By Shawna Thomas
The carriage jostled on the rutted road, further bruising Jareth’s already sore backside. He much preferred riding or even walking to a closed carriage, but he didn’t want to risk being recognized. Not now. He reached for the small package deep in his coat pocket and realized he’d done so at least two dozen times since retrieving it. As it had each time, his breath caught as he unwrapped the tattered cloth to stare at the plain brown heart-shaped box.
It was small, but heavy for its size, easily fitting in the palm of his hand. It was an unassuming box, unless you had the magic to sense what lay within. Jareth ran his hand over the smooth wood. Words flickered to life in the wake of his touch. Although he recognized the ancient language, they disappeared before he could decipher their meaning. He didn’t have enough magic to make them stay.
He didn’t, but she did.
Would Calli think he brought her a blessing or a curse? He shook his head, staring at the fine mahogany grain of the wood. “Power, so much power.”
Was she ready for it? He took a deep breath, letting determination fill him as he exhaled. It was time. He’d witnessed her power over the years. Small things. Her ability to heal the animals in the surrounding woods. Her knack for always knowing which herb to use. She didn’t have a clue. Of that he was certain.
Jareth sighed. He hated when Calli left the security of the walled manor, but not even his stern warnings could keep her in. She’d so charmed most of his guards, they let her wander at will but followed at a discrete distance. It was perhaps dangerous, but even he had a problem denying her anything. She was his world. Besides, they were so far removed for the nearest village and no one here knew he was anything more than a reclusive lord. Once one of the guards had frightened a small fawn and she had so scolded the battle-hardened man that he’d returned red faced and ashamed.
She had a power over men too. A born ruler.
He closed his eyes, once again smelling smoke, the clang of swords, and the screaming. Jareth swallowed past a dry throat. He’d been his outer chamber, collecting ancient scrolls to make a hasty escape when the door had burst open. He’d expected his death but found his king wild-eyed and frantic, thrusting a wrapped bundle in his arms as the halls echoed with thunder.
He’d followed the king’s instructions to the letter, not stopping until he’d traveled the underground passages and followed the river to the small fisher’s shack. He’d carefully unwrapped the bundle, already guessing what was inside. She’d been so tiny, so perfect. They’d drugged her with niander leaf and she still slept peacefully. Her tiny chest moved in a steady rhythm. He remembered wondering if she could fathom that her life had just changed.
Inside the bundle he’d found enough gems to run a small country for a lifetime, provisions for the baby, a scroll and the wooden box. Jareth hadn’t needed to open the box. He was the court historian. He knew what was inside.
Written in the king’s hasty scratching, the scroll warned him to hide the box and the baby far away from each other until the time was right and to keep her safe at all cost.
Was the time right? He was only an historian, a failed one at that. How was he supposed to know the time was right? He quickly replaced the box and closed his eyes.
Would she hate him for lying to her? That was his biggest fear. She thought she was the daughter of an eccentric minor lord, not the heir to the kingdom. He leaned against the jostling seat and closed his eyes, letting the weariness of the last few weeks lull him to sleep.
It took him a moment to realize the screams had not followed him from his dreams. His limbs went cold. Men shouted. The carriage was under attack. He peeked out the curtained window. They were not far from the manor. Calli.
A horse screamed followed by the sibilance of steel. He drew his own short sword. He’d asked his men to teach him the finer points of self defense, just in case. From the sounds coming from outside the carriage, he wasn’t wrong.
A thud hit the carriage a moment later. The box. He had to get the box to safety. If it fell into the wrong hands... Acid coated his stomach.
His heart leapt in his chest. What was Calli doing out here?
Jareth kicked open the carriage door and rolled outside. His men battled twice their number. The attackers resembled bandits, except for their first class weapons and skill. An arrow flew overhead and thudded into the carriage wall behind him.
Two men ran into the forest toward where Calli had screamed. He ran after them. Fire pierced his thigh. He stared in stunned disbelief at the fletching sticking out of his leg. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he forced himself to keep going.
He whirled in time to block a downward arc of a sword and swiped blindly with his knife. The spray of blood almost surprised him. The man crumpled. He surveyed his surroundings as though in a dream. Where was Calli? Fewer of his men fought and more bodies littered the road. Lost. He had to get the box to safety.
Calli emerged from the forest between two men. He raced forward. A dull thud sounded and something hit him from behind. He looked down, shocked to see an arrow piercing his chest. He dropped to his knees and began to crawl toward his daughter.
“Papa.” The word was almost whispered yet he felt the reverberations of it through the ground. The heart-shaped box in his pocket jumped as though it was a living thing. The bloodstone. Blood calling to blood. That’s why the king wanted it far from his daughter. It recognized her. Filled with the blood and power of her ancestors, it now called to her.
It was the same tone she used when she’d found two young guards teasing one of the kitchen boys in the yard. Only this time, the air vibrated with power. The bandits froze and then crumpled to the ground. He was close enough to see confusion replace the fear in Calli’s eyes and then she was hovering over him.
“Papa.” She sobbed.
He reached for the heart-shaped box in his pocket. “Your birthright.” Every breath hurt and his words gurgled in his throat.
“Papa, don’t leave me. They attacked the manor. I escaped into the woods but I heard your carriage. Everyone is dead. Papa.”
As though from far away, he felt his head moved to her lap. Tears pooled in her pale green eyes.
Jareth reached up and touched her face. “I have loved you.”
“Don’t.” She offered a wobbly smile. “We’ll get you to a healer. You’re going to be fine.”
He smiled and pressed the box into her hands. She gasped as he felt the magic within surge.
“Your birthright,” he repeated. “Show it to no one. Find Elodia.”
The world began to darken. He decided the box was both a blessing and a curse.
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