The Valda-Cree lion has returned.
With it come new challenges to the mages and those who follow his hopes, who believe in the will of the Goddess Adhrer to a free and prosperous Kielbos. Doubters and allies will reveal themselves.
Duran is but one of the six mages who believes in the prophecy, the goddess, and Lord Morrow. As keep liaison, he works tirelessly to ensure a fledgling peace can grow in strength. With the introduction of the skin shifters to the keep, their outlook strengthens. One skin shifter in particular has caught Duran’s attention, though he’s not sure why now, or why this feline shifter.
But there is more at play that can affect their futures as Duran and the mages of the keep continue their journey to return the Valda-Cree lion, the true blessed royal line, to the throne. Questions and quests.
A crown missing for centuries.
The Blood Spawn army’s purpose.
And did someone say dragons?
Raucous levels of noise echoed and flowed through the keep and along hallways, penetrating into the crags and cracks of the keep walls like the reverberating boom of a spring thunderstorm. Duran frowned, burrowing into his bedding as he fought to cling to sleep. Why was it so loud? He rolled over in bed, determined to block out the annoying clamor. It refused to go away. If anything, it seemed to build, billowing ever louder now when he couldn’t avoid hearing it. The ability to fall asleep became even more evanescent as he caught onto the bawdy notes of the commotion bouncing all the way upstairs and drifting beneath their door. The voices of a lot of people. Odd clangs and clicks he couldn’t place. His brow furrowed as he listened. Was that a dog? It didn’t make sense. The keep was never fully quiet, but the jovial shouts and laughter coming from below weren’t normal either for the sun’s rise. The keep at the beginning of the day more resembled a slow moving convoy, sluggish to gather strength. There truly weren’t enough people there yet to sound like an overrun city.
“What is going on out there?” Grayson grumped from his bed on the other side of their shared room. He yanked his blankets higher, determined to push the unwelcome din away. “The sun is barely up. Damn Rune and his early morning meditations.”
Duran snickered, nuzzling into his pillow. He knew what he was hearing wasn’t Rune. A timid mouse made more noise than Rune ever could if he were on his way out of the keep for his dawn meditation. Rune was an enigma to most, a fire mage of the higher Fifth circle who had been receiving visions regarding the perpetuation of their world. Visions of a young man who would be their next king.
If everything went even marginally in their favor.
So far, it had. But they hadn’t faced any hard challenges yet, either. He didn’t doubt their time would come. And unless he was wrong, Rune had actually spent the night in Jayce’s rooms last night. At least, he hoped that was where he’d been. It had taken the two of them long enough to figure out they were supposed to be together. Which meant it most certainly wouldn’t be him causing such a fuss at sunrise.
Duran, along with Rune and four more chosen mages, had traveled for several days as a group from the Windwise training temple to this abandoned and forgotten keep in the mountains with Jayce Morrow. They were now secluded in order to prepare for whatever the goddess would show them for their next directives. Jayce had been training, working on improving and increasing his magic, broadening his education of Kielbos, as well as the history of the crown and throne. It was an unbelievable challenge to undertake for someone who had no prior knowledge of their world or of his destiny. As the presumed next king, he had a lot of specifics to learn about their world: everything from etiquette to proper addresses, and then there was his magic. Duran didn’t doubt Jayce was King Bail’s missing son, but he knew it would take a worldwide belief to propel him as the long-lost prince to the throne, guided by the prophecy and Rune’s visions. It wouldn’t be an easy goal, but Jayce’s own actions gave Duran the confidence it was within reach.
Another clang from downstairs made him grind his teeth, and he tossed his blankets back. “Good luck on more sleep,” he groused. “I give up.”
Grayson snored, oblivious. Duran pursed his lips at his roommate in vexation. Of course, Grayson would be the one to sleep through a siege if he could. It truly wasn’t Grayson who was owed his ire, though. He didn’t doubt Ulcieh was already up, noise or no. Along with Rune, he was the other early riser of their group. Maybe Duran would be able to question him about the commotion from downstairs. Dressed in everyday trousers and a summer weight, linen tunic hanging past his hips, he finished with a waist belt snugged smartly. He sat on the edge of his bed to tug on boots before slipping out of their shared room. Apparently in time to see Brin walking out of Jayce’s chamber with a clouded expression.
“Brin!” he called in a whisper-shout.
Brin whirled, surprise turning into relief. “Oh! Good! You can help me calm that lot downstairs.”
“What’s going on?” He followed at his elbow as Brin marched down the hallway at a fast clip.
“I’m not sure. Ulcieh is downstairs now. There is an entourage from the Kinsi pride and several elders asking for admittance and an audience.”
Duran’s eyes goggled. “What? How? When did they arrive?”
“Less than an hour ago. Ulcieh made the decision for the clan leaders and their entourages but not more to enter the keep. It was a risk with us being so poorly armed.”
“You have to tell Jayce!” he hissed.
“I just did.” He stopped in his tracks and pulled Duran closer by a sleeve, ensuring they were alone enough in the hall with circumspect glances in both directions. “There’s more. There is a couple traveling with them, volpes. They claim to be his parents.”
Duran gaped with shock. “His parents? Volpes?” How? Before he could demand answers, Brin continued.
Brin nodded, pinching his sleeve tightly before releasing it. “I’m not sure what’s going on but we have to watch the coming hours closely.” There was a strong sense of expectation in the air. When Brin acknowledged it, Duran agreed. Something was changing today.
“Tell me what you need.”
Lowering his voice to be firm, Brin said, “I need to find this couple. He wants to meet with them separately. Can you wake the others? I’m sure we’re all going to be needed. I feel an exceptionally long day ahead of us.”
As Brin vanished down the hall, he reversed his steps to return to his room. He shook Grayson awake, explaining what he knew. Then, once he was assured he was alert and moving, he went across the hall to Leodinn’s door and knocked.
Duran opened the door to find Leodinn awake and dressed. Ulcieh’s bed was neatly made, which didn’t surprise Duran at all knowing his fastidious mage friend. “We have visitors.”
Leodinn tucked the bed sheeting, saying, “Rox already showed me. I’m on my way down.”
“What did you see?” Duran braced the door partially closed, offering limited privacy.
“A lot of men and horses. Banners. It was hard to tell.”
“That sounds like what Brin just told me. He said some are from the Kinsi pride.”
Leodinn straightened his tunic then wrapped the waist belt, assuring he was put together to meet their visitors. He was the most meticulous in his appearance amongst them. Duran didn’t begrudge him wanting to look his best. They all had peculiarities. A moment later, they left the room together, being joined by Grayson as they hurried down the hall to the stairs. The three met Ulcieh in the hall at the bottom, a partially hidden alcove next to the keep’s rear staircase. The view afforded them the luxury of being able to observe the people milling around the front hall, talking in their groups, but unable to be seen without knowing about the angle of the room. “What’s going on?” Leodinn asked discreetly.
“Brin has taken the two aside to meet with Jayce. I’m not sure what else can be done until their identities are confirmed.” Ulcieh’s gaze flicked over the crowd in the greeting hall, his face neutral. It was the tension in his frame contradicting his ease. Being sought by so many had all of them on edge. The questions compounded as they observed their visitors in the hall.
“Are they really his parents?” Duran wondered, aware people were curious and trying to see their visitors all around them. Many were being cautious, simply staying a distance from the front greeting hall.
“I honestly don’t know. The woman seemed convinced.” Ulcieh turned and gathered an offered parchment handed to him. “Thank you. Is Bankor still with Lord Morrow?”
The man replied briskly. “Yes, Master Ulcieh. Him and Clintok. They are keeping a close eye on him.”
“Good. Please keep watch at the main doors to the keep, Tarin. The gathered guard who rode in with them should be fine with their mounts in the front. I refuse to expose our position and instability to so many when we aren’t even armed yet.” Exasperation at the unknowns in their front hall colored his tone, making his voice and orders crisp. Tarin bowed quickly at the waist and spun on a heel to do the mage’s bidding.
“How is Maxon coming with the sword pressing?” Leodinn queried, nodding to Brin when he joined them after Tarin’s departure.
“He has almost completed fifty. At least half will have to be used for practice and training immediately.” As engagement advisor, Ulcieh knew every blade and weapon being created and where it was anticipated to be needed.
Brin informed the group, “Cedri has taken two of his clan and are doing reconnaissance to gauge numbers and threat. I hope he returns before Jayce is done with whatever discussion he is having with the couple.”
“Who did he take?” Duran wondered.
“Royce and Zahari.”
Brin cleared his throat before they launched into another tangent. “Lord Morrow has asked for us to treat the prides and their entourages as welcome guests. The couple proclaiming to be his rearing parents did not lie.”
Ulcieh leaned apart as disbelief paled his cheeks. “Truly? They are the pair who vanished with the p– Lord Morrow?”
“And Rune is with him?” Duran demanded. Jayce had to be kept safe, regardless of who he was with.
“He is. I need to gather rolls and coffee, I’m sure more for Lord Morrow. He’s never awakened fully capable.” Quiet, knowing snickers followed his words. Jayce’s process to become a functioning person in the morning could not be rushed. They’d tried over the months. It was a quirk of his they’d all accepted to varying degrees with humor and affection.
“Do that. If Rune is otherwise occupied with his duty to Lord Morrow, then we will have to greet our guests officially. I’ll try to delay them with food as well. I’m sure they’ll appreciate that.”
Brin agreed with Ulcieh with a nod and strode through a side entry to continue to the kitchens with his own requests. Ulcieh spoke to Duran and Grayson. “Please go greet the elders and make sure they are comfortable. Leodinn and I will ensure a board is brought out with meats and bread.”
With plans in place, they split up, Duran and Grayson entering the mash of people in the front hall. A few among the visitors were obviously guards, spaced out to watch over their leaders and elders.
Duran met the gazes of their own men who were training to be guards and motioned them back. He and Grayson had this, for now.
“Good morning, sirs. I am Duran, Keep Liaison for Lord Morrow. We welcome you and yours.” He smiled congenially in greeting as he addressed the closest of the men who stood out. A tall man in worn leathers, a single sword, and a short dagger. There were bronze cuffs adorning his upper arms, likely a symbol of his status. His demeanor intimated he was someone of importance, possibly a clan leader or chief, with what appeared to be a man at arms at his shoulder, and another standing guard on his opposite side. His man at arms wore a sword at his hip, but not much else. At least it didn’t look like they expected a confrontation. Grayson was on the opposite side of the room, making general inquiries and greeting those travelers.
“Good morning to you.” The man lowered his chin respectfully in answer. “I am Lord Eitin. I bring tidings of welcome from our lands and clans in the north. Will we be able to address his lordship soon?”
“Lord Morrow has asked all our visitors to be treated with respect as welcome guests. He will be joining us all shortly.”
The kitchen doors opened and Ulcieh swept into the room, leading four kitchen staff, Kirn and Lois among them, setting up food and drinks on the long tables in the hall. The high ceilings allowed for a lot of light and the front hall doors were wide open, allowing fluid movement. People drifted between groups, some discussions energetic as friends reunited, and most were at ease. Curiosity seemed to be the vying feeling circling the room. Jayce’s appearance had caused quite the stir.
He encouraged the group to help themselves to the offered fare. “If you need anything from us, please ask for Brin or Javi, the Keep Master or our Keep Steward. Excuse me while I check on others?”
“At your leave.”
His ears pricked to listen for whispers when he turned away and he wasn’t disappointed.
“He’s a mage!” That must be one of the guards.
“Patience, Sul. It would appear as though the foxes were telling the truth. We must wait and see.”
Searching for Grayson, he got an imperceptible head nod when they locked gazes. So far everything was as it seemed, stay alert but no visible threats. Duran walked to the front of the room to elevate himself on the lower step of the dais. He cleared his throat, raising his hands for attention. “Good morning! Sirs and ladies. Please, if I could speak?” He waited until those closest faced him, many of them skin shifters but nearly as many humans. It was a diverse crowd. There were a lot of eyes on him regardless. He wore a calm smile and moved slowly on purpose. The last thing anyone wanted with this many unknown and armed people in their home was to start fighting. “On behalf of Lord Morrow, I am Duran, one of the Keep Liaisons. Grayson is my counter. We welcome you to the keep. Lord Morrow will be out to speak in a short time. Please feast if you are hungry.”
He returned to the floor, finding more people to greet. Keeping Grayson’s taller stature in his periphery, between them, they made sure to cover the almost two dozen guests who’d been allowed indoors. He didn’t want to slight anyone or their presence by not being thorough.
One of the men wearing a long sword approached with a swinging, easy gait, chewing on a roll with mumbling pleasure. There was an insignia on the upper shoulder of his traveling leathers. He wore a belt cinched at the waist steadying his sword over a dark blue tunic. Long legs and trousers did the man justice. Duran wouldn’t dare become familiar with a visiting party, but he was never against looking for a moment or two. The man before him held up the roll he’d clearly been enjoying as it was mostly gone. “Do you think we could send a batch of these out to the men outside? I haven’t tasted anything this good in months.”
“We have talented help in our kitchen.” Duran would be sure to pass on the compliment. Those ladies and their helpers worked their tails off to feed all the people working around the keep, and they did it well. “How many do you think are outside?”
“Maybe twice as many as were permitted indoors? A little less?” He rocked a flat palm in a give or take motion.
“I will pass it on to the kitchens. We welcome all of you. We apologize for the limitations for those allowed indoors.”
He waved his held roll in his hand, scattering a few crumbs to the floor. The hounds wandering through the groups were having a heyday for fallen bits and scraps. At least now he understood where the barking had originated. It appeared the dogs belonged to a single group but were making rounds amongst any who would feed them.
The man shoved the remnants of the roll into his mouth, swallowing in a rush before wiping his hand down his leg and thrusting it out to shake. A strong hand but not callously overbearing with his strength. Duran appreciated that. “I’m Yeh Yeh. I’m attending to Lord Atkill.”
“Which is he?”
Yeh Yeh turned toward the men in question. “The dark redhead in that group of four. They joined the escort with the Kinsi pride to meet this new lord who they were talking about.” He faced Duran again. “Where did he come from? I think everyone is curious about that.”
“I’m sure he’ll share his tale when he’s present,” Duran offered. It wasn’t his story to tell, and he didn’t want to speak in Jayce’s place. He had no idea how much he would reveal.
“And there are several mages? Like yourself?” He rested his hand on his sword hilt, relaxed enough to converse easily without worry. It pleased Duran to see their guests were unconcerned enough to eat and talk. However easy the conversation, he wasn’t going to be lured into a false sense of security, either.
“There are a few,” he offered, grinning when Yeh Yeh’s lips twitched at his evasiveness. “Can’t blame us for being cautious.”
Yeh Yeh studied him, his gaze much more astute than he’d revealed as yet. “I don’t think any of them really paid attention to the rumors I’ve heard, but I think they’re going to be surprised. I think they’re underestimating what today is all about.”
“Oh?” For the first time, a frisson of wariness carried through his body. The calm exterior he presented would reveal none of this to a casual observer though. What was Yeh Yeh sensing? Was it Duran’s imagination? Was he digging for more information? Making assumptions? It was hard to say.
Then Yeh Yeh’s more charming, friendly demeanor returned. “I’m going to return to my post.” He smiled kindly. “It was a pleasure, Duran. I hope to talk again.”
Duran watched him return to Lord Atkill’s side. They spoke together closely for a few minutes. Duran watched them with bemusement. What had he given away? Had he revealed anything? Was Yeh Yeh guessing? Trying to find a lie in the welcome? He didn’t know, but he had a feeling the man with the carefree nature was possibly more aware than many of the elders who were currently trying to break down the possibilities. Trying to reveal the lies before the appearance of this new, mysterious lord.
He and Grayson were chatting amiably with visitors when there was a commotion near the far side entry from where they’d watched the room, hidden from their observations.
The couple he’d been hearing about had returned. A single brow rose high at the joy and elation on their faces. If a person could smile wider, he hadn’t seen it. He hoped those relieved smiles meant good news. The man had an arm over the woman’s shoulder as she leaned into him, beaming with a happiness he didn’t think could be false or fake. Were they Jayce’s parents? The couple who’d vowed to protect the hidden prince? Looking at them, he could see the fox nature in them. She had thick, fiery-autumn hair tied down in braids and gathered at her nape. Both were tall and lithe of frame, and graceful in their movements.
Not too surprisingly, after their appearance, the double doors to the west presentation foyer opened wide and Jayce proudly walked in with Rune immediately at his shoulder, with two men behind him. Duran recognized Bankor as one of them. He’d been indispensable as he’d grown into his duty to protect Lord Morrow. A forthright type of fellow who Duran was almost positive Ulcieh was going to recommend for Jayce’s master at arms. He was quick-witted and morally fair. He seemed to be drawn to Jayce, aware keeping him safe was paramount even though he didn’t have the depth of information the rest of the group guarded. Viewing his energy through unfocused eyes, he recognized the heightened awareness surrounding the man, an alert purity attached to an honest soul. Silently, he nodded his approval.
Bankor was definitely a good man for the position.
Jayce climbed the few steps before his chair on the dais to stand facing outward. The deep seated chair had been carved by one of the residents on the keep lands by Rune’s request and was padded with a lovely velvet fabric in rich forest green. They’d all taken a few minutes in it to share in the workmanship. The craftsman who’d created it had been overjoyed to know where his work would be displayed. And in the last two weeks it had seen quite a bit of use. The first being when the Tanglewood clan cats had revealed themselves coming to Jayce’s aid when one of their keep, a young girl named Sophie, had nearly been kidnapped by two strangers who were currently under lock and guard awaiting their fate. On that morning, Tanglewood had made their presence known, creating the first test before Jayce, but had quickly become sound allies and several friendships had formed since their arrival.
Cedri Arin, Tanglewood’s viewed leader while at the keep, was who had offered to scout for any unseen or hidden forces following behind those who had escorted the foxes to the keep. He wouldn’t be surprised if the force not seen was much larger than their guests were disclosing, by what Leodinn had already shared through his visual tie with his familiar, a peregrine falcon he called Rox.
They would have to wait for Cedri’s report to know for sure how large the unseen show of strength was.
“Welcome! I greet you all.” Jayce’s voice was strong, carrying through the hall with a vibrant strength. Chatter fell off as voices quieted. With an even expression and only a bare hint of a smile on his lips, he shared, “For those who chose to accompany Harmony and Nolen Morrow on their journey to reunite with me, I graciously, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
Murmurs flew around the room and he waited for them to drop off, his gaze roaming over faces, stopping with a brief connection as he met Duran’s and Grayson’s individual gazes. Jayce was in control and managing it well.
“Harmony and Nolen raised me as their son and I am most grateful to those who protected them on their journey to reunite with me. For those unfamiliar with Kielbos’ royal history, Harmony was King Bail’s nurse.”