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Divinity in Chains

Divinity in Chains

by Danielle Devon
In the beginning there is always darkness...
Aramon's blood runs hot for the ravishingly beautiful Eliyn, the mysterious young woman who seemed to appear like magic out of the woods, lost and alone. But as Garde Lumia of the kingdom of Kinra, he is bound by duty to his country and the divine family he has sworn to protect. Aramon must marry according to his high


In the beginning there is always darkness...
Aramon's blood runs hot for the ravishingly beautiful Eliyn, the mysterious young woman who seemed to appear like magic out of the woods, lost and alone. But as Garde Lumia of the kingdom of Kinra, he is bound by duty to his country and the divine family he has sworn to protect. Aramon must marry according to his high station, the laws of the kingdom have no care for the desires of his heart.
Eliyn lost the only family she has ever known to the barbaric Viscans, and is grateful to the royal family for taking in. She knows Aramon would willingly defy his king to bond with her if she would only say the word, but she is mindful of her low-born status. All she can ever have of him are nights of forbidden passion.
Then a dark ship appears on the horizon, a ship bearing Araqael, the Night Lord cast from the heavens by the goddess herself. The centerpiece of his plot for revenge is his intended bride-Eliyn. The world would be hers to command if only she would take her place at his side. She must choose between the demon who could offer her everything and the man who could offer her nothing but his heart.
But Divinity has other plans...

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Samhain Publishing
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5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.80(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Having fallen from grace, Araqael's powers had diminished but not yet vanished. And to his shadowed world, he brought with him the Virtues, a once angelic order who were now loyal to their dark lord. Now referred to as demons, they sought to help him exact his revenge on the divine Goddess who had betrayed him...

* * * *

The Age of Unrest

* * * *

Chapter One

Spring, 200th year

Upon the eve of the birth of the divine daughter of Kinra, the Illumi, the great council of the Celeste came together in quiet reflection. They sat at a small circular table. Carved on the wooden tabletop was a star of five points, each point set to represent each of the Illumi sisters. Candles made a circle of light upon the table before them, highlighting silken faces that shown little prospect of age despite their time in the world. Their eyes were closed as the five flames flickered under their steady breath.

In silence they spoke, not with their voices but with their minds. In the small prayer chamber of the Temple of Illumi a mist rose, filtering out from the star's center triangle to fill the room. And through the mist they reached out, their minds like great grasping hands to bring forth the memory of a time yet to pass. Above the table it lingered, a great ball of vision and mist so that as each Illumi opened her eyes she could gaze upon the future.

Like a dream it lingered before them, the vision of a divine daughter with eyes of pale blue and hair the color of midnight waters. Not a babe in their vision but a woman of certain beauty and power, she held her hands up together as if in prayer. A golden crown was placed upon her head,a circle of power transcending that of their temple. In their vision, they saw behind her the dark knight. A fallen Seraph, who had made his kingdom in Hadren, and called himself the Night Lord.

As the Illumi drew in a breath, the vision faded. The orb swirled back down into the table from which it had emerged. The mist seeped back into the farthest corners of the dimly lit room.

Ilaniel, the first of the Illumi, looked upon her sisters with a great sadness in her pale eyes. She had lived to see the new age, an age of peace and great prosperity. Since the new keeping of records, their world had been free from Hadren's grasp. Now, she feared she had lived to witness the prophecy of the end of the Kinran race.

She let out a heavy sigh and reached for her tea, sipping from the brim and letting the liquid slip down her throat to warm her chilled bones. From the heavens did she and her four sisters descend to guide the castlings. A once purely angelic being of iridescent light, Ilaniel, like her sisters, had shed her saintly wings and veil of light for this venerable flesh. Though she was not affected in form by the passage of time, her body was indeed of flesh and blood, subject to warmth and coldness, pain and pleasure ... even death. To prick her would make her bleed, for on the outside she was as mortal as the castlings she'd been sent to protect.

Ilaniel's heart weighed heavy upon her, as did the vision that would forever be engrained in her memory. She spoke softly, with careful words, as her sisters listened with a quiet intensity only known to ones with such patience and timeless age.

"The Celeste has brought this vision to us with purpose. A union has been foretold."

"Only death and destruction lies in this union." This came from Sanda, one of her Illumi sisters.

Ilaniel nodded. Ilaniel wore the white garb of the Illumi, so as to mimic the pure light that was at one time the whole of her form. She was the strongest of the Illumi, though not perhaps the wisest.

It brought an ache to her heart to see the fear return to the eyes of her sisters. Since the beginning of the ages, the Illumi had kept careful watch over the lands of Kinra. Kings and queens submitted to their will, just as the Illumi themselves submitted to the will of their Goddess, the Celeste. The Illumi were worshiped, even feared, for their wisdom, their prophecies and scriptures. The Book of the Illumi had been authored and passed down from generation to generation to serve as a guide for all Kinrans so that they may live a whole and spiritually fulfilled life. The guidance and the wisdom of the Illumi had served the people well. They had taught the people language and writing so that they may spread the Word of the Celeste. They had taught them the art of cooking, foraging and hunting so that they may never go hungry. They had taught them the trades of needle working, woodworking and even metal crafting so that they may always have clothing, shelter and tools. They'd even taught them music and art so that they may further rejoice in the divine love of the Celeste. They had provided Her castlings with everything they needed to prosper in their new world.

And when the great demon had risen up from the shadows to exact his revenge on the people of Kinra, it had been the Illumi who had forged the weapon that had protected them. They had served the people in times of great achievement and in times of great despair. Ilaniel had faith their wisdom would serve them in protecting the people once again.

"The divine daughter must be destroyed," said Mera, second of the chosen Illumi. Her eyes were dark and haunted as she spoke. Mera was often the valiant voice at the table, daring to say what the others could not.

"It is not our place to pass judgment on her life." Dailn's soft voice of compassion filled the room, sending a hushed moment of silence to fall upon the Illumi.

Ilaniel turned to the last of the chosen, and by rights the most enlightened of the Illumi. It was her divine thought that brought forth the instrument of light. Her wisdom that had blessed the Garde Lumia with the power to destroy the demons and vanquish them from Kinra's lands. It was she whom Ilaniel looked to for guidance. She was without question the closest in all of heaven to the very throne of the Celeste, the only of them to have once been a beloved Seraphim. "Have you no voice on this matter, Phiel?"

Phiel studied the faces of her sisters under the faint light of their candles. With her heavy breath, the candle before her flickered, sending shadows to play across their youthful faces. "We are the guardians of these lands. It is our duty not only to protect our people, but to follow in the Celeste's path, even when the threat lies in the heart of goodness. This vision comes to us with purpose. To let her take the throne with the Night Lord at her side would bring an end to this world. The Celeste has bestowed this message upon us on the eve of her birth so that we may right the wrongs of this child's intended destiny. Let us follow in the path she has laid before us."

With this final word Phiel let her hands rest in her lap. She would say no more. She spoke not often but held such a stirring behind each carefully chosen word that nothing further needed to be said. The Illumi nodded and murmured their agreement.

Ilaniel let out a heavy sigh, in all her ages as an Illumi, this one vision would prove to weigh the heaviest upon them all. Her sisters would stand behind her, ever faithful, as they had for more years than most could remember. It would be her duty to see the righting of ways. "It is decided; this destiny must not come to pass."

The Illumi leaned forward and together their voices rose in unison as they spoke the Prayer of the Light into the flames. "Oh Mother of Mothers, thy glorious Celeste, bestow upon me the divine light of our path and bring unto me the strength to walk upon it."

As one they blew out the five candles, leaving them engulfed in the great darkness of the silent chamber.

From a vast distance Araqael watched his angelic infant bride through the orb of an all-seeing eye. She was cuddled against her mother's bare breast, softly suckling in slumber. It mattered not what beauty she would inherit from her mother, though Araqael guessed her beauty would be immense. He desired only her lines, her direct lineage passed down from generation to generation which led straight back to the womb of the Celeste. A dozen grandmothers once removed, the Goddess's blood coursed faintly through the baby's veins.

Too many years it had taken him to assemble his new army. With each new generation the bloodline was fading further from divine blood, tainted by mixing the blood of royals with the blood of commoners.

The years had been kind to him, both in body and wisdom. It had taught him the virtue of patience. In past years, he'd been headstrong and foolish. His strength had made him arrogant. He had once believed he could defeat Kinra with little more than brute force. But his war had achieved nothing, save the destruction of a great many of his demons. The faith of the Kinran people and the powers of the Illumi had proven a powerful adversary. He had learned that it would take more than force to overthrow Kinra, with its powerful weapon and legions of men.

He must first rid the world of the Illumi, who held the resolve of the people, and then, only then, could he begin to chip away at their hearts. Weakening the Kinrans so that their newfound venerability would be their undoing.

Where once the domination of the Celeste's beloved castlings had been his purpose, now rose the challenge to become Her castling. He would meld his line with Hers, creating a half-bred of divine mortal and demon. His line would infect the royal families--the direct descendents of the Goddess Herself, and from there fan across the world until no pure mortal could be found. And she, the babe, was the beginning.

* * * *

Chapter Two

Bells of celebration rang out through Kinra's lands upon the rise of the sun. The skies were clear and blue, never was there a more perfect day. Larks sang from the branches of nearby trees filling all of Kinra with song. With the babe still caught in a dreamy sleep, Queen Evera stood upon the balcony overlooking the lands and welcomed the morning in peaceful reflection. It was a good day indeed. A happy day in which her people would celebrate the birth of her daughter.

Below, a line of villagers formed at the palace gates, eagerly awaiting entrance into the Eastmoon Garden for the feast. A great many carried gifts, blankets and berries and hand-carved trinkets to welcome the new divine daughter. Excited as she was to present her beautiful daughter to her people, there lingered a budding sadness, a strange doubt. It was as if a dark cloud was moving in off the horizon, hinting at the end of sunshine upon her perfect day. She turned away from the window and tried not to think of it. Not on that day. There would be no dark clouds to shadow the celebration

She summoned her maiden. Una entered and gave a slight bow as expected. "Yes, my queen?"

"Una, my dear, please bring forth my gown for the celebration."

Una nodded and then quickly disappeared from the room to attend to her queen's command.

Evera went to her daughter's cradle. How peaceful she looked in sleep. So soft, so innocent. Her whole life still yet to live, a great destiny yet to unfold. The babe woke then, wailing to life with a demanding cry. Evera smiled softly then scooped her daughter into her arms to feed before she dressed. The babe suckled contently at her breast.

When the babe had taken in the last drops of milk, Evera settled her back into the cradle. She retrieved a violet layette trimmed with ribbons of gold and slipped the wiggling babe into the carefully selected outfit.

Evera turned as Una entered with her gown and held the babe up for the maiden's approval. "Is she not the most beautiful babe?"

"Indeed, my queen. A true divine of Kinra."

Evera rested her daughter gently upon the soft bed of her cradle. A rich smile of contentment rose on her lips. "Indeed."

Evera reached out for her gown. It was made of silks, colored with rich wine and embellished with a flowing train and sheer sleeve drapes. Trimmed in gold braids and adorned with jewels about the scoop of the neck, it was a dress well suited for a queen. With the help of her maiden, Evera slipped into the gown and settled her crown upon her head.

"My queen, thou art the loveliest creature in the land." King Yulan entered, their sullen son lingering behind him in the shadows of the hall. Yulan took her by the hand to bestow a sweet kiss within her palm. "Come, the kingdom anxiously awaits our arrival."

Evera smiled at him. She held a great love for her king, but that love had deepened since the birth of their second child. Together they had created another life, this time a daughter. A perfect, divine daughter. She scooped the babe into her arms, holding her very close to her breast. Yulan took Evera by the arm, leading her down the winding stone staircase to the grand foyer.

She could hear the music stir to life from the Eastmoon Garden, signaling their approach. She drew in a deep breath and let a smile bloom on her lips.

The hall doors opened and beyond lay a whirl of color and light, music and laughter, joy and celebration. Flowers and silks where draped about the garden, long wooden tables covered in fine linens held a banquet of food and drink. The rainbow of color from the garb of each villager seemed to brighten the garden adding more sunshine to an already bright day. The musicians played a happy hymn as the divine family entered the hall.

There came murmurs of well wishes and nods of approval as the divine family of Kinra took their seat upon the thrones. Una took the babe from her queen's hands and rested her within an elaborately decorated cradle for all to admire. The villagers approached one after another to express their blessing for the new babe. Dancing, feasting and laughter continued around them as Evera accepted gifts on behalf of her infant daughter.

In the midst of the festivities Ilaniel and her Illumi sisters entered, bowing before the divine family. Ilaniel stepped forward, her sisters standing silent and still behind her. "My queen, I must speak with you."

The smile on Evera's face faded as she met Ilaniel's pale gaze. She felt the darkness crept up from her soul, into her belly. She placed a hand to her stomach, drew in a heavy breath and tried to will the sickness away. She swallowed hard as she spoke through a forced smile. "Ilaniel, I am so pleased to see you. It would not be a true celebration without a visit from the Illumi to wish our daughter well."

Ilaniel took another step forward, closing the gap between herself and the queen. "I must request a private audience at once. It is a matter of great importance."

Yulan leaned forward upon his golden throne. "This is a celebration, Ilaniel. There will be no dealings this day."

Ilaniel nodded and gave a slight bow. "Yes, my king, and I assure you that only a matter of such grave importance could cause me to disrupt your celebration, but I must be granted private audience immediately."

"We shall speak tomorrow."

"I have seen the betrayal of Kinra at the hands of the divine daughter."

Evera reached out and took her king by the hand, needing his strength as the sickness within her grew. Twisting and turning inside her stomach so that she feared she might collapse. "What did you say?" she whispered.

Ilaniel took another step closer as gazes from the crowd about them had started to wander toward the disturbance. "A vision, my queen. A terrible vision. Your daughter will grow to wed our enemy and betray our people."

Evera felt herself sway, her grip tightened about her king's hand. "You speak lies."

"No, my queen."

She rose then, her skin flushing with the heat of fury rising within her. "Lies!" she screamed as silence fell around them. "I'll not hear these lies!"

Ilaniel stepped back to group with her sisters. Every eye within the Eastmoon Garden was centered upon her alone. "My queen, her destiny has been foretold."

Evera stepped down from her throne, crossed the distance between them and stopped a mere breath away from the Illumi. "You've come here during the celebration of my daughter's birth to tell me she will rise to betray our people?"

Ilaniel lowered her head, her gaze falling to the floor. It pained to her have to bring such tidings. She wished they could have waited, but for every moment that passed, darkness gained upon them. "Yes, my queen."

Evera swept her gaze over the silent Illumi. "Each of you believe this?"

Ilaniel hesitated for a moment then brought her gaze up to meet the queen's. "The Illumi has seen the vision, brought down to us by the Celeste. The babe is a threat to the whole of Kinra."

"A babe? A divine daughter, heiress to the throne of Kinra, descendant of the Celeste Herself? You believe her, of all people to be a threat?"

"Yes, my queen."

"And just what do you propose we do about the threat posed by my newborn babe?"

"She must be..." Ilaniel's words trailed off hoarsely. She cleared her throat and began again. "She must be vanquished."

Evera inched closer, her eyes burning with heat, with darkness. She lowered her voice so that even those closest to them had to strain to hear. "You mean murdered."

"Surely, my queen, you above all understand that the fate of the people should be protected at any cost."

"Surely, I above all do not understand. This is my daughter, my own flesh and blood."

"Our loyalty lies with the Celeste. We must heed our Goddess's warning."

"What does the Goddess know of my people? I do not see Her here upon this throne. And you, you have reigned over kings in servitude to your own purpose. You know nothing of loyalty. As for your visions, I should say they are nothing more than delusion passed down as prophecy."

"The Goddess--"

"Where is your Goddess now?" Evera interrupted. "I have not seen Her face, nor heard Her voice, nor felt Her guidance from within. I make my own destiny, Ilaniel, as do our people, as will my daughter."

Ilaniel gasped, pressing her hands to her heart as though perhaps it might burst through her chest. "Dare you speak blasphemies?"

Evera held up a hand. "The Illumi decides nothing for my family! Your guidance is no longer required."

Ilaniel bowed for she knew not else what she should do. "I mean not to upset you, my queen, but the visions speak for themselves. If we do not act now, we will invite the evil into our lands, damning our eternal souls forever."

"You follow your faith blindly and see where it shall lead you, Illumi. We shall make our own path." Evera spun around, quickly taking her throne and settling upon it with such majesty that everyone in the whole of the Eastmoon Garden was drawn to look upon her. "Guards! Escort the Illumi from the palace. Throw them to the restless seas!"

A great hush fell over the people as the guards stepped cautiously forward. Evera's dark gaze shifted from the Illumi to her king. She reached out, taking Yulan's hand in hers looking to him for the strength that she hadn't left in her.

Yulan gave her hand a soft squeeze, and then turned to the guards. "Heed your queen's command!"

Upon his command, the guards stepped forward.

"The vision has come! Heed the prophecy, my queen. The divine daughter brings darkness to our world! Blessed be the Celeste!" Ilaniel's shouts faded off into the distance as the guards dragged her from the house.

Evera rose and every gaze within the Eastmoon Garden turned to her. "Let all in the lands know that the Illumi have been vanquished. For they have plotted against the divine family. Any who seek to heed their mad prophecy shall face the same fate."

She turned from the silent people, from her king and scooped her baby into her arms. The babe gave a sharp cry then settled quietly against her breast as Evera stormed from the Eastmoon Garden to lock herself in her chambers.

* * * *

Chapter Three

The shores of Kinra were bathed in the brilliance of the spring sun. Despite the warmth splayed across the lands from the heavens, a chill swept in off the Madro Sea, sending a shiver to pass through Ilaniel's mortal skin. She paused mid-step, turned her face heavenward and closed her eyes so that she could bask in the warmth of the sun.

She felt a sharp jab in the small of her back, the blunt end of the guard's hilt nudging her forward. "Move along," he said.

Ilaniel opened her eyes and stepped forward, meeting the footfall of Phiel. They walked side by side in silence, crossing the beach to the awaiting vessel. Ilaniel turned back to her sisters. Mera, Dailn and Sanda were being herded forward like sheep to the slaughter. Ilaniel turned her gaze forward, back to the sedated sea even as she spoke beneath a whisper to her companion. "Have you no mind to fight them?"

Phiel drew in a deep breath, taking in the scent of the salted air, committing every fragrance of this beach to memory. A smile curved on her lips, keeping her eyes focused before her as she pressed on. "Our time has come," she said softly, with a hint of finality.

Ilaniel shook her head. She could not believe they had served out their usefulness as of yet. There was still so much left to teach them, from whom would they learn? Whom would they follow? "The Celeste must have some say in this matter. Will she do nothing as they throw our bodies into the sea?"

"She will welcome us home."

Ilaniel wasn't sure if what she felt was irritation or fear, perhaps a little of both. She could hardly believe that the Goddess who had created them would simply stand by and watch them die at the hands of the castlings they'd been sent to guide. And death ... Though she was an immortal being, her body was of flesh and blood and she feared the pain of death.

Phiel stopped short, turned to Ilaniel and took her face between her hands. "Fear not my sister. Death is but a temporary anguish. Before you can blink at it, you will be home. Home at the Celeste's side, basking in Her love."

Phiel's voice held a deep longing and Ilaniel wondered if perhaps she hadn't fought for their mortal lives because Phiel had indeed wanted to go home. As a Seraphim she'd known no other existence but peace and love and light. In bodily form they'd known hunger, pain and evil. Ilaniel understood, though she could scarcely remember the heaven she had once called home.

"Phiel," she said as the guard behind them cleared his throat. She cast a glance over her shoulder at him and he tipped his sword in her direction. Ilaniel began walking again with Phiel silent at her side. "We cannot leave. There is much to teach."

"In time," Phiel said softly, "the Celeste will send another. Our time has come, we must return home," she said again.

They spoke no further as they ascended the plank to the awaiting vessel. It bobbed slightly under their feet as they took to the deck. Together they stood at the bow, the five Illumi, locked hand-in-hand.

They sailed in silence, three guards pinned at their backs despite the fact that they hadn't bothered to move. Together they prayed in silence, drawing in the scents and sounds as they headed out to sea. From the growing distance, the shores of Kinra grew smaller, near insignificant. A blemish on the blue horizon of the melancholy sea. Ilaniel wondered if she would ever again set foot upon those shores. She would miss the feel of the cool sand as it slipped between her toes. She would miss the chiming of the bells as they rang out through the village on the holy seventh day.

She would miss the Temple of the Illumi, settled in its winter landscape, surrounded by the jagged snowy mountains. The temple had been their sanctuary, their protection, their home. She would miss the feel of the marble beneath her feet and echo of Dalin's harp as she played for them a song.

Most of all she would miss being of flesh. To know what is to touch and to feel. To taste and to smell. Those small, seemingly insignificant senses that castlings took for granted had meant the most to her.

Gerios wept silently beside the fresh graves. There was a stone to mark their places and fresh flowers his sister-by-bonds, Mina, had picked for his dearly departed wife and their nameless babe. Tears trickled down his cheeks and he closed his eyes against them. He could feel nothing but the numbness, the long lingering nothing that consumed his body and plagued his thoughts. How cruel and uncaring this world was. What right had the Celeste to take this lovely life? He cursed Her for this cruelty! Too many bodies buried beneath his lands!

He brought his fists down upon the freshly laid dirt atop her grave. Beside her sat three smaller stones. One for each child he'd lain to rest. And now his wife, his love, his life, had joined them. "You stole my love!" he cried out into the empty lands about him.

In the distance a babe cried out, but it was not his own. Its high-pitched squeals echoed into the morning air. He drew in a deep breath and listened to its cries. "Hesta, my love, do you hear the babe cry? It should be you to dry those tiny tears. I forsake the Goddess that has taken you from me, I forsake the Celeste!"

He sat for a moment, still and quite, while the babe's cries faded off into silence. He rose then, went down the hill to his cottage below. Inside Mina was pouring him a cup of warm goat's milk. "You needn't stay," he said softly.

"I'll not go," she said setting the cup on the table before him. "I'll not leave you alone in your time of need."

Gerios reluctantly fell into the chair and as her hand slipped over his shoulder in comfort, he let the flood of tears slip down his cheeks.

* * * *

Chapter Four

Summer, 200th year

"My king, another cottage has seen its livestock decay." Iakar, the king's most trusted advisor and confidant paced the room in hurried steps. Though they were alone, and though he had served at his king's side for the whole of his lordship, Iakar was uneasy at having to bear such tiding.

Yulan settled back into his throne and was grateful his queen was not present to bear witness to the grave news. Another plague would have his people talking. Since his queen had murdered the Illumi, every act of darkness was blamed upon his daughter. He shook his head and let out a heavy breath that did little to ease the weight bearing down upon him. "This is the forth time this season."

Iakar nodded. "The last but a short time ago."

"Their fears grow stronger by the day." Again the king let out a great sigh, but this time he rose as he let out his breath and made his way to the window overlooking the garden below. He could see his son, playing just below. With a loud whooping cry Syron slashed at the branches of a weeping saps tree with a wooden sword. He thrashed about wildly, trampling the queen's carefully tended flowers under the weight of his boot. He caught sight of a hare, the furry creature scrambled out from under a bush toward the depths of the garden. Syron chased after him, bellowing out curses and threats in a child's voice until they disappeared into the thick of the trees. "It will be he who will suffer for the Illumi words. He will wear my crown upon my death and lead a kingdom of unrest."

Iakar came up beside him, placed his hand upon Yulan's shoulder. "You mustn't blame yourself, my king."

Yulan shook his head and closed his eyes against the early afternoon sun. He cared not to see such things as sunshine and beauty when his world was immersed in darkness. "I need to find peace for my people."

"Perhaps what the Illumi offered was peace. They have always sought to lead our path of rightness in the goodness of light."

Yulan opened his eyes and turned his gaze upon his friend. Few had dared speak of the Illumi since their death, and none dared to utter a belief in the dark prophecy that had brought their demise. For Yulan, there was such a comfort in hearing those words uttered aloud. "I have entertained that very thought."

"The people have lost faith in your rule. Without a council to guide the way, all wonder how we are to know our path."

Yulan shook his head, "I am king, Iakar, I am ruler of Kinra."

Iakar gave a deep nod that was not quite a bow. "Yes, my king, but our people have not been without the Illumi since the keeping of records. Many are disturbed by the change."

"Have they such little faith in their king?"

"It is said that Ilaniel ascended from the seas to rejoin the Celeste in heaven and together they are plotting revenge for the queen's dark deeds. It is whispered that the Celeste has damned the divine family and will allow the divine daughter to live and bring darkness to us all. The actions of this family have only aided in the spreading of the whispers. The queen is not well, and the people believe that she has turned fully from the light and her heart has gone black. Prince Syron grows restless with each passing moon as if his heart grows darker each day. And you, my lord, you are tired and haggard, and it reflects poorly on your position. You need to be strong for your people, strong for your family."

It was true; he was more tired than he'd ever known. He had eaten little the past few days, slept even less. Food only seemed to churn his already volatile stomach and sleep was wrought with dark dreams. "Iakar, you are my most trusted advisor, what shall I do?"

"Perhaps, my king," Iakar pressed hesitantly, "it is time we should remove the source of their fears."

"Darkness has surrounded our lands," Gerios muttered into his goblet of wine. He'd let his hair grow long over the passing moons, his face scruffy with an unkempt beard. Heavy, dark circles lined his once bright eyes; the vague recollection of a once jovial man was drowning in the misery that plagued his heart. But beneath his shadow of hurt and anger, Mina saw the flicker of the man he once was. For her sister's sake, for Hesta's memory, she would not let him disappear into the misery of his own mind.

"The people are merely lost without the Illumi to guide them. All will right itself in time." Mina threaded the sharp quill with a spun line of wool and pulled it through his tattered shirt, mending the tear that he would have never noticed.

"How can you speak with such promise, Mina? The Celeste has turned Her back on us. She's cast this shadow on Kinra, letting evil rise in the hearts of men for our betrayal."

"It was the queen who betrayed the Celeste, not the people. The Celeste would not punish us all for the betrayals of one." She pulled the last line of thread through his shirt and held it to the light to admire her work.

"There is no faith left, we are all damned!" Gerios slammed his fist on the table, sending his goblet to topple and wine to splash a red tinge over the shirt in her hand.

"Gerios!" Mina cried, hastily rising and crossing the room to fetch a rag to tend to his mess. "Look what you have done," she said scrubbing at the stain that refused to yield.

"The Celeste punishes each and every one of us, Mina! Do not dare to speak differently in this house! Did she not punish me each time she took the life of each of my three children? Did she not punish me when she took my Hesta?"

Mina scrubbed at the stain, but her efforts only managed to turn the burgundy splotch to a pink smear. "It is unfortunate and unfair that we have suffered so, Gerios, but each of us has a destiny, the Celeste has a plan for us all. We may not understand that destiny at times, we may not agree, but we must obey it."

"Please, Mina. Depart your divine wisdom on me so that I can understand how one can possibly rationalize death, over and over more death, as a destiny. Tell me how my suffering, how my continued life serves any fate. Tell me!"

Mina threw his shirt upon the floor, her gaze aglow with a hatred she'd never before felt. "Do not pretend that it is you alone who have suffered. You may have lost a wife, but I have lost a sister." She crossed the distance to him, picked up the wine satchel from the table and turned it upside down so that the deep red liquid ran like a river of blood over the planks of carved wood. "You may choose to drown yourself in your sorrows and erase her from memory, or you may choose to embrace her memory and live as she would want you to live. For to live your life as a belligerent old drunk is to disgrace all that Hesta embodied."

Mina dropped the satchel on the table, turned and strode from the cottage, slamming the old iron cased door behind her.

* * * *

Chapter Five

Evera was ripped from her slumber, a sickness pounding beneath the confines of her chest. She sprang up, sat straight as an arrow in her bed, drenched in her own sweat and cursing beneath her breath as she struggled to make sense of her surroundings. Her eyes, not yet adjusted to the dark betrayed her and she held out her hands, groping for the cradle beside her bed.

"Evera?" Yulan's sleepy voice drifted up beside her. "Evera, what is the matter?"

"The babe," she said, her hands slipping over the cool satins draping the cradle. "I dreamt..." Her words trailed off as her fingertips skimmed soft, cool skin. There was no movement beneath her touch, she touched a hand to the babe's chest and found only more silence.

She let out a scream that pierced the night and had Yulan scrambling to light a candle. Evera fell out of the bed, collapsed to her knees, tipping over the cradle as she dragged the babe into her arms. She cradled the tiny body against her breast and rocked back and forth in the darkness, murmuring incoherently beneath her breath.

Yulan came to her side, candle in hand, casting faint streaks of flickering light over her. Evera felt the warmth of his body press against her, but she shoved him away. She rose, taking the babe to the window so that the moonlight bathed them both in its pale embrace. She stared down the silent babe. A deep seeded darkness arose like a blooming blood rose in the pit of her stomach. "She did this," she whispered, her voice distinct with the edge of fury.

"Who?" Yulan hung back cautiously as if afraid to pursue his wife any further.

"Ilaniel, the Illumi."

Daring to take a step forward, Yulan crossed the distance between them. "The Illumi are dead, you sent them--"

"The Celeste," she interrupted. "Sent on their behalf to murder our daughter while she slept."

Yulan gingerly placed his hands on her shoulder even as she clutched the babe tightly to her chest. "Evera, please let me see her," he said, reaching out to take the lifeless babe.

She whipped about, turning her back on him as she nuzzled the babe in her arms. "No. She is mine."

"She is gone, let her go."

"Never," she spat. "Leave me be!" she shrieked. "Leave me be!"

* * * *

Chapter Six

Thrice the sun had risen and set and the hint of a mournful song played through the village as somber faces turned palace-ward while the temple bells rang out through the whole of Kinra. A tear rolled silently down Mina's cheek as she crossed the courtyard to the offering stone. The great marble slab below the carved crest of the divine family of Kinra stood before the gates of the sprawling palace. Mina wound her way through the crowd of onlookers, a bouquet of morning spring flowers tied with a ribbon of pink silk lay in the crook of her arm.

She drew her gaze to the gates, to the gardens and the elegant palace beyond. She knew only too well what heartaches lay behind those polished pillars and bounty of flowers. She ascended the offering stone. Once a place reserved for offerings to the Celeste it now offered mourning gifts for the divine daughter. The family had mourned in private for many days, saying nothing and allowing hundreds of gifts of flowers, paintings, even silk, to collect upon the offering stone. Someone had placed a woven blanket upon the pedestal, another, a loaf of bread. People offered what they could in place of heartfelt condolences for the palace was sealed and no one was allowed admittance.

"There are whispers of murder," she overheard someone say.

"It was retribution from the Celeste," whispered another.

"The family is cursed by darkness."

Mina tried to drown the voices of the people with her own thoughts. She dropped to her knees in front of the stone, closed her eyes and offered a silent prayer for the divine family who had suffered such a loss. When she'd finished her rites, she placed the flowers upon the altar, gave a slight bow and turned away.

"A shame to lose one whose life had yet to begin."

Mina turned to see a man of many years draped with a dark cloak leaning against the palace wall to her right. Mina cast her gaze about, unsure the man had addressed her, but she was the only Kinran within earshot.

"Can you imagine their despair?" he asked her.

Mina nodded, "I believe I can."

"Such a shame," he repeated. "Have you paid your respects?"

Mina studied him, letting her gaze trail the length of his body, what of it she could see. He was tall, slender, with a long face with a soft muddy gaze. He was older, perhaps even gray haired beneath his cloak but she couldn't be sure. "I have," she said at length. "Have you?"

"Many times over."

"Did you know her?" Mina questioned. Something, perhaps it was heartache in the man's voice, told her he did.

"She lived but a short time," he said softly.

"But you knew her," she said again, this time more accusation than question.

He nodded. "But we mustn't mourn her," he offered. "For she will find herself in a better place."

Mina nodded in return. "At the side of her Goddess. She will find eternal peace now."

A hint of a smile curled on his lips as he pushed himself from the wall and crossed the distance toward her. "Have you any children of your own?"

"No," she answered cautiously. His nearness unnerved her, despite his kind eyes there was an air of something sinister about him. Something she couldn't quite place.

"Yet you say you can imagine their pain."

"Sympathize with their pain. I've lost many people I've loved. Some much sooner than should have ever been." The last she added softly as though speaking the words aloud brought her sorrow to the surface.

"Have you a husband to help you through this difficult time?"

She took a step back now, the uneasiness sending off warnings from inside her.

He reached out a hand as if to steady her, but he didn't invade by offering his touch. "Please, forgive me. I do not mean to intrude. I was simply hoping that you had someone with whom you can share your grief."

Mina eyed him cautiously. "I must take my leave, excuse me," she said quickly before turning to disappear into the crowds. She cast a worried glance back over her shoulder several times as she wound her way through the village then cut across the open valley and ran toward the crest of the forest. She half expected him to follow her but each time she looked behind her she was alone.

She burst through the low-hanging foliage. When she emerged from the shadow of the thick nest of trees into the blaring open light of the clearing, a scream exploded in her chest as he wrapped his hands about her.

"Mina." He gave her a shake to draw her attention.

It took a moment for her mind to clear and her eyes to focus on the familiar face before her. He looked younger, by at least five seasons, the beard cleanly shaven away left only the smooth contours of his face. Her breath now caught in her throat, she lifted her hand, laid her palm upon his cheek. "Gerios?"

"Mina, what has happened?"

Her breath was still ragged, her heart still pounding wildly in her chest. Though she knew it was foolish, she searched the woods behind her. "A man," she said hoarsely.

"What man? A Viscan?" Gerios searched the trees behind her.

"No." She let her hands slip away from his face. She rested her head upon his chest, letting him take the fullness of her weight as she took a moment to collect not only her breath but her thoughts as well. "A man in the village, he was asking me strange questions about..." Her words trailed off as she realized how foolish a sentiment she was about to utter.

Gerios collected her into his arms and escorted her across the clearing to the cottage. He offered her a seat and poured her a cup of herbal tea. "You should not venture into the village alone," he said as he set the kettle upon the warming plate settled over the hearth. "And never into the woods."

"I wanted to pay my respects to the divine family."

"You should have told me," he said softly, taking a seat across from her. "I would have gone with you."

Mina lifted the mug, sipped the warm, pale tea and studied him from over the rim. He was different, much like the old Gerios her sister had wed, but still different in some unimagined way. He was lighter, his eyes softer, his voice full of caring. He'd never spoke to Mina in such a way.

"Where have you been these past days?" He let his gaze drift from her face to stare with disinterest at the painted pattern upon her tea cup.

"With a friend," she lied. She had taken refuge at the inn for she had no desire to lay eyes on anyone, even if she had had such a thing as a friend. Hesta had been her sister and her only friend. She had once considered Gerios as much, but with so much sadness between them they would never be able to look upon each other the same once more.

"I've missed you."

"Lonely nights never suited you." She wanted to believe him. How she wanted to believe him.

"That is true," he said slowly bringing his gaze up to meet hers. "Despite what has transpired between us, Mina, this is your home. You belong here. You are my family ... all that I have left."

"I cannot return."

He reached a hand out across the table, as though he meant to take her into his grasp, but he pulled away before ever letting his fingertips make contact. "This is your home, Mina," he repeated.

She shook her head. "It is your home, yours and Hesta's, and I have overstayed my welcome."

"You are always welcome, and that is not why you wish to leave." His eyes were watery, as if he were holding back tears. It twisted her heart, making it ache for him. She wanted nothing more than to draw him into her arms and wash his pain away. But she knew she couldn't, no more than he could do the same for her.

"There is too much here. Too much hurt, too much anger."

He rose then, paced the length of the room as he considered her statement. "You were right. We cannot wallow in the things we cannot change. We should mourn her, love her, remember that in our hearts she remains a constant in our lives. We shall always be touched by her and in knowing this we honor her."

"It warms my heart to hear you say such things, just as I believe it must also warm Hesta's. But I cannot stay."

He crossed to her, knelt on one knee, rested his hands in her lap and captured her slender fingers within his grasp. "Tell me why? Truthfully, in all that we've been through together I deserve at least that."

The tears rose within Mina's eyes. A deep well of heartache that she'd kept dammed for far too long. She feared the dam would break and her pain would crash over him like a wicked, stormy wave and drown him in her misery. "I fear that when you look upon me, I will serve as a constant reminder of her and when I look at you, I will feel the same."

He smiled then, let his thumb caress the back of her hand in a comforting rhythm. "I see so many beautiful similarities to your sister, but I could never see her in your eyes. I see you, Mina, just you. The last of my family, my only tie to this world and my only reason for living. I want nothing more than to care for you, to see you happy, perhaps one day bonded with children of your own."

Despite his kind words Mina's heart dropped like a rock falling away from a cliff into the dark descent of a midnight sea. "Bonded?"

He rose then, letting her hands slip from his grasp as he turned across the room. "She wanted you to be happy, Mina. Wanted you to know love as she knew it. I believe she would want me to see you find it. So you must stay. You must let me care for you as family should."

She wanted to cry, wanted to sob buckets of tears for the thorn he'd driven through her heart. What was it she had hoped for? That he would proclaim love for her? Dearest Goddess, had she really wanted such a thing? But try as she might to deny it, she had wanted it. Had always wanted it because for as long as she had known him she'd harbored a love for him like no other. And with her sister gone, her love made her sick with guilt. She could not stay, not one more moment. It was why she had left days ago, why she'd vowed once never to return.

There came a knock at the door, disturbing her thoughts. Her gaze followed Gerios as he crossed the room. He opened the door and from the other side of his frame she caught sight of a basket. "What is it?"

Gerios bent down, gingerly picked up the basket, cradling it in his arms as though it were something precious. He said nothing as he crossed the distance, softly pushing the door shut with the heel of his boot behind him. He sat the basket upon the table, staring down with his mouth agape in astonishment.

Mina let her gaze trail downward from his face to the gift sitting on the table before her. There, wrapped in silken blankets it slept. "A babe," she whispered breathlessly.

Evera turned her vacant gaze to the window and though her heart ached with darkness no woman should ever know, her mind had slipped away so that she suffered in silence. In her finest gown, she stepped onto the stool she'd placed before the window and then stepped up on the ledge.

She was met with the afternoon sun upon her face. Its warmth spread over her skin but failed to reach the depths of the coldness within. She closed her eyes, tipped her head to the heavens and cursed the Goddess who'd damned her.

She stepped from the ledge, tumbled toward the gardens below, her last vision filled with morning glories and blood-tinged daylilies. A sudden snap reverberated through her body as she crashed into the flowerbed below. A blinding pain as hot as the engorged sun above seared through her body. And then darkness welcomed her.

* * * *

A Time of Change

* * * *

Chapter Seven

Fall, 216th year

By his adopted daughter's sixteenth year the flowers had grown up around his wife's grave. The grasses covered the headstone so that Gerios had to push them aside to gaze upon the stone. He bowed his head in quiet prayer and spoke private thoughts to his wife. When he finished he let the long grasses fall back in place and slowly rose.

Night was beginning to fall over the land, the amber hues of day fading off into the purple twilight of night. He tilted his head to the heavens. This was his favorite time of day, when the stars were faint in the sky. He knew his wife was among them, slowly waking from her daytime slumber to shine brightly down upon her family. He imagined her to be the brightest of all the stars, for none had held as much life as Hesta, and none was remembered as lovingly in death. He smiled slightly, lifted his fingers to his lips and blew a kiss up into the sky.

He made his way down the hill to the cottage below, a wrapped package clasped tightly under his arm. His daughter had already built a fire in the hearth. The windows glowed with a warm yellow hue. Mina would be milling about, folding clothes or setting supper upon the table. Since the day the babe had been left on their doorstep, Mina had not left his side. Perhaps she cared too much for Gerios and for the child they'd raised as their own. Whatever her reason, she chose to stay. Gerios admitted only to himself that he enjoyed her company and without her he was sure he would not have made it through their daughter's first year. He had soon discovered that there was no task as exhausting yet as rewarding as rearing a child.

"Mother brought me a new book from the village!" Eliyn pounced on him before he even managed to get through the door.

"Eliyn, dear. Let your father rest his feet." Mina's soft, feminine voice filtered through the cottage. She looked up, a plate of food in each hand and a warm smile curving on her soft lips. Mina's hair fell down her back in a thick, lush braid. Delicate white flowers were tucked here and there, their soft coloring a startling contrast to her auburn hair. Her eyes were a pale green and they shimmered with the light of life. Her skin was smooth and taut, like a polished stone. She wore a white dress that was cut low about the bosom and fell to her ankles. Gerios let his gaze linger on her a moment too long so that the heat of desire flickered to life within him. He quickly turned away, rested his gaze on his daughter instead.

He pulled Eliyn into his arms and gave her a tight squeeze before plopping her back down on her feet. He looked down into those eager azure eyes, bright with the curiosity of lingering youth. She was growing up too quickly, no longer a child no matter how much he wanted to deny it. Her gaze darted quickly from the package to her father in wide-eyed excitement and back again. "What have you brought me, Father?"

Gerios made his way to the table, his daughter trailing at his heels. He took a seat, set the package on the table and scooted it toward Eliyn. "To celebrate the day you came into our lives."

Eliyn gazed down at the package with wonderment in her eyes. She unwrapped the cloth, revealing the polished dagger hidden inside. She scooped up the handcrafted weapon and held it up in the light of the fire to examine it. The hilt had been fashioned with silver and gold. The cross-guard was molded into ornate dragon wings so that the bones extended beyond the golden scales to form a sharp-edged comb along the tip of the wing. The head of the dragon extended upon the blade, its mouth open, pointed teeth barred so that it looked as if the dragon had breathed life into the cold metal of the blade. Two rubies, blood red in color made the creature's eyes sparkle and the sword seem to come to life. "I've never seen its match," she whispered softly.

"Nor shall you. I call it the Dragon's Breath." Gerios watched his daughter study the object with intent fascination. "It is a very powerful dagger, Eliyn, meant only for one who will treat it with deep respect."

Eliyn tucked the blade into the belt of her garb and leaned in to kiss her father's cheek. "Thank you, Father, it is the loveliest gift I've ever received."

"Eliyn," Mina said stiffly, eyeing the blade jutting out from her hip. "Wash up for supper please."

Eliyn gave a nod then disappeared outside to the wash bucket.

Gerios turned to Mina, the smile had faded from her lips. "What troubles you, my dear?"

She turned away from him and went to work filling a mug with fresh water from the pitcher. "A girl of sixteen shall fair better with more appropriate gifts."

"Like a book?" he challenged playfully.

"Yes, like a book, or a new garb, or a bouquet of flowers. You cannot keep treating her as if she's a child, as if she's boy."

"A dagger is not a child's gift."

"No, it is not, but nor is it a proper gift for a young woman."

Gerios shook his head. "Why not? Shall my daughter not be just as well studied as a son might be? Should she not learn to care and fend for herself? We will not always be here to protect her."

Mina turned back around, set the mug on the table and forced a smile. "Of course, you are right. I only fear that in making her too independent she'll not be content to settle as is expected of her. I only wish the best for her, for our family."

Gerios brought his gaze up slowly to meet hers. Mina's eyes glistened with tears about to fall. She looked so beautiful to him then, with the flowers in her hair and the firelight casting a warm glow upon her skin. He had thought of it, many nights he had lain awake in his bed, listening the sounds of night and knowing she lay sleeping in the room just beyond. Too many nights he'd almost found himself going to her. The desire to slip into her bed, wrap his arms about her and bring her soft lips to his was overwhelming. Yet the memory of his wife kept his love at a distance. And though he was tempted he never gave in to the desires that seemed to flame to life whenever he laid eyes upon Mina. He drew in a deep breath and dragged a heavy hand across his brow. "Without you, Eliyn would not be so well cared for. She is strong because you are strong. She is kind because you are kind. We would be lost without out you, Mina. I will forever be grateful to you for all that you have done for Eliyn."

She turned away from him again, trying to hide the tears that began to slip down her cheeks. "It is not your appreciation I seek, Gerios, it is your heart..." Her words trailed off as she shuddered against the tears.

Gerios rose then, rounded the table and placed his hands upon her shoulders, drawing her to him. "You have my heart, and Eliyn's as well."

Mina turned toward him then, her lips so close to his that he could feel her warm breath upon his skin. Her cheeks were stained with teardrops but they only added to her breathtaking beauty. Was it wrong of him to desire her so? If he were to give in to his feelings would he betray the memory of Hesta?

Mina drew in a soft murmur of a breath that stole his heart. Her eyes were heavy and dark as they settled upon him. "Gerios, tell me what your heart desires."

"I fear my heart desires you, yet my head tells me it is betrayal."

Mina shook her head. "Hesta has been gone many years and we all carry with us a love and a memory for her. She would wish for nothing more than your happiness. And I believe, as my sister, she would wish for my happiness as well. I believe she would want us to live as a proper family." She paused again for a brief moment. "I meet with her in my dreams. We walk the valley and speak of your welfare, yet I suspect she already knows as if she watches us from the heavens." She touched a hand to her face, wiping away the tear that had fallen. "And in our talks she blesses our union. She blesses our family and wishes me to care for you as my own." She drew her hand outward, rested it upon his cheek. "I believe this in my heart. You know I would not say so otherwise."

He turned his head to trail soft kisses upon her palm. Her eyes fell closed and a soft moan escaped her lips. The sound of her ragged breath nearly shattered his heart. "No matter my own heart's desires, I cannot betray the memory of Hesta."

Fat, salted tears rolled down Mina's pink cheeks as her hand slipped away. She drew in a shaky breath, her gaze dropping to the floor. "Then I cannot stay."

Gerios merely nodded. He had known this day would come. For he knew some day Mina would ask for more than he could give. There was but one thing he could do. To love her was to set her free from her burdens. "Go then, for you deserve a life richer than this."

Mina closed her eyes, her dark eyelashes brushing against tawny skin. She drew another deep breath before slowly opening her eyes and bringing her gaze up to meet his. "You would see me walk out that door, never to return?"

"If that is what you wish."

"It is not what I wish!" She whirled about, her hand carelessly colliding with a vase of flowers and sending them flying off the table. It landed with a crash on the floor, the water spilling across the floorboards as the tears streamed down her face. "I wish to be yours. To be Eliyn's. To be a proper wife and mother to those I love."

"Eliyn would have no better mother than you, Mina, but Hesta is my wife," he said grimly.

"Hesta is gone."

"I cannot disgrace Hesta's memory."

Mina crossed the cottage, anger fueling each heavy step toward the door. "You disgrace me, Gerios!"

Mina threw open the door and stormed from the cottage, passing by a bewildered Eliyn who was washing her hands and face in the cool waters of the stilled pail.

Gerios watched as Mina disappeared beyond the forest's edge.

Eliyn stepped into the cottage, casting a mystified glance back over her shoulder. "Where is Mother headed?

"To another life."

Eliyn looked for answers in her father's watery eyes. Her brow furrowed in displeasure. "What have you done?"

"I have disgraced her." Gerios reached out for his daughter but she pulled away just beyond his grasp.

"Because you will not make her a proper wife?"

"What have you know? You are but a child."

"Not such a child that I don't recognize a woman in love. Or for that matter, a man in love."

"Dare not speak of things you know nothing about, child." His voice was gruff, edged with the hint of frustration.

"I know you are a fool to let her leave."

The smack that reverberated through the cottage shocked even Gerios. And as he pulled his hand away from her reddened cheek the guilt crashed over him in sickening waves.

Eliyn turned her watery gaze upon him as she lifted a hand to touch the heat seething from her cheek. She fled the cottage, her father's calls drifting off behind her.

Gerios slumped down to the floor, his heart weighing him down so that he could no longer stand. The loss of so many loves in one lifetime was more than he could bear.

* * * *

Chapter Eight

Amidst the darkness, Eliyn found herself very much alone. In the distance, not far beyond the dusted stone path, she could hear the cries of the hungry timberwolves. Their desperate, echoing howls sent a quiver through her body at the thought of their ravenous appetite. What a tasty treat she would make for them. Young, tender meat might be a welcomed change from their daily diet of aging hares and sickly fawns.

At the thought, she hastened her step. She'd found herself lost in the woods with no sight of her mother and no clear route toward home. She'd never been allowed to venture beyond the sanctuary of their cottage. Never allowed to play in the woods or accompany her mother or father to the village. Frightened and alone, she turned this way and that desperately trying to find her way home.

She stumbled forth along the dusted path that lay cloaked in darkness. Only the light of the pale silvery moon would serve to light her way.

The prickle of fear set the fine hair upon her arms to stand on end. The feeling of hot breath upon her neck had her stopping mid-step.

She may not have seen much of the world but her father had tried to teach her about the dangers that lurked just beyond their doorstep. One lesson she had retained was that a light-footed stranger upon a dark night was never a welcomed event.

"De la tou mihanna sa mina," he whispered into her ear. A thick Viscanese accent clouded his native speech.

Do not bother to scream, my beauty. His words echoed in her ears, drowning in the sea of fear that was coursing like a summer squall within her. She closed her eyes, shutting out the night and the forest beyond. She feared she was already dead. For Viscans were swift, agile, cruel men who moved through their forest home with ease and preyed on stragglers and journeymen that dared to cross their paths.

Eliyn supposed this was a fitting end to a rather unfortunate day. She turned upon him so that she could lift her chin and meet his gaze. Above the red bandanna that covered the majority of his face, a pair of dark eyes glared down upon her. His gaze devoured her, hungrily searching the curves of her body as though she were a meal put upon feast. "A su tou minhanna." I'll not bother to scream, she whispered in return.

The lines about his eyes deepened and she thought perhaps it indicated a smile. "Your Viscanese is impeccable," he replied, this time in her native tongue. Her proficiency in his language seemed to amuse him. Perhaps because Viscanese was not a commonly practiced language in civilized regions. But living so close to Viscan territory, her father had thought it important for her to learn. The Viscan's brows dipped to dark slashes above his glaring eyes. "Who taught you?"

"My father."

"Who is your father?"

She dared not say for fear this devilish rouge would hunt him down.

"Tell me, se mina."

"My father is dead."

As he leaned closer still, he drew in a breath as if sniffing her. The distance between them was no more than the span of a heartbeat and it sent a prickling to play at the nape of her neck. He cut his gaze downward, swooping across the plunged neckline of her dress, over the swell of her pale breast. "I think not. I think that perhaps he was the old man we found wandering our woods. The name of a lost child on his tongue." His husky words came out as barely more than a whisper as he let his gaze trail hungrily upward, finally settling intently upon her returning gaze.

She closed her eyes for a moment, willing strength from the fury that was seething within her. "This man, did you kill him?"

"Aye, we slit his throat and fed him to the wolves."

"And a women, was there a woman?"

He cocked a dark brow at her question. "Aye, there was a woman. Beautiful, skin like honey wheat and hair the color of an autumn sky."

"And what of the woman?" Despite the strength of her words, Eliyn drew in a shaky breath and silently cursed her body for betraying her.

He reached out gingerly, trailed a finger softly down the line of her jaw. His touch warmed her skin and was far gentler than she thought it ever should have been. His finger rested lightly, momentarily upon her swell of her bottom lip.

When he said nothing she asked again. "What of the woman?"

His hand trailed further downward to the hem of her gown that pressed against her breasts. His finger dipped below the fabric, just a breath below the lace as he traced the contour of the neckline. "We took her in, rava ged her body until she cried for the Celeste to save her."

His hand slipped back over the fabric to cup her breast. His fingers splayed as he let his thumb caress the fabric. Eliyn drew in a breath as her hand silently stole upward, her fingers wrapping about the blade still tucked in her garb. She let her gaze fix on his. She tipped her chin upward. Breathless she shivered beneath his touch as the fury swelled to a fever pitch within her. "She is dead now?"

He leaned forward, his lips just a breath away. He brushed his lips against hers, barely touching so that the taste of him thankfully eluded her. "Unfortunately for me, as I had not had a chance to taste of her. But you, se mina, shall quench my thirst."

Before she could respond, he shifted. His body tightened, coiled as if ready to release as he cocked his head to the side to listen. The movement was almost beast like in its nature. In the distance Eliyn heard the thunder of hooves.

He cut his gaze back to her. "They'll not have you, se mina."

With a swift upward movement, she plunged the blade deep into his side. "Pray the Goddess will redeem you," she whispered softly. She took a step away, pulling out the blade and without her to steady his weight he tumbled to the ground with a sickening thud. He placed a hand to his wound and lifted his glassy, dark gaze to her.

Off in the distance she saw the faint lamplight of a carriage approaching. When she turned back around she was met only with an empty forest about her, the Viscan had managed to slink away into the brush. She gave a fleeting thought to finding him, plunging the blade into his body once more but decided best to let him suffer. To die a slow and agonizing death as penance for his crimes.

Moments later the carriage ascended upon her, two magnificent white stallions pulling it along at the ends of polished reins. They snorted as if in discontent, flipping their heads and sending a wave of white mane to ripple in the night breeze. One of the stallions pawed at the ground with a glimmering dark hoof.

Eliyn stepped forward, gave the driver a slight bow. "Thank you, sir, for stopping."

The driver

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