The cowbell on the gate cut through the music. Mela’s mom stopped in the middle of a sentence. Glanced at dad. He looked sharply at Verry, who set his fiddle against the wall and disappeared inside. Lyran caught Mela’s hand and the two stepped back into the shadows. Her brother returned carrying two crossbows as the three strangers reached the light coming from the porch.
“You’re trespassing on private property.” Her dad and brother aimed at the mercenaries to either side of a cloaked man.
The man held up both hands. “We mean no harm. I am Kippis, Wizard of Kospora. My companions are King’s Guards, Tatkin and Doresse. Have we reached the farm of Lennert of Lomn?”
Dad nodded stiffly, but didn’t lower his crossbow. “I’m Lennert.”
Mela’s brow furrowed. Kospora had no king. Hadn’t in hundreds of years. And wizards were the stuff of stories.
Kippis smiled. “We’re seeking someone very important to all of Kospora. A great danger has arisen in the South. We’ve seen signs that the Shayden are rebuilding their army. The winds bring tales that they’ve uncovered an old grimoire and seek to raise terrors last seen in the War of Etwese to reclaim their power.
“Here in Kospora, a new generation of wizards has reformed the Council of the Enlightened. Just like the wizards of old, they are sworn to do everything they can to protect our kingdom. Our land stands to this day only because King Illys, Ninth of his Name, unlocked the seals of Xew and awoke the Winter Knights from their eternal slumber.
“Only one of his bloodline would be able to repeat that feat. My brethren and I scour the land, chasing rumors. Studying town records to find any trace of the remnants of his line. One of my colleagues, a great seer, consulted the stars, the cards, the runes. All auguries agree: we seek an orphan living somewhere in the Okerns.”
Lyran and Mela exchanged an excited look. Nothing ever happened in the sleepy, agrarian Okerns.
“Unfortunately, auguries being what they are, they could give no better advice. But we have other resources and those led us here. We believe your niece Lyran could be the one week seek.”
Everyone turned to stare at Lyran, who shook her head. Her hand crushed Mela’s.
Lennert snorted. “Lyran’s hardly an orphan. My brother is still quite alive.”
As far as they knew. A sailor’s life was never guaranteed. But then again, no one’s was.
“But her mother?” Kippis asked, an eyebrow quirked. “Died in childbirth, no? Do you know her line? Her family’s history?”
Their parents exchanged a look that clearly showed how startled they were by the question.
“They were from the next village over. Of course, we knew them.”
The wizard and his companions exchanged a significant look.
“Knew. As in dead? Bennan said the line had dwindled,” Kippis said, more to his companions than the family. Lyran’s grip tightened on her hand. Mela glanced over and caught her pleading look.
“But Lyran is not an orphan. She cannot be the one you’re looking for,” she said.
Their mom smiled. Wrinkles smoothing on her face. “My daughter speaks the truth. Lyran has a father and family. We can’t help you.”
The wizard’s hand fluttered dismissively. “Oracles are vague. They might not have meant ‘orphan.’ Orphan might have been the only word they could find for motherless and abandoned by her father.”
Mom’s lips thinned. Dad’s eyes narrowed. They’d raised Lyran since birth, and Mela knew they considered her as much their child and Mela and her brother. How dare these strangers barge in here and judge her family?
“My brother did not abandon his child.” Dad’s voice was steely. Lyran’s free left hand went to the pendant hanging around her throat. Uncle Tavall sent it for Lyran’s birthday only five months back when she turned fifteen.
“We do have a way to prove the Methinald bloodline.” The wizard swung his pack around, shoved his hand down into the depths, and withdrew an object wrapped in a shimmery purple silk.
The fabric unwound to reveal a silver coronet shaped like a bird. A crow. They were sacred in Kospora. The Methinald kings had taken crows as their sigil. Its head bent to the side and beak opened to clasp a brilliant ruby. Wings spread to either side creating the round sides of the coronet.
“This was the coronet of the king-to-be. Upon the head of the chosen heir of the land, the stone will glow.” Eyebrows raised, he held the coronet up and faced Lyran.
She made a tiny squeak of dismay that Mela didn’t think anyone else heard. Their parents looked at each other.
Mela slipped her hand free and took the coronet. The wizard frowned, but he let her take it. She gave Lyran a funny smile, meant to be reassuring, as she set the coronet on Lyran’s head.
Tension slipped from Mela’s shoulders. The silver coronet sat there and did noth–a faint red glow appeared in the heart of the ruby. Startled, she took a step back. Watching the hope die in Lyran’s eyes broke her heart.
The wizard and his companions fell to their knees. “Your Highness.”
Her cousin ripped the coronet off her head and stared at the now brightly glowing ruby. The light faded in her hands.
“I’m not.” She shot beseeching looks at their parents, at Mela.
Kippis stood slowly. “My dear, you are the hope of all Kospora. Without you, the Shayden will swallow us whole. You must come with us to Kressler.”
“Now wait a minute here,” dad said. “You’re not taking my niece anywhere.”
“Sir, please hear what we are saying. We’re not the only ones looking for her. We can’t be. The Shayden know that only one of the Methinald can summon the Winter Knights. They were winning in the War of Etwese until Illys brought the Winter Knights into the war. Without the Knights, we don’t stand a chance and they know it.
“What better way to ensure our loss than kill off every last Methinald? Can you protect her when Shadows slip into your farm in the dark of night, armed with their blackblades, crawling across your ceilings to her bedroom?
“Are you and your son crack shots with those crossbows and proficient in swordplay? I don’t think your village has so much as a lawman. Do you know anyone in a fifty-mile radius skilled in any sort of combat? Do you think they’ll assassinate only Lyran? You have an entire family to protect.”
Dad’s face had creased into a worried frown, but at those last words he glowered. “You think I would sacrifice my niece to protect my other children?”
“No, of course not. That’s not what I meant.” The wizard shook his head.
“He only meant if you let us protect Lyran, all your loved ones will be safe. Lyran included,” the guard Doresse said.
“This isn’t something to decide tonight–”
“But the Shayden–”
“If they kill us all in our sleep tonight, feel free to gloat,” dad said. “Kids, it’s time for bed.”
He took the coronet from Lyran and shoved it back into the hands of the wizard. She pivoted and dashed into the house. Mela hurried after her. Her cousin’s feet pounded down the hall overhead before she reached the stairs.
Though she ran upstairs, her cousin was already in bed, under the covers. Tossing looks over her shoulder every few minutes at her still and quiet cousin, she undressed and turned out the light.
“I am NOT leaving.”
“It might be safest.”
An outraged huff. “You would send me away with them?”
“If they’re right–”
“I can’t believe you.”
Mela threw a pillow at her. “Would you let me talk? That crown lit up. You’re not safe here. If the South’s really rising, they will send assassins for you. I’m not saying you should go off alone with them. I’ll come with you. Maybe Verry will come too.”
“Dad needs him on the farm. He needs you both.”
“Needs all of us, I’d say.”
“Exactly. Which is why I intend to stay right here in Lomn.”
“You know you can’t. We’ll all die. I will go with you. Even if no one else can. We’ll send word to Uncle Tavall. Kressler’s one of his ports of call. He’ll come as soon as he can. You won’t be alone with them.”