Ghosts of Anowen
An Aegean Immortals Series Prelude Book One
Spring, 1178, England’s Northern Woods
It was a kingdom in its own right; though soldiers had come a few times over the years to establish English claim. Always, they had left without violence and with fogged expressions as if they had been witched, carrying their mist back to the seated kings of Britannia, so that they too forgot their dreams of conquest.
Some in nearby villages knew of the place, but only for the presence of merchants and traders who ventured into the neighboring territory to hawk their wares and take supplies home.
A mortal enterprise.
The Queen who sat on the throne of Eromere was nothing of the sort.
She was beautiful and strong — a barbarian queen with untamed locks of earthen brown and lovely gowns of velvet trimmed with wolf fur. At her back, she carried a sword. At her hip, she wore a mace.
They called her Verona, the Sovereign of Britannia’s Immortals.
She was the daughter of Dunstan of Ostun and the Empress Athanasia; the first Immortals to walk on the Isles of Britannia. She was an elder niece to Athanasia’s other children, Hadrian, Jaime, Adaeze, Synne, and Iona; members of the Royal Council and rulers of their own Houses and territories under her Sovereignty.
She had lived for centuries, unchanging and eternal, gathering a family of her own throughout the years. Just as she had been chosen and made, so too did she choose the members of her own family — former humans granted the gift of Immortality through her blood.
An Immortal gift, met with a mortal cost.
They paid a price in two-hundred years of darkness before they could tolerate the sun, in a weakness for silver that made humans of them again, and in their new hunger and need for blood to live.
The Immortal lords and queens of Eromere lived peacefully within the fortress alongside the humans who were their servants, neighbors, lovers, and food source. The humans, who had for generations enjoyed comfort and prosperity within the kingdom, thought nothing of the arrangements, or of the otherworldliness of their neighbors or Queen Verona.
Beneath her great shadow, it was no wonder that Dunstan of Ostun’s second child went unknown, and he was pleased with his anonymity.
Lonan Reimonn had been raised a mortal from his toddling years to his twenty-fifth, traveling in furs and rough garb alongside the man he knew as father and sire. Though he was as beautiful and fair as any Celt, that beauty was covered with travel dirt and grime from their adventures, and he knew that he would relish his freedom throughout his eternity.
Meeting his sister, the Queen, had not changed that.
The first time he met her, he had been yet a human child, small and fragile and shy. She had carried him on her hip as she spoke over his head to their father about political things that had bored Lonan to sleep. When she had finished, she took the boy riding with her through the forest trails.
The second time, he had been older, gangly and awkward as he transitioned from childhood to manhood. She spoke at him, not over him, asking him for opinions on matters he did not understand, but appreciated having input on. Then she had sparred with him, and with a bruised ego, Lonan had sulked and given her purposefully bad advice that she only laughed at.
The third time he saw her was the last.
Dunstan had given him Immortality through his blood, and they traveled in the darkness of the night as Lonan learned his new body. He arrived at the fortress of Eromere beneath the moonlight, in the shadow of his father’s great height. Verona met them, leading them back into the depths of her castle, to a strategy room with a circular table and a map of Britannia laid out on its surface.
There, marked with ink and small, clay figures were Eromere, the territories of her uncles and aunts, and the kingdoms of the humans.
“I would have your counsel,” Verona said, as she had so many years ago — and though time had passed, the Sovereign looked the same as she always had. A beautiful wildling, perfect and untamed.
This time, Lonan could hear the music that bonded him to his Immortal family. Music that echoed through his veins, revealing the hearts of his father and sister in the refrains of their souls.
Those bonds were another gift of their Immortality: threads that connected them through the songs in their blood across the miles that might separate them, so that they might never be alone. So that one day, if they were fortunate, they might find their fated, Eternal Songs. Like Athanasia and Dunstan had found in one another.
Verona’s song was wavering and uncertain, despite her straight posture and her smile. It brought Lonan’s attention back to the moment.
She had not asked for his advice this time.
Her eyes were on their father.
“It has been four centuries now since Eromere’s first stone was laid,” she said. “Kings rise and fall, but no war has touched us, and our numbers of family and mortals both have grown. The humans know us here for what we are. Their ancestors knew us for what we are. To them, this is the way of things, and what is beyond is strange.”
Dunstan of Ostun’s brow furrowed slightly at her words. “The way of things is not always what it seems, Verona,” he said quietly. “Athanasia’s life was once nearly forfeit for it — and she was believed a goddess.”
Lonan had only heard of the First Immortals, the Imperial Council made up of the nine siblings who had given their gift to the world. Athanasia, Empress of the Isles and youngest of her family, had been granted dominion of the smallest corner of the world.
It was not until she had found her Eternal Song, her fated mate, in Dunstan of Ostun, a human and a Seax barbarian, that she had begun to spread her gift in earnest. Before that, and even now, she was the nearest Brittania would ever have to a living goddess.
The story of humanity’s betrayal of her divinity was a tale of folklore, now.
“Mother was not betrayed by her Celts, Papa — but by the influence of a Fae.” Verona countered. “What is unknown will always bring more fear than what is known. Eromere will be of a size to truly meet Brittania soon, but the Royal Council…”
The Queen’s music shadowed with her concern.
“I cannot know the hearts of mortal men as they do, as you must, Papa,” she admitted quietly. “The Council’s music sings of doubt and hope both. I would not begin what could not be ended without their full support. You think our kind cannot live with humans?”
She glanced toward Lonan, and let her gaze linger to make her point.
Verona of Eromere had been an infant when Athanasia and Dunstan took her under their care, freshly cut from the womb of a dead, mortal woman. The Sovereign, like Lian, like Dunstan before her, had been human once. Only Athanasia had never tasted mortality, save from the blood she stole to sustain herself.
Dunstan grunted softly. “We have learned to live together when our numbers are balanced. Even afraid, humans will not challenge what they deem more powerful.”
The Immortal dragged his fingers through his hair, as wild and brown as Verona’s own. “But there is a strength in mortal numbers, and despite all that we are, there will always be more of them.”
Their father’s troubled gaze moved across the markings on the map between them, lingering on the places that marked the territories of men.
“If you choose this course, Verona, you must be prepared to face the chaos that even the weakness of men can unleash.”
“There is nothing I am unprepared for,” Verona said, and her smile broadened with the claim. “Even a younger brother turned Immortal. I have not meant to ignore you, Lonan.”
“These matters are loftier than I can think on,” Lonan admitted. He alone of the trio had fair hair that had turned golden with his father’s gift, and pale skin that marked him for his Celtic origins. “I am grateful to be the younger sibling.”
“As you’ve said,” Dunstan grunted.
“You cannot tell me it would be your preference to rule, Father,” the fledgling Immortal said with a smirk. The Sovereignty had been Dunstan’s before it was Verona’s, and his sister was Queen only for their sire’s will.
“We do what must be done when it must,” his father said.
“And what we believe is right for our people,” Verona added. “What say you, Lonan? You were human not but a few months ago, I am sure. Do you believe we will be feared?”
Lonan’s expression grew thoughtful, and he flickered a blue-eyed glance toward his father before it returned to his sister. “I have never feared Immortals… and it is not as if cattle fear a kind master before the slaughter.”
Verona’s hands came together before her lips to cover her snort, then she lifted a palm to ruffle his hair before stepping nearer to begin braiding it instead.
“That is not the sort of talk that will convince any human we mean no harm, dear Lonan. Papa is wonderful at many things, but teaching of tact, I fear, is not one of them. I will hope you find your song in one who can fill the gaps in your education.”
She released the braid and patted his chest. “We are not beasts in the shadows, nor are we masters of men. If they did not exist, nor could we, and in this, they too have power. With the balance between us, I will hope that one day we can live together. It is my wish for peace for us all.”
Her music shifted, and her lyre danced into a more cheerful melody. “Hadrian will arrive in the morning to discuss the matter as well. He has been much kinder of late and more interested in making this a possibility. It has been… nice to have his counsel again. I had begun to miss our youth when he would offer it more freely.”
Dunstan relaxed slightly for her words. “If Hadrian will support you, you will have little cause to worry for the Royal Council. He has their ears as much as you wished for his own.”
Their father smiled slightly, a turn of lips beneath the bristle of his beard. “You have done well, Verona. Athanasia would be proud to witness what you have become.”
For a moment, the Sovereign of British Immortals was all of the youth her face appeared. She flushed, and her shoulders rounded bashfully before she seemed to remember who and what she was. With a cough, the Queen brushed her hair behind her ear and bowed her head slightly toward their father.
“I am what my parents have made me.”
Her expression softened as she glanced toward Lonan again. “Only another twenty years and Mama will be home again. I can feel her anxiousness in her song. No doubt she cannot wait to join your side once more, Papa. And to meet Lonan.”
“You do not take compliments well,” Lonan offered with a smile. “Papa was praising you. Do not make this about me. My feet are cold enough thinking of meeting a goddess in twenty years. I’ll not think of it today.”
“She is no goddess,” their father murmured. “I do not think I shall ever know a woman who is more… woman.” His lips ticked again. “But she must be Athanasia and Mother to our family before she can be my Thani.”
Dunstan turned toward Lonan and clapped a heavy hand on his son’s shoulder. “So, I shall make do with looking at your face for a while, son. No doubt she will be pleased to discover one of her Celts in the fold.”
“No doubt.” Verona laughed. “And I think she shall never leave your side again for knowing you must find others of fair hair to comfort you in her time away.” The Sovereign’s music was soft, despite the tease, and she stepped forward to touch a kiss to their father’s cheek. “Stay and rest in Eromere, will you?”
“It will be long enough before we are this way again,” Dunstan answered with a nod. “And I have missed my wildling daughter.” His voice was gentle on the words.
“As your daughter has missed her Papa.” Verona released him and turned to pat Lonan on the cheek. “Hadrian misses Mama too. He will find comfort in meeting his nephew.” The Queen smiled. “And in not being the only one with a pretty child’s face on the body of a man.”
“I can grow a beard,” Lonan said balefully.
“Of course,” Verona said cheerfully. “I will have rooms readied for you. We have an underground level with tunnels for the fledglings. Lonan will find his respite from the sun.”
They stayed together a while longer that night, speaking of inconsequential things, and catching up on the missed years between them all. It was the last Lonan ever saw of the Sovereign — of his sister.
The next day, Verona was murdered.