Title: Winter Solstice Dream (A Magic of Claddare Novella)
Author: Veronica Scott
Genre: Fantasy Romance
Torn from her home in the Dales as a child, Nadelma has made a place for herself as the head cook in the Witch Queen of Azrimar’s castle. She stays in the background of the busy court and uses her gentle magic gifts sparingly to help others. More or less content, she’s made peace with the hard facts of her life. Romance, marriage, a family – all beyond her dreams any longer.
Then Halvor, an ambitious Dales lord rides into the city, bringing his mercenaries to serve the king, with the promise of a rich reward, including a title and an estate. The only catch? He has to marry a highborn Azrimaran noblewoman to seal the treaty.
Fate conspires to throw Nadelma and Halvor into each other’s company and the attraction is instant and deep but both resist the attraction. She knows she can never have him for herself. He must fulfill the treaty to secure a safe place for his people to live, since their holding in the Dales was destroyed by the black magic of the Shadow. Marriage to a noble damsel of the king’s choice is his fate.
Until he met Nadelma he thought his heart was frozen by the loss of all he cared for, back in the Dales. Now he knows better but his people must come first.
The situation is hopeless…or is it? For the king declares the city will celebrate Winter Solstice and hold a ball, where wishes and dreams just might come true.
It was mere happenstance Nadelma was in the city’s main square as the Dalesmen rode in. She rarely left the castle and certainly purveyors of commodities from meat to fruit to rare delicacies were more than delighted to wait upon her, as the Head Cook for the King of Azrimar. The one thing she insisted on venturing forth to buy herself was spices.
She wanted them as fresh as possible. She’d carefully cultivated relationships with the major spice merchants over the years she’d been Cook and they knew to bring their best and their most rare condiments when planning a stop in Azrimar. The king never questioned her expenditures since he, like his predecessors, enjoyed the food she prepared so much. She also had travelers who’d bring her cuttings and root stock from far-off lands, for which she paid handsomely.
There was nothing else she wished to spend her personal coin for, aside from the occasional rare book. Life in the palace satisfied most of her simple needs.
Today this culinary passion of hers was what had brought her into the winter chill, leaving her warm kitchens, bundling up and braving the muddy streets. The snow had yet to arrive but the weather was chancy enough without it. She’d had a message from a trader who rarely came to Azrimar, stating he brought a severely limited quantity of one of the rarest of spices. For such a unique ingredient, Nadelma would go outside the comfort of the castle’s thick walls.
Crowds made her nervous, being in the city made her nervous…Barwin, one of her senior undercooks had offered to come along but there was too much to do in this busy season leading up to the Winter Solstice festivities to pull anyone other than herself away from their duties. She’d be safely back in the kitchen at the palace soon, where she ruled supreme.
And now I’ve got to wait here while this bunch of soldiers marches by. Rather grumpily she pulled her top shawl closer around her shoulders and waited, patting her shopping sack with one hand to make sure no one had touched it. She’d put a small protection spell on the fabric, which should deter any but the most determined pickpocket and in any case she hardly had the appearance of a person worth robbing, dressed in her gray dress, shabby cloak and sensible shoes.
Still, if she was going to witness a parade, even an informal one, she liked to be in front so she had an excellent vantage point as the horsemen rode by. Nadelma caught her breath as the captain came first, astride a night-black, high spirited warhorse who didn’t seem to like the crowds any more than she herself did. The officer rode easily, controlling his restless steed with no difficulty. His face was partially obscured by his helmet but he looked neither right nor left, and his square jaw was set. She found herself wishing she could see more of his face and took herself to task.
The company numbered about 100 men at arms and there were two lieutenants and four sergeants. The banners flying featured a snarling bear with a golden circlet above its head. So the leader was of noble birth then. Nadelma noticed each soldier had patches on their jacket with smaller crests, not all of the bear. She saw foxes, stags, eagles—a variety. A pang of loss struck her as she realized the group she was watching represented what was left of not one but several allied clans, all under the banner of the bear now.
The war in the Dales had been going on for nigh twenty years and showed no signs of abating. Small clans and large ones turned on each other, broke oaths and treaties of many centuries’ standing and the entire conflict was said to be fueled by the Shadow. Neighbor could no longer trust neighbor and many had lost everything, like this hard bitten noble at the head of his motley army.
“Come to serve the king as mercenaries,” said a man next to her, puffing on his pipe as he addressed his own companion. “Aerrol is lucky to get such a big group of well-seasoned men.”
“I heard he offered their captain a land grant, a holding of his own in Azrimar, if his troops prove their worth,” said a washerwoman nearby, clutching her overflowing basket of laundry.
The parade having halted in response to a temporary blockage of the road ahead, Nadelma studied the leader again, stiff backed and proud and thought to herself this man had been ruler of more than a mere hold at some point. Hard to imagine how such a warrior could be reduced to a landless, homeless state but if the Shadow was involved, then so was black magic and she knew as well as anyone in Azrimar how insidious and deadly the malevolent forces could be. She made a quick sign against the Shadow.
“Yes, the late Witch Queen and her sister left Aerrol a shell of an army,” the first man opined. “Spending the entire kingdom’s time and treasure on their magical artifacts and whatnot. She’d no care for what became of the city or of us.”
“By the goddess,” said someone else, pointing and jostling Nadelma in their excitement. “They have women and children with them.”
Wagons which at one time must have been gaily painted with flowers and colorful abstract symbols, meant for happy outings, now muddy and weather-beaten, rolled by, under heavy guard. The drivers were tough soldiers, but children could be seen peeking from small windows in several of the large vehicles. A few waved shyly.
This landless lord must be desperate indeed, to risk the safety of his womenfolk on the offer from Aerrol.
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USA Today Best Selling Author
Veronica Scott grew up in a house with a library as its heart. Dad loved science fiction, Mom loved ancient history and Veronica thought there needed to be more romance in everything. When she ran out of books to read, she started writing her own stories.
Seven time winner of the SFR Galaxy Award, as well as a National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award, Veronica is also the proud recipient of a NASA Exceptional Service Medal relating to her former day job, not her romances!
She read the part of Star Trek Crew Member in the official audiobook production of Harlan Ellison’s “The City On the Edge of Forever.”
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