Ahoy, uncharted adventurers!
I'm excited to share this week's Story Snippet with each of you. It is the first-ever peek at the fourth book in my Tethered World Chronicles series, tentatively titled The Secret of Stardust. In fact, there's a lot of tentativeness in this post, so be warned :) Today, I'm sharing the rough draft of my unedited, first chapter from this unfinished novel. Yikes! How's that for tentative?
It has been a challenging time to write, as I'm sure many of you writer-friends can attest to. Add to Covid-19 my sweet mother who had a stroke in February and is requiring around the clock care, and it has made for a lot of setbacks to my work schedule.
Thankfully, I have the best publishing house ever, headed by the best woman in the business! Miralee Ferrell owns Mountain Brook Fire (an imprint of Mountain Brook Ink), and she's been extremely understanding and gracious during this time. This will be HER first peek at this novel as well, so I hope you guys will leave your feedback (good or bad) in the comments!
This fourth book takes place twenty years after the end of the last book, The Genesis Tree. Books four and five are meant to stand apart (as a duology), story-wise, although many of the characters are from the original trilogy. That said, new readers won't be lost if they jump into the Tethered World Chronicles beginning with The Secret of Stardust. But fans of the series will also get to revisit many of their favorite characters along the way.
If you like what you read here, I hope you'll hop on over to your favorite online book retailer and snag my first book, The Tethered World, for FREE! The Tethered World and The Flaming Sword (Books 1 and 2) are also available as audiobooks, if that's your jam, and the third audiobook is being worked on right now!
Without further adieu, welcome to the Tethered World! A realm of creatures who once roamed the Garden of Eden. Land of Leprechauns, Dwarves, Dragons, and Gnomes. Home to Nephilim and humans, Trolls and Gargoyles.Yes...the rumors are true, the creatures exist!
(Please forgive my lack of relatable photos. I haven't had time to scour the internet for the right fit).
The Secret of Stardust
The acrid odor of incense would always be a harbinger of death for Alex. He detested the odor only slightly less than he hated the inevitable loss to follow. From the shadow of the king’s bedchamber, he watched the muted display of prayers and tears being offered on King Aviel’s behalf. The emotions and the rituals somehow clung to the pungent incense, probing Alex’s mind until it awakened memories of other futile forays into unanswered hope. It recounted to him the swell of prayers and tears from past grievances, neither finding adequate answers with any outcome.
Though King Aviel was his grandfather, Alex mourned the man distantly. As much from the king’s coolness toward him as from the callousness born of repeated loss. If anything, Alex ached more for his father, Xander, and how hard he was taking the impending death of his own father, the king.
Now, with King Aviel weakening, Alex watched as those prayers and tears grew in intensity. He found he was happy to leave such fruitless work in the hands of others.
When summoned to the bedchamber hours earlier, Alex had settled himself on a tufted chair in the furtherest corner of the room—out of the reach of candlelight, and out of the way from attendants, physicians, Father Juniper the presbyter, and his parents. Though it was his princely duty to be present as his grandfather passed from his life as the ruler of Calamus, Realm of the Nephilim, in the order of Tuatha de Nuada, to life everlasting, Alex could only tolerate the oppressive observance by arriving in the final hours of his grandfather’s seventy-first year of life.
“Earth to Alex.”
Alex snapped out of his stupefaction to find his little sister Ellynn perched on the arm of his chair.
“Huh?” He took in her unruly curls and wrinkled linen pajamas. Despite the gloomy corner, he noticed that his sister's frosty blue eyes—a hand-me-down from grandfather, to father, to daughter—were pink and brimming with tears.
“I said, can I sit with you?” Her voice sounded strong, despite the tear that suddenly slipped down her olive-skinned cheek.
Alex scooted his seven foot frame to one side knowing this would never work if the two of them weren’t narrow as a couple of sword blades. Twelve year old Ellynn wiggled into the space beside him, and he put his arm around her, pulling her snug against his side.
He kissed the top of her messy, sepia curls. “How’s my Elly-belly?”
She sniffed and gave him a little nudge. “I told you not to call me that. I’m not a little kid anymore.”
“Oh, right.” He resisted the urge to poke at her notion of ‘little’. “But, are you okay? You probably don’t remember Aunt Jules’s passing away, so this is all new to you.”
She gave a noisy exhale and Alex felt her nod against his side. “I keep thinking I should be running out of tears…but every time Grandfather has one of those fever-dreams it scares me so bad I start crying all over again.”
“I thought Mom told you to leave when those dreams come on,” Alex whispered. He could hear the familiar zip-zip sound of Ellynn toggling the tiny, silver book charm she wore on a chain about her neck.
Her shoulder shrugged against his ribcage. “I did a few times. But…I mean, I already watched a few of his episodes before Mom sent me out of the room. It’s not like I can unsee it now. Mom and Dad have been too wrapped up in comforting him to notice that I’m still here.”
Alex’s gaze drifted to his parents, Xander and Sadie. They shared a bearskin bench on one side of the king’s extravagantly carved four post bed. The kept their backs to the stone fireplace which was alternately stoked or doused, depending on Aviel’s temperature.
The two sat close, fingers entwined, their contrasting skin tones reminding Alex of black and white piano keys. His father’s wings looked limp, silvery feathers drooping off the bench and onto the floor like flower petals in need of water. His mother, so petite in comparison, leaned into him, as if she hadn’t the strength to support herself. Though the two were opposite in many ways, Alex noticed matching purple crescents beneath their eyes, and the way one would yawn on the heels of the other.
Sadie was not especially close to King Aviel—or hadn’t been until her father-in-law’s health took a downward turn a month prior. Because she was a Topsider—as in, from the topside of the earth instead of one of the pockets within the earth like Calamus—the king had never truly accepted his daughter-in-law. But the fever-dreams had worn down his mercurial attitude, and the king had actually shown a pinch of appreciation for her presence when his condition required around-the-clock care. Didn’t hurt that Sadie’s mother Amy was a nurse who had taught her daughter much about keeping a patient comfortable
Now, Alex guessed that his mom stayed close for the sake of comforting his father Xander, as there appeared to be little comfort to offer the king in his final hours.
His grandfather’s health may have taken a turn for the worse in the last year, but also had the positive side-effect of improving his parents’ relationship. The two hadn’t been truly happy in a long time. Not since…
Alex squeezed his eyes shut, willing the dark thoughts away. He couldn’t go there right now.
He sensed his mother’s steely strength as she slipped an arm around Xander, whose head was bowed in grief. She might be an average-sized Topsider but her inner-toughness rivaled her husband’s hulking Nephilim body. Whenever Alex stopped to count the many relatives his mother had lost in her lifetime he felt ashamed of his hard-bitten attitude toward the few he had endured in his seventeen years.
“Death is as much a part of life as birth,” Sadie had explained when he had cried inconsolably at the passing of his Great Great-aunt Jules. He remembered wondering why, if what his mother said were true, everyone rejoiced about birth but cried over death.
Now, Alex watched his mother pull the curtain of slender, lengthy braids away from Xander’s face. She smoothed them across his winged back before kissing his cheek. Maybe this loss would help his parents find each other once again. That was a good thing.
Alex rubbed her arm reassuringly. “This is the hardest part. Watching and waiting. Feels endless.”
“Grandfather looks so frail and unlike himself since they shaved his dreads. I don’t want to remember him like this. It’s almost as bad as the fever dreams themselves,” she said with a shudder. “Except when he wakes up screaming for Uncle Magnus, I really hate that. He gets so upset, I think his heart is just going to give out on him.”
Alex felt a flash of anger at the mention of their Uncle Magnus. If that impulsive imbecile hadn’t cursed King Aviel and ran off a few months earlier, it would have made the king’s last days much more peaceable. Instead, the king dreamt of his son in fever-dreams, and hallucinated conversations with him when he awoke.
Not that things were wrinkle-free when Magnus was about. As Xander’s much younger half-brother, he was jealous of Xander’s heir-to-the-throne status. But Magnus always turned his impotent frustration onto someone closer to his own age: Alex. The jerk made it his mission to belittle everything about Alex, who was only two years younger. Aided and abetted by his equally awful mother—King Aviel’s second wife Zeta—Uncle Magnus had few fans among royals or servants alike.
Alex had been thrilled to be Magnus-free the past months, but he could understand his grandfather’s wish to have his entire family near in his final hours.
“Where do you think Grandmama Zeta could be?” Ellynn asked. “I haven’t seen her since last night at dinner. Shouldn’t she be here?”
“Apparently, she stayed by his side most of the night.” Alex stretched his cramped legs straight and crossed them at the ankles. “Gouldor told her to get some sleep and he would wake her when, y’know, things moved to the final stages.”
“I feel like Grandfather has been in his ‘final stage’ for the past three days,” she said.
Alex stifled a yawn. “Right? Guess we get to look forward to things getting worse.”
A soft tap on the door to the outer chamber signaled Merrik, the king’s bodyguard, to step aside. Two female servants entered the room. The first, a Dwarf named Joanie, was Sadie’s personal attendant, carried a tray laden with food. The other, a shy, mousey-haired Nephilim whose name Alex couldn’t recall, carried a tray of medicine.
Joanie headed for Sadie and Xander, offering them tea and scones. The shy girl crossed to the opposite side of the bed where Aviel’s personal physician stood holding the king’s wrist, timing his pulse.
If Alex had to choose his least favorite person in Calamus, it would be a toss up between Magnus and the king’s physician Gouldor. The stooped over, bug-eyed Nephilim gave Alex the creeps. He had leathery, putty-colored skin, and the longest, scrawniest beard that Alex had ever seen. The man probably hadn’t shaved since puberty. He wore thick wool robes like some throwback Friar Tuck circa Robin Hood and he always smelled of herbs and incense—which only added to the reasons why Alex disliked both Gouldor and, of course, incense.
“Noooo. I will not condone that. I’ve had enough of your underhanded—ugh!” King Aviel’s body arched beneath his embroidered burgundy quilt. With rapid jerks, he shook his recently shaved head which glistened slick and sweaty in the candlelight. “Stop it, Magnus. When will you learn? Noooo.”
Joanie jumped in surprise at the outburst, spilling the tea she had been pouring. It sloshed across Sadie’s arm and the bearskin bench.
Sadie yelped in pain even as Xander stretched himself across his father’s writhing form. Xander clamped onto Aviel’s arms, trying to still the king’s anxious, straining body.
Alex hugged his sister to himself, her head buried in his chest.
“Wake up, Father! It’s okay. You’re alright,” Xander whispered. “C’mon, now. Wake up. You’ll see. Everything’s fine.”
Gouldor attempted to apply a cool cloth to Aviel’s forehead but mostly chased the king’s writhing dome across the pillow as he continued to shake, though with increasingly less force. Sadie stepped away, holding her arm as Joanie buzzed about, apologizing over the din. She grabbed a clean cloth from Gouldor’s supply, then helped herself to the basin of water, dunking the cloth then swathing Sadie’s left forearm with it.
A great booming, “No!” from Aviel instantly quieted the room.
It also surprised Xander, who relaxed his grip enough for King Aviel to sit up, shoving Xander so that he stumbled to avoid landing on his father’s legs.
Aviel’s eyes were wide, round, and bright as frosty marbles, which somehow emphasized the roundness of his head sans its mass of dreadlocks. His damp, mahogany skin shone in dark patches against the white linen dressing gown he wore. Salt-and-pepper feathers jutted at odd angles from his wings, thanks to days of thrashing about in bed.
The king looked at the contingent of faces who looked back at him. He took deep, gasping breaths and blinked, as if coming to his senses. Alex noticed a film of white froth on either side of his grandfather’s full lips.
“Xander.” Aviel patted the bed, indicating for Xander to sit. “I have something to tell you.”
Xander slowly sank down onto the bed beside his father. The king immediately took hold of his son’s collar, pulling Xander close so that the two were eye-to-eye. No one else moved or spoke.
“Listen to me, Xander.” Aviel gave Xander a little shake. “Listen! You must promise me something.”
Xander nodded. “Of course. Anything.”
“You must promise me that you’ll watch over your brother Magnus. When you become king, deal gently with him. He-he is troubled. I know he is. But he looks up to you. Mag—” he gasped again, then swallowed—“Magnus respects you. Deep down, I know he does. He needs help. Give him that.”
A fit of coughing interrupted his diatribe. Hard, gut-deep coughs that made the others look at one another in alarm. Ellynn renewed her efforts to burrow into her brother’s embrace. Still, the king did not relax his grip on Xander, who could only look away to avoid the wheezing hacks of his father.
“Promise me,” Aviel said at last. He paused to take a few more breaths then said, “Promise, Xander. Magnus needs mercy.”
Xander nodded. “Yes, okay.” He patted his father awkwardly on the shoulders.
The king pulled his son even closer, so their foreheads touched. “We-we all need mercy,” he sputtered.
King Aviel released Xander and flopped back onto his pillow.
Xander reflexively stood, eyes wide, fingers knotted, as he looked down at the king’s still form. Alex noticed his father’s heaving chest, could hear his ragged breathes. His father was crying.
Xander’s mountainous body began to quake. He slipped to his knees, burying his face against his father’s shoulder. “Nooo.” His voice was an eery echo of the king’s fever-dreams.
In an instant, Sadie was behind her husband, arms encircling his expansive back. Gouldor felt for a pulse, then reached arthritic fingers to close Aviel’s eyes for the final time. With soft spatters, like rain, the onlookers in the room began to cry. Even the stoic bodyguard, Merrik, covered his mouth and closed his eyes.
“Is he d-dead?” asked Ellynn, muffled against Alex’s chest.
“Yes.” Alex looked about, feeling strangely disconnected—shock superseding any emotion.
One moment, the room had resonated with his grandfather’s baritone. With the authoritative words of a king—impassioned, yet pleading. The next, all that life and power and energy had been sucked away, like some invisible vacuum had gobbled it up in an instant.
Behind Merrik, the door swung open. He stepped aside as Zeta, the king’s wife, swept in, two attendants and her own bodyguard in tow. She stopped in the middle of the room taking in her husband’s still form and moving to the tears and sobs around her.
Alex heard her gasp. Saw her hands fly to her face. Beneath her navy cloak, turquoise-dyed feathers gave an indignant shudder.
“What is this?” Her voice sounded incredulous, as though she understood perfectly. She stepped closer to the bed, hands lowering into fists.
Alex studied her profile from where he sat. Her coffee colored skin looked pale, despite being bathed in golden candlelight. Like a fish, her mouth opened then closed several times, nostrils flaring with each sharp inhale.
“I told you people to come get me. I was supposed to be by his side in the end.” She turned a slow circle, her fiery gaze scorching each individual that was bold enough to look her in the eye. “How dare you let this happen. I…am…the queen. I…gave…an order. You disobeyed my order.” She continued her penetrating pirouette until she faced the physician. Her long pointy-nailed finger jabbed in Gouldor’s direction. “You are dismissed!”
Gouldor blinked his bug-eyes and gave a gasp. “Dismissed? Your Majesty…please! It happened so quickly. So unexpectedly. There was no time to—”
“I’ll have none of your excuses,” Zeta hissed. “Leave.” She pointed to the door.
“Leave.” Her finger trembled as it continued to point.
Zeta’s bodyguard, a blocky bulldog of a man, took a step toward the physician.
“Okay! Okay.” Gouldor held his hands in a gesture of surrender, then grasped his robe and made a beeline for the door, scrawny beard trailing like a weak wisp of smoke. Alex almost felt bad for the man.
Zeta strode to where Xander stood, arms crossed, watching his stepmother’s outburst. She stopped a few feet in front of him and gave Sadie a sidelong glance of disdain. Sadie stared back, unmoved.
Though Zeta and Xander stood eye-to-eye—both just under seven feet tall—Zeta had a habit of tilting her head back so she could look down her long swooping nose at him, which she did now. “Are you happy, Xander? Pleased with yourself?”
Xander’s heavy jaw flexed, contempt etched into the flex of his jaw. He shook his head with tight little jerks, setting his long braids shifting like restless, black snakes.
“My father just died. Suddenly, I might add. Why would I be pleased?”
Ellynn slipped from Alex’s lap and moved closer, standing behind Joanie. Alex joined his sister, placing an arm around her shoulders to keep her from edging any nearer the potential fireworks.
“Because, you got to be with him while I, obviously, did not.” Zeta placed her pointy-nailed finger on his chest. “You had your father all to yourself, which is how you like it, don’t you, Xander? You ran Magnus off months ago, which I’m sure made that-that blemished son of yours—” she pointed to where Alex had been sitting—“as happy as a meat maggot. And now, in Aviel’s final hours, you were able to keep my husband from me as well. What a well-played move.”
“Look, Zeta.” His hand snatched her wrist and shoved it away from his chest. He took a few, cleansing breaths. “I’ve been very considerate of your feelings in all of this. I’ve tried to be sensitive to your needs, giving you space. Offering relief when you’d been up all night. Keeping you updated. You have no right to barge in with these accusations. No right to dismiss Gouldor. No right to look at my wife like you did, no right to call Alex rude names, and no right to speak to me like you’re now doing. I will choose to overlook your indiscretion considering the circumstances.”
She opened her mouth to reply but Xander cut in again. “And I won’t deign to comment on your ridiculous accusation concerning Magnus—your uncontrollable excuse of an offspring.”
Zeta stiffened, arms shooting to her sides like pistons. Her long neck rigid and unyielding.
Ellyn looked up at her brother, a hint of a grin playing on her mouth. He gave a subtle shake of his head, discouraging the triumph he saw in her face. His own face felt hot from Zeta’s lowbrow comment about the large, brownish birthmark that encircled his right eye.
“I have no right?” Zeta gave a mocking laugh. “I am Queen, which gives me every right. End of story.”
Xander offered a sardonic smile. “Indeed, this really is the ‘end of the story’. The end of your story.” He took a step closer. “The end of your reign. I am the first born son, as you know. Heir to the throne.”
She matched his smile in insincerity. “Bu not until your coronation.”
Xander’s eyes narrowed.
“Oh yes! I clarified this point with Aviel before his unfortunate turn for the worst.” She cocked her head. “I am the current ruler of Calamus, dear stepson.” She stepped back, hands on hips, looking from Xander to Sadie. “I might not have long to rule the Calamus roost, but be assured that I will take full advantage of the current pecking order. And I have plans—big plans—to make the most of it.”