Five royal sisters. One crown.
They are the daughters of a king. Though they share the same royal blood, they could not be more different. Bluebell is a proud warrior, stronger than any man and with an ironclad heart to match. Rose’s heart is all too passionate: She is the queen of a neighboring kingdom who is risking everything for a forbidden love. Ash is discovering a dangerous talent for magic that might be a gift—or a curse. And then there are the twins—vain Ivy, who lives for admiration, and zealous Willow, who lives for the gods.
But when their father is stricken by a mysterious ailment, these five sisters must embark on a desperate journey to save him and prevent their treacherous stepbrother from seizing the throne. Their mission: find the powerful witch who can cure the king. But to succeed on their quest, they must overcome their differences and hope that the secrets they hide from one another and the world are never brought to light. Because if this royal family breaks, it could destroy the kingdom—in Kim Wilkins’ Daughters of the Storm, available March 6 from Del Rey.
A thousand times he had murmured her name in the soft darkness; now, though, he didn’t know her name. He didn’t even know his own.
The rain had set in outside the bowed wooden shutters. Endless mornings under dark-gray, swirling clouds that unburdened cold water from one end of Almissia to the other had turned the roads to stinking mud: Gudrun could not send for a physician, and she could not tell anyone he was ill, because he was the king. She could not even tell Byrta, his counselor, because Byrta would send for his daughters.
Gudrun knew his daughters hated her.
And so she had been trapped for three long days in the gloomy bowerhouse with him as he raved. The wild man in the looking glass made him quiver with fear; he shouted obscene words at her; he wept like a babe over a loose thread on his robe. She soothed him with soft words and firm touches, even when he pummeled her with his fists and accused her of trying to steal his food. The fits came suddenly, and left just as suddenly. Then he would sleep for hours among the crumpled woolen blankets while she watched his face, barely recognizing his sagging skin and gray beard.
Where was the noble, strong man he had been? The warrior king, the Storm Bearer, Athelrick of Almissia?
And where was the woman she had been? Whose were these thin-skinned hands, fearfully stroking an old man’s troubled forehead?
Finally, the rain cleared, and she sent for Osred, the physician who had accompanied her more than three years ago when she came to marry Athelrick.
She should have known word would spread quickly.
The bowerhouse door opened, gusting air against the tapestries so they swung then settled with a clatter. Three figures stood there. Osred, tall and finely dressed; Byrta, the crone who had attended Athelrick since she was a young maid; and Dunstan, a grizzled war hero who was so old the hairs on his meaty fists were silver.
Gudrun’s stomach coiled. Osred was her only ally. The others were natives of Almissia. No matter that they had always been friendly to her; she knew they thought her an interloper. She felt old, frail. Far from home. The person she loved and depended on the most was lost to her; lost, it seemed, to the world.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Byrta admonished, though gently, as she hurried to Athelrick’s side. He was sleeping now—the deep, impenetrable sleep that measured out the hours until his next fit.
“I hoped he might get better on his own.” Oh, how she had hoped it. She had hoped so hard, her ribs ached at night.
Osred came to Gudrun and laid his hand on her forearm. “You mustn’t worry,” he said in a cold, flat voice.
Dunstan closed the door carefully and pressed his back against it, arms folded across his round belly. “No one must know,” he said. “If our enemies thought our king could not rule . . .” He trailed off, his voice tripping on tears he refused to shed. He straightened his spine.
“We must send for Bluebell.”
Bluebell. The name turned Gudrun’s stomach cold. Athelrick’s eldest daughter, with her sinewy tattooed arms and her crushed nose and her unsheathed hatred.
“It is premature, surely,” Osred said smoothly. “Let me examine the king and prescribe him a remedy. Then we will see. He may be better in a few days.” He advanced to the bed, gently but firmly pushing Byrta aside.
“I have medical training,” she said, bristling.
“I have trained in the Great School.”
“Which is run by trimartyrs. Their faith is not welcome in Almissia.”
Gudrun’s scalp tingled with fear and anger. “Enough!” she said. “Byrta and Dunstan, you must leave. My husband’s dignity does not allow for any but his wife and a trained physician to see him.” As she said it, it became urgently true. The room smelled of sour sweat and trapped stale breath, the bed a mess of dirty blankets. “Wait outside. Osred will advise you when he has finished his examination.”
Dunstan set his jaw forward, but Byrta quieted him. “My lady,” she said, her bright-blue eyes locking with Gudrun’s. “I understand you are uncertain and sad. I would not add to your misery. If you want us to leave . . .”
Gudrun nodded, chest pounding. Byrta smiled at her slightly—there was stone beneath it—and took Dunstan with her. “We will be in the great hall,” she said as she closed the door behind her.
Alone with Osred, with Athelrick sleeping, Gudrun felt her desperation wane. Osred led her to the carved wooden chair by the bed and helped her to sit. Then, crouching in front of her, he said, “Tell me his symptoms.”
She described the last few days to the physician, and gradually his expression softened with a pity that terrified her. Her heart grew colder and heavier. At last he said, “Dunstan is right. You should send for Bluebell. You should send for all his daughters. They will want to see him.”
“You think he will die?” The words rushed and mumbled against one another, but he understood her nonetheless.
“A malady that comes upon the brain this way is serious. I have heard of such an illness before. The fits will grow shorter, the sleeps will grow longer. Until . . .”
Her veins hardened. The forgotten certainty of death was upon her with steely force. But through it glimmered self preservation. If Athelrick was to die, what would become of her, surrounded by enemies who masqueraded as friends to please the king? She needed someone on her side. Someone by her side. And long before the king’s daughters arrived, greedy to turn her out of the king’s bowerhouse.
“My lady?” Osred’s voice roused her from her dark reverie.
She turned her face to him, forced her swimming eyes to focus.
“Shall I send for his daughters?” he asked.
“No.” The strength of her voice surprised her. “Send for my son.”
Blood. It smelled like the promise of something thrilling, as much as it smelled like the thrumming end of the adventure. It smelled like her father when he came home from battle, even though he had bathed before he took her in his arms. Still the metal tang of it lingered in his hair and beard, and as she smashed her skinny, child’s body against his thundering chest in welcome, he smelled to her only of good things.
Now that she was a woman and knew blood intimately, Bluebell loved and feared it—and appreciated its beauty splashed crimson against the snow.
The air was ice, but her body ran with perspiration beneath her tunic. Her shoulders ached, as they often did if the skirmish was fast and intense. Around her, twelve men lay dead; ten men stood. Her men still stood, as did she. Always.
Thrymm and Thrack, her dogs, nosed at the bodies delicately, their paws damp with powdery snow. They were looking for signs of life, but Bluebell knew they would find none. The ice-men hadn’t had a chance: They were on foot, trudging up the mountain path, no doubt to attack the stronghold that managed the beacon fire and kept watch over the northern borders of Littledyke. Bluebell’s hearthband were mounted, thundering down the path from the stronghold. They had speed and momentum on their side. Four of the raiders had fallen to the spear before Bluebell had even dismounted. Swift, brutal, without cries for pity. Death as she liked it best.
Bluebell crouched and wiped her sword on the snow, then rubbed it clean and dry before sheathing it. Her heart was slowing now. Ricbert, whom she had collected from his shift at the stronghold, called to her. She looked up. He was kneeling over the body of one of the fallen raiders, picking it clean of anything valuable. She rose,
stretching her muscles, joining him along with the others, who had been alerted by the sharp tone of his voice.
“Look, my lord,” Ricbert said. He had pulled open the tunic of the dead man to reveal a rough black tattoo beneath the thick hair on his chest. A raven with its wings spread wide.
Sighere, her second-in-command, drew his heavy brows together sharply. “A raven? Then these are Hakon’s men.”
“Hakon is dead. His own brother murdered him,” Bluebell said sharply. Hakon the Crow King, they called him. The only man who had come close to killing her father in battle. Brutal, bitter, the ill-favored twin of the powerful Ice King, Gisli. The man whose face Bluebell herself had mutilated with an unerring ax throw before helping to deliver him into Gisli’s hands. Hakon had been perhaps the man who hated her the most in all of Thyrsland, though it was admittedly a long list. “It’s an old tattoo.”
Ricbert called to her from another body. “No, my lord. They all have them.”
“It means nothing. He’s dead.” He had to be dead. Gisli was cruel and brutal, but a man to be reasoned with; Hakon lacked his brother’s intellect, acted on every raw impulse. Dangerous as an injured wolf, in love with war and chaos. Thrymm and Thrack had loped over to join her, their warm bodies pressed against her thighs. She reached down and rubbed Thrymm’s head. “Come on, girls,” she said. “Let’s get off this mountain.”
She turned and stalked back toward her stallion, Isern. His big lungs pumped hot fog into the chill air. Bluebell mounted and waited for her hearthband.
Gytha, a stocky woman with arms like tree branches and a brain to match, was last to her horse. As they moved off into the snowlit morning, Gytha said, “They say Hakon is so favored by the Horse God that he escaped his brother’s dungeon by magic. They say he has a witch who makes him war spells that—”
“No more of this talk,” Bluebell commanded, “or I’ll cut someone’s fucking tongue out.”
Her thanes fell silent; they couldn’t be certain she wasn’t serious.
Bluebell longed for her father’s calm company and good advice, and determined to lead her hearthband home before pasture-month was upon them. If Hakon was alive, then he had to be found and stopped. Her father would know what to do.
A noise in the dark. A furtive knocking.
Bluebell sat up, pushing the scratchy blanket off her body and feeling under the mattress for her sword. It took a moment for her to orient herself. She was in a guesthouse that huddled in the rolling green hills of southern Littledyke. They had ridden a long way southwest of the snow-laden mountains that day, into warmer climes, and were half a day’s ride from the Giant Road, which would take them home. In truth, Bluebell would have preferred to push on into the evening, but her hearthband were tired and sick of the cold. When they spied a guesthouse in the dip of a valley, under a fine blanket of twilight mist, she’d agreed to stop for the night, even though the rooms were small and dark and the wooden walls whiskery with splinters and sharp malty smells.
“Declare your name and your business,” she called, her voice catching on sleep. She cleared her throat with a curse. She didn’t want to sound weak or frightened: She was neither.
“My lord, it’s Heath. King Wengest’s nephew.”
Bluebell hurried from the bed. She was still dressed: It didn’t pay for a woman of physical or political power to be half dressed in any situation. She tied a knot in her long, fair hair and yanked open the door. He stood there with a lantern in his left hand.
“How did you get past my entire hearthband to the door of my room?”
“I bribed the innkeeper to let me in the back.” He smiled weakly. “Hello, Bluebell. It isn’t good news.” He paused, took a breath, then said, “Your father.”
Her blood flashed hot. “Come in, quickly.” She closed the door behind him and stood, waiting. Anything she could endure: The world was a chaotic, amoral place. But not Father. Don’t let Father be dead.
“You must keep your head when I tell you,” he said.
“I can keep my head,” she snapped. “Is he dead?”
Her stomach unclenched.
“But he’s ill,” he continued. “A rider was sent from Almissia to our war band up on the border of Bradsey. Wylm was called away urgently by his mother.”
“Gudrun,” Bluebell muttered. The flighty idiot her father had chosen to marry. “She sent for Wylm?”
“I overheard their conversation. King Athelrick is sick, terribly sick.”
“And she sent for Wylm instead of me?” Misting fury tingled over her skin.
“Don’t kill her. Or Wylm. Rose wouldn’t want you to kill anyone. Least of all your stepfamily.”
She glared at him. The beardless half-blood in front of her was her sister’s lover. Bluebell had assigned him to a freezing, sedge-strangled border town to keep him away from Rose. Three years had passed, and still he went soft and sugary when his tongue took her name. “I’m not a fool,” she said. “I’m not going to kill anyone. Despite what my itching fingers tell me.”
He nodded. “Wylm left on foot. I don’t know if he managed to horse himself since, but he’d be on the Giant Road by now in any case. You’re directly above Blickstow here. You can catch him.”
Sleep still clung to her so she had to shake her head to clear it, as though the early-morning dark was only given to dreams and this must be one. Why had Gudrun sent for Wylm and not her? What purpose would it serve to separate Bluebell from her father if he was dying? Did she have plans for Wylm to lead Almissia? The thought was ridiculous: Wylm was untried in war, and Bluebell was well loved by Almissia’s people. She dismissed the thought as quickly as it crossed her mind.
“Do you know anything else about my father’s illness?” she asked, fear clouding the edges of her vision. “Will he die?” He couldn’t die. He was too strong. She was too strong. She would get the best physician in the country and march him down to Blickstow at knifepoint if she had to.
Heath shook his head. The two lines between his brows deepened. “I know nothing more. But if she has called for her son . . .”
“She should have called for us.”
“Perhaps she has. Perhaps she’s sent for the others, but didn’t know where to find you.”
“Dunstan knows where I am. There’s only one good route between the stronghold and home. You found me.” Her heart was thundering in her throat now. “What was she thinking?”
“Perhaps she wasn’t.”
Bluebell fixed her gaze on him in the flickering dark. “I’m going home. Now.”
He helped her pack her things, then followed her out into the early cold. She saddled and packed her horse, who whickered softly. He was a warhorse, not afraid of the dark, but still getting old enough to miss his sleep. She rubbed his head roughly. Thrymm and Thrack sniffed at her feet, straining against their chains.
“At first light, tell Sighere where I have gone, but ask him not to speak of it. We don’t know what the future holds for my father, or for Almissia. If an idiot like Ricbert got wind of the idea that Father was . . .” Curse it, she couldn’t say the word.
Heath pointedly looked away.
“People would panic. Just don’t tell anyone. Urgent business. That’s all.” She let the dogs off the chain and vaulted onto Isern’s back.
Heath grasped Isern’s reins. “Wait,” he said. “Your sisters?”
Her chin stiffened. He was right: They needed to be told. A chill wind rattled through the trees. She spat hair out of her mouth. While she didn’t want to send him to Rose—it was better if they were apart—she was sensitive to her sister’s feelings. This news shouldn’t come from a stranger. “Ride at first light to Rose. Tell her to join me in Blickstow immediately.”
Bluebell frowned. “Get Rose to send a messenger. Ash will likely feel us on the move.” Her words turned to mist in front of her. She dropped her voice. “Perhaps she already knows.”
“My lord.” Heath nodded and stepped back.
Bluebell picked up the reins and urged Isern forward, thundering down to the moonlit road with the dogs barking in her wake.
The night began to lift as Bluebell approached the Giant Road. She glimpsed the first curve of the bright sun as she galloped over a wooden bridge and down toward the wide road. In some ancient misted past, gray paving stones—the length of two men and easily as wide—had been lined up five across for hundreds of miles: from here in the midlands to the far south of Almissia. The giants had laid them in a time before recollection, but now they were cracked and worn, with grass and wildflowers straggling up through the gaps. Bluebell’s heart breathed. From here to Blickstow was two and a half good days’ ride, directly south. She was almost home.
But Isern would not go farther without rest and water. He was huge and powerful, but she had no desire to drive him into the ground and have to run home on her own legs. Once, a witch princess up in Bradsey had offered to sell her an enchanted horse faster than a hare, but Bluebell had kept Isern: Speed mattered less, in battle, than courage and weight. She reined him in at the edge of the stream and jumped off to let him walk awhile. Her dogs realized they were stopping and ran barking into the stream. When Isern had cooled, she led him to the water and spoke soft words to him. He dropped his head to drink, and she lay herself out on the dewy grass to close her eyes. A beam of sun hit her face, and she could see her pulse beating in her eyelids. She was tired and sore, her thighs aching, but the constant frantic movement had kept her thoughts from growing too dark.
Bluebell wasn’t a child. She knew one day her father would die and she would take his place. She had prepared her whole life for the moment, but it had always been abstract, like a story. The real moment—hot and present—had lit a fire in her breast. She wished she had her sisters with her. They would understand. Well, the oldest two would: Rose and Ash. She barely knew Ivy and Willow, the twins. They’d been raised a long way from home after they’d killed her mother by being born. Bluebell wondered if anybody had sent for them; wondered when Rose would hear, when Ash would hear.
“Ash,” she said, soft under her breath. She was closest to Ash, who was away at the east coast in Thridstow, studying to be a counselor in the common faith. Ash had glimmerings of a second sight. She wasn’t supposed to; she was far too young. Nevertheless, Bluebell had made use of her sister’s premonitions once before battle. “Ash,” she said again, drawing her eyebrows together, wondering if Ash could feel her words across the miles, vibrating on the sunlight.
Sleep caught her gently, and she dozed lightly against the growing dawn. Then a shower of water made her sit up and open her eyes. Thrymm stood by her, shaking water from her coat. Bluebell pushed the dog away with her foot and rolled over on her side. The dawn light made her stomach swirl. A new day. Perhaps he was already dead. But surely she would have felt it: the sudden absence, a new quiet where his breath had once been. She sat up and rested her long arms on her knees. Isern wandered over and nuzzled her shoulder with his big hot nose. He was keen to be going, too. As keen, perhaps, as she was to catch up with Wylm and find out what dangerous ideas he and his mother were brewing.
The Giant Road was the main trade route through Thyrsland. Even during war, it was busy with traffic. But there hadn’t been war this far south since Bluebell’s sister Rose had married Wengest, the king of Nettlechester. Ill will had evaporated overnight, and Nettlechester and Almissia, the two largest kingdoms of the seven in Thyrsland, had raised a joint army to keep out the much greater threat of raiders from the kingdom of Iceheart, the icy lands in the far north of Thyrsland. The sparsely populated northern kingdoms of Bradsey and Littledyke were most vulnerable to incursions from Iceheart, but raiders would think nothing of marching south to take the wealthy trimartyr kingdom of Tweening, or the trading hubs of Thridstow. If raiders ever got as far south as the Giant Road, blood would flow freely.
The road wound in and out of woods, wearing sunlight in shifting patterns. The chestnut leaves were thick and green, and the trees bristled with creamy catkins. Pink and white soapwort grew in profusion on either side of the road, ivy crawled across fallen logs, blackbirds and robins sang in the sycamore trees. Life bloomed around her, even as she made this journey toward death. Bluebell urged Isern to canter, then let him walk, then pressed him forward again. Every two hours she stopped—her stomach itching the whole time—to rest him. The day drew out. Around dusk, Bluebell flagged a caravan to stop. The woman at the front of the caravan grudgingly reined in her horses. She wore gold rings on every finger, and a richly dyed robe of red.
“Have you seen a young man, traveling south alone?” Bluebell asked.
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “I’ve seen many travelers today.”
“A young man. Dark-haired.” Mean-spirited. Dull-witted. Snide.
“Less than an hour since I saw a dark-haired man on a bay horse.” The woman shrugged. “Could have been your man.” She eyed Bluebell’s baggage, the dented shield that hung on Isern’s rump, the ax and the helm. “Are you going to kill him?”
“No,” Bluebell said, kicking Isern forward. With his big stride and some speed, surely she would catch Wylm.
Poor Isern. Even the dogs were exhausted. Even Bluebell was exhausted.
At the crest of the next rise, she thought she saw Wylm. But then the road wound into the trees.
At the trees, she thought she heard his horse’s hoof-falls. Long shadows drew across the gray-green road. Robins returned to their beds. Isern began to slow. Bluebell’s heart was hot. She didn’t want to kill her horse, but she wanted to catch Wylm.
Through the other side of the wood, she saw him on the open road. She whistled the dogs forward and they streaked ahead, barking loudly.
Wylm slowed and turned as the dogs caught up with him, yapping at his horse’s feet. His horse shied, but Wylm held steady. He glanced up and saw her approaching. She urged Isern forward, but he slowed to a walk. This wasn’t how she had imagined approaching Wylm. She had imagined thundering down toward him, terrifying him. But Isern had had enough.
Wylm waited. He recognized her now. Was probably carefully thinking up excuses to give her. He would lie. She would be unforgiving.
“Princess,” he said as she approached. “Are you looking for me?”
“Don’t call me princess,” she snarled. “My lord will do. Or Bluebell.” She pulled Isern’s reins and he gratefully stopped. She dismounted and let him walk to cool down.
Wylm dismounted, too. He extended his hand for her to shake, but she refused it. She took pleasure in the few inches of height she had over him.
“Well, my lord?” he asked.
“My father is dying, and your fucking mother sent for you and not me.”
He blinked his dark eyes slowly. Now the lies would start. “Yes,” he said.
It took her a moment to realize he’d admitted it. “Why?” she spluttered.
Wylm shook his head. She watched him carefully. Her greatest skill was to judge fast and well, but her greatest failing, she knew, was not to notice change. And Wylm had changed. She had in her mind’s eye a picture of him from their first meeting. Back then, he’d been a slippery, spotty youth. Now he was a man—not tall, but dense with muscle. Not a child she could push around with ease.
“I’ve no idea why Mother didn’t send for you,” he said. “I can’t read her mind.”
She wanted to kill him for being so flippant: remove his greasy head from his wretched neck. She fought down her anger and nodded once. “We’ll travel back together.”
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, the only sign he wasn’t comfortable with the suggestion. “As you wish, my lord. It’s twelve miles to the next town. I intended to stop there for the night.”
Bluebell glanced about. Her dogs had found a soft patch of long grass, and both lay on their sides panting. Isern sagged, his eyes pleading with her to take off his saddle. They could travel no farther.
“No, we’ll camp nearby.” She indicated the edge of a lake, a mile off. “Over there,” she said.
He began to protest, but she interrupted him. “You’re not afraid of the dark, are you?”
Wylm lifted his shoulders lightly. “No.”
His calm coolness was like a burr in her blood. “Follow,” she said. “I have to tend to my animals.”
Wylm took a long time to get to sleep. It wasn’t the cold night sky above him; cold had long since ceased to worry him. Bluebell had shipped him off to the northern borders the day he turned eighteen, six months ago. It had been an instruction in hardship, as well as an instruction in how his stepsister felt about him.
Rather, what kept him awake was how he felt about Bluebell.
She lay three feet from him, on a rolled-out blanket by the fire. She was on her side, her back turned to him, her hair tied in a knot on top of her head. She’d barely spoken a dozen words to him since they met on the road, and sleep had come to her as though she commanded it. Now he watched her pale neck. It was the only part of her that looked as though it belonged to a woman.
He loathed Bluebell and yet was fascinated by her. There was no more famous soldier in Thyrsland, unless one counted her father. Up at the border camp, they told tales of her reckless courage, of her famous sword, of her ability to take on three or four armed men and still be standing while they lay dead. They called her unkillable. And yet, staring at that bare, white neck, he believed her very mortal indeed.
In the dark, distant woods, a mournful bird cried. The fire crackled softly. The night was still, apart from the occasional soft shudder of the uppermost branches of the ash trees that formed a semicircle around them. Soft, gray dark settled like mist. His face was hot and tight from the fire. Slowly, his eyes fell closed . . .
He woke with a start to a different kind of night. Darker, colder. The fire had dwindled to embers. The sharp-sweet scent of earth rose strongly as the dew fell. And Bluebell was no longer there.
A moment passed, or perhaps only half a moment. He wondered what had woken him, then decided it must have been Bluebell moving off to find a private place to relieve herself. He smiled, wondering if she shit steel. His bones ached from being in the one position, so he rolled on his other side. And fear slashed his heart.
A foot away, a beefy man with a long, tangled beard and a weatherworn mail shirt held a spear point toward him. Over his shoulder, he wore Bluebell’s pack.
“You want to die?” the man said in a harsh whisper.
Wylm’s hand tightened at his side, looking for his spear. But of course, his spear was an inch away from his nose, in the bandit’s hands.
And then Bluebell was there. It happened too quickly for him to put in order. One moment he was alone with the bandit, the next she was towering over the both of them, her face grim in the shadows: a giant, grisly thing fashioned from blood-rusted iron. She made a noise, somewhere between a grunt of exertion and a guttural roar of rage. It was the most terrifying sound he had ever heard, doubling back on his ears as the dogs barked harshly and the sword came down with enough weight and speed to bruise the air.
The bandit fell, onto Wylm, his head split from crown to nose.
The dogs were on the body in a second, at the throat, their fast, eager paws in Wylm’s face. He gasped for breath, then sat up and pushed himself to his feet.
Bluebell retrieved her pack and bent to check the body for any further spoils.
“What happened?” Wylm asked.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she muttered, her bloody fingers closing over a gold shield-boss. “I saw him from over by the road.”
“It’s a good thing you were awake,” he said.
She fixed her pale eyes on him. “I wouldn’t have slept through it. As you did.”
Wylm thought about defending himself, but saw no point in wasting his breath. He was satisfied, though, that he needn’t doubt the stories of her abilities. Perhaps she was unkillable after all. Who had the courage and skill to defeat such a monster?
Excerpted from Daughters of the Storm, copyright © 2018 by Kim Wilkins.