As King Rothan orders, the Darktowers depart Cliffehaven for destinations they have never seen before. Will it tear them apart to be so far from home with such a burden upon their shoulders?
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After the battles of Rosehill, Thorne and Aspen Darktower come face to face with finding the balances of peace and justice amidst the adversity that meets them head-on as they explore their new positions as the Grand Duke and Duchess of Elgolan. Being led forward by the imperious Sir Lernmoore, they find their relationship tested by the power granted them by the king and the bonds of their love are stretched by the evil that surrounds them, unable to be found. Together they learn a new nobility through the people they meet and the places they see on their quest to return home. Their story continues from the unforgettable story, Noble Courage!
“There is a price to be paid for the power which we hold.” ~ Hans Broadleaf
The Price of Power Chapter 10 Excerpt
Sauren was the only one present in the bailey to say goodbye as they boarded the carriages…he hated to see them go, even after all the tension they had felt in each other’s company. Aspen hugged him briefly and Thorne shook his hand firmly and then both boarded the carriage, a strange feeling of foreboding haunting Aspen as she gathered Dalen tightly in her arms as she thought of their one-day trip to Glendella’s Glade and their unforeseen length of stay thereafter.
Vatric had decided to join them on their journey until the traveling life became too much for him. He clamored aboard and slipped Mira upon his lap. He had grown close to the children during the last weeks of being at the castle and having nothing else to do. Ophelia sat beside him trying her best to keep Mira sitting up straight and behaving herself.
“It is just a carriage!” Mira complained.
“A lady is always a lady, even in a carriage,” Ophelia chastised her.
Aspen cast Thorne a sideways glance and could see his struggle with his smile, much less his laugh. But not even his mirth could lift the haze of discomfort she felt at the thought of where they were headed.
The coaches rambled along the dusty summer roads trying their best to avoid the ruts that ran deep but succeeding in sending billowing clouds of dirt into the sky. Thorne waved his hand to clear the air in the tight space to no avail and cursed softly before the virgin ears of Mira. He pushed aside the curtain at the window and looked around cursing again at his own stupidity. If St. Michael was watching them, he would have no problems following since it appeared that their entire party was on fire. He feared their entire journey would be much the same unless they encountered some poor weather, which he would gladly welcome.
“What is wrong, my lord?” Aspen asked him in all but a whisper.
Thorne grunted and replaced the curtain. “The roads are too dry,” was all he said and that perplexed Aspen.
They arrived back at Cliffehaven near to the midday meal. The castle was waiting for them thanks to a dispatched messenger so that they would have a meal before they continued on the remainder of the day. Thorne explained that their time was very limited and that they must eat and hurry back to the carriages.
Jennessa and Glade were in the bailey waiting for the lord and lady to disembark. Aspen couldn’t believe her eyes at how much Jennessa’s baby had grown within her. Jennessa still had at least two month’s time before the babe would be born but she appeared as though it could be any day.
Aspen wanted to jump from the coach and run to her best friend, but she minded her new station and stepped lightly from the doorway with Thorne’s help. She wore an excited smile of pure friendship and walked as fast as her legs would carry her until she had thrown her arms around Jennessa and was hugging her tight unable to stop the giggles from escaping.
“Aspen,” Thorne called from the doorway impatiently.
Aspen sighed and drew Jennessa with her as she made her way to the great hall for a spot of food.
Thorne could hear the two hens clucking the entire route to the hall and knew that Aspen missed Jennessa very much. He wished he could find the way to bring her with them, but it was an impossibility.
Aspen and Jennessa spoke of everything that had happened while they had been apart the last two months. Aspen was proud that the crops had grown since they had worked so hard to save themselves. Now they would have to see how many actually reached maturity. Vatric’s field was being meticulously cared for because it had been planted on time and was one of the few bearing fruit already. It would harvest well. Vatric requested that the entire harvest be put into the castle’s stores and rationed to the peasants when necessary. Thorne had thanked him profusely for that gesture.
“I did na grow the crops for me, I grew them fer you and Aspen, son,” Vatric said. “I could ne’er eat all tha’ food.”
The occupants at the table laughed, the mood was light and Aspen forgot about what was repelling her from Glendella’s Glade.
Jennessa told Aspen all about the developments of her pregnancy and Aspen did not tell her anything about Marissa…She did not see the point in frightening her this close to delivering. Perhaps when she came home again she could tell her about it. Jennessa did ask about parties with stars in her eyes, the longing very evident. Aspen snorted and made it sound like such an inconvenience and once again, shielded her from the reality by not telling her about the appearance of Rayven during the middle of the masque. She promised Jennessa a grand party when they returned home in celebration of everything they loved and missed. Jennessa smiled finding it hard to say goodbye again.
All too soon, the meal was over and it was time to climb aboard the curricles once again in hopes of making it to Glendella’s Glade before the sun set that evening. September had arrived and the days were already becoming shorter.
Aspen clung to Jennessa until Thorne gently tore them apart.
“I can’t bear to watch you leave again,” Jennessa said and left quickly not giving Aspen the opportunity to tell her goodbye or good luck with the baby, she was just gone. Her best friend…a sister of sorts had vanished to her leaving her gaping and hurting, longing to just stay where she belonged.
Aspen’s loathing for Rothan boiled to the surface and she set her jaw to keep her stubborn front on the surface, her tender, raw feelings needed to be hidden beneath to be shed later when she could be alone. Thorne helped her into the cabin of the carriage once again not able to miss her sneaking one last look back at their home before she was seated.
Once the Darktowers had ambled further down a road that was unfamiliar to Aspen a while, the trees became more dense and the road was less dusty. It grew cooler as the sun could no longer reach them and the sounds of the ocean disappeared. Their surroundings were quiet, muffled…even the sounds of the carriage wheels were not the same grinding noise. It was more like driving on feathers the deeper into the forest they delved. The sounds of the wildlife could be heard as they chattered and twittered amongst themselves, no doubt warning each other of the intruder’s arrival. A shiver stole up Aspen’s back and all the hair on her body stood on end. What a truly odd place this was.
Thorne noticed her shiver and pulled her into his embrace feeling her sigh.
“You have done much of that lately,” he remarked.
“What?” she asked confused.
He mimicked her sigh and she laughed a nervous laugh but did not respond.
To her, it felt like going from day to night in an instant, from being in a clean and healthy place to the underworld where it was clogged with giant trees littered with hanging moss all around them as far as the eye could see. It would be complete with a swirling white mist that hugged the specters that haunted the wood and kept them secluded.
Finally she could take no more, the feeling of suffocation overwhelmed her and she looked up at Thorne to make certain he hadn’t changed into some deathly looking creature.
“I do not like this place,” she muttered.
Thorne smiled in response and touched the tip of her nose with his right index finger. “I do not like the drive in either, but the glade is quite lovely. Perhaps you should try to nap,”
“I could never sleep in such a ghastly place, I would be afraid I would not wake.”
A bird flew so close to her window that its wing thudded against the carriage wall. Aspen shrieked and Dalen woke in Ophelia’s arms, startled he began to cry but his governess was able to rock him back to sleep. Mira looked on as though she were about to cry with the suspense of it.
“’Twas just a bird, Mira. We are in their home now and they are curious of us,” Thorne explained.
His words seemed to relax her enough that her chin stopped quivering, but her steel gray eyes were still large and scared.
“Papa will hold ye tighter, girl. Anything bad will ‘ave ta get through me ta get you. And that’s gonna be right hard cuz I’m a tough son of a…” he quickly regarded Thorne and Aspen who were staring at him with daggers in their eyes, “a Thorien!”
Mira looked perplexed and craned her head around to look at her grandfather, her hand reaching up to caress his chin. “What is a ‘Thorien’, Papa?”
“Why, he was one of the toughest men I ever knew…he was me da. He died when I was ‘bout yer mother’s age…before I married yer…” he let his memory leave him there.
“Oh!” Mira breathed. “Did he look like you, Papa?”
“Na, not so much.”
“What did he do like you, if he was your da?” she pressed.
“Well, I s’pose I’s a little brave like him sometimes. He was nicer than me though,” he added staring at Aspen, “We might have ‘ad the same color of hair, but his was all gray since I could remember. I know, I know! We both loved me ma! There ya go!” he laughed with her.
“How did he die, Papa?” Mira asked solemnly.
“Now why do ye want ta know a sad thing like tha’?” Vatric asked with his bushy brows knitted together.
“My family died too, and then I got a new family who loves me even more. They died in a fire by the bad guys. I was safe in the castle, I feel like I was hiding…being scared, and they all died but me,” she offered up so he wouldn’t feel so bad. “Your turn!”
Aspen’s heart twisted at her innocent little words.
“Me da died in a little camp called Little Harbour a long time ago. It was dark like this place and cold. We could na grow any food because the sun could not get through the trees and so many of the people got sick and died. Me da was one of them,” Vatric explained.
“I am sorry, Papa. I wish I could know him. I would bet he was very sweet like you,” Mira said snuggling against his shoulder.
Aspen watched her father swallow convulsively. It would appear that she was not the only one having trouble with demons this day.
The forest was an interminable path to nowhere, or so it felt, the scenery never changed so they could have been traveling in circles for all they knew and there was no concept of time without the movement of the sun overhead so time seemed to have stopped in this silent wasteland.
The road wound around always in the same direction and sloped ever so slightly upward, climbing, but were they really gaining altitude? It was hard to tell. It could have been days, Lord knows it felt like it to Aspen, before the trees thinned and the sky was visible once again. The air grew warmer wrapping Aspen in its comfort after being lost in the chill of the forest for so long. It was twilight, the sun was down but its light was not forsaken, not yet the end of another day.
They broke the forest briefly but were escorted to the manor house of the village by a canopy of trees that grew like sentinels beside the road, their branches intertwining with each other’s to form a solid rooftop. Aspen was in awe of what she was seeing and craned her head quite unladylike out her window to catch the first glimpse of the village itself.
It sprung up over the side of the mountain, the little chateaus with the sweet arched roofs, some thatched and some wooden, the village of Glendella’s Glade perched in the middle of the wild grasses and adorned with vibrant flowers of all kinds. If faeries existed, surely they would live here in such a graceful and beautiful place. Just beyond the houses were more trees and Thorne pointed them out as being “the glade” of the village.
As they rambled nearer still, Aspen caught sight of the manor house with its wide sweeping lawns that were perfectly manicured. This place had a grassy bailey, not dirt with a circular drive. And the gardens surrounded the house entirely. It was more like the house entertained the gardens with its arched doors and windows than having the gardens that entertained the house. Aspen could see fountains and pools of water that cascaded down the mountainside, there were beautifully green hedges and masterfully shaped topiaries. It was a botanical paradise.
Thorne heard Aspen’s reaction. “It is beautiful, isn’t it?” he asked her.
“Aye, it is one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen,” she breathed.
The manor house felt oddly casual, as if no one was expecting them even though Orin had been dispatched long before they had left Rosehill. He was one of the best trackers around so Thorne sent him on errands quite often. But as he opened the door to the carriage and hopped to the ground and stared at the house before him, it felt sleepy and settled in the coming darkness.
John leapt from the driver’s seat and scratched his head having never seen a reception of any noble family like this before. “I’ll go announce ye, my lord,” he said disrupting the perfect sound of trickling water in the still air.
“Thank you, John,” Thorne replied gratefully.
Sir Lernmoore caught up to him then asking what the situation was all about and Thorne having no more answers. Aspen too was curious so she carefully unloaded her person from the carriage to stand beside her husband in the balmy late summer evening as the lighting was beginning to cast them all in shadow.
John knocked loudly and the door was answered by a younger man who was fair headed with very pale skin. He stood only as tall as John’s shoulder, which Aspen guessed was only as tall as she but he was more portly. He was clothed well in beautifully cut shirt, tunic, breeches and sported hose beneath. He wore no boots but slippers adorned his wide feet and Aspen could overhear a nasally tone in his voice. She watched him carefully from her distance and marveled at his gestures, his hands moving all the while that his mouth was…and then his knees would bend and his head would move to the side and he would smack his lips slightly between sentences. He was also like nothing she had ever seen before. Such a lively person…for a butler.
John turned from him and started back toward his master, the manor’s door closed shutting out the sliver of light its mouth had produced over the grass.
“Javier there is goin’ ta get his lord and lady fer us, my lord. They don’t seem ta know tha’ we were coming. Claims tha’ our message ne’er showed up,” John said quietly.
Gooseflesh erupted over Aspen’s arms at his words. Where was Orin? Instinctively, Aspen rubbed her arms and spun in a slow circle taking in the scenery from beyond the carriage. Perhaps Orin lost his course in the forest if he didn’t stay to the road. She pursed her lips tightly together and assumed that Thorne would assemble a search party for him on the morrow after they had all gotten a good night’s sleep.
A movement at the line of the trees caught Aspen’s eye and she struggled in the creeping darkness to make it out until it took flight and she could see its inky body. Her eyes grew wider still when the unmistakable flutter of a cloak billowing from behind someone disappeared into the trees in the direction they had just come. Her heart raced, the pattern uneven and heavy making her feel faint.
“He is still following me,” she muttered aloud without thinking.
Thorne stopped talking and looked at her not sure if he heard her right. He placed his hands on her shoulders and stared in the same direction her eyes were fixed. “What was that?” he whispered in her ear.
As if woken from a trance she started and reached up to stroke his cheek with her hand. Did she tell the truth? Perhaps she should to protect Dalen… “I will tell you later, my love,” she promised.
The manor house door opened once again spilling light over the grass, but no one made any move to light any lamps outdoors for the guests. Thorne was getting quite irritated by their hosts’ lack of respect. Hans and Sophia both held lanterns as they stepped out into the night air wrapped in their cloaks.
“My lord, my lady,” Hans greeted them causing Aspen to spin back to face the house once again. “We regret that we did not know of your imminent arrival and are not prepared. I beg you to please bear with us,” Hans said with apology evident in his soft green eyes, the light reflecting off of his balding head.
“I understand that some tragedy must have befallen my messenger, for we sent him long before we departed. I am prepared to offer you the assistance of my servants in order to better prepare in such a short amount of time,” Thorne began.
Sophia smiled a cold smile that did not reach her blue eyes. Her flaxen curls had been let down from its style to bounce around her shoulders and she stepped slightly forward. “No, you misunderstand, my lord. I am not prepared for you this night. No amount of servitude will make me ready for you and your wife,” she said. “You will just need to sleep in your tents tonight and allow me the time on the morrow to ready my home for you,” she said quite pointedly mincing no words.
Thorne could not believe what he was hearing. “You mean for us, the extension of your king, to sleep on the ground in your village while you have several rooms that are not slept in?”
“Well, it is my home and I would not wish to embarrass myself. If I had known you were coming…” she remarked again rolling her eyes toward the sky. “Oh come now, it is just one night. I will make certain the two of you have my nicest rooms available. I do not, however, have room for all of your…party. They will have to camp and will have to do so away from the grounds. My gardens are so precious to me and people tend to ruin things like that.”
Thorne was concentrating on not losing his temper for his wrath was building. “Don’t forget that my children will need a room, madam.”
Sophia looked shocked and looked down her slim nose at Aspen. “Who brings their children to conduct business in another’s home? I do not appreciate that at all!” she squawked.
“We do,” Thorne defended gruffly, ignoring the hand of warning from Sir Lernmoore on his sleeve. “We are famished, I would appreciate a meal.”
Sophia clucked her tongue against her teeth and Aspen thought that she was enjoying herself, that this was all a part of her plan. “I do apologize, my lord, I have nothing for you. Our evening meal is over and we have nothing more to prepare until we break our fast at the morning meal.”
Thorne wanted to wring her neck, he wanted to spit in her face and blow fire to melt her skin away. “I am asking that you please find us something to sate us until the morning. I trust that all your documents are in order here?” he asked looking fiercely at Hans.
Hans was shaking, the lamp in his hand was quivering. “Yes, my lord, you will find it all in order.”
“Good. Then I can study them on the morrow and get the bloody Hell out of here as fast as I can manage it. Don’t think that your lack of respect here will go unpunished for I swear to you, you will get your comeuppance,” Thorne threatened still fuming.
“It was never stated that any one person was required to show their respect by offering a lord a bed, it was just done when someone liked them, my lord. I have not trespassed against my king and so therefore I do not feel I should be punished. You are merely inconvenienced and angry. Well, it happens sometimes and it is truly upsetting to be inconvenienced and angry,” Sophia said bitterly and Aspen knew this had everything to do with sending her away from Marissa’s recovery.
Aspen cringed at her tone and how furious Thorne would be.
“There is much to be done, my lord,” Sir Lernmoore said quietly and walked toward the caravan.
“On the morrow then,” Thorne said angrily eyeing Hans with contempt.
John shook his head and scratched the back of his neck. The day had come that the Darktowers were sleeping in a tent. It was a hard one to grasp. “Well I s’pose I had better get on with the helping,” he muttered and followed after Sir Lernmoore.
“I am sorry, my lady,” Thorne said gathering Aspen into his arms and kissing her on the top of her head.
She craned her head up to gaze at her husband’s brilliance in the waning light of day. “Whatever do you have to be sorry for, my lord?” she asked.
He gave her a sigh in return before the words would come. “I did not want you to sleep in a tent quite yet,” he confessed.
Aspen laughed. “Darling, I would rather sleep in our tents than be subjected to Sophia’s endless bantering. That woman makes me so angry.”
Thorne knew it didn’t matter to her…it mattered to him. It was his pride Sophia was damaging, she was merely angering Aspen.
“You were going to tell me something before. Tell me now, we are alone,” he coaxed.
A little nagging sensation pulled at Aspen’s belly when she thought of the cloak at the edge of the forest. “I don’t know if I should tell you, really,” she said trying to sound calm.
“If you do not tell me, you will definitely regret it. You know you will,” he reasoned with her.
“’Twas probably nothing, my lord and right now we have so much to do before all the light expires,” Aspen said pulling away from him to shift the subject. She knew he would be even more furious if she told him what it was that she saw.
Thorne tightened his hold on her. “I would very much like to know what it was that you were going to tell me, my lady. I will stand here all the night watching the stars dance in your hair if I must and you can feel guilty for letting all those servants do their work without your help because you failed to tell me something. I could endure, could you?”
Aspen hated to lose a battle of wills but she knew he was right. She needed to be out there helping those people prepare the tents and some food and to oversee that it went on smoothly. She let a noise rumble from her that resembled a growl, or so Thorne thought and then she stamped her foot like a child. He quirked an eyebrow at her that she couldn’t see in the growing darkness surprised as he was at her display.
“I will bend to you since that is what you crave this night…people who will bend,” Aspen began.
Thorne chuckled, “Go on, bender.”
She was suddenly very serious when she spoke of the figure at the forest’s edge and the crow that seemed to follow him. “That was a point I had figured out at the masque, Thorne. The crows do not fear the human hand. He has trained them of sorts. Where they are, he is also.” She shivered in remembrance of the crows that had appeared all over the castle and would not be frightened away. Rayven had been close by, perhaps even inside her room then.
“Those nasty fowl are everywhere, darling. They are scavengers that look to take the scraps from others and put them to their own use. Perhaps it was the light playing a trick on you that caused you to see what you did. Worry not, we will keep the guard high and you safe from the scavenger, wherever he may be,” Thorne said thoughtfully sensing her worry.
The camp was erected quickly with so many hands at work. Fifteen white tents filled the side of the mountain away from the manor house as Sophia had requested, several pits were dug in the swaying grasses for fires and the food stores were brought out since the host family had so selfishly denied them a meal. Ophelia dressed the children for bed having requested a tray for Mira and herself to be brought in.
Sir Lernmoore approached Thorne who was standing quite protectively over Aspen and asked if he could have a private word. Thorne looked at Aspen and then searched the crowds for Jackal. He told Sir Lernmoore he would return in short order and gently ushered his wife in Jackal’s direction.
“She goes nowhere without you. Absolutely nowhere,” Thorne said firmly and flicked his gaze to his wife to bore his meaning into her as well. He bent to kiss her mouth gently. “I won’t be long, I swear it.”
“What was that all about, my lord?” Sir Lernmoore questioned.
“I don’t trust this place,” Thorne retorted. “I don’t like leaving her unprotected in an unfamiliar place where people disappear,” he said speaking of Orin.
“Yes, well, that was too bad about the chap. Do you plan to search for him?”
“Something tells me not to, Lernmoore. Something tells me there is something in that wood right now that wanted things to be just this way. If I send a party in there, they will all be missing too and then we will be without a defense. I know this man and he is very cunning when I can see him. I wager he is quite deadly when I can’t,” Thorne explained folding his long arms before him trying to scan through the darkness that had settled all about them.
“What exactly does he want with you?” Lernmoore asked.
Thorne laughed, his body tipping backward with the force of it. “You have not heard the whole story then. Well, you are in for a treat. Aspen is at the very center of all of this, Lernmoore. He wants Aspen.” And then he proceeded to tell him the story that began a year ago when Vatric came to him and reminded him of a bargain they had struck years before. The plan to keep Aspen away from the St. Michael family forever.
“And you think he is here in the glade?” Sir Lernmoore asked.
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The Price of Power Chapter 11 Excerpt
Sara settled on a royal blue velvet frock with tight sleeves from shoulder to wrist and an underskirt the whitest color of snow. It went beautifully with her Ring of Favour and the heart pendant from the king. Sara pulled a brush through the knots in her hair and fashioned it into a simple but graceful chignon. She thanked Sara for her good work and stepped out of the tent to get a bit of food.
The camp was teeming with life when Aspen made her way to the kitchen area. There were so many men walking about and standing about the perimeter were curious villagers coming to see what their presence was all about. Visitors were a rarity to the glade for it was so hard to get to.
Aspen scanned the crowds for Thorne and found him not. Nor did she find Sir Lenmoore so she figured they were meeting together to devise the day’s plan. Jackal, however, was following close behind her as ordered and sat with her as she ate her oats and apples.
“So did anything odd happen last night?” she asked hoping for some detail.
“Nothing,” was Jackal’s answer. So typical of him, just one word and the least amount of information as possible so as not to worry her.
“Hmmm,” she nearly snorted but tried her best to sound ladylike.
“You believe me not?” he asked feigning a wound.
“I know you would not tell me even if the camp was attacked and the entire crew was killed. You would say they went on a walk to the tavern until I had to know the truth,” she said stubbornly.
“Because your life is the one in danger, my lady, I would tell you all. I was the one who saw the look of terror on your face in Rosehill, forget that not,” he said somberly.
“I am so glad you did or I fear we would all be in much less humor right now,” she smiled. “I never had the chance to thank you with all my heart for saving me, Jackal. Thank you.”
“”Tis such a pleasure to defend such a wonderful young woman. I thank you for your trust and I will defend you to my death,” Jackal vowed.
“I know and I do trust you with my life. So where did his lordship take himself off to? I have not seen him since he woke.”
Thorne and Sir Lernmoore sat uncomfortably in the foyer of the manor waiting for Hans to be readied for company. Thorne kept rolling his eyes and sighing as his impatience grew with each passing minute. Sir Lernmoore leaned forward on the padded bench resting his elbows on his knees and pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger as though he were trying to staunch a headache. He was so exhausted, his eyes just wanted to close and he wanted to sleep now that the sun was up and the threat to the duchess was not so great. He had tried to fall asleep, but not knowing what was out there had kept him awake and he got back up and kept watch with the other men. Everything had been lively and funny, the jokes and never ending banter had lightened the mood drastically until they could hear the crow calling out into the darkness. It was at that point that the men went on alert and the laughter stopped. Everyone was afraid that he would slip through their net of protection on their watch.
The jovial Javier came strutting around the corner in his hose and slippers. He opened his mouth to speak and immediately his hands moved with it. “His lordship is awaiting you in the study, so if you would follow me my lords,” he said happily.
“Finally,” Thorne said under his breath and followed the man before him that was nearly skipping his way to the study.
The study was smaller than his back at home with a small fireplace and two small leather chairs on the other side of the oak desk that Hans was seated behind. It was fairly plain, not extravagant in the slightest, not even a portrait hung on the wall nor a family crest.
Hans stood as they entered the room and motioned for them to be seated in each of the chairs. He gave Javier a hand motion and the man left.
“So sorry you had to wait, my lords,” Hans said nervously, his voice shaking just a bit. He readjusted the piles of parchment on his desk twice, picking them up and straightening them.
“So are we, Hans,” Thorne’s voice boomed in comparison.
The man behind the desk stopped shuffling the papers and sucked a deep breath. He looked Thorne square in the eyes and braced himself for the worst. “Look, my lord, I know you are upset with everything…”
“What exactly do you classify as everything?” Thorne asked cutting Hans short.
“Well, uh, the inconvenience last night I do so apologize for, I wanted to be able to welcome you,” he said clearing his throat. “And then to make you wait this morn because I was not awake. You see I take a potion so I can sleep sometimes and I did take one last night but it makes it difficult at best to wake when I should. I do hate to make you wait for me.”
Hans groveled sincerely, Thorne had to give him that.
“You put my family in danger last night, Hans. I cannot forgive you that. By forsaking us a place to stay, we all forfeited a good night’s sleep and we have yet to get a warm bath,” Thorne said firmly.
Hans shook his head regretfully. “I wish you could see your way clear to find me in your good grace, my lord. We are ill equipped to handle a party of your magnitude. A warm bath for all of you is impossible. A warm bath for you and the duchess is near unmanageable. We merely get by, we do not live as you do,” Hans was to the point of begging.
The door opened and Sophia came in dressed in a red gown that fit her curves and flared at her hips. Even her sleeves hugged her. Her blonde hair was fashioned flawlessly atop her head very much the same as it always was giving her face a drawn up and stretched appearance, as if her maid had pulled her hair too tight.
Thorne hoped she was just dropping off tea, but knew that wasn’t so since she didn’t bear a tray. No, she was coming to inflict her evil presence upon them and make them suffer for the remainder of the morning. He had to think of a way to get them out of there. To let him have the study to himself and be rid of her.
“Good morning, my lord, I hope you slept well,” she said overly chipper but looking them over with cold and piercing eyes.
“No, I don’t think you do really,” Thorne said honestly so tired of their games. “I trust that we will have rooms ready soon, Sophia?”
Sophia regarded him almost hostile. “Of course, my lord. We have been working feverishly to be ready for you.”
“I am sure you have, but I have run out of patience and I demand that our rooms are ready before the midday meal is served. I want warm baths prepared for those staying in the castle as well,” Thorne ordered in anger.
Sophia’s hand landed upon her hips and her lips pursed as she bit back what she wanted to say. “And are you going to buy several more tubs so you can all bathe at the same time? It is impossible with what I have here.”
Thorne exploded in rage, the same rage that they had witnessed at the masque when he thundered at Marissa. He jumped from the leather chair and pounded both fists upon the desk with such force that his hair was torn free of its restraints and flowed about his shoulders making him look all the more menacing. “I do not want your petty excuses! You do what you must to make things right! I expect more from you than this!” he bellowed. “Now I need your financial papers, your population papers and your prisoner’s records. I trust that you have not wrongly imprisoned any person here, if you feel that you may have made an error in judgement, you had better free that person before I get to them because if I have to pay them a penance for your wrong doing, you will pay me three fold. Do I make myself clear?” Thorne thundered eyeing them both.
Thorne could hear Hans’ nervous breathing. “Perfectly,” the man whispered.
Sophia rolled her eyes at her husband’s weakness. He was lucky to have her, the strength behind his name. She would not cower to Darktower, the man who thought he could bully those he sought control over. No, he would learn that in the glade she was the ruler and there was no other sovereignty.
“Good then we have an understanding,” Thorne said smoothly. “Now call off your bitch and leave me be so I may spend some time with your records. I shall reconvene with you after the midday and a bath.”
Sophia was livid by his flippant use of his term for her and it took every ounce of strength not to scratch his eyes out and shove them down his henchman’s throat. But her scared and portly husband gestured to the stacks of parchment over his desk and moved aside for Thorne to move in and take his place.
Hans cleared his throat uncomfortably knowing his wife was quite inflamed over the remark that was made and took her slim elbow in his chubby hand to lead her away before it became unsightly. He was proud of her for remaining silent…he wondered what prize she would demand for her good behavior.
“I would like it if you would please accompany me on a walk through the village, Jackal,” Aspen announced as she finished her meal. The oats warmed her from the inside and she felt content.
“I am not so sure if that is such a…” Jackal tried to explain but Aspen was ready to defend.
“I know that we are not going to stay here very long and I would like to take advantage of the time I have to see what the village is like, what it looks like and how it compares to our village. I know I can’t go anywhere without you, nor would I want to, so we could go right now while nothing is happening,” she reasoned.
Jackal’s mouth was open to respond, but Aspen was already on her feet and walking in the direction of the houses that crowded the mountain. He let a low groan escape him before he hefted himself up and after his stubborn lady.
They passed several homes that looked as sweet and serene up close as they did from the carriage on their way in. The paths between the houses were cobbled with smooth stones in all different shades and on either side of the paths the grasses were nearly waist high and whispering in the breeze as they passed. The tenants had a sense of pride about them for they all grew a personal garden as well as nurtured vibrantly colored flowers of all kinds around the doors and walkways of their homes and some even sported boxes that were fixed below the windows that grew flowers in them. Those amazed Aspen. It was something she planned to bring home to her people, something easy but beautiful that added so much to the appearance of the home.
They stayed on their course and Aspen noticed that there were no crops, no farms, only little cottages. How did they survive here? Were they not feeding them because they had not the means to?
In the center of the houses, there was a pristine little chapel. It was all wood and washed white with stained glass in the windows, the rooftop pointing higher to the heavens than any other building in the village and was topped with an iron cross. The arches in the architecture were filled in with filigree craftsmanship that looked like lace and the cathedral doors felt welcoming while they looked like a pair of hands praying…slim at the top and wide at the base. It was all so perfect.
To the side of the chapel was a quaint cemetery that Aspen decided to walk through to see who had been buried there, to see how far back the Broadleaf name had been a noble one in the glade. Jackal watched her most curiously not willing to trespass into the sacred land even to follow his lady. It was bad luck, especially around foreign spirits. All he needed was to have a vengeful one attach itself to him and wreak havoc through his life, all because he dared trod where he should not have.
Aspen looked at the markers with interest, but many were unnamed. Close to the chapel’s whitewashed wall in the shade of an impossibly good smelling tree that possessed no blossoms were three stone crosses that Aspen’s eye ran over and widened. The smaller of the three read, ‘Glendella Broadleaf, Daughter’. Aspen thought on that for a time. Glendella was a real person…the glade was named after her, but was it after her death? What happened to her?
The larger two read, ‘Lord Broadleaf’ and ‘Lady Broadleaf’ so Aspen assumed it was Glendella’s mother and father who rested with her. There were no first names, no other sentiments…only their titles. It was odd to Aspen to not be remembered by a name. She wondered then if they had all died together. What sort of tragedy befell this family? Was it anything like Thorne had suffered in losing his entire family? Did some jealous village leader come here and kill them to take over? Could it have been the St. Michaels?
Aspen returned to Jackal’s side casting him a sideways smile and elbowing him playfully for his superstitions. “The ghosts weren’t out today,” she tried to comfort him.
“Ah, so now you claim to see ghosts,” Jackal laughed.
“And what if I could? I don’t think they are all bad, just lost,” she replied as they walked.
Jackal laughed and shook his head at her. “If I did not know you better, I would think you a crazed woman, my lady.”
“Perhaps I am that too,” she smiled in fun.
The walkway sloped further down until they came to the market segment of the village. Little shops and tents lined the path selling many different kinds of wares. Aspen could barely take it all in. She forgot all about the feuding with Hans and Sophia and took upon her the task of browsing the store fronts, purchasing trinkets and gifts, jewelry and another record book. Her purse was much lighter but Jackal was laden with packages by the end of the market. She marveled at how this little place could be so self-sufficient and sell everything they needed…even crops that Aspen could not find planted. They found a tavern with an inn but then Aspen’s heart stopped beating and broke in two when she saw twenty or thirty men, women and even children drooping in a sea of stockades. Their clothing was tattered or missing and evidence of lashing on bare skin showed in open gaping wounds crawling with insects. Each prisoner had their head and wrists locked into a bar of wood leaving the rest of their body free, but they could go nowhere, they could not sit, they could only stand hunched over to bake in the western sun and freeze in the cold mountain nights contemplating their crimes. Aspen could smell the decay and hear their moans begging someone for mercy. She covered her mouth to keep from vomiting and Jackal led her away before she could observe any more.
“What in the bloody Hell was that?” she raged when she had regained control of her stomach.
“That, my lady, was their form of a dungeon. That is their punishment for crimes that do not befit their society,” Jackal replied in his low gravelly voice.
“Dear God, there were small children locked up and bleeding out there!” she shrieked.
“You don’t know what they did to deserve it, my lady, with all due respect,” he reminded her.
“But a child!” she raged on thinking of little Mira being locked up in a stockade. “I hate this place and I want so badly to go home.”
“Me too, my lady.”
Aspen was so enraged by what she had seen that she tried to speak to Jackal about going with her to find Sophia and talking with her about the stockades, but he held up his hand and told her absolutely not.
“Why don’t I take you to see the glade? It isn’t far and we could be back in plenty of time for the midday. Perhaps the beautiful scenery will pacify your thirst for vengance,” Jackal laughed.
Aspen sulked but finally agreed to go. “I don’t know what is so special about some more trees,” she said grumpily.
“I don’t think you slept very well. Perhaps we should stay and let you take a nap, my lady,” he mused quite charmingly.
“You men think you are all so very funny,” she retorted and stalked off toward the glade.
“Ah, my lady?” Jackal called.
Aspen looked back at him noticing how the sunshine made his scars appear lighter. “What?” she demanded.
“The glade is this way,” he said softly and gestured for her to proceed ahead of him.
Aspen crossed her arms and floated on ahead, her pretty face set in a deep scowl, causing Jackal to chuckle to himself.
“So stubborn,” he laughed and scratched the back of his neck thoroughly amused.
Jackal took her to a stand of trees that were fragrant and beautiful standing tall and green despite the heat of the late summer. Aspen ducked between the branches of them following the fading path that was eroding with time. It grew darker and cool, the sounds of wildlife scampering away filled Aspen’s ears making her feel slightly apprehensive. Birds that were chirping stopped as the intruders entered their domain. It had suddenly grown deathly silent and quite cold. Aspen shivered.
Finally, the trees broke away and a glorious clearing butted up to the mountain’s side. It reminded her of the place where she had first married Thorne, the tall grass, the babbling creek…it was only missing the waterfall and pond. Here, the wildflowers were rampant but it was still cold here. Aspen walked on into the small space reveling in the little bit of warmth that the sun was able to bring her there. In the far corner, where the creek ran close to the trees, she could see something swaying back and forth. She started for it to find that it was a rope that appeared to have been used as a swing. She shivered again and turned to head back to a patient Jackal when a silvery form appeared in bend of the rope.
It took Aspen by surprise and she jumped back gasping loudly. The form smiled at her as if it was an expected reaction. She was a young girl, very lovely, with a shimmering gown from her neck to her slippers, her hair was long and loose to her waist and a ribbon tied around her head as though she were a present. She had large eyes on a slender face with pouty lips, her hands were folded properly in her lap.
“I didn’t mean to frighten you,” she said in a high voice like unto a child’s. “My name is Glendella and you have entered my glade. Who are you?”
Aspen looked back at Jackal hoping he was far enough away that he could not hear her answer. “I am Aspen. Aspen Darktower.”
Aspen heard an odd whistling noise come from the spirit before her. “Darktower, you say? Are you a Darktower born, or did you marry one?” she asked.
Aspen thought the ghost’s reaction very peculiar. “I married one. Thorne…a son. Why?”
“I loved a Darktower once upon a time,” she sighed a mournful sound.