Esmerelda, Esme to her friends, and her warrior sisters had been around for several millennia. Their time of fighting wars and conquering kingdoms was now a distant memory. Before Queen Dante passed, she’d graced her prized warriors—the falcon, hawk, eagle, phoenix, vulture, and owl—with humanity as well as immortality.
It had been many years since Esme had been home around her sisters. She was happy they found their mates but seeing them happy only reminded her she was alone.
Tristian had been through a lot, and nothing in his life so far had been as he believed. When he came into Esme’s life and his memories restored, Tristain’s head was spinning. However, nothing compared to how totally in love he was with his new mate.
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Mercy and her warrior sisters had been around for several millennia, their time of fighting in wars and conquering kingdoms now a distant memory. Before Queen Dante passed, she’d graced her prized warriors—the falcon, hawk, eagle, phoenix, vulture, and owl—with humanity as well as immortality. A gift that Mercy, to this day, was having difficulty coming to terms with. Living as a human was not what she was born to do, nor what she wanted to do. Being an immortal in a life she didn’t want left Mercy feeling angry at the world and turned her into a workaholic.
As an intervention, Blaze arranged an extended vacation and guilted her into taking it. She made all the arrangements and wouldn’t tell Mercy where she was going, just to be at the airport and do as she was told.
Joel Oliver needed this job. Finances were tight, and Blaze said all he had to do was chauffer a rich woman around town. What he would receive would catch him up on the mound of bills piling up and keep the roof over his—and his thirteen-year-old daughter, Miley’s—head for a few months longer. Miley was in a wheelchair—and as a result, had a lot of medical bills—but he loved her more than his own life. However, Joel was about to bite off more than he could chew.
The woman was gorgeous, and he found her snarky, hateful, attitude amusing until she interfered with how he was raising his daughter. Now, all bets were off.
Mercy would normally laugh in the man’s face for his hurtful remarks, but for some reason, her heart shattered instead. After a night of the most mind-blowing sex she could’ve imagined, he was treating her like it all meant nothing…. She had just realized he was her mate, and he hated her….
Blaze and her warrior sisters had been around for several millennia, their time of fighting in wars and conquering kingdoms now a distant memory. Before Queen Dante passed, she’d graced her prized warriors—the falcon, hawk, eagle, phoenix, vulture, and owl—with humanity as well as immortality.
Blaze, a hawk, had done many things in her immortal life. Now, making toys was a pastime she enjoyed. However, the owner of the print shop that made the blueprints for her designs had not only ripped her off but several other companies by giving them faulty blueprints and keeping the correct ones for himself to profit from. Blaze had caught the defect before she had put her project into production, the other firms hadn’t been so lucky and had lost millions. Given the opportunity, Blaze purchased the print shop.
Judith and her warrior sisters had been around for several millennia, their time of fighting in wars and conquering kingdoms now a distant memory. Before Queen Dante passed, she graced her prized warriors—the falcon, hawk, eagle, phoenix, vulture, and owl—with humanity as well as immortality.
Bryson had worked for the print shop for ten years. However, he had no knowledge of the owner’s dirty dealings. When the new owner stepped in, he was happy to still have a job and was eager to help in any way he could. What he hadn’t expected was the jolt he received when he shook the new owner’s hand. In that moment he knew two things, she wasn’t human, and she was his mate.
With two of their sisters mated, Jude and Piper were finding themselves a little envious of the large homes they had. Jude and Piper both were on the hunt for nicer accommodations. Christmas was just around the corner, and neither was sure if they wanted to attend the big gala that had been arranged this year in the old castle where they had all once lived.
Duncan was his mother’s son, thru and thru. He had inherited the gift of foresight as well as immortality and a few other magical traits. Jude being his mate, had been foreseen by his mother, Queen Dante, several millennia ago, and Queen Dante had kept Duncan’s identity a secret from them all.
When Duncan approached her, Jude didn’t know whether to stay put or flee. Being a warrior, she wasn’t afraid of any man, it’s what being with him represented, being a queen, Jude wasn’t sure she was ready for that. She wasn’t sure she would ever be ready for that.
Piper and her warrior sisters had been around for several millennia. Their time of fighting wars and conquering kingdoms was now a distant memory. Before Queen Dante passed, she’d graced her prized warriors—the falcon, hawk, eagle, phoenix, vulture, and owl—with humanity as well as immortality.
Piper wasn’t really happy with the way her job was going and how much travel that would be required of her in the near future. She liked the art that she made, but she wanted to do whatever she wanted, not fill specific orders. She wasn’t feeling the inspiration for that.
Grant had lived in Queen Dante’s kingdom since before the old king had died. He and his mother were fae and, therefore, immortal. He had done many things over his lifetime. Being fae and their unity with the earth, Grant and his mother were the healers for their community.
When Grant and his mother were invited to King Dante’s new castle for dinner, he was excited to see what the new king had done with the place. What he didn’t expect was the charge of magic he’d receive when he met Piper. It knocked them both on their asses. Neither knew what to expect from the other, nor what magic they had exchanged. Although Piper was wary, Grant couldn’t wait to find out.
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The castle was going down, thanks wholly to her birds. Queen Dante sat upon her horse and watched as stone after stone crumbled to the ground. In a matter of moments, not only were the walls of the fort destroyed, but the king inside his castle was dead as well. Turning her mount, she headed back to the encampment to ready herself for the long ride home. The birds joined her not half an hour later, their large bodies covered in dust and blood. “You have done well, my darlings.” They could understand her and she them, but no one else could. She had made them what they were, and she would be the only one to control them. “Have you fed well on his dying cattle? What serves a man to have his food dying? His people, they were fed no better, I saw.”
The falcon—she had never named them—told her the people were headed west. In a few months, probably less, they would all be dead too. It bothered them when the people suffered because of the king or queen of the castle. But it was to be. Dante could not care for anymore in her own keep. No one would attack her keep. If they tried, she knew them to be too stupid or too drunk on their own mead. She had her birds, all of them bigger than life, made large by magic that she gave them. Looking at them as they landed around her, forever keeping her safe, she wondered why she had not thought of it sooner when her king was still alive.
“I would have set you upon him. You could have eaten him for your dinner. Though I suspect it would have given you a great deal of belly pains.” The hawk told her she was lucky he had died the way he had. No one would come for her if she had killed him. “Yes, that is very true. But I suffered greatly when he was living. No children either, to give me comfort in my olden age. Though they might have been just like him, and that would have been too much to bear.” She would never marry again. Love wasn’t anything she searched for. Not that she didn’t have someone to warm her bed on occasion, but it was nice to be able to send them on their way when she had finished with them.
Her heart belonged to no one, and she would not have another man take her to bed by force. All would be well, and no one would threaten to come and take over her home. That was a certainty. The hawk used her beak to put delicate things upon the backs of the others. There was aplenty this time. Barrels and smoked meats. Pottery that they would use like it wasn’t worth a king’s gold. They raided the castle each time they conquered. Hawk was the best at getting in and out before they took the place to the grounds. The eagle took off toward home. She would let the people know the queen was returning simply by showing up. They would have a feast this night. The food upon her back would feed them for many days, and the barrels of spices, hoarded in the lower levels of the castle, would go a long way toward helping them trade for what they did not grow.
The phoenix, by far the deadliest of her birds, shed her feathers in anticipation of getting new ones. After a battle, she would become anew, each time getting stronger, and her feathers, brilliant now, would be brighter still. She could flame a fire so hot that stone would crumble under a man’s feet. The ground would no longer hold a seed within its belly to produce food, and she could kill a man with a single breath so that there would be nothing left of his body. She loaded the last of her things onto the back of the owl. She might be small, she had always thought, but she could carry more than her own weight. And she would pick up her horse, used to flying through the sky like a bird himself, and take him back to the castle.
He would be fed and groomed before the queen ever landed on the ground. The vulture squawked at her, and she turned to look at the two men there. They looked as if they might have been about to kill her, but the sight of such large birds threw them off their duty. In no time at all, the vulture snapped both of them up and ate them down. A gruesome sight, but one that filled her heart with joy too. She was safe again. The vulture took off, too, once she was loaded up. “Well, my falcon, it is just you and I left.” She told her she was still armed. “Yes, well, probably not too bad of an idea seeing that they nearly shot us.” The falcon laid her body to the ground. She was the only one fitted with a seat, one that Dante rode on. Scouring the area, Dante always made sure the places she camped were left as neat and clean as she’d found them.
Sometimes in better shape. As she climbed on the back of her bird, she held her breath. “I do hate the height. I should have thought this through when I turned you into my warriors.” Her laughter, should there have been someone around to hear it, might have caused them to think her insane. “Homeward, my love, and we shall eat well tonight.” She took no one with her on her fights except the birds. That was why she believed her people were so loyal to her. She protected them, fed them better than herself, and made sure there was plenty for them to trade and share for things that she did not provide for them. The soil was rich and would give forth a bounty like no other gardens. Flowers, too that were woven into pretty things and traded.
There was a smithy, as well as a doctor who doubled as a dentist. They had even acquired a gravedigger, who also made markers. There was a single merchant that came by, his wagon filled when he arrived, but it would be near empty when he left. The latest news came with him and any posts he had been asked to bring to them. He would also, for a small coin, take outposts for the next time he was in the keep of a relative or friend. And today, there was such a missive. But it was for her, from someone she had hoped never to hear from again—the king of the land, the only man she answered to, though it wasn’t with any kind of happiness on her part. After the others were settled down and the food that had been brought put into storage, she sat down and wasn’t surprised that the falcon came to see her. The room she was in—the throne room for lack of a better term—had no roof and six perches for the birds when they wished to see her. Otherwise, they sat upon the top of the castle turrets, watching for anything that might befall them.
“I am to wed. The king of the land, he has decided my castle is the best there is, and he will marry me himself.” The falcon asked about his castle. “He says it will be his son’s, of which he has none as yet. His last five wives have only given him daughters from what I have heard, and they did not last long afterwards.” The falcon asked her what she would do. Dante knew what would happen to her should he come here. He would kill her. Being in her fortieth summer, she was much too old to bear any children now, and he would be better with a younger bride. One that could birth him the sons he wanted. “He will kill me; we both know that. And you six will kill him or be killed. I worry so much for the people here too.” She thought of several plans and threw them out. It was in her head that if she should die, then she would do so on her own terms. “I will need a day to think on this. In the meantime, he says he will be here in the new year.
That will give us a month to provide for the people and make sure they are not harmed.” ~*~ Dante worked as hard as the rest of her people. With her hair up in a rag, she didn’t look any different than any of the men and women that toiled with her. There was much to be done in the little time they’d been allotted. Today they were drying all the beef and goat meat they had. It would last them for several months, and where she was sending them for safety, they’d need that extra time. Long enough for them to breed more of their cattle and goats, so there would always be food for them to eat. “What of the dried herbs that are left, my lady? There are already barrels of it packed away for the trip. Shall we put them in bags to go?” She shook her head. “There are no more barrels until the morn.
The copper is working as fast as he can, making more. What shall we do?” “Leave them. There is very little, correct?” The man said that there wasn’t enough for a good strong stew. “Good. They will think you all died off from lack of planning, and that will keep you safe for a longer time. Leave it for them so that when the keep and castle are in ruin, the king will understand why.” Not that anyone was going to be coming to the castle to live, she thought. There were things in motion that would make sure everything here was gone well before the lands were walked upon again. She looked to the sky when a dark shadow fell over her. Her hawk was making her way to the village Dante had set up. Long ago, Dante had purchased the lands far from where she was now and put them in the name of Mercy Dante. She knew so much about all their futures that it made her so sad to know she’d never be there to see it happen. “My lady?” She looked at her man of arms, a man that had very little work to do but was brave and true to her. “We have plenty of things to go on the next load if you have a desire to send it on.
Do you still wish for some of the armed men to go with them this time? I’m to understand we’re to fell trees for homes.” “Yes, that would be good. How many men can you spare today?” He told her all she had. “Then send them on. I know some of you are frightened to ride the birds, but you should have no fear. They would no more harm you than they would me.” He nodded and looked at her hawk. “I shall send you all on her. She is the gentlest of the six of them.” The carrier had been fashioned a week ago. It had upset her that it had taken so long to get right, but it was safe now, and that was all she wanted. There were only a few short weeks to get the people gone from here with all that would keep them safe. Now all she had to do was make sure the birds didn’t know the last of her plans. The platform had been made from several drawbridges from castles they’d taken over.
She’d known that saving them would be helpful, but it had taken a great deal more work than she’d thought to put them together and have her fishermen weave a netting to carry it with. After several trials and failures, the carrier worked. Loading up the men on the first run of people, she noticed they had put the several men that were afraid of the ride in the middle. One of them, a hardy man otherwise, had been knocked out with much wine. It had been funny to all around that it had taken so little of the wine to do that to him. But they didn’t know she’d given him a bit of magic to help him travel. All was well when her hawk took off with the several dozen men to start on the homes that would be needed. Barrels would be next. They had been sealed by magic that would keep them well preserved.
The other birds, her warriors for all time, had been taking jewels and other items to a cave she had also covered in magic. It would help the people of the new village for as long as they lived, well beyond her body becoming nothing but dust. Dante watched as several more people were taken to the new village. She would allow them to name their new place as long as it would never be attached to the name of the castle. That would be bad for them and would bring much trouble onto their heads. When her hawk landed, she went to ask how things were progressing. “Well, my lady. They were no more off the platform for seconds when they started to work. I believe you were good to get them started on this.
‘Tis only late winter, so they should be able to have a few of the buildings up before the rest are moved.” Dante agreed with her. No one else could understand the birds but her and the other birds. It had, she knew, kept everyone safe all these years. “I can only make two trips there and back, my lady. ‘Tis not a long way by the way we fly, but the pack is heavy. Please forgive me for that.” “You have nothing to be sorry for, my bird of prey. You have done one more than I had hoped for this day. And when the others have finished their tasks for me in carrying away the riches and other things they will need, it will take no time at all to move the rest. Nay, you have done well this day in taking the men and then the food to feed them while there.” Her hawk, who would someday be called Blaze, bowed before her.
Stacking up the loads that would be going on the platforms, she could see that they’d be taking away the last of it only the day before the king was to arrive. Dante was glad now that she’d had such good people working for her. They asked nothing as to why they were doing this but did it for her. When in reality, it was all for them and her birds. Dante knew the king would never make it here. His ship and all his bounty would be deep in the waters he crossed to kill her and take her castle. The man was a fool to think she would easily do what he wanted. Wiping at a tear, she looked around the keep she’d worked so hard to keep everyone safe in. It was then she saw her son. Duncan was everything she was and more. Each time she saw her son, she would give him a little more of herself, teach him something of running a castle. He knew what he was to her and that Mary was doing her a great favor in keeping him safe.
Duncan would be a greater king than she ever was a queen. Just the way it should be. She was glad now that she’d told him he was to be mated to one of her birds. Leaving him to his work, she entered the castle to see what else was there that she could easily live without. There was very little left as it was, but she moved from room to room to make sure nothing was left behind of any value. The only thing she could see in the great room was the painting of herself. Dante wished so many times that she could have put her son there with her, but it was not to be. It would have been foolhardy to think she’d be able to keep him safe if she was to put out there that he’d been born. Other kingdoms would have done a great many things to have captured him to bring her to heel. Dante would do anything to keep him safe, including submitting to a man again.
A thing that she would never do again in her lifetime. “I shall give this to our falcon.” She turned her head enough to find Duncan behind her, and the doors closed to anyone walking around. “She will be a great person, I think. Sour to many but the one she will love.” “You have seen this?” Duncan said he’d seen a great many things. “Well, you know as well as I that it might not turn out the way we see it. There can be changes, you know.” “This I am aware of. As well as you not living past the last person that is taken from here.” She turned to look at him then, trying to see just what he was seeing. “I shall forever miss you, Mother.” It was the first time he’d called her that. Her heart was so tender of late that she would burst into tears at all that would be gone in so short of time. Hugging him to her, she felt his body was getting stronger daily. He knew how to work and did it without complaint. “I have been writing a book. It is just for you, my son.
You will know things I have known for some time. It will replenish your riches that I have put aside for you. Also, how to keep the birds safe should they need it.” He nodded. “I will give it to Mary on the day you travel. I do not want the others to know you are my son, even after all is finished here.”
“They will only know me as a man you trusted. But I will need to tell them at some point. This you know as well as I. I will be their king when they need me.” She nodded, tears flowing quickly now. “Mother, you do know I will take care that they are as safe as you made them here?” “I do, my son. I know that better than you could. You are not anything like your father. A cruel and terrible man. When you marry, and you will, I want you to know that she will only love you if you give her your heart. It’s important that you do that for her.” He said he would. “Let her strength help you when you know you are not armed to do it on your own. She will love you more and respect you forever for that.” “Will she be stronger than me, Mother?” Dante told him she was sure of it. “Then I will be for her what you have been for these people. A leader of worth. I will promise you I will also protect her forever.” “That is all that anyone can do for their mate, my child.” He hugged her, something neither of them were able to do often.
“I shall miss you, Duncan. Much more than I could ever explain to you. Go forth, protect all the people of your kingdom, and do what I say. Love your mate more than anyone, including yourself, and the two of you will be able to move mountains.” ~*~ New Town, what they had begun to call the new place they were living, looked like any other town in the country. The only difference was this one was only several weeks old. It, to Dante, looked as if it had been established long ago. She was pleased with the work her people had given the place she’d moved them to. “My lady? There is a problem in one of the homes we’ve put up. I know how to fix it, but the man living in it, he said he will be fine with it. To have his own home was more than he could have hoped for.” The queen of the people asked Barron what the issue was. “He has five daughters, my lady, and we’ve somehow put him into a house with only one bedroom.
There are ones he could use, but he insists that it be used for the other families.” “I shall speak to him. Is it Donald, the mule man?” Barron nodded, his face nearly touching the ground. He was bent so much. “Stand up, man. I believe I have pointed out this is not a time for formality. We must all work together for the greater good of the people. I shall speak to him now. Then I must, as you know, return to the castle for the final loading.” Along the way to speak to Donald, she was stopped no less than twenty times to be thanked for the things she’d provided for the people here. Without making the great move, Dante knew all of them would have been killed. Because of their loyalty to her as queen of the castle, the king of these realms, a tyrant of a man, would have ordered them all butchered as soon as he killed her on their wedding night. Of this, she was certain. “My lady? I have yet to put on a pot for tea, but you must join us in it.” Dante was not one to hold back when she had something to say. She told Donald she wanted him to take a larger home. “Oh, my lady. Barron should never have bothered you with this. We are quite happy with where we are.”
“But you have six people in a single man’s home, Donald. What, I ask you, will the man who was supposed to be in this home do with a home with many bedrooms? He will be overwhelmed in trying to keep them clean while you are smashed up in this one-bedroom chamber with your little girls.” Donald looked at his daughters, beautiful little ones that were the pride and joy of himself. “There is a home just over the road here you shall be moved to. I insist. Your daughters will share two bedrooms, and you will have your own.
I know for a fact, sir, that your snore is legendary. For your daughters to have a good sleep, you will need to be far from them. Do you not agree?” “Yes, my lady.” He moved just a little closer and, in a low voice, spoke to her. “I did not wish to cause you any undue trouble. You have given all of us a chance to survive this, and I wanted to be sure you knew I was ever so grateful for it. I’m as happy here with you and yours as I ever was in the castle keep, my lady. Incredibly happy.” “I’m glad you’re happy here, Donald. You are a good man and a man that cares well for his daughters. I shall have the men move you to the new home. It will give me a good feeling knowing you have plenty of room for yourself and your family.” He thanked her. “Your daughters, sir, they will be safe here. You need anything, you make sure you contact Barron.” “Thank you, my lady. If there is ever anything I can do for you, you need only to ask. I am and will be indebted to you for the rest of my days.” Dante felt her eyes water up with the man’s words.
Her life, she knew, was only a short time away from ending. “Thank you very much.” The little girls curtsied at her, and she had to move on. It broke her heart every time she saw small children. She so wanted to hold her own. Telling Donald once again that she’d have the men move him, she moved toward the longhouse that would serve as a church for the people and a meeting place for them to gather should they need to. Her eagle was awaiting her when she returned to the now all but abandoned castle. “You have done well, my heart. You, of all the birds I have, are the one I worry most about.” The eagle asked her why. “You are so much like me. Hard when you’re needed to be. Too soft when it comes to our people. I fear someday it will harm you in ways that not even I could fix.”
Her eagle, like the other birds, was a huge part of getting the people moved. If not for them, there would be no way she could have done this alone. It would have meant certain death for all of them, including her own son. Going to the throne room, she sat upon the floor. Dante had moved her chair to the caves for the others to sell off should no one want it. But because she could see into the future, just bits and pieces, she knew at least one of them would want such a monstrosity. “When this is finished, soon now, I will give you and the others magic to keep you safe from others who would try and capture you.” Her eagle asked what sort of magic. “You will be able to blend into situations you wouldn’t normally consider a problem. There will be problems, too. From the things I have seen, you all will have trouble from those around you.”
She laid back on the cold stone. The castle had been forged so long ago Dante could not remember who had been the person to have erected it. Now, as she looked up into the night sky, the roof here long since removed, she thought of what was going to happen in the coming days. “He has set sail and is nearly here. The king of all the lands is coming to claim not just my castle and my wealth but my birds as well. There are many people on the vessel that carts his bottom here who have no desire to be his servants. If only I could have saved them as well.” The eagle, standing upon her perch built just for her, reminded her she could not save them all. “In this, I wish it was wrong to have thought that. They will suffer, these people. They are suffering, for there is nothing to do to appease the king to find favor with him. There are so few that he has not made suffer by lashing them on their backsides. Too many of them have died in his foolishness to make me his wife for such a short time.” Listening to her eagle squawk at her about the king and idiocy, Dante thought of her impending death.
It would be a sad affair only to her son and the birds he would one day claim as his own. However, just knowing all would be safe from the king’s tyranny made the other things so worthwhile. “If I had to do it again, I would do nothing differently. I would still do what I am doing now so that all will live and live on. Even with you birds, I would do just what I have done to keep my kingdom here.” The eagle asked her if she’d been happy. “Happy? I don’t know that I have had that much in my lifetime. I have been content. Not the same, I suppose, but I have been content with my lot in life. If only I could have kept living the way we have, I do believe I could have made such a difference in things here and in the future. Before I forget this again, I have taken the time to write out the things t’will keep the new town with coin in their coffers. I know it will be aplenty, but I will worry until my last breath if it will be enough.” Her last breath.
It was only a few days away. Much too soon for her, but Dante knew it would be well worth the pain of dying to her. Sitting up, she looked at the birds, all six of them on their perches watching over her and the emptied lands they could see. They were the sole reason she was able to do this. This she knew more than anyone could have guessed. “I shall retire, I think. I have no bed to speak of now, so I will only lie upon the ticking. On the morrow, we shall have a feast. A great amount of food, as well as drink. ‘Tis fitting, I think, to celebrate this new way of life for so many.” Her beautiful phoenix asked her why she seemed so sad. “Sad? Aye, I am that and more. Things are moving at a pace I wish didn’t exist. But it is for the wellbeing of all that have called this place home. In that, I suppose I am sad that we shall never be able to return here in my lifetime.” But they would. All six of them and more will return someday and see the castle as it should have been. A lovely home to her son and his mate, the one that she herself had hand-picked for her beloved child. Oh, to be able to see them grow into love. But it was not to be.
Getting up before she made a fool of herself by crying over something she had no control over, Dante did indeed head to her bed. For tomorrow and the next day would be the hardest of anything she’d ever done before. ~*~ Dante didn’t sleep. She’d not closed her eyes to rest in more years than she could count on both her hands and then her toes. It was all right, she supposed. Dante was able to get more done this way. But she did pace herself. She’d never survive these last days if she were to fall apart now. “Mistress, there are two men here to see you. They wish to know who has carved your turrets. I did not tell him they were as real as he.” Mary shook her head at the folly of some men. “I should have called them down to talk to him about how they were made. I think he might well have soiled his britches.” “Mary, please tell them that the lady of the castle is busy and does not have time to tell him of the art he is looking at. What manner of person would ask such a thing? As if I didn’t have the sense of that turtle caught in the drain last week.
Nay, tell them to move on before I toss them into the sea.” Mary went to tell them just what she said. Dante was smiling when she heard Mary laughing. She’d no doubt take the way she’d told her to move them on to such extravagance. It would serve the men right if she really would call down one of her birds to take care that they didn’t bother her again. Dante made her way to the drying room at the back of the kitchen. She had been brewing a brew for several days now. “You’re not going to be going with us, are you, my lady?” She turned to look at her great phoenix. “If you do not explain to me what your plan is, I think to tell Mercy what I have figured out. She will not allow you to die. Nor will I be all right with your death.” “I must die, my beautiful friend. For if the king were to actually reach our lands and find this castle and all that was here when he set sail were gone, what do you think he’d say to his men?
That it was a good thing I left? That now he didn’t have to kill me? Nay, he would send them to find me. And my people. I do not wish anyone else to be harmed for what he wants from me.” The phoenix, Piper would be her name someday, asked her if she expected them to do the killing. “In a way. I have this brew here. It is nearly set for me to drink down. The castle and its walls, they must come down, or it will all be for naught. What I have made, it will have me dead before you drop the first stone upon the only home I have ever had. You as well, my dear bird.” “Mercy will not be willing to help.” Dante told her she would because she’d know what she said now was the truth. “Aye, you say that, but I think her to be most upset with the turn of events, my lady. It will break all our hearts to know you have left us behind.” “I shall never leave any of you behind. I will be forever in your hearts and you in mine as I take my last breath.” The phoenix nodded but didn’t say anything more for some time. “He will die before he gets to the land. This king who thinks to murder me in my own bed. And those that he brought with him, they too will perish. ‘Tis a folly on his part to think I’d just do as he wants as if I have no mind of my own. I know Mercy will kill him and all that have been forced to come here with him. It’s not such a bad thing, these deaths, Phoenix. It will be merciful to all that have ridden the seas to make their way here.”
After the bird left her, she pulled the large cauldron off the hot flames and covered it with a lid. Even though there were no children about or anyone working in the kitchens, she would feel terrible if any harm would come to anyone right now. Making her way back to the throne room, or what was left of it, she laid on the floor to look up at the sky. Dante hated heights. While she forever knew she’d never see the time when there would be airplanes in her sky, she knew they were set to come. She was content, for now, to bask in the beautiful view she’d miss more than she’d thought she might. Getting up, Dante made her way to the side of the castle that faced the sea. “Oh, to see the waterways filled with my own ships again. To see them sailing off to find new things to bring back to us.” There were ships out there. She could just make out their flags.
None of these were her tormentor, she knew. He would be visible in two days, still out to sea a long way. He would be nothing more than a small speck in the open waters, but she’d still be able to see him. “Why now? Why have you made your plans to include me at this time? I wish more and more I’d been born a male. Then no one would dare to come here. I might well have been the king of all the lands had it been so.” Her ships had been taken to the coves not far from here. By the time they were remembered, time would go by, and they would be nothing more than rotted wood and material. Dante wouldn’t want them to be seaworthy again. It might well be the thing that got her people killed. Even in the future, the bits and pieces she could see, the ships would only cause people to look harder for her remains and perhaps run into the New Town where her people lived. That, she knew, would be a danger to all. “Mother? Are you here?” She turned to look at her son.
Duncan had been coming to her of late to get more lessons, her thoughts on things, as well as how to manage a vast kingdom such as the one she was leaving him. “I thought for sure you’d be here. I have a favor to ask of you. ‘Tis a small one, but one I think you can give me. I should like to spend the night here, within these walls, once with you. I have spoken to Mary about it, and she thinks you will grant me this one wish. It will be the first and last time the two of us will be able to be under the same roof since I was born.” “I should like that. Very much.” He nodded and smiled at her. “There is so much to tell you and so much more I think I have forgotten to pass on to you. But for this night, I shall not speak of the king coming here. Nor of my life-ending. You are aware of it, my child. This I know. But to have you here with me this last night? It is more than I could have asked for.” They made their plans to sleep on the same ticking she’d been resting on since her bed had been taken away. As they curled up under a thick blanket, the two of them talked more than they rested. Tears were shed, of course. There was no way to avoid such a thing. But there was laughter, too, much more of it than just tears.
“I shan’t be here tomorrow when you are set. I cannot be of sound mind when I know what is to happen to you. I will tell you, Mother, that there couldn’t have been a better person to raise me. Nor one that has loved me as well as you have.” She kissed him on the forehead as he spoke again. “For as long as I live, Mother dear, I will keep you in my heart, along with the birds that will be mine as well. I love you. Much more than I think any child could their parent. You are the best there is. I shall kill anyone that says differently.” She had no words to give him after that. Her heart, already tender, was breaking more. It might well have done her better not to have spent the night with her son. But it would have been harder on her, she thought, to not have this time with him with no other around.
Finally, when she could speak without tearing up, even more, Dante told her son that she loved him. That he’d be a better king than she had been a queen. After saying that, they both settled into their thoughts until the sun came rising from the seas that surrounded them. Today, she knew, would be her last day to breathe in the air, take in food for her belly, and the very last time she’d order her birds to do something she knew they’d hate her for. ~*~ The last of the herbs were drying nicely. Along with the pumpkins and other squashes, Dante had added a little magic to them so that they’d produce quicker. Would also produce more for them to have when they replanted the seeds left from this bounty. The corn stalks had been bundled up too to take along for roofs, as well as fodder for the fires that would need to be lit.
As she looked over the ground she’d been working on with the others, she wondered if the future occupants of her home would plant and use the product coming from it as much as she had. Dante knew a great deal about the coming centuries. It had come to her in dreams or just single thoughts. She used this gift of magic to make it so her son and all the people that were going to be living around here would not have to worry about money. Not when there was so much more that needed to be done. Taking a large basket of still-green tomatoes that hadn’t gotten ripe as yet, she was smashing them into pulp to make sure that the seeds, a precious thing, were set aside to dry. Duncan joined her in the drying room with several more fruits that would need to be secured. “I have dug up all the trees you wished to be stored away.
I also added some things that seemed to be begging me for a second chance. I’ve got a feeling in my heart that their kind might not be long for this time we are in.” She told her son he was more than likely right if that was what he felt. He walked around the room. “There is plenty enough herbs here to fill an entire barrel. Are you leaving them?” “I will some. The rest will go back with all the others when you leave here tonight.” He nodded. “The trees will be stored away until such a time that they’re needed.
I have found a way to preserve them so they will not rot and die. I will let you know when it is time for you to get them. Also, there is—” “Mom, I have a question for you. You do not need to answer it if you would rather not, but I would so like the answer.” She nodded and sat in the only chair in the room with them. “No one will speak to me of my sire, my father. I have asked Mary, and she has told me when the time was right, I’d be able to know all there is to know about him. I believe in my heart that no one can tell me what sort of person he was but you. It’s important to me, you see. I would like to know why I was hidden from him. Not that I don’t believe you did the right thing. But I cannot imagine the cruelty he had without you telling me.” “It is a horrific telling, my son. One I hoped you’d never hear. But since you have asked, I will tell you of his deeds. Not just to me, but to the very people that work within and out of these walls.” He sat on the floor, and Dante produced a thick ticking for him to sit on while he listened.
She did the same for herself and leaned back against the tables used for the sorting of herbs. “When I was first wed to him, by order of the then king, he was cruel even then. I wasn’t a young maiden, but a maiden all the same. Yet his lying with me was like lying with a monster. He hit me, bit me, and then when he’d filled me with his seed, he would have me tied to the bed so I’d not be able to abort any child from him with the taking of herbs or such. I allowed that to happen to me only the one time. After that, using my magic, I’d be free and wandering around without his knowledge.” “Did you? Abort any other children by him?” She told him she’d never have done that.
Not even if she had ten children, all of them girls. “I’m glad to hear that, Mom. It would have been nice to have a sibling, but I understand that it would have been difficult to want to have a child by such a monster.” Duncan sat on her lap then, just there so that she could hold him. While sitting there with his head under her chin, she told him of the things his father had done to her. What he would have done had he ever found out about her having a son. “There were times, my son, that I would wish for death after he was finished with me. The healers had to work very hard to keep me from throwing myself from the highest peak. The wounds I would carry during my life cut harder than any other thing I have had to endure. Even a spear, which I have had plenty enough of, were nothing compared to his terror.” While not giving him a great many of the details, she did tell him of the whip he’d used. His fist, as large as her head, would slam into her body any time he saw her. Dante told her son some of the things she wished for him to remember.
The decision was his mate’s, and hers alone, as to when to have children or not. There were other things too that she imparted to him. The wisdom of keeping his mouth shut when he was angry. To not make decisions without discussing them with his mate. “Your mate will be smart, Duncan. And stronger than you will ever be. Not just in strength but also in mind. She will have knowledge that comes from being a warrior. Use that. All the birds will be able to protect you in ways I cannot see or even imagine.” He told her he’d treat his mate the opposite way from how Dante had been treated.
“Then that is all that I can ask of you, Duncan. I will die knowing you will be the greatest king that has ever lived.” “I will not disappoint you or my mate, Mom. I promise you on my heart and yours that I will treat her as the queen she will be.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Come with me now. I want to swim with you while the others are finishing up. One hour will make little difference in getting ready for a king that will not see this place.” The two of them played in the water for more than half the day. When they weren’t swimming, the two of them talked about the things she’d seen. The companies, what they were called in the future, would make him the most profit. Also, about when he was to sell them so as not to lose a great fortune. “There are things called market that are nothing like we have here. They are to buy and sell stocks—I believe that is what they’re called. The things I have written for you will tell you when to buy such stocks and when to sell them. One minute will make the difference in when you sell them, Duncan. Be on time for that.”
He told her he would. “Good. That is all I can ask you to do. It will be able to sustain you for years and years.” As Duncan made his way home, she mixed up her tea and took it with her to the towers. Duncan thought it would be tomorrow morning, but she didn’t know if she could go through with it if she knew he was standing not far from her. As she settled herself into the middle of the room, she looked up at the skies. The birds, all of them, were awaiting her signal. Drinking the brew straight down, she told her birds how much she had come to love them. “Once I am gone from this world, which will not be long now, you will receive a gift from me that you’ll need to survive under the conditions of the world beyond.” She didn’t tell her birds what she’d done, that she’d poisoned herself with her own brew. Nor did she tell them she’d made it so they’d be humans. Also, they’d be true immortals and not able to be killed.
Dante was afraid they’d not take down the castle but leave it for others to take over. There would be no one else to live here but her sons and the birds. Even though he didn’t know it yet, the castle would be ready for them to live in quite nicely. “You are angry. I can feel it. I’d rather you be happy that the other people that were living here are as safe as we could make them. That without you, I don’t know that I would have been as long for this world as I was. You not only saved the people here, my birds but me as well.” Her vulture asked her why she had to die. They could carry her away. “If there is even a hint of me being not at this castle when it fell, then I will be hunted down for treason. They will not only kill me, but they’ll have their sport with me, as well as torture me to find out where my people have gone. I know I cannot survive the sort of torture they would put upon my body.
I am old, and my body wouldn’t sustain as much as they will use against me to go and find them.” Her body was weak already from her magic being depleted as much as it was, but she held onto her mind for as long as she could. Telling her saviors about how she had known to find them. That they were, of all the birds around, the ones she knew would care for her and her lands. Telling them that it was time, well past the time, for the work to be done.
Then she told them one more thing before she succumbed to her death. “I love you all so very much. Had you been children of mine, I would have— You are my children. Created from me so that I could be a good queen to all that lived here. But I would have taken glory in your lives. Been a part of it that would have made me the happiest I have ever been. There has never been a greater friendship than the kind we have here. I do love you. Please, remember me fondly.” She tried to laugh a little, but she was too weak to even do that now. “Let it begin. I shall wish you all the blessings a queen can give to her mates, best friends and children that you are.” Dante was beyond feeling anything when the first stone tore into the building. It narrowly missed her, for which she was disappointed.
They were thinking she might change her mind. Even if she wished to do that, it was too late. Her last vision was of her great vulture carrying a large stone up and over her. Dante closed her eyes, letting death take her before the stone could do so. ~*~ Duncan knew of her plans, even though she’d not said anything to him. His mother, even now, was beyond him. Death had taken her from not just himself but all that loved her. And love her, they did. Telling Mary, the woman who had taken care of him these last ten years, she let him be alone for his grief. She was a good woman, kind to him, and also good at keeping his head out of the clouds when necessary. There was never a time when she didn’t paddle his bottom when he needed it, but she was just as quick to praise him when he did something good.
He thought he was getting more praise than he’d been getting paddles of late. Going out into the yard, knowing that the rain coming down was like the earth telling of its sorrow for having lost someone like his mother, Duncan went to the waterside, the inlet to the larger sea that was yet miles and miles away. Just as he made himself comfortable under the canopy of leaves just coming to their branches, one of the birds landed beside him. “She’s gone. The queen is gone, isn’t she?” The bird squawked, but Duncan knew they didn’t know who he was, so he pretended to not understand the beautiful phoenix when she told him she was indeed gone. “I shall miss her. Forever I think. I know she did the right thing today, for all of us, but I cannot help but be a little angry with her for dying like she has.”
The bird watched over him. He was sure that someone had seen him going this way, and feared he’d fall into the fast-moving waters. He could swim, unlike so many others in the village, but to be watched over even now made him think he would welcome any kind of kindness this day. “I know had it not been the king of all the lands coming, it would have been someone else coming to make their claim. Even now, they are going to die at the hand of one so broken. I have seen the beautiful falcon around the queen so much more than the others. I believe her to have been the first of her kind.” The phoenix nodded this time, and he was glad she made the effort. Reaching over, he barely touched one of the brightest feathers he’d ever seen before turning back to look at the waterways.
“If you think me to jump in, I shan’t. It might have been tempting some time ago, but no longer. The queen has deemed that none of us shall mourn her by causing our own death. It would break her, I believe, to know that so many would like to join her in her afterlife.” Again the phoenix nodded. Duncan knew he was treated well because of his mother. He wasn’t sure who had figured out who he was to the queen, but they knew him to be special enough that she would seek him out when she wanted. And though his mother visited all homes, all the time, she would stay longer at the home he stayed in with Mary and her son. He looked at the feather he’d been admiring when it fell to the stone underneath him. “You are in mourning as well, aren’t you? I don’t blame you. I think my heart has been crushed by this day. More than that, while I know it will heal, right now, it hurts me badly enough that I wish to let the earth go on without me. But, like you, I have a job to do, and I shall do it to the best of my ability.”
More feathers landed beside them, and he collected them before they scattered. “I’ve got a mind to make something beautiful with these if you’d not mind. Something to remind me of this day and you coming to watch over me. If you’ve better things to do, phoenix, you can leave me here to my own sorrow.” Instead of leaving, she nestled down and put out her wing to cover him more when the wind picked up. The water, just a few feet from him, began to gather up strength. Duncan knew it was from the death of the king and not the water pouring from the sky. The king was dead. Mercy, as she would be called, had dropped a stone on his boat larger than anything that could be carried by the best of trucks in the future. When the water was too swift for him to safely be sitting there, he stood up.
To be able to ride on the bird, just to make sure the bad king was indeed dead, was tempting. But he dared not. She wouldn’t allow it, he thought. As he made his way back to his home, the bird flew away to do whatever she’d been told by his mother. Duncan leaned against one of the few trees left standing when New Town was built. People were going about their business. He did notice that quite a few tears were being shed. Many a woman and man had their clothes out, wiping at the tears for his mother and her passing. They would go on, as she had begged them to do. Make this place a place of safety and happiness.
Making his way into the only home he’d ever known, he pulled out one of the books she’d given him to read and began his tasks. Duncan would not be the one to disappoint his mother. Even though she was gone, he knew she’d be watching over him to keep him learning how to be the best king that ever lived. It was going to be a hard place to go to, filling out the role of his mother, but he knew with the knowledge she’d given him, what was in the books, and his ability to see bits and pieces into the future, he’d do well. By the time dinner was called, he was well into the first of many books. Having to start over several times, he’d begun to make notes on paper he’d made for this occasion. Going to the long building, he could see that many of the people there were wearing flowers on their heads. Going back into the house, he gathered all but one
feather and set about giving them to those who had not come in festive wear. It was then that Barron made the announcement that the bad king was dead, and so was their queen. After a short prayer to whatever god they prayed to, they set about having their meal, and he was glad once again for the company around him. When night began to fall, he made his way to the broken castle. It was indeed nothing more than rubble. The turrets that were there for their birds were crushed too. However, it didn’t stop them, the larger-than-life birds, from continuing their watch over them all. Out in the sea, he could see that no boats were coming to their port, nor would there be for a great many years to come. This he knew to be a good thing.
If no one was there to trade, they too would think that the good queen had perished in the fallen castle, and her people gone to other kingdoms to be their slaves. “You are her son, are you not, good Duncan?” He turned and looked at the beautiful woman standing there. The queen of faeries. The only one he’d ever been able to speak to. “The others would have come too, but their hearts, even though we were told what was to come to pass here this day, are all still broken for you, little one.” “She wishes for me to carry on as if nothing has happened.” He looked at the castle again. “I will, but I don’t think one day of mourning will matter all that much. But she’d beat me about the head and shoulders should I do that.” The queen laughed. “I have more magic for you, Duncan, king of the lands. It is all our magic so that you may call upon us should you need us.
Your good mother, she made sure that we knew what to expect in the coming years and has given us plenty to do. She is not one to allow others to sit upon their bottoms, even though she is not here to bring us to task.” He told her he thought his mother would anyway. “Of that, I have no doubt.” She touched his forehead with her long shimmering hand, and he felt the magic come to him in waves. Holding onto the tree he was near, he felt every bit of his body fill even more for the magic. He also felt himself aging. Duncan was sure that should he look at himself by the seawaters, he’d see himself a grown man. Even his face was whiskered. “She did not want you to be idle, Duncan. But to do what has been told to you to keep everyone safe.” He said he understood that even as he made himself clothing to cover his now manly body. “When you return to the encampment, you will not have to tell ‘tis you.
They will understand what you are and who you are to them. It will be safe for you now. There will be a great many years, decades upon decades, before you have a need for the birds. They’re going to have a lot to learn before then as well.” Nodding, he gleaned as much information from the queen as he could. When he turned to look at the broken castle once more, she assured him that even now, the earth was making it ready for when he needed it once again. The other magic he received from the others of the earth, he took it into his body with the knowledge that came with it. Duncan was as ready as he’d ever been to bring everything that he’d seen, his mother had seen, to fruition. He would make his mother proud.