The Empty Crown Preview

I have started a new series, The Last Dragon Skin Chronicles. It has been teasing me for a while and it was a relief to sit down and start writing it. I think it will be a longer series than my previous ones, but as I am a discovery writer, I'm never sure what might happen. 

The first in the series - The Empty Crown - arrives on June 14. It is available now for pre-order.  To see if this series is for you, please scroll down for Chapter 1.

Chapter 1

Ana sucked in a deep breath and closed her eyes, then opened them almost immediately. It didn’t matter whether she looked or not; it didn’t make it any easier. The weatherworn grey stone bridge stretched out before her, its opposite end lost to the darkness. She took another steadying breath, her heart still beating so fast it was going to leap from her chest this time for sure. Holding up her lamp and pulling her cloak tighter around her, Ana stepped out onto the bridge, too aware that the world dropped away to nothing beneath her.

The cruel chuckle of the guard at the other end of the bridge echoed through the early morning darkness. The sun was still far from lighting the sky, and the light of the lamp in her unsteady hand made the bridge appear to move.

‘You know this is my third bridge this morning,’ she called into the dark.

‘And yet you appear just as scared. Or is it easier for you by the time you reach this bridge every morning?’

‘No,’ she called back. ‘Each one is just as frightening as the one before.’

She didn’t like being reminded of where she was, or of her fears, and the guard chided her every day. Yet in some way it made this last bridge easier. His unseen conversation confirmed that she wasn’t alone. And the distraction assisted her in making the distance, for it was the longest bridge she had to cross each day.

Ana would never tell him how much he helped her. There were some things a maid never did, and one of those was make conversation with a soldier. It didn’t matter how lowly a rank he was, for it took very little before it would turn to gossip and suggestions would be made that the friendship was more than it should be for a girl like her. Too many maids had unwittingly lost their freedom or their jobs to such gossip.

Ana blew out a long breath as she neared the end of the bridge. She ducked her head in acknowledgement to the guard and kept walking, thankful to be on solid ground again. Although she could never escape her fear, for her whole world was made up of sheer drops and difficulties.

Sheer Rock was a series of islands off the northern coast of the Kingdom of Ilia, and it was just what the name suggested. The islands had formed from a strange geological event Ana did not understand; sheer drops surrounded each island to the sea hundreds of feet below. The islands were large enough that she could go whole days without seeing the edge of the world. Except when she crossed the bridges. Each island was connected by a bridge to the next. Some islands had several bridges that connected them to their neighbours, and there was a single long, broad bridge that connected them to the mainland. Despite their connection to the kingdom, it was heavily guarded and not somewhere she had been anywhere near since her father had died.

Before that day she hadn’t given the distance to the sea below a second thought. She had skipped across bridges, stood on cliff tops, laughed with ease. She shook the image away that was starting to form in her mind of the day her father had gone over the edge of a bridge and her world had changed. Along with the loss, a fear of heights had developed and, despite her best efforts and derision from others, it was something she hadn’t been able to shake.

She stopped on the path, trying to calm herself. If she appeared before the cook looking like she felt, she would be paying for it for the rest of the day. She looked up towards the castle. It was the Seat of the Lord of Sheer Rock and took up most of the island it was situated on. Ana tried not to shiver. She had upset the lord the day before when she had slipped on a sheet of paper that had drifted from the desk, and spilt the tea she’d been carrying across the rest of the papers.

The lord had glared at her but said nothing. Ana knew she was in serious trouble despite not being chastised. She had lifted the cloth from her belt, but the lord had only pointed to the doorway. The memory of those piercing blue eyes as she stood from the desk made Ana shiver again. The lord was a beautiful woman, slender with blond wavy hair pulled loosely from her pale face. And yet Ana had never found anything of beauty in her.

Ana had bowed low, murmured a request for forgiveness and backed out of the room. She had been given other duties for the rest of the day, but it had been a position of standing to serve the lord directly. She only hoped the cook would send her back again before she was replaced by another.

Ana moved quickly through the castle to the kitchen, where she blew out her lamp and hung her coat. ‘Am I still being punished?’ she asked over her shoulder.

‘My little Ana,’ the cook said, her dimpled face glowing with her smile. ‘There is a special guest arriving today, and the lord has asked for you to serve them.’

‘Really?’ she asked, relief washing over her.

The cook nodded. ‘But in the meantime, you are to help me. They’ll be waking soon enough, and the bread needs to go in the oven.’

‘Thank you,’ Ana said, kissing the cook’s soft cheek.

‘Nothing to do with me,’ she said, pulling Ana into a tight hug.

Ana stood in the doorway and tried not to stare at the strange man who stood before the lord’s desk. He was tall and angular. His short grey hair stuck out in strange places, although his trimmed grey beard was neat. There was something unsettling about him and his lavishly embroidered burgundy cloak. Something within screamed at her to run.

Without looking up, the lord waved her forward. Ana tried to focus on where she was going rather the strange man, but it was difficult. She glanced towards the only other man in the room, a tall, broad soldier standing to the side in the black shiny armour of the King’s Men. He was older than she’d first imagined from her view in the doorway. He was handsome, or at least he would have been but for the scar that cut across his cheek.

Ana looked forward, refocusing on the man before the desk and realising with a shudder just who he was. The regent’s mage, or was he the king’s mage? She looked back to the soldier, still and staring off into the distance, and the scar on his face was gone. She was tempted to raise her fingers to her own cheek, but was hampered by the tray in her hands. Her feet stopped as she stared at him.

‘Do not hover,’ the lord snapped, her harsh voice carrying through the large open room.

Ana nodded, but her legs refused to move. Only her head would turn towards the lord’s desk. The mage’s cold gaze raked over her, and she was sure those grey eyes could see far more of her than she wished. She gulped down her rising fear and stepped forward again. She carefully set the tray on the edge of the table and, as the soldier turned his attention to her for the first time, she pushed it loudly across the surface of the desk to ensure it wouldn’t fall.

‘She is the gifted one,’ the mage said, his cold stare still focused on her.

The lord nodded.

Ana glanced back at the rugged soldier, thankful he was in the room although not sure why she felt that way.

‘You may step forward and greet me, for I shall make your life worth living.’ The mage waved her forward with a large sweep of his arm, bowing his head as he spoke, but Ana knew it wasn’t out of any respect for her.

She stayed just where she was and although she opened her mouth, she was very quick to close it again. Ana wasn’t sure what this man was proposing, but she knew it was not something that would make her life any better. As with anyone of her station, she was only there to make the lives of others easier.

‘Her mother,’ the man said, stretching out a long finger towards her.

Ana was still rooted to the spot, although she was desperate for him to say more. It was as though he had stopped mid-thought.

What of my mother? What does this man know of her?

The lord nodded. Without a glance at Ana, she surprised her by saying, ‘We don’t talk of my sister.’

The world appeared suddenly hazy. Ana’s mother had died when she was very young. Her father had raised her as best he could, and she still missed him terribly. But she’d had no idea there was any connection between her family and the Lord of Sheer Rock. If she was family, why was she living in the small, dusty cottage and serving the lord as she did?

‘What did she do?’ Ana asked before she could stop herself, and the soldier turned sad eyes towards her. ‘What did she do?’ she asked more confidently.

‘She was of no real consequence,’ the lord said.

The grey-eyed mage stood over her then. He was taller than she thought, wiry, and he smelt odd. She didn’t want to sniff at him, but she couldn’t quite place the bitter scent that clung to him. As he reached for her, she stepped back.

‘Ana, do as you are told.’ The lord pushed up from the table. She looked bored by the event, as though Ana was nothing.

The long, cold fingers of the mage wrapped around Ana’s jaw, and he pulled her face closer as he leaned down to peer into her eyes. ‘So green,’ he murmured. ‘What do you see?’

She tried to shake her head, but she couldn’t move, his grip too tight. She was sure his hold was bruising her face. He moved his face closer to hers, continuing to stare into her eyes, and she felt the world move for a moment. She pulled at his hold to find the soldier standing behind her, a solid mass preventing her escape. Her heart beat so fast she was sure it was going to explode from her chest. This was more frightening than crossing the bridge.

‘They will take you with them.’ The lord looked away and sat back at her desk. ‘He is looking for girls like you.’

‘I don’t have any skills a mage would need,’ Ana stammered, ‘and I haven’t got anything with me. I can’t travel today.’

‘There is no need,’ the mage said, his fingers now wrapped too tight around her arm. She wondered why he needed the soldier. ‘The capital provides.’

‘The capital?’

‘The king’s regent wishes to see you.’

‘Me?’ Ana asked, wondering why in all the world the regent would want to see her. How did he even know who she was? But then, she had thought she knew who she was. And as she glanced back at the lord standing by her desk, Ana realised there was far more to the world than she knew.

‘You would do well to know your place,’ the mage said, his tone deep and unfriendly.

‘I don’t have any gifts,’ she said quickly.

The lord came around the desk then, her face dark and dangerous. Ana wanted to step back, but the soldier prevented her movement. ‘Do not embarrass me,’ she said, her voice low, and Ana knew she was in more trouble than she had ever been. ‘You will do as you are told, or it ends here.’

The soldier coughed politely, and Ana glanced up at the opening in the wall. For those who displeased the lord, there was one punishment. In the wall of the lord’s office was a large round opening into the world beyond, over the cliffs and the Endless Sea. The view was spectacular from a distance, and there had been many days Ana had watched the sun on the waves, or great violet clouds making their way across the dark water towards them.

Now she could only see the walkway that led to nothing when she glanced over her shoulder. Ana shook her head violently. She struggled with the bridges, let alone standing out over nothing. The walkway was wide enough to just hold three men side by side and long enough that two of them could have lain end to end. But there was no railing, and the wind could come up and pull you away before you even realised you were scared.

She had once found the lord standing just outside the round doorway, the wind pulling at her blond hair and her deep green robes. Ana was both amazed and frightened. Now they were threatening her with the walkway, and she wasn’t quite sure why.

‘I will go to the capital,’ she whispered.

‘You do not have the choice,’ the lord said, her anger dissipating to be replaced by her usual apathy. She sighed and waved them away.

‘Why have you kept her to yourself for so long?’ the mage asked.

‘I have not used her gifts,’ she said quickly. ‘I have no need.’

‘Are they not worthy, or are you better than the regent?’

‘I know my place,’ she said, anger flaring again behind her blue eyes. Ana wanted to run. ‘You have come all this way. Test her if you must before you take her.’

‘That may be an idea,’ the soldier said, and Ana glanced at him. His voice was rough and quiet, yet it carried a confidence to it. The scar she had been so sure marked his face was still absent, and she sensed that this man would be a dangerous enemy.

She turned back to the mage as he cleared his throat. She wasn’t quite sure what they thought she had, and she didn’t know whether it was a good thing to let them find it or if she should keep it hidden. If she even knew how to hide it. She tried not to sigh, sucking in a deep breath instead and trying to exude the same confidence the large soldier showed.

But as the old man raised his fingers towards her and placed his cold, clammy hand on her forehead, her urge to run returned.

‘Look at me,’ he said. ‘Look hard.’

She focused on him, standing with his eyes closed and his hand on her head. As she studied his fine, sharp features and his too-thin body, she wondered if he was unwell. His eyes snapped open and he slapped her hard across the face, hard enough to knock her to the ground.

The mage cleared his throat as he glared at her. ‘You were to look, to see what is already there. Do not try to use your gift on me.’

She shook her head. ‘I don’t have any gifts,’ she said, bringing her hand to her stinging face. There was far more strength behind this man than she thought, and for the first time she wondered what gifts he had.

‘You will do as you are told,’ he said, standing over her. ‘You will look, and you will tell me what you see.’

She nodded, but she stayed where she was as he put his hand back over her head and closed his eyes. She did the same, feeling the strength and power within his hand. In the darkness behind her lids, the mage stood tall. A small boy appeared beside him, tear stained and scared, asking for help, pleading. But he shook his head and pushed the child away, taking something from him. Something the child had held out to him.

A crown. A simple yet heavy golden crown. He held it in his hands and then handed it directly to another man, who placed it on his head as the child disappeared.

‘The boy king,’ Ana murmured, opening her eyes.

‘You are not what I wanted.’ He sounded disappointed and, Ana thought, a little afraid. ‘What a waste,’ he said with a sigh.

The soldier pulled her to her feet. Although she felt the same strength in him, it was different and kind. Despite the blood she sensed on his hands, he was gentle as he placed her feet on the ground. When he let her go, the older man pushed hard against her chest, although she wasn’t sure his hands had touched her. She slid too quickly towards the window. The soldier reached for her, but was not fast enough, and the lord’s impassive face looked away as she sat back at her desk.

The air was cold around her as she blew out the window and onto the walkway. She shivered and squeezed her eyes closed, sensing the emptiness around her. The tears started before she could stop them. Ana wanted to be anywhere but here. Even on a bridge, she thought as the wind pulled at her clothes and hair and threatened to lift her away.

When she was a very small child, she would run along the wide edges of the bridges, looking down into the void between the islands as her father ran along beside her, smiling. Then he had fallen. She allowed herself to relax, trying not to hold her body rigid as she thought of him.

He hadn’t fallen from a bridge. She may have been a child, but she remembered him clearly, and she remembered the same feeling of standing out on the walkway with him. The wind had pulled at her hair and her dress, cold and sharp against her face. He had pushed her back inside; the sharp nails of the lord had taken her arm and then he was gone.

Ana opened her eyes and stared at the woman sitting at the desk now. Had she watched her father’s death or tried to ignore it as she did Ana’s?

The soldier at the edge of her vision tried to subtly wave her forward. The older man reached out a hand towards him, and he dropped his arm. Ana felt the hopelessness of the situation. She wanted someone, anyone, to help but knew it wouldn’t come. Fear had disappeared in the certainty of what would happen. She wondered if her father had felt the same in that moment before his death.

The old mage raised his hand.

 ‘Long live the king,’ she said, and then she was falling.

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