt.

When they were gone and out of earshot, Hardwin ran to Rosamund and pulled her into an empty stall.

“You must take your leave before he kills you,” he whispered frantically.

“It’s getting worse, Hardwin,” she said, rubbing her cheek gingerly. “I never thought he’d stoop to abusing me in public. I’ve dreamed about leaving for years, but I don’t see how. I will not put anyone in danger.”

“You won’t get out if you don’t have help. Now, listen to me, my mind has been working out a plan for ages, ever since I first noticed. . .” he gulped uncomfortably, “that he lays in his hands on you. I have a brother who lives in Chilldenn. It’s far from here, but I could take you there. There is another small village even deeper in the country called Coldfield; it has a sunken meadow that gets so cold in the winter that if a man happens into it and can’t find his way out, he’ll die, for it’s almost always shrouded in mist. There are many a bone in that field,” he said with an eerie tenor to his voice that made Rosamund shiver.

“I’d much rather find a way into Asterias,” she said, shaking her head. “I’ve heard King George Edward is fair and often shelters exiles. Perhaps he might enjoy the thought of giving sanctuary to Colestus’s fugitive.”

“King Colestus will look for you there. He will put his army on alert to watch for you. I don’t believe he,” Hardwin gestured with his head toward the door, his mouth curved in distaste, “would think to look for you in such a difficult place to live. He would not think you such a hardy soul. My brother and I might be suspected, so you would have to travel the last leg of the journey yourself. Along the way, you can tell people you’re trying to find your twin sister.”

“My twin sister?” Rosamund said, incredulous. “I can’t lie.”

“From now on, you lie about everything. It’s the only thing that’s going to keep you alive. You understand?” Hardwin said emphatically, pointing a finger at her as if she were a child. “You’re going to have to have a believable story, anyway. That will throw them off,” he nodded in satisfaction. “The two of you were separated at birth, but you heard rumors that she might be in this little village. You’re alone because you’d survived an attack by bandits and escaped. People will be more willing to help and be less suspicious if they feel sorry for you. You’ll have to dress like a commoner, but have plenty of coin tucked away. . .” His mind was moving fast, his words a deluge of possibilities for what had always seemed impossible. “Will you do it?”

Rosamund pressed her lips together and furrowed her brows, thinking, but then nodded her head. “I’ll agree if I know for a surety that you and Lady Alimaida will be safe from Colestus in the aftermath. You are the ones he will try to track down first. You must get your family far away from here, Hardwin,” she said, pointing a finger at his chest. “They are too important to me. I could not live with death on my conscience. I suppose Lady Alimaida will have to smuggle a disguise into the castle. . .”

“My wife can help with that. She’s always got extra fabric lying around.”

“Colestus prefers fabric made by her, so it would not be a difficult task to add an extra bundle under bolts for the king. I don’t think the servants who unload the goods would ever notice. And I guess I’ll have to steal from the royal treasury.” Rosamund had to suppress a wicked grin. “It’s not as if Colestus will miss it. And it can’t happen too soon! It would raise too much suspicion. I would say in a month, at the beginning of autumn, when Colestus takes his annual boar hunting trip with the nobles.”

Hardwin gave her a squinty nod of approval. “Let us both make preparations then, My Queen. I’ve watched your louse of a husband,” he said, peering around the corner of the stall to make sure the king was still out of sight. “He doesn’t pay any attention to when you ride. If we plan around his schedule, he would never know if we went riding again, unless he told his steward or the stable master to enforce his will. I believe that’s the only chance we will have to plan for your escape.”

“All he cares about is the hunt.”

“My point precisely.”


Chapter 3

On top of the tall, lonely crag, a garden nestled in front of the grand entrance of the Edmiran castle, between the gatehouse and watchtowers. Though small by royal standards, it had a spectacular view of the countryside from every angle. Rosamund strolled with Lady through the grass dotted with footstones, benches, a few bushes and trees. The trees burst with all the colors of fall and it was a delight to spend it in the warmth of the sun with her lady and friend with whom she’d grown up. Ten years older, Lady Alimaida was the daughter of her father’s steward and Rosamund had always looked up to her. She couldn’t believe that Lady Alimaida had forsaken an engagement to an earl and chose to live with her in the castle instead. Lady Alimaida and Hardwin were more loyal than she deserved.

“I’m surprised your new ladies-in-waiting are not out here with us, following close enough to catch a refrain,” Lady Alimaida said of the new women assigned by the king to tend Rosamund. “Although I’d watch for them hiding behind the pillars of that corridor.”

“Do you think they suspect anything?” Rosamund asked, putting her hand in the crook of Lady Alimaida’s arm, her voice low. “Did anyone see you take the bundle out of the bottom of the cart when the bolts of fabric arrived?”

“Impossible,” Lady Alimaida scoffed and smiled, patting her hand. “How could anyone see anything under these skirts?”

“You make a fine point,” Rosamund said as she eyed Lady Alimaida’s clothing. She wore a plain dress of linen that widened as it fell to her feet. Long-sleeved and form-fitting in the bodice, Lady Alimaida tied a sash around her waist that allowed her to truss up the extra fabric that gathered around her hips and at her feet. She covered her head with a shawl that she wrapped around her neck and shoulders. It was held in place with a ribbon tied around her head, jewels dangling and tinkling from it.

“I’ve hidden the dress and cloak that Hardwin’s wife made for you in my trunk and locked it. I put the key on my chain and always wear it around my neck. I’ve not had a chance to look at it yet, but I think it will fit you fine. She’s made gowns for you before. What about the gold and coin? Have you had the nerve to approach Colestus’s steward?”

“The remarkable thing about being underestimated is that no one thinks me capable of stealing,” Rosamund said circumspectly, but then she smiled slyly. “I told Guerra that I would need extra money for the Autumn Festival that I would attend while Colestus was boar hunting. I told him I needed more than usual because I planned to give coins to the needy. In fact, I’ve used that ploy before and have saved it all.”

Lady Alimaida nodded, thinking. “I’ve got to get my own things ready, although I won’t take but what I can carry. Hardwin has moved his family into Carannan, an Asterian village on the border. From what he tells me, the villagers are happy to have a fabric dyer in town . . . And they’ve all fallen in love with his girls. I pray to the Goddess they keep their mouths shut about the newcomers. When he’s done escorting you into the wilds, he will take me with him to the village, but our timing will have to be perfect. This boar hunt could not have come at a better time. The hard part of this plan is getting out of the castle and down the High Castle Road. I will have to have a very good excuse. We will eventually travel deeper into Asterias, far away from Colestus. He’d have to wage a war to track us down and get us back.”

“Don’t be surprised if he does just that,” Rosamund said quite seriously. “He’s a hard man who is used to having his way. I can’t decide if he will be relieved that I’m gone, annul the marriage, and find someone more suitable for him, or if he’ll go into a rage because I’ve betrayed him and hunt me down.”

“It is hard to guess,” Lady Alimaida agreed. “Strangely, he doesn’t seem to have noticed that you’ve started riding again.”

“He never said I couldn’t ride and he hasn’t said a thing to anyone who would prevent me from doing so. Hardwin has disobeyed his king and has come with me a few times and we have taken advantage of that to make our plans. He’s hired bandits to attack the guards so we can get away. Great Goddesses Above,” Rosamund sighed deeply, trying to swallow her fear. “If I survive, it will be the greatest adventure of my life.”

“You always did want to be the fastest horse in the pen. Now, you’ll get your chance,” Lady Alimaida said as she stopped and turned toward Rosamund, facing her. She pulled her into a tight hug that lasted perhaps longer than it should have and she could hear her friend sniffling, trying to hold back her tears. Rosamund hoped no one was watching. They’d wonder why she was so emotional. “I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you, too,” Rosamund said, tears welling, her voice tremulous. “What will I do without you?”

“You will learn to live, which has always been my greatest wish for you.”

“I will learn quickly. Colestus leaves tomorrow.”

***


“Where to today, My Queen?” one of the guards asked the queen as they rode out from under the thick canopy of trees of the High Castle Road.

Rosamund glanced at Hardwin, who gave her an almost imperceptible nod.

“Let us ride along the shore of Lake Sugunia today. There is a meadow on the other side where we can rest the horses.”

“So far, My Queen?” he asked, genuine concern creasing his young face. “Are you sure you can muster the energy for such a long ride?”

Rosamund gave him a tight-lipped smile. “I can assure you, I have endurance enough,” she huffed with the condescension of a queen, hoping the two guards would keep their distance. Hardwin had told her that arrows would fly today, and she didn’t want to make herself a target.

Rebuffed and flushed with embarrassment, the young guard slowed his horse and rode a little farther behind her alongside the other guard. Rosamund couldn’t believe their luck as she loosened the reins and clicked her tongue to signal her horse to ride faster. She’d never seen these guards before. Perhaps they were new to the king’s guard or the other men in the unit were tired of accompanying their queen on her tedious rides through the countryside.

Poor boys, Rosamund thought. They will curse their queen for their scrapes and scratches tonight. Hardwin had promised a scuffle so that they could escape during the distraction.

The guards led the way into the expansive meadow and hobbled their horses not far from Rosamund and Hardwin. They pulled food wrapped in cloth bundles out of their saddlebags, found grassy mounds to sit on, and leaned their backs against the trunks of trees that bordered the meadow. One of the guards even closed his eyes and raised his face toward the sun.

Rosamund was about to dismount and lead her horse to water when Hardwin stopped her.

“Not yet, My Queen,” he whispered. “I think it will not be long.”

“But the horses need water,” she insisted.

“They’ll be fine. We’ve got to get out of here first.”

Rosamund sat on her horse in silence, the animal grazing on the thick grass. She gazed around the meadow, absorbing everything. Still quite warm for early autumn, the insects hummed all around her, late-blooming wildflowers bent their heads in the breeze, and water gurgled nearby. It was hot enough that she could see bands of heat waving near the ground in the distance.

“Who are they?” Rosamund asked, trying to find something out of the ordinary, some sign of the culprits who would create the diversion they needed to escape.

“Just ruffians looking to thumb their noses at the king. They were plenty happy to accept your money,” Hardwin assured her.

Before long, Rosamund heard the twanging of arrows released and the whizzing of them through the air. She set her sights on the guards; they scurried away from arrows in the ground that had barely missed them and were running toward their horses.

“Follow me!” Hardwin yelled, his mouth set in a grim line. “Yah!” he shouted to his horse, kicked its ribs, and slapped his horse’s neck with the reins. Rosamund’s horse was stunned by the chaos, reared, and tried to throw her off. Once Rosamund calmed her down, Merry quickly caught up to Hardwin.

The guards mounted and sped up, even managed to get close to her and Hardwin in the rain of arrows. An arrow whirred by just missing her head, but hit one of the guards and he fell from his horse. The other guard, who was on the opposite side of her, abruptly twisted his mount to check on his comrade. Rosamund dared to glance back. He jumped from his horse and bent down to examine his friend, then threw his head back in anger and roared at the sight of blood blossoming on the fallen guard’s chest.

The horses’ hooves clattered loudly on loose rocks, kicking them up as their powerful necks and legs strained to run at breakneck speed. Hardwin was relentless, whipping and spurring the horses. They flew up a scraggy canyon through scrub, gorse, and stunted trees with the guard in close pursuit. Scratches stung her flesh from branches whipping as she rode by, but Rosamund hardly noticed. Nothing would stop her from escaping now. She’d come too far. If somehow she got sent back to Colestus, there was no doubt in her mind, he’d kill her. She may as well ride her horse over a cliff. The result would be the same.

Suddenly, the guard was right alongside Hardwin and pulled him from his mount. Both fell to the ground, tumbling on rocks and through bushes, missing the trees. At the bottom of a ravine, they stopped rolling and faced each other for battle. Scrambling for weapons that got lost in the fall, they crouched and circled each other like angry bears prowling in a circle. The guard grabbed a thick, sturdy branch and swung it menacingly at Hardwin, who ducked and backed away. Tiring of the routine, Hardwin caught the branch. Somehow, it caught the guard’s arm at an awkward angle. When Hardwin realized his luck, he twisted the branch and broke his arm. The guard squealed in pain, cradling his wounded arm. Hardwin had no pity. He charged him and slammed his back into a tree.

“Hardwin! Stop now! I command it,” Rosamund shouted from the top of the ravine, realizing he would beat the guard to death. This was not supposed to happen! Hardwin had instructed the archers to capture the guards and tie them up at the meadow. The guard’s head already lolled to the side, as if he were unconscious. “He’s just a boy.”

“He doesn’t care,” Hardwin said, panting, clutching the guard by the shoulder and examined his face, holding his chin up. “He’d kill me if he could, wouldn’t you, pup? King Colestus’s little lap dog,” he said, his voice filled with loathing as he slammed another devastating blow to the abdomen. The guard doubled over, coughing. “And he’d just as soon hand you over to the gaoler as the king. Let me keep my vow to you.”

Without warning, the guard somehow found the strength to kick Hardwin in the stomach, which made him fall backward to the ground. Hardwin rebounded and kneed him the groin, punched him in the face, and kept slamming his head against the tree until it was a bloody pulp inside his helmet. Hardwin screwed his face up in disgust and pushed the body to the ground. Rosamund hadn’t wanted to watch, but could hardly turn away. In tears, she had hoped, even prayed, that no one would come to injury during her escape, a naïve wish in the first place and too much to ask. This poor boy was doing his job and volunteered for the wrong post today. Sadly, it was his life or hers. Hardwin would never allow her to die.

“Things never go as you think they will,” Hardwin grumbled, hefting the body of the soldier over his horse. “I’ll take this one back to the meadow. There will be more guards looking for these two whelps when they don’t return. I’ll also need your cloak.”

“Why?” Rosamund instinctively pulled it closer to her body, not wanting to give it up. It had shielded her from more cruel injuries.

“When the king hears the news, which won’t be for a few days, I want him to suspect a kidnapping gone wrong, rather than an escape attempt. He needs to believe you’ve been injured, maybe even killed in the process. A beat-up, bloody cloak will do it. He’ll be less likely to send out search parties if he thinks you’re dead,” Hardwin said, unwilling to look her in the eye as he walked to her horse and took the cloak. “You’ll have to find a place to hide until I get back. Can you manage that?”

“I can manage,” Rosamund said as she watched the soldier’s body hang limp, his arms dangling against the side of the horse. She led her horse away from the ravine and hid within the crevice of two large boulders. The hiding place offered a good view of the canyon, but Rosamund would be able to hide behind the rocks or even ride beyond them if someone came looking for her.

As she watched Hardwin travel back down the canyon, she couldn’t help but think she was the most selfish woman in the world. How did she convince herself that she could run away without people getting hurt? When she fantasized about it, she’d naively assumed that because she wanted to escape from an evil man that the effort would go flawlessly, that she could walk away from it with a clean conscience. They’d put all their effort into sparing the lives of Hardwin, his family, and Lady Alimaida. It was the right thing to do, making sure that they were safe from Colestus. Rosamund had not counted on being so bothered by the shedding of the soldier’s blood, innocent or not. She held her hands up and stared at them with a sort of terror. She’d been innocent until this, but now she had blood on her hands. The realization hit her harder than she anticipated, like the stubborn, unforgiving rock walls on each side of her.


Chapter 4

An expert tracker and hunter, Hardwin had no trouble finding Rosamund in the canyon when he returned from delivering the dead soldier back to the meadow. After that, they spent several days traveling in almost complete silence. Once they arrived at his brother’s forest cottage, a short distance from the village of Chillden, Hardwin became a small semblance of himself, cracking a smile here and there, and playing with his nieces and nephews when they insisted upon it. Mostly, Rosamund watched Hardwin and his brother, Herrick, talk quietly away from everyone else, stealing glances at her when they thought she wasn’t looking.

When it was time for Rosamund to leave, Hardwin made all the preparations and gave her the peasant clothing, food, and coin she’d sneaked out of the castle with the help of Lady Alimaida before her escape. He tried to put on a brave face and encourage her, but the goodbye was stilted. Maybe someday she could make it up to him, find a way to thank him for what was already was a great sacrifice.

Making their way on their own, Merry Lightning was anything but cheerful or swift. Rosamund had let the horse eat and drink whenever it wanted, but the animal couldn’t seem to gain its strength. They climbed a steep forested canyon to reach a meadow. Merry was once again out of breath and sluggish. While the horse rested, munching on soft meadow grass, Rosamund sat in the saddle studying the map Herrick had drawn. It showed she had to pass three more meadows before she reached her destination, a large, high-mountain basin. He said it would be recognizable by the tall, jagged, and icy mountains surrounding it. Coldfield was built on the northern end and would be easy to find, since it was the only village within sight on the far-reaching basin. Small wonder the horse was exhausted.

Herrick had a boyhood friend, Kieran Houser, who had moved to Coldfield when they were teens, but they saw each other a few times a year for trade and harvest festivals. He would integrate the queen into his household and keep her secret, but she would have to work. Rosamund thought that if she didn’t die trying to find the accursed village, she’d be happy to do any kind of work, no matter how hard. Although she was afraid to ride through the countryside alone, Rosamund mustered her courage when she left Herrick’s cottage. She had no choice. It was a given; Hardwin would be suspected, but he’d already moved his family, and he and Lady Alimaida would join them. Herrick simply could not be implicated in the scheme, so she rode alone.

Finally getting her fill, Merry waited. Rosamund clucked her command and was soon standing atop the ridge of another canyon. She could see fog in the distance, crawling up the hillside, as if a vaporous ghost were spinning mist with a magic spell. The fog crept through the forest, roiling, swirling, expanding at a sinister pace, and covering everything with a thick layer of dew. When the fog engulfed her, Rosamund couldn’t see much of anything except her horse’s head. She held the reins tight with her right hand, but clung to the mane with her left. Merry was nervous and took tentative steps, the hooves padding softly on the ground.

The dullness of the colors and shapes around Rosamund began to sabotage her weary mind. Every little thing haunted her; the shadow behind a boulder was a large cat, knots in a tree were the eyes of a wolf, and the breathing of her horse was a bear tracking her. Rosamund suddenly caught sight of a hand hanging from a branch, a hand scraped of its flesh. But it couldn’t be! Panicked, she tried to duck, but it scraped her cheek and clung to her cloak. Rosamund screamed and fought to get away. Merry splayed her front legs and snorted in irritation, ears swiveling in all directions, ready to bolt.

For a moment, she thought the dreadful bones would pull her off her horse, but then she heard fabric tear and became abruptly free. Still shuddering with fear, Rosamund looked behind her wondering if what she saw was real. She sighed with relief, but felt like a fool. Just a bare black branch with prongs that looked like fingers. She could not be this alarmed and survive. Hardwin had told her that fear was the enemy. “Don’t let anything frighten you,” he’d said, creasing his brows and nodding with determination. “Be strong, be smart, and you’ll survive.”

To make matters worse, Merry Lightning was antsy, perhaps sensing Rosamund’s anxiety. The horse’s steps became tentative, even halting. She had to jab the horse’s ribs hard to get the animal to move forward even a few more steps. Then, Merry stopped and no amount of kicking or whipping could prod her farther.

“Come on, Merry,” Rosamund pleaded, reaching over to pat the horse’s jaw and rub behind her ears. “I think we’re lost. We’ve got to keep moving if we’re going to get out of this abominable fog.” She urged the animal forward, using every trick she’d learned from Hardwin to coax a reluctant horse.

Finally, the horse grunted and shook its head in an irritated way, but took a step forward and. . .

They fell.

The ground collapsed from under them, and they slid down a rocky hillside. The horse lurched back and whinnied in fear as it tried to gain balance and scramble back up the slope. Unable to gain traction, Merry slammed into the hillside and screeched pitifully, tumbling deeper into the hole. Thrown from the horse, Rosamund twisted in midair, spiraling like a funnel cloud, and rolled onto a ledge of rock and dirt. Upon landing, she felt pain in her cheek, knees, hands and back, and her teeth felt like they would fall out of her mouth. She tried using her tongue to check the damage, but dirt and gritty sand prevented it moving at all. She stood up slowly, every ache wracking her body, and tried to find Merry, but there was no sign of her poor horse. And it wasn’t just the fog that prevented her from seeing deeper into the hole.

They had stumbled into a bramble.

Rosamund squinted and strained her eyes to see deeper into the pit. Could there really be a monster hiding in the fog? she thought, stepping away from the ledge. Giant with a gelatinous white hide and arms flailing, it had evil patterns etched into its skin and thorns growing all over its body. When it opened its mouth, a smoky vapor emanated from within, smelling of foul intestines. A fat tongue flicked joyously, licking the suffering on the air. Tears pricked her eyes; there had been too much suffering today. Blinking several times, Rosamund fought to be free of her determined imagination, weary of the frightening images. Though not a monster, the plants were monstrous, larger than she could ever imagine. Several arms spawned more arms, thick, woody, and spiked with thorns, sprawling and stretching to fill the huge hole. From her vantage above, Rosamund could not see where Merry had landed but knew that her horse was grievously wounded. The animal still huffed labored breath and snorted with pain.

“Merry!” Rosamund screamed, falling to her hands and knees, staring into the void. Tears streamed down her face and she began to sob. “Mother Earth!” she wailed, rolling onto her back. “What have I done?”

After crying uncontrollably for far too long, Rosamund found some semblance of awareness with the thinning fog. She would accomplish nothing by feeling sorry for herself or for poor Merry. With a new bout of courage, she stood up and dusted the dirt and debris off her clothing and wiped the tears away with the palms of her hands, which probably smeared mud all over her face.

Rosamund walked along the brink of the ledge that she’d fallen on and could now see the bottom of the pit. Merry lay at the very bottom, under a morass of briar, bright white bone protruding from a broken leg, its hide bleeding in several places, and still moaning in pain. She could not get to her, which broke her heart. Merry deserved a quick, painless death. Looking up, she thought she might find jutting rocks and cracks to climb out of the hole, but the sides of the pit were unstable. Every time she clawed into the dirt or tried to find purchase with her foot, it fell away.

“Hello?” Rosamund cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled. Maybe it was useless, but she could think of nothing else to do. She could not get out of this hole without help.

Hello, hello, hello,” her voice echoed deep into the forest. She could hear the sound carrying farther and farther away each time she hollered. The fog was beginning to thin and hopefully someone, anyone, would hear her cries for help. Somebody had to live nearby. According to the map, she had to pass one more meadow and then she’d be in the basin. Coldfield couldn’t be the only town. There had to be other villages dotting the forest.

“This is taking too long,” Rosamund said to herself as she sunk back into despair. With her back against the wall of the pit, her legs collapsed from under her, tracks of tears staining her very dirty face.


Chapter 5

Merry Lightning stood in her stall nosing inside Rosamund’s cloak for an apple. Delighted by the gesture, she smiled and moved closer to her horse. She rubbed its jaw and ran her hands along its neck, allowing the horse to nuzzle her face and shoulders, the soft muzzle comforting. The horse puffed warm breath and even nickered playfully.

The horse nickered again, but the sound came from somewhere distant, and the image of Merry dissolved into darkness. Rosamund’s eyelids fluttered, but she squeezed them tight, her eyebrows clashing together in confusion. The horse snorted, but it didn’t sound like Merry. The metallic clinking of its hooves hit rock, a slight tinkling like a delicate wind chime, and a deep voice calming the animal.

A deep voice?

Rosamund opened her eyes slowly. The fog had lifted and shafts of sunlight burst into the forest through breaks in the trees. A man on horseback stood in the middle of the light, staring down at her. She closed her eyes and opened them, focusing, trying to make sure her mind was not playing tricks on her again. He was tall and muscular with long, reddish-blond hair that had turned more flaxen from exposure to the sun. Braids decorated with jewelry and trinkets from the forest dangled behind his ears and over his shoulders as he moved his head. Perhaps that’s what she’d heard earlier? He wore a sleeveless leather jerkin that had clasps in front, although the ones near his throat were loosened, and some kind of iron band with a swirling design clasped his biceps. With breeches, long boots, and weapons tucked into his belt, he looked like a warrior. The blanket under his saddle was sheepskin; he’d lashed saddlebags, bedroll, crossbow, and rope to his saddle. Perhaps the most striking thing about this man was his very impressive coppery beard.

“Are you all right, miss?” he called to her.

Guided by pure instinct, Rosamund started pushing her legs into the dirt to try and back away, but she’d forgotten she was already leaning against the wall of the pit. She stood up and turned away from him, eyeing the dirt wall, looking again for way up and out.

“I don’t think you’ll find a way out on your own,” he said matter-of-factly and clucked to his horse to walk toward her. He dismounted and tethered his horse to a nearby branch, untied a rope from its lashing, and lowered it down to her. “Tie it around your waist, hold on, and try and walk up the side. I’ll pull you up.”

Rosamund did as he instructed and when he pulled her from the pit, she fell against him, collapsing from relief and exhaustion. Panic quickly took over and she jumped out of his grasp, scrambling backward and tripped on a root protruding from the ground. Her eyes, wide with fear, darted in almost every direction. Her heart thumped wildly in her chest. As she sat trembling and wondering what to do, her gaze settled on him.

“Hey, now, it’s all right.” He held his hands up in surrender, motioning calmly, his voice almost a whisper as he walked closer to the ledge of the pit. “I assume that’s your horse?” he asked, gesturing with his head to the bottom of the pit as he coiled the rope.

She nodded. Tears began to well, but she fiercely wiped them away, trying to stave off the anguish she felt over Merry.

“Poor thing looks like it suffered,” he consoled. “I’m sorry.”

“She did,” Rosamund said, swallowed hard and frowned, trying to keep her emotions in check. She’d done enough crying.

“Do you feel well enough to tell me what happened?” He eyed her dubiously as he lashed the rope back to his saddle. “How did you fall in?”

Rosamund looked around despondently and sighed. “Fog.”

“I see,” he nodded his head in grim acknowledgement. “The mountains are so close to the sky, the clouds just roll in. Some say it’s the devil breathing foul vapors on the land to cause mayhem and misery. Others think it’s a good sign of rain ahead. For me, it’s a pain in the arse.” He chuckled a bit. “You’ve always got to watch your step in thick fog.”

Walking toward her, he crouched, and gave her a biscuit and a bladder full of water. He cocked his head inquisitively as she ate and drank, clearly wondering about her, but his eyes exuded something she’d never seen before. Was it sympathy?

“My name is Gabriel. What’s yours?”

Still feeling numb over losing Merry, Rosamund gave him a half-shrug and blurted her name, but stopped short of saying it completely, knowing that she mustn’t give him too much information about herself, despite how nice he was.

“Rosa? Is that what you’re called?”

“Just call me Rose.”

“Well,” Gabriel said, standing up and scratching his head. “That’s one hell of name for a girl who landed into the most overgrown, prickly beast this side of the mountains. This is a briar rose patch, Rose.” He nodded and lifted a brow as one side of his mouth curled up. “It’s dead now, was once quite lovely, but that was a long time ago, when my grand dad was still alive. Everyone knows to stay away from it.”

“I’m not from around here,” Rosamund bristled.

“I noticed,” he said, grinning.

Caught off guard by his smile, Rosamund was flustered, but continued her story. “I couldn’t see it in the fog and I had no idea that there was a rather large hole in the middle of the forest. I’ve never seen a hole this big . . . anywhere,” she moaned in frustration.

“Where are you from, Rose?” Gabriel asked and held out his hand to help her up. Rosamund hesitated before taking his hand, but decided he seemed genuinely concerned for her safety and let him pull her up. She scowled as she thought about what to say. There are hundreds of villages in Edmira and not one of them came to mind.

“If you have to think about it for so long, I suppose it’s a secret, but I was going to offer to take you back,” he shrugged as he walked over to his horse, preparing to mount. “I assume you’ll want to go home.”

“Why would you assume that?”

“Good question and a bad guess on my part,” Gabriel replied good-naturedly. “If I can’t help you get back home, then why don’t you tell me where you’re going? I would be happy to take you there. I can’t leave a lady in distress.”

Rosamund took a good, long time before she answered. She didn’t know if she could trust him or if she dared ask, but her circumstances had become desperate.

“If you could just shelter me for a couple of days, then I will be in a position to find the person I came looking for.”

“Who are you looking for? I might know him.”

“My twin sister.”

Gabriel’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting. You’re looking for your twin sister?”

“I’ve had word that she could be in these parts,” Rosamund added, trying to add validity to what now seemed a superbly far-fetched story. She cursed Hardwin for encouraging her to lie.

“Well, Rose, I can tell you for certain. There is not another woman within a hundred leagues of here who looks like you.”


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-27 show above.)