Scornfully rejected by her desert lover and uncertain of her place in the world, Adonia travels an arduous road fraught with peril to the fabled mountain-city of Nyth Uchel. She wishes to heal their sick and dying, but in the arms of Hel—their highborn prince—Adonia discovers where she longs to belong.
Noble born, a descendant of the greatest kings their planet has known, Hel willingly bears the burden of his dying city and its people on his massive shoulders—alone. But forced to watch helplessly as a dark evil attacks the very soil under his feet, he crushes his pride to summon help. He is staggered to discover the answer to saving his city and perhaps all Verdantia might lie behind a heavy fall of chocolate hair and shy brown eyes.
As their entire planet faces encroaching black death, Hel and Adonia, two seemingly disparate individuals, forge a partnership of love and sacrifice that alters their future forever.
More? Here are the first two chapters:
The nails in the worn heels of Prince DeHelios’ boots clicked against the stone as Hel climbed the stairs, and then softened to a rhythmic thud as he strode the carpeted hall to the small corner of the castle still maintained as a residence. He looked neither left nor right and ignored the signs of prosperity dimmed—room after room empty and dark, rooms where laughter and love once abided. He stared sightlessly past the shrouded portraits of his long-dead ancestors, the first kings and queens of Verdantia, now ghostly rectangles adorning a poorly lit hall. A melancholy sorrow pierced his heart when he passed the empty nursery—it’s fleeting pain as biting as the cold outside, but he shrugged it off with a grim discipline.
“Thank the Goddess, you are back.” A stooped, elderly man accosted Hel as he entered a cozy chamber where a fire radiated warmth and candles lifted the gloom. Heavy tapestry curtains covered the floor-to-ceiling windows and prevented any draft. From the bookcases lining the walls crammed full of leather-bound tomes, the room had served as a library or office in an earlier time. Now, the pale bodies on low pallets arranged about the room testified to another use—a sickroom.
“Bernard, give me a moment.” Hel shrugged his steward off and nodded at an older woman attending one of those ill. “Sara, how is Rolly?”
She shook her head. “He won’t last the night, my lord.”
Hel disguised his pain at the news. The man was a friend. “I’ll come sit with him. Give me a moment.” He turned to Bernard. “I got your message. I came directly.” Hel pulled one of the squat, upholstered stools close to the fire and sat holding his hands out to the warmth. The icicles in his heavy black beard dripped onto the floor as they began to thaw. Bernard hovered over him radiating anxiety.
“We must have a skilled medicus and more brite-weed. I am unlearned in the healing arts, my lord—all of us are. We do our best, but…” The elderly man closed his eyes and seemed to shrink. “We lost Edgar today—another good man who was hale and hearty two months ago. The perimeter you set last month on the western border has failed. I don’t understand why. We could always count on at least eight months, but we will have no wheat fields come spring if the blight cannot be pushed back.”
As if the burden of feeding and housing his people was not sufficient, an unfamiliar, insidious blight, a black sickness, seemed to affect both the animate and inanimate on his mountain. One by one, his people had succumbed to a disturbing affliction that sucked their vigor, their anima, until they surrendered any attempt to live and just fadedinto death. The same contagion that afflicted his people drained the life from his land. The blight attacked the very soil under their feet, rendering it putrid, barren, unable to sustain life.
Hel sighed and hunched closer to the fire. His shoulders bowed as if every word from Bernard’s mouth added yet another weighty burden to their width.
His steward’s voice faltered but his recount of the latest catastrophes continued. “Julian Goodman asked for the makings for brite-weed tea today. He said his wife was sickening. I told him to come back later. I couldn’t risk the panic should he learn we had none.”
At the old man’s words, Hel straightened and raised his eyes to Bernard. “Tessa? Tessa is fading?”
Hel’s body tightened when he remembered the sweet, erotic surrender of the woman.Ah, Tessa.
Together, they had performed the sexual rites to clean Nyth Uchel of an ugly remnant of the Haarb wars, soul wraiths—though Hel preferred the term ‘leeches’. Warm, giving Tessa—he couldnot let such a gentle soul die. His thoughts went to that day in the windswept courtyard when he had requested a partner for the rites and Tessa had answered, over her husband’s vocal protests.
Her gentle voice carried in the quiet of the courtyard. “Julian, please reconsider. Lady Athena is dead and our lord has no one else. I have enough aristocratic blood to be of use to him. It will save all of us. It is just the temporary use of my body.”
Her gentle eyes had shamed her husband and he’d turned away with a snarling, “Do as you will.”
Julian avoided Hel from that day forward. With regret, Hel considered he had made a lifetime enemy of the man; but Tessa, sweet, sweet Tessa had been a revelation, such a contrast to his dead wife who was cold even in life.
Hel felt a presence at his back and the woman tending the sick room quietly addressed him. “My lord, you best come now. I don’t think he has long.”
Hel rose and moved between the ill to a chair pulled beside the pallet where Rolly lay covered with blankets. Vivid, suppurating sores covered his scalp and face and his flesh hung slackly as if melted onto his skull.
“Rolly.” Hel sat, then bent over his former gamekeeper and spoke his name gently. “Rolly, it’s DeHelios. I’m here with you.”
The man moaned and moved slightly but otherwise gave no sign he had heard. Anger born of impotence rose in Hel’s gut. He wished there was something he could do for the man. Of course, he wished many things and thought again of Tessa and all those whose lives depended on him.
Breath rattled in Rolly’s lungs, and then he fell silent. His chest no longer rose and fell. Hel listened intently and watched for any sign of life.
“I think he’s gone, sir,” Sara said.
The effort not to scream or pound his fist through a wall left him rigid. When he was certain he could control himself, Hel stood and faced Bernard. “My damnable pride, my refusal to ask the Tetriarch for help has brought us to this. We need the radiance of our sigil tower to blaze forth once again and kill this dark contagion. For that, I need amagistra. Tessa was an incomplete substitute for my wife. A tender, willing heart cannot replace the genetics and the schooling that make a magistra a true conduit for power. I have wasted precious time that might have brought an end to this nightmare.”
“My lord, the corruption beset us on multiple fronts. You made the best decision at the time. You couldn’t have known the blight would spread with such speed and devastation.”
Bernard’s words didn’t lift his sense of guilt. “Tell the people I have gone to the new capital, Sylvan Mintoth. I will return with a magistra, a healer and more brite-weed. I will beg for charity on my knees if I must.”
After a long week of arduous, perilous travel, Hel reached his destination. In a surge of force, he stiff-armed the immense double doors to Queen Fleur Constante’s audience hall. Boom! The thick, metal-strapped doors flew open and rebounded against the walls of chiseled stone. The resonating crash silenced the hum of voices and pulled all eyes to him. The only noise came from the papers fluttering down from overbalanced stacks on a trestle table. The table flanked a throne-like upholstered chair on an elevated dais at the end of the hall. A group of half a dozen or so men and women clustered in conversation with a diminutive woman seated in the chair. Their conversation ceased and their heads raised as if a herd of chital at a waterhole alerting to a predator.
His keen senses absorbed the large chamber of polished stone floors and rugged walls before he took a second step into the audience chamber. Heavy beams of entire trees supported and braced a roof rising at least thirty feet. Clerestory windows ranging the length of each long wall flooded the audience hall with natural light. As befitted the first noble house of Verdantia, the crimson DeHelios banner, his banner, with its rampant white stallion surrounded by the rays of a sun, hung beside the purple and gold crowns of the currently ruling House Constante. Below them hung the banners of the thirty lesser noble Houses of Verdantia.
He shed his heavy coat and hat of icebear pelt as his aggressive, confident strides took him down the center of the great hall. The mass of previous supplicants fell away in silent recognition of a superior force to allow him unfettered passage. “I am Prince DeHelios of the standard that hangs by privilege of rank beside your own. House Constante will provide me a skilled healer, a magistra level five or higher, and ten pecks of brite-weed. Time is of the essence. My people are dying.” In the unnatural silence, his resounding baritone carried his demands to the furthest parts of the audience hall.
Immediately, three men—and a woman dressed in battle leathers—stepped in front of the upholstered chair and screened the queen’s person from him, a living barricade. Their hands rested on the pommels of their swords. Assorted palace guards hastened to encircle the queen in a ring of bristling weaponry.
Hel snorted. “I have not forgotten all civilized behavior. I come unarmed.”
A man dressed with austere elegance in close-fitting black leather stepped forward. “I am High Lord Ari DeTano, Primo Signore of the Second Tetriarch, and Consort to Queen Constante. You may address your concerns to me.” His bearing and commanding voice conveyed the expectation of obedience.
Hel casually examined the High Lord of Verdantia. So, this man led the forces that defeated the Haarb. “I heard the Constante queen had taken two lovers. My words are for our monarch, not the men who warm her bed.”
DeTano stiffened and his cool gaze became arctic.
A tall, blond man of ethereal beauty moved to stand beside the High Lord. “I am Visconte Doral DeLorion and Segundo Signore of the Second Tetriarch—the otherlover. Who in the seven hells are you.”
The blond’s quiet voice held menace. If Hel wasn’t mistaken, the man had palmed a throwing knife into his right hand, poised for a lethal strike. Hel suspected either man would prove formidable in combat, but something about the slender blond suggested the killing edge of a well-honed razor. He must be DeTano’s assassin.
A third male crossed his arms over his chest and with a low rumble of laughter, relaxed his stance. “DeHelios. Ha! The last time I saw you, you sprawled unconscious in a shrub leaving a lovely piece of horseflesh in need of an owner.”
Hel studied the speaker. He knew that laconic drawl—but its owner was a criminal with no love for Verdantian nobility. What was this man doing here? “Ramsey DeKieran, you nefarious thief! You owe me the price of that fine horse. You fell on me from a tree, you coward. I never had a chance.”
Ramsey snorted. “Still an egotistical ass. You should be grateful I took only the horse. Your head is still nicely attached.” He caught the eyes of the other two men. “Gentlemen, that tower of smelly fur is ‘Hel’. You may know him by a different name. The Haarb called him bás dtost—the silent death.” Ramsey rolled his eyes.
Hel raised his lip in a snarl at Ramsey’s mockery. “Such illustrious company, DeKieran. Your status in the world seems to have risen—but then it could hardly have fallen lower.”
Ramsey grunted. “Unlikely, eh? You may address me as Lord DeKieran, Fifteenth Earl of House DeKieran, and the striking redhead preparing to unman you from ten feet away is my wife, Lieutenant Colonel Steffania Rickard of the Queen’s Blue Daggers. Be careful with your words, Hel. My vixen is wicked with a throwing knife and takes insults to me personally.”
Hel arched an eyebrow in surprise and nodded at the glorious redhead measuring him with amused golden eyes. “Ma’am, my condolences on your marriage. I assume you had no choice.”
The stunning mercenary hid laughter turned to cough behind a closed fist
“So the bás dtost was real. I was never certain,” the blond assassin murmured to High Lord DeTano.
Hel swung his regard to the queen’s second lover and snorted. “I’m real enough.”
“I thought you dead on that pile of ice you call a mountain,” said Ramsey.
Hel paused before answering. Many nights, alone with his memories and tormented by dreams, he thought death might be a kindness but he refused to take the easy way out. “A few of us still fight to survive.”
A soft feminine voice caught Hel’s ear. Behind the men blocking his access to the queen, Hel noticed movement. A tall, handsome woman, a brunette with strong, angular features cocked her head as if listening then bent down out of sight. Her warm brown gaze, alive with intelligence, had locked with his for a tangible moment. A pulse of electricity ran down his spine and his instincts jumped to alert. By Her light, who are you? Hel casually lifted his head hoping to catch a further glimpse but she had retreated behind solid bodies. The women’s whispered conversation carried just enough to hear.
“Adonia, with your height what do you see? Describe it.”
“A rather large man, Your Majesty, at least, I think there is a man underneath all the hair and pelts. A black beard and mustache obscure his face and his hair hangs in ratted clumps down his forehead and back. The only thing I can tell with certainty is that he is a hulking lump with gray eyes and desperately in need of a barber.”
Hel laughed inwardly. Yes, “hulking lump in desperate need of a barber” probably described him well.
He heard a sigh and a creak from the upholstered chair then the lilt of a melodious voice. “Ari, Doral, Lord Ramsey, please move aside so I may speak with, ah…DeHelios.”
With obvious reluctance, the High Lord and his assassin made an opening. Ramsey stayed where he was, arms crossed, but turned to allow Hel room to pass.
Hel climbed the steps of the dais toward a delicately beautiful blond woman, a mere pittance in the upholstered chair. Her weight barely dented the cushions in spite of her advanced pregnancy. The addition of a padded step stool prevented her legs from dangling. She arranged her arms across her belly as if somehow she would shield her unborn babe from danger. Pain at the thought she would consider him a threat to her child softened his aggressive stance. His steps paused several feet from her, and he gentled his manner.
“Your Majesty is with child.”
Clear blue eyes held his and her smile radiated joy. “Yes. It will be our fourth.” She pushed up on the arms of her chair and shifted to another hip. “And she cannot come soon enough. I find the waiting a little…burdensome.”
“My wife complained of the same. Four children? You are truly blessed, Ma’am. I wish you a trouble-free birth and a healthy babe.” He softened his gruff tone and finished with a respectful bow. He had issues with the Constante ruler on the Verdantian throne, but the utmost respect for motherhood.
“Thank you.” She studied him for a long moment. “House DeHelios—the first kings and queens of Verdantia. The First Tetriarch. Hmm. Your House and the mountain city, Nyth Uchel, are so revered by the common people you are almost fable. All Verdantia grieved the loss of Nyth Uchel and the radiant Torre Bianca. We thought your line dead and Nyth Uchel razed in the Haarb massacres. I give heartfelt thanks to know we are in error. What brings you down from your mountain, Sir?”
“Ma’am, it is a dire and complicated story. I suggest my tale is best discussed somewhere more comfortable for you.”
The queen moved her gaze to her consorts who stood protectively at either side of her. “Ari? Doral?”
High Lord DeTano nodded. “The children will be running riot in our apartments but my office should be comfortable enough. I would like DeKieran and Steffania to join us—and Medica Corvus—attend the queen, please.” His eyes caught the tall woman who stood behind the queen’s chair and the brunette nodded.
“All right.” Queen Constante wrestled her ungainly body to a stand. “Shall we?”
Hel stepped back and held out his arm to assist her down the steps but the beautiful blond man moved forward and swept the slight figure of the queen into his arms. The two exchanged a look of such love that Hel felt he intruded on an intimacy and he immediately turned away. The young queen must have seen his discomfort. She reached out and touched his arm and Hel turned back to her.
“Prince DeHelios, my Segundo dislikes seeing me ‘waddle like a duck’ and finds it too painful to watch my slow, ponderous steps. He says it is necessary to carry me and I must confess—I rather like it.” Her playful grin pulled an answering quirk of lips from Hel and an arched brow from Doral.
“My preference, my Queen, is that you forgo walking at all and stay in bed these last two weeks, but I am just a poor male whose wishes you blithely disregard.” Doral descended the steps and carried his queen out of the audience hall followed by High Lord DeTano, Lord Ramsey and his wife, Steffania, and the woman called Adonia. Hel trailed all of them but clearly heard the queen’s gentle gurgle of laughter.
“I just like the feel of your arms around me, my love.”
Hel found it difficult to continue his dismissal of this sweet-natured, loving young queen as “that upstart Constante woman.” Perhaps he should have come down from his isolated mountain sooner. He acknowledged with bitter honesty that he envied Ari DeTano and Doral DeLorion. They possessed what he yearned for—a warm, passionate woman to love and bear him children. He’d even settle for what he’d had before—a marriage of cold respect if the nursery held children once more.
Light and warmth, the delectable smells of baking bread and savory roasting meats and the lift of happy voices wafted through the palace halls. Hel contrasted the inviting interior of this palace with the silent, cold gloom of Nyth Uchel. He promised himself, again, that he would labor until the city and his home reclaimed their former majesty and pulsed with vibrancy and life—no matter if it took him the rest of his life to accomplish it.
Adonia Corvus shook off the peculiar agitation that had engulfed her body when she locked eyes with Prince DeHelios and followed Ari, Doral and Fleur through the halls toward Ari’s office. She pulled her soft wrap closer around her bony shoulders with a convulsive shiver. Until almost two years ago, she had known nothing but the searing heat of the Oshtesh wastelands. Even the temperate climate of Sylvan Mintoth chilled her tall, spare, twenty-eight year old body.
Doral murmured something to his queen and she flashed a glance toward Adonia.
“Adonia, are you cold, again? The trees still hold their leaves. It is a warm fall day. However did you survive last winter?” Queen Constante laughed at her healer’s answering shudder and grimace. “You have been at the High Enclave for over a year. Your blood must have thickened a little.”
“It seems not, Ma’am.” Adonia schooled the tartness out of her voice. With two attentive lovers, Fleur would never know the coldness of isolation or lack the warmth of human contact. Adonia’s eyes shifted enviously to the ice-bear pelts wrapping Prince DeHelios and she sighed inwardly. I could put those heavy furs to good use. Drawn by some inexorable attraction, her eyes tracked upward and the same hyper-awareness as in the audience hall sparked through her as she met his gaze. By the Goddess! The man winked at me. She hurried to stay even with Fleur.
“I had a high compliment about you, today,” Fleur teased, craning her neck to meet Adonia’s gaze.
“Yes, from the Senior Medicus of the High Enclave.”
Fleur laughed. “Yes, don’t sound so dumfounded. Elder Beckton said he’d never before had a student with such a voracious capacity for learning. He told me you’d flown through the basic and intermediate material on applying healing magicks and were well into the advanced uses.” Fleur smiled as her head bobbed in time with Doral’s steps.
“He’s a good teacher.” Adonia’s voice fell to almost a whisper. “It is my heart’s desire to be able to apply the magicks in my healing, but I cannot use the diaman crystals. My learning is all theoretical.”
“You are an exceptional medica—even without the magicks,” Fleur maintained stoutly.
Yes, but if not for my common blood, I could do so much more. Adonia dropped her gaze to the floor and shrugged. “Thank you, Ma’am. I do what I can.”
She counted everyday spent with the medicae of the High Enclave a blessing. Her skill with the healing arts had increased tenfold as she gorged her mind on the practical knowledge in the High Enclave’s great library.
Practical knowledge did nothing to assuage her obsessive fascination with the magickal rites—the sexual rites the highborn with their prized genetics used to energize diaman crystals to power their working of the healing magicks. But, that knowledge was of dubious use to her. Elder Beckton had shaken his head in apology.“Only the highborn need learn this. You waste your time with those books.”
Her innermost yearning could never be realized. She resigned herself to be an onlooker, never a participant. She lacked the inherited talents bred into the noble houses for over five hundred years. Probably not a bad thing. The Great Rite is said to be arduous—dangerous to a woman’s sanity. I’d likely wind up like that poor insane magistra whose cries filter through the hall near my rooms. A tendril of fear snaked up her spine. Still…I wonder…
“Your practical skills serve well, Adonia, and I am grateful that Eric and Sophi were willing to part with you.” Doral’s low voice brought a flush to her face. She hadn’t realized the Segundo took note of her existence. I should know by now that nothing associated with our queen goes unnoticed by Ari or Doral.
Her close friendship with Fleur exposed her to the indelible bond between the Second Tetriarch. At times she had to turn away, beset by want, overwhelmed by the love that flowed between the three. I have love to give a man. But two years ago, she’d buried those desires deep and had thrown herself into her studies. She gave her love to her patients. It was too painful to do anything else.
As the group settled itself into the comfortable leather furnishings of Ari’s office, Adonia shook off her troublesome thoughts and composed herself to listen. A pungent smell stung her nostrils. She turned her head, sniffing, lifting her chin to follow the smell—and came eye to eye with the hulk that proclaimed himself DeHelios. She dropped her head and turned away at his observant grin.
“I’ve had no time for the luxury of a bath, Lady. I expect I’m rather ripe.”
“More like something long dead and rotting,” she muttered under her breath.
The hulk leaned over and whispered, “It must be the bear pelts you smell, Lady. Every part of me is alive.”
He’d heard her! Adonia shot him a sharp glance then faced forward. Did her flirt with her? Surely not. Unthinkable. She snuck a peek out of the corner of her eye. By Her light. The grin had vanished but his eyes still laughed at her above a face obscured by curly black hair. She fidgeted with the two-headed phoenix charm on the chain around her neck and concentrated her attention on Ari.
“State your business, Prince DeHelios. You said something about a magistra, a healer and brite-weed.”
DeHelios stood and shrugged off his heavy outwear before he addressed the room, turning in a semi-circle as he spoke their names. “High Lord DeTano, Your Majesty, Visconte DeLorion, Lord Ramsey, Lieutenant Colonel…”
“Oh, by Her stars, Sir. Let’s not stand on ceremony.” Queen Constante interrupted DeHelios with a smile. “I am Fleur.” Her arm gestured to her right and then to her left. “Ari and Doral. Ramsey and Steffania. My medica, Adonia. And you are?”
“Yes, yes, but your first name is?” Silence settled into the room. “Sir?” said the queen.
“Your mother named you Hel?”
“Just call me “Hel.” DeHelios folded his arms and scowled.
With a rueful shake of her head, Fleur conceded. “All right, just Hel. Continue.”
The man gathered his thoughts for a moment then frowned. “I suppose it all began with the Haarb invasion of Nyth Uchel and the massacre of House DeHelios. Their armies took the city completely by surprise.”
“I understand the Haarb attacked you early on in the war. Most Verdantians were still unaware we had been invaded,” said Doral.
“Yes. And our city-state is more isolated than most.” Hel gazed off at some unseen horizon. “My younger brother and I had gone down our mountain to track and verify the rumor of war and invasion. We returned to discover that war and invasion had come to us.” Hel walked to a window and looked out. Every eye followed him. “The Haarb looted the city and massacred the living. In the weeks that followed, survivors filtered back into Nyth Uchel but at the time of our return, all we saw was death.
“For the first time in our history, Torre Bianca stood dark against the sky, herdiamantorre shattered. Nyth Uchel and the city below lay in ruins. Partially consumed bodies lay everywhere, the wolves and other scavengers so glutted they had eaten only the choicest parts.” Hel tapped on the stone sill while he spoke. “My younger brother and I buried our entire family—my older brother, his wife and their three children, my mother, my father, my wife and,” Hel paused and took a deep breath, “my six-year old son and two-year old daughter.”
Adonia ached at the heartbreak poorly concealed in his flat voice. With a tiny, almost inaudible moan, Fleur slipped her hand into Ari’s. Her other reached up and found Doral’s resting on the back of her chair.
Hel turned to face the room, his arms loosely crossed, his hip cocked on the window casement. He gazed unseeing at the floor. “In the years that followed, I haunted the Haarb patrols that trespassed onto my mountain and made them pay.”
Doral spoke into the pause. “Very early in the war, I heard tales of the bás dtost —the ‘silent death’—of Nyth Uchel, of Haarb soldiers gutted and left hanging from trees by their intestines. We were never sure if it was a superstitious tale or fact. That was you.”
Hel’s eyes held Doral’s and Adonia didn’t think she’d ever seen a face so bleak.
“Yes. That was me. I thought that death befitting for it was what they had done to me. Their screams were poor compensation for my loss.”
“Another lull settled into the room until Hel gave a sigh and a shrug. “Finally, the Haarb stopped coming and the news of their defeat reached even the isolation of Nyth Uchel. I returned to my shattered city, my people, and we tried to rebuild.”
“It was during that time that I noticed…” Hel frowned and gave a puzzled shake of his head. “…dead zones in the forest surrounding Nyth Uchel—pockets of death where nothing healthy lived, no natural animal, no normal green growth. A foul blight polluted the soil. Strange mutations of creatures appeared on the outskirts of the city.
“Since that time, the areas of blight have expanded unchecked and one now threatens the western border of Nyth Uchel. This unnatural contagion that alters the soil and all that grows in it, is slowly killing my people. I don’t know how it spreads, but the foulness attacks a person’s soul, their spirit, their anima, feeding on their life force until the afflicted simply lose the desire to live and succumb to a pernicious rot. My people call it fading.”
“Is there a cure for this fading? Is there some way to impede the blight?” The gentle voice of Fleur broke into his pause.
“Brite-weed administered early and often can sometimes stop death, but it is an uncertain cure. Energized diaman crystals halt the spread of the contagion on the ground—confine it. We established a diaman perimeter around Nyth Uchel, but the contagion continually threatens. My warden tells me the blight has penetrated the western border.”
Hel paused and closed his eyes. His head fell back. He half-sat, half-stood, propped on the window casement with his arms loosely crossed. The light from the window shone on a face gray with fatigue, the portrait of a man at the end of his resources.
The desire to help this beleaguered soul who had taken so much upon himself grew inside Adonia. This descendent of kings had stripped himself of all pride to obtain assistance for those dependent on him. She knew something about losing one’s pride. “You must care deeply for your people.”
Hel straightened wearily and frowned at her. “I am DeHelios.” His statement implied an obvious answer to an unnecessary question and she felt the hot flush of embarrassment. With a slow exhale, Hel continued. “Our quarries labored night and day to replace Torre Bianca’s shattered diamantorre. We heard of DeTano’s defeat of the Haarb and then watched brilliance light the horizons as Verdantia’s sigil towers regained life.
Now, I lack only a magistra to partner me in the Great Rite and the White Tower will once more blaze in Verdantia’s night sky. I am hopeful, once re-vitalized, Torre Bianca’s energy will combat the evil menacing Nyth Uchel.”
Ari cleared his throat. “Would that we could help you, but the ugly truth is we have no magistras—not of sufficient age to perform the Great Rite. Other than our queen and Sophi, Doral’s sister, our oldest magistra is thirteen years of age. She lacks a decade of age and training to be of use to you.” Ari nodded at Hel’s appalled exclamation. “Yes. The Haarb repeated the massacre inflicted on Nyth Uchel throughout all of Verdantia. They learned of the crucial role our magistras played in our magicks and they targeted them. The Haarb’s elimination of all our magickal practitioners was horrifically thorough. Our noble houses number a mere handful.”
“But, how did all the sigil towers…?” Hel faltered to a stop.
“We are a true Tetriarch,” Fleur said. “Just as with the First Tetriarch—your ancestors, Primo Federago, Segundo Agentio and Prima Isolde—Mother Verdantia has gifted the three of us with the ability to empower all the sigil towers on the face of Verdantia when we make love.”
Comprehension dawned across Hel’s face and he scanned the room, his eyes setting first on Fleur, then Ari and finally, Doral.
“How did you think the towers were empowered?” Doral asked, his voice benign.
Adonia sat bolt upright and paid close attention. She’d heard that tone from Doral before and it usually preceded something lethal. Ramsey and Steffania in their positions near the door had straightened also.
“I thought it done in the conventional manner; each sigil tower housed a magistra and magister who performed the Great Rite. I never considered the much-heralded Second Tetriarch a true triad. How could you be? You aren’t of the DeHelios bloodline.” Hel’s eyes swung to Fleur and unease furrowed his brow. “I…thought our Constante queen hot-blooded, desirous of variety…perhaps, one lover insufficient for her...” His voice trailed off.
He extended a hand toward Fleur but a low growl from Doral cut off what Hel might have said next.
The High Lord of Verdantia’s eyes held heat and his clipped words threw down a challenge. “The Senzienza called to us. There was no mistaking Her message. Once the three of us came together, there was no mistaking the authenticity of the Second Tetriarch.”
“Stop it. Both of you. He didn’t know. He meant no insult.” Fleur’s eyes lifted to hold Hel’s with a slight frown. “You didn’t, did you? Mean to insult me?”
Adonia could have hugged the young woman. Fleur’s sweet nature defused a potentially lethal confrontation between three proud men.
Hel straightened and stood stiffly. “Your Majesty, I—.”
He never completed his thought as Fleur’s hands shooed him into silence. “Never mind. It’s not important. Tell us how we can help you and Nyth Uchel.”
Hel bridged his temple with his hand and rubbed. “I, ah, I need to sit down,” and proceeded to collapse into the chair next to Adonia. “So…no magistra. My problem is more ominous than I thought.” He dropped his face into his hands and Adonia wanted to put a hand out to comfort him—but didn’t. She didn’t know if this proud man would accept it or embarrass her again by shrugging it off.
Hel exhaled heavily, sat up and faced Ari. “As soon as the Haarb retreated from Verdantia, we rebuilt the shattered diamantorre. If you re-energized all of the sigil towers on Verdantia, then Torre Bianca should be lit like a star in the night sky.
Ari pursed his mouth in thought. “We have always regretted the absence of Torre Bianca’s light in the eastern skies. Our planetary shield is weak in one quarter of the western hemisphere without her. We assumed the white tower destroyed. We meant to send a party to explore why she remained dark, but…”
Hel nodded. “We are not easy to reach, particularly during winter.”
“Your damned mountain is impossible during winter. A man on foot, perhaps, but not a work party,” Doral murmured.
Ari grunted an agreement. “Since the coronation of our queen, the Tetriarch has performed the Great Rite at least once a month—barring those months when our queen’s pregnancies excluded her. Torre Bianca should be as a star dropped from heaven. There is some other malignancy at work.”
Hel sagged in the chair, his devastation apparent. He scrubbed his face with his hands for a moment and then stood, pacing to the window. “I still have need of a healer and brite-weed.”
Adonia spoke before thinking. “I am a healer. I will go with him. I would like to see the storied Nyth Uchel and the celebrated Torre Bianca. I would like to help in whatever way I can.” She rose from her chair and stepped toward Fleur. “You have many skilled medicae to attend you, Ma’am. While not as advanced as some, I am a skilled healer and I’m used to hardship. I have studied with all the medicae at the High Enclave. From the sounds of conditions, I’d give ninety percent of them a week, or less, before they retreated to Sylvan Mintoth—if they even finished the journey to Nyth Uchel.”
“Are you sure, Adonia? It will be arduous and quite possibly dangerous.” Fleur's delicate brow knit with concern.
Adonia met Fleur’s eyes. She would miss the young queen. Other than Sophi DeStroia, her former flight leader, this was her only woman friend—well, actually, heronly friend in Sylvan Mintoth—but this opportunity was unprecedented. “My Queen, I was medica and First Arrow of Falcon Flight. I am a skilled archer and highly trained in mounted combat. We of the desert-dwelling Oshtesh fought in the last Haarb battle of Vergaza alongside several of those in this chamber. I have known the hard life of the arid wastelands and have traveled the long road from Sh’r Un Kree to Sylvan Mintoth. I am not afraid of the danger or the hardship. If Prince DeHelios will have me, I want to go.” Adonia felt the weight of Hel’s perusal and turned to face him. After a long, anxious moment watching him silently evaluate her, he lifted his chin and brought it down decisively.
“Yes. I will have you.”
The peculiar, slow twist Hel gave to his words made Adonia wonder if he intended another meaning, but she shook the thought away as ridiculous. He couldn’t want herthat way. No man had wanted her that way…not even Klaran. Klaran’s damning words rang in her memory as clearly as if her lover had spoken them yesterday instead of almost two years ago.
“What is it you don’t understand? I’m done with you. You got me into service with Ducca DeStroia and out of Sh’r Un Kree—for that, I thank you. But, did you seriously expect me to stay with you when I had a choice? There is nothing womanly about you. From your body to your soul you are a hard creature.” Her former intended’s furiously hurled words had stripped her soul bare and the lush-figured, flagrantly-accessible female who’d replaced Adonia in his arms had loosed the killing shot. “No man wants between the legs of a gawky, stick figure reeking of some vile concoction.”
Adonia had fled to Sylvan Mintoth under the guise of advancing her medical knowledge. The compassion in Eric and Sophi DeStroia’s eyes when they released her from their service had been the ultimate humiliation.
“Lord Ramsey, I would like you to go with Adonia.” Fleur glanced across the room to Ramsey DeKieran and Adonia disguised a laugh with a cough when he abruptly straightened after a hard poke from his wife. While the rest of the party sat in the comfortable sofas and chairs around Ari’s office, DeKieran and his new wife had remained lounging, side-by-side, against the wall by the door. Adonia had caught the intense stares and occasional murmurs Ram and Steffania had exchanged throughout the past hour. From the blush that crept up Steffania’s cheeks when Ramsey fingered her exquisite choker of beaten gold, Adonia doubted that either had heard much of what had transpired in the last few minutes.
“Huh? What? Um, pardon me, Ma’am. I didn’t catch what you said.”
From the mischief in Fleur’s eyes, Adonia revised her assumption. Perhaps she wasnot the only one to catch their interchange of heated looks and whispers. “I wish you to accompany Adonia to Nyth Uchel and stay until she is ready to return. She will need an escort home and I don’t want her dependent upon Prince DeHelios or his people to provide one.”
Fleur’s gaze returned to Hel. “No disrespect intended but should Adonia wish to leave at any time, I want her free to do so.” The queen’s gaze then found Adonia. “And Adonia, while you are most capable, you will travel through country with unknown dangers. It will ease my heart to know you have a strong blade at your side.”
“So, Lord Ramsey? Will you go?”
“To Nyth Uchel?” Ram blinked several times. “With him?”
Hel looked affronted. Doral laughed softly and then murmured something to Ari and a grin split the High Lord’s solemn face. Adonia would give anything to know what Doral had said.
Steffania whispered something to Lord DeKieran and he performed a sketchy bow. “Ah, if you ask it, Ma’am.” An expression of disgust flashed across Ramsey’s face and with hands on hips, he turned to Hel. “I suppose you want your horse back.”
~ ~ ~
Adonia could see the stars dotting the night sky through the windows of the sitting area in her rooms. Diaman crystal globes illuminated the spacious accommodations and a bronze brazier filled with glowing crystals radiated heat enough to warm the area twice over. A small leather duffle sat in one of the chairs. It had taken little time to pack the few possessions she owned—a medica’s robe and two changes of underclothing, a hairbrush and some ties to bind her hair. Her closet contained many articles of clothing from the queen, but Adonia had never considered them more than loans. Her medicines took far longer, and she knelt on the floor as, for a third time, she ran through the inventory of medicinal herbs and unguents she intended to take. A sharp rap on her door jerked her upright. Who? At this advanced hour? Had someone fallen sick? She opened the door and drew back in surprise.
“High Lord! Come in, come in.”
Ari entered with a bundle of plush black fur in his arms and stopped in the middle of her room. “We want you to have this.” He held up the fur and the glorious item unfurled. Its silky hairs reflected the light in a thousand blue-black sparkling glitters and Adonia exclaimed in wonder.
“Mynx! By the Mother, I have never seen an entire garment of it.” Ari held out a full-length coat of the exotic alien fur. “Sir! This fur is brought from off-world. One tiny peltis impossibly expensive—to have an entire coat! It is far too valuable. I cannot take this.”
Ari crossed behind her and placed the coat on her shoulders. The gossamer fur waved from just the passage of her breath across it.
“Put it on. Let me see if it will fit.”
Adonia reluctantly put her arms into the sleeves and allowed Ari to snug the coat up to her neck and fasten the clips that held it closed—then he stood back and observed her. “Good. It is not too long. The shoulders are big, but that will allow for extra layers underneath.”
She laughed at the four inches extending beyond her fingertips. “I suppose I could cuff them.” Adonia held her hands to her face and nestled her nose and cheeks into the thick, black pile. She luxuriated in its extraordinary softness and then raised her face with a sigh. “Sir, I cannot accept this. This is a garment for heads of state—or those with enough money to buy planets. While I appreciate the queen’s generosity, I cannot take it.”
“It’s not from the queen.” The High Lord smiled and his expression softened to one of pleasure. “I gave it as a gift to Doral. Since he is going nowhere for many months, he wants you to have it. He says you suffer from the cold more than most.” Ari laughed at her expression. “The things he notices amaze me, also. If nothing else, consider it a gift of thanks for your tender care of our queen. She values your friendship. Because of her position, it is hard for her to have true friends. She counts you among the few.” Adonia dropped her gaze and looked away uncertain what to do. Ari snorted in mock irritation. “If you won’t take it, you will have to return it to Doral. I don’t dare tell him I failed in his errand.” Ari leaned over and whispered, “He’s a scary man. I fear to cross him.”
Recognizing a blatant lie—Doral might be a ‘scary man,’ but Ari crossed him with impunity all the time—Adonia addressed him with skeptical eyes. Of their own volition, her palms stroked the silky fur and her fingers sank into its thick pelt. In this garment, she felt distinguished, like royalty, and it would be so warm. Nothing she owned approached it on any level. With a heavy sigh, wishing she weren’t so weak, she surrendered to the temptation. “Thank Segundo DeLorion for me. Tell him that I’ll borrow it and return it when I come back.”
The High Lord’s smile left his face and he studied her in silence for a long moment. “Ifyou come back. DeHelios needs a wife and from the way he looks at you, I shouldn’t be surprised if he intends to keep you.”
Adonia’s eyes widened. “He is highborn, a prince of the first noble House of Verdantia. I’m an everyday, ordinary Oshtesh woman from the desert. He would never consider me for a wife.”
The High Lord’s eyes lingered on her. He wore the strangest smile on his handsome face. “Do you really regard yourself as commonplace?” But before Adonia could summon the courage to ask him what that cryptic comment meant, he bowed, wished her, “Safe journey,” and left.
As she stroked the luxurious fur, Adonia considered his remark. She’d always taken comfort from the thought she was a common desert woman. She’d never questioned the rightness of her way of life with the Oshtesh until her encounter with Doral’s sister, Sophi, and her now-husband, Eric DeStroia. After the cataclysmic events surrounding the battle of Vergaza, Adonia had realized prejudice and ignorance warped much of what she’d been taught growing up.
The small religious sect her parents belonged to had indoctrinated Adonia with a scornful contempt for the aristocracy but in a matter of months following Vergaza, she’d shed their influence and opened her mind to a different way of thinking. She’d been wrong about many things. The realization had hurt, but she’d swallowed her pride, owned up to her prejudices and set about changing how she thought and behaved. Throughout her internal upheaval, she’d clung to one certainty—Klaran cared for her. She had a place. She was Klaran’s betrothed, his future wife. She had lost her entire family and many of her sisters-in-arms to the Haarb but she wasn’t alone in the world. She would always have Klaran.
It had taken Klaran mere moments to obliterate her self-worth and years later, she stillbled from the gaping wound. Klaran’s words had done more than strip her of any sense she was desirable. His betrayal had obliterated her identity, her confidence in where she belonged in the world. When he’d rejected her, nothing remained of her previous life and she’d no sense of her place in a new one. Maybe she would know where she belonged at the end of this journey. Nyth Uchel’s healer? Yes. She could take pride in being Nyth Uchel’s healer.
Hers To Claim will be available August 15, 2014 from these locations: Amazon, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords