“Illuminated” Chapter 1 by Jackie Castle

“Illuminated” Chapter 1 by Jackie Castle

The White Road Chronicles

Book One


Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.

But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life,

and only a few find it.

Matthew 7:13-14 NIV

Chapter 1

The rake’s weathered handle left splinters despite the many callouses covering her palms. The girl stopped her work a moment to dig one of the larger ones out. Once her hands were soft and adorned with jewels, her clothing made of the finest silks and satins. Now she wore stained linen skirts that allowed winter’s biting cold to chill her bones.

Her choice to walk away from her royal position, and she’d not allow herself to regret making that choice. Even if she missed her fur coats and soft bed on days such as this. Oh, and the stunning view of the sun setting behind the mountain ranges. Her stomach rumbled. She’d not think about the delectable dishes she and King Darnel, her so-called, not-real-father, used to share.

“Stop right now.” She banged the rake’s prongs against the stone floor. Even thinking his despicable name sent worse chills down her back than the cold did. No, she’d not think about what she no longer had. She’d only consider the possibility of one day making an escape. Somehow, somewhere, someway, there was a means to get down the mountain.

She refocused on the task at hand. If Ben, the dungeon master, walked in on her simply standing around, he might use the switch on her again. The girl chewed on her bottom lip, forcing her thoughts to not wander. She had to get back on Ol’ Ben’s good side. Had to.

A beam of morning sunlight filtered in through one of the high windows in the holding room of the prison. Yes, she had to keep her thoughts on the good. For now, she was free of her cruel step-father. Or as free as she could get at the moment. Until she found a way to escape.

At least here, despite the musty odor and dusty air of the abandoned-stables-turned-prison-cells, she had much more freedom than when she lived in the lush rooms of the castle. With him.

She continued to sweep out what were once stalls for horses and other livestock. Now the area was used to hold new slaves captured from the neighboring towns Darnel’s forces had overtaken.

Ben insisted she get every last one cleaned out and ready for the fresh batch of “guests” as he liked to call them. Just a play on words, far as she was concerned. They were slaves and nothing less. Poor souls snatched from their homes and dragged here to help Darnel build his mountain fortress that towered over the city called Racah.

A fresh breeze blasted in, ruffling her skirts and sending another freezing chill through her. A shadow fell across the newly swept floor.

 “Hey, love.”

She spun toward the voice. Tarek, the pesky huntsmen, stood in the doorway. Two pheasants hung by their legs from a strip of leather tied around his belt. Her eyes narrowed on him as she wondered if he’d been poaching again. She hadn’t seen him around in the past few weeks. After their last row, she had begun to think he’d finally taken her advice to leave her alone.

Guess she was wrong.

He wore the brown trousers and gray shirt of the hunters’ uniform. His unfathomable green eyes studied her as he took in the work she had done. Long, wheat-colored hair fell across his pinched brows and over the collar of his tunic. She absolutely hated how her heart always gave a bit of a lurch when she saw him. As if he should matter to her somehow. Especially when he called her by those infuriating pet names.

“Go away, hunter, I’m working.”

Like her, he was a captured slave. Unlike her, he liked living in Racah compared to the poor town he came from. At least he knew, not only where he came from, but his name and that he was nineteen summers in age.

Somehow, all her memories of where she came from, of her home and family, and most annoying, her name, were completely gone. She guessed her own age to be around seventeen summers by reasoning that she came to Racah when she was but a very young girl. For ten years, she’d been called Princess, the only name she had to go by, even now. According to the marks she made on her cell wall, she’d been working in the dungeon for almost a year.

She sighed, thinking too much made her fractured mind hurt.

Oh, once in a while, she dreamed of a beautiful country with green, rolling hills and of riding on a man’s shoulder towards a city with white gates. But the dreams were fleeting like the morning mist that clung to the mountain’s dull, gray peaks.

Tarek pushed open the door. A wave of cool air swirled in, stirring up dust and flecks of old hay. “Ben wants you to bring a bucket of water out to the new arrivals. Right now.”

She glared at Tarek, wishing he’d leave her alone. Of all the servant girls working the castle, why did he enjoy spying on her? And mocking her with that sarcastic nickname. Love. She wasn’t silly enough to think he meant anything intimate by it. He called most girls that. But the way he spoke the word to her made her uncomfortable.

After replacing the tool on its peg, she grabbed her thin cloak before heading outside.

Tarek blocked the exit, leaning against the frame with his strong arms crossed over his broad chest. He always smelled of pines and crisp mountain winds. “Seems like this new group has traveled a long way. Something about them must be important if you ask me.” The green of his irises reminded her of the woods he loved so much.

They also reminded her of something else. Memories of moonlit trees, a crackling fire, yet feeling extremely warm, despite the cool mountain air. Her cheeks burned when those thoughts entered her mind. She quickly pushed them aside.

“I didn’t ask you.” Why did he think she cared, anyway? She brushed past him and hurried toward the community pump. The charcoal-gray castle towered hundreds of feet above, the stone walls blending into the cliffs. Below, nestled amongst the crags and plateaus, lay Racah, a network of stone buildings and forlorn homes surrounded by high ramparts and steep peaks.

Tarek trailed her like a lost puppy. “That Baycock captain, the creepy one they call Bezoar, brought them in himself.”

She froze mid-step and almost stumbled. Her breath caught for a second over the disgust of having to meet the inhuman creature-man today. Grabbing the pail, she set it under the spout. Fine. She’d take the water down to Ben, then hurry back to finish cleaning the cell. Her splintered hand burned when she grasped the lever and pumped.

Tarek leaned closer until the scent of woods and sweat enveloped her. “And,” he whispered, “your father is out there.”

The blood in her veins froze, and she feared he’d notice the blood draining from her face. Slipping the mask of indifference back in place, she gave the pump two more good pulls. Darnel was not… nor ever would be… her father!

“Aren’t you supposed to be out hunting for tonight’s banquet? Or helping your mother in the kitchen?” He leaned back, and she let her irritation add a bite to her voice. “Wonder what Darnel would say if he found out you were shirking your own responsibilities to play messenger boy?”

His face darkened. Eyes narrowed, he hissed, “King Darnel. And Ben sent me to fetch you, so that’s what I’m doing.”

“Such a good little lapdog you are. Why don’t you go fetch a bone or dig a hole and leave me to my own work?” She took up the pail handle and made her way toward the front of the building, where Ben would be waiting.

“Princess, wait!”

Though it was the only name anyone ever called her, she hated being called Princess. And Tarek knew it. She spun and glared at him. “Don’t call me that!”

If he wanted to play mean, she could play mean. She glanced down at the pheasants on his belt. The ones he had not turned in to the kitchen, and smirked. “Well, well, well, look who’s still poaching King Darnel’s game.”

Poaching was illegal, but that didn’t stop Tarek from breaking the rules. Nor the other hunters from what she’d heard. That was one of the things that irritated her the most: he was always getting on her back for rebelling against Darnel, but all the while he did the same.

Tarek hesitated for a moment at her unspoken threat, then he advanced on her, frightening her, though she tried not to show it. His voice lowered as he jabbed his finger toward her face. “If you say a word about it to anyone, I’ll tell the king about your wanderings in the forest.”

Her eyes widened. He meant her searching for a way out of Racah. Darnel would be furious if he knew. How did Tarek know? Then her eyes narrowed. He had been spying on her again! It was the only explanation. Sneaky, traitorous pawn! She’d never understood his devotion to the king. At least he had not already turned her in.

“Fine,” she agreed grudgingly. He stood straighter, and she added, “But don’t call me Princess.” She’d told him that again and again. She doubted he’d listen this time.

But he nodded. “I won’t.”

She’d see how long that promise lasted. “And don’t spy on me anymore!” She was always careful not to be seen searching the tunnels and the woods. What if someone saw Tarek wandering through the woods on his own and followed him to her?

Tarek rolled his eyes. He never took her seriously. She spun and continued taking the water to where Ben waited with the new arrivals.

The weight of the bucket lightened as Tarek held the handle from the opposite side. She was surprised at his help. He usually just stood by and watched her work, studying her with his unreadable, striking green eyes. Judging her, no doubt. She stared straight ahead, not wanting to see his expression. Not wanting him to see hers.

“Food stores are getting low,” Tarek’s voice didn’t rise above a whisper. “And servants like my family are the first to suffer. Our hunting trips get longer and farther out just to bring in enough meat for the king’s table, much less a banquet like he’s throwing tonight.”

Her steps slowed, and his pace matched her stride. She was surprised at his words, surprised at this rare glimpse of his serious side. She might like him better if he was real with her more often. Most of the time, she got the impression he was hiding something from her. When he wasn’t being condescending. She hated that most of all, when he treated her like she was a child. He may be older than her by two years, but she had seen things he’d never imagined. Things that would give him nightmares and change his allegiance in an instant if he knew.

His voice softened even more, and she had to strain to hear it. “I’m not trying to cause trouble. I only want to help my family.”

That was one thing she liked about him: his loyalty to his family. She was jealous of him in that. She had no family to be loyal to. Darnel was not her father, though he claimed to be. She glanced at the hunter. “I know. I won’t tell, Tarek.”

He blew out a long breath and looked relieved. “Thank you.”

A sense of quiet understanding, even if only momentarily, settled between them as they walked. When the group came into view, nearly fifty people dressed in ragged clothing, she paused to gather her wits and steady her panicked thoughts. Just as Tarek had said, Bezoar and Darnel both attended this group’s arrival. Why?

“He’s not my father,” she said, gazing at the evil man who had adopted her. Stolen her, though she knew not from where. She used to call him Poppy at one time, but not anymore. Now she called him Master and nothing else. He hated her name for him, but no more than she hated the mocking name he’d given her.

Why was Darnel wearing his finest attire to greet a bunch of shoddy prisoners? His deep purple button-down coat was trimmed in silver thread. His polished black boots stopped just below his knees. Upon his head sat a gaudy silver crown, encrusted with rubies and emeralds. Was she really the only one who thought he looked ridiculous?

Tarek’s brow arched. “What?”

“I wasn’t born to him.” Her brow furrowed as she tried again to remember her true home, her true parents. If only she could remember! “I came from another place, like them. And like you. This isn’t my true home.” She chewed on her lip as she puzzled once more over her lost past.

When she came out of her reverie, Tarek was staring at her, his pale brows furrowed in confusion. “It’s really not so bad here, love.”

Her jaw clenched, and she forced it to slacken. It wasn’t worth arguing with him again. She knew he thought she was crazy for living in the dungeons rather than the castle. He needn’t say it again. She could never make him understand; he would never realize how evil Darnel was behind his brilliant mind and perfect smile.

Tarek was still talking. “I’m better off than I used to be. My family now has work, food to eat, decent shelter. Where we came from, nothing grew. Everyone was starving.”

She held back a sigh. No, he’d never understand. “Good for you.”

“It’s not just me, sweetheart.” He brushed away the blond bangs from his face with his free hand. “Look at them. Their clothes are torn, ragged. Bet they will be glad, as well, once they see serving the king is the best choice to make.”

Best choice? She shook her head. Who had a choice in the matter? One either served the king or they were fed to his pet dragon. Some choice.

She pulled the bucket from Tarek’s grasp, hoping he’d catch the hint and go away. Thankfully, he did. When he fell behind, she paused, needing to completely clear her mind. Concentrating on an old waltzing song she’d heard once, she headed for the gathering.

Bezoar sat on his huge black steed. He resembled a living skeleton with grayish skin that clung to his thin body like a grubby, wet sheet. His long, bony fingers curled around a leather whip hanging from the saddle horn. Deep-set, yellow eyes peered from beneath the hood of his gray cloak.

“Sire,” the Baycock hissed, pointing to a man thrown over the back of a packhorse. “Along with the herd of livestock we procured from the spoils, this messenger was a bonus. He’s been spreading his propaganda amongst the towns in the valley plains. I ordered his life spared for the time being. You did request I bring such filth to you when we found them.”

Darnel chuckled with satisfaction. “Yes, that is a bonus, my good captain. Any time we can stop such liars is indeed fortunate.”

Keeping the silent melody playing, Princess moved toward the group of people, making sure the dungeon master, Ben, was between herself and Master Darnel.

Ben wore his colorful robes, the purple, red, and yellow striped fabric billowing in the breeze. As she approached, she noticed his hand gripping his cane so tightly his chestnut-colored skin paled. Though Ben was known to have a terrible temper, age and arthritis had tamed his angry outbursts. Since she’d taken over many of his responsibilities, he generally treated her decently so long as she did what he asked. More importantly, he ignored her long disappearances while she searched new tunnels for a way of escape.

Ben nodded toward the chained group and ordered in his deep, throaty voice, “Give ’em something to drink, girl.”

She cringed, realizing a quick retreat wouldn’t be possible.

Behind the messenger’s horse stood a long line of men, women, and children, all thin and haggard. Their condition most likely resulted from their trek across the barren land that surrounded the mountains. The castle itself, built into the heart of the cliffs, was nearly impenetrable, as well as inescapable. Climbing the only road leading into the city was difficult on horseback… and even more so on foot. No telling how long they’d gone without food or rest. Bezoar didn’t concern himself with such human needs.

The prisoners clustered around her, eager to soothe their dry mouths. They grasped the ladle greedily with their scraped, bloody hands. Princess avoided looking at the scared expressions on the children’s dirty faces as they gulped the cool water. Yet one dark-haired girl, near the age of five, reminded her of the first time she’d entered this forsaken city.

Had the same look of terror been in her own eyes? 

Princess dared a glance toward the man strapped on the packhorse. He raised his bruised head. A long cut streaked down the side of his cheek. With his one not-swollen eye, he stared at his surroundings in defiance. A gold medallion hung from his neck.

Her breath caught from her heart lodging in her throat. Forgetting the prisoners, Princess stepped closer. Water sloshed over the rim of the bucket and onto her feet. She steadied it, then handed it to the eldest man in the group to hold. She had to see that pendant.

The messenger’s face softened when he caught sight of her staring. She quickly turned, unnerved by the look in his eyes, like he knew exactly what she was thinking.

She risked a glance at Darnel. He stood tall, a smile plastered on his smooth, handsome face.

Several large, brutish men flanked him. They must be the newly appointed governors who would run the new towns in the Wilds. Rumor had it they were being formally presented with their new positions at tonight’s banquet.

She shuddered when one of the governors grinned at her and elbowed the somewhat familiar-looking trollish-man standing beside him. They whispered something, then broke into chuckles, all the while never taking their eyes off her.

Princess’ stomach twisted with concern over what they found so humorous. She took the bucket from the elder and stood to the side, searching Ben’s face to see if he’d give her the go-ahead to take the group inside. Ben remained a statue.

Darnel motioned to his men. “Release the messenger so he may stand with our other guests.” His mocking smile widened.

Two soldiers untied the messenger’s hands and feet and shoved him off the horse headfirst. He crashed to the ground with a loud groan. Another soldier grabbed the pail from her and tossed the remaining water in the man’s face. He staggered to his feet.

His nicely tailored clothes were bloodied and torn. Dirt caked his beard. The medallion hung outside his shirt, the symbol of a horn glinting in the morning sun.

The disk was similar, yet different. What could that mean?

Darnel stepped closer, scanning the group. His probing stare pierced her, despite all attempts not to look, her gaze was finally drawn to his cold gray eyes. Hate-filled laughter sounded inside her head. She closed her eyes and jerked her head away, trying to think, to fill her mind with the song so she could not hear him.

“How fortunate,” Darnel addressed the crowd, “for all of you to come at this exciting time in the history of my empire. We are, this very day, in the process of establishing new cities and villages on the western frontier. And you fortunate ones are to be among the first to inhabit them.”

Now she understood why Bezoar and the governors were there. This group would be forced to build those cities. Maybe that was the reason behind his increased attacks on the borderlands. He needed more slaves to send out west where he hoped to increase his kingdom. She gazed toward the rising sun, knowing something hindered his progress in that direction. Something that plagued her dreams and pulled at her heartstrings.

“My territory is expanding. My governors and I,” Darnel waved to the beast-men standing behind him, “are discussing how best to achieve this. We will be giving you the privilege to join my quest to revive these lands under my rule.”

Like they’d really be given a choice? Princess shook her head and muttered, “Working as slave laborers.” With a gasp, she snapped her mouth closed.

Those standing around her whispered to each other. They’d heard her! An outburst like that might result in a lashing. She chewed her lip, daring a glance at Ben, whose brown eyes narrowed on her in silent warning.

The messenger’s voice boomed over Darnel’s speech. “Lies! Do not fall for this imposter’s deception.”

The closest soldier shoved the butt of his spear into the man’s gut. “Shut up, fool!”

The man fell to his knees, wheezing. Princess gaped at him. He’d be the dragon’s supper first if he didn’t quit.

The messenger took in a hoarse breath and continued, “Resist him! For the army of the true King is at hand! Do not give in to this evil traitor and his ways! Stand firm while time remains.” He leaped to his feet and darted out of the soldier’s reach. His steel-gray eyes scanned the frightened prisoners.

Don’t listen to the ranting of a fool, Daughter! Darnel’s voice rasped in her head. She flinched and tried once again to control her thoughts. The man continued talking, but she couldn’t separate his words from Master’s.

“The time of this evil one’s reign…”

Foolish girl, have you not learned your lesson yet? Darnel stood still as a statue, an amused expression on his calm face. His cruel eyes flicked in her direction. I would be prepared to forgive your insolence and restore you to your rightful position.

Her head pounded from trying to block his thoughts.

“…his army approaches as I speak,” continued Messenger.

Return to me, Daughter, rule by my side as I’ve always intended for you.

The snap of Bezoar’s whip cracked the air as it tore into the messenger’s back. He flicked again, and another streak ripped open the man’s shirt and skin. He doubled over, going down on his knees in the mud.

“Enough,” hissed Bezoar, drawing his sword from its sheath. “I’ll take care of this, Sire.”

Heart racing, Princess stepped between the hooded creature and the crouching man. “The dragon hasn’t been fed in a while.” She met Darnel’s arctic glare. Her mouth went dry at her own audacity. She’d have been better off staying out of the way and keeping as quiet as possible. But she couldn’t let them kill the messenger. Not yet. “The dragon doesn’t care if he’s crazy or not. She’ll eat him all the same.”

The people standing around her gasped.

The eldest prisoner, hair white as snow and body thin like branches of a tree, spoke up. “Perhaps we should listen to the Messenger.” He pointed a dirty finger at Darnel. “That tyrant took our livelihoods and ordered our town and fields to be burnt to the ground. Now he says he wants us to help rebuild new ones? Shoulda left us alone in the first place!”

Darnel closed the distance between himself and the old man. His hand clamped around the prisoner’s neck. “I did you a favor. Your homes were crumbling, you had meager provisions—”

“That’s ’cause you’ve stripped this land of all that’s good. I remember what it was like. I remember when we followed King Shay—”

With one quick movement, a dagger appeared in Darnel’s hand and swept across the man’s neck, splattering the bystanders in blood. The old man crumpled at Master’s feet, a red puddle seeped into the ground.

Burning bile rose in Princess’ throat and she fought back the urge to retch. No matter how many times she saw pools of blood, she’d still not grown used to the horrid sight.

Darnel, ignoring the screams coming from the onlookers, turned to Ben, his gray eyes flashing with rage. “I’ll expect you to convince them to accept my offer. If there are others who wish to join the messenger at the dragon’s dinner, do not hesitate to comply.”

Ben nodded and motioned for a couple of soldiers to escort the group inside. Bezoar ordered the body to be dumped in the pit and the Messenger to be taken to the lower dungeon cells until the dragon’s feeding time.

Princess moved to follow Ben, but a strong hand clamped down on her arm. Darnel yanked her around so she faced him.

“It’s your fault that man died.”

He’d held the dagger, not her! She started to protest, but he cut off her words.

“Stupid child. When will you learn that I mean to sever anyone and anything who denies my authority? If you continue to resist me, I will find other means of curbing your disloyalty.”

From behind her, the messenger yelled, “Don’t give in; freedom is at hand!” She turned and watched as the soldiers dragged him to the dungeon.

Darnel gripped her chin, his fingers still wet with the old man’s blood. He turned her face back to him. “You are running out of time, Daughter. My patience with you wanes.”

“Will you also feed me to the dragon, Master?” She spat. His fingers dug deeper into her jaw until she wanted to cry out. 

The messenger’s chants of freedom filled her heart and emboldened her to stand her ground.

“I’ll not give you such an easy way out, my dear.” He shoved her away, then he strolled toward the castle with his governors following. The troll-man kept looking back over his shoulder at her, smirking.

Princess reached a trembling hand into the inner pocket she’d sewn into all her skirts and pulled out a small golden disk which fit perfectly inside her sweaty palm. A tree was embossed on one side. The other had a flame surrounded by what might be a burst of light. Her medallion was similar to the messenger’s, yet his showed a horn.

“For freedom!” he continued to chant from the dungeons. Suddenly, the sound of a loud smack brought complete silence from within.

There wasn’t much time. She needed to hurry.

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