Coming Soon

November 2020

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


About this Book

 

How far would you go to save a mate?

Description coming soon.

Gathered Stones is the 5th book in the Castle Keepers epic fantasy series. It sheds new insight into the dwarf curse and how far some are prepared to go to gain power.

 

Chapter One

 

(draft form)

Several Dozen Other Times

The soft strike of the round steel ball against the gear to move the minute hand on the clock filled the silence in Sew in Style Clothier shop on Fletcher Street. Round with a crescent moon design etched into the lower right side as if the waxing crescent hung in the night sky between the numbers one and seven, the clock had been in the Darrow family for several generations. Eight to be exact. Rhiannon Darrow had the names of previous owners committed to memory, knew where they lived and where they died if they no longer dwelt in the Land of Ath-o’Lea. The three blue stones marking the numbers four, seven and twelve held meaning only those who directly descended from the clock maker understood. The meaning provided comfort and angst for Rhiannon. The yellow stone at six gave hope.

Three ticks later and a gong sounded followed by four more. Five o’clock. Closing time. Loren Darrow, sister and Rhiannon’s partner in the shop, had left for home thirty minutes beforehand, leaving Rhiannon to close up. The last customer had left five minutes before Loren, and the only remaining task was to clean up the work area. Done sufficiently, Rhiannon had settled at the sewing machine to finish the last seam on the hem of a woman’s nightgown. Halfway round, she eased the material between the foot and metal base and rocked the pedal slowly to ensure a perfect stitch. The elaborate sewing machine, brought in from Glen Tosh, made work faster, yet not as satisfying as crafting each stitch by hand. However, their little shop steadily attracted more customers, and Loren and she, along with Alaura of Niamh’s help, struggled to keep up with demand.

The vibrations of the gong faded. Another five minutes, and she’d snip the thread, fold the garment and leave for home. It was the first day of Spring of Leaf, and she wanted to work in the garden after the ration and before the sun set in less than two and a half hours. Tam worked guard duty until midnight, so she’d be up late waiting for him. Thoughts of him warmed her chest. She’d wait for him for as long as necessary.

The front door opened, and instinctively she announced without looking up, “We’re closed. We open again at eight.” No one responded, and the door shut. Footsteps on the wooden floor drew her attention, and she stretched her neck to see around a wooden dress form. “We’re closed.”

“Of course.” The man, dressed in clothes suited for business at the castle, walked towards her without hesitation. “I will ve vut a moment.” He crossed the distance between them with exceptional speed and before she had time to react, the cloth he held covered her mouth.

She struggled, but he was too strong and the odour emanating from the cloth numbed her senses and weakened her muscles. Her body felt weightless and her head dipped to the side. Darkness consumed her vision and before she mumbled a word, everything went black.

BREAK

The crisp night air told Euan Fetyplace that Spring of Leaf had only begun and warm weather lay weeks away. He pulled his collar higher around his ears and ducked lower to let the bushes block the breeze. Seeing a glimmering surface ahead, he slowed to evaluate it. Water. But how deep? Drawing closer, he studied it, found it to be a narrow strip easily avoided and stepped around it.

The splashing of water from behind told him Willow hadn’t seen the puddle and hadn’t followed his lead. Low mumbling mixed with the peepers that resonated in his ears, reminding him he was far from home. There were no peepers in Petra.

He continued, keeping one eye on the forest floor ahead and one on the well-beaten path twenty feet away where three gruff men had travelled earlier in the day. Those men, all human, had been spotted leaving the main trail by a small group travelling from Midway Keep to Ellswire. Catching up to the men was a long shot, but he had to take it. They had Alaura’s pony, and visiting Maskil without her was not an option. His plan was simple: sneak up on them while they slept, lead Clover away, then ride like the wind to put distance between him and the thieves. He’d retrace his steps, re-enter the main trail and head straight to Maskil.

A soft thud followed by cursing slapped his ear, but he didn’t slow. He liked Willow, but he’d be happy when the success of this task permitted them to go their separate ways. Spending countless moons with the impetuous woman had tested his patience and endurance. What should have taken four weeks, five tops, to return Clover to her owner had taken at least five times that amount.

“Wait,” she whispered.

He slowed and glanced over his shoulder. She had already stopped and was removing her boot. He halted and waited, hoping the problem—one of many the woman had on a daily basis—was quickly solved.

She held the boot upside down and shook it vigorously. Then she stuck her hand inside. Satisfied the issue had been resolved, she slipped the boot onto her foot. She adjusted her skirt, which was really layers of thin rags over tight leggings, and then froze with her eyes on a branch. Fingering the twig, she snapped the end off quickly and stuck it into the copper-coloured nest she called a head of hair. Her eyes sparkled beneath the moonlight when she saw he watched.

“Most interesting of all,” she whispered.

He stared in silence, letting the several dozen other times she’d made the same comment about a twig, leaf or feather flood his mind. Many of those interesting items found a home in the mass of tangles that identified her to every stranger the first time they saw her. Personally, he had no idea how anyone, man or woman, endured walking around with a bush stuffed with items on their shoulders.

“Onward.” She adjusted her pack and closed the gap between them.

He visually mapped a path through the forest and followed it, keeping the well-trodden trail in sight. Thinking of when the sun had set, he believed it was about ten o’clock. If the men they tracked had travelled since dawn, they’d be settled in their bedrolls and asleep by now. He sent a wish to the forest fairies to ensure they slept heavily.

The welcoming smell of fire danced inside his nostrils. Regardless of where he was or the situation, that aroma delivered his thoughts home, where he’d grown up in a loving family. His meeme had died when he was young, and his das and older brother had taken care of him. “We’re nerehand,” he said, crouching low. The faint glow in the distance marked a campsite. Whether it was the men they tracked or other travels, they’d soon find out. Creeping slower, inching his way around branches and over mounds of short bunches of spring-blooming flowers, he put into action all he had learned since enlisting in North Ridge Army of Petra. That included his mission into Blackvale Castle with Alaura of Niamh to rescue a kidnapped babe.

His hair stood on end, and he thought instead of the moist ground and the three men ahead. Only three. Not hundreds. Yet these were humans, large and burly. They weighed three times more than he did. He was merely a hauflin with a short sword. Their swords were almost as long as he was tall.

“Why are we stopping,” whispered Willow.

His feet moved in small steps, taking each one with care so as not to crack a branch or make unnecessary sound. At fifty feet, he stopped and peered through the bushes.

The large fire created a lit circle twenty-five feet in diameter. Five blanket mounds encircled the flames. Five? He stretched his neck but was unable to see faces.

“I don’t think it’s them,” he whispered.

Willow rose higher for a better view, and the diluted firelight highlighted her face and shimmered on the copper in her hair. Her intense green eyes searched the camp for long seconds until a smile lifted the corner of her mouth. The smile vanished, and her eyes grew stormy as if she’d seen a horrible beast she wanted to kill.

Euan searched the campsite to find what she’d seen. The five men slept peacefully with their gear spread around them and dirty dishes scattered near the fire. Soft humming jolted him from spying. It came from Willow. He prepared to hush her when intricate music penetrated the air along with a soft, sing-songy voice. His nerves pulsated; she was going to give away their position. Then his nerves settled, and his thoughts drifted on the cool breeze and into the soft glow of the fire. His eyelids grew heavy, and he shook his head to keep his senses alert. A flood of warm blood rushed through his veins, relaxing his muscles and coaxing him into stealing a nap, just a short one. His eyes closed, and his body slipped into a calm state, forgetting the worries of the day and what tomorrow might bring.

A harsh blow to his cheek stung like a thorn digging into skin. His eyes flew open, and he stared into the determined eyes of the woman he happened upon on the road to Wyvern many moons ago.

“Stay awake.” She crept from the bushes and towards the campsite.

Euan rubbed his hands roughly over his face and staggered after her. “Wait,” he whispered so low, he feared she hadn’t heard him because she kept walking towards the sleeping men. He hurried his feet and caught up to her. “We need to stay hidden.”

“They won’t wake.”

She didn’t know that. He ducked low, making himself as small as possible. If he possessed the ability to transform into a shadow, he’d feel safer. Tiptoeing past the sleeping strangers, he studied their faces. It was them. The three men they trailed and two others he’d not seen before. Watching where he put his feet to avoid unnecessary noise, he scanned the area to find the horses and saw them secured beneath the cover of towering ash trees. He squinted through the bright firelight and into the dim light. They wore saddles and bridles.

Willow approached the smallest horse. He’d never seen an animal that dirty and unkempt since he and two other privates rescued a mare from an impoverished crofter, whose animals were on the verge of starvation. Its head hung low and several dark lines marked its neck and rump. A large, steel bit protruded its mouth and two chains wrapped around its snout. The shabby mane drooped, weighed down by dirt and gloom. He gasped; it was Clover. He stumbled forward, disbelieving his eyes. By the time he reached her, Willow was gently stroking her neck and softly speaking to her.

“Clover.” His voice cracked. He gingerly touched her shoulder and flinched when he saw the black marks were swollen wounds. “Stifle the wind! Who would inflict such cruelty to an animal?”

“Monsters,” growled Willow, casting a glance at the sleeping men. She carefully unfastened the chains from Clover’s muzzle and removed the barbaric halter that imprisoned her. Wrapping her arms around the pony’s head, she cooed softly and kissed her neck. “The nightmare is over.”

“We must go before they wake.” He scoured the area for the hackamore bridle Alaura originally had on the pony and saw it tucked beneath the saddle bags. From his quick examination, it appeared all their travelling gear was still fastened to the saddle. A hard air release burnt his throat. The pony had bore the weight of tack and equipment for the two weeks he had searched for her. He threw a glare at the men by the fire and thought about punishment for their horrible deeds.

“We will set free the others.” Willow unfastened the bridle of the horse next to Clover, tossed it to the ground, then went to the next horse.

Euan’s hand gripped the reins of the hackamore bridle and prepared to pull it from its position, then stopped. While this bridle was kinder, it would rub against Clover’s injuries and cause pain. He hadn’t ridden a horse without a bridle for years, and given the circumstances and Clover’s impetuous nature, now was not the time to play around.

Loud clanking struck his ears, and he stared at Willow. She returned the stare, her eyes wide and a bridle in her hand. She had untied the last horse from the rope stretched between two trees, and it triggered a strand of tin cans that rattled noisily in the still darkness.

Grumbling and cursing snapped on the night air, and he whirled to see the men sitting up and rubbing their eyes. When he caught the attention of a heavily bearded man, he pressed against Clover and gripped the saddle tightly. It was one of the men who had stolen the pony.

“Thieves!” He scrambled to his feet and ran towards Euan. “Get up, you lousy vagrants!” The other men rose, some slower than others.

Clover snorted and pawed the ground. Before Euan mounted, she leapt forward, turned on her front hooves and bucked. Her back hooves walloped the man in the chest and sent him flying into the air. He hit the ground hard and didn’t move.

“Up!” Willow pushed him towards Clover, urged him into the saddle and climbed up behind him.

He grasped the horn, sat low and squeezed his legs. Clover neighed loudly, tossed her head back and bolted down the trail. The other horses trailed after them, bucking and snorting like wild animals. The shouts of the men in pursuit quickly faded as they galloped away.

In his haste, Euan hadn’t realised the direction they rode: away from the main trail. Their assailants had stood between them and it, so the natural course was this way, according to the map, towards Shulie River. Also according to the map, this trail didn’t exist, which meant it led nowhere but to a waterway impossible to cross.

BREAK

The four foot by two foot tapestry with the name Aruam Castle scrolled across it hanging behind the long table in the Discussion Room captured Bronwyn Darrow’s attention. The intricate design of the stitches was…not what he expected, yet he didn’t know what he expected to see in the artwork. It was a simple sign to remind guests of their location. Why anyone needed reminding was beyond his thinking, but he was told that was the reason for the sign.

A memory teased at the edge of his mind, but the only remnants visible was a small, hairy animal…and a glass of cold water. He shook his head. That was not a memory, but something from a book he’d read. He touched his left cheek and remembered a harsh sting.

Feeling thirsty, he left the Discussion Room and the second floor and walked towards his office. No. Not his office, the offices. Others had designated rooms in the adjacent building to the guardhouse.

“Bronwyn?”

He lifted his head. “Lord Darrow.”

Tam frowned. “What are you doing here?”

“I…” live here? “Surveying this floor.”

“Your shift ended at four.”

Four. “Shifts don’t change until eight.”

Tam rolled his bottom lip over his top while his eyes studied him. After a long pause, he finally spoke. “You were expected home to share the ration with Alaura and Rhiannon.” He released a heavy sigh, laced with irritation. “If we’re both here, they are left alone.” He raised an eyebrow and waited.

“If they are together, how can they be alone?”

He growled. “It’s almost midnight. We’ll go together.”

“Midnight?”

“Come. We’ll complete the final inspection.” Tam gestured for him to walk alongside.

“That will leave other areas empty.”

“The next patrol is in the guardhouse.” He glanced at his watch. “Ten minutes.”

Bronwyn strolled beside him, glancing into rooms they passed and listening for unfamiliar sounds. “Sanderson has turned in?”

“Yes. Farlan is on duty tonight.”

“Wonderful. He’s a good man.”

“He’s had good mentors.”

He glanced at the sergeant but remained silent. They reached the guardhouse where they were met with dozens of men setting out to replace guards who had been on duty the past eight hours. They were chatty and energetic and greeted them with cheer. The banter between the men reminded him of earlier days when he held regular guard duty. Those were carefree days. Good days. Peaceful days.

“Bronwyn. Tam. Anything to report?” Farlan stood next to three young privates.

Bronwyn stared at the man. Why hadn’t he addressed him properly? Although Farlan was a sergeant, protocol dictated he address him as my lord.

“It’s been so quiet I hear mating ducks upstream.” Tam scratched his beard roughly.

Farlan chuckled. “Privacy is limited when sound carries. I’ll requisition them to take it elsewhere.”

“Down stream?”

“I’ll make a sign.”

“Come.” Tam nudged Bronwyn forward. “May the night continue to see blissful activity. Sergeant.”

“Captain. My Lord.” He bowed slightly, then marched after the three privates.

The cool night air awakened Bronwyn’s senses and by the time he crossed Gateway Bridge, his renewed energy put a spring in his step. “It’s a clear night. A sky full of stars.”

“It’ll be cooler. I’ll need to add a log to the fire to keep off the nip.”

“It’s late.”

“After midnight.”

“The day passed quickly.”

“Quicker for some than others.”

Bronwyn yawned, and his energy ebbed. “Training is going well.”

“The men improve daily.”

He scanned the shop windows, taking note of the signs hanging overhead and the benches on the boardwalks out front. He’d sat on many of them, some more than a dozen times. They were as familiar to him as the design on his scabbard. Reading the sign Ragged Stone Lane, he thought of the people he knew who lived there but no names came to mind. They soon arrived at Saunter Lane, the dirt lane where his dwelling was located.

“It is good we live together,” he said without thought.

“Convenient,” said Tam.

“More should.”

“Brother and sister?”

“Family. We are the same.” He stopped at the end of the footpath carpeted with white stone that led to his front door. A light burnt inside. “Good night.”

“Evening.”

He walked the path and onto the front step. Before he stepped inside, he glanced at Tam who stood at his door, watching him. Peculiar. He entered the dwelling, locked the door and hung his sword in the closet.

“Finally.” Alaura embraced and kissed him. “Was there commotion at the castle?”

“It was quiet. Why do you ask?”

“You were supposed to be home eight hours ago.”

“My shift ended at midnight.”

She lowered her brow. “No, it ended at four.” She kissed his mouth and remained close to study his face. “You’re tired.”

“I am that. Bed?”

“Have you eaten?”

“Hours ago.”

She hesitated, but whatever thoughts she had left, and she led him upstairs. “Have you seen Rhiannon?”

“This morning.”

“She has an impressive bump on her forehead where she tripped over the wooden dress form.”

“Is she okay?”

“A tormenting headache and bruise, but she’ll be fine.” She led him to the bedroom where she unbuttoned his vest. “I tended to the injury and by the time I was done, her confusion had departed.”

“Confusion?” He unbuckled his pants.

“With a few details. Nothing to be concerned over.”

“I’ll see her in the morning.”

“We both will.” She kissed him and tugged on his arm. “I’ve missed you. I had the entire evening planned and…” she kissed him again, “you were absent without an excuse.”

“I’m here now.” He untied the strap keeping her robe closed.

“I expect you’ll make up for lost time.”

“Expectations?” He guided her onto the mattress. “Fulfilling them will be my pleasure.” His mind emptied, and his only desire was to spend the rest of the night wrapped in his mate’s arms. The doubts that plagued him all day were forgotten.