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Warrior of the Isles
By Debbie Mazzuca
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Debbie Mazzuca
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Enchanted Isles, 1603
Princess Syrena, astride her white-winged steed Bowen, glided over the Enchanted Isles. Far below, the placid azure pools twinkled in the noonday sun, and the thick verdant forest of ancient oaks met the tall swaying grasses of meadow's dotted with purple and white flowers.
Syrena surveyed her kingdom—her father's kingdom, she corrected—with pride. Surely no other realm was as beautiful, although those who remembered the stories of their forbearers claimed the heavens were. Since the Fae race had descended from six angels tossed from the celestial heights for interfering with the Mortals, Syrena supposed there must be some truth to their claims. But it mattered not. To her, nothing was as lovely as the Enchanted Isles.
Tapping Bowen's sleek, muscular hindquarters with her pink satin slippers, she directed him toward home. She couldn't put it off any longer. At this very moment her father was ensconced in his throne room, choosing his successor. After a bloody battle in the Fae realm of the Far North over succession, the wizard Uscias insisted her father name the next in line.
There were four in the running: Lord Bana and Lord Erwn, her father's cousins and closest advisors; her stepmother, Queen Morgana; and at Uscias's insistence, Syrena. King Arwan hadn't cared that Syrena as his only heir should have been named without hesitation. No matter how hard she tried, she failed to measure up to both his and the Fae's expectations. If only they would give her a chance, she would show them her worth.
As she and Bowen flew alongside the razor-sharp peaks of granite, the crystal palace, nestled high atop the mountain, came into view. Noting the palatial mansions of the aristocracy cast in shadows at its base, Lord Bana's and Lord Erwn's among them, she wondered if even now one of them celebrated. One of the two was clearly her father's choice.
It didn't matter, not really, she comforted herself. King Arwan's successor would never get the chance to rule. The only way her father would willingly cede his authority was through death. And since the Fae were immortal—could only be killed by the juice of the Rowan berry, a wound from a magickal weapon, or fade if they so chose—her powerful father would reign forever.
"Well, Bowen, time to land." She patted the neck of her beloved steed, a gift from her mother the week before she faded. With a firm tug on his mane, she banked to the left. "No!" she cried, realizing too late that she'd forgotten his deformed wing.
They tumbled from the cloudless sky.
The pressure from the whistling wind pulled at her cheeks and whipped the crown from her head. Her long hair wrapped around her face, muffling her warbled scream.
She dangled helplessly in midair, struggling to tangle her hands in Bowen's mane to keep from falling. Her foot found purchase on his stunted wing, and she flung herself over the top of him. Hooves kicking wildly, Bowen fought to right himself. As he flapped his one, powerful, full-sized wing, the frightening free fall was over as quickly as it had begun.
She clung to him, her heart returning to its rightful place behind her rib cage. "I'm sorry, Bowen," she said once she'd recovered. "If I ever do something so foolish again, ignore my command." He nickered and nodded as though he agreed.
Distracted with thoughts of her mother, she'd banked to the left without thinking. Deformed since birth, Bowen's left wing was half the size of his right. Syrena and her steed had learned to compensate for his shortcomings. But obviously his tendency to comply with her commands, no matter how foolish, was something they had to work on. Although there had been other incidents, no one as yet had found them out. Syrena only hoped it would be the same today.
Her hope was short-lived. As soon as Bowen's hooves hit the cobblestones, Rainer, one of the stable hands, crossed the courtyard to greet them. He twirled Syrena's jeweled crown on his finger.
"Interesting maneuvers, princess." His thin upper lip curled in contempt. "Too bad you didn't think to use your magick."
And risk turning Bowen into a bird?
But no, she couldn't say that. None of the Fae knew Syrena couldn't do magick. Well, she could, she just wasn't very good at it. And there was a time when that inability almost cost Syrena her life. But her mother had protected her, just as Evangeline, her handmaiden and friend, did now.
She slid from Bowen's back. Her legs wobbly, she leaned against her steed for support. "A trick, that's all it was, and a very good one if I do say so myself."
Rainer raised a dark brow, towering over her as most of the Fae did. "That's not how it looked to me or to anyone else. As we speak, the head of the royal guard is reporting the incident to your father. It's about time, if you ask me, wasting our energy on this pathetic excuse for a steed. He's better off dead."
Overcome by a frantic pounding in her chest, she struggled to project a confident demeanor. Tears and begging would make no difference to Rainer. If anything, they would increase the pleasure he took in tormenting her. The stable hands looked for an excuse to put Bowen down. They were intolerant of any disability, any imperfection. Power was the only thing they understood.
She swallowed her fear and snatched her crown from his finger. She shoved it on her head and pushed a hank of golden hair from her eyes. "You forget yourself, Rainer. Bowen is mine. He's under my protection. No one touches him."
With an insolent look, he tracked his gaze from the top of her head to the tips of her toes. "Your protection," he scoffed. "I guess he's as good as dead, then."
Syrena tried to push past him, but he wouldn't budge. She took a step to the left and he did the same. She moved to the right and he followed suit, laughing at her futile attempt to outmaneuver him. Bowen nudged him out of the way and Rainer turned on her steed. "You'll pay for that," he snarled at Bowen, balling his big hand into a fist. Her only thought to protect her steed, Syrena lunged and knocked him off balance before he could hit Bowen.
His angular face contorted in rage, and he drew back to strike her. With no time to get out of his way, she squeezed her eyes closed and steeled herself to receive the blow. He wasn't as big as her father. It wouldn't be as painful, she reassured herself. There was a gush of air, a strangled squeal, and then a splash.
Cracking an eye open, she noted Rainer, sitting in a cement trough, spurting water from his mouth.
"You're lucky it is only your pride that has been wounded, Rainer. The penalty for striking royalty is death," Uscias informed him equitably, then turned to Syrena, his blue eyes intent beneath thick silver brows. "Although, your highness, the decision ultimately rests with you."
"No ... no, your punishment was more than adequate, Uscias, thank you."
The wizard waved his gnarled fingers, and Rainer stood pale and dripping before them. "Take Princess Syrena's steed to the stables. And remember, if anything should happen to Bowen, your fate rests in her highness's hands."
As Uscias led her away, she took one last worried look over her shoulder. He patted her arm. "I will keep an eye on him, but right now our presence has been requested by the king."
Her jaw dropped and she clutched his arm. "Mine? You're certain, Uscias? He wants me?"
"Yes, my dear, that is what I was told."
She blinked back tears. "Oh, I cannot tell you how happy this makes me. They will have to address my concerns now, don't you think?" Too excited to wait for his response, she went on, "You may not be aware, Uscias, but our laws are unfairly slanted to the benefit of men. And truly, our approach to the other realms is severely outdated. Diplomacy, Uscias, diplomacy is the an—"
"Princess," he interrupted gently. "I'm afraid you misunderstood me. I am not at all certain your father has chosen you as his successor. The presence of all candidates was requested."
A heated flush prickled beneath her skin. How could she have thought anything had changed? Her father would never name her as his successor and she might as well accept it now. Years spent memorizing the dusty tomes, documenting her arguments against antiquated laws, were all for naught.
"I'm sorry, Uscias, you must think me a fool to believe my father would see past ..." The tears that welled in her eyes threatened to overflow, and she couldn't go on.
"No, my dear, you are far from foolish. It is the ones that do not see you for who you truly are who deserve to be called such. Now, I'm afraid we must go."
As Uscias and Syrena entered the palace, an ear-piercing scream shattered the quiet hum of activity. Queen Morgana, her stepmother, stumbled from the throne room.
"The king, King Arwan has faded!" she cried while Nessa, her handmaiden, reached out to steady her.
Servants stopped what they were doing, frozen in their disbelief. Syrena's heart skittered in her chest and her legs went weak. No, not her father, there must be some mistake. He wouldn't fade. He loved his kingdom. He loved the Isles. He loved her. But no, even in a state of shock, she knew the last was not true. He didn't love her. He never had.
Lord Bana and Lord Erwn came out of the grand hall, shouldering their way through the gathering crowd, their perfect faces lined with confusion. They joined Syrena and Uscias. "What is it? What's happened?"
"The king, Morgana says he's faded." Uscias informed them before he strode purposefully toward the throne room. His sapphire robes billowing behind him.
"Your highness," Evangeline's melodious voice came from beside her, and she wrapped a supportive arm around Syrena's shoulders. "You should sit."
"No, I can't," she said, watching as Lord Bana, Lord Erwn, then Morgana and Nessa followed after Uscias. "I really must ... I have to understand. I have to know ... Why, Evangeline, why would he fade?"
"I don't know, my lady, perhaps Uscias will be able to explain it." Holding her close, her friend guided her to the throne room.
Uscias, no bigger than Syrena, was dwarfed by the two lords and Morgana as they pummeled him with their frantic questions. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "I cannot think with all the shouting. Give me a moment."
Syrena, coming to stand beside him, followed his gaze to King Arwan's golden throne. A pile of ashes on the red satin cushion was all that remained of her father. The sight triggered a memory of the day her mother faded. Memories she'd buried clawed their way to the surface. An image of her running into the room to give her mother a carefully chosen bouquet of pink and white flowers, only to have her father rip them from her hands and crush them beneath his boot. He'd forced Syrena to her knees in front of the throne, making certain she knew she was to blame for her mother's decision. All that remained of the beautiful, loving Helyna was a tidy pile of ashes on a red satin pillow.
She bowed her head and focused on the gold veins that ran through the white marble floor, shutting away the painful memories.
"Morgana, where is the Sword of Nuada?" Uscias asked.
Her stepmother's mouth formed a pinched line. "I don't know."
"The parchment for succession that I delivered the other day, do you at least know where that is?"
Morgana shared a surreptitious look with Nessa, who stood at the back of the room with Evangeline, and Bana and Erwn's servants.
"There, beside his throne," she said as she pointed to it.
Uscias jerked his chin at the liveried guard standing at attention behind the throne. The man retrieved the rolled scroll and delivered it into the wizard's hand. Uscias unrolled it with care. Syrena looked at the bottom of the parchment where her father's name was signed with a flourish. On the line that named his successor there was one letter—the letter L.
The wizard passed a twisted finger over the letter and it disappeared. Syrena blinked. Uscias, looking at her from the corner of his eye, raised a bushy brow. He was right. It could have been either Erwn or Bana.
"Who is it? Who did he name?" Morgana asked, although there was something in her stance, in her tone, that said to Syrena her stepmother already knew the answer. Had her father confided in his wife? Given their strained relations, Syrena doubted he would. Morgana had as much chance of holding the throne as she did.
"No one," the wizard said blandly. "And since he did not have the opportunity to name his successor, or hand over the Sword of Nuada, the four of you will have to compete for the honor. In the Books of Fae, the parameters of the test are clearly set out for circumstances such as these."
Having all but memorized the five ancient tomes, Syrena knew exactly what the test entailed and her heart sank. The first segment, knowledge of the laws, she knew she could easily win. The test of courage and strength, she didn't even try to fool herself that she had a chance at. And the third, a test of the competitor's magickal abilities, would have been laughable if not for the danger it posed to her.
The Fae were tested three times, once at the age of four, again at the age of twelve, and on their twenty-first birthday, the last and most difficult of the tests. The highest level to be awarded was a five. Syrena had yet to see anyone other than a wizard achieve the designation. Her own level was a dismal two, and that accomplished only with the help of her mother and then Evangeline.
Her mother had died a month after Syrena passed the second test. And she didn't know what she would have done if three years ago her handmaiden hadn't arrived in the Enchanted Isles, a week before Syrena's twenty-first birthday. To this day, how Evangeline had come to be in the Isles remained a mystery. Noting her handmaiden's distress whenever Syrena questioned her as to who she was and where she'd come from, she had learned to temper her natural curiosity. She hadn't wanted to hurt or alienate the only friend she'd ever known.
While Uscias lay out the parameters of the test to the other three, Syrena hazarded a glance at Evangeline. Don't worry, her handmaiden's confident violet gaze seemed to say.
Uscias, his attention focused on Syrena, announced, "The test is set for one week from today."
A snidely confident smile on his aristocratic face, Lord Erwn said, "Perhaps it would be best for the princess and Queen to concede at this point."
Morgana's emerald eyes flashed, and her scarlet painted lips twisted. "How dare you, Erwn! This test is a travesty and well you know it. As Arwan's Queen, I should retain my crown and lead the kingdom."
"I don't see your name on the succession document, Morgana, nor do I see the Sword of Nuada in your hand. If anyone has a right to the throne, it would be Princess Syrena." Bana's condescending bark of laughter grated on Syrena's nerves, and she longed to put him in his place, but if she tried, he'd only laugh at her as he did now.
He was as arrogant as his brother, but he frightened her more than Lord Erwn. Both men had vied for her hand in marriage. As brutally dismissive of women as King Arwan, she'd been thankful that, seeking a more powerful match, her father had denied both their suits.
Erwn had never hidden the fact that he still wanted her, even though they were second cousins, but, unlike his brother, he'd never tried to force himself upon her. If not for Evangeline's timely intervention two weeks past, she wouldn't have escaped Bana's unwanted attention.
Suppressing a shudder of unease at the memory, she met her stepmother's sharp-eyed gaze. Within that moment of silent exchange, Syrena knew Morgana realized neither of them stood a chance. She felt a pang of sympathy for her stepmother. The title of Queen meant more to her than it did to Syrena. The only consolation, Morgana would no longer have to suffer her father's brutality. She'd been the one to take the brunt of his anger, but it hadn't stopped her from protecting Syrena from his wrath. She'd intervened on her stepdaughter's behalf on more than one occasion, and for that Syrena would always be grateful.
Uscias raised his hand. "Enough. As Wizard of the Enchanted Isles, my decision stands."
Morgana, obviously unwilling to concede, tossed her long ebony tresses in a supremely confident manner. "For the interim, Uscias, I believe I should retain my role as sovereign. We cannot afford King Rohan to sense any weakness on our part. He has too much power as it is. Given the opportunity, I have no doubt he'd seize the Isles."
Syrena wasn't certain having King Rohan take over the Isles would be such a terrible fate. Unlike her father, her uncle was a fair and considerate leader. He'd always been kind to her, and she thought he would protect her from Bana and Erwn, but perhaps he had changed. She hadn't seen him in a very long time, not since the day her mother had faded. Syrena had remembered thinking he grieved more for Helyna than her father did. But the brothers had fought, and that was the last she'd seen of her uncle.
Excerpted from Warrior of the Isles by Debbie Mazzuca Copyright © 2011 by Debbie Mazzuca. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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