Authors: Sophie Masson
A girl in a tower.
An underground kingdom.
A crystal heart split in two, symbolising true love lost â¦
When Kasper joins the elite guard watching over a dangerous prisoner in a tower, he believes he is protecting his country from a powerful witch.
Until one day he discovers the prisoner is a beautiful princess â Izolda of Night â who is condemned by a prophecy to die on her eighteenth birthday. Kasper decides to help her escape. But their hiding place won't remain secret forever.
Will they find their happily ever after?
âA deftly woven tale of warring kingdoms and the redeeming power of love. Another winner from Sophie Masson.'
Juliet Marillier, author of the Shadowfell series
For Zoe â with many thanks
There was once a woodcutter's son who was as brave as a lion. His country was in danger and he knew he must answer the call. So one day he saddled his horse and set out along the winding road to â¦
The world shattered in noisy pieces as I jerked awake, staring right into the furious face of Captain Gawel looming over me.
âRecruit Bator! What do you think you're doing?'
I swallowed. âNânothing, sir.'
âYou were asleep!' He pushed his face up to mine. Eugh, his breath. It smelled of the tripe and beer he had for lunch. âAsleep,' he hissed, âin the middle of an important lesson.'
I glanced around the room. Nobody else looked back at me. They were all too scared. Gawel put the wind up everyone, including me.
âDo you think you're smarter than everyone else? Is that what it is, Bator?'
âNâno, sir. Not at all.'
âJust as well, because you're stupider than everyone else. You're from that hick village â what's it called again?' Captain Gawel pretended to think. âAh, yes, that's it. You're from Fish-the-Moon, where the people are so dimwitted they think you can catch the moon in a net.'
A ripple of nervous laughter ran around the hall. A prickle of anger rose in me. I'd heard that barb once too often, and it made me reckless. âThing is, sir, I know that lesson already.'
A gasp, quickly suppressed, rose from the rest of the class. My stomach sank. What on earth had I just said? Had I gone mad? Gawel was silent for an instant. A terrible instant. âYou know it already,' he said in a toneless voice.
My scalp crept with fear. But I was in for it now so I thought I might as well just say it. âI know the story by heart. I can even recite it to you, if you like.
There was once a woodcutter's son who was as brave as a lion â
âEnough!' The voice wasn't Gawel's. It belonged to someone I recognised at once, though I had never seen him before â not in the flesh, at least. The man stepped out from the curtained doorway. His was the face that stared at us from photographs in our textbooks and his portrait adorned our mess hall.
Captain Gawel snapped to attention in a stiff salute. âCommander! Sir!'
âVery well, Captain. Stand down.'
The hush in the room was tangible. All eyes were fixed on the Commander.
âRecruit Bator, do you know who I am?'
I couldn't drag my eyes away from that scarred face, the pale blue eyes that seemed to look right through me. I gulped. âYes, sir.'
âYou are to come with me. At once.' With a sharp movement of his black-gloved hands, the Commander drew the curtain and motioned me forward. I did as I was bid, cold gripping at my heart, my limbs heavy as lead. I could feel everyone's eyes on my back â Gawel's and those of my fellow recruits, whose bellies, I knew, ached with a mixture of envy and fear. Envy because it was an honour to be singled out by the Commander. Fear because who knew what it was exactly the Commander wanted? I was being marched off into the unknown by a legend amongst men, a legend respected but also feared by all â Commander Alek Los. I had no idea why he had come for me, but I was afraid it was not for my own good.
He closed the door behind us and motioned for me to follow him. We went down one passageway after another, through an outer door and across the courtyard in silence. We walked all the way to the bounds of the world I'd lived in for three months. I hesitated; to go beyond the locked gate was forbidden.
The Commander sensed my hesitation. âDon't be afraid. Everything is about to change for you.'
Those two things were contradictory in my mind, but I didn't dare to say it. The Commander must have guessed my thought, because he smiled. âDespite the stories they tell you back there, not all changes are for the worse, Recruit Bator.'
I was startled. It confirmed what had been in my rebellious thoughts these last few months. âSir?'
Unlocking the gate, the Commander gestured for me to come through. I did so and came out into a narrow grassy space between the inner and outer wall of the citadel. I looked around and saw that there was no gate or door leading out. Or so it seemed. The Commander touched his hand to a block of stone and, with a grinding sound, it slid back to reveal a dark opening about as tall as a child. He turned to me. âDo you know why I have chosen you, Recruit Bator?'
âNo, sir,' I whispered.
âYou're from Fish-the-Moon â an oddity even in this land of oddities, where people believe impossible things.'
The anger swiftly rose within me and just as swiftly died away. The expression in the Commander's eyes was not of contempt, like Captain Gawel, nor even of the teasing kind that I'd come to expect from my fellow recruits. âYes, sir. I am.'
âI've been watching your progress.' He paused. âYou'll be wondering why.'
My thoughts exactly, but I was hardly going to say so. I kept my eyes steadily on his face as he went on.
âYou know what lies beyond the citadel, don't you, Bator?'
I nodded. âI've heard stories, sir.'
âStories.' His tone was bland. âIndulge me. Tell me what you've heard.'
âThere is the Tower where a witch has been held prisoner for years. She is an evil hag whose glance can turn you to stone.'
âI see. And how is it that she is there?'
âOnce upon a time, the rich and powerful
realm of Night called itself our friend. But â'
âAnd who are these
, young man?'
I stared at him.
The Commander smiled. âLike I say, indulge me. Right from the beginning, tell me their history.'
âLong, long ago, in the dawn of ages in Krainos,' I recited, thinking of the stories I'd read in our history textbooks, âthere were many more of the immortal beings that are known as
. In those days, the
even married humans on occasion. Their offspring were known as
. They were not exactly like the
, and not exactly like humans, but something in-between. They were not immortal, though they lived longer than humans, and they had special powers. But living amongst humans diluted their powers and so, many centuries ago, they decided to leave the surface of the earth to live underground. Some people say their
goddess, known as the Lady, led them there. Others say it was our Angels who showed them the way. Since then the
have lived underground, deep within the caves below Krainos. Their realm is called Night. And over the centuries they have lost whatever humanity they once shared with us. Their realm is prosperous and powerful, but they are an alien people.'
âVery good, young man. Go on. Tell me what happened next.'
âWell, sir, Night always claimed to live in peace and trust with us, but on occasion conflict has broken out. There had been more than a hundred years of peace until, one day ten years ago, the Prince of Night launched war upon us. His black ships appeared from nowhere, falling upon our
coast like vultures. Our settlements were attacked and many of our people killed or injured or taken prisoner by the fearsome Night Marshals. We fought back bravely until our Supreme Council was attacked and our army was rendered leaderless. It seemed that we were doomed. And then â¦' I hesitated, and looked at the Commander.
âAnd then a hero stepped forward to save us. A captain, from modest stock, whose late parents had only been poor woodcutters. But he had a nobility of heart that far outstripped that of any of the great families.'
The Commander regarded me impassively. âNo flattery. I have no interest in it.'
âBut sir â¦' I swallowed. âSir, it is not flattery. It is the truth. You â you
us from the scourge of the Prince of Night.'
He raised an eyebrow. âAnd how did I do that?'
âYou rallied the men. You made them stand and fight again. And it was you who worked out that the witch â not a
, like the Prince of Night, but a full-blooded, powerful
â was the source of the Prince's invincibility. If she could be taken, he would be fatally weakened and could be defeated. So you devised a plan to capture the immortal witch and lock her up in a place where her magic can never work. Somehow you managed to trap her, and now she is in the Tower, forever powerless. Our land is safe from the Prince of Night, who has returned to his underground lair and has never â him or his Marshals â been seen in our land again.'
âAll's well that ends well, then,' murmured the Commander.
âThings are quiet, but peace has come at a price,' I continued. âWe have right and justice on our side, of course, but we must still be on our guard. There is no knowing if the Prince will one day find a new ally to help him. We must be on a war footing, always. That is the ruling of the Supreme Council. And that is why each and every man in Krainos must be prepared to serve in the army.'
âMmm.' The Commander's blue eyes pierced right through me. I felt as though that pale glance was peeling back the jumble of thoughts and feelings in me like a knife unlayering an onion. He shook his head. âThere's always truth in legends,' he said, and gestured for me to follow him through the dark opening. I'd passed some kind of test, though I had no idea what it was.
We both had to stoop low to get through. The passageway beyond, damp and dim, resembled the underground stone chambers that dot the remote corners of our country, the ones that some have said once housed
. There were a couple not far from Fish-the-Moon, and as a child I'd climb through them with my sisters and cousins, looking for legendary
treasure. We'd never found any, of course, any more than our ancestors had managed to capture the moon.
It took longer than I'd expected, but we finally emerged into a wide grassy plain. I was dishevelled, covered in dirt and dust, while Commander Los was as impeccable as ever. His smart green uniform showed not a stain, not a crease, his blond hair parted neatly, his black gloves
glossy and immaculate. Rumour had it that he always wore them to hide his terribly maimed hands, a legacy of the war with Night. His boots were not even dusty.
âSee?' The Commander pointed to the sparkling water at the end of the grassy plain. And there it was â an island, a short distance out to sea. And on the very centre of the island, rising high above a jumble of low buildings, stood a tower of black stone girded with steel plating.
My heart pounded. If I'd had any doubts before about what was being asked of me, I knew the truth now. âSir, my parents â¦'
âYou'll get a chance to write to them. Think how proud they'll be, Kasper.'
His calling me by my given name made me realise how things had changed. I'd never imagined this. I was from a place that was a national joke. I was of ordinary stock and, according to Gawel, I was one of the worst recruits in years. âSir, the Tower Guard â it is a great honour to serve in it.'
The Commander smiled. âIndeed, Kasper.'
âBut I don't deserve it â I didn't expect it â'
âPrecisely. Those who do expect it â those who
they deserve it â they are exactly the wrong kind.' The Commander paused. âAnd I never make mistakes. You are the right choice.' He looked fixedly at me. âBut you must be honest, Kasper. If you are afraid of this â if you don't want this â then you only have to say so. And you can go home, no questions asked, no recriminations.'
âI want this, sir. I want to serve Krainos.'
âGood lad,' said the Commander, briefly placing a hand on my shoulder.
My chest swelled with pride, and I followed him towards the pebbled beach, where a ferryman was waiting to take us across to the island. And all the way, I kept thinking of how my life had taken a turn I had never expected, hardly even dreamed of. It was a great honour and I had to try to live up to it.