Book 1: The Princess’s Obligation
King Maddoc Cadden stretched in bed as the new day’s light coming through the window woke him. He turned his head and grimaced. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep in this bed.
At least not without dismissing his partner after last night’s activities.
She was a lovely thing with dark hair and fair skin, but he wasn’t in the mood for any awkward morning conversations with a young handmaiden to the princess.
He carefully got out of bed, making sure to not wake the sleeping woman, and found the clothing he’d left on a nearby chair.
After dressing, he opened the door of the bedroom and stuck his head out to make sure no one of importance was about. Seeing it was empty, he went into the palace hall.
He wasn’t sure why he cared if anyone saw him. He was the king of the largest and most powerful kingdom in the land. He could do as he pleased.
Still, he’d come to pay court to the Parvilian princess on his mother’s recommendation, and he didn’t want it to get back to the queen mother that he’d been anything other than respectful and circumspect.
As he neared his rooms, he thought about the Parvilian princess. She was pretty enough with her blond hair and blue eyes. She was tall and well formed.
Her kingdom wasn’t large, but it was rich. Its army was strong. It would be a good alliance if he were to tie his kingdom to hers.
She seemed mostly harmless, though he’d noticed she could be a little catty and rude when she thought no one was paying attention.
It didn’t matter, because if he married her, he’d need only see her for official court business and nightly activities.
He wasn’t ready to enter into an agreement yet, but she was definitely a strong option for a wife. He would go back to his own kingdom and think it over.
He had time. He wasn’t even twenty-three yet. He’d had his title for over ten years, but only officially ruled for two.
His mother had led the kingdom while he was being taught by tutors and his uncle. Now, he was officially the king, though his mother still advised him.
In truth, she did most of the ruling of the kingdom along with his uncle.
He didn’t mind. Her taking care of many of the duties of the royal family left him time to do as he pleased. It gave him more time to drink with friends and bed desirable women.
As he opened the doors to the rooms he’d been staying in, he was met by his main servant, Evan.
“Ah, Your Majesty. I suppose you were up early for a morning stroll again.” His straight face held the hint of a smile.
“Yes, of course, Evan. I will be traveling today, and I wished to stretch my legs before I spent all day on a horse.”
“I just brought your breakfast, and everything is packed and on the wagon, ready to head back to Calumbria. Are you sure you don’t wish to ride in the royal carriage?”
“I will travel on horseback. It will be much quicker.
“If I ride hard and stay one night in the forest of Lucidala, I’ll make it to a nice inn inside the border of our kingdom not long after nightfall the next day.”
Maddoc sat on a sofa to partake of his breakfast that was waiting for him on a low table.
“You will travel through Lucidala?”
“Yes. It will take almost two days off of my travel. It’s a much faster route.”
“Faster perhaps, but you’d do better to take the long road to the south and go around the borders of Lucidala. The carriage will go that way.
“Forget this plan and travel in the safety of the carriage, Your Majesty. You’ll have to pass through much of this kingdom as well as Lucidala.
“You don’t know who might be lurking about,” said Evan with worry.
“I’ll have five of my royal guards with me, including Matthias. Who could stand against a group led by him?”
“The people of Lucidala are very mysterious, Your Majesty. It is said they have unnatural powers.”
“I’ve ridden within the boundaries of Lucidala before. Not deep into the kingdom, but far enough to reach some habitation.
“All the villages and the people I passed seemed normal enough. They were simple, but there was nothing nefarious about them.”
Evan shook his head. “I just worry about your being so vulnerable. When I served your father, he was never out of the royal carriage for long when traveling.”
“You did serve my father, Evan, but now you serve me. My father was no doubt a careful man, but it didn’t seem to help.
“He died at the age of only thirty-six of an infection from a cut he’d received while hunting in the woods.”
Maddoc picked up a bit of bacon. “I will not live my life in fear. I wish to ride in the open air. I have done so many times.
“I believe it might even be safer, as it doesn’t draw as much attention as riding in a well-guarded carriage does.
“You shall take the carriage, and I’ll be safe and sound in the palace before you’re barely in our kingdom’s borders.”
Evan sighed. “As you wish, Your Majesty” he said as he walked into the king’s bedroom.
Maddoc changed into the clothes Evan had laid out for him. He fastened his cloak around his neck as Evan packed up the clothes he’d taken off.
He smoothed back his black hair that fell just below his ears and rubbed his deep-blue eyes, trying to clear them a little. He was tired, but that was to be expected after last night.
He ran his hand over the hint of stubble on his chin. He imagined he might even have a bit of a beard by the time he returned to his own palace.
He glanced in the mirror to make sure his face was clean. Spending most of his time in the palace during the dreary first weeks of fall had made him appear even paler than usual.
Seeing that he looked well enough, he turned from the mirror.
After wishing his servant a good journey, he left his room and went to the front of the palace. He was met in the entryway by Princess Meira, who gave him a pretty smile.
“I’m sorry to see you go so soon, Your Majesty. I’d hoped you might stay for another week or so.” The princess put her hand on his arm as he came close to her.
“I cannot leave my kingdom for long periods, not this close to the harvest. I’ve been here almost a month altogether.” Maddoc moved back a step, and her hand fell from his arm.
“You’ll be journeying to our Winter Festival if the roads are clear. I’ll see you soon.”
Meira nodded. “I shall count the days and hope you won’t mind if I write to you.” She looked up at him through her long lashes.
“I am not opposed to receiving messages from you, Princess Meira.”
Meira smiled and held out her hand. “My father is waiting outside to see you off. I wanted to wish you a safe journey.”
Maddoc took her hand and kissed it. “Thank you, Your Highness. Until we meet again.”
She took her hand back and gave him a deep curtsy as he walked away from her. He exited the palace as two guards opened the door.
The King of Parvilia and several palace guards were awaiting him on the large landing in front of the palace.
“So, you are leaving us so soon, King Maddoc?” King Brone asked.
“I am. I need to get back to my kingdom. I thank you for your hospitality. I have enjoyed visiting your kingdom and becoming acquainted with you and your daughter.”
Brone nodded. “I do believe my daughter has grown very fond of you over these past weeks. You have spent much time together.”
Maddoc took his time to choose his words carefully. “She is a pleasant young woman. I look forward to seeing her again.”
Brone sighed slightly. “We will try our best to make it to your annual Winter Festival. If the roads are passable, we will be there.
“Hopefully, you will be able to further your acquaintance with the princess then.”
“If it is to be, I shall look forward to it.” Maddoc gave a bow. “I need to be going. Thank you again for your hospitality.”
“You are very welcome any time. Tell the queen mother she is welcome to come as well.”
“I am sure she will be happy to see you and your daughter this winter. Good day, King Brone.”
The king bowed, and Maddoc made his way down the stairs to his large bay stallion being held by one of his own guards.
He nodded to the man and mounted his horse smoothly, patting the animal once he was seated. He looked behind him at the large man in armor astride a horse.
“Are we ready to go, Matthias?” he asked.
“We are when you command, Your Majesty,” replied the large man.
Maddoc looked up at the palace before him where the king now stood with his daughter by his side. He gave them both a nod before urging his horse forward.
Two guards fell into place at his sides, and one rode ahead. Matthias rode just behind him with another guard.
They made their way through the village, the hooves of their horses clopping on the stone streets.
It was early, but many villagers were out, starting their day. They stood at the roadside and watched as Maddoc and his guards rode through.
As they made their way out of the village to the forest that lay ahead, Maddoc glanced back at Matthias.
He knew the large guard would have liked three or four times as many men with them, but Maddoc liked to move swiftly when he traveled.
He’d never run into any trouble, but if he were to, he doubted any man could get the upper hand over Matthias.
Maddoc had chosen the head of the royal guards himself. The man was young, but he was skilled and strong. Maddoc was also a decent fighter himself.
The road they were traveling on was in good repair. It ran through the lands of many of Parvilia’s lords, and they were well patrolled and regulated.
Only the short stretch of the road that ran through the kingdom of Lucidala had any kind of reputation, and he thought it was all nonsense.
He believed it was all superstition. Lucidala was a secretive kingdom, but they never seemed to cause anyone any harm.
The ruling family kept to themselves, and they’d never attacked any neighboring kingdoms. A few Lucidala villages even traded with the border villages of Maddoc’s kingdom of Calumbria.
As long as the road was passable, he didn’t think they’d have any problems.
They rode on through the day, stopping periodically for quick rests and to take care of basic needs.
The guards weren’t very conversational, but it suited Maddoc for the journey. He had much that he wanted to think over.
His mother had been pressuring him to consider marrying. He thought back to the conversation they’d had before he’d left on his journey.
“I’m glad you are going to Parvilia. I think you’ll like the palace. It’s not as large as ours, but it’s comfortable,” said his mother, Queen Evalin.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. Probably a little boring, but that’s what most of royal life is.”
“Hardly, Your Majesty.” Evalin shook her head, her dark curls bouncing.
“I’m sure the king and his daughter will entertain you. I understand that Princess Meira is charming and very beautiful. She would make you a proper queen.”
“I’m not sure I’m ready to pick a queen, Mother.”
“I married your father when he was six months younger than you. He was barely twenty-three when we were blessed with you. I was only twenty.”
He sighed. “I’ll spend time with the princess and see how I like her, Mother. I can’t promise I’ll come back betrothed, but I will start an acquaintance.
“They can come to our Winter Festival, and maybe things will progress by then.”
His mother took his hand and kissed his cheek. “I want to see you well settled. A good queen to help you rule and see to your heirs is important.”
“I know, Mother. I don’t know where our kingdom would be without you.” He smiled at her. “I’ll see to my responsibility of marrying soon.”
“And will you see to more of your other responsibilities as well?” She raised her eyebrows at him.
He gave her a wide smile. “You’re so good at ruling, Mother. It seems a shame to take the duties away from you.”
His mother shook her head again. “You won’t charm your way out of your duties, my king. I won’t be able to rule forever.
“You need to see to all of your responsibilities. Your people wish for their king to truly rule over them.”
Maddoc was taken out of his thoughts when Matthias commanded his men to stop.
“Your Majesty, are you sure you do not wish to take the southern road from here? We could cut through this forest and still connect with the long road.”
“Surely you are not frightened by the roads in Lucidala, Matthias. You do not believe in the nonsense people say of the Lucidalian folk?”
“No, Your Majesty, but it is a kingdom we have very little contact with. I am not familiar with their ways or their roads. It would be safer to go south,” he replied.
“We shall be fine, Matthias. No one knows we are traveling this way. Any robbers we may come across can easily be overcome by you and your men. I am not helpless either.
“We will take a day and a half, maybe two, off our journey by going this way. The way ahead looks very well taken care of.” He pointed to the road in front of them.
“Is this your command, my king? Do you wish to take the road through Lucidala?”
“Yes, Matthias. We will travel this way.”
“Then may we rest here for a moment? I have two birds with us, and I would like to send one with a note to the Grand Palace to let them know the way we have come,” said Matthias.
“Very well. I could use a quick rest and a bite to eat. Have your men dismount.” He led his horse to the side of the road and hopped down.
They rested for a good half hour, eating a late lunch and stretching their legs.
Matthias wrote his message and sent it off with one of their messenger birds. After watering their horses, they all mounted and pressed on.
It seemed to Maddoc that the guards were riding more slowly than before. Perhaps they were being extra vigilant, but he thought it was all nonsense.
He was anxious to step up their pace so they could make good time while they still had light.
They rode in relative silence as the afternoon wore on. The sun was just going below the trees when Matthias suddenly stopped. “Your Majesty, wait a moment.”
“What is it?” Maddoc turned to see him heading toward the forest.
“I thought I saw or heard—” He quit talking mid-sentence and stopped his horse in front of the tree line.
“What is it?” he asked, but Matthias never had the chance to answer.
A line of men on horseback emerged from the trees.
“Surround the king,” called Matthias, and the two guards on Maddoc’s sides came closer to him.
The men on horseback circled around Maddoc and his guards, pushing Matthias closer to Maddoc.
“Hand over your king, and no one will get hurt,” said a large man who rode toward them.
“You will touch our king only over my cold body,” snarled Matthias.
“I’d rather it not come to that, so I’ll give you one more chance,” said the man. “Hand over your king, and you and your men can go along.”
“Come take him if you think you can.” Matthias drew his sword, as did the other guards.
Maddoc held up his sword as well.
“Take the king alive if you can manage it,” barked the man. “Kill the others.”
Matthias and the guards rode forward and met the men in battle. Maddoc stayed in the middle of the circle, waiting to fight if it was needed.
He watched as Matthias quickly took out three men. The other guards were doing their duty as well, and Maddoc was feeling fairly confident.
He even thought they might not be delayed very long, until another wave of men came out of the forest.
He felt his stomach drop and his heart beat faster. There were too many now, even for Matthias. He prepared to fight, all the while wondering if it would be better to run.
He lost track of his own guards as three men broke through and came toward him. He met the first one with his sword, managing to battle him and knock the man off his horse.
He turned to fight the other, then something hit him in the shoulder. It was a hard blow that caused him to lose his balance on his horse.
Something hit him again, and this time, he fell completely from his horse, hitting his head against the hard road. He sat up slightly, feeling dizzy, his vision dim.
He saw a man with a sword coming toward him, and he knew this would be the end.
The dizziness made him sick to his stomach. His vision was going dark around the edges, but he sat up straighter to try to defend himself.
He reached next to him for his sword and held it up. Just as the man almost reached him, a blinding white light surrounded him, and he wondered if he’d been killed.
He felt warm and safe within the light. He dropped his sword. The light faded, and he blinked, trying to see what he could.
“Sir, are you well? Sir?” asked an urgent voice somewhere over him.
Maddoc looked, trying to find the source of the voice, his head spinning and his stomach clenching.
He was aware a woman was standing over him. She had lots of wavy golden hair.
He tried to focus and found himself staring at the most beautiful pair of eyes he’d ever seen. He thought they might have been the color of honey.
He felt himself trying to smile before darkness overtook him.