In the battle for a kingdom, every alliance counts…
Princess Valoria only cares about her music and her destiny: to unite the Kingdom of Ebonvale with the House of Song and succeed where her father has failed. As if that weren’t challenge enough, she must contend with her marriage to a battle hungry brute of a prince…until she falls for his adopted brother, the orphaned son of a blacksmith. But with a horde of undead gathering to attack Ebonvale, Valoria will have to choose between her personal happiness and the safety of the kingdom. Now the fate of Ebonvale rests in her heart.
About the Author
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A Chronicles of Ebonvale Novel
By Aubrie Dionne
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 Aubrie Dionne
All rights reserved.
The carriage rumbled on foreign ground as Valoria touched her finger to the window. Could she ever truly call these lands her home? Ebonvale's beauty rested in lush pastures and blooming orchards, but nothing could hide the grotesque mountains of the dead country of Sill. Even now, dark clouds clung to the peaks as if evil brewed. Half of Ebonvale's army had died there defeating the undead.
Ebonvale. Her new home.
"Dreaming about Prince Braxten Thoridian?" Cadence teased from the opposite side of the carriage as she pierced her needle through her delicate embroidery.
Valoria tore her gaze away from the window and glared at her handmaiden. The rocking wheels on the shoddy road had soured her stomach, and talk of her prearranged union churned the milk she'd drunk for breakfast. "No."
"Wait until the prince of Ebonvale sees your silver eyes."
Valoria pursed her lips. Her handmaiden should not speak with such openness to the princess, and the sole heir to the House of Song. Yet, she considered Cadence the only friend she could trust. Why silence the one person bold enough to speak?
"And your hair." Her handmaiden reached across the carriage and ran her fingers along the braid hanging in a loop around Valoria's ear. "Like silky rays of sunset. I only hope he's as dashing as you are beautiful."
Valoria sat back, out of her handmaiden's reach. "I do not give a wyvern's breath if he's dashing."
"What do you care about?" Cadence stabbed an embroidered petal. The red rose in the center of the circle had unusually large thorns. Had she misread the pattern?
"My music." That wasn't entirely true. Her home ranked high in her heart along with pleasing her father. But, her music had always been first.
Valoria glanced at the top of the carriage where she'd strapped her harp with the strongest golden cord in the House of Song. She'd argued with the Chief of Song to bring the instrument aboard, but Echo had insisted she ride as a lady and allow the minstrels' trumpets and drums to protect them. Even now, the repeating fanfares rattled her teeth. Best to lull the enemy to sleep with a few plucked strings than call them down from the hills of Sill to blare in their ears.
Could the undead hear?
"You won't need your music where we're headed." Cadence placed her embroidery on the velvet seat cushion and folded her hands in her lap. "The Royal Guard, with Braxten in charge, can defeat the most horrid enemies. Or so the ballads say."
The mist rolling off the foothills of Sill pressed against the window. Valoria's fingers tingled and she longed to stroke her harp. "We shall see."
She'd never traveled past the forest of Bluewood Pines surrounding the House of Song. Without the mossy trails of glitter motes strung together in the trees by her people's song, the carriage lay exposed. Even worse, without her harp, she had no defense.
Cadence had lost her usual sly smile. "What troubles you, my lady?"
"Shadows." Valoria traced the highest peak on the glass.
Cadence leaned forward and rested a hand on her knee. "There hasn't been an undead attack since King Artemus Rubystone slayed the great Necromancer King three decades ago. Besides, we have the earsplitting trumpets to protect us."
A half smile crossed Valoria's lips. "Earsplitting, indeed."
Cadence spoke true wisdom, like always. Sill should not concern her. Braxten Thoridian was enough to worry about. Meeting him for the first time made her toes curl in her slippers.
Her father had told her of his wish to unite the kingdoms ever since the first time she'd plucked her harp. "You were born to make this journey, to unite the people of Ebonvale with the House of Song, to succeed where I have failed."
Where he'd failed. He'd loved Danika Rubystone, now Queen Thoridian, and might still, which was why he didn't accompany Valoria to the castle. Her father had lost Danika's hand to her own bodyguard and never fully recovered, even after he'd married mother and Valoria was born. Mother had lived in a shadow of love compared to the stunning ruler of Ebonvale.
Now Danika Thoridian would be her mother-in-law. How she could ever forgive the woman who'd stolen her father's heart and thrown it away, Valoria didn't know.
Her father's half-hearted love had killed her mother. Would her own predestined union end the same tragic way? Would she wither and die with a lackluster love?
No. She was made from stronger stuff. Her mother completed her duty by having Valoria, and Valoria would complete her duty by uniting the kingdoms.
She glanced at Cadence's embroidery. That rose had too much sun. How could a woman pluck that stem without gouging her fingers?
The trumpets stuttered, and the fanfare broke into disharmony.
"Are we there already?" Cadence slipped on her boots.
"Not unless our horses can fly." Ebonvale was a day's ride from where her father had seen them off at the edge of the bluewood forest. Yet, the sun hadn't reached its zenith in the sky. Besides, the minstrels wouldn't end the royal processional fanfare in such a haphazard muddle.
Valoria cranked her window open and stuck out her head, not caring a wyvern's scale about what Echo would say. An arrow flew past her nose, hitting the lead rider in the back with a sick, wet thump. His trumpet fell from his fingers, and he slouched forward in the saddle as a red ribbon of blood flowed from his silvery overcoat. Another arrow clanged off the glass of the window beside her and fell to the ground.
Cadence yanked her away from the window. "Lyric's lyre! Get back!"
Shock numbed her silent as they crouched on the carriage floor in between the velvet cushions. Was it the dead army, come back to claim vengeance against King Artemis while he lay in his grave and his heart-stealing daughter ruled? The thought of dead fingers grasping her arms and legs sent shivers all over her. She'd rather die than end up as part of that soulless horde.
If only she had her harp. A low hum reverberated in the pit of her stomach as the minstrels began their Song of Power. They'd used it against the wyvern She-Beast and her brood, casting the entire horde into a comatose state. Her eyes grew heavy, and Cadence shook her. "Cover your ears. Do not harken to it."
Even though the minstrels aimed their song at the enemy, the side effects were powerful enough to knock her out. Valoria fought against the urge to lie down, focusing on the carriage window. Corpses didn't fight with arrows. They lunged in a squirming mass, clacking their rotten teeth.
Cadence poked her head up. "Raiders! Those desperate bastards."
At least if they died, they wouldn't turn into the enemy. Valoria's relief came with a dose of shame. Raiders were just as dangerous. "Are you certain they aren't the undead?"
"They look ragged enough, but they are not rotting."
Valoria rose to the window and Cadence held her down. "No. You are too important."
Was this woman a handmaiden or a bodyguard? "I want to help."
The carriage stopped, and Cadence fell back against the seat. They froze. After hours of bumping around, the stillness numbed Valoria's legs.
Cadence's eyes grew wide as swords clashed beside the carriage window. "Why in Horred's name have we stopped?"
Valoria stood up, gained her bearings, and glanced out the window. Two minstrels lay face down in the long grasses of the meadow. "Either Echo and the others are too busy fighting, or the horses are all dead."
Lackluster love might kill her over time, but she did not plan to die this day. "We have to get out of here. I must get my harp."
Cadence clasped her arm like a vice. "You are not going anywhere."
She ripped her arm out of her grasp. "Yes, I am. And I'm not leaving you. Come on!"
Valoria unhinged the latch and opened the carriage door to the sounds of grunting men and clashing steel. Echo fought two ragged raiders with his short sword. Ratty brown hair covered their heads and faces in a wild tangle. Haphazard scraps from old leather, stained fur, and muddied cotton made up their clothing. The wind changed direction, and the raiders' filth wafted to Valoria. She covered her mouth from the stink of old sweat and mold.
Echo lunged, pulling off the cloth covering one of the wild man's ears. The man fell to his knees, grasping at the side of his head as his ear bled a red streak down his cheek to his neck. The Song of Power hummed around the battlefield like a giant tuning fork hit with a sledgehammer. Raiders poured from the long grasses like field rats, circling the carriage and what was left of the retinue. Each one had cloth stuffed up their ears. In time, their numbers would overrun the minstrels.
At least she'd go down playing her harp one last time.
As Echo turned to the second man, Valoria climbed the side of the carriage. Her harp glowed golden in the sun, exactly where she'd left it. Relief poured through her as she untied the first knot holding the instrument down.
Cadence grabbed her ankle and tugged. "Come back inside before an arrow spears your thick head!"
The second knot had hardened in the sun. Her nails broke against the cord. "Help me untie it."
Cadence sighed in exasperation. "You are the worst ward I've ever had."
As her handmaiden climbed the side of the carriage, a new fanfare broke from the horizon. This music lacked the deft touch of the minstrels' hands. The rough tone and horrid intonation would summon only scowls from the enemy. No one from the House of Song would be caught dead playing with such coarseness.
A line of silver caught her eye as the Royal Guard crested the hill.
"Look!" Cadence joined her on the carriage roof. "The banners have the insignia of the two swords. 'Tis Braxten Thoridian's army."
"And their awful horn blowers." Army or not, Valoria untied the last knot holding down her harp. She swung the instrument from the carriage roof and landed on her feet. Closing her eyes, she strummed a mysterious chord full of dissonance. She did not have the power to bring the raiders to their feet like Echo's haunting tenor voice, but she could elicit the doubt inside their desperate hearts.
She knew the taste of desperation.
The Royal Guard rode into battle at full speed, trampling the outside line of raiders with their horses. As they fought to reach the minstrels, Valoria focused on her music, stringing together chord after chord of unresolved harmonies. Some of the cloths weren't enough to block the sound, and a few raiders fell to their feet before they reached the retinue. But, most of them charged with vengeance, wielding pitchforks, broken glass, and whatever they found on the side of the road.
Another arrow ripped by Valoria's face, and she fell back against the carriage. "Lyric's lyre! 'Tis not working."
"You have to find something that does, or we'll all be joining the gods." Cadence reached in her boot and pulled out a dagger.
Valoria stared at Sill. The dead lands tempted her even though father had warned her of manipulating nature with song. Music could control a person, but it could only entice a force of nature to do its own bidding. Nature had its own way of deciding people's fate.
She breathed deeply. Could she harness the mountain's power long enough to save them all? With everyone's life in jeopardy, risk didn't matter.
A clump of raiders broke from the group, running toward the carriage. Echo's voice surged as he threw himself in front of them. He was no warrior. He would not be able to hold them all off.
Cadence growled beside her. "Let them come. They'll have to get through me first!"
That would take all of three heartbeats. Her handmaiden had a fierce tongue, but her battle skills were limited to needles and embroidery. If only the enemy were thorny roses.
Valoria turned her attention back to Sill and took a deep breath. She sensed a greater presence lurking in those mountains. Now, she had to call it to her. Her voice rang out, sweet and clear as morning's first light.
"Beyond the borders
Of shadowed paths
A bright dove calls."
A vast consciousness stirred with a low rumble as if waking from a long sleep. Valoria sensed a power far greater than hers with an insatiable hunger for anything with blood running through their veins.
"Valoria, what are you doing?"
"Saving us all." Her voice rose.
"Save her brethren
And her enemies
Are ripe to pluck.
Their hearts bleed
With fiery vengeance.
Let their passion
Draw you near."
An icy breeze blew through her, tossing her gown around her legs. A wall of cool mist rode the wind, pouring from the foothills. Valoria held a melancholy high note, allowing the tone to echo over the meadow before tapering away into the minstrel's humming. One by one, the raiders emerged from the mist disoriented, giving the minstrels enough time to pull the cloths from their ears. They fell as the dissonant hum of the minstrels' Song of Power rang in their heads.
Her attention returned to Echo. Four of the five raiders surrounded him. He'd killed one of them, but the others wore him down. He wouldn't last long. A memory of the old man teaching her harmonies on the harp tightened her chest. She would not see him die.
The lead charger of the Royal Guard hacked at raiders all around him. With one swift blow, he sliced through two attackers, then trampled another with his horse's hooves. He lunged at a clump of raiders emerging from the mist in the opposite direction.
But, he wouldn't be going in that direction for long. Valoria strummed her harp. She did not know this particular warrior, but she knew the desires lurking in every soldier's heart.
On a savior.
Justice is served
When one man outnumbered
Has a second chance."
The rider turned around. His armor shone brilliantly in the sun. He wasn't overly large and muscly, but lean and swift, riding with the grace of a dancer, as if his horse were an extension of his legs. With his visor down, Valoria could not see his face, yet his actions took her breath away.
As Echo swung his blade desperately in an arc around him, the soldier came up from behind, spearing one of the raiders. The others turned toward the soldier, their attention diverted. Clutching a gash on his shoulder oozing blood, Echo fell to his knees.
"No." Valoria dropped her harp.
Cadence grabbed her hand. "It's too dangerous. Too many raiders still run free."
"Look." She pointed to where the mist dissipated. "They flee toward the hills."
Cadence's grip tightened. "Still, you should get back in the carriage. There is no place for a lady on a battlefield."
Valoria ripped her hand out of her handmaiden's grip. "Tell that to my new mother-in-law."
She ran toward Echo, darting in between minstrels gathering the wounded and tending to the horses, while the Royal Guard captured prisoners. Her mentor lay on his back in the grass, his gaze skyward, as if he longed to meet Helena and Horred in their sacred temple.
Valoria fell on her knees beside him. The gash ran from his neck to his shoulder, his skin split open by a crude blade. The earth below him blossomed with red. Denying his condition, she tore a piece of cloth from her dress and tied it tightly around the wound. "For a harp teacher, you're quite good with a blade."
"Necessity dictates action, my dear." He studied her face, raising a finger to her cheek. His usually ruddy complexion had paled. His hair seemed grayer and thinner against the long-stemmed grass. "Shouldn't you be in your carriage?"
"Like a prize to be won?" She shook her head. "I missed my harp too much."
"I bet a wyvern's egg you did."
"Come on." She hefted him up. "Your carriage awaits."
"Am I to take your place?"
She laughed, wishing it were so. "I don't think Braxten Thoridian would like that."
As if summoned by a name, the solider turned toward them and dismounted. All four raiders lay at his feet. He pulled his helmet from his head, and brown, curly hair fell around his shoulders. His eyes were a rich, amber brown, his features sharp and rugged. He fell to one knee and bowed before her. "Princess, allow me to help you."
Hope glimmered in Valoria's heart, followed by a swell of desire. This man had led the Royal Guard into battle. His armor had Ebonvale's double sword crest and the deep violet colors of the ruling house. It had to be Braxten Thoridian. "Yes, help me carry him to the carriage. My handmaiden can tend to his wounds."
Excerpted from Orphan's Blade by Aubrie Dionne. Copyright © 2015 Aubrie Dionne. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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