This is the first chapter in the second book, The Secret of the Keepers. For more information on where the series is sold, please click here.
Amethyst moonlight angled through the trees, revealing a small frame standing in the road. The woman’s shoulders slumped with age; her wild, white hair fell to her waist in a thick, tangled mess. She leaned on a twisted cane, keeping her head bowed.
As our carriage grew close, Gavin tensed.
I reached for his hand, bringing it to my lap. “What’s wrong?”
My voice never made it past the slowing cadence of horse hooves, but the woman’s head tilted as if she’d heard me. The waning light shone on her aged face, bringing out the deep crevices around her mouth.
She looked up, and I gasped.
I’d grown used to the unusual irises of the Alfar. Gavin’s eyes were like faceted emeralds; his mother’s the texture of smooth, lilac opals. But these … these weren’t the jeweled tone that held essence. These looked as if they were made of solid gold. They held no depth, no expression.
They weren't natural.
“It seems we have a problem,” Gavin growled.
The carriage rolled within a few feet of the woman before coming to a stop.
Gavin’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Ester, you were warned.”
The old woman’s mouth thinned to a defiant line. She shook her head, obviously answering a question I couldn't hear. Her gnarled fingers reached in the burlap satchel hanging just below her hip.
“I have a gift for the princess,” she finally said. The wind stirred as she took a package, tightly wrapped in colored cloth, from the satchel. She held it up and took a step closer. “I’ve been shaping these stones for well over a century. Would you deny me the pleasure of seeing them delivered?”
Hooves thundered in the distance; Gavin’s eyes stayed locked on Ester, but she turned to me.
“Princess Nora. I've wanted to meet you for some time. I—”
“You know very well you were ordered never to speak to her,” Gavin interrupted.
I stared at him. Why?
Gavin ignored me.
Taking a deep breath, I focused on Ester. “If the queen doesn’t want me to speak with you, I’ll honor that.”
Golden irises hungrily studied me. The old woman’s face furrowed in concentration.
“She cannot hear you,” Gavin said. “And even if she could, I am the only one who can to listen to her mind.”
Surprised, Ester raised her brow. “How can this be? She is the last light of Asteria.”
“She is also from earth,” sarcasm tinged his tone. “Or have you not seen?”
Ester glared. “You know very well I have no knowledge of human inadequacies.”
Yellow and orange brushed the landscape encasing the carriage in a snarl of shadows. The thunder of hooves crescendoed and slowed; the elite guard came into view. Relief surged as Elias, Elaine, Rena, and Tark cantered to a stop just a few yards away.
Rena and Tark dismounted and stood behind the old woman.
Elias pulled his steed close to the carriage. “A contingency has already swept the forest. They will stay on post until I call them back. They report nothing out of the ordinary. We will take her,”—he nodded toward Ester—“back to the queen.”
The carriage rocked as the old woman lunged forward. Her fingers gripped my wrist, digging into the soft flesh. She jerked me across the carriage door, her face just inches from mine.
“Beware ... the darkness seeps,” she hissed. “If what you love is lost, look to the box. You must—”
Rena charged, grabbing white matted hair just as Gavin snatched the hand on my wrist, prying Ester’s fingers away.
“I must be allowed to speak,” she insisted.
“You will never touch the future queen again!” Rena jerked Ester’s head back to an odd angle.
“Please, I must warn—”
Her statement was smothered by a loud whinny as one of the guard galloped toward her. Without breaking stride, he swooped down and caught Ester’s waist. She cried out as he threw her across his saddle, leaving her to dangle helplessly. Two rows of warriors followed, keeping pace. Dust billowing as they sped away.
The rest of the guard scattered through the dense underbrush, but Rena, Tark, Elias, and Elaine stayed by the carriage.
Rena mounted her horse and trotted toward me. “Were you harmed?”
She reached across the carriage door and lifted my hand, pulling the sleeve up to my elbow. Purple marks bloomed where Ester’s fingers had been.
“It’s nothing.” I assured her, bringing my wrist back to my lap.
Gavin’s eyes never left Elias, but his hand slid from his lap to mine. His large, warm palm eased over the red finger marks, causing the skin beneath his touch to itch. With a gentle squeeze he held on for a moment and then let go. His hand slid back to his lap.
I looked down at the now healthy, pink skin.
“Ester’s behavior is beyond bizarre.” Rena said, watching me pull the sleeve back into place. “She has never been one to use brute force. You needn't worry, though. Elias will take care of her.”
I leaned closer to Rena. “Are their others out there with eyes like that?” I shivered. “They’re a little creepy.”
She shook her head. “As you know, the Alfar have eyes of stone. No one else in the land has ever had eyes of metal ... at least, none that we know of.”
“So her parents didn't look like that?”
“Oh no, my lady, Ester wasn't born that way. When we were children, her eyes were the color of shallow gray moonstones, and ... ”
Rena grew silent, and I turned to see Gavin pointedly staring at us.
“What? Are grey eyes unusual?” I looked from Gavin to Rena and back again. Everyone’s attention suddenly focused on me.
“It’s not the color that was significant, but the texture.” Gavin’s voice deepened. “Ester’s original eyes held a one-dimensional quality.”
Fear tinged as Mia’s shallow ice blue eyes blazed in my memory. “Is it unusual for the Alfar to have eyes like that?”
Gavin hesitated before answering. “There have only been a handful of Alfar born with that distinguishing feature. Most came from the clan of Jayril.”
Surprised, I leaned back. Jayril, one of the original ancients, explored the power of negativity. He discovered that darker emotions, which drain the Alfar of strength, also held incredible power.
“Is Ester related to Jayril? What about Mia?”
Everyone seemed stunned that I would ask such a thing. Elias was the one to finally speak. “Mia comes from a long line of distinguished warriors. As for Ester, no one knows.”
“Are Mia and Ester related?”
Elaine’s deep voice came from behind. “It is possible. The ancients were not concerned with keeping accurate records, especially in the first years when it was possible for women to bear more than one child.”
Gavin settled himself back in the seat, and Rena grinned.
“It seems the prince is anxious to get going. Don’t stay away too long. I've got something special planned when you get back.”
“You will see, my lady.” Her eyes twinkled with a knowing glint, and she laughed at my expression. Rena grinned one last time before she and Tark took off in the early morning fog.
The carriage jolted as the horses set off at a quick clip. I turned and waved, watching our clan disappear in the dust.
Settling back into my spot, I closed my eyes, concentrating on everything that just happened.
Why would Ester risk everything to give me a gift? The queen could have her locked up ... or worse, exiled. And what was she trying to warn me against?
“I have no idea.” Gavin murmured, answering the questions running through my head.
I shivered as the damp morning air rushed past. Gavin rubbed my arm, warming my side, and then picked up Edna’s quilt from the carriage floor. A soft thud sounded below the blanket as something heavy hit the top of my foot.
Hidden in the folds of the Appalachian blanket was a gift wrapped in patchwork cloth.
An aged, frail voice whispered in my mind. If what you love is lost ...
“Did you see Ester drop this?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No.”
Gavin raised the box as if to toss it out of the carriage.
He paused. “Nora, surely you see the risk here?”
“What are you talking about?”
Gavin settled the box on his lap; his eyes became the faceted stone of a warrior. “There is a reason why the queen commanded Ester to never speak to you. She is exceptionally gifted in three areas. She’s a master of textiles, she excels in stone sculpture, and she has the gift of prophesy.”
Stunned, I sat back and looked at him. “I thought only Malachi could see the future.”
“Only the Ancient One was born with the gift. Ester didn't develop this ability until after the passing of her mate. Some believe that in her zealousness to learn new things, she tapped into an unknown energy source.” Gavin’s eyes became wary. “After Mia and I announced our engagement, Ester came to the queen and was adamant that it was a mistake, and I should under no circumstances be mated with the daughter of Troy. She claimed if I did so, Mia would strengthen while I grew weak, and a great shadow would inhabit the land, killing everything within its grasp.”
The hair prickled on the back of my neck, and I shivered. Gavin pulled me near, tucking the quilt around my hip.
“So what happened?” I asked.
“My mother went to Malachi demanding the truth. He discounted Ester’s predictions stating he had seen no such thing. He did, however, report the darkness surrounding the portal had grown. He felt the cause was somewhere in the other realm and asked that a contingency be sent to the world of man. As you know, I willingly volunteered.”
“I’ve never understood why your mother let you go to earth in the first place. Why not just send the others? Why risk the future king’s life?”
“She had no choice. When I came of age, she could no longer make demands of me. She tried her best to persuade me to stay, but I was adamant. In her anguish over my decision, she asked the Ancient One to intercede. He refused, saying that he would not try to sway me one way or the other, fearing that it might manipulate fate. Mother sought Ester’s counsel. Malachi became furious, warning the queen that Ester did not understand her actions. The queen ordered Ester to her chambers, but apparently Malachi got to her first. Whatever he said kept Ester quiet. No one had seen or talked to her until recently.”
I looked down at the colorful snippets of cloth that had been meticulously sewn together. A bright pink ribbon kept the package neatly wrapped.
If what you love is lost, look to the box ...
“She seemed so desperate, determined ... like her life depended on giving me this. I know in my heart she wasn't trying to hurt me.”
Gavin’s eyes blanked.
“Who are you talking to?”
“Malachi. He doesn't like it, but he leaves the decision to you. Open the gift if you must, but if you sense anything uncomfortable, get rid of it immediately.”
My heart made its way to my throat. “What does he mean ... uncomfortable?”
“I’m not sure. But he agrees with you that it doesn't pose an immediate threat.”
Gavin placed the box in my lap. I untied the ribbon, and the cloth fell away, revealing a decorative jewelry case. The dark wood gleamed in the morning light, and inlaid in its top were precious stones in the shape of an Appalachian star.
When I was a child, my father abandoned me, and Edna, an old family friend, took me in. She taught me patience and kindness. The last Christmas she was alive, she gave me her quilt. The very quilt that lay across my lap and held the same Appalachian star pattern. It was all I had left of Edna and her mountain.
“How did Ester know?” I asked.
“She was the one who fixed Edna’s quilt.”
I looked at the worn, soft cotton covering my legs. After Mia found my things in Gavin’s bedroom, she slashed it to ribbons. I was certain that it couldn't be repaired. But Malachi told of a seamstress who had woven each individual thread back into place. It was heavier that it used to be, but other than that it looked like it always had.
“Wait ... she said that she’d been shaping these stones for centuries. How could that be?”
Gavin’s eyebrow rose, but he kept quiet.
“You know, I asked Malachi if I could thank the person who mended this ... he said that was for another day. I thought it was odd at the time, but now I’m beginning to understand.”
Running my hand over the box’s smooth stones, I found it odd that they were warm; a hint of a light shone from their depths. Carved intricately around the wooden sides were unfamiliar battle scenes.
“The artistry is incredible,” I said, inspecting the box’s detail. Gavin tensed as I opened the lid. I ran my fingertips across the gold satin lining. “It looks harmless enough.”
“Looks can be deceiving,” he muttered. Taking the small container from my grasp, Gavin turned it over and inspected the bottom. Four miniature clawed-feet stood at each corner.
“Why on earth would she place this here?” I asked, running my finger over a green stone that had been embedded in the middle of the base.
Gavin’s brow lowered as he shook his head. “Knowing Ester, it’s either very significant, or she placed it there on a whim. It’s one of the reasons Malachi uses caution when dealing with her. Rarely does she think things through.”
Gavin rubbed his thumb over the stone, stopping in the center where an imperfection rippled the smooth surface into an odd shape.
I took the box from his grasp. No ... I looked closer. It wasn't that there was something wrong with the stone, it was the shape of something—like Ester had pressed an object into the stone, and she either removed it or it had fallen out.
“This doesn't look like she put it here on a whim.”
“I’m still not sure we should keep it.” Gavin said.
“It’s just a decorative box. Maybe Ester’s had a vision of me placing something in it, something that we’ll need.”
He shook his head in disbelief.
“Really, she didn't seem dangerous to me.”
“You are far too trusting.”
I wrinkled my nose. “And you are far too protective.”
His expression softened. “I’ll always protect you, my light. Never forget that.” He closed the lid and placed the box on the floor.
I stifled a yawn; Gavin pulled me close.
“I’m sure you must be exhausted. Please rest, my love.”I nestled into his broad shoulder as his breath touched the tip of my ear. “I’ll be here to watch over you ... always.”