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GWAETHE cursed as her cousin Isiloe helped her through the door and onto the kitchen chair. Pain, from the arrowhead in her thigh, made her suck in a deep breath, and she sat battling waves of darkness that tried to drag her into oblivion. The deserted hunting lodge had been a gift from her elven gods. Her insides curled with shame that she should need this refuge at all; a hunting lodge built by humans in their quest for game and glory.
The mission had started so promisingly. She had led the party of a dozen elves south from Selinore, her home in the northern mountains, to discover traitor High Prince Faenwelar’s hideout. It was meant only to be a scouting mission but, at dawn this morning, they had been ambushed by elves from Faenwelar’s faction, the Sis Lenweri. Six of her party had been killed, leaving her, Isiloe and five others who barely escaped with their lives. Isiloe was the only one not injured.
“Bite on this,” Isiloe said, handing her a hunting knife.
She bit down on the wooden handle as Isiloe dug the arrowhead from her thigh. Pain shot straight to her stomach. She leaned to the side and hurled until her belly ached.
“Hold still!” Isiloe hissed, shoving a moistened cloth at her. It felt cool on her forehead, and she panted away the agony washing over her.
“There, it is out. I will flush the wound and bind it. You will live.” Isiloe placed her hand on Gwaethe’s shoulder and squeezed. Despite the abrupt tone, her cousin loved her and was her staunchest supporter. Gwaethe didn’t like to think what she would have done without her this last year.
Leaving Gwaethe with a mixture of hovard leaf for the pain, Isiloe went to check on the rest of the band who had spread out through the other rooms of the lodge. Gwaethe breathed deeply, sipping the medicine and distracting herself with her surroundings. There was a large fireplace, with wood stacked ready for a blaze and four hooks for hanging pans. The walls were carved oak and quite beautiful, the table and chairs made from the same timber. Cooking utensils hung from the wall beside the fireplace, the glow of their copper drawing her eye. If this was the style of the kitchen, the rest of the lodge must be magnificent.
She tried to stand, but the tiniest movement sent pain spiraling down her leg and sweat broke out on her brow. Much good she would be to the others now! How could she have been so stupid as to walk straight into the Sis Lenweri trap? She chewed on a strand of her long, dark hair as her thoughts flew to the skirmish they had just survived.
Isiloe returned, standing in the doorway of the kitchen, her face grey with exhaustion. “They will all live. Your wound is the most serious. We will return home and heal, and next time Faenwelar will not catch us unawares.”
“I must mobilize the others,” Gwaethe said. “You take Lomari and rouse our people. Tell them to meet me here in a week. I need a party of at least fifty, perhaps more.”
Isiloe snorted. “I am not leaving your side. If I had not been with you today, you would now lie dead.”
Anger swept through her. “I think you overstate the situation, Cousin, and underestimate my talent for survival.”
Isiloe raised her pale brows. She was small compared to most of the elven race but could never be called delicate. Her fair hair and blue eyes set her apart from other elves, where dark hair and eyes dominated. “I won’t leave without you. That wound needs weeks to heal, not a patch and back on the road. And you cannot make good plans without consultation. We must return home.”
“I am battle leader, so I will decide strategy, with or without consultation. I can do that as well here as anywhere.” She frowned as she thought about the one person she would give anything to speak to; her half-brother Kain. He had been the human army general until six months ago, but now he was a free agent. Well, not free exactly. He would inherit her elven kingdom if he ever acknowledged his heritage. Instead, he was making a nest with his wife, Alique, wasting his time while Gwaethe fought to bring about the fall of Faenwelar and unite the elven people. Perhaps she should try again to contact him through the ring and bracelet. Tonight.
“You are thinking of him again,” Isiloe said. “You get that look every time. When are you going to admit Kain cares nothing for us?”
“He cares,” she replied, “but it is hard for him. He must come to terms with the fact he and I share a father who was an elven king. I lived that reality, but to Kain it is just a story. One day he will feel it, and then he will step into his role.”
Isiloe snorted. “We don’t need him. We don’t need any human; any man. You and I are more than capable of leading the Lenweri.”
“Tell that to those who follow Faenwelar, to the traditionalists amongst our own society. Even Mother would vote against me.”
Isiloe frowned. “One day, perhaps, it will not be the case. If that day is to come, you and I must make it so.”
Gwaethe smiled. “There is nothing I would like better, Isiloe, but it will not happen overnight. Kain is the first step. We need him. I need him.” The last was whispered as her determination was replaced by doubt. The sounds of horses outside caught her attention.
Isiloe was already at the window, peeking through a crack in the shutters. “Kingdom soldiers,” she said. “Thirty of them; armed.” She turned to Gwaethe. “Do we fight?”
Gwaethe drew a deep breath, her thoughts chaotic, unwilling to believe they should face more danger so soon. She shook her head. “We must talk first. Find out who they are. Tell the others to hide. At least some may escape to raise the alarm if we are taken.”
Isiloe slipped through the door. Gwaethe gripped the edge of the table and tried to rise. Her head spun and pain shot from the wound. She froze and took a shuddering breath. She could not even defend herself in this condition! What if the wound was more serious than Isiloe had said? She had no more time to ponder as the door slammed open. A dark figure appeared. A man in the spotless uniform of a Thorian captain.
Her heart beat faster, and it wasn’t fear this time. She knew him! As her gaze swept over the smooth lines of his face – the muscular ridges of his form barely hidden by his uniform – her body heated as it had done only once in the past. Six months ago, this man had been on her side, had fought beside her against Faenwelar. But would it be the case this time?
“Gwaethe Arenil,” he said, sweeping a graceful bow, “well met.”
She took another shuddering breath before she could speak. “Captain Vorasava. I would rise but I fear I am unable to.”
Concern chased the arrogant light from his eyes as he took in the blood-soaked bandage around her left thigh. He snapped his fingers, and a stocky young soldier, with brown hair and eyes, appeared. “Corporal Exmund, fetch the medical bag and see to Princess Gwaethe’s injury.”
Exmund left but returned moments later with a bulging leather satchel. He fixed his eyes on Gwaethe but made no move toward her. The young man cleared his throat and straightened his tunic with his spare hand. “Captain?” he said, licking his lips, “are you sure?”
Vorasava tore his eyes from Gwaethe and turned to Exmund. “What do you mean, lad? I asked you to tend this lady’s wound. Is there something unclear in my request?”
Exmund snapped up straight, eyes directly ahead. “No Sir,” he said. “Right away, Sir.”
The young medic knelt beside Gwaethe. “If I may?”
She nodded, and Exmund began to gently unwrap the wound.
“I need to cut away these leggings.” Exmund produced a knife, ready to strip the clothing from her leg, but she grasped his wrist.
“No. Tend the wound as it is.”
She helped widen the hole made by the arrowhead, exposing the jagged puncture without revealing any more of the brown skin of her thigh than was necessary. Exmund packed the hole with a poultice and gently bound it. All the while, she burned under Vorasava’s gaze. What was he thinking? That she was a stinking elf? That he would like to be on his way?
Perhaps not. Vorasava was one of the few humans who had treated her as an equal, but was it just inherent politeness disguising his true feelings? Humans thought they were above elves when, really, they were interlopers in these lands. Her people had been here since time began; since the trees were young. But Gwaethe believed in peace, and she would live that way, as would her Lenweri. There was plenty of land for all.
“What are you doing here, Princess?” Vorasava asked.
She raised her head. “I could ask you the same.”
“Ah, but I’m not trespassing in your hunting lodge.”
“Your lodge?” She looked around the kitchen, trying to come to terms with Vorasava in this room.
“My lodge. I occasionally have to coax a grumpy bear from the woodshed, but I hardly expected an elven princess to have taken up residence.”
“Believe me, Captain, I am only passing through. But for this injury, I would not have had to use your home.”
He shrugged. “Be my guest.”
He stuck his head out the door and shouted orders to his men then turned back to her. “My sergeant and I and young Exmund will bunk in here while the others can use the stable. Where are the rest of your band?”
She shook her head. What could she say? The others would be found soon enough. It seemed she must trust him for now. “We are only seven. We lost six in a skirmish with Faenwelar’s elves.”
Isiloe appeared at the inside door. “I knew you couldn’t resist telling this human everything.” She glared at Vorasava. “Gwaethe is always too trusting.”
Gwaethe closed her eyes, drawing a deep breath. She didn’t want to cope with Isiloe’s belligerence right now.
“Lady Isiloe,” Vorasava said, inclining his head, “I’ll take Princess Gwaethe where she can be more comfortable, then perhaps you could show me to the rest of your people.”
“If you must address me, human,” Isiloe said, “you will call me Ramar, or Captain. Anything else is highly inappropriate on a mission.”
Vorasava raised an eyebrow at Isiloe then scooped Gwaethe up from the chair. Pain smashed through her body at the sudden movement. She bit her lip to stop from crying out as he strode with her through to the bedrooms. Somehow, he managed to open a door with her in his arms, and she was soon laid gently on a huge bed covered with bearskin.
“My bedroom,” he said. “I killed that bear myself.” He turned to a wardrobe and pulled a thick blanket from the top shelves, placing it over her.
Isiloe growled from the doorway. “Always the killing,” she said. “Are you not able to live in harmony with nature? Lenweri only kill creatures when needed for food or hides.”
Gwaethe couldn’t have cared less at that moment, battling as she was with pain and nausea, and not a little fear if she was being honest; fear of her wound and of the powerful man who stood gazing down upon her.
He treated Isiloe as he would a buzzing fly. “Fetch my man, Ramar,” he snapped, still not looking at her. “Tell him to attend me here.”
Gwaethe held her breath, waiting for Isiloe’s angry response to being ordered about.
Isiloe drew herself up. “Fetch him yourself, human,” she said. “I was not born to run after you.” She left the room, the door closing after her with a sharp click.
Vorasava appeared to barely notice. He took Gwaethe’s wrist, frowning. “You’ve lost a lot of blood, Princess. Your heart is racing, your hands cold.”
She couldn’t look away from his strong fingers on her skin. She tingled all over and wanton thoughts came unbidden; thoughts of bare skin, sweat and his mouth on her breasts. She shook her head and might have fainted if she were not already lying down. I must be delirious! Yes, that is the reason for these thoughts. Indeed, when she tried to focus on his face, it was fuzzy, indistinct.
Trying to push all contemplation of his lips aside, she gathered her wits and met his eyes. “I will be fine with some rest.” Yes, that was much more appropriate for her standing as battle leader and princess.
“Nonsense,” he said. “You need careful nursing. I wish now I had brought my doctor with me, but he’s getting a little too old for these outings.”
“Why do you even care?” she asked without thinking.
“How can you ask that? We are bound by our past, our shared status as warriors on the same side. Of course, I’ll do all I can to help you.”
“And that is all?”
Vorasava’s gaze fell from hers, his jaw tightening. “That’s a lot, Princess. Rest, and I’ll ensure Exmund gets you something for the pain.”
Jacques Vorasava strode from the bedroom and went in search of Exmund, all the while trying to dampen his reaction to Gwaethe’s predicament and her challenging words. She was extraordinarily beautiful; exotic with her dark skin and hair, and deep brown eyes. It was an ethereal, alien beauty that the women of his world didn’t have. He was overwhelmed by it. Over the past six months, he’d relived the few moments he had spent with her when they had battled Faenwelar’s forces, and, afterward, as they traveled back to Wildecoast, the King’s Seat.
The princess was athletic and fierce, the leader of the Lenweri forces, and passionate about bringing her people and Faenwelar’s together. Jacques cared not a jot for Faenwelar’s elves. They were a direct threat to the kingdom, determined to drive the humans from southern Thorius and return it to the forests of ancient times. In his opinion, there was no going back. The line had been drawn. The war would end with the elimination of the Sis Lenweri. Gwaethe and her elves were welcome to stay if they lived in peace.
His interest in Gwaethe was something he had taken out from time to time, examined, then put away. He couldn’t afford to get caught up in his feelings for her. They were from different worlds, and his determination to lead the Thorian armed forces would never come to fruition if he involved himself with an elven woman. Still, it might be fun to explore a relationship with her if they both understood the boundaries.
He walked through his lodge, checking each of the rooms and finding injured elves in several of them. They appeared to be doing well, though they had little time for his enquiries. Eventually he found Exmund, stitching the shoulder wound of a young elf.
“Exmund, Princess Gwaethe needs a pain draught. Can you attend to her when you’re finished here?”
He wiped over the wound and stood. “Right away, Captain,” he said, hurrying from the room.
Jacques caught up to him outside. “What do you think of the princess’s wound? I’m fearful of complications.”
Exmund stared at his feet. “Why do you care?” he muttered.
Jacques couldn’t believe his ears. “What do you mean, Corporal?”
Exmund slowly raised his eyes. “She’s an elf; they all are. We’re at war with her people and here you treat them as though we’re on the same side.”
Jacques slowly straightened himself to full height. Impertinent pup! “I’ll have you know Princess Gwaethe fought on the same side as us in the recent battles. That’s why I care. Before you speak so again, I’d appreciate it if you checked your facts.”
The young aide had turned a pleasing shade of pink. “Sorry, Captain. I didn’t realize. If I may be excused, I’ll attend the princess right away.”
Exmund scuttled away, and Jacques took a deep breath to compose himself. He knew how the lad felt. Elves were mysterious, foreign creatures, not human and rarely seen by the citizens of Thorius. Human youngsters were raised on stories of elves raiding farmhouses and stealing children, for it was known they were slow to have offspring of their own. Perhaps that was what had happened with Gwaethe’s half-brother, Kain Jazara. Once commander of the King’s army, he was now a disgraced half-human and half-elf. Jacques had been shocked to discover the truth after the last battle against Faenwelar’s Sis Lenweri. Kain had soon lost his position.
Jacques had never learned how the son of an elven king came to lead the kingdom army. The man had seemed honest and was a good leader before his fall from grace. Perhaps he had been one of the stolen children and not half elven at all?
He shook his head. None of this speculation would get him where he needed to be. These elves were a distraction, but they need not stop him from seeing his plan through. He must extract from them what information he could and continue into the northern mountains to seek out the rebel, Prince Faenwelar. He returned to the kitchen, hoping to make himself a mug of tea.
He found Isiloe standing before the fireplace, stirring a kettle of stew and muttering to herself.
“Lady…Ramar Isiloe, I don’t wish to disturb you.”
She glanced at him and returned to her task. “As if you could ever disturb me,” she said. “At most you would be like a mosquito buzzing in my ear.”
He studied the diminutive elven woman. She was the shortest dark elf he had seen. Her race was generally tall, elegant, dark-skinned and dark-haired. Isiloe barely came to his shoulder, and she had white hair and the palest blue eyes he’d seen on anyone. Her pointed ears were pierced from top to bottom with all manner of rings and studs. Despite her prickly nature, Isiloe was beautiful, with a curvaceous figure well displayed by the forest green tunic and breeches which were the habitual garments of the elves. He shouldn’t be noticing, but he wasn’t the only one. Jacques had observed more than one admiring glance from his men toward Isiloe.
“What do you want?” she asked, still not looking at him.
“I came to make a pot of tea.”
“The water is boiled, kingdom man,” she said, pointing to the large kettle hanging over the fire.
He went about making the tea and poured it into two cups. “I’ll take the princess a mug of tea. Would you like one?”
“What are you trying to do?”
“I’m just being a good host.”
Isiloe almost snarled. “I know what you think of us, so do not bother.” She turned back to her stew, furiously stirring the mixture.
Instead of trying to make more conversation, Jacques placed the mugs of tea on a tray and took them to the bedroom where Gwaethe dozed. He placed the tray on the breakfast table and sat beside it, sipping his tea and watching the light of the fire play over her features. It made her look even more foreign, like a wild animal. His thoughts wandered to the battle of six months ago when he met her. It had been a fierce confrontation with Faenwelar, with many Thorian and elven dead, but, in the end, they had won.
Faenwelar and his closest supporters escaped, but the Sis Lenweri had taken a hit and run away like mangy curs. Or so the king and his general thought at the time. Now, it seemed the Sis Lenweri were pushing back into the south; but what was their immediate aim?
There was a rustle on the bed. He looked up to find Gwaethe’s gaze upon him.
“How are you?” he asked.
She appeared so weak she could scarcely lift her head from the pillow. “I am feeling much better thank you.” Her voice was stilted, too polite.
He found himself wishing she’d look at him with other than wariness in her eyes.
“I brought you tea,” he said, stirring in honey. “It should still be warm enough.” He helped her sit up and placed pillows for support, then handed her the tea. She brought the mug to her lips, her eyes fluttering closed as she swallowed.
“That’s heavenly,” she said, “the perfect temperature.”
He watched as she finished the mug, searching and discarding several topics of conversation. “You know your wound is a serious one,” he said, finally.
Her eyes snapped to his, and he was speared through his soul.
“I am beginning to realize that,” she said, handing him the mug. She looked brighter, but her hand trembled. “I’ve seldom been this weak. With the energy of battle in me I did not realize how close I was to…”
“You should return to your home, wherever that is. Regroup, recover.”
She straightened her spine, looking more regal than Queen Adriana. “I will decide what we should do, Captain. It is not up to you to advise me.”
He stood and paced back and forth across his room. “Don’t you see how vulnerable you are? He has killed half your force. You can’t go back up there without reinforcements, without more preparation.”
“Then you will help us,” she announced, her gaze challenging him to accept.
“Oh no, no, Princess. I have a mission from King Beniel. I don’t intend to jeopardize my reputation by making a unilateral decision to fight with your people. Look how it worked out for General Jazara; or should I say, former General Jazara.”
As much as he might like to have Gwaethe alongside him, he’d learn from the past, not repeat it. No, unless he had a letter signed by the king himself, he’d not be working with the Lenweri any time soon.
“You would not be fighting,” she said, a sly smile lighting her eyes. “You would be gathering intelligence.”
“Just as you were trying to do when you were set upon?”
Her fingers gripped the blanket, nails digging through the thick material. “I cannot afford the time it will take to return to Selinore. There is no telling where Faenwelar will show up next, or what he has in mind. We must act now. You are my one hope of continuing this mission.”
“Then your mission is at an end.” He stood to gather the tea things.
“Captain Vorasava —”
“Call me Jacques.”
That gave her pause.
“Jacques, please reconsider. Stopping Faenwelar might hinge on this decision.”
There was desperation in her eyes, but she held herself just a hair’s width from begging. Impressive.
“Oh, my men and I intend to continue north and discover Faenwelar’s scheme, but you, my dear Princess, are going home. I won’t have your death on my conscience. And I won’t work with you, not without royal approval.” He continued to the door. “Rest well. Tomorrow you head for home if you’re well enough to travel.”
To catch up with the other books in this series, click the covers to the left. >>