The second book in The Castle Keepers series Scattered Stones launches in May 2016. Here’s a sneak peek.
Bronwyn Darrow is desperate to rescue his daughter Isla from Blackvale Castle. For five long years, he’s travelled Ath-o’Lea searching for her, but the formidable castle remains elusive. He’s surrendered his coveted sergeant’s position at Aruam Castle, but he’s willing to sacrifice everything to bring Isla home, even his honour. If he fails, his innocent little girl will face a lifetime of slavery.
When Bronwyn breaks into Tigh Na Mare Castle, he encounters two siblings who vow to help him on his quest to save his daughter. They prove to be more loyal to Bronwyn and Aruam Castle than he first realised. Together, they embark on a journey that takes them far from home and down winding mountain trails where their actions set in motion the unravelling of an ancient legend that threatens the lives of all dwarfs.
If you haven’t read Shadows in the Stone – The Castle Keepers Book 1, pick it up now at your favourite retailer.
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Scattered Stones – Chapter 01
Approach to the Dungeon
Bronwyn Darrow wriggled beneath the stone wall. Twigs, dry leaves, spider webs and dirt collected on his clothing. As he snaked forward, the hilt of his sword snagged on a tree root. He retreated far enough to jerk it free, then continued. An average-size human couldn’t fit through the shallow slit, but Bronwyn, a lean dwarf, slithered through easily. The hidden gap was also too dark for human eyes, but the dappled light of the waxing crescent moon shining into the passage at both ends provided enough brightness to guide the dwarf.
As he dragged himself towards the opening on the other side, he reviewed his plan: break into the dungeon, find his daughter and escape alive. The last part served as his good luck charm, insurance he’d see another sunrise. It hadn’t always been this way, but he had lived without the comforts and the protection of Aruam Castle for more than five years.
Five years was a long time to travel The Trail, searching and keeping alive the hope he’d find his daughter. From one aspect, time had passed quickly. Months slipped by as he pursued leads, explored new lands and fostered alliances in the diverse settlements dotting Ath-o’Lea. The valuable connections meant dozens of others kept watch for signs, sightings and news of Isla, his adopted daughter. They spread throughout the land, and whenever he entered a village, town or city, his contacts supplied updates.
But from another perspective, the five years had elapsed at an agonizing pace. He had made friends along the way but none he travelled with for long. On The Trail, company came and went as individuals chased their own vocation and inspiration. His visits to see family and friends had been few. When he discovered on his first return home the woman he loved had departed, it shook him to the bone. Alaura of Niamh had sought to join him in his search for Isla, but he had forbidden her, hoping she’d remain safe at Maskil. Her actions proved him wrong. She had left the same day as he had. If only he had known she would perform her own search, he’d have allowed her to accompany him. But now, the ifs and would haves amounted to nothing; Alaura had disappeared and had become as impossible to find as Isla.
When he found her, he’d beg for forgiveness. He carried no doubt she lived; her energy pulsated through his blood, delivered to him by the Transfer Spell, an incantation cast on their first quest together. She could send objects small enough to fit into her palm directly to his hand using the magic bridge. He lacked magic so he could send nothing. Still the spell furnished him unknown capabilities, including the power to feel her energy when he searched for it.
Unfortunately, wicked magic held in Bronwyn’s right hand transferred to Alaura. It had the capacity to steal her strength and make her ill. Whenever he encountered a mysterious item he believed possessed magic, he touched it cautiously. If he felt opposing pressure, he knew she mentally forced the item from his hand. He obeyed instantly.
Since parting, Alaura had used the Transfer Spell once. His desperate state had spurred her into action. He had been lost for weeks on Blue Mountain and had exhausted his food supply. After three days with nothing to eat, he put his hand over his stomach, the same hand connecting him to her. His stomach felt hollow, and a deep grumbling told him if he didn’t find food soon, he’d feel the ill effects of starvation. To his surprise, his hand warmed, and a full plate of food materialized. No sooner had he set down the ration when other foods appeared: bread, biscuits, apples, pears, green cheese, salted meat, cookies, canned beans, water, tea and his favourite bread-topper, fenberry spread. She had delivered enough food to sustain him until he found his way off the mountain.
Through her energy vibes, the food delivery and the occasional magical item rejection, he knew Alaura to be alive and well. The question he couldn’t answer haunted him night and day: Where was she?
Bronwyn swept these thoughts from his mind to focus on the task ahead. With skill and luck, in a few hours he and Isla would be on their way to safety. His informant had confirmed the rumours and provided additional information. The transfer of prisoners from another castle to the one he prepared to enter had taken place today. A seventeen-year-old hauflin arrived with the prisoners. Bronwyn had paid a fair price for the information, but he’d have paid triple to rescue his daughter from five years of captivity.
The moonlight shone down on his face as he peered from the slit beneath the outer defence wall. He had visited Tigh Na Mare only once, but he had entered through the front gates on that occasion. Tonight, with a little help from another informant, Jack Somerled, he would penetrate the castle undetected through an entrance guarded by secrecy. Don’t get caught, Somerled had warned.
Being caught meant a fate worse than death. The female warriors who ruled the castle gave no mercy to men who crossed their lines. Four decades beforehand, the army of human women had forcibly taken the ancient Tigh Na Mare Castle overlooking Ellswire Harbour. Their ruler, a brute named Lady Orenda Nassen, had ignored Bronwyn’s request for assistance in finding Isla. To add insult to his rejection, she forced him to strip to his shorts and carry his possessions while he walked through the castle and the small settlement to the village gates. Along the way, the inhabitants pizzled him and taunted him with words, testing his self-control to remain calm.
Bronwyn slipped from the weed-covered hole, glanced to confirm the guards on the wall patrolled a safe distance away, then moved towards an inside corner of the castle. There, beneath the west tower, lay the steel grate the informant had spoken about. He surveyed the area. This location put patrolling guards at a disadvantage because they could see only a small portion of this section of wall, making it the perfect spot to enter the castle unseen. He lifted the grate, slipped inside the tunnel and pulled the screen back into position.
Turning to face the narrow passageway, he paused, allowing his eyes time to adjust to the dimmer conditions. It will darken enough to blind you, Somerled had said, but if your feet keep on the nigh, you’ll find your way. Upon approach to the dungeon, the torch light seeping through the cracks in the wall will illuminate your target. Bronwyn trusted Somerled. He met the human shortly after his search for Isla had begun and maybe two dozen times since. Somerled travelled The Trail too, but not for the same reasons as Bronwyn.
Tiptoeing forward, he became blind as darkness swallowed the passageway. He placed his hand on the left wall and let it guide him, taking each step with care to avoid making unnecessary sounds. Seeing a dim light ahead, he crouched low and continued. The concealed passageway ended near what Lady Orenda Nassen and her warriors called the Entertainment Room. There, unwelcome guests such as Bronwyn would feel their wrath. Given the lateness of the day, the room probably sat empty.
A soft thud stopped him in mid step. He looked towards the grated entrance but saw nothing in the pitch black. Had a guard on the wall spotted him as he entered the castle? He crept forward, searching for a place to hide and discovered another tunnel and stepped inside.
He clutched a dagger, ready to strike if necessary. If a guard discovered him, he needed to act swiftly. A scream, a shout or the slightest sound of a struggle could alert others. He held his breath and listened for soft footsteps on the stone floor. He couldn’t guess the distance. The stealth prowler moved silently.
The intruder paused near the second tunnel entrance, and he spied on the silhouette from the shadows. It was a male dwarf, not a guard. He recognised the pattern on the scabbard illuminated by a shaft of light but couldn’t place it. The intruder peered into the passageway. Bronwyn felt he stared directly at him but knew better—he crouched in complete darkness.
He had a better look at the face and couldn’t believe his eyes. Impossible! What was he doing here? Could he be trusted? He wondered what to do next. After an evaluation of what could happen with two break-ins occurring at the same time, he made a decision.
“Tam,” he whispered. The swift movements of the dwarf with his weapon urged him to speak louder. “It’s Bronwyn. I mean no harm.”
Tam Mulryan gripped his dagger. “Bronwyn Darrow?”
He stepped into the glimmer of light. “I can’t believe my eyes. We thought you were dead.”
“It’s what many believe.” Tam sheathed his dagger.
“Why are you here?” He watched him struggle to impart the information. They couldn’t be here for the same reason: to rescue Isla. Although Tam had participated in the kidnapping of his daughter, he wouldn’t have spent five years searching for her. To him, she was only a twelve-year-old girl tangled in a shady deal by her blood sire.
He heard pain in Tam’s voice. The guess he made many years beforehand proved correct. Tam must have agreed to steal Isla in order to free his sister. Now, five years later, he still fought to gain her freedom. “Was she transferred with the prisoners today?”
Tam nodded. “And you? What brings the honourable Sergeant Darrow to Tigh Na Mare?”
He swallowed hard. Since losing Isla, he hadn’t felt honourable. He had done things over the years he wanted to forget. Trail life was different from life at Maskil. Incidents he had no control over drove him to choose between being honourable and living. “Isla. She’s amongst the prisoners.”
“Isla?” He appeared confused. “You failed to rescue her that day in the mountains?”
Tam gazed into the darkness of the passageway. “I didn’t know. I had slept a long time in the trunk of that tree. After I broke free, I drifted. I thought for sure she was safe.”
“She’s here.” He pointed towards the dungeon. “If I’m right, I’m within a hundred feet of rescuing her tonight. And your sister. We’ll get them both.” He stuck out his hand. “Together?”
Tam eyed him. Bronwyn thought he might walk away and continue to look out for himself, as life on The Trail had taught him.
“We’ll get them both.” Tam grabbed the hand and shook it. “But we follow the rule—if one of us falls, the other takes the women and doesn’t look back. Their freedom is what we seek.”
An explosion shook the walls, and they dropped to the floor. Pieces of loose rock and dust fell from the ceiling and clouded the dim light. When the rumbling stopped, the sound of earnest voices echoed throughout the castle and seeped in from the grated entrance. Bronwyn motioned Tam towards the dungeon. Regardless of the turmoil erupting in the castle, he wasn’t leaving without Isla.
The guard at the village gate escorted Morrigan Fae of Moonsface towards Tigh Na Mare Castle to meet with Lady Orenda Nassen. The elf wanted to purchase a slave and heard a shipment had arrived earlier in the day. Morrigan was a woodsman species, the sort who preferred the forests to civilized accommodations, and his clothing, a mix of browns and greens, reflected this. His earth-coloured brown hair, tied into a single braid, almost reached his trousers. He appeared lean for an elf but of average height. The female guard who escorted him measured more than a foot taller.
“A fair evening.” Morrigan broke the silence between them. His quick pace kept him abreast of the female’s long strides.
“If you like this sort of evening.” The guard eyed the elf. She looked big enough to tackle the visitor with one hand and guzzle a mug of rum in the other.
Morrigan decided small talk wouldn’t help make the task which lay ahead easier. He knew the philosophy of the female warriors who ruled and occupied Tigh Na Mare; they reigned—men served one purpose and once sufficiently exploited, discarded. The human women preferred only human males for procreation. This kept their bloodlines pure. They tolerated male visitors of other races for business and nothing more.
The elf understood the fine line he walked. He needed to appear friendly while maintaining a tenor of equality and respect. A wrong move could end his life or thrust him into slavery. Over the years, Morrigan had learnt male human prisoners from Tigh Na Mare were exchanged for female prisoners at Blackvale Castle. The human females remained at Tigh Na Mare and disciplined in the warrior ways. Those of other races were sold as slaves or sold for inflated prices to those who sought their freedom.
Tonight Morrigan sought a special slave, one he had hunted for more than five years. He had to keep his wits about him and not let his feelings for this woman reveal his true intentions. If they did, it might cost him his life.
The Tigh Na Mare guard stopped at the gatehouse, received required clearance to castle, then continued in silence. She led Morrigan Fae down a long hallway and to the throne room.
One of the two guards at the entrance to the room stepped in front of the visitor. “State your name and business?”
“Morrigan Fae of Moonsface. I’ve received notification slaves have arrived and if I wanted the pick of the bunch, I should act in haste.”
The burly guard grunted and stepped aside. “With a face like yours, I can see why you’d need to buy a woman.”
If Morrigan didn’t have excellent hearing, he’d have missed the rude comment. He smiled, pretending not to hear the criticism, and followed the guard inside.
Lady Orenda Nassen rested upon an elegant marble throne held aloft by a raised oval platform at the opposite end of the room. Stone curls, symbolic of waves crashing upon the coastline overlooked by the castle, adorned the dais. Behind the throne, a mammoth wave of black stone soared twenty feet into the air and erupted with three dolphins riding the crest and sheltering the lady below.
Morrigan had appreciated the meticulously carved figures since his first visit three years beforehand. The ornate throne held the commanding position in the otherwise sparsely decorated room. With the absence of chairs, loyal subjects and visitors had to stand and gaze up towards the throne. A row of windows to the left and right emitted enough sunlight to illuminate the room but on dark nights as this one, dozens of wall torches provided the light.
Morrigan knew the throne room to be an exception. Ornaments, weapons and furniture filled other areas he had entered, but most visitors saw only this room, a cavernous shell that implied Lady Orenda Nassen and her fugal warriors had nothing to steal.
This evening, several dozen warriors and servants surrounded Lady Nassen. The tall, lean human wore an elegant yellow silk blouse with long sleeves, deep burgundy trousers and a black cloak. A collar of silver chainmail hung loose around her neck and dipped between her breasts. A long sword hung at her left hip. Three sheathed daggers adorned her right side. She appeared battle ready.
Orenda Nassen scrutinized the visitor, and Morrigan felt the force behind the lady’s pale green eyes probe his mind and search his life force for ulterior motives. The elf tightened his defences, preventing attempts by the lady to breach his outer perimeter. A shallow smile caressed her lips, and Morrigan knew the lady sensed his actions. The wise and crafty Orenda chose to associate with like-minded individuals.
“Morrigan Fae of Moonsface…always a delight to do business with you.” Lady Orenda Nassen signalled the elf to approach. “What are you in the market for this evening?”
“Lady Nassen, I received notification of a new shipment of slaves.” Morrigan chose his words carefully. He had to appear indifferent though he wished to storm the dungeon, find the woman he loved and escape.
“Your information is correct and you are eager.” She motioned for a drink, and a servant handed her a mug of rum.
“I intend to leave for Wardlow at first light. When I learnt of the shipment, I put business before pleasure.”
Lady Nassen smiled. “Do you have sufficient coin to barter for a slave?” When Morrigan nodded, she summoned a scribe. “What do you seek in a woman slave? Beauty? Strength? Courage? Or obedience? Do you desire an elf or another race?”
“I seek a hardy slave, one who’ll survive the rugged conditions in which I live. She must be small enough to gain entry into places I am too large to access. She must be crafty and if not handy with a weapon, possess the ability to learn. I prefer a youth, one still vulnerable to manipulation.” Morrigan eased his stance. “I wish to view the slave before any decision is finalized. I reserve the right to reject a slave who is missing a limb, appears diseased or ill. If I feel I’m able to heal the slave and choose to take her, I expect a reduced price.”
“Young. Healthy. Small.” Lady Nassen spoke to the scribe. “Hauflins arrived in the transfer. What are their ages?”
The slim female skimmed the list of prisoners. “Fifty-three, twenty-one and seventeen, My Lady.”
“Bring the two youngest to me.”
Morrigan drew a shallow breath as he watched the warrior exit the room. This was a business transaction. If Lady Nassen thought otherwise, she’d throw him in the dungeon and charge him with deception. He’d lose the opportunity to gain the hauflin’s freedom.
“What takes you to Wardlow?” Lady Nassen raised the mug of rum to her lips and eyed the elf.
Morrigan forced a smile. “Pleasure, of course, as business always is.”
“And your plan is to take immediate charge of the slave; she’s to go with you?”
Morrigan nodded. “An extra set of eyes and ears will aid my profession.” As far as the lady knew, he dealt in underhanded transactions, ones that brought profit to him alone. If she knew his true vocation, she might execute him on the spot.
An explosion shook the walls. Morrigan dived for cover. Peering through the falling debris and dust, he watched Lady Orenda Nassen leap to her feet and draw her sword.
“Guards! Find the source!” She glared down at Morrigan Fae. “Return at first light to complete the trade.” She motioned to two warriors. “Remove him from Tigh Na Mare!”
The warriors grappled the elf’s arms and propelled him forward. Morrigan glanced about to find the cause of the explosion. Warriors sprinted from one entry to another, searching the inside of the castle and the grounds. Morrigan heard shouting on the western wall, but he failed to see the reason as his escorts thrust him towards the village gates.
“His weapons!” shouted one of the escorting warriors to the entry guards.
Before Morrigan could speak or strap on his scabbard, he landed with a thud on the rough ground. The heavy village gates slammed shut, leaving him to the darkness of the barren land. He gathered his weapons and searched for his pony. The animal waited near the gate where he had left it.
Morrigan rode away from Tigh Na Mare, treating the expulsion as business as usual. He knew the guards at the gate towers watched him. As soon as he reached the forest and travelled out of their sight, he’d double back and learn what had caused the explosion.
Continue the adventure, pick up your copy of Scattered Stones in May.