Eden Conquered – Joelle Charbonneau

Something whispered. Carys stared at the hills surrounding her traveling party. Nothing moved. The only sounds were the crunch of the snow beneath her quivering horse’s feet and Garret’s irritated voice as once again he insisted they were going the wrong way. No branches rustled on the trees that dotted the landscape. The air was still. But Carys heard whispering. The wind. It was calling. She shivered, wiped the trickle of sweat off her forehead, and burrowed deeper into the coarse gray cloak that Lord Errik had wrapped around her on their escape from the Palace of Winds. The biting cold both inside and out had made the first several days a blur of bone-aching pain, a desperate fight to stay on her white-and-brown mount. The voices of Lord Errik, Lord Garret, and Larkin grew increasingly angry. All three felt they knew what was best for Carys, after all, now that she was dead. Carys would truly have been dead if her twin had gotten his way. Years of drawing punishment onto herself—diverting attention from Andreus and his secret— should have ensured their trust was unbreakable.

She had always been there for her brother. Defended him. Yet, when it most mattered, he had abandoned her. She clutched the reins tight in her hands. The whispering inside her head grew louder. The trees rustled. Her horse danced beneath her as a branch snapped and fell to the ground to her left. “We need to go faster,” Lord Garret complained from atop his limping gray mare. “Someone could be following the tracks we’re leaving in the snow.” “No one is following us,” Lord Errik countered.

“We traveled in that stream to ensure there were no tracks. Or maybe you forgot that’s why the horses are so worn. If we push them to go any faster, they’ll give out and we’ll be stuck traveling on foot. Something I’m certain you have never done in your life.” “If you had found better mounts instead of these plow nags, we wouldn’t have to worry about them giving out.” More arguing. It got them nowhere. “Next time I have need to steal several horses without raising suspicion from the guard and anyone else inside the city, I will have you take the lead. You’re lucky you even have a horse. You, Lord Garret, were not supposed to be a part of this journey.

” “Garret.” The word scraped her dry throat. A breeze tickled her neck. “I’m here because Princess Carys wishes it.” “You’re here because Princess Carys had no choice but to bring you,” Errik snapped, then shook his head. “Of course, Lord Garret, if you are feeling tired of this journey you have only to say the words and . ” “Call him Garret.” Carys straightened her shoulders. “Only Garret.” Despite the effort, her voice still sounded weak to her ears.

But it was stronger than yesterday and stronger still than the day before. Six days in all had passed since the Kingdom of Eden was told of her death, thus ending the Trials of Virtuous Succession. Prince Andreus, being the only “surviving” competitor, was now the occupant of the throne. Her twin was now His Majesty King Andreus. Guardian of Light. Keeper of Virtues. And she was nothing. She was outside of the confines of the walls that surrounded Garden City and the Palace of Winds, but she was still not free. Not the way she had once dreamed. Instead, she could feel the pull of the walls and the people inside them growing with each mile she put between them.

Calling her back to face the darkness. Calling her back to bring them the truth. “What did you say, Princess?” Larkin called. “I said that Errik should call him Garret.” Carys tugged on her reins, bringing her trembling mount to a halt. “Titles command attention.” People—especially commoners—notice them for fear of the consequences if they don’t. “I can’t risk word getting back to the Palace of Winds that there are nobles traveling the roads with a mysterious girl. No one must know I’m alive.” No one.

Not until she discovered who in Garden City had killed her father and older brother and was plotting against Andreus at this very moment. She shouldn’t care about Eden or her brother anymore. She knew it marked her as weak that she did. Her twin had tried to kill her. He intended for her to die and probably celebrated now that he thought she had breathed her last. She hated him for that. She wanted the Gods to strike him down for turning against her—against the trust they had forged in the womb. And still . Carys pulled her cloak tight as Errik and Garret brought their horses to a stop. Larkin struggled to bring her own mount under control.

The mare bucked and pranced before finally coming to a halt fifteen feet away from the others. As someone who typically rode in the cart alongside her father on trips, Larkin never had need to learn how to do much more than sit a horse. Carys would have to teach her childhood friend that she had to take control if she wanted the horse to follow commands. Just as Carys would have to take control now. Her brother had weakened her body and soul. She had no choice but to follow Errik and Garret away from the Palace of Winds if she wanted to stay alive and gain the power to return. Now the Tears of Midnight she’d relied on for so many years were almost purged from her body. Her body was still pained and weary, but she would be stronger than before when she saw her brother again. She would be free of the drug’s cursed withdrawal. She would do whatever it took to make that so.

“I am sorry, Your High . ” Errik stopped himself. He shook his head, causing the gray hood to slide off and down his back. His dark hair fluttered. He gave a slight smile that warmed his rich brown eyes. “Carys. You were right then and you are correct now. You are not only in danger from those in Garden City, but from the company you keep until your return. Any threat to that safety must be swiftly dealt with.” “I am not a threat to .

Carys,” Garret snapped. His red hair gleamed in the dying light of the sun. “If I were, do you think I would be here with you now trying to help her get away from my uncle and the rest of the Council of Elders? I could have remained in the Palace of Winds and helped my uncle to gain more power or gone home to take my place as High Lord of Bisog. Instead, I’m risking my title, my lands, and my life out here in the cold on this nearly crippled horse.” “If you’d like to go back to Garden City, I won’t stop you,” Errik said with a laugh. “But I will insist you leave your much-maligned steed.” “And leave Carys with you? I have waited too long and worked too hard to leave her in the hands of someone . ” “Quiet!” The word echoed through the trees. Carys’s cloak billowed. Another branch snapped in the wind.

Her mount danced anxiously, and she yanked on the reins. “I’m sorry, Your . Carys.” Errik’s eyes caught hers and held them. “It was not my intent to upset you. I know you aren’t feeling well.” “I’m fine.” Her head rang. Her back throbbed from the lash marks that had yet to heal. More than anything she wanted to find a place to curl up and wait for the pain to end—both inside and out.

“I would be better if you stopped bickering like children.” And if the whispering at the edge of her thoughts would stop. The whispers compelled her to listen, but spoke no discernible message. It pushed at her mind as her frustration built. She felt as if she were going crazy. Seers talked of calling the wind. Of having the power to bend the air to their purpose. To travel on its back. To compel it to level armies. While she was growing up, Seer Kheldin claimed to have stopped a wind tunnel from destroying Garden City and the palace.

It was a tale so heroic it was akin to the children’s fables of seers from hundreds of years ago. But in none of the stories about the seers did they speak of hearing the wind. Of feeling the pressure of the element in their mind and its urgency and . “I didn’t start it,” Garret said. She frowned at him, and he let out a chuckle. “Sorry, I couldn’t resist. Andreus used to say the same whenever Micah and I stumbled upon you and he squabbling. Do you remember?” Micah’s stern expression and Dreus’s answering grin echoed in her mind. The memory clamped onto her heart and squeezed. She shook off the sorrow that threatened to pull her under.

“Andreus never liked anyone believing he’d done anything wrong,” Carys said. “He still doesn’t.” “That’s something we can use to our advantage when you return to the Palace of Winds to claim your rightful place on the Throne of Light,” Garret said. “The sooner you return, the better it will be for the kingdom. We need to start gathering forces.” “I hate to admit this, but Garret is right.” Errik frowned. “If you do plan on returning, we will need to start planning for that moment. I know you are still weakened from the competition, but each day that passes will increase your brother’s confidence and power.” And each passing day would give whoever had been working with Imogen the chance to stab Andreus in the back and take the throne.

The seeress was dead now, but in the months she had exerted influence in the Palace of Winds, she had fooled them all. Because of her, Carys’s father and oldest brother had paid with their lives. Andreus had paid with his heart. Whatever Imogen had set in motion, Carys had to stop. Otherwise, there would be no way to avoid a war that would tear Eden apart. “Then that settles it,” Garret said with a nod. “We will ride to Bisog.” “There is no way Carys is going to Bisog.” Errik laughed. The whispering grew louder.

Swirling through her head as the men faced each other. Her anger built with each accusation they hurled. “The houses in Bisog are bound by oaths to the High Lord of the district,” Lord Errik argued. “Now that my father’s dead, they are sworn to me. I will take control of their guardsmen and lead them into Eden under the princess’s banner.” Her heart pounded. The wind pushed against her chest, drowning out the words. “And once she’s in your district surrounded by your swords, you’ll take control of Carys as well. Over my dead body.” Garret reached for his sword.

“That can be arranged.” “Stop!” she shouted as Errik drew his sword. Fighting each other about who could be trusted— when she didn’t know if either could be. Wind gusted and swirled on the top of the hill in front of them. And that’s when she saw them. Six men on horseback with steel brandished, cresting the hill and bearing down toward them. “Run, Larkin!” Carys unfastened her cloak so she could reach into the pockets of her gown. The wind caught her cloak and pulled. Her fingers closed around the hilts of her stilettos. Errik and Garret moved in front of her with their swords drawn, ready to fight the four charging men.

Carys cocked her right arm back to throw when she heard the twang of bows. She lifted her eyes and spotted two of the men at the top of the hill notching new arrows in their longbows. They fired again—in the direction Larkin had run. Urging her horse forward, Carys picked her target and let one stiletto fly. Despite the cold and her weakness, her aim was true. The man dropped the bow in his hand as the stiletto buried its long, sharp point deep in his neck. Steel scraped against steel not far from her. Someone let out a war cry that ended abruptly. Carys couldn’t turn. She kept her eyes on the man before her—who had just let another arrow fly.

“Look out!” Errik shouted as his blade slashed through one attacker. A horse screamed. She heard Garret call to Errik as she drew back the other blade and let it fly. The wind gusted. The stiletto missed the attacker’s throat and dug deep into the hollow of his cheek. Carys saw his eyes widen just before he fell from his horse. “Carys!” She turned. Her friend was standing under a tree. Her horse was nowhere to be found. Garret fought with one of the two remaining brigands on the ground.

Two others were dead by Errik’s hand. The other attacker was still mounted and thundering toward Larkin. And Carys had no other weapons with which to protect her friend. Wheeling her horse, she urged it forward, desperate to reach Larkin before the man with the sword. Then Errik was there atop his own horse. His steel flashed. The man clad in brown and gold parried, then looked up at Errik’s face and shouted, “It’s you!” The attacker dropped his blade to the ground just as Errik swung his sword again and buried it in the man’s neck. “Larkin,” Carys yelled, sliding off her horse. She caught her friend in a tight embrace before pulling back to look at her. “Are you okay?” Larkin swallowed hard as she nodded.

“I’m fine.” She looked down at the ground near where she’d been standing. At her feet were several arrows—their shafts cracked in two. “I thought I was going to die. But—none of the arrows hit me. They just . ” She looked at Carys with wonder. “It’s like they just stopped. They’re broken.” Anger swirled in Carys’s thoughts.

Then it was gone. She shook her head and wrapped her arms around herself. “The arrows must have been in the cold for too long. The shafts must have splintered.” Errik cocked his head to the side and studied her before sliding his bloody sword into his sheath and dismounting. “Bad luck for them. Good luck for us.” “I’ll take that kind of luck any day,” Garret said, crossing to Carys and Larkin. Not once did he look at the men whose blood was draining into the snow. He pulled off his cloak and draped the thick garment around Carys’s shoulders.

“But you and I both know we have another force to thank for our lives.” He whispered into her ear, “We have much to discuss, Your Highness.” A shiver went up her spine as he turned to the others. “And our luck continues because these men are no longer in need of their horses. Would you care to join me in taking charge of our new mounts, Errik?” Errik smiled. “Lead the way.” The minute the two were gone, Larkin stooped down and picked up a broken arrow shaft. Fear filled her face. “This wasn’t luck. Was it, Carys?” A lie sprang to Carys’s lips.

After years in the Palace of Winds, surrounded by people scheming to gain influence and power, speaking untruths with conviction was, for Carys, akin to breathing. But this was Larkin—someone who had her own life turned upside down just because she dared be Carys’s friend. Larkin should, at that moment, have been traveling to her wedding. Instead she was on the run. Carys owed her the truth, even if it meant scaring her even more. Hearing the stories of the powers of the old seers was one thing. Seeing them—living them—was quite another. Carefully, she said, “It wasn’t luck, but I . ” She felt the confusion inside her build anew. The whispers returned.

Carys clenched her fists and her breath caught in her throat. The trees bent as she pressed a hand against her stomach—and took a deep breath to clear her mind. “I don’t understand what’s happening. The wind is . in my mind. It saved my life during the Trials, but I don’t understand what it is or how to control it.” Or if it can be controlled. Stories claimed that it could, but her brother hadn’t believed the seers had this kind of power. His faith, for lack of a better word, rested only in what he could see with his own eyes and test with his own mind. He convinced her the stories were complete fabrications.

She never studied them. She had no idea what wisdom they might hold. “You’re scared,” Larkin said. It wasn’t a question, but Carys nodded anyway. “Since the trials, I’ve heard voices I can’t comprehend. I keep thinking I’m going crazy because I can’t understand what they say. The wind cannot speak. Not to me. I’m not a seer. So how can this be?” “How do you know?” Larkin asked.

“What makes you believe it’s the wind that calls to you?” “How could it be anything but? How could I mistakenly believe I had some kind of affinity?” Larkin gave her a long look. They didn’t discuss Carys’s secret, but it sat between them just the same. The Tears of Midnight and all they had done to her, body and mind. Larkin held out a broken arrow shaft. “I don’t know what is happening, but I believe there is a reason for it. Just as there was a reason for us becoming friends.” “Maybe . ” Carys frowned as Larkin slipped the broken shaft into her pocket. “I’m just grateful you are safe. And as long as we get you to your betrothed and his family in Acetia, you will stay that way.

” Acetia was far to the north, but if they found a group of merchants, it might be possible . “No,” Larkin said firmly. “Your brother is convinced that I was involved in a plot to assassinate him. If he hasn’t learned of my betrothal yet, he will soon. How long do you think Zylan and his family would live if they protected me?” “Then I’ll find somewhere else for you to hide until it’s possible for you to be reunited with him. You are not going to be safe if you stay with me.” “I did not become friends with you because it was safe,” Larkin snapped. “And winner of the Trials or not, you are my Queen. Whether you wish me to or not, I will stand at your side and defend you with my last dying breath—as I know you would do for me and for the rest of Eden.” As if to prove it, Larkin dropped into a deep curtsy and in a voice filled with certainty said, “Your Majesty, I pledge myself to your service.

When the night is darkest, I promise to be a light to help you find your way.” Tears pricked Carys’s eyes. The words weren’t the typical ones spoken to swear fealty, but the passion behind them sealed the vow as certainly as if it was said in the Hall of Virtues before the Throne of Light. Yet, they made clear Larkin’s intent to be her champion. To be, in her own way, a knight in Carys’s service. Swallowing the lump in her throat, Carys took Larkin’s arm and helped her stand. “I’m supposed to vow that I will never ask you to betray the seven virtues of our kingdom. But considering I’m going to return to Garden City in order to unmask traitors and take the throne, I’m not certain I can do that.” Larkin stood and gave a hint of a smile. “I’d be happy to push your brother into a dung heap if given the chance.

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