Book 1 in the Chronicles of the Dragon-Bound
Discover the world of the dragon-bound! Young Dax is rightfully King Darius Ambegriff X of West Landly. When an evil plot forces him to flee for his life, he must live by his wits—alone in a world of danger. In this, the first of three books, Dax struggles to find a new life. Although he will find many friends—and enemies—along the way, none will match the ally he carries with him in an unhatched dragon egg.
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Start reading: Chapter 1
Clack, clack, clack. The sound of the wooden wasters was loud and raucous—and embarrassing. Dax had to practice his swordsmanship with a wooden sword while all around him the rest of the guardsmen raised a blacksmith’s cacophony with the cool, sharp scrape and clang of steel on steel. Attack, defend, attack. Dax’s wooden practice sword just said, “Clack, clack, clack.”
On this particular day, General Herne had him sparring with one of the young members of the West Landly Guard. The castle detachment of the guard was an elite group charged with protecting king and castle, but that did not mean they showed their king, uncrowned or not, any deference when charged to train him. Tre Lukas Trimble at age nineteen was more than half again as old as Dax, full muscled, and in his prime. Young for the rank of tre, Trimble sparred frequently with Dax. Today they dueled with weighted wooden wasters. To ensure Dax’s safety, Herne insisted he wear a leather training vest and protective wire-mesh face mask while Trimble sparred in ordinary training clothes. Although Dax understood Herne’s need to keep him safe, it was embarrassing.
Dax circled Trimble, cautious in his attacks. Although the pennants atop the castle walls and towers snapped in the brisk wind off the great Western Ocean, down in the training yard, scarcely a breath of breeze stirred. The air held a hint of the cool ocean below, but Dax had been sweating since the start of the bout. From experience he knew Trimble was fast and strong. The man could have disarmed him easily. Trimble’s job, however, was to show him a defensive practice challenge. Dax’s assigned task was to score a touch.
“What’s the matter?” Trimble called with a smile. “Tired already?”
Evidently Dax had been a little too cautious, but Trimble’s cocky attitude did not help. Dax lunged forward. Clack, clack, clack—whap! Trimble’s solid swat to the side of his head hit Dax’s mask and stung his ear. He blinked in pain.
“Oops,” his sparring partner said quietly, and chuckled as he backed away. “Did you forget to keep your guard up on the left?”
Trimble’s cocky smile and mocking tone were too much. An unexpected surge of hot fury burned through Dax, and all the color went out of the world. His vision became extraordinarily sharp. He saw every fiber of Trimble’s training jersey as well as each of the disgustingly few beads of sweat on his taunting face. Dax lunged forward again. Clack-clack-clack-clack-clack! The waster was almost weightless as Dax launched a furious attack.
“Hey!” Trimble exclaimed. “Ouch! There’s your hit. Match over, dammit. Stop!”
Dax felt a restraining hand on his shoulder, and he stopped his assault. Herne’s firm tones said, “The match is over, Your Majesty.”
Suddenly Dax’s world looked normal again. He pulled his mask off and stuck the point of his waster in the ground to rest his arm. He knew Herne would reprimand him for lack of sword discipline, but he figured it was better than dropping the thing from exhaustion. He wiped his forehead with the back of his arm.
Now Trimble gave the proper end-of-match sword salute to Dax. “Good match, Your Majesty. I don’t think that was a proper form you used there at the end, but it worked.” Trimble smiled ruefully and rubbed his shoulder where Dax’s waster had hit him—twice. Trimble also gave a sword salute to Herne even though, as a retired officer, Herne was not strictly entitled to the formality.
“Thank you for the match, Tre,” Dax responded, raising his waster to give Trimble the proper return salute. “You were excellent as always.” He watched as Trimble racked his waster and trotted off toward the barracks. The honesty in Trimble’s comment gave Dax a little hope that all the practice was helping, but what had happened in the last series of the match? He remembered nothing clearly except getting angry and attacking Trimble. He had certainly not used any of the carefully learned dueling forms he had been taught. At least Trimble had not been as cocky as usual after the match, and that made Dax want to smile.
Herne patted Dax’s shoulder. “In spite of what you might think, Dax, you are getting better,” Herne said quietly so only Dax could hear. “In a few years you will be a swordsman your father would have been proud of.”
The rare praise and unexpected personal contact startled Dax. His father, the late King Darius Ambergriff IX of West Landly, had died this last winter, and the thought that his father would have been proud of him made Dax’s eyes burn with emotion. His father had nicknamed him Dax because he would be King Darius Ambergriff X, and he would have the kingly initials D. A. the X. When Herne used the nickname, it felt like a sign of fatherly affection. Dax lowered his gaze so Herne would not see the water glistening in his eyes.
“Thank you,” Dax said roughly. “It is hard work, though.”
“Never said it wasn’t.” Herne smiled. “Then again, nothing worthwhile comes without a wagon full of work. Evnissyen says your lessons are going well too.”
Every morning, Dax had to work with Evnissyen, the royal tutor. A thin, graying man, Evnissyen also spared little praise for his student. His tutor’s eyes might have been weak, but the man’s cold intellect intimidated him. Dax’s lessons were interesting but exasperating. Dax never seemed to get a straight answer to any of his questions. Instead he had to labor to argue one of Evnissyen’s position statements first from one side, then the other—sometimes from three or more different sides. He did his assigned readings diligently, but Evnissyen’s questions always stayed a pace or two ahead of his understanding. Dax had to recheck his books, and often he even had to search the castle’s library to find more information. He could see how much there was to learn before he ruled the kingdom in his own name, and Dax sometimes despaired of the task before him.
“He’s never said that to me,” Dax replied to Herne.
“Well, he wouldn’t, would he? We have a lot of work to do to get you ready for your thirteenth year, when you will be able to govern in your own name.”
Dax was tired. Not just in body, but in spirit. He had so much to do.
Herne waited while Dax returned his waster to the rack of practice weapons. “One other thing you should know. Starting tomorrow Captain Danford is going to be supervising your physical training for a few weeks. Seems they want me to run an errand to the guard garrison down south at the mouth of the Radkim River.”
Frowning, Dax said, “That’s unusual, isn’t it?”
Herne looked at him. “Damned unusual that they’d send an old, retired goat like me, but the castellan asked me personally.” He smiled at Dax. “Don’t worry. I’ve already given Danford plenty of work for you to do while I’m gone.” He nodded. “Just because I’m not here doesn’t mean there won’t be something to do.”
“It seems there’s always something to do,” Dax mumbled. Although Herne worked him hard, the man was an ever-present anchor in his life. Dax realized he would miss him.
Herne evidently sensed Dax’s budding despair and jostled his shoulder again. “Don’t worry. Your father was my friend, and I promised to look after his son. The kingdom will be the better when you take the throne.”
The honesty Dax heard in Herne’s sentiment was plain and comforting. Dax felt a flush of warmth from the man’s support. He could not ask for a hug in the middle of the training grounds, but Herne gave his shoulder a final squeeze and sent him on his way with a cuff like one he would give to any budding warrior. In spite of the day’s hard work, Dax’s step was lighter than usual.
This afternoon, like most afternoons, he spent in the guard’s exercise yard. Herne had worked him on physical conditioning and riding lessons as well as combat training. Dax enjoyed riding and swordsmanship, but he wondered about Herne’s insistence he learn alley fighting and wrestling. He had wrestled and roughhoused with his father all the time for play. Learning how to fight in battle with a sword and lead a charge from horseback seemed kingly enough, but why would a king need to wrestle in the dirt or break people’s arms? However, he had no choice. For now, Herne decided what Dax needed to learn.
The unexpected reassurance from Herne at the end of his training session had Dax thinking of his father and his own childhood. Dax’s given names were Kort Leith Tavas, but he was of the Ambergriff line, and he would rule as the tenth named Darius in memory of the first Darius Ambergriff, who had united the tribes of Landly and gone on to found a dynasty. Dax certainly did not feel like a dynasty, but he did feel the weight of the past and the expectations for the future. Since his father had died, his stepmother, Mathilde, was regent and head of the ruling council that governed the kingdom. In just over a year, he would take his rightful place on the throne, and the kingdom would be his to rule. He had to be ready.
Orin Herne had been one of his father’s best friends, and Dax had known him all his life. Dax and his father had hunted with Herne in the forests north and east of Tazzelton, and they had shared many an evening’s cook fire with the other guardsmen who accompanied them. They talked of things from horses to state craft, and Herne would call his father Conal, his given name. That impressed Dax because no one else addressed his father so casually. General Herne had been close to his father in those days, and Dax had been a little afraid of the tall, stern man with one arm. Herne was not exactly cold, but he was reserved and never said much. His father enjoyed Herne’s company, and the old general was a fixture in Dax’s young life.
General Herne had retired from his command in the guard after he lost his arm, battling raiders from the Tharan Empire in the South. Dax’s father, however, had kept Herne on in his old rank to see to Dax’s training. Now with his father gone, it seemed Herne lived only to make Dax a warrior, not a king. The man had no mercy and was never satisfied unless Dax worked his hardest. Still, every time Herne looked at him, Dax felt the general’s strong support. He sighed to himself. If only the man’s expectations were not so high.
Dax trudged back across the training yard, an open area within the castle walls on the south side of the complex of buildings within the tall walls. The yard, after a cleanup, served as a parade ground for outdoor ceremonies. Next to the guard barracks, portions of the yard had stone paving, but the training and exercise grounds were packed sand. It was a good thing too. On the many times Dax had been thrown, tripped, thumped, and tumbled to the ground, the sand’s soft but abrasive surface gave him scuff marks but kept him from serious harm.
Inside the castle proper, Dax wiped sweat from his forehead with his sleeve and headed for the kitchen. Outside the door, he caught the rich aroma of baking bread and roasting goose. His training sessions always left him sweaty, dog tired . . . and hungry!
The kitchen was a happy place, and Dax routinely stopped by the warm, bustling operation several times a day. Mama Suse ran the kitchen. She was Mama Suse to everyone in her charge, but Dax had called the woman Ma Cookie since he was a child. With his mother gone, Ma Cookie’s warm affection and the good humor of the rest of the kitchen women made the kitchen a happy refuge. He continued to call her Ma Cookie out of habit, and he enjoyed the cookies the happy cook baked.
Ma Cookie was in the middle of preparing supper and grunted a hello as she lifted a pot onto the stove. Her hair caught up in a bun, she wore her usual worn but clean apron. Her well-muscled arms handled the pot with ease. “There’s one cookie to be had before supper,” she said, “but no more.”
At her invitation, Dax helped himself from the tray. She pretended to be gruff, and she ordered him around just like she did her kitchen helpers. However, her warm feelings for him were obvious. He liked to tease her, but she gave as good as she got. And she always had cookies around somewhere in the kitchen for him.
“All hot and sweaty today,” she noted. “General Herne gave you a good workout, eh?”
“You know he always does,” Dax mumbled around a mouthful of cookie. If Mathilde had been there, she would have reprimanded him for talking with his mouth full. In the kitchen with Ma Cookie, Dax ignored court manners.
“Aye, but the Old Bear will make you into a fine king, he will.” She had focused her attentions on a large lump of flour-covered dough.
Dax finished the cookie quickly. It had soft bits of dried fruit in it and was still warm from the oven. “Supper smells really good,” he said and turned to go. “Bye!” he called and casually helped himself from the cookie tray again. Although her back had been turned, Ma Cookie expertly caught his wrist in her floured fingers before he had gone two steps. Despite being stout and graying, she was quick.
“Naught but one, I said.” And she forced him to put the cookie back. Leaving the kitchen, Dax pretended a hangdog attitude, but once out of sight, he bit into the second cookie he had concealed in this other hand. It was an old trick, but it always worked. After he left the kitchen, Dax headed for his room.
The castle, home of the kings of West Landly, sat atop Adok, the huge domed rock outcropping that dominated Stone Harbor and the city of Tazzelton, capital of the kingdom of West Landly. Minute flecks of mica in the castle’s tall stone walls caught the afternoon sun and gave the whole edifice a silvery sheen when viewed from the city itself. Outside, the castle was a bright, imposing symbol of royal power in the kingdom. Inside, the castle’s high, vaulted passages of worked stone and aged, carved wooden buttresses reflected the proud and noble heritage of the kingdom.
The grand castle was his home, but Dax enjoyed a hidden part of the castle’s interior the most. His father had shown him the secret passages over a year ago, not long before he became bedridden with the flux that finally killed him. His father had told him the passages were a kingly secret known to only a select few of his inner circle of advisors. Dax’s father had not even told his new wife, Mathilde, after he had remarried two years ago. Since Mathilde had become regent, his father’s old inner circle had gradually disappeared from the ruling council, and Dax took guilty pleasure knowing he was the only one in the castle now who knew the secret. Since his father’s passing, Dax had found a refuge in the dark, hidden insides of the castle’s walls.
A year of exploring had taught him the narrow, irregular passages. Mathilde, as his stepmother and regent, looked after his personal affairs, including his appearance. She berated him constantly for soiling his royal finery. Yes, the passages were dusty, and in some places sharp corners of building stones or fingers of mortar plucked and dirtied his clothes, but he never let on where he spent his time. She thought he was off “tussling with the castle brats” in the kitchen, cellars, and stables. He did that occasionally, but most often he roamed the castle unseen. Hidden inside the close, dark spaces between the walls, he felt safe.
By the time he got back to his room on the third floor of the family wing, the purloined cookie was long gone, and Dax’s hunger was a little less sharp. Mathilde met him in the hall, examining him with her cold, ice-blue eyes. “You stink of sweat. Go clean up, and change your clothes to something more fitting.” A ripple of disdain pervaded her words, but that was nothing new. As he turned to go, she added, “Oh, and I left a glass of milk for you in your room.” She reached out and flicked a crumb from beside his mouth. “I knew you would stop by the kitchen after training.” A sly smile twitched at the corner of her mouth. “You can wash down your cookie with it.”
Dax mumbled, “Thank you,” and went to his room. Since his father had died, Mathilde had seldom acknowledged him except to critique his behavior in one way or another. He was surprised by her thoughtfulness today. He had sensed honesty in her statement—but not quite. Dax had puzzled over this before. He could always tell when someone was lying or telling the truth, but sometimes the truth felt hollow. Had she left something unsaid? The milk was on his writing table. It was cool and refreshing, but it tasted a bit off. He looked at it. Ma Cookie had told him once that a pasture with sweet clover could make milk taste different. He finished the glass and set it back on the table.
Stripping off his sweat-dampened training clothes, Dax stretched his tired muscles. He enjoyed the cool air on his skin. At the cabinet by the window, he poured a little water into the basin. Last month Mathilde had lectured him sternly about smelling bad when he came to supper. Since then he had made a point of washing himself after he exercised even though he had already bathed in the morning. Once he had toweled himself dry, he found an outfit she would expect him to wear at supper and dressed quickly.
Although the training match with Trimble had felt like it had lasted forever, Herne had let him go a little early today. Dax wasted no time once he had changed his clothes. He opened the secret panel beside his room’s fireplace and slipped into the dark passage behind. Just inside he picked up the tiny lantern he used for light. With a couple of practiced strokes of his steel, he had it alight. Its glow was dim and feeble, but he did not need much light. He knew the dark ways inside the walls.
In spots, small openings, spy holes, let in a little light from the castle itself—spy holes worked both ways. He had learned a lot about the kingdom from Evnissyen’s lessons, but the spy holes had taught him a lot about life. While he was fully briefed and quizzed on all the news of the realm, people never shared their unguarded thoughts with him. Mathilde was his regent, and she sat with the ruling Council of Nobles who made the decisions. Occasionally they allowed Dax to attend a meeting and hear the discussions behind their decisions, but most often they just told him what had been decided. Since many meetings took place while he was at his lessons or in training, Dax seldom had a chance to spy on the council itself. However, by roaming the secret passages and keeping watch, Dax frequently heard snippets of conversations that helped him understand the issues—and the people making the decisions—much better.
Not all his spying was political, however. Dax had learned more than just politics and statecraft. In the last year, he had become fascinated by what men and women did together when they thought they were alone. Sulley, the upstairs maid, had a habit of meeting Mik, one of the stable hands, near the stairway to the north tower. A month ago Dax had first seen them doing some kissing and fondling in a shadowed spot, and he had glimpsed their spicy action several times since. Dax headed off toward the north tower on the off chance they might be meeting today. He hoped to see something . . . something polite people were not supposed to see. The sense of forbidden knowledge made it all the more tempting.
Although he had that goal in mind, he kept his eyes and ears open as he padded softly on his way. He could not be seen, but he could be heard. His father had impressed that on him. The castle bustled with activity. He knew from experience there might be something interesting going on anywhere, so he listened and stayed alert.
Dax heard voices as he passed the library, and he paused to check the spy hole. Mathilde was there talking with Castellan Keir. As he watched, Keir swept Mathilde into an embrace, and they kissed for long minutes. Although his father was dead, Dax was shaken by his stepmother’s intimacy with this man. Everyone talked about Mathilde’s good looks. Even though he did not like the way she treated him, Dax had to admit she was pretty—more than pretty, in fact. Her dramatically long dark hair and upright bearing added to her regal appearance. All the men in the castle followed her with their eyes, and he had overheard comments about her exquisite beauty. He remembered when his father had married Mathilde. Dax’s real mother had died a year after he had been born. He did not remember her at all.
When Mathilde broke the kiss, she looked left then right. As they moved apart, she squeezed the front of Keir’s breeches. She smiled and waved a cautionary finger at the castellan. “Now, no more of that during the day.” She straightened her clothes primly. “After all, you are on duty with your guard, and I have a kingdom to run.”
“Ah, Mathilde,” Keir sighed. “You never have time for me these days. Since you got the council to name me castellan, we’ve scarcely had any time together.”
“But I told you, that is the way it must be. Too many people are around and watching.” She shook her head and mimed a flapping mouth with her fingers. “Tongues wag.” She turned away from him and walked to a window that looked out over the sea. The window was partially open, and a finger of breeze stirred her hair. She took a deep breath and turned back to Keir. “Besides, our plan is right on schedule.” She smiled. “Don’t you want to rule this kingdom?”
Dax automatically noted her honesty, but he did not understand what she had said. Mathilde was regent, but Dax, as his father’s only son, was king. What was she talking about?
Keir smiled slyly at Mathilde and moved closer to her. “I know why you want to make me king, but what if I have ideas of my own?”
Mathilde touched the tip of her finger to the end of his nose. “Then you bring your ideas to me,” she said sweetly. “While the people will not accept me as their queen, the council follows me almost to a man.”
Keir turned away and threw up his hands in exasperation. “And you picked me because you thought I would make a nice, compliant figurehead.”
“No, my dear boy. I picked you because you are someone who can lead the guard and someone who looks like a king.” She watched him a moment. “Besides, doing what I’ve asked you to do has worked well so far, hasn’t it?”
Keir turned back to face her, his face serious. “You gave the boy the poison?”
Although appalled by what he heard so far, the word poison seized Dax’s attention. He suppressed a gasp.
“Now, now.” The corners of Mathilde’s mouth curled upward in a small, cruel smile. “It’s not poison. At least not in the amount I gave him. It will just start him on the same journey his father took—a little adventure with bloody bowels.”
Keir grimaced. “Sounds unpleasant.”
Mathilde’s smile was unfeeling. “I’ve had to put up with the little brat for two years. Him with those beady little eyes, always lurking about, trying to look like some omniscient little seer.” She sniffed. “Unpleasant doesn’t bother me a bit.”
She smiled fondly and traced the line of Keir’s jaw with her finger. “Like I said, it won’t kill him.” Reaching Keir’s ear, she flicked the lobe with her long fingernail. She turned away and faced the wall with the spy hole. Dax blinked. Mathilde appeared to be looking right at him. In a moment, she looked back at Keir and said, “After experimenting on his father, I think I can string this young one along for some time. Everyone will come to see him as a weak and sickly child.” Her hand fluttered to her forehead. “Oh, dear,” she said in a high, wispy voice. “It must be a stain that runs in the family.” She sighed audibly. “Like father, like son—poor thing.” She dropped her hand. “No one will be surprised when he dies of one childhood illness or another,” she finished coldly.
Dax stumbled from bewilderment to anger to . . . rage! But before he could act or think, his stomach lurched. A sudden cramp turned all his thoughts to the word poison. He had been poisoned. The conversation in the library no longer interested him. All he could think of was getting back to his room. Mathilde had poisoned him. Who should he go to for help?
He started back the way he had come, moving as quickly as he could. Should he go to Garthelson, the royal physician? No. He could be part of the plot. Who better to confirm Mathilde’s treachery and give an official stamp to Dax’s unfortunate “inheritance” from his father? Even as he thought about it, he remembered seeing Mathilde speaking quietly with the physician several times in the last few weeks. At the time he had not thought anything about it, but now?
The nobles on the ruling council? He rejected that out of hand after what Mathilde had said.
Orin Herne? Dax was sure he could trust his father’s old friend. He had sensed nothing but honesty from the man—hard as it was to hear at times. The problem was, Dax did not know how to find Herne. He knew he no longer lived with the guard or anywhere on the castle grounds. Plus he was leaving for the South on an errand for . . . Keir! It all fell into place now. Herne was out of the castle. Mathilde had Dax’s head in her noose.
His thoughts jumbled together as he hastened up the narrow, uneven steps of the hidden ways to the family level. There was no one. Any person of authority in the castle might be a part of Mathilde’s plot. He was on his own. His frustration and despair deepened, and with them, he felt his anger return. He forced it down. No. He could not afford blinding fury now. He had to think!
Back in his room, Dax stood breathless while the familiar surroundings helped bring order to his frantic thoughts. The first thing he had to do was get rid of the poison—what he could anyway. He went down the hall to the privy closet and stuck his finger down his throat. He vomited out the contents of his stomach. But how much of the poison was still in his body? He went back to his room and took up the pitcher of water on the dry sink. He drank until he could hold no more. After a few minutes, he went back to the privy closet and repeated the process.
He staggered back to his room. Now he felt terrible. His stomach was a knot of pain, and his head throbbed. He had done all he could, but would it be enough? It would have to be. His legs wobbled, and he sat down on the bed. His head beat in time with his heart. He lay back and rubbed his eyes, trying to ease the pain.
A knock on his door startled him awake, and he sat up. He had not meant to sleep. “Sire?” It was Ruallo, his personal attendant. “Are you coming down to dinner?”
Dax had a moment of panic. He could not go down to eat. He could not face Mathilde across the table. As he sat there, he realized he did not feel like eating at all. His stomach hurt. The thought of roasted goose, which had smelled so good earlier, made his stomach lurch toward his throat. As bad as his stomach felt, the thought of food made it feel worse.
“No.” His voice was rough, and he cleared his throat. “I don’t think I can.” He started to say that he must have overworked at training that afternoon, but the words stuck in his throat unuttered. Mentally he cursed his inability to tell even the mildest falsehood—even when his life was in danger.
He did the best he could. “Please tell Mathilde I am not feeling well.” That was certainly the truth. “I am going to lie down for a while. Later, if I am feeling better, I’ll get something from the kitchen.”
“As you wish, sire.”
Dax didn’t even listen for Ruallo’s footsteps to fade away. He turned, pulled back the covers to his bed, and lay down. He had to. He had said he would.
A tap on his door startled him awake. Outside his window light had almost faded into night. Dax chided himself for falling asleep again. He had only meant to lie down for a moment to satisfy the censor in his head that insisted on absolute truth.
Mathilde glided into his room with a small tray and a look of concern on her face. “Hello, Kort. How are you feeling now? Did your little nap help?” Pausing at his bedside, she looked at him speculatively. “Here. I brought you something from the kitchen. Maybe it will make you feel a little better.” She set the tray down on the night table next to his bed and stroked his forehead with her hand. “Hmm. You don’t feel feverish. What seems to be wrong? Did Herne work you too hard today?”
Dax gritted his teeth and carefully formed an answer. “No, ma’am. General Herne said my training went well. I just have some stomach trouble.” The words came out, and he breathed a sigh of relief. Stomach trouble. The trouble was real, but not where Mathilde anticipated.
She smiled ever so slightly. “Well, I don’t think it’s anything serious.”
Dax was amazed. She had told the truth and a lie at the same time.
“Here,” she smiled and continued. “I brought some milk and two of Suse’s cookies for you.”
He had been trying to ignore the milk on the tray. Was it another dose of poison? Would she risk two doses in one day, especially after he had evidently already responded to the first one? No matter. After purging the milk she had given him earlier, seeing another glass of it almost made him retch.
Mathilde moved about the room, picking up odds and ends of clothing Dax had left in a scramble. She looked at them disapprovingly and cast them onto a chair. As she worked her way around the room, she related details of her discussions with Doro Maklyn, Duke of Silverdale, over dinner. He was in Tazzelton to negotiate a new business deal for Argent Trading Company’s access to Stone Harbor, and he had come to court to discuss the terms with the sovereign.
“Anyway . . .” She regarded a shoe Dax had worn yesterday before casting it onto the chair with the rest of his clothes. “I told him if he would part with a larger share of the furs that come downriver from the Circular Sea, the council would give him a share of our trade concession with Butterock Haven. If we start doing business directly with the duke, we’ll gain a valuable ally on the Marble Coast who could help us with raiders from Deadman’s Finger.”
While her attention was elsewhere, Dax emptied the milk into the chamber pot below his bed. Mathilde started to circle back to him just as he finished setting the empty glass back on the tray. He let the cookies lie. Even Ma Cookie’s treats did not appeal to him at the moment.
Mathilde smiled. “Done so soon? You must have been thirsty.”
“I’m done with it.” His reply was a true statement, and he could say it without stumbling. He hoped she did not ask him directly if he had drunk the milk.
“Not right now. Would you leave them? Maybe they’ll look better to me later.”
She picked up the empty glass and gave him a little pat on the head before she turned to go. “Now you get a good night’s sleep so you’ll feel better in the morning.” At the door, she gave him one more little smile before she closed it behind her.
“Feel better in the morning?” he muttered. He drew a deep breath against the tension in his chest. Was he terrified or angry? In a moment he knew. Anger . . . and more. The feeling swelled into an overpowering, bloodthirsty rage like he had felt in the training yard with Trimble. The room around him lost its color. Everything, from the spider on its web in the corner to the mark on the wall made when Mathilde had thrown one of his shoes in disgust, was razor-sharp. A sword. He needed a sword. With a blade, he would chase after Mathilde and slaughter her in the hallway. Herne would be proud of the point-perfect lunge he would make into her retreating back. He would slide the blade between her ribs and through her black heart. Afterward, he would butcher her into small bloody pieces . . .
But he had no sword. He had only his personal knife. Could he use it to attack her from behind? Slit her evil throat? No, he could not be sure of a kill with his knife alone. He lay thinking about weapons, and the acute detail with which he saw the world receded. A sick weakness gripped his body as tightness squeezed his midsection. His lust for revenge faded, but down deep inside he felt concentrated resolve—a terribly fierce, determined focus on action. He had to do something.
He threw back the coverlet and got up. His feet were unsteady for a moment, but the feeling passed. He paced the floor. What could he do? Whom could he tell? No one else had heard the conversation in the library. Would anyone believe him? He could imagine the patronizing tut-tuts from the adults who were much too busy to listen to the wild accusations of a young boy—even if that boy was their king. General Herne would believe him, but when he thought of Herne, another more paralyzing idea struck him. Herne had told him he would be gone for days, but would he ever return from his mission? With Herne’s reputation for devotion to Dax and his father, would Mathilde arrange for him to be assassinated?
For that matter, what would happen the next time he saw Mathilde? He had experienced that horrible rage only a few times before. He feared the next time he saw the woman, he would not be able to resist trying to kill her. While it would feel good, what would happen next? Even if he did not kill her in a fit of fury, he would still be in danger. If Mathilde lived, how could he avoid being slowly poisoned? His pacing slowed as he realized the inevitable.
He could not escape eating or drinking if he stayed in the castle. He could skip some meals and take his food directly from the kitchen. However, as the future king of this realm, he had to attend official functions, and most of those involved eating.
Even now his stomach growled with emptiness. He still did not feel good. He had not eaten anything since a light lunch before afternoon training—except for the two cookies he had had in the kitchen. At the thought of cookies, he darted back to the bed and devoured the ones Mathilde had brought with the milk. He was sure that if there had been poison again, it would have been in the milk. He sighed as he swallowed the last bite. Now he had eaten four cookies since lunch. His stomach growled at the tantalizing new bits and reminded him it was still not full.
Should he run away, leave the castle, and try to live outside on his own? He could get out of the castle easily enough. The network of secret passages offered him a route to the outside hidden from all eyes—especially those of Mathilde and her supporters. If he could get away unseen, they would not know for sure when he had left or where he might be headed. In the confusion, they might not even start a serious search outside the castle for several days.
At that point a painful cramp twisted his lower abdomen. This was not hunger pangs. He sat back on the bed for a moment, but the cramp threatened to become a full-fledged spasm, heralding an eruption. He dashed to the privy closet. This time Mathilde’s poison did its work. Long minutes later, the cramps subsided. Dax cleaned himself up and struggled back to his room. There had been no blood. Maybe his purge earlier had saved him from the worst of it, but he was exhausted and had trouble walking straight. While the cookies were probably still with him, he felt like he had expelled everything else he had eaten for the last week.
Back in his room, he collapsed on the bed. Badly chilled, he gathered the comforter over him and tried to recapture his thoughts about getting away. Dax had no doubts now. The thought of another dose of Mathilde’s evil brew scared him badly, yet if he left the castle, how could he get by? Dax knew nothing about the way ordinary people lived their lives. He had gone on occasional trips with his father to visit special people in their own homes, but visiting in the company of the king was not the same as dropping in by himself. Who did he know who would take him in?
He knew the answer as soon as he thought of the question—Aunt Lesley, Duchess of Ostdell, his father’s only sister. She and her husband, Kerwin Tremayne, owned a horse-breeding farm up the Ostdell River from Tazzelton. The Tremayne farm was a two-day ride on the river road. He had visited his aunt, uncle, and cousins many times with his father and knew the way well.
A two-day ride? That raised another question. Could he take a horse? He could get out of the castle unseen easily enough, but the horses were stabled next to the main west gate. That gate was busy, and even if he got a horse out of the stable unseen, he could not get out of the castle on horseback without being noticed. If he tried to leave through the east gate, not only would he have to get a saddled horse all the way across the training yard, but once outside the gate, the route led down the east face of Adok on the Serpentine Road into the city itself. On the Serpentine Road, he might as well wave a flag and shout, “Look at me!”
Could someone bring a horse to him outside of the city walls? He thought about this for a long time as he lay in the bed as his shivers diminished. Involving someone else in his escape meant that person would know what had happened. Even if Dax could think of a person he trusted enough to ask, could he risk that person being discovered? How ruthless was Mathilde? What would she and Keir do if she suspected someone had information about where Dax had gone?
No, he had better go alone and on foot. Once out of the city, he would stay off the river road to avoid being seen. It might take several days longer, but the more mystery there was to his disappearance, the better his chances would be of getting to his aunt and uncle’s estate.
Relieved at having made a decision about where and how to go for help, Dax needed to decide when he should leave. Tonight? The way he was feeling, he would not get far. Since Mathilde knew he was ill, she would probably send someone to check on him in the morning. If he was gone, the search would start.
What about tomorrow? If he tried to get some sleep tonight and begged off his schooling because he was sick, he would have the morning hours and maybe into the afternoon before anyone knew he was gone. He should feel better in the morning, and he could travel much faster through the city during the day. But daylight held a greater risk he would be seen. Seen, yes, but would he be recognized? Not many people outside the castle knew him by sight. On formal occasions he was always dressed in elaborate robes when he appeared in public. For his escape he would dress plainly and avoid attention—another good argument for not riding off on one of the sleek mounts from the royal stables.
How should he prepare for the trip without attracting attention? After more thought, he decided that if he was going to leave early in the morning, he would pack what he needed from his room tonight before he slept. Dax forced himself out of bed. His chills had mostly subsided, but he staggered around on weak legs. No, he was not going tonight. He stood uncertain for a moment, but his determination returned. He would do this.
His closet held clothes and equipment that he had used on hunting trips with his father. He pulled out a well-worn pack and looked at it—serviceable, but not large. He had remembered it as being bigger. Still, he would not need to take much. He looked into the closet again. Maybe an extra shirt and some underclothes?
When he took out his hunting clothes, he found a new worry. Nothing fit! He had not worn them since his father had fallen ill. Was poisoned!—he reminded himself. The flash of anger made his heart thump in his chest. As his anger faded, he looked at the clothes. Since he had worn them last, he must have grown. He dug out an older pair of leggings that would work, but what about a coat? Spring weather had arrived, but the temperatures, especially at night, would still be cool, if not cold. His training clothes were obviously guard-issue, and all his other coats, with their fine material, fancy embroidery, delicate lace, and shiny brass buttons, were very conspicuously royal. People in the marketplace wore dun and drab clothing. If he wore a coat from his closet, he would stand out like a peacock in a chicken coop.
What he really needed was a worn, everyday coat—not royal finery or even a new cloak purchased from the market. He needed a commoner’s coat. As he thought, he had an idea. He pulled out the richly colored red coat he had received from the Duke of Bington when the duke had visited the castle two months ago. The coat was two or three sizes too big for him, but Mathilde had instructed him to put it in his closet for the future. Now he looked at the coat in a new light. It would be perfect for a trade. If he could find someone with a good, sturdy work coat, he would try to arrange a quiet exchange.
Finally, well after midnight, Dax threw himself into bed, determined to get what sleep he could. He was exhausted, but his mind raced from one worry to another, thinking about clothing, food, and all the other items he should take with him.
A sudden rap on his door startled him awake. Light streamed through the window and stretched a broad, bright line across the foot of his bed. Sandy-eyed, he blinked away sleep. Ruallo poked his head into the room. “Your Majesty?” Seeing Dax awake, Ruallo stepped into the room. “Mathilde said you were not feeling well last night, and I should check on you.”
“Yes, thank you.” Befuddled by sleep at first, Dax remembered his danger. His mind snapped fully awake. Controlling his urge for action, he moved lethargically to push the hair back out of his eyes. He looked at Ruallo with his eyes half open. “Would you tell Mathilde I think I would do better to stay in bed today?” He put his hand back on his forehead and rubbed his temples as if he had a headache. He discovered he really did have a headache. “I will find something for breakfast later in the kitchen,” he told Ruallo. “Please give my regrets to Evnissyen for this morning. Also, tell Captain Danford I will send word if I feel up to coming to the training yard this afternoon.” A moment later he added, “Right now I don’t think I will be there.”
“Very well, Your Majesty. If I may say, you do look a little peaked this morning.”
Dax smiled ruefully. “Yes, I had some stomach trouble and didn’t sleep much last night. I would really appreciate it if you told everyone to leave me alone today. I will call for you if I need you.”
Although he truthfully might have done better if he had stayed in bed, Dax was up and on his way the moment the door closed. From the closet he took up the pack he had prepared the night before, but he immediately thought of more things he had to have. Daylight reminded him he needed a hat. His pack was not that large, and he still needed to take food. He ended up leaving out his extra pair of boots and strapping his sleeping blanket on the outside of the pack. The load would be clumsy, but he could carry it. Now, he had to get moving. Not only did he need time to get as far away as he could before he was missed, but he had to act before he lost his resolve. The fierce determination he had felt last night was gone. Weary from lack of sleep, hungry from lack of food, and weak from the aftereffects of the poison, he was still convinced he had to flee the castle. But he had to leave now.
Dax hoisted his pack and took one last look around. His room. As long has he could remember, this room had been his—a boy’s room—comfortable and familiar. His eyes lit on Mrs. Pibb lying on the table beside the bed. Tears welled up in his eyes as he looked at the worn and tattered stuffed rabbit. His mother had made it while she was carrying him. That was what his father had told him. She had wanted her baby to have something soft and snuggly. Threadbare in places, he treasured it as his only possession from her. He did not know where the name Mrs. Pibb had come from, but he had always slept with the toy at his side. He thrust the rabbit into the pack. There would be room enough even with the other items he still needed to get.
Dax slipped through the room’s secret door into the passageway beyond and made his way toward the kitchen. Just down the hall from the scullery, a closet of cleaning supplies had a sliding panel at the back. It was the nearest point to the kitchen, and it should be free of people at this time of day. Cautiously he checked the hall before he opened the closet door. Seeing no one, he stepped into the corridor leading to the rear entrance of the kitchen. The pantries just inside contained food, spices, and other supplies for the cooks, but one cabinet was the travelers’ store. It held a supply of dried meats, hard biscuits, and other foods that would keep well on a trip.
He had just finished packing more than enough food for the four days he would need to get to his aunt’s farm when he heard a noise behind him. “Ah, going for a little trip, are we?” Ma Cookie’s cheerful, bantering voice made him jump. One look at the boy and she changed her tone. She knelt beside him at the pantry. “Your Majesty, is there something wrong?” she asked, concerned.
Dax’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment at being caught unaware. He would never lie to Ma Cookie—even if he could have—but he realized she might be in danger if she knew too much. “Listen,” he started cautiously, “I have to go away for a while, but it would be better for you if you didn’t see me.”
“You are in danger, aren’t you? It’s that Mathilde, I’ll wager.” Dax said nothing in reply. He had never heard that flat, cold tone in her voice before. He did not want to answer and looked away. “Do you have enough food?” she continued. “Where’s your waterskin?” Ma Cookie was not like other adults. She did not question him further. She was all business and seemed to understand without his having to say anything. In a few short minutes, she had fed him a substantial breakfast in a back room out of sight of the main kitchen. She checked his pack while he ate. Handing him a waterskin and another pack of dried mutton, she nodded, satisfied. “Now get yourself off before someone sees you and asks questions.”
Dax hesitated. He felt a real pang of loss. Facing Ma Cookie, he wondered when he would see her, Ruallo, or any of the other persons who populated his daily life. Leaving meant he was leaving his life behind. He knew he would have had much more hard work to be ready to become king. He would not miss that. He was a king in name, but he had no responsibility. He would not miss that either. He liked living in the castle. He would miss his room and the secret passages. But he would miss these people most of all.
He faced a yet greater loss. Mathilde was going to take his throne and give it to Keir. Dax’s father had been on his deathbed, pale and weak from the flux, when he had put his hand on Dax’s shoulder. “Dax, it’s up to you now.” His voice was a faint echo of his normal hearty tone. “You’re my son, and I know you will be a good king.” But Dax would only be king if he could escape Mathilde’s plot to kill him and find a way to win back his throne. Hopeless and helpless, he stood there, unable to move. What could he do?
Ma Cookie interrupted his despair and swept him up in an all-encompassing embrace. She set him back on his feet, straightened his hat, and pushed him toward the door. “Now you take care of yourself, and come back to see me some day.” He saw tears in her eyes, but she shooed him out with her hands. “Now, get!”
Dax swallowed the lump in his throat and blinked back tears in his own eyes. He could not stay. Around the corner, out of sight, he ducked back into the castle’s secret ways. This time he headed for the lower regions. His father had shown him the castle’s hidden byways, and there were secrets within secrets. In addition to the passages within the walls, the castle had many small corridors that were not secret but hidden, back hallways used by servants, where the lords and ladies never ventured. The lowest levels of the castle had storerooms where people seldom went. Some contained food and household goods, but many held a bewildering array of cast-off articles. Dax had heard that East Landly’s palace had dark dungeons for prisoners on its lower levels. Here at Stone Harbor Castle, the adjoining guard complex had cells for that function.
The storerooms were not his destination, however, and he navigated around them, out of sight, heading lower yet. On the castle’s basement level, the passages, secret or not, had large drains that channeled drips of rain and other moisture from the castle out the seaward side of Adok’s rocky bulk.
Mariners coming into Stone Harbor said that sometimes dark streaks of water on the rock made the castle appear to weep, but the drains held another secret. One drain, at the far north end of the hidden network, was higher than the others and was never wet. An oversight by the builders? No. Under the grate that covered it, the bottom of the drain channel was a cover that slid aside revealing a still lower level of passages. The cover made a dry scrape when Dax pulled it aside, and the odor of cold stone rose up to meet him.
The secret ways inside the castle were narrow, irregular passages between the walls, but the lowest levels were a connected system of small caverns with tunnels between chambers. Dax’s father did not know for sure how the tunnels had been built, but tradition held the Kotkel had built them. Some called the Kotkel elves, but Dax’s father had told him they were not. They were just a different kind of people who were seldom seen these days. Travelers’ tales said they were small, manlike beings who lived away from humans. Some said they purposefully hid themselves. Supposedly they had once built an extraordinary nation on this same land, but by the time the kingdom of Landly was created, even the ruins of their world had decayed. His father had told Dax he believed Kotkel had built the tunnels since legend had it they had built the heart of Stone Harbor Castle for themselves.
The cave chambers resembled paintings Dax had seen of the grottos at Fingle’s Mount, where rock had flowed like water and made long stone teeth that hung from the ceiling and grew up from the floor. In the dim lantern light, he saw an occasional drop of water fall from the ceiling’s teeth like drips from a melting icicle. Tunnel sections between chambers were obviously different. Circular and about four feet in diameter, they had been built with tools unlike any Dax knew. The floors were a beaten track of tamped earth, but the walls rose overhead in a perfect curve. The tunnels could have been giant worm holes in the rock—if worms that ate rock made perfectly straight burrows. The sides of the shafts had long scoring marks as if some giant beast had gnawed its way through. Dax shuddered. If there were worms that ate rock, he never wanted to meet one.
Dax’s father had had to crouch when he had led Dax through the tunnels. Taller now, Dax had to bend his own head in the tunnels. The uneven floor occasionally brought him too close to the ceiling, and he had to crouch. Most of the rock tunnels ran horizontally, but the cave passages led down lower still. Where slopes were too steep, someone had built steps. The way out of the castle was on the lowest level of all, but Dax had another destination first—the royal treasure chamber.
An obscure natural passageway, half hidden around a rocky corner in one cavern, led upward to the room. Behind a heavy door, the treasure chamber had a dry, sandy floor. Wooden boxes and chests along the walls showed no signs of age other than a little dust. Dax’s father said some of the chests dated back to the first of the Ambergriff kings. The crown of West Landly, with its large blue stone, rested in a carefully polished wooden box in a protected nook near the door. Dax remembered seeing his father wear the crown several times on important state occasions. The last time had been Dax’s tenth-year celebration, the day Dax had become official heir to the throne. His father always retrieved the crown himself for these occasions, and that morning he had brought Dax along.
Dax lifted the lid of the box and looked at the crown. He wondered if he would ever wear it in the Great Hall. The last time his father, lord king of this realm, had worn the crown, sunlight streaming through the high windows had made the jewels set into the crown sparkle like dew on the morning ground. While his father sat on the throne, the blue stone had caught the light, casting spots of color onto everything nearby. Portraits of other Ambergriffs, four kings and two queens wearing the same crown, looked down from the walls of the broad corridor outside the Great Hall. Earlier Ambergriff kings and queens whose portraits hung farther down the grand hallway wore the old crown, which itself sat in the box next to the new crown. He touched the crown—his father’s crown. He swallowed hard. Would it ever be his crown?
He thought of Mathilde’s treachery and frowned. If her plot was successful, she would give the crown to someone else. He sighed. Only if he was clever enough to live through the next few weeks could he start thinking about the crown. It took all his courage and resolve to close the box and set it back on the shelf.
A special cabinet in the back of the treasure chamber held the twin crowns for the king and queen of Landly—a united Landly. The third of the Ambergriff kings had had twin sons, and rather than chance a succession conflict, he had set each to rule half the kingdom. Darius Ambergriff III never intended there to be a permanent division of west from east. However, in the way of all monarchs, the East Landly and West Landly kings continued their separate reigns. The two realms had been ruled ever since as separate kingdoms. West Landly claimed the Ambergriff name and tradition in their crown. East Landly’s kings descended from the same line, but his royal cousins ruled with different names and traditions. The kingdoms were rivals in trade and influence over the surrounding area, but they were united in language and proud of their common heritage.
Dax had seen the twin crowns of old Landly once before. His father had shown him their jewel-encrusted magnificence. They were even larger and more elaborate than the crown of West Landly. Two large, oval, blue jewels flanked a larger center stone, symbolizing the kingdom’s reach from the Great Ocean in the west to the Dawn Ocean in the east. The center stone was a round, bright-faceted diamond symbolizing the Circular Sea at the heart of the kingdom. Two identical crowns—one for a king, the other a queen. Although the days had long passed when the kingdoms were one, his father had told him there was a prophecy that one day the Landly crowns would be worn again to rule a united kingdom. The single blue jewel of the West Landly crown was a both a legacy and a promise.
As Dax stood in the treasure chamber, he had a thought. His mouth twisted up in a smile of cynical amusement. Mathilde had replaced his father’s loyalists with her own men. As far as he knew, he alone in the castle carried the secret of the kingdom’s treasure room. If Mathilde put Keir on the throne, who would tell her where the crown, symbol of royal authority in the kingdom, was to be found? Certainly not the rightful heir to the throne!
That thought brought a flare of anger and galvanized him into action. Dax found a chest of the right size and emptied it. He gathered the crowns and carefully wrapped them in protective clothes and packed them inside. He carried the chest a short way back down the passage to a small side passage. It led nowhere, but it had enough space at the end to conceal a chest. Once covered with loose rocks, it was just another blind niche in the ragged caverns.
He dusted his hands in spiteful satisfaction after he had erased the last of his footprints leading to the hiding place. Even if Mathilde discovered the treasure room, the royal crowns might still evade her grasp. Until a rightful king took the throne of West Landly, either himself or someone selected the Assembly of Nobles, the crowns would stay hidden in the depths of Adok.
He remembered something else. If none of Mathilde’s people knew about the secret passages, she lacked not only the crowns, but also the part of the royal wealth kept in the treasure room. The castle had a guarded safe room with a heavy oak door secured by many locks, but it held only a part of the kingdom’s wealth. Evnissyen called what was in the safe room “working capital,” money the government took in and spent on a day-to-day basis. The wealth hidden in the treasure room seldom saw the light of day. It was held as a reserve to back the honor and credit of the kingdom.
Dax was certain Mathilde had promised her plotters money along with power, but she would face a challenge paying them without access to all of the kingdom’s riches. He was tempted to hide the treasure as well, but there was no hiding place large enough, nor did he have the time. He would have to trust the secret of the passages to keep it safe.
Back inside the treasure chamber, Dax ignored the wealth of West Landly. He had come for something else—the dragon’s egg. His father had shown him that bit of treasure as well. He went to the fifth chest along the left-hand wall and removed the leathery oval from its padded, satin-covered case. Dax held it in his palm. He could not explain why he needed it, but he knew he did. Just holding it in his hands made him feel better. It made him feel . . . complete.
His father had showed it to him as a joke. One of the merchant houses had offered it to the king, hoping for a beneficence. The man had proclaimed it a “devil’s egg,” but Dax’s father had heard about dragon’s eggs and had known what it was immediately.
The day he had shown it to Dax, he had explained, “Dragon mamas don’t lay many eggs, and the eggs go for a long time before they hatch. The dragon-bound bring some from the Dragon Lands, and they use the eggs to find new dragon-bound. A wild egg like this is rare.” He had shrugged and handed it carelessly to Dax without comment. Dax’s eyes grew round with astonishment when gripped the egg. His father had chuckled. “Surprise, huh? There is something magic about the eggs, because they always feel as cold as the white peaks in the Faymarsh Crags when the dragon-bound hand them around at a sifting. The cold means the baby dragon inside doesn’t want you. That’s how you tell it’s a real dragon’s egg.”
Dax’s mouth opened in unexpected confusion. The egg he held in his hand was not cold as ice but warm as a sun-bathed pebble on the beach. The leathery orb felt naturally comfortable nestled in the palm of his hand. Strangest of all, Dax sensed a feeling of welcoming friendship and acceptance. He almost said something, but holding the egg made him feel so good, he just stood there staring at it in surprise.
His father chuckled. “Legend has it that a dragon’s egg will warm up to welcome one of the dragon-bound, but it gives everyone else a cold hand.” His father paused a moment watching. “Now, put it back before you freeze a finger.”
Reluctantly Dax put the egg back in the chest. Dragon-bound? He had met one of the dragon-bound once. Maybe it was warm because it was her egg? She had been presented at court a year ago, but he had never seen the woman’s dragon. He would have remembered that!
That day in the treasure room with his father, he had known he had a connection to the egg. He had not wanted to let it go . . . but he had. Dax had never understood why he had not told his father the dragon’s egg felt warm in his hands. He should have asked his father right then to explain more, but he had thought only of the egg. His shoulders slumped. He had not asked, and now it was too late. Since that day, Dax had visited the egg on occasion, and, even though his father was no longer with him, each time he touched the tough, warm object, it made him smile.
Even though he was fleeing the castle for his life, Dax could not bear to leave the dragon’s egg behind. He picked it up, reveling in its welcome before he slipped it into his pack. He tied the strap down firmly. Now he felt better. The egg was in the right place . . . with him. Before he left, he had a second thought about money. He picked up a small purse of gold pieces and stuck a few silvers in his pocket just in case.
The passages became cooler and moister as he descended to the lowest level. The secret ways had several exits, but Dax chose the one on the west side, the ocean side and farthest from the city. It was the one least likely to be observed by prying eyes. All the exits were well hidden, but during the day, anyone could be nearby. This particular door opened onto a pebble beach. The beach was narrow and spray-wracked when the wind and tide were up, but it would be passable to a boy on foot. It was a long hike around the south shoreline of Adok, but eventually he would come round to the broader, sheltered beaches leading to the harbor docks.
At the door itself, he hesitated. The exits were one-way only. His father had shown him that. The rock gateway was balanced so you could pull it up and back with hand grips from the inside, but outside, in a narrow cleft in the mighty wall of rock, the doorway was not only invisible, but also immovable. Dax had tried to open the doorway from the outside while his father waited within. If there was some secret latch on the outside, his father did not know it. His father had said it was more likely that the builders intentionally made the exit one-way. Any hidden entrance would become a threat if the secret was breached.
Now it was time. Was he brave enough to go through the door, into the unknown? Dax thought of his father. What would he have done? His father had not had a chance to escape from treachery. Treachery had found him and killed him slowly in his bed. Dax looked back up the dark passageway. A bubble of wrath threatened to drain the color from his thoughts, but he fought it down. This was not the time. He stared at the stone door, his thoughts grim. “Mathilde.” He said her name out loud, and the sound echoed slightly in the dark. “Mathilde, I swear by the memory of my father and the rest of the Ambergriff line, I will be back, and you and those who helped you will pay for your crimes.”Nothing changed. The ground did not tremble from his mighty oath. His words died away, and only the faint drip of falling water remained. He had to leave the castle and the life he had known as a child and heir to the throne. He took hold of the handles and pulled. There was little resistance and only a soft grating of stone as the doorway swung up and back.
Daylight streamed in with the cool sea air. He looked out at the water for a time before he shouldered his pack. Outside, he let the door close behind him. He heard the solid sound of stone on stone as it shut, but he did not look back.
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