Anne didn't know a lot about Meryn's past, but when boisterous people got quiet, it was never for a good reason.


Anne noticed that Kendrick's entire body had become tense. He kept his head down, concentrating on his soup.

She leaned closer to him. "Dinner can't be that fascinating," she whispered.

Kendrick's mouth moved, and Anne had to assume it was his attempt at a smile. Amelia was practically vibrating in her chair as she made introductions, and Meryn looked like she was two seconds away from sliding under the table.

She and Kendrick had chosen to scoot down to open up seats for Lily and Marshall next to Amelia and Darian. This put Kendrick at the end of the table opposite Aiden with Amelia sitting to his left. He didn't look like he was happy with his new seat.

Lily had her arms around Amelia and was brushing away tears. "Thank the Gods that you're safe! Caiden waited until we called to tell him we had arrived in Lycaonia to tell us about your kidnapping. It's all our fault!"

"Lily." Marshall called her name sharply.

Meryn sat up, bristling. "She can say whatever the hell she wants to."

Anne grinned. There was the pint-sized whirlwind she had come to know. Beside her, Kendrick snorted.

Marshall turned to Meryn, a look of shock on his face. "Of course, she can," He stopped and raised his right hand. He began to whisper, and the air seemed to shimmer. "There, I've soundproofed the room. I was simply warning her that we could be overheard, sweetheart. I wasn't trying to censure what she was saying. Once you get to know your aunt, you will realize that would be an impossible task."

Lily beamed at Meryn. "You don't act a thing like your mother," she said laughing.

Meryn shrugged. "I wouldn't know; she died when I was little," she mumbled.

Lily sobered instantly. "I wish you could have known her. She was sweet and kind. She never had a bad word to say about anyone, much like my Amelia here."

Meryn stared down at her plate. "I'm not like her at all."

Lily smiled. "No dear, you're not." Meryn winced. Lily continued. "You're just like me."

Meryn looked up, eyes wide. "Really?"

Marshall chuckled. "Gods help us all, but I think she's right. Lily would have put me in my place exactly as you did just now. She's very fierce about the ones she loves."

Amelia stared at her mother in shock. "She is?"

Lily cuddled Amelia closer. "It's time we told you the truth about what is happening. You and your brothers are already being targeted, there's no reason to hide what we're doing anymore."

"Mother?" Confused, Amelia looked from one parent to the other.

"Yes, Lily, Marshall, please share what you mean." Kendrick sat back and crossed his arms.

Marshall glared at her mate. "I don't have to answer to you Kendrick Ashwood, despite you being my daughter's athair."

Kendrick laced his fingers behind his head. "I think we're all very curious as to what you meant by your statements, that's all."

Lily pulled back and took Amelia's hands in hers. "Your father and I haven't been traveling around communing with nature all these years."

"What have you been doing?" Amelia asked.

Lily looked over at Marshall who nodded encouragingly. She took a deep breath. "Right before you were born, we were tasked with a very important mission. We've been tracking down Storm Keep's missing royal couple."

Beside her, Kendrick exhaled slowly. Anne looked up and saw that his jaw was clenched and the muscles in his neck were strained. She reached out, took his hand, and slowly began massaging the center of his palm. She was satisfied when he relaxed a fraction.

"I thought you were eating alfalfa sprouts and learning yoga!" Amelia exploded.

Lily shook her head. "It has taken us decades, but we're close to finding our king and queen."

Gavriel leaned forward. "Kiran and Celeste disappeared over five thousand years ago, just after the Great War and the creation of the four pillar cities. Their castle had just been finished when they were attacked and forced to flee."

Marshall nodded. "That was when the council rose to power. The royal house fell, and the heads of the two noble houses were murdered." He looked over at Amelia. "That would be your great-grandparents and the Ashleighs' great-grandparents. The two noble families wouldn't be able to return to Storm Keep for nearly one hundred years, and even then, they weren't allowed to move back into the royal palace. So, the surviving family members slowly bought up most of the land around the castle and built the two enormous estates that still stand today, the left and right sides that create the gate tower for the upper city.

"To this day, we have carried out our sworn duties to protect the royal family. We, the Ironwoods, act as the royal shield; the Ashleighs act as the royal sword. We protect the royal family from harm and they destroy their enemies."

"Well, obviously y'all did a real bang-up job, seeing as how they were kicked out of their own castle and have been missing for five thousand years," Meryn said sarcastically.

Marshall winced. "I have spoken with Thane's father and compared the journals that we have from our parents. There is more to the story than we know. Despite actually being there and witnessing everything firsthand, their accounts of the events of that night are sketchy. Even our covert interviews with the few remaining witches who were alive at the time revealed the same exact vague details. Whatever happened was so subtle and so precisely done that the entire kingdom failed to realize something huge had taken place. It was only after I compared my notes with Thane's that we even saw the pattern. When asked certain questions, everyone gave the exact same response. It was as if one day we had a king, and the next, we had a council, and no one marked the change."


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