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Five very different sisters team up against their stepbrother to save their kingdom in this Norse-flavored fantasy epic—the start of a new series in the tradition of Naomi Novik, Peter V. Brett, and Robin Hobb.
FIVE ROYAL SISTERS. ONE CROWN.
They are the daughters of a king. Though they share the same royal blood, they could not be more different. Bluebell is a proud warrior, stronger than any man and with an ironclad heart to match. Rose’s heart is all too passionate: She is the queen of a neighboring kingdom who is risking everything for a forbidden love. Ash is discovering a dangerous talent for magic that might be a gift—or a curse. And then there are the twins—vain Ivy, who lives for admiration, and zealous Willow, who lives for the gods.
But when their father is stricken by a mysterious ailment, these five sisters must embark on a desperate journey to save him and prevent their treacherous stepbrother from seizing the throne. Their mission: find the powerful witch who can cure the king. But to succeed on their quest, they must overcome their differences and hope that the secrets they hide from one another and the world are never brought to light. Because if this royal family breaks, it could destroy the kingdom.
Praise for Daughters of the Storm:
“This fantastic series opener, powered by an engaging, female-led cast of characters, is riveting from page one right through to the end, with almost every scene bringing new excitement and intrigue. All of the five leading women are richly drawn, with distinct voices and multidimensional personalities that never slip into caricature. [Kim] Wilkins sketches these royals with nuance and sensitivity, making even the vexing characters like careless Ivy and the villainous Wylm feel worthy of our sympathy. . . . Wilkins has struck gold with her thrilling high fantasy world. Book two can’t arrive soon enough!”—RT Book Reviews
“Readers who enjoy epic journeys and strong female protagonists will enjoy Wilkins’s first installment of her new Sisters of the Fire series.”—Booklist
“[Daughters of the Storm] is a twisty high fantasy . . . exploring political machinations and the relationships between sisters; betrayal lurks at every turn.”—The Washington Post
Under the Cover
An excerpt from Daughters of the Storm
Blood. It smelled like the promise of something thrilling, as much as it smelled like the thrumming end of the adventure. It smelled like her father when he came home from battle, even though he had bathed before he took her in his arms. Still the metal tang of it lingered in his hair and beard, and as she smashed her skinny, child’s body against his thundering chest in welcome, he smelled to her only of good things.
Now that she was a woman and knew blood intimately, Bluebell loved and feared it—and appreciated its beauty splashed crimson against the snow.
The air was ice, but her body ran with perspiration beneath her tunic. Her shoulders ached, as they often did if the skirmish was fast and intense. Around her, twelve men lay dead; ten men stood. Her men still stood, as did she. Always.
Thrymm and Thrack, her dogs, nosed at the bodies delicately, their paws damp with powdery snow. They were looking for signs of life, but Bluebell knew they would find none. The ice-men hadn’t had a chance: They were on foot, trudging up the mountain path, no doubt to attack the stronghold that managed the beacon fire and kept watch over the northern borders of Littledyke. Bluebell’s hearthband were mounted, thundering down the path from the stronghold. They had speed and momentum on their side. Four of the raiders had fallen to the spear before Bluebell had even dismounted. Swift, brutal, without cries for pity. Death as she liked it best.
Bluebell crouched and wiped her sword on the snow, then rubbed it clean and dry before sheathing it. Her heart was slowing now. Ricbert, whom she had collected from his shift at the stronghold, called to her. She looked up. He was kneeling over the body of one of the fallen raiders, picking it clean of anything valuable. She rose, stretching her muscles, joining him along with the others, who had been alerted by the sharp tone of his voice.
“Look, my lord,” Ricbert said. He had pulled open the tunic of the dead man to reveal a rough black tattoo beneath the thick hair on his chest. A raven with its wings spread wide.
Sighere, her second-in-command, drew his heavy brows together sharply. “A raven? Then these are Hakon’s men.”
“Hakon is dead. His own brother murdered him,” Bluebell said sharply. Hakon the Crow King, they called him. The only man who had come close to killing her father in battle. Brutal, bitter, the ill-favored twin of the powerful Ice King, Gisli. The man whose face Bluebell herself had mutilated with an unerring ax throw before helping to deliver him into Gisli’s hands. Hakon was perhaps the man who hated her the most in all of Thyrsland, though it was admittedly a long list. “It’s an old tattoo.”
Ricbert called to her from another body. “No, my lord. They all have them.”
“It means nothing. He’s dead.” He had to be dead. Gisli was cruel and brutal, but a man to be reasoned with; Hakon lacked his brother’s intellect, acted on every raw impulse. Dangerous as an injured wolf, in love with war and chaos. Thrymm and Thrack had loped over to join her, their warm bodies pressed against her thighs. She reached down and rubbed Thrymm’s head. “Come on, girls,” she said. “Let’s get off this mountain.”
She turned and stalked back toward her stallion, Isern. His big lungs pumped hot fog into the chill air. Bluebell mounted and waited for her hearthband.
Gytha, a stocky woman with arms like tree branches and a brain to match, was last to her horse. As they moved off into the snowlit morning, Gytha said, “They say Hakon is so favored by the Horse God that he escaped his brother’s dungeon by magic. They say he has a witch who makes him war spells that—”
“No more of this talk,” Bluebell commanded, “or I’ll cut someone’s fucking tongue out.”
Her thanes fell silent; they couldn’t be certain she wasn’t serious.
Bluebell longed for her father’s calm company and good advice, and determined to lead her hearthband home before pasture-month was upon them. If Hakon was alive, then he had to be found and stopped. Her father would know what to do.
A noise in the dark. A furtive knocking.
Bluebell sat up, pushing the scratchy blanket off her body and feeling under the mattress for her sword. It took a moment for her to orient herself. She was in a guesthouse that huddled in the rolling green hills of southern Littledyke. They had ridden a long way southwest of the snow-laden mountains that day, into warmer climes, and were half a day’s ride from the Giant Road, which would take them home. In truth, Bluebell would have preferred to push on into the evening, but her hearthband were tired and sick of the cold. When they spied a guesthouse in the dip of a valley, under a fine blanket of twilight mist, she’d agreed to stop for the night, even though the rooms were small and dark and the wooden walls whiskery with splinters and sharp malty smells.
“Declare your name and your business,” she called, her voice catching on sleep. She cleared her throat with a curse. She didn’t want to sound weak or frightened: She was neither.
“My lord, it’s Heath. King Wengest’s nephew.”
Bluebell hurried from the bed. She was still dressed: It didn’t pay for a woman of physical or political power to be half dressed in any situation. She tied a knot in her long, fair hair and yanked open the door. He stood there with a lantern in his left hand.
“How did you get past my entire hearthband to the door of my room?”
“I bribed the innkeeper to let me in the back.” He smiled weakly. “Hello, Bluebell. It isn’t good news.” He paused, took a breath, then said, “Your father.”
Her blood flashed hot. “Come in, quickly.” She closed the door behind him and stood, waiting. Anything she could endure: The world was a chaotic, amoral place. But not Father. Don’t let Father be dead.
“You must keep your head when I tell you,” he said.
“I can keep my head,” she snapped. “Is he dead?”
Her stomach unclenched.
“But he’s ill,” he continued. “A rider was sent from Almissia to our war band up on the border of Bradsey. Wylm was called away urgently by his mother.”
“Gudrun,” Bluebell muttered. The flighty idiot her father had chosen to marry. “She sent for Wylm?”
“I overheard their conversation. King Athelrick is sick, terribly sick.”
“And she sent for Wylm instead of me?” Misting fury tingled over her skin.
“Don’t kill her. Or Wylm. Rose wouldn’t want you to kill anyone. Least of all your stepfamily.”
She glared at him. The beardless half-blood in front of her was her sister’s lover. Bluebell had assigned him to a freezing, sedge-strangled border town to keep him away from Rose. Three years had passed, and still he went soft and sugary when his tongue took her name. “I’m not a fool,” she said. “I’m not going to kill anyone. Despite what my itching fingers tell me.”
He nodded. “Wylm left on foot. I don’t know if he managed to horse himself since, but he’d be on the Giant Road by now in any case. You’re directly above Blickstow here. You can catch him.”
Sleep still clung to her so she had to shake her head to clear it, as though the early-morning dark was only given to dreams and this must be one. Why had Gudrun sent for Wylm and not her? What purpose would it serve to separate Bluebell from her father if he was dying? Did she have plans for Wylm to lead Almissia? The thought was ridiculous: Wylm was untried in war, and Bluebell was well loved by Almissia’s people. She dismissed the thought as quickly as it crossed her mind.
“Do you know anything else about my father’s illness?” she asked, fear clouding the edges of her vision. “Will he die?” He couldn’t die. He was too strong. She was too strong. She would get the best physician in the country and march him down to Blickstow at knifepoint if she had to.
Heath shook his head. The two lines between his brows deepened. “I know nothing more. But if she has called for her son . . .”
“She should have called for us.”
“Perhaps she has. Perhaps she’s sent for the others, but didn’t know where to find you.”
“Dunstan knows where I am. There’s only one good route between the stronghold and home. You found me.” Her heart was thundering in her throat now. “What was she thinking?”
“Perhaps she wasn’t.”
Bluebell fixed her gaze on him in the flickering dark. “I’m going home. Now.”
He helped her pack her things, then followed her out into the early cold. She saddled and packed her horse, who whickered softly. He was a warhorse, not afraid of the dark, but still getting old enough to miss his sleep. She rubbed his head roughly. Thrymm and Thrack sniffed at her feet, straining against their chains.
“At first light, tell Sighere where I have gone, but ask him not to speak of it. We don’t know what the future holds for my father, or for Almissia. If an idiot like Ricbert got wind of the idea that Father was . . .” Curse it, she couldn’t say the word.
Heath pointedly looked away.
“People would panic. Just don’t tell anyone. Urgent business. That’s all.” She let the dogs off the chain and vaulted onto Isern’s back.
Heath grasped Isern’s reins. “Wait,” he said. “Your sisters?”
Her chin stiffened. He was right: They needed to be told. A chill wind rattled through the trees. She spat hair out of her mouth. While she didn’t want to send him to Rose—it was better if they were apart—she was sensitive to her sister’s feelings. This news shouldn’t come from a stranger. “Ride at first light to Rose. Tell her to join me in Blickstow immediately.”
Bluebell frowned. “Get Rose to send a messenger. Ash will likely feel us on the move.” Her words turned to mist in front of her. She dropped her voice. “Perhaps she already knows.”
“My lord.” Heath nodded and stepped back.
Bluebell picked up the reins and urged Isern forward, thundering down to the moonlit road with the dogs barking in her wake.
The night began to lift as Bluebell approached the Giant Road. She glimpsed the first curve of the bright sun as she galloped over a wooden bridge and down toward the wide road. In some ancient misted past, gray paving stones—the length of two men and easily as wide—had been lined up five across for hundreds of miles: from here in the midlands to the far south of Almissia. The giants had laid them in a time before recollection, but now they were cracked and worn, with grass and wildflowers straggling up through the gaps. Bluebell’s heart breathed. From here to Blickstow was two and a half good days’ ride, directly south. She was almost home.
But Isern would not go farther without rest and water. He was huge and powerful, but she had no desire to drive him into the ground and have to run home on her own legs. Once, a witch princess up in Bradsey had offered to sell her an enchanted horse faster than a hare, but Bluebell had kept Isern: Speed mattered less, in battle, than courage and weight. She reined him in at the edge of the stream and jumped off to let him walk awhile. Her dogs realized they were stopping and ran barking into the stream. When Isern had cooled, she led him to the water and spoke soft words to him. He dropped his head to drink, and she lay herself out on the dewy grass to close her eyes. A beam of sun hit her face, and she could see her pulse beating in her eyelids. She was tired and sore, her thighs aching, but the constant frantic movement had kept her thoughts from growing too dark.
Bluebell wasn’t a child. She knew one day her father would die and she would take his place. She had prepared her whole life for the moment, but it had always been abstract, like a story. The real moment—hot and present—had lit a fire in her breast. She wished she had her sisters with her. They would understand. Well, the oldest two would: Rose and Ash. She barely knew Ivy and Willow, the twins. They’d been raised a long way from home after they’d killed her mother by being born. Bluebell wondered if anybody had sent for them; wondered when Rose would hear, when Ash would hear.
“Ash,” she said, soft under her breath. She was closest to Ash, who was away at the east coast in Thridstow, studying to be a counselor in the common faith. Ash had glimmerings of a second sight. She wasn’t supposed to; she was far too young. Nevertheless, Bluebell had made use of her sister’s premonitions once before battle. “Ash,” she said again, drawing her eyebrows together, wondering if Ash could feel her words across the miles, vibrating on the sunlight.
Sleep caught her gently, and she dozed lightly against the growing dawn. Then a shower of water made her sit up and open her eyes. Thrymm stood by her, shaking water from her coat. Bluebell pushed the dog away with her foot and rolled over on her side. The dawn light made her stomach swirl. A new day. Perhaps he was already dead. But surely she would have felt it: the sudden absence, a new quiet where his breath had once been. She sat up and rested her long arms on her knees. Isern wandered over and nuzzled her shoulder with his big hot nose. He was keen to be going, too. As keen, perhaps, as she was to catch up with Wylm and find out what dangerous ideas he and his mother were brewing.
The Giant Road was the main trade route through Thyrsland. Even during war, it was busy with traffic. But there hadn’t been war this far south since Bluebell’s sister Rose had married Wengest, the king of Nettlechester. Ill will had evaporated overnight, and Nettlechester and Almissia, the two largest kingdoms of the seven in Thyrsland, had raised a joint army to keep out the much greater threat of raiders from the kingdom of Iceheart, the icy lands in the far north of Thyrsland. The sparsely populated northern kingdoms of Bradsey and Littledyke were most vulnerable to incursions from Iceheart, but raiders would think nothing of marching south to take the wealthy trimartyr kingdom of Tweening, or the trading hubs of Thridstow. If raiders ever got as far south as the Giant Road, blood would flow freely.
Kim Wilkins is a leading fantasy author in Australia. Her first novel, The Infernal, won in both the horror and fantasy categories of the Aurealis Awards in 1997. Wilkins’s other books include Angel of Ruin, The Autumn Castle, and Giants of the Frost. She has also written a series for young adults about a psychic detective. Wilkins lives in Brisbane, Australia.