Welcome back for Day 2 of sharing chapters in the lead up to book release day! This is a chapter/scene that was in my imagination since long before I finished writing Book 1. The cave… the goo… these specific characters… All of this has been on my mind for years. (There’s only one other scene in this book that goes that far back, and we won’t get to it in these sneak peeks. But when you read the whole thing, I have two words for you: Fire. Tunnel. When you get to that part, just know that I’ve been excited to include that scene for almost a decade…)
Today’s shameless request for support: If you are on Goodreads or other book platforms, would you please consider “shelving” Queen of the Wild Range or marking it as “to be read”? This helps more than you know!
On to chapter 2…
Queen of the Wild Range, Chapter 2
In the rocky crags and scraggly pine forest east of Mount Damien, Jairus stared at the smoking ash that had once been a small fire. He had left to search for food in the woods, and he expected the flames to be burning when he returned. That fire had taken great effort to build, and he blinked away the sting of tears now that it was gone. He could hear his grandfather’s voice so clearly in his mind, mocking his failure. He was no good at any of this, and he knew it. Pampered all of his royal life, how was he supposed to survive in the wilderness? How was he supposed to care for Xanthe when he couldn’t even keep a fire going?
He turned his back on the ashes and stepped inside the mouth of the cave. It was gray and dark, but at least it was dry. The ground was hard and uneven, and every footfall and flint strike echoed against the walls. Xanthe lay on a pile of leaves, the best bedding Jairus could find. She twitched and twisted, groaning and calling out words and phrases that made no sense. Her silk gown, torn and stained, looked ridiculous in their rustic surroundings, and her hair was matted with sweat and dirt. A rumpled traveling cloak was her only blanket.
He had thought the escape from the dungeon would be easy. A servant in the palace—one of his father’s valets and a member of the Hidden Heart—had come to him and claimed that Silas had sent him. He urged Jairus to leave immediately, before things got worse. He explained that the heart in Jairus’ hand would provide safe passage through the curtain that surrounded the city.
“What about Xanthe?”
The valet looked pained. “Silas said you would ask that. You are supposed to leave her. Silas will get her out at the right time. Trust him.”
Jairus hardly heard him. He grabbed keys from a drawer in his grandfather’s desk and paid the dungeon guards to take a break. The key screeched in the rusty lock, waking Xanthe. Her look of confusion lasted only a moment before her eyes found his face. The rest of the prisoners looked on with interest but said nothing. She threw her cloak around her shoulders and stepped out of the cell.
He knew right away that something was wrong. Xanthe wailed in agony, and he had to cover her mouth with his hands to stifle the sound. She jerked and clawed at her back, her pain written in the deep creases on her usually smooth forehead. Gray tears streamed down her cheeks, and her whole body arched and spasmed relentlessly.
Not knowing what else to do, Jairus removed one of his gloves and gagged her, wrapping the cloak tighter around her flailing arms and carrying her out of the dungeon. The valet was at the top of the stairs, mouth in a straight line and brow furrowed. They locked eyes, and Jairus knew what the valet was thinking: he was supposed to leave Xanthe behind.
But the valet didn’t say a word. He motioned for Jairus to follow him.
It took all of his concentration to keep her quiet as he followed the valet into the underground hallways of the palace, meant for servants to move room to room without interrupting the royals. They passed crates and cobwebs and old brooms, and mice scurried into hiding at the sound of their approach. They reached the far end of a dark corridor. The valet felt along the side of a torch bracket and pulled out a thin metal rod, which he inserted into a hole in the floor that Jairus never would have noticed.
“Go,” the valet said, motioning to the trap door that swung open. “It will take you to the orchards on the east slopes of the mountain. Don’t stop there. Take her as far into the woods as you can manage.”
“And after that? Do we just stay in the forest forever?”
“Help will come,” the valet promised. “It always does.”
The further they moved through the tunnel and away from the dungeon, the more Xanthe relaxed. She still trembled and mumbled incoherently on their journey, but she didn’t fight Jairus’ hold. When they approached the shimmering curtain that blocked forward passage through the tunnel, Jairus stepped straight through the light. There was no resistance at all, just the sensation of a warm breeze.
The tunnel ended with steep wooden stairs leading up toward a door at the top. He climbed the stairs and pushed it open, stepping into a dark shed lit only by moonbeams through one small window. The shed was full of baskets, crates, shovels, and burlap sacks. The other side of the secret door had shelves attached to it. When it clicked shut behind him, there was no sign that it was a door at all.
He rested Xanthe against some crates and gave himself a short break. He didn’t know how he could keep going. Xanthe was small, but he doubted his strength would last as he climbed down a mountain. He wasn’t exactly used to this type of travel.
His eyes fell on a wheelbarrow, and his body relaxed with relief. It wasn’t glamorous, but it would have to do.
It was a slow journey. The wheelbarrow was rickety and didn’t like to turn. The straight rows of the orchard were easy to traverse, but the path through the forest on the other side was not. By the time Jairus spotted the cave that had become their home, Xanthe was asleep, her face against the side of the dirty wheelbarrow. He looked at her for a long time, his eyes not moving from her quiet beauty. What a shock to go from the glitter of the palace to the mud of the wilderness in just one evening.
He gathered the leaves for her bed and fumbled over sticks and kindling. He had watched a thousand fires built in the palace hearths, but it was harder than he had imagined to strike the flint just right and convince the flames to grow.
Then, the long wait for morning began. He couldn’t sleep and had nothing to do but stare at the orange glow and listen to Xanthe’s groans.
What had happened to Xanthe? He hadn’t expected this complication. The plan was to escape the mountain and survive together, as a team. They would learn to live a peaceful, independent life, away from the horrors of his grandfather’s kingdom. They had imagined a little stone cottage somewhere in the forest where no one would ever find them. They would raise vegetables and flowers and babies in peace. It was all they needed.
Now, after finding nothing but a few berries and mushrooms, he realized he had been a fool. He had a little bit of bread in his pack, but it was quickly becoming hard and stale. He frequently had to leave Xanthe to go to a nearby creek to fill the two cups and one small pot he had packed. The water was full of dirt and he didn’t know what else.
Why had this seemed like such a good plan? Surely, they would die out here—hungry, thirsty, and cold.
Outside of the cave, he sat down with his back to the rock wall. He popped a few berries in his mouth and leaned his head back. He breathed deeply, wishing for a sign or some sort of aid, but he knew there was no help to be had. The valet was wrong. They were on their own.
The sound of a twig snapping made him sit up straight and grab hold of his dagger. He hadn’t seen another human since leaving the mountain, but his grandfather’s army could be looking for him by now. Or was it a beast lurking in the shadows?
Jairus jumped to his feet, pointing his blade toward the trees. “Who’s there? Show yourself,” he called, sounding much braver than he felt.
The thick underbrush parted, and a man walked into the clearing. His hair was two-toned, maroon on one side and dark brown on the other. A shock of recognition zinged through Jairus. Those were his own colors, from long ago when he was just a boy. The only other place he had seen those colors was on a fabled man in the prophetic mural of the palace. He was in nearly every scene. Adwin.
“Who are you, and why are you here?” Jairus asked, the hand holding the dagger shaking.
“I’m here to help,” the stranger said, taking a step forward.
“Stop where you are,” Jairus commanded. “Don’t move. Who are you?”
The stranger obeyed, stopping just at the tree line. The quick burst of shock that Jairus first experienced had settled in his chest, making his heart race and his lungs struggle for breath. His pulse throbbed in his ears.
“My name is Silas,” he said. The moment the name was out of his mouth, a heart-stopping scream blasted from inside the cave.
Jairus ran to Xanthe. She had been moaning and speaking gibberish since they had left the mountain, but she hadn’t screamed like this, not even in the dungeon. She was sweating heavily, all of it tinted black.
As Jairus knelt beside her, frantically looking for some way to help, he heard footsteps at the mouth of the cave. Jairus spun around on his knees, touching Silas’ chest with the point of his knife. Xanthe’s screams became shorter and more piercing, echoing off the walls of the cave in a terrible, overwhelming rhythm.
“I can help her,” Silas said.
Another of Xanthe’s screams tore through the air, and Jairus turned his face toward her without moving the knife away from Silas’ chest. She had curled into a ball and rocked and trembled as she screamed. She seemed to get worse as Silas came closer.
Jairus got to his feet and walked toward Silas, knife out. Silas took several steps backward out of the cave. “Stay away from us,” Jairus said. “Can’t you see you’re hurting her?”
There was sadness in the set of Silas’ jaw and the brief twitch in his eye.
“Call for me if you change your mind. I’ll come back when you’re ready.” Silas paused for a moment, and then he walked into the woods, the brush rustling once more as Jairus lost sight of him.
Xanthe moaned nonsensical words and twisted on the ground. She sounded like she was having a conversation in another language with someone only she could see. Then, the most horrible scream yet tore from her wide-open mouth. It was shrill, like her very vocal cords must have shredded with the effort.
“Silas! Silas! Come back! Silas!” Her voice echoed through the cave and down the hillside.
Silas burst back through the leaves at a run. Jairus put up a modest defense with his dagger, which Silas brushed aside.
Silas wasted no time. He dropped to his knees and placed one hand on Xanthe’s wet hair and the other on her shaking arm. She stilled at once.
Jairus’ heart thudded, and he couldn’t take his eyes from the miracle. One touch from this stranger, and Xanthe was at peace. Could the stories of the great Adwin be true? Were Silas and King Adwin one and the same? He shook his head.
Her eyes fluttered open. “Don’t leave me.”
Silas’ hand rested on Xanthe’s hair, his thumb stroking her forehead. “Never.”
“Get…get it out. Get it out of me,” she whispered, her voice hoarse and weary.
Silas wiped black sweat from her brow and stayed close to her. “You aren’t strong enough yet,” he said.
She barely smiled. “But you are.”