Cover by Laura Shinn
~ A tale of Fantasy Romance from bestselling author Amanda Ashley ~
Queen Angeline lays writhing in the throes of childbirth, and only the magical power of a unicorn’s horn can save her. Tasked with obtaining the unicorn’s horn, Shandra, handmaiden to the Queen, calls the mystical creature to her with her song. By so doing, Shandra brings down the wrath of the wizard, Draga, who claims the rare unicorns as his own.
Unaware of the danger she is in, Shandra meets in secret with Mougadour, the king’s most trusted knight, and in so doing, embroils the two of them in Draga’s wicked plot for vengeance, putting their lives and the future of the entire kingdom in jeopardy.
The foal took its first breath as the silver sun crested the rolling, flower-bedecked hills of Karanda Province. Pristine white, the colt was as bright as new fallen snow on a frosty winter morn. A tiny nub of golden horn protruded from the center of its dainty forehead, early promise of the long golden spike that was the hallmark of its species.
Killeen nuzzled her newborn son, her rough pink tongue moving over him in a whisper soft caress of love and motherly tenderness.
“Rise up, little one,” she crooned, “and let your father see what a fine colt he has Sired.”
Razlen, undisputed leader of the Karanda unicorns, chosen mount of Draga the sorcerer, snorted, the sound rumbling like distant thunder across the timbered hills.
“Are you seeking praise for our son?” he chided gently. “I need not see him prancing about to know he is a prince among our kind. Am I not his Sire? Is his mother not the fairest mare in all the land?”
Killeen's heart swelled with pride at her mate's gruff praise. His words were like fairy music to her ears, for his love and approval were dearer than life itself. Razlen was the King of their kind. His coat was as sleek as satin, his mane as soft as Karanda silk. His horn was pure gold, the finest in all the realm.
In the royal bedchamber of Karanda Castle, good Queen Angeline lay writhing in agony as she struggled to bring forth her firstborn child. Her labor had been long and hard and she lay exhausted upon satin sheets stained with sweat and blood, her screams of anguish long since reduced to pitiful whimpers and hoarse cries of pain. Her long golden curls lay tangled and damp upon the pillow. Her ivory skin was pale, her face drawn and haggard.
The aged midwife Jezriah and two handmaidens hovered at the Queen's bedside, consulting in hushed tones. What to do, what to do? Save the mother and sacrifice the child? Or save the King's heir and let the Queen perish? Ah, but to lose Queen Angeline would surely break King Ruark's heart. Theirs had not been a match to bind nations or bring peace to warring countries, but a love match, rare in this day and age.
Even now, the King was in his private chambers, restlessly pacing the floor, refusing both food and drink, refusing to be comforted while the woman he cherished above all else lay in agony.
Jezriah sighed heavily as she wiped the Queen's furrowed brow with a cool cloth. The mother or the child, which should it be? A difficult decision at best, one which must soon be made, else both mother and infant be lost.
“'Tis a decision the King himself will have to make,” the midwife remarked at last. “It is, after all, his wife and his child. No one else should make such a decision for him.”
“Oh, but what a terrible decision to thrust upon him,” Shandra exclaimed in dismay. “Surely there is something we can do, something we have not yet tried.”
Jezriah frowned thoughtfully. She was an old, old woman, one who had brought many a babe into the world. She had seen many births. And many deaths. Nothing quite so heartbreaking as the loss of a newborn babe, or the birth of a stillborn child after long hours of hard labor.
“I have heard it said the powdered horn of a unicorn will bring a reluctant child into the world,” the old woman remarked, “though I confess I have never seen it done.”
“Try some quickly,” Shandra urged. “Before it is too late.”
Jezriah shook her head. “I have none. It must be taken fresh each time. And with unicorns growing scarce…” She shook her head again.
Jezriah and Shandra exchanged worried glances as another heart-rending sob rose in the Queen's throat.
“We must do something,” Neone said. “Shall we summon Draga?” She spoke the sorcerer's name softly, warily, fearing that the mere mention of the dreaded name might conjure the man.
“Draga!” Shandra exclaimed. “Not him!”
“He is a loathsome creature,” Jezriah agreed, “but he alone possesses power over the unicorns of Karanda.”
Shandra shook her head vigorously. “There must be another way.” She toyed with a lock of her hair. “There must be someone else we can turn to for help.” A quick smile softened the worry lines on her brow. “What of Mougadour?” she murmured. “Let us summon Mougadour.”
“Aye,” Neone said, relief evident in her tone. “Let us summon Mougadour.”
The two young women exchanged wistful glances as they contemplated Mougadour, the most valiant, handsome knight in all the seven sacred cities of Karanda.
“He is so tall,” Neone murmured, a dreamy look in her dove-gray eyes.
“And so brave,” Shandra added.
“And so unavailable,” Jezriah reminded them curtly. “Have you forgotten he has gone to Asgoro to hunt mountain sheep?”
“Aye, I had forgotten,” Shandra admitted.
“You are forgetting something else, as well,” Jezriah muttered. “No ordinary man can lay hands on a unicorn.”
“Mougadour is no ordinary man,” Shandra murmured with a sigh.
“I have an idea,” Neone said. “Promise you will not laugh.”
“This is no time for laughter,” Jezriah admonished sharply. “If you have an idea, let us hear it before it is forever too late.”
“It is said a virgin can catch a wild unicorn,” Neone said, glancing from Jezriah to Shandra and back again. “Legend has it that if she sits on the ground with her skirts spread around her and sings the Kadishka, any unicorn in the vicinity will be compelled to attend her and grant her whatsoever she asks.”
“That is naught but an old Karanda legend,” Jezriah retorted impatiently.
“Perhaps, but many such tales are founded in truth,” Neone said, refusing to cower before the old midwife.
“You are wasting our time,” Jezriah said.
Neone glanced at her younger sister. “Shandra is a virgin most fair. Surely, if the tale be true, she could catch a unicorn.”
Jezriah's eyes narrowed as she looked at Shandra. In truth, the girl was most fair. Her hair was the color of burnished copper, her eyes as green as Asgoro jade. Her lips were full and ripe, lush with promise. Her cheeks held the blush of a sun-warmed peach, her skin smooth and unblemished. Perhaps Neone was right. Perhaps Shandra could lay hold on a unicorn. They had nothing to lose if she failed, and everything to gain if the legend were true.
“Very well,” the old woman decided. “Shandra, go quickly to the east garden and do as Neone suggested. If a unicorn does appear, you must lay hold on its horn to render him powerless. I will be waiting nearby.”
“As you wish,” Shandra said, and hurried out of the Queen's chamber.
The gardens of Karanda castle were lush and green at this time of the year, the lawns ringed with flowers of red and pink and lavender. Tall shrubs carved in a variety of animal shapes flanked the high wrought iron gates that separated the gardens from the rest of the castle grounds. A sparkling fountain bubbled in the midst of the yard; three black swans swam lazily in the clear water.
Shandra took a place beneath a lacy willow tree, her voluminous skirts spread around her. For a time, she sat quietly, her head bowed in prayer for the Queen and her unborn child, and then she began to sing the Kadishka, the ancient song of the Karanda unicorns. Her voice, though untrained, was full and rich, with a deep throaty sound that was innocently seductive.
Carried aloft by a gentle breeze, Shandra's song rose over the high garden wall and drifted down the meadow into the snug thicket where Razlen stood grazing in the deep clover. The soft strains of the Kadishka twined around him, drawing him away from the meadow toward the great stone bulk of Karanda castle.
An effortless leap put him over the wall, and he found himself inside a beautiful garden facing a fiery-haired maiden. She sat unmoving upon the green grass, her iridescent pink skirts spread around her like the petals of a summer rose.
Spellbound, the unicorn moved toward her. When he reached her side, he dropped gracefully to the ground and placed his head in her lap.
Astonished by the unicorn's sudden appearance and the look of trust in its dark eyes, Shandra stroked its neck.
Razlen whickered softly as her hand moved over him. The maiden's hand was as soft as velvet as it caressed him, her fingers as gentle as a spring breeze as they combed his mane. And then, to his horror, the hand bringing him such pleasure laid hold of his horn.
Rendered helpless by her touch, Razlen gazed up at her, his soulful black eyes silently pleading for mercy, but to no avail. From out of her hiding place in the bushes burst a tall, gray-haired woman clad in a dark blue gown. As she advanced on him, he saw the short-bladed axe in her hand. The blade gleamed like liquid silver in the sun's waning light as, with one fierce blow, the old woman struck the horn from his head. Snatching the bloody spike from the ground, she turned and ran back to the castle.
The stricken unicorn stared up at the maiden. Tears welled in Shandra's eyes and spilled down her cheeks as his blood stained her skirts.
“Forgive me,” she sobbed, “but we could not let our Queen perish in childbirth.”
“And so I must die instead,” Razlen mused sadly. “Betrayed by a mortal. Killeen will ever wonder what has become of me, and my son – he will never know his father. Truly a sad day. But saddest of all for you, fair maid, for surely my master will avenge me.”
“Forgive me,” Shandra murmured, stroking the unicorn's neck one last time. “I did not know you would die.”
“And you too will die,” the unicorn murmured, his voice filled with sadness. “For surely my master will demand your life in exchange for mine.” A great shudder racked the unicorn's body, and then he lay still, his lifeless eyes fixed upon the face of the weeping maiden.
Leaning forward, Shandra placed a kiss upon a silky cheek already turning cold, and then, rising slowly to her feet, she followed Jezriah into the castle.
In the Queen's chamber, the old midwife quickly pounded the golden horn of the unicorn into a fine powder. With a heart full of hope and a prayer on her lips, she dissolved the powdered horn into a goblet of warm red wine and offered it to the Queen.
Angeline drank the mixture gratefully. She was so weak, so tired, the mere act of swallowing was almost more than she could accomplish. A part of her mind longed for death, for an end to the pain that knifed through her with every breath, to free her body from the terrible contractions which threatened to split her in two.
The wine warmed her blood and she laid back, eyes closed, to float on a whisper-soft cloud that carried her back in time to days gone by. No longer in pain, she ran barefoot across the flowered fields of her childhood home in Asgoro, laughing with her three brothers as they chased the giant yellow butterflies common to their homeland. Growing older, she pinned up her hair and let down her skirts and went to her first grand ball, always careful to behave as befitted a princess of royal birth.
Years passed and her brothers married, bringing wealth and prosperity into their family. And then came the day when her father announced she was to wed Ruark de Chandelaine, the youthful King of Karanda, Ruler of the Seven Sacred Provinces. She had cried for days, certain she would never be happy living in a foreign land married to a man she had never met, until she saw his face, heard his voice, and fell head over heels in love. She had married him within a fortnight. Dressed all in white, her face covered by a blue veil that fell past her knees, she had linked her life to his in the chapel at Karanda castle. She had just turned sixteen. Ruark had been five years older. She had never regretted their marriage, not once in the ten years of their life together.
“Ruark...” she murmured his name as she slowly opened her eyes. The first thing she saw was a small bundle cradled in Jezriah's arms.
“You have a son, Your Majesty,” the old midwife said. She blinked back tears of joy as she placed the royal babe in his mother's outstretched arms.
All the hours of pain were forgotten at the first sight of her son's sweet face, the weight of him in her arms. Here at last, cuddled to her breast, was the
fruit of her husband's love.
And then Ruark was there, kneeling at her bedside, his face wreathed in a warm smile of love and concern as he caressed her wan cheek.
“My Angel,” he murmured, “are you well?”
“Aye, My Lord,” she murmured, “now that you are here beside me.”
Heads bent close, fingers entwined, the royal couple gazed in awe at the tiny red-faced infant born of their love for one another, while outside the tower bells joyfully peeled the news Karanda had an heir.
High in the snow-capped mountains far to the east of Karanda, the dread sorcerer, Draga, sat in brooding silence, his hooded yellow eyes staring, unblinking, into the crystal globe nestled in his bony hands. As he intoned the magic words that brought the crystal to life, turrets and battlements materialized within the luminous globe. The face of a fair damsel with hair the color of sun-kissed copper and eyes the green of a forest glade appeared, and lying beside her, the mutilated body of a unicorn.
Face dark with anger, Draga raised his bull-like head and stared into the hearth fire. Razlen, his favorite mount, lay dead upon the castle grounds. And for that foul deed, the fair young maiden, Shandra, would pay dearly. And the old hag, Jezriah, as well. Only the sound of their screams as they died in terrible agony would assuage the pain of his loss.
Slowly, he stroked his grizzled beard, his mind wandering from torment to torment as he plotted how best to capture the young maiden and the aged midwife.
Darkness had fallen over the face of the land when a slow smile spread over the sorcerer's withered countenance. There were tortures more lingering and painful than death, agonies more excruciating than the rack.
With a wicked grin, Draga made his way down the long shadowy corridor that led to his chambers.