THE CHRONICLES OF WARSHARD (book 1): HAVEN
The ballroom doors swung inward at her approach. Two guards stood on either side of the doors while more soldiers meandered within.
Haven smiled and nodded to the men as she stepped through onto the ballroom floor. Her hands clasped tightly together and her palms sweat. This was her first royal gathering as queen. Her first ball and banquet without her family.
She gulped the lump in her throat, proceeding as slowly as possible—anything to keep from joining the partygoers.
Noblemen and noblewomen drank wine from goblets while a string quartet lit the grand space with music. She wished she’d paid more attention in her lessons or during introductions at the last few gatherings. She’d always been quick to run off with her brother Marcel or slip off to the edge of the room where she could speak with her guard ladies in private. With so many unfamiliar faces gazing at her with expectant eyes, her heart fell to her heels.
This was far too much, too soon. What on earth had she been thinking?
“Queen Haven Fyre of Rythern.”
She froze. The voice of the squire announcing her arrival nearly sent her lunging for the doors.
“Take a breath, My Lady.” Lareina’s gloved fingers brushed her elbow.
Haven dipped her chin slightly. Breathe. Yes. That’s all she needed to do. Inhaling deeply, Haven counted to three before exhaling. Her shoulders relaxed, and she unclenched her fingers.
“You may want to step out of the doorway now.” Lareina chuckled quietly.
Haven narrowed her eyes at the woman. This was not the time to laugh at her expense. Lareina smiled and motioned inside, where golden light bathed the ballroom and Rythern colors were displayed at every chance.
From the silk wrapping the pillars to the banners hanging from the second-story ceiling and the tablecloths protecting the dark wood from harm, red and gold lit the space. She took another deep breath.
This was a gathering like any other. She could do this.
Haven stepped from the doorway and between the nobles and the emissaries from the six kingdoms. They smiled, offered congratulations, and bowed at her every glance. She nodded in return, her cheeks twitching from grinning so much.
A long banquet table lining the edge of the dance floor peeked from between the dancers. Goblets waited, silver pitchers at their sides, ready to be filled with wine.
Maybe she should indulge. Maybe wine would soothe her nerves.
Haven turned for the table, but beyond the thick, velvet curtains lining the walls between the pillars on the back edge of the ballroom, silver caught her eye.
Blythe and Malka stood between the cracks. What were they doing out there?
She glanced over her shoulder at Lareina, who was mingling with two noblemen around her age. Her pale skin shimmered with blush.
Good timing. She could slip away and see what her other guard ladies were up to. Haven hiked her skirts up and slipped between nobles until she reached the edge of the ballroom. Pressing her back to the cold stone pillar, she folded her hands and tilted her head.
“Blythe, you cannot hide these things from the Queen,” Malka whispered furiously.
Haven had never heard Malka so angry in all of her life.
“She doesn’t need to know the assassin got away!” Blythe barked back.
The assassin? Her heart lurched. So he had fled without capture. Then why had Blythe informed her that the chase had just begun before she’d entered the ballroom? Why lie?
“I know you don’t want to worry her, but she isn’t a little girl anymore.” Malka’s voice shook.
“Of course not, but she has enough on her plate. The war could start up again at any moment, and that will take precedence.”
“It will. But she should know her assassin has fled Palmyra.” Malka paused. “It’s her choice what to do next.”
Blythe sighed. “I’m sorry, Malka, but this isn’t your decision.”
Silence filled the space behind the curtains.
Haven stepped away from the pillar. She wasn’t meant to hear this conversation, even if it pertained to her. Yet she couldn’t begrudge Blythe for not speaking up. Her stomach turned. With war not far off and an unknown assassin seeking her head, she would have liked to go on not knowing.
* * *
“Toma really knows how to dance when he’s had a few glasses of wine.” Lareina laughed.
When the four women entered Haven’s chambers at the end of the night, the mood was high among her ladies and low with the new Queen. The festivities had been grand, amusing, intriguing, and most certainly fit for a coronation. But Haven’s mind was elsewhere. Through all the luxury, something had been missing. She hadn’t realized what until she returned to her bedroom, kicked her heels off, and lay in bed.
Silk embraced her limbs, cool to the touch.
She stared at the ceiling, tracing the intricate carvings over and over. Through the dark wood, her mind conjured images of her deceased family. Her brothers. Her mother. Her father. All of them gone.
Part of her blamed them for having left her with this burden. She couldn’t fathom taking care of an entire kingdom herself. Haven was never meant to be Queen, but the moment her mother had fallen in a pool of blood in the main courtyard, she had known it was her only option.
“Queen Haven, are you all right?”
Haven glanced up. How long had she been staring at the ceiling? “I’m fine. Just tired.” She sat up.
“We’ll take our leave, then.” Lareina’s brow furrowed as she turned to take her leave. The concerned whispers of her lady guards drifted from her sitting room and into the hall before disappearing altogether.
Once the doors had closed softly, Haven stripped off her heavy gown and her opulent jewels before diving into the safety of her sheets.
Every time she closed her eyes, she saw blood.
Haven sighed and turned over. She closed her eyes to brown curls and dazzling blue eyes tainted red. It had been two weeks since the news of her family’s demise had come—and it had come from the bloody lips of her mother.
That day, Haven had sat in the beautiful summer sunshine with Lareina, braiding her hair and laughing about something she couldn’t quite recall. It was one of her many days of leisure in the great castle. She loved watching the people of Rythern go about their days. There was such intricacy in how everything came together so seamlessly.
Her bliss was soon shattered by a shout from the castle steps. Before Haven knew what had happened, Lareina leapt in front of her, her sword drawn. The entire courtyard froze in anticipation.
Up the castle steps limped her mother, Queen Denica Fyre.
Blood soaked her riding clothes. Her left leg was twisted at an awkward angle and a large cut ran diagonally across her face.
“Mother?” Haven whispered. Her voice cut through the surrounding silence like shattered glass.
She pushed Lareina aside and ran, her heart pounding in her ears. Before Haven could reach her mother, Denica collapsed. Blood quickly pooled around her still body. Shouts echoed through the courtyard, but Haven hardly heard them. She fell to her knees beside her mother, soaking her skirts in red. Two daggers protruded from her mother’s back.
Two pieces of obsidian had sealed two fates.
“Mom?” Tears filled her eyes.
Denica shifted slightly, tears trailing down her cheeks. “My love. My Haven,” she murmured.
Haven bent to hear her, gingerly touching her shoulder and brushing her hair from her face. Her heart raced so fast she feared it might rip from her chest.
“Mom, what happened? Where is Father? Why are you—” Her voice broke.
Denica’s lips curved in a ghost of a smile. Her fingers twitched beside her face. She frowned when she couldn’t move but an inch.
“They killed everyone,” Denica whispered. “Your father, your brothers…all those soldiers. They’re all gone.” Her eyes widened at the recollection. Fear stole her gentle gaze.
Haven tried to soothe her, but Denica only shook her head and continued.
“You’ll be Queen now, my love. But you have to run. Haven, promise me you’ll run.” A cough racked her mother’s body. She shook, and crimson dripped from between her lips. “You have to run,” she repeated. “Promise me.”
Haven slowly nodded. She couldn’t find the words any more than she could escape the blaze of blue fire in her mother’s eyes.
“Run,” her mother repeated. The light faded from her eyes. “You have to run. Promise me you’ll run.”
Haven held her mother for the last time.
Starting from the memory, Haven sat up in bed. She pushed back the tears threatening to fall. Queens didn’t cry. She had to be strong. She had to be strong for her—for her mother.
But when would being queen no longer be a death sentence?
Settling back into bed, Haven found sleep. In her dreams, she found hope. In the morning, she prayed that hope would remain.
“My Lady Queen.”
Haven groaned, refusing to open her eyes. Surely it could not be morning already. Her head still swam with sleep.
“My Queen, please rouse yourself at once.”
Sighing, she opened her eyes and found Toma at her bedside. “Toma? What is it?”
“There is to be a meeting.” He bowed before retreating to the door of her bedchamber. “We are expected at once.”
“You know that you may call me Haven when we are alone, Toma.” As she slipped from her sheets, the silk fabric called for her return. Cold brushed her bare skin, lending goose flesh to her arms.
She had told Toma time and time again to call her Haven, and still, he spoke as if she were a stranger.
“Yes My—Haven.” He cleared his throat.
Haven paused midstride to her dressing room. “Did you say there is to be a meeting?” She peered out her window into the darkness of night. Hardly a single lamp lit the city below. “At this hour?”
“It is a secret meeting, My Lady.”
She turned. “What sort of secret meeting?”
“A meeting of royals. We must make haste. We have a bit of a journey ahead of us,” he said. His brow creased with worry, and the corners of his eyes twitched. Nervous.
She had never heard of secret royal meetings in the middle of night, but she supposed royals had to meet somehow.
Dressing quickly, Haven donned a simple navy-blue dress and a dark-gray cloak. She joined her adviser at the doorway to her chambers. “Toma, how are we to slip past my guards? Or the dozens of emissaries from the six kingdoms? If I am seen, surely they will wonder where the new Queen slips off to in the middle of the night.”
A small smile flashed across Toma’s normally stoic face. “Secret tunnels for a secret meeting, My Queen.”
Haven didn’t miss the glint of mischief in his eyes. “Secret tunnels?”
Toma nodded. “We must hurry, My Queen. I’m sure the others have long since arrived.” Haven agreed, and Toma stepped forward. “You may need this.” He handed her a long black sheath.
“Just in case.”
Haven met his gaze. She’d never been good with a sword and had abandoned her lessons long ago. He knew she could barely wield one, yet he’d handed her a dangerous weapon. However, as she was unsure of their destination, she nodded in agreement. “Just in case.”
Making haste, the two slipped quietly through the castle. Hidden passages behind paintings, statues, and thin walls made their escape almost effortless. Haven did her best to remember the route, repeating the directions over and over in her head as they went. She hoped for a future when she needn’t use the secret tunnels ever again.
They emerged on the outskirts of her capital city, just beyond its high stone walls. Not far through the trees, two horses awaited.
“Wren!” she gasped. Her heart leapt.
Her beautiful white-snouted, brown-haired stallion raised his head at their approach. He pawed the ground and bowed his head, causing Toma’s black mare to stir.
Haven closed the space between them and wrapped her arms around his thick neck. “I missed you,” she whispered into his mane.
Wren snorted quietly in response.
It had been a while since she’d seen her handsome horse. He wasn’t needed as much as when she was always trotting off to cause mischief with her brothers.
Her heart ached. She’d raced through the city streets side by side with her brothers so many times. The pounding of hooves on cobblestone still made her grin from ear to ear.
Cold licked the back of her neck. She shivered and pushed the memories to the back of her mind. Toma was right. They needed to move quickly. She mounted her steed. The familiar leather squeaked beneath her as she settled in.
Moments later, they were off, riding through a forest of tall pine trees smelling of sap and into the windswept grasslands. In the distance rose hills, and beyond those, the snow-topped mountains of Calisa, the valley kingdom to the west.
Toma pushed them onward, steering toward the distant peaks. Calisa was the kingdom closest to hers, with its capital built into the mountains itself. Haven had never seen it, but it was said to shine in the morning light, its smooth stone reflecting the sunrise, turning the city to fire. She couldn’t imagine a sight more beautiful than that, and she hoped one day to see it for herself.
The journey sent them tearing across hills, skirting villages, tree groves and rivers. Wren lent her his strength as her worry only grew. Now that she was wide awake, her mind sharpened in the cold night air.
Why had a secret meeting of royals been called? Why now?
There was always strife in the kingdoms, from civil war to spats over land, but since the war had taken a pause after the death of her loved ones, all had been quiet. That peace couldn’t last long.
It seemed sudden when the mountains appeared before them. Barely visible through the distant haze of Rythern, they loomed like sentinels up close. The horses slowed their pace when they began climbing the narrow mountain path, sending rocks careening loudly over the ledge to the drop below. Her heart lurched as she glanced over the edge. The fall might not kill her, but it’d definitely hurt.
Toma led the way, his mare, Reyn, moving with ease over the rough terrain. A small plateau crested halfway up the mountainside. The soft sounds of horses grazing filled the night.
Toma stopped. Haven squinted in the dim light. Who had spoken in the darkness?
“At ease, Nikolai.” Toma swung down from his horse and handed his reins to a man-shaped shadow.
“Apologies, Toma. Everyone is already inside.”
“Thank you.” He turned to help his Queen dismount her own horse before handing her reins off as well.
“Have we arrived?” Her stomach fluttered with nerves. She felt silly asking, but she hadn’t imagined their meeting would take place on a cliff.
“We have.” Toma guided her to the side of the mountain, where Nikolai appeared again.
Her eyes slowly adjusted to the shadows, which revealed a large man with shaggy hair. The stars moved with him, dancing off his sleek metal armor. The crest at his breast glinted beneath the moonlight, revealing twin pikes. Nikolai was a Calisan soldier.
“This way, Lady Queen, Toma.” The large man motioned them to the mountainside, disappearing into a dark hollow.
“What is this place?” Haven wondered aloud, following Toma into the tunnel. She ran her fingers along the wall to her right, its edges rough but not jagged. This had to be a natural formation of sorts or she’d have cut herself already.
“The Calisan meeting place. It’s a rare occasion that we meet elsewhere,” Toma replied.
They turned a corner, a soft glow emanating from the stone ahead.
Haven followed in silence. The warm torchlight grew brighter as they went. Whispers echoed off the walls, hollow to her ears. There had to be at least half a dozen men up ahead.
Her gut clenched. What could possibly lie ahead? What if this was some sort of trap? Though she trusted Toma implicitly, that could very well lead her to her death.
She hadn’t the strategic mind of her brothers or the fighting prowess of her father. If she got herself into trouble, she wouldn’t be ready. Before she could contemplate a plan of action, they emerged in a large cavern with torches lining the walls. A long table sat at the center of the room. Several men stood around it, and almost a dozen guards lined the cavern walls. Crests of four of the six kingdoms were represented by the guards’ uniforms.
Silence fell and all gazes shifted to Haven and her companion. She froze, all too aware of her new status as queen. Though she’d been a princess since birth, she shrank under the gazes of these kings. All had much more experience than she and had led their kingdoms through war, famine, and crises.
She only hoped she could one day measure up to them.
“Lady Queen,” they greeted almost entirely in unison. Each gave a slight bow before the most familiar of the group stepped forward.
“Emeril.” Haven heaved a sigh of relief and smiled.
Though he wasn’t a king yet, she had to assume he came on behalf of his sick father, the King of Salander. The southern kingdom had always been close to Rythern. She and Emeril had been childhood friends, and she still had fond memories of the handsome prince. He was the only heir to the throne of Salander, and she couldn’t help her slight surprise at seeing him there.
He was supposed to be staying in her castle tonight.
“Lady Haven.” He grinned before bending to kiss her hand. His blue-green eyes held the same smile as his lips when he stood. “Or should I say Queen Haven?”
“You should,” Toma chastised, though she could hear the lightness in his voice. Like Haven, Toma had a soft spot for the dying King’s son.
“Always a pleasure, Toma.” The young prince winked.
The others introduced themselves in turn. King Alton of Eris, the plains nation, well known for its vast farmlands. It was just to the south of Calisa and west of Salander. The tall man nearly beat Emeril for height. Broad and a bit overweight but well-tanned and very blond. He put on a serious demeanor, but she caught the smirk beneath his bushy mustache when Toma glowered at Emeril.
“Well met, Lady Queen.” He shook her hand and gave her a quick nod.
“Well met, Lord King.” Haven returned the nod.
Her other neighbor, King Evander of Calisa, stepped forward. She’d met him a few times throughout her princess days, and the King had sent his daughters to her coronation in his stead. He wasn’t quite as tall as the others, but he always held his chin high, which gave him a regal appearance.
“Congratulations on your coronation, Lady Queen.”
She had yet to see a frown grace the face of the Calisan King.
“My deepest regrets for the loss of your family.”
Her heart clenched. She nodded stiffly. “Thank you.”
She couldn’t think about them. Not now. She had to keep her mind on the present.
The last of the royals, King Corrin of Wakefin, stepped forward, shaking her hand.
He greeted her with the mischievous smile he was known for. She’d heard stories of his womanizing even in Rythern. Haven had never understood why so many women fell for his tricks until now. He was quite possibly the most handsome man she had ever seen. Not quite a decade older than she, he stood tall with sandy-blond hair and tan skin so rich with freckles that he had to be from the port city.
“What a lovely new Queen.” He flashed his teeth before he bent to kiss her hand. It was a gesture of familiarity and respect. Though she respected the man, they were certainly not familiar enough for this kiss. “I can already tell I will enjoy your company far more than Toma’s.”
Revulsion widened her eyes. Though he was pretty to look at, she sensed a snake beneath his freckled skin. Never had anyone been so forward with her.
Haven yanked her hand back. “You will enjoy my company far less if you do not address my adviser and me with some respect.” Her face flushed red as she turned away.
King Alton burst into laughter, and she caught an amused look from Evander. For a moment, she wasn’t sure where her internal storm should take her. It was then she remembered the scene she had come upon. Stepping around the obnoxious King, she let her torrent lead her to a wide table with a map of the six kingdoms of Warshard and beyond. It was a very detailed map, with carved figurines representing each of the kingdoms and a few representing the movements of war.
She glanced at each king who joined her around the table, disbelieving she hadn’t realized it before. Only one kingdom was not represented there.
The port city was the closest to the open sea. It wasn’t known for anything in particular until recent years, when a new queen had taken control of the city. Not long after her reign began, terror and death littered her kingdom. She started wars, attempted to take over her neighbors, halted all trade on her shores, and began to strip her forests bare. She was said to be completely mad, though her people still worshipped her.
They called her insane Queen Kadia.
Haven’s stomach twisted. Her parents had done their best to keep her in the dark when it came to the Evil Queen. She wished they hadn’t. Kadia was the reason her parents and her brothers were dead. When the battle had begun, they’d chosen to fight in the wars she’d started, aiding Eris and Wakefin both on the warfront.
It had cost them their lives. Though Kadia’s madness only seemed to grow, all had been quiet in recent weeks—until her mother had shown up beaten and bloody on the palace steps.
“Would someone please explain?” Haven motioned to the figurines.
Black soldiers stood at the edges of Dagan, facing inland just south of its closest neighbor. Gray soldiers, presumably of Wakefin, blocked their path.
Torchlights flickered. Silence descended. She glanced at the kings.
“I’m sorry, Lady Queen. I hadn’t the time to tell you why this meeting was called.” Toma appeared at her shoulder, his expression grave.
“Queen Kadia has taken war to Wakefin once more. This time, it appears she is trying to take the capital city of Dessa.”
Haven faced her adviser. “Only five years into her reign and she is trying to take another nation?” Her breath escaped her lungs. Her whole body cooled. The damp air lay heavily on her shoulders. Nothing good would come of this.
“It seems so, My Lady.”
Haven turned to Corrin. The handsome man stared with a furrowed brow at the map of his kingdom. His fists shook, and his smirk disappeared. Though he had seemed obnoxious only a moment ago, his crestfallen face made her regret her presumption of his nature.
After a long moment of silence, Haven spoke. “I’m sorry, Corrin,” she began, forgetting to say his title. She steeled herself under his troubled gaze. “What can we do?”
Corrin’s eyebrows pulled together, and he looked back at the map. “I need swords, men. Soldiers.” He shook his head. “I need to get my people to safety.”
“Prepare for the worst,” Alton agreed in his deep, gruff voice. His graying beard trembled as he nodded.
“I’m sure we can take in some of your people.” Haven glanced at Toma for reassurance. This would be her first real act as Queen, and she needed to make sure it was a good one. With a nod of affirmation from her adviser, Haven held Corrin’s gaze.
“Thank you.” The storm swirling in his blue gaze settled. He truly meant it.
“I will lend you my aid as well,” Evander agreed. “We can begin at first light. I will send my soldiers from the western tower to help with the transition. We will escort them to you, Queen Haven. We will keep as many as we can here in Calisa.”
“And I will lend you my soldiers,” Alton piped in, holding his fist to his chest.
Emeril shifted on his heels, leaning his hands on the table. He stared intently at the map. His gaze did not leave the row of shadow soldiers threatening Corrin’s kingdom. “I will confer with my father and send word. I’m sure we can spare a few resources.”
“I am grateful to all of you.” Corrin’s shoulders lowered, and he sighed in relief. A bit of weight lifted from his back.
The kings, the prince, and the queen took their seats around the table. Plans were discussed, as well as things the Kings had heard. Because Eris and Wakefin bordered Dagan, they were the most privy to rumors of the dark country.
Corrin confessed to the bizarre nature of the attacks on his kingdom. The soldiers who had attacked seemed to appear from nowhere, and they’d disappeared just as quickly. They’d amassed in shadow and disappeared in the same way. They’d left hundreds dead and few alive to tell the tale of what had actually gone on. Those who did survive spoke of shadow soldiers with armor and masks as black as night. When one fell to the blade of another, the body quickly disappeared. When the fighting was over, only the bodies of their own soldiers remained, as if they’d only ever been fighting themselves.
It was strange, to say the least. Though such magical occurrences weren’t completely unheard of, they were most certainly rare.
Alton admitted to having seen similar things on their borders. Though they hadn’t been attacked yet, his spies kept a close eye on Queen Kadia’s army—an army that hadn’t moved from the city in weeks. With the attacks on Wakefin mere days ago, there was a piece of the puzzle the royals weren’t quite getting.
Haven shivered. It was disturbing in a way she couldn’t quite describe—an enemy who attacked suddenly without warning and simply disappeared in the aftermath. It had to be some sort of trick. But, if Alton’s spies were correct, it meant there was something far more sinister at work.
“My spies have returned similar information,” Corrin agreed.
No one at the table had seen these things with their own eyes, which made them skeptical of the situation. The guards along the walls shifted, growing increasingly restless as their conversation continued.
“If this is true,” Toma began, “we may not have merely a mad Queen on our hands anymore.”
All eyes turned to her aged adviser.
“We may very well have an Evil Queen with very strange abilities in her grasp,” he continued, “and with powers such as these, beyond our understanding…” He paused, obviously troubled by something deeper.
Haven took his hand. This man was like a father to her, and she hated seeing him in such distress. She had a feeling that these meetings were why he’d been distant many days in the castle. Dark circles under his eyes always accompanied those days, along with a large amount of tea.
“It will be okay, Toma. We will figure this out together.” She squeezed his hand.
Toma smiled slightly. Though the gravity of the situation was thick in the air, it was only made worse by his next words.
“I fear this is only the beginning.”