Demon Within

By Julie Nicholls

Fantasy, Romance, Paranormal

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268
23 mins

 

Prologue

There is nothing more humbling than to gaze at an angel. Graced with beauty beyond compare, they are a wonder of the world and I am fortunate to look at such magnificence and splendor. Raking my eyes over honey-hued skin, I take in the individual features that make him glorious. Long, golden hair falls across his shoulders and down his chest. Sea-green eyes, framed by thick lashes and dark brows, stare with wicked intent. His seductive smile always brings a flutter to my lower belly as I recall memories of where those eyes have lingered.
A dazzling array of color suddenly appears as white wings unfurl and stretch wide as he rises from his comfortable state. The brilliance from the surrounding light forces my eyes to lower. I am in awe.
“You are watching me again.”
Silky words spill from his perfect lips.
Once again, I feel the familiar heat in my cheeks, and I blush and smile softly.
“Forgive me. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. You’re a wonder, and for all I know, you’ll be leaving soon.” The thought alone brings feelings of sadness. “I’m taking advantage while you’re here. Taking my fill, so I can preserve the memory for when you’re gone.” There’s humor in my words, but I speak truthfully. He’ll be gone by morning.
Golden hair falls forward as he reaches out to me. Those bright green eyes study my face.
“Do not be sad. I always return. Your aura calls to me as a siren calls her victims to their death.”
Slender fingers brush my cheek. My eyes can’t help but close at the sensation. Devouring his touch, I savor the moment.
My hand touches his; an invitation, and with his eyes still locked onto my face, he slides his hand toward my lips. I lay a soft kiss on his elegant fingers and smile.
“I wish you could stay. When you leave, I’m lost. I spend my time counting the hours until your return.”
Caressing his hand with my soft lips, I gaze into his delicious eyes, bright and clear. I am afraid to look away, for the end of the world would surely follow and I don’t want this moment to end.
I move toward him and lean into the warmth of his body. His arms wrap around me, and he places one long finger on my chin, forcing me to look at him as he holds my gaze.
“We need to be careful. I cannot be absent for too long without arousing suspicion.”
As he brushes a tress of hair away from my face, his eyes follow his finger idly traveling across my cheekbone to the delicate patch of skin next to my ear and ending its journey onto my lips. He slides the soft pad into my mouth, and his lips rise at the corners; a spark emerges in his eyes. My womb spasms as he pushes it deep inside. He is tantalizing and seductive with everything he does. Grinning, he senses my excitement and draws his finger from the warm caress of my tongue. My empty mouth feels the loss and my eyes narrow.
“Don’t stop.” I barely whisper, unable to control the feelings rushing through my body.
“Do not frown. I shall put something else back in its place.”
He grins and with wicked intent closes the space between us. Leaning forward with parted lips, he slants his over mine and catches the gasp escaping my mouth. My senses instantly come to life as his tongue slips between my ready lips. It’s impossible to form a coherent thought. Soft lips claim mine as he consumes me; he is a beast devouring all, until nothing remains. I cling to him knowing there will be a time when he leaves and never returns.
Pushing negative thoughts away, my concentration returns to the present. I relish his attention to detail with each caress of his hands across my waist, cradling my back. He brushes his thumb across the sensitive skin under my breasts. I gasp, shuddering beneath him. He breaks the kiss, and his lips rake down my neck to swollen breasts, my nipples rising to his touch. Wet lips and a flash of his tongue bring my back into an arch. Awash in a sensual frenzy, I run my hands through his soft hair, tugging at their roots. I enjoy the low growl escaping his mouth while he teases my body mercilessly, his hands increasing the pressure. I want time to stand still, or for it to move more slowly when we’re together. However, I ask the impossible. Unappreciative my lover is an angel, I’m greedy, selfish, and want more. If he were mine to keep, I’d be content with life; dying happy at the end, I will reflect how joyous my existence had been.
He senses my distraction, and moves to fill my mind with more pleasurable thoughts. He slides his legs between mine and, spreading my thighs wider, his body settles. Feeling the weight of his thick cock resting against my heated sex sends a shiver through my body. I’m excited and dripping wet, glowing with the promise of vigorous love play that will exhaust me and bring about a deep sleep. At that moment, I hope he chooses to leave while I slumber, so I won’t have to face the painful good-byes.
Months have passed now, since I last saw my angel, and I fear he’s abandoned me forever. Tear-stained cheeks and swollen eyes are unattractive, but I can’t stifle the flow. I am wretched, and there’s no life for me without him.
Leaning against the windowsill, I feel a sad smile play across my lips as my hands run over my swollen belly. Thankful he’s left a part of himself with me, I close my eyes. I find contentment in the knowledge the father’s beauty will grace the face of his son. The baby is male. I don’t know how I know; it’s just a feeling. He’ll break hearts, and I can already see women falling at his feet, begging for his attention. I’ll see those women and understand how they feel. I’ll know what they’re thinking as they gaze at the beautiful half angel, and I will be jealous of their youth, as I remember mine.
My sleep is troubled by vivid dreams which prey upon my mind during waking hours. My lover is burning alive in horrible nightmares from which I can’t awaken. His wings are no longer feathers, but charred remains. Ringlets of smoke rise in swirls from the stubs as his screams echo around us. Fire consumes him. He’s choking on the tar that binds to his skin and covers his once exquisite features. I want to look away, to cover my eyes, but bound hands stop me. I’m forced to see his body burn and blister, while his screams of agony fill my ears. He’s begging for mercy and forgiveness, but no one is listening. Tears fall from my eyes, stinging and burning from the smoke and ash that fills the air.
Suddenly, awake and gasping for breath, I know in my heart that this is punishment for our sin.
Something shining on the pillow next to me draws my attention. I hold it to the moonlight and am confused where it came from. A gold medallion, small, on a delicate chain with markings I’ve never seen. Clutching it to my chest, I question its origin. Did my lover leave a parting gift?
I lie quietly and slide my hands around our baby, and I pray his father is no longer suffering. He’ll never again grace my bed, kiss my lips, or touch my body to make me gasp in ecstasy. I hope he is with us in spirit, even if not in body, and guides us through the troubles of our lives.

Chapter 1

Summer reached its peak and in the early mornings, a breeze brought fresh, cool air. Although by mid-morning, once the sun woke from slumber, the heat returned. Struggling crops thirsted for water and waited for the rains that would end their torment. Tempers flared, and every day brought another matter causing unease. It posed an issue for Kai of Darkmide, leader of the people in Blackhill.
Kai rose from his seat, leaving the comfort and shade under the terrace to step out into the courtyard. Folding his arms across his muscular chest, he assumed a menacing stance. People gathered and raised their fists in temper. His eyes, under furrowed brows, studied the crowd, looking for the cause of the disturbance. Instances of unrest had doubled recently, and this morning promised to be no different. With his head raised to the breeze, he closed his eyes and drew in a long breath.
Standing six feet seven, Kai was a wall of muscle, covered in tanned skin that glowed beneath the morning sun. He was a rare breed. Handsome despite the scars across his chin and brow, his features were stunning. The mesmerizing stare from his deep green eyes pierced through to the soul. Dark blonde hair fell past his shoulders and a few small sections were braided and fastened by leather threads. It was highlighted with silver and gold strands that, when caught by the gathering breeze, shimmered in the sun’s rays like a sea of gems. On his massive arms, Kai wore large, ornately decorated bands of gold, fashioned especially for him by the smiths of Darkmide.
Described as commanding and majestic, Kai stood out in a crowd. Anyone who’d ever met him could see that mere words failed to capture the true effect of his presence. His breathtaking appearance made women sigh with flushed cheeks, but his frosty manner deterred their advances.
The crowd parted, making way for his friend and right-hand man, Sabe. Shorter than Kai by a few inches, Sabe was black haired with deep brown eyes. Handsome and full of wit, he made a stark contrast to Kai.
Watching Sabe move forward, Kai remembered his first meeting with his most trusted companion and his sister, Kiera.
Four years ago, after escaping the fighting pits of Darkmide and the slavers who ruled there, Kai and a few other rebelling slaves attacked a prison camp. Placed just outside the city, the camp housed the slaves for the gold mines. Kai went there to try to find a comrade slave who had killed a brutal master. Immediate death should have followed, but wanting to take advantage of the slave’s strength and stamina, the slavers spared his life. His punishment was to do the dangerous, backbreaking work of harvesting gold. Kai’s dreams of freeing him turned to dust when he found his brave friend, Lorne, had perished in a mineshaft collapse just days earlier. Disheartened he’d arrived too late, he moved swiftly to leave, but he was halted by a cry for help beneath his feet as he trampled over a covered pit. Something about the desperate plea made Kai stop and listen. He looked at the grate, and greeted with slender fingers, curiosity overcame him and he crouched to look into the pit. Piercing brown eyes stared up before the woman moved away to allow her brother to speak. The man begged Kai to free him and his sister. In a silver-tongued manner that Kai would become familiar with, Sabe promised their loyalty in exchange for Kai’s help. In addition, he promised the loyalty of a group of skilled fighters to aid his cause. Though at the time it had felt like a moment of ill-advised weakness, Kai never since regretted his decision to rescue Kiera and Sabe. They had proven their dedication many times over in later battles, and Kai knew they would follow him to the ends of the earth; gladly laying down their lives to save his.
“Make way, coming through!” Sabe called, dragging two men behind him by a lead rope.
He gave a final tug when he reached the center of the yard and they stumbled forward. Bound hands broke their fall, and they scrambled to their knees with lowered heads. Sabe untied the lead rope and cast it aside before facing the crowd.
“Gather round friends, move in closer.”
Hesitantly, the crowd conformed; they preferred to keep their distance in matters of discipline. Mischief lurked in Sabe’s eyes. He knew how this event would end, and having the crowd involved excited him.
With a grin, he turned to face Kai and whispered close. He looked at the prisoners before gazing to the crowd. Sabe filled Kai’s ears with the details, and then slapped his hand on his large shoulder when he moved forward.
The crowd hushed when Kai’s hands moved to rest on the fighting knives sheathed on his hips. They were his favored weapons of choice, forged for him personally. The cool touch of metal caused his fingers to squeeze and tighten. Inquisitive eyes stared at his poised form. Pausing before he took a few more paces, he searched the crowd.
People averted their stares and looked at their neighbors or the ground, anything other than Kai; his scowl proving too intimidating to confront.
He studied the men at his feet, and they shook and trembled in fear with their heads lowered as he sneered in disgust. He detested cowardice.
Kai addressed everyone. “Do your bellies ache with hunger?”
His voice, loud and deep, filled the courtyard. Mumbling started until eventually the crowd found their voices. Shouts echoed from the rear before others joined in gaining volume every second.
“No! Never!”
“Do you have shelter and clothing?”
Kai listened, cocking his head to the side, letting words fill his ears as they voiced their reply.
Circling the men slowly, Kai paused behind one of them and slammed his foot against his back. The man lurched and landed face first into the dirt. His open mouth filled with dust, and he coughed and spluttered before words broke loose.
“We were going to share the money!” A shaky voice mumbled against the ground.
Kai had a menacing glint in his eye; disgusted by the pathetic wreck at his feet, he sneered. Hissing, he drew in a breath before his foot slammed flat onto the figure and pinned him to the floor. The man could barely move and gasped for air.
Sabe stepped forward and tossed a purse to Kai. Quickly snatching it from the air, Kai showed the evidence to the crowd while he gave the second man a sideways glance and smirked.
A worried look spread over the thief’s face as he peeked over to his ally. He began to cry.
“Get up!” Kai snapped after he’d released him from the weight of his boot on his back.
He didn’t move.
“NOW!”
After a swift warning kick, he scrambled to his feet, squeezing his eyes shut in fear of another blow.
Irritated by the other man kneeling at his feet, Kai crouched in front of him and emptied the purse. Coins fell to the ground.
“They sold our grain for their own profit!” Kai’s voice thundered across the courtyard.
The crowd gasped, and then, “Bastards! Kill them!” Voices called from all directions. Aggressively punching the air, they demanded justice.
Sabe watched as Kai circled the thieves. He noted the wildness in his eyes and stepped back, retreating to join the other warriors who gathered under the shade of the terrace. The rabid expression Kai possessed unnerved Sabe. He’d seen it before and it would be unwise to stand between Kai and his prey.
Keeping law and order had been no easy task, especially for Kai. Having spent more years as a slave than a free man, he could only use his experience to guide him. Trying to find a balance, he made many people happy, giving them stability. But, as with everything in life, there were exceptions.
Kai marched toward Saul and Maika, two trusted warriors who stood by Sabe’s side under the terrace.
“Your swords, give them to me.”
Surrendering their weapons, the warriors watched as Kai held them high and turned to show the crowd. He let out a roar and then stepped toward the thieves. Cutting their bonds, he presented the weapons.
“Take them!” His patience ran low when they hesitated. “I’m giving you a chance to defend yourself. TAKE THEM!”
Gingerly, one hand took a sword. Kai smirked. The other man whined and pleaded for mercy, but his hands remained by his sides. Blaming his partner for the plan, he whimpered like a wounded dog.
Kai shook his head in disbelief and he leaned in close.
“Ask your people! They are the ones you cheated!” He pointed to the crowd, “Ask them to forgive you!”
Fear clouded the man’s face when Kai’s blood-red eyes and razor sharp teeth grew nearer. The man screwed his eyes tightly shut in and cowered.
Out of the corner of his eye, Kai saw the armed man take up a fighting stance. Reeling backwards, he drew his long knives and, snarling like a wild dog, he stared down his opposition.
“COME ON!”
Crouching low, Kai’s flexed muscles looked impressive, and he appeared as a savage animal baring his teeth in a predatory grin. Gasps erupted from the courtyard when a guttural growl bellowed from deep in Kai’s chest.
The armed thief took on a determined posture, ready to go out fighting. Kai accepted this; he never enjoyed killing in cold blood, preferring a fight rather than a massacre. The tension grew when Kai’s opponent raised his blade and thrust. Deflecting it easily, Kai laughed at the weak attempt.
“You’ll have to do better than that!”
His arms relaxed, giving his foe an opening to strike at his body.
Seeing an advantage, his opponent struck again. This time, Kai swung his arm around the side and caught his opponent across the shoulder. Blood seeped from the injury.
Stumbling to his knees assuming a more severe wound, the man whined. Kai grunted and relaxed his arms by his sides; upset his opponent hadn’t lasted longer, he turned to Sabe, scowling disappointedly.
“It’s not my fault!” Sabe rolled his eyes before his expression suddenly changed to one of concern. “Look out!”
Kai spun on his heels and leaned backwards. His arms opened wide as he avoided the sword thrust at him from his supposedly disabled opponent. The crowd gasped.
“Coward!” Kai spat.
He stepped forward slowly, angling his head from side to side, he focused on his prey. Then he attacked. Pivoting, arms outstretched, his knives sliced through the air like a propeller across flesh and bone. Blood sprayed everywhere. The man stumbled and sank to his knees. Calls from the crowd for Kai to finish him rang through the yard.
Wounded hands reached to hold the gaping wound in his throat, but a knife arrived first. The people cheered louder when his head spun through the air before finally landing next to his fallen corpse.
Raising his blood-soaked knives into the air, Kai saluted the roaring crowd, but his moment of victory diminished when the remaining thief tried to run. He managed only a few yards before one of Kai’s knives hindered his escape. It spun and sliced across the runaway’s thighs, cutting the arteries on both legs, showering the crowd with blood. He fell to the floor and screamed, but all calls for mercy faded into the cheering crowd, unheard.
“You should have run faster!” Kai laughed.
Blood soaked into the dry soil around the crying man, rapidly changing the color as it thirstily absorbed the moisture. Some covered their mouths in shock, while others laughed. The ones nearest the front regretted the charming words from Sabe when they’d first arrived; next time they’d stay at the rear. There was a brief silence as they watched Kai stride forward and drag the man up by his hair. He ignored the screams for mercy and rested his knife across his victim’s throat, while looking to his audience for his next move.
A voice called out, then another. “Finish him! Kill the pig!”
Those nearest caught the initial shower of blood when the knife-edge sliced through his throat. Quickly and without hesitation, Kai ran it down his chest and stomach, opening him up. Some managed to turn away; the grisly finale was too much for their weak stomachs. The most squeamish vomited. Kai pushed the body forward, letting it fall to the earth. Placing his long knife to the bloody corpse, he lectured the crowd.
“This… is what happens to thieves.”
Kai spat over the body then shouted to Sabe. “Hang the bodies on the wall by the gate.”
He recovered his other knife from the floor before giving the crowd one last salute. Quickly sidestepping the bloody bodies, Kai felt nothing but loathing and contempt.
Kai joined Sabe and the other warriors, and handed his swords to a young boy who was waiting to take them for cleaning. He grinned when the boy gasped at the blood covering the steely blades.
Sabe followed Kai to shelter beneath the terrace. Fresh water in a large bowl waited on a nearby table. Reaching behind his neck, Kai tugged at the back of his shirt and pulling it over his head, cast it to the side.
Sabe stared at the scars that covered Kai’s back and winced. No matter how many times he saw them, he cringed, and wondered what else Kai had endured at the hands of the slavers. The scars spread from the top of Kai’s muscular shoulders to below his waist; red and swollen in some places where the whip cut deep. He couldn’t imagine what pain he’d lived through; they reminded him of how thankful he was to Kai for freeing him and his sister.
Wetting a cloth in the basin, Kai wiped away the blood and sweat. After grabbing a fresh, dry cloth, he turned and watched Sabe, who had made himself comfortable at the table.
“Not a good start to the day, but eventful at least.” Sabe chuckled as he casually rested his boots on a stool and, crossing one foot over the other, poured wine from a pitcher on the table. “And there I was, thinking it would be a quiet morning.”
Swapping the drying cloth for a clean shirt handed to him by the craggy hands of the house worker, Kai kicked the nearest chair out from under the table and sat heavily with a grunt. He blew out a long sigh while he searched for the opening of his clean shirt.
“I hope this isn’t going to be a regular morning event.” He threaded his arms through the shirt and pulled it over his head.
“I thought you liked excitement,” Sabe chuckled. “Anyway, I’m sure it won’t happen again. Well, not for a week at least,” he said, laughing.
“We need rain. The heat is turning everyone mad.”
Kai guzzled the wine then slammed the goblet on the table. “It’s too hot for this work. I think we’ll just hang them up next time, let them bake in the sun on the outside wall.”
Cautiously, Sabe smiled. Right now Kai was joking, but in the future, that would be another matter.
“How did you catch them?” Kai asked.
“They were stupid as well as cowardly. I overheard them bragging in the tavern last night.”
Sabe leaned over and reaching for a plate, he drew it closer to pick up a piece of salted pork. “They’d already stolen the grain; they were going to meet with the buyer from Longmeadow later that night.” His fingers poised at his mouth. “I let them make the sale before having them dragged to the cells.”
Eating the pork overwhelmed his senses and he lost his train of thought briefly. A glare from Kai, awaiting the details, made him swallow. Taking a quick sip of wine to wash it down, he continued.
“I sent a couple of men to take care of the buyer from Longmeadow. He won’t be continuing with nightly purchases in the future.”
“Put a couple of men to watch the grain store, in case anyone else has the same idea,” Kai said dryly.
Still chewing, unable to speak, Sabe carried his reply with a nod. Across the table, he spied a large fruitcake, and stabbed it with his knife to drag it nearer.
The gruesome events of the morning had not affected their appetites. They gorged themselves heartily, enjoying the buffet laid out before them.
I have to say though, Kai…” His elbow leaned on the table swirling his knife. “I’m excited about meeting your future bride.” Taking a bite of cake, he eyed Kai with a smirk.
Kai scowled. “Are you sure I agreed to this? Was I drunk?”
“Probably.” Sabe snorted.
Kai shook his head slowly. “This is going to be a disaster, and if she resembles a cow’s arse in any way, I swear I’ll pay your sister to slice off your balls.”
“Whose balls am I slicing off?”
Kiera appeared from the courtyard wearing tight doeskin trousers and a white tunic. Kai’s eyes raked over her body. Shuffling in his seat, his pants suddenly became uncomfortable. Once aware of the snug fitting fabric around her breasts, a man would need to be blind not to stare. Although he admired her physical attributes, Kai kept his thoughts to himself. He didn’t want to create any complications by bedding the sister of his friend.
Kiera pulled out a chair and joined them at the table. Silken black hair cut to her shoulders and her intense dark eyes made all men fall to their knees; sometimes clutching their crotch screaming in agony while she stood with their testicles skewered on her sword. Untouched, Kiera intended to stay this way. There was only one man she would consider taking to her bed, but he’d never asked.
“Kai was just commenting on how much he’s looking forward to meeting his betrothed.”
Kiera tried to hide a grin and lowered her head.
Growling under his breath and throwing his knife down, Kai slammed his hands on the table.
“I’m glad you two find this amusing.”
“Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll adore her.” Sabe chuckled. “The envoy assured me she’s a rare beauty.”
Kiera giggled as Sabe cast a sarcastic glance. Lowering her head, she tried to suppress her fit of giggles.
Kai shook his head and growled under his breath. Cradling his face, he rested his elbows on the table.
“You don’t have to marry her. You can say no.” Kiera grimaced and sat back in her chair. She gave Kai a hopeful smile when his hands fell to the table. Hating the idea of Kai marrying, Kiera would be the first to celebrate if the kings’ daughter did indeed look like the back end of a cow.
“Remind me again why I’m doing this?” Kai asked.
Sabe grinned. “You need a good woman to make an honest man of you and you need a son... and because their excess food will be sent to us by order of King Garlan.” He looked to the ceiling while he thought further, “And they’ll supply more weapons…”
“Okay, I get it.” Kai interrupted with a raised hand then wiped the sides of his mouth with his thumb and finger. “Let’s get this over with.” Rising from the table, he addressed Kiera. “I want to be at Littlewood early. We’ll leave mid-morning tomorrow, rest for the night a short distance away before continuing the following morning.” His eyes locked with hers as she frowned.
“Why so early?” Kiera shrugged her shoulders. “The journey will take only a day.”
“I don’t trust Garlan.”
Sabe sat up in his chair, pulled his shirt straight, and thought for a moment.
“I doubt he’d be stupid enough to try anything. The envoy said he’s keen to join forces with us. It seems he’s got some trouble brewing.” His tone was serious. “He’s afraid of losing his throne. Someone from Stonegarth in the Highlands is gathering forces and has eyes on his crown.” Sabe started picking at his fingernails with his knife. “Garlan thinks he’ll look elsewhere when he discovers his only daughter is married to the leader of the most feared army throughout Middenland and Wild Plains.” He completed his manicure and raised his brow with a grin. “And of course he’d be right.”
Kai laughed.
“He’s not well liked by his subjects. They see him as a sniveling coward, marrying his daughter off to a barbaric… to someone without royal blood, just to join forces with a stronger force.” Sabe recovered his words quickly, and raised his hand to gesture an apology.
“My thoughts exactly, and no offense taken. I know what I’m not.”
Kiera landed a punch on her brother’s arm as she moved to leave.
“What was that for?” Sabe frowned until Kiera’s frosty glare caught him.
Deciding the conversation was at an end, as far as she was concerned, Kiera left the men and headed back into the courtyard.
Sabe quickly apologized to Kai. “You are more worthy of being a king than any royal I’ve ever met… not that I’ve met any royals.” He grinned.
Kicking the chair away behind him as he rose, Sabe edged toward Kai. He held out his hand. After grabbing each other’s forearms, they touched heads. “You’re my friend and leader. I’d follow you to the ends of the earth and die defending you. You know that, right?”
“I know you would.” Kai snorted. His lips widened into a grin. “You just have to pray I don’t ask you to do it.” Kai slapped Sabe’s arm. “Come on, sit down, I’m still hungry and that cake needs finishing.” The brief silence ended when Kai’s quiet voice asked, “Do you think she’ll like me?”
“What’s not to like? You’re a constant delight!”
Kai sprayed wine over the table and he started coughing. Hitting his chest while laughing, he finally managed to speak.
“Does she get to choose or does it all rest on my decision?”
“Her father wants this marriage, and I doubt she has any say in the matter. She’s a princess, Kai, and forgive my bluntness, but she’s an asset as far as her father is concerned. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened sooner. I can only suppose the king has been weighing up the alternatives for a stronger ally.”
Taking a long drink, Kai thought about the other side of the arrangement. He knew it had benefits. His people would welcome the extra food supplied from Middenland, which in itself was a weight off his shoulders. His warriors could defeat any opposing threat, and he never feared invasion.
Their lunch continued into the afternoon as they discussed the meeting. Kai expected an ambush or some form of trickery; he had trust issues, among many others. He believed that if a person prepared for the worst, then they couldn’t ever be disappointed.
It’s how he’d lived his life, always expecting less.

Chapter 2

Eloise hissed when the wheels of the carriage hit another pothole. Sitting opposite her, Nissa grimaced against the constant buffeting. Trying to steady herself, Eloise braced her arms to the sides of the carriage and cursed when she fell forward with a sudden jerk.
“There’s not a bone in my body that doesn’t ache. I’m going to soak in the bath for a full day when we get home. They’ll have to drag me out of it.”
Eloise leaned back her head, only to have it knocked forward. “I’d give anything to be home right now.”
Nissa giggled as the image of the servants hauling Eloise from the bath sneaked into her thoughts. Eloise scowled until Nissa conveyed the image to her.
“It’s no laughing matter!” Eloise tried not to laugh, but even she saw the humor in the description.
“I swear I’m going to kill Roulan for lying. He said we’d be stopping shortly.”
“Your brother enjoys tormenting you.” Nissa’s voice had a bitter tone. Hiding her dislike for Roulan was difficult.
“I think you always see the bad in him, but this time, I agree,” Eloise said.
They’d left Brightstone in the early hours of that morning. It was now late afternoon, and they’d only stopped briefly to have lunch. Eloise had never traveled this far from home. Her whole life she’d kept within the boundaries of their lands, as ordered by her brother, Roulan, and father, King Garlan. When she was advised two days previously to prepare for a journey, her first reaction had been excitement. She’d dreamed of traveling to one of the neighboring kingdoms, and smiled so wide her face ached. The smile disappeared as quickly as it arrived when the reason became unveiled.
From as young as she could remember, Eloise’s brother, a year older than her, had said their father blamed her for the loss of their mother. A difficult birth led to her death, which Roulan learned from his father when he was old enough to understand. Eloise was gifted like her mother, able to control the elements; making snow or hail, forming rain clouds or bringing wind. It was a rare gift from her mother’s line, going back generations. Roulan had pressured her to keep the growing powers a secret from their father, insistent it would upset him to see her use them because they reminded him of his beloved wife.
If Eloise could have wished for anything now, it would be that she had never been born.
She looked out of the window, but her glazed eyes didn’t linger on anything in particular. In a trance-like state, anxiety overwhelmed her. She’d never felt loved by her father, and he’d always remained distant to her. Now, suddenly, he needed her in order to forge an alliance. Hurt and angry, she felt she served him as an item to trade and nothing more.

***

Returning from his reconnaissance, after having found a suitable place to make camp, Leon cantered to greet King Garlan.
“My lord, there’s a clearing off to the side a few hundred yards ahead.” Turning his horse, he sidled up to the king. “There’s a stream to restock the water supplies and vantage points for the sentries.”
Though in his late fifties, and with his once dark hair now turned silver, Leon remained a handsome man. The coordinated beard, cut close, complimented his neat and tidy appearance. He’d been a trusted friend to Garlan’s father before he passed, and transferred his loyalty to the prince when he became king. Leon tried always to guide and show the best course of action, and King Garlan trusted and listened to his counsel.
“That’s good news, Leon, well done.” Rising from the saddle, his feet dug into the stirrups and he rubbed his backside. “I’m looking forward to getting out of this saddle. I wish we’d arranged the meeting nearer. Less traveling for us would have suited my bones better.”
He winced as he sat back. He’d wanted to ride in the carriage with the women, but Roulan said it wouldn’t set a good example.
Leon stared at King Garlan. Once a lean and fit man, Garlan used to spend hours hunting or learning sword skills. Now he’d become lazy, rarely moving from the soft cushioned chair on the porch in recent years. The death of his older brother in a hunting accident had promoted him to be heir when he was in his late teens. After Garlan’s father died, he ascended to the throne and took a wife immediately. Now in his early forties, although his appearance implied he was older than his years, he didn’t uphold a good form.
“Would you let Roulan and the ladies know we’ll be stopping for the night, I’m sure they’re getting hungry by now.” Garlan gestured to the carriages behind him.
“Yes, my Lord.” Nodding, and then pulling on the reins, Leon pivoted his horse and rode toward the carriages.
Roulan, riding behind his father and having watched the exchange, pulled out from the caravan and followed Leon.
“Leon, a moment please.” Roulan spurred his horse forward. “You’ve found a safe place to stop I trust?” He already knew the answer but didn’t want Leon to know he’d been eavesdropping.
“Yes, my lord. Not far. I’m advising everyone we’ll be stopping soon.” He barely glanced at Roulan.
Roulan had always been wary of Leon and, knowing his father preferred Leon’s company to his own, he was jealous. He strived to earn respect from his father, but always felt he was a disappointment. Now it didn’t matter so much. Detached and lacking in emotion toward his father, he concentrated his efforts on making his own mark on the world.
“Continue to the next carriage and the rest of the soldiers, I’ll tell Eloise myself.” He spurred his horse.
Ignoring Roulan’s curt response, Leon continued ahead. He’d watched him grow up and had often received blunt or brisk retorts.
Roulan’s features were harsh and black hair, unruly and lank, hung around his long face. Absent of any redeeming features, he wasn’t attractive. Dark eyes topped by thick brows made him appear shifty and sly.
Leon had become suspicious of Roulan’s recent activities; sneaking out, he’d had meetings with people unknown to Leon. Uncertain of his reasons, Leon kept silent. The king had enough to deal with. Leon would watch Roulan, and on confirmation of his agenda, he’d advise the king.
Leon approached the cook’s carriage, which was laden with their food, wine and ale. As he leaned against the window, the smell of freshly baked pork pies overwhelmed his senses. The shapely cook welcomed him with a warm smile.
“We’ll be making camp soon, Dori. My apologies, it’s been a long journey.”
“Oh no worries, Leon, I’m sure it will all be worthwhile, and thank you.” Her rosy cheeks swelled as she smiled. “I expect everyone’s hungry and requires a hot meal by now.”
“I’m sure they are.”
Leon gave her a wink then turned around and cantered past the first carriage. He watched Roulan as he clung onto the side of the carriage peering through the window, leering at Nissa. He didn’t like the way he skulked around her and Eloise. When Nissa was young, Leon rescued her from a destitute life, and he now looked on her as his daughter.
Nissa was just sixteen when Leon found her in the market begging for money. She was in a pitiful state and Leon questioned her actions. After she explained that both of her parents had died within a year of each other, leaving her orphaned, he took pity on her. He offered her food and shelter at the castle, with the promise of sanctuary, and Nissa had accepted his gracious offer. A young woman of her beauty and grace could be easily swayed into an immoral profession in times of despair. He, at least, could find her work within the royal household where she would be safe and well cared for. Nissa would go on to make an excellent attendant for Eloise, and the king thanked Leon for his insight. Eloise and Nissa instantly bonded, and since their first meeting, they were inseparable.
Peering through the window, Roulan’s eyes fell straight to Nissa. Surprised by his sudden appearance, she quickly looked away. His lecherous gaze made her cringe.
Roulan took an interest in Nissa from the day they met. Her blue eyes and sun-kissed blond hair caught his attention. He recalled her giddy manner when she first arrived at the castle, and how she filled a room with sunshine and light.
At first Nissa was friendly toward Roulan, but she later became cold and avoided him whenever possible. Overhearing a conversation between Nissa and Eloise, Roulan found her description of him wasn’t kind. Afterward, he’d chosen to ignore her to try to preserve his already bruised ego, though in reality it added to his list of insecurities.
“Hello, ladies. You’ll be pleased to know we’ll be making camp soon.”
“I clearly remember you stating that some time ago, brother.” Eloise glared. “Do you promise?”
“I give you my word.” His lips curved into a wicked smirk as he mockingly placed his hand over his heart.
He forced a smile before Eloise drew the curtain, and she heard him curse as he cantered away. Rudeness wasn’t something she practiced, but he’d annoyed her today.
“Thank you! Dear brother!” she shouted, and grinned as she fell back against the seat.
“I hope he’s telling the truth this time.” Nissa wanted to believe him, but Roulan was unreliable and enjoyed tormenting his sister.
Eloise gave a relieved smile at the thought of stopping and resting. She’d avoided broaching the subject of her intended, but the closer they came to Littlewood, the more she thought, and it made her uneasy.
“Do you think he’ll be handsome, Nissa?”
Nissa panicked at Eloise’s question. Hesitating before she could think of something, her answer wasn’t convincing.
The rumors of Kai of Darkmide and his barbarous practices had reached Brightstone. Nissa hadn’t told Eloise what she’d heard. Since Eloise’s father had given the news to his daughter about the arrangement, her sleep had been restless. Details of her intended would only make it worse. At least Roulan hadn’t provided Eloise with any gruesome details; she’d expected him to tell Eloise everything he knew.
“I’m sure he’ll have many qualities, princess.” Forcing a smile, she hoped everything she’d heard was an exaggeration.

***

Roulan and his father, King Garlan, sat near the edge of the camp. Roulan had wanted a private word about the following morning’s meeting. Not happy about the agreement, he wanted to keep Eloise closer to Brightstone. Given there were a lack of suitors, he would then have more control over her. While the king knew Eloise had the same gifts as her mother, he wasn’t aware to what extent. Roulan had been careful to keep that from him.
“I’m not questioning your decision, father, I’m merely concerned for Eloise’s safety. This is a former slave we’re talking about, not an honorable highborn.”
“We need this alliance, Roulan. The threat from the Highlands is getting closer, I can feel it. This leader from Blackhill is strong. His warriors are like nothing we’ve encountered.” He took a sip of wine. “I think you’re worrying too much for your sister’s feelings. She’s been mollycoddled too long. In any case, it’s her duty and obligation to the people.”
Roulan tried to hide his surprise at his father’s insensitivity. While he had plans for Eloise himself, it didn’t involve handing her over to a man whose reputation was as little more than a thief.
“He’s plundered cities and towns across the Wild Plains, making the highborn lords and landowners surrender their lands and titles. Can we trust him to not start doing the same in Middenland, father?”
“Of course he won’t! With the agreement in place, he’ll have no reason to!” Garlan snapped.
He didn’t want to admit his son did have a point. He’d never thought about that. While it lessened the chances of it happening, taking Kai as his son-in-law was no guarantee. It was another worry he’d not expected, and now Roulan was causing concern. It perplexed him that Roulan objected so strongly to the marriage and wondered what was on his agenda. His dark eyebrows lowered into a scowl.
“You seem to be overly concerned for your sister’s well-being all of a sudden. I didn’t realize you two got along so well. Or is there another point to your protest?”
“Of course not, father. I’m just trying to protect our family. My loyalty to you and Eloise is always foremost in my mind!” Roulan bit back. Realizing it was time to shut up, he made his excuses and bid his father goodnight.
Garlan drained the last of the wine and stared into the empty cup. Wasn’t it enough that he was under constant threat from the Highlands? Pressing his fingers to his forehead, he drew in a long breath. Sleep would not come so easily tonight.
Roulan made his way to the tented area, but saw that Leon sat alone by the fire. Thinking he could make better headway with someone who had his father’s ear, he sat down by his side. Leon didn’t look at him, but continued to poke the fire with his sword.
“How do you think the meeting will go tomorrow, Leon? Do you have any reservations about it?” Roulan tried to give the impression he valued Leon’s opinion.
Leon paused before turning to Roulan with raised brows. “I’ve taken every precaution I can. Your father is eager for this alliance and I’m told that Kai of Darkmide is equally keen to take a wife.” Calmly turning back to the fire, he continued to move the ashes around. “I don’t see any problems.”
Roulan sighed and rubbed his hand over his chin. “Hmm, yes, it does promise to be a rewarding contract for everyone concerned. I’m sure we can trust this… Kai of Darkmide.”
Leon took his sword from the embers and prodded cooler dirt to the side of the dying fire. He knew Roulan was trying to make a point and had already voiced his protests about the arrangement to his father. While he didn’t know the full extent of his reasons, he suspected it was something dubious. Of late Roulan had been following Eloise almost everywhere she went. Leon watched him chastise her often when she’d used her abilities. Whatever he was up to, it involved controlling Eloise. He’d find out in time. Roulan wasn’t as shrewd as he thought.
Rising and testing the tip of his sword with his finger to confirm it was cool, he sheathed it then leaned toward Roulan.
“I’m sure if there are any trust issues, we’ll be able to wheedle them out before it’s too late.” A wide grin spread across his face. “I’m away to sleep, my lord, I’ll say goodnight and see you in the morning.
Roulan nodded and sat by the fire a little longer before retiring to his own bed. He’d try to speak with his father again in the morning but for now, he needed sleep.

***




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