Read Elfhame (Skeleton Key) Online
Authors: Anthea Sharp,Skeleton Key
Tags: #fantasy romance, #YA teen adventure, #Beauty and the Beast retelling, #Skeleton Key series, #Dark Elves, #portal fantasy
ELFHAME copyright 2016 by Anthea Sharp. First edition published June 2016. All rights reserved. Characters are purely fictional figments of the author’s imagination. Please do not copy, upload, or distribute in any fashion.
Cover by Jennifer Munswami. Professional editing by LHTemple and Editing720.
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Skeleton Key Book Series
One Skeleton Key. Endless Adventures.
bestselling author Anthea Sharp, a richly-imagined fantasy romance uniting an adventurous young woman and a fearsome Dark Elf warrior, in a magical tale reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast. Suitable for readers 12 and up. No explicit content.
Deep in the Darkwood, a mystic portal awaits...
Mara Geary faces a bleak future in the village of Little Hazel until, on the eve of her seventeenth birthday, strange glowing lights beckon her into the mysterious shadows under the trees. She follows, hoping for adventure. What she finds is her destiny...
Prince of the Hawthorne Court, Brannon Luthinor has spent his life becoming a powerful warrior in order to save his people. Now, on the eve of war, his fate is rapidly approaching.
Centuries ago, the Dark Elves retreated to their homeland of Elfhame, sealing the portal between their lands and the human world. But when their realm is threatened, prophecy demands that the doorway be opened, and that Bran marry whatever mortal woman manages to find the hidden key and unlock the door.
Thrown together, Bran and Mara forge an unlikely alliance. But in the face of evil, will they be able to trust their lives - and their hearts - to one another?
Table of Contents
For love, in all its forms.
This book is dedicated to the memory of those slain in Orlando, 6/12/16
here was no music at Castle Raine, little light, and the fresh-quarried stones still bore the clammy chill of the earth.
A chill that Mara Geary was supposed to banish as part of her duties as one of the new maids. Not that she thought Castle Raine would ever be warm, not even in midsummer. It certainly was frigid now, in spring, with no hint of the softening air outside penetrating the tall stone walls or creeping in through the narrow windows.
Mara’s tallow candle sent flickering shadows dancing over the grey walls, lighting the way as she and Fenna, who had only been hired two days ago, hurried to the Great Room to light the fires. Mara’s wooden bucket of kindling bumped against her leg and the whisk broom at her waist rasped over her wool skirts with every step she took.
“It’s not what I imagined,” Fenna said as they knelt to clean the ashes out of one of the great hearths. “Somehow I thought it would be more exciting, serving at the castle.”
“Well, Castle Raine has only been finished for a month,” Mara said. “Perhaps once the weather turns warm and more lords and ladies come to visit, it will be more interesting.”
Fenna frowned and cast a look over her shoulder at the dark recesses of the Great Hall. “Dunno why anyone would want to come visit
. The castle’s grim enough, and then there’s the Darkwood just outside.”
Mara refrained from pointing out that the King of Raine lived at the castle now, and soon enough it would become a hub of activity. Fenna was a sweet girl, but not quick to put all the pieces together.
Still, it was true that life as a maid in Castle Raine had been dreary so far. If she were honest with herself, Mara had to admit that she, too, had thought working at the castle would be less full of drudgery and more… She tried to find the right word for it. More lively.
“You don’t have to worry about the Darkwood,” she said to Fenna. “I know you’re from the coastlands, but the forest isn’t anything to fear.”
“But the stories…” Fenna trailed off, the sibilant echo of her words hanging in the shadowed air.
“Just old tales.” Mara finished sweeping up the last of the ashes and deposited them in Fenna’s bucket. “Nothing interesting has happened in the Darkwood for centuries. Not since the Dark Elves disappeared.”
“Were they real, then?” Fenna paused in laying the kindling and stared at Mara with wide eyes. “What if they decide to come out and murder us all in our sleep?”
Mara laughed. “Believe me, that won’t happen. There’s no magical doorway in the forest anymore. People have searched for generations.”
She didn’t mention that strange things still happened sometimes in the Darkwood. No point in frightening Fenna any further. And strange didn’t necessarily mean dangerous.
She brushed off her skirt and rose to her feet. “That’s this fire done. One more in here, and then we move to the smaller rooms.”
Only one peculiar thing had ever happened to Mara in the forest, and even now she wasn’t entirely sure it had been real. It had been on her thirteenth birthday, nearly four years ago. Mara had gone out with her siblings to fetch wood for their dwindling stores. Birthday or not, there was always work to be done.
As the middle child of five, she was used to being left on her own. Her older brother and sister were twins, and always paired up, even when they were fighting. Sometimes it seemed that they lived in a different world from the rest of the family, a world full of the secret language of shared birth that no one else could penetrate.
Mara had tried for years, and when she’d finally given up and resigned herself to being nothing more than the tagalong, she’d found that her two younger sisters had made an alliance of their own, with no room left for annoying older siblings.
So there she was, the odd one out, quite literally.
The air had been cool that day in the Darkwood, and moist enough that dew still clung to the new leaves of the underbrush. Mara practiced walking silently and smoothly through the trees, letting the moss cushion her steps. She’d become used to her solitude, though she didn’t necessarily embrace it.
A few black-capped birds chirped and fluttered from bush to tree, their wings flashing whitely as they flew. She tried not to feel jealous that even the chickadees had companions when she did not.
Perhaps it was because of her birthday, or that the yearning inside her to belong
was beginning to blossom into true misery, but she paused, tilted her head up to the feathery needles of the hemlock trees, and spoke.
“I wish that my life were different,” she said. “I wish something exciting would happen.”
There was no answer but the rush of the wind in the high branches. Sighing, Mara dropped her gaze back to the forest floor, searching for deadwood to stick in her burlap bag.
Then the breeze changed, murmuring down to pull at her brown hair and push against her skirts. The air felt thicker, as though filled with invisible mist, and she could no longer hear her siblings calling to each other through the trees.
Small, twinkling lights darted and danced in the shadows ahead, bright as candle flames. Mara’s breath hitched in fear, and in wonder.
Something was happening.
The dark evergreens shivered, like animals sensing danger. Mara didn’t know whether to run toward the glimmering motes, or dash away in panic. Her heart thudded beneath her simple woolen dress.
It was a whisper of regret, rolling through the Darkwood. The breeze quieted and let go of her dress. The air grew lighter. The glowing lights abruptly winked out. Loss ached through her, but for what, she did not know.
“Mara, aren’t you done?” her older sister called, her tone sharp. “We’re ready to go.”
Mara wanted to shout back that they should leave without her. Maybe if she stayed, she would rediscover whatever little bit of magic she’d just seen.
But it was the cardinal rule of living beside the Darkwood: no one ventured there alone until they were well of age. The forest might not hold uncanny dangers any longer—though after what she’d just experienced, Mara wasn’t so sure—but there were plenty of other threats lurking in the wild depths of the woods.
Bear, boar, and even wolves who howled in the winter at the far-distant moon. Not to mention poisonous mushrooms and spiders, sinkholes where a body could disappear forever, treacherous snags, and deep ravines.
Heaving a sigh, she turned and lugged her sack of branches back toward her family. She sent a single glance over her shoulder, but there was nothing to be seen but empty underbrush and ancient trees.
Later, she’d tried to tell her next-youngest sister what she’d experienced, but Pansy only looked at her.
“There’s nothing special about the Darkwood,” Pansy said. “I can hardly wait until I’m grown up and can marry a rich merchant and move away from here. Do you want to rot in Little Hazel forever?”
Mara didn’t know
she wanted, beyond a future that felt important and real. And though the idea of seeing the wider world was quite appealing, she was fairly certain her life wouldn’t feature a rich merchant.
“Where do we take the ashes?” Fenna’s question jolted Mara back to her work.
She blew out a breath and turned her mind back to tending the cold hearths of the castle. Back to a life that was small and exceedingly unimportant.
“The compost heap is behind the kitchen gardens,” she said. “I’ll show you.”