Ludmila Novakova--Mila--has barely set foot outside Prague Castle in her seventeen years. But with the choice between braving the bandits and wolves of Bohemia's uneasy roads or being married off to a disgusting old baron, she's taken what she can carry and fled.
Escape won't be easy. Even Mila has heard the rumors of a rebellion coming against the court. The peasants are hungry. The king hasn't been seen in months. Mila's father, the High Chancellor, is well known and well hated.
But Mila can't sit behind a stone wall and let fear force her into a life of silk gowns and certain misery. Her mother's death has taught her that much. She has one ally: Marc, the son of the blacksmith. A commoner, a Protestant--and perhaps a traitor, too. But the farther she gets from the castle, the more lies she uncovers, unraveling everything she thought she knew. And the harder it is to tell friend from enemy--and wrong from right . . .
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Lions in the Garden
The Uprising, Book One
By Chelsea Luna
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Chelsea Luna
All rights reserved.
Prague, Kingdom of Bohemia
A handful of peasants carried an open casket on their shoulders while the remainder followed, sobbing and chanting. The head of the recently deceased corpse was separated from its body. Not in a vulgar, bloody display, but the neck was cleanly severed through the spine and the head sat neatly beside it. I swallowed down a scream and guided my mare to the side of the road as the funeral procession passed by.
I'd heard stories of the peasants' superstitious behaviors — like removing the head after death to prevent the deceased from returning to life. I'd never seen such a spectacle in person, but this was my first time outside the castle walls unescorted.
An old woman clutching a wooden rosary caught my eye. Her eyes trailed from my face, hidden in my hood, down to my dress. She recognized me. It had been stupid to think that I could go undetected. I nudged my mare, Sepia, ahead, seeking an escape from prying eyes.
The late afternoon sun struggled to break through Krivoklát Forest's almost impenetrable canopy of leaves. The road split ahead — there were no signs like I'd imagined there would be. I didn't know which direction to take, only that I wouldn't go back to Prague.
I tapped my heels against Sepia's sides and decided on the left path. Any decision was better than none. Time was becoming an issue — night would soon fall. The mare must have sensed my apprehension, because she eased into a canter. Maybe there was a village nearby or maybe I could sleep —
Sepia fell forward onto the ground.
Her front legs gave out and I catapulted over her shoulder. I squeezed my eyes shut and braced myself for the fall. I landed hard on my back in a jarring heap. My palm sliced against something hard. Warm blood seeped from the cut and dripped down my wrist.
The mare lay on her side breathing heavily. She held her front left leg at an awkward angle, and even I — who'd ridden only a handful of times — knew the limb was broken. Large brown eyes rolled backward into her head.
I wiped my palm on the grass and crawled to Sepia, despite my long cumbersome skirts. My hand throbbed from the cut, but I couldn't think about that now. Sepia was suffering. I didn't know what to do or how to stop the pain. My hands hovered uselessly over the animal.
Something rustled behind me.
Two men strolled out from the trees. One was bald, short, and barefoot. His feet were blackened with mud and excrement. The second man had a patchy black beard. Both were extraordinarily dirty, like they'd just been rolling around in the mud.
"Good day, miss." The black-haired man scratched his scruffy neck. "Looks like you're in a bit of trouble."
I hesitated. I didn't have much experience with people outside the castle. Something warned me to be wary, but I needed help. "My horse is hurt."
"Horse, eh? What do you think, Vitaly? Want to take a look?" the black-haired man said to his barefoot friend.
Vitaly peeled his eyes from the diamond combs that pinned back my hair and approached the mare. Sepia's tongue lolled from behind her teeth. Her rib cage rose and fell as the poor animal struggled to breathe.
I wiped my sweaty hands on my bodice. The black-haired man's eyes fell to my stomach and I followed his line of sight. Blood had left a long red smear over my pale yellow gown.
"You ruined your pretty dress." Something gleamed in the man's eyes — like he'd found a shiny coin on the side of the road.
I scanned the forest for an escape route, but where would I go? I was a half day's ride from Prague and there was nothing around but trees.
Vitaly kneeled over Sepia. "Broken leg."
The black-haired man ignored Vitaly's diagnosis. He shuffled closer. Grime crusted over his face like a second layer of skin. "Where are you headed?"
Lie. "To Kladno."
"Do you live there?"
"Yes." Another lie.
The poor mare grunted and kicked her back legs, as if she could sense the danger emanating from the men. Sepia wanted to flee, but she couldn't stand.
The black-haired man scratched his armpit. "How are you getting to Kladno with an injured horse?"
"My father rode to get help. He should be back any minute." It was a bad lie — why would a father leave his daughter alone in the forest? Why wouldn't she have ridden with him on his healthy horse?
All of these thoughts must have crossed the black-haired man's mind, too, because his mouth stretched into a blackened-gum-filled smile. "I don't think so, miss." He moved to the flailing mare. He petted Sepia's smooth coat with gentle strokes before plunging a knife deep into the horse's throat.
A terrible gurgling escaped the mare before she went deathly still. The man wiped the blood from the blade on his dirty trousers, leaving a deep crimson stain on top of another splatter of something green and crusty.
I backed away from the men. The forest was eerily quiet.
Vitaly inched away from the pool of blood seeping from the carcass. "You should thank Niklas. No one could fix that leg. He put the beast out of its misery."
Niklas tilted his head and squinted at me with a strange expression on his face. "You know what, Vitaly?"
"We may have stumbled onto something interesting here," Niklas said. "I see a gold bracelet, diamonds in her hair combs and, by the looks of it, a high-quality silk gown."
Vitaly's eyes gleamed. "Fancy."
"Her skin looks soft and smooth. I'd bet those hands have never scrubbed a pot." Niklas stepped closer. "I think I know who she is."
"Václav Novák's daughter," Niklas said.
"The king's chancellor?"
"That's the one. What's her name?" He tapped his chin. "Hmm ... Ludmila Nováková."
Vitaly wrinkled his nose. "It's hard to say."
Niklas had mispronounced my name as Lud-mill-a, and not the correct Bohemian pronunciation of Lood-mee-la. They were foreigners — probably Protestants — Prague was crawling with them these days. It wasn't a good sign, because that meant they likely held no loyalty to the king or to the Catholic Church. My father had warned me about how much the Protestants hated us. They probably resented me just because I was Catholic.
As the men discussed my possible identity, I slipped my hand into the carrying sack secured across my chest. My fingers grazed smooth metal. I inched the dagger out of the bag and hid it behind my back.
"She's the spitting image of Isabella Nováková." Niklas rubbed his hands together. "Don't you remember her — the Spaniard? Daughter looks exactly like her. Same blue eyes, same dark hair, same snotty look on her face."
I flinched as the memories lashed out. Bloody water sloshing over the rim of the porcelain tub. My mother's translucent hand stiffened with curled fingers.
Vitaly rubbed his hairless head. "I can't be certain if it's Isabella's daughter. Mighty pretty, though."
"It's her. I'd bet my life on it," Niklas said.
Vitaly shrugged. "That's good enough for me."
I lifted my chin. "I'm a member of King Rudolf II's court and I live in Prague Castle. My father, Václav Novák, is the High Chancellor of the Kingdom of Bohemia, and he, as well as the king, will see to it that you are both hunted down and hanged in the town square if something happens to me."
"I don't think so," Niklas said. "Old King Rudolf doesn't show his face anymore. He hides behind his moat and his tall walls."
Vitaly grinned a row of rotted teeth. "Who would know what happened to you way out here? That gold bracelet alone could feed us for a year."
I revealed the dagger and pointed it at Niklas. The hilt was ornately carved with fighting dragons. The beasts' eyes were encrusted with garnets.
Niklas's face lit up. "Oh, it's her all right, Vitaly."
The dagger felt heavy and useless in my hand. "Stay back."
"I spent years digging for garnets in the mines," Niklas said. "I'd break my back hollowing out those rocks and then they'd ship the gems off to the castle."
Niklas and Vitaly spread apart. I widened the arc of my swing. The dagger sliced through the air as I whipped the blade back and forth. The men circled me like vultures preying on a carcass.
"Hand them over," Niklas said. "The bracelet. The hair combs. That dagger. I even want the dress. I can get a good price for that silk."
I swiped the dagger at Vitaly. I could run, but I wouldn't get far. Maybe if I gave them what they wanted, they'd take the jewelry and leave. I unfastened my gold bracelet and yanked out the two dainty hair combs that were overlaid with tiny diamonds. My dark hair fell in front of my shoulders in long waves. I tossed my belongings to the ground in between us. "There. Now leave me alone."
Niklas shook his head. "I want the dress and the dagger, too."
"I'm not taking off my dress and I'm certainly not giving you my dagger."
"That's a shame." Niklas dove on top of me before I could react. I fell hard to the ground, for the second time that day, but I managed to hold on to the dagger when I fell.
I brought the blade to his scruffy chin. The dagger shook in my hand.
The moment's hesitation was all Niklas needed. He seized my forearm and slammed it to the ground. The dagger tumbled to the grass.
"Hold her shoulders down, Vitaly. I'll slit her throat. It'll be easier to take the dress off a corpse."
"Don't get blood on the silk." Vitaly dropped to his knees beside my head. "Do you know how much this is going to get us? We'll be rich!" He released a high-pitched giggle, but the galloping of hooves drowned out his laughter.
My two attackers turned just as a man vaulted off a stallion.
Vitaly stumbled backward, but not before scooping up my hair combs and gold bracelet. He edged toward the forest.
The young man was a head taller than Niklas and Vitaly. He had short dark hair with a light shadow of stubble across his jaw. He silently drew his sword.
"Who the hell are you?" Niklas pointed his bloodstained knife at him.
The man ignored Niklas and looked at me. "Are you all right?"
I swallowed. "Yes."
Mahogany eyes fell to the blood on my dress. "Did they hurt you?"
"No, not yet. They killed my horse."
Without warning, Niklas attacked, but the man was ready. He swung his sword and slashed Niklas's arm. A nasty red line appeared through the rip in his shirt.
Niklas gaped at the wound. His face reddened behind his patchy beard, and he lunged again.
The man stepped aside and brought down his sword. This time, his blade sliced the back of Niklas's thigh, shredding his pant leg.
Vitaly watched the uneven battle progress. After a few moments, he shrugged and fled into the forest with my diamond hair combs and golden bracelet.
"Vitaly!" Niklas screamed. Several wounds — on his arm, legs and back — bled freely. He stumbled toward Vitaly. "Come back! Where are you going?" Seething with anger, Niklas whirled around to face the swordsman.
The man dodged Niklas's knife, pivoted, and brought the hilt of his sword crashing down on top of his attacker's head. Niklas teetered from the blow. The man punched him in the jaw and Niklas crumpled to the ground.
He sheathed his sword and nudged a limp Niklas with his boot.
I stepped away.
The man showed his hands. "I'm not going to hurt you." His eyes fell to my hand.
I looked down — when had I picked up my dagger? The sweaty metal felt foreign in my palm. I unclenched my fingers and the weapon slipped to the ground, penetrating the grass.
"Are you hurt?"
My eyes roamed to Niklas and then to my dead horse. "No. Thank you."
He bowed. "At your service, Lady Nováková."
I frowned. How was I ever going to run away from the castle if everyone knew who I was? I motioned for him to stand upright — I hated it when people bowed.
My rescuer inclined his head and I studied his handsome face. He had a straight nose, a strong jaw and dark eyes. He looked a few years older than me, but it could've been because of his size. The top of my head barely came to the middle of his chest. I'd seen him before — you couldn't forget a face like that.
"Are you one of the blacksmith's sons?" I asked.
"Blacksmith's son number two. Marc SÃ1/2kora." He bowed again.
"Pleased to meet you, Lady Nováková."
"Please, call me Mila," I said. "Thank you for saving me. You're very skilled with a sword."
"I make them for a living and I have two brothers to practice with — it helps." Marc's eyes drifted to my hand. "You're hurt."
I'd forgotten about the cut. "It's nothing."
"You're bleeding." Marc approached me like I was a feral animal that might attack at any moment. He inspected the wide gash that ran the length of my palm. He tore the bottom of his shirt and wrapped the fabric around my hand. "There. That should help."
"Thank you." I pulled my cloak around my shoulders. The temperature had plunged with the sun.
Marc flashed a friendly smile. "How far did you think you'd get? Out here all alone?"
I lifted my chin. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Marc's eyes lingered on my carrying sack and then on Sepia's dead body facing the road that led away from Prague. After a long minute, he nodded. "I'll take you back to the castle."
"To the castle?"
"Where else would you go? It's dark."
The sun had set sometime during my struggle with Vitaly and Niklas. I turned to the open road that disappeared deep into the forest. The path vanished into absolute blackness, and beheaded corpses slithered through my mind. There was no way I could make it to the next village without a horse.
But how could I go back to the castle? I'd heard the rumors. I'd watched the opulent caravan arrive from Moravia and the fat old Lord Igor Otto waddle up the castle stairs to ask my father for my hand in marriage.
"I'll take you back to Prague," Marc said. "But if you're not interested, you should know that the nearest town is more than a day's walk away." He pointed to Niklas's unconscious body. "Unfortunately, there are probably other men in the woods looking for pretty young women like you."
I bent to retrieve the dagger. I'd blushed when he called me pretty and I had to hide my face before I could look at him again. "I'd be most grateful if you'd escort me back to the castle."
"Shall we —?"
Marc eyed the horse carcass with a frown. He clicked his tongue and his chestnut stallion strutted out from behind the trees. "We should leave before we have company of the four-legged kind."
"What? You can't possibly mean — "
"That's exactly what I mean."
My stomach sank at the idea of wolves ravishing Sepia.
Marc led me by the elbow. "Hurry, they'll be drawn to the smell of blood. I can probably fight off a couple of hungry wolves, but not a full pack." Instead of offering his hand, Marc seized me by the waist and lifted me onto his stallion. He jumped on behind me and gathered me in close.
The wolves' howls filled the forest as we raced toward Prague. Their primal cries came from every direction. The sky darkened to the point where nothing was visible — only a sea of blackness. I could feel Marc's thighs behind mine, pressing occasionally to guide the stallion. I'd lost all sense of direction, but I was confident he knew the way back to the city in the dark.
Marc loosened his grip on the reins and I noticed a thin black string of thread tied around his wrist. It was almost hidden by his sleeve cuff.
"I didn't know female members of the king's court were allowed to leave the castle without an escort," he said.
"I didn't know you were the keeper of the king's laws."
He chuckled. "Don't worry, your secret is safe with me, whatever it is. But we do have a long ride ahead of us ..."
What was the point of keeping it to myself? I'd obviously failed at my escape attempt. "I was headed to Munich."
"Munich? That's far. Why were you going all the way there?"
"I wanted to book passage to Spain."
He made a noise in his throat that indicated how ridiculous my plan was. "And what's in Spain?"
Marc waited for an explanation.
"She's the only family member I have left outside of Bohemia. I can't stay in Prague."
Excerpted from Lions in the Garden by Chelsea Luna. Copyright © 2016 Chelsea Luna. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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