Heart of Winter (The Drake Chronicles #1) by Lauren Gilley

1




It so happened that Oliver’s father was a profligate, a playboy, and an exceptional warrior. He was also not at all married to Oliver’s mother, a washerwoman, who died when Oliver was only six.

His father was the younger brother to the Lord of Drakewell, the duchy named thus for the duck population who’d made the quiet, bounteous region home. Oliver inherited his red-gold curls, and, some told him, his smile, but none of his titles. Those all passed back to his father’s older brother, the honorable William, and his wife, and his children, upon his death, about which Oliver learned on a sunny, early autumn day nearly eight months into the war.

Uncle William’s wife – now widow – bowed her head a moment, hand curling tight on the parchment the runner had just brought. Lady Katherine was a stern and forbidding woman; never outright cruel to Oliver, but she’d never doted on him, as a bastard, either. He admired her; the solid steel of her. He watched her sink down in her chair, now, and he knew a kind of fear he’d never felt before.

He stepped forward. “My lady?”

She drew in a ragged breath, and peered up at him through gapped fingers. Swallowed with an audible click. “My husband…William…is dead. On the front. Killed by…by an enemy arrow. And John…”

His mind filled with images of his cousin, the heir of Drakewell, tall, and strong, and humble, for all that he was a lordling, solid rather than handsome, steady and always ready to clasp Oliver by the shoulder and assure him that, bastard or no, he was family.

His throat ached, suddenly; his lungs tightened. “My lady?”

“Dead,” she choked out, her face to the floor. A tear dripped off her nose. “As is Alfred – your father.” She lifted her head, and though tears coursed silently down her cheeks, her gaze was steady – and terrified. “We are doomed.”



~*~



No male heirs of Drakewell remained: a situation none had thought to find at the start of the war. It had seemed so distant. A foreigner had killed the crown prince, and the lords of the South had rallied, as was their duty. Oliver’s father and uncle had surely never thought to lose their lives. Nor that of John, the sole heir.

Oliver, as a bastard, couldn’t inherit. But he could help his aunt, amidst the chaos, and he sought to.

The war had reached a ceasefire, one that no one thought would last. The enemy was gloating over the slaying of so many lords. It gave them time – but not much.

“The girls will have to marry,” Lady Katherine said, her eyes and nose red, her tone firm, as she sorted through a mountain of correspondence. She turned an imploring gaze on Oliver. “It’s our only hope. If the girls make smart matches with powerful lords, then we might preserve Drakewell.”

Oliver thought of his young cousins, the ladies Amelia and Tessa, and he didn’t envy them.

“The Lord of Hope Hall…” he started.

Lady Katherine shook her head. “No. They refused the initial call to arms. We must look beyond the kingdom – we must look to the most martial of our neighbors.”

Oliver froze, hands crimping the parchments he held. “The kingdom isn’t exactly friendly with its neighbors. Not since the war started.”

“And whose fault is that?” she huffed. “The king’s. That’s whose. They’ll join if they have an interest. They’re only waiting for a chance.”

He swallowed with difficulty. “Who are you thinking of, my lady?”

“The king of Aeretoll is still unwed.”

Oliver gasped. “The Great Northern Phalanx.”

She nodded. “One of the girls must marry him. And, with his army, maybe we can finally end this blasted war.”



~*~



Thus Oliver, bastard son of Alfred, The late Lord-Heir of Drakewell, set out for the Great Northern Waste, as chaperone to his cousin Tessa, not knowing just how both their lives would change.





2




“What’s the delay?” Oliver demanded. So far, his official tone hadn’t garnered one ounce of respect on this journey, and he couldn’t decide if it was because he was a bastard, or because, given the war, no one cared about anyone’s breeding anymore.

“It’s the ice floes,” one of the boatmen said, and spat over the side. “They make it tough going.”

They’d set sail out of Blue Harbor, to begin, and sailing had been steady up the coast. But when they hit the northern climes, their captain had put ashore, and they’d been forced to book passage on a sequence of shallow barges, steered by long poles the boatmen plunged into the icy waters. The coast of Aeretoll, it seemed, was a kind of cold-water swamp, its reeds coated in a thick sheen of ice, its inlets and bays numerous, irregular, and non-navigable for anyone not born to them.