Hidden Embers Excerpt
“Your Highness quick, there is not much time.” This was directed at the young woman ahead of me swallowed from head to toe in a dark brown cloak. There were a handful of loyal guards at our front and back as we hurried down the narrow path clinging to the mountainside. I swallowed hard and I tried not to glance over the edge at the sheer drop. Slowly, we edged our way down through the swirling mist, each step surreal as I placed one foot in front of the other. This wasn’t happening, my body was calm and composed as I screamed within my skin and my fires spiraled inward. I could barely breathe. There was so much blood. Shock, I realized inanely, the shock I’d read about ladies suffering on occasion. I never imagined I would be so lacking in character to experience it. Bits of rock crumbled beneath our feet and echoed solemnly as they bounced down into the abyss. My eyes fixed firmly on the brown cloak in front, focusing on the simple task of keeping the bland patch of color in front of me. The cloak grunted and stumbled. A steady, bronzed hand was there to catch her. “Watch your step, Empress,” Thallenth cautioned as my cousin, Xhara straightened. Her head held at an unnaturally high angle and fixed straight ahead in a painful, unseeing stare. Tension stretched over our protector’s familiar features, the slight lines in his brow emphasized. “We must hurry,” Thallenth’s hushed tones urged. We picked up the pace ignoring the peril of the cliff, fearing what was behind us more than the long drop beneath. “Horses are waiting at the bottom, all of them fast and fleet,” Thallenth continued. “You will go to the south through the jungles with me and my best men, we will guard you with our lives.”
The new empress drew her hood back revealing a shock of vibrant red hair and rubbed her glazed eyes. “What about my cousin?”
“She will go north and then west over the wastelands.” He answered curtly, his gaze flickering away in discomfort. Xhara stopped dead in her tracks and I almost ran into the back of her.
“The wastelands are a death trap and they won’t think to follow,” she rushed out an edge of hysteria to her voice until she took a steadying breath and reined it in. “I should take the northlands,” she finished, regaining her layer of composure.
“No!” Thallenth said emphatically. “You are too valuable to our people to risk.” It went unsaid that I wasn’t too valuable. Although it had been drilled into me that I was the weak link in the chain, it still stung to hear it from Thallenth’s lips, a man I’d known for years. “Nymira and two others will leave a clear trail and carry the sword.”
Xhara’s head snapped around, hissing. “I am not separating from the sacred sword.” But she would separate from me.
“The sword and heir must be separated until you can produce the white flame and lead our people. We need to divide their forces. If they know that both the empress and the sword have gone south they will concentrate their forces and there will be little chance of escape for you.”
Xhara’s dark eyes flashed gold. “With my cousin as the bait,” she spat in a harsh tone, nostrils beginning to flare. All the signs that she was preparing for an argument.
Thallenth’s face became unyielding granite and, in that instant, looked every inch the veteran soldier. “Decisions must be made with logic not emotions, this is war and sacrifices must be made.” As long as the heir was safe there was no need for a spare. I glanced furtively over my shoulder the fine hairs on the back of my neck starting to prickle. The shrill screams of the dying vibrated within me. We didn’t have time. If we were to leave, we had to leave now. Striding forward I crouched at my cousin’s feet in a gesture of respect and subservience—oh, how that action grated against my prideful nature.
“Empress, I will go north and carry the symbol of our people.” I raised my gaze, my eyes holding a silent entreaty with my hands clenched tight to my sides, stopping them from shaking. “I swear I will guard the sword with my life and wait for your return to bring it to you. I am strong enough for this, cousin. If sacrifices must be made, I will make them.” Taking me by the shoulders she forced me to my feet and embraced me. Gripping me tight like she might never let go or like she might never see me again, and she might not…
Still, she hesitated. “We don’t have time to argue, Highness, we must go.” Tears gathered behind my eyes and I saw my own watery reflection in my cousin’s eyes as we accepted our fate to be parted, the decision hanging like a weight around her neck. Desperate, I reached out and clasped her wrist. “Live free,” she whispered.
“Until the day…” I replied, forcing the words past the aching ball in my throat. I couldn’t say ‘we meet again’, I didn’t think that was part of my destiny. We were torn from each other and I was thrown upon the back of a horse. Tears blurring my vision, the last two descendants of the Throne of Flames riding hard in opposite directions. Only the goddess Khatri knew what fate awaited me.
The mountain pass blurred as my horse steadily put one hoof in front of the other. Only a fool would try to traverse the long journey north without preparation. Only a suicidal fool would attempt the cold when they were fire kind. My kind. The temperature was starting to plummet, and I poured my energy into my inner flame that flickered stubbornly inside me. For the thousandth time in the last forty-two days, my thoughts drifted to Xhara. I hoped she had made it. If she had, it would make the tortuous journey worth it. Gritting my teeth, I pushed on until my hands and feet turned numb and the sky was darkening fast, I needed to make camp. Swinging down from the saddle, my legs promptly buckled, and my arms almost wrenched out of their sockets as I clung to the horn to keep upright. I stomped my feet hard against the frozen ground trying to feel my toes. A fire was badly needed, it was a small comfort that I could make one in the blink of an eye. Teeth chattering violently, I wrapped my arms tight across my chest and clamped my hands under my arms. I thought I would never be warm again. Barely time to get some wood and choke down unappetizing dried meat before I passed out from exhaustion. Right now, I was willing to swap the crown jewels for a warm bath, a feathered bed and a roaring fire. To spend one night not on the cold, hard ground and warm enough so I didn't shiver through the night and wake exhausted each morning. I hadn’t had a restful night’s sleep since before the uprising. Stop moping, this fire was not going to make itself. Shaking off the bone-numbing weariness I began searching for timber, the driest that could be found. There wasn’t much, and I journeyed much further from my camp than I intended. Stooping down to scour the thick foliage, I noticed the unnatural stillness. There was not a sound, no birdsong or rustling of animals. Nothing. Every nerve and sense strained, how could I have let my guard drop? I didn’t dare breathe or twitch a muscle. If anyone was out there, please let them pass me by. I scrunch up my eyes tightly. Please. A branch snapped underfoot. My nerve broke. My spine snapping straight as I turned to flee. Something heavy smashed into my temple, taking me off my feet. The pain shot through my skull and the forest splintered to blackness.
Oh, Goddess. My head. I swallowed back the rising nausea as my head throbbed. Male voices battered my skull and I groaned. Too... loud... Something was pushing into my stomach. I was… moving? A fog clouded my mind, my limbs limp and flopping in time to a lumbering gait. Someone was carrying me, their heavy breathing echoing in my ears. Conversations drifted to me from a long way away and I struggled to grasp their meaning. “What have you got there?”
“Another woman to take with us, she has an exotic look and will make an easy return.” A hand roughly grasped my hair and yanked my head back. I moaned, they were pulling my skull in two.
“Let's have a look.” A groping hand swept my back and sides. “Fine enough form.” My skin crawled, appraised like an animal. I had never been so helpless, and my limbs still felt like they were stuck in a quagmire. “You’re right, possible Firelander descent, not many with that look this far north.” The sword! Where was the sword? I fought to rise above the darkness. “Is she untouched?”
“Don't know but it's going to be fun finding out.” With crude laughter echoing in my ears, I tried not to tense, my mind quickly catching up. Now, the nausea was not just because of the head wound. They bound my legs and arms, even my neck, the rough rope abrading my skin. I had to snap out of it.
“Throw her in the back of the wagon with the others.” Unceremoniously I was dumped on the hard, wooden floor, my captors showing no consideration of my injuries. The sour stench of unwashed bodies assaulted my nose. Curling on my side whimpering, the slow creak and jarring trundle of the wagon began to jostle my aching bones. I clawed towards consciousness. Concentrate. Fight! For the love of the goddess Khatri do something! I forced myself to open my eyes and cringed. It was loud, and the sun was too bright. Wait—sun? It was morning?
“Drink, you must drink to stay strong.” Tepid water was pushed past my lips and soft hands helped support my head. Shadows of women huddled together for warmth drifted through the fog. Chained and filthy. The despair and desperation were suffocating. “Be brave, my husband will never stop searching. He will come for me. He will free us.” The firm voice was my lifeline. But he didn’t have to. If I could concentrate I’d free us with a flick of my hands and roast the bastards. My heartbeat thundered in my ears, frustrated, I thrashed my head and sucked in a quick breath as my neck clicked. My vision momentarily cleared to reveal my comforter. A handsome woman with long, straight, blonde hair darkened by dirt. Unwashed and disheveled, defiance and fear were stamped in every line of her body. The girls looked to her making her, obviously, a woman of rank. An ugly, sickly bruise decorated the left side of her face, marring her proud visage. “You’re awake.” Blue eyes blinked down at me. I scrunched up my face and tried to rise. “Be still, that is a nasty head wound, you’ve been drifting in and out for a day and a half.”
“That canna be,” I croaked the words scraping against my dry throat. Water was quickly proffered, and I drank greedily, swallowed and tried again. “Where am I?” My voice came out stronger. I sent out tentative feelers for my flame and breathed easier when I found it but when I tried to harness it, it slipped through my fingers like grains of sand.
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “Raiders,” spitting the word out like filth. “Taking us east of the land of Phaa for the slave auctions.” Bitterness filled my mouth and my face hardened.
“They will not have me,” I vowed, trying to lift myself up. Her face swam in front of me and I closed my eyes against the spinning sensation. My strength was fading fast, I grasped her arm. “The sword, where is the sword?” I mumbled frantically. Firmly, she pressed me back down again, the thudding ache unrelenting.
“Rest now, save your fight for later. You might need it,” was her cryptic reply. The darkness dragged me back under, torturing me with the screams of the dying, flashes of fire, crying and begging.
“I'm sorry,” I whispered to the wraiths. I was heartsick and if it would have made any difference would have begged the deities on my knees to take me instead. “I'm so, so sorry I couldn't stop them.”
Fleet feet slapped the cool marble floor. Faster. Irrational fear spurring me on as my arms pumped furiously by my sides. Faster. Panic made me blind to all but the monsters chasing me. I had to make it to the light. They couldn’t follow me into the white light. I could hear them coming. Don’t let them catch me, don’t let them catch me. Tears and smoke stung my eyes and choked me. The light was getting closer, signaling safety was almost within my grasp. A strong grip latched onto my ankle and I pitched forward, screaming. Pain flashed and air burst from my chest as the unforgiving ground caught me. Fighting to my hands and knees, I lunged forward. Brought up short by the unbreakable grip on my leg. My jaw slammed into the ground and leisurely it started to drag me back with laughable ease. Sobbing under my breath I clawed at the ground, I had to get to the light. My nails were broken and bloodied I couldn’t get any purchase. It took me back to the darkness.
I jerked awake. Sucking in the cold night air and it rested heavy on my lungs. It was just a nightmare. My heart didn’t care, it still thundered in my chest. A nightmare I hadn’t had for a very long time until the rebellion. I swallowed against the cloying, cottony taste in my mouth and licked my cracked lips, wincing at the sting. My vision was clear, and the throbbing had settled to a dull ache. Stretching my limbs, I only managed to get halfway before choking myself. Coarse ropes connecting my arms and legs looped around my throat. My memory came back in a searing rush. Bastards! At least it was rope and not chains. Ropes I could burn and shake off. Metal burned like the fires of the underworld as it stuck to the skin and would have scarred me badly. The sweet scent of wood smoke filtered through the air. Cautious, I levered myself onto my elbows to make out the shadowy forms ten, no, eleven women huddled in smaller shivering groups. A booming laugh made me jump. I pushed myself into a sitting position and turned my attention to outside my cage. Our captors, a dozen in number seem to be having an extremely animated conversation, the firelight casting their rough features in sharp relief. “Get down!” someone hissed, and I spun on my bottom to find the woman I thought of as Blue Eyes watching me in the darkest corner. Their conversation and the scent of cheap spirits carried on the wind to us.
“What about that blonde? I heard her say she had a husband.” I watched said blonde stiffen and she stopped breathing.
“That slender stick would snap in half with her first hard fuck, now the tits on that redhead…” I squinted into the darkness to see who spoke, a man missing an eye moved his hands to cup the front of his chest. “Umph, it gives something for a man to hold on to.”
“No, that blonde will have a tighter cunt.”
“For the love of the gods get back down,” she whispered frantically, fear etched tightly across her face. He drained the bottle and carelessly tossed it into the trees.
“Well, there is only one way to find out.” Stumbling toward us his shadow fell across the cage. “Come out, my sweet,” he crooned through the bars, a wave a stale breath hitting us in the face. I didn’t think it was possible but Blue Eyes curled into an even tighter ball. Revulsion churned within me. “Come out, you might enjoy being with a real man.”
The blonde jerked away, undisguised hatred vibrated off her. “I’ve known a real man and trust me, that limp, little prick won’t even touch the sides.” His face darkened, and the menacing threat he posed worsened with the uproarious laughter of his comrades adding fuel to the fire with their taunts and jibes. The door clanged, and he threw it open. If looks could kill, the blonde would have slit his throat and gutted him. Every fiber of her being was screaming that if he touched her, she would fight like a cornered cat. Unadulterated lust glittered in his eyes, he reached in, grabbed her rope and yanked hard. She cried out, skin scraped from her knees as she was dragged across the rough wood.
“You’ll pay for that, bitch. You’ll beg me to fuck you before this night is over.”
Feral, she bared her teeth, hissing, “Never.” He leaned in and latched onto her flailing ankle, she struggled as much as her bonds allowed, her skirts riding up to reveal pale thighs. In doing so he reached over me. Half choking myself, I kicked my bound feet straight out and smashed them into his leering face.
“Get away from her!” I snarled, the words drowned out by his roar as he reared back clutching his nose.
“Fuck! My nose! The fucking fire bitch broke my nose!”
“Touch any one of us and you will not live to enjoy it.” I attempted to sound menacing, but my voice came out weak and reedy. The sound would have had my aunt shaking her head in despair. “Project, Nymira, project.” I highly doubted that raiders were really going to care if I rolled my vowels.
“Raegarr, your redhead is awake,” Out of the frying pan and into the proverbial fire. I swallowed hard and fear clutched at me. I couldn’t move my hands or feet and my cold muscles were petrified.
“Come on, come on,” I muttered under my breath. My flame, it was there. I could feel it dancing below the surface. Raegarr staggered over.
“Ha, she’s a hater,” he crowed. “Look at the fight in her, this one will be some fun breaking.” My pulse throbbed painfully in my neck, his small eyes locked on my heaving breasts. I didn’t look away, lifting my chin I matched him stare for stare. He licked his thin lips. “Get them both out.” His dark eyes remained fixed on me. “Let’s see how much fight she really has.” Rough hands yanked on my collar and choked off my air. Helpless and spluttering, I watched the blonde lose the fight as she was dragged from the cage, my wriggling form following her in short order. I reached for the fire hidden deep within to strike them down. My eyes flew wide open. Nothing. My feet hit the ground and my knees instantly buckled. The harsh treatment bruised my arm and loosened my hair, the stray wisps falling into my eyes. “Pretty.” I fought not to retreat at the dark look in his eyes. “Is it true what they say about bedding Firelander’s?” He leered, twisting an escaped curl around his thick finger. “They fuck hot enough to set the bed ablaze.” His foul breath rolled over me and I fought not to retch. “I guess we’ll soon find out.” I was trembling, I wasn’t brave, I wasn’t strong but somehow, I found the resolve to stare him down. To inject all my hate and loathing as I managed to look down my nose despite my insignificant height. Khatri’s tits! Of all the times for my flame to be temperamental. He latched onto my braid, wrapped it around his fist and yanked. I cried out. My scalp screaming, my head snapped back at a neck-breaking angle. Horrible, wet lips fell on mine. Our teeth clattering, he tried to shove his tongue down my throat. Tugging hard, a gasp was forced from me, he forced the slimy thing past my teeth and I was choking. I couldn’t get enough air into my lungs. My bound arms failed, unable to get enough leverage to strike out without tightening the noose on my neck. My teeth clamped down on his bottom lip and I held on. His scream deafened my ears and a salty, metallic taste rolled over my tongue. A fist to my gut made me release his mangled lip. I stumbled and collapsed on the ground. The pain burned and blended into one more ache. Raegarr's nostrils flared and his hands clenched into fists. Time slowed. He’d hit me. Stunned. He dared to hit me. Stupid idiot, you are not a princess anymore. My senses hyperattuned I felt like I was swimming underwater. I clawed the ground renting the blades of grass as I tried to find my center of balance. Hearing the sounds of a violent struggle I turned my head. Just like at the palace I froze, unable to look away or act.
“No! Get away!” the blonde woman screamed in terrified fury, raking her nails across her attacker's face. “You will not take me!” He slapped her hard to the ground and she whimpered clutching her cheek. Their image was ripped away. A kick flipped me onto my back, the sharp pain penetrated the haze and panic finally roared to life. Hands grabbed my tunic, it tore. Cool air peppered my bared breast as he undid his belt. I rolled onto my hands and knees trying to crawl away. I was yanked and twisted onto my back, and rough hands grasped and bruised the delicate flesh of my inner thighs, forcing them to part. I fought with all my strength to keep them shut to no avail. The muscle’s creaking with strain, I panted with effort and screeched in pure frustration. He was too strong. My hips bucked but I couldn’t dislodge his weight.
He moaned, “Squirm a little harder.” I froze at his words, not wanting to incite him further. That split-second cost me and allowed him to get a better hold. A familiar fizzing filled my veins and flushed me with warmth. I seized it and pushed it outwards dropping my guard completely. The fire roared to life and filled me from within. Spiraling out of every pore the light bright and luminous filled the space between us. There was no form or craft, it was raw and primal, ripping from me in a way that left me gasping. His face inches from mine, morphed from excitement to horrified surprise, recognizing at long last what I was. Flames decorated my skin and my clothes burned away, the cloth blackening and curling, peeling back to reveal unblemished flesh. The pressure eased, and I sighed in contentment, basking in the warmth as my attacker screamed, the ropes dropped away, and I reached out and grasped him to me. Refusing to let go as fire leapt from me to him. The scream became a high, piercing shriek as flesh melted and his eyeballs burst. My ears ached but still, I held on, the scent of burning flesh filling my senses. His face contorting in agony until there were no features left. Acid bubbled in the back of my throat. I rolled him off and staggered to my feet, uncaring I was naked, soft flames tickled my skin. In the surrounding panic and maelstrom, I found a single perfect moment of tranquility. My head rocked back on my head and I stared at the stars, a million bright lights burning in the velvet black, my hair tickled the tops of my buttocks. Then, all hell broke loose. I threw a punch and a stream of fire shot forth landing on the back of the man assaulting Blue Eyes, the Iceari woman. Dark triumph consumed me as he rolled in the dirt; it made no difference my fire consumed him. They thought to hurt me? I trembled. Rage flooding my veins, thick and intoxicating. Make me a slave? My hands crunched to fists. Violate me! I’d make them suffer. “Ancestors, lend your strength and make me your instrument of vengeance.” Swords in hand the group advanced on me, but it was already too late for their friends. “May the goddess Khatri protect all those in my care,” I pleaded. A red haze falling over my eyes, I flung my arms wide and dropping all pretense of restraint, unleashed annihilation. A symphony of ghastly howls filled the air. Their bodies twisting and writhing before me. I watched it all, wide-eyed and unblinking, horror stretching my eyelids back and forcing me to witness my doing. Though disgusted, I reveled in their fate, greedily licking flesh from bone. Their screams echoing in my ears long after the charred bodies lay still and silent.
I couldn’t break through the fog. It was the strangest feeling, I mused, being aware of everything but unable to react to anything. Staring straight ahead, each shallow breath misted in front of my unseeing eyes. It was pretty stupid, I suppose, to be sitting on the ground with not a stitch of clothing on. Yet, I couldn’t find it within me to move, intelligence was overrated anyway. I couldn’t get his face out of my mind, the moment his face went from agony to slack. I swallowed, I had killed my first and now I was replaying it again and again. I hugged my knees to my chest rocking ever so slightly. Blue Eyes had thrown a blanket over my ash smeared shoulders when she failed to rouse me. Shivering, a party of war horses charged into the clearing, the hoof beats muffled by the carpet of pine needles “Ilsa!” A tall, powerfully built man roared, frantically scanning each face in turn. “Ilsa, are you here?” His head turned, and I caught sight of a scar running up his cheek, intersecting his temple before being hidden beneath ash blond hair. “Ilsadore!” Wild-eyed, his desperation was almost palatable.
“I’m here, Bran!” The blonde jumped up, waving so frantically that I thought her arm would drop off and ran towards him unreservedly. A touching scene, I guess this must be her husband. He swung down and caught her against his chest. He sank to his knees, not letting go and she followed him down. I spied his lips moving in a prayer of thanks. Palming the nape of her neck, she buried her face in his shoulder. A cherished woman and a man that never wanted to let her out of his arms.
“Are you hurt, Ilsa?” he asked, trying to see her face but she wouldn’t look up.
Her voice broke, “I’m sorry. Bran.” The strong veneer cracked, and her shoulders began to heave. “I’m so sorry for everything… they… they took my torque,” she sobbed.
“It doesn’t matter, I will have new ones made,” he comforted, rubbing her back. “All that matters is that you are safe.” His thumb brushed away her tears and she winced pulling away. Eyes narrowing, his fingers curled under her chin and with the utmost care turned her face to him. His eyes turned an unholy white taking in each and every bruise that decorated her face. “Who did this?” Though a whisper, his words thundered in the clearing.
“I’m fine, Bran.” Circles of frost began to cover the ground at his feet. The hairs on the back of my neck began standing to attention as I recognized a potential threat. The blonde grabbed his face, her palms pressed to his cheeks, so she could meet his eyes. “You got here in time, my face will heal but you got here in time.” She lowered her head and rubbed it against his shoulder. “I’m fine, please just hold me.” A happy ending.
One of the girls launched herself into the arms of a warrior screeching hysterically. “She’s a Firelander!” Her finger pointed at me. Fantastic, attention I didn’t need. All eyes turned to me. Wow, how to make a tense atmosphere with one sentence.
“What is a Firelander doing this far north?”
Another spat upon the ground. “It doesn’t matter, kill her and be done with it.” I realized I wasn’t any better off than I was before, it was probably a good idea to do something right about now. My skin was being shredded but I managed to conjure a single, shifting flame, that danced on the end of my finger as I held it up in warning. In a flash, Ilsa stood in front of me, hands fisted on her hips.
“You’ll not harm her.” “Ilsa, stand back, the decision is not yours,” her husband spoke slowly. “She saved me.” She shot a dirty look at the hysterical girl. “She saved all of us. If she hadn’t you would have been too late.”
Her husband’s eyes narrowed. “Ilsadore, I will ask you one more time, stand aside.”
“She has done no wrong!”
His hand encompassed the blackened area. “Have you seen the destruction around you? You call that no wrong?” The woman, Ilsadore, didn’t budge and glowered back, any other time I would have been impressed.
“If I possessed either ice or flame I would have done the same.”
He rubbed a hand over his face. “Ilsa—”
“No, Bran.” She grabbed her husband’s arm to halt him. “She fought for me,” she pleaded. “When all the others cowered and pretended to sleep she kicked my attacker in the face.”
He threw up his hands in surrender. “Ilsa, she could be a spy. Why is a Firelander this far north?” He gestured at me. “What’s wrong with the girl? Is she addled?”
“She has a head wound and was thrown in with us unconscious, I think they must have knocked her out before she could defend herself.”
“We could leave her.”
“The girl will not last the night in the open,” another voice piped in. And silence. For the love of my Goddess, I attracted less attention when I walked my city’s street when I was a princess.
“Leave her to me, I will care for her.” I sensed him before I saw him, a powerful storm caged inside a vessel of flesh. A power that could swamp me in an instant. I was under no delusions; the strength of my element was mediocre at best not like my cousin whose flame was beginning to blossom and grow into the very beginnings of what this man possessed. A pair of feet stopped in front of me. Inanely, I realized I could see my reflection in the polished leather. A giant crouched in front of me and blocked out all light. Trying and failing miserably to appear less threatening. “They think you are dangerous,” his melodious rumble rolled over me. “But I do not.” I tugged harder. Flames popped into being at my feet and the man jumped back. Sharp pain sliced through my head, the image of the boots wavered, and hot blood seeped from my nose. I didn’t have much left to give. “Enough of that.” He didn't raise his voice, but it gained an edge. The command pulled an invisible cord and made me raise my head. “I will not hurt you, understand?” Brilliant blue eyes locked on mine. “I will not hurt you,” he reaffirmed, the words slowly penetrating my brain. A large hand extended towards me. “Come.” He expected to be obeyed. Gradually, I dropped the fires and reached out to take his offered hand, the invisible rope between us winding tighter. My instincts telling me I could trust this man. Pulling me firmly to my feet, hands snagging the edges of the blanket and wrapping it tighter around me before lifting me into his arms like a babe. “She’ll come with us.” This was undignified, I should stand on my own. When my legs would hold my weight, I would stand on my own. No one argued, but the shock was evident. His eyes focused on my bare feet and I flinched at his oath. “Does anyone have spare socks or boots?” his voice lashed out and people jumped to do his bidding. Eventually, some were found and cradling each foot between his spade-like hands, treating them like spun glass, he maneuvered my feet into the pilfered socks and boots. I whimpered at the uncomfortable heat, like hot needles sliding into my skin. “Do you have a name?” he asked. Answer him. My mind locked up. Oh, for the love of the sacred flame I could scream in frustration. “You do not need to answer now,” he soothed quickly when a wordless, distressed sound gurgled from my throat. “You can tell me later.” His hands braced my waist and lifted me up onto the horse’s back before instantly mounting behind me. My back pressed tight against his chest, he wrapped his thick cloak around the both of us and I was instantly infused with his warmth and scent. My muscles relaxed for the first time in—I actually couldn’t remember. “Move out, let’s get away from this place and we will see about returning the girls to their homes.” His hot breath whispered past the shell of my ear, “Relax against me, I’ll not let you fall.” For the first time since this nightmare began, I was warm, and I allowed my momentary weakness to show and accepted the comfort the big, handsome stranger offered. Weights pulling at my aching limbs, I sagged against him. I would rest my eyes, just for a second and when I felt stronger I would insist on continuing my journey alone. Just… one… second.
So, this could be her, the foretold Firelander that would breach Sevias? Zorren eyed the exotic and delicate creature that slept so trustingly in his arms. Thick, dark eyelashes fanned her pale cheeks, a smear of ash gracing her forehead. He snorted. There was no feasible way that this small woman could tumble Sevias’ walls, they had stood for centuries. He could be wrong he supposed, it might not be her. Zorren flickered back to when he had first laid eyes on her. Sat upon the frozen ground wearing nothing more than a cloak of breathtaking red hair and a blanket hiding the tantalizing curves beneath. Her vulnerability rousing his protective instincts, willing him to care for the stranger, to shield her. Zorren shook his head, she wasn’t his type at all, she was too fragile by far, the Court at Sevias would destroy her. By Havron’s name, when did he decide he would take her to Sevias? A mate would cause far too much upheaval. And yet, she might be something more interesting than a mouse. When approached, her eyes had snapped with spirit, the beguiling rich green that reminded him of high summer when the barren land transformed into a lush haven, flaring with spots of glittering amber. Though slumped with exhaustion, she held a proud bearing as flames popped into existence to warn him off. It would take far more than a few pitiful flames to stop him. The fire danced in her eyes, seeking to challenge him, “come closer if you dare”, she seemed to say. Zorren’s mind flashed to those same eyes heavy-lidded with pleasure, gazing up at him in bed, those rich tresses fanning the pillow and her fight and daring being channeled into more pleasurable pursuits. His cock stirred, and the mystery woman wiggled. Breath hissed out from between Zorren’s teeth, great Neftir, help him. Putting his undeniable attraction aside, it did not explain why a Firelander was this far north. Easing his mount back, he drew level with his cousin. Bran was similarly cradling his slumbering wife against his chest, he hoped she appreciated just how lucky she had been. Clearing his throat, Zorren gained Bran’s attention. “Did her belongings reveal anything?”
Bran shook his head, pulling a face like he had a sour taste in his mouth “Nothing, some clothes, coins, though not a great amount and a sword.” Zorren sensed something more. “But...” he prodded.
Bran frowned. “The strange thing, the sword is bundled as if to be protected, not used, though when we examined it…” He shrugged his shoulder. Ilsa stirred and Bran immediately ran his hand over her head in a soothing caress to settle her. “It is well made, unremarkable except it had no hilt.”
Zorren frowned, curious. “No hilt? That’s it?” Bran made a move to shrug but checked it with a glance down, when Ilsa didn’t move he released a breath. “Nothing to suggest either her identity or reason for being on our lands?” He grasped with desperation. There had to be something.
“No, the girls don’t know anything either, other than she was thrown into the wagon with a head wound.” With the utmost care, Zorren lifted her hair back and stilled. Rage beat hard within him. Dried blood obstructed his view of the lump that had been dealt with some force. When he ran his finger over it the mystery woman whimpered. The bastards who had done this were lucky they were already dead, he would not have granted them a quick one.
“When we make camp, bring the sword to me.” His cousin’s brows reached up to his hairline but didn't say a word. The key to solving the mystery of the beautiful stranger in his arms had to be the sword. It had to be.