Thursday, 31 December 2015

Reflections on a successful and surprising 2015!

A year ago, I sat down to reflect on 2014, after publishing my first book that July. I couldn't have imagined then the amazing opportunities that would come in 2015!

It has been a year filled with surprises and success, and I've enjoyed every minute of it!

I have continued on my independent author journey this year and published a further 7 titles (after only hoping to publish 1!).
  • 1 YA fiction (the sequel to my first)
  • 2 illustrated children's fictions
  • 2 adult colouring books
  • 2 companion books for the adult colouring books.

I have so many ideas that I haven't had chance to pen yet too. Right now, I have I think about 30 books plotted or planned that I need to schedule to time to actually write/draw!

Of my 8 books, all are top 100 bestsellers or better on Amazon. All are positively reviewed and it's so wonderful hearing that readers have enjoyed my work. I write because I love to, but I publish because I want my books to be enjoyed.

In the case of my colouring books, I'm touched and honoured to hear from those with health problems that colouring my books has helped them cope and recover. You may recall I've had my own health problems this year - so drawing and writing has helped get me through the tougher parts of 2015 too.

A year ago, I was on the cusp of selling my 100th book. Now I'm on the cusp of selling my 4,000th! I know that's not a huge number to some, but it's much more than I was expecting or hoping for - and I'm so grateful to everyone who chose to read one of my titles. This for me, is just the beginning.

It means that I am so so close to what I would deem financial success from writing and illustrating. I have a number in my mind that I'd like to make each month from creating, to justify and enable me to go full time without needing a part time job. So to exceed that number greatly for several months of this year is fantastic. It shows me it's possible, with hard work and time - and luck!

In my personal life, there's been a lot of changes, so 2015 has been quite tumultuous! I finished my 4 year teaching degree in May and recently graduated as the only woman in my year with 1st class honours. I am so very glad to be free of teaching. It was clearly the wrong career for me.

I also changed job/working hours a few times at my part time job and am now (as of December) working a new stable pattern that allows me to have a large chunk of defined writing/creating time each week. Not being at university has certainly freed up lots of time!

My fiance and I (and of course our beloved cats Jet and Pixie) moved house this Autumn too. This is one of the biggest changes of the year, because it totally alters our lifestyle. We have upsized to a good-sized family house further into the countryside that we can grow into in the coming years.
It's in a lovely location and I have a beautiful office space to call my very own, that looks out over my favourite moors. It is a wholesome and uplifting place to be that is very good for my ongoing productivity and mental/physical health (which is really important as sitting/writing is so bad for your health!). I look forward to lots of happy years living and working here. :-)

So 2015 has been a year of transition, from university student to actively planning to become a full time author. This year my eyes have been opened to what I really want to pursue with my life, and that it's possible. I've changed from being quite naive and pottering about publishing, to wanting to make a serious go at it.

It's been exciting to stumble upon and take advantage of the unforeseen opportunities that have arisen. I am so excited to share my 2016 goals with you to illustrate exactly how I plan to achieve that, so stay tuned! :D

Have an awesome New Year's Eve, and let me know how you got on in 2015/what your 2016 goals are!

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Diary of a Secret Witch 2: Worst Witch is here!

So excited to announce that my latest children's book (aimed at ages 7-11) is here! Readers of Diary of a Middle Grade Princess, Princess Diaries, Geek Girl and Tracy Beaker would enjoy the Diary of a Secret Witch series.

I have some exciting launch events including a competition to win signed paperback & eBook copies!

Enter here to win —

Sharing is caring: the more entries I receive, the more I'll give away!

Worst Witch is available for just 99p on Kindle....

...and £4.99 in paperback!

Not started yet? No problem; download 'Diary of a Secret Witch 1: Wackiest Week', for free on Kindle this week!

Hope you enjoy Worst Witch!

Sunday, 4 October 2015

WIN The Calm Colouring Book & Colouring Tips from Colour With Claire!



The Calm Colouring Book and its companion books are here!

To celebrate their release, I'm giving away a signed copy of each book.

To be in with a chance to win a copy, enter the giveaway (below)! 

You can grab up to 7 entries into the competition. The competition closes this Friday at midnight. Good luck! (Competition open to UK residents only)

You can already download 3 free pages from The Calm Colouring Book!

If you'd rather just buy a book to make sure you definitely get one, they're available on Amazon.


With a new colouring book coming out this week, I spoke to the lovely Claire of Colour With Claire. Here are some of our top tips!

1. What colouring tools would you recommend to a beginner?
Claire says:
When you first start colouring there's no need to buy expensive materials (regardless of whether you can afford it) because you won't know what medium you prefer until you try for yourself!
I recommend Staedtler Triplus Fineliners & Fibre Tips markers and Staedtler Ergosoft coloured pencils. They're fantastic for new colourists as they're inexpensive but give great results. The pens come in 30 different colours, and the pencils are easily blendable if you want to try your hand at shading and gradient techniques. Crayola Twistables are another economical option which lay down vivid colour.

If you don't like the marks pencils leave over large areas, opt for chalk pastels and rub them on with a cotton bud for beautiful and simple soft backgrounds! (Tutorial here)

Gel pens are another great product you might want. For lusciously thick colour I recommend Sakura Gelly Roll pens, which leave an embossed, 3D finish and are excellent for adding detail and making pictures pop. They aren't ideal for larger spaces ( the ink is so dense they will quickly run out), so for that I recommend Artworkz gel pens.
Meg says:
I agree with Claire about not buying expensive materials to begin with!
I recommend Letraset pro markers as an inexpensive market set to begin with. They have 2 nibs and come in a great variety of colours. They lay down intense colours so are fantastic when paired with Letraset marker paper.

For colouring pencils, I'd agree with Claire but also recommend Start watercolour pencils. These are very inexpensive – the colour they lay down isn't as fine a quality (and personally I don't think they blend well as a pencil) however the ability to add water to blend the colours makes them something a bit different!

2. What are your favourite colouring tools and why?

Claire says:
My favourite tools to colour with are alcohol markers, because they come in hundreds of different tones and can be seamlessly blended together for professional-looking effects. I use Spectrum Noir and Promarkers mostly, but there are lots of different options. These kinds of pens can be expensive and take practise to get right, but the bright colours and quality of the finished product when you get the hang out of it can be outstanding. 

My favourite pencils are Faber Castell Polychromos. Again they are going to set you back more than the budget options, but they are artist grade quality and make blending and shading a doddle. They come in up to 120 different shades and are long-lasting and have superior pigment laydown compared to other brands.

For backgrounds, I now use PanPastels. Cheaper chalks are great for giving subtle colour, but PanPastels are absolutely LOADED with pigment and create minimal dust. You only need a little to create vibrant colour strokes, and they can be mixed together to develop your range of shades.

Meg says:
Alcohol markers – copic sketch markers in particular – are my favourite! The colour choices are fantastic, and the double tips (especially the brush tip) allow for brilliant coverage and shading.

I also love working with KarismaColor pencils. They are so wonderful for blending and are really rich in colour. Unfortunately these went out of production a number of years ago (I am lucky to have a big stash!), and ultimately became some of the better quality Prismacolor range. I also like Caran d'Ache pencils for their high quality blending. Both these brands are on the more expensive side, but come in a wide range of colours and offer fantastic coverage and blending.

3. What's your favourite colouring/shading method and why? 

Meg says:

For me, it has to be a mix of artist markers and pencils. I lay down a base layer (sometimes including gradients) with my artist markers. I then use colouring crayons to build up mainly shadows but also some highlights over the markers. You can do hard edged shadows and highlights really well with this technique, though I personally prefer softer shading.

Even with high quality colouring pencils, you can still see the paper grain when shading, so this method allows me to produce artwork with a completely solid laydown.
Claire says:
I love to experiment blending my alcohol markers as the finish is just so consistent, but I'm no artist by any means and still class myself under low-to-middling as a colourist. I'm always learning!
Pencils are somewhat easier because you can slowly layer up. Another technique I've been trying recently is to colour a hard border around the edges of the pattern before colouring the middle with a light/medium pressure. It looks great on books like The Wild Colouring book that have lots of leaves and foliage for you to practise on.
Thanks very much to Claire for taking the time to share her top tips! You can follow Claire's colouring journey on Facebook, Twitter and sign up to her email list.
The Calm Colouring Book, Notebook and 2016 Diary are available at Amazon UK, USA and EU - claim your free samples at!

Friday, 21 August 2015

It's the weekend - have two free books! :-)

Hi y'all,

Just a short post today. My two books, The Tainted Crown and The Brooding Crown are free on Kindle from Friday 21 to Monday 24th August! :D

Snap up a copy this weekend. :-)

The Tainted Crown:
The Brooding Crown:

Friday, 31 July 2015

A Year Of Publishing

So it's July 31st, which means a year ago today I published my first book!

How different ... and perhaps in some ways also the same ... life is today! I hope I've managed to keep the good things and improve in other areas.

A year ago I was a third year teaching student, filled with despair at the career path I'd chosen... and discovered wasn't for me. I'd just stumbled upon indie publishing: this strange but alluring world where anything was possible and the horizons were changing daily.

I published that book - The Tainted Crown - not knowing what was next on the horizons. It's done ok to date - broken even - what more can I ask for? Nothing, only that it's enjoyed. :-) It was always an experiment, if I'm honest.

Now a year on, I'm no longer a teaching student, and am not going into teaching. I still have a day job... for now. One day though, creating will pay my bills. That's a promise.

I have three books out now. The sequel to The Tainted Crown - The Brooding Crown - and an adult colouring book - The Wild Colouring Book.

The fiction sequel was to be expected. It's been an amazing project to work on and publish, especially with my new editor Sophie Playle polishing my manuscript. I'm proud of that project. It's got a long wait to go before I break even but I'll get there! :) Fiction, I've learned, is very hard to make profit (aka a living) on! I have a lot more work to do before that will be a sustainable source of income.

The Wild Colouring Book was a total wild card. I never expected to produce anything like that! But I'm so glad I did!! It's been such a fun project - fulfilling in a different way to writing. And to be honest, for a year when I've been really ill, too ill to write, drawing for that has kept me going.

It's given me my first real taste of success too. I appreciate every sale... because I know I'm so lucky that anyone chooses to buy something I created! But the sheer amount of success has overwhelmed me. Wow. To date, it's sold over 500 copies in under 2 months. With no marketing or advertising budget. Out of 28,000,000+ books on Amazon, it's reached rankings of 382. And its a top 25 bestseller in self help books.

I've had nothing but praise for it - and it's beyond amazing to hear that not only are people enjoying it for a creative past time, but that it's helping people rehabilitate in hospital, and helping them through periods of depression and anxiety. Like... wow. What a privilege, that I can create something that goes on to genuinely help people. Wow. That's humbling.

So standing here now, 1 year on and 1 year into this publishing malarkey... I'm so grateful. And so determined. I've come so far - further than I imagined and in a different direction than I first thought - but this is only the beginning.

I look forward to taking stock next year on July 31st 2016! Where will things be then? Who knows...

Onwards and upwards! :)


Ps. I'd love to hear what you're up to - reply or connect with me on social media. What goals are you aiming for in the next year or so? How are you getting along?

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Brooding Crown is here!

Soren has defeated his usurping uncle and the semblance of peace has returned to Caledan, but surrounded by the twelve noble houses of Caledan, King Soren can trust few. In the shadows, treasonous thoughts grow. When news of Zaki’s presence in Roher reaches Soren, can he ally all of Caledan to his cause – and keep them?
Zaki has not given up on his plans to regain Caledan’s throne. First he must prove himself to Harad, the mighty king of Roher, but Zaki will stop at nothing to gain the support of Roher’s army, march on Caledan’s borders and take back the throne of the dragon kings.

War returns to Caledan, but a greater threat looms. The pact is broken. The Eldarkind are fading. The dragons war amongst themselves. A power too terrible to name grows in the North, and He seeks revenge. Only Eve stands in His way – but can she stop magic as old as time?

I'm so so excited to finally share The Brooding Crown with you! You can pick up your copies here...

Amazon UK
Amazon US
(The Brooding Crown is available on Kindle in all Amazon territories worldwide)

In print
Amazon UK
Amazon US
(The Brooding Crown is also available to order on Amazon EU stores, and through bookstores and libraries using its ISBN number:

I hope you enjoy! Please do let me know what you think. :-)

Bye for now,


Thursday, 2 July 2015

The Brooding Crown - Chapter 3

2 weeks to go until release! Here's chapter 3 for you to enjoy now. If you missed chapter 2, you can find it here. Don't forget to sign up to my mailing list to receive the next chapters, some of which will NOT be shared anywhere else!

The Brooding Crown
The Second Book of Caledan
The door opened before her without a sound and her father beckoned her in. Eve entered with deliberate slowness, wishing she could be anywhere else.
“Have you made your decision?” He sat forward in his chair, his eyes fixed upon her expectantly.
“Yes, Father.”
She took a deep breath in and exhaled. There’s no going back from this. The decision made her miserable, but there was no outcome she would be happy with. At least this way, I’ll get to go to Ednor. There, she could practise controlling her magical abilities, which had blossomed a few months before in a confusing incident while she had been rescuing King Soren’s sister Irumae from captivity. She could also visit her mother’s – and her own – ethereal kin: the Eldarkind.
Eve swallowed. The deep breath had done nothing to still her jumping heart or her shaking, sweaty hands. “I’ll do it.”
Her father raised an eyebrow, but did not speak.
He wants me to say it. Ice cold shivers crawled down her spine. “I will marry the man of your choosing,” she forced herself to say. It came out in a monotone, but she could not have managed any more. To say it was torture enough.
Her father broke into a wide smile, relaxing back in his chair, and then stood to embrace her. He clasped her to his chest, but she was wooden in his grasp and he soon released her. “Good, I’m pleased. I already have some suitable matches in mind. I will begin preparations.”
Her father’s uncharacteristic excitement was tempered by her growing feeling of nausea. I have to leave. She bade her father a quick farewell and rushed to the stables to saddle Alia, knowing a ride would calm her and clear her head.
Alia whinnied in greeting as she entered the stable. It was cool and quiet – a reprieve from the hot summer sun – but the darkness and enclosed space did nothing to ease Eve’s discomfort. As she fumbled with the saddle’s buckles, someone entered the stables behind her. She turned, expecting it to be one of the stable boys.
Luke. Damn it. She had avoided him in the days since returning to Arlyn. Her heart quickened.
“Eve,” he said, moving towards her. “Are you well? I haven’t seen you for ages. I’ve been worried.”
“Thank you, I’m fine,” she said. “I’m going for a ride.”
He scrutinised her face. “I can tell when you’re lying,” he said after a pause. “You know you can talk to me.”
I wish I could tell you, she thought to herself, leaning her cheek against the cool leather of the saddle.
I suppose he’ll find out anyway.
“My father is arranging my marriage,” she said.
“No! It cannot be true.”
“It’s true.” She sighed. “I had to promise him. It’s the one way he’ll let me return to Ednor. I either agree to marry the man of his choosing, and he will permit me to go to Ednor to train, or I do not agree, but he will make me marry anyway, with no certainty of visiting Ednor.”
Luke frowned, shaking his head. “Lord Karn would never-“
“I don’t know anymore, Luke. At least this way he’s promised me that I may go – for as long as I need to – to be trained in controlling my… skills. I don’t understand them well enough. Sometimes I worry they’ll burst out of me again. There’s no one I can ask for help here. If they discovered my abilities, they’d shun me.”
“Please don’t do it,” Luke pleaded. “There must be another way!”
I wish I didn’t have to, she wanted to say, but instead she answered, “I don’t have a choice, Luke.” She made to move away, but he reached out to grasp her hand. She flinched as he touched her, but did not pull away. His hands were warm and clammy, matching her own.
“If you have any feelings for me, Eve, please don’t do this. We’ll find a way to make it work.”
She did not answer, closing her eyes to block the world out. Don’t make this harder for me, Luke!
Even the few days apart had left her feeling lost after they had spent so much time together in the months before. His sudden appearance had removed any notion of indifference. Nevertheless, her feelings did not mean she could change her father’s mind.
Even so, she still found herself stepping forward to lean upon his chest. He took her in an embrace, his warm arms surrounding her and hers encircling his waist.
“I know that you have feelings for me too,” Luke said, “even though you don’t want to admit it.”
Tears flowed from Eve’s eyes. This is so unfair! Why can’t I make my own choice, like Father did! “I wish things could be different,” she croaked.
“I’ll ask for your hand instead.” He leaned back, catching her eye before wiping the tears from her cheeks with a soft touch of his thumb. “If you don’t marry whoever your father wants you to. I will save every penny I have to raise a house and provide for you.”
“There’s no way he would agree to that. He wants me to marry at least a sir, if not a lord,” she said, and the tears poured from her cheeks as she held back sobs.
“I’ll try anyway,” Luke said. He brought her hand to his lips and pressed a warm kiss to her knuckles.
Eve pulled away. Grabbing Alia’s reins, she ran from the stable without a backwards glance.

Her father had invited her to dinner; a worrying sign that meant something serious was afoot. He never eats with me. What does he want?
Eve slipped into her chair, opposite Karn. They were not in the main dining room, which was too large for the two of them, but instead in the small dining room, which gave beautiful views of the forested mountains.
The smallest smile flitted across her lips as he greeted her with unusual cheer, but it did not reach her eyes. She tried to covertly scrutinise him.
“I have something to discuss with you, Eve,” he said at last as they finished the main course.
It was her favourite meal – chicken breast wrapped in salty bacon rashers and served with sweet, roasted potatoes and vegetables – but she had not been able to enjoy it, worrying what her father would say. Please don’t let it be about marriage, please, she prayed.
Her father cleared his throat. “I have found a suitable match for you.”
No! Her heart sunk and her face fell in dismay.
“I am happy to announce that you will be betrothed to Dane Edmundsson of House Arendall. It is a good match, do you not agree? A familiar face to you – and Edmund, of course, is like family to us.”
Eve was silent. Dane Edmundsson? She couldn’t remember him well. It had been many years since she had last met him.
“What do you think?” her father prompted, his smile fading.
“Isn’t he really old?” She wrinkled her nose in distaste.
“Eve!” Karn stifled a chuckle. “You should not say such things! He is older than you, yes, but he is not old. I believe he is about thirty-two. I forget when his birthday is. A fifteen-year age gap or thereabouts is not so great, and not as large as it could be! Despite what you may think he is still young, but well established upon his lands and from a good family.”
Eve had stopped listening. Fifteen-years different! That’s almost double my age. She tried to imagine his face, but her memory of him was so incomplete that it was Dane’s father Edmund’s face she visualised.
She stared at her plate, which was still half full. The vegetables were growing cold but the chicken steamed. The meaty smell wafted into her nose, but she felt nauseated and pushed back her plate, taking a great gulp of water to empty her mouth of taste.
“Aren’t Arendall lands far from here, in the south?” Eve asked, realising the implications.
Karn nodded.
“Then we won’t see each other much?”
Karn frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I’ll be here and he’ll be there, won’t he?”
“Oh, Eve.” Karn shook his head, smiling with a tinge of sadness. “You will be expected to accompany him wherever he desires, perhaps to his own lands, to Pandora, or even elsewhere, should he so choose.”
“I’ll have to leave? No! Please, can’t I stay here?” Please don’t make me leave Arlyn! Eve’s heart pounded with the force of a horse kicking a stable door, and her mouth dried as though parched for days.
“It is the way things are. You will return. After all, these are to be your lands, but it may not be for some time.”
Eve swallowed, wetting her lips. “Is there no one closer?”
Her father shook his head. “You are worth far more than all the lordlings hereabouts combined. I would not have considered any of them.”
Eve slumped in her chair, wishing it would somehow swallow her up and take her to a land where she did not have to marry a stranger, and an old stranger far away at that. However, its wooden surface was hard and unyielding, offering her no comfort.
Karn continued to speak, but Eve’s eyes had glazed over as her attention drifted.
“Eve, pay attention,” he admonished. “Did you hear what I said?”
She straightened in her chair.
“I take that as a no. Within the month you will be betrothed at Arlyn chapel. The marriage will then be arranged at Pandora, or perhaps on Arendall lands.”
So soon. Eve’s belly lurched in fear. “Please may I be excused?” She stood up before he had finished giving his permission and ran to her bedchamber as swiftly as possible. She threw open the shutters, which the servants had closed, breathing in great gulps of the cooling evening air.
The room lay in the shadow of the March Mountains, and the familiar scent of pine wafting through the window reassured her. Her breathing slowed but her pulse was still erratic, and the fear coiled in her stomach refused to dissipate.
What have I agreed to?

Before long, the day of the betrothal was upon her; no amount of dreading could delay it. The dawn matched Eve’s mood. The weather was miserable. It was one of the first days heralding autumn. A deep mist clung to the ground, smothering everything with dew and coldness, permeated by drizzle.
It was dull, the sun too low in the sky and too weak yet to break through the haze, so daylight came late to Arlyn that morning. Eve woke, thick headed in the faint light, feeling as if she had woken in the eleventh month of the year, not the ninth. Shivering under the cooling water as she washed with deliberate slowness, she tried to steady herself for what was to come.
In the weeks since her father’s announcement, no amount of thinking and rethinking had managed to give her a solution. There seemed to be no honourable escape from her predicament. The fear she had felt that night over dinner had not vanished, instead returning with malicious glee to torment her again at whatever waking moment it could.
A dress had already been laid out for her. It was pretty, she could not deny it, but knowing what it symbolised made her want to burn it rather than wear it. Her skin crawled as the maid’s cold fingers buttoned it from the back. There had been no time to send for fabric to have a new garment made. Instead, an older dress had been altered, fitted with lace trims and resized to fit with perfection. I preferred it how it was. She fingered the lace with dislike.
Although the dress was not optional, breakfast was out of the question thanks to her roiling stomach. She turned away the plate, instead going to the stables – taking care not to catch her dress in the mud – to see Alia. Alia never failed to calm her, and, as usual, the horse moved to greet her with a gentle whinny, nuzzling her shoulder and nibbling at her palm for treats.
“Nothing for you today, girl,” Eve mumbled, leaning against Alia’s neck and closing her eyes.
Eve stayed there for as long as she could, until the inevitable occurred.
“Eve!” her father’s voice rang out in the distance. “Eve!”
“Wish me luck, Alia,” Eve whispered.

To be continued...
I hope you enjoyed the first taste of The Brooding Crown! Don't forget to sign up to my mailing list to receive the next chapters, some of which will NOT be shared anywhere else!

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Brooding Crown - Chapter 2

3 weeks to go until release! Here's chapter 2 for you to enjoy now. If you missed the synopsis and chapter 1, you can find them here. Don't forget to sign up to my mailing list to receive the next chapters, some of which will NOT be shared anywhere else!

The Brooding Crown
The Second Book of Caledan
Chapter 2
The golden-domed watchtowers of Arrans, capital of Roher, blazed on the horizon under the punishing sun. Zaki ached. A deep-seated, dull, pulsing ache that encompassed his entire being: his bones, his muscles, even his head. At last…
Beside him, Reynard sank to the ground. “Thank you, Lord God, for blessing us with your divine intervention, by showing us the way to our salvation.” Reynard murmured fervent prayers to himself, his bobbing head bowed over shaking, clasped hands, and his eyes scrunched shut.
Zaki looked at him through narrow eyes, disdaining the wreck of a man kneeling at his side, but Reynard was still in a better state than most of the others who had survived the torturous journey. There is no God, you fool. After all “God” has done to me, he cannot be. If he exists, then he has wronged me and should be damned to hell himself.
His eyes flicked back to drink in the vista before him. Where they had tramped for endless weeks through desert, now grass grew beneath their ruined feet. With every step they took, the land became lush, green and hopeful.
Before them stood the red stone walls of Arrans. Topped with triangular crenulations, they stretched into the distance, encircling the vast city within their protection. They snaked over the five hills on which Arrans was built, even spanning the river that carved through the city’s belly.
On each of the five hills stood a great watch-tower, a hundred and fifty feet high, an unlit yet blazing beacon reflecting the light from gilded brickwork and mosaic patterns. He could not see the detail he knew to be there – they were still miles away – but the flash of colour atop the closest towers was visible. Below the golden sun of Roher flew the banner of his father-in-law: the red rose and rampant lion of King Harad the Third.
Zaki’s only other visit to the city – to meet his bride-to-be and formalise their wedding – had been a grander and more pleasant occasion. Instead of a harsh journey through the desert, they had sailed to Bera, the sea-port and travelled at leisure to Arrans from there. The men had ridden in upon horses, with the ladies riding in palanquins, fanned by servants. All had been cheered into the city by rich and poor alike who lined the streets up to the royal palace at the top of the tallest of Arrans’s hills.
In contrast to the well-fed prince entering Arrans in triumph, Zaki was now a pauper and passed for a different person. His eyes had sunk into his burnt and weathered cheeks under unkempt, shaggy hair, and his soft skin had been hardened by the long duration of rough travel. His clothes hung off him – he and his men had long eaten all the horses, surviving on nought for days – and his body, which had been so well trained and fed, had melted away to a toughened, wiry frame.
They had little left – no money between them, nor armour. In the blistering heat, it was an unnecessary burden. Even Zaki’s royal armour, worth more than the annual earnings of all his men put together, had been dumped. Instead they survived like bandits, thieving food, drink and luxuries like blankets from those they passed, either through force or by silent theft in the night.
The sight before him made him forget the weeks – or it could have been months, he had lost track of the endless cycle of night and day – of hardship. Spurred on and reinvigorated by the sight he had so longed to see, he drove his men on, commanding them through cracked and dried lips.
His men followed in silence like sheep behind a shepherd. They had little energy to talk and no desire to rejoice after everything they had lost. More than one had died along the way through illness, starvation, dehydration or because their mutinous words and discontent had reached a ruthless Zaki’s ears. But Zaki was no shepherd. He watched them all like a wolf over prey. I will not let them betray me.
The hard, dry earth pained Zaki’s feet; they tingled and spasmed with every step, but he pushed on. It was still hours before they reached the gates. So huge were the towers and walls from afar that they seemed closer; a cruel illusion. But when he stepped under the cooling shadow of the gate at last, it was no vision.
The gate was open, but men barred the way with a makeshift barrier across the entrance to the city.
“Quis est iste?” one of them asked him. “Vade, pauper!” The man shooed him away, but Zaki stood his ground.
“Caledan,” Zaki said. “Do you speak Caledonian?”
“Caledonian?” The guard sneered. “Nulla. Non Caledonian.”
“I must see King Harad,” Zaki emphasised, wishing he could speak some broken words of their language, or they his. “King Harad – take me to him. I am King Zaki of Caledan. King Zaki.”
“King? Regis? Quod homo petit esse rex!” The guards burst out laughing, taking great pleasure in their amusement.
“Regis Zaki!” One bowed mockingly to him, sweeping his hand before him in a grand gesture, as the others continued their raucous laughter behind him. His balding head gleamed in the sun.
Zaki stepped forwards in anger, drawing his sword, the one weapon remaining to him.
At once the merriment ceased. The Roherii drew their own blades.
“I am King Zaki of Caledan. I command you to take me to King Harad immediately, or I swear upon my crown I will kill you all where you stand.” His sword point wavered before him as his arm shook with the weight of the blade, but Zaki’s blood boiled with fury at being so treated. After all he had endured, he refused to be turned away at the gate like a commoner. He stood, glaring at them, with his legs planted upon the ground and his free hand clenched.
Their leader looked him up and down, frowning, his eyes lingering over Zaki’s sword and the gold signet ring, which out of vanity Zaki could not bear to part with. Zaki tilted his ring so the gold flashed in the light, revealing the imprint of his crest upon it. The man turned to his companions, his expression one of doubt.
“Non certus sum… sed ut homo vera praedicat… Vide annulum? Vide viri eius?”
Zaki looked between them, but he did not understand their words. The man pointed to his hand and Zaki lifted it, showing his ring to the men, who were quieter and shifted upon their feet whilst sneaking uncomfortable glances at each other.
“Yes,” said their captain in accented Caledonian. He beckoned Zaki and his men forward, firing a rapid babble of orders at the Roherii men who scattered, their eyes wide. One returned, leading two horses – one for the captain and one for Zaki. He was thankful they had a mounting block, but even then he struggled, trying to conceal his involuntary grimaces beneath his hair.
His men remained on foot, limping along behind him, as they passed along one of the main avenues, bustling in the pre-evening rush. Men, women and children rushed about, some with baskets and packages, others with guards in carriages, but most on foot, weaving in-between each other.
The guards cut a column through the maelstrom before them. Zaki worried they were causing a spectacle and he slouched, flopping his hair across his face. He did not want to be recognised, but he need not have been concerned. Few batted an eye-lid at their passage – fewer stopped to stare. Zaki glanced at his dirty skin and tatty clothes. I look just like one of them. His lip curled with distaste.
The noise and smell of the city was overwhelming after weeks of near silence and nothingness. Zaki’s ears filled with an unbearable level of sound, worsening his pounding headache. The smells turned his stomach, especially the stench from the sewers and waste piles, and even the scent of food made him gag.
At last Zaki entered the palace compound, stopping for a moment at the gate as their guide spoke in hushed tones with those guarding the way, throwing many glances back towards the Caledonians. Zaki was beckoned through the gates, which clanged shut once his men had entered.
Peace returned. On the hill, away from the poorer districts of the city, the wealthy lived in quiet contentment, overlooked by the sprawling royal palace. Vast gardens opened up, and although the wealthier district’s streets on the slopes were more spacious than the crowded roads through the valley-bottom slums, the space in the palace grounds was most freeing.
Fountains babbled amid birdsong. Thirst rushed to the forefront of Zaki’s mind. He licked his lips in frustration, longing to dive into one of the gurgling ponds to drink, cool himself and cleanse the disgusting amount of grime from his body and clothing. It felt so ingrained Zaki feared he would never be purged of it.
They were led to Harad’s throne room, announced, and ushered through the golden doors. Zaki ignored the frescoed walls, the metal-plated and gem-studded marble carvings, and the rich tapestries. He did not even look up to the high ceiling, painted with scenes of the creation as told by Harad’s religion: it was a practice that worshipped many deities, which was strange to Zaki’s mind. Instead, his attention fixed on the figures at the far end of the room. Servants surrounded the king, who sat upon his grand throne.
They had last met in what felt like another life. Unbidden, Zaki recalled the moment when, stood before the gates of Pandora shoulder to shoulder with Harad, his father-in-law had betrayed him. Subdued and shackled like a common prisoner, though he tried with all his might to break free, Zaki had been handed over to Soren in exchange for the freedom of Zaki’s wife, Demara, and her unborn child. Instead of ascending in victory to Caledan’s throne, he had fallen to the deepest dungeon. Despite Harad’s assistance in Zaki’s escape, Zaki had not forgiven him that.
“Your Majesty.” Zaki was forced to greet Harad first, though he longed to stride up to the man and stab him in the gut for his betrayal.
“Your Royal Highness.” Harad returned the greeting.
Zaki felt a hot stab of anger. He dishonours me in public!
“Welcome to Arrans – at last! Let us refresh you,” Harad continued before Zaki could react. He clapped his hands: a sharp, short sound that reverberated around the large space.
At once his servants dispersed, returning moments later carrying trays piled high with sweet and savoury morsels and small glasses of pale yellow liquid.
His men fell upon them, so desperate were they for sustenance. Zaki longed to do the same, but forced himself to stand, waiting, until he was offered something, trembling as he suppressed his desire to move. He waved away the food, not trusting himself to eat with reserve, but he could not refuse the drink. I need a feast, not these pathetic scraps.
Zaki took – with meticulous steadiness – a glass between his forefinger and thumb, tipping its entire contents slowly down his throat, all the while with his eyes fixed on Harad. The liquid swirled around his mouth and swam down his throat, cool and refreshing. Zaki took another glass, and then a third, touching his lips with shaking fingers and savouring the wetness there. He waited for Harad to speak, to make the next move.
“You do not look well,” the king remarked, regarding him with veiled eyes.
Zaki could not control his temper any longer. “How dare you! How dare you betray me – abandon me to my death and pretend all is well!”
“I welcome you, do I not? I offer you good food and drink, no? What is past is past.”
“I nearly died! Look at me! I have travelled for who knows how many weeks or months through that God forsaken desert trying to stay alive – we ate every last damn horse and it wasn’t enough,” Zaki raged, storming around with frustration. The delicate glass shattered in his clenched fist and he paused, swearing. He dropped the shards to the floor and sucked his bleeding palm before he continued, his hand throbbing.
“My men are dead. My hopes are dead. You have crushed everything. You have stolen my future when it was there for me to take. I have nothing – and it is all your fault! And now, when I arrive here, starving and a wreck, you have the nerve to offer me sweets?” Zaki slapped a tray from the hand of a nearby servant. It smashed upon the floor, food and glass cascading everywhere.
Harad stood, snarling. Thunderous eyebrows sunk over narrowed eyes as his guards moved forward in synchronisation. The king waved them away with a slash of his hand and they melted into the shadows.
Around Zaki, a flurry of servants crawled upon the floor, picking up every last morsel in blank-faced silence.
“Take these men away to bathe, eat and rest,” Harad commanded, gesturing at Zaki’s ragged band. They were led away. Harad stepped down ever so slowly from his throne, though he kept a distance between himself and Zaki.
“There was no successful outcome for us that day,” Harad said as the door shut behind the last of the Caledonians.
Zaki didn’t need to ask which day. Us? Zaki noticed Harad’s choice of word.
“I made the best decisions I could based on the moves we could have made. You are lucky that I helped you to escape.”
“This is not a game, and your fire device almost killed me in the process!”
“Then you are lucky; I admit it is not perfected. However, I disagree. It is very much a game – of strategy – and that day, whatever had happened, we would have lost had I not acted thusly. I would have lost – and Roher does not lose. Roher is strong and Roher is feared. And why do you think that is?
“Because I always choose the battles we will win. We could not have won with the men we had that day. Yet, if I had retreated with you, my daughter and her babe – the heir to your claim – would still be in Pandora, and Roher’s reputation would be ruined.”
Zaki looked up, his eyes wide and mouth open. “I have a son?”
“No. You have a daughter.”
Zaki growled, an inhuman sound. “I did not risk my life for a daughter!”
Servants scurried away from him in fear.
“You have much to learn if you dismiss the value of a daughter,” said Harad. “In any case, you still have a wife to give you many sons. Stay, and recover. There is nothing to say that Caledan’s throne will not someday be yours.”
Zaki was thrown by the offer. He regarded Harad with suspicion. The older man seemed genuine and caring in his offer, which made Zaki more distrustful. Harad never gives something for nothing. But there was little to consider; no man in his right mind would choose to turn back into the desert, away from such a haven. “How do I know I can trust you?”
Harad shrugged. “You do not. I helped you escape with a gift of our newest and most expensive warfare technology, experimental as it may be. Make what you will of that. But you have my assurance that you will have a chance to redeem yourself here in Roher. I am impressed that you have made it so far.”
Zaki splashed absentmindedly in the bath; it was a huge depression carved in the floor of his room and lined with polished stone – a novel concept compared to Caledan’s wooden tubs. The warm water filled with oils soothed his aching body, and he could have fallen asleep there, drowning in the enticing scents and the sheer comfort of such luxuries.
He ate from the snacks offered to him by the tiny serving boy next to the bath for the sake of it. Despite gorging himself on a meal after his meeting with Harad, he felt the need to eat after his enforced starvation, as if the supply of food might soon cease again.
Not concentrating on what he consumed, Zaki chewed upon the latest bite whilst contemplating his father-in-law’s plans.
Why would he have me incarcerated only to then help me escape in order to come all the way here? The device was a brilliant contraption. I wish we had such technology in Caledan. Perhaps he knew I would escape, that I would reach him here. Perhaps he seeks to help me regain the throne of Caledan with all of Roher’s might, not that poxy guard with which Harad and I returned to Pandora.
He relished the thought, but it was not satisfying. He still did not feel confident that he had a grasp of Harad’s plans. All I know for certain is that he uses me for his own ends. I must work this to my advantage. It may be a game, but it is not his. I must use his resources to take back my kingdom.
As he hauled himself out of the cooling bath, a maid hurried to wrap a towel around him. Neither the woman nor the boy spoke. Zaki took a moment to appreciate her slender form as her uniform pressed against his skin for a moment. It had been a long time since he had remembered the existence of women, let alone enjoyed one. Her dark skin fascinated him. His was burnt from the harsh sun, but hers glowed.
Thinking about the woman reminded him of his wife: a much less tempting prospect. Zaki sighed. A wife and a daughter. What use are women? I suppose I must visit her.
~It was mid-afternoon by the time he had dressed and followed his guide to Demara’s chambers. He wore Roherii clothes, far different to Caledonian attire and better suited to Roher’s hotter climes. Loose fitting, the finely woven, light material slithered across his clean skin, sending it tingling with pleasure.
To have new shoes upon his feet pleased him more than anything. The soles were so soft that he sunk into them, his newly scrubbed and tended feet relishing the relief. All of his old clothes had been disposed of; they were not even worth cleaning to salvage the fabric.
The palace was as different to Pandora’s castle as the garb was to his own. Pandora’s castle was spacious, yet it held a darkness to it that daylight could not shift. It was a true castle, built for war and only later converted for living in comfort. In contrast, Harad’s palace had been constructed purely for luxury.
Spacious, high corridors linked the various quarters and private apartments within the building, which were given over to various branches of the family. The palace sprawled over a wide space, and in places was several stories high, extended as needed.
Instead of windows were giant openings with drapes hung on the inner wall and shutters outside to protect against sun or rain if needed. Arrans had certainly never known the same winter snows as Pandora.
The palace was constructed from the red stone that had built most of Arrans, but most of the surfaces were marble or polished stone. Floors were laid in patterns, some even made of the tiniest coloured tiles to depict scenes. Wooden floors were all of the highest quality, laid in intricate designs – all far from Pandora’s simple stone floors or wooden boards.
Open dining areas, large courtyards with fountains and greenery, and frequent open mezzanine levels held up by the columns that seemed to be a staple of Roherii architecture offered chance glimpses at the scenery over the city, the countryside or parts of the palace and grounds.
Zaki shook his head at such opulence in disbelief that such a place could exist, but he was also envious of the lifestyle Harad surrounded himself with. At last his escort gestured towards a door.
“Hic est. Demara.” The man knocked on the door, which was opened by the tiniest crack. A young woman’s face peered out.
Her maid. Zaki recognised her in a flash, though he had never bothered to learn her name.
Her eyes widened as she looked him up and down, her mouth ajar. The escort must have introduced him, for he heard his name amongst the babble of Roherish, but instead of being admitted that instant, the lady withdrew her head and called into the apartments within. A muffled voice replied and the door opened, the lady moving to the side to allow him to pass. Zaki strode in, his guide following.
Before open doors that led to a stone edged balcony sat his wife. Demara held a babe swaddled in layers of colourful fabric and gazed into its face adoringly. As she looked up, her smile faded and her face closed.
“Husband,” she greeted him.
“Wife.” His reply was just as awkward, yet it was as if nothing had passed between them, that he had not endured the last months and she had not ridden away and left him to his fate. Her face showed no emotion at his unexpected return. Does she care? he fleetingly wondered.
She gestured for him to sit and he perched on the opposing chair. Silence fell.
“Would you like to see your daughter?” Demara asked him after the lengthy pause, shifting the babe in her grasp.
Zaki nodded curtly. If I must.
Without a word Demara passed him the girl. She was tiny, made huge by the cloths swaddling her, and so young he could not tell her gender. Would that you were a boy, he wished. He stared at her, but could not see the attraction that had caused Demara to gaze at her with such open love. It’s a baby. Unremarkable. He sighed.
Tiny eyelids fluttered open, revealing brown eyes matching her mother’s. They bored into him.
“She is called Leika,” Demara volunteered, shifting in her seat with agitation as if she wished to take the child from him again.
Zaki looked down at his daughter and thrust her back at Demara.
“Do you not love her?” Demara asked, indignant. She clutched Leika to her chest, stroking the cloths.
“She is a girl.”
“She is your daughter.”
“Yes, a daughter. What need do I have of daughters? None. I need a son. A daughter is nothing more than an insult.”
Demara’s mouth fell open at that, and her eyes flashed with rage. “You dishonour me with your callous words. Get out!” She stood and turned away, dismissing him with her body too.
“I will not,” he replied, incredulous that a woman should give orders to him.
But the maid stepped forward to add insult to injury. “Please, this way, sir.” She gestured towards the door.
Zaki stood, stepping towards the girl with menace.
With no fear in her eyes, she clapped.
From seemingly nowhere several guards appeared.
Zaki’s eyes flicked around the room.
“Please, this way, sir,” the maid said again. Her next words must have repeated her sentiments to the guards in Roherii for they crowded Zaki, forcing him from the room.
The moment the door shut in his face, he struggled against the guards, but to no avail.
“She is a woman! How dare she order me about! I command you to let me back in.”
The guards moved him along, blank faced, as if they could not hear him.
When he was alone in his own chamber, he stood white-faced, his entire body shaking with fury. How dare she! My own wife, ordering me around and throwing me out! He stormed around the room in a chorus of curses.

To be continued...
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