THE CHRONICLES OF WARSHARD (book 1): HAVEN
“I am beginning to see why my brothers were so keen on heading into war.” Haven sighed.
A day had passed since the secret meeting in the Calisan Mountains with no word from King Evander. Her place in this war was uncertain. Though she looked forward to aiding the people of Wakefin, Rythern didn’t have the military force it once had. Not since Kadia had decimated the warfront.
Haven was certain the Eris-Wakefin attack had already begun, but still she received no letter on how things were going. Their plan was simple. When Kadia’s army attacked the capital city of Dessa, Alton’s soldiers would lie in wait, blindsiding Kadia’s from the rear. While the attack took place, King Evander would usher refugees from Wakefin into his own kingdom of Calisa and through to Rythern.
While all of this took place miles from Palmyra, Haven was stuck with her advisers, doing paperwork. Much to her dismay, this seemed to be at least eighty percent of a queen’s duties.
She impatiently tapped her fingers against the thick, wooden desk. She was to read and sign papers, decreeing this and disallowing that. All while war raged in Wakefin. Though it was all rather boring, it kept her guards happy and her out of danger. There in the castle, she was safe. With the assassin gone and her coronation over, she could set her sights on the future of Rythern.
Once she was done signing, of course.
“Your brothers were only keen on going into battle because they were reckless boys, My Queen.” Toma’s eyebrows pulled together like a disapproving caterpillar.
“At this moment, battle sounds much more interesting, Toma.”
“You mustn’t say such a thing, Lady Queen. War is never a pleasant thing to wish upon the kingdoms.”
Haven paused, staring blankly at the page before her. Stacks of parchment lay on her desk while many men were sitting around her at desks of their own. They mostly ignored her conversations with Toma, scribbling decrees as quickly as their fingers would allow. What were they always writing about so furiously?
“I don’t wish war upon the kingdoms.” She worked her jaw back and forth. Truly, she didn’t. War was the last thing she wanted. “I suppose paperwork does still help Rythern, does it not?”
“Of course, Lady Queen.” Toma smiled to assure her.
He paused a few more moments while she finished her current work. Her skin crawled beneath his gaze. The only reason Toma ever held his tongue was when he was about to ask something she might not approve of.
“Have you said your goodbyes to Prince Emeril, My Lady?”
Haven froze. Not this again.
Her parents had always pushed a Prince of Salander–Princess of Rythern match upon her. It would have been a great pairing, bringing both of their families great honor while keeping them both in a royal line. The match would mark a great union of countries, an alliance that could have bolstered the economies of both kingdoms.
But it was not meant to be.
As they’d drifted apart and the kingdoms had grown, her parents and her brothers had perished at war, leaving her to be Queen. Haven’s fist clenched around her quill. Images of blood flashed before her. She squeezed her eyes shut, pushing them away with all of her might.
Emeril. The images faded. The young prince was the only heir to the Salander throne. Toma could not think it a responsible idea to push such a marriage on her after her coronation. Where would that leave her kingdom? Or Emeril’s, for that matter? His father surely had only a few years left and was well past the age of siring more children. He hadn’t even taken a new wife after Emeril’s mother passed.
“Of course. We said our farewells this morning.” Haven didn’t look up from her paper, relaxing her hands and pretending to read on. “I’m sure the Prince has long since departed court.”
“Perhaps,” was all Toma added. He returned to his own work.
A loud rush of footsteps from the hall froze her to her chair. What now? Haven exchanged a glance with Toma, who slowly rose. Lareina, her guard today, pushed away from the wall behind her desk, her hand on the hilt of her sword. She positioned herself between Haven and the door, an act Haven was all too familiar with.
Nikolai burst through the office doors, his chest heaving and his face wild. With muddied boots and brown, wind-whipped hair, he had to have been riding in a hurry. He searched the room with bright blue eyes before finally settling on Haven.
“Lady Queen,” he croaked, his voice hoarse.
“Nikolai.” Toma stepped forward and motioned for Lareina to sheathe her sword. “What has happened?”
It took Haven a minute to realize why Nikolai had burst into her study. She glanced between Toma and the Calisan soldier until Nikolai thrust a piece of parchment forward. A letter about Wakefin at last.
“Word from King Evander!” Haven stood to greet the messenger. Her heart pounded in her ears. Please let it be good news.
“Yes, Lady Queen.” Nikolai stepped forward with his note. “There is terrible news.”
Her heart plummeted into her stomach, and her breath seized in her throat. What now? Through the wild look in his bright gaze, she finally saw it. Fear.
“Let me see it.” She lowered her voice in an attempt to sound gentle and understanding, but her voice trembled. What had happened to make such a large man so afraid?
Nikolai handed her the letter before bowing and stepping aside. Her hands shook as she parted the seal across the single page. The scratchy writing had been done in a hurry. Haven read on.
The battle for Dessa has gone horribly awry. Kadia’s soldiers have passed the great river and attacked the main city. Wakefin soldiers have been called back—those who were in the castle at the time are feared dead. Alton’s army was wiped out, and Kadia has hold of the Wakefin capital. Corrin is safe and being taken into hiding. We have worked through the night to aid as many refugees as possible, but there are many more than we can handle.
Following Nikolai will be the injured. We kept as many as possible, but our resources are limited. I urge you to seek aid from Salander. I know your kingdoms have always been close, and we will need any healer they can spare.
A meeting will be held soon.
King Evander of Calisa
Haven slowly rose. Her limbs chilled, which sent a shiver down her spine. Never had she imagined that Dessa would fall so quickly. Wakefin’s army was grand enough on its own, but the soldiers of Eris should have overwhelmed even the largest of battalions.
“How can this be?” Her voice barely rose above the flipping of papers at her back.
“What is it, Lady Queen?” Toma came to her side.
She handed him the letter. “Dessa has been taken. Alton and Corrin’s armies were obliterated.” Haven sat down hard, the legs of her chair scraping along the floor.
The rustling of pages and the scratch of quills hushed. Whispers filled the room. It was the first time she’d seen her advisers distracted from their work.
She froze. Her breath seized. Wait. She could do something about this. “Emeril.” Haven stood, her eyes wide.
“Emeril?” Lareina looked at her queen.
“He may not have left court yet. I must find him.”
If Emeril had yet to depart, she could ask him for medics. They might very well be able to secure reinforcements in a few days’ time.
Haven fled the room as fast as Nikolai had entered. She hiked up her skirts, which whipped against her ankles in her haste. Lareina’s boots thumped behind her as she jogged to catch up with the young queen.
“Haven, you should send someone in your stead. Toma needs you to form a plan.” Lareina met Haven’s pace, glancing at her with widened eyes and a furrowed brow.
“I must tell him myself.” If she didn’t, Emeril might not understand the severity—the urgency—of the situation.
Dark stone walls and lavish tapestries flashed by as she ran the length of the hall. Her heels clacked loudly on the steps as she flew from the third floor to the first. Her breath heaved with every step, and her heart beat in time with her footsteps. Lareina followed her all the while.
The Salander envoy would depart from the main courtyard, only paces away from the main entry. Be there, she urged. Please be there.
Stone steps gave way to the smooth main floor, lush with red carpet. She raced past maids, soldiers, and noblemen, out the front doors.
Sunlight spilled over the courtyard, sending white spots flying over her vision. She paused by the palace steps for only a moment before descending the curved staircase. She held a hand up to block the sun, only as she reached the cobblestone, a shadow blocked the harsh rays from her face. She lowered her hand.
Emeril’s back was outlined in the afternoon sunlight. But it wasn’t Emeril who blocked the sun.
A long shadow stretched from the center of the courtyard through to the main entrance, its arms spread and its head tilted to the sky.
“Haven,” Lareina said.
Haven was already crossing the length of the yard. The shadow passed, leaving the sun to pour over a young man stuck through with a wooden pike.
She froze. Her heart hammered against her ribs.
His blue eyes were glassy and bloodshot, staring sightless at the sky. From his open mouth, the end of the pointed pike emerged, dark red. His jaw was unhinged, hanging as if by a single thread. A single red rose peeked out from behind his teeth. Blood poured down his body, sullying his leather tunic and his white shirt before pooling at the base of the pike, which sat between a pile of rocks. At his feet leaned a bow and a quiver.
Could this be her assassin?
A gasp passed through her lips, and she stepped back, tripping over her skirts and crashing onto her behind. Cold leeched the sun’s warmth from her limbs. Her gaze locked on those sightless eyes, wide and filled with terror.
“Haven?” a familiar voice called. Emeril trotted over and kneeled to block her line of sight. “Haven, don’t look.”
She couldn’t help but peer past him at the man on the pike.
“We need to remove the queen.” Lareina took her arm and pulled her to her feet.
Emeril held up her other side. His blue-green blocked her from the dead archer. “Haven, close your eyes,” he murmured gently.
Haven didn’t listen. She couldn’t.
How could someone have done this to another human being? And what did it mean? The pike. The rose. The bow and arrows. It was a message.
Lareina and Emeril turned her back toward the castle and led her away. Several soldiers stood watch, their eyes wide and vacant as they stared at the sight before them. Haven let them lead her, trying to find the energy inside herself to walk on her own instead of being carried.
Her gut soured, twisting and writhing up into her throat. She pushed Emeril and Lareina away, ducking her head into the bushes that lined the courtyard cobblestone and retched.
Blood, blood, and more blood. Why did this war demand so much blood?
Lareina brushed Haven’s temples with her fingers as she gently pulled her hair back from her face and shoulders. She rubbed small circles on her upper back as Haven rid her body of breakfast.
Once Haven was finished and could breathe again, Emeril and Lareina led her back inside the castle. Shadows descended upon her shoulders, cooling the built-up heat from her vomiting. Being careful to avoid any windows facing the courtyard, they returned to the study once again. Nikolai was nowhere to be found.
“Lady Queen!” Toma gasped as he stood from his desk. “What on earth happened?”
Lareina silenced him with a glare and deposited Haven behind her desk. Haven sat down hard, feeling returning to her numb limbs. She took a few deep breaths and met her guard’s eyes.
“Thank you,” Haven whispered.
Lareina simply nodded and fetched Haven a glass of water from a nearby jug before standing at her back, much closer than she normally would. While Haven composed herself and sipped on cold water, Emeril updated Toma on the situation in the courtyard.
Toma cursed before covering his mouth. He dispatched another guard to take care of the courtyard display and returned to his own desk. He sat down just as heavily as Haven had, rubbing his hands over his face before his gaze met hers.
“What was that?” Haven gulped the lump in her throat.
Toma glanced at Emeril and Lareina before answering, “I don’t know, Lady Queen.”
“Who could have done such a thing?” Her voice rose an octave.
No one answered the queen.
Haven stared at her adviser until something tickled at the back of her mind. “Could it be Kadia?”
“We have no way of knowing that.” Emeril rounded her desk and lay a hand on her shoulder.
Haven took a deep breath before she reached up and squeezed his fingers in thanks. He stepped away.
“We will launch an investigation, Lady Queen.” Toma nodded.
“I don’t want to hear of it, Toma.” Her own words surprised her, but her weakness betrayed her. She wasn’t ready for all of this blood. She wasn’t ready for any of this. “Investigate, but please do not mention it until the killer is caught.” Her fingers found her lips. Her stomach recoiled at the thought of the man on the pike. She clenched her muscles. She would not vomit. Not again.
“Of course, Lady Queen.” He cleared his throat.
“Please, Toma. Distract me. What are we to do with the news Nikolai has brought?” Haven smoothed her dress and made herself comfortable. She needed something else to think about, something important. Something she could put her heart into.
“Oh, yes.” He paused, shuffling through his desk full of papers. “The attack on Wakefin. We must make decisions, provisions, and preparations.”
“Attack?” Emeril perked up.
Haven hadn’t given him the news yet. “Dessa has been taken. Evander sent word.” She handed Emeril the letter.
He read it quickly, fear and disbelief slowly creeping into the grooves of his face. “This can’t be.” Her wide eyes scanned the study for answers.
“But it has, and we must act quickly.” This she knew. Without a plan her people would fall. She couldn’t let that happen. “Preparations must be made. Injured refugees will pour in at any moment. We must be ready.” Haven blindly sorted through papers while she tried to think.
There was no telling how many refugees they were about to take on, but from Evander’s warning, there had to be hundreds, if not more. What was the population of Wakefin? What percentage could she expect? For the life of her, she couldn’t remember anything. “Toma?”
“Yes, Lady Queen?”
“How many healers do we have in the castle?” She should have already known this, like the population of Wakefin. But she didn’t.
As queen, she would need to take a greater interest in not only the workings of her castle, but of her city and her kingdom. How many hospitals were in the city? How many nurses could they conjure? Should students of medicine be brought in to help?
“About half a dozen, My Lady,” Toma said, starting to sound a bit more like himself.
Like Haven, he needed a problem to solve, something to focus on. Together, they would resolve this predicament, and she would hopefully forget about the man on the pike.
“That won’t do,” she said. “We need an area big enough to house these refugees, with as many doctors and nurses as possible.”
“We can bring in physicians from nearby towns if we need to, My Lady.” Toma moved about the room, pulling documents from the shelves lining the far wall and barking orders at the other advisers.
“Where can we find a large enough space for so many people? Surely the hospitals will be overwhelmed.”
“The ballroom, My Queen.” Lareina smiled down at her. Her blue eyes danced with something akin to pride. “The ballroom could easily fit a hundred bunks for refugees. We could have the less injured brought here and the most grave cases sent to the hospitals. The doctors would be of better use in their own environment.”
Yes. That was it! She couldn’t believe she’d almost forgotten that Lareina was trained in medicine. She could have been a doctor if her heart hadn’t belonged to her kingdom.
“You’re absolutely brilliant, Lareina.” Haven stood to hug her lady guard.
Lareina had always been a great friend, but she very well could have been Haven’s first female adviser too, if she’d had the inclination.
“Thank you, My Queen.” Lareina stepped out of her embrace. “I will help you in any way I can. I shall send another guard to keep the towers on lookout. We should be ready to open the gates when the refugees arrive.”
“Yes. That would be perfect. Thank you.”
Lareina bowed slightly and removed herself from the room.
“Emeril.” Haven turned to the prince. With all the happenings in the courtyard, she’d nearly forgotten why she’d run to catch him. “We need you, Emeril. Rythern can’t do this without aid. Hundreds of refugees are about to pour into my city. I can’t very well care for them all on my own. We simply do not have enough healers.”
Emeril’s gaze widened in understanding. His jaw set, and he nodded. “I will help you in any way I can, Haven. Just tell me what you need.” He assured her with the full intensity of his blue-green gaze.
Haven smiled, grateful to have a friend like him. “We need your resources. Any healers you can spare. Medicine.” She paused to think but found her imagination lacking under Emeril’s fierce gaze. “And your knowledge. Help me set up centers for these refugees. You know much more about being a King than I do.”
“Of course.” Emeril grinned. “Let’s begin.”