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Stirring in her sleep, Maura Woodbury felt her lover's strong arms about her. Snuggling deeper into his embrace, she had never felt happier . . . or more frightened.
Her movement startled Rath Talward awake, his big, hard body gripped with a taut wariness. His right hand groped for a weapon. When it found only the soft flesh of his beloved, the tension bled out of him and he pressed his lips to her forehead.
"Can this be real?" he whispered, tightening his hold on her. "Or did I dream it all?"
Maura gave a husky chuckle. "This place does seem too wonderful to be true, doesn't it?"
For some hours they had slept on the grass in the Secret Glade. Over the tops of the trees, the rising sun now kissed the first blush of dawn into the eastern face of the sky. The luminous midsummer moon was fading, having revealed to the lovers a sweet and terrible marvel.
"For most of my life I've slept on the ground." Rath flexed his lean, muscular frame. "But it never felt like this before." Maura nodded, her tumble of curls rubbing against his shoulder in a caress. Since beginning the quest that had led them here, she, too, had passed many a restless night on the cold, hard ground. The thick grass beneath them now felt more comfortable than any proper bed she'd ever slept in. The soft, warm earth yielded to the shapes of their bodies, cradling them in perfect repose.
Not even the faintest chill of night had nipped their bare skin while they slept. Instead, the darkness had wrapped around them, warm yet weightless. No queen and king could have asked for a more luxurious resting place . . . or trysting place.
That thought sent a muted shiver up Maura's back, making the fine hairs on her nape prickle. Many weeks ago, she had set out on her quest to find and waken the Waiting King -- a legendary warrior destined to liberate her people . . . and be her husband. The murder of her wizard guardian had forced her to rely on Rath for protection.
At first she had been as suspicious of the ruthless outlaw as he was of her modest magical powers. But each day of their journey, each new challenge or peril overcome, had forged a stronger bond of trust and respect between them. And fueled their forbidden desire for one another.
"Are you cold, love?" Rath pressed his cheek to the crown of Maura's head and passed his large, warm hand down her arm to rest over her hip. "Shall I pull my cloak over us?"
Maura shook her head, wishing it had been nothing more than a cool breeze that made her shiver. "Just hold me closer."
"I'm not sure I can without hurting you."
"You did last night." Maura slid her hand down to graze his thigh. "Though you warned me it might hurt, it brought me a great deal of pleasure."
They had entered the Secret Glade at sunset, resolved to rouse the Waiting King, even though it would doom their unspoken love. Instead, the kind moon had revealed that Rath was the Waiting King, whose true nobility Maura had wakened during their journey. In a daze of delight, they had lost no time consummating their love.
Now Maura wondered if part of their haste had not been a bid to evade a host of troubling questions about their future. It had worked, though, and worked well. As doubts threatened to ambush her again, she sought assurance and happiness, however fleeting, in the one place she knew she would always find it. "Again?" Rath's dusky eyes shimmered with desire. "So soon?"
She wriggled against him, lofting a teasing glance through her lashes. "Too soon for you, is it?"
Rath threw back his head and his whole powerful body quaked with laughter. "If you cannot feel the truth of that, with all your wanton squirming, then you are not half as clever as I gave you credit for!"
So they made love again, of a different kind than they had the night before. This time the soft glow of daybreak let them see one another as they touched and kissed and explored. The hushed, earnest endearments of the night gave way to lusty banter. Soon their love play took fire and consumed them both. In the drowsy warmth that followed, Maura's mind wandered, then shrank from what it encountered. She could not stifle an anxious sigh.
"I do not know," Rath murmured his answer to the question she had dreaded asking aloud -- "What do we do now?" She had come to love him with all her heart and she could not have asked for a more precious gift than this sign that destiny had meant them for one another. Yet for all he had proven himself clever and brave and resourceful . . . even grudgingly compassionate, Rath Talward was not the superhuman warrior she had expected the Waiting King to be. He had no powerful magical weapons with which to fight the Han. No enchanted army to oust those cruel conquerors from the shores of Umbria.
"Where do we even begin?" Maura whispered, scarcely aware she was giving voice to her thoughts. "You liberated one of those horrible mines, which was an amazing feat for a single man and his prisoner comrades. But to free the whole kingdom . . ."
"We had help, don't forget." Gratitude for that aid and admiration for her courage warmed Rath's words. Then his arms tightened around her once again, and his voice took on a harsh edge. "And you barely escaped with your life."
How Maura wished she could forget. Forget the seductive poison with which the death-mage had enticed her. Forget the suffocating darkness into which she'd descended after defying him. One victory had not tempered her fear of the Echtroi, and their death magic.
With gentle restraint, Rath disengaged himself from her embrace and sat up. He nodded toward the giant wooden font that stood in the middle of the glade. "Are you certain of what you thought you saw in there last night?"
Gathering up his discarded clothing, he began to dress. With his arms no longer about her, Maura felt truly naked for the first time since she'd woken. "As certain as I have been about anything in this whole baffling business."
She plucked up her shift from the grass and pulled it over her head. "And yet, now that I think back on last night, it all seems like a dream."
"Perhaps that's what it was." Rath reached for her hand. "A dream, a trick of the moonlight."
How much easier her life would be if she could believe that! "I am no king." With his other hand, Rath pointed to the pale scars that laced the tanned flesh of his body. "Though I once bore his high-flown name, I did not reign over Umbria a thousand years ago. I did not lie in an enchanted sleep after I took my death blow. I did not do any of the brave deeds you told me of King Elzaban. I am just an ignorant outlaw who has done a great many things he is not proud of to keep himself alive."
When he tried to let go of Maura's hand, she clung to it. "You have also done a great many things you should be proud of to keep others alive, or help them in some way."
Rath's full brow creased into a scowl that could not conceal the flicker of satisfaction in his deep-set dark eyes. "And thought myself a daft fool for doing them. I cannot pretend it comes natural to me looking out for other folks."
"No one could have done better looking out for me these past weeks." Maura's gaze ranged over his rugged features as she relished the freedom to indulge in such loving looks.
Rath's mock scowl deepened, but the twinkle in his eyes glinted brighter. "You did not make it easy -- always trying to help everyone who crossed your path, no matter how much trouble it might land you in."
He brushed his knuckles against her chin. "I would defend you to my last drop of blood. But to look out for the welfare of a whole kingdom, and one in such deep trouble, it is beyond me." Scooping up his shirt from the grass, Rath pulled it on. "I know how you feel," said Maura.
When he cast her a dubious glance, she insisted, "I do! The day Langbard told me it was my destiny to seek out the Waiting King, I could not believe it -- did not want to believe it. How could a simple country girl who'd never stepped five miles from home search the breadth of the kingdom to find . . . a legend?"
As Rath donned his vest of black padded leather, he pulled a wry face, perhaps at the thought of himself as a "legend."
"I did it, just the same."
A sweeping motion of Maura's arm took in the whole enchanted glade, ringed with slender whitebark trees, straight and regular as the columns of any palace. "I reached here in time for the full moon of Solsticetide, in spite of a good many obstacles, too."
"Obstacles?" Rath gave a snort of laughter as he shoved his feet into his boots. "I would call Vang Spear of Heaven, the lankwolves in the Waste, Raynor's Rift and all the rest more than obstacles."
Just thinking back on them made Maura shudder. She pulled on her gown, but no amount of clothing could warm her against the chill of fear. "Whatever you call them, if I'd had any notion such dangers awaited me on my quest, I would have hidden under my bed and never come out again. But I have learned to trust in the Giver's providence. And I have come to believe in my destiny."
"I don't want a destiny!" Rath leaped to his feet. "Not this one, at any rate!"
Maura shrank back. It seemed like a long time since Rath had spoken to her in such a hostile tone. Back then, she'd scarcely cared, for she had feared him almost as much as any of the unknown dangers she'd faced.
As quickly as he'd lashed out, Rath repented and gathered her into his arms, "Your pardon! I am not angry with you, I swear. Last night, I was the happiest fellow in the world to find that I need not yield you to another man. I could think of nothing beyond that. This morning . . ."
"I know." Maura passed her hand over his shaggy mane of tawny brown hair in a reassuring caress, as she might have done to a troubled child.
This morning Rath had woken to discover the vast bride price he must pay to claim her. Did he regret having given in last night to their long-suppressed desire? She could hardly blame him if he did.
"Poor lass!" Rath held her close, still not trusting his right to do it. "You left behind everything you ever knew or cared for to travel all this way, facing dangers that would make a hardened outlaw flinch. All to find the mighty hero who would deliver your people. Look what you found instead."
Him. A man who, until a few days ago, had despised the whole legend of the Waiting King. A man who'd just begun to have faith in the Giver. A man who had only lately come to care for anyone or anything beyond his own survival. She must wonder if the Giver had played some kind of cruel trick on her. If only he could be certain she had given herself to him, body and heart, because of who he was . . . not what he was destined to become.
"Look what I found!" Maura tilted her head to gaze at him with her luminous green eyes and perhaps to invite his kiss. "That the man I have come to love and admire was meant to be my partner in the greatest adventure of Umbrian history."
The fond tone of her voice and the hopeful springtime glow in her eyes might convince Rath, if he let them. But the life he'd lived had cultivated a bone-deep wariness of anything that seemed too good -- like the possibility of happiness with Maura. With a great effort, he willed himself to put those doubts aside, and to kiss her the way he'd so often longed to during their journey.
A few moments later, the flutter of wings and an insistent squawk stirred them from their kiss.
Rath glanced back to see a large brown and white bird perched on the lip of the carved wooden font into which he and Maura had gazed last night.
"Go find your own nestmate, noisy one!" he called. "Leave us to kiss in peace."
But when his lips sought Maura's again, she squirmed out of his embrace and moved toward the font. "This is a messenger bird. It looks just like the one that brought Langbard word it was time for me to begin my quest."
"What word?" He hung back as she approached the bird with steady, deliberate steps so as not to frighten it. "From where?"
"The Vestan Islands, Langbard said." Maura brought her hand to rest upon the bird's back in a touch that might have been meant to reassure it, or to grab the creature if it tried to fly away. "He told me scholars there had studied the writings of the Elderways and reckoned the time was right."
The bird seemed accustomed to being handled by people, for it made no effort to fly away. Not even when Maura peeled a strip of parchment from around its leg.
Rath's curiosity battled his apprehension and won . . . but just barely. He moved toward Maura, peering over her shoulder. "What does this message say?"
She unrolled the slender strip of parchment. An anxious frown creased her features as she deciphered the words written there. "It says, ‘Come at once.'"
"Come?" Rath stared hard at the message, as if willing the strange letters to have some meaning different than the one Maura had gleaned. "Come where? And how?"
"To the Vestan Islands, I suppose. And there's more. It says, ‘Captain Gull of Duskport will convey you.'"
"Duskport." Rath seized on the one part he understood. "I've been there. It's a fishing town on the Dusk Coast. A rough place."
Perhaps satisfied that it had fulfilled its task, the bird gave another raucous cry. Then it launched itself from the lip of the font, its wings moving in strong, rapid strokes to bear it skyward. As Rath and Maura watched, it circled the glade, then headed off in the opposite direction from the rising sun.
Maura glanced down at the message again, then lifted her gaze to meet Rath's with a look of apology. "I reckon this answers our question, doesn't it?"
"What question?" asked Rath, his tone gruffer than he meant it to sound.
"The one you read in my thoughts when we woke. The one about what we should do next."
"Oh, that." The question he'd been eager to delay answering for as long as possible. "I reckon so. Does the message say anything else? Anything to prove it was meant for you and me?"
Maura shook her head. "Who else could it be meant for?"
"How should I know?" Rath half wished some hunter's arrow had struck down that cursed bird before it reached here. "Not a fancy scholar of the Elderways, am I -- living free and easy on their safe island paradise?"
The few tales he'd heard of the Vestan Islands had long made him burn with resentment. Why had they never come to Umbria's aid during the long, bleak years the mainland had suffered under Hanish tyranny?
"Rath . . ."
"Does it not gall you that they summon us like this? Taking for granted you'll have reached here and done what needed doing -- as if it was some dance through a garden, rather than a near-impossible trek that might have killed you a dozen times over?"
"I'm sure they did not mean it to sound that way." Maura entreated him with her soft, green gaze that might have moved the heart of a death mage . . . if such creatures had hearts. There'd been times Rath wished he had no heart. The cursed thing was a weakness he could ill afford.
"I know it sounded rather . . . curt." Maura held out the strip of parchment to him. "There is hardly room to write a long, courteous letter on something small enough to wrap around a bird's leg."
Rath gave a grunt of grudging agreement. For all he loved Maura, he hated it when she was right.
"I doubt the Vestan wizards take it for granted I have accomplished my task. This message is a sign of their faith that I would prevail. Now they will be waiting and watching for us to come, perhaps fearing we will not."
Rath pointed skyward, to where the messenger bird had disappeared from sight. "When that fellow returns with his leg band removed, it should give them reason to hope."
"True." Maura reached for his hand with the air of a weary laborer once again shouldering a burden from which she had hoped to rest. "All the more reason we must not tarry."
"Why should we not?" Rath demanded. "You were all but dead a few days ago, and I am not long out of the mines. Who has the right to deny us a little well-earned rest and a chance for some quiet time together? Umbria has waited a thousand years for its Waiting King. Can it not wait a few days more?"
An even more defiant notion followed on the heels of that one. "Why must we do this at all, Maura? Any half-wit would know better than to think the two of us can liberate an entire kingdom. If those oracles and wizards on the islands have done nothing about it in all these years, who are they to lay an impossible burden upon our shoulders. Slag them all, I say!"
When he would not let her lead him away quietly to do the wizards' bidding, like some tame dog, Maura headed off on her own. "You do not mean that."
"I do mean it." Rath had little choice but to follow her. "What makes you think I don't?"
Maura whirled about to face him. That soft green gaze had turned as hard and fierce as glittering poison gems. Rath had not seen that look since the day he'd taunted her into crossing Raynor's Rift. He had missed it -- daft as that seemed.
"Where is the man who brought me to this glade last night?" She peered around Rath, pretending to look for someone else. "The man who offered himself as my champion? The man who promised to go wherever I bid him and do anything in my service?"
Rath growled. The only thing he hated worse than Maura being right was when she managed to turn his own words back against him. "That was different!"
"How? Was your pledge of homage just empty talk?" Beneath the scornful challenge of her questions, Rath heard a bitter edge of disappointment.
"I did mean it -- every word!" Could he put into words all that had changed between then and now, in a way that would make sense to himself, let alone her? "Like you, I expected to find some powerful warrior king of legend. I would gladly have served him, and you, playing my small part in the certain success of his battle against the Han."END