Authors: KateMarie Collins
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places, and events are the work of the author’s imagination.
Any resemblance to real persons, places, or events is coincidental.
Solstice Publishing - www.solsticepublishing.com
Copyright 2015 KateMarie Collins
A Book of the Amari
For the Archers of
The Barony of Glymm Mere.
May their aim ever be true.
Kai crouched behind the ferns and rocks, waiting. He’d been there since dawn. His legs no longer ached. They waited, like the rest of him.
At last, his patience rewarded him. A small rustle moved across the forest floor, carried on the breeze blowing toward him. The boar came into view. Kai’s hand deftly notched the arrow he’d held loosely against the bow. Drawing back, he took aim. Today, he would be the one bringing home the prize for the feast. Not his brother.
The arrow flew through the air, plunging into the boar’s side. It toppled over, dead. Kai stood, slinging his bow over his shoulder. He placed one hand on the rock in front of him, preparing to climb over it toward his kill. The clapping behind him halted his movement.
“Well shot, little one!” A deep voice dripped with sarcasm. “You managed to make it so we can go celebrate
instead of staying
out here for hours.”
Kai turned. His older brother stood there, surrounded by his cronies. “I killed it, Kaerdan. That’s not yours.”
Kaerdan stepped forward. “It doesn’t matter, does it? Because they’ll all say it was mine.” With one hand, he gestured at his cronies swarming the dead animal. Ruffling Kai’s brown hair as he walked past him, he laughed. “Grow up, brother. There’s nothing you can do to prove otherwise. You’re the spare. I’m the heir. You’re just a backup in case something happened to me as a child. Father never intended for you to take the throne. He never has. He couldn’t even give you a proper name.”
“Our mother named me, same as you,” Kai called after his brother. All Kaerdan did to acknowledge his words was a rude gesture as he went to see “his” trophy.
Sighing resolutely, Kai took his time to gather his pack and make the walk back to the keep. He should’ve known better. All his life, his brother had taken credit for things Kai had done. Laid claim to things he liked. Reminded him, at every chance, that he was the lesser son.
Their parents didn’t fight for him whenever he pressed his case. Respect your brother, for he will be King after your father. He will marry well—unite the residents of the island. Once that happened, they would be a force to be reckoned with. As long as the factions warred with each other, they couldn’t regain what had been lost.
There wasn’t much room for him once Kaerdan’s marriage took place. Sure, Father would rule a few more years. Barring some accident or early death, that is. The earliest he would abdicate in favor of Kaerdan would be after he produced his own heir. And that was never certain.
He’d heard the stories from his mother. Of a land rich with resources. Farms and forests, cities and ports. His grandfather’s court, where ladies wore beautiful jewels and men wore cloaks woven of pure silver. Where even the Amari wore chains studded with emeralds and rubies.
His mother filled his head with tales during his youth. She never said it, but he knew she missed the trappings of her father’s palace. The bitterness that tinged her voice when she spoke of coming to the island and marrying her father wasn’t well masked. Over time, she even stopped hiding it.
“If I could, I’d send you there, Kai. You’d be able to marry far more advantageously than you would here. What’s left, after Kaerdan weds? That old fool that calls himself King to the North, Ian. He didn’t have enough sense to father a son. No, just a daughter. And only one! How can you be expected to marry someone equal to us in station? There’s barely any pure bloodlines left on this backward island!” Her contempt rang in his ears at the memory.
The bright sun reflected off the high stone walls of the main keep. Kai squinted against the glare as he emerged from the sheltering woods. He could see Kaerdan and his friends, shouting about how “great” the hunt was, crossing the far field. The Amari working the crops paused to give respect, but said nothing. It didn’t surprise him. Many feared what
would become of them
when Father died. Almost as much as Kai wondered himself.
It didn’t really matter, in the end. He knew he’d be leaving the island once Kaerdan wore the crown. His brother had made it very clear that he saw Kai as little more than an inconvenient brother. Five years separated them. It might as well be fifteen for how big the gulf between them was.
He heard the tall grain to the left of the path rustle, knew the lightness of the step as Holly drew up beside him. Amari or not, she was a friend. One of the few people he’d miss when he left.
“I see the Prince has decided what is his is yours once again,” she said.
Kai shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. Let him have the glory. I’d rather choke on rotten meat than eat at table with him.”
She laughed. “If it matters so little, why does it eat at you so much? At least you still have your freedom. You can come and go as you desire. You’re of age now. Take your leave of your father and find your own way.”
He stopped and turned to look at her. Resisting the urge to tuck a stray lock of brown hair back under her bonnet, he smiled at her. “And who would take care of you if I did? Maybe I should go to Father tonight, let him know I want you as my own.” His grin faded as he saw the muscles in her face tense up.
“If that is your will, Prince.” The title came out of her like a hiss. “What is it to be Amari but to serve those who chain us?”
Reaching out a hand, he hesitated as he saw her draw back. “That’s not what I meant and you know it. Amari or not, I’d take you with me as a friend. Nothing more. Not unless you asked.”
Holly looked at him, the gold eyes aflame with anger and fear. “That’s the problem, Prince. You are not the one who is chained and must obey.” She bobbed a quick curtsey, “By your leave. I have duties I must attend to.” Without another word, she dove back into the wheat field.
Kai’s mood was still black as he entered the keep. Much as he liked Holly, he didn’t understand her most days. The Amari here weren’t treated badly. They had shelter; homes were kept warm and dry from the winter snows. They had work to keep them busy, clothing and shoes given to them. None went hungry. And it’s not like Father demanded them to use magic often. Sure, it happened sometimes. But the wars were long over. Few bore the scars of what they’d been commanded to do. For the last sixteen years, there’d been peace. The pact joining a seven-year old Kaerdan to the newborn, Jenny, when she reached eighteen was enough to keep things quiet.
He crossed the courtyard, not seeing the bustle about him. He just couldn’t understand what Holly’s problem was. It’s not like he’d be a bad master to her. And it really was time for him to start establishing his own household. Second son or not, he was still a Prince. One that could travel with an entourage, have his own Amari. And one as gifted as Holly was would be an asset when he was looking for a bride.
A loud grumble from his stomach reminded him he’d left before breakfast. Rather than disturb anyone, he took a left at the next junction and headed down to the kitchens. Olive would be there, and she always had food for him.
The kitchens were a flurry of activity. Dozens of Amari darted about, intent on their duties. Few paid much attention to him as he entered, too focused on the tasks at hand. Kai stopped short before he collided with a pair of men hauling the boar he killed less than an hour earlier on a spit between them. He watched, curious, as they situated the iron rod on the notches above the huge cooking fire.
“Is someone coming?” he remarked to the room at large.
“Aye, Prince. Your brother’s bride and her family sent word. The roads are good and they’ll be here by the evening meal.” Olive spoke, not looking up from the huge pile of dough she was kneading on the
table in front of her. “We’ll be celebrating a wedding in the morning.”
Kai stepped back slightly, dodging another person as they hurried past with a bowl of fruit. “Tomorrow? Is it that soon?”
“Helen, get that bread in the oven right away!” Olive called out instructions better than a military commander. “Indeed it is. We thought we’d have another week or more to prepare. Watch the broth, Tobias! Burn that and you’ll eat naught else for a week!”
Slowly, Kai retreated from the kitchen, grabbing a small meat pie from an unguarded bowl as he left. Had he remained, he would’ve been one more person in the way.
As he twisted his way through the stone corridors, he found himself dodging more and more people as they hurried about. Bunches of fragrant lavender and sage dotted the walls, chasing away the lingering mustiness of the castle. Clouds of dust could be seen rising in the air as tapestries were beaten clean. All to make a good first impression on the woman who would sit next to Kaerdan on the throne.
No longer caring, Kai retreated to the solitude of his chamber.
Kai stuck to the shadows, avoiding the revelry of the wedding feast. A sense of dread had encompassed him since the arrival of the bridal party the day before. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t put his finger on what.
Kaerdan and his new wife, Jenny, sat at the head table, their fathers flanking the happy couple. Her blonde hair shone in the candles illuminating the hall. Kaerdan did have a preference for fair-haired ladies. In that, he would be happy.
It was his mother, however, that drew his attention. She rarely left her rooms any more, claiming illness. Tonight, though, no sign of sickness decorated her pale face. If anything, it glowed in triumph. And why shouldn’t it? Her firstborn married, ready to continue the family name. Soon, he would be King.
His father rose from his place, chalice in hand. “Today was a glorious day! A wedding, a new treaty, and a successful hunt! Kaerdan is truly gifted and his prize sits radiant beside him. To the happy couple!”
Kai shifted through the people near him. Gifted, indeed. The only thing his brother had ever been able to do was take credit for someone else’s deeds.
He needed air. The hall was nauseatingly sweet, between the overabundance of the beeswax candles to the
his kill—roasting on the spit. Winding his way through the drunk wedding guests, he made his way to the upper gallery. Outside would’ve been preferable, but he knew better. At some point, he’d be expected to go forward and pledge his loyalty to his father and brother. Not that the words meant anything to him. He stopped believing in the vow after seeing how little they meant to Kaerdan.
“Where’s the Historian?” his father’s voice boomed through the arched hallway. Kai smiled a little. The recitation of the family line would take a good deal of time. Tradition, yes. But it also gave him enough time to breathe some air not saturated with sweat, ale, and food.
“Kai,” Holly whispered from a recessed doorway. “Do you trust me?”
He blinked at her, puzzled. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I? It’s not like you can lie to me.” He flinched at the anger that flashed across her face. She didn’t need the reminder of her status.
“You need to come with me. Now.” Reaching out, she pulled at his hand. Her voice tumbled over the words.
In the back of his mind, he heard the Historian drone on. He was covering the family fast. The old Amari had been with them since he was an infant, and was tasked with remembering each birth and death. Every family on the island kept a Historian to prove noble birth.
“Holly, I can’t. As soon as Old Josiah is done, I have to go down and make my pledge. If I miss that, Father will have my hide.”
She licked her lips, her gold eyes darting past him. “Kai, there won’t be any way around that. Once Josiah is finished, things are going to go bad for you. Quickly.” She pulled on his hand once again. “Please, I beg you. Come with me now while you can still run.” Her eyes welled up with tears.
“Run? What am I running from?”
The hall below became silent. Too silent. He heard his father’s massive oak chair slide across the floor. “Josiah, you forgot one of my sons. Why did you not add Kai to the list?”
Tearing his arm from Holly’s grasp, Kai turned and looked down. Something knotted in his stomach. Whether it was fear or apprehension, he didn’t know.
“I am Amari,” the old man croaked. “I cannot lie. You asked for a recitation of the legitimate line. I have given you that.”
Susana, his mother, spoke across the chamber. Her voice snapped with irritation and fear. “No, Josiah. Kai is true born. He should be on your list.”
“Prince Kai is son of his Majesty, yes. But not by you, my Queen. He was begotten on an Amari brought over after a raid. You traded your own stillborn son to his mother so he might live. His only saving grace being his eyes were that of his father, not his mother. Kai is half Islander, half Amari.”
The assembled guests broke out in a fury of voices. Kai staggered back against the wall, stunned. He was half Amari? Kaerdan’d have him in chains the moment he saw him.
Something pulled at his wrist, hard, insistent. He looked, afraid it was a guard. Already he could hear his brother demanding both Kai’s attendance and a blacksmith. Holly stood next to him, her face full of compassion. “Kai, please. We have to get you away from here, now. Before it’s too late!”
Fear released him from his shock. Nodding, he followed her as she led him through a back staircase. The dust, thick on the walls, gave him a small sliver of hope they’d make it out. The few that came through here were servants. Kaerdan probably didn’t know it even existed.
“We knew, the moment the message came about their arrival, that it would come out tonight. Plans were made. We can get you off the island. But, please, you have to promise never to come back.” Holly’s whispered voice kept him focused.
Kai moved quickly, keeping pace with his friend. “Who is ‘we’?”
Holly looked back at him as she halted in front of a small door. “There’s a small rowboat just down the path. We put your bow, some food, and a pouch of gold inside. Head to the docks, find Captain Ellory. He’s expecting you as passenger. You’ll sail as soon as you’re on board.”
Kai stopped her from darting off. “Who is this ‘we’ you keep talking of? Please, I need to know.”
Her golden eyes no longer held back the tears. “Olive. She’s our mother. Your true mother.”
He knew what was going to happen to them once it came out they helped him escape. “Holly, come with me. I know what Kaerdan’s going to do to the two of you.”
“I can’t.” She lifted the hem of her skirt, displaying the iron band circling her ankle. Embracing him, she whispered, “Go, my brother. One of our family needs to remain unchained.”
He put his hand to the lever, ready to raise it. “Holly, what’s my name? I don’t know any more.”
She whispered in his ear, and then pushed him out the door.
Kai ran down the path, his ears straining to hear any pursuers. As promised, the small skiff waited for him. He pushed off, rowing with strong strokes. Escape mattered more than anything right now.
The docks were a short
distance away, and he
was running short on time. By now, the castle had been searched and Kaerdan would be sending out parties to find him.
A lone figure stood on the closest pier, a massive merchant ship bobbing gently in the waves behind him. Three men appeared near the sandy beach, grabbing the bow and pulling him ashore. Kai grabbed at his bow and pack as he climbed out. The man he first saw approached.
“You the passenger I was told to expect?”
“Depends. Are you Captain Ellory?” The two men fell into step together, quickly moving across the dock and onto the ship.
“Aye, that I am. I understand there’s a bit of a hurry to things. But can an old Captain know the name of his passenger?”
“The name’s Alaric.”
The crossing would take over a week, which suited Alaric fine. He needed time to himself to decide what to do next.
Changing his name had been easy. Too easy. Ever since Holly whispered it in his ear, it felt right. More like who he was than Kai had ever been.
That first night, he’d mourned. Said good-bye to a mother and sister he’d never really known, who were most likely dead by now. If not dead, then they prayed for it swiftly. Kaerdan would punish them first. It was his way.
As to his other family, he scarcely thought on them. The feeling he’d had his entire life of being on the outside looking in made sense now. He didn’t wholly belong there.
Nor was he fully Amari.
The second day was harder. Alaric stared at the polished brass mirror in his cabin for an hour, trying to see if there was
any of the telltale gold coloring in his eyes. He’d heard of this, yes.
were common enough, but almost all had the eye color. He would be one of the very few who could pass as human.
While that would make things easier, he also knew what he couldn’t do. Going to his grandfather’s palace was out of the question. Even if a messenger didn’t make it before he did, it wouldn’t be far behind. No, Kai had to die. Disappear. Never to be seen or heard from again.
The crew left him alone, which suited him just fine. How Holly procured his passage he’d never know. He needed the time and solitude right now.
A light knock at the door to his small cabin roused him from his thoughts. He turned his head around as the door swung open, the wood creaking slightly. Captain Ellory slipped into the room, closing the door behind him.
“Pardon the intrusion, but something’s happened you need to know about.”
Alaric nodded, gesturing for the Captain to sit in the only chair in the room. He settled on his bunk, waiting.
Ellory sank into the chair. Alaric noticed both relief and concern on the man’s weather-beaten face. Whether or not the man’s gray hair was from age or worry he couldn’t tell. Outside of being older, there was no way to determine the Captain’s age. Though, at eighteen, there many people who fit that statement.
“I know who you are, what you are. Holly and I go way back. I was the one who brought your mother, your real mother, to the Island. I’ve regretted every single trip your father took that ended with a chained Amari in the hold. Helping you escape isn’t much, but it makes me feel better. The trick will be putting you ashore without anyone being the wiser.”
Alaric nodded. “I know where not to go, but that’s about it. I’ve never had to reinvent my life before.” He ran a hand through his brown hair. “I’m fair with a bow. Maybe I could make my way to another King’s holding, hide there as a hunter for his table.”
Ellory shook his head. “Bad idea. Your brother won’t stop until he’s found you, made an example. You’re a direct challenge to his rule. He’d like nothing more than to see you kneeling at his feet, a chain around your neck.”
Shrugging, he replied, “He can have the entire island for all I care. I won’t be going back there any time soon.”
“Won’t matter. Not to the likes of him. For all his bluster, he’s an insecure brat. He knows you’re a better man than he’ll ever be. Until he can break you, he won’t stop.”
Pausing, the older man picked at a callous on the palm of his hand. “I’ve got another passenger. About your height, coloring. He died in the night.” He held a hand up to stop Alaric’s shocked words before they were spoken. “No, we didn’t do anything to him. He was sick before he came on board. When we get to Lorien, we’re going to swear that the passenger that died was a man we were hired to pick up in the dead of night. Near Caer Mikkel. The news will be reported to your Grandfather, who will send the message to your father and brother. And you can live your life.”
Stunned, he absorbed the news. The Captain was handing him the chance to live without looking over his shoulder. “I don’t know what to say…” he looked at the other man.
Ellory rose, holding out his hand in parting. Alaric grasped it in return. The captain slapped his shoulder with his free hand. “Go. Use that bow of yours, yes, but don’t stay in one place too long. Rent it out for private wars, mercenary work. You’re alive, and we’ve made the best we can to cover your trail. Now you have to keep low enough to stay alive.”
As the captain turned to leave, Alaric voiced the question he’d had on his mind for days. “Captain, why help me like this? What did Holly give you?”
A tired smile crossed the man’s face. “Like I said, I owed a debt. Those of us who can hide tend to help those who need it.”
Alaric’s eyes grew wide as the pale blue of the
captain’s eyes fell away, briefly
replaced by the telltale gold. Without another word, he watched the man walk out the door.
Two days later, he awoke to the sound of shouted orders and a flurry of footsteps on the deck above. Alaric pulled on his breeches as he stared out the small porthole. They’d arrived at Lorien.
He dressed quickly, choosing a green tunic. Holly had only packed three outfits, none of them anything that would proclaim his former rank. Maybe someday he’d be able to buy her freedom. But that would mean confronting Kaerdan.
“Put it from your mind, lad.” Ellory’s voice called out from the doorway. “You’re not going to be able to save her. Her fate was sealed the moment she concocted your
“You don’t know that. Kaerdan might—” he started to say, shoving the last few belongings into his pack.