Royal & Piper #2
Light & Kingdom
In the capital of AhrenCairn, Evalena finally feels a powerful pull of LightForce and sets out after her niece, intending to take the conduit by any means necessary. But as palace guards suddenly start appearing in the Southlands, a suspicious Cal flees.
Quirin can’t believe he pledged to bring the usurped queen to the very court that sent him away. Even more, he can’t guarantee he isn’t leading her into more danger than they’re running from. But Cal doesn’t know who to trust, and she just might be the leverage Quirin needs to return to his king's service.
With Evalena’s men at their backs and a deadly mountain pass looming ahead, Quirin must safely guide Cal to her one chance at winning back her throne.
If they can survive the journey there first.
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Five Years Prior
Golden threads tore into his veins with such determined force, he was sure he would die of agony. His muscles spasmed then flamed as LightForce lanced through his blood, illuminating its path beneath his skin in unnatural golden hues. He writhed in pain from the blazing strands his king wielded, beads of perspiration sparkling against midnight skin as his monarch channeled power beyond what any man knew to be possible.
Hours ago, the boy strapped to the table had been a simple archer in the king’s army, an orphan, a ward of the Crown, with barely enough nobility in his blood to feel slight tremors of LightForce. He’d always been big for his size, so though he was but fourteen, he was already a soldier, and no one questioned it. Still, his presence had been unimportant beyond the gap he filled in the line, his name never uttered beyond the sparse praise of his captain and warm devotion of his sister. Yet the king had singled him out, a boy with little ties or title or inheritance, save the goodness of the kingdom that had raised him.
“I will not command you to accept,” the king had said in his usual precise tone, “as what we are about has never been done and may well result in disaster to you.”
The boy had been too awed to respond, humbled and grateful for the special notice from one as exalted as the king. He’d been a ward at the palace for several years but had never been given attention such as this.
“Should we succeed,” His Majesty continued, “your true name will remain unsung. Your new name will be uttered in naught more than a whisper of dread. You will be the only of your kind across the realms.”
The archer nodded mutely. He hadn’t been looking to escape his life, but as the king succinctly relayed his offer, the archer couldn’t un-know this opportunity to be more than he’d ever expected. He also couldn’t know what sort of bargain he’d blindly agreed to, not until well after it was too late to undo what his king had wrought. It wasn’t just the pain of transformation that would have him questioning if it was worth it, but the heartache of the solitary path he would walk as the only of his kind. How can any man know if a course runs true without seeing the entirety of his life at the moment of decision?
The archer was too young to consider much beyond the call to his monarch, so with the sense of duty his late father had ingrained within him, he answered with a nod.
The king hadn’t wasted any time following his agreement, immediately directing him to a sparse, unfinished room dug within the earthen bowels of the palace, leaving him to wait alone with his scattered, uninformed thoughts until dark.
His Majesty said little when he finally joined him, merely an instruction to lie flat on a raised slab and clench a leather strap between his teeth before unleashing an unimaginably intense concentration of LightForce from a conduit channeling the strength of two mighty kingdoms. The archer only had time to imagine that even a royal sailing the horizon of the Zephyrus Sea would surely feel the pull of such immense power unleashed. Then the LightForce seared into him.
Beyond the torment, beyond the tortuousness of a body being remade, dim notes of an unknown melody beckoned to him. He reached out and startled when his hand wrapped around a music note, then a second, then more, his fingers gripping the very form of sound as sharp edges cut into his skin and music soaked into his blood.
He awoke three days later in an unfamiliar bed, his body aching and his head muddled as to the passage of time. His last memory was of LightForce piercing a dank underground room and glowing music notes held aloft in his palms.
He wiggled his toes and shuffled his legs, finding each in working order, feeling tired but otherwise whole. He fluttered his fingers and frowned at an unexpected pull on his left hand. He squinted as he turned it over and only then noticed the deep scar cutting through the middle knuckle. He prodded the line of lighter skin, but it did not react. There was no blood, no stitches, no bruising to hint at its cause.
He examined the rest of his body and found white lines cutting all through his brown skin, small scars dashing in exclamation of the man they’d remade. He knew with certainty that something must be different, some change had occurred deep within his blood, though he had no guess as to what.
“Can you stand?”
The deep voice rumbled from a darkened corner of the room, and the former archer squinted toward the source. The king met his gaze and he slowly nodded.
He rose clumsily from the bed and dressed in the clothes left for him, a dark green uniform of sleeveless jerkin, pants, armbands, belt, and treated leather boots. He snagged his old archer’s cuffs and slipped them on as well, seeking the reassuring press of the small blades hidden inside. The king handed him a cloak the color of densely shaded forest, his majesty’s own billowing out ominously as he led the way from the room. Two of his majesty’s guards fell into step behind them as they crossed the doorway. The boy tried not to think about their penetrating stares at his back.
He was burning with questions but didn’t dare speak. Not least because, as a young archer, he was used to being ignored by the king’s personal guard who’d deemed him inferior. Although the guards didn’t say a word to him, he had a sense they weren’t quite looking down on him that day.
The boy glanced quickly behind him when he caught the brief trilling of a musical note. Only the stoic guards were behind him. He wanted to stop and listen, to know the cause of this sound both new yet somehow known, but the king was walking swiftly, and he rushed to catch up, still unsteady after waking.
They crossed the palace grounds toward the barracks, but instead of going into the bunks or training grounds, the king took a sharp turn and led the way down steep, darkened steps. The king turned up his palm and a faint halo of light rippled above his fingertips. Twice more the former archer looked over his shoulder, hearing the echo of a musical refrain, but each time found nothing but the king’s men.
They passed several guards as they silently walked the stone corridors eerily lit by the king’s light halo and the flickering of intermittent torches. A place most in the kingdom knew existed and fervently prayed to avoid. Not a home for traitors but a waystation, as none lived long after conviction.
Two guards stationed at the iron gate leading to the holding cells hastened to open them when they saw who drew near. The king snapped a command mid-stride, only stopping when they reached a small, foreboding, square room. The chill the boy felt was not merely from the lack of heat so deep underground.
The guards from the palace remained outside the door, so the former archer was alone once more with his king. His Majesty held out a conical object, finely carved from the brown and ivory antlers of a majestic elk of ValDessa. The former archer examined the object, a surging, unseen current vibrating against his palm. He tried not to squirm under the heavy weight of the king’s gaze upon his confused brow. A pipe?
“Music weaves the truth of the soul,” the king explained. “Play and see.”
The boy’s eyes widened, but before he could move, a struggling prisoner was dragged in. He was chained to a ring at the center of the floor, kicked to kneeling, then left with the king and the boy.
The king’s light halo was the only light, and it chased deep shadows along the walls and into each corner of the room. The boy tried hard not to think about the true purpose of a room such as this, knowing the dark smudges on the stone floor were not mere tricks of the light.
The boy could only make out small details of the man who had been brought in. He was dressed in worn tunic and trousers, stained to a color found only in prisons. His hair was unkempt and shaggy and there was a distinctly foul odor about him.
The king studied the chained man, eyes bottomless and hardened beyond pity.
“Traitor. Coward. Murderer.”
The harsh words echoed ominously between the stone walls, a death knell for the man who’d earned them.
“Your Majesty—” the criminal began.
“Silence!” the king hissed menacingly. “The court has judged you guilty of murder, and any who dare murder a citizen under my care is a traitor to the kingdom I rule.”
A whimper escaped the trembling man.
The king nodded toward the pipe in the former archer’s hand. “Be my justice.”
The former archer hesitantly raised the pipe to his lips and slowly exhaled the first few notes of a melody, one of the few he knew. The scar on his knuckle burned. The pipe glowed golden as it released the now familiar lancing gilded threads. He felt keenly the twangs and twists of each one as they rose, each new scar along his body reverberating from the sound he called forth. He stopped abruptly, dismayed, confused.
“Play,” the king growled.
The boy resumed the music. Of its own, the song became one he didn’t know, yet still he wove more notes into the pipe, expanding the tune so it stretched beyond its ivory vessel and took shape as the music he’d heard call to him just three days before. His hands held the notes of music and threaded them in and out of the pipe as though it was a loom and the melody the tapestry it designed.
He almost silenced the pipe when glowing strands of LightForce rose from the body of the condemned man, no doubt called forth by the playing of his pipe. The strands gave shape to the music of his soul, the melody at first ablaze with the light of care, duty, and honor before turning tainted and jagged by greed and the lengths gone to preserve it.
The boy spared a glance at his king. His monarch watched the scene unfold intently, though not without an occasional shudder he couldn’t hide. Abruptly, the boy began to see the shape of the king’s melody, a crescendo of notes thunderous and sure. The music strained toward him, but he clumsily pushed it away, not allowing any of its notes to rest upon his hands. Still, the king choked, eyes flicking toward the archer who hurriedly refocused on the convict.
The LightForce of the pipe laced with the LightForce of the condemned, the music notes ready for him to pluck from the air as before. With glowing hands, he took the melody from eyes, ears, tips of fingers and toes, pulling, yanking, snatching the notes from the tether of the man’s mortal frame until they’d been withdrawn completely.
The body went limp and fell over; the onetime archer stopped his tune.
The king’s breathing sounded short as he bent to feel at the man’s neck. He stood and turned to his new assassin with a short nod. Dead.
The king’s knock on the door signaled the guards to carry the corpse away. His Majesty studied the shaken boy, scarred hand tightly clutching the lethal pipe.
“So, we have succeeded,” His Majesty said.
“Why are we here alone if you are king and I your justice?” the boy asked.
“Because it is more difficult to turn a man into a shadow once he is seen.”
The boy had little idea of what the king spoke but was too overwhelmed to question further. He tried to hand back the pipe but the king shook his head.
“It is bound to you,” he said. “Where can you keep it?”
The young man stared at the instrument, uncertain, his mind reeling as he sought to make sense of what had occurred. But as the king was watching expectantly, he looked around the small room even though he knew the solution wasn’t there. The pipe couldn’t be kept on his person, that much he was sure, as the risks it would invite were too many. Once he became known, were he to be recognized, there was no knowing what would result if someone acted a fool. He looked up long enough to dare meet his king’s eyes, but the question remained in them.
He examined the pipe, thinking on the music he’d played, a song he’d never known which had spilled out all the same. As he remembered, a dim melody tickled the back of his mind and, without considering what it meant, relying on the little he’d seen and felt and sensed so far, he grabbed at the air before him, his hands reaching instinctively for the notes that called to him.
He saw then what had been created with their passage through the air, his hand disappearing into a rift tucked into the folds. He glanced toward his king, though his gaze hadn’t wavered, and he wondered then if his great monarch could see it, that invisible pocket of air holding the strains of music known and unknown to man. He raised his hand in wonder and placed the pipe in a wreath of dancing notes. When he removed his hand, the air closed over it, hiding the pipe within. But the assassin could sense it acutely, even as he took a step right, then left, then twice right and twice left again, he knew it followed him in that sacred space of sound.
He spun suddenly and slashed at the air, his fingers grazing the ivory of his pipe. He would practice that motion over and over until no position would keep him from grabbing it neatly, whether still or in motion.
He stopped and looked toward his king, whose briefly worried expression was being replaced by a predatory smile.
“You should not exist,” the king’s deep voice rumbled over him. “And yet I have created you.”
And in that creation, a boy of fourteen was aged into a man by what he heard in the gradations of truth on a condemned man’s soul. The world he’d always known was now overflowing with music, symphonies and crescendos, disharmonies and discordances. In time, he would learn to quiet the pervasive music, to focus on the songs he needed to find. For now, the music was deafening, and only he could hear it.
He remained silent, terrified of the power he now commanded with a pipe and twitching fingers that only wanted to pluck it back from the air and play again. The large scar on his knuckle burned and burned and burned.
“You are no longer man but myth, that unexplained tingle of something amiss, that knowing of watchful eyes prickling the back of the neck.” The king paused and let the fullness of his words sink in, sizing up his silent creation. “I have created the unique channel of your LightForce, and so it shall be studied and honed and devoted to my service.”
“As you say, so shall it be,” the assassin promised, kneeling before his monarch, resigned, accepting, apprehensive of what his life would become.
The king touched his fingertips to his subject’s forehead in acceptance of his submission, forging will to will, LightForce to LightForce.
“As you say, so shall it be,” he echoed, voice void of mercy or regret for the one he’d created to this lonely path and for those who would fall to him.
So was formed the Piper of HameLonn in secret and shadows, a lethal melody unleashed to stalk the dark in search of truths hidden deep within men’s souls.