Chapter One

The Dawning of a King

Tehveor wondered what happened to a person who held his breath too long. He had held his until his lungs burned, because he was so frightened that his throat made strangled squeaks whenever he tried to breathe. His mother had warned that they must be as quiet as possible. He had not spoken a word since they left the Lesonna estate, even though his mind crowded with questions. Was she truly his mother? Where had she been for the last nine years? She knew where he lived. She had sent letters, but she had never come herself.

The forest floor muffled their horses’ hooves as they neared the river. A thick fog rose from the water to cloak them in its mist. The moon shone full and bright, turning Tehveor’s horse from its everyday sandy color to a silvery shine. Instead of quieting as they passed, the frogs and crickets banded together to create a chorus almost loud enough to cover the creak of Tehveor’s saddle.

“We’ll follow the river,” Setta whispered. She shifted in the saddle to peer into the woods behind them. “There must be another bridge somewhere.”

Tehveor released his breath. “Where are we going?”

“Don’t be afraid.” His mother smiled, reaching for his reins with a trembling hand. We’re going to meet someone who will help us.”

“Father?” Tehveor asked, straightening in his saddle.

Setta’s smile wavered. “No, your father is not in the country. Someone else.”

A shout pierced the trees. “There!”

Shaton danced as the woods echoed with voices. The trees grew brighter as a flickering torch illuminated the darkest part of the woods.

“Mother!” Tehveor’s voice squeaked again. He squirmed in the saddle, jerking the reins and sending mixed signals to his mount.

“Tehveor.” Setta’s eyes swung to meet his. “Don’t be afraid. The horses are strong. We’ll cross the river here. They’ll not catch us.”

“But I can’t…”

Before he finished speaking, Setta snatched his reins and kicked her own horse to plunge into the water. Tehveor clung to Shaton’s mane, watching the current rise past the horse’s knees. The water sucked at his boots as it reached the horse’s belly. He pulled his legs as high as he could, blinking back tears.

Even the moonlight failed to penetrate the water’s surface. It looked like a river from the stories Martyn told; horrifying tales of creatures that lurked in the rivers and lakes of Eirlerre, waiting for little animals to come for a drink.

Martyn’s eyes had glistened as he whispered, “But they really love to eat little children, just…like…you.”

Shaton lurched, floundering against the current. The water rushed over the saddle, cascading over Tehveor’s legs and filling his boots. He heard his mother’s voice, felt her fingers wrap around his arm, and then he was spinning into a black world where air and light did not exist. He surfaced, glimpsing fire and fog, grabbing half a breath before he was dragged back into the depths.

The water churned around him, mocking his flailing attempt to swim. His skin tingled from the cold. Warm flesh brushed against him as a hoof nicked his leg. He clawed, catching a stirrup and pulling his head back above the surface.

Water blinded his vision, but he heard a man shout, “There’s the boy!”

An orange blur followed him from the shore as a soldier commanded his animal to clear a fallen log and the larger stones that sprinkled a path into the river. Their jagged edges loomed above the water, redirecting the current to the center of the river. Shaton’s hooves struck solid ground and the horse lurched toward the shore, leaving Tehevor controlled by the rapids.

The rider swung from his animal and jumped onto the rocks. “Hold on, boy!”

Tehveor choked on the water, but the current swept him straight to the rocks and the waiting arms. Two massive hands hands clamped his waist, plucking him from the depths before he smashed against stone.

He coughed and kicked, trying to squirm free. “Let me go!”

“Calm yourself, lad!” The soldier grunted as Tehveor’s heel caught his shin. “No one will hurt you!”

Tehveor thrashed as the man pinned him against his chest in a grip that felt like an iron cocoon, carrying him toward the woods.

“Release him!” Setta’s command came in a tone that Lady Lesonna would never use on any man, but the soldier obeyed.

His feet hit firm ground, buckling his knees as his mother knelt to pull him into a hug. Water dripped from his hair into his eyes, mixing with tears.

“I’m sorry, Tehveor. I didn’t mean to lose you.” Closer to his ear, Setta whispered, “Be still, darling. They cannot hurt us.”

At least, that was what he thought she whispered. River water filled his ears, making it sound as though everyone around him was talking into a glass bottle.

The soldier bowed his head as a broad man in a blue uniform strode toward the trio. The black edges of his collar and sleeves, along with the silver chain that swooped leisurely beneath the clasp of his cloak indicated his rank not only as a king’s man, but a general.

Setta stood, pulling Tehveor into the green folds of her own cloak as five men circled them. “We’ll not go with you.”

“The king has issued orders for us to escort you home.” Irritation laced the general’s voice, but his eyes flickered toward Tehveor in curiosity. “You have not hidden your other children from him. Why must you take this reckless flight with this one?”

Tehveor eyed hilt of the man’s sword, then dropped his chin, watching the water squish from his boots.

“I sent Joshah away from the castle to keep him safe,” Setta said. “You know that.”

“Where will you go, Princess? Have you a destination for the boy, and were you intending to return after you delivered him?”

Setta’s chin rose. “That is none of your concern. If your child was endangered, you’d do what you must to keep him safe.”

“I am doing what I must to keep my child safe.” The general spoke quietly, pinning her with a dark glare. “And those of my men.”

Setta’s fingers tightened on Tehveor’s shoulders as several of the men shifted, casting grim glances toward each other. She her breath before she asked, “Do you have any man here who can take Tehveor to his father?”

“I cannot break my orders,” the general replied. “Once at the castle, you may negotiate a visit to your husband. Come with us now and spare your son yet more suffering.”

Setta surveyed the clearing before she sagged. “Come along, Tehveor.” She squeezed his hand. “We must go with them for now.”

The general motioned his men to bring Setta’s horse. He held her reins as she swung onto the saddle, then handed them to her. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Setta locked her eyes straight ahead as the man bent to lift Tehveor. “Come, lad! We’ll get you into dry clothes and a warm…”

Tehveor felt himself drop a few inches before the man caught him again. He squeezed his eyes shut as the man recovered and slid him onto the saddle.

“Please, Princess, do not run.” The general released the reins and turned to call orders to the soldiers.

“What of the man?” Tehveor whispered. “Will he save us?”

“Shh.” Setta breathed. “He doesn’t know where we are.”

“Are we in trouble?”

“No.” His mother’s arms slipped around him. “Lean against me, darling, but try not to fall asleep.”

It felt strange to be embraced. Lady Lesonna was kind to him, but she rarely touched her own children and never him. Despite the warning, Setta’s warm arms and the horse’s gentle stride threatened to lull him right off his perch. He was too tired to be frightened by the time the castle blurred into sight, looking grim and dull against the red-streaked sunrise. Layer upon layer of gray stone formed gritty, damp walls. As they rode through the outer gate, the world shrank to horizontal layers of green, gray and blue, interrupted only by the drawbridge that loomed ahead like a giant mouth ready to swallow them. A flash of a blue and silver flag offered a wave that might be cheerful, except for its customary emblem of a sword stabbing through a twisted snake.

Tehveor pulled closer to his mother. The fog swirled around them, shrouding the servants scurrying through the courtyard until they looked like spirits from a fireside tale. They peered toward Tehveor as his mother swung from the saddle and helped him down.

The doorkeepers hunched against the strain as the tall doors of the castle creaked open, spilling a path of light across their feet. The entryway gleamed, like he’d cracked open a treasure chest, as carvings on bronze walls reflected the torchlight. Every section told a story through humans, trees and animals polished so brightly that Tehveor could see his reflection, almost as though he were part of the story. He swung his head from side to side as the scenes escorted them down the hall where two servants bowed before they opened another pair of doors.

Setta’s chin rose, but her fingers trembled as she gripped Tehveor’s hand. When the doors shut behind them, their shoes echoed punctuated by the stiffer boots of their escort. The carvings were replaced by tapestries and portraits of kings peering from all sides as though the artist purposely angled their faces toward the golden throne that reflected the torchlight.

Tehveor glanced toward the beams of the high ceiling, where the morning light crept inside. The men around him bowed in unison, then filed out and shut the doors, leaving Tehveor feeling even smaller in the spacious room. He pressed against his mother, peeking at the only other person in the room.

Galephy wore no crown, but he filled the throne with the bulk and ease of a king. His trimmed beard was dark, peppered with gray. His eyebrows were thick, knotting beneath a forehead that crinkled as he studied Tehveor’s face.

Tehveor squirmed and tucked his head down.

“Setta.” The king’s snarled greeting was dark with malice. “I see you have decided to return to us. That was a very wise choice. And you’ve brought your son with you, how marvelous. For a boy who doesn’t exist, he looks to be in extraordinarily good health.”

Setta’s grip tightened on Tehveor’s shoulder as the king rose from the throne. His cloak skimmed the ground as he circled the pair, then stepped in front of Setta, so close that her nose brushed his broad chest. Blue eyes no warmer than the jagged bit of jade from the mosaics on the ground turned downward.

“Why did you hide him?” Galephy asked.

Setta kept her eyes straight forward, even with the top button on the king’s vest as she spoke. “I didn’t want him here.”

“So you sent him to live with Lord Lesonna, thinking he would be safe?” He stepped away, smirking at the pair. “That must have been a terrible ordeal to leave your baby behind.”

Setta’s eyes misted as Galephy turned a dragon’s glare onto Tehveor. “What is your name?”

“Tehveor, My King.” Tehveor lisped.

“Hasn’t anyone taught you better?” the king growled. “Look at me when I address you.”

Tehveor’s heart pounded. His mouth dried, despite the water he had swallowed earlier. He did not want to look at the king. Even more, he did not want the king looking at him. He took a breath before forcing his face upward, avoiding the king’s eyes and focusing instead on his nose. King Galephy had a very big nose to match with his massive arms and chest.

The king sucked a sharp breath of air, before his eyebrows drew together. Tehveor tried to drop his face again, but Galephy caught his chin with a calloused finger, forcing it back up. Fear flickered, before his eyes slit. “I no longer wonder why you hid him. He is. . .”

“He’s a boy,” Setta cut him off.

One side of Galephy’s mouth curled. “He’s a trick of nature.”

Setta’s eyes flashed.

The king laughed. He turned abruptly to stride back toward an elaborate seal that lay on a table next to the throne. As he spoke, he ran his fingers around the circular bottom before tracing the intricate weave that had been flattened on the top to use for a handle.

“If you ever run again, my brother’s title will not protect you from the consequences. Do you understand this?”

“Yes, My King,” Setta said.

“Then take the little creature. I dare say he’ll be entertainment enough at court. We’ll introduce him into society at the ball between the minstrel and the stuffed pig.”

Setta’s chin clenched as she curtsied stiffly and towed Tehveor from the room.

His eyes stung as they passed doorways he was afraid to look into. Servants paused to bow or curtsy but he saw only their soft boots. Stumbling up a flight of wooden stairs that reflected his blurry outline, Tehveor dragged his hand along the gleaming banister, wishing they could go outside instead of up. In another long hall, Setta pulled him past a series of closed doors until they reached a large bedchamber where a servant stood near the wall.

“Agath?” Setta addressed the woman lightly, as though there were nothing unusual about this day. “Will you find some clothes for Tehveor to wear? His things are not here yet.”

The woman in a plain, blue tunic curtsy and stuttered. “Yes, Princess”

She peeked backward as she hurried from the chamber.

Setta let out a shaky breath as she sat on the four-poster bed. Her chest collapsed, before she pulled Tehveor close to stroke his hair. “You mustn’t worry, Tehveor. Our king is never kind to anyone.”

“He won’t really display me with the pig, will he?” Tehveor asked.

“Oh, no, darling! He was being cruel. We don’t even serve pig.” Her arms tightened around him. “Try not to let it bother you. You’ll learn to keep out of his way.” She swayed gently with him. “He has two boys of his own. The high prince, Kael, and the younger is Darshon. I’m sure you’ll become very good friends. Kael is not at all like his father.”

“Princess Setta?” Agath crept into the bedchamber holding a pair of brown pants, a white shirt and a dark blue velvet vest. “Will these do? They belong to Prince Darshon. I supposed you would not want him wearing any of the servants’ clothing.”

“They will do.” Setta answered, taking the garments. “Thank you, Agath. Tehveor, go put these on.”

Setta motioned toward a screen that he scrambled behind to peel off his damp clothing, wondering if Prince Darshon would resent lending the garments. An entire row of buttons lined the middle of the shirt instead of the normal string laced at the neck. Tehveor winced as he fumbled with them, hoping they were supposed to be in the front and not the back. The vest was still a bit loose even while it was drawn tight. Dry and much warmer, he gave up on the buttons that closed the sleeves, rolling his shoulders to loosen the tailored shirt. His mother had also changed from a traveler’s tunic into a blue gown that clamped her waist, before sweeping across the bench of her vanity.

Agath began to unbraid Setta’s hair, but the woman waved her away. As the servant pulled the door shut, Tehveor crawled onto the big bed, sinking several inches and feeling the tips of feathers poking through. The blanket was woven with soft wool, as heavily embroidered as the curtains that his mother loosened from the windows. The scene stitched into the blanket showed a woman standing at the edge of a forest with both hands raised toward a group of men on horseback.

“What’s the story on here?” Tehveor asked.

Setta locked her door, then pocketed the key. She smiled as she turned back toward him. “It’s the story of Olfaeh of ancient times. Have you heard it?”

“The guardian of the woods?”

“The very one.”

He smiled sleepily. “Lord Lesonna calls Silvah ‘Olfaeh’ sometimes, because she rescues little birds.”

“Does he now?”

“Yes. He likes to tell the old stories.”

“Joshah can tell you lots of tales when he comes on holiday.”

Tehveor cocked his head. “Who’s Joshah?”

Setta paused, then blinked. Her mouth moved before she managed to speak. “He’s your brother.”

“I have a brother?” Tehveor bolted onto his forearms.

“Yes. He’s thirteen. He lives with other boys in military training.”

“Why doesn’t he live here?”

She sat on the bed and reached to stroke his cheek. “I sent him to a school at the military for a while, because it wasn’t safe for him to be here. He liked it so much he didn’t want to come back. You’ll meet him when he comes for holiday in the winter. He’ll like you. You have a sister, too. Her name is Ceslaya. She’s not here now. She’s journeying with friends. Neither of them know about you yet.”

“Why not?”

Setta’s hand moved to his hair, combing it to the side where it lay properly. “Your father is King Galephy’s younger brother. As the younger prince, his duty is to form alliances with other countries and travel on the king’s behalf. When you were born, I thought you would be better off if you lived with Lord Lesonna. I never meant for you to be there for so long. I thought your father would return within a few weeks, and we would both come fetch you to live somewhere else.”

“Why hasn’t Father come?” Tehveor asked.

Setta hesitated. “His work in Katal Ieill had not been finished yet. I couldn’t write to tell him about you. I could scarcely manage to write you. I was forced to put your letters with Lady Lesonna’s so they would not be discovered.”

“Lord Lesonna locked them up when I was finished reading them. I had to ask him to open the box if I wanted to see them again,” Tehveor replied.

“Well, you’re here now.” Setta smiled, squeezing his shoulder. “Sleep first and then we’ll meet the family. We don’t have to keep secrets anymore.”

Tehveor frowned as his mother pulled back the blankets, but he crawled between the sheets without protest. She tucked them around him and leaned over to kiss his forehead.

“But why…” Tehveor’s tongue grew heavy, and he gave up trying to ask any more questions.

“Shh.” Setta stroked his forehead, and he listened to her breathing slow into ragged gasps. “I’ve got you now,” she whispered. “But how can I ever let you go?”

(If you liked it, and want to see more, please let me know and stay tuned!)