Echoes of the Crown by S McPherson

Chapter One

The door flew open with a bang. I bolted upright and hurried to hide Ash beneath the velvet blanket. He grunted and I nudged him to be quiet. He was supposed to be standing guard outside my door, not laying in my bed trailing kisses down my stomach.

Someone hissed, ‘Get up!’ Their voice was strained and panicked.

In the dark, I fumbled out of bed, even as Ash tried to haul me back. I tugged on my dress that was crumpled on the floor and rummaged for my crown. ‘What is it?’

My madria drew nearer and I straightened to block her view of Ash in the dim light from the candle she carried. If anyone found him here, all hell would break loose. But when she finally stopped in front of me, I could tell from her haunted expression that hell had already come. Her brown eyes were wide; her cheeks tracked with tears.

‘Quickly,’ she gasped. Fear was thick in her tone. ‘The queen is dead and enemies are at our door.’

The ground pitched beneath me and I steadied myself against a bedpost. Her words clanged through me louder than the toll of temple bells. My mother had been murdered. Now chaos reigned instead.

Ash shoved me into the chambermaid’s arms. I hadn’t noticed him move.

‘Go with the madria!’ he barked.

Before I could argue, the trembling woman grasped my hand and yanked me towards the corridor. Ash stayed behind, reattaching his armour.

I swivelled to face him. ‘Where are you going?’ But I already knew.

His answering grin was a dark slash across his face; his green eyes fierce. ‘To do something reckless.’

Looping his sword through his weapons belt, Ash dragged me towards him and planted a chaste kiss on my lips. The madria tried to smother her gasp.

‘Be safe,’ he whispered, then ran from the room.

I wanted to go after him, to fight at his side. But the madria urged, ‘Come, Sovereign!’ and reluctantly, I followed.

Her task was to get me to the royal fort across the Emberelle bridge. There, we could regroup and strategize our next move—how to take back the kingdom. How to reclaim the throne. I couldn’t afford to go missing, not now that my mother had fallen. Tears stung my eyes but I took a breath and blinked them away. My mother always told me there would be times when sorrow had to make way for strength. Now was such a time.

With the madria at my side, I tore down the palace corridors. The red brick walls trembled. Overhead, candles swung precariously in chandeliers and dust rained down. Faces of my family passed me in the portraits that had once hung proud on the walls but were now slanted and slashed. My stomach turned, but I didn’t slow; didn’t let grief grip me. We ran on, avoiding the hallways with battle sounds and blazing enchantments; where the bitter tang of blood soaked the air. I couldn’t help wondering how much of that blood was my mother’s.

The madria puffed beside me. Her cheeks were flushed and her bonnet askew on top of her hair of vines and leaves. She was terrified, and rightly so. This was the job of soldiers, not a chambermaid—a madria. But clearly, they had thought we would win this. Moments ago, she had simply been tasked with the job of finding me—the young naïve princess of Noraquros—and bringing me to safety whilst the battle played out, but in that time, I had become her Queen. A queen on the edge of ruin.

The star-encrusted crown I wore bounced persistently on my head and, in that moment, I longed to rip it off, suddenly burdened by its weight. By what it stood for and the demands it brought. But I didn’t. The crown had belonged to my mother; a gift from Father when she became his princess, and soon, it might be all I had left of her.

I swallowed the burn of sadness in my throat. ‘Who did this?’

The madria’s troubled gaze darted in my direction. ‘Your uncle, Sovereign. Cyclonus of Blitz Haven.’

My gut turned faster than we turned a corner and thundered into another hallway. I barely noticed the royal blue carpet that was crumpled and stained dark by blood, bunched around the bodies of fallen guards. My uncle had done this, my mother’s own brother.

I knew he’d hated her being in power. Ever since Father left, my uncle had tried to rule through his sister. But Mother never gave in to his demands. Instead, she heeded mine and my desire for change. My uncle was a fool who craved the tyranny of the Old Ways. He believed in first-borns being sacrificed, the recruitment of mortal slaves and in other archaic rules to allegedly appease the Gods. But I’d showed him he was wrong, and that there were other ways. I thought he’d listened. That he’d understood.

I pushed back my dark hair that wafted in my face as we skidded into another red brick corridor littered with the dead.

‘How did he kill her?’ How did he kill any of them? My mother, like all of us, was immortal and only one type of weapon held the power to take our lives. ‘I thought the Immortal Blades were destroyed.’ All, except one that my father apparently hid where no one would find it.

The madria sighed. ‘We all thought so, Sovereign.’

I drew in a breath and choked down a sob. I could mourn when this was over. When Flame Breeders weren’t setting the world on fire and when my uncle wasn’t hunting me like a creature of the night.

To run faster, I hiked up the lilac lace of my swooping gown. ‘Where’s Haze?’ I asked as I raced ahead.

The madria clutched her side, already breathless. ‘Be at ease, Sovereign. Guards have been sent to recover the prince.’

Her words comforted me but her speed did not. Sweat beaded on her brow and her golden skin had turned pale. Her pace had slowed where mine had doubled. I felt like I could run for moons. I supposed I had my father to thank for that. When we were younger, he’d insisted that my brother and I train every day. Uncle Cyclonus had often said there was no need for royal heirs to learn the arts of combat but Father had disagreed. He’d always said that the strength of the body made the strength of the mind and the strength of the mind made the kingdom.

Now my uncle thought his mind was strong enough to take it. Pah! My dark hair whipped in a gust of wind that my power conjured and there was the swell of a storm in my soul. I clamped it down. For now, I had to stay focused; had to find my brother. Then I could return to save the kingdom. Then I could set my power free.

‘This way.’ The chambermaid tugged me down a servant’s passage.

It was narrow and dark, save for a few burning torches in brass brackets. I hissed when my thumb caught on one of the many thorns that dotted her hand and she dipped her head in apology. I waved her off. Earth Weavers like her were known to prickle and thorn when frightened.

A guttural roar raged beyond the wall nearest us and I stopped and pressed my ear to the stone as if that would help me see through it. From the other side, came the clash of steel and startled shouts.

‘Find the princess!’ someone bellowed.

Deep pink lightning crackled at my fingertips and the urge to march in there hollering “Looking for me?” was overwhelming. As if she read my mind, the madria balked and pulled me along. It was her duty to see me out of the palace and I’d let her do it if only to make sure that my brother was safe.

She steered us down another passageway thick with the musk of rot. I ducked to avoid scraping my head on the damp stone ceiling. Darkness swallowed us. The sound of her heavy breathing was the only thing to guide me. They rasped with the pound of our feet.

As we ran, my thoughts drifted to Ash; to where he could be and what he was facing. A knot tangled in my gut but I sucked in a breath to unravel it. I couldn’t add my concern for him to the grief and anger that already roiled inside me and threatened to bring me to my knees.

At the end of the passage, an oak wood door was framed and crossed with thick tethered vines. I could vaguely make it out through the wisps of moonlight that snaked through the fine gaps in the wood. On the other side, barbaric sounds of battle raged.

‘I can’t see,’ my madria grumbled once we reached the door.

I stepped ahead, inhaled deeply and unleashed just a sliver of the tempest within. Magenta bolts of lightning flickered in my hair and the more I focused, the brighter they became.

Using the added light, the madria weaved her own magic to command the earth. Palms raised, she guided the weighted vines that anchored down the door and pulled them apart. As she worked, a single white flower bloomed on her cheek. As her magic continued to grow, the petals unfurled to reveal a soft yellow centre. I looked away. The flower seemed too delicate, too beautiful for this wretched night.

At last, the vines fell away with a heavy thump and the Earth Weaver cleaved the door in two. She didn’t stop to mend it as we barrelled out. There was no point; the enemy was already inside.

We raced out into a harrowing storm, one conjured by the Storm Brewers of Blitz Haven—those with powers like mine. The air was bitter cold; made colder by the palace’s enchantments. Rain pattered down and fog clung to everything.

Panting, the madria dragged me up a short set of steps and into the gardens. Like every night, frost coated the palace grounds; a stretch of snow dappled trees and statues.

The palace stood proud in the centre of it all. It was an impressive dark fortress of steepled towers and gleaming verandas. But tonight, soldiers were gathered at the palace doors and a band of Storm Brewers stood behind them. The wind they conjured howled like a brutal beast and those with the gift caused vibrant bolts of lightning to strike against the earth; to take down the traitors that dared to advance.

‘Where’s my brother?’

‘This way.’

The madria raced towards the open gate of the palace grounds. On a normal night, the glistening gate was impenetrable but somehow, tonight, the diamond-rock was rent in two and swung open on busted hinges. Terror ripped through me. I snatched my hand from hers and reeled to a stop.

‘Where’s my brother?’

‘Nice try!’ Someone roared; their voice echoed thunder through the night.

My heart skipped. ‘Haze.’

Recognising my brother’s voice, I hurtled passed the madria and charged through the gates. To where the battle was most fierce and where, some distance away, my brother’s power surged.

‘Haze!’

My brother swivelled and I was relieved to find him flanked between my friend, Ayre and, his guard, Tydon. Haze’s grey eyes were fierce when they found mine in the sea of storming guards, but a glimmer of relief rippled in them. He dipped his head then turned back to defend our home.

His dark hair sparked with blue lightning and he directed the strength of his staggering blaze at the palace walls; at all those who stood between him and my uncle. The guards beside him were just as furious.

‘Follow me!’ I called to my madria and took off towards Haze and the others.

It was an effort to stay upright. Rain hammered down and slicked the glass bridges that reached between the territories; Blitz Haven, Emberelle, River Aqua; and all lands of Noraquros that homed those of different powers.

How many of them had turned against us now? How many had danced in the halls of our home yet plotted destruction at our backs? Lost in thoughts of reaching Haze and Ayre, and consumed by the siege, I didn’t register the gasping gurgle of my chambermaid until it was too late. Until her body hit the ground and something sharp and thin punctured my neck. I didn’t recognise the scent of poison I’d been injected with but I felt it burn in my blood. Thick arms banded around my waist, strapped my arms at my sides, then I was hoisted off my feet and my captor ran.