Trapped behind Gwyndorr's towering walls, Shara longs to unlock the secrets that surround her. She believes the Cerulean Dusk Dreamer is the key. The power rock gives vivid dreams of the past and future but it also has a dark side.
Its forces lay siege to her future, tightening her chains. In seeking help, Shara rekindles a forbidden friendship with Nicho, the Lowborn lawbreaker facing banishment to the Rif'twine Forest.
Together, Shara and Nicho must thwart the plans of their enemies. But what if the power they unleash is an even greater chain than what they've come to bear?
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Shara startled awake. There was a commotion in the courtyard — shouting and hooves clattering on cobblestone. She threw her feet over the edge of her straw pallet onto the icy stone floor and sat for a moment before stumbling to the shuttered window.
Her sleep-numbed fingers struggled to release the latch on the wooden shutter, but finally it gave way. Cool air seeped into her room. A blanket of clouds was rolling in from the east and the air carried the smell of approaching rain. It was earlier than the household normally stirred awake. From her second story window, she could see the courtyard and stables below, and beyond that the rooftops of Gwyndorr.
An unfamiliar horse was tied to the tethering pole. Its rider was dressed in the uniform of a town guard and was speaking in a low, urgent tone to Randin. Shara's uncle snatched the reins of his own horse, mounted, and — together with the man — dashed toward the gate. The heavy gate swung open and for a moment Shara caught a tantalizing glimpse of the road and neighboring houses before it clanged shut again.
Shara turned away from the window and listened. All was quiet. Could this be the chance she had been waiting for? She crossed the room and creaked the door open a sliver, glancing at the two doors opposite her own. There was no sound from either of them. Olva, her aunt, seldom rose this early, but Ghris was usually gone before Shara awoke. Today her cousin's door was still closed.
It could open at any moment. If she was going to do what she had planned, she would have to do it quickly.
Shara padded down the steps on her bare feet, into the dining hall, the most beautiful room in the house. Warm rugs covered an intricately designed mosaic floor. A large hearth would normally welcome Olva and Randin's important visitors with a blazing fire, although today no flames warmed the air. Olva's expensive tastes were reflected in the jewel-bedecked vases, plates, and ornaments, displayed on the large mantel above the fireplace. Several had been bought from foreign merchants who arrived in Gwyndorr in the warmer months to peddle their wares, but Randin, who had his own methods of procuring valuable goods, had given most of them to her.
Moving past the long wooden table and benches, she reached her intended destination — the one room forbidden to her. A last glance to the stairs showed she was still alone. Her heart pounded, as she pulled the brass handle down. It creaked loudly. She stopped, holding her breath to listen for movement. After a long pause, she eased it down all the way and pushed. The door didn't budge. Curse it! Had Randin locked it? No — maybe it was just stuck. She heaved her shoulder against the door and felt it shift. Yes!
She slipped into the room and quickly closed the door behind her, standing dead still until her breathing returned to normal. It was only the third time that Shara had stood in Randin's chamber. The first had been as a child of eight when Randin told her that he and Olva were not her real parents. The second — a few weeks ago — when he had forbidden her from spending time in the kitchen with Marai.
The memory of this last encounter galvanized her into brazen action. Even if Randin returned right now and found her here, there was nothing left to lose, nothing more he could take from her. She paced past the large desk, to the shelves against the wall. Her eyes lingered on the leather-bound books. Would Randin even notice if one of them was gone? Unlikely — the only reason he owned them was because they were valuable.
Yet, she had no time to page through them now. It was the ivory box she was after. Her gaze had fallen on it the day Randin imposed the kitchen-ban, and she had known it was no ordinary box. Something that beautiful might contain secrets. Maybe even hers.
Cursing her short build, she stretched up to reach the box. Her fingers grazed it and she slowly edged it forward until she could grip it with her whole hand. When both hands had a steady hold on it, she lifted it from the shelf, and dropped down to the ground behind Randin's desk to examine it.
Again she was struck by just how beautiful the box was. The ivory lid was carved into a pattern of intricate flowers and swirls. She traced them with her finger, before feeling along the ridge where the lid and base met, looking for a catch. When this failed, she tried to prod a fingernail into the small crack, but the lid didn't open. She turned it upside down and shook it. Something rattled inside, but the lid held fast.
For a moment she considered finding one of Randin's daggers and forcing it open, but she discarded the idea. She had read once how bandits could break into locked rooms with a small, fine piece of wire, such as a hairpin. Instinctively, her fingers went to her own tangled mop of dark hair, but no hairpin held it together today. In fact, no hairpin held it together most days, for Shara seldom tried to tame it.
It was then that another idea crept into her mind. Randin's desk was made of a solid dark wood. Where would one hide something as important as a key in a solid desk like that? she wondered. A ridge of wood ran all the way around the desk, and Shara ran her fingers over its dusty, hidden interior until she reached the corner joint. It felt different. She dropped down and clambered under the desk to gain a better view of the joint. She glanced at the one opposite it and immediately saw that there was extra wood on this one, resting on two thin beams. Gently she pulled at the wood and as it slid toward her on the beams, her heart pounded with excitement. A secret compartment. Her fingers felt around for the box's key, but all she felt was a hard, oval object. Nothing more than a rock.
Yet, as she drew the object out, a small tremor passed through Shara. The rock was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Perfectly oval, its deep blue hue reminded her of an early evening sky and its gleaming surface, of moonlight. It felt comfortingly warm resting in her hand. This was no ordinary rock.
A loud whine drew her attention. Loar. The dog's timing couldn't have been worse, for Ghris — who slept through the loudest of storms — would wake at the smallest whimper from his beloved Loar. Already, Shara thought she heard movement upstairs.
Shara ran to the desk and lifted the box back onto the shelf before pounding out of the study. Only then did she realize that she was still gripping the rock. There was no time to put it back in the compartment for, above her, a door scraped open.
"I'm down here, Ghris. I'll let her in," Shara called, slipping the rock into her pocket.
Loar's wide smile and wagging tail showed her joy as Shara pulled the main door open. She pushed a wet snout into Shara's hand in her usual gesture of thanks. She wasn't particularly big — her back was the height of Shara's knee. Neither was she attractive, with her mottled coat of brown and black, and her one ear that perpetually folded forward even as the other stood upright. Yet her brown eyes were filled with intelligence, and she was a highly effective tracker dog, probably the only reason Randin allowed her to stay. For Shara, Loar's greatest quality was her loyalty.
"You realize quickly when the coast is clear, don't you?" Shara stroked Loar's head. Randin had expelled Ghris's dog from the house the moment he laid eyes on the little runt Ghris had rescued. However, it never took Loar long to realize Randin was gone.
The dog stood silently, tail wagging, although she glanced toward the stairs. Toward her Ghris. A surge of longing swept through Shara. If only she could be the object of such devotion and affection.
"Off you go then," she whispered and, with a grateful lick, the dog bounded across the dining hall and up the stairs.
Back in her own room, Shara laid aside the book her tutor, Brother Andreo, had given her to read and instead drew the rock out of her robe's deep pocket. She marveled at the object's loveliness. Fleetingly, she considered returning it to its hiding place, but something held her back. If the desk's dustiness was anything to go by, Randin wouldn't miss it soon. Surely it couldn't do any harm to keep it for just a little while?
* * *
Nicho pushed the door open a crack and looked out at the narrow, dirt road that wound through the Parashi Slum. Clouds billowed overhead, heavy with the coming storm. An old woman with a scarf-covered head edged along the road, and when she heard the door open, glanced back nervously. Nicho pulled deeper into the shadows and waited a few moments for her to disappear before he opened the door again. One had to be careful in the slums. There were many who would spy on their neighbors for a couple of coins from a town guard. Even this old woman could be a Whisperer.
His four young pupils, seated on the floor and speaking excitedly, were oblivious to the danger.
"The Parashi Warriors are the best swordsmen in all of Tirragyl. One warrior can kill a hundred king's men."
"Yes, and my papa says that one day they will march from the Guardian Grotto to Gwyndorr and fight all the Highborns so that they can't press us anymore."
Nicho turned around. "You mean oppress, Elrin. And nobody knows for sure if the Warriors still exist. Now finish forming your last letter, lads, and then put away your charcoal pieces. Almost dawn. The Guard patrol will be here soon. And there's a storm coming."
"My uncle Zeb says it's silly to learn letters," Elrin said, rubbing the charcoal stains from his hands. "He says letters are soft but swords are sharp. He says you should teach us to fight, Nicho."
"Letters are sharper than he thinks. Why would the Highborns forbid us from learning them otherwise? They fear what we Parashi can become with some learning."
"But can you still teach us to fight, Nicho?"
"I'm no warrior, Elrin. Just a groom." Nicho smiled at the boy's crestfallen expression. "Come now, lad. Time to go. The coast is clear."
The boy slipped out the door and ran down the street to the corner. He paused and looked back, giving Nicho a jaunty wave before disappearing from sight. Curse the boy! How many times had he told him not to do that? If anyone were watching, that wave could lead the Guards right to this house.
He signaled for the next boy to leave, and when he had disappeared from sight in the other direction, he opened the door wide enough to let out the oldest boy, Jabon.
"Bye, Nicho." Jabon smiled. "See you next Friday?"
"Right. Get going now. The patrol will be here soon."
No sooner had the boy dashed from the door, than Nicho heard the sound of hoofbeats. It was too late to call a warning to Jabon as two horsemen galloped from the direction of the main town.
Jabon had seen them and started to run to the alley between the closest houses. The horsemen reined in hard, and Nicho — watching through the slit of the open door — felt a surge of dread. He eased the door closed and cursed.
"What is it?" Rosa, the mother of the remaining boy, had just appeared from the sleeping area.
"It's Captain Randin." His master. What in the abyss was he doing here this early in the morning?
"Where? Is he outside?" Simhew ran to the window.
"Don't!" Rosa drew her son back.
Nicho pushed flat against the door. "If he finds me here ..."
"Did the boys get out before he arrived?" Rosa asked.
"I think the first two were out of sight already, but he definitely saw Jabon."
"And the morning bell hasn't rung yet." Rosa bit her lip. "He'll know the lad is up to no good, out before the curfew lifts. They could drag his skinny rear end into a Rifter Gang faster than he recites his letters. He's the perfect size for them to make him a rooter."
"Jabon's a shrewd lad. He was heading for the slum alleys and few know them as well as he does," Nicho said. "The captain wouldn't be able to make it through them on a horse anyway."
"I hope you're right, Nicho."
They stood in anxious silence for a while.
"Shall I make us a nice hot cup of origo?" Rosa said eventually.
Nicho shook his head, somewhat regretfully. Although he was only seventeen and Rosa almost ten years older, he enjoyed talking to her. She was one of the few Parashi who agreed that the battle against the Highborns would be won through knowledge rather than the sword, and he admired her courage for letting them have lessons at her house. The other parents wanted their sons to learn, but were too afraid to put themselves at risk.
"I promised Yasmin I'd check in on Derry and Nana." He eased open the door to make sure the horsemen had left. "And I'll check that Jabon arrived home safely after that."
"Be careful, Nicho."
A sense of unease gnawed at Nicho as he left Rosa's house. If you put your finger to a flame, expect to be burnt, his mother always said. Today the flame had licked his hand.CHAPTER 2
Derry's house was on the outskirts of the Parashi Slum–a decaying, overcrowded area of Gwyndorr allocated to the Lowborn. More than half of the city's Parashi population was packed into these few blocks of the town. The others — like Nicho and Yasmin — stayed on the properties of their Highborn masters.
As Nicho pushed Derry's door open, a child seated at a low table in the back leapt to his feet.
"Ko! Ko! Mama, Ko's here." He ran to Nicho with outstretched arms.
"Jed, you rascal," Nicho laughed as he lifted the boy up and spun him around. "When are you going to learn to say my name properly?"
"Look, Ko." The boy ran back to his seat. "Look what Papa made."
He came back carrying a little carved horse and pushed it proudly into Nicho's hand.
"It's beautiful, Jed." Nicho admired the careful handiwork. "What's his name?"
"Ah, of course. After the great Chief Troyin's horse. I think your Papa and I had a couple of carvings called Lian, is it not so, Derry?"
Derry had risen to his feet, the childlike smile on his round face as broad as always. "Nicho, you came to visit." He threw an arm around Nicho's shoulder, as enthusiastically as his son had done. Derry had been Nicho's friend from the time they were both two. Almost ten years later, the killing fever had ravaged the Parashi Slum. In this house, only Nana and Derry's sister, Yasmin, hadn't been touched by it, and ever since the plague's fever had held him in its grip, Derry had been more a boy than a man.
Derry's young wife, Hildah, rose from the table and greeted Nicho in a soft mumble, her face flushed crimson. It was still hard for Nicho to think of her as a mother. She had been only thirteen and Derry fourteen when she fell with child.
"Do you want some elder-beans and goat's milk, Nicho?" Hildah asked. It was the traditional Parashi breakfast, a cheap staple.
"Got some left?"
"The milk is rather watered down." She fetched a bowl, as Nicho greeted the last person seated at the table.
"Good morning, Nana," he said softly. Her watery eyes searched his face without recognition. It seemed almost impossible that she would not know him after all the years he had spent roughhousing with Derry and Yasmin. He could clearly recall her scolding them for walking mud into the room just after she had swept it. You twins are double the trouble Pearce ever was, and with Nicho, you're downright impossible.
"I just wanted to see how you were doing, Derry," Nicho said as Hildah filled his bowl. "The Captain of the Guard was in the slum a little earlier."
"I saw a soldier on a horse just now," Jed piped up.
"You did?" Nicho tried to keep his voice even. "Did he see you too, Jed?"
Jed nodded vigorously. "He waved at me."
"Rat's breath, Derry," Nicho said. "It's dangerous for the guards to know you have a child. Especially one Jed's age. You have to make sure he stays inside."
"Sorry, Nicho." His friend's gaze dropped to the floor. "Please don't be angry with me." The almost ever-present smile on his lips was gone. Nicho instantly regretted his quick words.
"Derry." Nicho pulled him into an embrace. "I'm not. Just worried about Jed." He ate without saying another word. Only Jed's imaginary horse battles broke the taut silence.
"I sold a few more shield tokens," Derry said, looking up hopefully at Nicho.
"Well done." Derry's smile was back instantly at his friend's approval. Nicho's fingers closed on the small wooden shield hung from a chain around his neck — a horse head carved onto it. It was the Parashi symbol of resistance. "Remember what I said though." Nicho tried to keep his voice as gentle as possible. "Don't sell them to the children, even if they beg you."
"I remember, Nicho. I'm not selling them to the children."
"You know that the town guards will look for any excuse to arrest them."
"I know. I promise. Not to the children."
As he left, Nicho signaled for Hildah to join him at the door.
"You still have the payoff money, Hildah?"
"How much is there?"
"Five bronze coins." It was a small fortune in a Parashi home, but one Nicho had insisted they have.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Chains of Gwyndorr"
Copyright © 2016 Joan Campbell.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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