belinda murrell
belinda murrell - author
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Quest for the Sun Gem

~ Chapter One ~

Hunt for the Wild White Stallion

The full moon had already set and it was dark and chilly. Ethan crouched on the broad branch of a huge old tree, completely hidden by its leaves. He shivered and wrapped his cloak tighter around him for warmth. A slim streak of white hair at his left temple glimmered softly against his light brown hair. He peered through the darkness, ears straining for any noise.

He heard only the sounds of the forest: owls hooting across the valley, a crackle of twigs in the distance as an animal moved through the forest. Could that be the wild white stallion, the object of the Royal Hunt? A rush of excitement surged through
him, warming his body despite the chilly air.

‘Too-wit-to-wooooo,' came a bird call from behind him.

Ethan listened closely. He couldn't remember ever hearing that bird call before.
An answering ‘too-wit-to-woooo' came from the other side of the clearing.

Ethan waited patiently high in the tree as the horizon turned from dark grey to the pearly half light just before dawn. At last he heard it.

In the distance a faint jingle of bits and the soft thud of horses' hooves broke the near silence. Down below he saw a dim figure flit silently through the trees and hide behind a fallen log. Probably another of the villagers hoping to catch a glimpse of the royal contingent, Ethan thought. He wondered if it might be his best friend, Saxon.

He nearly cried out to him but paused as the muffled sound of horses' hooves grew closer. The king and queen! Into the clearing below came a double file of riders on horseback, following a tall dark man on foot.

The leader was tall and handsome, with black hair and green eyes, who emanated a quiet air of strength. Compared with the finery of the courtiers, his clothes were simple. Ethan shivered with pride and cold - that was Willem, his father, the Royal Master of Horse.
Willem led a golden mare with a white mane and tail. Sitting stiffly on her back was a young woman, the priestess Ostara. Her hair flowed loosely down her back and she wore unadorned robes of white.

Across her lap lay a huge sword, sheathed in a gold scabbard that glowed eerily in the gloomy light. She clutched it tightly with one hand while she clung onto the pommel with the other.

Directly behind her rode the king himself - King Radnor, a large man with a black beard, astride a tall, high-stepping golden horse. King Radnor was clothed in red velvet robes with a golden sun emblazoned across his chest. His long red cloak was clasped at the throat with a brooch of thin gold wire, twisted into the motif of a rising sun.

By his side was Queen Ashana, riding a beautiful snowy white mare. The queen had pale golden hair carefully curled into long ringlets. She wore a long dress of gold silk, trimmed with white lace, and a crown of diamonds and pearls. Queen Ashana gazed around her with interest, then turned to smile at the girl behind her.

Ethan shivered with excitement at the pageantry and mystery of the procession. This was the first time he had witnessed this sacred age-old ritual of Tiregian royalty.

The next rider was a girl dressed completely in white, mounted on a striking white pony with a silver bow and quiver of arrows attached to her saddle. Like her mother, Princess Roana had very pale skin, and long golden ringlets, under a circlet of jewelled silver. She wore a full-length cloak of white velvet, its hood trimmed with white fur, which partially hid her face. She sat ramrod straight, her ice-blue eyes staring forward between her horse's ears, her head held high.

Both mother and daughter, like all of the ladies of the court, rode sidesaddle, their silken skirts cascading prettily over the horses' flanks.

Beside his royal sister was a boy of about eight summers - Prince Caspar, riding a smaller pony. He was pale like his mother and sister, with curly blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. Ethan wondered if this was Prince Caspar's first hunt, too. The prince held a short jewelled sword, which he clutched tightly. He whispered something to his sister. She tossed her head impatiently and gestured to him to be quiet.

Trailing behind the royal family was a mounted contingent of courtiers dressed in robes of embroidered silk in rich crimsons, deep purples, gold, blue, silvers and greens, carrying golden ceremonial bows and arrows for the hunt ahead.

Guards dressed in red livery with the golden sun on their chests rode in the rear, carrying long pointed spears and swords. Finally, on foot came nine priestesses in white robes, their hair long and flowing, carrying bouquets of fresh spring wildflowers.

The procession wound its way into the centre of the clearing then formed a large circle around the young priestess Ostara, King Radnor and Queen Ashana.

Horses stamped their hooves, fidgeting and prancing, setting their jewel-encrusted harnesses jingling. Steam billowed softly from their flaring nostrils.

The light in the clearing was gradually growing. Willem stepped to the side of Ostara's horse and gently lifted her down. All the priestesses began to sing a soft otherworldy chant, their voices rising and falling.

A golden glow suffused the sky above the treetops, streaking the grey clouds with vivid pinks and reds.

Ethan noted the sky and the ancient saying popped into his mind: ‘Red at night, shepherds' delight; red in the morning, shepherds' warning.'

There might be a storm today, he thought idly.

Ostara slowly lifted the huge sword by the hilt, with the blade pointing to the ground. In the growing light Ethan could see the ornate gold engravings on the hilt and scabbard.

Gleaming in the hilt, like a huge red eye, was a round ruby. Golden carved rays leapt around the jewel like the dancing flames of the sun. Below the sun, the engravings and tiny coloured gems depicted the earth unfurling with flowers and plants.

On the reverse side of the hilt was a large round pearl, equal in size to the ruby, signifying the full moon. The engravings under the moon pearl were of waves and fish, while engraved stars studded with diamonds twinkled around it.

The rim of the sun peeped over the treetops, bathing the scene in a golden pink glow.

‘Like the fiery sun does our Lord King Radnor shine his mighty light,' Ostara intoned.

‘Shine peace and warmth on us, mighty Radnor,' chanted the nine acolytes.

‘Like the pale full moon Queen Ashana guides us with her sight.'

‘Guide us well, Wise Moon Queen.'

‘In shadow, the wild White Stallion steals through the night,' Ostara sang.

‘Roam free, wild moon horse.'

‘Chase the night, seek the horse and bring the light,' Ostara sang.

‘Chase the night, bring the light,' echoed the acolytes.

‘Let the mighty Radnor set forth his ray, and release the sun for a blessed new day.'

‘Bring the light, bring the day.'

‘Peace be with us,' Ostara sang.

‘Peace be with us,' sang the response.

‘Let the hunt begin,' breathed Ostara, exhaling a misty puff of air.

The sun glinted off the golden scabbard as Ostara slowly lifted the hilt above her head and stepped gracefully across the clearing to pass the sword up to King Radnor.

King Radnor would carry the fabled Sun Sword with him during the hunt through the forest to chase the white stallion. The sword signified the natural power of the sun and moon, and the deep rhythms of the earth and the seasons.

Every spring the Royal Hunt set out on the dawn of the vernal equinox to hunt the wild white stallion. The stallion needed to be captured by dusk, so that he could be released with the royal mares, to father the prized snowy moon horses. If the stallion was found, it was a good omen for a bountiful season with many foals and good harvests.

The king reached down to grasp the Sun Sword by the hilt and swung it above his head, the red ruby flashing like fire and the moon pearl shimmering like ice. A sigh of awe and expectation rippled through the watching crowd.

All eyes were on the flashing Sun Sword of Tiregian. No-one saw quite what happened next.
A zing whirred through the air. A dark lightning streak, faster than thought. King Radnor gave a bellow of surprise, pain and disbelief. The crowd seemed frozen as they watched helplessly.

The king sat astride his horse, clutching the golden sword, with a thick black arrow quivering in his left arm. The Royal Guard surged forward to save him. Too late.

Another arrow flew straight behind the first. This time the aim was true. It hummed straight into the king's chest, the black feather fletches shivering in the cold morning air.

King Radnor clutched at his heart, gasping in shock. In slow, slow motion he slumped, crumpled and slid from his startled horse to the ground. Before anyone could reach him, a third arrow struck the Priestess Ostara and she tumbled to the ground,
like a crumpled white handkerchief stained with crimson.

Screams filled the air. A cloud of black arrows flew through the clearing, picking off the Royal Guards in their bright scarlet uniforms. Horses plunged, acolytes screamed, courtiers fled and red soldiers ran hither and thither in confusion.

Princess Roana's horse bucked and reared, screaming in terror, then bolted into the forest, straight under the tree where Ethan was hiding. A shadow jumped from behind the log to the right and tried to grab the reins as the horse bolted past.

‘Leave the brat, she won't get far,' yelled a scornful voice with a strange foreign accent. ‘We'll find her soon enough. Capture the queen and the prince.'

With a roar, a wave of hundreds of soldiers, clothed in coal-black armour and helmets, leapt from behind tree trunks and logs brandishing cutlasses. They ran forward, slashing and thrusting into the confusion of screaming, rearing bodies.

Ethan yelled in shock. His first impulse was to leap from the tree branch to the aid of the party below. He slithered down a couple of branches but was stopped by the sound of his father's shout.

‘Ethan, stay where you are,' Willem roared. ‘Your highness, you must flee!'

Willem leapt up into the saddle of the horse he had been leading and galloped towards the queen and prince, chasing them off towards the forest. He then wheeled around towards the attackers and tried to bar their way, brandishing only a short dagger.

Willem was soon wrestled to the ground, one arrow in his shoulder and another in his thigh, while a flood of black-clad soldiers streamed past him after the remaining members of the royal family. One of the soldiers struck him forcibly across the face and Willem slumped, barely conscious.

Ethan froze in the tree, his heart pounding, his mouth sticky and dry. His stomach heaved with anxiety as he tried to grasp the reality of the terrifying attack below him. The small group of Tiregians, in their brightly coloured ceremonial clothes, were completely surrounded by a surging sea of black armour. They had no hope of fighting back.

Through the leaves he could see the leader of the attackers, triumphantly grasping the queen's horse by the bridle. Prince Caspar huddled on his own pony behind her, his eyes huge pools of fright.

The queen was dragged from her horse. She tried to beat her attackers off with her riding crop but was quickly overwhelmed and thrown to her knees, her arms bound behind her. Prince Caspar tried to fight the attackers off with his tiny sword but was dragged from his horse by a dozen soldiers and thrown contemptuously beside his mother.

Dragging himself up, Willem struggled with his captors to reach the queen and her son but was again beaten down into the churned mud.

The leader of the attackers picked up the huge ceremonial Sun Sword from where it had fallen under King Radnor's body. Brandishing it in the air, he strode over to Queen Ashana. He grasped her by the hair and forced her head down between her knees. He took off his black helmet to reveal his gaunt face, pale waxy skin and black eyes, burning with battle fervour.

‘Ashana, formerly known as Queen of Tiregian,' he thundered in a guttural voice, ‘I, Lord Lazlac, claim this land and all its riches in the name of my lord and master, the Emperor Raef, ruler of Sedah and the Nine Isles.'

He used the point of the huge sword to gently lift her chin. A small bead of blood welled up under its tip. Queen Ashana stared up at Lazlac defiantly.

‘As the new Governor of Tiregian, I declare you and your son enemies of the people, your sentence to be imprisoned for the remainder of your days in the dungeons of the Royal Palace in Tira,' Lord Lazlac pronounced. ‘Your son will be taken to the north to Bryn to be educated in the ways of the chosen ones, before going to take his place in the Emperor's court in Sedah.'

Queen Ashana wailed in despair and grief. ‘No. No, this is not possible!'

Lord Lazlac grimaced at her in a twisted parody of a smile.

‘Oh, to the contrary, my lady. It is completely possible.' Lord Lazlac bent down and gently cupped Queen Ashana's face in his hand. She violently twisted away.

‘Very pretty,' he murmured. ‘I believe I would enjoy a fitting memento of this historic day.'
With that he carefully unclasped a fine gold chain from around the queen's neck. Dangling on the chain was a heart-shaped locket set with a large, pale purple amethyst surrounded by tiny seed pearls. He held it up to the early morning sun.

‘Yes - a very pretty keepsake. It will please me to keep this by me. Take the prisoners away,' ordered Lord Lazlac coldly.

The queen stared wide-eyed in shock, as Caspar sobbed beside her. She struggled and fought as the guards dragged her to her feet, and tried to throw herself on the body of her husband.

‘Radnor!' she screamed. ‘Radnor! Noooooo.'

The guards dragged her over to the other surviving prisoners, who had all been bound tightly and thrown in a pile together. The prisoners were urged to their feet at cutlass point and hustled away, back through the forest. The attackers must be taking them towards the royal hunting lodge, Ethan thought. He saw his father struggle to his feet and stumble, blood gushing from a cut above his brow. Willem looked dazed and unsteady on his feet.

Other guards moved among the fallen bodies in the clearing, roughly searching them for gems and valuables. They dragged the bodies into a pile then set off after their comrades.

Ethan still crouched on his tree branch, trembling with shock and fear. He was torn between relief that his father was still alive and horror at the carnage he had witnessed. When he was quite sure the clearing was empty, he half fell, half scrambled out of his hiding place and dropped to the ground.

‘Mama,' he murmured. ‘I must warn Mama.'

Eyes averted from the pile of bodies, he ran, crouching and stumbling down the forest path towards the village and home.

Excerpted from The Quest for the Sun Gem. Copyright Belinda Murrell. Excerpted by permission of Random House Australia. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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