Shadows in the Stone

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About This Book

When bandits seize his child, one man sacrifices everything to save her.

The most important thing in Corporal Bronwyn Darrow’s life is rising in the ranks at Aruam Castle. His goal is to be captain of the guard one day. The last thing he needs is distractions. When a woman and a child are forced into his life, tensions escalate, and he’s caught between his drive for promotion and what his heart desires.

If you love stories of adventure mixed with magic and romance set in archaic landscapes, you’ll love McGyver’s Shadows in the Stone. Unlike many fantasy novels, family plays a central part in this story, so be prepared for the hero to receive unwanted motherly advice.

Shadows in the Stone is the first book in the Castle Keepers epic fantasy series. It will introduce readers to a unique cast of characters who want to control their own destiny. Brace yourself for the ride to another time and place.

 

Reviews

“I don’t often read fantasy, but I have been following this author and the premise of her story sounded intriguing. I was not disappointed and found I was unable to put the book down. This may be fantasy but the characters are very real. Ms. McGyver has created characters you care about as they deal with their personal demons, suppressed feelings, secrets, magical powers and unrequited love.”

~ Darlene Foster

Shadows in the Stone is captivating in its simplicity. It is fantasy explored with simple, concise language that any reader can (and will) enjoy.”

~ Cheryl O’Neill

“What I particularly enjoyed in this solidly mainstream fantasy is its fresh focus on established themes. It’s like an award-winning movie director telling the person behind the camera to lower or raise the picture in the viewfinder for a new angle. The fantasy world McGyver has created has the magical beings you might expect, but you’ll see them in new ways and see their story with fresh insights.”

~ Don Cram

 

Chapter One

Alaura of Niamh twiddled the small ring on her finger and drew shallow breaths. She glanced around the one-room dwelling and tried to identify the source of a lingering odour that renewed itself whenever someone moved. Was it the smell of decomposing food or drying afterbirth?

The small home appeared like many others in the town of Maskil except this one had no glass windows. Instead, the occupants had boarded-up the openings with scrap wood. The lantern Alaura had lit upon arrival at Maura of Ealasaid’s home provided the only light. It illuminated the bruises on Maura’s calves and wrists.

Alaura surveyed the half-naked hauflin; she was slim for a woman at full term. She quickly averted her eyes when Maura caught her staring. Alaura didn’t want to be here, but Catriona Wheatcroft, her teacher, had insisted. She had made an excuse, but Catriona ignored it, saying, I need you. Maura needs you.

Although a stranger in Maskil, Alaura had been accepted as one of Catriona’s apprentices. Her teacher had told her she’d be capable of great deeds if properly trained in magic. Those deeds included helping others in their time of need. Though Alaura believed a more experienced apprentice made a better choice to assist in the birth, she felt compelled to fulfil Catriona’s request.

Maura cried out, making Alaura jump. Pain ripped through the small hauflin’s body, renewing the beads of sweat drenching her skin. She clenched her teeth and gripped the frayed blanket beneath her.

“Push, Maura!” Catriona glared at the pregnant woman. “One great push for your baby!”

Alaura watched Maura. She lay on a dilapidated bed, staring at the ceiling. She didn’t want to be here either. Her tattered dress, hiked up past her swollen belly, appeared unfit for washing a floor.

“I see the head!” Catriona’s expression eased. “It won’t be long now. Support her.”

Alaura gripped Maura’s hand and gazed into her face; the worry etched deep lines. “One more,” she whispered, forcing a smile.

Maura clasped her hand and stared into her eyes as if to gather strength for the final push. “You’re like me.”

She spoke faintly, but Alaura heard every word.

“Hauflin child.”

Alaura gasped. Maura detected her hauflin origins! No one, not even Catriona, suspected her race to be anything other than full-blood human.

Maura held her breath. As if forces of their own making worked upon her body, the baby emerged from the womb. The excruciating pain subsided, and she fell limp against the mattress.

“It’s alive!” Catriona wrapped the baby in a blanket and gave it to her apprentice.

The infant wriggled in Alaura’s arms. Its large brown eyes circled the room, then swept over her face. A toothless grin lit up its dark complexion, making Alaura giggle. She opened the blanket. “It’s a girl.” She held the baby for the new meeme to see. “It’s a girl, Maura. A beautiful, healthy girl. Now you have one of each.”

“Shhh!” hissed Catriona.

Alaura clamped her mouth shut. Only the three women and a new baby occupied the room. What had triggered Catriona’s uneasiness? The baby kicked the blanket away. “She has strong feet. She’ll be running before long.” Hauflins had thicker skin than humans on the bottoms of their feet and walked barefoot easily. Before arriving at Maskil, Alaura spent most of her time without shoes.

“Ignorant hauflins go shoeless in town.” Catriona removed a silver necklace from a chest and draped it around the baby’s neck. The cold jewellery on bare skin made the baby purse her lips in surprise. The five blue stones imbedded in the medallion sparkled.

“She’s a dear.” Alaura gently tickled the baby’s belly. “Full of happiness.”

“She’s not meant for happiness.”

She stared at Catriona. Why would she say this? Maura’s horrid condition meant she’d expire soon, but her child had hope for a better life, not misery. A tug on her arm made her turn to the frail woman on the bed.

“Keep her safe.” Maura’s weak voice trailed off into almost inaudible words. “You’re one of us. A woman. A hauflin. Upon my death, it becomes your duty.”

Catriona hadn’t heard the last few sentences, but Alaura’s hauflin ears caught every word. “I’ll keep her safe. You have my word.”

“Your word?” asked Maura, her eyes growing wide.

Alaura caught her breath as the woman’s grip tightened; she hadn’t meant that word. She glanced at Catriona, who focussed on cleaning the birth mess at Maura’s feet. The sorceress had warned her not to get personally involved. The baby had been assigned a home, and she’d never see it again. Giving her word meant she would be bonded to Maura’s daughter. The new meeme couldn’t see Catriona’s negative expression, but she’d feel the pain if Alaura obeyed her.

Only eighteen years old, Alaura had problems of her own, which forced her to hideout in Maskil. Still, Maura’s eyes begged her to accept the covenant, and the soft smile of the baby cradled in her arms tugged at her maternal instincts. How could she deny a dying woman’s wish for her newborn to be kept safe?

“I give you my word,” said Alaura.

“Your word is your bond.” Maura presented the covenant.

“My word is my bond.” A strange sensation stirred in her stomach and moved into her chest. It entered her throat and caused a small burp.

Satisfied, Maura released her and sank into the worn pillow. Her daughter safe, she appeared to welcome the journey to the Plane of Peace. She lifted her hand and gently touched the baby’s cheek. “Isla of Maura.”

“A beautiful name.” Alaura gazed upon the bright child full of innocence and bliss, then saw her teacher frowning while she covered the young mother with a warm blanket. Although an apprentice for only two months, she had an idea of what Catriona might have thought: It’s senseless to think of protecting the child when it’s destined for a family in Petra.

Alaura gave her word to protect the child until then. Her bond dissolved when Isla arrived at her new home in the northern town. At the very least, giving her word eased Maura’s concerns.

“Tend to her as a garden throughout the seasons,” whispered Maura in Hauflin.

“I’ll do my best.” Alaura cradled the baby, rocking it gently.

Pain gripped Maura, and she cried out.

Catriona ushered her apprentice from the bed. “You know what to do.” She pulled the blanket over the baby’s face. “May the night fairies see you safely to your destination.”

Alaura held the baby close and marched to the exit. She reached for the door knob and it swung open, smashing into her knuckles. Drawing back to assess her hand, she froze when she saw the man who entered.

“What’s going on?” Keiron Ruckle, Maura’s mate, cast a scowl around the room, taking in the scene.

“Maura lost the baby,” said Catriona. “Alaura, take away the remains.”

Alaura attempted to pass, but he grabbed her arm.

“Show me the body.”

“Allow her to proceed out of respect for the deceased.” Catriona deepened her voice and furrowed her brow. “Your mate needs your attention. She’ll soon join your child.”

Keiron drew a dagger from his belt and held it to Alaura’s side. “It’s my right to witness the passing.”

Alaura’s hands trembled, but she held the baby tightly. This man of the same race as her das had a scowl that conjured nightmares. She looked to Catriona for help while twisting her body away from the weapon. The grip on her arm grew stronger, and Keiron used the dagger to flick the blanket from the baby’s face. He grunted in disgust, but the sight of the jewelled necklace stifled him.

“Maura is a breath away from death!” Catriona stood strong, but the shakiness in her voice betrayed her. “It’s your duty as her mate to grant her your time!”

“If she’s that close to death, she ain’t needin’ me but the undertaker.” He stared at the necklace and his eyes grew shiny.

“She’s a helpless child.” Alaura tried to pull away but ceased struggling when the dagger poked her side.

“If yew know what’s good for yew, ye’ll hand over the bairn and run as if the harpies are at yer heels.”

“Keiron, allow the girl to pass.” Catriona kept her distance. “The baby will be taken care of as Maura instructed.”

“The bairn’s mine!”

“You can’t have her!” Alaura planted her feet and held the baby tighter.

“Maura gave the baby to me!” lied Catriona.

“If it’s the necklace you desire, take it!” The smell of meat and sour rum on the man’s breath filled Alaura’s air passages. “But leave the baby!”

“No!” Catriona stepped closer. “Alaura, we can’t—”

“The Law of the Land grants me right to my child.” In a flawless motion, Keiron struck Alaura in the jaw with the butt of the dagger and snatched the baby from her arms. He pointed the dagger towards Maura. “I expect this mess cleaned up and yew hags gone by the time I return.” He left the dwelling, slamming the door behind him.

Alaura got to her feet and rubbed her jaw. “You should have given him the necklace! It’s what he wanted!”

Catriona clasped her hands in front of her. “The Law of the Land grants him the claim to his child. We can’t challenge that. As for the necklace, it must remain with the girl.”

“Keiron will sell it!”

“I believe otherwise.” She remembered Maura and went to her side. The hauflin lay still with a serene expression. She had completed her trip to the Plane of Peace.

FIVE YEARS LATER

The events of that night haunted Alaura still. She had promised Maura to protect her baby, and after Keiron Ruckle had snatched the child from her arms, she’d promised herself to never again be that vulnerable.

Slipping into her hiding place near Keiron’s backdoor, she thought about the first time she came to spy on Isla. It had taken two days to convince herself to do it. When she did, she discovered the overhang of the adjacent building created a cubby, and she pressed herself into the hiding spot. It became the perfect location to watch the backdoor and the fenced-in pen where a Cotswold ewe tended to her lamb and Maura’s baby.

She had been tempted to snatch the child and run, but she had nowhere to hide with a baby in Maskil? Returning to her hometown of North Ridge, Petra, proved too dangerous. Truth be told, she wouldn’t have gotten far. If Keiron reported the baby missing, guards at the town gates would have remembered her with the child. They’d have thrown her in the dungeon or worse.

Night after night, Alaura watched the hauflin child. She brought food and drink and when the cold winds blew, she cuddled the orphan to her breast. During her long hours of vigil, she prepared for the day when she would escape with her.

Over the years, she sought spells to aide her task. She mastered the Cloaking Spell, which hid Isla from anyone who ventured into the yard. Combined, the Bubble and Warmth Spells created a small space that maintained the conjured heat where she and Isla stayed warm and dry throughout the cold season. These and many more served them well.

The spells hadn’t come from her teacher. Catriona may have convinced her to explore her powers, but another magic-maiden gave her the knowledge to sharpen them. The added confidence and skill level made her ready to face the challenges of travelling alone to Petra with a child.

She’d take the journey in a fortnight.

Alaura had befriended the guards at the town entrance gates. They knew her by name and that she pulled a small cart behind her, one large enough to carry several garments she crafted and sold to those living in surrounding settlements or large enough for a hauflin child.

She planned to deliver Isla to her brother Pym, who’d claim her as his own. Then she’d return to Maskil as if nothing happened and continue with her life in the limited capacity available to her.

The plan contained one irritation: Corporal Darrow. Unlike other Aruam Castle guards, he checked every cart, every sack and every waggon entering and leaving Maskil, including his dad’s delivery waggon. Alaura had observed his steadfastness to regulations and while he worked the gates, she avoided passing through. While he patrolled the castle wall, guards at the entrance felt his presence and carried out their duties accordingly.

Corporal Darrow had to be off duty to improve her chances of escaping with Isla.

The corporal didn’t appear rotten. In truth, he seemed amiable. His mum, Maisie Darrow, owned and operated the Forest Bakery and Herb Shop where she purchased many of the herbs to work spells and create potions. His family had become known to her, but she avoided him for the potential trouble he could cause and for the feelings he stirred when he smiled at her from a distance. The handsome, well-built man appeared unlike the dwarfs in the settlement north of Petra; miners everyone, they were gruff and scruffy. Corporal Darrow looked anything but scruffy. Nevertheless, she couldn’t become acquainted with anyone serving with the castle because of the dangers it created.

Alaura pushed these thoughts from her mind and thought instead of Isla, who played with her stones beside the woolly ewe. A quiet child, she seldom spoke unless Alaura gave permission. Despite her living conditions and the lack of personal contact, Isla had grown into a generous and easy-going girl.

Removing a biscuit from her sack and placing it on her palm, she cleared her mind and focussed on the food. It rose, moved across the yard and dropped into the straw before Isla. The child looked towards her hiding place but remained still. She withdrew another biscuit and repeated the Levitation Spell.

Isla gathered both biscuits, fed one to the sheep and ate the other. She did the same with the oatmeal raisin cookies and apples Alaura delivered. Then she cuddled into the ewe’s warm wool and fell asleep as the sun set.

To pass the time, Alaura went over her escape plan. Her solitary vigil meant no one would suspect her of taking the child. After a five-day journey, Isla would be safe in North Ridge. Although she felt guilty about using her friendship with Maisie to commit an unlawful deed, she wouldn’t hesitate when the woman complained once again about her youngest child’s infrequent visits. Is your son working days this week? Though a casual question passed between a regular customer and a shop owner, the answer dictated when she would leave Maskil.

With Isla protected by the Cloaking Spell, Alaura snuggled into her blanket and fell asleep.

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