Gambit of the Glass Crowns: Vol. I of epic fantasy The Sundered Kingdoms Trilogy (6 page)

BOOK: Gambit of the Glass Crowns: Vol. I of epic fantasy The Sundered Kingdoms Trilogy
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Connor collapsed onto the mattress. He wrapped his arms around the bolster and buried his face, inhaling the soft vanilla aroma of the maiden’s straw within. The din of the crowd in the main hall clamored up the stairs to his quarters.

“I should make an appearance,” he whispered.

He shivered and rolled onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. The large tapestries covering the window did little to keep the noise out of the room. He watched the glow from the rushlight dance upon the ceiling, casting shadows through the rafters. His gaze travelled down the wall, following the light across the gold thread woven into images of a hunt, bringing the entire scene to life.

He closed his eyes and tried to block out the clamor from the event by pulling the linen blankets and the skins over his head. Despite the light, summer deer skins having been replaced with a thick, bear fur for the cooler seasons, it did little to muffle the ruckus from outside.

Connor shifted his feet toward the copper warmer tucked into the furs at the foot of his bed. He did not care to fetch a servant to stoke the hearth, so he would have to be satisfied with what embers remained.

He allowed only the top of his head to emerge from beneath the blankets. The rushlight burned down to the iron stand in which it was placed at some point during his burrowing. He reached for the wooden box under the bedside table and felt around for a remaining rush.

A knock came from the door, but he did not move, hoping that whoever stood on the other side would go away. Another rapid succession of three knocks. Sighing, he sat up in bed and shoved the blankets away, certain his uncle had sent for him to attend the banquet.

He grabbed the door handle and pulled it open with a lurch.

“Hello, Connor.”

“Ceridwen?”

Even she was dressed differently for the clansmeet.

On another day, the length of her auburn hair would have framed her face with only two small braids from her brow. But today, she wore it in long plaits, fastened with an ornamental golden hairpin. No doubt a gift from his uncle to impress the nobles‌—‌she did not normally wear jewelry.

Connor stepped aside as Ceridwen entered the room.

“Why have you cloistered yourself away in your quarters and not attended the banquet?”

“Did my uncle send you to fetch me?”

“No. I worried when I did not see you.”

“Worried?”

“There is talk of strange folk in the castle.”

“Strange folk? Whom?”

“One of the scullery maids said she witnessed someone lurking in the hallway that leads to the gallery before the clansmeet.”

“Oh?” He looked away from her and shut the door. “I had not heard anything‌—”

“I told her it was nothing to fret over…‌just some boy whose curiosity got the best of him.”

Connor saw the gleam in Ceridwen’s eye. She knew.

“Your uncle would not appreciate you eavesdropping on the clansmeet. You need to remember such actions reflect badly upon him.”

“I was not the only‌—” Connor paused, not wishing to implicate Gawain. “Yes, Ceridwen, you are right, of course.”

“I brought you the texts you wanted.” Ceridwen handed Connor a book of vellum, bound in goatskin leather. “Why have you locked yourself away? I would think you to enjoy the revelry of the banquet. It is certainly something different from the mundane life of which you complain so frequently. At the very least, I would think you would want to see your brother.”

“I saw him earlier, before the clansmeet. You are right though, I should go see him, if only to make an appearance at the banquet. But, I am just so tired.”

“Are you feeling all right? Or, does this have something to do with the king’s engagement?”

“No. I had not expected it‌—‌the proclamation. Surely, I thought he would have informed me beforehand. I am most confused at his decision to once again marry.”

“Connor, you must know that it is not passion that dictates royal marriage, but the utmost of practicality. Your uncle has no son, leaving your brother his heir by blood. While the citizens of Helygen hold their loyalties to their duke, those of Cærwyn may not follow the duke of another province so easily‌—‌despite your brother having proved Helygen’s loyalty to the crown for the good of all. Or…‌did you have some wish to sit upon the throne of the high king?”

“Certainly not!” Connor scoffed. “The mere thought of me sitting on the seat of the king‌—‌can you truly see me wearing the crown, Ceridwen?”

“Well, no, I suppose not. Although, one could argue that your lack of ambition for the throne is what would make you the best choice for the seat. Or, would you leave the fate of the kingdom to the wolves?”

Connor crossed his arms. “My brother has no ambitions for the throne, so let him have it, not I.”

Ceridwen motioned toward the hall. “Come, let us walk.”

Connor threw his cloak around his shoulders, pinning it with a silver clasp. He followed Ceridwen down the corridor to the back staircase in order to avoid the crowd. He flinched when he heard the rambunctious lot as the two of them made their way out into the gardens at the foot of Connor’s room.

The torches had recently been lit in the garden walls, illuminating the grounds. The garden remained separate from the central courtyard in front of the castle by a high wall with only a single, gated doorway. With the exception of the apple trees still bearing fruit, the garden had withered and left the area looking far barer than it would appear in the warmer seasons. These were Connor’s trees and not part of the main orchard, which had been harvested some weeks prior.

The shriveled herbs in the plot against the wall would replenish in the spring, and some of the more hearty plants would weather the winter, as the garden’s walls protected them from the stronger winds. But he still lamented the loss of so much hard work tending the garden.

The mullein stalks were high, now in their second year. He harvested the leaves at the peak of ripeness and hung them in the drying house on the far wall of the garden. They would be used to make teas throughout the season to ward off sickness. In two plots on either side of the mullein, Connor planted common chickweed several weeks before, the only plant in the garden that flourished in the cool autumn and survived even the harshest winter. He plucked off a sprig and popped it into his mouth. Succulent and sweet in autumn, it would hold a delicate flavor in the new year.

The guards changed shift atop the walls of the garden, keeping watch out over the parapets. Connor could see several guards in the gate house, high above the grounds. Aside from them, Connor and Ceridwen were enclosed in the privacy of the garden‌—‌a much-needed relief.

Ceridwen sat on the small, wooden bench at the edge of one of the paths separating the gardens into plots. Connor joined her. Through the iron bars of the gate, he viewed the main courtyard, and the guests who enjoyed themselves in their raucous manner. Thankfully, they were far enough away that their noise was minimal.

Then, a quiet calm filled the area.

Connor’s entire body straightened in awe as Rhiannon appeared in the far end of the main courtyard, a regal aura surrounding her every ethereal step as she and her female companions drifted across the ground to the guest quarters. Her sleeveless gossamer robe of dark violet, atop layers of deep blue, flowed in the wind. The light of the torches bounced off her golden belt buckle, seated just above her hips, as well as the spiraled torque around her neck.

“Connor, I did not ask you to join me merely to leave your room.” Ceridwen broke the silence. “There are matters I wish to discuss with you.”

“Which matters?”

“When the Lady and her company leave for Arlais, I am to travel back with them.”

“You are leaving Cærwyn?” Connor felt the corners of his mouth droop.

“Yes. My time at the castle has come to an end. You are no longer a bairn, and your brother has not been in my care for some time. It has been a decade since I arrived in Cærwyn…‌I long for the forest. I have spent so much of my time away from Arlais.”

Connor could not bring himself to look at Ceridwen. Has she even been happy here? She never complained, but then again, he never asked.

“Do not think I have not enjoyed my time here.”

Connor knew she, once again, delved into his mind.

“I did not think there would be a time you left the castle.” Connor felt the hot tears form and turned away to look at the gate.

First his mother, now Ceridwen. Must they all leave him?

“Do not despair.” She placed her hand upon his shoulder.

Connor could no longer hold back his tears and turned to her. He felt like that child from many years ago, clinging to her skirts, wanting to be held. It was clear she had made her decision, and nothing he would say could change her mind. He embraced her, resting his head on her shoulder.

“This sadness is not befitting one so young.” Ceridwen brushed his head with her hand. “Spend your days in happiness, lying in the pasture to watch the blue ponies prancing in the sky. Come now, dry your eyes.”

Connor remembered joyous trips with Ceridwen in the springtime of his childhood. They wandered throughout the castle fields to learn about the plants that bloomed heartily. They would often take food, and Ceridwen would spread out her mantle upon the grass for them to lie on while they ate, looking up at the sky and pointing out the familiarly-shaped clouds.

“Yes.” Connor wiped his eyes with his cloak. “It would not be proper for the nephew of the high king to be seen weeping like a maiden.”

“Do you know him?” Ceridwen looked over to the gated entrance which separated the garden from the central courtyard.

Gawain bowed his head to Connor and raised his fist to his chest in salutation. He stood out in the main grounds, before one of the large trestle tables.

Connor nodded. “We met briefly before the clansmeet, during the attack.”

“He is the son of Duke Gweliwch, is he not?”

“You know of him?”

“I knew his mother.”

“Oh?” Connor looked back to Gawain, who had since ventured toward the gate to the garden.

“But that was many years ago.”

Connor waved Gawain forward. The guard stepped aside and let Gawain pass before he closed the iron gate behind him and once again took his post.

Connor and Ceridwen stood as Gawain paused to give a short, courteous bow.

“It is good to see you again, Dáire.”

Connor saw surprise spring to Gawain’s face. Dáire?

“It is good to see you as well, Lady.” Gawain bowed once more, breaking his pause.

Ceridwen stepped toward him. “You have much of your mother in your features.”

Connor suddenly felt as though he was the intruder. Had she been his nursemaid too? She had been at the castle for over ten years now. If she was to have been his nursemaid, he must be several years older than he looked.

“I will let the two of you be. I have much to do before I take my leave.” She grazed Connor’s shoulder with her fingers as she passed.

He pushed the bittersweet sadness to the back of his mind as he watched her disappear into the castle.

“I have not seen a garden such as this before,” said Gawain. “We certainly do not possess gardens like this in Gweliwch. I do not think the terrain would allow for such. It is too rocky and cold.”

“It is best admired in the early weeks of summer when everything is in bloom‌—” Connor was interrupted by the sound of laughter out in the main grounds.

Gawain chuckled. “The ale flows most freely, it would seem.”

“Come, the drying house will be quiet‌—‌and far warmer.”

When Connor opened the door to the drying house, the spicy-sweet smell of herbs wafted over them.

“Wait here for a moment.”

Connor shuffled through the dark room to the hearth on the far wall. Petals and leaves crunched under his boots, having fallen from the dried flowers and herbs in the rafters. He brushed a thin layer of dust from the top of the crockery on the shelf, lifted the lid from the largest one and removed a tallow candle.

He took it to Gawain. “Light the torch outside, please.”

Gawain did as he was asked. Candle lit, he followed Connor back into the room.

“I apologize for the dust.” Connor took his sleeve and ran it along the bench on one side of the table, wiping away the coating of petals, powders, and other unknown remnants of herbs in an effort to provide Gawain a clean seat.

“I have not been in the drying house for some time,” he called over his shoulder. “Not since I harvested the mullein leaves.” He pointed in a vague direction to a row of bundles hanging from the rafter in the corner. “It has been even a longer time since anyone has joined me here. Do come in from the chill. I will only be a moment.”

Connor knelt before the hearth, noticing by the light of the tallow candle how much ash still remained on the floor.

Barely bothering to look, he reached for the broom against the hearth stone. With a few gentle taps, he knocked the cobwebs from the willow bristles before sweeping the ash to the sides.

The hearth floor clear, Connor grabbed a handful of twigs from the basket on the floor and tossed them into the center of the hearth. He motioned Gawain forward and took the candle from him, lighting the kindling. Once the twigs were fully alight, Connor placed a log atop the blooming flames.

BOOK: Gambit of the Glass Crowns: Vol. I of epic fantasy The Sundered Kingdoms Trilogy
12.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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