The Promise Keeper
Book Three of the Norman Brides Series
“Amazing, every bit as good as the first two…” (from Tama Shafer an Amazon reader)
The old woman was aware of the slight trembling in her limbs as she waited in the ante-chamber for her audience with the new king. Though she was irritated with herself at the evidence of her very human weakness she quickly chastised herself for her annoyance. She was human after all, and fear was an inescapable human emotion. When the summons came she drew a calming breath and followed the armed guard who escorted her through the entrance to the luxurious throne room with her head held high, but her attention focused inward. She heard her name echo across the high ceilings of the elegantly appointed room and approached the gold throne where the new king lounged carelessly with a glass of ale in one hand, while his other fondled the unfortunate young serving maid.
“Your highness,” she offered in a respectful tone. Though it pained her to do so, she knelt before him, and bowed her head low to the intricate mosaic floor, allowing herself a quick glimpse of the new monarch as she did so. She hid her disappointment at what she saw in the reverent manner expected of a lowly subject before her king, but within the privacy of her thoughts she sighed at the arrogance of men, who foolishly believed a sharp blade and a large army of followers could turn any man into a king. Perhaps in other, lesser kingdoms such was the way of things, but Calei’s golden throne demanded more of those who would rest upon its highest seat. It had not taken more than a swift glance for her to conclude this was not the one who would put an end to the curse that had hung suspended over the small, but wealthy kingdom for as far back as anyone could remember. His thick features and the crude jests he exchanged with his loyal men who were scattered around the room ordering the harried servants about provided sufficient evidence of his lowly beginnings and coarse nature. No, she imagined this one’s reign would be shorter than most. The throne of Calei did not suffer fools. With or without the assistance of the ancient curse, the new, self-proclaimed monarch’s presence in this room was an affront that would not long be tolerated.
“Rise, witch, and do your duty. The ancient traditions must be observed.” His crude demand offered further proof her swift conclusions about the new king had not been unwarranted.
Mariel did not bother to dispute his assertion that she was a daughter of Wicca. She knew many regarded her as such and feared her because of it. Their fear was a double edged sword as far as Mariel was concerned. For the most part she was given a wide berth by those in power. The new kings had enough on their hands securing their precarious positions without upsetting the populace by interfering with their sacred traditions. Hence the reason for her summons today.
However, she comprehended all too well that men who wielded a sword to gain a throne were not shy about matters such as bloodshed, and had no real fear of ordinary citizens who were too frightened or too tired of war to elevate a sword to unseat him. She was aware each time she was summoned into this elegant chamber to perform the service she was called upon to perform today, that if the new monarch took exception to her words they would likely be her last.
“Get on with it, woman. I do not have all day to wait upon you.”
Mariel bowed her head at his arrogant command and carefully withdrew a crystal ball from the folds of her cloak. A hush fell over the room as the transparent globe was revealed in the uncertain light that abruptly settled over the room at its appearance. Her eyes met those of the bishop who stood on the king’s right. Though the man of the cloth could not completely suppress the evidence of his disapproval when his eyes beheld the instrument of her talent, she was aware of the compassion in his when their glances locked for the briefest of moments. Religion and magic wove in equal measure through the hearts of the citizens of the small city kingdom. The church hierarchy in Rome had learned that painful lesson the hard way.
The prior bishop was a fervent defender of church teachings. Week after week he denounced the evils of superstition and magic from his place at the pulpit in the rich cathedral Caleinians had built to honor their Lord. Their generosity filled the church coffers with gold, the majority of such bounty being transported to Rome. The kingdom’s generous support of the holy church accounted for the circumstances of the small parish warranting its own bishop.
Mariel could have informed the prior bishop he was grossly miscalculating in his attempt to steer the citizens away from their traditions, but he had never sought the benefit of her advice. The more the fervent bishop preached about the evils of magic, the less the faithful citizens contributed to the weekly collection plate. In the end, the decline in the people’s generosity was enough to draw the attention of the bishop’s superiors. It did not take long for those same superiors to recognize the prudence of reassigning the fervent bishop and leaving the local populace to its decidedly harmless traditions.
So it was the odd marriage between superstition and religion unique to Calei that brought the local witch and the bishop of the church together to provide both witness and legitimacy to the new king’s rule. Aware of the growing impatience of the man who slouched carelessly in the elegant throne of his predecessors for her to commence with the reason for her summons, she gathered her power and raised the crystal over her head. Light from the setting sun streaming through the stained, crystal windows penetrated its depths, creating a prism effect that flashed around the room. For a moment, she was aware of the king’s men lifting their arms to shield their eyes from the bright light, then she turned her focus inward and allowed her awareness of her rich surroundings to fall away from her conscious thoughts as she gazed into the depths of the crystal.
“A new king has claimed the ancient throne of Calei and seeks his clue to overcoming the curse that lies over this house,” she proclaimed loudly for the benefit of her audience.
She was aware of the rustling in the crowd at her words, but did not allow it to distract her attention. She felt the change come over her, knew her woman’s features altered subtly and her voice took on a deeper, almost masculine tenor, its impatience evidenced by its clipped tones in answer to her request.
“Must you harry us so frequently with your egotistical demands? The terms remain unchanged. When the daughter of the moon captures the heart of the sun the curse will be lifted and peace shall reign over these lands. Until then no blood of the blood of the reigning king shall ascend to the throne. So it is written. So it shall be.”
The inexperienced soldiers insulted and jostled each other as young men were wont to do. It was the changing of the guard and the end of a long and tedious shift of standing watch on the parapet walls of the massive stone castle and gazing out beyond the city gates and into the mountains as night wore away and the darkness gave way to the light of the unfolding splendor of a new dawn. Even the majestic view from atop the towers could not long hold a young man’s attention, particularly when there was no evidence of a threat on the city kingdom they watched over, nor had there been for the length of their brief service in the king’s guard. Calei’s history had been a violent one, but the recent slumberous years of peace had lulled the watch guard into complacency. The novice soldiers kept watch over the gates as their older, battle-hardened compatriots basked in the unfamiliar gift of looking beyond the next few hours of what for the length of their youths had largely been a day to day life and death struggle for survival, to the gratifying prospect of a future in the prosperous land they shed their blood for.
The present king was a fair and honorable ruler. The widows and orphans of the many wars of the kingdom’s past were sheltered and well-fed. With order restored and the dangerous paths over the mountains protected, a bustling trade between both neighboring and distant lands was filling to overflowing the kingdom’s already rich treasury. When the king returned last year with a lovely young bride accompanying him, the citizens rejoiced to bear witness to his faith in the kingdom’s future prosperity. The young queen was soon heavy with child and the citizens began planning children of their own. The king must surely believe the ancient curse on the ruling family had finally been broken; else he would not risk the long years of peace, or the life of the queen he appeared so fond of, let alone the child she carried, in his brazen defiance of the spell holding sway over his house.
The young captain of the guard, accompanied by a few of his friends and comrades, climbed the narrow steps from the soldiers’ quarters beneath the main level of the keep on his way to the great hall to first break his fast before chasing after another, softer form of manly comfort. His thoughts were not occupied by the long strife-filled years of his homeland. At the moment his attention was focused on tripping his younger brother as he trailed behind him, a new, raw recruit to the order. The remainder of his concentration centered around the more compelling question of whether or not he carried enough coins with him to seek out the services of a particularly skilled lady of the night who plied her wares down a certain lane deep in the heart of the city where men who practiced the art of war could find ease for their manly lusts.
So when he heard the shouts coming from the level of the main hall, he assumed some of the other soldiers were amusing themselves at one of their comrade’s expense. Not wanting to miss out on the fun, Amele and his friends hurried up the last few stairs and pushed open the door into one of the narrow hallways that led to the grand hall. The shouts grew louder, but now there was fresh desperation accompanying them, and another sound, an impossible one, greeted their astonished ears. They exchanged puzzled glances laced with the bitter evidence of unfamiliar fear on their young faces, then made their way cautiously towards the entrance.
Fortunately for the untried soldiers no one was aware of them standing there, wide-eyed at the vision confronting them. The occupants of the hall couldn’t spare a glance for the four young soldiers, more boys than men, who took in the bloody, chaotic scene with stunned disbelief. The sound of swords clashing drowned out their astonished gasps. Shaking off his instinctive horror, Amele backed away from the opening. He turned shocked brown eyes to his companions and whispered harshly, “The queen. We must protect her. They’ll kill her.”
Afterwards, Amele could never explain why it was to the queen’s side he rushed rather than his king’s. He was sometimes assigned to the guard rotation for the young queen so he was aware of her habit of retreating to the ancient chapel when she sought privacy for her prayers to the almighty, rather than taking advantage of the comforts of the magnificent Cathedral built to serve the ruling family. So not wasting the time to ensure his friends were following, he set off back down the narrow stairs and hurried through the maze of tunnels and hallways beneath the keep and out a little-used passage that led to the older, rarely used parts of the king’s home. All was quiet in the streets. The alarm had not yet been sounded. He turned to his younger brother and spoke urgently.
“Go as fast as you can to the tower. Sound the alarm. Rouse the city’s defenders. We will take the queen beyond the gates and into the mountains where she will be safe until the king puts down this outrage.”
With his remaining two companions, Amele stealthily crossed the courtyard to the entrance of the old chapel, praying he had guessed correctly and they would find the queen there, alone and in prayer, but when he pushed open the door to the sacred place, tears stung his eyes. Apparently he was not the only one who was aware of the queen’s habits. Blood stained the marble floor of the sanctuary, but thankfully it was not the young queen’s. She stood over the bleeding soldier assigned to watch over her with a blade in her hand. It was a ceremonial knife, a dagger with a solid gold and jeweled hilt, small enough for a woman to handle. Her shock-glazed eyes met his and Amele approached cautiously, motioning for his companions to see to the defense of the entrance.
Amele knelt before his queen, more child than woman, who carried the king’s blood within her womb. The unusual stone she wore around her neck glowed blood red. “My queen, we must leave this place. You are in danger here. We will protect you until your husband vanquishes this blasphemy and it is safe for you to return.”
He felt the force of her stunning blue eyes searching his, as if she could discern his trustworthiness from what she read there. Amele knew every moment counted. They would come for her soon. The only reason he guessed the traitors had not yet done so was because they assumed a single soldier would be enough to subdue a defenseless, pregnant woman. He had not missed the significance of the wounded guard’s uniform, nor the fact he recognized his face. Today’s events were not the act of an enemy storming the city’s iron gates, but a deadlier, more insidious attack of treason from within, a traitor, no less, who would prey on an innocent young woman, heavy with child. The wounded man moaned in his pain. Amele spared him a disgusted glance and noticed the queen did the same. Then Amele found his first smile since he had come upon the atrocity being committed in the great hall. The queen spit on the dying soldier, then without sparing him another glance, stepped over his prone, writhing body, still clutching the bloody dagger in her hand.
With fresh admiration in his eyes, Amele escorted her to the exit where the others kept watch. “Wait here,” he commanded in a soft voice, and then he cautiously opened the door. The light of a new day streamed into the dimly lit chapel. Amele could see no sign of additional soldiers heading in their direction. With any luck, the single soldier had been commanded to keep the queen secluded in the chapel until the leader of the traitorous group came for her. He understood enough about the game of war to know that until the king was dead and the city under the traitor’s control, the queen was a valuable pawn in this fresh battle for rule of the city. Once control had been asserted and the king’s supporters defeated, Amele knew the queen would have then outlived her usefulness to the usurpers and she would be executed with or without great ceremony. More likely the latter, Amele reasoned, as it would not do to outrage the ordinary citizens of the city by such an act of cruelty against the young and popular queen. Formulating his plan, Amele stepped back into the chapel. He removed his cloak, turned it inside out to disguise the livery of the king’s guard, and offered it the queen.
“Your highness, we must get you out of the city. Paul and Samuel will go ahead of us and gather supplies. They will meet us at my father’s cabin in the mountains, but if things go ill in the city, we will not be able to remain there. We must pass over the mountains before they realize you are gone. Once we are through the passes, we can lose ourselves in the ancient forests and you can rest.”
Amele waited for her to object to his plan to take her away from the comforts of the city and into the surrounding mountains, still snow covered and with spring but a promise that whispered along the icy wind, particularly given the fact she was heavy with child. He knew from the growing excitement in the city her babe was due any day. He could not risk taking a mid-wife along. The queen must disappear into the vast wilderness surrounding Calei. If her husband survived and restored order to his kingdom, word would reach them. If not, they would have no choice but to put as much distance as possible between the queen and those that sought her death. She carried the blood and potential true heir of the throne of Calei. One day this outrage would be avenged and the child queen along with the babe she carried would be restored to their rightful places.
He waited while Queen Alyssa donned his too-large cloak and hid her dark hair beneath its hood. He nodded approvingly and then watched his friends’ departure, waiting to see if they garnered any attention. Above him the ancient bells rang out, proclaiming the threat to the city. “Good man, Gabriel,” he whispered to himself, realizing his brother had successfully executed the task he assigned him. With the alert sounded, he knew they would need to hurry now as his remaining, silent companion had just become a more valuable hostage in the eyes of their enemies. He gripped her arm to escort her through the entrance, then releasing her momentarily, motioned for her to wait inside. He turned back and hurried down the aisle of the house of God to where the dying man lay grimacing in pain. As if sensing Amele’s presence he opened his glazed, pain-filled eyes. The wariness within them widened to a terrified panic when Amele drew his sword and raised it high over his head. Holding the man’s horrified glance Amele brought the sword down in a swift sure stroke and severed the traitor’s head from his body.
Amele pushed his mount through the blinding snow, his destination, the lonely cottage near the peak of the tallest mountain looking down upon his former home. Though his eyes could not see the majestic city spread out in the valleys beneath him, his blood sensed he was close. He was a native son and the music and magic of Calei stirred his blood as no other place could, and told him he was home.
Only the city kingdom was no longer his home. It had been almost two decades since he gazed upon its beauty when he secreted his queen from those who sought her death. He could take comfort knowing the traitor who slit his childhood friend’s throat in order to gain his kingdom had himself managed to retain the throne for only a few short months. Those loyal to the rightful king rose up against the traitor’s forces and soundly defeated them. That had been the first time those loyal to the former king sent out messages far and wide in search of the queen. They’re search proved futile. Not because word did not reach the small company where the queen hid with her loyal defenders and her infant daughter, but because she refused to return to her husband’s lands. Queen Alyssa was not a native of Calei and did not feel the same pull to return her guards did.
Amele remembered the day she met his concerned glance over the head of the infant daughter who nursed at her breast. Rather than luxurious chambers that should be her right by her royal title, her home was a damp cave carved out of the sharp, solid rock of the mountain. “I will never return to Calei, Amele. I am not its destiny, nor am I the one who will one day break the ancient curse on the ruling family.”
“Yes, my queen,” Amele heard the echo of his younger self’s voice in his head.
“Why do you stay with me? I can see your heart longs for your homeland.”
He was aghast at her question. “You are my home, my queen. Where you dwell, I will dwell. Where you journey, I will journey. When you lay down your life, mine will follow yours to the grave.”
She’d shaken her head at his fierce declaration. “My husband’s kingdom must be a special place to have bred such honor into its sons, but it was never mine. However, because of your loyalty and the service you have rendered me and my family I will bestow upon you this promise. Though my feet will never again walk across the tiled floors of the great hall of my husband’s castle, blood of his blood will one day return with you to your homeland and reclaim what treachery stole. He will exact his rightful vengeance against those who fed on my husband’s blood.”
He hadn’t believed her, not that blood of her blood would one day return to Calei to reclaim the throne, but that she would never return herself. Despite the pleas to come back and claim the throne that had reached them over the years where they wandered across the rich lands of Europe, the queen remained staunch in her refusal. Amele understood her caution. Queen Alyssa feared for her daughter’s life. She carried the blood of the true king. A challenger to the throne who was able to wed the king’s daughter and return her to Calei would turn the people’s hearts to their cause. Not only because of the royal blood that ran through her veins, but because of the fond memories the people held of her father. They’d known peace under his rule, the last meaningful peace his people could recall.
Amele was shaken from his musings by the light in the window of the retreat up ahead. He breathed a sigh of relief and thought he heard his own sigh echo in unison from his faithful mount. He reached out and patted his straining neck and urged him the final few yards to the promised welcome awaiting them. Amele’s brother stood framed in the open doorway of their father’s cabin. It was theirs now, he supposed, as his father had long since passed onto his eternal reward, another casualty of one of the many wars fought over the question of who would rule the rich wealth of their homeland. Amele saw to the comfort of his mount, then the two brothers embraced, before pulling back while each examined the other, seeking the telling evidence of the years since their last meeting. Amele nodded, pleased by what he saw.
Gabriel was the one who had sounded the alarm that pivotal morning, alerting the city to the act of treason being committed within its depths. Though he was no longer a young man, the light of justice still burned in his eyes. To Amele, it was clear his brother’s heart was still set on their joint goal, to restore the rightful king to the inlaid jeweled throne of Calei. It had been too many years to rightfully recall the occasion of their last visit, but it was a full two decades since they parted at the borders a day’s harsh ride from his father’s cabin where they met briefly and learned the devastating news of the king’s death. Gabriel had begged Amele to allow him to accompany them on their quest to protect the queen and lead her away from Calei and into the mountains, but as there was no other he could trust in the king’s household and he needed eyes and ears at home to know when it was safe for him to bring the queen home, Amele had begged his brother to remain behind and keep watch.
His brother had waited twenty years to hear the news Amele braved a winter crossing through the mountains to deliver. So when they were settled beside the hearth, with a glass of ale in each of their work-calloused hands, and a pot of thick stew simmering above the fire, sending its hearty fragrance to chase away the chill of the cabin, Amele wasted no time in imparting his news. “The princess has born her husband a son.” He saw the immediate hope at the news spring to his brother’s eyes and felt compelled to temper it. “Remember brother, this child is not a son of Calei, but one of Saxony. He is the first born and will one day inherit his father’s rich estates. He is not the one.”
Disappointed, Gabriel nodded his acceptance of what must be, then responded with a smile, his hope obviously unwilling to be so easily tucked away again in the darkest reaches of his heart, “But the princess is young and her husband’s title and lands will pass only to the firstborn. Mayhaps she will have other sons who will keep the queen’s promise.
“From your lips to the Almighty’s ears,” Amele had responded taking a long pull of his ale. “Is that stew about ready to eat?”
Two years later, Amele once again pushed his mount through the blinding snow. He knew it was safer for their cause for him to visit in the winter months when the watch was inattentive. Who but a madman would launch an attack on the well-guarded city in the depths of winter? Amele did not dispute their conclusion and admitted he sometimes wondered if he was indeed mad. His brother had once again prepared for his arrival with a roaring fire in the stone hearth to warm his limbs. Amele accepted gratefully Gabriel’s offering of the warm stew and bread he borrowed from his own roof, and abused a goblet of wine before settling down into the chair opposite the hearth to deliver the news his brother and those aligned with their cause eagerly awaited.
“The princess has given her husband a second son.” He smiled as his brother jumped up out of his chair and performed a joyful little dance in front of the fire. Amele would not steal his brother’s excitement away by delivering the caution his queen had given him with a teasing light in her bluer than blue eyes. ‘He is not the one, Amele. Do not yet begin preparations for an immediate invasion.’
Twice more he made the same journey in the icy depths of winter. On his third visit he witnessed his brother’s joy over the news of the birth of yet another rightful heir to the throne, and his report that the older two sons were healthy and active boys, but it was the final occasion he carried such news that would forever remain in Amele’s memories. His brother’s eyes were expectant as they sat down. “Well, brother, don’t keep me in suspense.”
“The princess was delivered of a healthy baby girl.”
“Ah, well it was bound to happen. A blessing be upon her that she shares her grandmother’s beauty. I suppose the queen is pleased with this birth to know the succession has been secured for the unusual inheritance from her own mother that she will bequeath to her daughter.”
“Yes, she seemed quite pleased, especially when she informed me her daughter was also safely delivered of a healthy baby boy.”
“What?!! Twins? Another heir to the throne?” His brother jumped up from his chair and pulled a reluctant Amele to his feet. Laughing, together they danced around the room in celebration. When their feet stopped shuffling they faced each other wearing wide grins.
“He’s the one, Gabriel. He is the one who will fulfill the queen’s promise,” Amele confided in a near reverent voice.
His brother’s expression took on a new seriousness. “The queen revealed this to you? She has seen this?”
Amele squeezed his brother’s shoulders at the almost fearful resurrection of genuine hope revealed in Gabriel’s gaze. “Yes. I have not shared with you on my previous visits the queen’s caution at the birth of the princess’ older sons that none of them would be the one to return. I feared it would mean we might be forced to await the birth of a new generation before we saw the king’s rightful blood restored to the throne of our home. If such was the case, it is likely neither of us would have lived to see such a glorious day, but now I know the day of our redemption has arrived. The promise keeper is born.”
“What is his name that I may include him in my petitions to the Almighty to keep watch over his young life, and that he may grow in strength and the wisdom needed to restore Calei to its days of grandeur?”
“Michel. The newborn king’s name is Michel.”
The Promise Keeper
**Cover Design by Melissa Alvarez, BookCovers.Us Cover Photography: Depositphotos.com/luminastock/Oleksminyaylo1/msdnv1/olly18/exinocactus/