Seirsha of Errinton will release on Thursday! Here’s a little sample…
Smoke sits heavy in the cave, and I cover my mouth with my sleeve as I choke on it. I peer around the corner, through the inky darkness, hoping I will find one dark shape. There are two. I pull back quickly and press my back against the hard stone.
“Don’t lurk, Seirsha,” a deep, lyrical voice calls from the cavern I just peered into.
I take a deep breath to slow my racing heart. Instead of drawing in slightly musty air, I suck up another lungful of smoke. I try to hold it in, but my cough echoes through the tunnels. If there were a chance of slinking away into the darkness, it’s gone now.
Not that I can bear to go back. Not after tonight.
Still choking, I cautiously step around the bend. The floor is uneven, but I expect it, so I don’t stumble.
“A pet, Adrinel? I didn’t know you kept vermin.” The figure cloaked in black shadows laughs at his cruel taunt, smoke wheezing out of his mouth as he chortles.
I cringe away, quickly making my way to Adrinel’s side where I’m safe.
At least I hope I’m safe.
Even in the dim light of the cave, Adrinel’s green eyes glow. She opens her mouth to respond to her companion, but her gaze slides over my face, and she pauses. Those disconcerting eyes narrow to glowing slits as she cranes her neck to examine me closer. “What has happened to you?”
Terror rises in my chest, and I look away, unable to put into words the horror of the evening.
“Leave us,” Adrinel says to her friend.
He flicks his tail. Indignant, he looks as if he’s going to argue but thinks better of it when Adrinel raises her head in challenge. He nods, acknowledging her superiority. As he stands, his leathery hide shifts along old, weathered bones. His joints crack as he moves, and I take another step closer to Adrinel when he growls in pain.
He gives Adrinel a last, sharp look. “Farewell, daughter.”
I turn away as he blows another plume of smoke in my direction, but I try not to cough until he has rounded the bend. The only sound besides my near-silent choking is the click of his claws against the unyielding stone. Once that fades, I turn to Adrinel.
“Can you fix it?” I whisper, angling my cheek toward her so she can take a better look.
She growls and tosses her head back. Fire streams from her jaws. The magic-infused flame twists and ribbons around itself before it breaks apart and forms floating orbs that hover above us. The cavern comes to life in the light, and the coins gleam under my feet.
Adrinel lowers her sapphire head and flicks her wings in annoyance. “Answer my question. What has happened?”
“Calden,” I murmur, my cousin’s name barely audible as it passes my lips.
She hisses. “And your friend?”
Tears prick my eyes when I think of Bea, my lady’s maid, and I turn from her. Adrinel stretches out a wing. Like a mama owl tucking an owlet close, she pulls me toward her. I turn into her scaled side. Though she shimmers like jewels, her hide is soft velvet.
“Look at me,” she instructs.
Bracing myself, I turn my face toward her. She breathes out a white fire that makes me cringe even before it hits my face. An onslaught of sensations overwhelm me, and I struggle to stay conscious. The unique flame sears, yet it’s cold; it itches even as it soothes.
I rub my cheek, trying to work feeling back into it. It pricks like a limb deprived of blood, but it’s no longer tender.
“Thank you,” I say.
“It would be a pleasure to end him.” She pulls her wing back, releasing me from her side, and stretches out on her hoard of treasure. Gold, jewels, armor, weapons—she lounges on them like they are pillows.
I lower myself to the floor and push aside a nasty looking dagger. As I sit, I give the dragon a sharp look. “You know you mustn’t.”
“I didn’t say I was going to.” Her tail flicks in annoyance. Back and forth it goes, coins shifting underneath it. “I simply said it would be a pleasure.”
Unable to keep her gaze, I look away first. She loves me as much as a beast could love her own young, but she’s still a dragon. She’s still deadly.
“When are you leaving?” I ask, speaking to the floor.
“Don’t do that,” she says, irritated. “We go through this every season. I will be back.”
I chance a peek at her again. “What if it happens and you’re gone?”
She shrugs. “End him.”
Huffing out a frustrated breath, I say, “You know I can’t.”
“Can’t or won’t?”
I rub my cheek. Though the pain is gone, I still remember the strike. “Both, I suppose.”
“Has your father found you a husband to take you away yet?”
Idly, I run my thumb against the pendant at my neck. “No one wants me.”
No one who can have me, that is.
“Not you—Errinton,” Adrinel snaps. “And do you blame them?”
Even I don’t want Errinton, and I’m its princess.
“When do you leave?” I ask again as I play with a coin, dreading her answer.
She stretches her neck. The pleasure on her face shows she’s already dreaming of the hot springs that she and others of her kind frequent several times a year. “I think tomorrow. I am stiff, and my scales are dull.”
Those dull scales sparkle radiantly in the glowing firelight. I raise an eyebrow at her.
The dragon preens, knowing she is lovely. “You could come with me, mouse.”
I snort. “As what? A snack?”
Adrinel narrows her eyes, and a wisp of smoke escapes one nostril. “None would dare.”
I do believe she’s right. She was formidable as a youth all those years ago when she rescued me from her kind. Now as a young, mature female she is as terrifying as she is stunning. Even for a dragon, she’s magnificent.
“I can’t leave,” I say.
“You mean you can’t leave him.”
Flustered, I study the floating firelights. “And what exactly do you claim to know of love?”
“You’re right,” she answers. “I don’t understand a love that would leave you to compete in a tournament for another woman’s hand.”
My stomach knots. “Rigel was doing his duty, just as I will do mine when the time comes.”
Her disagreement is silent, but it’s there.
“And there’s more here than just him,” I argue. “There’s Bea and her family as well.”
“Has that peasant woman birthed her young yet?” she says, speaking of Bea’s sister-by-marriage.
I laugh at the dragon’s indifferent tone. “No. Marielle hasn’t had her baby, but she should any day now.”
“You want one of those mewling creatures.” Adrinel grimaces. “I can see it your eyes.”
Dragons aren’t like us. They don’t understand.
“Yes. Eventually,” I answer, glancing back at her.
She yawns, bored with the turn the conversation has taken. She settles lower, readying herself for sleep. “Will you stay tonight? Or will you return?” Her eyes are already closed. “Be quiet now if you’re staying.”
I run my hand along the cold coins. My bed is more comfortable, but it’s far safer here now that Calden has managed to obtain a key to my chambers. I curl on my side, tucking my hands under my cheek. The firelight slowly dims, Adrinel’s magic fading as she drifts to sleep. Soon it’s dark and very cold.
Still, it’s better than home.
“You’re sure you won’t need me tomorrow?” Bea asks.
I smile at my lady’s maid. “Of course not. Enjoy your new niece.”
The village herbalist came only an hour ago with news of the baby’s birth.
Bea smiles while fussing with my collection of cloaks. “I am eager to meet her.”
The beating on my door startles us. My heart jumps to my throat, and I look around for an escape although I already know there’s none.
Bea pales when she hears my cousin’s voice bellow out her name, and she whispers, “He’s drunk.”
I nod, clasping the familiar pendant at my throat for comfort, and move close so I may speak without being heard. “If we stay quiet, perhaps he’ll go away.”
“Seirsha, if you don’t open this door and send her out, I’ll open it myself!”
He will, too. His speech is slurred, but he’s not a sloppy drunk. His fists will meet their target, and they will hurt.
Bea cowers in the corner, trembling.
“I won’t let him have you again.” I look around for something I can use against him. Father won’t let me keep weapons. It’s not ladylike, he says. Like he cares.
After one last crash against the door, a key turns in the lock. The door swings open, and there Calden stands. His eyes are dilated, and he’s shaking. He’s been in more than the drink tonight.
“Bea, get back!”
Bea tries to scramble away, but Calden grabs her by her hair and pulls her to him.
I run toward my cousin, trying to yank his arm back. “Calden, stop!”
His eyes lock on mine, and he throws Bea back. She crashes against a bookshelf and crumples to the floor. Calden’s hand goes around my throat, and I freeze.
“When I give you a command, you will listen. Do you understand, Princess?” he says, sneering as he uses my title.
Calden shakes me one more time, and then he tosses me away. I fall to the ground but immediately scramble up and pull at the sleeve of his tunic, clawing at him, trying to pull him back. He has Bea again. She screams as he hits her. If I can’t stop him, that’s not all he’ll do.
It only takes a moment for him to release Bea and strike me with the back of his hand. I reel back from the shock of the pain. Bea shrieks again. My vision clears, and I frantically search for something to hit him with. My eyes lock on a grotesque stone dragon that sits on the floor near me. I heave it up. With all my might, I hit Calden over the back of the head. To my relief—and horror—he crumples before me.
My gaze instantly snaps to Bea. Her eyes are wide, and she chokes back a sob. Pulled from its braids, her hair is a mess. She dabs at the blood trailing from her cheek, and when she spots her scarlet fingertips, she looks ill.
“Is he dead?” she whispers, horrified.
I study Calden for a moment. His chest continues to rise and fall. Feeling like I’m going to be sick, I shake my head.
“What are we going to do with him?” Bea’s close to hysterical—and for good reason.
Lying at our feet is the unconscious heir to the Errintonian throne.
“What if he wakes before we return?” Bea’s voice trembles in the dark.
He shouldn’t, anyway. Not with as drunk as he was when he showed up. If we’re lucky, he won’t wake up at all.
How I hate that man. It’s probably a blessing Father doesn’t let me keep weapons. Adrinel would be proud; I would have killed him tonight…if I haven’t already. My stomach knots, but I refuse to acknowledge the fear now.
We slink through the sleeping village, startling a few stray cats as we pass. A mangy dog growls from a pile of discarded bones, but it draws no attention to us. The villagers are all asleep at this hour. Father has guards, of course, but they’re all just as drunk as Calden by now.
Bea throws open the door to a worn cottage. It bangs against the wall, making a horrible racket.
Rella, Bea’s mother, looks up from her darning. We’ve startled her, and she’s about to chastise Bea for the scare when she sees me.
“Seirsha! You’ve come to meet the baby!” Her eyes go wide when she takes in our faces. She sets her needle aside and stands. “What’s wrong?”
The story falls from my lips. Bea chokes back a sob, and Rella pulls her into her arms. The older woman tries to sooth her daughter, but there is little she can say that will help.
This isn’t the first time it’s happened, but that doesn’t make it easier. It might make it worse.
“We don’t know what to do with him,” I finish, desperate. “I don’t know what Father will do to Bea if he finds out.”
I have no one else to go to. I am King Bowen’s only child, and I’ve possibly murdered his chosen heir.
Antone, Bea’s brother, has come down from the loft and heard the last of our story. He has a new baby, the child not even a day old. He must be exhausted, but he immediately reaches for his cloak. “We must be quick.”
Rella wrings her hands. “What are you going to do?”
Antone looks at her. “We must remove him from the room and pray he won’t remember the night when he wakes.”
Leaving Bea with her mother, we race through the streets, ducking behind a firewood pile when a group of knights leaves the tavern. The sky is thick with clouds, and snow begins to fall. Late spring, like most seasons in northern Errinton, is cold.
We slip into the castle undetected, but there are voices down the hall. I look around, searching for somewhere to hide. Next to me Antone does the same. The voices fade. I lay my head against the cold stone and take a slow, calming breath.
I’m not allowed to walk the castle at night. If found, I will be dragged to Father, and Antone will be taken to the dungeons until Father decides to let him out—if he were to let him out at all. He might simply execute him for being with me in the deep of night.
I tug the collar of my cloak and continue on. We reach my quarters with no incident. After I usher Antone in, I close and lock the door. Calden lies where we left him.
Did he pass while we were gone?
The man in question snores loudly. It’s a wet, nasally sound that makes me feel ill just hearing it. Fortunately, he’s still alive. Or unfortunately. If he remembers any of what has taken place, Bea is as good as hanged.
With a grunt, Antone hefts Calden onto his shoulder. “You must be watchful. If anyone catches us, we’re both dead.”
Peeking my head into the hall, I listen for footsteps or voices. It’s clear. Not daring to speak, I motion him along. Our footsteps echo down the stone corridors. We’re still deep in the castle, but already my jaw hurts from clenching my teeth. Antone adjusts his load. Calden is not a small man, and his height alone must make him awkward to carry.
Again there are voices, and this time they are nearing.
“Quick,” I hiss as I open a door that I desperately hope is unoccupied.
Just in time, we nudge the door shut. We stand together in the dark, barely breathing, as the men walk past. Out of nervous habit, I wrap my fingers around the pendant at my neck.
Soon, the hall is silent once more.
Antone takes a deep breath. “That was a little close.”
I nod, though I don’t think he can see me in the dark. Calden’s head is near my shoulder, and the stench of mead is on his breath. My stomach coils, and I step away.
“Come on.” I slip back into the hall.
We somehow pass through the rest of the castle undetected. Once we step outside, I suck in a lungful of cold night air. I’m glad to be out of the castle, but we’re not safe yet.
“Where are we taking him?” I ask.
I turn back sharply. “Why?”
“It’s not unusual to find men passed out near the back. No one will think anything of it. If we’re fortunate, he won’t remember his night and draw his own conclusions.”
There’s raucous laughter and cheers from the building. Apparently it’s not an establishment that sleeps. Two men leave through the front, and we stay in the shadows. I wrinkle my nose. The taller of the two, Argus, is one of my father’s elite knights. A barmaid rushes out and clings to him. He kisses her, and a chorus of illicit suggestions are hollered from inside. He laughs, making her promises, and she reluctantly returns to her tables.
I’m disgusted but also weary. This sad creature probably makes more gold in one night selling herself to Father’s well-paid knights than most families will earn in a month.
Once the men pass, we slip around the back. Antone drops Calden from his shoulders. The man falls with a heavy plunk onto the stone ground. The snow has picked up, already leaving a dust of flakes on the prince’s prone form.
Perhaps he will freeze to death. It would serve him right.
Please don’t remember anything when you wake up.
I shiver and wrap the cloak tight. Antone motions me to follow him. I glare at my cousin for a few moments longer and then slip away.
Rella stands the moment we enter the cottage. “Were you seen?”
Antone shakes his head. “I don’t believe so,” he says and then tells Rella of our escape through the castle.
Unable to stand any longer, she finally sits.
“How is Bea?” I ask as I kneel in front of her.
Rella sighs. “I tended her, and she’s now sleeping. It will take several weeks for the marks to fade, but she’ll be fine.”
I shudder when I think of Bea’s screams. They will haunt me for nights—just as they have every time in the past.
“How are you, Seirsha?” Rella takes my chin and examines my face. “It’s already bruising.”
Giving her a rueful smile, I say, “It’s not the first mark I’ve had to explain away.”
She narrows her eyes and wraps her arms around me. “That doesn’t make it right.”
I take a deep, stuttering breath, fighting for composure.
Rella strokes my hair like I’m her own child. “You’re safe now.”
Unless Calden remembers everything when he wakes up. If he does, both Bea and I will be far from safe.
“I don’t want to go back,” I say.
She nods and holds me tighter.
We both know I have no choice. None of us do. We’re all stuck in these miserable lives, each of us living for small moments of happiness. When I’m with Bea’s family, I can find joy.
The mewling cry of the new baby sounds from the loft above.
Blinking back tears, I look into the dark rafters. “How is she?”
I long to go meet her, but she and Marielle need rest.
Rella smiles. “She’s perfect. Just perfect.”
“What’s her name?”
Antone slouches against a beam near the fire. He looks exhausted. “Kara.”
“It’s beautiful.” I meet his eyes. “Thank you for tonight. I wish there were some way to repay you.”
“You saved Bea. As always, we are in your debt.”
I shake my head and look back at Rella. “I don’t know what I would do without you all.”
My eyes sting again, so I look away.
Rella gives my shoulders a squeeze. “Be careful slipping back.”
“Come see us as soon as you can.”
Pausing by the door, I say, “Don’t let Bea come to the castle tomorrow. I’ve already given her leave for the day. Make sure she takes it.”
We exchange our goodbyes, and I step into the night. There’s a substantial layer of snow on the ground, and it continues to fall. Good. It will cover my footprints.
I don’t meet anyone in the halls, but I’m anxious until I set the lock on my bedchamber door. As an afterthought, I pull a chair over and wedge it against the wood. I’m not sure it will keep anyone out, but it can’t hurt.
Despite the fire crackling in the hearth, the room is cold. I can’t seem to warm up. Exhausted, I crawl into bed, not even bothering to change into my nightclothes. Reliving the night over and over, I toss and turn but eventually find sleep.
The sound of bells wakes me, and I crack my eyes open. The room is still dark. It’s not morning.
I leap from my bed. It’s the dragon bells. Why would they be attacking? What of the treaty?
But no—the rhythm is wrong. The slow, steady chime reminds me of my mother. My fingers tremble so violently, I almost drop my cloak.
It can’t be.
I wrench the chair free from the door and don’t bother to pick it up when it topples to the side and clatters to the floor. After racing down the eastern wing, I fly into the chaos of the great hall.
People loiter about, confused and disheveled. The doors are open to the night, and the crier calls to the village below. His words compete with the bells, but I hear them clearly.
Prince Calden is dead.