belinda murrell
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The Snowy Tower

~ Chapter One ~
 

The Palace Library

 Queen Ashana swept into the palace library, followed by one of her ladies-in-waiting, and a troop of ten Sedah soldiers dressed in black armour. The soldiers set to work thoroughly searching the library. Queen Ashana stood to one side, tapping her foot imperiously, with her arms crossed.

One of the soldiers checked that each of the large glass windows was padlocked. Another checked that there was no-one hidden under the desks or behind the deep velvet couches. When the library had been meticulously searched, the soldiers marched out. Their leader paused at the door.

‘Remember, Lady Ashana,' Captain Malish snarled, ‘we have your son, and if you try to escape, we will kill him.'

A look of intense pain crossed Queen Ashana's face.

‘How could I forget that you invaders have kidnapped Caspar?' Queen Ashana snapped, her voice trembling slightly. ‘Every waking moment I think of my precious children and wonder if they are alive. I already know that you and your masters hold everything in your hands, Captain Malish. Do not begrudge me an hour or two to lose myself in a book.'

Captain Malish's eyes swept the vast room, with its white shelves groaning with thousands of books, soaring to the magnificent painted fresco on the domed ceiling. Ladders on tracks leant against the shelves so that books could be fetched from above. Glass windows ran in a circle just below the dome, filling the library with light.

‘Enjoy it while you can,' Captain Malish sneered. ‘I hear that Governor Lazlac plans to burn all these useless books and turn the library into a games room for our soldiers. Perhaps you could join them then for a game of darts?'

Ignoring with difficulty the captain's jibes, Queen

Ashana turned to pick up a book from a small carved side table. She sat herself in a plump blue velvet armchair and smoothed down her dress, reminded once more how thankful she was to her staunch ally, Cookie, the palace cook, for making sure clean clothes, hot baths and a comb were provided to Ashana's humble garden cottage, instead of the rags she had been forced to wear while Lord Lazlac had confined her to the dungeons for the weeks since the Sedah invasion.

‘Marnie, have you tried that section, near the second window?' Queen Ashana enquired. ‘It has some fascinating old medical texts.'

‘Yes, your majesty. I found one yesterday that recommended swallowing frogs for a head cold to soothe the throat and placing live maggots on wounds to eat away the putrefying flesh!' Marnie laughed.

Captain Malish snorted, annoyed at being ignored. A plump woman with red, work-worn hands appeared at the door, pushing a large trolley laden with dishes and jugs and covered with a fine lace cloth. Captain Malish darted to the trolley and whisked away the cloths eagerly, poking through the contents as he searched for illicit weapons or notes.

‘Cookie,' said Queen Ashana warmly. ‘How lovely to see you. What delicious treats have you prepared for us this morning?'

‘Good morning, your majesty,' Cookie replied, bobbing into a deep curtsey, her round face creased with smiles. ‘I have brought apple turnovers with whipped cream, scones with raspberry jam, lime tart with fresh strawberries, a large chocolate cake, pecan tart, hot chocolate, tea and coffee. As ordered by the governor, I have brought no knives to cut the cakes with, merely a cake server and teaspoons.' With this she glowered at Captain Malish, who was using his dagger to slice open the chocolate cake, to check there were no weapons baked inside.

‘I beg you not to ruin my carefully prepared morning tea,' Cookie scolded. ‘Governor Lazlac may be joining her royal highness this morning, and I am sure he is not used to the pig slops you usually prefer to serve her majesty.'

‘There is enough food here for ten people, not three,' complained Captain Malish petulantly.

‘Never let it be said that I run a stingy kitchen,' Cookie retorted. ‘Now I am sure we should retire and let her highness enjoy some well-earned peace.' Cookie marched towards the door, shooing Captain Malish in front of her as if he were a recalcitrant barnyard animal.

‘Enjoy your book while you can, Ashana,' snarled Captain Malish over his shoulder, as he closed the massive double doors behind him. ‘I have four guards standing watch outside this door, fully armed and prepared to kill. I will return in one hour.'

The doors banged shut. Marnie and Queen Ashana heard loud clicks as the doors were bolted and padlocked.

Queen Ashana rose to her feet with a quick, tight smile at her companion. She listened intently at the door, then darted to the far left-hand wall. She searched for a thick leather-bound black book above her head. The gold lettering on its spine read Sea Monsters of the Deep. Pulling this tome from the shelf, she reached into the empty space behind it and pushed the timber backing, which slid away to reveal a cavity. Inside the cavity was a lever. Queen Ashana twisted it, then pushed.

Immediately the whole section of bookshelves beside the lever moved, opening on a pivot, like a door, to reveal a narrow tunnel behind.

Four anxious young faces peered around the corner. Queen Ashana threw herself on one of them, a child with short blonde hair, wearing faded, baggy breeches, a ragged white shirt and a green cloak.

‘Roana, my beautiful Roana,' the Queen murmured, covering the child's face with kisses. Roana hugged her back fiercely.

‘Mama, oh, Mama. It is so good to see you.'

Another two children, a boy and a girl, rushed from the secret entrance and threw themselves on Marnie, squeezing her, smiles stretching their faces. A large red-gold dog flew from the tunnel, nearly knocking Marnie and the children over in her exuberance, licking, wagging, wriggling.

A second boy held back, behind the bookshelf, watching the scene with an air of resigned melancholy. After a moment, Marnie remembered him and drew him into her joyful circle.

‘Come on, Saxon. Don't be shy, come and give me a hug.'

‘I am so glad you received Cookie's message about the secret passage into the palace,' said Queen Ashana. ‘Did you find it difficult to locate the entrance?'

‘Not at all,' replied Roana.

Soon the four children and the two mothers were sitting in the deep comfortable chairs at the far end of the vast library, chatting in low voices, asking whispered questions, beaming, talking over each other. Ethan took four mugs from his pack, which Marnie filled with hot chocolate topped with shaved curls of dark chocolate.

‘Mmm. Cookie's hot chocolate is absolute heaven,' sighed Lily, sipping the froth appreciat-ively, her black cat curled in her lap. Marnie smiled and stroked Lily's long curly hair back from her face. Queen Ashana sipped her coffee with one hand on Princess Roana's, as if she would never let it go.

Ethan cut generous slices of tart and cake with his dagger. There were only three dainty china plates, so the children ate from the palms of their hands with their fingers, licking up the drips of cream and raspberry jam.

The four children were hungry, after the anxious journey creeping down secret tunnels behind the thick palace walls, knowing that an army of ruthless Sedah soldiers patrolled the corridors of the palace. They fell upon Cookie's feast with gusto.

The two mothers were content to eat little, sipping on milky coffee and feasting instead upon the children's faces, remembering every well-loved feature and noting the tiny changes since they had last met. Princess Roana's dyed brown hair had lightened considerably in the weeks at sea, and her once pale skin was now tanned golden brown. Ethan was looking strong and fit after working on board ship, while Lily had a new air of determination and confidence. Saxon's eyes still sparkled with mischief, but there was also a shadow of seriousness, which Marnie had not seen before.

Aisha, the dog, and Charcoal, the cat, were not forgotten either. Aisha gulped down half a dozen scones in a few seconds, while Charcoal elegantly licked whipped cream from Lily's fingers.

‘Look at you, Mama,' murmured Lily admiringly, noting her mother's beautiful silken blue dress, adorned with embroidery and lace. ‘You look like a princess.'

Marnie laughed in delight. ‘Her royal highness, Queen Ashana, lent me one of her gowns, as mine was completely ragged. It looked a lot like yours, as a matter of fact, my darling.'

‘It was wonderful to change out of my rags too,' Queen Ashana agreed. ‘Perhaps Cookie can find some new clothes for you all. She could search out some of your dresses, Roana, and throw those revolting breeches on the garbage cart.'

‘No.' Roana shook her head emphatically. ‘Much as we would love to, these rags are our best disguise, and we all think it is safer if I travel as a boy. We
could never have come this far if I was dressed as a princess.'

‘Absolutely. Sniffer would have caught us weeks ago.'

‘Otto would have held you for ransom.'

‘We probably would never have made it past the guards at Tira in the first place.' Ethan, Lily and Saxon talked over the top of each other, enthusiastically agreeing with Roana. Queen Ashana and Marnie shook their heads in mock confusion, laughing at the babble.

‘What in the Sun Lord's name have you four been up to?' begged Queen Ashana.

So, in between mouthfuls, the children related the stories of their adventures so far - escaping the Sedahs, sailing the Great Southern Ocean on the Owl with the smuggler Fox, eluding the persistent Sedah tracker called Sniffer, crawling down secret tunnels, crossing the moors on black smugglers' ponies and marching back into Tira disguised as beggar children. The tale was rambling, confused and out of sequence, as the children remembered different details and interrupted each other constantly.

Marnie's heart hammered painfully as she learnt of the many dangers the children had faced and overcome on their voyage.

‘But we did it, Mama.' Princess Roana beamed. ‘We have returned to Tira with the Sun Gem, the Moon Pearl and the Star Diamonds.'

She offered up the hem of her cloak for her mother to feel. The ruby, pearl and diamonds were meticulously sewn into the hem. Queen Ashana gasped with surprise as she felt the hard gems beneath the sturdy wool. The gems seemed to pulse and burn with power under her fingertips.

‘I cannot believe it,' Queen Ashana murmured. ‘I cannot believe that you four brave, clever, reckless children have managed to save the sacred gems from the Sedahs.'
‘Now all we have to do is find the Sun Sword and rescue Prince Caspar,' added Ethan cheerfully, crumbs of chocolate cake around his mouth.

‘Your brother . . .' choked Queen Ashana, tears of grief spilling down her face. ‘He is to be taken very soon to Sedah to Emperor Raef. He will be lost there...'

‘Then we must rescue him first,' announced Princess Roana, her voice set with determination. ‘We must find him, and bring him back to Tira.' She glanced around at the other children, who nodded gravely. ‘We will ride to Bryn in the north and search for him until we find him.'

Ethan slowly and carefully quoted the verse that Saira the Wise of Mereworth had told them when she was in a trance, staring into her round rose quartz ball:

‘Five travellers true, a treacherous journey to take
A princeling to save, a kingdom at stake,
Fire, plague, sea and snow must test,
To the ends of the land they make their quest,
To fetch sun and moon and blade
so the bright magic is whole again made.
The sun is dimmed under Tira to seek
The blade is hidden in the caverns deep,
The moon and stars under sea lost their power.
The princeling imprisoned in a snowy tower.
When all is done the five may rest
When ice is conquered to win their quest.'

‘So far the prophecy has been correct,' Lily said. ‘We found the Sun Gem dimmed under Tira, and the Moon Pearl and Star Diamonds under the sea.'

‘We have certainly been tested by fire, plague and sea,' Roana added. ‘We fought the fire of the Barramon, the plague of rats in the caverns and many dangers on the sea, so that just leaves snow and ice.'

‘So Prince Caspar must be imprisoned in a snowy tower,' summarised Ethan. ‘Lord Lazlac said Prince Caspar would be taken to Bryn. Are there any snowy towers in Bryn? That should make it easier to find him.'

Queen Ashana frowned, shaking her head. ‘There are many towers in Bryn, but it is unlikely to be snowy there at this time of year. The snows are further north.'
Saxon rummaged in his pocket and pulled out a crumpled parchment. He flattened it on the spindly side table.

‘This is the map that I found in the captain's cabin on board the Sea Dragon before she sank,' Saxon explained. ‘It shows all the major towns and villages of Tiregian. The key landmarks, such as Tira, the royal hunting lodge and Kenley, are circled so it was obviously used by the commanders during the invasion of Tiregian. Another landmark is circled, and it is a tower deep in the Silent Mountains, further north of Bryn. Perhaps that is where Prince Caspar is being held?'

‘So Lord Lazlac lied about where Prince Caspar was taken,' Ethan mused. ‘I guess he wanted to put any planned rescuers off the track.'
Everyone gathered around the map to study it.

The children had seen it before on the journey back from the Nine Isles, when Saxon had discovered it in the pocket of his breeches. He had forgotten it in the excitement of escaping from the Sea Dragon and the Sedahs, mending the damaged Owl and diving to the wreck of the Sea Dragon to find the Moon Pearl and Star Diamonds hidden in a tobacco pouch.

‘That is the Tower of Sun and Moon,' gasped Queen Ashana, stroking the map with her long tapered fingers. ‘During high summer many priests and priestesses retire to the peace of the mountains to study and meditate. During winter the tower is locked up and empty, as it is bitterly cold and unforgiving in the mountains during the seasons of snow.' Queen Ashana flushed with anger as she thought of her youngest, her darling son, imprisoned with the cruel priests of Krad.

Princess Roana hugged the queen fiercely. ‘Do not worry, Mama. I promise you we will find my brother and bring him home to you.'

Queen Ashana stamped her foot in frustration. ‘It should be me, not my daughter, facing death and danger to rescue Caspar,' she wailed desperately. ‘I feel as though I am dying of frustration and fear and anger and grief. Yet I can do nothing but wait and watch and simper at that unbearable Lord Lazlac, while you four children must risk your lives for us all.'
Roana soothed her agitated mother with strokes and soft words.

‘It is difficult,' agreed Marnie sensibly. ‘But you must do your part here and keep Lord Lazlac thinking you are docile and compliant. That will give the children time and space to achieve what needs to be done, with the Moon Goddess's blessing. You know if you try to escape or upset Lazlac, many people will die.'

Queen Ashana shuddered, gripping Roana painfully to her.

‘The children must go, and be clever and resourceful and invisible,' Marnie continued, her eyes glinting with emotion. ‘We must trust them and let them do what is right, for we have no other option.' Lily and Ethan wordlessly hugged Marnie again. Aisha whined gently and licked Marnie's hand. Marnie patted Aisha, wiped her eyes brusquely and kissed Lily and Ethan on the forehead.

‘Now you must get ready and go. Your majesty, is there anything we can give them to help them?'

Queen Ashana leapt to her feet and hurried to a bookshelf. She searched for a few minutes, found a volume and impatiently flicked through it.

‘Ethan, may I borrow your dagger, if you please?' she requested. The sharp dagger was used to slice a few pages from the book. ‘Here is a short chapter on the Tower of Sun and Moon, with a map of the Silent Mountains. It may help you find your way.'

Ethan took the pages and the dagger, nodding gratefully as he scanned the text.
Aisha leapt to her feet and bounded to the door, her hackles raised and her nose quivering.

All eyes turned to the door anxiously. There was the unmistakable sound of the padlock being lifted and a key grinding in the lock. Ethan whistled softly for Aisha, who obediently loped back across the floor.

Without a sound, the children gathered up their mugs and Charcoal, and darted to the secret door. Queen Ashana and Marnie followed swiftly, hugging each of the children tightly and pushing them through the door.

‘Be strong. Be brave. Be clever,' whispered Marnie hurriedly. ‘Most of all, my darlings, be careful.'

Together Queen Ashana and Marnie closed the door and stuffed the volume back on the shelf. By the time the library's double doors swung open, the two women were collapsed on the sofa, delicately sipping on the cold dregs of their coffee.

 

Excerpted from The Snowy Tower. 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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