Crowning A Warrior King
- Author: Diana Castilleja
- Publisher: Tease Publishing
- Year: 2009
- Amazon Listing: Coming soon!
- Barnes & Noble: Coming soon!
- Most Artistic Video, The New Covey Video Award
Janel waited, still and silent in the near darkness of the gray predawn hours. Hidden in the depths of the forest’s shadows, his sharp gaze swept constantly for any sign of discovery. He wrapped his cloak a little closer, ignoring the chill of the early spring night. His horse stood solid, battle trained and steady under his hand, a mere flick of an ear alerting him to an approaching rider. Unexpectedly, an owl flew overhead to settle into the warped branches of a nearby tree, quieting to settle down for the remainder of the night time hours. Janel dismissed the night raptor with hardly a thought, comforting his horse when he felt the impatient twitch of hardened muscles beneath him. Janel could sympathize. He was not feeling too patient himself.
Out of the darkness beyond the trees where he could see, a faint bird’s call reached him, then sounded again. Janel answered in kind and felt a swell of relief to know Quinn had arrived. His presence meant the first stages of their plans had been successful, or so he hoped.
He slid silently from his saddle to the forest floor, a thick carpeting of leaves of past autumns cushioning his booted step. Janel’s hand poised naturally yet alert on the hilt of his sword until he could discern Quinn’s form in the shadows for himself.
Janel was a warrior, a Captain of his King’s favored guard and tonight, he, Quinn and Loden had undertaken a mission that the very Kingdom was dependent on. Janel only had mere hours to complete his task once set into motion. He was proud he had been granted this opportunity to again prove himself worthy. He had the highest honor any guardsman could hope for. The chance to protect the King and the kingdom.
Janel lifted a pensive hand to Quinn’s horse’s bridle, and asked just one question. “Was Loden successful?”
Quinn, tall and dark, slid from his horse with the grace of his kind. With his answer, Janel felt a flare of hope. “He was. I have the box.” Quinn produced a jeweled trinket box from his cloak and addressed his co-conspirator. “You know who you must deliver this to?”
“I do. Will she accept?” Janel reverently tucked the box into the folds of his own clothing.
For the first time, a look of worry crossed Quinn’s face, the only time Janel had seen a moment’s hesitation during the week since the truth behind Rordan’s disappearance had been discovered. “I cannot say, but she is our only hope. I see nothing but desolation if Lady Branwyn succeeds and is crowned Queen.”
Janel nodded, well aware Quinn was as close as possible to the crown as the King’s personal council. If he had worries, they all should be concerned. “It would have been far easier if this one had been in our own time.”
Quinn’s face broke into a serious if shallow smile. “If I had a choice, she would already be here. This is Rordan’s test and he must pass it to take the throne. This one woman is also his only chance to return. What’s more, he must trust her to do so. This will not be an easy lesson to learn nor an easy journey for him. He has learned to abhor the magical arts because of Lady Branwyn’s deceit.” Quinn stared out into the growing morning haze of light, a faint hesitation in his gaze. It was not an easy decision, possibly condemning his brother to a life of servitude, if Rordan could not overcome his prejudices.
Quinn glanced at Janel, who was not fast enough to censure his own thoughts from his expression. Quinn however, only nodded once as if expecting the suspicions, not reproofing Janel for his thoughts. With years of friendship between them, he understood the reasoning for Janel’s thoughts. “No, I could not aid him in this, Janel. Some lessons must be lived to be learned,” he explained. He gave Janel a sardonic grin. “And yet, it was rather kind of him to so willingly fall into Lady Branwyn’s own scheming and become trapped. He never could turn down a beautiful woman.” Janel could hear the deep affection Quinn held for his older brother, even though Quinn was chastising his brother’s behavior.
“We have the proof of her treachery. Could we confront Lady Branwyn?” Janel asked.
Quinn shook his head, a slow drop of his shoulders his only reaction of his own turmoil. “I wish that it were so simple. I know she would never release him from his prison, and there is no one in our world who can. The spell she used is even beyond my knowledge. A deep magic that hasn’t been seen in our lands since before my grandfather’s writings.” He shook his head sadly. “She would be deposed, but Rordan would be doomed.” Janel understood the silent message. Quinn was not sure the kingdom itself would not fall apart in greedy factions and pandemonium would not ensue when it was discovered that Rordan had been cursed.
The weight of these doubts were not missed by Janel, Rordan was the future for the kingdom. However, only Quinn, Loden, and now himself, as the final stage of Rordan’s escape was set underway, knew this. It was a heavy weight indeed, and Janel knew they all shared it.
Janel reassured Quinn, saying, “Barely a year had passed though when you discovered his real disappearance and Branwyn’s secret of the box. She could have hidden the box for far longer.” There was an immediate light of understanding in Quinn’s gray gaze. That she had not in a moment of spite destroyed the box, which would have killed Rordan.
Quinn nodded his head, a deep frown marring his elegant, refined features. Janel knew Quinn had feared every day that Rordan had truly been lost to them all. The brothers had been close their entire lives, and Quinn had suffered when Rordan had vanished. His collected tones brought Janel back to the purpose at hand once more.
“Remember, the one you go to find can know nothing of who he is, of what he must do. She must make the discovery of his secrets on her own. My brother must learn to trust again. This has been seen, and it will not be easy for him.”
Quinn stepped forward from the trees, the first true rays of dawning light breaking the horizon. Janel knew Quinn was already beginning to concentrate on the portal that would take him to his destination. Yet, Quinn paused and turned for a moment, saying with a devilish grin. It smoothed his worried countenance. “And it would probably be best to advise her to investigate the contents in private.”
“I will succeed,” Janel vowed, bowing his head toward Quinn. “All I ask is that you bring me home.” Janel cast a furtive glance toward the horizon. “I am unsure about traveling to this strange land.”
Quinn’s look was reassuring and he smiled easily now. “I know you will succeed, Janel. You of all the guardsmen know Rordan the best. Once you meet this one, you will understand.”
He snapped straight, a sharp look in his green gaze. “She is that pretty?”
Quinn’s brow rose. “Janel,” he chastised his friend. “Not all beauty is visible to the eyes, but yes, she is quite lovely.”
“You have a great deal of faith, Quinn.” Janel stood shoulder to shoulder to Quinn. “Your brother is not known for allowing a woman to control him.”
“This one will not control him, but maybe, she will tame him a little,” he finished with a male grin at Janel. “That was Branwyn’s error. Control is not in Rordan’s vocabulary, unless it is he who is in command.”
Janel would have said more, stalling if he had been forced to admit to it, but he held his tongue, accepting his mission as a glow began to form before himself and Quinn. Gradually it opened, wider and taller until a space large enough for him to stride through shimmered before the two men.
“Good luck, Janel,” Quinn offered.
“Be here in one hour,” was Janel’s only request, and he bravely put a foot through to the unknown to begin his portion of his kingdom’s continued future.
- * * *
Hattie Lyles rubbed her aching, swollen knuckles, moving slowly while she made her morning tea. Beautiful morning sunlight streamed through her kitchen window to fall on bright and cleaned linoleum and a mute yellow counter top. The lingering scent of lemon cleaners and home cooking permeated the air.
She cradled hands and fingers, sore from a nagging bout of arthritis that was really bothering her this week. She craned her head to peer out the kitchen window but could see nothing in the sky that portended a storm. If anything, it looked like another clear spring morning on the northern coastal edge of Virginia. Banter was a sweet little stop of a town. She’d lived there most of her life. Her husband, Pete, still did his walking mail route through town, just like he had for the last forty years. He was an institution to Banter, if the town had been large enough to know how to use the word.
She jumped when the sharp whistle of her kettle split the air then shook her head, unable to place the sense of apprehension filling her this morning. Something was setting her off kilter.
She poured and let her teabag steep. She rubbed her knuckles absently, glancing at the calendar hanging on the wall. It was almost time for the Lady’s Auxiliary spring bake sale. The sale was one of the community get-togethers that she looked forward to every year.
For some reason, Aran came to mind. Hattie smiled as the young woman’s face appeared. She was a kind young woman and both Hattie and Pete liked her and looked out for her. She had moved to Banter some years before after a tragic auto accident had taken her parents from her. Aran had never mentioned the details, but it didn’t take much to see that the girl just wanted a place to belong again. Hattie had helped to smooth the way. Aran had a cute little shop in town now and worked hard to make it and herself likeable to the town.
There was a certain secret that Hattie had never spoken of. She knew Aran respected her privacy and other’s, or she wouldn’t be as good as she was at what she did for the community, helping out in her little ways, but Hattie knew they were of the same cloth. Hattie was just a good half century older and not as strong as she used to be.
Without warning, the white tightly permed hair on the back of her head, all over her body, stood on end like she’d been hit with a lightening bolt. Only there wasn’t any pain, only power to the feeling. A lot of intense power.
Hattie gripped the counter with white hands, wavering slightly as her heart thudded erratically in her chest. A power surge! From where? Hattie took several gulps of air. She was feeling light headed as the surge flowed over her, her skin feeling hot as she fought to collect her breathing.
After a few wrenching seconds the blast subsided and she could breathe again.
“Oh my,” she stammered out. Hattie pressed a shaky hand to her chest. What was going on? Where on earth had that come from? Numbly she shook her head to clear her thoughts. Her eyes fluttered in the aftermath and Aran’s face came to her again. Easily. Too easily.
“Aran?” Hattie almost choked on the possibility. No, no she wouldn’t have done something so obvious. Hattie continued to shake her head in dismay. Aran was as quiet as molasses syrup was slow. Hattie kept her eyes closed and concentrated.
A skitter of feeling flew over her skin, and her eyes snapped open once more. She realized the feeling was centered around Aran, not caused by her. Something big was about to happen, and it involved Aran.
Hattie stared into space for several seconds, waiting, listening, feeling, but found nothing else as the warmth of the surge ebbed away completely, and for the first time in years, she began to wonder if she was strong enough to help.
- * * *
“Aran! Mail’s here!” came the call from the front of the shop.
“Coming!” she replied cheerily from the rear of the store where she had been rearranging boxes and orders. Aran pushed the delicate strands of clear crystal out of her way to find Pete Lyles, her mailman, at the counter. “Morning, Pete.” She greeted him with a warm smile.
“Miss Aran,” he drawled with a deliberate wink. “How’s business?” He scooped out her day’s count and handed it to her over the counter top.
“Good, been real good this summer.”
“Glad to hear it,” he said even as his smile faltered. “Things have been rough this year. I’m glad you’re holding up.” There was a worried look in his wise gaze hidden partially behind his standard, ‘couldn’t-see-the-end-of-my-fingers-without-‘em,’ bifocals.
Aran gave Pete a sympathetic touch and found his dilemma. Hattie was not feeling well again. Aran gave him a soft smile. “You know what? I have a small overstock on some of my tea. Would Hattie like it?”
“I bet you she would,” he said with a nod of thanks. “She loves your recipes.”
“Biggest fan syndrome,” Aran replied with a light laugh. “Wait right here.” With a nod, she slipped into her back room and rummaged in a box or two. Finding what she wanted, she whispered a few words over the box then returned, handing it to Pete. “Now make sure she drinks at least one of these a day for five days.”
“I will, and thank you Aran. You’re good to us.”
She blushed softly from his appreciative praise. “Only trying to help. This is my town too.”
Pete dropped the box of tea into his delivery satchel. “You know, Aran,” he began in that father-knows-best voice.
Aran fought back the urge to smile as she absently thumbed through her mail. She adored the Lyles’ and knew he had her best interest at heart. They were the family she no longer had.
“You should be married by now. You’ve been here almost seven years and you’re still single.”
“Not trying,” she quipped back with an easy roll of her shoulder. “Besides, I work six days a week. Unless they like aromatherapy, I’m not going to get that lucky.” She leaned over the counter and smacked a kiss on his weathered cheek. “But thanks for thinking of me.”
“You remind me of my granddaughters. Just looking out for you.” He gave her a big wink and left her to finish his route.
She was still smiling as she sorted her mail, junk in the trash; bills, she only wished those could go into the trash. She sighed, setting those to the side. She hadn’t been perfectly honest with Pete. This spring had been slow. Very slow.
The little beach town store was in a good location, foot traffic was strong, but so many people weren’t spending. She couldn’t blame them. She only spent where she absolutely had to herself.
She sat back, looking around her little haven, which to some probably looked like a knick-knack shop. It had taken her almost four years to get the store up and running with a profit. Now she was established and liked by many. She carried everything from teas to candles, charms to incense with a body care line the older crowd seemed to just eat up. She even sold stones and geodes for the tourist crowd. She loved what she did, and not many people could honestly say that about an occupation.
No one knew she made most of the mixtures and fragrances herself, but that didn’t stop them from going out the door, either. Or that the charms were enchanted to aid with anything from arthritis like Hattie’s, to stomach ailments like Mrs. Spencer’s. Although with that son of hers, Aran thought with a rueful shake of her head, she was coming by them naturally.
When a person came in, she helped them choose what was appropriate for their visit, for their own needs. She could also feel their desires with a touch, but usually didn’t have to go that far. Most were only too willing to unburden themselves over this ailment or that distressing situation. Having a willing ear and patience had been a bonus when it came to making her store profitable, but she remained low key and polite to everyone. No one in the little town had guessed she was a witch.
Better not to either.
She helped those in need with her skills and talents. All her customers accounted it to natural healing, which Aran was a strong advocate of. She detested needles and only saw a doctor if absolutely necessary. Her little shop was the best idea she had ever come up with.
A quiet town, a single woman not causing too much fuss. It was just what she had always wanted. Just a quiet no-nothing life to be happy doing what she loved to do—tinker with her herbs and spells. How else does a witch stay in practice, she mused with a chuckle.
She brushed the pile of junk mail into the trash and slid from her stool to take the rest to her office. She needed to take the new invoices home to fill the candle orders but other than those, it had been too darned quiet all week. She sighed just as the outside bell on her door chimed. Business was good, any kind, she reminded herself.
“Hello. Can I help…you?” she faltered, stepping through the hanging crystal wall once more, momentarily stunned by the man standing there. He was huge, her eyes growing wide as they took in his complete frame. Tall was a short word for him. He was looking around the store but when he faced her, Aran swallowed, staring back into the most intense green eyes she had ever seen.
“My lady,” he offered, bowing in an old world, elegant manner before her. “I have a special delivery.”
His accent was thick, and he looked absolutely solid. “A delivery?” she managed, finally getting her tongue to work. Her legs as of yet, hadn’t.
“Yes, and I apologize, but I do not have a great deal of time.” A flash of indecision crossed his brow, his green gaze sweeping over her. It felt almost assessing to Aran, like he was passing judgment of some sort. “You are Aran Larson, correct?”
She mentally snapped fingers in front of her face. “Yes. Yes, sorry. I’m Aran. What can I do for you?” She stepped forward, offering a smile of welcome, aware of the size disparity between her and the stranger as she moved to stand in front of her counter. Holy crap! Was that a sword she saw against his leg? She blinked, focusing upward when he spoke again.
“I have this for you,” he explained, drawing a black jeweled box from his cloak—yes, a cloak. It went with the sword. She relaxed a bit when she realized it must be a costume. “I have traveled from a distant land to see you receive this.”
“What is it?” she asked tentatively. She kept a suspicious eye on the box. It looked incredibly expensive.
“It is a gift from those who wish to see your happiness complete.”
“Sorry, my parents are dead,” she said, frowning. “Who sent it?”
His gaze shuttered, seemingly unprepared for her refusal, to not jump at the chance to have such a beautiful gift. She had to admit, staring at it in his careful hold, it was gorgeous. The lights of the store glimmered in a rainbow of colors from the sparkling stones adorning the box. “I am not at liberty to discuss the sender nor the purpose.”
She glanced up at him, his sharp gaze not missing a thing. “I can tell it is an expensive gift. I think I have a right to know something about it, who sent it, what do they want, and why me.”
The man’s lips quirked in amusement. “I wish I could tell you more. The only information I was given was to advise you to investigate the contents in private.” He cast a glance around her shop. “I might recommend somewhere where you have room and few things of value.”
She gasped, taking a step back. “I don’t want it.” She raised a hand between them. “Who sent you?” she demanded.
Quickly he sought her gaze, his words decisive. “I assure you, on my honor, it is not harmful to you.” He sighed, a worried flicker of dismay growing in his expression. “I fear I may have failed in my task. Please, Lady Aran. It is truly meant for you. I cannot return with it.”
“Where did you come from?”
He hesitated. Then shook his head. “I cannot. I cannot interfere.”
“You are one weird guy,” she told him. “Hold it up for me to see.” He did as she asked and turned it in his palm. “Open it.”
He hesitated again, this time speaking with an apparent torn note in his voice. “I apologize, but I cannot. The contents are for you only.”
“How am I supposed to accept a gift I know nothing about when you won’t even open the lid?” she asked him, her fists rising to her hips.
He swallowed and did the most unexpected thing. He lowered himself to a knee. His gaze was beseeching. “Please, Lady Aran. I beg of you. I cannot return with this. I mean you no harm, nor with the box. I truly wish I could tell you more, but I cannot.”
“Oh for… Stand up already.” She reached for him but didn’t touch him, letting him rise easily again. She watched him with a cautious gaze, studying him.
He wasn’t avoiding her stares. In fact, he seemed to be studying her in turn. “I’m not in danger from it?”
“No, my lady. Your happiness is intended through this gift.”
She shook her head in disbelief. “Why me?”
“There is no one else.”
“Well, that makes me feel, oh, so darn special.”
His lips quirked at her groused tone, and she relaxed again.
“You really can’t tell me anything about it?”
“I cannot by order. But there is little that I do know. I know the contents are for you specifically. The rest, as I know it, is up to you.”
“You’re kidding? Up to me?”
“Yes, my lady.”
She sucked in her bottom lip, staring at the box. “Is there anything you can tell, anything at all?” she queried.
“No.” It was decisive.
“You must be a riot on a date,” she muttered. His arched brow was his only answer.
“Do you accept your gift?”
She tilted her chin at him, saying, “Just one last thing. You keep calling this a gift with a huge mystery over the contents. What is in it for you that you’re so secretive about it? Is it truly a gift or is someone playing a joke on me? A curse maybe?” It was the only other thing she could think of.
His shoulders shook once, then again. A bark of laughter was caught in his throat. He wiped a hand across his face. “I was warned you would be different,” he muttered. When he answered, his face was again even, his features giving away nothing of his thoughts. But his eyes still held the glow of humor. “No, my lady, no curse. Not to you. And none that I know of would dare. I receive nothing for your acceptance.”
Her brow shot up at his statement but he took one step closer, his gaze connecting with hers, freezing her thoughts with the intensity of his dark eyes. His tone gentled but was no less serious than when he had stepped into the store. “My lady, I must go. Please accept this. Wait until you are alone to seek the contents. The truth will come to pass. No matter it makes no sense at this moment, it involves you and all will in time be explained.”
Her hands were lifting before she could stop them. “I’m going to regret this, aren’t I?” She was getting a real bad feeling about what was going to happen if she did accept the box, but seemed unable to turn it away. Remember what curiosity did to the cat, she whispered to herself.
He bowed once, saying, “With all my heart, and on my life, I pray not.” He stood erect before her once more, and a genuine smile lit his features. “If all comes to pass, I will look forward to seeing you again.”
Her attention was locked on the many stones of the box. “Huh? What?” she said, finally looking up to see the tail of his cloak whipping out behind him as he slipped through her door.
She stared at the box held in her hands, wondering what had just happened. Aran stepped slowly back to her stool and set the ornate black stone box on the counter. It looked like marble but it weighed very little for stone. The carved designs were accented with several stones that appeared to be emeralds, rubies and diamonds. She would even be willing to bet they were some of the best quality gems she’d ever seen. If they were fake, they were believable.
The hinges and clasp were gold, delicate, and feminine in nature with scalloped edges. It looked to have all been hand made. She rubbed at the flat of one hinge with a thumb, gasping with surprise at the shock of power that filled her hand.
“What the…?” She yanked her hand away from the hinge, rubbing her fingers against her jeans. She narrowed her eyes, scrutinizing the gold of the clasp and hinges closely. Even on those flat pieces, there were symbols and characters.
“Static electricity,” she muttered, and dared to touch it again. Another jolt of energy raced up her hand.
Was it? Could it be? She bit her lip, hard. That presented a whole new can of worms. That meant someone knew she was a witch. She’d been discovered. Oh crap.
She closed her eyes and steeled herself, touching the box’s lid with a light touch, searching for the energy. “Oh, boy,” she breathed opening her eyes again, lifting her hand from the box in disbelief. An enchanted box.
“But how?” she breathed. Who knew? Maybe it was a mistake and someone, maybe even Theo, had just sent her a beautiful trinket sized box not knowing it was enchanted in some way. “Yeah, and I’m the queen of England,” she muttered.
Someone had figured her out. She stood and paced in front of the counter, agitation causing her to rake her fingers through her short hair. Why would someone send her a jeweled box? An enchanted box?
She rubbed a finger behind her ear, soothing the pressure she could feel building. What had he said, ‘seek the contents in private?’ Great. So what could a box that size hold?
She glanced at it, sitting innocently on her counter. Not much by the size of it. Maybe it had a rubber snake in it?
She chuckled at the picture. Someone was pranking her now, that was all, but that didn’t explain the magic energy if it was enchanted. Oh boy, she breathed silently once more.
Taking a calming breath, she wrapped a hand around the box, settling it decisively under the counter to worry about later. She wanted to examine it better, see what was in it, but it would have to wait until she got home that night. Especially if she was right about the magic. She was not going to let any magic loose where there could be witnesses. Period.