Enchanting the King
Book 0 in the Beauty's Beast Series
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For a century, the nations of Jerdun and Lyond have been at each other’s throats. Princess Aliénor is a proud woman of Jerdun, and King Thomas of Lyond should have been her hated enemy. Yet, even from her first meeting with the foreign king, she cannot deny the tender connection between them.
After a brutal ambush leaves them stranded in a strange land together, the two decide to face the many perils of the journey united. But as allies only–love is out of the question.
When danger strikes at them on the road, Aliénor immediately regrets hiding her feelings. A sorceress with plans to make herself Queen of Lyond captures their group and lays a hideous curse on Thomas, damning the brave king to an eternal, bitter sleep. If Thomas is not woken in time, the king will fall into madness. Frightened and alone, Aliénor must fight free from her wicked captor, for herself and her sleeping king. Only then does she have a chance of breaking the curse.
Yet even if she does save Thomas, how can love conquer the bitter feud between their nations? How can she betray her homeland, even to be with the man she loves?
Read an Excerpt
The gentle rocking of her wagon might have been soothing once upon a time. Unfortunately, after so many weeks and miles spent trapped inside it, Aliénor thought she might go mad if she had to travel another foot in the damn thing.
“Do you have the headache again, Princess?” one of her ladies-in-waiting asked.
“I’m all right.” Aliénor flung a hand out to steady herself as they rolled over a bump in the road, jostling her and the two other ladies in the back of their traveling coach. Aliénor gritted her teeth together. “I did not join this quest to be rolled across the world in a wooden box.”
Aliénor twisted away and snatched up one of the plush silk pillows littering the benches of her coach. She hugged it to her gut, resisting the urge to tear the stuffing out. This wagon had been a gift from her husband Prince Philippe, a pointed reminder of just how he thought she should conduct herself on the journey. Filmy curtains at either end of the compartment helped separate her ladies from the dust of the road and the stares of other men.
“Would you like to stop and walk outside a bit, Princess?”
Aliénor shook her head. Some grand adventure. Riding along in a wagon she could probably outpace without breaking into an unladylike sweat. Oh, Papa, your war stories were never like this. When Aliénor had set out on this road she’d meant to walk in the footsteps of her glorious father. See the lonely mountains of the east, smell the fresh sea air, taste the wind of the deserts. Expand her mind, stretch her horizon. Instead, her husband had kept her closed up tight in her plush little box with not one, but two lady chaperones. Instead of stretching her horizons, she’d shrunk her world to a stuffy wooden trap.
No more. Not today. Aliénor flung a hand out to knock hard on the wooden roof. “Driver, stop.”
Her two ladies-in-waiting blinked in surprise. Aliénor flung the curtains away on the back to step out. Servants had already come around the sides to help her. Aliénor shook their reaching hands away and leapt down herself.
“My lady, are you all right?”
“What do you require, Princess?”
She tipped her face toward the sun as she walked, ignoring all of them as her skin warmed. She took a deep breath but choked on road dust. Aliénor laughed at herself, and covered her mouth with a kerchief once she’d finished coughing. Servants still hovered at her elbow, but she dodged around them and began walking down the road, passing the stopped wagon as she gazed all about her. A flurry of activity and raised voices sounded behind as ladies and servants scurried to catch her up.
In the confines of the coach, her husband’s army had not been so loud, but the sound rolled over her now. Thousands of feet tramping, thousands of men chatting and laughing and yelling good-naturedly at each other. Horses too, hundreds of them prancing down the road with their masters. It was a dizzying sight, impossible to take in all at once. The supply wagons were still somewhere far behind, carrying the tents and mattresses and other accoutrements of camp. Her husband’s army did not travel light. Glancing behind down the road, the baggage train seemed at least half as long as the column of soldiers. She frowned, considering that tail of carts and animals lagging behind on the long river road.
The jingle of harness drew her attention, and she wheeled around just as her husband rode up. Her heart quailed a little to see he had brought his royal witch with him, Mistress Helen. The witch was a decade or so older than Aliénor, and the woman’s cool, composed manner never failed to make Aliénor feel like a grubby, disorderly child. And Mistress Helen’s magic never failed to make Aliénor ill at ease.
Philippe dismounted with easy grace and hurried toward Aliénor, dust kicking up in his wake. His dark hair had a fine red coating of the stuff, turning his hair a lighter shade of brown than usual. He crossed straight to Aliénor and caught her by the arms. “Why has your wagon stopped? Are you ill?”
Aliénor fought to keep her gaze focused on him and not the witch behind him. “I needed some air. That’s all.”
“Again, Aliénor? I thought we’d settled this. It is not proper for you to ride about in the open air. You are a Princess of Jerdun. You are not meant to be a spectacle for the common rabble.”
“I often rode at home in Jerdun. How is this different?”
“Because you are only one of three noblewomen in the camp. Indeed, you are one of only a handful of women in the camp at all. I’m doing this to protect you.”
If you hadn’t banished all the camp followers my women and I wouldn’t be such a curiosity. Or a temptation. She bit her tongue on that unwise remark. Discipline had been harder to maintain since that particular order of Philippe’s banning all prostitutes in camp. But a large army in a foreign land was difficult to manage at the best of times.
Isn’t it? Aliénor looked away, studying that rugged line of mountains in the distance. High red peaks, barren and harsh against the clear blue of the sky. The sight fired something in her blood, a longing, a determination. I want more than simple comfort and privilege. She wanted to reach those high red peaks and trail her fingers across the sky.
“Aliénor.” Philippe cupped her cheek, turning her face toward him. His eyes were pinched, his mouth tight. “I have so many responsibilities on this expedition. Please do not make yourself a burden.”
She flinched. “Do not treat me like a child, Philippe.”
“Stop behaving like one.”
“I did not come on this trip to sit in a wagon and rot.”
His nostrils flared. “You shouldn’t have come on this trip.”
She broke away from him. Though the blood pounded in her veins, she managed to keep her voice low. “If I hadn’t rallied my nobles in the south, if I hadn’t spent months persuading and cajoling them to come along, you wouldn’t have an army at—” All along her body, Aliénor’s muscles tensed up, and her jaw clamped shut with a click of teeth that hurt. No. Aliénor tried to twist away, as if simple motion could stop what was happening. Her muscles refused to obey her.
Mistress Helen sauntered forward, and her eyes glowed a little as her magic held Aliénor in a grip so tight it ached. “Now, now, Princess. We discussed this. You swore to do better. To be more obedient.”
An angry flush darkened the sallow skin of Philippe’s face. “Helen, let her go.”
“But, my prince—”
“I don’t need your help to control my wife, witch.”
Needles of pain pricked all over Aliénor’s arms and legs as she tried to throw the witch’s curse off, to free herself. Useless. Her teeth ground together in mingled alarm and fury.
With a flick of one hand and a grimace, Mistress Helen lifted her spell. The sudden release of tension made Aliénor gasp. She would have doubled over if Philippe hadn’t tightened his arm around her waist to keep her upright. Every muscle she possessed prickled like a sleeping limb waking to life. “Philippe, you promised you wouldn’t let her do that again.”
A muscle ticked in his jaw. “If you were better behaved she wouldn’t have to. What did I do to be cursed with such a termagant for a bride?”
Aliénor opened her mouth to make a sharp reply then, remembering Mistress Helen’s presence, she snapped her teeth shut.
“My prince, apologies if I overstepped myself,” Mistress Helen murmured in her soothing alto, “but this is not seemly to be seen quarreling on the road. Perhaps a compromise?”
Philippe drew himself back and smoothed a hand down the front of his neat surcoat. “You’re right, Mistress Helen. Aliénor, I apologize for the spell, but you must do better.” He let out a deep sigh, and his look was sad somehow, resigned, as he gazed back at her. “If you wear a veil, you may ride. All right?”
She clenched her hands under her bosom and swallowed her anger, though it almost choked her to do so. “Thank you, Philippe.”
He just shook his head and walked away from her.
The witch paused a moment and raked her gaze up and down Aliénor with a cat-like smile. “Soon, Princess. Soon I will have the ruling of you.”
As the woman walked away, Aliénor glared at Mistress Helen’s back, but inside Aliénor’s heart felt cold. Philippe had put a stop to the spell this time, but he grew more exasperated with Aliénor by the day. How much longer before he decided it would be best to let Mistress Helen control her?
Aliénor startled out of her reverie as her lady-in-waiting brushed her arm. “Yes?”
“Your horse is ready.”
“Oh, good. Excellent. Thank you.” Almost despite herself, her heart lightened. A small victory then. In these dark days she would take what she could get. “Bring him round, please. I’ll ride now.”
When Aliénor had argued for her choice to ride, she hadn’t quite realized how physically draining it would be. Her rump was already sore, her shoulders stiff. Still, the view was everything she could wish for, the fresh air stimulating even despite the massive dust cloud created in the army’s marching.
The river gurgled and rushed happily to her right, running parallel to their road. The waters flowed a deep blue-green that looked deceptively calm, with scrubby bushes scattered along the far bank. The land on their side of the riverbank was relatively bare, stripped of its trees and bushes to accommodate the traffic of the road.
Across the flow of water, though, the riverbank was verdant with tall, round-topped trees bending their boughs toward the river. To the southwest the mountains loomed, ragged red stone looking like a potter’s unfinished project. The day was warm, but the breeze off the river was crisp and lovely. Aliénor shut her eyes and let the wind dance over her face like a caress.
Her senior lady-in-waiting, Noémi, rode at her side, placidly and without comment. Her other lady-in-waiting had stayed behind in the wagon to sew. Aliénor and Noémi were near the front of the line with some two dozen men ahead of them, but still close enough that the two ladies could see a little of the road ahead. A sluggish trail of smoke wound through the sky ahead and to the west, coming from the mountain trail.
“Captain, what is that?” Aliénor asked.
The captain of her personal compliment of guards half-turned in his saddle and frowned, squinting at the sky. His mouth twisted, and he called for two men to ride up from further back in the line. More guards for Aliénor.
She frowned and looked again at the gray plume in the sky. “What’s amiss, Captain?”
The man let out a grumpy sigh and turned to her with a pasted on smile. “I am only worried that is the army of Lyond, Your Highness.”
Noémi let out a small puff of surprise. “Lyond? But their army left months ahead of ours.”
“Perhaps they have been delayed on this road as disastrously as we have.” The captain shrugged, turning away as if their conversation wearied him. Aliénor should ask Philippe for a replacement for the impudent man. Her own dear captain of the guard from home had drowned a few months back. Several of her best men had died in that accident when Philippe had ordered the army to ford a river instead of paying a ferryman’s fees. She might have suspected treachery, except so many of their soldiers had been lost in that disaster, from every faction.
She shook her head, refusing to let the captain brush her off. “Captain, why should the Lyondi army trouble you? We are no longer at war with them. They are here to reclaim their colonies the same as us.” Indeed, Aliénor had passionately argued back home that their Jerdic force should ally with the army of Lyond since their mission was so similar. However, after decades of near constant war and only a few years of uneasy peace with Lyond, the men of her homeland hadn’t listened. Philippe and his brother the king had actually laughed at the idea.
The captain let out a long, slow sigh and turned to her with another one of his false smiles. “Princess, an army of those Lyondi barbarians will not care about any peace agreement made back home here in this wilderness. Especially not if they catch sight of you and your two pretty ladies.” He made a small half-mocking bow in his saddle to her and Noémi.
Aliénor’s cheeks heated with an indignant flush.
Noémi tugged gently on Aliénor’s sleeve, coaxing her attention away from the ill-mannered captain. “Your husband won’t want you bickering with a guard captain in the middle of the road.” She kept her voice low, calm. “He’ll send you back to the wagon if he hears of a fight.”
Or worse. Aliénor let her breath out through her teeth. “Wise counsel, my friend.”
Noémi hummed in her throat, a faint note of approval.
Aliénor flicked her teasing smile. “I do sometimes listen to you.”
Noémi grinned. She was a large woman, thick-boned and stout, with a pale, pretty face unfortunately marred by deep pockmarks on her cheeks. But she had clear, snapping green eyes full of animation and intelligence. She was an unmarried lady, a widow twice over and not yet forty. Aliénor and Noémi had met only a few months ago at that bit of grand theater when the High Lord Magician of their homeland Jerdun had accepted all their solemn vows to reclaim the colonies and save the deserts to the south from the Tiochene raiders.
Aliénor had come to rely on Noémi as the one note of sanity in the swirling madness that their well-intentioned campaign had become. The wealthy widow was the first woman Aliénor had asked to become one of her “Amazons.” Another flashy bit of theater in an already melodramatic display. Aliénor smiled still, months later, at the memory of the stodgy High Magician’s face when she had shown up with her gaggle of noblewomen all dressed in vibrant red armor, all ready to take their solemn vows and fight.
Unfortunately, only Noémi and a young noblewoman named Violette had come along with her. The other noblewomen who had taken their vows had been forced to bow out of this grand adventure. One because of a pregnancy, one suddenly lost her husband, and another lost her nerve when it came time to take ship. Still, Aliénor was happy to have even a small tribe of Amazons on this trip with her.
All her women wore faded gray riding habits now, more practical than their flashy—and heavy—red armor. Yet the promise of that armor, the hope she’d had when she’d first made her impulsive vow still pulsed in the back of Aliénor’s mind. Like a rotten tooth as needs pulling, Aliénor wryly told herself. They would probably have to sell the armor soon enough to pay for food.
“We should be making camp soon, Your Highness.”
Aliénor chuckled and eased back in her saddle to stretch her aching muscles. “Is my weariness that obvious?”
Noémi only smiled in response, a very politic answer.
Aliénor shook her head, laughing again.
The road dipped as they entered a valley with the river flowing between two small hills. Bare white stone jutted up around them oddly, with patchy green bushes and long, oval-shaped trees lining the road.
A foul smell reached her on the air, so strong that she gagged. “What is that?” A stench like dead animals or meat left to decompose in the sun. Surely one dead animal could not be so strong, so overpowering.
Noémi froze beside her, and took a deep, testing sniff of the air. Her face blanched. “Your Highness, we should head to the rearguard at once.”
“Why—” Aliénor scanned the road and the words died on her lips as she saw the first dead man ahead of them. And another. Parts of many men lay scattered along the road, their blood splashed against the stark white of the valley walls. Nearby in the center of the road lay just a man’s leg with the heavy boot still upon it, a dark spot of blood beneath. Some of the bodies were badly burned, and scorch marks darkened many of the stones nearby, a few very high up on the walls.
“Send word to my husband at once.” Aliénor barely managed to get the words out without vomiting. The back of her throat burned.
The column halted and called the word back to those behind. Noémi dismounted and helped Aliénor down from her own horse. Wobbly, her mouth sour with bile, Aliénor clung to her friend’s arms. “I’m all right.” A lie, and Noémi obviously knew it for she settled a steadying arm around Aliénor’s waist.
Noémi frowned at the gory scene ahead of them before looking away. “They look to be men of the north like us.”
“Could they be our men?” The more she talked, the easier it was to concentrate on something besides the overwhelming smell of death all around.
“These men could be deserters or they might be men from one of the colonies. Soldiers your cousin sent out to meet us. Or they could be Lyondi.”
“How can you tell what race they are just from…from what’s left?”
“Their clothes. Their boots. The local tribes around here favor lighter fabric, longer tunics, lighter armor. Sandals too usually. These poor men are all wearing boots like us. They look like soldiers, not poor farmers murdered on the way to market.”
Aliénor hadn’t looked that closely. Hadn’t been able to. Her stomach clenched again. “Does nothing faze you, my iron Amazon?”
“I held my first husband’s castle during a siege in the last war with Lyond. We ate the horses before my husband’s forces could come to relieve us.”
Aliénor’s stomach roiled again, but she swallowed her gorge and took a small breath in through her teeth.
Noémi flinched. “Apologies, my lady.”
“No, no. It’s fine.” She stepped away from Noémi’s supporting arm to prove it. “My father was a warrior, but my little island was always isolated, safe from the turmoil of the wars with Lyond. Papa told me war stories, of course, sang the ballads. But he never spoke of anything like…this.” Aliénor hid her first unsteady stumble forward as a confident step toward her guard captain. “Captain.”
He looked up, his first unguarded glance full of annoyance which he quickly smoothed away. “Yes, Your Highness?”
“Have you assembled a party to look for survivors yet?”
He hesitated, a muscle ticking in his jaw. “Ah, no. Your Highness.”
“Begging your pardon, but there doesn’t seem to be much point.”
The image of the severed leg flashed through her mind’s eye, sending her uncertain stomach swooping again. She stared at the clear, unblemished sky, focusing on that to blank her mind out. Soon enough her gut settled. She regarded the guard captain with her most imperious glare. “It is our pious duty to look for survivors of this battle.”
“This looks like it was a slaughter, my lady. Not a battle.”
Aliénor felt her grip on her temper slipping again, as if her moods were an unbroken horse she had yet to tame. However, she would get nothing from this man if she threw a tantrum. Instead, she offered him her most solicitous smile. “My Amazons will undertake a search, Captain. If your men cannot be spared from their other duties.” She let her gaze flick to the two soldiers who had already dismounted and begun a game of dice on the trail.
The guard captain let out a low, exasperated sigh then swung back onto his own horse. He pointed to some dozen of the various men-at-arms milling about. “You lot, with me. Her Highness—” He swept her a bow just short of outright mockery. “—wishes us to search for survivors until such time as the prince arrives.” We’re only doing this idiotic hunt until Prince Philippe gets here and puts his uppity wife in her place, he left unsaid, but his meaning was clear.
She set her teeth and waved the captain on his way. She leaned close to Noémi and whispered, “Perhaps I shall get the good captain assigned to digging the latrine pits when we break for camp tonight.”
Noémi snickered. “You handled him all right, my lady.”
“Hmm. The captain’s correct, though. My power will last only as long as it takes for my husband to ride to the front.” A galling truth that her power was so slight and temporary, borrowed only from her husband and that begrudgingly. “Will they find any survivors, do you think?”
“Perhaps.” But Noémi’s tone was not encouraging.
“Do you think I could’ve made little Violette look for survivors with me?”
“I would have gone.”
Aliénor pressed her friend’s hand.
Noémi squeezed her hand back. “I will go with you now, in fact, to look.”
Aliénor swallowed, flinching at the thought. Yet should she command her men to do that which she would not do herself? What sort of leader would she be if she did that?
The sort like my husband.
A spiteful thought. Aliénor sighed in frustration with herself. What was it about she and Philippe together that always seemed to bring out the worst in both of them? She gave Noémi a nod and swung herself into her saddle again, groaning only a little bit as her aching limps shrieked in protest.
Noémi summoned two more of the soldiers to ride with them as guards. The young men followed the formidable Noémi’s lead when they might have hemmed and hawed at Aliénor’s authority. Perhaps that was Aliénor’s lack, not in power itself but in her confidence in exercising it. Or perhaps she still looked too young for grown men to trust her wits.
She let Noémi lead the way with one of the soldiers beside her. The other fell in so close to Aliénor’s horse that her little palfrey started and sidled away with nerves. “Careful,” Aliénor snapped to the boy.
He nodded apology but stayed close nonetheless. “Beg pardon, Your Highness, but there might still be raiders about. Stay close to me, eh?” He drew his sword as he said it.
Aliénor shivered at sight of the naked steel. The army had been marching to battle for months but had not seen any action as yet. One could almost forget they were riding to war. Until something like this happened.
She nodded to her guard and turned her gaze away to follow Noémi’s progress. Her handmaiden had led them farther away down the road from the captain and her men, closer to the cliffs, while still staying in sight of the column. Perhaps Noémi knew if they came within calling distance of the captain he would order them back. Or perhaps she was just trying to keep Aliénor from seeing more bodies.
I am coddled at every side. Was she anything other than a silly, useless woman if even her friend refused to let her help in this small way? If I am just a burden to be protected then I might as well turn back for home now and get out of everyone’s way.
She scanned the horizon and let her horse pick her way where she would for they were in rocky terrain close to the mountains now. Scrubby brush dotted the landscape and gray-trunked trees with tight, prickling foliage. Her eye caught on one the trees where it grew practically against the foot of the hill. A bright flash of pale blue fluttered in the branches. A bird? Although she had seen no bright-plumed birds like that this far south.
Her pulse kicked up as she turned her mount toward the tree. Behind her, she heard her guard follow her with a small, muttered oath.
The closer she came to that bright blue cloth, the harder her pulse beat until it was a veritable drum in her ears. Aliénor stopped short of the tree and slid off her horse.
When she saw the man tangled in the branches of the tree, her blood jumped all at once inside her like a bright flash of heat. Bile burned the back of her throat, but she forced herself forward one unsteady step at a time.
The man’s chest rose and fell. Alive. Thank Merciful Fate. He voiced a low groan, and she hopped back a step in surprise. She wet her dry mouth and wheeled toward the guard riding toward her. “Help! Bring help.”
She rushed forward to the tree and reached to lift the man down. He was braced against the branches, and a sword—stained red and nicked from battle—lay among the roots of the tree. Blood had also splashed the tree all around, as if the plant needed human sacrifice instead of wholesome water to live.
Together, Aliénor and her guard lifted the man down from the tree and laid him out on the ground to check for injuries. “Bring water from my saddle,” she told her man. Flustered, the soldier rushed back to their horses.
The stranger stirred again, and his eyes fluttered open—a startling gray-blue color. “Getfalen hwaa?”
Aliénor’s breath caught.
He tried to shift in her arms and look at her, but the movement seemed to overwhelm his strength, and his eyes rolled back into his head. He’d lapsed into unconsciousness by the time the soldier had returned with a canteen.
“What did he say?” her guard asked as he took a deep drink of water for himself.
Aliénor cleared her throat. “Gibberish. He’s disoriented I think.” A lie. She’d understood his words perfectly well. The problem was he had been speaking the language of Lyond—the language of her nation’s greatest enemy.
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