Her hand shading her eyes, Princess Cassia watched the bird glide over the outer walls of Castle Karah. A small shiver went down her spine when she saw it was a Royalty, a special messenger eagle used only to convey urgent messages. He swooped over her and across the stable yard to land on his perch.
The Royalty squawked and ruffled his feathers. He snapped and bit the young page who tried to take the message from him. Cassia shook her head at the boy as he backed away from the Royalty clutching his hand. The eagle would only release the letter to someone of high rank. She wondered briefly what the eagle could be carrying, but got distracted when her horse jumped underneath her. She focused on the young stallion as he bobbed his head.
“Good boy,” Cassia said in a soft voice, soothing him until he settled down.
Her brothers raced their horses around her, spinning and weaving the buckets and poles positioned throughout the corral. She’d set up the obstacle course for them early that morning. They’d all just been released from their lessons a short time ago and had raced down to the stable yard. Her brothers tackled the course with gusto. Of course, they would be doing better if they actually did the pattern she’d set up.
She sighed in exasperation. At sixteen, she was the eldest child and heir to the throne of Karah, a job she was not looking forward to. If she’d had a choice in the matter she would spend the rest of her life in the stable with the horses. It was the one place she felt at ease. Even the grouchy stable master admitted she had an uncanny gift with the horses.
Tully, her youngest brother at eight years old, raced under her stallion’s nose.
“Tully, heels!” Cassia yelled out automatically.
She was supposed to be helping them with their equitation today. She turned to look at Faolan and nearly rolled her eyes. At ten years old, he still hadn’t outgrown his clumsy and awkward phase.
“Faolan, your elbows, tuck them in!”
Gordain was the second eldest at twelve years old. The oldest boy took his job as leader seriously. He constantly tried to prove himself and often pushed his horse farther than he could control.
“Gordain, he’s a horse, not a goat,” Cassia said. “Don’t punish him for something he can’t do.”
Her stallion shifted to look toward the outside gate and she followed his gaze. She smiled in delight as she heard it; the unmistakable sound of hoof beats racing toward Castle Karah.
Two guards ran to the gate and barely pulled it open in time. A large herd of horses, around forty, raced in. A single horse and rider followed the herd, the Horse Wrangler Luki, one of the few people she considered a real friend.
Luki pulled his horse up as the guards shut the gate behind him. Tanned and with sun-bleached blonde hair, he sat on his tall Palomino stallion naturally. Luki spotted her and waved. Cassia slid off her horse.
A stable hand climbed into the large corral and she handed the reins to him with a quick thanks. Luki rode his horse up to the corral and Cassia stood on the bottom rail of the fence next to him.
“Princess Cassia,” Luki said with a salute.
“Luki.” Cassia bowed her head in the customary greeting, but also to hide the blush creeping up her cheeks. His horse snorted at her. “Dall.” Dall sneezed on her in response. She laughed and looked back up to Luki, her momentary shyness forgotten. “Large bunch.”
The milling horses neighed and trotted about the yard. Several stable hands were trying to keep the herd contained on this side of the yard, but weren’t having a lot of luck.
“Took a while to gather them.” Luki fidgeted with his reins. She watched his fingers, surprised by the restless gesture. “I found a special one for you.”
She smiled and fought the urge to lunge forward and hug him. There were too many people around to witness it. Luki smoothed Dall’s mane as he leaned down closer to her face. She glanced over the herd.
“A present?” Cassia tried to sound nonchalant, at both the prospect of the gift and him being so close to her.
“She’s for you.” He shrugged while somehow maintaining his position.
“Where is she?”
He pointed at a petite dark bay mare in the center of the milling herd. She was delicate in build and fluid in movement as she pivoted to look at them as if she knew they were talking about her.
“She’s beautiful,” Cassia said in awe.
She looked the mare over closely and the mare stared right back at her.
“I found her—”
The door from Castle Karah leading into the yard banged open interrupting what Luki was about to say. An escort of Royal Guards stepped out into the yard. Cassia’s mother, Queen Sarahann, followed directly behind them. Tall and elegant, she embodied everyone’s vision of what a queen should be. Her dark brown hair was swept up into intricate braids complimenting the pattern on her gown.
The Royal Guards led Sarahann across the yard to the platform where the Royalty perched. Sarahann waved Cassia to her not even having to look to know where her daughter would be. Cassia sighed in response and climbed over the fence. Luki saluted her with a laugh and a wink. He spun Dall and headed to the main barn to meet up with the stable master.
“Gordain,” Cassia called in her sternest voice. “You’re in charge until I return. No fooling around.”
“Do you think the message is from father?” Gordain walked his chestnut gelding up to the fence. His dark brown eyes watched their mother as his eyebrows came together into his worried mask.
“We’ll find out soon.”
She walked through the milling horses to the platform, touching the wild horses instinctively along the way. They parted and made a pathway unafraid of her presence. Royal Guard Captain Maconhay turned with a brief smile and offered his hand. Cassia took it and he easily pulled her up onto the platform.
Once Cassia had joined her, Sarahann took the note from the Royalty. The Royalty snapped at her, but didn’t bite as she untied the scroll and unrolled it impatiently. Her face drained of color as she read. Stumbling, she leaned heavily against the perch and startled the Royalty into flight.
Royal Guard Arlen moved in to support her. “Your Highness?”
Sarahann shook her head, pulling free from his grasp.
Cassia tried to read the message that had upset her mother. Sarahann never showed her emotions in public. “What’s happened?”
“Dear Queen Sarahann of Karah,” she said, reading the paper. “I unfortunately have the task of informing you of distressing events that have just occurred. Your husband, King Robet of Karah, was killed late last night. I am currently inquiring into the circumstances of his death. My deepest regret and sympathies go to you. Signed, King Erich of Vespera.”
The sounds of the yard faded into the background, until all Cassia could hear was her mother’s voice. She stepped back into Maconahay, shaking her head in denial. He took her arm and pulled her up against him.
“Princess?” Maconahay inquired in a concerned voice.
“No!” Cassia yelled. “That’s false. What he says is a lie.”
Sarahann opened her arms to embrace her. “Cassia.”
She twisted out of Maconahay’s grip and leapt off the platform into the milling horses. The horses parted and made a path for her escape. Maconahay tried to follow, but the horses closed in, preventing him from reaching her. Cassia dashed through the herd toward the stable.
“Cassia!” Luki ran along the edge of the herd heading for her.
She darted aside to avoid him. The horses, she needed to be alone with the horses. She couldn’t handle seeing anyone right now. She sobbed and her vision blurred as she headed for the barn. Luki grabbed her arm and spun her around to face him.
“Cassia! What’s wrong?”
She struggled against his grip, kicking his legs before the fight went out of her and she crumpled into him with a huge sob. The herd of horses closed around them into a protective cocoon.
Cassia jerked out of sleep. Rising up on her knees to escape the nightmare, she glanced around her room wildly as her breathing slowed and she dropped her head into her hands. She was safe and in her own bed. The nightmare tickled the back of her mind and she shoved it aside not wanting to see the few scattered images that stayed with her.
A soft snore interrupted her and she looked up at her handmaid Yaffa sleeping in a chair. Where was her other handmaiden? She would have expected Ula, the older and senior handmaiden, to be watching over her. Ula rarely let Yaffa do anything beyond assisting her. But Ula was no where in her large bedchamber. It jarred her to see her room looking the way it should look. With the world ending, her room shouldn’t remain the same.
Careful not to make any noise, she slid out of bed and pulled on her robe over her sleeping gown and slipped her feet into her boots. She tiptoed across the wooden floor and around the sitting chairs to get to the door. Glancing back, she made sure Yaffa hadn’t woken up before tiptoeing past her dressing room which doubled as a small bedchamber for her two handmaidens. Ula had to be in there.
She eased her door open. The horses beckoned to her. She glanced about her and ran down the empty hallway to a back staircase. Stopping at the large wood door at the bottom of the stairs, she cautiously opened it to peek out the crack into the stable yard. She sighed in relief when she saw it was still early and there wasn’t much activity. Just a few stable lads going about their chores. Careful to keep to the shadows, she worked her way to the main barn at the other end of the yard.
The barn was quiet and empty of people as she hurried down the long aisle of stalls. The presence of the horses worked its way through her like a soothing balm. The stallion she’d been riding earlier nickered as soon as he spotted her. Cassia patted his head and reached to unlatch his stall. She stopped. Someone was watching her. She turned to the stall across from him.
The petite mare Luki had given her looked back at her. Even in the dim light, the mare was achingly beautiful compared to the bulky mountain horses around her. Cassia slowly approached her and opened the stall door. The mare pawed and huffed at her, but stepped back as Cassia entered. She shut the door behind her and sat in the corner of the stall. The mare eyed her a moment before walking over and blowing hot air across her face. Cassia smiled slightly as she reached up to pet the mare’s soft nose.
“He picked a beauty,” she whispered. “But he usually does. Father,” her breath hitched, “always said Luki had a good eye when it came to horses.”
Resting her forehead on her knees, she cried quietly. The mare stood silently over her washing Cassia with her calm presence. A connection pulsed between her and the mare, and if she wasn’t so focused on her grief, she would have explored it.
A soft crunch outside the stall was the first warning she had that she was no longer alone. The mare lifted her head in challenge to the intruder. Cassia pushed back and winced at the rustle of hay. The footsteps stopped, the unmistakable sound of a short sword sliding from a leather sheath echoed in the quiet.
“Whoever’s in the stall better step out,” Luki demanded.
She wiped the tears from her face and slowly stood up. The mare nuzzled her and she gave her a final pat before stepping out of the stall.
“Cassia.” He dropped the sword down to his thigh and turned red. “I mean, Princess Cassia, I apologize. If I’d known it was you, I wouldn’t have…I’m sorry about your father.”
She’d been sobbing against his shoulder not too long ago. A blush crept up her cheeks at the memory. In fact, that was the last thing she remembered. She had no idea how she’d gotten from the stable yard to her room. Had he carried her?
“Thank you for your sympathy.” Even to her own ears she sounded wooden and insincere. “I should get back.”
He nodded uncomfortably and saluted. “I won’t detain you, Your Highness.”
She hesitated a moment before walking past him. He touched her shoulder as she passed and she turned in question. Maybe he’d find a way to ease this sudden awkwardness.
“If you need anything from me, Princess.”
Tears were coming back and she was not going to bawl in front of him again. She squeezed his hand in thanks and left the stable. As soon as she stepped through the door into the castle, chaos greeted her. Dozens of servants ran about the halls in urgency. Cassia was taken aback, her tears forgotten, she grabbed at the nearest young maid running past her.
“What’s the matter?” Cassia asked.
“The Princess is missing,” the maid said, her eyes growing big as she realized whom she was talking to. “Princess? We’ve been lookin’ for you.” She looked down at her feet. “Sorry, I was told you’d disappeared and we’re to find you at once.”
“Where’s my mother?”
“She’s searchin’ for you, Your Highness.”
“Let it be known I’ve been found and have returned to my quarters.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” the maid said with a curtsy and hurried off.
Cassia went back to her room. Yaffa and Ula jumped up at her entrance.
“Princess,” Ula scolded. “You didn’t go out in that!”
“I did indeed.” Strangely, the usual scolding was a comfort.
“What would your parents say?” Ula asked, tsking, appearing not to notice she’d included both parents in the statement.
Cassia turned away from them to gaze out her window. Ula hadn’t meant anything by what she’d said, but it still hurt. How long had it been since they’d received the message from King Erich?
“Ula?” Cassia asked.
“How long was I asleep?” She watched several stable hands lead the horses away from the barn to the grass pens. One of the horses was the mare Luki had given her. The mare paused, jerking the stable hand to a stop, and looked up at her window.
“A long time,” Ula answered quietly. “You woke in the night very upset. I gave you a tonic to help you sleep. You were up much sooner than I expected.”
Ula patted her on her back before sweeping Cassia’s robe off of her shoulders. Yaffa came out of the dressing room with a gown. Both maids stopped their preparations as the door burst open.
Sarahann stepped into the room and waved her hand to dismiss Yaffa and Ula. They curtsied and darted into the dressing room. Cassia stared at her mother in amazement. She’d never seen her look anything but perfect. Now, however, her braids hung limply to the side and her dress, which was wrinkled, appeared to be the same one she’d had on yesterday.
“I can’t believe you’d be so selfish and thoughtless as to run off and disappear without a single word to anyone.” Sarahann glared at her daughter.
She pulled herself together. “I needed some time to myself.”
“We all need time alone.” Sarahann sat on the high-backed chair at the writing desk. “That’s not an excuse. You are the Princess of Karah. You must think of those around you.”
“Those around me?” Cassia had absolutely no idea what her mother was talking about which actually wasn’t an unusual thing.
“You may have lost your father, but the people have lost their king. A king is more important than a father. With Robet’s death, Karah will fall into disorder.”
“They still have their queen.”
“I’m their queen by marriage, not blood.”
“But—” she began to protest.
“You know how things are, and if you don’t, your education has been lacking. The people need a leader. You’ll be it. You’ll calm them down.”
“I’m not ready to rule Karah,” Cassia protested. It hadn’t occurred to her to think past her father’s death to what this would mean for her.
“Don’t worry yourself,” Sarahann said with a bitter laugh. “It’ll be in name only. The advisors and I will do the dirty work.” Sarahann sighed and stood up. “I don’t have time to discuss this with you.” She walked to the door. “I must insist that you not go anywhere without telling your handmaidens. Get dressed. The village leaders are waiting in the hall to express their sympathies.”
“What about the boys?” The guilt hit her. How had her brothers taken the news? She should have gone to them as soon as she’d woken up.
“Their nursemaid is looking after them,” Sarahann said.
She started to ask if she should go see them, but stopped herself at the set look on her mother’s face. Sarahann slammed the door behind her. Ula and Yaffa burst out of the dressing room with expectant expressions on their faces. She turned away from them trying to compose herself. The tears threatened to erupt again.
Want to know what happens next? :-)