This is the first chapter of my book, Bound to the Monarchs. For content warnings please go here.
The sun was setting over the mountains of Herdoona as Vitoria continued down the Boundary Road. She glanced down at the clock on her dashboard. Two hours until darkness. Two hours to get safely to a sanctuary.
She drummed her fingers against the steering wheel and drew a deep breath. When she got to the refuge perhaps she would be able to breathe a little easier. Perhaps the knot in her chest would ease a little. Perhaps she would stop feeling the inexplicable pull towards Palici, the shifter lands. Perhaps, but she wasn’t confident.
Her journey was taking longer than she’d anticipated. She’d agreed to meet Mira on the last day of the lunar cycle. At the rate she was going, she would be lucky if she made it. Maybe she could send a bird from the next refuge, ask Mira to wait for her. Not for the first time, she wondered if she was making a mistake. Was she really moving to a region that didn’t even have cell phone reception?
Vitoria kept her eyes on the road ahead. The mountains of Herdoona loomed to her left, the forests of Palici beckoned from her right. Ahead was nothing but wide-open road. She hadn’t passed another vehicle for hours. The ones she’d seen earlier in the day had all taken shelter at the last sanctuary. She should’ve stopped with them but she had a deadline to keep to.
She looked down at her navigation system. An hour to the next refuge point. She should make it before the sun set. A chill ran down her arms and she turned the heat up. What if she didn’t make it?
No. She would make it. There were nearly two hours until nightfall and she was only an hour away. She would make it.
She felt a pull on the knot around her heart and forced her eyes to remain on the road. She wouldn’t look towards the forests. Wouldn’t think on why it felt like they were calling her home. Home was in Calibrai. Home was what she’d left behind. Home was where she was going to.
Sorcery was supposed to come from Herdoona, so why did she feel the pull from the shifter lands?
Lights flickered up ahead and she glanced back down at the navigation system. There shouldn’t be anything there. No street lights. No buildings. Nothing.
She instinctively raised her hands to her ears. Brighter light flared and her heart jumped into her mouth.
Marauders. It had to be marauders. They would see her pointed ears and know she was a Solviso and that would be it. She pulled her hair out of its ponytail and smoothed it over her ears. Throwing her hands back onto the steering wheel, she hunched over and gripped it for dear life, slowing her van, but not stopping.
No one stopped on the Boundary Road. Not this close to darkness.
What should she do?
Red, orange, and yellow lights danced in her path like a joyous monster. A fire.
She couldn’t continue ahead.
Knowing only that she had to avoid marauders at all costs, Vitoria turned her van to the right and put her foot on the accelerator. She drove over the verge and into the overgrown grass, towards the forest. She glanced into her mirror. Nothing behind her. The marauders probably didn’t even know she was there. The van bounced as she bounded over bumps, her teeth banging like castanets. The boxy vehicle wasn’t made to drive off road. She pulled out onto a wide dirt path and drove into the forest. She felt a jolt to her chest and her breath caught. She gasped in air and the feeling receded, the knot around her heart disappeared, and it felt like a cocoon had formed where the knot had been. She looked down at her navigation system. She was on the Free Land, two miles from the border of Palici.
She turned off her engine, unbuckled her seatbelt and checked the locks. Her hands trembled and she inhaled deeply. Safe for now. The automatic dome light clicked off and she reached over to the glove compartment and pulled out her torch. Dim light spilled from it. She should get some sleep, get on the move when the sun rose.
Another check of the door locks and she could settle in. Climbing out of the only seat in the van, Vitoria stooped over to avoid hitting her head on the ceiling. The wan light from her torch illuminated the little home she had made for herself in the back. A large mattress filled most of the space, blankets and clothing piled on top of it. Three battered cardboard boxes sat at the foot of her bed. One box for clothes, another for food, a third for all the sentimental crap that she couldn’t force herself to part with. She picked up the bag by her chair and slung it over her shoulder. Bottles, some empty, some full of water, littered the floor, and she kicked them out of the way as she made her way to the bed. She kicked off her shoes and lowered herself onto the soft pallet.
If she had made it to the refuge she would have spent some time reading, but the light from her torch was dim and she had to save the power. She reached into the bag. Her gun was still there, loaded and ready. So close to the border of Palici, home to the Demalyn, the shifter designation, and it was all she had to defend herself. And her walking stick, if it came to it. She hoped it wouldn’t. Last time she’d had to use her walking stick as a weapon she’d damaged it and she didn’t have the money to replace this one.
She put her bag next to the bed and clicked off the torch, resting it next to her head. In the morning, she would make her way back to the Boundary Road. The Demalyn would never know she’d been there.
Vitoria surfaced into a dream. It had to be a dream, because she’d never been inside a room so lavish. The ceiling soared, the painting of the goddess Lencura was barely visible from the ground, and she only recognised her from the distinctive red and gold robes she wore. People sat in groups of three, all wearing gold sarongs, chests bare. She followed their gazes to the front of the room. The golden thrones atop their dais looked like something from a fairy tale. Two people sat there, a King and a Queen, she assumed.
As she regarded them, Vitoria’s heart sped up and her skin flushed.
They were magnificent.
The King’s long black hair fell in a braid down his back, his skin was tanned from the sun, and his dark brown eyes surveyed the room. The Queen’s auburn hair fell in soft waves over her bare, sun-bronzed breasts, her green eyes defiant and fixed on a man with tawny brown skin and grey hair, who was standing at a podium.
“The war is over,” the man was saying.
“We are quite aware of that, Prime Minister,” the Queen’s words were clipped. “Having fought in the war ourselves.”
“The council thinks,” the Prime Minister continued. “That it is time you found your third mate. We mate in threes because that is how the goddess intended it, and she intended it this way so we would have the necessary balance in our relationships and in our rule. As the ruling monarchs-”
“Your concerns are noted,” the King interrupted. “My mate and I will retire for the night and we shall return to this after dawn.”
“What is there to return to?” The Prime Minister asked. “You must find your mate. Surely you mean to use traditional methods? What is there to discuss?”
“We will return to this after dawn,” the Queen said firmly.
She rose gracefully and her mate followed suit. The King took the Queen’s hand in his and she entwined their fingers together. The King glanced towards the Queen. She held her head high as they left the room, her gaze fixed ahead. She looked cold, composed, in control.
Vitoria walked behind them, invisible through the silent room. They ascended a grand staircase and walked through one of the many doors that lined the corridor. The King locked the door behind them and Vitoria glanced around the room. It was a large bedroom with a four-poster bed in the middle. Imagine sleeping on that. It was probably soft and warm and nothing like the mattress she was used to sleeping on.
She turned back to the monarchs. The King pulled the Queen into his arms, she wound hers around his waist and pressed her face against his chest.
“Don’t cry, my love,” the King said. He stroked a hand down her bare back.
“Perhaps we should have remained soldiers.” The Queen’s voice shook.
“Perhaps, but no one refuses the honour of becoming monarchs.”
“They shouldn’t have chosen us, they should have chosen someone who was properly mated.”
“They weren’t all properly mated before they became monarchs.”
The Queen looked up at the King and Vitoria could see tear tracks on her cheeks. “They were all properly mated before they reached thirty solar cycles. Every single one of them. And I am to be thirty-three at the end of this solar cycle, and you shortly after.”
The King placed a kiss on the Queen’s shoulder. “We’ve been good monarchs. We brought peace to our lands and prosperity to our people,” he said.
“Good monarchs, save for our lack of a third mate. We have failed, Antonio. Failed our people. Failed our mate who is out there somewhere alone, without our protection.”
“The other monarchs didn’t come to power in the middle of a war, Matilda. If we had time to travel, as they had, perhaps we would be mated.”
Matilda shook her head. “The goddess is supposed to bring our mate to us. Perhaps they are right, perhaps we are not blessed by the goddess or fit to be monarchs.”
“They didn’t say that.”
“They implied it.”
“We brought peace to our lands. We have rebuilt cities and towns. Our people have food. They are safe and happy, and if that is not a blessing…”
He stopped talking abruptly and raised a hand to his chest. Matilda pulled away from him and placed her hand over her own heart.
“I’ve only felt this once before,” he said. “The day I knew you were my mate.”
“Our mate,” Matilda said. “We must go to her.”
Dim dawn light filtered into the van, waking Vitoria from a dream. Her mind was groggy as she pulled the duvet up over her eyes and for a few blissful moments enjoyed the comfort of her bed. The remnants of the dream lingered, leaving a warmth that spread from the cocoon around her heart and permeated her entire body. She wanted to stay exactly where she was. If she moved she might lose that feeling. When she moved it would be back to the real world. She tugged at a thread of memory, but the more she tried to remember her dream, the further away it seemed.
The dream was gone. She was back in her van, sleeping on an old mattress, wishing for a real home where she could lock the door and know that no one would be able to get in. Somewhere where she had neighbours, where she knew her surroundings. She would have that. When she reached Malita, she would have a home and neighbours, and everything that she’d had before her father had passed over. She ignored the voice that told her that her neighbours would be Dengara, that they might not accept a Solviso, and that her surroundings would be dark for half of each solar cycle. It was still better than living in a tiny van with nothing but her gun for protection.
She sat up and turned onto her knees. She gently placed one foot flat and tried to put her weight onto it. When she was confident that she could do so without injuring herself or falling, she stood up. She glanced around the room, looking for her stick. She needed to remember to bring it to bed with her. Just because her joints were fine the night before, didn’t mean they would be when she woke. She picked up her bag and hobbled over to the stick.
She slid out of the van, squinting her eyes to protect them from the bright morning sun. She winced slightly as all her weight was placed on her bad ankle. Not that the good one was much better. She stayed close to the vehicle while she relieved herself. It wouldn’t do to wander out in the woods. Who knew what she would find there?
She climbed back up and into the seat and strapped herself in. The morning meal could wait until she was back on the road. She had to make up for the lost time. Whatever had been on the Boundary Road the night before seemed like less of a threat than the feeling that had taken root inside her. The feeling that told her that she had to go further into the forest and onto the Demalyn lands.
She was a rationalist. She followed logic and science, and although the Demalyn were known as a fair and just designation, she would be a trespasser on their land.
She turned the key. The engine made a noise and then nothing happened. She tried again. Nothing.
“Shit!” she shouted as she banged her hand against the wheel. “Not now.”
There was nowhere to go for help. It was too far to walk to the next refuge and even if it had been closer, it wasn’t safe to walk along the Boundary Road. She climbed back out, ignoring the pain that was spreading from her right ankle all the way up her leg. She pulled up the hood and looked inside. What the hell was she going to do? She didn’t even know what she was looking at.
She turned around, glancing about as though someone would magically appear to help her, but there was no one there. Which was a good thing. Who knew what they would do to her if there had been someone there? She climbed up into the driver’s seat and tried again. Nothing.
She turned on her navigation system and zoomed out, looking to see if there was anything nearby. There was a settlement, by the size of it a large town or a city, through the forest nearby. She would have to cross over into Palici, the region belonging to the shapeshifting Demalyn, and walk through the trees. And when she got there? Maybe they would help her. Maybe. Her instinct, if that was what the overwhelming urge to venture into Demalyn territory was, told her to go with that plan. That they would help her.
She grabbed her bag, locked up her van, and began to walk through the forest towards Palici.
A couple of miles into the forest, Vitoria’s right ankle ached, both hips throbbed, and her hand had stiffened around the walking stick. As much as she hurt now, she knew that she would be in agony in the morning. She had to keep going. If she stopped, she might never start again.
The forest was dense. Some light filtered through the canopy of leaves, enough to see by, enough that she couldn’t justify using the limited power of her torch. She would need it when night fell. Though they were in the hottest part of the solar cycle, it was cool in the forest and a breeze brushed over her bare arms. She wished that she’d grabbed a shawl from her van, but she hadn’t imagined that it would be cold further into the forest. She looked down at the navigation system. She was on track to get to the city, but there was no way that she would make it by dark, not at the rate she was going. What if she had to sleep in the forest?
Fear burned inside her. What was out there in the forest? She’d read a lot about the world outside of Calibrai and if she remembered rightly, the wild animals of Palici posed no danger to people. She still didn’t want to spend a night in a cold, dark forest. She had some food and water in her bag, along with her gun and a little money, but nothing that would keep her warm.
Something howled behind her. She couldn’t tell how far away it was and she turned to see if it was close. Nothing there. She picked up her pace, adrenaline overwhelming the pain in her body. She stumbled, twisted her left ankle – her good one – and fell. Pain shot up her right leg and she whimpered. A growl came from her left and she turned her head.
Amber eyes stared out from the darkness, another pair of green eyes appearing next to it. No. It wasn’t darkness. That was their fur. She placed her walking stick against the ground and tried to pull herself up. Her legs gave way immediately. Low growls and hisses echoed around her. She tried to drag herself away. There was no way she could out-crawl them. Even if she could stand, even if she wasn’t injured, she couldn’t outrun the Demalyn. No Solviso, even the non-disabled ones, could. She looked ahead and more Demalyn appeared. Big cats, dogs, bears.
She was surrounded.
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