The Runaway Queen
A Between Fire and Fury Prequel Novella
[+ Shantal Sessions+]
Chapter 1 3
“They smell awful. Their breath could back a buzzard off a corpse,” Lady Byron sniffed haughtily, though she tightened her prim lips in order to suppress a smile. A woman of forty or so years, she was unnaturally thin and prematurely wrinkled. Stern and ridged, she looked as if she had a knight’s jousting lance attached to her backside. 63
“Lady Byron,” Meg stopped, placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder, and looked her in the eye. “I know the only reason you’ve started coming with me is that my father has entrusted you with my safety. He puts the onus of my behavior on your shoulders, although he does not know that I frequent the city without guards, a little too often, shall we say? But these enterprises of mine will suffer if I cannot visit often. I must see for myself the needs of my father’s people.” 63
There are some amazing people who had a hand in helping me develop my story. My critique group has really put up with my tendency toward melodrama (called me on it every single time) and helped me see how less is more. Thanks Heidi#1 (Thornock), Heidi#2 (Wilde), and Mindy Strunk, great ladies who have become good friends. 68
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?
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.”
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.”
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.
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. . .
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.
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.”
He mounted his horse and held his hand out to pull her onto the front of the animal.
“I’ll take you to my mother’s,” Gabriel said casually as the horse began to walk, but Rosamund froze, her whole body tensing with the news. “No need to worry.” He chuckled. “She’s alone since my father died and my sisters have married, but I will check in on you from time to time.”
Oh, Great Goddess, no! Rosamund thought. His mother? Why couldn’t he take her to his camp or his hut or where ever men like him lived? Of course, that might be trouble in the making. Gabriel seemed to be worried about her, not necessarily interested in . . . Wait, what had he said? There was not another woman within a hundred leagues who looked like her. That was a compliment, wasn’t it? Well, maybe he was interested in her that way. It’s not what she needed or wanted in her life right now, but not another man had been this gentle and understanding of her, and she felt safe with him. It was a budding awareness that she liked very much.
But . . . This really is getting out of hand, she thought worriedly. Someone would’ve told Colestus about the dead guards in the meadow by now. He would undoubtedly suspect an escape attempt and send out search parties, even if it was just to kill her and get his revenge. She couldn’t bring trouble down on these people. And how was she ever going to find her destination, the woodland estate of Kieran Houser?
Gabriel’s mother, Eilis, and her house were not as bad as she feared. The wattle and daub cottage was a wonder to Rosamund. Having grown up in a large, elegant estate in the country, she could not imagine any other dwelling, especially a more primitive one, offering much comfort. It had a common area with enough space to eat, sleep, and work. There were broad beams in the walls and ceiling that supported a thatched roof and a tall, sturdy chimney that allowed a comforting fire, even a few small windows. The best part of the house was a warm, spacious loft. That’s where Gabriel and his mother let her sleep and recover.
Rosamund had almost finished her porridge, but she felt queasy again. Her health had improved a great deal since she’d run away from Colestus. In the week she’d been gone, she’d recovered from her injuries and was conquering her emotions, but her stomach still got a little unsettled in the mornings. Pushing the bowl away from her, she stood and rushed toward the rough-hewn stairs.
“Are you well, Rose?” Gabriel wiped his whiskers and stood up solicitously.
“I’m fine,” Rosamund called over her shoulder to him as she hurried up the stairs. Skidding on her knees to the chamber pot in the back corner of the room, she picked it up and vomited, not much, but just enough to make her insides feel normal again. She spit in the pot a few times to get rid of the terrible taste and found a cup of ale she’d left on a table the night before to rinse her mouth out. She couldn’t help but think that her body was still expelling the trace amounts of poison that Colestus had fed her, or perhaps it was that she was overly anxious about her situation. She was in a bit of a spot, as Hardwin would say. Either way, she’d be glad for the respite when it came, when her mind and her body began to feel completely at ease. Although, she had a hard time imagining when that would be.
Rosamund freshened up a bit, splashing water on her face to wash, running her fingers through her hair, and adjusting the clothes they’d given her, a simple homespun blouse and skirt with an apron. They’d also provided a shawl and soft leather boots that laced up the front, all borrowed from one of Gabriel’s sisters since her clothes had gotten quite damaged in the fall. She pinched her cheeks to give the impression of good health. His mother had been very kind, yet leery of her presence, but neither of them had pressed her about where she’d come from or where she was going. Rosamund sat on the bed for a moment to gauge how her stomach felt before rejoining them.
“Lassie,” Eilis called, her voice carrying up the stairs. “You’ve done a fine job with your beauty sleep, now it’s time to get some work done. Would you be willing to help me forage for our supper tonight?”
Rosamund looked over the railing and saw them both waiting for her, antsy to get out the door and start working on their chores.
“I’ll be off then,” Gabriel said, his gaze lingering on Rosamund as she walked down the stairs. His wary expression told her he was worried about her working too hard and being alone with his mother. When she nodded and gave him apprehensive smile, he said, “I’ve got to start rounding up the sheep for sheering and culling.”
“We won’t die without you,” Eilis replied rummaging for something without looking at him, found a basket, and shoved it into Rosamund’s stomach that knocked a little wind out of her.
“You’re sure?” Gabriel loitered a bit longer, it seemed, just to annoy his mother. While Eilis was fiddling with the back of her apron, Gabriel shot Rosamund a playful wink. “I can send one of the dogs along with you if it would make you feel safer.”
“Off with you now,” Eilis said in irritation with a dismissive wave of her hand, “and I don’t want one of your mangy whelps tromping on all the good mushrooms and yacking up sheep entrails.”
“That only happens when they’re sick. Besides, it’s a treat for them, mother, and I always save enough to make sausage,” Gabriel justified circumspectly. Stifling a smile, he glanced at Rosamund before he turned and walked out the door. She couldn’t help but smile in return. They were gruff each other; Eilis didn’t spill sugar and sweetness all over Gabriel like she’d seen some mothers do with their sons, even their grown sons, but Rosamund could tell that the two of them would do whatever it took to keep the other safe. In this case, actions really did speak louder than words.
Eilis watched her son disappear through the front door, then picked up a basket and put a trowel in her apron pocket and said, “Follow me.” Rosamund trailed behind her, paying little attention to what was just outside the house. She knew they’d be in the cover of trees quickly and she didn’t want to lose sight of her. Though Eilis limped, she walked faster through the brush and uneven forest floor than she thought possible. Rosamund wasn’t sure why, but she had a strong desire to prove herself to these people, to let them see that she was capable of learning new things and working hard. Perhaps it was because they’d been so kind and she felt the need to contribute in some small way. While she’d not told either one of them that she was royal, she had a feeling that they’d already figured out for themselves that she had been raised in a wealthy family.
“It’s a far walk, lassie,” Eilis said watching Rosamund stop to catch her breath. “Didn’t mean to tire you. The grounds for foraging near the cottage have to regrow. I’ve already scavenged them into nothingness. And with winter coming on, they won’t yield until next spring.”
“I am more tired than I expected,” Rosamund said panting and sat down on the trunk of a fallen tree. “Is this a good place for foraging?”
“We’ll see,” Eilis replied, put her hands on hips and turned a full circle, scanning the area around them. “I think we’ll find some healthy bulbs in the ground here. Make sure they smell like onions. There might be some mushrooms near the base of the trees, but check with me first. Some of them are poisonous. There is a patch of fireweed over there,” she continued, pointing to a meadow beyond the clutch of trees they stood in, “the ones with the bright pink flowers on top. They’ve almost all gone to seed, but the roots are spicy and will add a nice flavor to the stew. We’ll find greens by the river.”
Eilis got on her hands and knees and began digging with her trowel. Rosamund joined her. Everything that Eilis pulled out of the ground, Rosamund brushed off the dirt and put them in the baskets. It was faster work than she expected and soon there was a mound of bulbs that needed to be cleaned off before being piled in the baskets.
“I’m sorry,” Rosamund exclaimed, sitting back on her haunches and scratching her forehead with the back of her arm. “I don’t seem to be keeping up with you at all. I didn’t learn to do this where I come from.”
“Well, what did you learn?” Eilis huffed as she moved to another area of ground to dig.
“Hmm,” Rosamund frowned as she thought about it. “I learned to sew, to sing and to play, to read and write, to run a household, and to make the people around me happy and content. I don’t think I was very good at it, truth be told.”
“You make it sound like you’re the queen.”
“Oh, heavens no,” she trilled in denial, her voice quavering. “I’m really more of a . . . I’m just a girl from the country. That’s where I feel most at home.”
“Humph, you’d think a girl from the country would at least know how to dig up bulbs for her supper.”
“We had . . .”
“I know,” Eilis said, pointing her trowel at her. “You had servants to do that for you.”
Rose gave her an uncomfortable smile, blinking nervously, and went back to her work.
“Nice life. The only problem I see with it is that you don’t learn how to do things for yourself, and that comes to just about everyone in this life.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard anything truer than that.”
She heard a soft step behind the trees, the rustling of a cloak in the breeze. When Rosamund looked up, Eilis was already standing with her knife drawn.
“Show yourself, you fool,” she called, her voice reverberating in the glade, “before I skewer you with my butcher knife.”
“Oh, Eilis,” came a man’s voice from behind a tree. “No need to be on your guard.” He sauntered out from behind the trunk of a large tree into the middle of the clearing, a cavalier smile on his face. He spoke to Eilis, but he never took his eyes off of Rosamund.
“What do you want, Kieran?” Eilis asked impatiently, lowering her knife, but Rosamund noticed that she didn’t tuck it back into its sheath. Rosamund felt her eyes widen in surprise upon hearing the name but tried to continue her task. Here stood the very man that Hardwin and Herrick told her she was supposed to find, but something about him made her reluctant to reveal herself.
He had a certain swagger about him, a disheveled, rakish look that appeared unintentional, but obviously purposeful, and it unnerved her. Built like a wrestler, he had large, protruding muscles carved in his legs and arms. He wore crinkled breeches that stopped at the knee and stockings that were held up by a leather shoe with straps that wrapped around his lower legs. His shirt was also loose, wrinkled, and unlaced at the top, all held together by a dashing sash. He had an unusual cloak, shorter and wider, more fabric with which to hold, and no hood. Kieran Houser wore a hat with a peacock feather in it.
“Who’s your friend?”
“No one you need concern yourself about.”
“Now, now, Eilis. Why would you lie to me? I thought we were friends. You see, I’ve been expecting a lady to show up on my doorstep. I had word from one of my trading partners that there was a lady in need of a new situation in life. I agreed to hire her to work in my household. I think you’ve stolen a servant from me.”
“You think I’ve stolen from you, you gormless, debauching, wine-ridden louse,” Eilis answered caustically. “She’s got family nearby, you twit. We’re sheltering her for a few days. Why don’t you go on about your business, forcing poor lads to chop down the biggest trees in the forest so you can sell them to nobles for their big, fancy houses and keep all the money to yourself?”
Rosamund stood and turned toward Kieran, dusting the dirt from her hands. “Eilis tells it true. I’m looking for my twin sister. You see, we were separated at birth and I’d heard for several years that she might live in Coldfield. I lost my way and fell into the pit. Gabriel and Eilis have given me refuge until I could get on my way again. Just another day or two and I’ll be leaving.”
Kieran folded his arms and looked down, but his shoulders shook with laughter. “Nice story,” he said, leering at her. “That’s what my trading partner told me you would say. I know exactly who you are and what you’re running from. If you don’t come with me right now, I’ll send you back. You’re mine,” he whispered menacingly, a look of hunger on his face. “Herrick promised you’d come to me. I’ll not have Gabriel interfere.”
“She’s not a piece of meat, you demented swine,” Eilis screamed and ran toward him with her knife drawn. In a move that was too quick to anticipate, Kieran grabbed Rosamund by the arm and drew his dagger, holding it at her throat. “Stand down, you batty old crone,” Kieran growled at Eilis, pressing the point of the dagger into her skin.
Rosamund heard the twang of an arrow and saw it whizzing toward her head. She screamed, ducked, and Kieran Houser fell backwards. The arrow hit him straight between the eyes, a look of sheer surprise frozen on his face. Rosamund scurried away from him, her mouth agape, wondering who in the world could’ve known where they were and that they needed help. Gabriel came striding into the clearing looking absolutely thunderous.
“Perfect timing, son,” Eilis quipped, unperturbed by the incident. She looked at Kieran as if he were scum that had risen to the top of a beautiful lake that needed to skimmed and thrown away.
Rosamund stood shaking with a hand over her queasy stomach, staring at the body. Gabriel took her by the elbow and led her out of the glade so her field of vision would be filled with the nothing but purple flowers. “I’m sorry to frighten you,” he said grimly. “I had a feeling he’d come looking for you.”
“How did you know I would duck?” Rosamund rounded on him angrily, her hands curled into fists as she stomped the ground. “How could you have known what I would do?”
“It’s only natural to duck,” Gabriel said softly, and then he smiled, one side of his mouth curving a little higher than the other. “Besides, I wasn’t aiming for you, Rose.”
“No one can know what’s happened to him, Gabriel,” Eilis interrupted, a morose tone to her voice.
“I know, mother. I know what must be done.”
“What are you going to do with him?” Rosamund asked shakily.
“I have to take him to the frozen bowl near Coldfield and . . . leave him.”
“This happened because of me. I’m sorry, Gabriel,” Rosamund wailed. “You shouldn’t have to kill for me.”
“Rose,” he said, gripping her upper arms and looked sternly into her face. “I didn’t do it because of you. I did it because of him. He wasn’t about to leave you alone. Mother, take her back to the cottage. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
Rosamund hadn’t gotten out of bed in two days. She couldn’t seem to get past the trauma of Kieran’s murder, the events of it running through her head over and over again. Through fitful phases of sleep and wakefulness, she never had any rest. She’d tried to get out of bed a few times, but going up and down the stairs was exhausting and she’d completely lost her appetite. Eilis didn’t say much, just went about her chores as usual and made sure there was food left out for her. Rosamund was confused. She thought she’d overcome the effects from escaping Colestus, but this new ordeal, a man shot dead right next to her, had set her back. Was she disposed to strangling weakness or debilitating melancholy, unable to overcome the stresses in life? Was the poison in her body causing problems anew?
Whatever it was, she was determined not to let it hold her back anymore. No more wallowing; she must overcome. Rosamund swung her feet out of bed and faced the back wall, looking at the basin of water on a nearby table. A cloth was set out and the water was cold, but she decided the cold would feel comforting. She’d been warm, too warm sometimes, and had sweat a great deal the last couple of days. The linens didn’t smell very good and she would take it upon herself to wash and hang them out to dry tomorrow. It was twilight, the daylight beginning to fade, so she took the candle that had burned low and used it to light a new one. Rosamund lifted the dirty shift over her head and laid it beside her on the bed. She’d throw that in the washtub with the linens and ask Eilis if she had extra fabric to make a new one.
Reaching for the cloth, Rosamund dipped it in the water and smoothed it over her face, down her throat, on the back of her neck, letting the cool water flow down her body. It felt wonderful. Next, she cleaned her breasts, stomach, and arms. While she lifted her arm to clean underneath it, she turned her head toward the stairway and thought she saw someone dart away and hide behind the wall. It startled her and she grabbed a blanket from the bed to cover herself.
“Eilis? Is that you?” Rosamund called. “I’m just washing. I’ll be down in a moment.” No one answered for some time and it made her anxious. “Hello?”
“Uh, no,” Gabriel said, clearing his throat nervously. “It’s me.”
“What are you doing?” Rosamund cried and covered herself more fully with the blanket.
“I was bringing you something to eat. I didn’t realize you’d be . . . I’m sorry, Rose. I didn’t mean to barge in on you.”
She could hear his footsteps plodding down the stairs.
The footsteps stopped, the stair creaking under his weight.
“Please bring the food up. Going up and down the stairs makes me tired.”
“But you’re not dressed.”
“I’m covered now.”
Gabriel walked back up the stairs and peered around the corner before entering the loft. He kept his eyes low, slowing to wipe up some soup that must’ve spilled on the tray. When he lifted his face to glance at Rose, smiling, so many contrary expressions collided on his face at once and he stopped mid-step. Schooling his features to gain control, he cleared his throat, and put the tray of food on an old chest against the wall and opposite the bed. He turned his back on her and walked over to the railing and looked down into the common room.
“Mother said you hadn’t been eating. I was hoping you’d find your appetite now that I’m back.” He turned toward her and looked straight into her eyes, only her eyes, but Rosamund knew it took all of his self-control not to capture the vision of her wrapped only in a blanket with a candle shedding its soft light in the room. “I’m sorry I interrupted your . . .” But he couldn’t finish. He strode from the room and down the stairs.
Rosamund finished washing, put her shift back on, and hunkered back down in bed, ignoring the food. Gabriel had looked at her with passion. She recognized the desire in his eyes, but not the pain, nor the self-control. Gabriel was not a man who would force himself upon a woman.
There was a bigger worry.
He’d seen them, the scars on her back, and it would be the most humiliating thing in the world to explain where she’d gotten them.
Rosamund thought she’d try to make an appearance at breakfast, especially since Gabriel was back. She wanted to make him feel like everything was normal between them. Aside from the fact that he’d already killed to keep her safe, he could’ve done what he pleased with her last night, and didn’t. That was a fine measure of a man, the ability to look, to desire, but not touch. She admired him for it. There were a great many things that she’d begun to admire about him. Mostly, she felt safe with him and, amazingly, she trusted him. She never believed that could ever happen. Rosamund was just about to walk down the stairs, but Gabriel and Eilis seemed to be having a serious conversation. She shouldn’t have, but she hid behind the wall, near the top of the staircase, so she could hear every word.
“I know you’re charmed by her, my son, but you can’t ask her that. Don’t even think about it,” his mother warned. “She’s got trouble bearing down on her. Someone from outside the wilds will come looking for her.”
That? Rosamund thought, puzzled. What did she mean?
“Why not?” Gabriel protested. Rosamund sensed irritation rising in his voice. “There’s not another suitable woman in these parts.”
“You mean not another as refined,” Eilis scoffed. “There are dozens of women within a league of here who’d give their ample bosoms for the chance to have you look at them with interest.”
Rosamund chanced a peak around the corner of the wall and down the stairs. Gabriel’s cheeks, the skin above his whiskers had reddened, bright as apples, and he raised a hand to scratch the back of his neck.
“That’s not what I meant,” he replied in frustration.
“Sure, it is,” she replied. “You want a woman who appeals to you. That’s natural enough, but there is another problem I’m not sure you’ve noticed just yet . . .” She paused and eyed her son warily, swallowed hard, then pressed her lips together. “You’ll not want to hear this, son, but the girl is with child.”
Rosamund gasped and flattened her back against the wall of the loft, her chest heaving with distress. She’d been sick, just sick, that’s all.
“What makes you think that?” Gabriel growled in frustration. “She’s been through holy hell, mother. Bandits attacked her and then she fell into the pit, almost killed both times. She’s told me she has an unsettled stomach. I don’t think that’s unusual for delicate women.”
“Her stomach is upset in the mornings, Gabriel,” Eilis argued. “That’s very common in the early stages. Think about it. Think about what your sisters have gone through, carrying and bearing their babes.”
Her heart thundering in her ears, Rosamund could barely catch her breath. She clutched her chest, trying to think it through. Her body was only responding to the trauma she’d experienced. She hadn’t thought there could be another explanation; she didn’t want another explanation! Rosamund slumped to the floor and tried not to hyperventilate, reality sinking deep into her bones. Could she really be with child sired by a man she loathed? A man she’d run away from? And why hadn’t she become pregnant sooner? It had been five long years of pure torture enduring that man’s brutal pleasures. Would Colestus have suspected that she carried a child before she fled? If so, how hard would he try to find his heir? Or would he deny the child, bury her existence, annul their marriage, and try and find another wife of the proper lineage and try again? Rosamund held her head in her hands trying to stop the spinning, her mind running in circles over the circumstances, now much more alarming than they had been a moment ago.
Rosamund peeked around the corner again. Gabriel seemed upset. He stood rigid with his hands on hips and stared at the ceiling. He began pacing, but then rounded on his mother glaring at her. She thought he would yell and raise the roof off the house, but he was calm and spoke with an agonizing softness.
“I don’t know how to explain it. She’s fragile, but so fiercely brave,” he whispered, his eyes never wavering, boring into the eyes of his mother. “I don’t know what circumstances have driven her to the far reaches of the kingdom. I don’t even care if she’s with child . . .”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” she said, her voice dripping with scorn.
“I don’t!” he snapped and began pacing again. “You should’ve seen her cowering on that tiny ledge in the briar patch. She was afraid, but she had an inner reserve of strength. She was not about to give up despite her dire circumstances. I don’t know, mother,” he sighed and rubbed his face tiredly. “I want to help her.”
“Just so long as you know what you’re getting into.” Eilis shrugged and began winding a long thread of wool onto a spool that would be used for weaving fabric.
Rosamund sat in shock, staring at her hands clasped over her knees. She had not realized that Gabriel had such strong feelings for her. Sadly, she wasn’t sure if she could return his affection. She didn’t know if she could stand a man touching her ever again. If she’d met Gabriel as a younger girl, she would’ve run away, scared out of her wits. He was fearsome to behold. Definitely not the kind of man a woman of noble blood would consider for her future, but he had a side to him that was unexpected, a certain vulnerability that she had not seen in men of the court or in proper society. Many of those men were calculating and cruel, like her husband. She knew from the moment she set on eyes on Gabriel that he was not like them.
Perhaps that made him weak. Perhaps that made him perfect.
A strong side of her didn’t want to take advantage of him, either, even though she was terribly desperate. She wouldn’t make a man suffer because she didn’t have proper feelings for him.
“Rose,” he called. “Could you come down?”
When she appeared at the top of the stairs, sniffling and tears threatening, he was still glowering at his mother. His eyes softened upon seeing her and noticed that she’d been crying. He grabbed a linen from the table and offered it to her. “Are you unwell? Do you need to sit down?”
She blinked a few times to hold back the tears, a sad smile etched across her face. “My world just became a little more complicated than I realized.”
“I know what you mean,” he sighed and glanced at his mother. “Can you walk?”
Rose shot him a look of confusion.
“Of course, you can walk,” he amended, embarrassed. “What I mean is, can you walk uphill for a while? There is a special place I’d like to show you. It’s not far, I promise.”
“My mother,” Gabriel began conversationally, as they walked around the back of the house toward a path in the trees. “She, ah, gets under my skin sometimes. We don’t always agree.” He looked at her with furrowed brows and somber eyes, somewhat embarrassed. “I hope you don’t think I’m a man of hard temper.”
“You are unlike most men I’m accustomed to. I’ve seen tempers rise over the smallest things,” Rosamund replied thoughtfully. Despite his rough appearance and occasional gruff demeanor, he had a noble profile, a proud brow, a straight nose, and full lips. If he were a man of hard temper, or prone to dark moods, how would she ever see him smiling? And he did smile, perhaps more than he wanted others to think.
“I’ve been watching you for a week and it seems to me that you are a kind man. Why would you have helped me if you weren’t?” Rosamund turned toward him and smiled shyly. Then, looking away, she pushed a tendril of hair behind her ear. “There’s something else I’ve noticed about you,” she continued. “I don’t believe I’ve run across another man with such a soothing voice, Gabriel. It’s like the whisper of water before it plunges over the cliff. What follows is soft and expressive. One would think of you as one of those burning mountains I’ve read about. You look perfectly capable of exploding.”
“Oh, I’m capable.” He grimaced. “Luckily, I’m not in a position where I must, at least not any more. Here we are. I call this place Water Rock,” he said, admiring the water as it cascaded from the top over steps to the bottom. “Are you up to climbing?” he asked, pointing to what looked like a narrow game trail.
Rosamund shrugged and gave him a nervous smile.
“I’ll be right behind you.”
Rosamund climbed the steep trail, trying to keep her footing by holding onto the branches of bushes and nearby trees. She slipped a couple of times, but Gabriel’s firm presence made it impossible to fall. He never slipped once.
Panting from the exertion, Rosamund grabbed a nearby branch to steady herself while she caught her breath. She hadn’t noticed anything in particular except that the creek ran right through the middle of the gigantic boulder, with trees growing out of it. Gabriel came up behind her, clearly not out of breath, nudged her elbow and said, “Look.”
When she glanced around, Rosamund was overwhelmed at the beauty. It was a perfect panorama of thickly forested ridges converging at the top of a mountain range. Ominous, the peak of the tallest mountain jutted like a spike, but the sister peaks looked like the edge of a saw, sharp and jagged. To each side of the range, the land smoothed out into plateaus.
“This is glorious,” she sighed, elated. “The mountains are breath-taking, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen the sky such a perfect Forget-Me-Not blue. Have you?”
“No, not quite,” Gabriel grinned at her. “I found you right over there,” he said, pointing to the forest plateau closest to them. “That’s where the sink hole is.”
She shook her head in amazement. “I’m glad you did. I’ve never been so relieved in my life to see someone standing there. I was dreaming of my horse, thought your horse was Merry and when I opened my eyes, there you were in a shaft of sunshine with a look of dread on your face. I think you thought I was dead.”
“Before you woke, I wondered . . .” Gabriel nodded, but the genial look on his face had faded. “Rose, I must speak to you; it’s very important. Shall we sit?” he asked, pointing to a large tree that had fallen near the edge of the rock.
Rosamund had been enjoying herself so much, that for a just a moment, she’d forgotten why they had come.
“Of course, Gabriel. What is it?”
“Before I shot Kieran, he told me quite a story.” He grimaced uncomfortably and cupped his chin, smoothing his whiskers. “One I never thought would come to pass.” He paused for a moment, it seemed to Rosamund, to watch her reaction. She had to force herself to be still, like a rabbit contemplating the trap. Her heart thumped wildly in her chest, as if it would burst. Her worries plummeted into the pit of her stomach, afraid that he’d discovered the truth and she had no idea what to do about it. Should she spring the trap and run or admit everything?
“Anyway. . .” Gabriel relaxed a little, stretching his long legs out before him and crossed them at the ankles, his arms folded across his chest. “He was expecting you to show up near his lands, told you as much in the glade. He even asked me if I’d seen a lady lost in the woods before I found you in the pit.”
Rosamund felt sweat appear on her upper lip and coursing down the middle of her back. Pressing her lips together nervously, she put a hand to her ear and grasped her lobe. She couldn’t force herself to look him in the eye.
“There is also news out of the Capitol,” he continued, watching her every move. “Apparently, the queen has run away. The rumors are flying and the king is said to be so furious that he is offering huge rewards for her and the two people he is certain helped her escape. One rumor portrayed the king in such a rage that he screamed, said he would kick them off the gallows himself, watch them sway in the breeze and stink up the village square while the crows pick at their eyes.”
Unable to move, to breathe, or even to see, Rosamund sat motionless. She had a vague notion of water flowing nearby, of birds calling, even a gentle breeze caressing her skin. She couldn’t stop the flow of tears or the desperate pain she felt for putting the lives of her friends in danger. Why had she listened to Hardwin and Lady Alimaida? Why had she allowed them to help? She’d thought a thousand times since her escape that she would rather die than have her friends caught and tortured. Hoping and praying beyond the yearnings of her heart, Rosamund wished that she had news of them. Had Hardwin, his family, and Lady Alimaida done as they planned and gotten out of the country before Colestus returned from the hunt? That would’ve given them several days of travel before the king’s search parties fanned out through Edmira.
“Our countrymen are all a dither about it. I suppose they would be, what with that much of a reward hanging in the balance. Kieran even found a notice posted in one of the villages, with the queen’s likeness drawn on parchment. Her full name is Rosamund Lilia Lavender Farrimond.” Gabriel paused for a moment, placed his elbows on his knees, and clasped his hands. He turned his face toward her and with a look of unutterable sadness, he whispered, “She looks an awful lot like you, Rose.”
Rosamund couldn’t bring herself to look at him. She sat sniffling, tears streaming down her cheeks. She finally used the cuff of her blouse to wipe her face. After she gained some composure, she cleared her throat and asked, “What will you do?”
“I’ll do what is right.”
“What is right?” she asked, confused. She fell to her knees and looked up into his face, begging and sobbing. “I have money if that’s what you want, Gabriel. Please don’t send me back.”
“Shhh, lass,” he consoled, patting her shoulder, but she flinched at his touch and backed away. He looked perplexed by her response, but he pressed on. “That’s not what I want, nor what is right.”
Rosamund blinked in shock and blurted, “What? I can’t do that. Gabriel, I could be with child, the king’s child. I thought he was trying to poison me and maybe he was. I thought that’s why my stomach would never settle. I can’t help but think that your mother is right. You can’t possibly want to marry a woman who will be hunted her whole life.”
“Kieran had inside sources,” Gabriel replied knowingly. “He said the king has already found a woman he believes will be legitimate according to the law. He’s waiting a proper amount of mourning time before he ties the knot. He doesn’t seem desolate over losing you, aside from the fact that he wants to catch you and exact your punishment himself.”
“Well, I’m not desolate over escaping either,” she said bitterly.
“Did you run because of what I saw on your back?”
She scowled at him through her tears. “He hurt me.”
“I know,” he said, so softly that her ears had to strain to hear him. “Did he . . . whip you?”
“I . . . I can’t relive it, Gabriel,” Rosamund said, her entire body quaking with anxiety, trying to keep the horrible images at bay. “He used me in ways that were unspeakable. I didn’t please him in the bedchamber and what he did for his own pleasure felt like punishment. I suppose it’s my fault. No one took me aside in advance of the marriage and told me what to expect or even gave me the slightest idea of what to do. I’ve never believed . . .” she continued, haltingly, “that interludes of that nature . . . had to involve . . . pain. At least, that’s what married women have told me.”
“Those women are right. It’s not your fault,” Gabriel said emphatically, stood up, and began to pace around a small river birch tree. “I can save you from him, Rose. He might be interested in the child you carry, but I don’t think he knows. I can hide you both from him.”
He sat down on the log and looked into her eyes, his brows clashing with concern. “Kieran is gone. I don’t believe his wife, paramours, kids, or bastards will connect his disappearance with you. They’ll never find him. No need to exact vengeance,” he finished and looked off into the distance as if, he too, had to lock an unpleasant memory away. “We could live here for a while. It’s remote enough. You wouldn’t have to go into the village. I’ve got my mother and sisters to help with that. If any villagers start getting curious about you, we’ll live deeper in the woods, farther away from prying eyes. I’ll teach you to live in the wilds, how to do all of the things that you never learned, and how to protect yourself and the babe. I know it’s not a life of luxury like what you’re used to, but it can be a happy life. I can protect you and even love you.”
Rosamund threw him a fierce glare that silenced him. She couldn’t imagine herself loving anyone, ever.
“Eventually, if you’ll let me.”
“Gabriel,” she said, shaking her head. “You don’t know me. How can you know if you’d even like me or trust me for that matter? I have the same problem to consider.”
“You must trust me . . . a little,” he said, tilting his head and offering a crooked smile from under those great whiskers. “I have my reasons for liking and trusting you. Would you tell just anyone about the terrors of the king’s bedchamber?”
“No,” Rosamund said, turning her face away shamefully, burning with embarrassment. She already wished she hadn’t told him. “But still, I couldn’t do that to you. You flatter me. Honestly, you do. What man in his right mind would make such an offer to a woman in my situation? You deserve better. I am desperate and beaten. I . . . I mean, we would be a terrible burden to you. I’d be a poor help-mate. I haven’t the slightest idea how to cook or clean or garden or weave or anything that must be done in the wild. I couldn’t even keep up with your mother. I’m not suitable for you.”
“You are a brave, hardworking, and loving soul, Rose. I find you extremely suitable.”
“What about all the other women your mother talked about?”
“You heard that?” he asked, taken aback. “They are a sturdy lot to be sure, and some are fair enough, but none of them move me like you, Rose.”
“I don’t know if I can love you like that,” she whispered fiercely. “You see?” Rosamund searched his eyes and grasped him by his jerkin. “It’s not fair to you. You deserve more than I can give.”
“I’ll take whatever you have to give, even if it’s just a smile. I promise.”
“What if I never do?”
He smiled, a certain mischievous look in his eyes, and shrugged.
“I admire your confidence, Gabriel, but I’ve been through too much,” she said, shaking her head in resignation.
Despite her reluctance, Rosamund felt tempted. He was a hard man, his shape and demeanor forged by the harsh landscape, but he had a warm heart. She thought it would be the loveliest thing in the world to have him wrap his arms around her and never let go. He made her feel safe, but she just couldn’t bring herself to do it. She was haunted by the idea of Colestus and his men hunting her down and of the massacre that would ensue. No one here was safe. If Colestus has already taken another woman, he’d always be looking over his shoulder, wondering if he’d sired an heir with her and what trouble that could bring to his future.
“I can’t. I just can’t,” she wailed. She knelt over the log and wept into her arms.
“Rose, can’t you see? It’s the only way.” He moved closer to her and patted her back.
“Don’t touch me,” she warned and moved away from him. “I can do this on my own, Gabriel.” Rosamund sat up, sniffling. “I really can. I had a plan. That Houser fellow was going to hire me at servant’s wages. Wouldn’t someone in his household still take me on?”
“Oh, you think Houser’s heirs will put you to work?” Gabriel snorted with contempt. “Now, there’s a jolly thought. No, Rose, they won’t. They are a debauched lot. There’s no question in my mind that they would use you, just like the king.”
“What are you talking about?” she shouted, angry at him. “Hardwin and his brother assured me that the Housers were honorable.”
“About as honorable with women as I am clean-shaven.”
“But, but . . .” Rosamund sputtered, leaning back against the log. “You are leaving me fewer and fewer choices, Gabriel. What about a massacre of the villages on this side of the mountain range if Colestus discovers me living here?”
“I don’t think it’s going to happen, Rose, not from what I’ve heard,” Gabriel said confidently. “All of the evidence points to the king not caring one wit about you and when he goes searching, he’ll look for you in Asterias.”
“All right, then.” Rosamund gathered determination for her next question. “What will your mother say?”
“She’s the least of your troubles,” he chuckled, shaking his head. “She says her piece, shrugs, and then fires darts when she thinks we’ve made mistakes. It might take her a while to accept the idea, but she’ll be fine. My sisters will love you. We’ll have to marry soon. I think you must be two moons along.”
“How would you know?” she asked, flushed with embarrassment.
He shrugged. “I have sisters.”
“You didn’t seem aware of my situation before,” she said, narrowing her eyes in suspicion.
“I wasn’t paying attention before,” he said simply. “Rose, what I’ve noticed about you is how lovely you are, even when you’re caught in a thicket, and how brave. You work hard and you want to learn. There’s something inside of you that makes you want to survive. I saw it when you sat on the ledge, filthy and battered, but not broken. When I realized you were the runaway queen, I became even more captivated. It takes a great deal of courage to stand up for yourself and run away from someone who thinks you are no more than an animal in cage that he can he harm until his black heart is content. Think about it, Rose. You ran away from the king. That’s what makes it almost unbelievable. Do you realize how impossible that sounds? And yet, you succeeded. It makes me admire you even more.”
“I know that I am desperate, but I have not said that I will marry you. Perhaps I could find someone who would hire me do their laundry. It can’t be that hard to learn, can it?”
“A washer woman?” Gabriel scoffed incredulously. “Well, that’s a much harder life than what I’m offering. And who would watch the child while you’re bent over the tubs breaking your back and scorching your hands in the scalding water? Rose, you are running out of options. I think I’m your only way out. Come now,” he said, pulling her up from the ground, hands on her shoulders, searching her eyes. “I can’t be that bad.”
“No, no you’re not.” Rosamund gave him a reluctant smile but backed out of his grasp. “You are a vast improvement.”
“You poor, dear girl,” he sighed and sat on the log shaking his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe any man would touch a woman that way. Women are to be cherished. If there is trust and a solid friendship, I believe that love will follow,” he said, swallowing hard, and looked at her with hope and anticipation. “I’m willing to make a vow to protect you and the child on the promise of that possibility.”
Rosamund sat down beside him, her insides in utter turmoil. By accident, she had fallen into the hands of a decent man who wanted to help her. Of course, it was more complicated than that, but could she heal enough to offer him more than friendship? Would her broken heart allow her to love? As she knelt by the log thinking, realization came suddenly, as if a hardy breeze pushed a cloud hovering in front of the sun out of the way, warmth and brightness surrounding her, offering clarity for the first time in her life.
Colestus never broke her heart.
He never had her heart.
Colestus never tried to make her fall in love with him. That was the demise of their relationship, aside from the pain he brought to bear. Here sat a man who was trying to woo her. It made her a little cheerful. Why shouldn’t she take him up on it? Rosamund looked at Gabriel again very closely. She already admired his height and strong, muscular build, the perfect silhouette of his face, and his sincerity. She knew he would keep his promises. A light in his eyes radiated such honesty.
“What color are your eyes?” Rosamund asked, like a bolt out of the blue.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Gabriel asked, bewildered, apprehension written all over his face.
“Just look at me, please?”
He turned toward her, trying not to laugh. For the first time, she noticed blue-green eyes, framed by coppery lashes and brows lightened by the sun. She cocked her head and squinted for a closer look. The center of his eyes were dotted with flecks of gold. They were so different from Colestus’s cold-blooded, fathomless eyes, narrow slits that always followed her like an animal stalking prey. Gabriel’s were wide, full of color and contrast, and most importantly, warmth. At that moment, Rosamund knew that she could spend the rest of her life looking into those very beautiful eyes.
“They’re green,” he said, smirking playfully. “At least, that’s what my mother tells me.”
“That’s far too simple a description,” she said, smiling. “They look like the sea and the sky reached out to touch each other and swirled into the perfect color.”
“Does that mean what I think it means, Rose?”
“Yes, but stop calling me that,” she scolded. “It’s a name and a life that I must leave behind.”
“What would you like me to call you?”
“I can’t pull a name out of thin air, but I do know I need peace and serenity.”
“Then let your name be Serena,” he said with a satisfied smile. “No one would ever connect the two. And what about the lad you carry?”
“But, how do you know it’s a lad? Did you learn something more from your sisters?”
“No, just a guess. Every new father wants a son first.”
“Father?” she said, a smile spreading across her face. “Yes, I suppose that’s what you’ll be. As for the name, something simple, nothing that gives away his royal heritage.”
“He’s royal because of you, Serena,” Gabriel said, taking both of her hands into his. It took great will power not to jump out of his grasp, but his sweetness and sincerity kept her hands in his. “That jackass Colestus will be lucky if he doesn’t have a rebellion on his hands in a few years when more of the kingdom discovers his many secrets.” Rosamund wasn’t sure what Gabriel was referring to, but she knew enough of Colestus’s dealings with other nobles and how he had a nasty habit of pressing young boys into his army. She’d already heard rumblings of that from Hardwin, whose friends wanted to kill the king with their bare hands because he had stolen their sons. “But such is monarchy. Just so you know,” he added a bit sheepishly, “my father’s name was Nicholas.”
“That’s perfect. Nicholas…” she said softly, liking the way it rolled off her tongue.
“I’ll raise him as my own.”
“I know you will, Gabriel. I can see it in your eyes,” she said, unable to tear her gaze away from his.
“Let me make a vow to you, Serena,” he said, whispering her name in reverence. He knelt on one knee and held one of her hands in his. “I will protect you and the child, and love you both if you’ll let me. If there is respect and understanding, the mutual regard we have for each other will carry us through, no matter what. Will you be mine?”
She found herself smiling; a broad, genuine, aching smile. “Yes, Gabriel. No matter what.”
A Special Preview
Book I in the Fire and Fury series
In the deep, quiet darkness before dawn, before the light of the sun turned black into grey, and shed its blinding shadows, Meg was sneaking. She was used to walking in the dark, but this time she stumbled as a loose cobblestone pitched her forward. Catching her balance, she straightened her cloak and kept walking.
“Why must you do this?” Lady Byron scolded Meg from behind as she huffed, trying to keep up. “It’s the middle of the night, it’s cold, these alleys are quite disreputable, and the children. . .” she paused. Meg turned toward her chief lady-in-waiting and saw from the light of a nearby lantern that her mouth curled in distaste. “They cling.”
“Much like I did?” Meg tried not to laugh. “I have memories of clinging so tight you almost choked, so great was my grip around your neck. Poor little orphans are starving not only for want of food, but for affection.”
“They smell awful. Their breath could back a buzzard off a corpse,” Lady Byron sniffed haughtily, though she tightened her prim lips in order to suppress a smile. A woman of forty or so years, she was unnaturally thin and prematurely wrinkled. Stern and ridged, she looked as if she had a knight’s jousting lance attached to her backside.
“Lady Byron,” Meg stopped, placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder, and looked her in the eye. “I know the only reason you’ve started coming with me is that my father has entrusted you with my safety. He puts the onus of my behavior on your shoulders, although he does not know that I frequent the city without guards, a little too often, shall we say? But these enterprises of mine will suffer if I cannot visit often. I must see for myself the needs of my father’s people.”
Lady Byron had informed her that although she couldn’t tie Meg to her bed to keep her from sneaking out of the castle, utter nonsense and sheer folly she’d said, she would not let Meg out of her sight.
“Look, Lewin’s candles still burn,” Meg said as she grabbed Lady Byron by the hand and pulled her along toward the cottage.
“The people need help. I can see that, but I still don’t understand why you must involve yourself so much,” Lady Byron muttered. “Princesses should not get their hands dirty.”
“Oh, but that’s what I love about it, the dough between my fingers and knowing that all the talking, arguing, and convincing that I’ve done with my father is finally trickling down to the people who need it most. The war is so hard on them. We must do what we can.”
“You’re going to run out of money,” Lady Byron quipped.
“What good is money during a time of war? I can’t exactly commission gowns for dancing now, can I?”
“When would you dance?”
“My point precisely,” Meg said as she opened the door to the cottage of Lewin Cooksey, son of the castle’s head cook and her contact within the city.
As they walked through the threshold into the kitchen area, Meg could see no one. A fire crackled in the hearth and flour dusted the butcher block, but no one was home at the moment. Perhaps Lewin, his wife, and an army of volunteers had already made their deliveries of the flour that Meg supplied. If that were the case, then she would be disappointed. The most enjoyable part of overseeing her operations was talking to the people who were willing to give up their time to help in the war effort.
Meg ushered Lady Byron toward the fire so that she might warm up, but turned toward the cellar door when she heard the stairs squeaking. She hadn’t remembered that they squeaked so badly, screeching like the old, rickety wheel of a cart. Then she heard the latch click.
The door swung open and thumped against the rough rock wall. Two men shouldering large bags of flour walked into the room.
And there he stood, gazing, completely unabashed for holding her glance.
Meg didn’t know who he was, even though she’d seen him before, but she couldn’t look away. There was a strange mix of softness and intensity in his light blue eyes, not indecent ardor, crushing neediness, or even squinty dismissal, like she’d seen in the eyes of other men. All of the men her father hoped would solve his political problems and whom he thought at least one might make her happy.
“Is that the last of them then?” Lewin asked as he and his wife walked in from outside and saw the two men standing in the doorway of the cellar. “Oh, my la. . .” he said, surprised. He hadn’t seen her standing behind the butcher block on the other side of the kitchen.
Meg scowled him into silence. She couldn’t have anyone call her “my lady” out here.
Lewin pounded his chest and made a respectable appearance of a coughing fit to cover his gaffe.
“Yes, sir.” He finally spoke. “That’s the last of them.” He shouldered two heavy bags of flour, but adjusted them so he could use one hand to doff his woolen cap. Nervously tugging at the grimy homespun tunic at his throat, he pulled his gaze away from her. “I hate to ask,” he said, licking his lips as if from thirst, “but is there any bread left or perhaps a drop of mead?”
“Ho, now. That’s a question,” Lewin chortled to the laughter of his wife. “Those little urchins descend on the food we make like a pack of ravenous wolves. If it weren’t for the war, I’d be filthy rich. The wife here,” he said, tilting his head toward the woman beside him, “she worries about the little ones. You can deliver those bags to my neighbor across the lane and then clean the stable, but we’ll meet again tonight when the children come. We’ll have more food then.”
He frowned, nodded in grim understanding, and put the cap back on his head, but didn’t move until his cohort, a bit of an older man, nudged him in the back. Throwing his comrade a filthy look over his shoulder, he adjusted the heavy load, and walked toward the door. “There’s a good lad,” his friend said, clearly just to irritate him. There was a slight pause in his step, as if he were thinking of a witty response, but he just shrugged, at least as well as he could under what he carried, and kept walking.
Meg found herself smiling at the exchange and wondered about him. Certainly, a man that tall, strong, and capable would be in the army. Heaven knows that’s where her beloved country, Asterias, needed men like that. But he didn’t dress like a soldier. Sporting only a simple belted tunic, breeches, and thick rags that he bound on the bottom of his legs on top of a crude leather shoe, he also wore a ragged shawl wrapped around his shoulders that looked like it doubled for extra warmth. He appeared to be a poor man who worked day to day for his next meal. These two men must be very hungry, indeed, for she had seen them working at her enterprises all over the city.
“Don’t worry,” Lewin said with a grin. “I won’t tell my father that I caught you with a rather. . .” he paused, clearing his throat, “impressive man.”
“Why would I worry?” Meg said, as she walked toward the fireplace and Lady Byron, trying to hide the heat she felt rushing to her cheeks, cursing herself for staring. “Besides, the king’s cook wouldn’t believe a word you say. He loves me more than he loves you.”
“That I don’t doubt,” Lewin sighed and cast a mischievous side glance toward her, “and keeps your secret.”
“I can’t give evil men an opportunity to wreak havoc on the king by kidnapping me, so, yes, it is a secret that must be kept,” Meg said circumspectly. “I’m sure many would call me selfish for flitting away from the castle, but I’d go mad. I need to do something useful.”
“It is by your good graces that we have enterprises at all.”
“The royal granaries are over-stocked for now and I am happy to put the extra to good use. I don’t know how much longer I can divert the supplies. They will have to go to the army before long. And you,” she said, pointing her finger in playful reprimand, “must remember to call me Meg. No more close calls. I will give your father a full report when I return to the castle. Now, if I can just get that door to the tunnel to open without a fight. . .” she paused, thinking and snapping her fingers. “I’m sure I’ll see him just after sunrise.”
Meg turned on her heel and walked out the door with Lady Byron following in her wake. Paying more attention to the ties on her cloak than to her steps, she tripped on the stone steps and careened face first into a very solid chest. His chest. When Meg looked up, his face showed outright alarm. He placed his hands on her shoulders, as if she were a delicate vase full of flowers, and pushed her upright so that she could stand without leaning on him. Having entirely lost her words, she looked down and found a grave interest in her boots. When Meg ventured a look toward them, the older one tried desperately not to smile, and the one with the eyes, well, he couldn’t seem to look at her, either. The silence was insufferable, so she whirled in the opposite direction and left them behind.
Thanks to Dad who is a prolific reader but sighs a lot when he has to endure romance scenes (give him a Tom Clancy thriller and he’s good to go), Mom who has no problem with romance scenes, and Deanne Cummings who always encouraged me because she enjoyed the way my words flowed.
Thanks to my sister Juli Caldwell, who is a wonderful fellow writer and editor and wasn’t afraid to tell me to hire a professional editor outside the family. She was, however, willing to help me with alpha reading, final line editing, and formatting. I couldn’t have done any of this without her help. Her advice, stories, writing style, and spunky narrative voice are an inspiration to me.
And most of all, thanks to my guys — Gene, Daniel, and JC, for putting up with all the hours I spent glued to my computer monitor. The series has been years in the making and you’ve been over-the-top loving and supportive. I must’ve heard this a thousand times: “Just publish your book, Mom!” Just so you know, none of this means a thing without you.
About the Author
Shantal grew up climbing trees, riding bikes, roller skating, and playing on the beaches of Southern California. Once the family moved to Utah, she paid her way through college while modeling and acting, a life so out of the ordinary that it triggered her imagination and her confidence to write. She earned a B.A. in History from Weber State University and an M.A. in English from the University of Utah, and she has been developing stories ever since.
She still lives in glorious, beautiful Utah with her husband and two sons who had the audacity to grow up. In addition to reading and writing, Shantal enjoys being outside in her garden, hiking, camping, traveling, and skiing (both kinds―recreation is king in Utah), and hanging out with her kids. She’ll come inside to bake, mostly cookies, but anything will do as long as there is chocolate. Catch up on her adventures on her , , , , and [ sign up for her newsletter here+].
The Runaway Queen
A Prequel Novella
Copyright © 2017 by Shantal Sessions
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
All rights reserved. Without limiting the right under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
Dedicated to Jerry and Sandy Hiatt
For Dad who gave me the gift and Mom who can spend hours with a good book.
Thanks for the best kind of love.
Even the queen isn't safe from monsters. If she wants to live, she has to run. With the help of her close servants from home, Rosamund escapes into the wilds alone. Confident that it is something she can do, nature has other ideas. Rescued by Gabriel, ruggedly handsome and taken with her, she must decide if she should go into hiding with a man she hardly knows. The king's cruelty is renowned, his sense of revenge ignited. Rosamund has no doubt that she will spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder.