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Excerpt from Lauren Harrell's

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Somewhere, one hundred miles from Bwenaden, early trading season

Her pale, icy hands shook with fear. For a moment, Princess Everley Analena-Remarsia almost forgot about what had happened two days ago. She shielded her face with her black cloak, covering her strawberry blond hair and blending into the night. A silent shadow watched her from behind the revealing moonlight, moving with the agility of a fox yet with the power of a bear.
Her eyes were wet with unshed tears, angry with what her parents had done to her kingdom and throne. Her heart beat faster than its normal rate, and her side panged after running for two days. A faint light caught her eye and she stopped to catch her breath. She could see her mother’s curly blond hair wrapped around her shoulders and her beautiful golden crown set delicately on her slender head. She could hear her sweet, buttery voice, leaning forward to lay a delicate kiss on her forehead. But Bwenaden was now over one hundred miles away, it would be foolish to turn back.
Everley began to run once more. She tripped over a prickly branch and fell onto the soft, wet ground, snagging her elegant evergreen gown. Hearing a frightening noise behind her, she swung her head around. Pitch black.
She clinched the letter her mother had given her before she had left, before the Witch Woman had summoned her to Maralenna; before her father king was stabbed through the heart by some unimaginable, gruesome being; before the kingdom was attacked by so many enemies all at once; before her mother fled and abandoned her duty; before the queen, her once loving mother, wrote that she, forgotten and alone, would be remembered in a forest village.
The Witch Woman, Jaspina, the aunt she had never known until now, would be waiting for her in the horsetrading village of Maralenna, a country deep in the protective forest. Jaspina knew of a simple family who would care for Everley until the war was over. “Esrin and Anaya Jadesen, and their strapping young stable hand Rhincie Noles…” words that Jaspina had written and Everley had memorized.
The chilling sound of a wolf frightened the princess and she rose to her feet. Visions of the night creatures caused Everley to bite her bottom lip in terror, drawing icy blood. Her lip quivered with the touch of the nipping wind. She ran faster than she had before, but this time in more fear than she had many hours ago. She could smell smoke rising from a chimney in the distance, and she made a head for it.

She remembered her mother’s last words before she abandoned her husband’s grave, and her frightened daughter: “Be brave, my dearest daughter. Do not let evil grab you by your heels and pull you down with its deceit…” They would be the kindest words she would hear for a very, very long time.

The smoke wasn’t as far as she imagined, and a quaint little cottage could be seen in the clearing. Everley’s feet were bleeding from running barefoot the rest of the way after losing her slippers. In front of the cottage, a handsome young boy was carrying a basket full of bloody pig heads, no doubt the family’s breakfast for the next morning.

Afraid of any creature lurching out to kill her, Everley raced toward the cottage and flung herself on the ground at the boy’s feet. “Please”—she tried to say, but her throat was so dry with blood and breathlessness. The boy gazed behind Everley, his eyes grew large, and he dropped his basket, dragging in Everley’s limp body into the cottage doorway and slamming the door.

There was a vicious clawing on the door, and angry growling. Whatever was out wanted in, and wanted Everley’s body as prey. The boy carried her to a small chair, and left, and was back shortly with a glass of water. “You’re safe now, girl. Those Windmaires won’t get your skin now.”

Everley coughed and breathed heavily. When she had finally caught her breath she cleared her throat. “Windmaires?”

“The sorceress’s ghostly spirits. You would be living in hell if they caught you.”

“Sorceress?”
The boy glanced around the small room as if seeing if the other members of the family were listening. The sound of the beasts from outside halted as the new sound of the devilish creatures ate the pig’s heads. “Those were for breakfast, you devils!” the boy hollered at the door, shaking an angry fist. He turned back to Everley, “Morlana Fallvalene. She’s called the Blackwidow because of her deathly sting if she catches you.”
Everley swallowed.
“Oh, don’t worry. They have never been able to catch me—but they have bitten by leg before”—he lifted the bottom of his long trousers, revealing a deep scar—“It stung worse than a hornet. Their teeth were fiery, piercing through my skin and halfway through my bone. It took years to heal.”
“How old?”
“Six. Barely old ‘nough to understand what Windmaires were.”
Everley glanced at the door. Teeth and claw marks brutally damaged the once finely painted wood. “Had to replace the door twice; this is our third one,” the boy continued, following Everley’s stare.

Seeing she was still uncomfortable, he stuck out a thickly callused hand. “I’m Rhincie, Rhincie Noles.”

Everley half-smiled and accepted his hand. “I’m Prin—” she started but decided not to say her title. “Evey.”

“Evey? Sounds very royal, you don’t happen to be—?” he started but didn’t finish. “I like it.”

“Rhincie, what are you doing in the house?” the sound of a woman’s voice came from behind.

Rhincie whispered to Evey, “That’s Anaya Jadesen, but me and the Maralenna folks call her Anny”—he turned to the woman standing in the kitchen doorway with a lighted lamp in her hand, and the other hand resting on her hip—“The Windmaires, Anny. I rescued Evey from them.”

“In the middle of the night? What nerve, boy! Girl, make yourself useful—” she started then realized Evey’s bloody feet and dark eyes. “You been running, haven’t you, girl?”

Though she wanted a haughty reply for the woman talking to a princess in her manner, Evey shrugged and tried to follow Rhincie’s Maralennan accent. “Yes’m.”

“Well,” she gave Rhincie a nasty glare, “Best get a bucket of warm water for your feet. Must’ve been running all day and night, s’pose.”

The sound of the Windmaires’ howls disappeared as they fled into the distance. “Those dogs ate my pig heads!” Anny shrieked, looking out the small window. She shook an angry fist, “Next time, I’ll poison them, you hear? You’ll eat them and die before you’ve gotten ‘nother chance to take your last cursed bite!”

Rhincie half-smiled as Anny left the room. Evey’s head was spinning, “Rhincie—” she started for a warning, but as she was about to pass out onto the cold, wooden floor, she felt his strong arms catch her like a mother holding a newborn babe.



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