As indicated last week, Amy Miles and I wanted to share with you the Prologue and Chapter One from our book Hollow Earth that releases Oct. 30. We shared the Prologue last week which you can find here and today we’re sharing Chapter 1 with you. 🙂
Three months later…
Wearing a summer gown while travelling along the misty roads of the River Lands might not have been my best idea. Admitting I was daft enough to snub Aed’s thoughtful offer of a blanket was a hit my pride couldn’t bear. Not after he’d actually taken the time to seek me out, a rarity these days, before I mounted my carriage. Another dose of misery and boredom awaited me.
Each day was the same. Bumpy roads, an aching tailbone, and countless curses said to an empty carriage. On the big bumps, I made sure my drivers knew how much I appreciated their inadequacy. Eventually, even that grew tiresome as the hours and miles rolled by. I’d thought the gawking crowds that awaited us at each stop were going to be the most unbearable part of this grand tour of the realm. It turned out that loneliness was far worse.
For one reason or another, Aed’s best intentions to join me on travel days were thwarted. Sometimes the queen arrived in time to snatch him away. At others, it was his duties that forced him to ride in the king’s carriage. Perhaps the remaining was that he needed some space from me. Considering how turbulent the first month had been between us, I couldn’t say I blamed him. I had been a wee bit angry.
Okay. A lot angry.
After a month of wallowing in self-pity, not my proudest moment, I realised he was in this too. Aed didn’t have to risk his neck for my sake. He didn’t have to save my family from banishment. And he sure as heck didn’t have to give up his chance at happiness in exchange for marrying a moody bride.
Yeah. I’m girly enough to admit I was moody. Still am some days, but if you were standing in my shoes, you’d be too.
So, after my mood swing phase, I figured I owed him. Let me tell you that was one hell of a hard pill to swallow. I decided to try to show him my gratitude, but I wasn’t exactly good at that. Not that I was given much of a chance to express it anyways, what with his endless line of responsibilities. Our time together since becoming Aed’s betrothed was reduced to a quick wave and weary smile as one of us was dragged to the next scheduled event. Another eligible girl to meet. Another waste of my time.
If I had to attend another bloody tea party and pretend to be like the other women vying for Aed’s hand I would scream.
The whole grand tour turned out to be every bit the epic charade I’d envisioned. Fake smiles abounded. Twisted ankles on uncomfortable high heels waited around every corner. I should have been out warning people about the lorcan breach at the Wall. Instigating mayhem while trying to encourage a coupe against the Royals. Instead, I was stuck pretending to be a prissy princess-to-be. The very thing I hated the most. All because I wanted to keep my head.
What the hell am I doing?
Another rut in the road made my head bob. Not even the Royals’ transport could make this country lane a smooth ride. I reckon the seat cushion had a permanent outline of my arse on it by now. Staring at the king’s guards riding bareback beside my window, I longed to be among them. Riding free with the winds in my hair and my damn corset left in some mud puddle behind me. Instead, I remained trapped in an elegant prison fit for a lady.
Bugger all. Haven’t they learnt yet how far from a lady I am?
Within a week of the formal announcement as Aed’s betrothed, the queen’s seamstresses had designed an entire wardrobe of ball gowns for me. Not to mention bows for my hair, an array of jewelry that was far too gaudy, and corsets tight enough to make me risk fainting after the smallest bite of food. The feel of fine silk beneath my hands soured my mood further. I was being swallowed whole by horrid pink ruffles and lace.
Banishment beyond the Wall would be an improvement on my current situation. I looked ridiculous. Even Aed thought so, though he hadn’t come right out and said it. I caught his humored glances from time to time, and I didn’t find it funny. Not even a little.
Two months of touring the lands had left me weary and grumpy. I hated every minute of it. The rich food, when I was able to take a small bite, turned my stomach. The road seemed endless as we crossed from one end of Netherworld to the other. And the girls…what had Aed’s mother been thinking by selecting them?
I wish I could say they were dreadful women, but in all honesty, they were quite nice so far. In the ‘no way in hell they would ever be fit for a crown’ sort of way.
“Whoa,” my driver’s voice called suddenly from the front of the carriage.
I poked my head out of the window. “Why are we stoppin’?”
“The horses need waterin’ and a moment’s rest, my lady,” he replied. The ruddy-faced man hopped down from his seat. Mud splattered his pant legs as he stomped off through the ankle-high muck to unhitch the animals. I felt a sense of longing as I watched him lead them to a nearby stream.
What I wouldn’t give to be free of this blasted carriage. I sank back against the cushion and rubbed at my sore hip. “Great. Now it will take even longer to get there.”
“Moaning about that pretty little arse of yours again, are we? That’s the fifth time this week.” Aed’s smiling face appeared in the window of my carriage.
“Ya look vaguely familiar.” I tapped my chin. “Do I know ya? Seems like we might ’ave been friends once upon a time, but friends actually turn up now and again.”
“Aye. I suppose I deserve a wee bit of that cold chill coming off of you.” He reached for the latch and placed a foot on the bottom step. His moment of hesitation made me squirm. The gesture was evidence that he was preparing himself for another argument. One of my own making. “Mind if I join you? These blasted clouds are about to piss buckets on us.”
I shrugged. “It’s your carriage.”
Even though I knew I owed Aed for his kindness, and I had tried to show a bit of gratitude, I was still mad that he’d abandoned me again. And that was after he’d sent me a handwritten promise last night to join me on today’s journey. So, I felt like I earned a little bit of cold shoulder action.
Aed sank into the seat across from me. The weary groan that escaped him made me take a closer look. He looked tired. Bags had begun to form under his eyes. Not enough to detract from his rugged good looks, but enough for me to notice. Not that I spent a great deal of time looking him over. Nope. Not me.
“I see you’re in one of your moods.” He removed the ridiculous dress hat he was wearing and tossed it on the seat beside him.
“How would ya be knowing what my moods are these days?” I challenged. He needed to know that breaking a promise meant something. “I’ve hardly seen ya these past two weeks.”
Aed sighed. “Aye, you’re not wrong about that. And I am sorry for it. I didn’t mean to abandon you this morning. I had things to attend to—”
I rolled my eyes. “Ya dunna need to make another excuse, Aed. I get it. You’re a busy man. But ya need to be knowin’ I don’t take kindly to being let down time and again.”
“I know. All the same, I hope you understand it’s not by choice that I’ve abandoned you. Trust me, even with your mood swings you are far more welcome company than my mother or my father’s advisors. They are all so…pompous.”
His sincere words gave a small amount of relief to my frustration. Maybe a smidgen, if I were being generous.
“We should arrive before nightfall,” Aed said as he leaned towards the carriage window. A gust of early evening wind disheveled his hair. And just like that, the matter was settled. At least in his mind. He had a great deal to learn if he thought it was over for me. “I reckon there will be many townspeople who take to the streets for the spectacle, despite the dismal skies.”
The clouds did look pregnant with rain when I glanced up. Dark grey and overcast skies stretched across the rolling hills as far as I could see, which wasn’t far thanks to the trees on either side of the road whipping to and fro. The horses neighed near the stream, rearing their heads as another gust struck the carriage walls.
“I had hoped the rain would hold the people at bay,” I admitted and drew the curtain once more.
“Aye.” He grinned and leaned back. “I knew you would.”
It wasn’t just the people I dreaded. I didn’t like this area. It was too isolated. The road ahead looked harmless enough, but I glanced at the narrow path with distrust. Despite the company of Aed’s reapers riding with us, I couldn’t shake the feeling that our carriage would make an excellent target for some ill-minded thief. Especially with a storm brewing.
“Well, it’s about bloody time. We’ve been travellin’ for ages.” I stretched out my arms, arching my back to release some of the tension there. I was wound tight. That wasn’t surprising considering we’d been riding hard these past few weeks. Most of that time I’d been alone with my thoughts.
Sometimes it was hard to think that only three new moons had passed since Aed made his intentions to marry me known to all of Eimear. Oh, how the gossips had loved to tell that tale over and over. Not to mention my ma. She was the worst of the lot. She chose to gloss over the fact the queen had insisted on this tour as a way to try to persuade her son against picking me for his princess.
On that, the queen and I finally agreed. I wasn’t princess material. I’d been forced into this when King Baylor threatened my life and forced Aed’s hand to act. That didn’t mean I was ready to jump in bed with the guy.
Me? A blushing new bride? Hardly. I wasn’t the sort.
That didn’t change the fact I missed my family. Sure, they drove me mental and were a total mess on a good day, but they were my mess. If only my da were here. He would know what I should do.
There was no going back now. Aed’s plan had worked. My life, spared from his father’s wrath, for the moment, as long as I smiled and played my part. I’d vowed to do whatever it took to keep my family free from banishment behind the Wall. Even if that meant suffering the queen’s whims or being stuck right under the king’s eye where he could ensure I wasn’t starting some new riot. The easiest thing would have been to remove the edict to behead me for ‘attacking’ his son, but Baylor would never give a pardon. It would make him look weak, and that was something he did not abide.
But that also meant someday accepting Aed as my future husband. That was the part I was still struggling to grasp. I wasn’t the marrying sort. And the thought of what came after saying “I do” made my stomach twist with anxiety. Aed and I had developed a connection when we first met. There was no denying we both felt it. The physical demands of being his wife were a lot to take in.
Did I really want to share a bed with Aed? He was easy on the eyes, no denying that. I knew he’d had a great deal of experience in that arena, which could be interesting, but that was a huge leap out of my comfort zone. We hadn’t even kissed yet, and there I was worrying about far more than kissing.
What about Devlin?
The very thought of him sent warm tingles straight down to my toes and a burning blush to my cheeks. He had played the starring role in my dreams more times than I dared to count since Aed chose me as his future bride. Each time when I awoke hugging my pillow, I could still smell him— a delicious mix of earth and heat. The man was a potter, so I imagined he was good with his hands.
I wasn’t going to lie. Those sensations confused the heck out of me. Sure, the kiss we’d shared had been way too close to movie perfect for me to be okay with, but I wasn’t that girl, the one who swooned or got weak in the knees over some boy. At least, I never had been before.
Devlin was a human and was way safer in his realm than mine. We had no chance of a future together. Zip. Zilch. Not happening in a gazillion lifetimes. And yet…that was the kicker. There was an “and yet” lingering in my thoughts.
How could I marry Aed when my heart was still entangled with Devlin?
“You’re thinking about him again, aren’t you? Your human?” Aed said after several moments of silence.
It wasn’t until he spoke that I realised Aed had been watching me with the eye of a hawk. I wondered what array of emotions I’d allow myself to betray. After days on end of loneliness in the carriage, I’d grown lax at concealing my facial expressions.
Then it hit me that Aed had chosen to call Devlin a human rather than to use his name. Did it hurt or annoy him that Devlin was still in my thoughts? It was hard to tell because unlike me, he kept his facial expressions under lock and key.
Truth be told, this was the elephant in the room that needed tending to. Devlin was a part of my story, whether Aed liked it or not. With each roll of the carriage wheel, I rode farther away from what my heart longed for and closer to my fate with Aed. I had every right to figure out what the heck I was feeling. Or not feeling, for that matter.
One thing I knew for sure was that I was filled with regret over the thought of never seeing Devlin again. Of never being able to explain why any of this was happening. By now he must think me dead for intervening in his fight with Aed. I had struck the prince, a thing unforgivable by the king. Devlin knew when I left with the reapers that I’d risked everything for him. I wish there’d been some way to let him know I was still attached to my neck.
Try as I might, there was never a moment when I was without a guard near us. There’d been no way to secretly send a message to Tris. Or even my parents. I had no friends in the castle apart from Aed, and he was the last person I could ask to seek Devlin out.
Then again, would knowing I lived and was fated to marry another have eased Devlin’s mind? It sure didn’t mine.
“Would it matter if I was thinking about him?” I turned away from the window to look at him finally.
Aed thought for a moment. “I suppose it would make me feel better if my future queen was not still pining for another man.”
“I dunna pine for any man.”
When he shot me a knowing look, I scoffed and looked away. “My heart is my own. As is yours. I’m here. Isn’t that enough?”
“Aye. I suppose it is, for now,” he said as the carriage lurched and we took to the road again. “But there will come a day when it won’t be. For either of us.”
I knew that on the day I gave myself in marriage to Aed, I would have to let Devlin become part of my past. Marriage in my world was eternal. Divorce did not happen. And we lived very long lives. Well, we would if we got the lorcan mess under control, that is.
If we won the coming war, I would outlive Devlin by hundreds of years. No matter what, I would lose him.
“I just need time,” I whispered, not sure if I was saying it for his benefit or for my own. I wasn’t in a good head space, but I was trying.
“And you shall have it,” Aed replied, reaching across the seat to take hold of my hand. “For as long as I can give.”
When he said things like that, I was yet again reminded he was a good man. A man I could respect and who would treat me right. A man who would listen to my thoughts and see me as a valuable partner. Was love something I had any right to wish for given my place? I mean, I was a commoner. A life in the castle, while fluffy nonsense, would be better than living in poverty alone.
If only I could get my rebellious brain in check. And it was definitely my brain that was misfiring. I refused to even think about anything to do with my heart. I still wasn’t that girl.
I caught sight of buildings in the distance. The city of Padriag, our next intended destination, lived to the north where much of Netherworld’s logging occurred. Great trees, large enough to rival American redwoods, were felled and sent down river to the mills. From there the trees travelled by cart or boat to all the lands, supplying our people with building materials.
It was the closest land to my home city of Eimear, though I suspected that had little to do with why the king chose it. The lady of Padriag, Deirdre, was rumored to come from both great wealth and a beauty that might even be said to rival the queen herself. The king’s obvious appreciation for both turned my stomach any time he spoke about her.
“You’ll live,” Aed said. “In fact, you’re doing even better than I thought you could in such a short period of time. You aren’t the most graceful in heels, but I’m proud of how far you’ve come. Even Mother begrudgingly admits you’re trying.”
“It’s not like I ’ave a choice in the matter. It’s smile or die, isn’t it?” I pressed my hand to my leg, feeling the emptiness where my sheathed dagger should be. I hated how vulnerable I felt without it.
Aed pushed back into his bench seat. “I know you must hate me for dragging you into all of this.”
“I dunna hate ya,” I said, though I wasn’t sure that was entirely true. A part of me still wanted to blame him for a good many things. I’d never been good at needing people. Especially someone whose presence reminded me on a daily basis that he controlled my fate. “I understand why ya did what ya did, Aed. And I am grateful to ya for savin’ my life, but I do feel trapped.”
He nodded. “I understand.”
I laughed. “I don’t think ya can know what it’s like to be paraded around like a buffoon in ugly dresses and forced to pretend to be somethin’ you’re not. To ’ave your life always hangin’ in the balance, no longer your own.” I blew out a breath. “By savin’ me, ya forced me to be reliant on ya, and it’s bloody well suffocatin’ me. To make matters worse, you go and abandon me to do the journey alone. It’s a lot to bear.”
Aed sighed. “I never meant for you to feel like that, but I couldn’t let you die. I didn’t have time to think of how this would affect you beyond all of that. All that mattered was saving you at that moment.”
“So ya chose me out of pity, then?”
“No.” He shook his head. “Of course not.”
“Was it to stick it to your parents?”
This time he hesitated. “I won’t deny that your hatred for them benefits me. Overthrowing them won’t be easy, but with you by my side, I believe it can be done.”
I supposed that made logical sense. Who better to rile up his parents than the girl who had been a public thorn in their side for quite some time. It was a plan I could understand and even agree with to a certain extent.
“Ya know my thoughts all too well on how crooked your parents are. Not to be forgettin’ how they’ve bent over backwards and shown their arses to the lorcan. Aed, I can still be your ally without bein’ your wife.”
Aed smiled. “That’s what I love about you, Taryn. You always speak your mind, even when what you’re thinking is less than ideal.”
“Aye, and I’ve got a few more things I could be saying to ya if ya have a mind to hear ’em.”
His eyebrow rose with a challenge in his eyes, but he said nothing. I took that as a sign he was not of a mind, but some things still needed to be said.
“Havin’ so much time on my own has given me a chance to think about a good many things. One of them is you.”
“Oh?” Now he turned his full attention on me.
“Aye. How can I be trustin’ that ya won’t toss me aside when your ma or da throw a wobbly? We both know when it comes down to it, ya don’t love me. And I don’t love ya either. So all we ’ave between us is a shared hatred of your parents.”
“And a love for our people.”
“Aye.” I nodded. “And who’s to say that when the time comes and you’re pressed into a corner that ya won’t be choosin’ them over me?”
To that, Aed had no answer. If he had, I might have punched him for lying to me. I turned away from him to look out of the window as I worked to bury my turmoil. Already the city of Padriag was starting to come into view. The lights were not so bright or as plentiful as Eimear’s, but it was still a large town. There would be hundreds of people lining the streets, waiting to catch a glimpse of us.
If only the rains would begin to fall and save me from this next round of torture. I drew the curtain across the window as Aed shifted on his seat, crossing and then uncrossing his legs. Finally, he pushed off the cushion and came to sit next to me. His knee pressed against mine, but I didn’t move away.
“You know I would never see you harmed, don’t you?”
“Aye.” He’d proven his intentions at the very least. His follow-through was yet to be seen. For the moment, he benefited from this tour. But what would happen when his parents flat refused to let him marry me?
“And that’s not going to change, Taryn. I swear it.”
I wished I could believe him. I wanted to, with everything in me, but I knew his love for Eimear and our people were very strong. As it should be.
“You know? I still remember the first time I saw you. It was at the docks after the lorcan attack. You looked so fierce. No one, in all my life, had ever dared speak to me the way you did that day.” He laughed, shaking his head. “We are both so passionate, stubborn, and far more thick-headed than we should be. This may not be the fate either of us would have chosen, but I have to believe we can still be good for each other. We just have to give it a chance.”
“But is that what ya want? To settle for me?”
“I would not say I’d be settling. You’re a good person, Taryn. Any man would be lucky to have you.” He offered me a rueful smile that didn’t quite meet his eyes. “Besides, since when did a prince ever get what he wants?”
It felt cruel to point out to him that his own father had stolen the throne and blackmailed to get his chosen wife, so I remained silent.
“We can do this.” He reached out to take my hand. The rough calluses of his battle-worn hands felt familiar and comforting.
“Aye.” I nodded in resignation. “I reckon we can.”
Being Aed’s wife would come with its benefits. The king and queen would never be able to touch me. My family’s future would be secured. Once Aed assumed the throne, we could fight and push the lorcan back behind the Wall where they belonged. We could find a way to restore peace and balance to our land.
Knowing that made suffering through this tour a little more bearable. I would continue to wear the stupid dresses and smile on cue. I could even make myself walk down the aisle and take Aed’s hand in marriage someday. But what I couldn’t do was find a way to let Devlin go. To turn my back on what might have been and pretend I was okay with it all.
“And Devlin?” I asked.
Aed lowered his gaze. “He is a part of you. I understand that and have no right to demand that his memory be taken away from you. But I do hope that someday you can see beyond him. I’m not such a bad guy.”
I smiled. “No. I dare say you’re not. I might even take a likin’ to ya someday.”
A hopeful smile lit his face. “Aye. I’d like that.”
“Until then”—I cleared my throat to break the mood—“I’ll be needin’ your promise that ya won’t let me trip in these blasted shoes when I dismount from the carriage.”
“On my honor, I will save you from yourself.” He crossed his arm over his chest in a cheeky oath. “Although, it might look good for the people if I’m forced to catch my swooning bride.
I scowled and punched him in the shoulder. “I dunna swoon and ya know it.”
“Of course not. Just like you don’t pine either. But a little fall could be used to our advantage.”
“Get your bloody mind out of the gutter.” I laughed and shoved him back. “I won’t be givin’ ya none of that any time soon.”
Aed held up his hands in defence. “I was only saying…”
“Aye. I know what you were saying. Just ya be rememberin’ that I’m usually armed.”
When he laughed, I realised how much I’d missed this. Over the past few weeks, I’d spent a great deal of time watching Aed when he didn’t know I was looking. I saw aspects of him as he dealt with affairs of the realm with a calm determination that reminded me he would be a good king. I was touched when I saw him stoop to play with a servant’s child in the courtyard or pick a flower for his elderly chambermaid. There was kindness and goodness buried beneath his devilish good looks.
But this knowledge only left my heart troubled. Was it wrong for me to be attracted to Aed? The more I noticed him, the more I worried myself over it. Devlin was a man both strong and true. Someone without motivation to someday use me for his own ends. I couldn’t trust that Aed wouldn’t do that if his people’s needs demanded it. Devlin wanted me and nothing more.
But he was a human. He didn’t belong in my world. Or me in his. My heart wanted Devlin, but my mind knew Aed was the logical choice.
If I did not find a way to accept my place at Aed’s side, we would all be doomed.