Beau woke me in the gray light before dawn. “It stopped raining,” he said. “Let’s go.”
My stomach felt so empty, it tied itself into knots, but I kept quiet and saddled my horse. I was tired of hearing myself complain, and I’m sure Beau was too.
As we rode, the birds sang themselves into fits of joy over the coming day. The sky grew pink and golden, and the birds fell silent as the tiniest sliver of sun like molten steel peeked over the edge of the world. Then it popped up into the sky all at once, the birds so wild with excitement that you’d never think it happened every day.
Beau whistled a cheery tune and I rode up alongside him. “I’m sorry I was grouchy yesterday,” I said. “I was wet and worried about Kaye.”
“You’re still wet and still worried,” Beau said. “What’s different now?”
“The sun’s up, I guess. I can see where I’m going. And you promised a fire and maybe a bed later at the abbey.”
He nodded. “And soup. At least, I hope they have soup. There’s a cold spot inside me that only hot soup will fix.”
“I was thinking about hot cider last night,” I said with a laugh. “It’s almost fall. Look at the trees.” Tiny patches of orange and yellow edged a few clumps of leaves in the trees along the road.
Soon we came to a crossroads in a village with an old gray church. People moved about, stopping to eyeball the strangers riding through.
“Pardon me,” Beau asked a man nearby. “We’re looking for the abbey. Can you tell us how to get there?”
The man grunted. “Most boys would be helping with the harvest these days, not traveling about to abbeys. We barely got the wheat and barley under cover yesterday before the rain came to spoil it.” He yawned. “And now there’s threshing to do.” He yawned again. “Wislett Abbey is the closest. Keep following this road and you’ll find it.”
“Thank you,” Beau said. “Good day to you, sir.”
As we passed the old church, I heard a familiar neigh. “Wait. That sounds like Kadar,” I said. Sure enough, Parsnip whinnied back, as if greeting an old friend.
We rode behind the ancient building and found Kaye’s fine warhorse Kadar grazing under an apple tree at the edge of the churchyard. He nickered to our horses like they had been parted for months and sniffed at Acorn, which is what I had named Birket’s roly-poly brown horse. Then Kadar went back to munching the apples littering the ground.
Kaye sat under the same tree. He held a parchment in one hand and a half-eaten apple in the other. “What took you so long?” he asked. “I’ve been waiting for you.”
I scowled at Kaye. “Why didn’t you just take us with you in the first place?”
“Because you would have tried to stop me,” he said. “And just so you know, I’m not going back. I’m going to find my father and warn him that he and the king are in danger.”
“We know,” Beau said, sliding off his horse.
I stared at Kaye’s hand. “Are you eating apples from the churchyard?”
He took a bite. “Why not?”
I swept my hand around the yard, which seemed empty except for a few flat stones. “There are people buried here!”
“It’s public land, and anyway, they’re not eating them,” Kaye said. “These are good apples. They shouldn’t go to waste.”
I shook my head at Kaye.
He shook his back at me. “Look, I found something important. This was nailed to the church door.”
“You took it off the church door?” I said. “That’s worse than eating apples from the churchyard!”
“Well, I’m not putting it back. You’ll see why. Listen.” He read aloud from the parchment, “Know ye here men of Eldridge, ye have been wickedly deceived by one who claims the throne. King Aldric of Eldridge is not of noble blood, but is a changeling.
“Ye must know that his adoptive mother the Queen was delivered stillborn of a daughter, but so as not to disappoint her King and Nation of an heir, she sent to find another newborn babe to take the dead infant’s place. It was a butcher’s son she took for her own, and this is he whom you now call King Aldric. This secret did the queen confess on her deathbed to Edward, Eighth Bishop of Hemrick.
“Know ye that the real ruler of Eldridge by right of being a true-born offspring of the glorious King Aethelfred is Baron Thomas of Denbrooke, who seeks to set right this terrible wrong as glory demands his station in this world.
“Know ye also, that the celebrated Sir Henry of Knox is naught but a liar, a traitor, and an enemy to Eldridge. He speaks sweet words of friendship and peace, but his heart is black with hatred for Eldridge, and he is determined to destroy it and bring war to our fair land. Only Baron Thomas will expose him for what he truly is when the time is right. Put no faith in so-called kings who treat with the enemy.”
Kaye’s hands shook. “How dare he say this about my father! This is ridiculous!”
“What does that even mean?” I asked.
Beau frowned and explained. “It says King Aldric is an imposter, substituted as a baby for the queen’s child who died. Then it says that Baron Thomas is the one with royal blood, the one who should really have the throne. It sounds like he’s planning to take it.”
“Maybe that’s why the king’s life and Sir Henry’s life are in danger,” I said. “Baron Thomas seems to hate them both. Maybe he’s their enemy.”
“He’s their enemy and a liar!” Kaye sputtered. “My father’s no traitor to Eldridge or Knox. He left us to come here to keep the peace. It was a noble thing for him to do.” Kaye stared at the words on the parchment. “My father cares about Eldridge and about peace. He made a great sacrifice to come here. That’s what I’ve been told every day since my father left us. There’s no way he came here to destroy Eldridge.”
Kaye crushed the parchment into a loose ball between his hands. “We’re going to the abbey,” Kaye said. “We’ll look for that man Azam. If he said my father and the king are in danger, he must know more about Baron Thomas’ plans. When we find him, he’ll tell us more about this conspiracy and then we can decide what to do.”
Beau smirked at me. “I told you he’d start by going to the abbey to find Azam.”
“Then let’s go,” Kaye said. “We can be there this afternoon if we start now.”
“Do you have any food?” I asked. “We haven’t eaten for hours. I didn’t bring any with me.”
“You could eat an apple,” Beau said. I glared at him.
“You forgot to bring food?” Kaye asked, lifting his eyebrows toward the sky.
I blushed. “Well, you were gone,” I said to Kaye. “And it was dark and I was worried.”
Kaye chuckled. “Amazing,” he said. “If you were so worried about me that you forgot to bring food—that’s really touching.”
Want to read more? The Eldridge Conspiracy softcover version is now available to preorder from Amazon.com and other websites.
The official release date is June 16, 2017!