In a few short weeks seventeen-year-old Mila has gone from being Ludmila Novakova, pampered daughter of the High Chancellor of Bohemia, to becoming a traitor escaping the palace at midnight in her wedding nightgown. Her country is in chaos, an army is marching from Austria, and revolution is a breath away.
Mila is caught in the middle, between the man she loves-Marc, the son of a blacksmith and a leader of the rebellion-and the murderer the Church calls her husband. Even as she flees with Marc into the heart of the resistance, where the suspicions of angry citizens make her every palace-born habit a danger, she knows he hasn't told her everything.
But Mila is keeping the biggest secret herself: she is the heir to the throne, the daughter of embattled King Rudolf and Princess of Bohemia. The truth will turn the fury of both sides against her, leaving Mila alone to win her country's freedom-and her own . . .
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.46(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
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A Forest of Wolves
The Uprising, Book Two
By Chelsea Luna
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Chelsea Luna
All rights reserved.
Outside Prague, Kingdom of Bohemia May 22, 1610
"Where are we going?" I slipped the cloak on over my body.
"To Kladno," Henrik answered. "My father and uncle are there. It's become headquarters for us this past week. I arranged for all of our weapons to be transported there. The plan was that once we freed Marc, we'd go there to regroup."
"Headquarters?" I asked, but I already knew the answer. I was walking in my mother's rebellious footsteps. I would finish what she started.
Marc Sýkora brought our intertwined hands together and kissed the back of my hand. "People are waiting for us there. Allies. Peasants. Protestants. Defectors of the Crown and the Catholic Church. It's the headquarters of the rebellion."
This was it. I'd officially joined the Protestant rebellion.
I was now a defector from the Crown and the Catholic Church. A traitor to the Kingdom of Bohemia. What would King Rudolf think? Was he still alive? By now my father, Václav, the high chancellor of Bohemia, and the others had found Radek, the Duke of Prucha, beaten and tied up in his bedchamber.
My cheeks burned.
I had married Radek under the eyes of God in the beautiful St. Vitus Cathedral only last night. I was now officially Ludmila Nováková, Duchess of Prucha. That lying murderer, Radek, was my husband. A frigid chill ran down my spine and I shivered in my cloak.
What had I done?
"Are you cold?" Marc's strong blacksmith's hands slid under the garment and rubbed my arms. His fingers trailed down to where the short satin nightgown grazed the top of my thighs. "Your skin is like ice."
Butterflies fluttered in my stomach at his touch, but nervousness quickly replaced the feeling of excitement. My mother's letter was hidden in my cloak and I still didn't know the contents of the letter. Not yet. I would read it when I was alone. When I was ready. The letter held the only words I'd ever have from my murdered mother. I had to protect them at all costs.
"I'm all right."
"You don't seem so."
"It was a stressful night," I said.
"We're safe now —"
"Don't worry about Radek," Marc said. "It's all over."
I shook my head. "It's not over. You don't understand how Radek's mind works. He's manipulative and prideful. He's not going to take what happened lightly. Radek won't stop searching until he finds me. He'll be relentless in his hunt. In his eyes, we are husband and —"
"No." Marc's arm slid around my waist. He drew me against his chest. "You are not his wife, Mila. The marriage was never consummated. You were forced to say those vows in church. It doesn't work that way."
"You are not married."
I sighed. There was no sense in arguing with him. He was a Protestant. He didn't understand the Catholic view of marriage. Marc was right in that the marriage had never been consummated, but we had said the vows in church in front of a priest and under the eyes of God. It had to mean something....
"And you have to forget what Radek told you about King Rudolf and your mother," Marc said.
"That I might be the heir?"
"Shh." Marc twisted in the darkness to see if anyone had overheard.
"If it's true — and I doubt it because Radek is a liar — that means you are heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Bohemia. Do you understand the significance of that? Both sides of this rebellion will want you dead. The Protestants will kill you because you're next in line. The Catholics will want you dead because they want Matthias of Austria on the throne. We must keep this rumor a secret."
"You think it's only a rumor?"
"It's possible Radek lied to keep you loyal to the Crown. He'd say anything to accomplish that." Marc kissed the top of my head. "Let's not speak of Radek anymore. We're away from Prague Castle and that's all that matters now."
We rode in silence. The dark blue sky lightened to shades of orange and pink as the sun lifted from the thick tree line. It was a breathtaking view, but one I barely noticed. I was mentally and physically exhausted from the night's events. Too many thoughts swarmed my mind.
Was my maid Branka safe? Were my father and Radek already hunting us? Was I married to Radek or was the ceremony a sham, as Marc believed? Was King Rudolf's life in danger? Were we on the brink of war?
I squeezed my eyes shut and inhaled. I counted to ten before I exhaled. How did my life become so complicated? The days of lounging in the royal library reading books on ancient Rome seemed so far away.
So safe. So innocent. So boring.
"Not much farther," Henrik announced to the caravan behind us.
Marc's older brother resembled him, except for the shoulder-length blond hair and the slight crookedness of his nose. Henrik didn't look like his normally happy self. Lines deepened in the broad plane of his forehead whenever he stole glimpses at Marc's back.
Bloody gashes of skin peeked out from Marc's torn shirt.
The whistling of the guard's leather whip as it lashed through the air and snapped across Marc's back would be engrained in my mind forever. The sights and sounds of his public whipping in Prague's central square were the single worst act I'd ever borne witness to.
What was almost as bad as witnessing the actual torture was the look of complete indifference on the face of my father as he doled out the barbaric punishment to the man I loved in front of a crowd of hundreds. He had tortured an innocent blacksmith whose only crime was that his religion differed from my father's.
It was a frightening ideology, but one that had taken root all around the kingdom for quite some time.
Henrik patted his horse's neck. "Dad probably thinks you're dead."
"I assume as much." Marc shrugged. "From what I hear, no one escapes from Daliborka Tower."
A huge grin claimed his face. "Unless your big brother's name is Henrik Sýkora and he orchestrates the logistics behind a daring escape. He could definitely pull off the most skilled prison break in Prague's history."
Marc laughed. "Of course he could."
"I'm just pointing out the facts."
"You're so modest." Marc turned to Stephan. "Are you feeling well? You don't look so good."
Stephan, a former high-ranking general in King Rudolf II's Royal Bohemian Army, rode to our right. Brown curls escaped from the ribbon secured at the base of his thick neck. He slouched over on his horse, looking pale and clammy; a deep gash bled freely from his left thigh. He had suffered the injury during our escape from the castle.
Stephan groaned. "I need some ale."
"Don't fall off," Henrik said. "I'm not carrying your big ass on my horse."
"I see you're concerned about my well-being." Stephan grinned and made an obscene gesture at Henrik.
"You are my main concern. I have no others but you."
"You think I can get one of those girls to care for me?" Stephan wiggled his eyebrows at the caravan of people following us.
"Not with that ugly face." Henrik laughed.
"Not even taking into consideration my pitiful injury?"
"Well ... maybe with the pitiful injury."
I leaned back against Marc's chest. The strong rhythm of his heartbeat soothed my anxiety. "I'd assumed Stephan was another one of my father's henchmen," I whispered.
"No. He's been a clandestine rebel for years. Henrik and Stephan have been friends since they were children. According to Henrik, he couldn't have freed me from Daliborka Tower without Stephan's help. I owe him my life."
"We should do something nice to thank him," I said. "And make sure his wound is taken care of. It doesn't look good from here."
"That's a thoughtful idea."
The caravan of people we had met in Rika after our escape from Prague Castle walked silently behind us. Men, women, and children blindly followed Marc as we trudged through the forest en route to Kladno.
The look of hope and trust on their faces was uplifting. How did Marc inspire these people? Why did they believe in him? What was it that made strangers give up everything they'd ever known to join a rebellion?
I knew the answer.
They had no choice. Their lives as peasants under the Crown were so miserable, so awful, that anything was better than their current state. These people would rather follow the blacksmith's son, all of nineteen years old, on his quest for freedom against the stronger, better equipped Crown backed by the Roman Catholic Church, than go another day in their present, unhappy existence.
Something stirred inside me. Was this what my mother had experienced when she fought for the peasant rebellion? Is this what it felt like to do the right thing? To fight for what was right?
"Halt!" Marc's voice cut through the forest.
The sharp words caught me so off-guard that I flinched and almost fell off the stallion. The entire caravan stopped behind us. Marc's command was so unexpected that I imagined people slamming into the backs of the person in front of them.
"Sorry." Marc kissed the top of my head. "I didn't mean to startle you." He slid off the horse but must not have contemplated what the movement would do to his injured back. He groaned.
"Are you hurt?" I asked.
"I'm fine." Sweat beaded his forehead. "Henrik, will you come with me?"
"What's going on?" I asked.
"Stay here," Marc said. "Stephan, stay with them."
Stephan nodded. Sweat glistened on his pale face. He needed a healer; his wound was extensive and this long ride was taking a toll on his health. Earlier, he'd joked and laughed with Henrik, but when Stephan thought no one was watching him, the pain was clear on his face.
Henrik dismounted and unsheathed his sword. He followed Marc on the trail without asking any questions.
I had too many to ask. What was going on? Why had Marc stopped the procession? Had he seen something? Were we in danger? Were Marc and Henrik walking into a trap?
I slid off my horse.
"My lady," Stephan said.
"I'll be all right, Stephan."
"But Marc said —"
Stephan sighed, but he didn't argue. Maybe he was in too much pain. Or maybe he didn't care enough to stop me. It was a good decision on Stephan's part because I was going after them whether he liked it or not.
Marc and Henrik were ahead on the trail, which curved to the left. They disappeared around the bend. Something blue flapped between the trees.
What on earth?
I squinted, but I was too far away to see clearly.
Nerves coiled tight in my stomach, I quickened my pace. For once I didn't have multiple skirts hindering me. I wore only my wedding nightgown and a cloak, so I moved easily despite my bare feet crunching over the dried grass.
Marc and Henrik had stopped ahead.
They stood in front of a wooden display erected in the middle of the trail. A massive piece of wood — the size of three doors connected together — sat oddly out of place in the forest.
What was it? Who would put that there?
The answer followed directly. The strange blue color between the trees was now clearly two blue flags flapping from the top corners of a wooden contraption.
The official flags of the Kingdom of Bohemia. The flags were once so familiar to me that they were practically invisible. Now they only produced the feeling of dread and fear inside me.
Something was attached to the wooden contraption, but it was hard to determine what it was from where I stood. My stroll had quickened into an outright jog. A queasy sensation flipped in my stomach. My palms were sweaty.
Marc frowned when I approached. "Mila, I told you to stay back with the others. You don't need to —"
"What is it?" I asked.
The burned smell hit me.
I covered my nose with my hand to ward off the repulsive odor.
"Marc's right, Mila." Henrik gripped the hilt of his sword like a lifeline. "You should go back to the horses. You don't want to see this."
I stepped around the brothers so I could see what it was — what I wasn't supposed to see.
I wished I hadn't.
A person — or what used to be a person — was nailed spreadeagled to the wood erected in the middle of the trail. I couldn't tell if the deceased was a man or a woman. Charred black skin covered the corpse from head to toe. No features were identifiable.
Written on the board beside the body were four words scrawled in blood: "Death to All Protestants."CHAPTER 2
The men removed the poor Protestant and dismantled the contraption. Marc and Henrik buried the person — we still couldn't tell whether it was a man or woman — on the side of the trail and burned the wooden frame and the flags.
"I supposed this means the Letter of Majesty is no longer valid." Marc's eyes darted to me before finding his brother.
"I'd say so," Henrik muttered.
King Rudolf had signed the Letter of Majesty over a year earlier. The controversial law had granted religious freedom to every citizen, including all peasants, in the Kingdom of Bohemia. Peasants — supposedly even Protestants — were free to worship as they pleased without the Crown dictating which religion they must follow. The Catholic Church had been furious with Rudolf when he passed the law.
A small sect of royal Catholics, including my father and Radek, had begun their pull away from King Rudolf and the current royal regime. They were enraged at the new law and incensed by the Protestant movement across Europe. The loyalist Catholics wanted King Rudolf off the throne, to be replaced by a more pro-Catholic ruler. They did not want to tolerate Protestantism. Now, with the backing of Austria, the loyalists were well on their way to obtaining exactly the type of regime they wanted to rule the kingdom.
The warning was clear.
It was officially hunting season on anyone who considered themselves to be a Protestant. The Crown was no longer doing their evil deeds in private; they were now blatantly displaying their hatred for all to see. We had finally reached a point at which both sides would not, and probably could not, turn back.
The audacity of the warning infuriated the men. What did this person do — other than be a Protestant — that would warrant such a cruel death? Who would do such a thing?
I could name a few.
The incident, while undeniably repulsive, was terrible on a personal level, too. Who had done it? Was it Radek? Was it on my father's orders? It was clear the Protestant victim had been dead for a few days, so it hadn't been done in response to our escape from the castle last night, but when had it become the norm to torture and murder Protestants and then put their bodies on display?
The rest of the caravan didn't see the spectacle. Henrik ordered the others to stay back while they took down the body, but word spread, and soon everyone knew what had happened.
The mood plummeted as we continued on through the forest. No one spoke. Everyone's thoughts were focused on what was about to happen to our beloved country.
"There it is." Marc pointed through the trees. "Kladno."
Thatch-roofed houses were scattered along a winding dirt road, the street ending abruptly at a slanted, two-storied tavern. The small village bustled with activity — people farmed in the plots beside their homes, animals roamed the area around the barn, and residents heaved water from the well.
Marc clicked his heels against the stallion's sides.
The group's mood changed to one of excitement. Kladno was their home. Their base. Where they would feel safe from the Crown and the Catholic Church. My spirits lifted, too.
"Is your father here?" I asked Marc.
He nodded. "And my Uncle Igor."
I didn't know much about Kladno, only that it was an outlying village and the area was well known for its coal and iron deposits. Now it was the local headquarters of the Protestant rebellion. As we descended on the settlement, people emerged from their homes to greet us. Smiles claimed their faces. The prodigal sons had returned. Villagers cheered and waved. Children ran alongside our horses. Our welcoming felt like a parade honoring Marc and Henrik.
Marc, Henrik, and I rode toward a whitewashed house that sat back from the winding road. The abruptness of the quietness caught me off guard. The caravan of peasants who had joined us in Rika had dissipated into the village. Consumed by family and friends and gracious people.
Excerpted from A Forest of Wolves by Chelsea Luna. Copyright © 2016 Chelsea Luna. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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