MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
“I cannot play,” Brigitta told her sisters as she cast a wary look at the linen bag filled with Telling Stones. Quickly she shifted on the window seat to gaze at the Great Western Ocean. The rolling waves went on for as far as she could see, but her mind was elsewhere. Calm yerself. The prediction will ne’er happen.
At dawn they had boarded this ship, accompanied by Mother Ginessa and Sister Fallyn, who were now resting in the cabin next door. This was the smallest vessel in the Eberoni Royal Navy, the captain had explained, sturdy enough to cross the ocean, but small enough to travel up the Ebe River to the palace at Ebton. There, they would see their oldest sister, who was now the queen of Eberon.
According to the captain, Queen Luciana had intended to send more than one ship to safeguard their journey, but at the last minute the other naval ships had been diverted south to fight the Tourinian pirates who were raiding villages along the Eberoni shore. But not to worry, the captain had assured Brigitta and her companions. Since the royal navy was keeping the pirates occupied to the south, their crossing would be perfectly safe.
Indeed, after a few hours, it seemed perfectly boring.
“If we don’t play, how will we pass the time?” Gwennore asked from her seat at the round table. “’Twill be close to sunset afore we reach Ebton.”
“I wish we could wander about on deck,” Maeve grumbled from her chair next to Gwennore. “’Tis a lovely spring day, and we’re stuck down here.”
Sorcha huffed in annoyance as she paced about the cabin. “Mother Ginessa insisted we remain here. I swear she acts as if she’s afraid to let anyone see us.”
“Perhaps she fears for our safety because we are Embraced,” Gwennore said.
Sorcha shook her head. “We’re safe now in Eberon.”
But only in Eberon, Brigitta thought as she studied the deep-blue waves. Being Embraced was a death sentence anywhere else on the mainland. The other kings abhorred the fact that each of the Embraced possessed some sort of magical power that the kings, themselves, could never have.
When Brigitta and her adopted sisters were born, the only safe haven had been the Isle of Moon. They’d grown up there in the Convent of the Two Moons, believing they were orphans. But almost a year ago, they’d discovered a shocking truth. Luciana had never been an orphan.
Since then, Brigitta had wondered if she had family somewhere, too. Had they hidden her away or, worse, abandoned her? She feared it was the latter. For in all her nineteen years of life, no one from the mainland had ever bothered to contact her.
You are loved, she reminded herself. She’d grown up in a loving home at the convent. Her sisters loved her, and she loved them. That was enough.
It had to be enough. Didn’t it?
Sorcha lowered her voice. “I still believe Mother Ginessa knows things about us that she won’t tell.”
Brigitta silently agreed. She knew from her special gift that almost everyone was hiding something.
“Let’s play the game and let the stones tell us,” Maeve said. “I need to do something. This cabin is feeling smaller by the minute.”
Brigitta sighed. Sadly enough, this was the largest cabin on board. Captain Shaw had lent them his quarters, which had a large window overlooking the back of the vessel.
The ship creaked as it rolled to the side, and Sorcha grabbed the sideboard to steady herself.
“Have a seat afore ye fall,” Gwennore warned her.
“Fine.” Sorcha emptied the oranges from a brass bowl on the sideboard, then plunked the bowl onto the table as she took a seat. “Let’s play.”
Brigitta’s sisters gave her a questioning look, but she shook her head and turned to gaze out the window once again. It had been twelve years ago, when she was seven, that Luciana had invented the game where they could each pretend to be the Seer from the Isle of Mist. They’d gathered up forty pebbles from the nearby beach, then painted them with colors and numbers. After the stones were deposited in a bowl and covered with a cloth, each sister would grab a small handful of pebbles and whatever colors or numbers she’d chosen would indicate her future.
“We’ll just have to play without her,” Sorcha grumbled. A clattering noise filled the cabin as the bag of Telling Stones was emptied into the brass bowl, a noise not quite loud enough to cover Sorcha’s hushed voice. “Ye know why she won’t play. She’s spooked.”
Brigitta winced. That was too close to the truth.
She could no longer see the Isle of Moon on the horizon. As the island had faded from sight, a wave of apprehension had washed over her, slowly growing until it had sucked her down into an undertow of fear and dread. For deep in her heart, she believed that leaving the safety of the convent would trigger the set of events that Luciana had predicted.
But how could she have refused this voyage? Luciana would be giving birth soon, and she wanted her sisters with her. She also needed Mother Ginessa, who was an excellent midwife.
“I’m going first,” Sorcha declared, and the stones rattled about the bowl as she mixed them up.
“O Great Seer,” Maeve said, repeating the line they spoke before each prediction. “Reveal to us the secrets of the Telling Stones.”
“What the hell?” Sorcha muttered, and Maeve gasped.
“Ye mustn’t let Mother Ginessa hear ye curse like that,” Gwennore warned her.
“These stones are ridiculous!” Sorcha slammed them on the table, and out of curiosity Brigitta turned to see what her sister had selected.
Nine, pink, and lavender.
Gwennore tilted her head as she studied the stones. “In nine years ye will meet a tall and handsome—”
“Nine years?” Sorcha grimaced. “I would be so old!”
“Twenty-seven.” Gwennore’s mouth twitched. “Practically ancient.”
“Exactly!” Sorcha huffed. “I’ll wait nine months for my tall and handsome stranger, and not a minute more.” She glared at the colored stones. “I hate pink. It looks terrible with my freckles and red hair.”
Maeve’s eyes sparkled with mischief. “Who said ye would be wearing it? I think yer true love will look very pretty in pink.”
“He’s not wearing pink,” Sorcha growled.
“Aye, a lovely pink gown with a lavender sash,” Gwennore added with a grin.
“Nay, Gwennie.” Maeve shook her head. “The lavender means he’ll have lavender-blue eyes like you.”
“Ah.” Gwennore tucked a tendril of her white-blond hair behind a pointed ear. “Could be.”
“Are ye kidding me?” Sorcha gave them an incredulous look. “How on Aerthlan would I ever meet an elf?”
“Ye met me,” Gwennore said. “And apparently, in nine months, ye’ll meet a tall and handsome elf in a pink gown.” She and Maeve laughed, and Sorcha reluctantly grinned.
Brigitta turned to peer out the window once again. Over the years, the Telling Stones had proven to be an entertaining game. But then, a year ago, something strange had happened. Luciana’s prediction for her own future had actually come to pass. She’d met and fallen in love with the tall and handsome stranger she’d foretold in specific detail, using the Telling Stones. And if that hadn’t been amazing enough, she’d become the queen of Eberon.
Eager to experience something equally romantic, Brigitta had begged her oldest sister to predict a similar future for her.
A mistake. Brigitta frowned at the churning ocean.
Blue, gold, seven, and eight. Those had been the stones Luciana had selected. Blue and gold, she’d explained, signified the royal colors of the kingdom of Tourin. Seven meant there would be seven suitors to compete for her hand. And eight … in eight months, Brigitta would meet a tall and handsome stranger.
The eight months had now passed.
She pressed a hand against her roiling stomach.
When they’d boarded this morning, she’d quickly assessed the captain and his crew. None of them had struck her as particularly tall or handsome. Captain Shaw was portly, bald, and old enough to be her father.
As for the seven suitors vying for her hand, she had initially been thrilled, considering the idea wildly exciting. But when her sisters had likened it to her being a prize in a tourney, she’d had second thoughts.
Why would seven men compete for her? She had nothing special to offer. Even the gift she possessed for being Embraced was hardly special. And did this contest mean she would have no choice but to marry whichever man won her? The more she’d thought about this competition, the more it had made her cringe.
So, five months ago, she’d played the game again, hoping to achieve different results. But to her shock, there had been four stones in her hand.
Blue, gold, seven, and five.
Had some sort of mysterious countdown gone into effect? Reluctant to believe that, she’d attempted the game again a month later. Blue, gold, seven, and four. Alarmed, she’d sworn never to play again.
But one month ago, Sorcha had dared her to play, taunting her for being overly dramatic. Those words never failed to irk Brigitta, so she’d accepted the dare. With a silent prayer to the moon goddesses, she’d reached into the bowl, swished the pebbles around, and grabbed a handful. And there, in her palm, four stones had stared up at her.
Blue, gold, seven, and one. A fate was shoving itself down her throat whether she liked it or not.
And she did not.
Brigitta had been raised on the Isle of Moon, where women were free to determine their own futures and everyone worshipped the moon goddesses, Luna and Lessa.
It was different on the mainland. Men were in charge there, and everyone worshipped a male god, the Light. Luciana had been fortunate to find a good man who respected her independent nature. As king and queen, they had declared it safe to worship the moon goddesses in Eberon.
But it was not that way elsewhere. In the other mainland kingdoms, Brigitta would be executed for making the sign of the moons as she prayed. Executed for being Embraced. So why did she keep picking the blue and gold colors of Tourin?
And why would seven suitors compete for her? She glanced at her sisters. Sorcha had always seemed the strongest, with a fiery temperament that matched her fiery red hair. Gwennore had always been the smartest. Maeve, the youngest, had always been the sweetest. And Luciana—now married—had been their brave leader. Brigitta had never been quite sure where she fit in.
Gwennore, with her superior intellect, had always been the best at translating books into different languages. Maeve had excelled in penmanship, and Sorcha in artwork. Luciana had been good at everything.
But Brigitta … the nuns had despaired with her. When transcribing a book, she could never stay true to the text. A little embellishment here, a tweak there, and eventually she would take a story so off course, it was no longer recognizable. This, of course, upset the nuns, for their male customers on the mainland were paying for an exact copy of an old tale, not the romantic fantasies of an overly dramatic young woman.
Whenever the nuns had fussed at her, her sisters had come to her defense, insisting that her story was much better than the original. And each time the nuns tried to use Brigitta’s overly dramatic mistakes for kindling, her sisters always managed to rescue the pages and give them to her. They’d even begged her to finish her stories about dashing young heroes, so that they could read them.
Brigitta adored them for that. She’d do anything for her sisters, including this voyage to Eberon that she was so afraid would activate the events she’d been dreading.
She shifted her gaze back to the rolling motion of the ocean, and her stomach churned. Did a person’s destiny have to be set in stone, in this case the Telling Stones? This was her story, so why couldn’t it be one of her making? Surely she didn’t have to stick to a text that had already been written without her consent. Couldn’t she be the author of her own destiny?
“Ye should watch the horizon, not the waves,” Maeve said as she sat next to Brigitta on the window seat. “’Tis a sure way to make yerself ill.”
“Oh.” Brigitta turned to her youngest sister. “I didn’t realize…” Her stomach twisted with a sharp pain, and she winced.
Gwennore gave her a worried look. “Ye look pale. Would ye like some bread or wine?” She motioned toward the sideboard and the food that had been left for them.
Brigitta shook her head. Perhaps if she sat perfectly still for a few moments, the nausea would pass. “Did ye finish playing the Game of Stones?”
“Aye,” Maeve answered. “Didn’t ye hear us giggling?”
Brigitta groaned inwardly, not wanting to admit she’d been too engrossed in her own worries to pay her sisters any mind.
“My prediction was the best,” Maeve continued. “In four years, I’ll meet a tall and handsome stranger with green teeth, purple hair, and three feet.”
Brigitta wrinkled her nose. “Ye call that handsome? How can he have three feet? Does he have a third leg?”
Maeve waved a dismissive hand. “We didn’t bother to figure that part out. But he is taller than most.”
“Aye.” Sorcha snorted. “By a foot.”
Maeve grinned. “As ye can see, the game is nonsense. Besides, I have no desire to meet any man, no matter how tall or handsome. I plan to live the rest of my life with all of you at the convent.”
“Aye,” Sorcha agreed. “I’m not leaving my sisters for an elf in a pink gown. ’Tis naught but a silly game.”
“Exactly.” Gwennore gave Brigitta a pointed look. “So ye shouldn’t believe anything the stones say.”
They were doing their best to relieve her fear, Brigitta realized, and as her heart warmed, the ache in her stomach eased. “Thank you. What would I do without ye all?”
The ship lurched suddenly to the right, causing Brigitta and Maeve to fall against the padded wall of the window seat. The oranges rolled off the sideboard and plummeted to the wooden floor. Empty goblets fell onto the floor with a series of loud clunks.
Sorcha grabbed on to the table. “What was that?”
Loud shouts and the pounding of feet sounded on the deck overhead.
“Something is amiss,” Gwennore said as she gazed up at the ceiling. “They’re running about.”
Maeve peered out the window. “I believe we made a sudden turn to the south.”
“That would put us off course,” Gwennore murmured.
The door slammed open, and they jumped in their seats.
Mother Ginessa gave them a stern look, while behind her Sister Fallyn pressed the tips of her fingers against her thumbs, forming two small circles to represent the twin moons.
“May the goddesses protect us,” Sister Fallyn whispered.
“Stay here,” Mother Ginessa ordered, then shut the door.
“What the hell was that?” Sorcha muttered.
A pounding sound reverberated throughout the entire ship. Thump … thump … thump.
“Drums.” Gwennore rose to her feet. “The sailors beat them to set the pace. They must be using the oars.”
“Why?” Sorcha asked. “Is something wrong with the sails?”
Gwennore shrugged. “I suppose we need to go faster. Perhaps we’re trying to outrun another ship, but there’s no way to know unless we go up on deck.”
Sorcha slapped the tabletop with her hand. “Why do we have to stay here? I hate being in the dark.”
Brigitta clenched her fists, gathering handfuls of her skirt in her hands. The prediction was coming true, she knew it. Her stomach roiled again, and her heart thudded loud in her ears, keeping time with the drums.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
The drums pounded faster.
Beads of sweat dotted her brow, and she rubbed her aching stomach as she rose shakily to her feet. “The fate of the Telling Stones has begun.”
“Don’t say that.” Gwennore shook her head. “Ye cannot be sure.”
“I am sure!” Brigitta cried. She’d had eight months to consider this fate. Eight months to prepare herself. “’Tis happening now. And I will not remain hidden in this room, meekly accepting a future I do not want. I’m going on deck to face this me self.”
Sorcha jumped to her feet. “That’s the spirit!”
“Aye.” Maeve ran to the bed where they’d left their cloaks. “And we will go with you!”
They quickly slipped their brown cloaks over their cream-colored woolen gowns.
Gwennore rested a hand on Brigitta’s shoulder. “Ye don’t look well. Are ye sure ye’re up to this?”
Nay. Brigitta drew a deep breath. “I have to be…”
“Aye.” Gwennore gave her a squeeze. “Ye’ll do fine.”
“Come on!” Sorcha opened the door, and they filed into the narrow passageway, then climbed the steep wooden stairs to the deck. When they pushed open the door, it bumped into a dog that had been sitting in front of it.
“Julia!” Maeve cried out when she spotted the shaggy black-and-white dog. “It is you, aye?”
With a low growl, the dog backed away.
“How many times do we have to tell you?” Sorcha grumbled. “That dog is a he.”
Brigitta narrowed her eyes. The last time she’d seen this dog, he’d been guarding Luciana at the royal palace in Ebton.
“If I remember correctly, his name is Brody.” Gwennore squatted and extended a hand to the dog. “Is that right?”
With a soft woof, the dog placed his paw in her hand.
She grinned. “Good boy.”
“Nay, she’s too pretty to be a boy!” Maeve wrapped her arms around the dog, and he whimpered with a forlorn look.
“Why is Luciana’s dog here?” Sorcha asked.
Gwennore straightened. “I suppose she sent him to guard us.”
Brigitta studied the dog closely. “I’m more curious about the first time we met him. How did he end up on the Isle of Moon?” A strong breeze whipped some of her hair loose from her braid, and by the time she pushed it away from her eyes, the dog had slipped away.
At least, the cool spring breeze was making her stomach feel better. With a quick glance up, she noted the sails were full. They were mostly white, but two stripes crossed each sail diagonally in the colors of red and black, the royal colors of Eberon.
“What are ye doing here?” Mother Ginessa grabbed her and quickly pulled the hood of her cloak over her hair. “Ye mustn’t let anyone see you.”
Brigitta’s breath hitched as a tingling sensation crept along her nerves and blurred her vision for a few seconds. The older woman’s touch had triggered her special gift, and Brigitta was reminded once again that Mother Ginessa was hiding a great number of secrets.
A loud whistle sounded, and the drums abruptly stopped. The oarsmen were belowdecks, so Brigitta couldn’t see them, but she felt the ship slowing down. After another whistle, crewmen began lowering the sails.
“Goddesses, protect us!” Sister Fallyn cried as she made the sign of the moons. “We’ll be dead in the water!”
“Nay!” Mother Ginessa scrambled up the stairs to the quarterdeck where Captain Shaw was standing with the first mate and helmsman. “We cannot slow down! We must evade them!”
Them? Brigitta turned toward the bow of the ship, and her heart lurched. With the sails furled, she now had a clearer view. Three large ships were fanned out before them, blocking their passage to Eberon, and each ship had sails bordered with blue and gold.
“The royal colors of Tourin,” Sorcha breathed.
Holy goddesses. Here was clear proof that the fate of the Telling Stones had begun. A sharp twinge shot through Brigitta’s stomach, but she ignored the pain and stumbled up the stairs onto the quarterdeck.
“We tried evasion,” Captain Shaw was explaining to Mother Ginessa. “But with three ships, they can continue to block our every move.” He crossed his arms as he studied the ships. “They haven’t gone to battle stations, so I believe they mean us no harm. I can only conclude that they want something.”
“Please, Captain.” Mother Ginessa latched on to his sleeve. “Ye cannot let them catch us!”
The captain gave her a curious look. “Do you know why the Tourinian Royal Navy has stopped us?”
Mother Ginessa quickly released him. “Of course not. But if we cannot move forward, then we must go back.” She glanced at Brigitta. “We should go back to the convent. We’ll be safe there.”
“Not necessarily.” Captain Shaw frowned. “If we return to the Isle of Moon, they could simply follow us.”
“We have cannons.” Sister Fallyn clambered up onto the quarterdeck. “Why don’t we shoot at them?”
Captain Shaw gave her an incredulous look. “That would be suicidal. They have us outnumbered and outgunned.”
“Holy goddesses!” Sister Fallyn made the sign of the moons. “We’re doomed!”
“Calm yerself, Sister!” Mother Ginessa fussed.
“There is no need for you to worry,” Captain Shaw assured them. “If they meant to attack, they would have already done so. And I seriously doubt the Tourinian king wants to start a war with Eberon. King Gunther’s hands are full right now. Norveshka has been attacking him from the east, and on the west along his coastline, he’s constantly plagued with pirates.”
“Sir.” The first mate handed him a spyglass. “The middle ship is waving a flag.”
Captain Shaw peered through the spyglass. “Ah. White flag with a sun. I was expecting that.”
“What does it mean?” Brigitta asked.
The captain lowered the spyglass. “Even though the mainland kingdoms are often at war, we have one thing in common—the worship of the sun god. That flag means they come in peace and merely wish to parley.”
“Peace?” Sister Fallyn scoffed. “Tourinians don’t know the meaning of peace. They are violent, vicious, and cruel! A bunch of murderers and thieves! Nothing good has ever come from Tourin!”
Brigitta gave the nun a surprised look. “I thought ye came from Tourin.”
Sister Fallyn huffed. “Well, aye, but I escaped as soon as I could.”
Brigitta wondered what had happened to the nun, but the ship suddenly tilted to the left, causing her to stumble toward the side railing. One look at the churning water below made her stomach lurch. Quickly she looked away, but even the sound of the ocean slapping against the sides of the ship nauseated her.
Mother Ginessa grabbed her by the shoulders. “Ye must go below. We cannot let the Tourinians see you.”
Brigitta swallowed hard at the bile rising up her throat. “Why me?”
“Aye, why her?” Sorcha demanded as she and the other sisters scurried up the steps to the quarterdeck.
Captain Shaw winced. “Begging your pardon, ladies, but you’re not supposed to be on my deck without my permiss—”
“Look!” Gwennore pointed at the middle Tourinian ship. “They’ve launched a dinghy.”
The captain groaned as it became clear that his quarterdeck would remain overcrowded. “They’re sending an envoy over to talk to us.” He gave Mother Ginessa a pointed look. “I will ask you once again, madam. Do you know why they are so interested in us?”
“Aye!” Sorcha aimed a frustrated look at her. “What do ye know that ye’re not telling us?”
Mother Ginessa heaved a resigned sigh. “Very well. I’ll tell Brigitta after she comes belowdecks with me. We cannot risk the Tourinians seeing her.”
“This is my ship,” Captain Shaw growled. “I need to know what’s going on.”
A whistle sounded from the crow’s nest above them. “Incoming from the south!” the sailor yelled.
Captain Shaw lifted his spyglass to study a new group of ships coming straight toward them. “Damn,” he whispered.
Brigitta swallowed hard. There were nine ships on the horizon, the middle one leading the pack. The sails seemed mostly white with some sort of black markings, but they were too far away for her to see clearly.
“Are they Tourinians?” Mother Ginessa asked.
“Aye. But not the royal navy.” The captain turned toward the first mate. “Sound the alarm.”
As a horn blasted, Brigitta’s stomach twisted with a sharp pain. “What’s wrong, Captain? Who are they?”
Brigitta gasped. A strong wind knocked her back a step and blew the hood off her head.
“We’re doomed!” Sister Fallyn cried. “Doomed!”
“The wind is behind them, so they’re coming in fast.” Captain Shaw gave Mother Ginessa a stern look. “And the dinghy from the Tourinian navy will arrive in a few minutes. You need to talk now. What do we have that is so valuable?” He glanced at Brigitta. “Or is it whom?”
A wave of light-headedness struck Brigitta, and she grabbed on to the back railing to steady herself.
Mother Ginessa’s eyes glistened with tears as she turned to Brigitta. “I am so sorry, child. I have tried to protect you all these years, but I fear I have failed.”
“Nay, ye’ve always been good to me,” Brigitta whispered. “Please tell me what I need to know.”
“Very well.” Mother Ginessa pulled Brigitta’s hood up to cover her hair. “Ye’re the princess of Tourin.”
Brigitta’s thoughts swirled. “Nay, I—” Her stomach heaved. She leaned over the railing as she lost her battle with nausea.
Copyright © 2017 by Kerrelyn Sparks