Authors: Matthew Ballard
The soldier hadn’t addressed Tara, but the general’s men rarely did. Tara stood and hustled behind General Demos who had already crossed half the room’s fifty foot span in three great strides.
General Demos bent and crossed beneath the doorway before raising his arm to shield the blowing snow and ice.
Tara secured her cloak and pulled tight her hood. She followed him through the stronghold’s snow-capped courtyard.
The scout plowed through five-foot snowdrifts with ease before disappearing inside a guard tower.
General Demos followed close behind and vanished through the tower’s burned doorway.
Ten minutes later, Tara worked her way to the tower’s highest room. She found both the scout and General Demos staring across the ice packed harbor.
“I found them a day and a half ago sir,” the scout said.
General Demos smiled and squeezed the young scout’s shoulder. “Well done sergeant. Well done.” He laughed for the first time in weeks.
Tara whirled and peered across the harbor’s icy surface.
Ice heaved and cracked as a ship, five times larger than the Damocles, broke through the foot-thick ice like wet tissue paper. “Is that —?”
“Yes mistress, that’s a juggernaut. Our juggernaut.” General Demos smiled. He stared at the pitch-black ship heaving and tossing through Ripool’s frozen harbor.
The snow’s intensity faded revealing the harbor mouth and the open sea beyond.
Tara gasped and squeezed General Demos’s wrist.
In the still water trailing the juggernaut, ships by the score stretched in a single file line ending with the horizon’s dull gray edge. The Baerinese fleet had finally arrived in Meranthia.
Ronan crossed beneath the palace library’s carved oaken archway and paused.
Dry pine crackled in the hearth where a roaring fire spit embers into wisps of gray smoke before curling up the stone chimney. Crammed full, floor-to-ceiling bookcases lined three of the room’s walls. Nestled before the hearth, two leather armchairs sat beside a matching leather love seat.
Across the room, Rika stared out a frost-covered picture window.
The season’s second major snowstorm held Freehold in its grip.
She curled her dark hair behind her ear while a contemplative expression lined her face. Rika didn’t turn as Ronan entered, appearing lost in thought.
Ronan eased across the room and paused, stopping a few feet behind her.
The fading light spread a soft shadow across Rika’s jawline accentuating its perfect curve.
Though he’d seen her almost every day for the past six years, Rika’s natural beauty never failed to surprise him. He loved most these quiet, stolen moments spent in her presence. They’d grown rare this past year, and he mentally promised to never take them for granted.
Inside his trouser pocket, Ronan rolled a ring between his fingers. The same ring Master Goodie had crafted to his specifications late last autumn.
Ronan’s heart pounded. Heat from the hearth’s blazing fire slow-baked his neck and back starting a bead of sweat trickling along his spine. He licked his lips and tried to calm his rising pulse with a slow deep breath.
“If you want to sneak up on me, you’ll have to be a fair bit more quiet Ronan Latimer,” Rika said without turning.
Ronan’s stomach flip-flopped. Why the sudden nerves? He’d spent hundreds of hours alone with Rika, but never before asking such an important question.
Ronan forced a short nervous laugh. “I can’t get anything by you, can I?”
Rika turned to face him with her brow furrowed. “What’s wrong with you?”
The blood drained from Ronan’s face as she turned to face him. She’d never looked more beautiful. He felt a thin trickle of sweat roll along his scalp trying to work its way to freedom through his thick hair. “Wrong? Why would something be wrong?”
Rika smiled, and Ronan’s legs buckled. He had to find his composure, or he’d blow it.
“You’re acting as if I’m a perfect stranger.” She reached for his hand and led him to the leather love seat. “Come sit down. You look ready to pass out.”
Ronan forced his lead-lined legs forward, and he lumbered behind Rika ready to tip over at any second.
Rika perched on the love seat’s edge and patted the seat beside her. “Your palms are drenched, and your face is white as a sheet.” Her brow furrowed, and her gaze turned downward. “If it’s the baby, I —”
Ronan whirled his head toward her and nearly jumped from his seat. “No.” The word came rushed and urgent.
Rika pressed her lips tight and stiffened.
Ronan let go a deep breath and squeezed her hand. “I mean. That’s not it at all.” He ran his fingers through his hair and shook his head. “I’m not very good at this.” He forced a nervous laugh, and it helped loosen his nerves.
He’d envisioned asking her over a candlelit dinner while enjoying a bottle of fine winter wine. They would’ve slow danced while he held her tight, and the world would’ve stopped. For a few minutes at least.
That fantasy would find them during a happier time, but Ronan meant to make her his wife.
Rika’s brow furrowed, and her eyes deepened with concern. Her smooth warm hand moved across Ronan’s cheek. “Ronan, what’s wrong? Tell me.”
Ronan smiled and shook his head. “Nothing.” He slipped from the love seat and knelt before Rika. He found the ring in his pocket and pulled it free.
Rika’s eyes widened, and her mouth hung open.
Ronan took Rika’s hand in his and felt her tremble beneath his touch.
She held Ronan’s gaze and waited while the firelight’s orange glow played off her warm caramel skin.
Rika’s loving presence settled his nerves, and calm fell over his scattered mind. He’d never loved her more. “Rika Finn.” He slipped the ring over her third finger and raised her hand to his lips before kissing her fingers. Ronan’s gazed drifted upward until his eyes met hers.
Round tears welled in Rika’s eyes. Her chin quivered, and she squeezed Ronan’s hand.
“Will you marry me?”
Rika’s eyes drifted to the ring, her face marked with confusion. “Ronan, the ring is exquisite, but you’re under no obligation —”
“The center stone is pure ironbarrow crystal,” Ronan said interrupting her. “Devery said it forms deep beneath the earth and only under extraordinary conditions. They’re quite rare, and he said he’s never seen one so flawless.” Ronan ran his finger along the band. “The red stone interwoven with the gold come from petrified heartwood. My father gave me the sample last summer before we left for Freehold.” Ronan pointed to six smaller stones set around the ironbarrow crystal. “These stones are emerald. You’re father gave them to me. He said your mother had set them aside for you. For your engagement ring.”
Tears fell unabated from Rika’s eyes and streaked along her cheeks. “My father told you that?”
Ronan nodded. “He gave them to me last autumn when I asked his permission for your hand in marriage.”
Ronan nodded. “And when I asked Master Goodie to craft the ring, I swore him to a vow of secrecy,” Ronan said.
Rika smiled as the firelight glistened off her tear-stained cheeks. “It’s perfect.” Her voice cracked as she looked into Ronan’s eyes.
“I’d wanted to wait for the season’s first big snowfall.” Ronan tipped his head toward the picture window. “And I’d planned to make the moment a bit more romantic. I hope my lack of planning doesn’t sway your decision.”
Fresh tears rolled down Rika’s cheeks, and she nodded without taking her eyes from Ronan.
Ronan raised an eyebrow and smiled. “Is that a yes?”
“Yes, of course I’ll marry you.” Rika said and wrapped her arms around Ronan’s neck before sinking into his lap and kissing him.
A light knocking sound came from the hallway followed by a throat clearing.
Ronan grudgingly untangled himself from Rika and stood. He offered his hand to Rika and helped her to her feet.
Under the library archway, Manfred, Ronan’s footman, stood holding a long wooden case.
Ronan’s brow furrowed as his gaze drifted to the case. “What is it Manfred?”
“I’m sorry to disturb you Your Majesty, but I’m afraid I owe you an apology,” Manfred said.
Ronan motioned for Manfred to enter. “An apology? What for?”
“You asked that I deliver Master Renau’s bow to your quarters, and with all the commotion, I’m afraid I neglected my duty.” Manfred’s cheeks reddened.
Ronan scratched his head trying to recall the order.
“We visited Theon Renau’s shop weeks ago. Don’t you remember?” Rika said sensing his dilemma. “He crafted the magnificent heartwood bow.”
Ronan nodded as the memory snapped into place. That seemed years ago. He had no desire to see the dead bow. It, like every piece of living heartwood, died with the first tree. “Thank you Manfred. You can leave it in my quarters.”
Manfred nodded. “Very good Your Majesty.” He turned to leave.
“Wait,” Rika said and the footman froze. “Can you please bring it here instead?”
Manfred’s gaze darted to Ronan, and Ronan nodded his consent.
The stout footman plodded forward and settled the bow case atop a long oak table perched behind the leather love seat. He bowed to Ronan. “Once again, you have my deepest apology.”
“It’s fine Manfred.” Ronan said. “Thank you for bringing it to me.”
The footman bowed, turned, and left the library.
Ronan stood over the ornate, hand-carved, mahogany bow case examining it from end to end. “Even the case is exquisite.”
“Has Danielle spoken with you at all in the past two days?” Rika said.
“She’s not said much. I’ve tried to explain myself, and she accepts the explanation, but she’s hurting all the same.”
Rika stood beside Ronan and slipped her hand over his shoulder. “Open it. Let’s take a look.”
“Why subject ourselves to more death?” Ronan said.
Ignoring his pessimism, Rika worked the latches on the case and opened the lid.
Crimson light radiated from the case’s interior. The bow’s surface shimmered. Its rich, red wood swirled and flowed transforming the bow from weapon to a living beacon of hope.
Goose bumps raced across Ronan’s arms and legs as he stared, slack-jawed, at the glowing bow. With a trembling hand, he touched its surface and gold veins rippled before dancing around his fingertips.
A sharp gasp sounded from the library’s archway.
Ronan whirled, and his gaze locked on the visitor.
With wide-eyes and a gaping mouth, Danielle stood frozen under the archway. Her gaze locked on the living heartwood bow.
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Look for book three in the Echoes Across Time series in late 2014 or early 2015. Thanks for reading.