BRIDE OF THE SHADOW KING by Sylvia Mercedes (EXCERPT)
For fans of The Bridge Kingdom and A Deal with the Elf King, this sweeping tale of love and betrayal is equal blends sweet and spice.
A shunned princess. A reluctant king. A marriage that could save both their kingdoms . . . but destroy their hearts.
Though she is the oldest daughter, Princess Faraine lives in the background, shunned from court and kept out of sight. Her chronic illness makes her a liability to the crown, and she has learned to give place to her beautiful, favored younger sister in all things.
When the handsome and enigmatic Shadow King comes seeking a bride, Faraine is not surprised that her sister is his choice.
Though not eager to take a human bride, King Vor is willing to do what is necessary for the sake of his people. When he meets the lively Princess Ilsevel, he quickly agrees to a marriage arrangement.
So why can’t he get the haunting eyes of her older sister out of his head?
Bride of the Shadow King by Sylvia Mercedes is due for release on 29th August from Daphne Press
You can pre-order your copy on Bookshop.org
BRIDE OF THE SHADOW KING
“If you’d managed to snare the Crown Prince Cornaith for a husband, we wouldn’t be in this situation, now would we?”
I close my eyes, trying to still the shiver running down my spine. My brother’s words hit me like slaps. They fall from his lips so casually, one would think he remarked on the weather or the cut of his tunic. But the bitter and unspoken emotion behind the words makes me wince and wish I could somehow sink into the cushions of my carriage seat and vanish.
I draw a long breath before raising my lashes and peering at Theodre, seated across from me. He’s resplendent in a fur-trimmed travel cloak and a plumed hat that takes up far too much room in this small space. A purely decorative sword is propped by his knees, the jeweled hilt wrought to correspond with his belt. Six fat rings, large enough to fit over his velvet-gloved fingers, flash at every move of his hands. He polishes one of them now, blowing on the faceted stone and rubbing it against his sleeve.
“War is such a fright, you know,” he says, as though the thought would never have occurred to me. “Hard for the average man to go about his business, what with having to drop everything and turn out to fight. Crops are left to spoil with only the women to do what needs to be done. And such ugly scarecrows they are! All hollow-eyed and bony-hipped. It quite turns the stomach to look at them. Out there with their plows and their scythes, and a gaggle of ragged brats trailing behind. It’s like they have no pride in king or country.”
He looks up at me, his dark eyes flashing in the dimness of the carriage. “Nothing an alliance with Cornaith wouldn’t have fixed. Their cavalry would have made our enemies take to their heels! Instead, we’ve got those gods-damned fae crawling all over the countryside, running raids, burning crops, stealing livestock, all like its good sport. So the people come crying to Father’s gates, wailing and holding up their starving children like there’s anything he can do about it. Other than send more of them out
And it’s your fault.
He doesn’t say it. He doesn’t have to. I feel the accusation underscoring every word, every gesture, every glance. I feel it so profoundly, I begin to believe it.
Burned crops. Displaced people. Starving children.
I should have done better. I should have been better. When Prince Orsan of Cornaith came courting, I should have smiled and flirted and danced and teased. I should not have sat quietly off to one side, keeping to the shadowed edges of the room, striving to find places where the light and the noise and the laughter and the tremendous press of people wouldn’t break through all my defenses and leave me gasping with pain. I should have pushed that pain into the farthest recesses of my awareness—it’s mostly in my head anyway, isn’t it?—and pretended not to feel it. Pretended to be what I ought to be, what I was born to be as the eldest daughter of the King of Gavaria.
But I couldn’t.
Even so, Prince Orsan might have taken me. Negotiations were well advanced, all the offers and promises between his kingdom and mine nearing culmination. Perhaps I wasn’t the bride he’d always dreamed of. Perhaps every time he looked at me, I felt nothing but disappointment and resignation emanating from his sharp hazel eyes. But he knew the value of a good alliance as well as the next man. He knew the wisdom of uniting Cornaith and Gavaria against the threat of fae invasion. Plus, there was my substantial dowry to consider. Yes, in light of these temptations, he would have gone through with it.
Until he tried to kiss me in the garden.
Oh, gods! I close my eyes again, trying not to remember that terrible moment. We’d been strolling in the moonlight, to all appearances the perfect picture of a courting couple if one were to ignore the careful way I kept a good three feet of distance between us. He was quite handsome in a silver-embroidered tunic, his fair hair swept back from his forehead, a jeweled circlet ringing his brow. I wore a romantic, off-shoulder gown of delicate pink, my hair adorned with pearls. Music trailed after us, played by musicians hidden behind a screen of blooming flowers. I’d turned to the prince, intending to make some remark on their playing.
To my utmost surprise, Orsan had taken two swift steps, caught me by my shoulders, his fingers digging hard into my bare flesh, and pulled me against him. His lips crashed into mine. The abruptness of that contact was too much. Everything he was feeling washed over me in a wave—frustration, determination, fear, anger, embarrassment, inadequacy. All of it. All hitting me in one painful collision of lips and teeth and tongue.
My body surged in reaction. And I vomited. Right down the front of his pretty embroidered tunic.
The party from Cornaith left my father’s house the next morning, all negotiations abruptly ended. The day after, Father sent me to the Convent of Nornala. He didn’t speak to me, not even to tell me how deeply I’d disappointed him. It was as though he wanted to forget I existed entirely.
That was nearly two years ago. I’d heard nothing from home since then, not even a letter from my sisters. Theodre’s arrival shocked me three days ago, when he strode unannounced into my private room, filling the doorway with his big, plumed hat.
“I’ve come to fetch you home, Faraine,” he declared without preamble. “The Shadow King is looking for a bride, and you’re needed at once.”
I’m still not entirely certain why Father sent for me. Whoever this ominously titled Shadow King might be, I’m quite certain I am not the bride he’s looking for. But apparently, my younger sister, Ilsevel, declared she would not be bartered off in marriage. She’d thrown an enormous fit and locked herself in the east tower, dropping bits of crockery on the heads of anyone who tried to approach.
“Father seems to think you can talk some sense into the fool girl,” Theodre had said as he looked sneeringly around my small, sparce room at the convent. “No one else can, gods help us. But you’ve always had a way with Ilsie. Get her to recognize her duty to the crown and all that. Make yourself useful.”
Suppressing a sigh, I turn to the carriage window and lift the curtain, peering out at the countryside. We are on a decline, descending the mountain pass. My view extends over miles of lowland beneath a twilit sky. I spy what looks like the remains of a village not far from here—a caved-in hall, smoke still rising from its collapsed roof. Burnt-out cottages, blackened walls. Ruin. Devastation. And what became of those who had once called that village home? Are they dead now, run down and slaughtered? Or do they wander the countryside, homeless, helpless, even as early spring storms batter the land?
The whole world seems to exhale despair.
I sit back, letting the curtain fall. Though it’s bitterly cold, I pull the glove off my right hand and slip it under my cloak, feeling for the crystal pendant hanging from a chain around my neck. My fingers close around it, squeezing so that its sharp edges dig into the flesh of my palm. At first, it feels cold and lifeless. Slowly, however, it warms in my grip. I detect the faintest vibrating thrum deep inside. Closing my eyes again, I try to synchronize my breathing to that pulse. Pain recedes; the roiling in my gut diminishes. I let out a sigh.
Feeling Theodre’s gaze upon me, I open my eyes and look back at him. He raises an eyebrow. “Not a pretty view, eh?”
I shake my head. “I’d not realized just how bad things have gotten.” My tongue feels thick and heavy when I speak.
My brother snorts. “You’ve been hidden away in that convent too long.”
Hidden away. Not married and producing babies. Not ensuring the military support of our nearest neighbors. Useless. Disappointment. It’s all there. Hanging in the air between us. Unspoken but real.
I drop my chin. Perhaps I’m not being fair to Theodre. After all, I don’t know him very well. He’s several years my senior and spent most of his childhood away from Beldroth Castle where my sisters and I were raised. I saw him for state occasions and a precious few family gatherings, nothing more. This journey from the convent is the most time we’ve spent in each other’s company. I doubt we’ll seek each other out in the future.
“Ah well,” Theodre sighs, twisting yet another of his rings as though it’s pinching him. “If Ilsie can snag this Shadow King for her groom, it’ll all be made right. From what I understand, he’s got quite the impressive army at his beck and call, and no love for our enemies. Never thought I’d see the day when Father bargained with trolls, but hey! Desperate times and all that. Ilsevel’s not at all keen on the idea, but Father says you can use your gods-gift and make her see reason. I hope you can, for all our sakes! Though I can’t say I blame poor Ilsie when I think about it. I mean . . . trolls.”
He makes a face at the last word, a wave of disgust flowing out from him. I grip my crystal a little harder, breathing in time to its faint pulse. I’ve heard tell of trolls, of course: stories from the caravan merchants who stop at the convent for shelter on their way over the Ettrian Mountains. They tell of hideous stone-hide monsters towering seven feet tall and more, with fists like boulders and teeth of shining gemstones. Man-eaters. Bone-crushers. Brutes without brains or conscience.
I struggle to imagine such creatures having a king. I struggle still more to imagine my father bargaining with such a king for Ilsevel’s hand. Whatever he may think of me, Father has always loved my sister, with her ready laugh and sharp temper, her recklessness and courage. Of all his children, Ilsevel is the most like him—and many’s the time I’ve heard him sigh that she should have been born a boy.
How bad have things become that he would wed her to a monster?
The carriage lurches to a stop. It’s so abrupt, I nearly fall from my seat. My brother curses and flings out both hands to brace against the walls. “What in the seven secret names is going on?” he growls, grabbing his sword and using the hilt to hit the ceiling three sharp taps. “Oi! Fantar! What’s the hold up?”
A muffled shout. Followed by a thunk on the roof of the carriage.
My heart begins to race. “Theodre?”
My brother, heedless of me, mutters another curse and flings back the curtain over the window, sticking his head outside. “Fantar! It’s gods-spitting cold, man. Don’t leave us sitting around all— Argh! ”
A burst of shock ripples out from Theodre. I just have wherewithal enough to reach out with both hands, grab hold of his jeweled belt, and haul him back into the carriage. There’s a flash of fire on the other side of the window, the gleam of a sword edge slicing down where his neck had been a moment before.
Theodre falls back in his seat. “Spitting heavens!” he gasps, blood draining from his cheeks. “It’s those gods-damned unicorns!”
I don’t have the words to question him. All hell has broken loose just outside the carriage door. Men are shouting, horses screaming in terror. Through a crack in the curtain, I see flashes of red heat, flickering flame. And in my head—explosions of terror. Terror not my own. Hitting me with the force of a battering ram.
I sink from my seat onto the floor of the carriage, gripping my crystal pendant. My brother stares down at me. His fear is the worst of the assault. It pounds me with brutal intensity. He blinks once. Then, grabbing hold of his decorative sword with one hand, he fumbles with the door on the other side of the carriage, pushes it open, and falls out. For a moment, I’m overwhelmed with relief as he takes his terror with him.
Another scream bursts in my ears. Theodre? One of our men? I cannot tell, cannot guess. What should I do? Crouch in here like a mouse in a trap, waiting to be found and dragged out by my hair? Surely that must be worse than facing whatever waits outside.
Setting my jaw, I work my way to the half-open carriage door and ease the gap wider. A mistake. Utter mayhem meets my eyes. Riders streak past on creatures shaped like horses with monstrous, flaming horns protruding from their skulls. They’re beautiful, terrible, glorious creatures ridden by beings equally beautiful, terrible, and glorious. Long hair streaming, shining faces alight with bloodthirsty joy, they wield swords that flame as bright as their mounts’ horns. They wear no armor—in fact, they seem to wear next to nothing at all, their muscled, godlike bodies fully displayed as they circle their prey and cut them down.
I spy the silver helmets of my brother’s guard. They fight valiantly from horseback, struggling to defend the carriage. One by one, they’re pulled from their steeds. Blood, terror, and death assault my senses. I am frozen in place, paralyzed.
Once again, my gods-gift proves to be a curse.
A rider turns suddenly, violet eyes alight in a face of such heart-breaking beauty, it takes my breath away. He sees me and smiles, flashing sharp canines. Digging his heels into his unicorn’s flanks, he urges the beast straight toward me. My vision is full of flames and laughter and the edge of an upraised sword.
Acting on survival impulse, I fall out of the carriage, hit the ground hard, and roll underneath. My skirts drag and catch, but I manage to get myself fully concealed just before cloven hooves skid to a stop at my eye level.
The next moment, a pair of bare feet land on the road. My pursuer drops to his hands and knees, turning his head to smile at me where I’m hiding. “Hullo, pretty thing,” he says in a language I do not know, but which somehow communicates perfect meaning as it reaches my ears. “Come out and play?”
He reaches his hand under the carriage, long nails snatching at my face. His savage lust hits me like a knife in the head. I scramble backwards. The horses squeal with fright, and the carriage lurches. I narrowly miss being crushed under a rolling wheel that catches my skirt and cloak, trapping me in place. Choking on a scream, I release the catch of my cloak, then grip my skirt with both hands and wrench free. The fabric rips in a long slash all the way up to my thigh. I stagger back from the carriage, struggling to find my balance.
Movement draws my eye. I look up to see my attacker, sprung to the top of the carriage, looming over me. He holds his sword out to one side for balance, but when he spies me, he raises it high. Tossing back his head, he utters a deep-throated, ululating cry of triumph.
As though by magic, a knife appears in his throat.
His eyes widen. A wave of surprise rolls over me. He drops his sword, and his hand comes up to touch the hilt of that knife. Wondering. As though he cannot fathom how it got there.
The next moment, he falls in a lifeless pile at my feet.
I stare down at the being, so beautiful even in death. The stillness of him is stark, the sudden silence of those powerful emotions that battered me only heartbeats ago. I’m numb, frozen.
Before I can pull a single coherent thought into my head, thundering hooves pound in my ear. I whirl just in time to glimpse a huge dark shape bearing down on me. A figure leans far to the side in a saddle; an arm reaches out. I let out a little bleat of surprise just before the breath is ripped from my lungs and I’m swung up into the air. For a terrible moment, I believe I’ve been struck.
Then, suddenly— calm.
I hardly know how to describe it. Where an instant before, the whole world stormed with horror, my every sense exploding with pain, now there’s stillness. Peace. I’m so shocked by it at first, I can’t even try to make sense of my surroundings. I can do nothing but close my eyes and lean into that calm, that quiet.
Slowly, my awareness returns. I realize I’m not standing on my own two feet anymore. I’m seated. Seated on the back of a large lurching beast and encircled by a pair of powerful arms. I choke on a gasp and twist in place, trying to get some sense of my captor. A pair of startlingly silver eyes look down at me. It takes me several breaths before I realize the face in which those eyes are set is an unnatural blue. For the moment, his eyes dominate everything.
Staring into them, I recognize immediately the source of that calm.
His lips are moving. He’s saying something, but I have no idea what. “I . . . I’m sorry?”
“Are you all right?” he repeats. He speaks my language, but his words are strongly accented with a husky, growling burr unfamiliar to me.
“I hardly know!” I blink, shake my head, and look down at my quivering body. “I think so?”
“Good,” he says. Then, “Keep low.”
A hand on my back forces me to bend over the neck of the beast on which we ride. A thick muscular neck with a shock of black mane, which I take at first to belong to a horse. But no, those are scales I see between patches of fur. This is definitely no horse.
I don’t have time to question further before a flash of fire draws my gaze to one side. A unicorn rider pounds into our vicinity, his mouth open in wild, murderous laughter. He swings his weapon, but the man at my back pulls on his reins, and his beast sidesteps. Steel and flames whistle past my ear. There’s a thick sound of a blade hitting skin. The unicorn lets out a bloodcurdling scream. Both steed and rider go tumbling.
I stare in open-mouthed horror. And yet that quiet, that calm, continues to surround me. The strangest, most unexpected sensation.
An arm wraps around my waist, pulling me back against a solid chest. “Best hold on,” the accented voice murmurs close to my ear. I just have time to grab a handful of thick mane before he spurs his beast into motion. It lurches forward, but it doesn’t feel like galloping. It’s as though the monster has become a streaking shadow. I can still feel the warm solidity of its body beneath me, but I can see no more than an impression of rushing darkness.
We bear down on another flaming unicorn and rider. I turn my face away, closing my eyes even as my rescuer’s sword arm moves. Distant screams of rage and death burst in the air but seem to belong in another world while I, here in my own small sphere of existence, am surrounded by peace.
The stranger pulls on his reins. His beast skids to a stop, suddenly solidifying. Its huge hooves clop on the stones beneath us. We’re no longer on the road but have ridden straight up the mountainside. No horse could scale such a steep incline. When I look back, the view makes my stomach pitch.
The arm around my waist tightens slightly. “Have no fear, my lady. Knar is as sure-footed as they come. Shall we rejoin the others?”
I seem to have forgotten how to talk. I can do nothing but nod and tighten my grip on the mane. Am I imagining the pulse of a heartbeat at my back? A beat so strong and steady, it works its way into my bones. Like the pulse of my crystal, only much greater, much stronger.
I shake my head and peer down to the road below. The unicorn riders have fled; I can still see a few of them vanishing into the deepening twilight, flaming horns and wicked swords flaring. But far too many broken and crumpled bodies lie around the carriage. “My brother!” I manage to gasp, finding my voice at last. “Where is my—”
I don’t have time to finish before I hear a familiar voice shouting, “Get your hands off me, you filthy rock-biters!”
Turning toward that sound, I spy Theodre a short way up the road, surrounded by three tall figures. They are startlingly pale, their skin faintly blue, their hair pure white. Two male, one female, each with their hands up, exchanging uneasy glances. Theodre stands in the midst of them, swinging his decorative sword in erratic arcs. He’s lost his hat, and his long, oiled locks gleam in the firelight. He looks rather like a lapdog snarling at a pack of wolves.
“I take it that’s the brother in question?” says the voice at my back.
“Yes, indeed.” I flush as Theodre spews another stream of invective at our rescuers. Or are they our rescuers? Looking around, I spy more of the strange scaly monsters like the beast I’m currently astride. They’re just as frightening as the unicorns, if not more so. And these people, they must be fae. Have I been saved from one set of foes only to be taken captive by another?
“Please,” I say, turning to look up at the rider behind me. “My brother is frightened. He doesn’t mean what he says.”
“Gods blight your nethers with pustule sores!” Theodre shrieks.
The stranger raises an eyebrow. “He sounds fairly impassioned.” His mouth quirks in a half smile. “But here, he’s had a fright. Not all men are built for battle. Shall we see if we can ease his fears?”
So saying, he rides his monster up to the little circle. Theodre spies him coming, his face paling at the sight of the awful steed. His knees knock, and I fear he will faint then and there.
“It’s all right, Theodre,” I call out. “You’re safe now.”
My brother’s gaze snaps to my face, his fear momentarily displaced by surprise. “Faraine! What in the seven gods’ names are you doing up there?” His voice is accusing, as though I’ve betrayed him somehow.
I press my lips into a line, then start to slip from the saddle. The stranger immediately moves to assist me, setting me lightly on my feet. I wobble, a little unsteady, but manage to make my way between the tall figures to my brother’s side. His churning fear lashes at me like a whip. I wince but extend a hand to him even so. “You’re safe, brother,” I say again. “These are our rescuers. I don’t sense any threat from them.”
“They’re fae,” Theodre spits, his lip twisting with disgust. “They’re always a threat.”
“Perhaps.” I glance around at the crumpled bodies surrounding us, both human and otherwise. “But not to us. At least, not this time.”
Theodre struggles to master himself. After a moment’s hesitation, he takes my offered hand. I bite back a cry as that contact of our skin sends his emotions jolting up my arm. Bracing myself, I try to send something back through that connection, some small measure of the calm I just experienced so unexpectedly. Theodre shivers and starts to pull back, but when I squeeze his fingers a little tighter, he stops trying to resist. After a moment, he seems to gather strength. Lifting his chin, he turns and addresses the stranger still mounted on the beast’s back. “This road belongs to King Larongar of Gavaria. I demand to know who you are that you would dare ride it.”
Cringing with embarrassment, I glance up. The stranger tilts his head to one side, looking contemplatively down at my brother. That half smile is still present at the corner of his mouth. “I am the man who has just saved you from becoming unicorn fodder.”
Theodre draws himself up, chest swelling, nostrils flaring. “I will have an answer from you! In the name of the king!”
One of the pale figures standing close at hand takes a step forward, touching a hand to the sheathed sword at her belt. “I’ll warn you, sir, to show proper respect,” she growls ominously.
“Peace, Hael,” the stranger on the monster says. He swings down from his mount and approaches us. A flaming sword lies close at hand, its red gleam shining against his blue-tinted skin and making the planes of his face stand out at sharp angles. “I’m sure the little human means no harm.”
“Little human?” My brother sounds as though he’s about to burst. I try to squeeze his hand again, but he shakes me off. “Do you know who I am? I am Theodre, Prince of the House of Cyhorn, heir to the throne of Gavaria!”
“Indeed?” The stranger looks down at Theodre, his brows rising ever so slightly. “And I am Vor, King of Mythanar, Lord Protector of the Under Realm.”
I stare up into those shining silver eyes. My heart seems to catch in my throat. I realize suddenly who our rescuer is: the Shadow King.