When Prince Brannon is banished for a crime he didn't commit, he's forced to acknowledge the true extent of his father's ambition and cruelty. Soon it becomes all too clear what must be done: Brannon must take the throne, but it won't be easy. The King has had a son--a newborn destined to follow in the King's footsteps and keep all Lanath in darkness. The child should have died but has returned, revived by a girl so infused with magic her song can alter reality. Now, she, too, is in danger and finding her may be Lanath's only hope.
Maria Rachel Hooley
Maria Rachel Hooley
Jewels of sunlight spilled through branches laden with green leaves, thick mistletoe vines, and other dangling creepers. Poison ivy flocked the shaded trunks as a cool breeze rippled leaves. Brannon Gilcrest noticed the light diminishing as the trees huddled closer together. Still, even within the shadowed wood smelling of damp earth, he focused on a clearing ahead. Sunlight shimmered off a small pond. Knee-high grass and wildflowers tangled around his boots, and as he reached the outskirts of the meadow, he saw a log house to his left just behind the pond.
A scream rent the silence. Brannon ran toward it, slowed by the grass clinging to his feet. Just ahead, a man knelt before a girl. His breeches were undone, and he hastily drew them to his waist and fumbled in fastening them. Flushed, his eyes narrowed.
“Shut up, whore!” he snapped.
Oh God! He raped her! Brannon stumbled forward as the man drew a dagger and threw it. The blade’s hilt thudded against her chest, silencing her screams.
“You killed her!” Brannon screamed.
The man collected his black cape from the ground and drew it about his shoulders. He plucked the blade from the girl’s body and wiped it on her muslin skirt. “It’s not murder to eliminate vermin. The real crime is letting them breed.”
Brannon looked at the girl—barely fourteen or fifteen—lying on her back, her skirt high on her thighs, her peasant blouse ripped open, exposing bruised breasts. Her brown eyes stared vacantly. Her lips still parted as if screaming in silence. Her long brown hair spilled around her head.
“Damn you!” Brannon yelled. “She was a child!” He reached for the sword and yanked it free of its scabbard. Taking three giant steps, he rushed the man in black.
“Stupid fool!” Brannon’s adversary shouted, whipping the dagger through the air.
Brannon jerked upright in his bed. His heartbeat thundered, racing, racing, racing. Sweat spilled down his face. Both hands clenched the blanket so tightly he could feel his short fingernails digging deeply into his skin. He released the blanket and touched the sheets. “Damn it to Hell,” he snapped, striding to his bedroom window. Through blurry vision, he sought out the moon. A full yellow orb lit the sky.
He only had this dream during a full moon. And with each cycle, the dream advanced, like a story spinning toward its conclusion—a conclusion he had no control over but merely witnessed in the unfolding. Tonight was the first night he had seen the man throw the dagger at him.
But what was this dream? Why did it haunt him? He raked his fingers through his hair and rolled his shoulders, trying to loosen the tension knotting his body.
For all the clarity of detail—green leaves swaying, pollen floating, sunlight burning—one detail eluded his memory.
He could not remember the man’s face.
He never remembered the man’s face.
The cool night air chilled his sweat-drenched skin. Would these nightmares never cease? Even if he closed his eyes, he could not dismiss the images--the girl's face, her lifeless eyes, waited.
He peered at the bed, entertaining the idea of climbing into it. Tempting, he thought. But sleep wasn't an option, not with a dead girl's face haunting him. Instead, he strode to his chair and grabbed the tunic and breeches that hung over it. If the demons were going to plague him, he thought, he may as well go out and meet them head on, considering how the full moon indicated trouble was coming.
* * *
Trying to ward off the cold air, Brannon drew his cape tighter. His shoulder-length black hair warmed his ears neck as he walked the path about a mile from his father’s castle. Already he saw the rusted cemetery gate–the door, usually chained shut during darkness, swung open and closed intermittently with the wind. With each sway, the metal groaned, a high-pitched whine that carried through the sleeping forest. That same wind also lifted the steam of Brannon’s breath.
Brannon loved both night and winter. Most of all, he savored the silence the dead kept, so different from the constant useless bustle of the castle. It refreshed him to see words carved on the stones rather than hearing his father’s lip service, half-truths meant to charm other nobility into believing his father just and honest.
His father was neither.
Brannon stepped through the gate to the dead world, a place he came when sleep eluded him, as it often did these days. Truth be told, he much preferred nature to the castle’s gaudy artifice. His father’s decor might have cost a fortune, but it meant nothing to his son. Gold also adorned Brannon’s mother, but the jewels had more value to King Roderick than his wife. Or son, for that matter.
He looked around the stony landscape and grimaced. He might as well live here for all his father cared. He had given up on Brannon as a potential heir. After all, a conscience was more than a minor detriment.
The first uneven rows of graves, he knew by heart; he had, during his restless nights, memorized each stone’s dedication. All the spirits of the mothers, the fathers, the daughters, and the sons accompanied Brannon as he contemplated the general uselessness of his life. But one grave in the cemetery’s rear had always struck him.
Although the earth, muddied from a week’s rain, clung to his boots, Brannon ignored the sucking weight of it and kept walking, his gaze turned heavenward as he studied the roiling clouds obscuring the moon. A storm was coming, he surmised. As if the weather echoed his thoughts, a wet smattering pelted him, a few stinging his face despite his hood. So much for a leisurely stroll. As the moisture dampened his cape, he quickened his steps, heading toward the back of the cemetery.
He passed a statue of a beautiful girl, and raindrops streaked her face like tears. The grave beside the statue held a child who had died even before childhood had ended, and sometimes, in the night’s stillness, Brannon almost swore the statue’s arms, legs and head moved. But then again, he thought, drawing his cloak ever tighter, my imagination runs away when given a chance.
A fallen oak blocked the path ahead, its massive trunk upended, leaving clotted roots dangling like unkempt hairs. For the most part, when the tree had fallen, it had missed most headstones, but a few had been toppled by it. “What a mess,” he whispered, making a mental note to report the damage. He peered ahead and spotted the grave he sought, a lone white rock standing amid a clearing where wild flowers bloomed unabashedly.
As he stepped around the path and hurdled the tree trunk, his boots tangled in the underbrush, long weeds ensnaring his ankles and snagging his coat possessively. Lightning rent the sky with a white hot flash that forked like a divining rod seeking water in the heavens. Right after, blackness consumed everything. For just a moment, Brannon’s steps faltered. As his sight slowly returned, so did his motion. Thunder rumbled distantly, and he waited to see if lighting would rip the heavens again.
Glancing up to confirm his direction, he saw in the demi-moonlight, a figure kneeling before the headstone. His steps quickened. Who knelt before this grave—a mysterious port that moored the body of Taelin Hadley, a fifteen-year-old girl, in its earthen bed? Her mother perhaps? Her father? What of a brother or a sister? Why had he or she come at this hour fourteen years after Taelin’s death? And what had caused the young girl to die?
That question had haunted him since he’d first discovered the stone. Frowning, Brannon touched his dagger’s hilt beneath his cape, his fingers scanning the outline of the grip, wondering if he should draw the weapon. After all, this wasn’t a private place or time, even though he’d always treated it as such before, and the world had pretty much left him to his own devices.
“You’ve no need of your sword,” a time-worn female voice replied. “The dead have one kind of secret and the living another—never will the two meet.”
A flush crept into Brannon’s cheeks. She can read my thoughts! “Do I know you?” Brannon’s voice barely rose above the groaning storm. He stepped closer, wanting to see the woman’s face.
“How much do you really know anyone, Brannon?” the woman replied.
Brannon stopped. More hard rain splattered his cheeks. “Let me see your face,” he called, his fingers inclining toward his blade. Not that he could use it to cut down a woman. Just the thought turned his stomach.
“I’ve told you you’ve no need for a weapon here.” She twisted toward him. A withered hand slowly grasped her hood and let it fall, revealing a wrinkled face surrounded by silver curls matted to her forehead. Mottled spots garnished her cheeks. Time had etched its progression in the corners of her eyes and forehead, telling Brannon that life had been anything but kind. “Unless you are more like your father than I believe.”
“I am nothing like my father!” he spat, lowering his hand. “Nothing!” He took another step toward her.
“I can see that.” Her eyes, a glowing lapis lazuli even in the moonlight, captivated him; he found himself swimming in those depths. He couldn’t help but stare; her eyes would not release him.
“Who…who are you?” he asked, feeling his feet shuffle forward, drawing him closer to the woman and the grave site.
“I am Adara, the bearer of truth, Brannon.” She waited until he was within arm’s reach before she offered him something. He struggled to tear his gaze from her face to see what she offered. In her closed hand, she held a bouquet of withered roses, petals hardened by time. In the other hand, the one stretched toward him, she offered a single dead rose.
“Your flower,” he struggled. His mind floated and words escaped him. “It’s dead.” He could hear a sluggishness in his voice as though he’d been drugged; it matched the way his heartbeat had slowed as the rhythm pounded in his ears like tympanic noise, drowning out the storm.
“Take my flower, if you dare, Brannon,” the old woman replied. “You have such dreams, my lord. Now take the truth that goes with them.”
Brannon slowly plucked the flower from her fingers. An image flashed into his mind, not of the girl being raped, but another woman, long flowing hair, clad in tan breeches and a cream tunic. Haunted eyes peered at him and a heart-shaped mouth smiling. Blue eyes.
“She is your answer, Brannon. And your absolution.” The woman touched the dead petals, her fingers stumbling as though reading a spell. “Your rose will bloom within a day. You’ll see.” The old woman turned to the grave, and with trembling hands, set the bouquet against the headstone. Rain drops splattered on the petals. The woman looked forlornly at the grave one last time before quietly hobbling down the path from whence Brannon had just come.
“The other path is kinder.” Brannon pointed out a clearer trodden way to the right that stopped short of the girl’s grave by about twenty yards. “A fallen tree blocks this way.”
The woman nodded. “Yes, perhaps it is kinder, but it does not have the nerve to come to this grave. It acts as though this girl had leprosy. This other,” she pointed down at where she stood, “I made this with my own journeys. I know what lies ahead.”
Brannon wanted to tell her that he’d often trudged this path, but instead he said, “Be careful, old woman.” He brushed the wet hair from his face.
“A storm is coming,” she said, looking at the heavens. “A storm like you’ve never seen.” She drew her hood tighter, her hands shaking. “Your goodness is apparent in your concern for an old woman.” She turned toward him, those blue eyes again arresting his attention. “Never let what your father is stop you from becoming who you must.” Without waiting, she shuffled into the storm and night.
A branch of lightning divided the sky and the heavens opened further, dumping more furiously stinging drops, forcing Brannon to draw his own hood, not that it would do much good considering his damp hair. Although the flower in his hand was dead, it absorbed the stormy winds and biting rain with amazing resilience.
He kept staring at the flowers propped against that headstone, wondering what was meant by the promise of dead roses blooming again. The rain soaked through his cloak, falling so hard that he could no longer read the name on the stone. Not that it mattered.
Some things he could not forget.