Since birth, Nyla has shared everything with her twin brotherroyal tutors, the right to the throne of Tirragyl... even their soul. Many believe it wholly belongs to Alexor and should be returned to him regardless of the sacrificeNyla's death. However, her future isn't the only one in question.
A threat looms over the kingdom. The influential Lord Lucian intends to seize the Grotto, an underworld settlement known for harboring fugitives. And if legend is to be believed, it is also the hiding place of the most powerful of objects, the Guardian Rock. As Nyla fights for her life, she realizes she's not only a soul heir but also the sole hope for the kingdom's survival.
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The crown grew heavy. Nyla cast a quick look at her brother standing next to her on the palace balcony. Their crowns were identical — a latticed gold circlet encrusted with rare snow and fire gems. As always, Alexor sensed her gaze and winked at her before turning his attention back to the procession.
Nyla did the same, although her attention soon wandered from the jugglers and dancers below her to the streets thronged with people. Her subjects. The thought filled her with a surge of trepidation. Would she make a good queen? The needs were so great — poverty, injustice, the encroaching Rif'twine. What if they failed?
The music stopped and the procession ended. Lord Briskyl stepped forward, between her and Alexor, and lifted their arms in the air. His voice boomed across the crowd.
"People of Tirragyl, I present to you King Alexor and Queen Nyla of the house of Taus, joint heirs to their father Altaus's throne. May they be graced with wisdom and goodness, as their father was before them, and may their reign be prosperous and peaceful."
The crowd's approval was a deafening roar in Nyla's ears, stopping only when Alexor raised his left hand to silence them. Nyla had agreed that Alexor should do the required Sovereign Speech; she didn't think her voice would carry over the crowd. He did it with his usual ease and charm and, when he finished, the crowd's roar seemed even louder than before.
When all the cheering and waving ended, Nyla slipped between the guards and royal counselors, across the marble courtyard of the palace, and into her serene wing. Her light and spacious rooms encircled courtyards where water trickled and plants flourished. They had always been her sanctuary. Several of her attendants fluttered to her side and removed the crown, the heavy coronation cloak, the gold bracelets and earrings, and the Octora spider-silk slippers.
She chased the ladies away and sank gratefully onto the soft feather bed, her head pounding from the heat and noise of the long coronation service.
"My queen?" Lohlyn's voice woke her from her light slumber. "I am sorry. Did I wake you?"
"Not to worry, Loh. And none of this 'my queen' prattle. I'm still Nyla to you." She grabbed her lady-in-waiting's hand and squeezed it. "Did you see any of it, or were you stuck in the palace all the time?"
"I only saw you on the balcony." Lohlyn smiled. "You know all the rules about who is allowed in formal chambers, don't you?"
Nyla sat up and rubbed her aching neck. "Something I'll have to change soon."
"Water?" Lohlyn held out a silver goblet. "I thought you'd need it after standing in the sun all that time."
Nyla took it gratefully. Somehow, Lohlyn knew every one of her needs, just as Alexor knew every one of her thoughts.
"I wish you'd been there, Loh. You should have seen Duke Frankyl's expression when that crown was placed on my head. You'd think Tirragyl had just been thrown into the abyss for having a woman on the throne."
Lohlyn smiled, but there was a hint of worry in her dark eyes. The Duke was not the only one who thought Nyla should not be joint-ruler with her brother. In fact, probably most of the noblemen felt that way. It had been a point of contention from the time the twins were born.
"Shall I help you dress for the Lords of the Realm Banquet, Nyla?"
"Festering breath! I'd all but forgotten about that pompous affair. How long do I have?"
"The first lords have entered the banquet hall, but there is plenty of mead to entertain them. And it is, after all, the sovereign's right to arrive when she sees fit."
"Just help me into the gown quickly." Nyla tugged at the loops that fastened the silk dress, and Lohlyn quickly came to her side, her deft fingers loosening the fasteners.
"I still want to go see Mada, but that will have to wait," Nyla said as she stepped into the deep purple gown that had been made for the banquet. The dark fabric contrasted sharply with Nyla's pale skin and almost white hair, and the wide skirt drowned her small figure. The only reason she was wearing it was because Alexor's cloak was made from the same cloth, and he thought they should match.
She pulled a face as she saw herself in the looking glass. "It's vile, isn't it?"
"Nonsense. It's a beautiful dress."
"Maybe, but it looks dreadful on me. Now on you it would look exquisite." She studied her friend's warm skin tone, chestnut hair, and hazel eyes. What a pity, she thought, that Lohlyn's beauty was not appreciated in Tirragyl, where only the fair and pale were considered attractive.
"I'm far too large for it," Lohlyn laughed. "Anyway, I'd be too terrified to drink a goblet of anything, knowing I could spill a drop on fabric so valuable."
"Now there's an idea." Nyla's serious eyes sparkled with momentary mischief. "Maybe if I spill a goblet of mead on it, I can come and change into something I actually like."
Lohlyn rearranged Nyla's long hair into a series of plaits, winding them together into one long strand, before accompanying her to the banquet hall. As the two doormen saw their queen approach, they dropped to their knees with their foreheads to the ground.
"Oh my, Loh," Nyla said under her breath. "I'm not sure I'll enjoy having people so close to my feet all day."
"We'll have to wash them every time you set foot out the door."
"And I'll have to make sure I put my best foot forward."
The two friends laughed. Lohlyn pointed to the men on the floor and mouthed something that looked like "up."
"Oh!" Nyla composed herself and said in her most regal voice, "Thank you, guards. You may rise and open the door."
"Try not to die of boredom," Lohlyn whispered as the grand doors swung open.
* * *
With the noise of the banquet far behind her, Lohlyn wound her way through the dark passages that lay at the heart of the palace. The Palace Administrator and his staff had their sleeping quarters here, but most of the other rooms leading off the passages were filled with old documents, parchments, and objects from forgotten reigns. It seemed almost appropriate that the previous king had tucked his mother into one of these rooms.
Mada, as Nyla called her grandmother, was indeed old and forgotten, and King Altaus had hoped that hiding her away in a deep part of the palace would silence her outspoken criticism of his all-too-brief reign. It hadn't worked. Mada had used everything in her power to undermine her son's reign, which had reminded her far too much of her husband's. Altaus had had the same cruel streak as his father and, had a hunting accident not claimed his life, his reign might have become as infamous as King Tausorlin's.
She knocked on the wooden door and heard whispering inside. Hesta, Mada's nurse and companion, opened the door cautiously and peered out, her relief evident as she saw Lohlyn.
"Lohlyn, it's you. Come in."
Lohlyn stepped into the dimly lit room. The stale air accosted her with its sharp, sour smell of illness and old age. Mada lay under a pile of fleeces and tsebee skins, only her face visible. In the week since Lohlyn had last seen her, Mada seemed to have shrunk even more, her cheeks sinking in, her mouth pinched in pain. Yet her light blue eyes were filled with the usual sharp intelligence and her voice had lost none of its authority when she said, "Leave us alone, Hesta."
The nurse cast a grateful glance to Lohlyn and closed the door behind her.
"How is my granddaughter, Lohlyn? And why aren't you by her side?" Her words may have been slower, but they were as direct as always.
"She is at the Lords of the Realm Banquet, my lady, and King Alexor saw fit to leave me off the guest list."
"Pretentious affair. You are not missing much." A cough wracked Mada's body, but once it subsided and her breathing steadied, she continued, softer than before. "It worries me that Nyla is alone."
"Klyden is there as part of the Royal Guard."
The old woman nodded, apparently satisfied. "Have there been any more threats to her life?"
"Not since last year."
"This is a dangerous time." Mada's voice dropped. "These transitions always are. You need to be on your guard at all times."
"Of course, my lady."
Mada smiled. "Looking at your beautiful face, it is easy to forget just what you are. And you were, of course, trained by the best."
"The very best." Lohlyn swallowed away the lump in her throat.
"Remind me. How long have you been here?"
"Seven years, my lady. Nyla was eleven when I arrived."
"I remember." Mada's brow furrowed. "My husband was still king at the time. You were little more than a child yourself."
"I was eighteen."
"Seven years," Mada said wistfully. "You've done well to keep the secret."
"Thank you. Still, now that she is queen, wouldn't it be a good time to tell her the truth?"
"The truth?" The old woman's voice quivered. "What truth would that be, Lohlyn? The truth that, when she was born, every one of my husband's counselors recommended she be put to death? The truth that her own mother and father wanted to drown her so that her half-soul would be free to return where everyone thought it belonged — her brother? The truth that many still think her death would benefit Tirragyl, for finally Alexor would be a whole person? Is that the truth you wish her to know, Lohlyn?"
"No, my lady." Lohlyn dropped her head. "I mean the truth about me."
"That would require explaining everything else." Mada paused for a long time, catching her breath after her emotional outburst. "I forbid you to tell her."
"But if she ever —"
"I forbid it." Mada's voice was as hard as steel. "There are secrets that should never be told, for they can steal a soul as quickly as the waters of the Adriel River."
"Yes, my lady."
"Do I have your word, Lohlyn?"
"Yes, my lady." Lohlyn pushed down the surge of sorrow. "By the Creed, I will not tell her about me. Or her past."
* * *
Nyla sat at the head of the banquet table and let her eyes wander down its length, pausing to take in each face along the way. Before her sat the twenty-four lords of Tirragyl, each of whom came to swear fealty to her and Alexor. Their expressions were grim, their tones hushed as they drank from their goblets and picked at the rich fare on the table. They were all much older than she was, and she sensed their wariness at what they were required to do. Bowing their knees to rulers so young — and one of them a woman — did not appeal to these powerful men.
She frowned, leaning over to Alexor. "They don't seem very glad to be here, do they?"
Her brother snorted. "Must be uncomfortable as chewing on gristle for these old carcasses to give us fledglings their loyalty."
"Perhaps with time we'll win their trust," she said.
"What does it matter?" His dazzling smile loosened a little of her anxiety. "We hold all the power. They don't have to like us. They only have to be loyal to us. And if they're not ..." He made a cutting motion across his throat. When she didn't smile, he grabbed her hand. "Nyla, loosen up. I mock."
"Being someone's liege-sovereign is no light matter. At times we will hold their very lives in our hands."
"That crown is already too heavy on your head." He flicked her crown forward and laughed as she swiped away his hand. "I think you need some mead to help you see the lighter side of this."
"I don't want —"
But Alexor had already told the steward to fill her goblet, and when his own was brimming, he clinked it against hers. "To a long and prosperous reign, Nyla." His blue eyes sparkled with boyish excitement and she couldn't help but smile as she took a sip of the sweet rich mead. Other than his youth, Alexor looked like a king. He was tall and strong with a thick golden mane of hair. Surely their subjects, and even these lords, would grow to admire him as much as she did. Nyla might not look like a queen should, but if Alexor could win hearts, their joint rule would succeed and bring change to Tirragyl.
"Your Majesties." Lord Briskyl stood behind them. "Shall we start the proceedings?"
"Yes." Alexor rose to his feet and held out his arm for Nyla. Together they swept into the adjacent throne room, followed by their subject lords. The throne from which her grandfather had ruled so long, and her father but a few brief years, had been replicated. The old throne, dark with age, and the new, in a much lighter wood, now stood side by side on a platform. The king and queen climbed the three steps and turned to face their lords before lowering themselves onto Tirragyl's double thrones, Alexor on the original, Nyla on the copy.
At a signal from Alexor, Lord Briskyl's loud voice boomed across the room, calling the first lord.
"Lord Lucian of Gwyndorr, of the Northern Cantref. Step forward to pledge yourself to your sovereigns."
A tall, powerfully built man rose to his feet. He wore a dark blue robe of spun silk that made their own look almost drab, and it flowed around him like liquid as he strode forward. Even though she sat on a raised throne, Nyla felt strangely insignificant as the lord's eyes swept over her. He bowed low and, as he straightened, his golden brown eyes came to rest on Alexor.
"I, Lucian, pledge myself and all my possessions to the service of the crown," he said in a deep, resonant voice. "I will willingly die at the command of King Alexor and Queen Nyla. If I fail them in any way, my treachery will be punishable by death."
"Rise, Lord Lucian. We accept your allegiance," Alexor said. As the lord turned away and the next lord was called forward, her brother winked at her and whispered, "See how very easy this task of ruling is, Nyla?"CHAPTER 2
Shara had lost count of the weeks since she had fled from Gwyndorr. The long days of walking and climbing ever upward into the highlands had melted together into one continuous blur. Her skin had grown darker from the weeks in the sunlight. Even her tousled dark curls now held hints of the golden sun. Blisters dotted her feet, and her legs ached.
Yet, as difficult as it had been, she felt strangely content. She was with Nicho, and the hours of walking had provided them with time to talk. The division that had existed between them in Gwyndorr — she, a Highborn, he a low — had evaporated like the mist that cloaked the highlands in the early morning. Here they were equals and friends, and over time something deeper had begun to grow between them.
A shudder passed through her body, thinking how different her life would have been if her uncle Randin's will had prevailed and she had become Maldor's wife.
"What is it, Shara?" Nicho asked, concerned.
"Just thinking where I would be right now if you hadn't come for me."
"Gwyndorr, you mean?"
Nicho's expression darkened. He had experienced Maldor's cruelty firsthand. It was one of the reasons Eliad and Andreo had been able to convince him to rescue Shara on her wedding day.
"Strange, isn't it?" Shara continued. "To grow up in Randin's house for almost fourteen years, and not miss it at all."
"Not much for you to miss, is there?"
"Only Marai. I wish we could tell her we were safe."
Nicho nodded but didn't reply, almost as if he didn't trust his voice to speak about his mother.
Shara reached out and grabbed his hand. "Eliad said we could send a message to her once we reached the Grotto."
"Yes, she will know soon enough that we are well."
They lapsed into silence, and Shara thought about Marai, the cook, who had filled her life with motherly love. For her to lose Shara and Nicho on one day was a cruel blow indeed. Not knowing what had happened to them must be driving her nigh-on crazy. Shara felt guilty at the thought.
They walked in a ravine and Shara turned her attention to the cliffs that towered above them on both sides. Most of the walls consisted of stark rock, but against all odds, small plants had taken root in the cracks, clinging defiantly to the mountain face. Tenacious. She smiled as the word crept into her mind. Yes, the plants were just as tenacious as she had been living in Randin's house, nourished only by the soil of Marai's love.
"We'll break for the night here," Eliad's voice penetrated Shara's thoughts. "Tabeal seems to think it a good place."
Shara glanced at the Gold Breast perched on a ledge above them. How strange she would have considered it a few weeks earlier, to be following a bird into the unknown. Yet, since the rainy day on which the bird had come to find her — and Shara knew without a doubt that she had — Tabeal had proved herself completely trustworthy. After all, Tabeal had led them to the buried book which Eliad claimed would unravel the mystery of her past. At night, as they huddled around the fire, Shara often paged through it and traced the unknown letters of the Old Tongue script. Every time she begged Eliad to read it, he shook his head. Not yet, my love. The time will come, but it is not yet here. So she pushed down her gnawing impatience, and focused instead on the journey.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Heirs of Tirragyl"
Copyright © 2017 Joan Campbell.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
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