Last week, I said I would post the first part of chapter 1 of The Silver Cage. Instead, I’ve decided to post the entire chapter. Next week, I’ll post all of chapter 2. The following Wednesday, December 1, you’ll be able to buy the entire book.
In case you missed them, here are links to the two parts of the prologue:
Chapter 1: Dreams
Twenty years later . . .
Queen Alexsa paced across the courtyard of Castle Nemik, gazing at the men and women gathered before her in the cool morning air.
Thirty of her best Guardsmen snapped to attention in two arrow‑straight lines, one behind the other. Their black and deep blue uniforms, adorned with the flame‑and‑crown device of Candelar, contrasted darkly against the courtyard’s pale gray walls and flagstone.
Alexsa studied the soldiers, pleased by their display of discipline. They knew their reward was close, yet their eagerness for her to get on with the task did not show.
In front of the soldiers stood a ragged line of thirteen women, all in their early twenties. Each wore a plain, white cotton dress and possessed the same smooth skin and slender body as Alexsa, features that belied her thirty‑three years. Each had long red‑gold hair and large blue or green eyes. Tears glistened on many of their faces, and their lips trembled. Others stood with glazed, lost looks. None made a sound.
Alexsa walked slowly before them, arms crossed, elbows cradled in her hands. Her Guardsmen had delivered the women in ones and twos over the past several days. Each arrived bearing the marks of her origin: peasants in dirt and rags, merchants in fine linen and lace. There had even been two from pleasure houses wearing little more than silk scarves and skin‑paint. Only the nobility lacked representation.
No reason to anger loyal lords into accusations of kidnapped daughters and stolen young wives, Alexsa thought and gently caressed the cheek of the woman before her, evoking a shudder and uncertain gasp. She smiled. Not when there is so fine a selection elsewhere.
Before being brought to the courtyard this morning, each woman had been stripped and scrubbed, all signs of her heritage removed. Now they wore only the simple dresses.
Alexsa’s gown of blue velvet and golden silk rustled as she looked back at the tall Guardsman who followed her. A streak of pale flesh marked the tanned skin over his left cheek and eye and stretched into his hairline. His dark hair grew white where the mark touched it. The soldier carried a bow, the enchanted black arrow Alexsa had given him earlier nocked and ready. His sharp gray eyes met hers in a brief glance.
Alexsa continued along the line of cowering women. Each lowered her eyes as she passed, but whether they did so out of deference to their queen or to keep from staring at the marked face of the man with her, she could not tell.
Halfway along the line, she found the woman she sought.
A peasant, she guessed, based on the wondering glance the young woman gave her before lowering her gaze. Alexsa scanned the remaining women for a more likely candidate, but found none. She looked at the woman before her again.
“What is your name, girl?”
“That’s a pretty name. Would you like to help your queen, Jennasara? Your kingdom?”
Jennasara kept her eyes lowered. “Yes, Majesty. Of course.”
Alexsa stepped aside and nodded to the soldier. “She’s the one.”
The man drew the bow back partway and fired the black arrow into Jennasara’s heart. The woman’s slender hands flew to the shaft, and she collapsed with a wide‑eyed gasp.
For a moment, nothing moved, no sound disturbed the stillness of the courtyard, and then one woman screamed, and the others scattered. Horrified shrieks filled the courtyard, joined an instant later by the Guardsmen’s excited yells as they dashed after the terrified women. Soon, they caught them all.
The men dragged their struggling prizes into the barracks adjoining the courtyard. The women’s frightened cries continued, muffled behind closed doors and heavy hands, and soon joined by the Guardsmen’s eager laughter.
Alexsa looked at Jennasara crumpled on the flagstones, alive despite the arrow in her chest. Power throbbed along the dark shaft, keeping time with the beating of its victim’s heart.
Jennasara stared at her queen, lips parted, her body trembling.
Alexsa smiled and studied the woman, the final component of a spell begun almost five years ago, the answer to a dream started two decades earlier at the Spring beneath the castle. He is mine.
“Bring her, Taymin,” Alexsa said to the bowman. “She and I have much to do.”
David Conner awoke with a start. Someone was in his room, watching him; in his head, reading his thoughts. He sat up, gasping, and the feeling fled.
The dream, he thought, annoyed.
He looked at the clock beside his bed. 6:27 a.m. Morning sunlight brightened the window blinds. His let his head fall back to the pillow.
The damned dream. Why now? And why the sensation of being watched at the end? That was new. But so was the timing. Normally, the dream came near the end of a project when his stress levels reached a critical point, yet he’d just finished his latest job, and he had the lack of stress and the swollen bank balance to prove it. His friend Eric, who fancied himself an amateur psychologist, maintained that stress did not cause the dream as much as David’s belief that it did.
“Quit dwelling on it and it will go away,” Eric told him. “Or tell me what it’s about so I can analyze it for you.”
David always refused the offer, not because he thought Eric would discover anything unusual about him, but because a thirty‑year‑old guy just doesn’t tell his best workout buddy that he has recurring dreams about a delicate white creature that heals with a touch, especially when he remembered, however vaguely, the events of the dream actually happening.
David touched his left palm and felt the odd tingle when his fingers passed over the spot where his pocketknife had sliced into his hand. He knew he must have damaged the nerves for it to react that way after so many years, yet no evidence of the injury remained, no scar, just the strange sensation, the memory . . . and the dream.
Thinking back on the incident made him realize why the dream may have come this time. Last week he’d driven up to Flagstaff and visited the spring while checking on the house and property he’d inherited when his parents died. He tried to visit twice a year to make sure the tenants took care of it. At least that was the reason he told himself. He knew the truth; he missed the forest and mountains where he grew up. He liked to breathe the clean air, see the trees, hear the silence, but this was the first time in years that he’d hiked all the way out to the spring where he spent so much time as a child.
The area had looked much the same as he remembered. The trees were taller, of course, and the brush thicker, but the cold, clear water still bubbled out from under the moss‑covered rocks to pour, swirling, into the pool. Even the distinct feel of the place remained, the sense there might be more to the area than met the eye if one only took the time to look for it. And look for it he had, for years, yet all he ever found was a cut hand and a beautiful, timid creature come to heal it.
He looked at the clock again. 6:34. There was no way he’d be able to get back to sleep. With a resigned sigh, he rolled out of bed, pulled on some sweatpants and a T‑shirt, put on his running shoes, and headed for the door.
He paused on the balcony outside his condominium and took a deep breath of the cool, autumn desert air. This early in the day, the natural smells of the foliage planted around the complex held sway over the smog he knew the morning rush hour would soon create. He started down the stairs.
A blonde woman stood at the bottom of the stairway wearing a plain white dress. She gazed up at David, lips parted slightly. Slender, in her early twenties, her long hair framed a strangely familiar face. She met his eyes and turned away. The rising sun drew red highlights from her hair.
“Alice, wai—!” Confusion froze David’s words. I don’t know anyone named Alice. Unless . . . He shook his head. Ridiculous. “Hey, do I know you?”
The woman looked at him over her shoulder, her lower lip caught between her teeth.
He reached the bottom of the stairs. “Are you all right?” he asked, disturbed by the worry that creased the skin between her beautiful blue‑green eyes.
Her body tensed, and she looked as if she might dart away at any moment.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he said gently. “I’m David. Are you new—?”
She all but threw herself into his arms.
“Whoa! Take it easy.” Worry over the woman’s mental state eclipsed David’s concern for her physical well‑being, and he tried to pry her off him. She stood several inches shorter than his six‑foot height, but the strength in her slender frame was surprising. “Are you hurt?”
Her grip loosened. “No,” she said quietly.
“What’s your name?”
“Jennasara.” She spoke with a hint of an accent.
David tried unsuccessfully to place the accent or her odd name. “Jennasara what?”
Confusion clouded her expression.
“Don’t you have a last name?”
“I don’t think so.”
David noticed that her dress appeared handmade, with no buttons or other fasteners. He recalled that a local group sometimes used the nearby park to re‑enact medieval times. He smirked. Just great. He’d found himself an amnesiac re‑enactor. But that couldn’t be right. The group only used the park on weekends. Today was Wednesday; they should be long gone.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
Jennasara shook her head.
Was she high on something? Her eyes looked normal, if a little confused and frightened. Whatever was wrong, she seemed harmless enough, and she obviously needed help.
“Why don’t you come with me,” David said. “I’ll help you find your friends.”
She nodded and followed him up the stairs.
He unlocked the door to his condo, wondering whether to feel pleased or annoyed that fate had burdened him with a lost, beautiful woman. Well, I’ve always wanted to rescue a damsel. Now’s my chance. He opened the door.
Jennasara stepped inside and gazed around, wide eyed.
David couldn’t blame her. Thanks to one of his post‑project devil‑may‑care moods, the place had not been cleaned in over a week. Clothes, papers, books, and dirty dishes littered every horizontal surface, including the floor.
He mumbled an apology and pushed past Jennasara, scooping up the stray pieces of clothing in the immediate vicinity and tossing them into his bedroom. He returned to the living room and gathered the papers piled indiscriminately about. At first, he tried to keep his business papers separate from the plain sheets on which he had sketched or doodled while listening to music or watching TV. He soon gave up and placed all of the papers in a single bundle under one arm.
“Sorry about this.”
Jennasara continued to stare.
It wasn’t that bad, was it? He glanced around. Then again . . .
“I’ve been really busy with work and stuff,” he lied. “Why don’t you sit down at the table?” He nodded toward the dining room and then scurried ahead of her when she headed in that direction. He scooped another pile of papers off a chair, added them to the ones he carried, then set them all on the kitchen counter beside the phone. “Would you like something to drink? I’ve got coffee, juice, water. It’s filtered.”
“Water would be nice, thank you.”
Her eyes followed him as he located a clean glass, filled it from the dispenser in the fridge, and brought it to her. Her intense scrutiny left him feeling off balance, as if he’d stood up too fast. He blinked away the strange dizziness. Was he coming down with something?
Jennasara took a sip of water and gave the glass a surprised look. “It’s very cold.”
“Too cold?” he asked.
She shook her head and smiled.
Who the devil was she? David wondered. And why did she seem so familiar? Surely he would remember meeting someone who looked like her or at least recall having heard her unusual name.
“Does your head hurt?” he asked. Perhaps she’d hit it on something.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“I was . . . somewhere else,” she said. “Somewhere different, and then I was here.”
Which could support the re‑enactor theory, he realized. Had she been wandering around, lost, since the weekend? Her white gown looked too clean for her to have spent so much time outside.
“You can’t remember anything else?” David asked.
She shook her head. “Where are we?”
“Scottsdale, Arizona. Near Phoenix.”
“Is that a city?”
“It sounds familiar,” she said slowly, “but not as a city. I know Phoenix as . . . something else.” She looked as if she might begin to cry.
“Hey, it’s okay.” He put an arm tentatively around her shoulders.
She leaned against him, and he felt the tension begin to drain from her body.
“We’ll figure it out.” He squeezed her shoulders. “Uh . . .” He looked around for inspiration.
Ah‑ha! He went to the phone. If someone were looking for her, the police might know about it.
He looked back at her, and she met his gaze. The unbalanced feeling swept over him again, his vision tunneled, and images from the dream flashed through his mind: the healing creature’s brown eyes, his cut hand mended, the sensation of being watched.
“Don’t send me away,” Jennasara whispered.
“What? I won’t . . . send you away.” What had he been thinking? He started to turn back to her, noticed the papers on the counter, and froze in astonishment.
Atop the pile lay a sketch he’d made a few nights ago, a drawing of a woman in a pirate outfit, sword at her side, standing in the prow of a ship. She was staring into the distance, her long, pale hair blowing behind her. He had drawn the same woman for years, in all manner of dress and undress: as the helpless damsel, the conniving sorceress, the barbarian warrior, the pirate captain. In his boyhood fantasies, he had met her by the spring. As he matured, so had she. He called her Alice.
Alice . . . He picked up the sketch and looked at Jennasara. It really was her.
She watched him, silent, unmoving.
He wondered when he would wake up and what Eric would have to say about this dream. He put the paper facedown on the pile. Should he pinch himself? Did that really wake you up from a dream?
He took another long look at Jennasara and knew he couldn’t send her away. For a moment, that thought bothered him. She was a stranger. No, she was Alice; he had known her most of his life. But that thought, too, seemed odd.
She met his eyes and his concern faded.
“Would you, uh—like to stay here?” he asked. “You can use my bed. I’ll sleep on the couch. I’m sure it’ll just be for a few days until we find out where you belong.”
“I belong here,” she whispered.
Wouldn’t that be nice? He touched her hair, hesitant, afraid she might disapprove.
She smiled at him, caught his hand in hers, and kissed his palm. His left palm. A shiver rippled down his spine.
The last of the worried tension fled from her expression, and her smile grew, enticing him.
A sudden, unexpected rush of desire made him snatch his hand back. He liked women as much as any other guy, but he wasn’t about to jump into bed with a girl he’d just met. He swallowed hard.
“I’ll . . . make some breakfast.” He walked into the kitchen and glanced at her again.
The alluring smile remained. “David . . .”
He pinched himself.