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by GL Roberts
It is to be their last summer of freedom. When it’s over Thalynder will not be able to escape her duties as Princess of the Realm. Shieldmaiden Bryn will watch her childhood friend marry and rule, her own words of love forever silenced.
Before their predetermined fate overtakes them, however, one last quest to please the Druids and the King sends Bryn, Thalynder, a dragon, and a Knight on a journey across The Realm That Touches Two Seas in an adventure perilous to their lives—and their hearts.
GCLS Goldie Awards
Shieldmaiden Book 1: Quest for the Jewel — Finalist, Young Adult.
King Heardred heard the distant voices on the wind—an odd, unfamiliar sound that caused his breath to catch in his throat. A strange light glowed over the horizon where light should not shine. The sun does not rise in the west, he reminded himself; this must be an aberration. He dismissed the strange glow as another of the surreal lights that often lit up the skies of the far north and turned back to watch the boats. The foreboding wind behind him, the king watched as another sack of provisions was loaded onto one of the long boats.
Götaland will lose a favored son, he thought, and he did not understand how that was possible. King Heardred’s people had not met resistance from the Albans for centuries. But Helstun was long overdue from the raiding trip to Alban and the families of the men that went west over the sea with his son wanted answers. They looked to their king for an explanation.
Legend told of the coming of a Druid warrior, and even though the thought made the king sneer, it also made him take pause. No Druid myth—or curse—could stop him from finding out what had happened to his son. No legend would be able to stop his fury if his son was dead. He would avenge his son’s death to the last man, woman and child who inhabited the mystic, Druid-infested island.
Taken from the ancient texts of the Clann of Brae Writings and Teachings, as set down by the Arch Druid of Brae:
The pact between dragonkind and humankind, long a treasured and cherished union, began eons before the words were carved into the sacred stones or inked onto the ancient parchments. Once a union of equals, over the centuries the pact was gradually refashioned—to the continuing detriment of dragonkind—and the tenuous thread that held the two together began to slowly fray.
Bound to the ancient ways by honor, dragonkind adapted to the changing ways of humankind, albeit with reluctance. Obedience to the pact was the duty of every dragon. It had been so since humans had crouched behind rocks and dragons watched over them from both the earth and stars. Dragons that had remained true and pure of heart and thought were granted a spot in the night sky from which to spend eternity looking down upon their earthbound charges. Angels with hearts as big as their bodies, they lit up the night with a light from within their souls, causing the sky to blaze with nobility.
The magical relationship between a female dragon, directly descended from the first dragon to leave the stars and come to earth, and a Druid princess, lies at the heart of this story and is the reason that it can be told.
Royal celebrations always took on an air of urgency, from the moment they were declared to the moment they took place, right until the last guests were safely sent on their way afterward. All court attendants assumed a multitude of duties on such occasions: Waiting ladies became decorators, stable boys became porters, even nursemaids took on additional chores. No one was spared. Waiting Lady Bryn spent countless hours preparing for the celebration by helping her princess choose a dress, decide on a hairstyle, determine the color of rose petals to be used in the courtyard, and select the food to have on the table that would please both the princess and her guests.
“Will you not take a bite?” a young kitchen servant asked Bryn when she came into the kitchen. In Bryn’s hand were a piece of parchment and a small stick of colored wax.
“A piece of fruit would be good,” Bryn replied. “Have the melons from the south county arrived?” Bryn held the stick of wax over the word melon on the parchment.
“Yes,” the young man replied.
Bryn rubbed the wax over the word. “One less item to worry about,” she said and smiled at the young man as he handed her an apple. “Thank you, Pilan.” Bryn yawned and Pilan chuckled.
“I’ve been catching myself sleeping standing up,” Bryn said. “Perhaps a short nap would be in order.”
“For a Waiting Lady you work too hard,” Pilan said.
“Ah, but think of the rewards,” Bryn said, touching Pilan’s arm. “The Princess Thalynder is worth every effort. Her smile alone could melt the winter snows.”
“True, Lady Bryn. True indeed.”
“Just Bryn, my friend. I may be a Waiting Lady, but I remain a Druid like you, and we both know we have no titles unless given to us by our elders.”
“You are a lady in my eyes,” Pilan said and turned back to his own work preparing food for the great feast.
Bryn decided that what little sleep might come to her would be obtained in the antechamber of the rooms of Her Highness the Princess Thalynder. From there she could anticipate the princess’s needs—as she had been doing for nearly seventeen years—and be one step ahead of the rest of the frayed staff. For Bryn, the upcoming celebration was one she and the princess had been discussing for six months. It was an important date and, if all went according to plan, a new beginning for both her and the princess. Accordingly, Bryn informed her parents that she would henceforth be sleeping in the keep to be closer to Her Highness. Bryn moved out of her parents’ warm and comfortable home and into the fortress of King Thamen and his daughter.
On the day she turned twenty—the date that confirmed her loss of childhood to the rest of the realm—Princess Thalynder rose early and dressed in her riding clothes. She pulled the dark green stockings up over her knees and tied the ribbons around her legs to keep the stockings in place. She added a dark green underdress over the stockings. She did not want to wake anyone to lace up the back of her dress so Thalynder chose an overdress that tied in the front. She slipped on her ankle-high deerskin boots, grabbed her cloak, and left her room. Walking quietly through the inner rooms, she managed not to wake the other occupants. Unbeknownst to the princess, Bryn was already awake and tending to the day’s events.
Bryn heard footsteps in the inner sanctum and hurried to peer around a wall. She quickly drew back when she saw it was Princess Thalynder walking toward the outer yard. Bryn quietly followed the princess out to the garden where the dragon slept.
As Thalynder neared the bower that marked the entrance to the dragon garden, Bryn moved to the trees and waited. She knew her presence would not go unnoticed—the princess’s dragon had superior senses—but she didn’t want to intrude on this special moment between the princess and her companion. Bryn sat down on the soft, damp grass with her back against a tree where she could watch and listen as Thalynder greeted her dragon in the early morning light.
“Are you awake?” the princess asked. The dragon was still, her head resting on her forearm and her tail curled up under her back legs, much the way the cat in the halls of the keep slept.
“I am, Princess,” the dragon replied.
“Today I am of age, Meydra.” Thalynder turned her face toward the eastern horizon in anticipation of the sun and closed her eyes.
“You are,” Meydra replied.
“After today, my father will expect me to wed,” Thalynder said. She opened her eyes and placed her hand on Meydra’s forehead. “I do not wish to wed.”
“What do you wish, Princess?” Meydra asked.
“I wish to find true love,” Thalynder said. “On this day when all childhood is shed, I have only one wish: to find a true love. How can I be so selfish?”
“It is not selfish to want to find a partner with whom to share your life,” Meydra said and rose to a sitting position. “I too desire to find a mate.”
“On this, the anniversary of my birth, I ask you, faithful Dragon Companion, to help me realize this dream.” Thalynder wiped a single tear from her cheek. “It is known by all that dragons not only are born in truth but also can sense truth in the hearts of others. Help me find my true love, Meydra. In return, I will aid you in your search for a mate that is worthy of your love. We will make this our quest.”
“If that is truly what you desire above all else, that will be my gift,” Meydra said, bowing her head before Thalynder. Thalynder rubbed the dragon’s head between her ears, causing Meydra to murmur softly.
“Come, take me to the hill.” The princess grabbed the rope around Meydra’s neck and climbed onto her back. “I wish to see the sun rise from the highest spot in the realm.”
Meydra waited until the princess was secure on her back before standing up and walking out from under the trees. Bryn stood up and ducked behind the tree, and felt Meydra’s tail brush the hem of her dress. She smiled and watched as the dragon lifted off the ground with an effortless beat of her wings and rose above the trees. Once they were out of sight, Bryn ran back to the keep, her bare feet sure and swift on the well-worn path.
Bryn of the Brae, daughter of Brymender and Arlendyl—Druid Elders of the Clann Brae—and attendant to the princess, left the cover of the trees and walked quickly back to the keep. Her thoughts whirled around Thalynder’s words: my father will expect me to wed. Bryn knew Thalynder was expected to marry a prince or other noble-born man to secure the realm and continue the line. If only the realm felt as the Druids did about love and marriage, Bryn thought. Bryn believed that love was love, no matter where or how or who was involved. Love was not private or reserved, it was meant to be shared, open and celebrated. The realm of King Thamen planned and strategized over love and in the end, marriages were arranged and love was sometimes lost. For Thalynder to wish to find true love meant she understood what her fate would be if left in her father’s hands. Bryn shook her head.
Since Princess Thalynder’s fourth year, Bryn had been her constant companion. She was a scant six months older than the princess. Over the years, the two girls had become loyal friends. The princess had no other siblings and was hard on court-appointed attendants, but Bryn had won out over all the others. The court became Bryn’s second home and over the years she shared in the riches the king bestowed upon his daughter.
By way of Thalynder, Bryn had the finest tutors. The art of warfare she learned from the captains of the king’s army—when they were resting in the realm and not busy chasing bands of thieves or trying to stave off an invasion of the outer realms by the bloodthirsty Norsemen. She learned the art of sport from the hunters in the cool of autumn, when game was plentiful. Loyalty she learned by watching the captains, respect was learned in the subjects of the king’s realm, and justice, as it had been taught from the beginning of time and practiced by all who imagined that fairness was the right of humankind, Bryn learned from her parents.
Though not born a royal herself, Bryn felt almost equal to the princess. She was a Druid, a race held in high esteem by the nobles as learned men and women. The Druids, with their tradition of oral history, taught Bryn ancient dragon lore and alchemy. She learned traditional uses for herbs and plants and the medicinal properties of each. Bryn had also been schooled in animal husbandry. She understood the intricacies of procreation long before the princess was taught them by her narrow-minded, court-appointed tutor.
Arlendyl, Bryn’s mother, taught Bryn that sex was a sacred, intimate act between consenting partners and not to be taken lightly. Love, Arlendyl said, came unexpectedly. It didn’t choose to wait for the right moment, or the right day or the right year. Love came and it never left. Love, Bryn came to understand, was exemplified by her parents’ deep respect for each other and the sweet sounds of undiluted joy that came from their bedchamber at night.
Thalynder, Bryn knew from their many late-night conversations, found love to be something two-edged, much like the sword she wore at her belt. On one side was the love of her father, her dragon, and her friends. On the other side was an as-yet-undiscovered love, the one that occupied her dreams.
“If there was only someone like that in my realm,” Thalynder once said after reading about a brave soul doing a daring deed to save a princess. Bryn wanted to be that brave soul and save her princess. She knew Thalynder longed for someone whose passion for adventure would match her own. The princess often told Bryn that she did not care about ruling her father’s realm. Though she was schooled to rule, Thalynder longed for the day when her father would sire another heir. The chances of that happening remained remote because King Thamen was consumed with the raiders and the safety of his realm. He had little time for anything else.
“It is time we returned,” Meydra said. The sun had risen above the horizon and the air was warming.
“Yes, I suppose it is,” Thalynder said. “I can’t wait to tell Bryn my plan.”
“You will have to tell your father as well and he may not let you leave.”
“He will if I can think of a way to make it seem important for the realm.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Something beneficial like a prince for me to marry?”
“Even that may not sway the king,” Meydra said and turned back to smile at Thalynder.
“It is past the time of the raiders. Most of the thieves have been forced out of the realm. What could my father be worried about?”
“He will find something. Are you ready to return?”
“Yes, take me to the courtyard. They are waiting, I am sure.”
Meydra lifted into the sky and glided down toward the keep. She could see the courtyard clearly from the hill, and she saw Bryn waiting for their return. Meydra sent a silent greeting to Bryn, knowing she would not understand where the greeting had come from. Soon, Meydra thought. Very soon that will change.
Meydra landed in the middle of the courtyard, bowed her head, and lowered her shoulders for Thalynder to slide off her back. Bryn smiled at Thalynder as she came off Meydra’s back.
Meydra saw the exchange between the two women and the blush that came to Bryn’s cheeks. Her tail twitched. She bowed her head and gave one last smile to the princess, arched her back, and left the courtyard below, rising to fly back to her resting place in the Garden of Dragons. As she moved her giant wings silently to gain lift, she looked back down and watched Bryn follow Thalynder as she walked toward the doors of the residential section of the keep. Meydra’s heart beat fast for a brief moment, then settled back down to a steady drumbeat. Her giant wings moved to momentarily block the sun and cast her shadow across the two young women, causing both to look up and smile at her. Another beat of her wings, and she was gone.
Bryn followed Thalynder into her chambers and helped her out of her riding clothes.
“Where is my party dress?” Thalynder asked and started humming.
“Hanging in the wardrobe where it won’t get dirty or too wrinkled, Lynder.”
Bryn always referred to Princess Thalynder as Lynder when her thoughts were warmly casual. In the presence of others, Bryn was careful to call Thalynder “Your Highness” or “Princess.” But in the happy place where they were two young women, she thought of Thalynder in a softer light and the name Lynder tasted sweeter on her tongue. “You are humming and that means you are thinking of something not altogether permitted.”
“I’ll tell you after we greet some of the guests. My father is probably eager to get this day started.”
“He is, and so is the realm. You know the significance of this day better than most and surely you see your father’s subjects love you and consider you their next ruler.”
“I do, but I’ve also told you I don’t want the job. Enough,” Thalynder said and chuckled. “Get me dressed and we’ll go find my father.”
Bryn followed the princess to the throne placed at the entrance to the inner keep, where King Thamen now sat. The king stood as his daughter approached, and when Thalynder was at his side, he raised his hand to the gathered crowd. Cued by his hand, servants released a shower of pale pink rose petals that drifted down from the windows and walls of the keep and decorated the courtyard. Bryn watched as the petals fell upon Thalynder’s head and shoulders. Her heart quickened at the beautiful sight.
Thalynder took her father’s hand and together they stood as the crowd cheered. The princess nodded in thanks and said, “Let the music begin.”
Thalynder and the king moved into the Grand Hall where the noble lords and ladies waited for the princess’s entrance. A rousing cheer went up when Thalynder appeared, and the air was charged with gaiety. Bryn recognized the tradition: the party outside for the subjects of the realm and the party inside for the nobility. The celebration would go on all day and into the night, capped off by a brilliant display of light and fire at midnight.
Bryn kept her distance behind Thalynder as usual. That was her place when in the company of the princess and others, a lesson she had acquired when she first arrived at court, and which was now as routine as breathing.
Letting go of her father’s hand, Princess Thalynder walked among the guests, thanking them for attending her Day of Birth celebration. Thalynder turned to look for Bryn. She gently moved several nobles out of her way, grabbed at Bryn’s sleeve, and gently tugged on it until Bryn was standing in front of her. Thalynder took Bryn’s hand in hers and squeezed it.
“Do not leave me today.”
Bryn looked into Thalynder’s sparkling green eyes. “When will you tell me what is lurking in that pretty blond head?”
Thalynder giggled and pulled Bryn toward the long table laden with her favorite foods. “Come, let us grab some fruit, and I will tell you of the adventure we will embark upon come the morrow.”
Before they could reach the table, however, they were intercepted by a group of nobles intent on toasting their princess. Thalynder quickly let go of Bryn’s hand and greeted each man and woman by name. After accepting their compliments, she introduced them to Bryn, who in turn received her own share of gracious comments.
“Why do you scoff?” Thalynder asked after Bryn reacted to a particularly effusive compliment from a rotund and jolly nobleman. “You have your own beauty, Bryn.”
“You, my princess, are the sky. Your hair is the color of the sun’s rays. Your eyes are the green of new leaves that dot the arboreal canopy. You are like a sunrise.”
“And how do you see yourself?”
Bryn held a lock of her hair and looked at it a moment. “I am the earth. Chestnut red hair, deep blue eyes. The nobles are only polite because I am the daughter of Druid elders. I am an oddity.” Bryn’s heritage was also a source of curiosity to most of the nobles, who couldn’t understand the selfless way in which Druids conducted themselves.
“You are no oddity,” Sir Arryn, captain of the King’s Royal Guard, said as he passed the two women. “The princess is the dawn, bright and full of coming events. You, Lady Bryn, are the twilight, where all go to find peace.”
Thalynder laughed as she turned to her other guests and never saw the blush that touched Bryn’s cheeks.
Being in the company of Thalynder was always pleasant for Bryn. It also gave Bryn the opportunity to be of service to her. Thalynder did not like to be treated like a child, and pompous platitudes and comments about her obligations as heir and princess were almost guaranteed to provoke barbed retorts. When she heard Thalynder’s voice taking on a tinge of contempt as she addressed certain of the highly adorned men and women, Bryn touched Thalynder’s arm.
“Forgive me, Princess Thalynder, but I believe you mentioned you were hungry, having missed your breakfast this morning,” Bryn said in an attempt to keep one of the men from falling victim to Thalynder’s sharp tongue.
“Ah yes, Lady Bryn. Thank you for reminding me. Wouldn’t do to fall away in a faint due to malnourishment in front of all these guests, would it? If you gentlefolk will excuse me, I will look over the table and satisfy my stomach with the cook’s finest fare.” Thalynder grabbed Bryn’s hand, pulled her closer, and whispered into her ear. “You saved that man from having his tongue removed, boiled and placed on the table as a morsel for the dogs.”
“Yes, Your Highness.” Bryn tried not to laugh. “I believe you will find several dishes to your liking.”
“Let’s fill a plate and find a chair at my father’s table,” Thalynder said, dismissing the little crowd. As they walked along the table toward a large array of fruit, a flared note from a single trumpet called attention to the king.
“My father will speak,” Thalynder said. “He is such a one for drama.”
Bryn stood with her back to the table of food so she could see the king. Noticing that Thalynder was studying the food instead of paying attention, she cleared her throat and pulled on Thalynder’s hand.
Thalynder raised her chin, looked at her father, and then—as he spoke about her coming of age and her need for a husband—gripped Bryn’s hand hard enough to make her wince.
As the king congratulated his daughter on reaching the age of Consent and Commitment, Bryn heard Thalynder gasp. Fearing that Thalynder might be choking on something, Bryn turned to look at her. Thalynder’s cheeks and neck were red, not from some obstructive morsel, Bryn realized, but from the king’s words. As the crowd shouted their hosannas to the princess, Bryn offered her a cup of wine.
“Here, drink this to clear your head and cool your heat.” She released Thalynder’s hand, held the goblet before Thalynder and waited. The princess took the goblet and gulped the sweet wine.
“It is time to tell me what plan you have concocted, Princess. The one that has us leaving on the morrow.”
Thalynder set the goblet on the table and grabbed two soft, ripe peaches. She led Bryn to the king’s table, sat next to her father, and motioned Bryn into the chair beside her. She handed Bryn one of the peaches. King Thamen was speaking with Sir Arryn, their faces close together. The princess turned back to Bryn, smiling. She took a small knife from her belt and began to remove the skin from her peach, a small section at a time. “Why do you suppose the gods created peach fur?”
“To keep us from eating the fruit too quickly, allowing us to savor every bite,” Bryn said and took a small bite of her peach. Juice ran off her lips and onto her chin, causing her to laugh. She started to wipe her mouth with her sleeve hem.
“Let me,” Thalynder said and leaned toward Bryn to run her finger through the juice, then place the sweet nectar onto her tongue. “So sweet. Too sweet to wait another moment.” She took a large bite out of her own fruit. “These are the best of the season!”
Bryn took a drink of wine from the goblet in front of her. She needed to distract the princess from the heat of a blush she could feel rising on her cheeks and to prevent herself from wondering if Thalynder meant to be so provocative. Bryn looked down at the platter before her and said, “Tell me your plan.”