Lisa J Comstock, Author

Writer of fantasy, science fiction, action,  adventure & romance books

Today's excerpt is from "Keeper of Secrets"   

Prologue

 

             King Jace Altaire was trying to get away from the disheveled man looming over at him with a hatchet that was covered with blood and bits of guts from the five others the man had already used it on, all before his eyes. The man was laughing wilding and saying, “I will give you peace,” over and over again.

            The king was trying to make the words stop and no come from his tight throat but the only thing he could get to come out a dumb sounding moan. He tried one more to shout out but it was too late.

            The blade of the farming tool was already entering his forehead.

            He jumped, opened his eyes and blew out a thick breath as he realized it had only been a dream. He wiped the sweat beading up on his forehead away as he looked out the window of his carriage and remembered he was on his way home.

            The trial the king had been sitting as judge on had been arduous. The graphic details and hand drawn pictures of the scene when the officers had arrived were beyond gruesome. He was very much looking forward to returning to his castle where he intended to take a long hot bath, have a few more than a few drinks of wine and try to get the images that had been bored into his mind to go away.

            The carriage ride through the forest would help with this as well. Like his son, he very much enjoyed nature. The smell of pine trees and moisture of a coming storm, the sound of wind through the tree tops and water of the river Gheens crashing over the rocks on its way to the sea were all like lullabies to him.

             He laid his head back on the cushion and was just starting to doze off again when suddenly the carriage lurched and began to move faster than it should be.

             He leaned out the window to ask the driver, Uri, what the issue was, thinking one of his horses must have been frightened by something and only needed to be brought under control. He saw the man was whipping the horses to make them go that fast.

             He started to shout a warning to the driver of that the road turned sharply ahead and ask why he was doing this when he felt the axles under the carriage break loose. He knew it was likely to give way completely before long.

            He tried the door of the carriage but it was stuck tight. He leaned out and begged Uri to jump to freedom. He refused to go before him. “I cannot get the latch to release. Save yourself, Man.”

            Going against the king’s orders, the driver released the reins and climbed out on the side of the carriage. He too tried to get the door open but it was sealed tight.

            “Please, Man,” begged the king. He pulled his ring from his finger and the broach from his cape and held them out to him. “Give these to the queen and tell her and my son that I love them.”

           The driver did not have a chance even to respond.

 

 

1

 

Best Laid Plans

      

 

            The young prince walked out of the stables in a bit of a daze, leaving his favorite dapple mare with the stable hand to brush down. Most of the time he did this himself but this day his mind and heart wasn’t in it. He walked across the cobblestone courtyard in a cloud of ambiguity – he no longer had any direction in life.

             That morning his mother told him of her plans. She had turned on his father’s memory and him; she had not even waited the customary seven years. Oh, she had her reasons, that all sounded well and good, but he was hard pressed to see it in the same way.

            She was planning to remarry, which didn’t bother him so much; whom she was planning to wed did though – her brother-in-law and his uncle, Tobias Altaire.

             Tobias had come to stay at the castle nearly six years ago now. At first he claimed he was only acting as the keeper of his brother’s kingdom, lending support to the widowed queen and her young son, but he quickly took up residence and had himself appointed regent. This was supposedly to allow the queen the time to properly mourn the king’s death but now he seemed to have more power than the queen.

            That was probably what made the prince the most anxious.

            Jace Altaire had been king for two decades and was a healthy forty-three at the time of his demise, so he had been expected to have a long reign. Tobias was his younger brother. If the king hadn’t had a son he would have been next in line for the throne. The prince was still just a boy, in legal terms, so he couldn’t take his father’s place as king of Atarnia. He would not be old enough to take the throne for another two years. The law of the land allowed a widowed king or queen to remarry provided they were still of childbearing age and the betrothed was of a royal bloodline – since both were true it was to be. This meant Tobias would be able to circumvent the line of ascent and become king.

             Prince Kell didn’t want to be king himself but he didn’t want his uncle to be either. He didn’t trust him. It was hard enough to accept him as blood let alone his king and he would never call him stepfather, no matter how upset it made him or his mother.

             Tobias was taking advantage of the situation and his mother’s need for companionship for his own reasons, that Kell was sure of, but what those reasons were he could not say.

             The circumstances of King Jace’s death were far from common.

             Jace was returning from Gramercy, on the East Coast, where he had been presiding over the country’s Hall of Justice. It had been a brutal case, a man had taken an ax to all of his family, killing his wife and all six children, then went on a rampage through the village of Kiaser, killing and maiming nearly a dozen town folk.

           Many thought a family member, that the man hadn’t killed, planned only to threaten the judges to get the case thrown out. If it had been meant as just a threat it had backfired.

           After a lengthy investigation it was explained as this: somehow, the axle of the carriage, a newly commissioned, barely a week old carriage, had snapped. Supposedly it then veered off the road and plummeted down a steep embankment into the rushing waters of the river, Gheens.

            The bodies of the four horses were found five miles downriver. Their necks, backs and legs were broken from the fall and were water logged and bloated nearly beyond recognition. The driver’s body was found two miles further down in nearly as bad a condition. Bits and pieces of the carriage were found scattered amongst the sharp rocks all down the river. Two pieces of jeweled adornments that had been seen on the king while he was alive, earlier in the day, were found but the king’s body never was.

            The River Gheens, empties into the Great Sea, only three miles from the location of the driver’s body so it was believed the king’s body had been swept out in the strong currents. The beaches were searched for miles in both directions of the estuary with no luck.

           Supposedly the king and the driver were the only ones on the road that day.

           Supposedly, against all customs, no soldiers were with them, meaning there was no one that could verify the facts.

            Without a body, King Jace couldn’t be properly consecrated and buried so the man could never find peace. Prince Kell knew to see his queen getting married to his own brother was likely keeping him from it even more.

             He couldn’t accept his father’s death was an accident. It reeked of foul play. Someone had to have sabotaged the carriage and caused it, of that he was sure. He didn’t believe it had anything to do with the case his father had been hearing, especially since neither of the other two judges had come to any harm.

             His mother, the queen, had asked him to leave his father in peace, and his uncle, Tobias, had all but forbidden him to pursue this case, but he wouldn’t stop. He had a feeling he already knew who the main player was but he couldn’t say it without proof.

           These thoughts had to be kept to himself – these thoughts were treasonous.

 

                                                    ********************

           Prince Kell stopped and stared up at the castle, at the window of his uncle’s apartment, feeling his blood pressure rise. He ran a hand through his shoulder length blondish hair and let out a deep sigh.

          He was trying to make his feet take the first step but he just couldn’t. He knew his mother was going to ask him for his blessing to wed and for him to stand for her at the ceremony but he wasn’t sure how he could do either.

           He couldn’t face her yet to tell her.

          Kell had hoped to be able to slip away from the castle for a few months to search for any witnesses or clues to just what had truly happened but now, with preparations for the nuptials, he couldn’t leave the city, at least not without drawing unwanted attention.

           He turned and went to the chapel instead.

          The prince hoped by praying for guidance he would be given a sign of what he should do, or allow him to accept this travesty as Hymera’s will at least.

 

                                              ********************

 

            The chapel stood at the right corner of the castle proper.

            It wasn’t nearly as large as some in the cities around Atarnia but it was just as beautiful. Its whitewashed walls stood out prominently against the stark grays and dull browns around it. It was given a fresh coat of the white stain every few months to keep it looking so pious. Even the bell that hung in the tower shined as if it was just cast and still rang true. Even a long crack in it that had occurred sixteen years before, during a freak thunderstorm the same night the prince was born, could not quiet it.

            It was in this church Kell’s father had been crowned, his parents married and he, himself, baptized; now he hoped it would help him with his doubts.

            Only one acolyte was inside the chapel, lighting the many candles around the basilica. The sun was beginning to dip below the ledges of the windows, which was throwing parts into darkness.

             Kell took a deep breath. The smell of stained oak, the wax candles just starting to heat, the acridness of the treated wicks burning and the smell of the cleaning solvent used to clean the marble tiles that covered the floor mixed with the smell of dust left un-wiped in the many niches of the room hit his nostrils.

            It was a smell he knew well and found very comforting.

            The prince stood in the vestibule for a moment, looking down the row between the many pews to the marble alter and the statue of the Saint Hymera. Soon he would be praying at it, cleansing his thoughts and soul, in preparation for his knighthood. Right now he just hoped it would help him at least come to terms with what would be happening before it in just a few weeks.

            The acolyte stopped before the prince and dropped into a deep bow, “Can I do anything for the young master?”

            Kell shook his head and waved him up and away.

             The man bowed again quickly and stepped into the cloister.

             Kell watched the door to see if anyone else entered the nave after. When no one did he turned and slowly started walking down the aisle toward the dais at the head of it.

            At the bottom step he went down on his right knee. He crossed himself, kissed the silver cross he always wore around his neck, as a sign of his faith, then rose and bowed to the statue of the Saint. He kissed the white marble alter stone, placed a silver Dolite into the offering plate at the center then stood still for a moment.

            His lips were still cold from kissing the stone as he moved to the third row of pews and sat down. He leaned his elbows on the back of the pew before him, clasped his hands together and closed his eyes.

            He was so deep in prayer that he didn’t hear the footsteps of another walking up the aisle.

  

                                                  ********************

 

              Father Jonah stayed at the end of the aisle while the young prince made his offering to the Saint. He waited until he was finished and had sat down in the pew to begin his prayer before he approached him.

             He could guess what was troubling the boy without needing to be told. It could be only one of two things. Neither was an entirely healthy pursuit.

             The priest walked through the nave, up the length of the aisles and stopped beside the prince.

             He thought sure the boy had heard him since he hadn’t been particularly quiet in his approach but when he laid his hand on his shoulder he thought sure the boy would die of fright.

             “Prince Kelleigh, what had you so deep in thought this day?” asked the man who had been with the family since long before the boy had even been a hope.

             Kell still felt pain when he heard his given name; his father had always used it. The priest was the only other person the prince would allow to. He liked and trusted the holy man, probably more than anyone else at the castle these days, including his mother.

             “I’m again having dangerous thoughts, Father Jonah,” said Kell quietly. Even a whisper tended to echo in the large hall, which had been designed for just that purpose.

             “You wish to confess these thoughts or do you want to brood on them a few more days?” teased the religious man.

              Jonah felt a closeness to Kell; especially now that his father was dead.

              He had grown up with Jace. The two had been friends for as long as either of them could speak. The only time they had been apart for any length of time was when he went to seminary to learn the rites of faith and the future king went to be trained in the ways of rule. He returned to Atarnia after, to serve the new king, he performed the coronation, his wedding to Isabelle and Kell’s baptism. He could not have cared more for the boy beside him than if he were his own son.

             Jace’s father, King Chanizer, and Isabelle’s father, Duke Tilo, of the neighboring berg of Kinloch, had arranged Jace and Isabelle’s marriage twenty-three years before. The two quickly formed a bound. It would be many years before they would have called it love. He had enjoyed watching the bloom of affection that had started from the seed of expectation and doubt so long ago become so much more. He had been present when the two announced the upcoming birth of their first child, which turned out to be a son, and had helped them name the boy sitting beside him now, nearly an adult.

             As he had his parents, he had spent hours counseling Kell, through the tumultuous years of adolescence – made harder for him by the loss of his father at the most crucial of ages. He had watched the boy mature quickly in the last six years.

             When Kell looked up at him he thought his heart was going to stop beating. His usually bright and lively blue eyes were dull and red with the tears he was fighting so hard to contain, telling him almost instantly which of the boy’s usual pursuits he was troubled with this day.

             “I’m not sure I dare tell even you, Father Jonah, for all I trust no one more,” said the prince cryptically.

              The priest motioned the prince to move over and sat beside him. “Must I have it flogged out of you?”

                 Prince Kell laughed in spite of his mood. “You always know just how to get to me. Can’t I sulk occasionally?”

            “Sulking breeds sickness. I will have neither in this house of our Lord. Now, I imagine I know the root of your sour mood but you must speak it to be free of its twining branches,” said Father Jonah.

             “How can you agree to marry my mother and my uncle? Isn’t it sacrilege?”

              “Not according to the laws of the land.”

               “My father is not even seven years gone but she has already accepted another. How could she do this to me and father?” pouted the prince.

                “Chin up boy, your mother has a kingdom to run. It is not an easy thing to do alone.”

                “She is not alone… she has me… I…”

               “You will not reach coronation age for another two summers, Kell; the kingdom has already been too long without a king.”

               “It has managed for the last six just fine,” said Kell, sounding very impudent.

               “That is in part to the regent. Your uncle has served the people well while helping your mother; their arrangement is mostly of necessity.”

               “But my father…”

              “She is not looking for, nor does she intend to replace your father, Kell, she is looking out for you and your people. Give the man a chance,” said the priest diplomatically.

              Prince Kell wondered if Jonah truly believed those words, a priest wasn’t supposed to lie, were they? “I do try, Father Jonah,” said Kell, trying to sound convincing.

             “I know you do. Is that all that is bothering you?” asked the priest.

             “Do you believe my father’s death was an accident?” blurted Kell.

             “There was no evidence to the contrary.”

             “But his body was never found so how do we know?”

             “His ring and broach were found within the broken carriage, surely if it had been planned those wouldn’t have been left behind.” He saw the prince about to say more so he quickly added, hoping to stop him this once, “As much as I miss your father, Kell, these thoughts will not bring him back.”

            “I still believe someone knows something…”

            “It does no good to dwell on this.”

            “He had to have had guards with him though…”

            “Kell,” said the priest more sternly, “I am sure neither your mother nor your uncle would wish you to stop loving or thinking of your father but you must get on with your own life. You may no longer need to prepare for the throne but you are still vital to its rule.”

             Kell started to protest more but any desire to fight quickly dissolved with his resolve.

             He supposed the words were what he needed to hear. Father Jonah was right; if there was someone who had witnessed the accident they would have come forward, they would have been found. His suspicions would never be proven and he could do nothing to stop his mother and uncle from wedding. “You are right, as always, Father Jonah, but I just can’t seem to get the sour taste out of my mouth. How can I face him without wanting to hit him?”

            “Both will fade with time; give him the benefit of doubt.”

             “That’s easier said than done. As soon as I think maybe we can get along he does something to remind me why I hate him.”

             “Hate is such a harsh word, Kell,” said Jonah with obvious disapproval.

             Kell nodded but didn’t take it back.

              “Your uncle and mother will be man and wife for a long time; it will do no good to create a rift between you and your uncle now. He is a very powerful and influential man.” The thought of the pending marriage gave Jonah a bad taste as well but he hoped he had gotten through to the impetuous prince.

             Kell nodded and slowly started out of the church.

             Father Jonah watched the prince until he was out of the church then stood and knelt in front of the alter, crossed himself and kissed the medallion of his faith, “Saint Hymera, I pray you watch over the prince. I fear he has a long, hard road ahead of him, and not many friends to help him walk it.”

 

 

2

 

Blessings

 

 

            Prince Kell walked down the wide steps of the chapel and back across the cobblestone courtyard to the outer doors of the castle. The hall was full of servants cleaning the many cracks and crevices of the stones that made up the walls and floors of the foyer. He had half a mind to send a few of them over to the church but he guessed the dust there gave the place half its charm.

           His mother hated seeing anything half cleaned. She had donned apron and gloves and grabbed a sponge or broom on more than one occasion when the servants hadn’t done as good a job as she wanted. He wondered why she wasn’t there supervising their work this day.

           He stopped one of them and asked that very question.

           It took the girl a moment to find her voice and then it came out as more of a squeak,

           “The… the… queen… is… is…  in her bedchamber… Your… your majesty.”

           “Thank you, Miss,” said Kell.

            She blushed and curtsied herself back into a corner.

            Kell was smiling as he stepped away and walked to the staircase.

           A foreboding feeling was chilling his blood again as he slowly climbed the winding staircase to the upper halls. For all he made sure to step on each and every stair, instead of bounding up them as he typically did, it took only minutes for him to reach the doors to his mother’s apartment.

            After a deep breath, that he expelled very slowly, he gently knocked on the white doors and waited.

           They slowly opened and the face of a young girl peered around.

           “Who wishes an audience with Queen Isabelle?” asked the girl before she recognized the prince. “Oh, Prince Kell, please forgive me.” She opened the door full and stumbled over herself to get out of his way. Without further words, she ran into the next room to announce the queen’s son.

          Kell stood just inside the door, as was customary. One did not enter the apartment of any woman, certainly not the queen’s, until they were formally invited in. It was only a few seconds before his mother’s voice came from the other room.

           “I will be out in moments, Kell. Please make yourself comfortable. Can one of my ladies get you anything, some wine or fruit?”

           “No, Mother, I’m fine as I am,” said Kell. He walked into the room, sat down on the edge of a settee and waited.

            The queen had her own suite, as was customary for the court. She and the king would get together for moments of pleasure but would then, most often, return to their separate chambers to sleep. The queen’s rooms were nicely furnished, as fitting a woman of her rank. It was mostly in shades of creams and pinks. For all he wouldn’t choose the colors for his décor he always felt comfortable in the chamber.

            He was remembering all the times he had spent in the room growing up when one of her ladies-in-waiting stepped from the other room with a wooden dress form in her hands. Another came out seconds later with what looked like a pile of cream colored lace and cloth. The ladies quickly arranged the cloth on the form to reveal a very nice lace and ornamented gown.

          It struck Kell that this was to be the gown his mother intended to wear to wed his uncle. He couldn’t help himself, he was glaring evilly at it as she appeared in the doorway.

 

                                              ********************

 

            Queen Isabelle stepped from the bedchamber and smiled, “Hello, my love, how was your ride this afternoon?”

            Kell shrugged and said, “It went well enough.” He didn’t want to but his eyes went back to the gown – glaring at it. He tried not to let his emotions get the better of him. For all he didn’t want this union he loved his mother very much and didn’t want to hurt her either.

             The tone of his voice as he answered her question and how stiff his body got told Isabelle just how upset her son was. He had always loved his rides, he was a very accomplished rider and they had miles of fields and wooded trails he enjoyed exploring. She saw his eyes lingering on the gown and the sour expression coming to his usually handsome face – these told her he was still against the marriage.

            She still couldn’t understand why he would be; she knew he had no desire to be king. She guessed most of it was because he felt she was betraying his father. She would always love Jace but she couldn’t have done what needed to be done if not for Tobias. He was there for her when she needed support and she believed he did care for her. She hoped her son would not ask her to choose between his dead father, him and Tobias.

 

                                                 ********************

  

             “Tell me, Child, what is on your mind?”

             “Many things, but nothing that needs to be aired just now. How are you, Mother?” asked Kell. He forced his eyes away from the dress.

             “I am well, Kell, truly I am. Please forgive my attendants, they were helping me prepare with the fittings,” said the queen as she fussed with the lace along the bodice. “They will be out and leaving shortly if you want to talk.”

            “Are the preparations going well then? Is there anything I can do to help?” asked Kell, hoping he sounded sincere.

             Isabelle could hear the strain in her son’s voice but chose to take his words rather than his demeanor. “Your uncle would appreciate it very much if you would present me at the ceremony, as would I.”

            “Mother…” He started then he remembered the words Father Jonah had said to him, “I will if Tobias promises to make you happy.”

             “You have that promise, Nephew,” said the deep voice of Kell’s uncle as he stepped into the room without so much as a knock.

              Kell’s words to Father Jonah just a few moments before, about his uncle always doing something to remind him why he didn’t like him, rang through his head then, reestablishing the thought. He was maddened by the man’s blatant disregard for his mother’s privacy. How dare he just walk into his mother’s room like that?

             He stood up, about to confront him about the rudeness of it when he froze.

             Tobias was standing at an angle as he faced the prince so his right shoulder was facing the boy. Prominently displayed on that shoulder was Jace Altaire’s broach; one of only two things they had recovered of him from the wreckage.

           Kell’s mouth dropped open and he guffawed then he looked at his mother with disbelief.

            “Kell…” started Isabelle.

            “I have to go, Mother,” snapped the boy as he stomped past his uncle.

            “Will you eat dinner with me this evening?” Isabelle called after him.

            “No, Mother, not this eve. I am suddenly not so hungry,” said the prince as his back went through the door.

 

            Tobias had a self-pleased look on his face when Isabelle looked back at him. She sniffed loudly and said, “I’ve asked you not to wear that until after the wedding, Tobias, you know how sensitive Kell is about it.” She wished she hadn’t given in and given him it now.

           “It will be officially mine to wear in little more than a month, Isabelle, it is about time the boy faced that. You really do coddle him too much, you know. How can he ever be expected to become a man if you keep treating him like a child? What’s the saying, spare the rod…”

           “He is still upset about his father’s death, Tobias… as am I… he just needs time to accept all the changes… I wish you would be more sensitive to his feelings,” snapped the queen.

           Tobias looked ready to say more, then seemed to think better of it and instead said, “You are correct, of course, my dear. I will not wear the broach again until after the wedding, if it will please you.”

          “It will,” she said simply.

          “Have you given any more thought to my suggestion for the boy?”

           “He is to begin his trials for knighthood in less than a year; I see no point in sending him off for military training at this point. He will be offered lands and a lordship. He will… He is a proper young man, he is just a little fixated on his father’s death.”

           “It has been six summers, Isabelle, the boy is not fixated he is obsessed. I am telling you it is not healthy. Boys need discipline to make them men, my dear. I went to this academy and it did me a world of good. I was a very tempestuous boy, if you will remember.”

            “He is not tempestuous he is only passionate in his beliefs,” said Isabelle as if to say the discussion was over.

             Tobias realized continuing to push now would do him no good so he put a smile on his face and said, “Since you will not be dining with your son this evening may I have the pleasure of your company?”

             Isabelle pointed at the broach and held her hand out to him, “I think it may be best if I hold on to that until after the wedding.”

            He reached up, unclasped it and handed it to her.

            She walked over to her dressing table and put it into the jewelry box then turned back to Tobias and said, “I will enjoy dining with you this evening, Tobias.”

           The regent put a smile on his face then and his hand out to the queen. She placed hers on top of it and allowed him to lead her from the room.

 

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