Jack is travelling to find a new life, leaving behind him a dark and painful past. He hopes he’ll find salvation in the mighty city of Judelen. An accident on the road brings a princess into his life, along with the discovery of a deadly plot brewing within her palace.
To protect her, Jack must help fight a battle between light and darkness that has been raging since the dawn of creation.
Can one man’s love fix a world broken by betrayal?
Jack pulled his horse to a halt and surveyed the bridge below him. It crossed the Judelen Pass. He admired the arches made of light-grey stone, which had been cut from the Great Mountains. They stretched down on thick columns into the River Nonnon. The bridge was high above the waterline, built securely into the valley and wide enough for two carriages to cross side by side.
If Bailey kept up a good pace they’d reach Judelen City before dark. Jack hoped heading into such a big populated area was a wise thing to do.
A shiver ran down his spine, and he drew his cloak tighter. The morning air was bitter, and his cloak had seen better days; it did little to protect him from the chill.
Thinking he heard a distant screeching, he glanced nervously behind him, back into the savannah of Lanfar, but nothing stirred in the barren hills.
Pleased, Jack vaulted from his saddle and landed in the deep winter snow. Using small steps, he began to lead his horse down the steep slope towards the bridge. He studied the far side of the Pass as he walked. The opposite path wound steeply upward through a dense stand of silver-barked trees. The first peaks of the Great Mountains were visible beyond the forest, and although the city was not in view, Jack knew it was nestled amongst them, cut from their belly by magic.
The horse nudged his shoulder. “What?” said Jack, checking around in all directions. When he couldn’t see or hear anything approaching, he relaxed his stance. “Are you after a fuss?” he said with a smile. He patted the golden coat of the animal; it felt rough beneath his fingers.
“You’re looking the worse for wear, Bailey,” Jack said seriously. “Not that I can talk, mind; I’m thin enough to be a skeleton. And I can’t see a brush ever de-knotting this hair,” he said, lifting a brown lock off his shoulder. “The first thing we’re doing when we get to Judelen is finding an inn, with a good stable for you. Then I need a decent meal and a barber to chop this lot off.” Bailey snorted; Jack took that as approval of his plan.
Of course, he needed money to fund a stay at an inn. “Perhaps I can do odd jobs here and there in exchange for food and shelter, until we get settled,” he said to Bailey. “Maybe, if my identity isn’t uncovered, we won’t need to run ever again,” he added hopefully.
Jack had been forced to wonder as a wayfarer for long enough; it was no life for him or Bailey. They needed to settle down and become invisible, giving no one a reason to know their names. Bailey shuddered.
“You cold, boy? I think it will be warmer in the forest, we’re exposed here on this side on the valley. Come on…”
Bailey quickened the pace, snow crunching under his hooves. When they reached the steps onto the bridge, a sudden pull on the reins forced Jack to stop walking.
‘‘What is it, boy?’’ he asked his horse. Bailey made a low, warning rumble in his throat, his ears were pricked forward, his eyes alert.
Jack could now hear the sound of galloping hooves somewhere out of sight in the forest ahead. He put his left hand down and unclipped the cover of his dagger.
Then a carriage appeared, pulled by a single black carthorse, the wheels spraying snow into the air. One man drove the carriage, he cried out harshly at the horse as it attempted to slow down before the bridge. With a crack of his whip, he forced it into maintaining the gallop.
Jack moved Bailey to the side of the road to avoid a collision; he wondered what was making the man drive so insanely. Jack had no desire to get involved. He’d let him pass and carry on his way.
With a sudden, almighty crack, the carriage’s back wheels exploded. The horse was pulled backwards; it screamed in pain and crashed in a heap on the ground. It was then pushed forward by the vehicle, which spun to the side and collided with the bridge wall, sending a section of the stone down into the river below.
Jack’s breath caught in his throat. Pulling Bailey behind him, he ran up the steps and onto the bridge, slipping and sliding on the icy patches.
Jack reached the carriage and halted. There were deep snow banks around the wreckage. He looked down at the fallen horse, which was twitching in its harness unable to rise. The animal had shattered its backbone and was beyond aid.
A moan full of pain gave away the driver’s location. Jack approached the man cautiously; he was lying on the ground, trying feebly to pull his legs free from under the carriage. He heard Jack’s approaching footsteps and looked round to find him. Half his face was badly grazed, blood was matted into his long black hair, and his clothing was ripped to shreds. Jack noted the outfit he wore was a soldier’s uniform—just the type of people he was trying to avoid. But he couldn’t help that now. Soldier or not, he wouldn’t abandon anyone as badly injured at this stranger.
‘‘Help,’’ pleaded the driver. He choked and coughed up blood.
Jack knelt down beside him and weighed the damage to his legs, ‘‘Easy,’’ said Jack gently, ‘‘can you move your legs at all?’’ The man groaned in pain and shook his head.
Jack put a hand on the man's shoulder, ‘‘Just stay still then. ’’
The man coughed again, bringing up more blood. He moved his lips in speech, but the salty liquid gargled in his throat, obliterating his words.
Jack surveyed the man's legs again. ‘‘I must get this carriage off of you,’’ he concluded.
The man felt across the ground until he found Jack’s hand. He squeezed it, getting Jack’s attention, ‘‘Leave me,’’ he croaked.
Jack shook his head, ‘‘No, I will find a way of freeing you; just hold on.’’
The man squeezed his hand again. ‘‘The carriage, there is someone…’’ His voice broke off into another coughing fit, and Jack waited for it to subside.
‘‘There is someone inside,’’ concluded the man.
The carriage gave a sudden jerk, bringing it closer to the edge of the bridge, where the stones had been dislodged in the impact.
‘‘Lie still,’’ said Jack urgently, jumping to his feet.
He moved to the back of the carriage. Part of it was now hanging over the edge, and the weight distribution suggested it could tip over. Jack used the front wheels to climb onto the side, and once up, he looked in through the window. A woman lay on the far side, unconscious, her hands and feet bound together with rope. She wore an embroidered red gown, and matching slippers. The carriage rocked, unbalanced by Jack’s added weight.
Carefully he lowered himself inside. He placed a foot on either side of the woman. Jack saw a welt on her forehead, but he couldn’t see any other injuries. With difficulty, he pulled her upwards and pushed her through the window until she was balanced enough for him to let her go. He then climbed out beside her and pulled her the rest of the way out. Slowly he climbed back down onto the bridge. He gently lifted her into his arms and carried her away from the wreckage.
Bailey had crossed over onto the forest path, just beyond the bridge.
Jack cleared away a patch of snow and placed the woman beside the horse. ‘‘Look after her while I go back to the man,’’ he said, hurrying away.
When Jack laid a hand upon the man, he opened his eyes, ‘‘Is she safe?’’
‘‘Yes,’’ answered Jack. ‘‘Who is she?’’
‘‘She is the princess of Judelen,’’ said the man.
Jack’s eyes widened; ‘‘You’re kidnapping the princess of Judelen!’’ he spat, feeling outraged.
The man shook his head vigorously. “Never! I was trying to save her.’’
‘‘By binding her hands and feet? I think not, sir!’’ shouted Jack.
The man's bright-blue eyes were beginning to glaze over. ‘‘There is a plot -- she doesn’t know about it -- her life is in danger!’’
Jack looked down to see a pool of blood seeping from beneath the carriage; death was creeping closer. ‘‘It doesn’t matter now,’’ he said quickly. ‘‘You have begun to bleed from your wounds, I must free you’’
The man feebly shook his head. ‘‘No, leave me be! My legs are crushed. I am done for.”
The wind picked up sharply; strong gusts blew across the bridge. ‘‘I can’t just leave you,’ protested Jack.
Another section of the wall crumbled into the river. The carriage slid and halted half way over the side, pulling the horse and man with it. He let out a scream of agony.
Jack seized both his hands. ‘‘It’s going to go over the side,’’ he panted. His arms were protesting from the strain. He was so much weaker than he had been since running away from Sanalow.
‘‘There is nothing you can do,’’ said the man. ‘‘Make sure she is safe. Don’t trust anyone in the city; I don’t know how deep the plot runs.’’ The man's eyes began to close.
‘‘Stay awake!’’ shouted Jack. ‘‘I don’t understand about this plot. Who is plotting to kill the princess?’’
The man didn’t answer. ‘‘Come on, man!’’ roared Jack in an effort to keep him conscious. ‘‘How can I save her if I don’t understand?’’
The man’s eyes flickered open. ‘‘Trust no one in the palace, not even the king. They are coming, the blackness—they are coming from the air! Can you see them?’’
Jack looked over his shoulder into the sky; he saw nothing but pure-white clouds.
The wind was really howling now; it stung his eyes. The man was hallucinating from the pain, he concluded. He let go of the man, and with his dagger he began to hack at the horse’s harness, to free the carriage from its weight.
‘‘They have come to take me away,’’ sang the man. ‘‘They don’t want me to tell, but they are too late! I have told you their secrets, and you can save her now.’’
Jack continued to hack at the harness, the man continued to babble, and the pool of blood spread wider. The man looked straight at Jack. ‘‘You are too late,’’ he shouted. ‘‘They are here!’’ Without warning, the carriage was caught by the wind, and it sailed over the side, taking the horse and man with it.
Jack leaped clear, landing on his front and grunting from the impact. He lay exhausted in the blood-soaked snow. He wiped a mixture of sweat and tears from his face. His hands were soaked with blood; he wiped them clean using snow and dried them on his trousers. Without looking over the edge, he stood and made his way back to where Bailey was guarding the princess.
The princess was still unconscious. Jack bent down and cut the bonds from her hands and feet, before pulling her up into a standing position and then hoisting her over Bailey’s saddle.
Wearily he climbed up behind her and turned her to rest in his arms. He brushed the loose strands of her long golden hair clear of her face. Her pale-pink skin was soft beneath his fingers. He felt an immediate overwhelming desire to protect her, but how was he going to do that?
He would have to return her to the palace. It was too dangerous to keep her outside of the city, but he knew he would not be content to hand her back over to the king knowing she was in danger from some secret plot. Until he could speak to her in private, he’d have to stay close by, even if it meant risking exposure. His honour would not allow him to do less.
Decision made, Jack adjusted his hold on the princess so he could steer Bailey, and he nudged him to begin walking. Bailey held his ground and looked back at Jack. He turned back the way they had come.
‘‘No, boy, we need to take her home,’’ said Jack.
The horse ignored his command and stepped onto the bridge.
Jack tugged sharply on the reins and turned him round, “To Judelen, boy,” he said firmly.
Bailey began to plod up the path towards the city.
The horse’s unease was making Jack question his choice. What trouble was he getting himself into?
He looked down at the sleeping princess and smiled. Why did he feel so strongly, that, whatever it was, she was worth it?
Jack Orden is facing an uncertain future. The failure of the Theanic Order's spell means the Child of Light must now face a final battle to save the kingdom from the dark forces.
Reanna has taken control, but Jack is unaware of her scheming and the dangers it now exposes him to.
Shrouded in darkness, he must find the strength to keep fighting. The odds are stacked against him.
Can Jack fulfil his destiny and lead his people to victory?
Jack lay Lily gently on the emerald-green grass. He brushed a strand of her blonde hair back into place, wincing at the ice-cold temperature and rigid feel to her skin. The bitter string of failure gnawed in his heart. Why is she still dead? he thought, his despair rapidly turning to anger. Aidan had murdered his wife and stolen her right to raise their daughter, Aranelle, whom Lily had held only once in her arms. It wasn’t fair! Despite all the obstacles in their way, true love had led them to victory. They’d completed the mission and made Aranelle into the Child of Light. Victory should have been theirs, yet it wasn’t. Jack brushed a tear off his cheek. He breathed out slowly and studied his surroundings. He stood on the edge of Emicial’s valley, the golden glow of the magic shield visible above his head. Puzzled, he turned to Mia, wondering why she’d teleported them here and not to the temple in the heart of the city.
She smiled sympathetically when she caught his gaze. “I was asked to bring us here when we returned to the safety of the shield if Lily was …” Mia looked down and began smoothing her green silk dress. Jack could see tears in her yellow eyes, and he knew she’d try to contain her grief to avoid further upset to him. Jack didn’t need her to finish the sentence, nor did it surprise him she’d guessed what he was about to ask her. Their friendship had grown greatly over the last month, and while Jack had been seeking answers to Lily’s failed resurrection, Mia had rarely left his side. She’d helped replenish Jack’s trust in the magus that formed the Theanic Order, a feat he’d thought his anger towards them would never allow.
Jack saw Mia fiddle nervously with her black hair wraps, and he noticed figures appearing in the distance from the woodland that lined the valley. His stomach dropped sharply as he realised why this place was their return point. He looked pleadingly at her. “Please don’t ask me to let her go!”
Mia’s tanned face paled with guilt. “Jack, I’m sorry, but it’s time. Lily hasn’t returned, and it’s been over a month since she died. We have done everything we can think of. Travelling out of Emiscial, away from the magic shield, was the last thing we could try. After three days outside, she still didn’t return. I know you don’t want to hear this, but I don’t believe she is going to be resurrected until after Aranelle fights and wins the final battle.”
Jack hated everything about the Theanic Order’s new theory—that his daughter was going to have to fight Aidan and his mother to the death. The innocent child of love was to become a murderer and carry the responsibility that if she failed—everyone died. It made his skin crawl. “Your theory about the final battle doesn’t explain why Lily is cursed to stay dead!”
Mia gestured to the approaching party. “Reanna is on her way, and she has an idea. She didn’t want to tell you until you had tried removing Lily from the shield’s power, just in case you had been right and it was the shield blocking the resurrection spell.”
Jack felt his anger rising. “Why do you magus always talk behind my back? It drives me mad. I’m supposed to be your king, yet you treat me like a child!”
Mia’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t treat you like a child, Jack. I know Reanna can be somewhat dismissive of your station, but you must remember she is the head of the Theanic Order. She’s never answered to anyone except the creators and Orthrillium.”
“So to get her in line I need to turn myself into one of the Trio? Tell me, Mia—which should I choose, the Dragon, the Unicorn, or the Fairy! Or would she prefer me to be Orthrillium? The man who foolishly broke the Earth Stone and caused the mess we’re all trying to survive by splitting his stolen magic between the Theanic Order, one of whom just so happens to be Aidan’s mother, Evelyn Maude!”
Mia sighed deeply. “I suggest you don’t try sarcasm with Reanna. It won’t go down well.”
Jack turned away from her to watch the approaching party. Reanna was at the front, wearing her multicoloured silk dress that marked her as the head of the magical order. The eight different coloured stripes represented one of the other magus and their assigned magical power. She was tall, with blonde hair. Her rosebud-shaped mouth was her most feminine feature. Jack counted the women following her. It looked like all seven members of the Order were now present in the valley. Jack disliked it when they were all together. He hated magic, and it made him nervous to have so many wielders near him at any one time.
He was relieved to see the telltale unruly brown hair and plump frame of Sam, his oldest friend and bodyguard. The more nonmagical humans, the better! Sam was carrying Aranelle, and Jack’s heart swelled just picturing her chubby face. She was the exception; magical or not, he loved every inch of his daughter. He hoped she wasn’t melting under the mass of blankets Sam had her wrapped in. Within the magic shield, the normal weather didn’t affect Emiscial. The land stayed in a constant summer-like state. The air was humid and was almost unbearable for Jack to cope with when he was wearing his leather trousers. He noted that Sam had wisely abandoned his and adopted the loose silk trousers and shirts the other residents of the land wore. Jack disliked silk almost as much as magic and stubbornly avoided wearing it at all costs.
A handsome young man, immaculately dressed in black leather trousers and a fine grey silk tunic, appeared from the back of the group. He was tall and muscular, with short black hair and grey eyes. Suddenly, Jack realised who he was and smiled for the first time in days.
“Niar!” he cried. He rushed past the line of magus and embraced the king of Grimfar, also one of his oldest friends, whom he’d met during his service as a soldier in the Sanalow army and lost in the fight against Aidan.
Niar returned the hug, laughing happily. “I’m back, my friend.”
Jack broke away and studied him. “For a corpse, you look fantastic! Your scar has completely healed, and you’ve shed years.”
“Yes, finally freed from the deformities caused by the poisonous atmosphere of Grimfar, and I’m twenty-five again, younger than you, Jack!”
Jack pointed at him. “Hey, I’m only twenty-six,” he joked back.
Niar grinned widely. “According to the magus, everyone who returns will be twenty-five again … if they were over that age when they died. I nearly caused my wife to faint when I strolled into my city. I’m not sure she has fully adjusted yet! What do you suppose will happen to older people like her if they don’t die? Will they become youthful once more?”
Jack knew that since Aranelle’s birth everyone had stopped ageing physically, but he’d not once considered Niar’s point. “I have no idea,” he confessed. “I guess we’ll have to wait to find out. In the meantime, Maria will just have to enjoy having a handsome young husband to boss around!”
Niar’s eye’s twinkled. “We can make that work.”
For a second, Jack felt jealous. He had a long wait before he could enjoy a reunion with his love. He squashed the emotion and put the thought from his mind. It wasn’t fair to upset Niar with his sorrow. “I’m so relieved you’re back. I can’t rule the kingdom without your help,” he said sincerely. He squeezed Niar’s shoulder. “Lily told me what you did for her, ending your life to remove Aidan. I owe you a great debt, Niar.”
Niar rolled his eyes. “You owe me nothing. I am just so sorry that he found you again and--” He broke off and glanced at Lily’s body. “I’m just so sorry, Jack,” he finished quietly.
Jack felt warm tears on his cheeks. He looked down and brushed them off quickly. He nodded to his friend and moved away. He couldn’t bring himself to speak.
Aranelle lay cooing in Sam’s arms. Jack crossed over to her, brushed her tiny red curls, and let her hold his finger. “Hi, love,” he said gently.
His daughter babbled and smiled. Jack could have sworn she’d grown more in the three days he’d been away. She’d definitely sprouted more freckles. Her eyes sparkled brightly. Jack still found her having one green and one blue eye fascinating. He could see Lily staring at him from the blue side and his uncle from the green.
Sam smiled kindly at him. “Do you want to take her, Jack?” he asked.
“No, you keep hold of her, Sam, while I speak to Reanna.”
Jack walked back down the line, past the magus. Reanna gave him a small smile as he approached, but she offered no curtsy. “Your Majesty, I wish we were meeting under more pleasant circumstances,” she said plainly.
Jack’s mood darkened. All the senseless death, the carnage, and the pain had taken its toll. His tolerance levels were almost nonexistent. “As always, you go straight to the heart of the matter, Reanna,” he said. He crossed his arms. “Go on—tell me why Lily will not return until after the final battle.”
Reanna raised her eyebrows. “As you wish,” she said. “My theory is that there was some hidden power within Aidan’s spell that killed her. It was designed to block her resurrection. It would be fitting for the Dark Knight to do something so cruel.”
Jack couldn’t argue with that. Aidan was evil beyond words, and the only thing Jack shared with him was their mutual hatred for each other. It made sense that Aidan would have wanted to destroy Jack utterly.
“My sisters and I have been studying the reversal spell Aranelle cast,” continued Reanna. “You need to be aware that it is not complete. If anyone dies before the final battle, they will stay dead until after Aranelle defeats the Black Order. I also believe we won’t see those older than twenty-five regenerating until after the battle is won.”
Jack glanced at Niar. “There’s the answer to your question about Maria.” He looked seriously at Reanna. “I need you to be absolutely certain Lily cannot return now.”
Reanna pointed at Lily’s body. “If she were to return, that body would have disappeared and a brand-new one would have taken its place. I know you’re looking at it and seeing Lily lying on the grass, but she’s not in there, Jack. That body is dead. You know the only reason it hasn’t rotted is because Kerri sealed Lily in a shield of air.”
Jack saw the white magus shift at the mention of her name. Her pale skin grew redder than her hair, and for once she wasn’t grinning inanely.
“You need to let go!” Reanna finished coldly.
Jack’s eyes flashed as his anger rose. “Do you have to be so heartless?”
Mia rushed over to him and took hold of his arm. “She doesn’t mean to be,” she said gently. “She just wants you to understand.”
Jack pulled his arm away. “I do understand. Can she understand that letting go of Lily now is going to kill me!” His throat burned with emotion, and he felt fresh tears fall from his eyes. He growled and stalked away from the group. He wished they’d all leave him alone.
Mia stepped up next to him. Jack stiffened. The blood thumping in his ears had covered the sound of her following footsteps. He didn’t acknowledge her.
“Forget about everyone else, Jack. None of us matter right now. What do you want to do?” she asked quietly.
Tears flowed freely down his face, but he didn’t wipe them off. “I want to go back in time and erase my stupid error on that bridge so Lily never had to die,” he said in a pain-filled voice.
“If the Unicorn had granted me the power to do that, I’d do it without hesitation. I hate seeing you in so much pain. I really do!”
Jack took her hand in his. He squeezed it gently. “I know you do. You’re a good friend,” he said. “I’m just so angry about the situation. I’m sad and tired. Not having Lily here hurts so much.” He let go of her hand to rub his face.
Mia stood regarding him intently. “I’m here, and I’ll do whatever you ask,” she said firmly.
Jack gave her a weak smile. “I know,” he said simply. “Go and tell Reanna it’s time to say goodbye.” A sob escaped him. He buried his face in his hands.
He felt an arm go around his shoulders. The familiarity and strength of the hold told him it was Niar.
Lily’s body floated past, supported on spirit weaves, controlled by Jamella, the yellow magus. She had sharp, attractive features and raven hair and was undeniably self-assured. However, her identical twin, Troyan, the fire magus, smoothed her red silk dress nervously as she followed behind with Kerri. In Jack’s eyes, creating the fire for the cremation was the hardest job, so he could understand her anxiety. He wanted to offer her some words of comfort, but grief had sealed his mouth shut. The rest of the magus hadn’t come forward, which Jack was grateful about.
Niar was talking quietly, but Jack was only half listening. He nodded absently, trying desperately to fill his mind with images of Lily so he could trick his heart into thinking she wasn’t gone. He suddenly realised he couldn’t do this without Mia. She was standing with Sam and Aranelle. Jack held out his hand, silently pleading for her to help him.
Mia rushed back over and took his hand. “Do you want Aranelle to be with you?” she asked. Jack shook his head.
Mia squeezed tighter. “The others will all stay back by the trees. When you’re ready, we’ll begin the cremation …” Her voice broke.
The sound of hooves galloping up the valley caught Jack’s ear. He watched his golden-coated stallion, Bailey, come towards him. Bailey stopped before Lily’s body. The horse studied her for a moment before sinking his delicate frame down into a bow. His long white mane brushed the ground. He rose gracefully and trotted over to Jack, lowering his head and leaning it against Jack’s chest.
Jack gave Bailey a pat on the head. He glanced at Mia. “Thanks for whispering to him so he knew to come. I wasn’t thinking straight.” He rubbed Bailey’s ears. “I’m sorry, boy. You’ve known Lily as long as I have. It wouldn’t have been right if you weren’t here,” he said.
Bailey snorted. He straightened up and nibbled Jack’s brown curls.
Jack pushed him off with a smile. “All right, lesson learned!”
Bailey nudged Jack and moved to stand on the other side of Mia.
Jack took her offered hand gratefully. “I’m ready,” he said quietly.
“When you signal to Troyan, she will cast her fire. It’ll be over quickly. I just want to check again that you don’t want to bury Lily here in Emiscial.”
Jack shook his head. “No, she’d want to be buried in Judelen, but with Aidan on the loose, I’m not risking her body being discovered. It’s better this way.”
Mia nodded once and turned back to look at Lily.
Niar squeezed Jack’s shoulder. “This is only goodbye for a little while. You will be with her again; I believe that with all my heart.”
Jack nodded. His tears were falling thick and fast. He couldn’t say anything else. He looked at Troyan, and she acknowledged his signal.
Jack fixed his eyes on his wife, his body shaking with heavy sobs. Both Mia and Niar held him tightly. He took a deep breath. “I love you, Lily,” he wailed.
The air shield holding her filled with fire, consuming her body. The fire burned brightly for a few seconds before dying out. All that was left behind was ash. Kerri waited for Jack’s signal before she let her shield break and blew Lily’s ashes away on the wind.
Mia was wiping tears from her cheeks with her free hand. Jack kept hold of her other, too afraid he would collapse if he let go. She didn’t try to move away. The magus, except for Mia, curtsied to Jack and left to join their sisters. He thanked them quietly.
Jack felt drained and empty, but he knew he couldn’t spend any more time mourning. His kingdom needed its king, and his daughter needed her father. He finally felt steady enough to let go of Mia’s hand and wiped his face again.
Niar took his arm off his shoulders. “I’m staying with you for as long as you need, Jack, as your friend and adviser,” he said firmly.
“I never dreamed you’d do anything different,” Jack said gratefully. He began to trudge slowly back towards the treeline. “I need to finalise Aranelle’s living arrangements. Then I have to go back to my city and relieve Leon.” Jack’s high adviser was a highly organised, exceptionally bright man whom Jack loved as a brother and viewed as a godsend. The city barely needed the return of the king with Leon in charge.
The members of the Theanic Order, except for Reanna, and Mia left the valley.
Jack signalled for Sam to approach. He was pleased to see Aranelle was sleeping soundly. “I need to ask you a very important question,” he whispered.
Sam nodded absently. His round face was full of grief. He’d been the man to help save Lily from Aidan and help deliver Aranelle on the Judelen Pass. Jack knew how deeply the tragic outcome and the waste of his heroic rescue effort had shaken him.
Jack licked his lips. He hoped his proposal now might ease his friend’s heartache. “As much as I want to, I can’t take Aranelle out of Emiscial. I can’t stay here with her, for I am needed in Sanalow. I need you to continue on here as her personal bodyguard in my absence,” he told Sam.
“Of course. I am yours to command,” answered Sam immediately. “I will happily stay and protect the princess for as long as you need me to.”
Jack clapped him on the shoulder, pleased to see life return to his eyes. “Thank you. I will arrange a rota as soon as I know what’s what in Sanalow. I’m sure Niar and the others will help me out,” he added. Jack kissed Aranelle gently on her head. “See you soon, love,” he whispered.
Reanna held out a letter that Jack hadn’t noticed her carrying. “This report was sent from Sanalow yesterday. It appears you have a few more trusted people to help you.”
Jack took the letter and unfolded it. Familiar names leapt off the page, each one a bandage repairing his broken heart. The names that bolstered him the most were that of his uncle and aunt who had raised him as their own since he was five and his parents had died in a mill collapse. They’d had their own son a couple of years after Jack had joined the Sanalow army, and Jack loved him like a little brother. All three had died at the hands of the steward of Sanalow as an act of revenge because Jack had refused to follow orders.
“They’re all back—all of them?” He wasn’t sure he dared believe it.
Reanna nodded. “I believe they’re all eager to greet their king.”
“I can’t wait to see them, especially my family,” said Jack happily. Both Niar and Mia grinned at him.
Jack grinned back. “I guess there’s no time like the present to go home,” he said. “Any other instructions for me, Reanna?” he asked.
Reanna considered him for a moment. “Don’t forget the Dark Knight is out there, plotting his return to power. Make sure you don’t take off your magic ring from the Unicorn.”
Jack touched the small golden band sitting on the little finger of his left hand. He traced the crossing figure eight pattern and absently ran his thumb over the small piece of Earth Stone in the middle. He remembered being in the hidden realm, accepting the ring from the Unicorn and slipping it onto Lily as a sign of their marriage. Fresh tears threatened to fall. He sniffed sharply and cleared his throat. “I won’t take it off unless I’m using it to protect someone else,” he promised.
Reanna nodded curtly and turned to Mia. “Be careful with your powers. You are undoubtedly a target of the Dark Knight after taking the Guardian to the Judelen Pass.”
Mia frowned. “I’m well aware of that,” she said sharply.
Jack wondered why things were so heated between the two women, but he didn’t comment. He signalled to everyone to move closer to him. “Are you coming or staying, Bailey?” he asked his horse. Bailey snorted and walked over to the group. Niar put a hand on his neck. Everybody made sure they were touching each other to allow the magic to transport them all simultaneously.
Mia took hold of Jack’s hand. “Are you ready to be welcomed home?” she asked kindly.
Relieved that her sharp tone was only aimed at Reanna, Jack smiled in reply. He nodded to Reanna and then to Sam before telling Mia to take them to the king’s hall.
The teleportation was instantaneous. Jack blinked and looked around. Sunlight flooded through the bay windows, illuminating the dais at the back of the hall. He’d expected to find his high adviser and his friends here, but the room was empty.
He glanced at Mia. “Well, this isn’t exactly the welcome home I was expecting!”
Mia looked as confused as he felt. Niar looked worried.
Distant shouting filled the air. Jack instantly drew his sword. They ran from the room towards the front entrance. The palace doors were wide open, and a chaotic scene greeted Jack. People were running around in the foyer and the courtyard beyond, screaming in panic. Jack caught sight of Leon’s olive skin. He stood on the steps, facing the palace. He raked his hand through his black curls and shouted urgent orders at guards, his attractive features twisted in fury. He spotted Jack and told him to stay inside. Jack ignored the warning and kept rushing forwards with Niar and Mia.
Before he could pass through the doorway, Bailey snagged his shirt and pulled him backwards. A body dropped to the floor in front of Jack. He fell to his knees in shock. Two more bodies dropped on either side of him. He stared at them, hardly able to breathe through his panic. The three bodies had been hanged. The guards had lowered them down by the ropes used to commit the executions. Jack stared into the dead green eyes of his uncle and aunt. He focused on the body in front of him. It was his cousin. He gently lifted Tommy’s head and placed it on his knees.
Jack felt dazed and sick. He heard someone shouting Aidan’s name. Niar grabbed Mia and rushed her back into the king’s hall, calling for guards to mount an attack.
Jack blinked away sweat and tears and investigated the circle himself. Dressed in black velvet and sporting a long silver hooded cloak, Aidan stood in the centre of the stone courtyard. His black eyes caught Jack’s, and he smiled cruelly, offering a sarcastic bow. He disappeared into a puff of black smoke before Jack’s guards had the chance to attack.
Bailey lowered his head, and Jack gripped him tightly. He stared down at his cousin. His body began to shake in rage and pain. A deafening scream tore from his mouth. The sound of Aidan’s laughter filled the air around him.
We tasked a talented global writing community to produce their best work. We provided them with 37 challenging prompts. We gave them a strict 280 character limit.
From thousands of entries, we selected just 365.
What can be achieved with just 280 characters? On these pages you will feel the fabric of love and depths of loss, you will explore mortality and ponder what it truly means to be alive, you will find poetry, prose, wonder, despair, humour and courage.
Most of all you will find exceptional thought-provoking authors who are pushing their form to the very limits and beyond.
All royalties of this anthology go directly to a children's literacy charity.
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