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The Curse of Gremdon

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The Curse of Gremdon

Book I

The Shrouded Kingdoms

Copyright ©2015 by Ciara Knight

Nook Edition

All rights reserved.

Second edition published March 2015

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

Cover art ©2015 by Robin Ludwig

Edited by Cora Artz

 

 

 

The Curse of Gremdon

By

Ciara Knight

Chapter One

 

Arianna inhaled the damp night air and stole a glimpse over the castle tower wall to the center courts. Not a body in view. All the inhabitants lay asleep in their chambers below, leaving only her opponent and the Elder to stand as witness to her honor or demise.

From high atop the Elder’s tower, she watched the thick mist roll in over the castle walls below. Swirls of gray lingered like fingers ready to grab a leg and pull her into the darkness of the outer land. A shiver shot up her spine. Too many souls have been lost to the Curse of Gremdon. Her heart ached at the memory of the last time she held her sister. She swallowed, forcing down the incessant feeling of doom.

She slid her palm down her rough animal-skin skirt, ridding it of sweat, and stepped forward. Eyeing her opponent, she gripped her sword tightly. The flutter of wings and a caw accentuated the silence until the crow landed on the spire above. The Elder’s head, shrouded in a black hood, nodded in consent to begin. Instinct propelled Arianna to attack.

Blades clanked. Tremors reverberated through Arianna’s shaking biceps. She whipped around to counter-attack. Loose strands from her braid distorted her vision of Tardon, her opponent. She swung high while he ducked.

“Certainly, you can do better.” He enunciated each word through a playful snarl.

With shoulders the size of an ox, Tardon towered over her by a foot, but she held her ground. His copper eyes bore into her soul and his contemptuous grin ignited a flame at her core. Only her burning desire to win Elite Warrior status drove her to suffer years of brutal training and allowed her to stay focused on what was important—winning.

In one fluid motion, she swept around with her leg extended and knocked the beast of a man off balance. His shoulder smacked against stone and he rolled onto the ground. Before she struck again, he arched his back and flipped onto his feet, sword at the ready.

Arianna squeezed her weapon keeping the blade pointed at his center. “You would do well to pay attention to your own defense or risk the slice of my blade.”

Swatting his thick brown hair away from his cheekbones, he wielded the blade in his right hand and rotated it in small circles.

A loud thunder clapped in the distance, sending dozens of crows scattering in all directions in a frenzy of bone-chilling cries.

A sharp pain swept from her side and radiated through her abdomen, taking with it the last ounce of air in her lungs. Gasping, she clutched her side and Tardon withdrew the dark hilt of his sword from her ribs.

“Distraction means death.” He pulled back then bounded toward her.

With a well-timed pivot, she diverted another blow. Leaning back on her left leg, bringing her right knee up, she thrust her foot into his gut. He stumbled back, but swiftly regained his footing.

Both stood in a ready stance.

Both gasped for air.

Neither was willing to admit defeat.

A rush of wind filled with sweat finally penetrated the barrier in her lungs.

Dull pain settled low in her stomach, but she lunged forward, blade aimed straight at Tardon’s abdomen to claim her victory.

But he parried.

A fist smashed against her cheek. Her back slammed against the stone wall. Dust and dirt plumed around her face, taunting her to sneeze. She blinked back tears.

The familiar metallic taste of blood invaded her mouth. She swiped her leather gauntlet across her lips, wiping the blood away, never removing her eyes from Tardon.

She pushed up onto shaking legs. The Elder standing on the edge of the cobblestone circle raised his arm. His gnarled hand extended from the black cloak, ashen skin matching the surrounding mist.

The breath caught in her throat, as if the Elder’s skeletal fingers snapped around her neck tighter than a vice of the welder. Her insides trembled with worry while she waited for his life or death signal. A flick of a pasty white finger summoned her to continue. Icy pain raced through her body as though she’d jumped from a great height on a cold day. The Elders only demanded death once in a thousand moons. Certainly, today would not call for true bloodshed.

But things had changed recently, and no one knew what to expect.

Tardon’s pupils widened, leaving only a thin circle of copper.

She shifted and covered her bubbling despair; her emotions threatened to ruin everything. Arianna adjusted her stance in hopes no one would see her desire to run from the fight to avoid killing him, an unforgivable sin for a warrior.

You can’t run. Too much is at stake.

She fought the facial muscles betraying her cover and coaxed her face into a blank stare. Tardon shuffled around and she followed, keeping her attention on his best assets and greatest weakness: his muscles. They twitched before he moved.

Arianna circled him, until the Elder crossed his arms with impatience. A match to claim Elite Warrior status required more than a few bruises and flesh wounds. No more time would be allowed. Tardon’s bicep twitched.

Arianna pulled a dagger from her belt, maneuvered under his blow, and slashed his upper chest. Blood flowed down his leather vest. She swept his legs, sending him to his knees. With a leap from the stone floor she landed on his back, knife at his throat, sword aimed at his gut.

His Amulet of Protection glowed orange.

Her stomach twisted in knots at the thought of harming him, but she had no choice. If the Elders demanded such an offering, she’d have to slice deep and end his life. They remained motionless awaiting the life or death decision. The masculine scent of leather and earthy spices wrapped around her, testing her resolve.

The blade shook in her hands, and she steadied it against his skin. The hooded Elder lowered his arms and turned away from the fight. Loud clicks echoed from the doorway then faded with each step as the dark figure descended the Elders’ tower.

Relief flooded her. After seasons of sacrifice and training, she would receive the Elite Warrior Mark.

Arianna released Tardon and the breath she’d been holding. She stumbled down the stairs to the main passageway and collapsed in a nearby alcove. The knife clinked against the cold stone at her side.

Tardon sauntered from the tower. He sheathed his sword and marched down the walkway but stopped briefly. Sweat rolled down his hard, striated triceps.

Warmth curled through her belly, but no, she could not care for him. One day I might have to kill him.

She scooted back into the shadows, holding her knees close to her chest. A quiver shook her from deep within. She blinked back tears as they threatened to spill down her throbbing cheek.

He turned, his profile gleamed in the torch lit passage. She longed to touch his skin just once. Run her hands over his body. Kiss the wound she’d inflicted on his chest.

“I wish our fates were intertwined,” Arianna mumbled to herself and grasped the amulet to her chest, trying to relieve the tight ache in her heart. Shaking her head, she pushed up from the ground and pressed her back against the cool wall. She wiped the dripping sweat from her brow.

If only her sister were still alive, Arianna could ask her about these feelings she experienced each time Tardon came close to her.

Images flashed: pale skin stretched…forehead bulging…long claws. Arianna pressed her fists against her forehead and squeezed her eyes shut. Even after nine harvest seasons, the vision of her sister falling to the Curse remained vivid.

She pushed away from the wall and followed the dismal passage to a flight of stairs that led up to her family chamber, but instead of turning left, she banked right and headed for the pit too worked-up to sleep.

If only she could stay away from Tardon, but the castle walls didn’t allow much room for avoidance, and no one survived outside the gates. Perhaps she could speak to her brother about Tardon. No. She had to protect Mardel, not burden him with things he would never understand.

There was no one for her to confide in. No person of worth wanted a warrior for a friend because they died too young to matter and she’d never be fully accepted by the male warriors.

She didn’t care, the only person she wanted to be with she had almost killed to earn a title. But she could not—would not kill him. If the Elder demanded a death, she would surrender her own sword and fall on Tardon’s blade.

 

***

 

Tardon tossed his belt and sheathed sword onto the bed. “Cursed woman.” He paced the room, unable to calm his shaking body. “Does she not understand her limitations? I could have killed her.”

Kendar, the young, red-haired servant boy, crossed the room to retrieve Tardon’s sword and placed it on the table. “Did you harm her?”

Tardon scowled then glanced down at his swollen, red knuckles. They stung from where he’d struck Arianna’s face. The sight made his stomach churn as if he’d eaten bad stew. Queasiness turned to anger, and he smashed his hand down on a wooden stool, cracking the top and forcing one of the legs to fold in on itself.

“Relieved now, sir?” Kendar unsheathed the sword and rubbed the blade with a rag. “This Arianna affects you.”

“It is of no consequence to you.” He turned from the boy, rubbing his throbbing knuckles. Good, penance for what he had done. Pain was something he could embrace, unlike other things.

He had to make a good show in battle or cause suspicion. The Elders knew it wouldn’t be a fair fight. Although, in the end, she’d proven herself.

“The fight was without incident?” Kendar closed his fingers around the hilt and rotated the blade in front of his eyes while he scrutinized the shiny surface. “Usually, I have much more cleaning to do upon your return. The only blood I see is on the grip.”

Tardon clenched his jaw at the vision of his fist against Arianna’s cheek. If he did not have some reprieve soon from Kendar’s prattling, he would pummel the boy.

“See to my dinner,” Tardon ordered. Although the rumble in his stomach had nothing to do with food, it gave an excuse for the boy to leave without further questions.

“Certainly, sir.” The slight servant scurried to the door. “If you like Arianna, why do you not ask the Elders for permission to earn marriage?” He raced from the room and yanked the wooden door shut behind him before Tardon could reply.

He listened to the patter of his servant’s slippered feet racing down the stairs.

Servants: nosy people with nothing more to do but pry. At only fifteen seasons, what did the boy know about marriage? Still, Kendar had a point. But what life is there for the married? Regular mating would be a bonus, but children were forbidden. And the Elders had provided for sexual relief, so there was no need to marry for pleasure.

His mind’s eye slid down Arianna’s snow-white complexion. Her body, those lush breasts pushing over her vest, threatening to spill out as he’d fought her. Small waist and hips swaying with each stance change. Distractions no man should have to endure during battle.

Her eyes shone bright like something he had seen in the book. Something that people once swam in called a lake. The largest pool of water he’d ever seen was in the center court well that everyone fetched water from.

After securing the door, he shuffled to the armoire and pulled at the hidden back panel. Thank the Elders for his status as an educated warrior instead of an inner city peasant or he wouldn’t be able to read about his heritage. Cautiously, he retrieved the old book, a secret handed to him by his parents the night they disappeared into Gremdon. The night before the Elders declared the gates sealed. The night that making children was forbidden. The night everything in the kingdom changed.

He shivered and clutched his Amulet of Protection, the only thing shielding his people from the harsh realities of the outer land and the complete dominance of the curse.

Placing the book on the table, he opened to the picture of colors. A diagram on the second page told him the names of each thing. Pink roses, green grass, blue water. The image shone like Arianna’s eyes. Her swollen lips blushed the color of roses. He imagined her skin would feel as soft as the petals of a flower described on the page before him.

If only he could experience Arianna like the women sent by the Elders. They were beautiful, but his gut told him Arianna’s attention would be different.

He stared at the vibrant colors on the page and ran a finger over the caption ‘Springtime’. The world in the picture once existed. He knew from the stories, forbidden to discuss openly and told to him in whispered tones by his grandfather when he tucked Tardon into bed at night. Tales of lands with acres of open grass free to ride over on beasts called horses, during the time before the Curse. His heart slowed to a soothing, steady beat as he stared at the picture of Springtime.

If it had been once, couldn’t it be again? If only the Curse could be broken, children, land, colors, all would be realities instead of merely pictures in a book.

A rap at the door echoed through his chamber. His heart sped as he lifted the book with caution and hurried to the secret panel. “I have changed my mind, no food.”

“I do not bring food, but other pleasures,” a sultry voice said through the cracks of the door.

He placed the book back in the armoire. A loud thump echoed in the stone walled room when he shut the panel.

The door creaked from behind. He turned and found a barely dressed, curvaceous female standing in his doorway. But how? He’d latched the door. He rubbed his forehead in confusion.

The woman’s body called to him, but his mind unwittingly recalled another. “I do not wish for such gifts this evening.”

“That is not what your manhood says.” She sauntered toward him, batting her eyelashes and running her skilled tongue over her lips.

Tardon held up one hand. “Leave me. I am tired and do not want anything more than sleep.”

She stopped mere inches from his face; her hand stroked across the front of his breeches. Heat surged to his groin and pulsed.

A smile grew wide on her delicate face, but her eyes showed purpose. “Not all of you needs rest.” Her right hand snaked around his shoulders and pulled him in for a kiss. As he tangled his fingers in her dark hair, he noticed it plaited back in a braid like Arianna’s.

Lips pressed against his mouth while her hands explored. He unwound her coiled tresses, and raked his fingers through her soft locks, all the while imagining her eyes to be the color of a lake. The response of his body won out and he kissed back. Grabbing her arms, he pinned her to the wall.

A leg wrapped around his thigh. Hands stroked and massaged in all the right places. Yes, she was skilled in the art of sex. This would be an energetic one. Here for hours to please him.

“Tardon, I bring food,” Kendar called from the hall.

The woman tore her lips from Tardon’s. “The warrior does not require sustenance. Be gone.”

At the sound of her voice, the world came flooding back. He found her hair black like the night of Gremdon. She looked nothing like Arianna. His desire for her outmatched even the seductive skills of this woman, and he suddenly found himself repulsed by her attentions simply because she was not Arianna. Instinctively, he pulled away from the woman.

At her surprised look, his mind immediately reeled with dread, knowing the woman would report his behavior to the Elders. “I—I do not deserve such pleasure. I failed in battle today. Leave and please another more deserving.”

Still hard, he adjusted himself and turned, cursing his weakness at enjoying a few minutes of fleshly indulgence with one he did not truly desire. The one he did want would never be granted. Yet he knew no other woman would satisfy him beyond physical amusement. After seasons of women of the night, given freely by the Elders, he had grown bored despite their talents. Arianna drew his interest, and his focus only rested on her touch and no other’s.

The woman pressed against his back, her hands roaming around to his front. He grasped her wrists and turned to her. “Leave now. Tell the Elders I do not wish to enjoy something I did not earn.”

The black-haired woman pushed from him and bolted to the latched door. He didn’t remember latching the door. His mind playing tricks on him again.

If he didn’t do something soon, Arianna’s distracting effect on him would mean his death. One way or another.

Chapter Two

 

After several hours of training in the Pit, Arianna climbed the back stairs castle to her family’s chamber. Granted, the training was not necessary, but it made for a good distraction. Her body craved something forbidden to female warriors. Each time her mind fixated on Tardon’s masculine features, she’d train harder. Yet nothing seemed to sate her unfilled appetite.

She’d heard of the male warriors and their nights of pleasure, but the Elders forbade such activity for female warriors. They said it would diminish their fighting abilities.

Visions of Tardon caressing a woman’s skin made her snarl. Still, the male warriors often spoke of gratification during training sessions in the Pit and she wondered what that was like, and how such an act would be with Tardon.

She shook her head to clear her mind. When she reached her chamber, even the effort required to push open the wooden door fatigued her burning muscles.

Darkness covered the outer chamber, only the embers in the fireplace glowed. “Mardel?”

She grabbed a candle and crossed the room to the smoldering wood. Eight candles sat in the candelabra on the mantel. She pressed her flame to each wick and the room illuminated with golden light.

Her skin erupted in bumps and she spun around. Warrior instinct warned her that someone else stood in the room. Only no one was there.

A moan drew her attention to the worn carpet a few paces away. She stepped closer, lifting the light toward a dark figure sprawled on the floor. The thin frame with brownish-rust hair could be no other than her bother.

She fell to her knees. Darkness engulfed his blue eyes. “Sister, you must go. I—I—”

“Quiet. I will not leave you.” She brushed his coarse hair from his forehead and discovered fever. No. The thumping of her heart escalated to the speed of a wagon torn loose from its ox.

“You must not touch me. I have the fever.”

Arianna grasped his hand and pulled it to her chest. “I will not let you die. You are the only reason I live.”

“You are special.” A cough shook Mardel’s body. “Promise me you will…” His voice faded and his hand slipped from hers to smack against the floor.

Arianna’s glance darted around the small living space in search of something to help, but found only sparse wood furnishings. A small bowl on the table. Vase on the stone windowsill. Tapestry on the wall. Yellow light seeped through the eyes of the Elders portrayed in the stained glass window, as if to say, You know what you must do.

It would be hours before anyone else in the castle stirred from sleep. She clutched Mardel under his shoulders to lift his slender frame, but fell back. After hours of training, her overworked muscles couldn’t handle even his negligible weight.

Arianna collapsed by Mardel with no idea of what to do. She searched her memories from childhood. Although faint, a vision of her mother at her bedside caring for her as a child, rippled in her memory. She rushed to her bedchamber, grabbed the washing bowl and a cloth. Damn, she should have ignored Mardel’s pleas of equality and requested a servant of their own.

She made her way to her brother’s side, sloshing water onto the floor. Dipping the rag into the liquid, she pressed it to his forehead. She knelt next to him, watching through the dirty glass of the window as the moon lowered out of sight, and, all the while, she tried to formulate a plan.

Footsteps echoed in the passage, and she rose from the floor.

Arianna flung her chamber door open, surprising a small, red-haired boy. The servant dropped a covered tray, sending food everywhere.

Arianna leaned near to him. “Please, you must help me, boy.”

The boy stared blankly at her, unmoving. She clutched his shoulders and shook him. “Are you listening? Go and fetch the healer. Immediately.”

“I—I am Kendar. Only a servant. The healer will not come by my request and certainly not at this hour.”

Arianna glanced back at Mardel’s small frame. None of her training had prepared her to handle illness. Only how to kill. Never how to save. She needed help, but she couldn’t leave his side long enough to find a healer or she risked his illness being discovered. And a woman in the streets at this hour would be noticed, warrior or not.

“Kendar, go fetch your master. Tell him to use the name Arianna, a healer will come.”

The boy stared at her, eyes wide as if he’d seen a Cursed One crawl over the wall to wrap its rotting hands around his throat.

Go.” Arianna drew her blade. “Now, or I will run you through.”

Kendar stumbled back then bolted down the narrow hall. She stood in the corridor watching the torch light flicker along the cracked wall, willing help to appear.

Mardel groaned, drawing her attention back to his needs. “I am here.” Paleness claimed his already white skin, how long had he been here alone. Desperation coiled around her insides.

Why did he never listen? She’d warned him not to travel to the inner court, to the ones with no trade, education, or means to eat, but he always had to help someone. Food, clothing, water, anything he could manage to sneak to the unfortunates. Even now, he reeked of their bodily fluids and rotting fruit—the stench of the invalids, a reminder of how he’d caught the fever.

A shiver raced from her head to her toes. “The Elders should burn the inner court and rid the castle of such disease.”

Mardel’s lips pursed together. “The invalids are only people. Down on their luck. They need help, not punishment or death.”

Arianna barely restrained her words, but did not wish to argue with him. She had heard all of this many, many times before. She managed to survive and take care of her brother on her own. Why should she pity those who had chosen not to work and fallen to the inner courts as a result? “I love you, my brother. Hold on, help will arrive soon.”

“My sister, listen,” Mardel whispered through chapped lips.

“I am here.”

“Arianna, the Elders, they—”

The door flung open, smashing against the back wall. Tardon’s large frame filled the doorway. Her body warmed at the sight of him, regardless of her sorrow.

“My servant, he said you…death?” He wheeled around to face the cowering boy behind him. “You said death was at her door. I thought my sword…that—”

Arianna stood. “I sent him in my name. Please, you must bring a healer.”

Tardon marched to her, dark eyes blazing. He gestured to Mardel. “I was summoned by a falsehood. Led to believe a fellow warrior was in need.” His heavy footfalls shook the small bowl on the table as he stalked to the door.

“No, wait, please. I need you—” She rose from the floor, heat flooding her cheeks. “—your help. I am in need of assistance.” Her stomach twisted at the thought of him walking out the door, abandoning her with no hope.

His brow arched as his gaze flicked down to Mardel. “He is sick?”

“Yes.” Arianna’s body trembled at the thought of him discovering the severity of Mardel’s illness. She stepped between them, but Tardon pushed her aside to kneel beside her brother. Heart racing, she waited to see if he’d run screaming to tell the people of Mardel’s condition. If so, he would secure Mardel’s death sentence. No one in the outer courts would allow his life to be spared out of fear of contracting the illness.

He placed his palm to Mardel’s head then jumped back. “He has death fever. We must leave him.” Tardon grasped her left arm and forced her toward the door.

“No. I will not.” Arianna tried to pull from his grip but his hand was like an iron cuff chaining her to a wall. She drew her sword with her right hand and thrust the point to his neck.

“Woman, are you mad?” He shoved her away and reached for his own blade, but did not draw.

“He is my brother, my only relative. I will not leave him here to die. If you wish to run and save your life I beg you to promise silence.” The blade trembled in her hand. Only an hour earlier she had pledged not to slay him, but now, with her brother lying on the floor, circumstances had forced a change of heart. Still, his blood was not her desire. “All I require is a healer. You may fetch a healer or you may go. Either way you will not have to expose yourself to the fever.”

“Fetch? You speak to me as if I were your slave. I am a warrior, and I do not fear death.” He puffed out his chest. “Servant, fetch the healer.” Tardon retrieved a small pouch with his seal from his belt and handed it to the boy. “Take this and the healer will come, but stay in the shadows. Do not let the Enforcer discover your purpose.”

Arianna’s heart soared. For a brief moment, the loneliness that plagued her subsided. Until she realized what he had said. He was right: if the Enforcer discovered her brother, or Tardon in her chamber for that matter, it meant execution for all of them.

 

***

 

Tardon bent down to lift the small-framed boy with ease. He couldn’t be more than fifteen or sixteen harvest seasons old. “Come, and bring the wash basin. I am no healer, but we must lower his fever.” He placed the boy on the bed and reached for the cloth. The boy’s skin burned. Odds were her brother would not live through the night.

Arianna removed her belt with her sheathed sword and placed it on a bench in the corner of the room. She stood close by wringing her hands. “I beg you to leave before you risk discovery. You have done your duty by sending for the healer, and I thank you for that.”

An unfamiliar tug at Tardon’s heart conjured an irrational urge to touch her, but not in the way he usually desired. He moved to her side and clasped her hands in his. Water glistened in her eyes, and his stomach twisted at the sight. He’d witnessed crying before, once when a woman was sent for execution and she begged desperately for her life. Also, he vaguely remembered his mother bringing his father to his knees with one tear.

After all these seasons, he finally understood his mother’s power. With only water, this woman bewitched him. Instead of wanting to conquer her in battle and maintain the title of Elite Warrior in the castle, he would do anything to keep her from sadness.

She blinked back the tears forming in the corners of her eyes and lifted her chin. Tardon brushed his hand across her cheek without thought. “I know what it is like to lose the ones you love—to be alone in this world.” He wanted to press his lips against hers and make her forget the pain of loss.

“You must go.” Arianna looked at him, her eyes sad and haunted. “The healer will be here soon.” She pushed him away from her, but her knees buckled.

He scooped her up in his arms and pressed her body to his chest before laying her down on the other bed. Mint wafted from her hair, an scent he’d never found so alluring before.

“Rest.” That was all he could say. If any other words left his lips, they would be things he should not say. The woman didn’t want him and, even if she did, they couldn’t be together.

Arianna pushed up onto her elbows. “You must go. You endanger yourself by being here. The fever could kill you and, if the Enforcer discovers you played a hand in this, you will be executed with the rest of us.”

“The Enforcer will not execute the two best warriors of the castle. The Elders will not allow it. I am afraid of nothing. I will stay.” He pushed her shoulders back on the bed. “Now, rest before you fall down, woman.”

Arianna sat up again and glanced at her brother.

Tardon sighed. “I will watch over him. You need rest or you will be no good to anyone. I did not realize women tired so much after battle.”

Arianna bolted upright in the bed and dangled her legs over the side. He wasn’t sure what he’d said, but he was certain if she had her sword in hand, it would be at his throat again. “I did not tire from fighting you. After our match I spent hours in the Pit.”

“The Pit? Are you mad? Why would you go there after—”

“Unlike male warriors who are granted pleasure, I must find release in other ways.” Arianna glared with obvious distain. “Maybe if you did not partake in such things, I would not have bested you in the match.”

His blood boiled. “You would not have beat me if I had not—”

“Had not what? I won that match.” Arianna gave him a sidelong glance.

Blasted woman didn’t have a clue that he had held himself back in the match. How could he explain why a warrior would do such a thing? Knowing her fierce nature, she would not respect him if he confessed the truth. Damn it to Gremdon, he did not respect himself as a warrior after having such thoughts for her.

Rest.” He moved to her brother and changed the cloth on Mardel’s head. “I will fetch more water.”

“I can—” She stood but wavered. Tardon went to her side and eased her back down. She watched him through wary eyes. “You should go back to your pleasures and leave me with my brother.” Her words stung like a whip, but he did not know why.

She pulled the tie from her braid and ran her fingers through the long strands of hair, releasing them into silky auburn waves that framed her delicate face. A fire within him ignited at the sight. Before he thought better of it, he raked his hand through her hair and found it soft like nothing he had ever touched. The familiar smell of mint lingered, but now there was a trace of honey. “How do you know of the pleasures of male warriors?”

“I train in the Pit. The men talk. I am the only female warrior left of my rank.” Arianna closed her eyes and turned her head away. “The men tend to forget I am there.”

“Lie back.” He pushed her down on the bed again and gazed down at her breasts as they threatened to burst from her vest. He could feel the muscles in his face curve in a grin. “I do not see how they could forget.”

He pressed his lips together, stifling a smile. If she knew how much he wanted to grasp her swollen mounds in his hands she would send him from the room and report him to the Elders. His groin throbbed at the sight of her voluptuous body on the bed.

He let go of her hair and placed his hand on her small waist, still bound tight in her warrior vest. The desire to run his hand up and untie the vest became unbearable. He pushed from the bed, grabbed the pitcher, and headed for the door. “I will return with water.”

He glanced back as she cautiously rose from the bed and padded to her brother’s side. Cursed woman. Too stubborn to control, she would fall down soon. He sighed. Unlike the women who met his demands freely, this one challenged him at every turn and yet some unfathomable force drew him to her.

She bent over her brother, wiping his forehead with the rag, her curves extended toward Tardon, calling for his touch. He turned and smacked his head on the door.

Before he could exit the room, the outer chamber door creaked open. “Tardon. The healer is here,” Kendar called.

Tardon shoved the bedchamber door open while rubbing his forehead. “Quiet. Do you want to alert everyone in the castle?”

An old man stepped forward. Long wisps of gray hair extended from the back of his balding head to his shoulders. The healer’s creased face looked solemn as he approached. “I hear there is fever here.” The man scanned the room. “Where is the patient?”

“In the bedchamber with his sister.”

The healer moved past him into the interior room.

Tardon’s heart ached at the sorrow etched in her face as she knelt on the cold, stone floor, her brother’s hand cupped in hers. “The healer is here to help your brother.” He longed to put a smile on her face. He’d seen a glimpse of one once, in the Pit when he’d decked a trainer, something he had never forgotten. The beating had been worth it for that glimpse of her happiness.

The healer’s eyes narrowed on the young boy. “How was he exposed?”

“I—I…” Arianna looked back to her brother.

“We are not aware of how he contracted the disease. He is unconscious and cannot tell us,” Tardon cut in.

She smiled at him as the healer focused on Mardel. It wasn’t the same smile, but it still warmed Tardon’s insides.

“It is death fever.” The healer turned to face them. “I must report this to the Elders.”

No. You cannot.” Arianna pushed the healer aside and sat by her brother.

“If we do not know how he contracted it, we must tell them.” The healer moved closer to Arianna, though his attention remained on assessing Mardel’s condition.

Tardon rested his foot on a stool and ran his hand down to grasp the dagger hidden in his boot.

“Trust me. If you know where he contracted the fever, you can tell me. I was a friend of your sister’s many moons ago.”

Arianna gnawed on her bottom lip.

Tardon released his dagger and stepped forward. “Arianna, I have heard rumors of a healer who helps those in need. Those that the other healers would turn over to the fires.”

The healer shook his head. “I do not agree with the Elders’ decision to burn the sick to prevent disease from spreading. We need to keep them away from others, but we do not need to burn them.”

Tardon shuddered at the memory of hearing screams from the fires.

“He went to the inner court to take food and water to the invalids,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

The healer dabbed the sweat from Mardel’s forehead. “Brave and compassionate child. I will do what I can for him. There are not many people left in the castle like him.”

Tardon rested his hand on her shoulder. “What can we do to help?”

“I will inform the Elders that I have isolated him and believe that it is a different illness which only requires others to remain away. You must stay elsewhere, and do not share this with anyone. I can convince the Elders to allow him to live as long as no others in the castle know of his illness.”

Arianna’s back stiffened, and she lifted her chin in defiance. “I will not leave my brother.”

“If you wish this to work, you must not be here.” The healer’s voice was coated in concern. “They will send an Enforcer to check. The only way the Elders will allow him to live is if they believe I can control it and he is the only one affected. If not, he will go to the fires.”

“She will stay with me.” The words left Tardon’s lips before he’d processed what he would say.

“For now, that is our only choice. Do not allow anyone to see her enter your chambers.” The healer set his bag down on the bench and pulled bottles out, placing them to the side. “Now go, before an Enforcer discovers you here, and we are all burned as punishment. Once the morning sun rises, I will have him moved and Arianna can return.”

“Come, woman, we must go.” Tardon took her hand and pulled her from the room. “You have no choice if you wish your brother to live.”

Her eyes remained fixed on her brother lying lifeless on the bed. “I love you, Mardel.” She pulled back so Tardon gripped her hand tighter before she could escape. He wrapped his arms around her and pulled her close. He brushed her hair from her face. “Let the healer work.”

“Master, we must go before full light,” Kendar called from the doorway.

“Yes. We must.” She pulled away and followed Kendar out the door.

She so easily escaped his embrace. No woman had ever walked away from him before. His stomach tightened at the thought of her not returning his affection.

Forced silence in the corridors to avoid discovery only accentuate the unease, leaving his mind and eyes to explore forbidden possibilities. Certainly if he wanted her, she would not refuse.

At the third turn, Kendar slipped behind Arianna, blocking his view of her assets. “Sir, perhaps I should remain in your service this evening.”

Tardon stepped beyond Kendar to open his chamber door. “No need.”

Arianna slipped inside followed by Kendar. Tardon eyed both ends of the passageway and, to his relief, found it vacant. He entered the chamber and followed her gaze as it traveled to the stained glass window depicting the great Elders saving their people, a tapestry on the far wall, a plate of fruit and meat on a long table, and the armoire in the corner. “There is only one bed,” she said. “Where does Kendar sleep?”

“He does not sleep here. He has his own family chamber.” He turned to catch a glimpse of Kendar’s cape before the door slammed shut.

“Where do I sleep?” She pulled the laces to loosen her vest and the pressure in his groin became painful. Only thin white material kept her from spilling out.

“You take the bed.” He strode to the washbasin and splashed water on his face—anything to cool the rising heat in his body. A man could only handle so much torture in one evening.

She sat, hands cupping her face, creamy breasts threatening to spill free. A low growl escaped before he could stop it, and she looked up.

Her blue eyes went wide, but her full bottom lip protruded in sadness. Her eyes fluttered closed and she sighed, leaning back on his mattress as if in invitation for him to join her. He moved closer to the bed, and her nipple pushed against the thin fabric below the loosened vest. Did she mean for him to see? His loins throbbed as his eyes locked on her bounty. He longed to catch her nipple between his teeth. To roll it between his fingers, his warm wet tongue bringing her pleasure. He had rarely thought about pleasing a woman. It was their job to please him. Yet all he wanted was to hear her call his name as he lost himself in her.

Perhaps sensing his presence above the bed, Arianna’s eyes popped open. He stumbled back then straightened to his full height and yanked his vest straight. Her eyes drifted down to his bulging erection. A glimpse of a smile crossed her lips then disappeared before she rolled over to face the wall.

No, her actions were motivated by exhaustion, and not a desire for him to lie on top of her. “I will fetch water.” He grabbed a bucket for an excuse to flee the room, no longer certain if getting whipped for being out after curfew was a worse torture than staying in the room all night without touching her.

Chapter Three

 

Arianna rested her head atop the feather-filled pillow, watching Tardon grasp the bucket and huff toward the door. The threat of being alone with her thoughts of Mardel tortured her, but she wouldn’t stop him from leaving the chamber. Her heart thumped so loudly she worried he’d hear it in the quiet night. She shivered in the dark, cold room. Night in the castle always brought a chill to her bones, the kind that swirled deep in the joints and froze her insides.

Tardon paused. His gaze roamed from her face down to her legs, and she shivered again, this time not from the cold. The bucket swayed in his hand for a moment before he put it down, strode to her, and grabbed a quilt off the end of the bed. His eyes never left her while he pulled the blanket up and tucked her in.

“Th—thank you,” Arianna stammered, unable to take her eyes off him. His vest hung open, exposing corded muscles down his abdomen and the Elite Warrior mark, the mark she’d receive by the next moon, two blades curved around a moon, drawn in ink on his chest. Somehow, he made her feel safe. A tingle of warmth in her middle pulsed, spreading down her legs and up her chest.

He touched her cheek, and the dull ache in her joints lessened. “You have no fever.”

Even though she’d loosened her laces earlier, they cut into her, constricting her air, as if her body swelled at his touch. If she took another deep breath, the laces would pop. In a way, she hoped they would.

“You still shake, yet look flushed. I should fetch the healer.”

“I am ju—just…” Arianna searched for the right words. I cannot breathe when I look at you, my thighs quiver when you touch me, my breasts want to escape from the vest in hopes you will touch them.

Heat rose to her cheeks, but she tried to steady her emotions. This was wrong. Her brother lay dying in her chamber, the Elders’ laws forbade it, and yet she wanted to feel him against her.

If only for a few moments, she wanted to feel his warmth seep deeply into her bones. She needed his touch to push away the dark pain, to make her hurts recede.

This is lunacy. With her amulet clutched tight in her hand, she tried to soak up its power. Make me see reason. Show me how foolish I am being about Tardon.

His hand left her cheek to rest by his side. She released her amulet to take his hand in hers. “I am only cold.”

Wind whistled outside the window as if to tell them to stay inside, in bed, together. Her fingers ran down the edge of the coarse blanket then lifted it in invitation for him to lie down beside her.

“We need water.” Tardon’s terse words slammed against her heart like he’d hit her with the hilt of his sword again. Releasing his hand, she jerked back, swallowing the lump rising in her throat.

I am a fool. Yes, his manhood bulged, but he had done this service only for a fellow warrior in need, and now he sought escape to find pleasure with one of the Elders’ gifts. A male warrior had needs that must be met, and she was nothing more than an obstacle. Not a gift like the other trained women.

Fine. Let him go and risk discovery. Let him find his pleasure elsewhere and take the punishment if caught outside his room at night. He would not expose her. It would be against the unspoken code of warriors. They always handled personal disputes in the Pit, never involving others.

It didn’t matter anyway—the warmth of his body could easily be replaced by a blanket.

He disappeared through the doorway and the handle clanked shut. She bolted from the bed and paced the room, peering through the stained glass to the courtyard outside.

No movement. Not even in the shadows. That was a good sign. People had not heard of her brother’s illness. She closed her eyes and clutched the amulet, praying it protected them from harm.

There was no reason she shouldn’t rest. Tardon wouldn’t return for hours from a gifted woman. After several minutes of silence, she ripped her vest ties free, almost breaking them, and yanked her leather skirt off, tossing it to the ground. Sucking in a quick breath, she massaged her aching breasts through her thin shift, thankful they were free.

She pulled one of the armoire doors open and hung her clothing on a hook. When she tugged at the other door, it wouldn’t budge. Out of frustration, she punched the side of the armoire. A door popped open at the rear.

Hair prickled on the back of her neck. Maybe it was warrior instinct or paranoia, but hidden compartments meant trouble. Silence and the smell of musty old clothes filled the air. A large book rested inside and she carefully pulled it out. She ran a finger down the old worn binding and placed it on the table.

Inside the cover, it read ‘Mandelack.’ The first page revealed a beautiful picture of sparkling water that reminded her of light from a torch reflected off her blade. The caption read ‘The Garden.’ She turned the page in hopes of discovering an explanation for what the book showed, but sudden footsteps echoed in the chamber. Someone had entered the outer hall. Her lungs pinched tight as she held her breath and listened, willing the person to leave. The footsteps drew closer. She grasped the book to her chest and scrambled to replace it in the armoire. Before she could close the hidden panel, the chamber door opened.

Tardon strode into the room, froze, and slowly latched the door. “What are you doing, woman?” he asked in a low growl.

She shoved the panel shut, hoping he wouldn’t notice, but the snap bounced off the walls in a deafening boom. The bucket thumped against the table, and he rushed forward to grasp her arms, his face tense. “You had no right.”

He shoved her. She fell to the floor, knocking the bucket over and spilling water all down her front.

“I—I did not mean…it snapped open when I tried to hang my—” Her teeth chattered, and a chill seeped into the deep places of her heart, touching her fear about Mardel and redoubling it, making her shiver even worse.

His eyes blazed with fury. “You must not speak of this to anyone.”

Arianna pushed herself upright and stood tall despite her soaked, see-through shift and frigid body. “How dare you accuse me of such a thing? By the code of a warrior, I will tell no one.”

He slammed the armoire doors shut. Deep lines etched his forehead as rage morphed to something else. He stepped slowly toward her.

A quick scan of the room revealed her sword. Instinctively, she moved toward the weapon.

Shuffles warned of Tardon’s quick approach a moment before his massive frame blocked her path.

A dim light shone through the window onto her skin. His gaze raked down her body, and his mouth twisted in a mischievous grin. For the first time, she realized how exposed she was in her thin, white underclothing.

Risking a glance, she noticed the wet material clung to her body, leaving her nipples hard and pointed. The way he looked at her only made them harder.

Crumpling the fabric of her gown she plucked at the clinging garment in desperation to get it off her skin.

“No.” His thumb traced across her bottom lip, and her teeth stopped chattering at his touch. “You are everything a man could ever hope to see.”

She had witnessed his expression many times on other men’s faces. It reminded her of a man starving after battle anxiously waiting to devour his plate of food.

“But you have been with—”

“Others, yes. But none satisfy. None draw me like you.” He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. Before she could move away, he pulled her face to his and kissed her. His strong lips warmed her mouth and invited her closer, but she shoved away.

He tugged her back, crushing his hot body against hers and softening the overwhelming grief of her brother’s condition. For a moment, the pain dulled and she longed for more…distraction.

No. This was wrong. He should only want pleasure from the Elders’ gifts. She would lose her ability to fight if she allowed this.

Before she could move away, he covered her mouth with his again, his tongue teasing the sealed seam of her lips until she opened to him. His tongue slipped inside her mouth, caressing, exploring, sending fiery want throughout her body. The pleasant spicy taste of him fueled her desire.

His hips moved against hers in a steady rhythm. The room spun, and she fell against the table.

A finger traced her collarbone, shivers raced down her arms. They had to stop. This is wrong. Forbidden. But, for some reason, that knowledge only fueled the heat inside her. This pleasure heated her, momentarily melting the chilly fear she felt for her brother. Tardon’s touch sated the sorrow of possibly losing the only relative she had left. For once, the deep, dark hole of death did not surround her, suffocating her with the overwhelming sense of loneliness.

His callused hand gently swept her white gown to the side, exposing her chest.

She tried to protest but only a gasp escaped as his mouth found her breast. Her hands raked through his hair, needing something to hold on to before she collapsed from want. He suckled her sensitive nipples until she lost focus on everything around her and all thought deserted her. His muscles rippled as he laid her on the table, and his golden eyes stared straight into her soul. The dark ink of the warrior mark on his chest stretched and constricted when he reached down to pull her gown up to her waist. The stiff cloth of his breeches raked where she most needed fulfillment, and a wave of want exploded through her abdomen, arms, and legs. Her hips pushed against his groin. She cried out when he pulled her nipple gently between his teeth. What was he doing to her? Was this what the Elders had denied her all these seasons?

She let her hands roam…touching, stroking, urging him not to stop. The scent of male sweat and musky spices enthralled her. She yanked his open vest off and tossed it aside. His scent urged her on, and she pulled him closer, skin pressed to glistening skin.

He lifted her from the table against his chest, and she wrapped her legs around his waist while he carried her to the bed.

He lowered her to the mattress and, pausing, brushed the hair from her face. “I will not.” His voice grew husky, and he cleared his throat. “I will not take advantage of your grief.”

Advantage? No, for the first time in seasons she felt something besides grief and loneliness—and she did not want these sensations to stop.

“But I want to show you pleasure. A gift from me, not the Elders.” Before she could speak, he kissed her until she was once again achy, breathless, and clinging to him.

His hand slid up her shaking thigh. What is he doing? She wanted more. His fingers massaged her tender flesh, and she arched under him. He pushed himself against her leg and continued to caress her.

She groaned as he slipped one finger inside her. Tingles danced up into her belly. His mouth moved to her neck, and his tongue explored every inch of skin there. When he eased in a second finger, she let out a strangled cry. He slid his fingers in and out, igniting a glowing ember inside her. The flame erupted into a firestorm as her body convulsed under his touch. Tears streamed down her face, while every ounce of fear and anger inside her released.

In the aftermath, she quivered beneath him, vulnerable in his massive arms.

 

***

 

Tardon rested his head on the bed and drew in the honey scent of her hair. The Elders were wrong. Not every man required their gifts. This satisfied him more than any gift they had bestowed on him in the past. He’d taken her pain away and given her happiness.

Flashes of the first night after his grandfather’s death came to him. He had been lucky his grandfather was too ill to go with his parents on their quest to return home. The man hadn’t been able to get out of bed, but at least Tardon wasn’t left orphaned like so many. But once his grandfather passed, he had no one. That night, he sat on the verge of manhood, only sixteen and consumed with so much darkness that when the woman came to his room, an Elders’ gift, he had taken her in hopes of demolishing his loneliness and despair. It was nothing more than a temporary moment of healing. Hours later, the loneliness crept back and darkness took hold.

He kissed Arianna’s forehead. He could not bear the thought Arianna would see him in the same way he regarded that first gift of the Elders. That woman had been nothing more than a tool to fix a broken wheel, only to have the axle crack and break beyond repair. He wanted to be so much more than that to Arianna.

The steady beat of her heart pounded against his skin, and the sound of her steady breathing relaxed him. Though he hadn’t released his own tension, he had experienced a different kind of pleasure.

He hadn’t focused on pleasing a woman in many seasons. In the beginning, he had experimented to discover what brought a woman to convulse with him, if only to enhance his own moment. After awhile, though, he didn’t care and only used them to find release.

Propped up on his elbows, he received his first clear look at her face and saw tears sparkling there. He panicked at the sight. “Did I hurt you?” He wiped the wetness away with his thumb.

“No. I—I…I do not know why, but I feel something different. It is difficult to explain.” Her eyes glistened as she stared into his. “I have never felt anything like this before. Is this what you do with…the others?” His heart twisted at her words.

“There is more, but it meant nothing with them.”

She closed her eyes and sighed. “How could that mean nothing?”

He kissed her forehead and whispered, “It meant nothing with them, but meant everything with you.” He pulled back to study her face and she smiled, a warm, inviting smile, and he longed to please her all over again.

“We should not have,” she whispered. “It is wrong—”

His stomach lurched. Was she displeased? Maybe she hadn’t enjoyed it and regretted what they’d done. He had found so much pleasure he’d assumed she had, too.

He pulled her close and kissed her again, and she pushed against him in response showing him she wanted more. It wasn’t wrong. She couldn’t regret it, yet he tasted her salty tears.

His body wanted even more from her. Did she notice how much control he exerted in not taking her in that moment? Their bodies tangled again, and her hand cupped his neck, tugging him closer. She pulled away and gasped, her eyes blazing with fear.

Tardon stroked her hair in reassurance. “No. I will not—” A hand grabbed his arm from behind and yanked him from the bed to throw him across the room. The large wooden door cracked against his skull. Throbs of pain shot down the back of his neck. He reached behind and thick, warm liquid trickled from an open wound. Motion swirled in his vision, and he blinked until an Enforcer came into focus—holding Arianna in the air by her throat.

Tardon’s pulse echoed in his ears, not from the wound but from the sight of that monster hurting Arianna. The man’s muscles bulged through his black leather vest, his bicep constricting before he threw her across the room, too. Tardon had forgotten how powerful they were, too dumb to be warriors but strong enough to take one down.

He pushed onto weak knees.

She looked confused and held her amulet up to her face as if to study it. She dropped it and grabbed her sword. With one quick leap, she thrust it toward the Enforcer. A warrior never hesitated, and Tardon knew something was wrong.

Tardon bounded to her side but, before he could reach her, the large masked man lunged and wrapped his meaty hand around Tardon’s neck, choking him. With a steady arm, the Enforcer lifted Tardon off his feet. He found himself flailing in the air, helpless, the oxygen inside his lungs trapped, escape impossible.

Arianna rushed toward them then inexplicably paused, a frown of confusion drifting across her face. The Enforcer froze, his gaze transfixed by her damp, see-through shift. Tardon’s insides trembled, not only from a lack of air, but at the thought of this inhuman beast seeing Arianna so exposed.

But she didn’t back down. Fire roared to life in her eyes, revealing a true warrior ready to die defending another. Her bravery glowed like no other woman’s.

Still held in the Enforcer’s merciless grip, he contorted, trying to take advantage of the Enforcer’s momentary distraction to reach for his knife, but as he moved the man’s hold tightened.

The light began to fade, and instinctive gurgling sounds escaped his lips as darkness from the corner of his vision merged with the center, rendering everything black. Sadness took hold of his heart at the thought he would never hold Arianna in his arms again.

“Your lover will live, if you surrender now.” Disgust dripped from the Enforcer’s words.

Arianna’s blade clanked against the floor.

Tardon clawed at the Enforcer’s arms, still fighting to reach for the dagger in his boot.

Before he could draw it, the Enforcer hurled him against the stone wall. The darkness subsided.

The Enforcer grabbed Arianna by the shoulders to hold her to his face. “You whore, the Elders gave you a great honor, and you betrayed them. And for that you will die.”

Tardon shook his head to clear the ringing in his ears. He clawed around to gain purchase on something to pull himself up. The room tilted and he fell to his knees.

The Enforcer’s lip curled and he molested Arianna with his stare. “I hope the Elders give you to me as a gift so I can end your life, after I have finished stripping you of all honors.”

Tardon grabbed his knife from his boot, leapt up, and plunged it into the Enforcer’s shoulder. The beastly man dropped Arianna, and gave a deep, guttural laugh that bounced off the walls of the chamber. A large, black gloved fist came at Tardon’s face. He ducked. As he stood, the Enforcer swung again and his other fist caught Tardon’s cheek, knocking him back into a bench that buckled under the force.

The Enforcer grabbed Arianna by the hair before she reached her blade. “I am going to enjoy playing with you like a puppet from the courts. You will give me great pleasure before you die.” His other hand brushed up her thigh and cupped her backside. Tardon scurried to his feet and grabbed a splintered board.

“I am no one’s puppet.” Before Tardon reached her, Arianna tore the knife from the Enforcer’s shoulder and sliced through the air twice, attempting to slash the Enforcer’s chest, but did not succeed. With a fierce war cry, she sliced through her hair, dropped, and landed on one knee, her auburn mane reduced to a loose pile resting on her shoulders. Stray brownish-red strands glided to the stone below her.

Many men would be on the ground groveling for their life, but not Arianna. She possessed a strength Tardon had never seen before.

He clutched the board tighter and raised it to knock off the brute’s head.

“Stop. There will be no more of this.” A cloaked man stood at the door with another man dressed in brown robes by his side—the chief Elder, Vosdak, and his Apprentice.

Tardon flexed his bicep, but his arm wouldn’t move. His thigh muscle twitched, but he possessed no control over its function. Golden light pulsed from his amulet twice then turned brown. Sudden heat seared his skin, and he choked at the smell of burnt hair and flesh. Too many times he had smelled the odors from the fires. He refused to scream as his eyes watered. The pain of his flesh burning didn’t compare to listening to Arianna’s stifled cries, knowing she endured the same, and he was unable to help her.

The Enforcer slammed Arianna back down on the table, his enormous hands pressing her shoulders to the wood surface. Her amulet sputtered light in amber hues as if she somehow fought the Elder’s power, but it didn’t last. Her body bucked and thrashed.

A moan escaped his lips while they forced him to watch her being tamed like a beast by an unseen force.

The sting of stomach acid attacked his tongue, but he choked back the fire that threatened to shatter his control. Arianna fell silent, and her eyes rolled back in her head.

Anger threatened to turn him mad with the lust to kill Vosdak. Only the knowledge he would fail against the Elder’s great powers kept him still.

The Enforcer stepped back from Arianna’s lifeless body and laughed.

“Enforcer, silence,” the Apprentice spat. “There will be one chance for you to obey, Tardon. The warrior girl lives, but, if you fight against the Elder’s will, you both will die. Here. Now.”

He blinked in response. Vosdak inconspicuously waved a finger and the muscles in Tardon’s mouth released. “I will obey,” he murmured. If there was a chance to save Arianna, he could not risk throwing that away. Not even as every fiber in his body yearned to strangle Vosdak and his Apprentice.

With another wave of Vosdak’s hand, the rest of Tardon’s body was released from the invisible iron grip, and he bolted upright. His first instinct was to race to Arianna’s side, but he fought the urge.

“You have both dishonored the Elders.” The Apprentice turned to the Enforcer and snarled, “Take them to the dungeon to await sentencing.”

Chapter Four

 

Morning light seeped through a window slit. Burning wood, waste, and damp earth filled Arianna’s nose. She fought the heaviness of sleep to force her eyes open. Lifting her head, a dull ache radiated from the back of her neck.

Clank. Something cold and solid restrained her wrists as she stirred to life.

Shackles… dungeon… death. Arianna choked and sputtered as the scents of confinement bombarded her. Creaking doors and plodding footfalls reverberated through the small passageway outside her cell, a reminder of others lurking nearby.

Light flickered from a torch mounted outside the iron-barred door. Only a dimly lit hall led to the unknown.

The yellow hue from the torch danced on her damp clothing, and she caught a glimpse of something on her shoulder.

A rat squeaked in her ear and scurried down the chain to her right arm. She tried to shake it off but it clung to her shirt and continued to the dark cuff on her wrist, then jumped onto her thigh and raced down her leg.

The moment the animal landed on her slippers, she kicked with her remaining energy, but the shackle around her ankle pulled tight and dug into her skin with painful resistance.

The disease carrying creature wriggled through the bars and disappeared into darkness. She sighed with relief.

The clomp of steps from the hall grew closer. A giant of a man in old tattered clothes stopped outside her cell. He paused to stare in at her. One fist rested on the hilt of his sword while the other hand rubbed over his mouth and chin. Keys jangled in the darkness before a click sounded, and the door creaked open.

A warning burned Arianna’s skin and she scooted toward the wall. The reputation of dungeon guards was well known and all she wore was the thin white gown, still damp from the bucket of water and now coated in sweat and blood. She pulled against the chains, ignoring the rough edges that pierced her skin. If he touches me I will gouge his eyes out.

The guard’s lips curled in a snarl. He pushed open the door, the high-pitched squeal from the hinges making her skin crawl.

Muscles snaked around his shoulders and down his arms. His dark boots kicked a bowl that rested near the far wall as he entered, sloshing her meager portion of gruel out for the rats. “Peasant food for a traitor. Enjoy it. No more special food and big portions. Y’re in my dungeon now. Better learn to eat it or catch rats like the rest.”

Her stomach gurgled and threatened to revolt when she looked down at the remaining liquid in the bowl. It looked like a cross between mud and something from a chamber pot.

The guard ducked under the low wood beam, slowly approaching her. Each step echoed with the warning of his intentions. “Woman warrior.” He spit a tar-like juice on the ground. “Y’re no better than an inner-city peasant, only good for one thing.” His sneer grew into a sinister grin. “Pleasin’ men.”

Her heart thrashed against her ribs, and she longed for her sword.

Hairy knuckles raked down her cheek. A knee the size of a mace thumped against the ground next to her. At the mixture of foul breath and body odor, she nearly vomited all over his leg.

Swallowing her gorge, Arianna narrowed her eyes to slits, and fought against the restraints. Hot breath swept across her face, and she crinkled her nose, trying to avoid the pungent stench.

“Wha’s wrong? Don’ like the way I smell? I guess I should enjoy ya now, before ya start to smell like the rest-a-us. No more flower baths for ya.”

Fury raced through her, firing every nerve, morphing into burning rage when he ran his finger down the edge of her white gown. His hand dipped lower and he grabbed between her legs. Fear and anger ravaged her senses, and she thrashed like a wild animal against its prey, wanting to rip him to shreds.

“No!” No one would touch her there, except Tardon. She curled her fists and raised them to box his ears. With luck, she would rupture his eardrum.

“Remove your hand, now, or I will remove your intestines and feed them to you.” They both looked up to see a large, dark frame silhouetted in the torch fire from the outside hall. Her breath hitched at his words, but was he a savior or another guard wishing to have his turn with her first?

“Sir, I was—”

“Never step foot into this cell again.”

“Ye—yes, sir.” The guard scurried out the door like the rat from earlier.

“Tardon?” The name left her lips in a hoarse croak before she could stop it. Her heart pounded against her chest as if a thousand men marched through the center court. She knew that her words had just betrayed her. The voice was not Tardon’s. The Elders would be looking for a confession. Did I just give them what they need to send me to the fires?

The figure stepped forward, revealing a man of advanced age. Creases lined his eyes, forehead, and mouth, but his body remained hard and conditioned. “I am Saldor, an Elder advisor and one who ensures the dungeon is safe for our people above ground. I am also charged with keeping the guards in line. I see you will be creating some difficulties.”

Arianna’s heart ached, longing for the man in front of her to be Tardon instead of a stranger. She wished to know what had happened to Tardon, but she couldn’t ask, not now. She glanced at the corridor outside her cell but could see nothing beyond the man with sharp blue eyes and black hair.

“If you are in search of Tardon, he remains under lock and key, like you.” His eyes scanned the room. “Although, it seems you are of special interest to the Elders.”

“Wh—” Arianna tried to speak but her dry throat ached where the Enforcer had throttled her.

Saldor walked from the room, leaving the door open.

Arianna struggled to free herself, but there was no way to break the iron chains.

Saldor returned with a metal cup in his hand. He knelt next to her and held it to her mouth.

Arianna pulled away and pursed her lips tight. She had heard tales of prisoners being poisoned.

“It is not what you think. Here.” He lifted the gray cup to his own mouth and drank. “The food the guard brought you is standard dungeon food. This is water.” He raised the cup again, and she drained every drop. The cool water coated her dry mouth and throat, only leaving behind the dull ache from her encounter with the Enforcer. She longed for more, but would never admit it.

“Now, we must speak.” Saldor crossed his legs on the ground in front of her. “The Elders need you to confirm your part in the situation with Tardon. If you do, they will hang you instead of throwing you to the fires. You will still be marked as a traitor but your death will be quick and less painful.”

“What of Tardon?” Another slip. But really it didn’t matter that they knew. Confession was a formality.

“His fate is undecided. There are many who believe you cast a spell on him, that you made him defy the Elders. The Elders know different.”

If she sacrificed herself and swung from the gallows, it would spare Tardon his life, and return him to his high status. Any warrior would exchange their own life to save a fellow warrior. This would be no different, except for the shame it would bring upon her brother.

She jutted her chin out, mustering all her courage. “I will not confess to a crime I did not commit. We did not engage in sex. Even if we had, being convicted of magic would secure my place in the fires.”

Saldor shifted. He grasped her hand and withdrew a cloth from inside his vest. Blood soon tainted the pale material as he wiped her wrists. For a strong man he had a gentle touch, more like Tardon’s. She needed to remain focused and strong so she pulled her hand away.

A sigh gusted from Saldor’s parted lips. He stared at her face but did not touch her again. Compassion shone in his eyes and concentration etched deeper lines across his forehead. “You remind me of someone.” He paused and swallowed hard. “It was so long ago.”

Was this a trick to find out what had happened? An Elder posing as a friendly guard to earn her trust? He didn’t look old enough to be an Elder, no gnarled hands or black cloak. Instead, he was handsome and strong; how old was he? “How long ago?” she asked.

“Since before the castle gates were shut for good.” His mouth drooped in unison with his eyes. “We were to be married when she came of age. She possessed great beauty.”

The way he wet his lips reminded her of how Tardon looked when they were together earlier. Had they done the things Tardon had shared with her? How sad this man Saldor must be to lose someone that made his body tremble in such a way. “Married?”

“Yes, we were to live together as husband and wife. Like your parents once did. We had two more seasons to wait until her father would give her to me.”

Footsteps sounded from the hall, and he lifted a finger to his lips.

Arianna sat in silence, wanting to know more. This man spoke of a different life, of her parents’ time.

The tapping of shoes on stone made both of them fall quiet and still. Saldor dropped his hand from his mouth. “We must not speak of such things. They are forbidden.” His eyes darted back toward the cell door. “Listen and speak of this to no one: there may be a way to save your brother and, if it is the will of the Elders, to save Tardon. A way for you to die a hero instead of a traitor.”

Arianna’s heart thundered in her chest. She went to clasp his hand but drew back in pain from the shackles. Heat pulsed around her wrist and ankles, and blood dripped from her cuts.

“Shh, I am sorry. I wish you did not have to suffer, but you defied the Elders, and for that you must be punished. The Elders saved us from the Curse, and we must follow their command or put all in peril.”

“Stop him!” A guard yelled from the hall. Saldor bolted up from the ground.

Arianna tried to grab his hand to make him stay but the iron shackles restrained her. “Wait, please, help—”

“I cannot. This is wrong. I should not—” Saldor raced from the cell, slamming the door closed before locking it behind him.

“Restrain him or be whipped in his place.” Saldor’s deep voice echoed through the hall into her cell.

Sudden sounds of a scuffle and enraged voices drew Arianna’s attention.

“Release her or you will all die.”

“Tardon?” Only a whisper left her lips as she strained to hear more. Excitement welled up inside her at the thought of seeing him again.

“We did nothing wrong. She is a warrior and should not—”

The crack of a whip followed by a growl sent sympathetic shivers through her body.

“Tardon! Leave him!” Saldor’s voice echoed in the hall. Another crack of a whip sounded, followed by chains rattling.

Arianna.” Only a faint sound reached her ear, Tardon calling out to her. Before she could answer, a door slammed shut to the outer hall. Her chest burned with anguish.

Deathly silence. Only the sound of some creature scratching in the wall. But a moment later the sound of a crank followed by screams pierced the silence of the cells.

“Tardon!” She managed to yell despite her stinging throat.

Someone cried out, muffled by a door, but clearly begging for mercy.

The voice became too distorted to know for sure if it was Tardon. But, no matter from whom or how it came, the screams lingered in her mind as a reminder of what fate awaited her, and the image of Tardon strung on the rack haunted her.

 

***

 

Three guards pinned Tardon to the floor. He clawed at the damp stone but with so little space in the dungeon hall, he could not free himself.

Tardon’s heart nearly burst from his chest at the sound of Arianna’s voice. Ten men wouldn’t be enough to keep him away.

A guard lashed him with his whip but Tardon continued to fight.

“Restrain yourself or the whip will be taken to Arianna’s cell.” The man in the Elder’s cape stepped in the direction he had heard Arianna’s voice.

Tardon’s back stiffened with concern. Yes, the whip stung and caused him to stumble, but the thought of it touching Arianna’s soft skin brought him to his knees. “I will obey.”

Screams rang from a nearby room and he instinctively tensed. Staring at the wall, he wondered what sort of torture occurred on the other side. And if, perhaps, a similar fate awaited him. Or Arianna

One of the guards cracked the whip in the air to regain Tardon’s undivided attention. “He is being punished for unspeakable crimes, so have no pity for the wailing of a madman when he brought it upon himself.”

He stopped fighting and allowed the guards, each holding one of his arms, to pull him down the hall.

“I am Saldor, an Elder advisor. On my honor, I assure you, there is no reason for you to worry. She will confess, and you will be free to return to your prior status.”

Tardon shouldered the guards in each of their ribs, sending both into the stone walls. Dirt and dust grew thick in the air.

Even if he had been chained like a beast, he still could have snapped their worthless necks. Fire erupted inside him as he stood, his nose almost touching the man who had threatened Arianna, yet Saldor did not flinch.

The guards hit him from behind and he fell to his knees again. Heavy walls closed in on him. Iron cuffs snapped around his wrists.

“I see this does not please you. Every warrior wishes to maintain his status. You would risk your honor for mere pleasure?”

Tardon’s blood boiled. “She is not pleasure granted by the Elders—”

“You are right. She was a warrior that bewitched you.”

He shook off the swirling in his head and tried to stand, but the guards kept him on his knees.

“No magic,” Tardon said. “I am to blame for what the Elders thought they witnessed—”

Thought? They found her almost naked in your chamber, yet you speak of no pleasure?” Saldor motioned for the guards to drag Tardon into a cell.

They dropped him on his side and the door clanked shut. He rose to his feet, smacking his head on a wooden beam. Still, he charged the iron bars and pressed his throbbing head against the cool metal.

Saldor watched him, his lined face unreadable. “The Elders will not accept your explanation—”

“We are innocent.”

“You are not innocent.”

Tardon’s mind raced at Saldor’s accusations. He had done nothing to betray the laws he fought to protect. Yes, he had come close to breaking the law, but he had not committed the act. “You make false accusations about a warrior. You could be put to death for such lies. I have broken no laws!”

“You still profess your innocence?” Saldor’s brows lowered.

“Yes.”

“Here is the Elder’s proof.” Saldor summoned a guard; he took a large object from the man then tossed it at Tardon’s feet.

Tardon swallowed, staring in horror at the old book he’d hidden so carefully all these seasons.

The book, his grandfather’s book, the book of dreams, rested on the dirty ground as proof he had betrayed the Elders. Tardon fell to his knees and stroked the fading cover. The Elders would never listen to the truth now.

“Tell them I forced her.” He could barely choke the words out. He quivered inside at the notion of harming Arianna. Still, a confession would release her from a place no woman should find herself. If she stayed in the dungeon, it wouldn’t be long before one of the guards disobeyed and forced themselves on her. He swallowed down the rise of impending doom. At least destroying his honor to save her life would allow him to die with purpose.

“You seal not only your own fate, but all of your family with a confession of such disgrace.”

“I have no family.” Arianna’s delicate features played in his mind. “I confess, I—”

Saldor clutched the hilt of his sword and studied Tardon for a moment. “The Elders will never allow this. People of the castle will demand the woman be put to death and the true male warrior returned to his calling.”

“I will confess in front of all the inhabitants. Take me now. No reason to prolong my fate or Arianna’s suffering.”

Saldor stroked his chin. “I will take this to the Elders if you answer a question for me.”

Tardon nodded.

“Do you love her?” Saldor’s words hung in the air for a long, breathless moment.

“Love is forbidden.” Tardon shifted his weight between his knees.

“No, sex and marriage with a female warrior are forbidden. That is all the written law states.”

Tardon’s mind reeled, wondering what possible tricks this man played, but nothing fit. Saldor spoke the truth.

“Yes, I love her.” Tardon cleared his throat and spoke with pride. “Yes, I love her, and if that is a crime it will be one more reason to throw me to the fires and spare the true warrior, Arianna.”

“Not when she loves you, too.” Saldor turned and walked up the steps to the castle, suddenly leaving Tardon to his writhing emotions.

The man spoke falsehoods. Arianna knew nothing of love or marriage. She’d only caught a glimpse of his book, and her parents died seasons ago when she was still a child. He dragged his fingers through his matted hair, trying to steady his mind. Chain links clanked as he sat on the hard floor, resting his arms on his lap. Dirt and dry blood covered his hands, the same hands that had caressed every inch of Arianna’s body mere hours before.

Light from the low morning sun seeped through the bar-covered hole at the top of the cell wall. Merchants’ slippered feet brushed the pavement outside, scurrying to open their shops.

Head hung low, he closed his eyes to better envision Arianna’s soft, auburn hair. He remembered the smell of mint mixed with warrior blood and sweat, and he longed to have her in his arms again. She was like no other, a fierce competitor with a gentle touch. Maybe the fires would be the only way to keep Arianna safe from him. Never had he wanted someone before with such intensity. Just to taste her lips one more time

Boots thudded against the stairs, and Saldor appeared in front of his cell. “The Elders have spoken. A public trial and the people will decide.”

Tardon choked down his grief. To stand as a criminal before the people he once protected was the only way to save Arianna. The people worshiped him, maybe even more than the Elders did.

Saldor narrowed his gaze. “I have assured the Elders that you will not make a spectacle. You will come without incident or Arianna will suffer the consequences.”

Tardon pushed from the floor. Once out of the cell, he straightened and stretched the stiffness from his back. Maybe death would bring peace. As he shuffled to the courtyard above he knew the transition to the next life would be painful, but the afterlife did not frighten him.

They exited the tunnels and, even with the overcast skies, he still shielded his eyes from the sun, the brightness a stark contrast to the darkness of the dungeon.

Voices echoed down the cobblestone path that led to center court. When he reached the opening, all the inhabitants of the kingdom’s eyes were on him.

Many chanted his name. A dirty-faced woman tried to touch him.

Shouts erupted.

“Burn the woman!

“She’s a witch!”

Hatred spread faster than death fever through the crowd. How quickly the people betrayed a woman who had protected their families from evil beyond the walls.

Shouts continued from the nameless, faceless crowd. Guards guided Tardon through the mass of people and he stepped onto the center block where most sentences were carried out. He opened his mouth and the crowd fell silent in respect. As he stood there, needing to speak, burning to speak, no words flowed.

The inhabitants of the castle looked at him, waiting for his declaration of Arianna’s magical seduction. Arianna needs you. With a cough, he cleared his throat and raised his chin. “I speak to you today to clarify events, to answer the charges against myself and my fellow warrior, Arianna.”

“Send her to the fires!”

“She must burn!”

Tardon raised his bound hands to quiet the crowd, and he noticed fellow warriors lining the back wall. They stood with hard, blank stares, as well-trained warriors should. His biceps strained as he pulled at the chains between his wrists. “I pray you, listen to my words. Arianna is a warrior and possesses no skills as a witch.”

“He lies,” a man’s voice carried from deep within the crowd.

“She still has him under her spell,” a woman shrieked.

“No! It was not Arianna who betrayed the Elders’ laws, but me.”

A hushed mumbling overtook the peasants, shopkeepers, and warriors. The ones Tardon had protected now stood in judgment over him.

“I…I confess to forcing myself on the innocent warrior Arianna.” Tardon choked on her name. The chains rattled but he steadied his shaking hands despite his longing to end this farce. Never had he witnessed so many faces contort in disgust at him. He’d been a person that others desired and idolized. Now he stood as a traitor to his people and a monstrous enemy to women.

“Burn him!”

Tardon sucked a welcome breath into his stale lungs. It worked. They believed him, Arianna would be spared.

“Burn them both!”

“Yes, burn them both! Neither is innocent.”

“Bring the woman out!” one voice rang loud. Then the words spread like fleas on a donkey, and the crowd chanted, “Burn them both! Burn them both!

His gut twisted with grief. “No! I am to blame. Why do you not listen?” The chains clanked as he pushed toward the crowd.

Arianna appeared at the edge of the court in torn and dirty clothes, but at least they’d clothed her decently in a peasant dress. The Enforcer that had discovered them grabbed her now short hair and dragged her to the front. Tardon spotted raw, red swelling on her cheek and temple. Someone had struck her.

A desire to kill whoever had hurt her burned to the surface of his skin. Cracks sounded as he strained against the iron shackles. The guard next to him stepped back to summon reinforcements.

“Burn ’em both! Burn the warriors! They take our food and live like Gods while we starve!”

“More food fer us,” a tangle-haired woman called from below.

Tardon’s shoulder burned as he continued to fight against the shackles. “Warriors, take notice. These are the people we die protecting.”

Warriors stepped forward in defense against flying insults, but the Elders stood on the tower, motioning the fighters to remain at their positions. Tardon observed the other warriors’ disgust, but all he cared about was Arianna being pushed and shoved like a disobedient servant.

Arianna smiled at him as she stumbled up the wooden steps. No time for remorse at defying the Elders’ laws, the people called for blood, and they would both burn in the fires now.

Tardon shuffled to Arianna, knocking a guard out of the way.

Arianna lifted her bound wrists over him and let the chains fall down his back. “If we are to burn, let us give them a reason.” Her eyebrows rose, and a soft smile curved her lips before she opened them and pressed herself against him, her sweet mouth opening against his.

Screams of shock rang out from below, but Tardon ceased to worry about being branded a traitor and gave in to his passion, hoping it would follow him to the next life. The world spun and the screams diminished into a distant lull, while the sweet, berry taste of Arianna urged the passion inside him. Every hair on his body stood to attention. His hands roamed down her hips and squeezed them close to his. Their heartbeat became one pounding rhythm, echoing through their souls.

Hands wrapped around his bicep and throat to rip him away. Her chains pulled hair from his scalp as they raked across his head.

“Burn ’em, burn ’em now!” The chanting shattered his dream state as they were dragged from the town square to the inner fires.

He fought as they maneuvered the tiny cobblestone walkways, leaving a line of disabled guards in his wake. The Elders sent more warriors to subdue him.

The group rounded the corner, bringing the wooden post of the Fire Pit into view. At least Arianna and I will die together. Warriors, his former friends, bound him to the wood.

“May the Elders forgive you in the next life.” The mumble came from his comrades while they removed his chains and tied his wrists together behind him.

Arianna’s soft hand found his from behind and they interlaced their fingers.

An Apprentice shouted from the tower, “May this be a lesson to all who defy the Elders.”

Tardon’s pulse thudded and he squeezed his sweaty palm against Arianna’s. Fear threatened to take hold as he imagined Arianna suffering. Desperate, he addressed the crowd one last time. “She is innocent. Her blood will be on your hands if you do this.”

A guard approached with torch in hand and held it in the air, waiting for the Apprentice to give the order. Heat radiated from the orange flames dancing at the end of the stick.

Tardon held his breath, hoping the Elders would spare Arianna, but the Apprentice’s arm lowered and the guard stepped up to light the fire.

Smoke attacked Tardon’s lungs. Unable to shout his protests any longer, he tried to turn his head to see Arianna behind him. Even over the smoldering debris, he detected her unique scent. “I am sorry I brought this upon you. Die knowing this was not of your doing.” His lungs seized with a cough as the debris below the wood smoked, and his head dropped to his chest. “I failed you.”

The orange and yellow glow spread and crept out from below the wood. Arianna moaned from behind, and he stomped his feet rapidly to find relief from the burning.

His mind reeled, searching for a way to save her. As the flames grew and danced against the wood, he realized he was unable to save the most important person in his life.

Today, they would both die.

Chapter Five

 

Through watering eyes, Arianna stared at the people cheering. Her lungs burned with each strained breath. She wiggled her toes in her thin slippers, trying to escape the melting material. If only the wind would die down and allow the smoke to take her, before the fire ravaged her body. The odor of burnt cloth nearly overpowered her, coating her mouth and the inside of her nose. Soon enough, all she would feel would be flames licking up her body.

Tardon clutched her hand tightly, as if the touch would keep them together when their souls passed to the other side. He groaned and his arm shook against hers. Please, let his suffering end soon. Sweat poured down her back and fingers. The flames caught at her clothing, and the heat of her burning slippers finally turned from uncomfortable to painful. She cried out, unable to stifle her pain any longer. Balls of light flew past her eyes, followed by screams.

But they weren’t her own or Tardon’s.

Arianna’s mind reeled, and she scanned the castle. Creatures overtook guards on the outer wall and half the inner court was ablaze. She looked up to the far wall and spotted the stained glass window of her family chamber. To her relief, the flames did not threaten her brother. At least, not at the moment.

She blinked back tears just as Tardon’s hand slipped from hers, and she realized her arms were free. Without thought, she jumped from the inferno. Tardon followed, sheltering her body with his. He ripped the bottom half of her burning skirt from her body and stomped out the flames.

Two warriors stood over them, swords in hand.

“The Elders have granted you a stay of execution. You must fight to prove your loyalty.” A warrior offered his sword and drew another from his belt. “They may not spare your life, but they have guaranteed you will not burn if you fight.”

A Cursed Soul of Gremdon, a gray, saggy-skinned monster, grabbed a man by his neck and lifted him in the air. One claw-like hand clutched his body while the other decapitated the dangling peasant with one twist. The creature tossed the head into the fleeing peasants below, before his beady, soulless eyes focused on his next prey. Any death would be better than the flames. Arianna’s red and blistered skin proved her torment had just started. She pulled Tardon in, pressed her lips against his, and kissed him hard. His touch and musky aroma sent a wave of soothing calm through her body—a gift she thought to never experience again.

When they pulled apart, the two warriors near them stood with mouths ajar. Arianna grabbed the offered sword and straightened to the upright posture of a warrior. “We fight and die with honor.”

Tardon grasped the other sword, and together they plunged into the battle.

A Cursed One tore through the skin of a young woman with its claw right beside Arianna. The creature snatched the amulet from the woman and scurried away before she fell to the ground, her warm blood splashing on Arianna’s dress and pooling beneath the body.

Mad screams bellowed from the dying woman’s foaming mouth. Arianna sliced through a monster’s abdomen. Dark green gurgled from the wound, before the creature fell face-forward onto the cobblestone. The adrenaline of the fight pumped through her muscles once again. Fighting came as second nature, especially when it came to killing the Cursed and protecting her family.

Arianna reached for the young woman still thrashing about at her feet. Bubbles formed under the woman’s skin, and the stench of a festering wound filled the air. Her face contorted and skin melted as if she’d been the one in the fire. Arianna scurried back, but before she could end the woman’s suffering two more Cursed attacked. She sliced through both creatures with one swipe.

Tardon slit another from navel to neck.

When Arianna glanced back at the girl, she stood in the same peasant dress and slippers on her feet, but she was no longer human. Claws stretched out from under her sleeves and she hissed at Arianna, revealing sharp, yellow fangs. A shiver ran down Arianna’s shoulders, sending cool energy to her fingertips before she thrust her sword through the once defenseless lady, now Cursed.

For a second as her blade plunged through, Arianna saw the human life behind the eyes. Her stomach twisted in anguish for taking an innocent life, but the body fell with a thud and boiled as if hot oil had been dumped on it. Arianna choked from the stench of death.

Another fireball arched over the wall and landed on a cart full of straw. The ox pulled and twisted, trying to free itself from the flames. It charged forward and knocked a guard down, still yoked to the burning cart.

A Cursed One broke the line and headed for the tower stairs. Another went for the guard on the ground.

“Get the guard, I will get that one.” Tardon gestured to the tower. The Elders quickly retreated from sight.

Arianna bolted as the inexperienced entry guard slashed through the midsection of a creature scaling the outer wall. Another Cursed One wailed and approached from his side. The guard swung his blade blindly and missed the Cursed one, slicing through Arianna instead. Blood saturated her dress in only a few breaths. She dropped her sword and clutched her side as she fell to her knees.

Her insides pressed against her hand. At least she would die and not transform into one of the Cursed Souls.

She hoped.

She reached for her sword but fell on her side before she retrieved it.

Blades clanked and high-pitched squeals came from dying monsters. Crimson liquid flowed in the streets around her.

Her heart raced as a creature approached. If only she had her blade to slit her own throat to ensure her death. Anything would be better than turning into one of them. Long bony fingers extended around her neck, and she stretched further for her sword until her muscles screamed in protest.

A claw raked her skin, and she held her breath waiting for the puncture that would change her from Elite Warrior to disfigured beast. The monster grasped her amulet, and she closed her eyes.

Something hard walloped against her collarbone. A severed hand sat on her chest and its dark green blood covered her.

Saldor dropped to one knee and ripped his shirt from his shoulder. He pressed it against her wound as searing pain invaded every organ in her body. “Battle is over. You helped save many.”

“Tardon? Is he—”

“He lives.” Saldor gave a reassuring smile and lifted her into his arms. “A hero to the people once again.” He maneuvered through winding passages and up a set of stairs, stopping a servant on the way.

Arianna’s torso seized with deep pain and she stifled a cry.

“Send for a healer. Now,” Saldor ordered a servant.

“Where is he?” Arianna groaned.

“Go. Bring Tardon.” Saldor barked orders at another servant and placed Arianna on a table in a chamber she did not recognize.

Saldor ripped her blood soaked dress and started cleaning her wound. Every swipe of a towel brought a scream to her lips. Coughing, she struggled against his hands, but he only pushed more.

Tardon shoved his way into the room, his face ashen. “Arianna.”

His voice brought comfort and eased the pain slightly.

He looked to Saldor. “Did she—”

“No, it is from a sword.”

Tardon slumped, then covered her cheeks and hands with kisses, medicine that soothed her aching head. Tears streaked his bloodied face.

Saldor turned away and retrieved a needle and thread from a drawer. Darkness formed in the corners of her vision and edged inward, threatening to take her.

“Tardon, I am—” Arianna gurgled as metal-tasting fluid choked her.

“Shh, do not talk. Rest.” He stroked her hair and pressed a damp towel to her forehead. “You saved many.”

A cut ran down his cheek and another marred his shoulder. She gasped.

“Do not worry. Only superficial wounds from rocks and blades.” Tardon smiled. “We survived as true warriors.”

“The Elders have sent for Tardon,” a voice called from the hall.

Waves of panic washed through Arianna, and she tried to move. “No, they cannot—”

“Do not worry. They will not throw me to the fires now.” Tardon gave her a reassuring smile. “I saved their lives.” Tardon shot a glare at Saldor. “The Elders may call, but I will not leave.”

Saldor waved his hand at the unseen voice. “Tell them some bodies still need to be…disposed of.”

Disposed of? Darkness edged closer still until she only saw through a small hole. “Tardon, I…I…”

 

***

 

“Saldor…is she?” Tardon grasped Arianna’s hand to his chest and kissed her fingers. His insides contorted.

Saldor pressed the flat of his blade to her upper lip. Fog spread over the shiny surface. “She breathes.”

Tardon’s chest tightened at the sight of her lying helpless, bleeding to death. “Where is the healer? I will curse him if—”

“Calm yourself, young warrior. I will tend to Arianna.”

Tardon recognized the voice. He turned to find the healer who had catapulted them all into this mess.

“How is her brother?”

“Alive. For now.”

“You must heal her.” Tardon stood tall and scowled at him.

“Save your threats and brooding for someone who will feel threatened. Now, if you will step aside, I will see to my patient.”

Tardon didn’t move, not convinced of his intentions.

The healer smiled, maneuvered around him and pressed a hand to Arianna’s side. He glanced up at Tardon. “Saldor, I believe I would work better without an armed warrior standing over me.”

“Yes, of course. Tardon, you must report to the Elders. Go, now. I will inform you of her condition.”

Tardon tightened his grip around her pale hand. I will not leave her side.

“You are the only one who can secure her future if she lives.” Saldor pressed a hand to his shoulder. “She’s strong. She was barely ten when her parents were killed, and she cared for her brother, only six seasons old, all alone after her eldest sister disappeared. Never did she beg for food or fall to the inner courts like most orphans. This one is a fighter. She will not die now.”

How did Saldor know more about Arianna’s past than Tardon did? Of course, he was an Elder Advisor. Still, Tardon’s jaw tightened at the thought of how this man knew intimate details of her and her family’s fate.

Saldor may have known about her past, but Tardon would secure her future. “Certainly they will grant her—”

You saved their lives. Not Arianna.”

Unease pricked on the back of Tardon’s neck. “I will demand—”

Saldor shot Tardon a brief, incredulous look. “Have you learned nothing? Demands will only fuel the fire of their hatred. The people have been reminded of your necessity, but the Elders could still sacrifice her as a warning to all that choose to defy them.”

The healer threaded a needle and plunged it into Arianna’s skin.

At her moan, Tardon stroked her hair. “I will return, and with your honor restored.”

Saldor was right. Arianna was the strongest person Tardon had ever known. He brushed his lips to her forehead and choked his emotions back. To display them would show weakness next to someone so great. He wouldn’t dishonor her in that way.

With a deep cleansing breath, he pulled his shoulders back and marched from the room.

He had to control his love for Arianna around the Elders. His lack of composure threatened her very existence, for if the Elders believed her a weakness, she would survive being gutted only to meet the pyre again.

Images of her dress ablaze flashed through his mind, and he slammed his fist into a wood post. A servant sidled against the wall to pass him.

Hatred warred with gratitude at the sight of the servant. Those people condemned them, yet they could also save Arianna. The Elders would listen to the cry from the inhabitants of the kingdom and yield to the mob’s wishes.

Tardon cleared his throat and straightened his vest. Standing erect, chest out, head up, he marched to the Elders’ tower.

Wind whistled through arrow slits as he traversed the outer wall of the castle. Dark green and red blood swirled together to stain the walls and walk in brown smears. Tardon stepped over a pile of clothes. A foul stench permeated the air.

As he ascended the tower stairs, he gazed down at the carnage in the square. People wept over bodies strewn over piles of hay, weapons, and other broken materials. Enforcers and servants meticulously cleared the dead and carried them to the fires.

Death crawled up his spine like a spider, but he shook the feeling away before he climbed the few remaining steps.

The door creaked open and a servant gestured him forward. With head bowed, he entered the inner chamber. Only a handful of inhabitants had ever been granted an audience with the Elders.

Dust floated in the dim light that seeped through the window above the door, highlighting the five ornate Elder chairs on a podium at the far end of the room. Old tapestries lined the left wall depicting the Elders’ great deeds in saving the people.

Five Elders sat in the tall wooden chairs, each with unique carvings of flowers, animals, and people etched into the arms and legs of the ornate seats.

An Enforcer stepped from the shadows behind a pillar. “Kneel.”

Tardon reached for his sword.

“You cannot believe your sword will protect you here.” An Apprentice sneered from beside an Elder.

Tardon lowered to one knee, never removing his gaze from the Enforcer.

“The Elders have summoned you here to discuss the conditions of your release.”

“Conditions?” Tardon’s skin warmed, and his grip tightened on the hilt of his sword.

“Yes, conditions. I caution you to remember your place.”

The Enforcer gave a low, half-chuckle. The Apprentice waved a hand and the over-sized man retreated into the shadows.

“The honor of Elite Warrior will be restored if you follow the true path set before you.”

Ice ran down his spine. The Elders would demand a sacrifice for his defiance of the night before. “I will not agree to testify against the warrior Arianna.”

“Silence.” The Apprentice’s brown robes swooshed as he leapt from the podium and landed in front of Tardon. Tardon sucked in a quick breath.

“You will be charged with the retrieval of a substance that will save our people.”

Tardon swallowed hard and steadied his breathing. “What—”

Vosdak leaned forward from the half-circle of Elders his hood masked his face from view. “I said silence.”

Tardon’s mouth sealed shut with one wave of Vosdak’s little finger. He strained to move, but his knee remained glued to the ground, and his body stayed rigid inside its invisible tomb of magic.

The Apprentice continued, “The serum we seek will save us from another impending attack and many of our people from illnesses left untreated. You must travel to the Outer Realm and find the Tree of Life. If successful, you will return a hero. But I caution you: the risk is great. You could return a failure or worse. You could fall to the Curse of Gremdon.”

Visions of wart-covered creatures with blood-shot eyes and gnarled, clawed fingers sapped every ounce of moisture from his mouth.

“Yes, you have seen the creatures. You know the risk. But the Elders have granted you the privilege every warrior craves, the chance to be a hero to the people.”

His mouth popped open and he gasped for air. The Elder’s power restricting his movement released his body. A burn flowed down his throat as he swallowed.

The curse would be worse than facing the fires. No. He’d rather do anything than become one of those creatures.

“This is the price for your treachery. It will redeem you in the eyes of the Elders.”

“What of Arianna?” Tardon rasped. “She is a fellow warrior, and I would like to plead for her reinstatement as well.”

“It was a mistake to train a woman amongst the male warriors,” Tardon heard rumblings amongst the Elders but never saw a face extend from the black cloaks.

The Apprentice clasped his hands, lacing his bony fingers together. “We will consider your plea.”

Tardon’s body turned toward a bare wall and his mouth sealed. A scene of dark woods and long, thin paths appeared before him. “This is the path to the Tree of Life. You will train and prepare for your journey. We know things which will help you fight the Cursed.”

If they required the serum, why didn’t they send a team of warriors to retrieve it? Certainly numbers would guarantee the success of the mission. But no. They didn’t want success. With the people having witnessed his recent victory, the Elders required a different means to rid the castle of him. The quest was not his redemption.

It was his sentence.

Chapter Six

 

Arianna clutched the side of the table as the needle pierced her skin again. The chamber room reeked of alcohol and blood.

“You are truly a warrior. Grown men have fainted from less.” The healer gave a reassuring smile.

“My…my brother?”

“He is the same.”

“The Elders did not—”

“No, child. I convinced them of another illness. The treatment would be the same, but the kingdom is safe. He is still in your family’s chamber.”

Arianna relaxed her head against the table. The thread slid through her skin, stinging like rope burn. Her heartbeat quickened with each stitch.

“Squeeze my hand,” Saldor offered.

“Last one,” the healer murmured.

She arched her back as he pushed the needle through the last time then knotted the thread.

“You—I do not understand why you wish to save me only to throw me to the fires.” Arianna longed for Tardon by her side, not the man who’d played a part in her sentencing.

“I never wished for that. The Elders are the law, and we must follow their commands.” Saldor brushed the hair from her forehead and glanced up at the healer. “Are you finished?”

“One last thing to keep infection away. Hold her down.”

Arianna’s heart raced, she tried to move, but Saldor pressed his body against her chest.

Bottles clinked at the end of the table. The healer returned with compassionate eyes focused on her wound before he uncorked the bottle containing a grayish liquid and poured it over the stitches.

“What? What are you” Her abdomen boiled from the inside out and she screamed. Burning, sharp pain shot in all directions through her body.

“It is to clean the wound.”

Arianna heard the words but couldn’t process them. Her entire body seemed thrust back into the fire she’d just escaped. Tears stung her eyes and rolled down her face into her ears. “Stop! Make it stop!

“It will pass in a minute. Breathe through the pain.”

Her lungs snapped shut like a steel trap. No air entered. No air escaped. Each beat of her heart sent another wave of searing pain throughout her body.

Thrashing against Saldor, she cursed him and all the guards of the castle.

Finally, a small, cool surge of relief lined the wound then meandered up and down her skin, as if dancing on the veins of her body. Each knotted muscle relaxed one at a time. The healer covered her wound with a white cloth, leaving the material of her dress open. Weighted down with exhaustion, her head whacked against the table.

The healer wrapped her burned feet in cool bandages and returned the bottles to his bag. “You may move her now.”

Saldor pushed his arms underneath Arianna and lifted her. The shift sent a spear of pain from her side, and she cried out.

Several quick steps, then he bent down and rested her body on a soft bed. “You will stay in this room. I will return with water.”

Drapery flowed from a wood canopy above. Rich fabric and fluffy pillows welcomed her aching body. The room glowed from the golden light shining through the stained glass window. It was one of those rare days the blanket of fog had lifted from the castle. Only four or five days with such light had occurred since the Elders ordered the gates sealed. How she longed to be out with the sun on her face.

A dark cloud shrouded the beaming sun. She leaned back with a sigh. Her gaze settled on a doll resting on a wooden chest. It reminded her of the doll she clung to the night she fled to the castle with her family.

“It was my sister’s.” Saldor entered carrying a pitcher of water and a plate of food.

“You have a sister?”

“Not anymore. She is gone.”

Pounding sounded from the outer chamber door. Saldor placed the food and water on the table then left the room.

Shouts echoed from the hall. “She can stay in your bed, but I cannot even see her?”

“I am her guard and nothing more. You need to remember your place and follow the Elders’ will.”

“Tardon?” She tried to call out. The voices lowered and the outer chamber door closed.

Their conversation rose, the low hum of Tardon’s anger throbbing in the air, but she couldn’t make out any words.

The door opened. “If you touch her I will slice off—”

“I will not touch her, Tardon. Now go.”

Saldor returned to the room, forehead creased. He poured a glass of water, lifted her head and held the cup to her lips. “I must tend to something. Rest, I will return soon to help you eat.”

At the thought of food, queasiness took hold and she fought down the nausea.

Saldor gave her a stern look. “Do not try to leave unless you wish another visit from the healer.”

Compliant, Arianna snuggled beneath the covers and, soon enough, was dreaming of Tardon wrapping his arms around her, kissing every inch of her body and causing her skin to tingle and her body to quake. She could almost smell the sweat of him after training.

Her eyes shot open at the squeaking sound of her chamber door easing closed. She bolted upright only to fall back writhing in agony. Two guards rushed to the bed and pointed their swords at her throat. Holding her side, she gasped and tried to form words.

“Come with us,” one of them ordered.

Adrenaline for a fight masked her pain and warrior instinct took over. She searched around the room for her weapon.

One guard’s blade shook as his eyes roamed down her body. “Do not try to fight us; we will run you through.”

The other guard reached out and pulled the covers down. Arianna instinctively pressed her hand to the soaked white cloth bandages, staining her palm with blood. She maintained a warrior’s blank yet determined stare. Inside she screamed curses and wanted to break both their necks. “Movement will be difficult. Can you not see my condition? Who demands my presence?”

“The Elders.”

So, they hadn’t forgiven her. Certainly, they wouldn’t send her back to the fires. “Where is Saldor?”

“With the Elders. No more questions. You are to remain in the dungeon until the Elders have made their decision” The guard pressed the side of the blade to her wound. She struggled to yell for him to release her but once again, her lungs spasmed.

She gasped and clutched the side of the mattress to steady herself. “I may be wounded but, if you value your wretched life, you will not do that again.”

The man stepped back and shot his companion a look. “Take her.” Two men reeking of dungeon rot entered the room. One lifted her from the bed and slung her over his shoulder. Blood raced to her head and pounded so loudly it drowned out all noise. Burning pain surged from deep inside her wound, as if a reddened poker from the fire pushed through the inside of her body. Sweat dripped from her face and splattered against the floor. Too weak to fight back, she concentrated on keeping her tears away. Never would she reveal the excruciating pain she suffered. Warriors did not show weakness before guards.

The short trip to the dungeon turned into the longest journey of her life. She and her escort reached the cell, and her eyelids slid closed despite the shackles being snapped around her wrists.

Screams and cries came from surrounding cells. People begged and pleaded for release to no avail. Once here, no one cared. So many charged with crimes.

She had once believed the Elders to be merciful, making her proud to fight under their wisdom and guidance. Now, they hid behind their robes in their tower, sending Enforcers and dungeon guards to condemn people.

Yes, she disobeyed them. But were her actions those of a criminal?

The outer door creaked open, and Arianna opened her eyes to make out guards groveling as Saldor ordered them out. “Who moved her from my chamber?”

“We did, sir.”

“Under whose authority?”

“The Elders’, sir.”

“Out! All of you, out!”

Sounds of shuffling feet faded before a key clicked in the cell door. “Arianna, are you—”

“I am alive, but why am I here? They promised to release us if we fought.”

Footsteps echoed in the outer hall. “No, they promised you would not burn in the fires. That does not mean they will not let a traitor rot in jail.”

A rusty voice sounded from outside the cell. “I see you have pity for this woman. She seems to have a strong effect on men. The Elders are right: she is a witch.”

Saldor drew his sword.

“That would be the last thing you ever did.” The Apprentice lifted his arm to control Saldor but lowered it with a derisive smile. “This is just more evidence of her treachery; to control a man of your station will secure her death.”

“There will be no need for an execution,” Saldor said. “She will die down here from her wounds.”

She glanced down at her blood soaked clothes and knew he spoke the truth.

“No need of a public trial, then.”

“Leave my dungeon. I will speak to the Elders myself.”

“As you wish.” The Apprentice slithered away into the darkness.

Saldor sheathed his sword and returned to the cell. “Try to stay still. If the wound opens, an infection will be certain in this place.” He glanced at her bandages and pursed his lips.

Did he truly care about her, or did he see how unjust the Elders had become in recent seasons?

“Why do you care? It is not your place to concern yourself with a traitor.”

“Just stay still. I will return.” Saldor hurried from the room.

Arianna listened to the low rumbling of desperation from the other cells. “Tardon?”

No answer came. Certainly, the guards would not imprison him. The people cheered his name from outside. A hero redeemed.

Rats scurried from the shadows. One gnawed at her bandaged feet, ruby eyes shining. Another ran up her leg to her ribs and nibbled at her wounded flesh. The breath in her throat hitched. She shook her foot and body and the vermin ran off but stayed near the wall, waiting.

Even the rodents knew her death was inevitable.

She studied them in the shadows, but her eyes quickly grew heavy. The guards had chained her arms above her head, pulling the torn muscles tight. Despite the sting of the stitches tugging at her skin, she had to fight sleep. If she wanted to live, she had to stay awake and alert. If infection didn’t get her, the rats would.

Each time she blinked, a creature appeared closer. She’d shake the shackles and it would scurry away. Her life had deteriorated into this pitiful game, and she was losing.

Squeaks and shuffling echoed in the small cell. The creak of the cell door sounded, but she didn’t have the strength to turn her head.

“Get away, you horrid creatures.” Saldor’s voice came like honey on fresh fruit. “Arianna, wake up.”

Her eyes fluttered, but it was a struggle to remain conscious.

“There is a way for you to free yourself from this place.”

That was enough to give her cause to fight for consciousness. “What?” she rasped through cracked lips.

“I discovered something the Elders need. It is sap from a tree. If you were able to retrieve it and return to the kingdom, they would spare your life.”

“Wh…where is the sap?” Her eyes rolled and her head knocked against the wall behind her.

“I—it…Well, it is in the Outer Realm.”

Her eyes shot open. “With the Cursed?”

“Yes.” The conviction leaked out of Saldor’s voice. “I will volunteer to go with you. Together we would be able to accomplish the mission and return you to a hero’s status.”

Arianna’s mind reeled at his offer. Why would he risk his own life to save a traitor? The thought of falling to the Curse made her skin crawl. She still had nightmares of her sister turning into one of those hideous creatures. “No. I will not go. I would rather die here than fall to the Curse.”

Saldor leaned in. “It is the only…”

Saldor’s voice faded as her eyelids lost the battle, and her body slumped into oblivion.

 

***

 

Tardon paced the living chamber, waiting for Saldor to return. When he opened the window for fresh air, someone saw him leaning out and shouted his name. Once, he would have reveled in the chanting of his name, but now it meant nothing.

Saldor opened the chamber door. No Arianna.

Tardon’s blood ran cold. “Where is she?”

“In the dungeon.”

Tardon shook with rage. He grabbed the hilt of his sword. “Curse you, and Curse the Elders.”

Wait. There may be a way to save her.” Saldor grasped Tardon’s shoulders and pushed him back. “I hear the Elders are desperate. They are running low on a substance that keeps the castle safe from the Outer Realm. Have you not noticed the attacks becoming more frequent? The Cursed have never breached the outer wall before.”

Tardon stepped back and raked his hand though his hair. “No. I have not noticed.”

“This substance they require is in the Outer Realm. The Elders have sent others over the seasons to retrieve it, but no one has returned.”

“Sap,” he mumbled.

“What? You know?”

Tardon leaned over the table pressing his palms against the rough surface. “Yes, the Elders have charged me with a quest to travel to the Outer Realm and retrieve sap from the Tree of Life. But I do not wish to fall to the Curse. I would rather die here fighting to free Arianna.”

“The Elders’ magic is too strong. You would never make it past the Apprentices or guards. You have no choice.”

“I would go if they agreed to spare Arianna’s life, but they will not grant my wish.”

Saldor paced around the table. “If they are that desperate, make them agree. They will grant her life to spare the castle. I will go and volunteer to travel with you.”

“Why would you offer?”

Saldor wouldn’t answer. Tardon dug his nails into the wood top. “You love Arianna.”

“In a way, yes.”

Tardon lunged forward to strike Saldor, but he maneuvered behind the table. “It is not what you think. I love another.”

Tardon grasped the edge of the table and it creaked beneath his grip. “What other? What does that have to do with Arianna?”

“Arianna reminds me of a person I once loved, long ago.” Saldor’s face creased and his mouth twitched. Anguish or despair, Tardon had seen the look often, right before he’d killed an enemy.

“Your love is gone?” Tardon asked.

“Yes, I could not save her.” Saldor turned away and placed his hands on his hips. His shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath.

“It is obvious you loved this woman. And now you want to save Arianna. But why?”

“I cannot explain it. It feels like a second chance.”

Tardon drew a breath and held it. “A second chance for love?”

“We will have to concern ourselves with such things later. Now, it will take both of us to save her.” Saldor faced Tardon.

Tardon glared at him. “She wants me, and she is a replacement for no one.”

“I will go check on her.”

“No.” Tardon grasped the other man’s arm and shoved him against the wall. “You are done checking on Arianna. It gets us nowhere. I will free her and make the Elders listen.”

“You must not.” Saldor’s eyes blazed and he shoved Tardon back. “Have you not done enough to secure her fate in the dungeon?”

Fury bubbled to the surface and he lunged at Saldor. “I would never—”

Guards busted in and held their swords to Tardon’s back.

“Leave us.” The guards reluctantly lowered their swords at Saldor’s words. “I said leave us.” They backed from the room and shut the door.

Saldor’s brow furrowed. “The last time I saw her, disease carrying rats waited only a sword length away for her to die. If you do not want them to find a meal while she sleeps you will let me go.”

I will go.”

“You will not make it past the first door without keys. And, even if you did, there are too many guards.”

Tardon stepped back. A dark figure entered the room, long robes flowing behind like dark wings. Tardon’s jaw clenched tight, his teeth grinding from the force of his frustration. Apprentices were always appearing out of nowhere.

“The Elders summon you.” The Apprentice left without another word.

Saldor scrubbed his chin. “I was right. Desperate. This is your opportunity. Go and state your demands.”

“How do you know they do not summon me only to throw me into the dungeon again?”

“Because I was not summoned first. Think. No guards, just another call for your presence.” Saldor grasped his forearm and pushed his shoulder against Tardon’s. “This is our chance to save her.”

“I will go. But, know this, if you touch her I will rip your heart out.”

“I would expect no less. Now go.”

Tardon raced through the crowd in the courtyard to the tower. People stopped him every time he rounded another corner. “Thank you, Tardon. You saved us. We are forever grateful.”

Until you throw me to the fires again.

Chapter Seven

 

Wake. A slithery voice entered Arianna’s dreams. She opened her eyes to the dismal grayness of the cell. Her body trembled at the sight of her bandages half-chewed away.

A yellow glow surged from her neck. The amulet of protection. It must have brought her back. There had to still be a purpose in her life. A deep line etched into its stone from where the Enforcer had slammed her down. It crackled and the light flickered.

Wake. Bone chilling white smoke engulfed her face, and a Cursed One floated above her. “You and another will sacrifice to save us all,” the figure hissed. Hot, foul breath, smelling of decay, blanketed Arianna’s face. She thrashed about once then fell back. Pain shot from her feet to her eyes.

The monster curled his lip, revealing sharp teeth. A claw raked down her wound to her belly and lingered, tracing small swirls.

“W—what do you want?”

The Cursed One wouldn’t answer. The nail scraped back and forth across her belly while the creature hummed.

“Leave me be. Help! They have breached the walls!”

Shh. I see why men die for your love.”

She choked down the acid burning her throat. “W—what? Who died? T—Tardon? No, please. He cannot—he cannot be—”

“Arianna, Arianna. Wake up.” The yellow glow disappeared, replaced by Saldor’s chiseled face.

Arianna panted with fear. “Gremdon. A Cursed One was in here. Sound the alarm. They have entered the castle. Th—they said T—Tardon was… ” She couldn’t choke out the final words.

“Someone call for a healer! She is mad with fever.” Saldor grabbed a cloth from his vest and pressed it to her forehead. “Stay calm. It is only a fever. No one could enter the cell.”

Arianna squeezed her eyes shut, trying to clear the vision from her mind. She pulled against the chains, but her limbs were bolted to the wall like a caged animal. “No, I saw it. H—he touched me.”

“Arianna. Listen. I am here, and I will not leave you again.”

“Tardon?”

“He is fine. Went to beg the Elders for your life.”

“No, it is a trap. Something is wrong.”

Shh, Arianna. You must still yourself. You have reopened your wound.”

“Saldor, please. End me. I cannot live like this any longer. Make the pain stop.” Her ribs constricted with grief and she longed to rid her belly of the tightly wound knots that twisted her muscles in agony. Mostly, she wanted her cursed life to end. “P—please, I b—beg you. Unshackle me and leave your knife. I will not run. Please.”

Saldor unchained one arm then the other. The muscles in her back spasmed when he lowered them to her side. Finally, she would find peace.

A guard ran in, glaring at Saldor. “Elders said no one is to release her.”

“Do you question me?”

The guard stepped back, and mumbles ensued in the hall. Saldor lifted Arianna’s head and sat behind her against the wall, cradling her in his lap. “Shh, Tardon will be here soon. We will get you out of here.”

Pplease.” Life was swirling into a pool of darkness and she was caught in a funnel of misery.

He stroked her hair. “I cannot let you die. I will not lose you.” Saldor’s voice cracked.

Everything in her world had been turned upside down in one day. Her brother lay dying in her chamber. She’d been accused of treason. Now, an Elder’s personal guard and dungeon master held her in his arms with compassion.

Her body convulsed with sobs. She cried like a spoiled child, and he pulled her close. After a moment, she pushed from him and stifled her tears. “Let me die with what little dignity I have left. Leave me your knife and go. Do not leave me here as food for the dungeon scavengers.”

“I will not leave you,” he whispered.

“I am a warrior. I am not afraid of death.”

“Yes, you are a warrior. The bravest I have ever known, but you need to find the strength to live.” Saldor cleared his throat. “Tardon loves you. He would sacrifice himself to save you. I know I would have for my love.”

“He does not love me.” Arianna swiped at her eyes. “I heard the guards speak of the many women granted to him. I am but one of many.”

“No. You are wrong. I see it in his eyes. I know that look.”

Arianna lifted her chin to glance at him. “The one you spoke of. She is gone, isn’t she?”

“Yes.” He ran his palm against her cheek.

“At least she does not suffer.” Arianna’s abdomen knotted and she doubled over in pain. Heat rose to her cheeks, and the yellow light flickered again. A shadow passed in the hall. “Do you see that?” She pointed to the shadows. “It is back. Call the guards.” Saldor glanced at the hall but shook his head. “I do not see anything.”

A crow-like nose protruded from the darkness, followed by a long bony finger. “Sacrifice so that others may live.”

“Sacrifice what?” Arianna cried out.

Shh, all is well.” Saldor rocked her in his arms. “Rest, I will stay by your side.”

Sacrifice or all will die.”

“I do not understand. I—I do not know what you want.” Her feet started to burn. She smelled skin cooking in the fire. The chains still restrained her legs. “Stop. Make it stop.” The heat rose, and flesh slid down her bones. Stitches popped and her wound pushed open. Something struggled against her skin. She scratched at her wound and tried to pull it apart. A rat had crawled in while she slept—the healer put something inside her—the creature in the hall.

She clawed at the creature trying to escape, but Saldor held her wrists down.

“Stop, Arianna, you have gone mad. Focus, it is the fever,” Saldor’s voice rang with terror.

Get it out. Kill it. Kill me.” She arched her back, but Saldor pinned her. The dungeon spun while a monster pushed and kicked from inside her body. Her insides tore, ripping from between her legs to her chest. Scratches echoed inside her head.

 

***

 

Tardon drew his sword and entered the throne room inside the Elders’ tower. The same muted light shone down on the wooden chairs.

The Apprentice who confronted him earlier stood in front of the center throne. “There is no need for your weapon.”

Prickles scratched at the back of Tardon’s neck like a Gremdon claw. “Where are the Elders?”

“They are near. I speak for them.” The Apprentice strolled down the steps from the podium the Elders’ thrones rested atop, and circled Tardon. “It is believed that you may be one of the only warriors who could successfully complete the mission.”

Tardon shifted in place then sheathed his sword. He relaxed marginally, but remained alert and ready for a fight. “If this is true then the Elders will agree to my request.”

“We know what you seek. Maybe better than you do.”

Tardon arched a brow in question.

A servant rushed from the shadows with something clutched to his chest. The small boy remained low with his back arched and head bowed. He placed the item on a small table in the corner of the room then raced out.

The Apprentice presented Tardon his grandfather’s book.

Tardon’s heart beat faster.

“For your outstanding efforts as a warrior we would like to grant you some exceptional gifts. All you need to do is retrieve a small amount of sap from the Outer Realm.”

Stinging energy surged through Tardon at the memory of Arianna wasting away in the dungeon while the Apprentice played games. “What gifts do you speak of?” He held his breath in anticipation.

“We will start by returning this book under the condition it remains hidden from all others.”

Tardon fought to control his emotions and maintain his impassive warrior’s stare.

“Second, we will restore your Elite Warrior status.”

Tardon swallowed hard. Why does this fool drag it out?

“You will be granted a rare gift, an honor that has not been given in over fourteen harvests.”

Tardon’s mind reeled with possibilities. Many things were forbidden after the castle was sealed from the Outer Realm.

“You will be granted the right to marry.”

Tardon choked on his own saliva and coughed. “Marry?”

“Yes, you may choose a wife, and you will be given a family chamber to live in together.”

“Any wife of my choosing?”

“Yes, but, once married, the woman you choose must work as a seamstress or shop keeper.”

Tardon shuddered at the idea of telling Arianna she’d be a wife with no title. “Understood.”

“Then you agree to what the Elders have graciously offered?”

“No.”

“What else could you possibly desire?” the Apprentice asked, his tone close to a sneer.

“I request the release of Arianna from the dungeon. She is not well and requires a healer.”

“Yes, we’ve heard her condition is grave.”

Tardon wanted to punch the Apprentice’s smug expression off his face.

“You may retrieve the woman. But, I caution you, do not touch her or all of the gracious gifts from the Elders will be withdrawn. Or…if you change your mind, we can send you acceptable…distractions.”

“I give you my word that I will retrieve the serum or die.”

“This is an important mission and requires additional warriors. We will summon you when a decision is made. Until that time, you will train. You will require skills other than expertise with a blade to succeed.”

The Apprentice flowed from the room without another word. Tardon bolted from the Elders’ tower and ran for the dungeon, grateful to be free of the unnatural, icy sensation that ravaged his body from their magic.

He thundered down the steps to the lower cells. His heart raced by the time he reached the bottom step. Guards crossed their long-handled spears to block his path.

“It is ordered by the Elders. Arianna is free.” He palmed the hilt of his sword. They wouldn’t stand in his way for long.

The guards didn’t move, and Tardon drew his sword. This encounter would be a blood bath, but he would win and free Arianna. The thrill of battle filled him. Finally, someone would pay for Arianna’s mistreatment. “Last warning. Lower your weapons.”

One of the guard’s arms began to shake, making his staff rattle against the others, but both guards remained in place. Tardon respected their bravery. Not many would stand strong against a warrior. Yet, even as he admired their courage, he laughed at their stupidity. “You will all die.” Tardon stared down the guard with shaking arms. “You, you are the one who set fire to us.”

The guard fell back a step but recovered. The top of his metal spear clanked against the other guard’s in a constant beat, but still the man did not retreat. He said nothing in his defense. Tardon growled.

“What the warrior says is true. Arianna is released.” A guard stepped up from behind the two men. “I have the orders straight from the Elders’ tower.”

Tardon’s jaw twitched with his desire for blood. “Stand aside.”

The young guards parted.

“Continue, sir,” the guard’s voice quavered.

The young boy would someday make an excellent warrior. His bravery in spite of his fear was commendable. With a nod to the boy, Tardon raced down the final set of stairs to Arianna’s cell. His rapid footsteps matched his pulse. When he entered the small, dirt room, his heart stopped and he fell to his knees. “Arianna?”

Her body lay limp in Saldor’s arms, her legs still chained like an animal. “Is she…”

“She breathes, barely. She ranted like a mad woman until her body went limp.”

Arianna barely looked human with her short hair matted in clumps, bloodied clothes, and dirty face. He crawled to her and pressed his hand to her forehead. “She burns with fever.”

“Did the Elders grant her freedom?”

“Yes.” Tardon stroked her cheek.

“Help me get her to my chambers. Quickly.”

“No. We will take her to mine.”

“There is no time to waste. The healer is in my chamber. We can fight about this later.” Saldor shifted and tried to lift her but fell back over. Tardon swallowed hard. “Unshackle her legs, I will carry her.”

Saldor scooted from beneath Arianna, and Tardon took her into his arms. Saldor released the shackles and they clanked against the floor, signaling to Tardon that she was free. He lifted her and headed for the stairs.

Saldor limped in front of him, shoving guards out of the way. “Move or you will swing from the gallows.”

Tardon studied Saldor’s stiff leg. Had he been injured in battle? Arianna’s head fell from his shoulder and her blue eyes rolled back. “Hang on to me. Do not leave this world.” She moaned in his arms. Wetness seeped through his vest. Blood…How did she still breathe?

Moisture pooled at her hairline and ran down her cheek, yet she shivered in his arms. They mounted the last spiral staircase.

Arianna convulsed in his arms. Tardon lost his footing and fell back. “Saldor, help, I cannot—” He grabbed an iron torch holder with one hand while keeping his other arm around Arianna. His leg dangled in the air and the other perched precariously on the edge of a step.

Saldor hobbled up three steps and grabbed her. Both men squatted and held her. Tardon took her face in his hands, while Saldor held her thrashing legs. “We must hold her still until it passes.”

“Have the Elders not punished her enough?” Tardon gasped.

“It is not the Elders, but the fever.”

Tardon held Arianna’s delicate face between his hands and sat helplessly cradling her convulsing body. Even with both of their strengths, her body almost jerked from their grip several times.

After what seemed like an entire harvest season, her body lay limp. Both men sat without words, looking at one another. Tardon pressed his ear to her chest. “Her heart…I do not hear its beat.”

Saldor wiped the sweat from his furrowed brow. “We must move quickly. She may not have the strength to live if another seizure ravages her body.”

Tardon hefted her into his arms again. Nothing would stop him until she lay safe on clean linen in Saldor’s chamber.

The healer waited by the table. Tardon stumbled through the doorway then eased her body onto the hard, smooth surface. A second later, grief buckled his legs and he crashed to the floor, Arianna’s hand still clutched in his. “Please, save her.” Tardon’s insides melted and churned.

Saldor clutched the side of his right leg. Dark, ruby liquid stained his uniform.

The healer tore at the opening in Arianna’s dress, at the site of the wound, until it ripped in half and both men looked away.

“You are injured?” Tardon wondered if Saldor had fought a guard defending Arianna. No. He chained her to a wall like an animal. He would not have fought to protect her.

“No. An old injury.”

The healer peered out the corner of his eye. “An old injury returned can be more of a threat than a new one.”

“Focus on Arianna,” Saldor snapped.

“Guard.”

Tardon shifted and placed his hand on his dagger. Would he have them removed?

The guard entered, and the healer gestured toward Saldor. “Take Saldor to his bedchamber. Send the other guard to retrieve my assistant. Now everyone can be tended to.” The healer jerked his chin at Tardon. “Tardon, help the guard with Saldor.”

Tardon froze. He would not leave Arianna’s side to help the man who’d done this to her. “Let him die.”

The healer stepped back from the table. “I will not continue to help one patient while another is left for dead.”

Tardon drew his sword and stood on shaking legs.

“You could kill me, but who would heal Arianna?” The healer tilted his chin up in defiance.

Tardon sheathed his sword. “Curse you to Gremdon.”

Saldor struggled to stand. “She suffered a seizure on the way here. The conditions of the dungeon…I—I tried to—”

“Shackle her to the wall?” Tardon snaked his arm under Saldor to lift him from the ground.

“No, I removed her restraints when I found her. I did not know of the order.”

Tardon dragged him to the inner chamber and dropped him on the bed.

Saldor slumped against the headboard. “She has to be…I cannot lose another.”

Tardon grabbed the blade from his boot and held it to Saldor’s neck. “You will lose everything if you even think of Arianna again. It is your fault she lays dying in there.”

“Tardon?” Arianna’s voice rang like music through the chamber.

His heart thudded against his chest. “She’s alive.” He jammed the blade back into its sheath and raced to Arianna’s side. “I am here, my love.”

“The dungeon…darkness…Cursed…I must die so others may live,” Arianna whimpered the words over and over.

“No. You will live.” He grasped her hand and held it to his chest while the healer ran another stitch through her re-opened wound. Tardon looked desperately at the healer. “She speaks madness. What do I do?”

“Comfort her. She knows not what she says. It is the fever.” The healer tied a knot and cut the thread. “Finished. Again.”

“I must die—” Arianna arched her back and screamed. “I must die—” Her body thrashed about while he held her down. With one last shudder, she fell still, her arm hanging limp from the table.

Chapter Eight

 

Arianna opened her eyes. Tardon sat in a chair by her side, his neck cranked sideways while his head leaned against the wall, his strong hands resting on hers.

She scanned her surroundings. Candles burned almost to the quick. A flickering flame broke the darkness in the castle. No rats scampered about. Fluffy covers were pulled to her chin with only her hand extended from the side where Tardon held it. She ran a finger down Tardon’s wrist; he snorted but did not wake.

Saldor slept with his head on a table, his leg bandaged. She scooted higher to see better, but at that small movement a deep spasm of pain radiated up and down Arianna’s abdomen. “Ahh!”

“Shh. Do not move.” Tardon leaned in and stroked the hair from her forehead. “I thought I lost you,” he said, voice cracking.

A creak sounded from the far corner, and Saldor appeared at the foot of the bed. “It is good to see your shining eyes again.”

Tardon squeezed her hand a little too tightly. Everything in her body ached, except where he touched. There, warmth spread up her arm.

Dungeon stench still surrounded her. She crinkled her nose and swallowed the bitter taste. “Smell. It is awful.”

Tardon kissed her hand. “I will return.” He swaggered to the outer chamber. “Servant!” The shuffling of feet followed by whispers sounded from the other room.

Saldor approached with pursed lips, eyes full of regret. “I am sorry.”

Tardon appeared with a bowl of water, some bottles, and white rags. “The healer will not allow you to bathe because of your wound, but he gave me instructions on how to help keep infection away.”

Saldor disappeared from the bedchamber without another word. Her chest tightened at the memory of his lost love. So many had fallen to the Curse in the beginning, and now more would die. He’d been there for her in the dark dungeon, risking his position as an Elder Advisor.

A servant marched into the room carrying a bucket of water while another brought wood. “Leave those and shut the chamber door,” Tardon said.

He built a fire, his biceps glistening each time he stoked the flames to life.

Quiet filled the room again. They were alone. Her blood rushed to her head and wound, both growing hot when she took a deep breath. Tardon dipped a rag into the bowl and squeezed out the excess water.

She tensed her muscles at his approach.

“I will not hurt you.” His eyebrows arched high above his eyes. “You are safe.”

Her body shivered when the damp cloth pressed against her face. Rose and lavender teased her senses, covering the iron and rotting smells of the underground. Memories from her childhood of her mother and sister flashed: A garden. Trees. Fresh flowers on a table.

Tardon paused. “Do I hurt you?”

“No. The smell. It reminds me of when I was young.” Arianna sighed. “It is pleasant, a nice memory.”

Tardon’s lips curled up and dimples creased the sides of his face. A smile, something she’d never seen. His sweet expression lit the room and her heart.

She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths. How long had it been since she’d remembered anything of her family? “My brother? How’s my—” She shot up in the bed only to fall back in agony, clutching her wound.

“He is fine. You must not move.” Tardon lifted the edge of the blanket. “Good, you did not pull your stitches.” His lips pursed together. “Be more careful. The healer said you were not to move for several days.”

“My brother?” She managed a short breath. “Is he—”

“There is no change. The healer is optimistic.” He poured water into a cup then lifted her head and placed a cloth beneath her. Supporting her with one hand, he poured droplets of warm water over her scalp with the other, then placed the cup aside to massage her head.

His fingers swirled and raked through her hair. She inhaled the scents of fresh mint and honey, her own concoction for her hair. The corners of her mouth rose. “How did you know?”

“Our first sparring match. It haunted me. One night after we fought in the Pit I bought a mint leaf from a merchant. I must admit he thought I had been hit in the head one too many times. A warrior purchasing mint leaves?” He laughed, and his white teeth shone in the fire light.

“How long have you had the mint leaf?”

“Long enough that I had to buy three others. Two are pressed in the book you found.”

Arianna turned her face into his palm when he pulled the cloth from under her head. Her lips instinctively kissed him and heat rushed to her cheeks.

Tardon smiled. Never had anyone cared for her. It warmed her insides but made her uneasy at the same time. A warrior didn’t need someone to help them.

Tardon combed her hair.

She gave him a warm smile of encouragement. “At least my hair is short and requires little maintenance. Guess I look more like a warrior now.”

“You look perfect.” He chuckled. “I thought the Enforcer would go insane trying to subdue you. What a fight you gave him.” He stood tall with shoulders back then bent to pull the covers down and unlaced the top of her gown.

She gasped.

“Sorry.”

Modesty collided with desire. To feel him next to her again would make the harsh realities of the last day disappear. “No. Just startled me.”

He untied the next two ribbons and pulled her gown open. Warm water soothed her scratched collarbone. The cloth glided down between her breasts. She sighed and pulled his palm to her heart. “I thought we were going to—”

“I know. The thought of you. The fire.” Tardon blew a breath from his full lips. “We survived. And we have each other.”

“But we do not. It is still forbidden.”

“There is a way.”

Arianna’s body warmed with excitement. A way to be together? “How?”

“Now is not the time. When you are stronger.” Tardon dipped another cloth and washed her stomach, leaving a beaded trail behind. Even in her state of discomfort, his touch sent quivers through her body.

Droplets of blood-tinged water fell on her gown when he drew the cloth away. Piles of dark gray rags stained crimson lay on the table next to her.

“I will help you change when we are done.”

His words sent a ripple of want to her core.

He moved to the foot of the bed and checked the bandages on her feet. How did such a strong man have such a delicate touch? His shirt fell open when he leaned over to wash higher. Tight muscles flexed when he ran his hand up her thigh. Her legs shook from his touch.

“Are you cold?”

“No.” She closed her eyes and concentrated on his fingers gently massaging her inner thigh.

Tardon cleared his throat and pulled the covers down. “How do you feel?”

She longed for his strong hands to return. “Better. Thank you.”

He moved her gown off her shoulder and washed the skin with a clean rag. The soft material swiped across her chest, knocking her gown to the side, and he cleared his throat, again, and looked away, shifting on his feet.

The sides of his mouth curved up as he glanced over her chest. “You are beautiful.”

Arianna clutched the covers to her neck. A virile warrior had needs. The trainers always said how important it was for them to find release. She couldn’t give him that, not now, possibly not ever. “I can have a servant finish.”

“Why? Did I hurt you?”

“No, it is just that if you need to go. I mean…I am sure the Elders have offered great rewards for saving their lives.”

His smile stretched from ear to ear. “Yes, they have.” She winced at the thought of him touching another woman with his strong hands. Kissing and suckling her breasts. But she had no right to deny him any of his earned rewards.

He frowned. “Are you in too much pain?”

“No, pain is part of being a warrior. Although, I guess I am no longer a warrior.”

“You will always be a warrior. The bravest I have ever fought beside.” His deep voice resonated with pride. He picked up the dirty rags and dumped them into the bucket. Adjusting his manhood, he let out a dull groan. His shoulders relaxed and he came back with a new gown.

“Thank you. I can finish dressing.” She scooted up in the bed but fell back with a moan as that incapacitating pain erupted once more.

“I will help.”

“This is too much for you. Go. Find pleasure in the Elders’ gifts.” The fire crackled in the corner in time with her voice. Attempting to hide her welling sorrow, she mended her thoughts with facts. Like the needle through her skin, she stitched together her heart with threads of warrior training and code. It was his right. It was her duty.

Tardon sat on the side of the bed. She stifled a cry from the shift of his weight. “You are the only gift I desire.” He took a deep breath. “It is difficult to see you like this. And not just because of my overwhelming desire to take you in my arms and explore your body until the first morning light.” His finger traced the edge of a ribbon resting on her breasts, and she quivered beneath his touch. “It is difficult to see you in pain. I should have protected you.”

“Tardon, I am a warrior. I have no need of protection.” Her words shot out of her mouth like daggers, a trained response. A warrior needed nothing. Yet here she lay in bed, cared for like a crippled inner peasant. “Sorry. My words are harsh, but true. It is not your duty to protect me.”

“No. It is my honor.” He pressed his strong, full lips against hers.

His longing for her communicated itself from his lips to her body. Warmth meandered from her face to her toes.

He pulled away. “The gift I want is you. No gifts the Elders send would ever satisfy my lust. Yes, I have needs. Physical, to be sure. But, like you, I am a warrior and have learned sacrifice. I will wait until I can have what my heart and body crave. I will not take just because the Elders give. I will accept it when you wish to give yourself to me.”

“But how?”

Tardon’s cheeks turned crimson. “Well, um, we—I…”

“That is not what I mean.” She chuckled and clutched her side. “Oh, do not make me laugh.”

His eyes screamed desperation. Not for sex. But for her suffering to end. Was Saldor right? Did he really love her?

“I meant to say, even if I am stripped of my warrior status, the Elders will not allow us to be together. It is forbidden. They will never release you from your duty, and I would never allow you to disgrace yourself by turning from your destiny.” Her eyelids grew heavy, and she yawned.

Tardon grasped her arm, his voice determined. “A destiny ordered by the Elders. I would turn from it in a minute if it meant I could be with you.”

“No. You cannot say such things. If anyone was to hear, we would be back on the fires.”

“Do not worry. I have been granted the greatest gift of all.” Tardon reached down below the covers and slid the gown up her legs to her waist. All the time his eyes remained on hers.

“I do not…understand.” Darkness faded in and out with the flickering of her eyelids.

Tardon pulled the gown up, slid her arms free and lifted it over her head. Her eyes remained shut when new soft material fell over her chest. “I thought they—”

Shh, sleep now. You need your rest.” Warm, heavy covers tucked in around her sides. “Someday you will be my wife.”

Arianna fought for consciousness. Wife. Tardon had gone mad. No one married a warrior. She slid into a world with flowers and trees. A wooden home on a lake and small children running around. Dreams.

And that’s all they would ever be.

 

***

 

Tardon entered the outer chamber. He could survive anything as long as he had Arianna. And have her he would, on his own terms, not under the Elders’.

Saldor pushed out of his chair to stand. “How is she?”

“Fine. I will take her to my chamber when she’s able to move.”

“You cannot. The Elders forbid you to be alone with her until your mission is complete. With her chamber in quarantine, this is the best place for her to stay.”

Tardon gripped the back of a chair. “You are too old for her.”

“Tardon, you need my help.”

“I am a warrior. I need no one’s assistance.”

Saldor smacked his hand against the table. “But she does.” He leaned in, desperation etched on his face. “You will start training tomorrow. Who will look after her during your hours in the Pit? A servant who works for the Elders? We both know the Elders are threatened by the two of you.”

“You speak as if the Elders will harm her, despite their promises.”

“I am saying there are many in the castle who see her as a witch even after she saved them. Not to mention the women who drool over you and despise Arianna for getting what they can never have.” Saldor lifted a cup from the table and took a swig. “Servants can be bribed. Do you wish to risk her life?”

Saldor had a point, but Tardon could not bear the thought of him caring for her. “It is your fault she is in this condition. You shackled a wounded warrior to a wall in the dungeon. That should be punishable by death. How could you betray her? Torture her?” Rage raced through him at the memory of her on the dungeon floor. “You almost killed her.”

Saldor tossed the cup on the table. “I tried to save her. Defied a direct order from the Elders when I unchained her. Called for a healer. Brought her to my chambers. An act that could strip me of my title, condemn me to death. I had to convince the Elders my role in this was to protect the two of you from sinning further. To allow you to keep your mind on training.”

The image of Arianna in Saldor’s arms caused Tardon to tremble. His fingers curled into a fist, and he struggled against the urge to rip the man to shreds. “You spoke of another.”

Lines creased between Saldor’s eyebrows, and his lips pursed into a tight line.

“Did you try to save her, too? Did you order her death then hold her in your arms, proclaiming your love as she died?”

“You do not know what you speak.” Saldor slumped into a plush brown chair and held his head between his hands. “You need me. I will keep her safe.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“Because you have no choice. When the first morning ray comes through that window, you are to report for training.” A vein throbbed on Saldor’s forehead. “You will train in the days. I will train at night.”

“You?”

“Yes, I have volunteered to help with your mission. The Elders have not yet agreed, but I am to report to the Pit in the evening. Maybe it is part of my punishment. The Elders have accused me of being bewitched myself.”

Tardon clutched the back of a chair. “So it is true. You want her for yourself.”

“All I know is I cannot let her die.” Saldor gestured to another chair. “Sit, we need to find a way to keep her alive.”

“You work for the Elders. It is all a trick. I will leave for training and you will take her life yourself. You wear the badge of an Elder and the uniform of a dungeon guard.” Tardon rushed toward him.

Saldor shot up from his chair as Tardon swung. Saldor blocked and crossed, hitting Tardon’s left cheek. Tardon used an upper cut to his gut and Saldor stumbled back. The older man grabbed the pitcher and smashed it into Tardon’s shoulder. Tardon lunged at him, shoulder to his abdomen. They both crashed down, shattering a footstool.

“Tardon?” Arianna’s small cry came from the bedchamber. They stopped in their tracks. Blood trickled down Tardon’s shoulder and Saldor’s right eye. Both stared at the other, but neither moved.

“Where are you?” The faint sound came again.

He shoved away from Saldor and raced to the room. “What is it? Are you in need of something?”

She shook under the covers. Her teeth chattered. “Are we under attack? Have the guards come for me?”

“No, no. Everything is fine.”

“But I heard a battle. It sounded like someone busted the door down.”

“No one will enter. I promise. Get some rest.” He tucked her in and stroked her head. Her short auburn curls framed her delicate face. She tugged on her bottom lip with her teeth. He longed to hold and kiss her again. Later. For now she needed rest. “I will stay by your side all night. I promise. Now rest.”

Her eyes drifted closed again. He checked her wound and stoked the fire before returning to the outer chamber to confront Saldor. “You cannot have her. I will kill you before I let you touch her.”

“I know.”

“Yet you will still help? Knowing you will never have her?”

“Yes.”

How could he trust a man who signed the paper to imprison her in the first place? But what other choice did he have? Saldor was right. Arianna was in grave danger, especially in her condition. The Elders could easily claim she died of infection.

Tardon cracked his knuckles. “If you betray me, a thousand guards will not be able to protect you.”

“I will protect her. I give you my word, not just as an Elder Advisor, but as a man who knows loss.”

He offered his hand, but Tardon still hesitated.

He glared at Saldor. “I will bathe and care for her wound. You are not to touch her or I will cut off your hand.”

Saldor grinned. “I would expect no less.”

Chapter Nine

 

Arianna woke to the cracking and popping of the fire embers. A light rap sounded from the door. “Come in.” Arianna looked forward to her morning breakfast with Saldor.

“The healer would like to enter.”

“Yes, yes. Come in.”

The wizened healer limped to her bedside and placed a black satchel on the table. “Let me take a look, child.” He moved the covers down and lifted her gown. Cold hands pressed against her side.

Arianna jerked. “Oh.”

“Is it tender?”

“A little. Not bad. I had hoped to be up from this bed soon. I would like to visit my brother.” The wound hurt far worse than she’d admit, but she’d do anything to get released and out of bed.

“It is not allowed. He is quarantined.”

Arianna stifled another cry. “How is he?”

“Same, child. He rests comfortably but does not wake from his sleep.”

“Can the Elders not make an exception so I can see him? Maybe Saldor could—”

“I am afraid not. I would insist on you staying away. With your wound, infection is dangerous. To expose you to death fever would be a waste of all my efforts in keeping you alive. Your brother is strong to have survived this long. Give him more time.”

She jolted under his touch. “Still, I wish to get out of this bed.”

“You are not quite ready to train, dear. All you warriors are the same. But you may sit up in bed now. Be cautious of your stitches.” The healer returned to his bag and pulled out more cloth.

“I do not think training will be in my future.” Arianna’s heart ached at her own words. “No one has called me to speak to the Elders, so I lie here not knowing my fate.”

“They will not call you now. I have not released you.” The healer returned, removed the old cloth, and pressed the new dressing to her wound. “Is it tender here?”

Arianna jumped. A sharp pain like a spear tore her skin from chin to thighs.

The healer shook his head. “If I only had more serum, your healing would progress much faster.”

“What serum?” Arianna’s pulse quickened with the possibility of being freed from her bed.

“The same serum I need to cure your brother.”

“My brother?” Her heart raced and she reached out to grab him, force him to tell her more, but her body restrained her. “Where can we get the serum?”

The healer tossed the rags in a bowl and redirected his attention to his bag. “We cannot. Not now. It rests in the Outer Realm, far from here. The medicine is made from the sap of the Tree of Life.”

Dare she hope to save her brother? “I will go. As soon as I have healed I will find a way.”

The healer closed his bag and took a long pause before he turned to face her. “I am sure you would die trying. If the Cursed Ones did not kill you, wild beasts in the night would surely rip you to shreds.”

“I do not care. Not if it will save my brother.”

The healer lifted his bag and headed for the door. “You excite yourself. Rest or you will never travel beyond this bed. Others have volunteered to go. Once they return, I will cure your brother.”

The healer left without another word. Agitation and the desire to get out of bed battled her fatigue. She tried to shove the covers down and lift her leg, but it only scooted to the edge before she fell prey to exhaustion.

Sometime later, Saldor knocked and stuck his head through the opening. “Did I wake you?”

His smile brightened the dismal room. It was comfortable and luxurious, but confining.

“No.” Arianna pushed herself against the back of the bed. Saldor set the tray of food on her lap and fluffed the pillows behind her.

“You grow stronger every day. Three days ago, you could not even lift your head. Now you are able to sit up.” Saldor took a napkin and placed it under her chin like a child.

She couldn’t live this wretched invalid life much longer without going insane. “How was Tardon this morning? I had hoped to wake before he left.” She vaguely remembered his lips pressed against hers in the darkness, the door opening, and then quietly closing.

“Tired, but well.” He lowered himself to the chair next to her bed with a little more effort than normal.

“And you? How are you?”

“Fine. Just sore. It has been a few harvest seasons since I trained in the Pit,” Saldor said with a rasped chuckle.

“I did not think it was possible to leave the warriors unless by death or old age. Well, death. No one ever lives long enough to grow old.” Arianna reached for the plate, but Saldor cut a piece of fruit and fed it to her.

She frowned. “I believe I can feed myself today. Go rest before you fall down.”

“I am not that old.”

“You are strong, but anyone would struggle with the hours you and Tardon keep.” She shifted in the bed. Her wound stung but the intense burning had subsided. “How, um, old are you?”

Saldor laughed. A great, hearty laugh. “I wondered when you would ask.”

“Most people do not live to see old age.”

“Old?”

“I did not—”

“It is all right. A warrior’s life can age one greatly. I know my face is lined, and my hair has specks of gray.”

“Only around your temple. I like it. You look…important.” Arianna gave a reassuring smile and hoped to amend for her insult. “Did you know my parents?”

“I am not old enough to be your father. I am thirty-three.”

“That is not what I meant.”

He shoved another piece of bread in her mouth before she could say anything else. “Yes, I knew of your parents. I even remember you. But it was so long ago.” Saldor picked up a cup and held it to her lips. “The one I courted lived near you and your family. She was two harvest seasons older than your sister’s age.”

“I was eight when the Great Curse fell, my sister fourteen.”

“Yes, my love had two harvest seasons until she could marry. Most girls were given by age sixteen but her father protected her and thought a girl should be older.”

“I do not remember much from life before the Great Curse.”

“Back then, eighteen was late to marry. I signed a contract that I would wait for her hand. My family did not approve. They felt I should have married by eighteen, but I only had eyes for Marseha.” His voice cracked at her name. “Most people back then farmed their land, traded goods, married and had children.”

“Do you have children?”

He cleared his throat. “No, we never married before she died.”

Saldor turned away, and she grabbed his hand. “I am sorry you lost her. You obviously loved her very deeply.”

“I did.” Saldor covered her hand with his.

“What was she like?”

“Much like you. Stubborn.” He grinned at her. “Strong, independent. One of the only women who ever worked on the farm instead of in the home. Most were shocked by her strength. But she was just as beautiful as she was strong. Boys would fight over the right to walk her to school.”

He paused, the creases by his eyes deepening as he smirked. “I shall never forget the time I found her fighting two boys at once. She sat on one and held another by the ear.” His eyes glazed over as if his thoughts were far away. “She must have been twelve at the time. Right then I knew I would marry her one day.”He sighed. “I loved her spirit, and it is your spirit which reminds me of her the most. Some men were scared of her. Others wanted her and didn’t care what they had to do to win her over. Some of the other girls accused her of being a witch.”

“Like me.”

He nodded, face grave. “Jealousy can lead to some terrible things. She wasn’t a witch, just misunderstood. A free spirit. No one could convince her to settle down. I think she was afraid of being trapped like an animal in a cage.”

“But she chose you.”

“Yes. One day I took on five boys who were teasing my sister. Marseha jumped in and took out three of them. When she asked me why I fought, my sister told her the boys had started chanting ‘witch’ at her. The next day Marseha approached me from behind, slid her hand in mine, and I walked her to school.”

“You won her over because you defended your sister?”

Saldor lifted the cup to her lips. “Yes, she said any man who would defend a girl’s honor would make a good husband. Later, she confessed that she also thought I had a nice backside.”

Arianna inhaled the water, causing her to cough and wince from the pain.

“As I said, you remind me of her. Saying whatever you wish despite the consequences. Nothing scared her. Well…almost nothing.”

Saldor lifted the tray of food and removed the napkin.

“What scared her?”

Saldor shuffled to the door and turned back with a solemn look. “Me.”

 

***

 

“It’s fresh meat day in the Pit!” The trainer shouted from above.

Tardon’s sparring partner, a boney man that looked more like a merchant than a warrior, stood with shaking hands before him. He hadn’t realized it was time for new recruits.

Vibrations traveled through the floor and up his legs while fellow warriors stood on the sidelines stomping. Cheers reverberated off the stone walls. Most had forgiven Tardon’s indiscretions. Some still rooted for the pathetic excuse of a fight in front of him. At least this wouldn’t take long.

The odor of sweat of true warrior training galvanized his desire to fight. Yet the torch lit underground arena reminded him of the dungeon. How many days had it been since he’d seen daylight?

“Throw down weapons to them,” an announcer called from above. Only one weapon landed near Tardon’s opponent, a spiked flail. The man scurried to retrieve it. “Tardon must disarm and capture.”

The man’s gaze danced around the arena. Clearly, his first time in the circle of death. No doors. No windows. And no way out of the training pit. Tardon grinned. “He’s a Pit virgin.”

“Have your fun with him, Tardon. Make him scream as loud as you do the gifts of the Elders.”

Laughter erupted, but the man stood his ground.

Two men traveled down a rope before it was lifted out of the arena. Ropes were the only way out; most hoped to crawl back up with little more than rope burn.

“Do not worry, they have more rope to hoist up each piece of you.” Another taunt rang out from the crowd of men.

Tardon had been hoisted out wounded only twice during his seasons of service to the castle. One time was by Arianna’s blade when her skill had surprised him. Who knew a woman could fight against the strongest of the men? He clutched his arm where the scar remained. Arianna had sliced open half his bicep with no more than a hair out of place when she flew up the ropes at the end.

The man in front of him relaxed his shoulders, but his forearms remained tense. This peasant fool thought the other two men in the Pit would save his life. His false sense of security could mean his death.

Tardon focused on the men joined together in a triangle formation. They planned to attack simultaneously. It was a joke. Only three low-level trainees?

“Commence fighting,” the announcer roared.

All three charged at once. Tardon pivoted and kicked up dirt. The two men on the sides stumbled back. Tardon lifted his knee to his chest and thrust it against the remaining trainee’s right leg. The sound of cartilage ripping from his opponent’s kneecap guaranteed his failure and ejection from the brotherhood of warriors.

Another trainee charged and pulled a knife from his vest as he yelled out a war cry.

Tardon ducked. The man soared over him, as Tardon flipped to his feet and shouldered him in the chest. Dirt and debris erupted from the floor and walls of the pit. Tardon held his breath as the others coughed and choked. He stepped back and swiped his eyes with his gauntlet.

Grabbing the right arm of his opponent, Tardon yanked with a twist. One more upward thrust and the man’s arm popped from the socket.

“Send in Kendar before he guts the rest of them,” the announcer ordered.

His former servant slid down the rope while men hoisted the wounded from the Pit.

Tardon looked up and a black stick came at his face. Instinctively, he rolled to the side and swept his leg under Kendar, but the young boy jumped and flipped. He landed erect, dirt covering his red hair.

They stood only a few paces from each other. Freckles dotted the boy’s cheeks. “Kendar?”

A lump rose and fell in his opponent’s throat.

“You would harm your master?”

“I—I only followed orders.”

Tardon shuffled his feet, assessing his former servant. “You are not a warrior. Why are you in my ring?”

“Send the boy home crying!” Insults flew from above as the warriors grew impatient for a real fight. “He does not belong with us!”

Kendar passed the handle of the flail to his other hand. “I am training for warrior status.” Tardon and Kendar continued to circle each other.

“Ah, a replacement for my death. You are all they could find?”

Kendar smiled wickedly. “I was good enough to wound Arianna when the Cursed attacked the castle.”

Everything around Tardon went red. Energy coursed through him while he processed the words. He charged like a madman. The flail raised and the spiked ball flew down into his shoulder and back. He’d been baited, and he’d fallen for it.

“Curses to Gremdon!” Tardon grabbed the flail from Kendar’s hand and pulled the spikes from his own back.

The freckled face retreated into the dust. “And that’s how the little mouse brought down the giant cat,” someone mocked from the crowd.

“Points taken. Winner: Kendar.” Tardon heard the amusement in the announcer’s voice. “Now, retrieve the young one before Tardon tears his flesh from his bones.”

Kendar didn’t cower or run to beg for a rope to be thrown down. Tardon grasped the flail in his hand, waiting for him to draw near.

Despite the swinging of the flail, Kendar approached Tardon and offered his hand. “I did not harm Arianna intentionally. It was my first day as a guard. A Cursed One came at me and I attacked. Arianna stepped in the way. She saved my life, and I owe her mine. But I know how you feel about her, and I used what I could to survive. I am only a lowly entry guard. No match for an Elite Warrior. Especially the best.”

Heat raced to the three puncture wounds in Tardon’s back. Hatred drained from his body with the blood that oozed from his wound. “I think you will be a match for any warrior. You used your brains instead of brawn. That is a warrior who will survive long past these brutish prospects.” He clasped Kendar’s hand. “How did you learn to fight?”

“Watching you.”

Ropes lowered into the pit. Tardon shimmied up using one hand and his legs, his left shoulder too sore to allow his arm to reach over his head. Kendar stood waiting at the top, offering his hand. Blasted servant moved fast.

Tardon took his hand and maneuvered over the edge of the Pit to stand eye to eye with Kendar. “I have decided not to kill you today, so you do not need to grovel or flatter me anymore.”

Kendar stood tall, his voice strong. “I never grovel and, for the compliments, I only speak the truth.”

“Does this mean I need to find a new servant?”

Kendar chuckled. “I will be around if you need something, but, yes, the Elders have granted me an opportunity to move up to a new status.”

Warriors walked up and slapped Tardon on his good shoulder, but the pain still radiated to the other side. He held his arm to his side, keeping the muscles from contracting into tight spasms from the wound, but refused to admit his suffering in front of the others.

A trainer blocked Tardon’s advance to the outer door. “This young boy has taught you a lesson none of these warriors could. Expect the weak to be great. Never underestimate what you are up against. Some of the creatures in the Outer Realm may look small, but they are vicious and cunning.”

Tardon let out a low growl of confirmation.

“Training ends early today. I have others to work out. Go, tend your wounds and report back in the morning.”

Tardon pushed through the remaining warriors to the main hall, Kendar at his heels. “Is it true that you have been asked to travel to the Outer Realm?”

“Yes.”

“I wish to volunteer to help with your mission.”

“You?” Was the boy mad? Yes, he’d managed a lucky blow in the Pit, but the Outer Realm was no place for him. “No.”

“Have I not proven myself to you? I have studied the Outer Realm, and all the maps and charts of the Gremdon woods, and how to track for food. I am more than just a servant to you now.” Kendar’s voice rose for the first time; any remnants of his subservient nature had fled as fast as he’d swung that flail.

Maps and charts would help him find the Tree of Life. “Do you truly possess these resources and skills?”

“Yes. I have collected information from many scholars, healers, and hunters.”

“I would hate to know what information you stole from me in your seasons of service.” Tardon scowled at him, and Kendar’s eyes grew wide. “You will share these with me. Training an Elite Warrior is a noble and admirable job.”

Kendar’s mouth hung open. “But—”

“Do you wish to help? To be promoted quickly among the ranks of warriors?”

“Yes.”

“Then you will help prepare me for the Outer Realm.” Something inside Tardon wouldn’t let him enlist Kendar’s help outside the castle walls. “Meet me tomorrow evening after training. Bring the maps.”

“Yes, sir.” Kendar saluted and ran down a passageway.

Tardon had once been that eager to advance his status. Now, he’d give up everything to be with Arianna. If he succeeded and returned with the substance to save his people, he’d be a hero again. The Elders would be forced to bless the union with Arianna. The thought of falling asleep with her in his arms each night for the rest of his life gave him a reason to live. Dangerous thoughts for a warrior.

The halls remained empty as he maneuvered in the labyrinth of tunnels to the outer court. The late evening sun still shone muted through the clouds. He hadn’t seen natural light for days, only the torches lit in the tunnels.

With his arm tucked in his vest to keep it steady, and to prevent the muscles from pulling in his shoulder, he raced to the other side of the castle in hopes of seeing Arianna before she slept. It had been days since her soothing voice had greeted him. Soon that would change. Soon he’d wake next to her warm body every morning, and her voice would be the first thing he’d hear every day.

He bolted into the outer chamber, laughter echoing from the other room. The smell of fresh-baked bread and meat wafted from the inner chamber. Saldor’s voice filtered out to Tardon through the closed door. “How much I would love to swim in the lake again, naked.”

Arianna laughed at his words.

Naked? Tardon stepped softly toward the door and peered in through a crack.

Saldor sat next to her in bed, the food on a tray between them. Saldor clasped Arianna’s hand.

Tardon’s blood burned hot, his hands fisted, ready to fight.

Chapter Ten

 

Arianna glanced up at the squeak of the door.

Tardon stood in the doorway. Water dripped from his hair, as if he’d raced to her side before he even dried off from bathing. His hand moved to the hilt of his sword, murder on his face. “Get your hands off her.”

Saldor jumped from the bed, bouncing Arianna. An eruption of pain shot from her abdomen to her chest. Spasms forced her to roll on her side into a ball.

“I—I am sorry. Arianna, are you—” Saldor rushed to her side. Tardon appeared behind him and shoved him from the bed. Shapes whirled in front of her when she opened and closed her eyes. Strong hands grasped her arms.

“Breathe,” Tardon urged.

Her chest constricted, and she tried to force a breath from her lungs. Heat rose to her head, and the room continued to spin.

“Fetch some water,” he barked then, softly, to her, “Relax your muscles.”

She concentrated on calming herself when the pain dulled to a roar. “I—I—”

“Do not talk. Breathe.”

A welcome breath entered her lungs. The world slowed to a gentle sway when a cup touched her lips. She tried to sip water but her throat stung as the cool liquid slid down.

“W—we were just—”

Tardon pressed his palm reassuringly to her shoulder. “Shh, rest. I will return.”

Arianna saw the bloodlust in his eyes. “No, do not leave me.” She glanced between the two men, both tense and ready for a fight. “I have missed you, Tardon. Please stay.”

Never had she begged a man to stay by her side. The words felt foreign, yet she knew only they would work on Tardon in his rage.

He removed his sword, boots, and knife while staring across the room. Saldor’s steady breathing filled the silence until Tardon slid onto the bed, filling the now empty spot Saldor had occupied moments before.

The door creaked shut, and Arianna snuggled into Tardon’s side, resting her head on his chest.

Bone chilling silence remained between them until she couldn’t stand it. “We were talking about the land before the Great Curse.”

Tardon said nothing in response. His chest rose and fell at a quick pace, and his heart still raced beneath her ear.

“I wanted to know more about the countryside and farming. How people lived. Saldor spoke of great lakes and rivers with fresh water to bathe and swim in. Flowers and plants that grew wild with fresh berries.”

Still silence, but his breathing settled to a slow rise and fall.

“You are back early from training,” she said, hoping to get him talking.

“Yes.” He slid from the bed and placed another log in the fire.

The hair on the back of her neck rose to attention. “Your shoulder. What happened?” Blood soaked through his vest. The smell of burning wood filled the room.

He turned and glowered at her. “It is nothing.”

“Remove your vest so I may look.”

“No need. I can tend the wounds.”

“If you do not bring me supplies and bandages I will get them myself.” Arianna tried to sit up on the side of the bed, but her stomach crunched into a bundle of knots and she fell back again.

“I will get them.” Tardon eased her back on the bed and poured water into a bowl. Arianna slowed her accelerated breath and watched him remove his vest. The glow of the fire glistened across his broad shoulders when he pulled his shirt off. His breeches rested above his strong backside. He leaned over to retrieve some bandages, and her heart fluttered when his muscular white skin peeked out.

Scars and bruises covered his shoulders, arms, and back, forming a trail down his corded muscles that flexed when he moved.

She lay perfectly still, her pain almost gone. Heat pulsed between her legs when he turned to face her, his chest high and toned. A trail of rippled muscles led to his breeches. Hair lined the edge, summoning her down a path to the unknown—one she longed to discover.

Tardon looked down then up and smiled at her. “I see you are feeling better.”

She bit her lip. “Yes, better.”

He placed the bowl and rags on the table next to her then sat on the edge of the bed.

She winced at the sudden zing of pain.

“Not that much better.” The corners of his mouth rose and the sight of his dimples made the discomfort subside. He leaned over and his mouth swept across hers then his teeth pushed and pulled. His tongue teased and parted her lips, plunging in and caressing hers, warming her body.

He pulled back, leaving her wanting more. He faced away from her, presenting his wounded back. She took a rag and rung it out.

Three symmetric holes oozed. “A spiked flail?”

“Yes. I was taken by…surprise.”

She giggled and pressed the damp cloth to the first wound. Tardon flinched and exhaled.

“Yes, I remember the last time someone surprised me.”

She grinned at the memory of Tardon on his high-and-mighty backside at her feet. That was the day the other warriors first took her seriously: when she entered the arena to prove herself and save her brother from the inner courts. Not much took Tardon by surprise. “Was it a woman?” she asked, her voice sharp.

Tardon chuckled. “No. Kendar.”

“Your servant?”

“He desires to be a warrior. I have agreed to train him.”

“Why? He—”

“He fought well, and earned the right. Yes, he is small but he strategizes well.”

Arianna longed to return to the Pit and her status, but it could never be. “The healer came today.”

Arianna finished cleaning the three puncture wounds and wrapped his shoulder. He cleaned up the bloody rags and sat them outside the door. “What did he say about your wound? Is there any sign of—” Tardon’s eyebrows furrowed and he came to sit next to her in bed.

“No. No sign of infection. But he told me something that gave me hope for my brother.”

“Is he better?”

“No, but someone is going on a mission to retrieve medicine to save him.”

Tardon’s blank expression spoke volumes.

“You knew?” Her heart writhed with the knowledge he’d kept information from her that could save her brother. “Why did you not tell me?”

Tardon shifted in the bed. “Because you need to rest and heal, not worry about a mission to the Outer Realm.”

“You know more. What is it?”

Tardon averted his eyes to gaze at the stained glass window. “I am the one who is charged with the mission.”

Arianna’s mind raced. “No! It is suicide. No one should travel to the Outer Realm.”

“You just said someone had to. It is the only way to save your brother.”

“I do not care what I said.” Tears welled up, but she choked them down. “You cannot go. The creatures, the ones who breached the outer wall and entered the kingdom, there could be thousands more. You would be up against an army of monsters by yourself.”

“I will not be alone.” Tardon wouldn’t look at her.

With shaking hands she turned his face to meet his eyes. “Who is going with you?”

“Saldor.”

Arianna’s pulse raced. The only three men in her life would die, one from death fever and the other two trying to save him. She’d lose everyone that mattered to her. “No, you cannot both go.”

“If you had a choice, who would you send?”

Arianna’s mind whirled. Why would he ask such a thing?

“Would you want Saldor or me to travel to the Outer Realm?”

“Neither.”

“That is not an answer.”

She shook with fear. “It is the truth. I—I cannot lose you now.” Arianna broke and the tears flowed down her cheeks. “Will we ever live in peace?”

“Calm yourself. This is why I did not want you to know.” Tardon pulled her close and kissed her forehead.

His strong, warm arms wrapped around her. He pulled the covers over them both and kissed her again. Long, passionate kisses. The chill in her bones disappeared, and the terror ebbed, while the promise of pleasure edged its way in.

He ran his hands down her back, sending hunger throughout her body. Musky leather filled her senses. Fingers toyed playfully with the back of her neck. Her breath stuttered at his touch and the horrors of the world disappeared. A faint thought entered her head. What if the Elders find out? But when his hand continued its exploration to her front and down her belly to her thigh, all thought disappeared. Only raw, needy want remained.

 

***

 

Skin as soft as a bird’s feather quivered under his fingertips. His hardness twitched and pressed against her leg as he explored her body. They had to stop. Not only because of her wound but also his promise to the Elders.

Her body shook and her warm panting caressed his ear. When his hand reached the top of her leg, she pressed against his fingers. Urging him to touch her. He swept one finger between her legs. She moaned and, at her inviting wetness, he hardened further.

Her legs opened, allowing him access. She touched his chest and caressed him down to his waist. She paused for a second. A finger ran along the edge of his trousers. His groin burned for her touch. She pulled the laces and her hand slid beneath his waistband.

He took her nipple in his mouth through the gown and plunged a finger into her. Warm moisture surrounded and teased him. He imagined thrusting into her and pumping until they both came. He moaned while she stroked him, and he pulled at her erect nipple.

She stroked him harder, dampness leaked from his shaft, and she pushed against him. His thumb massaged her warm folds while his fingers pressed in further. The resistance inside made him stiffer than a sword wielded for battle. He’d be her first, her only. No man had ever been with her.

She gasped, and he pulled away, sure that he’d hurt her. He moved her hair from her eyes and discovered her wide pupils burning with passion. She pulled him close again, covering his neck in soft kisses. He took her mouth in his and tried to untie her gown. It wouldn’t loosen, so he ripped it apart. Air rushed from her lips into his mouth.

He pushed the torn cloth aside, and caressed and suckled until her body shook beneath him. Arianna’s cries of pleasure drew him closer to his own breaking point.

A knock rapped at the door. They both froze. Had the Enforcer returned? “Arianna, are you well?” Saldor’s voice shattered their dream-like state. All the issues surrounding their union broke Tardon’s desire.

He gently pulled away, Arianna still gasping next to him. “I—am—fine.” She panted.

“Are you sure?”

She cleared her throat and her chest rose and fell with a deep breath. “Yes. I am fine.”

Tardon fisted the covers. “Cursed excuse for a guard. If I killed him now he would not bother us anymore.”

Arianna’s flushed face gleamed in the fire light. She leaned her head against his chest and chuckled. “I think it would be wise for us to have a chaperone.”

“Yes, I guess his knock saved us. You may have lost more than just your life this time.”

Her eyebrows rose in question.

“You would have lost your virginity.” He raked his hand through his hair and gave her a reassuring smile. “You drive me mad with desire.”

“I did not know I possessed such power,” Arianna teased.

“Trust me, you do. No other has rendered me so helpless and—”

“Tardon, I would like to speak to you.” Saldor’s voice cut through from the other side of the door. “Now.”

Arianna blushed crimson. Her brows met in the middle. “Do you think he knows?”

“He was once a warrior. I am sure he knows the sounds of a woman’s pleasure.”

Arianna pulled the covers over her face.

“No, do not cover such beauty.”

Arianna pulled the covers down to her waist, revealing her breasts. “Is this better?”

Heat burned his cheeks at her boldness, knowing she had never shared her body with another.

“Something I thought I would never see. Tardon, I believe you are blushing.”

“No, it is desire that drives me mad with fever.”

Now,” Saldor called again.

“If you do not go I believe he will knock the door down.”

“I believe you are right.” Teeth gritted, Tardon stood and pulled his soiled shirt on.

He glanced at the bed. Arianna still lay bare-chested, her eyes closed. Thunder rang in his ears at the sight of her. He took slow, deep breaths and pulled the covers to her chin. Her eyes fluttered open.

“I cannot leave the room in this state.” He took a cup of water and drained it. Walked around the room a few moments and thought about his looming mission. Success would be their only chance to truly be together.

“Rest. I will return shortly.” He went to the outer chamber.

Saldor sat at the table, brooding.

“I thought you were leaving for the dungeon, then to training in the pit,” Tardon said.

“Yes, I was. Do you think it is wise to…to—”

“Bring pleasure to the woman I love?” Tardon drawled.

“Are you so careless with her safety?” Saldor’s nostrils flared. “If the Elders discover this, your agreement will be over. Do you wish to see her suffer more?”

“No, I only wish to make her happy.”

Saldor was right, though. Tardon had risked Arianna’s life for a few minutes of passion.

“Yes, she is young, beautiful…and innocent. If you were to take her innocence, there would be no bargain. The law is clear. A female warrior must maintain her virginity or die. She is bound to the Elders and must remain faithful. There is no exception.”

Anger at Saldor’s words warred with Tardon’s guilt at compromising Arianna. “Why do you concern yourself so much with Arianna? You risk your life to help her, but for what? She has chosen me and no other.”

Saldor arched an eyebrow. “If you are so sure, why are you concerned by my actions?”

“Because I know you want her. I saw the way you looked at her. Manipulating your way into her bed with talk of another life. A life which no longer exists and is a faint memory.”

Saldor slammed his palm down on the table. “I only shared some memories. I knew her sister. Talking about it seemed to make her happy. She smiled for the first time in days. She is a warrior confined to a bed, worried about the future. Waiting for you to return every night is driving her crazy. I only kept her company.”

“Well, I am here now and I will care for her.”

“Like you were?” Saldor spoke accusingly. “What if you tore her stitches or caused her wound to bleed? All you thought of was your own desire. A warrior’s needs. When will you put her needs first?”

Saldor’s words stung Tardon’s heart as if he’d branded it with a hot iron.

The outer chamber door flew open. They both jumped and drew their swords. An Apprentice stepped inside, his robes flowing behind. “I have come with information and instructions from the Elders.” He placed several parchments on the table. “Have I interrupted something?”

Tardon’s muscles tensed. Arianna lay half-naked in the other room. He met the Apprentice’s probing eyes. Did they have a way of knowing when a warrior engaged in sex?

Saldor and Tardon glanced at each other. “No. Nothing,” Saldor said.

“You will train together. Review these.” A scaly, white hand gestured to the maps on the table. “It will take two warriors to retrieve the Serum without falling to the Curse.”

Tardon knew from the Apprentice’s tight smile, bordering on a grimace, no one expected them to return.

The Apprentice glanced at Tardon. “The Elders have summoned you both. Report before the second moon. After Tardon’s training in the pit.”

Tardon opened his mouth to protest, but the Apprentice left the room, robes swishing behind him.

“The charge has already been given, why do they summon us?” Tardon asked.

“To confirm my role in the mission, perhaps.” Saldor stroked his chin. “Or something has changed.” He crossed the room and peered out the stained glass window.

“What could change?”

“Maybe the need is imminent, and we must go now.”

Tardon shook his head. “No, we cannot. Arianna is not strong enough to protect herself. We must convince the Elder’s to let one of us stay.”

“Yes, I will beg a meeting with the Elders. You should stay.” Saldor took his cape and flung it around his shoulders.

The warrior side of Tardon wanted to object, yet he didn’t want Saldor left behind tending Arianna. “No, we must demand more time. It will take both of us to succeed.”

“I am the only one that knows the land. I spent my youth roaming the woods and Outer Realm.”

“Yes, but you have not trained as a warrior in seasons. You would not survive fighting those creatures on your own.”

“Is there no other warrior that could stand in your place?”

Tardon blew out a quick breath. “Only one. And she remains in bed unable to fight.” He heard the pride in his own voice.

“We will plead for more time. It is our only choice.” Saldor cleared his throat and straightened. “I must go. Remember, if you two are discovered, all this will be for nothing.”

“You do not need to interfere. I have the control of a warrior.” Saldor had no right to question him if he gave his word.

“Yes and the insatiable appetite to go with it. I was once a warrior, you know.” Saldor left without another word.

Tardon took a deep breath. Training fatigue started to hit as the room fell silent and the moon rose into the sky. He could sleep in Saldor’s room instead of the chair in Arianna’s, but if she needed anything no one would be there to help.

The fire in his groin had been extinguished by the ominous presence of the Apprentice. Tardon could control himself. He had to. Besides, Arianna was probably sleeping now. He took one last cleansing breath and entered the bedchamber.

The fire had dimmed to a low glow, but, even through the darkness, he saw the curves of Arianna’s skin. Her eyes flickered open and she gave him a wicked grin.

His groin twitched.

She’d be the death of them yet.

Chapter Eleven

 

Tardon looked like a statue as he lay next to Arianna. No sounds disturbed the quiet in the castle except the dull roar of his snore and an occasional snort.

The night before, his body had responded to her touch, but now he remained distant. Not even a peck on the cheek before he went to sleep. Maybe she didn’t please him. Of course, he had trained hard and his body needed to heal from an injury, but when had that ever stopped a warrior from taking what he desired?

A rooster crowed the morning alarm, and Tardon stirred next to her. She snaked her hand under his shirt and kissed his neck.

Tardon’s eyes opened, and he shot up in bed. He lost his balance, and a resounding thud vibrated the bed.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, fine.” He bolted upright and snatched his vest from the end of the bed. “I must go change before training. Um…Saldor will be back in a few minutes. Do you need anything before I go?”

He opened the door, and her stomach growled at the aroma of sizzling bacon.

“Never mind, he is here, you are in good hands.” Tardon gave a half-wave and jogged out of sight.

“Where are you going in such a rush?” Saldor called after him.

“To jump in an ice bath.”

Saldor laughed loud and deep.

A door slammed shut, and the sound of a knife chopping something produced a soothing, rhythmic sound.

What had she done wrong? Maybe she’d hurt him. Or he needed more and she didn’t know how. How could she learn if he didn’t instruct her?

Saldor entered the room, tray in hand. “What? You look troubled.”

“I am.”

“Are you in pain? Did you pull out a stitch?”

“No. It…it is complicated.”

He placed the tray on the table and sat on the edge of the bed. She coughed at the overwhelming smell of the Pit coming off him.

“Sorry, I did not have a chance to clean-up before breakfast.”

“No need to apologize. I have smelled of the Pit many times myself.” Arianna chuckled. “My brother used to say I smelled like a cross between a sour dishrag and rotting meat from a merchant.”

“I cannot imagine you smelling like anything but mint leaves and honey.” Saldor blushed and handed her a napkin.

“How did you…of course, you have helped care for me for days.” She hated the confinement of the bed and longed to fight by his side instead of being cared for like an invalid.

He cleared his throat. “What troubles you?”

Arianna ran the edge of the soft napkin between her fingers. “It is difficult to explain.”

“Try. I might be able to help.”

Heat rushed to her face. “I am sure, since you were a warrior, you could help.”

“Then tell me.”

“Do you give your word not to judge me, but to help me?”

“My word as a guard and warrior.”

She took a deep breath and steadied the plate of food on her lap. “I am not sure how to please Tardon…um…down there.” Arianna gestured with her fork at Saldor’s groin.

Saldor knocked the tray from the table and his bacon and eggs splattered on the floor. “I…I do not.”

“You gave me your word as a warrior.”

“Yes, but I did not know—”

“Saldor, he is a warrior. Women throw themselves at him. Many nights he has been granted talented, well-trained women to tend his needs. I do not want him having to return to them for what his body demands. How can I know what to do if I have never been instructed?”

Saldor bent down and scooped the splattered food onto his plate while averting his gaze. “You should speak to Tardon about this, not me.”

“What if I asked one of the Elders’ women how they please him?”

“That would not be wise. Your love is forbidden.”

Arianna pushed food around on her plate. “Tardon said when he returns the Elders will grant us the right to be together.”

“Yes, but—”

“What if I do not please him? What if he discovers loving me was a huge mistake? That he had given up everything for a woman who cannot please him. The other women are said to be alluring and professional at pushing men to the edge of madness with ecstasy.”

Saldor paused then lifted the plate and set it on the side table. “Do not believe all that you hear. Yes, the women are trained, but that is sometimes not enough.”

Her appetite gone, Arianna pierced a piece of fruit with her fork. “You mean some of the trained women do not even please a man?”

“That is not what I am saying. Sometimes a man would prefer a woman that has not…well…been trained.”

“But how will I know what to do? I tried last night but…I guess I did something wrong.”

Saldor sat on the bed and placed his head in his hands. “Why do you think that?”

“Because he will not touch me, will not even look at me. He slept on top of the covers, arms crossed.”

“Talk to him, Arianna.”

“I tried, he said I did nothing wrong. It was him, not me.”

Saldor laughed.

Arianna hit the bed with her fists. “It is not funny. I did something wrong. What if I hurt him and he tried to hide his pain? I could have pushed or pulled too—”

“Stop! Please, stop.” Saldor waved his hands. “You need to talk to Tardon. But I can tell you this: he is trying to do the right thing. If you two are caught together it could mean that his deal with the Elders is off. And you could swing from the gallows.”

She hugged her waist. “Maybe I am not desirable enough.”

His words were saturated with frustration. “You are more concerned about being wanted by him than the fact you could be put to death?”

“Being hanged would be less painful than having Tardon decide he does not want me.”

“Trust me, it is not that.” Saldor pushed from the bed. “If he ever went back to the women of the Elders and let you go he would be a fool. Do you not know how many men would kill him to be next to you in that bed?”

She bowed her head in shame. “I am nobody. Not even a warrior any more. Why would anyone want me?”

Saldor lifted her chin with his knuckle. “Because you are beautiful, strong, caring, and, more than anything, desirable.” He dropped his hand. “I have to go.” He paused at the door. “Will you be all right for an hour? There is something I need to do.”

“Yes.”

Saldor left her side, and she heard the outer door click shut.

Quiet darkness filled the room.

She speared a piece of fruit and the plate flipped from her lap. A clang splintered the silence. She leaned over to clean up the mess and gasped with pain. The cup in her hand sloshing water down her chest. She swore and threw the cup across the room.

Helpless.

Invalid.

No good to anyone.

Why would Tardon want someone so weak and useless? What future would there be if she did not fight as a warrior? Merchant? Beggar? Inner-city whore?

No, somehow she had to win back the loyalty of the people and the faith of the Elders. Make herself worthy again. It was her job to protect her brother and her people. No…her destiny.

Arianna pushed up to the side of the bed until her legs hung over and her toes brushed the cool stone floor. Her stomach quaked at the smell of food at her feet. Her heart sped like a warrior to a front line.

The chamber door creaked open. “Lay back, child.” The healer rasped from above her. Hands clutched her shoulders and nudged her back down on the bed. “You must rest a moment.”

She struggled to open her eyes, and the room slowed to a stuttering spin like a child playing a-round-a-bout. Cold hands pressed to her wound and she jumped.

“I did not know you were coming today.” She managed through clenched teeth.

“I was not.” He moved stiffly but with purpose. A cork popped as he removed it from a bottle and emptied a thick substance into a bowl, his face tense, forehead creased.

“Is something wrong?”

“No.” His speech was short, clipped, and did not invite further discussion, unlike previous visits.

Her palms moistened while she watched him pull utensils and cloths from his bag. Sweet honey and sugar wafted from the bowl. He took a long silver object and dipped it into the amber substance.

“What are you doing? A new salve? Am I not healing well?”

“You are fine, child. Lay still.”

A brown swirl of cloth in the doorway caught her attention. An Apprentice stood tall and demanding. “Have you finished?”

“No, I have not begun.” The healer glowered at the tall, shadowy figure.

“How are you today, young Arianna?” His voice hissed when he approached the foot of the bed.

“Fine.” She jutted her chin out and pressed her shoulders back, stifling a cry when the healer placed the first dab of tar-like substance to her belly.

“Have you seen our hero today?” A long, knobby finger ran up her leg when the Apprentice stepped around to the other side of the bed. “I hear his training is going well. He should finish soon, if there are no distractions.” The sharp point of his nail raked up her arm. Her body tensed.

“I need her still while I apply.” The healer shot the Apprentice a sideways glance.

“Yes, of course. I will be seeing you soon, young Arianna.” The long, dark figure swished out the door, leaving Arianna’s mind racing.

“What did he mean he will see me soon? Have I been summoned to the Elders? How will I get there?” She clutched the bed sheet beneath her in an attempt to hide her nervous energy.

“You will walk.”

How? I cannot even stand?”

“You will. Soon.”

“I do not understand. You believe this sticky goo will heal me?”

“I know it will.” He spread the substance across her wound.

An ice-cold chill shot from her wound, up her chest and down her arms. The room shimmered until light and darkness fiercely battled each other. Amber and gold hues erupted in streaks of piercing light. Arianna grabbed her head and closed her eyes. Thunder shook her ears. Sharp, piercing pain ran from her ear to her temple as if an invisible hand shoved a dagger through her skull into her brain.

The bed shook. The windows rattled. A deep cold penetrated inside her bones. She clutched the side of the bed and arched her back while sticky, hot tar clung to her stomach. Her skin stretched and stung as if a thousand ants bit her flesh all at once.

She screamed and moaned. Each time she tried to remove the amber substance the healer would grasp her hands and hold them down.

Restrained…burning…reminiscent of the punishment the Elders had ordered for her. To burn in the inner court, helpless, with no way to fight and no friends by her side. Now she’d pay for disobeying the Elders.

“It is different for everyone.” The healer’s warm breath brought the words to her ears, but the constant pounding in her head made it difficult to understand. “Should stop soon.”

The thousand ants turned to hundreds. Skin slacked and only a couple dozen piercing bites remained. “W—what did you do?”

“I used something to end your suffering. You will rise from the bed and be well.”

“But there is nothing that can do this.”

He cleaned the bowl and wiped the residue that hadn’t either melted into or evaporated from her skin. The cloth came away stained a golden-brown, sticky to the touch as Arianna gently reached for it. “Sap!” Arianna bolted upright. Only a faint line remained where her oozing wound had been. “Did someone else retrieve the serum? I saw Tardon and Saldor just this morning; there is no way they could have returned already.”

“No one has gone to retrieve the sap from the Tree of Life.” The healer looked away and collected his materials. His eyes drooped as his lips pursed together. “That was the last of it.”

“No!” Arianna jumped from the bed and clutched his neck. “My brother. Why would you waste the rest on me?”

The healer’s eyes bulged and his face turned red. Her fingers loosened from his throat. “Tell me why you have done this?”

“Ordered to,” he rasped. “By the Elders.”

“I do not understand.” Arianna pushed him against the wall, her forearm pressed to his collarbone.

The elder pleaded with his eyes. “I had no choice. The healers were told months ago that no sap remained.”

“Why use it to heal me?”

“They must need you well for some reason. All I know for certain is that this was the last of the healing serum made from the sap. If there was more, the lead Elder would use it on his own ailments. The Elders are in great need of more, but all attempts to retrieve it have failed.”

Arianna released him and sat on the edge of the bed. “My sister, she died trying to retrieve some. I was ill at the time. That is why she went. You should have told me before you did this. I would have sacrificed myself for Mardel.”

His hand pressed to her shoulder. “I know. The Elders must have known, too. That is why the Apprentice came. They must have a special purpose for you. There are many in great need and the castle is weak. The protection provided from the amulets is failing. The beasts have breached the walls.” He spoke in a calming tone.

Her heart soared. “They must need me to fight.”

The healer placed his bottles and rags in his bag. “You must report to the Elders before sundown,” he said before hurrying from the chamber.

Arianna clutched her chest. Only moments ago she’d wished for such an opportunity, but now she dreaded it. The knowledge that her life had been chosen over Mardel’s because of her ability to fight made her sick.

No pain remained, anywhere. It had been seasons since her joints did not ache. No swelling in her hands or feet. No open wounds or bruises covering her arms and legs. Strange to see such flawless skin—the flesh of a child. The medicine must have healed old wounds as well. Such power would definitely save her brother if Tardon were successful.

The muted sunlight dulled, and Arianna gathered her things. “Guard,” she called down the hall.

He appeared, and his face drained of all color at the sight of her.

“Go fetch water. I need to bathe.”

No reason not to scrub the dirt and grime from her body. There were no longer any open wounds. A servant arrived with buckets. She poured the water into a larger washbasin in the kitchen and found her hair and body tonics. The lukewarm water refreshed her face and arms.

She untied the ribbons of her gown and it fell to the floor. At the aroma of fresh flowers, she sighed and ran a damp cloth around her shoulders and down her front. With one foot propped on a stool, she washed her leg and dampened the rag again.

She reached between her legs. The cloth brushed where Tardon had touched her. She took a deep breath and massaged the area, ensuring it would be fresh for him later.

“Arianna?” Saldor’s voice sliced through her moment of tranquility.

She stood, breasts exposed, and only a small washrag covering her below. Her heart jumped at the sight of him.

His mouth hung open with wide eyes. “I—I—”

Arianna looked down and crossed one arm over her breasts. “I thought you were not going to be back for awhile.”

“I forgot something.” His eyes remained fixed on her for a long, tense moment before his cheeks flamed in a blush and he wheeled away, averting his eyes.

“I—I am sorry. I did not mean to—” Arianna tried to catch her breath.

“No, my fault.”

Arianna searched for something to cover herself. “I had the guard send a servant to fetch water. It had been so long since I had a proper bath, I thought I would—”

“Yes, yes. I understand.”

Arianna spotted a small blanket resting on the back of a chair and wrapped it around her body, tucking it in at the front.

“Why are you out of bed?” Saldor finally managed.

“The healer came and told me I was well.”

“Good. That is good. I guess I will go.” Saldor stepped to the door. “By the way, Arianna?”

“Yes?”

“The question you asked me earlier. About being desirable to Tardon.” His head hung low, his gaze fixed on the floor. “You have nothing to worry about.”

Heat rose to her cheeks.

Saldor hobbled from the room, forgetting whatever he’d returned for. She’d hoped his leg would heal soon.

She quickly ran to the other room and dressed in the only thing she found in the armoire—an old-fashioned dress with lace lining the bodice and sleeves that were too fancy for today’s world. It must have belonged to Saldor’s sister before she died. Or his lost love.

Arianna called the servant to help her cinch the laces in the back. His clumsy hands almost broke them before he finally managed a bow.

When he’d finished, she combed her hair and tried to braid it, but the short waves wouldn’t even reach the back of her head. She found a hair comb and pulled the front from her eyes then stepped in front of the reflecting glass.

She looked like a lady instead of a warrior. Never had she worn such fine clothing, but there was nothing else.

She marched from the room and toward the Elders’ tower. The sun hung low beneath the castle wall. The air smelled fresh on the outer edge of the city. A far cry from the last week of being confined to a bed. Her room had been a nice place, but restricting, stuffy.

The dress caught her foot and she fell on the tower steps. She hoisted the dress into her arms and ran the rest of the way. A guard straightened when she approached the door.

A second guard stared. The dress was ridiculous, and now she wished she could have snuck into her family chamber to retrieve her own clothes, but the guards were everywhere. The entire hall had been shut down according to Saldor.

“I have been summoned,” Arianna spoke and the guards moved aside.

Her hands shook when the guards pulled the doors open for her to enter. She’d never been summoned to the Elders’ tower. An honor rarely granted. She stepped over the threshold and a breeze swept through from the doors behind her. Four torches down the hall flickered in the draft.

Arianna paused and listened to the shadows. Instinct drew her attention to the far corner, the darkest crevice along the stone archways.

Chimes rang in the distance. A rodent scurried in the shadows. Nothing behind or in front of her, but something breathed in the alcove near the other end of the hall. She stepped forward.

Golden flashes from her amulet distorted her view. Something moved away, further into hiding. She grasped her amulet and continued down the corridor. She had no weapons hidden in the ridiculous dress. No dagger in a boot, or sword sheathed at her side.

She glanced back at the guards behind her, but the doors had been sealed.

Guards,” she called but received no reply. Hair rose on the back of her neck with each step she took.

Another splash of amber color erupted from her amulet, blinding her. She stumbled back against the cold stone and a creature scurried away. The hood fell from its head, revealing warts and festering wounds down its cheek. With a hiss, the ash gray lips peeled back and fangs elongated from its gums.

She grasped the comb from her hair, the only weapon at her disposal, and charged the creature.

It shuffled to the door. Arianna pushed from the wall and cut off its path. “I will not allow you to escape. To kill innocent people.”

Claws ejected from under a sleeve, slicing the air and snagging her lace cuff. She yanked her arm and the material ripped. The creature crouched, extending another gnarled hand. She placed the comb between the outside of her right index and middle finger and made a fist.

The beast lunged for her and she swiped her hand, cutting its cheek with the sharp tines.

A high-pitched squeal sounded. Arianna pulled her long, flowing skirt high and twisted it over the monster’s head. Disoriented, the creature fell to the ground. Arianna plunged the comb into tough, leathery skin. With eyes closed so no fluid entered her body, she stepped back and green oozed from the comb.

She panted. Torches erupted to life, illuminating the great hall.

Five chairs lined a stone riser.

Five hooded figures sat with arms at their sides.

Vosdak clutched the side of a chair.

Guards lined the archways. Black circles lined hooded, white eyes. No color, no movement. Only stillness. The creature was dead.

“I—I do not understand.” Arianna faced the Elders. The comb clanked to the ground as her shock-numbed fingers released it. “If you knew, why did you not sound the alarm?” She smoothed her hair from her eyes. “You could have been Cursed.”

Vosdak waved his hand and an Apprentice appeared at the edge of a shadow by the alcove. “You have done well.”

“Done well? How?”

A tall, masculine frame appeared from behind Vosdak. “Saldor?”

Saldor opened his mouth, but an Elder waved his hand and Saldor shut his lips like a trap closing on prey.

The Apprentice glided into the light. “We need the best for this mission. You are the best.”

“You released the creature into the city?”

“No, only our tower. The people were safe.” The Apprentice swooshed around behind her.

Saldor cleared his throat. “I was to go alone, but the Elders insisted a warrior must accompany me. Tardon lost a match to a lowly servant and will not be sent, but…there are other warriors to travel with me.”

“Apparently not.” The Apprentice huffed. “Arianna is not the first to be tested. There are two bodies in the inner fires as proof of the warriors’ incompetence.” He leveled his cool gaze on Arianna. “So…it appears you shall be chosen to travel to the Outer Realm. If successful, you will save your brother’s life.”

Her heart raced at the thought. They could do it. Saldor knew the terrain, and she could handle herself in a fight. “The serum, it made me stronger.”

“Yes.”

She smoothed her dress down. Her body felt light yet powerful even in a long flowing gown. Tardon would be safe. If something happened to her he could look after her brother. She’d be a hero in the eyes of the people again and certainly be worthy of Tardon’s love.

“You guarantee my brother will be healed if I am successful?”

“Yes, it is the will of the Elders, so it will be.”

“No, she should not go. There are others,” Saldor stepped forward.

Five hooded heads turned to Saldor. “Why? She has proven herself in battle.”

“She has been sick with fever.”

“Now she is healthier than you. The serum will provide protection and healing powers.”

Saldor paced. “Do you feel a woman should travel through the Outer Realm?”

“She is no mere woman. She is a warrior. An Elite Warrior, and will bear the mark upon her return.”

Arianna looked down at the heap of rotting flesh. “I will go.” It was the only chance to regain her standing with the people and the Elders, to save her brother, and to win Tardon.

“Stop!” A deep voice called behind Arianna. She spun around and found Tardon in the doorway. His nostrils flared, his face going red as his fists clutched at his side. Hair stood to attention all over her body at the bloodlust in his eyes.

“Saldor has broken a warrior promise. And for that I challenge him to a fight to the death.”

Chapter Twelve

 

Tardon wanted to pull Arianna into his arms and run away. Gremdon blood dripped from the edge of her sleeve. Her auburn hair fell into her lake water eyes. How did she stand there? Her snow-white complexion glowed in the torchlight. She looked healthy. Strong. Well.

“What are the charges?” The Apprentice smiled as if encouraged by the prospect of them killing each other.

Saldor’s treachery etched itself onto his face.

“On his honor, he agreed we would travel to the Outer Realm together. Promises were made. They have been broken. It is a warrior’s right to challenge him.”

“Do you have a witness to these claims?”

“No.” Saldor spent hours weaving his way into Tardon’s mission by earning his trust. A trick to win Arianna. He’d already manipulated his way into caring for Arianna at her bedside. His blood boiled at the memory.

“I stated I knew the land and would help train.” Saldor sounded rehearsed.

Flashes of the first night he found them in the dungeon, Arianna half dead, fueled Tardon’s hatred. He’d tear each limb from Saldor’s body and throw it in the inner court fires.

Tardon stepped forward. “It is my mission.”

“I volunteered,” Arianna muttered but he did not acknowledge her. Lace fluttered with each rise and fall of her chest. The tightly laced dress distracted him for a moment. Fine ruby material matched her full lips.

Saldor turned to the Elders. “I will travel–”

“Silence,” the Apprentice demanded. “The Elders have decided. Arianna will be charged with retrieving the sap from the Tree of Life.”

Tardon’s insides contorted into a knot of grief and sadness. He looked at Saldor. The old shit didn’t deserve to die by her side in battle. No, he’d find a way to destroy him.

“Tardon will assist her.” The Apprentice spoke with authority. “Saldor is too valuable to lose to the Outer Realm. He is an advisor and no longer a warrior.”

Saldor straightened and pulled his shoulders back. “I have been training in the Pit.”

“Yes, we know. The Elders are aware of all activities in the castle.” He arched a scruffy eyebrow and looked at both Tardon and Arianna. Were the Elders aware of last night? How close he’d come to dishonoring himself and Arianna?

“It is decided. Arianna and Tardon will travel to the Outer Realm after three moons.”

Good. Saldor had been betrayed by the Elders as he had betrayed Tardon. If they were to die, at least Tardon and Arianna would die together.

The Apprentice glided to the podium and stood by Vosdak’s side. “Arianna will resume training at day break. Tonight, Saldor will review maps and environmental strategies. He has great knowledge of survival in the wild. You would be wise to learn all you can from him.”

“I do not require assistance. I will complete the mission alone.” Tardon lifted his chin.

Vosdak clenched his hand around the edge of the chair.

The Apprentice glared at Tardon. “You are a warrior. The Elders have decided. Follow your command or you both will burn in the inner court by morning.”

Hairs prickled on the back of Tardon’s neck. The Elders either believed he and Arianna were the only chance for success, or the two of them were being sentenced to a fate worse than death. Either way, the Elders were cornered. The people wouldn’t allow an execution after the wall breach.

Arianna tugged at Tardon’s sleeve. “Come, we should start to prepare.”

She walked out by his side, body straight, with no sign she’d suffered an injury. She looked beautiful and elegant in the dress. A dress he would love to remove stitch by stitch from her body.

“How can this be?” He stopped her on the tower stairs. “You were barely able to move before I left to train.”

“Not here. Come along.” Arianna took his hand, and his pulse raced. Her touch sent shivers through his body.

They rounded the outer corridor, and Tardon could restrain himself no longer. He pulled her into a passageway and pinned her to the wall. He pressed his lips to hers. Their tongues danced with joy.

He pulled back and she flushed from his desire, her bodice pulled tight around her breasts. Wind whistled through the door behind him. Smells of damp stone and Arianna’s fresh scent filled the small space. He ran a finger along the lace and she moaned from his touch.

“How are you healed?”

“The healer said the Elders forced him to use the last of the serum on my wound. I was furious. If it was the last, they should have used it on my brother. Apparently, they believe I am needed—”

“You are needed.” He pressed against her. “I need you.”

She gasped when he pulled her skirt up and grabbed her hips, pressing into her. “I dreamed of you being well, and us being together.”

His lips parted and he massaged her neck with his tongue. She quivered in his arms. “Soon, I will have you. All of you.”

“I thought you did not want me.”

Arianna’s words sliced his heart in half like meat on a butcher block. He stopped and clasped her face between his hands. “Why? I have never stopped wanting you.”

“You were so distant last night. I—I thought I had not pleased you.” Arianna looked away. “Saldor said I was desirable, but he would not tell me how to please you.”

Tardon dug his nails into the wall behind her, sending bits of mortar down her dress. “You please me more than anyone ever has or ever will. Saldor reminded me of the danger of us being together. Of course he says you are desirable. You are. And he wants you for himself.”

“No, he is my friend.”

“Maybe he is in your eyes, but not in his.”

Arianna stroked his cheek. “I do not care about the Elders, or what Saldor thinks. If we are to die in the Outer Realm, I must have one night with you first.”

He slid his hand up her outer thigh. “I want you forever, but if I cannot have that than I will have to settle for one night.”

Arianna’s eyes rolled back in her head. “I—I want you, too.”

A door slammed in the distance. Shop merchants began to close their stores for the night. “Tonight we must act normal and study the maps Saldor gives us. Tomorrow, after training, we will find a way to be together. The Elders will not kill us. They need us to bring back the only thing that will protect them from the Curse, and the people will not allow an execution. But still, we must be cautious.” Tardon warned.

He trembled at the idea of pleasing her over and over.

“I will find a way to sneak out of Saldor’s chambers.” Arianna kissed him again.

“I love you, Arianna,” he whispered through his burning desire. “I will wait for you in my chamber tomorrow after the moon rises.”

“I will be there. Nothing will keep me away.”

 

***

 

Arianna sat in the middle of the table, studying the green and brown forest sections on a map. Tardon and Saldor continued snarling at each other.

Tardon stood arms across his chest. “Do you think I am unable to fight? That I am some weak—”

“You did lose to a servant boy—”

Arianna smacked her hand against the table. “Enough. We need to be ready for the trip, and if neither of you can stop fighting you both should leave.”

Saldor pressed his palms to the table and leaned toward Tardon. “It is nearly morning. Training starts in a few hours. Tardon should rest while I review the maps with you.”

Tardon met his stance and stared him down. “No. You wish to be alone with her, but it is not going to happen. I will remain by her side.”

“Arianna is well now. You cannot remain by her side all night. The Elders will—”

“Yes, I can. I have not left her side for a week.”

“Unless you trained, in which case I cared for her.”

“Your treachery did not work. The Elders chose me for the mission. Now you will be left behind—”

“Enough!” Arianna pushed from the table, her nerves raw from their taunts. “Both of you, retire. I will go to my chamber and study these.” She rolled the maps up.

“No. You need my help,” Saldor insisted.

“I can read a map. You have done your job by creating them.” Arianna huffed, tired of them suffocating her. She was a warrior, not a helpless chambermaid.

“I will study with you.” Tardon stood tall, a smirk stretched across his face.

“I am sure that is what you will do,” Saldor chided.

“Both of you rest.” She tripped over the edge of her dress and Saldor caught her in his arms.

Tardon growled and grabbed her arm. “Do not touch her.”

Arianna pushed them apart and gave them both a stern look. “It is obvious we cannot all work together. For the next few hours, I will study the maps. In the morning, I will train with you, Tardon.”

Tardon smirked at Saldor.

“And tomorrow evening I will review these with Saldor.”

Another growl and Tardon tightened his grip. “You will be alone with him?”

“He is my friend. You will accept that.” Arianna pulled from his grasp. Her hackles rose at his demand. No one told her what to do. Not even Tardon.

With maps in tow she headed to the bedchamber.

Tardon followed. “You need to rest, too.”

“No. The serum energized me. Besides, I have been in bed for many days. Go. I will remain in the this chamber until training. I have already sent a servant to retrieve my clothes. Now, go.”

“Until tomorrow’s moon rises in the night sky.” Tardon’s eyes blazed with passion.

She shoved him from the room. “All the more reason that you rest.”

Saldor and Tardon rumbled in the outer chamber while she stood with ear pressed to the door. It grew quiet, and she exhaled. No fight had ensued.

The walls closed in around her. Her breathing staggered, and she tried to calm herself. She wouldn’t be stuck in the confining room for long. Saldor shuffled around outside and she unrolled the maps on the table. As soon as he retired to his bedchamber she’d leave.

The maps revealed long, switchback pathways through grasslands and dense forests. Many hungry beasts lived in the fields. No one ventured out without armed guards, and even then only when food became scarce. Peasants had been sacrificed making forays into the wild for the greater good. Even guards had been shredded by wild animals.

Beyond the brown and green pasture stood the trees of Gremdon Forest. Sadness seeped in to her determination at the sight of symbols scattered amongst the trees. Places soldiers had fallen to the Cursed.

She steadied her hands and looked closer at the patterns. A series of circles marked a small section in the forest. Saldor had told her the symbol indicated a circle of protection that had been used for trading in the early years of the Curse. They’d have to make it there before nightfall when the Cursed were most powerful, their red eyes best for nighttime attacks.

Once through the forest, she and Tardon would have to climb a rocky cliff then travel down to the valley where the Tree of Life was located.

It would be a great distance to travel with only the two of them to fight. Armies of men had never made it to the Tree. No one had returned with sap, the only bit that remained was from before the castle gates were shut. Somehow, Tardon and she would have to succeed where no warrior ever had. A stealth approach would be best, avoiding the mass of creatures if possible. If they were discovered, the mission would be over and they would fall to the Curse.

She took a deep breath and rolled the maps. An impossible mission, but somehow one of them would make it back. Tardon was right: they might never be together if they waited until their return.

Her body warmed at the thought of what the next moon would bring her. She would not die without experiencing the act of love with Tardon. He said it would be even better than what she had experienced the night they were first together.

She closed her eyes and imagined his touch. Tingles danced down her skin while she made her way out to the hall. With the way her body responded to the mere thought of him, she was glad Tardon was nowhere in sight. She ordered the servant to bring her clothes. And she imagined what it would feel like in just a few hours to have Tardon remove her clothing, slowly, kissing her everywhere.

Chapter Thirteen

 

The familiar, acrid scent of piss and blood attacked Tardon’s nostrils when he entered the outer arena of the Pit. Grunts echoed from behind a stone-stacked pillar. He recognized the groans immediately, and his pulse quickened in excitement. Dust and dirt swirled in the stale air. Tardon rounded the corner. Arianna’s arms glistened as she punched and kicked at a sack hanging from a timber above. How long had she been training?

The look of determination in her eyes, a true warrior to the soul, made him pause. No one could match her when her hackles were up. No other woman in the kingdom commanded such a presence.

The lean muscles in her arms flexed and a vein in the side of her neck pulsed, inviting him to run his tongue down the faint blue line. Tonight they’d finally have their chance to be together. For now, he’d prove himself worthy of her affection. A true Elite Warrior who would fight alongside her in spite of what they encountered.

“You have conquered a lifeless bag, but you could never conquer me.”

Arianna turned, fire in her eyes at his challenge. “There is time for me to put you in your place before the others arrive.”

She drew her blade from a belt resting just below her thin waist. Tardon, distracted by her curves, failed to notice as she lunged. Her blade slit his leg but the wound was only a superficial cut.

Arianna ran her finger along the edge of her vest and bit her bottom lip. “You lack focus. Is something distracting you?”

All of his sexual frustration clawed at his skin, leaving a sting far worse than the small blade.

With the knife’s handle clutched in her right hand, blade pointed away from her body, she turned and swiped again. This time Tardon grabbed her wrist and pushed her chest against the wall, forcing the blade from her hand.

“I have you, now what should I do with you?” Tardon whispered then suckled her earlobe. He wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her snug between him and the wall.

Arianna elbowed him in the face, turned and crossed to his left cheek, then kicked his abdomen, sending him flying back to the ground. She grabbed a flail and jumped on him, straddling his waist.

A typhoon of dust and dirt spiraled around them. Arianna pinned his hands to the floor over his head with the handle of the flail. She rubbed back and forth on his groin, and he sprang to life. White, full breasts, only a blade length from his mouth, invited him closer. Arianna smiled. “Now we know who should be in control of this mission.”

“You believe you control this?” Tardon teased.

She rubbed harder against him. He was almost ready to explode right there.

Arianna tightened her grip. “Yes, I am in full control.”

Tardon flipped her over his head and maneuvered over her, tying her hands back with the leather strap of the flail. He pushed his knee between her legs and thrust against her. She gasped when he pulled the vest back. His mouth caught her nipple and she groaned, pushing against him. “Now who is in control?”

“Apparently, neither of you.” Saldor’s voice echoed off the walls. Tardon jumped up and assumed a fighting stance.

Arianna sat up, eyes wide, and moved to cover her exposed chest.

Saldor stood in the doorway across the pit.

“Spying on us, I see.” Tardon wiped his lips and smiled.

“The others are on their way now. I noticed Arianna gone from her bedchamber and wanted to see if she needed a sparring partner.”

“No need. I have been a great challenge this morning.” Tardon winked and leaned close to whisper, “Until tonight.”

Her body flushed and, still panting, Tardon grabbed her ass before she walked away. She retrieved her blade from the ground and turned on him. “We will finish this later.”

If they didn’t finish it soon, he’d go mad with desire. Her challenge drew him to the brink, and he had to punch the hanging bag to keep his hands from ravaging her.

“Tardon,” a trainer called out to him. “Time to take on a few worthless warrior whores in the Pit.”

He cringed at the way the man spoke in front of Arianna, yet it had never bothered him before. They’d trained hundreds of times together, and the trainer’s words had been far worse at times. But, somehow, things were different now.

He climbed into the Pit. Arianna moved off to the side with Saldor.

“Tardon seems extra bloodthirsty today. I feel for you maggots about to face him.” The trainer stroked the leather strap of his whip.

Three ropes shook as Tardon’s opponents descended into the battle arena.

“First round, no weapons.”

The three men looked at each other, relieved.

“You peasant shits have no idea,” the trainer said. “Look at you, relieved to have no weapons. Do you think Tardon will not tear your limbs off if he gets the chance?” Deep laughter echoed from above as the trainer moved to the side.

Arianna laughed in the distance. Tardon squeezed his fists tight, stepping forward and nodding to each of them to ready themselves.

A tall, slender man ran and jumped from the wall, showing off for the rest of the spectators who had entered the training arena. Tardon parried and linked his arm through the man’s fisted forearm, then slammed him to the ground.

Another man, stocky with a yellow beard, stepped forward to shoulder Tardon in the abdomen. Tardon spun and put him in a headlock as he kicked the third man to the ground.

Chanting boomed from overhead. Word of their mission had spread and more men gathered to watch the training.

Tardon shot two punches into the stocky man’s ribs, threw him back, and elbowed him in the face. His nose split and blood splattered all over his beard.

The tall, thin man ran for the rope. Tardon grasped the man on the ground by the beard and pulled him to the wall. He scratched and clawed at Tardon’s hand like a wild animal.

He shook the rope and his other opponent fell to the ground. Tardon wrapped the rough rope around both their necks and hung them from the wall.

The crowd erupted. Both men dangled by their necks, turning the color of an eggplant. Tardon signaled for the guards to cut them down. Cheers turned to heckles.

One opponent yelled insults and curses down. Tardon turned on him. “If you wish no mercy today, then join me and I will grant your heart’s desire.”

The man slunk back into the crowd.

“Is there no one brave enough to challenge me?”

The chants fell silent. Only the sound of coughing and spitting from the men at his side continued. “No one wishes to train with me today?” Tardon laughed. “Well, I guess my day is done.”

“I will.”

Tardon scanned the crowd for the fool who’d accepted his challenge. He did not wish to fight any longer, only to end this charade so he could be with Arianna.

“Who has challenged me?”

“I have.” Saldor shimmied down the rope, and unsheathed his sword.

“No. There is no reason for this!” Arianna cried out.

“This is not approved by the Elders,” the trainer called down. “I cannot allow this fight.”

The crowd shoved the hapless trainer from sight and shouted for bloodshed.

“Your jealousy will be the death of you.” Tardon shuffled to the side.

“It is not jealousy but a necessary course of action. If you are wounded, I will be sent in your place. You do not know the lands as I do. I will not let you be the cause of Arianna’s death.”

“I will protect her with my own life.” Tardon fought to control his anger and remain focused. Saldor had no right to take his place on the mission. It was not his job to protect Arianna. Apparently, he needed a reminder, and Tardon would be happy to give it to him.

“Yes, but those creatures out there do not care if you stand in the way.” Saldor spoke in a condescending tone. “There will be hundreds ready to sacrifice themselves to Curse you both. The only way to survive is to avoid them all together. But you are too bull-headed to see this.” Saldor’s lip curled in obvious disgust.

“You fight without honor.” Tardon wanted to rip his throat out and serve it to the Elders, but he needed to remain in control. “I am without a weapon.”

Saldor waved to someone above and a sword landed next to Tardon. He scooped it up and readied himself.

“I beg you both to stop this!” Arianna shouted. “Is blood all you people crave?”

The crowd erupted in cheers, and Saldor advanced.

Tardon parried and slammed the hilt of his sword into the back of Saldor’s head. He stumbled and recovered. This time Saldor stayed back and waited for Tardon’s advance.

Tardon had wanted to rip Saldor’s throat out and now he had his chance. His heart raced as he lunged forward.

Saldor’s sword blocked only a nose length from his face. He turned and sliced low. Tardon jumped and slit Saldor’s shoulder.

“Tardon! Tardon!” The cheers made his pulse thunder in his head. He bounded forward, but Saldor slashed his side. Blood saturated his vest.

“Fools!” Arianna screamed.

Tardon ripped his vest and shirt away. Only a flesh wound.

Saldor stumbled from exhaustion or blood loss. This was Tardon’s chance to end him. He raised his sword and let out a battle cry as he charged.

Mid-step he froze. His muscles twitched when he fought to move. To speak. To yell. But nothing.

Saldor lifted his sword and approached.

What kind of magic did he play with? Did the people above not see his witchcraft? He’d burn, but not before Tardon was struck down.

His body shook against the invisible restraint. Saldor lifted his sword for the final blow. Tardon lifted his chin to die with honor.

Two quick breaths and no sting of his blade. He looked to Saldor, frozen mid-strike. Same as Tardon.

“All of you clear the arena. Now. There will be no more bloodshed today.” The sound of an Apprentice voice made Tardon’s blood run cold.

The crowd moaned with disappointment.

“By order of the Elders, all who remain will be thrown in the dungeon and their rations taken from them.”

“As for you two, drop your blades and return to your chambers. Training is over.”

An invisible force pried the sword from Tardon, and the blade sailed across the room, clanging against the wall. Saldor’s did the same.

Blood rushed to his head at the realization Arianna was alone with the Apprentice. A quick glance at Saldor revealed his same fear.

An iron grip wrenched Tardon’s head to face the Apprentice above. He fought for control, but his body remained frozen. “If you both do not comply, Arianna will return to the dungeon.”

The ashen fingers of the Apprentice wrapped like a vine around Arianna’s neck. Her legs dangled in the air. Piercing black eyes assessed each of them. Tardon nodded stiffly in understanding. The Apprentice released his grasp, and Arianna fell to the floor, wheezing.

“Go now or you will all be thrown from the castle walls with no weapons.”

Clutching the hilt of her sword, Arianna straightened. She glanced over her shoulder, eyes moist with concern.

Tardon’s body shook with terror and muscle fatigue. Alone, she didn’t stand a chance against an Apprentice. Tardon held his breath as the Apprentice turned with a devious smile. “You should go, before the Elders place you in the dungeon, chained to the wall, forever.” He leaned in and all Tardon could make out were the words: “rats”, “eat”, and “flesh”. It was enough to drain the color from Arianna’s skin. She turned and left the arena.

The Apprentice released Tardon and Saldor. “We will be watching you.”

 

***

 

Arianna opened Saldor’s chamber doors and was greeted by the smell of fresh oranges.

He looked up from chopping another piece of fruit. “I was concerned you would not return.”

“I needed some air. I have been inside too much these last days.”

“Yes, you have. Would you like something to eat?”

“No, thank you. I ate some bread and dried meat on my walk.”

Arianna fidgeted with the worn leather on the edge of her vest. She would have to find an excuse to leave again. Saldor could make things difficult if he discovered her sneaking off to Tardon’s chambers.

“I am going to clean up and get some sleep,” Saldor said. “We have another long day of training.”

“Yes, that is wise. I will do the same.” She unlatched her belt. “I have heard the Elders will not allow you to return to the Pit.”

Saldor slammed the knife down and glared at her. “Tardon is too puffed up to see the damage he causes.”

“And it was your place to show him? It sounds like you are the one with an enormous ego.” He had no right to interfere. It had been too many seasons since she had to explain her actions to anyone. She would not start now, especially to someone not of her bloodline.

“I only wanted to protect you.”

“I do not need your protection. I am not your little sister. She died.”

The look on Saldor’s face made her insides twist with grief. The words had left her lips before she could stop them. So much for the control of an Elite Warrior. “I—I am sorry. I did not mean—”

Saldor lifted a hand and turned away. The fight ended before she had a chance to give him hell for the stunt he’d pulled. Now her anger faded at the sight of his unhappiness.

“There is water already heated and in your room if you wish to bathe. The servants prepared it just before you arrived,” he said in a strained voice.

“Thank you.”

Arianna’s heart ached for him and for her brother. It had been so long since she’d seen Mardel. Did he believe she had abandoned him?

She shuddered at the thought.

Fire danced in the corner of the bedchamber. The bedding had been turned down and a fresh dress lay out on the bed, not with the same frills as the one she’d found before, but still nicer than most peasants’.

She unlaced her vest and skirt, and threw them aside. A large barrel for bathing rested in the corner near the fire. A proper bath.

Her tonics and a bathing cloth sat on the table. She pulled her white undergarment over her head and traced the lines left behind from the vest.

The water rippled as she placed one foot in then the other. She scooted down and sighed. The smell of fresh flowers wafted from the water. Someone had poured tonic in before she’d arrived. A scene set for seduction. Was Tardon right? Did Saldor really want her for himself?

The moon rose high enough for muted rays to cast themselves on the bed. Flashes of Tardon exploring her body drew bumps to her skin. It wouldn’t be long before they’d be together forever. No one could change their bond.

Warm desire took over and the anticipation of him being one with her urged her from the tub. She dressed quickly and stood in front of the viewing glass. Short red waves cascaded around her face. Nothing could be done about her hair.

The soft green fabric of the dress rustled when she moved. The tight waist pushed up her breasts. They might not be her greatest assets her fighting ability was, but Tardon seemed drawn to them. She reached a hand in each side and pushed them up and together, cinching the waist tighter.

She dabbed some scents on her neck and pressed her ear against the door. Nothing rattled or clanked from the outer chamber. She drew in a deep breath, the ties so tight her ribs stung, and pulled open her bedchamber door.

She cringed at the hinges squeaking and waited for Saldor to say something. She heard nothing. After a moment, Arianna tiptoed across the outer chamber.

“Going somewhere?”

Arianna froze in her tracks, unable to draw in a full breath. The castle swirled in a blur of gray. She grasped the chair and shook it off. The room fell silent except for the rapid pounding from her chest. She whirled around. Saldor sat in a chair next to his bedchamber, arms crossed.

“I—I could not walk. I am going for a sleep. I—I mean I could not sleep.”

“A walk? At this time of night?”

“As I said. I could not sleep.”

He stood and marched over to her, eyebrows furrowed. “Like that?”

“You left the dress for me.”

He pointed at her chest. “It was not meant to suffocate you.”

Heat burned her cheeks. All right, maybe she’d gone a little over board. She just wanted Tardon to find her desirable.

“You look like an inner-city whore.” His voice stung like a whip across her soul.

“Tardon’s right.” Arianna headed for the door. Saldor clutched her arm, and she shoved him away. “You are jealous. That trick you pulled today in the Pit. Did you think you could really beat Tardon?”

“No, I only needed him wounded.”

“Needed him wounded? Why?”

“To keep you away from him.”

Anger warred with disbelief as she stood in silence for awhile. “You mean you wanted to hurt him?” Her jaw popped under the pressure of her gritted teeth.

“Yes, but I had to.”

“I do not want to hear anymore. I love Tardon. There is nothing you can do to stop me from going to him. Scream it from the towers if you wish. We belong together. I would swing from the gallows and burn in the fires of the inner city to spend one night with him.” Arianna raced for the door.

Fury oozed from every pore in her body. Saldor grabbed her arm and twisted her back to him but she shoved free and clung to the doorframe. He yanked her from the doorway and thrust her against the wall, restraining her wrists above her head. She thrashed about, but her legs were hindered by all the dress material.

His forehead and eyes creased in deep lines as he stared at her.

She continued to fight. Her arms alone were no match to his strength, but if she could just grab her blade or swing her leg she’d have a chance.

The scent of wood burning, oranges, and sweat entered her lungs with each heavy breath. “You can take my body, but my heart will always be Tardon’s.”

His eyes shot wide, mouth hanging open, and he backed away. “You thought—” He raked a hand through his hair and fell back onto a large brown chair. “I would never…” He dropped his head in his hands and slouched. “I do not want you in that way. Yes, you are incredibly desirable, but my heart and soul could only belong to one person and she is dead.”

“I do not understand.” Arianna tried to catch her breath but she couldn’t. She reached around and loosened the strings.

“I was trying to protect you.”

“From who? The Elders? I do not believe they can afford to kill us. And, if they do, at least I will die happy.” She forced a smile and sat next to him. “So, you have no reason to worry.”

“Yes. I do.” Saldor’s shoulders rose and fell with a deep breath. “It is all happening again and I am scared I will fail you.”

Arianna placed a hand on his shoulder. “I know you have lost many people in your life. But you cannot protect me from the Elders, or this mission. It is my duty as a warrior.”

“It is not the Elders or the mission. My sister…I cannot live through it again.” Saldor choked with emotion.

“What happened to your sister?”

When he looked up with his eyes glistening with tears, Arianna wanted to wrap him in her arms and comfort him. “She did not fall to the Curse.” He clutched his legs. “She jumped from the top of the tower to her death.”

Arianna’s blood ran cold. Her legs felt like heavy training bags, and she leaned on the arm of the chair. “What happened?

“After the gates closed, the Elders announced marriage and families would have to wait until we conquered the Curse. Many disagreed and fought with the Elders. Strange things started to happen.”

Saldor shook his head, his eyes staring off in the distance. “Our family was well off from a trade business we ran. When the gates closed, no transports could enter. Everything happened so fast.”

“What does the trade business have to do with your sister’s death?”

“She was promised to a man rising up in the ranks, before the Elders took over power. He pledged his undying love to her. When the Elders took control, most of the ruling class had been Cursed or killed during the Dark Days. Her fiancé became angry and thought he should rule the people. My sister tried to talk him down, but he would not listen.”

Saldor pushed from the chair and crossed to the mantel over the fireplace and picked up the fire poker. “When my parents died, we were left with nothing. Her fiancé broke off the engagement. He never loved my sister. The only reason he agreed to marry her was for the money and political influence.” His voice cracked and his fist tightened around the poker as he jabbed at the dying embers.

“I was so caught up in my own grief I did not listen to her cries of desperation. The next evening, he was found dead in his chambers, and she jumped from the castle tower.”

“She k—”

“No, my sister did not kill the worthless son of a peasant whore.” His nostrils flared as he turned on her, poker waving in the air. “Her grief caused her to take her own life. As for his death, all I know is he got what he deserved.”

“I am sorry for the loss of your sister and the horror of how it happened, but why did you say you did not want that to happen to me? I have no reason to jump from a tower.”

Creases deepened on the side of his mouth and a dent appeared on his chin. “Grief does strange things to people.”

“Even if my brother dies, I would not jump from the tower. To take your own life for no purpose is a coward’s way out.” She cringed at her own words. Only days before she had begged for a knife to end her own misery. “S—sorry. I did not mean—”

“I know you only repeat the warrior code. My sister was not a warrior. She was a young girl in love. This is…not about your brother.”

Her mind spun with his words, her palms slick with a cool sweat. She longed to leave and join Tardon. “You speak in riddles, Saldor. If you are trying to stall me from leaving, fine. But I will be in Tardon’s bed tonight. Nothing you say can change that.”

“He does not love you. The Elders cast a spell on him.”

Chapter Fourteen

 

Arianna bolted from the chair. Lies. He was jealous. Tardon was right, Saldor wanted her for himself. “You speak of witchcraft, which is forbidden. You are trying to stall me.”

“No, it is not a spell, but their will for the greater good that possesses Tardon.” Saldor placed the fire poker down and approached Arianna with soft eyes. “Please, hear me out. If you do not believe me in the end then I will not stop you.”

She wanted to run, but he’d never let her leave without a fuss. Guards would come to arrest her, and the night with Tardon would not happen. If she stayed, Saldor would keep his word. “Fine.”

He motioned for her to sit down. The smell of old leather surrounded her when she sat in Saldor’s favorite chair.

“Do you remember the night your brother fell ill and you went to Tardon’s chamber?”

Her brother lying lifeless on the floor flashed through her mind, and she pushed the image, too painful to face, from her mind. “Yes, of course.”

“Well, that evening a woman was sent to Tardon. As you know, warriors receive gifts for their work.”

Arianna shifted in her chair and clutched the armrest. “Nothing different there.”

“But there was. Why did the Elders send a gift if he did not deserve one? You bested him in the match. He should have been disgraced for the evening, not given gifts.” Saldor spoke without taking a single breath, rushing to suffocate her with his words.

A dark shadow pinched deep inside Arianna’s core. “That does not tell me why you believe they control Tardon’s love for me.”

Saldor took her hand. “I overheard the Apprentice when he reported back to the Elders after your arrest. He said that the Elders sent the woman to Tardon for more than a night of pleasure. She was sent for a lifetime commitment.”

The black shadow grew and crossed her organs. “Marriage? Lifetime partners are forbidden. What you say can’t be.”

“Tardon was wavering in his matches, not training with the passion he once did. He spoke of marriage in his sleep when other women came to pleasure him.”

“Fine.” She released Saldor’s hand and smoothed the material down the front of her dress. “What does that have to do with him falling in love with me?”

“Do you not see? That woman was meant for him, not you.”

“Then why did he not fall in love with the woman?”

“He sent her away before she made love to him.” Saldor rubbed his forehead. “You pleasured him instead.”

“We did not—”

“I know what you said, but Tardon found fulfillment in your company. Once you two touched each other in certain ways, the Elders’ will was set.”

The darkness spread through her entire body; everything around her turned to night. She swooned and nearly fell from the chair.

“Arianna, I am sorry.”

“No.” Arianna shook off the blanket of fear and desperation. “He loves me. Even if they willed it, he chose me. What they have done cannot be undone.”

“But it can. The minute you return with the sap from the Tree of Life, the Elders will send a different woman to Tardon. This time they will make sure their plan takes root.”

Arianna choked on her rising panic. “He will never betray me by sleeping with another.”

He pulled her into his arms. “This time they will not need to touch. They will make sure the union seals on sight alone. The Elders will not fail again.”

Grief threatened to take hold and never release her. What life lay ahead? Either she lived in the castle, cursed to watch Tardon with another woman, or die to the Curse outside the walls.

“Arianna, there is more. If you break your word and sleep with him on the journey, then you will be severely punished upon your return.”

“I do not care what happens to me.”

“Yes, they know. That is why they will not hurt you.”

“What do you mean? Who—my brother—they will let him die?” The Elder’s control tightened around her once again.

“Yes, they will not give him the serum.”

“The very thing I risk my life for they would keep from the one who needs it most? They are evil.” Her chest constricted with sorrow and anger.

“No, do not say…everything they do is for the greater good, even if we do not understand it at times.”

“You would defend them? After your sister?” Her blood ran hot and she clutched her hands so tight her nails dug into her palm.

“It was my sister’s choice.”

Arianna smacked him across the face. “Shame! You betray your sister with your words. No matter what, you always choose family.”

The sting on her hand matched her heart.

Saldor pressed his palm to his red cheek. “I never chose anyone over my sister. There was no choice for me. You have one. Would you sacrifice your brother for one night of pleasure with a man that does not truly love you?”

Invisible strings controlled every move of her body.

No decisions of her own.

No freedom to live her own life.

Only following orders and fighting for others’ purposes.

Tired of the control, she snapped the strings and charged him. He jumped to attention and tried to pull her into his arms. Her stifled rage boiled over, surging through her arms to her fists. She pummeled them against his chest and face. He blocked and ducked but did not attack her.

Fight!” He didn’t respond, and she drew her blade. “Fight or I will slit your throat. If what you say is true, I should swing from the gallows now and forget the rest.”

“That is your choice. To choose death over the life of your brother.” Disgust dripped from his voice.

His words slammed against her chest harder than any fist or weapon ever could. She dropped her blade and fell to her knees, exhaling with such pressure it came out like a runaway cart. She heaved and shrieked. Saldor’s arms wrapped around her convulsing body. Finally, tears gave way and rolls of sobs escaped. Bone crunching, ear splitting, lifetime-of-sorrow sobs.

Saldor squeezed her. “I know you suffer, but I will remain by your side. And, when you return with the sap, your brother will be well.”

Arianna heard the words, but a blade of sorrow sliced through her middle, draining happiness from her body.

“Listen to me. You have to be strong. You love Tardon. That is why you have to tell him you do not. If he thinks there is even a chance between you, he will not stop.”

Her shoulder ached and exhaustion took over. She wiped the salty tears from her mouth and leaned into him. “I d—do not think I c—can.”

“You are a warrior, Arianna. We both know you can. You have no choice; it is Tardon’s love or your brother’s life.”

 

***

 

“Find some fresh fruit and flowers.” Tardon barked at the wide-eyed servant standing in his chamber doorway.

“But, sir, the merchants are closed. And food is scarce.”

“Go to the shoemaker, he owes me a favor. He will acquire some from other merchants on your behalf. Now go.”

Skin pricking with anticipation, Tardon paced the room after the servant skittered away.

A warm fire glowed in the corner and candles lay scattered throughout the room. He wanted to see every inch of her body while he slowly removed her clothing. Every curve, finger, and lip would glisten in the dim light.

His groin throbbed at the vision of touching her bare skin.

“Sir, I have some flowers and fruit. The merchants wanted to know why you made such a strange request for flowers. I told them you wished to send them to a sick friend.”

Lies, so many lies to be together, but it would be worth it. “Place them on the table then leave. I will not require your services this evening.”

The servant bowed and backed toward the door. Tardon bolted to his side and stared him down. “Heed this warning: if you speak of this to anyone, I will hunt you down and skin you like a small animal.”

“Y—yes, sir.” The servant scurried from the room. Tardon missed the trust he had with Kendar and was not in the mood to train a new servant.

He jammed the poker in the fire and it roared to life, as did his anxiety. He would be Arianna’s first, requiring a gentle and kind touch, but his passion grew with each passing moment. Fear of not being able to control himself dulled the burning fire within. What if I hurt her?

He shoved the poker into the holder and fidgeted with food and the blankets on the bed. The moon shone high in the sky and still no sign of Arianna.

He picked up a glass of wine and took a swig. The berry and pepper flavors danced on his tongue. The fire died to smoldering specks of bark along with his patience.

Saldor.” He had to have found out and detained her. Forget diplomacy and secrecy. If Arianna wanted him, he’d release her from Saldor’s clutches. Even if he had to slit the bastard’s throat to do it.

He downed the last of the deep, violet wine and grabbed his sword. Tardon would have Arianna in his arms tonight, over Saldor’s dead body if need be.

The musty corridor sat vacant of life. Not even a rodent scurried by. Hairs on the back of his neck stood to attention at the silence. He pulled his blade from his boot, then exited to the courtyard. No one in sight. Certainly a guard should patrol at this hour. Still, Tardon remained in the shadows and maneuvered through the small passageways to Saldor’s chambers.

His gut wrenched  at the scent of fresh food wafting from inside. A sign of Saldor cooking and caring for Arianna again.

Tardon beat his fist against the door. No answer.

He pounded again, the lock clicked and Tardon pushed, knocking Saldor backward. “Where is she?” Candles flickered about the room and a fire burned. This was the same seductive scene he had planned. His hands shook with desire—to strangle Saldor.

“I am here.” Arianna stepped from the bedchamber. Her eyes were red and swollen, her dress disheveled and hanging lose from her body.

His skin burned with fear at the sight. “You did not meet me.”

Arianna crossed the chamber and sat in a chair with her back straight but eyes distant. “No. I did not,” she said with an icy chill.

No offer of explanation or apology. She did not look into his eyes as a warrior always did when they spoke. She sat stiff, as if she’d been beaten. He raced to her side and grasped her hands. “What has happened? Are you injured?” He shot a glance at Saldor.

“No, I am well.” She pulled her hands from his. “There is no future for us. Our relationship was cursed from the start. We disobeyed Elders’ law and now we have paid dearly. I will train with you for the mission, but I will not allow any further advances from you.”

Her words sounded rehearsed, false, but still attacked him with a stabbing pain. Certainly the Elders had done something, but what? “Why has someone forced you to say these things? And who?” He cast a dark look back at Saldor. She moved to leave Tardon’s side, but he grasped her wrist. “You want me. Someone has poisoned you against me. Tell me how, and I shall fix it. You are a great warrior, destined to fight and sleep at my side.”

“No one’s poisoned me. I desire a different life. One with no more fighting. The Elders have agreed to allow retirement upon my return. In which case, I have decided to live with a man until my calling home.”

“The Elders have forbidden marriage. You will die of boredom keeping a home. You desire respect and the power to protect others.” Tardon pulled her close, squeezing his fingers into her shoulders.

“No.” Arianna fought against his grasp. “You never understood me. All you saw were your own needs—to the point where you provoked me to turn against my Elders. One night of passion will undo all the great things I have done in this kingdom. You would sacrifice my happiness for your own lust.” Arianna’s eyes narrowed. “Your arrogance and selfishness almost cost me my life. Now I see you for what you are, and I have chosen another.”

His intestines tied in a knot at her words. “You do not mean this. Someone has put these words in your mouth.” He clutched her sleeves and pulled her close to him. Her lips trembled in unison with her body. “Yes, I see it in your eyes. You love me.”

“No, but I do not wish to hurt you. I have chosen to live with Saldor after the mission. He will care for me.”

His heart thrashed against his ribs. “Saldor?” He let go of her and clutched his hair, pulling it away from his scalp. He turned to Saldor. “Did you touch her?”

“No, once she returns from the mission, the Elders have granted us the right to reside here together.”

“That is forbidden.”

“So is marriage, but you believe the Elders will grant such gifts to you.” Saldor’s smirk ignited Tardon’s rage.

Knife drawn, he erupted in fury, swinging and lunging at Saldor. Saldor tripped over a bench and crashed to the floor, breaking the wood seat in half. He rolled and sprung to his feet before he jumped over a chair and ducked under a table.

Arianna stood back, screaming at Tardon, but he could not make out the words over the pounding of blood through his ears.

Tardon threw his blade to the side and drew his sword. “You will not have her.”

He thrust the blade at Saldor. Arianna jumped in front of the knife. Tardon tried to stop his advance, but his blade drove into Arianna’s shoulder.

“No!” Saldor’s warning came too late. Arianna cried out. Dark stains spread from the point of the sword across her chest. Tardon pulled the weapon from her body.

Grief speared his soul as Arianna crumbled to the ground. His hands shook, and he tossed the sword to the side. Saldor set her back against the wall and ripped her dress open to expose her shoulder wound.

“Grab that cloth.”

“I—I did not—” Bright red ran down Arianna’s stark, white skin.

Saldor shoved past Tardon and grabbed a rag from the table. He returned and pressed it against her shoulder. “You do not mean to hurt her, but somehow you always do. Now do you see why I am better for her? You must go before you have her burning in the inner courts while both of us are forced to watch.”

Tardon’s gut clenched tight like the time he’d been kicked by a mule. Terror replaced anger when Arianna’s eyes filled with tears. She bit her bottom lip, eyes dark, forehead creased in a look of anguish he would forever remember.

He opened his mouth to beg her forgiveness, but he couldn’t. No matter what he said it wouldn’t change the fact he had harmed the one person he’d sworn to protect. He’d failed as a warrior and as her future husband.

The smell of iron from her blood invaded his nostrils. He retched, sending him running from the room to the nearest hall. He heaved and expelled every ounce of food he’d consumed in the day. His knees buckled under him as he slumped to the wall. Death would be better than seeing Arianna in Saldor’s arms.

Did Saldor speak the truth? Was Tardon poison to her?

Or had Saldor somehow convinced Arianna of this against her own heart?

Either way, Tardon couldn’t face her again. She looked at him as if he were Cursed, nothing but a hideous creature that fed on the innocent. Worse, she said she’d chosen someone else.

He’d fight to the death for her, but never would he cause her pain. Yet something was wrong. The way she spoke sounded rehearsed and guarded. He wouldn’t harm her again, but he would discover what evil had changed her heart.

Chapter Fifteen

 

“Did you see the hurt in his eyes?” Arianna gasped, not from the pain of the wound in her shoulder but from the one in her heart. “What if he does something crazy and ends up in the dungeon? Maybe I should talk to him—”

“And say what?” Saldor stroked her hair from her face. “The worst is done. You have to remember you do this to protect him. I am sorry you have to suffer.”

“If I am supposed to be protecting him, why do I have the feeling I just catapulted him into something terrible instead.”

“Because you care for him, you worry.”

“I love him.” She choked. There had to be a way to save her brother and still love Tardon, but how?

“I know. But in time you will adjust to life without him, as I did after—”

Never!” She pushed from his arms. “I will always love him, and I will never live with another. I will remain in my own family chambers. I only lied to convince Tardon.” She tried to stand, but her legs buckled, and she slammed back against Saldor. He leaned down and lifted her from the floor.

He placed her on the bed and disappeared into another room, saying, “I will dress your wound.”

Dark amber rays shot from her amulet. She held the smooth stone in her palm and ran her finger down the small crack.

A yellow ray opened into another world. Flashes of people and places: Tardon chased by a dark creature in the night…her sister dead…an empty castle…no survivors. She dry-heaved and pressed her hand against her chest.

“Arianna, what ails you?” Saldor called out, but she could not find him.

Light shimmered, and a Cursed One stood in front of her, smiling, wearing her sister’s bracelet. The beast jumped and shredded Arianna’s skin with its long nails. It grasped the amulet and ran. She tried to scream but her body convulsed. The stench of infected wounds overpowered her, and she fell to the ground. Her fingers grew, cracking and popping. Sharp spears punctured her fingertips and claws jutted out from her skin.

A large hand clutched her shoulder and pulled her back from the transformation. She bolted upright in the bed. Sweat dripped down her back.

“I have you.” Saldor’s strong arms held her tight. His lips pressed against her tingling scalp.

“Why do they still punish me?” Would the torture ever end or would she be plagued by visions of the Cursed for the rest of her days? Dread crept in and threatened to suffocate her.

“No punishment. It is grief. I know. I have experienced what you live with now. It will pass.” His rough hands grazed her face. “I will remain here through all of it.”

A shuffle in the doorway caught her attention.

“I see you have bewitched another of our great men.”

She froze at the voice of an Apprentice. An Enforcer loomed behind.

“She has done no such thing. A wound needed dressing.” Saldor rose from the bed. “What gives you the right to enter my chambers unannounced?”

“Ordered by the Elders.” The Enforcer snarled at Saldor for his question.

The Apprentice silenced the Enforcer with the wave of his hand. “Is the wound serious?”

“No,” Saldor said.

She focused on the tall Enforcer with his massive frame. His mouth twisted in an evil grin. Her hands trembled at the sight.

Her sword rested on the bench next to the dressing armoire. If she reached her blade in time she would end her life before they dragged her back to the dungeon. She dug deep inside to find the strength to move. With a deep breath, she shoved from Saldor and grabbed her weapon.

“No.” Saldor clutched her bad shoulder.

Her fingers released their grasp on the hilt as if someone had control of her body from the inside.

“No need for such…hysterics.” The Apprentice’s condescending voice stoked her hatred for him. “You are summoned by the Elders.”

“What?” Her knees threatened to buckle under the weight of fear. “They will only cast me into the fires again.”

Saldor urged her forward. “We must go.”

The smell of ash from the fireplace, a constant reminder of her fate, sent a shiver through her body. She turned on him. “I will throw myself off the tower before I burn by their will.” Her breath hitched, and she swayed on her feet.

The Apprentice pulled the cuff of his robe down over his hands then crossed his arms in obvious disinterest to her plea. Saldor cringed from her and addressed the Apprentice with a stern tone. “I will dress her wound.”

“Do not be long.” The Apprentice left the Enforcer to linger in the doorway and stepped into the outer chamber, but his aroma of decay and blood lingered.

Saldor stood in silence, his eyes wet with tears threatening to spill over. “Never say such things,” he rasped and began to work on her shoulder. Only the sound of her breathing and his occasional sniffle broke the hair-raising silence between them. He gathered the stained bandages and her sword. “Dress. I will wait outside.”

“I meant what I said.” Arianna considered another fight with Saldor, but with the Enforcer in the outer chamber she didn’t stand a chance. “If you take my sword I will only find another way. I will not beg for their mercy.”

“I know. But, this time, I will pay attention and ensure I do not lose another to the same fate my sister fell to. You have two minutes, then I will strip the clothes from your body and dress you myself.”

He stepped from the room but left the door ajar. Mumblings between two men outside urged her to obey. Now was not the right opportunity. With no weapon and no way out of the room but through the outer chamber, she had no choice. She’d have to wait for the right moment. Then nothing would stop her from ending her misery.

An irritating itch drew her attention to her shoulder and she ripped of the bandage. The wound was only a scratch. The serum must have sped her healing. She laced her vest and slammed her boot to the floor as she lodged her foot in.

Saldor shoved the door open, eyes wide and fearfully scanning her body. “I thought—never mind. Let us go.”

Arianna followed close behind the men until they reached the tower steps. Saldor moved to the side of the winding stairs and let her pass. Would he have time to stop her if she jumped? Her heart sped faster than their increasing pace. If she didn’t jump now there wouldn’t be another chance and she’d suffer in the fires once more.

He clutched her arm. “I know what you are thinking, but you will not burn. They have summoned you because of a need.” His voice went cool as he said, “There will be more time for you to abandon your brother.”

Her stomach constricted as if the Enforcer had squeezed her tight and carried her up the stairs himself. Saldor spoke the truth. She would be abandoning her brother. How could she be so selfish, while Mardel still lived? She clutched her fists so tight her nails dug into her palms.

But what if they controlled her like a dumb animal on a rope, guiding her toward a treat that no longer existed?

The massive doors to the great hall opened. Twice in one day, she’d been summoned to a place she’d never entered before. This time the hall shone bright with torch light. Guards stepped aside and the Enforcer charged forward, stopping only at the last pillar in front of the Elders. All five lined the front, with an Apprentice between each, Enforcers and guards off to the side. Never had she witnessed the entire council, plus Enforcers and guards, gathered in one place.

The Elders remained hidden under their hoods. Sudden steps thumped from behind her. Tardon appeared in full warrior gear, excluding his sword.

A guard ran in and handed him his weapon. Tardon sheathed it and stepped forward. A gasping, pudgy man advanced to Saldor and Arianna, holding both their swords. “I will keep them both, for the moment,” Saldor said in a firm voice.

The guard gave a slight bow and raced from the great hall.

Arianna swiped her palms down her leg, ridding them of nervous sweat. It had been many seasons since anything had affected her so much.

The castle suffered some great hardship. Her heart ached at the thought of those fallen to the Curse. She glanced at anxious faces congregated in the back of the room. No explanation for why inhabitants below the station of a warrior would gain admittance to the Elders’ Tower.

Tardon puffed out his chest and stood by Arianna. The smell of warm warrior leather drew her closer.

A hand touched her shoulder, and Saldor maneuvered between them.

“We are ready,” Saldor said with authority.

Vosdak waved, and the obedient Apprentice by his side spoke. “There is little time. Once the sun rises, our castle will be under siege. This will be the largest attack ever against our outer walls. You must listen carefully, because the Elders will risk the lives of every inhabitant of this kingdom for your success.”

Arianna’s throat tightened.

The Apprentice continued, “While the attack unfolds you will be protected by warriors and guards. When the majority of the Cursed Ones are defeated, you will escape to the outer walls.”

“But what of the people?” Arianna asked. “You need us to defend and protect—”

“Without the sap from the Tree of Life our castle will fall to the Cursed of Gremdon.” The Apprentice circled them. “The sap in the amulets protects everyone inside the walls of the castle. More and more people are falling to disease and death because their amulets weaken.”

“If we leave during the battle we will be caught in the crossfire.” Arianna said before Saldor handed Arianna her sword. She squeezed the hilt in her sweaty palm.

“No.” The Apprentice returned to the platform next to Vosdak. “They will remain engaged while you follow the tunnel under the city to the field. You will exit on the other side of the fight. The monsters’ retreat will be stalled until you make your way ahead of them.”

Arianna grew tired of these orders. If her brother was already dead, she would die in the fight a hero. If he lived, she would do anything to retrieve the serum. “I demand to see my brother.”

Twelve pairs of eyes fell on her. Four of the five Apprentices hissed in response. “You do not make demands in the presence of the Elders.”

Vosdak’s knuckles cracked with his iron grip on the arm of the chair. “As you wish.” Saldor and Tardon clasped each of her arms. Vosdak rarely spoke. “You may visit your brother.”

Tardon squeezed in warning. “I will take her on our way to get supplies for our journey.”

Saldor cleared his throat. “I think it best if I take her while you gather supplies. Most of the merchants owe you favors and will produce better results.”

“You misunderstand.” The Apprentice’s mouth moved upward, leveling the lips to a grin. “You will only receive bread and water and one dried meat. There is no more to spare.”

Arianna swallowed the drop of saliva left in her mouth.

Saldor dropped her arm and stepped forward. “Tardon and Arianna are not prepared for the journey. They do not understand the land yet—”

Tardon moved to Saldor’s side. “We will be fine. I have studied the maps and when charged by the Elders in the past, I have hunted food for our people.”

Saldor clutched the hilt of his sword. “No. They will not make it.”

Arianna froze. Her body and soul demanded Tardon by her side, but her head screamed it would be unbearable to carry on the lie alone with him, away from the castle. Her body heated at the image of him pressed against her in the night to keep warm. She hated the Elders for this torture. Never wishing a woman warrior to rise to her station, they had waited for her to fail. No matter what it took, if her brother lived, she would succeed. Once the Elders gave Tardon a more pleasing mate, she would go back to her old life. She would have her brother back. A reason to live.

“Tardon and I will go. We will bring back what you seek with the promise my brother receives the serum.” Tardon and Saldor opened their mouths, but Vosdak’s hand twitched and both shut.

“Agreed. Now go. Prepare to leave. For the sake of the castle and its inhabitants, we gift you the blessing of the Elders for a speedy return.”

As they walked from the tower, Tardon in front, Saldor behind, Arianna felt the tension between them all.

Tardon paused at the bottom of the stairs. “I will wait for you in the courtyard. We will help defend the main court before we leave. After that, we will sneak down to the tunnel.”

“Come, I will take you to your brother.” Saldor motioned her to follow.

Tardon and Saldor had obviously changed to their warrior mentality. No more talk of feelings, or pledges of love, it would be fighting, killing, and death. Before she could shut out dangerous emotions, she had to face the fate of her brother—alive or dead.

They raced to her family chamber. When they entered, she choked on the smell of chamber pots and burnt clothes.

“Why is my home in this condition?” Arianna scanned the room. Everything was out of place and tossed aside.

“The healer assistants are only allowed to enter for the length of time they can hold their breath,” Saldor explained.

“Wait outside. There is no reason for you to be exposed. The healer told me the serum would protect me, but you are at risk.”

“I want to be there for you.”

“Do not worry. I will not slit my throat.”

Saldor winced. “That is not what I meant.”

“I want to be alone. Let me say goodbye to my brother. We know this is a doomed mission. This is my chance to see him one last time.”

Saldor pulled the door closed behind him.

Arianna stumbled through the dark to her brother’s bedchamber. She found Mardel stretched out on the mattress, arm hanging off the side with a bandage. They had bled him.

She cupped her sleeve over her mouth to stifle the smell and knelt by his side. “Mardel, it is me, Arianna. I am sorry it has been so long. They would not let me visit.” She choked down the rising acid. “I have great news. We’re going to get medicine. The healer said it is a cure.”

She fell back on her heels. “I know you cannot hear me. Everything is such a mess.” Tears welled in her eyes and she swiped them away. “You probably do not remember Mom and Dad too well, but I do. Their happiness made others smile. I—I fell in love with an amazing man. He is kind, strong, and loving. You would like him. He tried to save your life when no one else would come near because of the fever. He stepped up and carried you to this bed. I love him, but we cannot be together.” She cried out, “I need you to stay with me. You are all I have left. Hold on until I return.” Another cry escaped her lips as she sat up and stroked his arm. “I love you, dear brother. Please hold on.”

She stood to leave. Mardel grabbed her arm with an iron grip a person with death fever should not possess. “Arianna…”

“What? I am here.” Arianna fell back onto the bed. His soiled clothes made her gag.

“Take heed. Do not trust—”

“We must go. They attack the outer wall,” Saldor called out.

“Do not trust who?” Arianna shook Mardel, but he did not respond.

“Arianna, now!” Saldor ran out the door. Screams echoed through the corridors.

She brushed her lips over her brother’s burning forehead. “I love you.”

Swallowing down grief, she pledged hatred for those who did not care for her brother, who left him in his own filth, as she raced from the room. There was no time to clean him; she only prayed there would be time to save him.

 

***

 

Tardon swung, slicing through a bony shoulder to the opposite hip. Blood shot out over his head. He pivoted, avoiding eye exposure, and cut through another Cursed One’s thigh. Holding his breath to avoid the sour stench, he threw his knife into the chest of one about to claw a fellow warrior.

Where was Arianna? He glanced around while still focusing on the two opponents at his sides. A blanket of gray bubbling flesh covered the outer court, with only dots of brown leather vests. Five Cursed to one warrior, more than he imagined existed.

Short red hair bounced as a figure descended the court steps. Arianna jumped from the second spiral and plunged her blade into the back of a monster feeding on a guard. Claws reached for her through a doorway and with one swipe of her blade, both hands fell to the ground. Puke green fluid spewed from long, ashen stumps.

Tardon shuffled over and fought back to back with Arianna. They battled as if one warrior. No matter what had happened earlier, they were destined to be together. If they survived the mass of creatures attacking the castle, he’d make her face the truth.

More fell to the Curse and Tardon slaughtered almost the same amount of fellow warriors as he did Gremdon creatures. One of his sparring partners from the Pit dove on his own sword at the sight of a festering wound. Another fought through the change, one second slicing through tough leathery skin, the next turning on his comrades.

The light stone of the court turned to dark pools of shit-tinged fluid, the odor worse than a chamber pot left in the sun for days. Bugs already swarmed the dead.

“Tardon, Arianna, you must go,” Saldor shouted. “Follow Kendar. He will lead you to the underground.”

The freckled servant turned guard who had cared for Tardon throughout great trials stood with sword in hand and Cursed blood down his tunic, holding a bedroll and supplies.

“Follow me.” Kendar shot like a rodent through a hole in the wall.

“Arianna, we must go.”

Arianna’s eyes blazed like an animal on the hunt. Her sculpted arms moved with grace as she continued to fight. She sliced through two stomachs with one swipe of her sword. The top halves of each creature fell forward and splattered on the ground. The bottom half, with organs oozing out, teetered then hit the ground.

Saldor glanced back at her. His moment of distraction gave a creature the advantage. It jumped and threw a knife into Saldor’s upper chest. Arianna extended her right arm and shoved her sword through the creature’s neck. Like meat on a stick, she skewered him and tossed him to the ground.

Arianna turned to another, but Tardon grabbed the back of her vest and pulled her to a corridor behind them. She fought and bucked. “We must help Saldor!” Arianna screamed.

Saldor got up and pulled the blade from his own chest. He motioned for them to continue to the underground and resumed his fight.

Wind whipped through the walkway. Arianna’s hair flailed around, hiding her facial features. Her muscles tensed, both hands wielding weapons, Tardon felt the hatred radiating from her body and soul.

“Let me back in the fight. Our men are dying out there.” Arianna struggled to return.

“We have a mission. One that will save your brother. If you…love Saldor you will let him fight.” The words caught in his throat.

Arianna’s pupils constricted in one breath, and pulsed slightly. Her blood-smeared chest moved faster than her blade.

Move.” Tardon shoved Arianna to the side and slashed through the chest of an approaching creature. She ducked and thrust her blade through another. Tardon grasped her hand and ran after Kendar, who waited in the shadows ahead.

A long, thin, blistered arm reached through an opening and grabbed Kendar’s amulet. “No!” Tardon yelled, but Arianna moved with blinding speed and thrust her blade through the space in the stone, pulling Kendar free, but the creature persisted. Another creature knocked the sword from her hands. Tardon decapitated it.

Without a word, she retrieved her sword and sliced through the creatures arm and she pushed Kendar to safety.

Tardon followed quickly behind, stumbling over the remains. Never had he experienced such passion in a fighter. If she hadn’t been there, his once faithful servant would have fallen to the Curse. What gave her such abilities and grace?

They followed Kendar through narrow passages to the dungeon. Arianna’s expression changed. It was obvious that she’d rather be up there fighting than walking through the dungeon.

Tardon grasped her sweaty palm. She briefly pulled him close, and Tardon found joy in the midst of suffering.

“Wait here.” Kendar stated with too much authority from a servant turned fresh meat in the Pit. Yet neither Arianna nor Tardon questioned him.

Arianna kept her eyes downcast. The small passage confined them to only a nose-length away. Lush, full lips called to Tardon and he bent down to capture them. Her mouth pressed in a thin line. His heart fell.

“I will fight alongside you. You are the best warrior in the kingdom. But I will not find pleasure with you in any other way.” Arianna’s eye twitched and she stood rigid.

Tardon swallowed hard. “I hope someday you will change your mind.”

“I will not.”

She was distant and cold. A true warrior. For seasons he’d been the same way with others. Many women had offered themselves, and he’d rejected them with little emotion.

“Follow me.” Kendar returned and waved them forward.

Arianna darted down the hall. Tardon sucked in a stale breath. Saldor didn’t deserve her. There had to be a way to win her back, but he refused to beg.

They passed many lost souls chained to walls. Some dead from starvation, with insects and rats feeding on their flesh. They were murderers and rapists. Of course, they had to be punished or imprisoned.

Yet the Elders sentenced Arianna despite her innocence. Tardon flashed to Arianna, beaten, starved, and burned. Yes, they reached the edge of the law, but did not cross it.

A thin arm emerged through metal bars and clutched his vest. “Please, sir, I beg of you. I am starving and have not sinned against the Elders. Take mercy on me.”

All three of them halted. Tardon scanned the skeletal remains of a man on the other side of the bars. “A crime must have been committed if you reside in the dungeon.”

“No, sir. I did not.” The man’s speech did not sound of the inner courts, but of an educated status. A merchant perhaps, since he was too small to be a warrior.

“You swear you did not commit a treacherous act against this kingdom, yet you remain in this cell?”

“I do so swear.”

“Remove your hand, sir,” Tardon ordered.

The thin-skinned arm retreated back into the cell.

Tardon reached into their pouch and pulled out a small piece of bread. “This is what I can spare. I wish you good fortune and a pardon from the Elders if what you speak is true.”

“Thank you, sir. Oh, thank you.” The man vanished into the shadows. Only the sound of teeth crunching stale crust gave evidence he still lived.

“Come, we must go.” Tardon found Arianna, mouth open, pupils wide. “That will be from my ration. Do not worry. I will find food once in the forest.”

He brushed past her and his skin tingled at the contact.

“Over here.” Kendar held a trap door open in the center of a vacant cell. “This will lead to the fields. Here is the key to the underground gate.”

Tardon reached for the long iron key, but Arianna snatched it from Kendar’s hands.

“I will take possession.” Arianna jumped through the trap door and the sound of mud splattering echoed below. At least, he hoped it was mud. Things were disposed of underground.

“You have done well.” Tardon placed a hand on Kendar’s shoulder.

A bright smile revealed stark, white teeth. “Tardon?”

“Yes.”

“I do not believe the rumor of Arianna choosing Saldor over you. There must be a reason. Her eyes light up when you are near.”

“You know nothing of warriors and their code. I do not require her attention if she wishes to be with a man old enough to be an Elder. There are many women who beg for my attention.” Tardon straddled the opening. Kendar handed the bedroll and remaining supplies over. Tardon fastened them to his back.

“Yes, every woman in the kingdom.”

Tardon grunted in agreement.

“But none who you love in return.”

Tardon scowled at the young servant-warrior trainee. What did he know of love? He jumped into the darkness below and the trap door banged shut.

Blackness surrounded him. Only the sound of Arianna’s shoes sucking loose from the mud and squishing down again indicated she remained near him.

“Arianna?” No answer came. A cold chill met his face when he turned around. Hand on his sword, he closed his eyes to concentrate on the faint sounds. Something squeaked and scurried away. Breathing and steps in the mud approached. His hair stood on end as he waited for an attack.

The trap door above opened again, flooding light in. “Here, you will need this.” Kendar dropped a torch down to Tardon. Arianna appeared in the distance, hands pressed against the wall.

The trap door slammed shut again.

“Arianna, wait.” Tardon trudged through the muck to get to her. “Why did you not answer?”

Arianna still clutched the wall, blackness spread across her sparkling blue eyes.

“What is it?” Tardon scanned the area, but no monster crept from behind. “Arianna.” Still no response. He pulled her from the wall and examined her arms and face. No cuts or slashes. He shook her until her eyes snapped back to a black circle in the center.

“The cell…blackness surrounded me, there w—were—”

“Shhh, I am here and will not leave you.” He brushed his lips against hers.

Sounds of dying men echoed through the dismal tunnel. “We must hurry.” She pushed from his arms and sloshed ahead.

They passed a hole in the stone wall and he held his breath. Long bones stuck out from the murky, ankle deep water. Arianna cringed at the white bone of a skull that bobbed ominously in the foul water. They turned a corner and light shone ahead. The gate to the outside world. He extinguished the torch as they approached the tall iron door.

“We have reached the gate.” Arianna’s voice broke the silence that caged him in his mind.

Arianna pulled the key from her vest. A fresh breeze from the outside world blew her soft scents, relieving his burning nose from the death around them.

The lock clanked and the door popped open. They both unsheathed their swords.

“We will triumph.” Tardon took a deep breath. “Arianna, I must ask you one thing. If I am Cursed, you must slay me.”

Arianna fell back against the wall. “You ask too much. I will not.”

“I will promise the same to you.” He brushed her short hair from her porcelain face, moved closer and took her hand. “Promise me. Neither of us will let the other live if they—”

“Do not say it. Please.” Her lake blue eyes watered. A tear rolled down her cheeks. Tardon caressed her soft face, brushing a tear away with his thumb.

“I will. I will take your life from you, if you are turned—” She embraced him and whispered in his ear, “—but I will not leave you behind.”

“You have to—”

She stepped out from the shadows into the light.

His breath caught in his throat with anticipation. Had they made it past the fight? If so, they would have to make it to the forest before they could rest. Once there, he would finally have a chance to be alone with Arianna. If they made it.

Chapter Sixteen

 

Arianna stood on the edge of two worlds. In front lay a once peaceful realm turned to a wasteland for the Cursed. Behind her lay a crumbling prison bereft now of security.

She longed to grab Tardon’s hand and cross to the other side together, but she could not touch him. If she did he would know her true desires.

Tardon would make someone a good husband. The way he gave food to the prisoner inspired her, an act of a good man, like what her brother Mardel did.

When they completed their mission and returned, she’d work by her brother’s side, focusing on helping those in more need than she. That might give her life purpose again.

She pressed her hands against the damp iron and pushed the door open. The hinges creaked. The high-pitched sound echoed through the tall grass ahead. The screams of soldiers in battle had died down to an occasional war cry. Tall strands of wheat towered over their heads in front of her, and she wondered if any touched the sky.

They both stood without moving. A scent she did not recognize tickled her nostrils. A clean, fresh smell.

A growl broke her trance. “Something moves in all of this,” she murmured.

Tardon cleared his throat. “Yes, a beast. We must move with caution.”

Arianna pushed apart the tall, golden-brown stalks and sprang through the opening. Tiny insects danced around her head.

Strange snaps and grunts echoed and she readied herself, pulling the knife from her boot. Grass moved in the distance, and they both crouched.

Tardon motioned her ahead. She shimmied forward, trying not to disturb the brush around her. When she turned back, Tardon had vanished.

“Tardon?” she whispered.

No response.

She grasped her blades tight and strained to see through the tan stalks around her. Tardon’s war cry sounded, and she charged forward without knowing what waited ahead. Plants lashed her skin. A roar loud enough to shake the castle walls stopped her in her tracks. A whimper sounded nearby, and she squatted, listening.

Arianna crawled forward then took a deep breath, pushed to her feet, and leapt into the clearing. Tardon stood covered in blood. Fear burned her skin until she saw the large animal lying on the ground. Tardon’s knife stuck from its side. “I have found dinner.”

Tardon’s dimples warmed her heart. His shoulders back and fists by his side, he stood tall with warrior pride at defeating the large beast. A huge mane of fur surrounded the animal’s face.

The Elders were right. Many strange creatures lived beyond the outer walls. She and Tardon needed to move, and quickly, before more attacked them. Or worse, the Cursed found them.

“We must go.” Arianna stood and sheathed her sword, brushing little specks of grass from her leather skirt.

“No. I will skin it and bring the meat with us. This beast would feed every warrior in the kingdom at once. I will not leave such a catch.”

Typical arrogant warrior, proud of his kill. They did not have time for this. “Hurry. I will not wait long. The sounds of war have ended. If any creatures live, they will be coming.”

He ripped down the middle of the golden best. Thumbing the edge of her dagger, she noticed two elongated fangs, bigger and sharper than the weapon held in her hand.

She staggered her stance and watched the surrounding brush. No movement around them.

A thick, bloodied piece of meat landed at her feet with a splat. She scowled at Tardon who stood back, face split in a teeth-baring grin.

He swaggered over with his bag bulging with fresh meat. “You will carry that piece. There is too much to fit in mine alone.”

“Yes, you killed the big, bad beast. Good job.” Arianna picked up the bloodied, warm piece of meat to shove in her bag.

“You are not impressed? I took him down with only my knife. This meat will feed us for many moons. You—”

Two more massive golden creatures jumped into the clearing, their roars deafening. One’s mane matched the dead carcass on the ground, the other had a bare, slick physique.

“Arianna,” Tardon whispered and grasped her wrist with one hand then drew his blade with the other. “Drop the meat.”

A dark nose scrunched at the air. Another roar sounded. The large, hairless one slunk towards them. Drool ran in strands of mucus to the ground. Hot breath beat against her face.

She dropped the meat and backed further away to the edge of the clearing. The beast crouched. Its long tail swiped the air. It wiggled its hind flanks and jumped. Tardon pulled Arianna behind him and lifted his knife. The other furry creature pounced at the same time. The animals clawed at each other. Horrific wailing sounded from behind as Arianna and Tardon bolted through the dense field.

Tardon’s footsteps followed close behind Arianna for a great distance. Her legs burned with fatigue but she continued until Tardon grabbed her shoulder and pulled her back. “Nothing follows. We must rest.”

Arianna collapsed against a large rock, Tardon beside her. “We are near the open land that leads to the woods.” He pointed to something in the sky. Arianna squinted. A large, brown object shot up over the field.

Massive trees soared toward the hazy sky with gray strands hanging in clumps from long branches and green leaves extended at the top like hair. “There are trees ahead, like those in the maps and in your book.” They were real. They looked a lot like a bush used to grow berries in a merchant shop, but much bigger. Arianna pushed off the ground, heart beating in anticipation. She squatted at the edge of the grass. “I think I would die happy today to have seen something so magnificent.”

A faint smile curved his lips. “I agree.”

She caught a glimpse of a dark claw pulling back leaves; a creature’s menacing eyes peered through the opening. She tensed and wanted to run back to the protection of the castle walls, but she wouldn’t abandon her mission.

Cursed Ones shot out from the brush and raced to the woods. Beasts chased them. A spotted animal caught the Cursed creature and crunched its bones between massive jaws. She cringed at the sounds of a horrific death. Would they make it through a land full of such cruelty.

So many other animals hopped and ran amongst the trees. A fight ensued between the gray, leather-skinned Cursed and the beasts of the field. She quelled her fear and dug her boot into the dirt determined to make the treeline.

“Do you believe we will cross without being seen?” Arianna whispered.

“There’s a chance while their attention rests on each other. We must run now, but without sound, or wait until the night comes.” Tardon spoke in a rushed, demanding tone.

Her pulse quickened. “We must be in the forest with our fires lit before the land grows dark. Saldor said the animals and Cursed Ones would see and fight better at night. The fire will keep them away, but we must make it to the area of the rock pits before lighting them. Saldor believes they will not venture in there.”

Arianna’s eyes grew moist as she remembered Saldor’s injuries. Would he be alive when they returned, or did he die in the battle?

Tardon stood behind her. “Then we go. Now.”

Several animals circled at the edges of the forest a few hundred paces away. With the sun falling lower in the sky, they had to move or face being slaughtered. Keeping her eyes fixed on the creatures in the distance, she darted for the cover of trees with speed and caution.

Roars sounded from behind. Hairs rose on the back of her neck. More beasts joined the others in the hunt.

Tardon passed her on the left stepping over a rock and some sticks.

Honeysuckle and fresh pine greeted them on their approach. The familiar pine scent triggered images from many seasons ago of running around tall trees being chased by her sister.

Tardon clutched her arm and drew her to a stop. A beast in the distance turned its mighty head toward them. She squatted beside Tardon, hoping not to draw attention. Too consumed with a new kill, the animal dropped its head and tore another limb from a lifeless Cursed body. Would it turn the beast into a hideous creature? She shuddered at the thought.

Arianna resumed her path to the trees ahead. A twig snapped under her foot. She froze. A loud shriek pierced the air and echoed.

Arianna shuffled around to find where it came from. Tardon yelled something, but his words didn’t register until she saw it—a mass of gray emerging from the brush. Hundreds of Cursed orange eyes fixed on them. Her blood ran cold. They were only half the distance to the cover of the trees and their only chance to survive.

Run!” Tardon’s words broke through her muddled thoughts, and her feet moved before her brain.

Their rapid steps sounded in rhythmic unison, fleeing a fight they could not win. No chance of success against such a vast number of Cursed. At least, not without one claw slashing our skin.

They gained distance. Legs aching, her side likewise tightened with sharp pain. They reached the edge of the tree line. The creatures still pursued.

Tardon grabbed her hand and continued running into the dark forest. Things chirped, grunted, tweeted, and slithered in the shadows. The air turned cold beneath the canopy of trees.

The dense woods surrounded them and Tardon slowed his pace. Arianna stopped to assess the threat. They would not be able to continue at such a pace all day.

The vile Cursed stood in the distance. Their heads bobbed in the air as if trying to track their scent. She remembered blue on the map not too far ahead. Saldor said it would mask their odor, and the creatures wouldn’t be able to follow. She waved Tardon on and raced to the east.

They traversed tree roots and prickly bushes. Her leather gauntlets provided needed protection against the sharp thorns. Sticks snapped closer behind them. The smell of fresh rain caught her attention. She climbed a steep hill, Tardon following, and found glistening, rapid moving water.

Dozens of creatures remained in close pursuit.

She shuffled down the embankment and wadded into the frigid water. Her body seemed chilled to the bone the minute her thin boot hit the riverbed.

A piercing, icy current shoved her into Tardon. Hands grasped together, they pushed forward against the water. Two Cursed Ones jumped in and their gaunt faces poked from the water before the creatures cried out and choked. Others remained on the shore, screaming.

The current grew stronger with each step. Arianna slipped on a rock and plunged below the water. Tardon’s hand clutched the back of her vest and yanked her up. Icicles formed in her chest, forcing out steaming gasps. She fought to regain her footing. Tardon continued marching forward, waist deep in water, dragging her behind him with one hand while holding the drinking water, food and blanket high above the current in his other hand.

Every muscle in her body stung with shots of bitter cold. Her hands found the river bed, and she clawed her way on all fours to the shore. Tardon collapsed by her side, heaving.

She pulled herself on top of his chest. “Thank you.”

He gave her a reassuring smile, the kind that always made everything better. The cries from across the river faded. “Have they given up?”

“No, but I think we have put some distance between us.” Tardon pushed from the ground; his arms shook when he offered his hand. “We must move.” He glanced at the small crest of the sun peaking above the tree canopy. “There isn’t much time.”

Her legs protested but she commanded them forward. They clung to each other, working together to ascend the embankment.

He clutched her tighter to him. “If we do not make it to the stones soon, and a fire, we will not survive.”

Her toe joints locked and each step sent a lightning flash of pain up her legs.

They entered the woods again and the temperature dropped beneath the tree branches. “We must head northwest. The river took us too far east.” She tried to pull him along with her. His legs visibly shook under him. Never had she witnessed Tardon at this point of exhaustion. The man was made of iron. Nothing affected him. Hours spent in the Pit with not a word of complaint. No fighter trained to the level of exhaustion he did. Now, his large mass trembled with each step.

Even with the sharp pains she shuffled forward, tripping over debris.

Tardon wavered and fell against a tree. “Arianna, you must go on. My body betrays me.”

“No, I will not leave you.” She wanted to wrap her arms around him, kiss him, scream that she loved him. Give him a reason to continue. “If you stay here, the mission is doomed. There is no way I can finish this alone. I will die or become Cursed before the next sun.”

He pushed his shoulders back and extended his chin. Birds squawked overhead. The sounds of nature amplified her fear while she waited for his response. Trees waved in a growing breeze and her own shivers increased.

He pushed from the ground with a cry and grabbed a tall stick. “We continue.”

Small, furry creatures scurried away from his movement. The roar of water faded, replaced by whistling wind.

Floral aroma floated in the air. Pink, purple, and yellow danced in the thin rays of light breaking through the trees. “Tardon, look, over there.”

“They are flowers,” he rasped.

“Your book speaks the truth.” She shuffled ahead and plucked one from the ground. She held her trembling hand to her nose. “It is sweet and inviting.”

He pointed behind her. “There is better news.”

A wave of relief rolled over her. “It is the rocks. We made it.” Even with her frozen bones, she quickened her pace.

“We must build the fires and remove our clothes before we die from cold,” Tardon ordered.

She halted. She had no other clothes. They only had food and water. “B—but we will freeze with no clothing.”

“No, we will make a shelter, and I have a thin blanket. With the heat of the fire, shelter, and our bodies pressed together, we will make it through the night.”

Bodies?

Pressed together?

 

***

 

Arianna’s eyes shot wide open at his words.

Tardon’s heart ached at her reaction and he staggered forward, wanting to pull her close and make her feel his passion. But he would not. “I promise not to touch you, if you do not wish it. We need firewood. I will work on the shelter while you gather kindling. Stay close. I am afraid, in my state, a fight with one of the creatures or beasts of the Outer Realm would mean our deaths.”

She still stood motionless.

Darkness started to take over the shadier part of the woods. It would be pitch black under the trees the moment the sun vanished from the horizon. He reached out and shook her, wanting to rid her of all the fear and doubt put in her mind by the Elders. Or Saldor. “We must make haste, Arianna.”

“Yes, I am sorry. Kindling.” She hobbled to the edge of the ring of four fire pits and bent to collect wood.

His knees and elbows struggled to bend, but he managed to retrieve several large pieces of timber and stack them against each other in the center of the four fire pits. With long vines, he tied them together, forming a rough shelter.

He broke off tree branches with leaves and placed them over the opening. Each time he shifted his muscles tightened with fatigue, yet the movement heated his throbbing body.

Arianna tripped and stumbled around, dropping wood. She needed warmth. He finished gathering supplies before the ground became nothing more than a pool of black.

She constructed a cone shape with leaves and some of the moss that hung from the trees. He’d started fires a million times, but never with stiff hands.

He beat two rocks together until sparks flew, the moss and leaves smoking, but no fire erupted. Black surrounded them and Arianna started working on lighting another pile, but neither of them met with success.

Strange howls echoed in the air from far off. Without the circle of fires, they were nothing more than food for the animals of the night. A chill raced through him at the high shrill of one of the Cursed.

He threw the rocks down into the pile and a flame sputtered to life. At the welcomed musky smell of burning moss and twigs, he chuckled in relief. Arianna raced over, small stick in hand with moss wrapped around the end and lit it, then returned to her pile of kindling. Tardon did the same until all four pits blazed to life.

Tossing two more logs on the fire in front of their shelter, he pulled the meat from his soiled bag. “I think we should cook all of this. It will mute the odor and not attract animals when we travel.”

She knelt next to him. Her body still shook, and her usually full, red lips had a blue tint. He wanted to warm them with a kiss. However, his lips were cold, too. He pulled his dagger and whittled the end of a solid stick, while she stuck two branches with a V at the top in the ground. He skewered the meat and placed it above the fire. Together, they managed to work through the pain and set up camp.

Only one thing left to do. “Remove your clothes and we will place them next to the fire. We must warm each other then eat.”

Shaking her head, she stood stubbornly in front of him as tremors ravaged her body. Maybe her arms would not move any more. Frozen solid by the dropping temperature? His hands suffered violent tremors, and he couldn’t grasp any of her laces on her vest. “You will die soon if we do not warm your body.”

“Turn around,” she said softly.

“What? But I have seen—”

“That was before. Now, I wish you to turn around.”

Tardon grew impatient but followed her request. Time wasted. They should be snuggled under the blanket already instead of standing apart, freezing. He stripped the clothes from his body and spread them next to the fire.

The wind made the blanket dance as he tried to unfold and crawl under. The layer of leaves covered by the thin material helped shield him from the damp ground. Still, his body ached. When she crawled under next to him, he curled into her body.

Teeth chattering at a vicious pace, she settled in. He stroked her damp hair and pulled the blanket over their heads. How he longed to feel warm again.

The fire crackled at their feet. She scooted down, closer to the flames.

“I will heat some water and check the meat. If we can get something hot inside we should be able to stand the cold better.”

Arianna clutched the blanket around her.

Animal noises echoed in the darkness. He hung the water sack over the fire.

Tardon flinched as he caught sight of eyes shining at them on the edge of the camp. Were they orange, or did the fire reflect in them?

She shot up on her elbows. “What is it?”

“If there are Cursed Ones, they are not entering the circle of fires. Did Saldor explain this?”

“He said that the Elders had protected this land to prevent Cursed from entering.” She clutched the blanket to her chin and shimmied down to cross her legs by the fire. “It was set up before the castle was sealed. They tried to trade with other lands and used this as a resting place for travelers, but when the danger became too great, they abandoned the idea.”

“Good for us they created this. Otherwise we would be dead by now.” Not able to withstand the heady aroma of fresh meat cooking, he cut off a piece and handed it to Arianna. She smiled as she chewed. He bit into a fresh slice of sizzling meat. At the intense, sharp yet earthy flavor, he craved more. He couldn’t remember eating something that tasted this good.

Arianna moaned and tore at another bite. Neither spoke as they devoured their food.

Juice slid down his chin and onto the ground. The howls faded, only chirping and croaking added to the few minutes of peaceful sounds. His stomach expanded and he sighed, placing the empty skewer on the ground.

“That is a meal made for warriors,” he said as he realized his body no longer shook from the cold. The warm fire, the blanket over his lap, and the delicious food and drink created a comfort beyond any he’d ever experienced.

“I will save the rest for tomorrow.” He placed the remainder of cooked meat into the bag and placed it near the fire. Even if the animals stayed out now, it didn’t mean they would all night. “It is a shame that many beasts roam the land while our people starve shut up in that castle. We need to allow hunting again. I was one of the best when the Elder’s granted permission.”

“Yes, but what choice do we have? Many have been sent from the castle walls to find food and never returned in recent seasons.” Shivering, she pulled the blanket up to her neck. “But we have made it this far. Certainly, if we have done this once we will succeed again. We will save our people from starvation.”

“Yes, but this was a well constructed plan that may only work once. Now, the Cursed have seen us in this part of the land. I can only assume they know where we are now.” He threw more kindling on each of the fires and returned to the shelter, only to have her look away. Did she not like to look at him anymore? The first time, she couldn’t keep her eyes off of him.

“Come, let us try to sleep.” He would hold her one more time. If she truly would choose Saldor in the end, he would savor his last night with her. “If we make it back in one piece, I will volunteer to hunt again. We will hash out a new plan, even if we have to dig another tunnel underground. We will find a way to give hope to our people again.”

She curled next to him under the shelter, her tense body pressed against his. The smell of cooked meat filled the little makeshift shelter. In the middle of the woods, surrounded by monsters and beasts, their little camp provided more joy than his well-secured chambers in the castle.

Smells of fresh flowers and honey invited him closer. He pressed his lips to her damp hair and inhaled the minty fragrance. Something inside him twitched—a desire to be close to her, even if only once more.

He ran a hand down her cheek, and she closed her eyes. Her tongue swept over her lips, moistening them. The fire crackled, and he wrapped his arm around her then pressed his chest to her back.

“Are you warm?” Tardon brushed two waves of hair from her forehead.

“You were right. Our body heat keeps the cold away. My back is warm.”

“You are still cold?”

“I am f—fine,” Arianna stuttered.

Tardon moved and pulled her onto her back then slid on top of her. Careful not to crush her under him, he pushed his knees between her legs and rested on his elbows next to her ears. Her eyes popped open, but she did not move.

“Am I hurting you?”

She swallowed and shook her head. Staring with wide eyes, she lay under him stiff as a piece of wood. He pressed his chest against hers, and she moaned in his ear. His body responded.

The realization of his position shot a much needed wave of heat through every muscle. He leaned down and raked his lips across hers. She didn’t push him away. Instead, her eyes slid shut, and she kissed him back with a gentle touch.

He leaned up to view her body glowing in the fire. Voluptuous breasts pushed toward him, nipples erect. She pulled him close again and kissed him with more passion. He grew hard and moved against her abdomen.

Soft moans sounded in his ears. He massaged her breasts. Legs wrapped around him and he pushed against her quivering body. Their bodies melted together. She raked her tongue across his neck. When she pushed herself up, his body went stiff. He was there. Nothing to stop him from entering her. She clutched his back. The world drew quiet, only her pants echoing the beat of his heart. The darkness and evil around them disappeared.

This was it. What he’d wanted from the first moment he’d denied himself.

He pushed forward only a little and met resistance. Never had he experienced a woman who was pure. He didn’t want to hurt her, but his throbbing shaft demanded more.

He reached between her legs and her head rolled back. He moved against her tightness with care, and she cried out into the night, pushing at his hands. Despite her delicate innocence, she responded with soft moans. She quivered under him and it drove his passion. He removed his hand and pressed his body against her. He would finally be with the woman he loved. And with no Enforcer around to stop them, nothing could keep him from loving Arianna.

Chapter Seventeen

 

Every part of Arianna wanted him. His lips brushed across her skin, leaving a tingling path in their wake. The passion drove heat to her core. Her body responded and welcomed him. Everything moved in slow motion, making each touch more intense.

He moved his hips back to her abdomen and she sighed. Small drops of moisture settled on her belly. He massaged her breasts again and his knee pushed against her. Waves of need called for her to embrace him. He moved his knee and reached between her legs. Musky smells of sweat and heated desire begged her to respond. His fingers gently filled her, stretching her inside to the point of pleasurable discomfort.

Trembles escalated from deep within her, and she longed for more. He moved his hand and his manhood pressed into her core but stopped.

“I love you.” Tardon’s words broke through her ecstasy like a ball through a glass window. Was it real love, or a lie from the Elders? Deep longing warred with fear, causing her to stiffen beneath his touch.

Tardon only believed he loved her because of the spell the Elders cast on him, but when the two of them returned he’d marry another. She’d be left ruined and unable to fight after being with him. With no way to earn food or materials, she wouldn’t be able to care for her brother. She would end up in the inner city courts, begging for food, or worse, nothing more than a woman of the night for a lonely dungeon guard.

He nudged just inside and her body resisted, the way she should resist him. Tears streaked down her face. “No, I cannot.” Arianna flattened her palms to his chest and pushed him off. She rolled to the side and stifled the screams that wanted to escape. The screams of a woman who had lost everything. Mother, father, sister. Mardel was the only family she had left. How could she risk his life for a few moments of bliss?

Tardon panted from behind her. Wind whipped through and the flames danced as if the Elders mocked her. Tardon placed a gentle hand on her arm and tugged her back to him. But she couldn’t face him. He’d know. She took a deep, staggering breath. With the Elders spell keeping its hooks in him she had to find a way to demolish the spark between them. Otherwise, they wouldn’t make it through the night. “You should have stopped.” Her tone sounded sharp and convincing. “I desire Saldor, not you. I was only scared, and you took advantage of that.”

Tardon pulled her to face him and speared her with his pleading eyes. “No, now you are scared. You are scared to love me, and I want to know why. I felt your passion beneath me. Trust me: I know when someone engages in sex to make the pain go away. I have done this many times.”

The thought of him with another woman churned her stomach, and she channeled that pain into her voice, forcing a coldness she did not feel. “Yes, you have been with many women and you cannot believe that one does not want you.” Arianna clenched the material of the blanket between her fingers to stifle the pain of her own words. “I do not want you. Is that something you can understand? You are not what I want. Saldor is.”

She wanted to say it wasn’t true. Throw him down on the ground and wrap her legs around his waist. Have him finish what they’d started. To feel what it was like to be with him.

Tardon raked a hand through his hair, forehead crinkled in frustration. “What is it that you love about him? Tell me this and I will leave you alone.”

“He is handsome and kind.”

“Those are general terms. What do you love about him?”

Arianna wavered in her strength. “No one can say exactly what draws them to another.”

“Lake water eyes that dance when she sees something new, a smile that warms my soul, hair soft as the petal of a flower, a full heart that wishes to protect the ones she loves, and strength greater than any warrior I know.”

Arianna’s heart melted at his words. She lifted her hand to touch his chiseled jaw. No, she had to be strong, for her brother. She inhaled the cool, night air. “I love him for his strong arms that held me tight in the dungeon.” Her insides knotted at the memory. “His laughter when he stayed with me in bed. The stories he shared of my family.”

Tardon’s eyes grew distant, but her body still throbbed for him.

“Most of all I love him for not accepting the Elders’ gifts when they were sent to him. He saved himself for the woman he loved, even though she was dead. Now, he saves himself for me.” She forced her lips not to quiver and covered her grief with disgust at the thought of Tardon marrying another. “There is nothing worse than a man who has shared so much…company.”

Tardon clutched his hand to his stomach. “You believe what you want. I am not so easily fooled.” His eyes narrowed and his jaw twitched. He tossed the blanket aside and grabbed his breeches from next to the fire.

She yearned to return to the first night in his arms, before the Enforcer charged in. It would have been better to die in the fires than see the look on Tardon’s face now. He hated her for her words. It was what she needed to happen, but not what she wanted. She pulled the blanket tight around her. He shoved his legs into his pants then disappeared around the back of the shelter. The sound of logs thrown onto the fires startled her.

Cold pain shot to her joints. She curled into a fetal position. Salty tears ran over her lips and onto the ground. She bit down on her knuckles to stifle sobs of grief. Even with the words between them, she waited in hopes he’d return to her side, if only to keep warm.

But he didn’t.

He settled by the fire ring, legs crossed, posture slumped as he stoked the flames. He left Arianna alone with nothing more than her thoughts. His muscles tightened as he shuffled debris back and forth in the fire. This would be their last night together. If they escaped from the woods they would make it to the Tree of Life. If not, they would die. She shivered and closed her eyes. Tardon would die thinking she did not love him.

 

***

 

Arianna’s breathing steadied to a slow, deep pace. Tardon sat shivering not only from the cold but from her words. She was right. He’d been weak in accepting those women, but he had never experienced love before. If he could give every night of pleasure back to the Elders to spend one night with Arianna, he would.

His muscles stung and his mind raced, but he required sleep if they were going to survive tomorrow. Small, orange globes still moved in the distance but nothing entered the circle. Strange how this place protected them.

He stood and jammed his sword into the ground beside the shelter. Just in case one of the creatures found a way through during the night, he wanted to be ready. He crawled back into the shelter and under the blanket, but left his damp clothes on. Each move he made to get comfortable cracked the silence so he remained motionless in hopes he wouldn’t wake Arianna. He could not bear to see her judgmental eyes stabbing into him again.

She moaned in her sleep and cried out several times. Dreams of fighting, no doubt. Nightmares of their battles haunted every warrior. Her body shivered. He moved closer to warm her but was careful not to wake her. She snuggled into him. If only she wanted him close when she was awake.

“I do not love him,” Arianna mumbled in her sleep.

Tardon’s chest constricted and he held his breath.

“I love Tardon.”

His heart soared at her words. Her dream spoke the truth. Something was going on. She’d moved freely under him, invited him into her when she wrapped her legs around him, moist and pushing against him. That was not a woman who loved another man.

Saldor must have convinced her of a lie. Or else the Elders had frightened her into submission by threatening her brother. None of them were here to enforce their empty threats. Maybe there would be a way to make her see the truth.

Yet she did look at Saldor with loving eyes. Did she desire both of them? If so, Saldor was more deserving if he didn’t accept gifts in the night. Tardon found that hard to believe. Another lie Saldor had told her.

Arianna looked at Tardon with more passion than Saldor. Was she actually too disgusted by the number of women he’d been with to ever allow him close to her? He had to make her see those women meant nothing to him.

No, that was not all of it. Even if he convinced her, there was something else driving her. He needed to think more like a warrior and less with his broken heart. An Elite Warrior could formulate complicated battle plans. That would be his new approach: to fight one line of defense at a time until the truth was revealed.

Tonight they would sleep.

Tomorrow he would not only battle the elements, the beasts, and monsters, but also Arianna and her reluctant heart.

Chapter Eighteen

 

Under the morning rays, Arianna’s skin and hair glistened. Tardon’s body still yearned for her, but he refused to surrender to temptation. Today he would remain distant and give her no reason to maintain her guard. If you want to strike and win, you must first convince your opponent to lower her defenses.

The light and sounds of the forest invited him out of the shelter. He stood and stretched his back, rotating his arm to free his stiff shoulder. A dull ache settled deep in his muscles. Only a soft glow remained in the fire pits. The horizon showed no sign of any Cursed. No roars echoed through the trees. Strange how he felt free and alone out in the middle of this land. No walls to close in on him as he slept.

Someday he’d return to the way men were suppose to live—working their land, hunting for food, and walking free through the forest.

Arianna stirred behind him. He lifted her clothes from next to the fire ring and tossed them to her. “Here, we need to go.”

She said nothing but the cloth rustled, indicating she dressed. There would be much land to cover before they could rest again. For once, he was thankful for the Elders’ interference. Without the circle of fires, they would have fallen to the elements by morning, if not to a beast.

Arianna stepped out beside him. Not even sweat and smoke hid her scent of flowers and honey. They drew him in and taunted his resolve. He stiffened. Stand firm. He rolled the blanket and packed the food.

Arianna stretched and walked around the small camp. “No sign of any creatures?”

“No, but that means nothing. We must be prepared for anything.” Tardon slung the bedroll on his back then tossed the food and supply pouch to Arianna. “Here, carry this.”

He had to stifle a smile at her large eyes. Never did he tell her to carry more than her own food. Things would be different today.

“How did you sleep?” Arianna’s soft voice stroked his skin with an invisible finger.

“Fine.” Tardon grabbed his sword and headed out of the camp toward the distant mountain peaks that jutted over the top of the trees to the west.

No footsteps followed. Good. She struggled with his new attitude.

Focused forward, he waved her on. “Move, or be left behind.” His harsh tone made him flinch, but he continued with her footsteps finally following behind.

Jagged rocks sprouted from around tree roots. The perfume of oak and flowers faded as they hiked to a higher altitude.

“This scent, it is familiar,” Arianna called from behind.

Tardon pulled a green needle from a tree and sniffed it. “Pine. I recognize this from seasons ago. Many of our people lived up here. Hunters who brought meat to trade in the markets.”

“Do you hear that?

“What?”

“No sounds.”

The world had fallen silent. No crickets or birds chirped.

“If hunting is plentiful, should there not be more life here?” Arianna drew her blade and moved around in front of him.

He ground his teeth. Blasted woman was right. He stood silent and held his breath. No scurry of a small rodent or wailing by a Cursed One.

“The Elders have provided us with a path. They must have protected us.” He refused to draw his sword, even though his warrior instinct stung in warning. “Move on.”

“No,” Arianna snapped.

“No?” He pushed his shoulders back and glared at her. “We have been charged with a mission. There is no time for defiance.”

She walked up to him. Her hips swayed, causing the material of her skirt to rustle with appealing rhythm.

“Not until you tell me what is happening.” Arianna sheathed her sword and crossed her arms.

“There is no time for this, woman. We must go.”

“Woman? Woman? You have not called me that since the night we—”

“Do you wish to save your brother or not?” He yearned to push her against the tree and show her what they were doing that night, and more. He turned before she saw his body betray his speech. “We must make it to the edge of the trees by mid-day or we will not have time to cross the mountain and reach the Tree of Life before dark.”

After that, she stopped asking questions and followed obediently behind. Unfortunately, with the silence and no immediate danger, it left time for his mind to wander. He’d been close to taking her last night. Too close.

“Are you hurt?” she asked after a prolonged silence.

“No.” Damn, that woman missed nothing, not even his slightly bow-legged walk. He adjusted himself and jumped over several rocks, only to teeter on the edge of a cliff. His breath caught, and he grabbed a tree. His boot slipped and he nearly met his end on the pointed, gray rocks below.

Arianna grabbed his vest and yanked him back. They both fell, tumbling together down the hill they had just climbed.

Rocks, tree roots, and pine needles pierced his skin with each roll. He thudded against the base of a large tree, his love by his side.

Sun broke through the branches onto his face.

She straddled him, eyes blazing. “You are not focused. What is wrong with the Great Tardon?” Her arms waved about as if announcing his presence to a court. “That he almost plummeted to his death off the side of a cliff?” She slammed her fists to his chest. “You will tell me what is wrong before you get us both killed.” Her breasts heaved in his face, and her body rubbed against his.

Heat surged through him. She would be a passionate lover.

He dumped her on the ground and stood. “Nothing troubles me except the creatures that follow us. You think too much of yourself.”

Her body went rigid. Was he too harsh? He only wished for her to lower her guard and let him discover her secret. Asking her would never work. Her pupils grew wide, and she reached for the blade in her boot.

He stumbled back. With one leap, she sailed over a rock and around the tree, knife pointed at his throat. He dove and rolled to avoid her and discovered bright orange eyes pulsing in the distance behind a bush.

She maneuvered like a cat around the forest. Leveraging her right foot on a low broken branch, she dove into the brush. He drew his sword and followed. High-pitched cries pierced the quiet.

As he rounded the green bush, Arianna knelt by the Cursed One, holding its head in her hand.

“Why did we not hear this creature?” She panted and tossed the head to the side.

“I am not certain. But I do know the entire forest heard it scream.” He scanned their surroundings and found nothing unnatural.

“Well, someone had to kill it.” She stood and shouldered him on her way past. “If not, we would both be dead.”

She was right. He needed to focus or they would never make it. Too much time had been wasted. “We must keep our eyes in the distance. If we are forced to fight, we must try to kill with a swift and deadly move.” He sheathed his sword and followed her back to the tree they had landed at. “I am sure others heard the screams, we must move quickly.”

Leaves rustled in the distance and they both froze.

Only the wind stirred.

“By your tone, I guess you would have annihilated the threat with more precision. Next time, I will wait for you to discover the creature before it Curses you.” She huffed and stomped toward the northwest, the supplies slung over her shoulder.

“Where are you going?”

“A bridge. Saldor showed me one on the map. We must travel a little north before we try to cross the ravine.”

He did not like being lead around based on Saldor’s guidance. “We have no time to change our path.”

“You have a better idea?” She spun and faced him, hand on her hip. “Other than throwing you over that cliff myself, I have no knowledge of another way to cross.”

Cries in the distance cut through the tension between them. Without a word, she sprinted over the treacherous terrain and he followed. Not used to having a bountiful meal before training, his full stomach tightened within a few miles. He pushed through the pain.

Arianna moved with the swiftness of the beast he’d first encountered when they exited the kingdom—and probably had the bite of it, too. Thankful for a few minutes of silence between them, he flicked his eyes away from her and kept his gaze on the distant trees.

Fresh breezes swept across his face. They were close to the edge again. Once out of the thick trees he spotted the long, dilapidated bridge to the other side. It was old and rickety, but that wasn’t the problem. Roars echoed from across the ravine. Trees wiggled and shimmied in the distance as if great creatures roamed, waiting for their next meal.

He scanned the area, attempting to find another path, but none existed. Warrior instinct warned him not to cross the bridge, but what choice did they have?

Arianna paused by his side and he placed a palm on her shoulder in reassurance even though he feared their journey was about to come to an abrupt end.

Screeches sounded from behind him. Were they to cross into the mouth of a beast or stand here and fall to the Cursed? “We have no choice.” The echoes of ear piercing howls sent shivers down his spine. “Go.” He shoved her onto the bridge. The structure swayed in the wind, and he clutched the rope handles before he took his first step onto a splintered board.

Should he take the lead and fight the beast ahead, or watch their back and the Cursed that fast approached? He searched his mind for possible defenses, but there was no strategic advantage to where they were. Either direction they took, they didn’t stand a chance.

 

***

 

The bridge rocked alarmingly in the wind. Arianna glanced down. Jagged rocks below, animals ahead, and Cursed gaining behind. Nowhere to go. Panic zinged through her body. Behind her Tardon nudged her back, and she pressed a toe against the board in front of her. It creaked as she put the pressure of her body weight on it—each new board seemed more unstable than the last. Her head swam and her legs shook at the sight of the gray death below. When at last her first foot touched the sandy earth of the other side, she drew her sword.

A tree rustled only a few strides away. She crouched down and readied for the attack. Sounds of the ear-piercing whines from behind were lost somewhere in the ravine. For now, they only had the beasts to concentrate on. Should they cut the bridge free? If so, how would they cross back?

The bushes rustled again and Tardon bounded ahead, sword parallel to the ground at the side of his ear.

Arianna held her breath and watched the bridge behind them.

He’d proven to be a great hunter of beasts, but this was an unseen creature. The trees ceased moving, and he did not sound a war cry.

“Tardon?”

No reply.

She approached with caution. “Tardon?”

As she peered around the corner, she found nothing. Not even Tardon. The bedroll rested on the ground at her feet but nothing gave any indication of a struggle. No blood, broken tree limbs, unturned dirt. “Tardon!”

She moved a few paces further into the thick brush. An arm reached out and grabbed her, a hand coming like an iron trap over her mouth. “Shh, look.” Tardon’s warm breath swept her ear, and she focused on the open field. Tan creatures with long, slender legs frolicked about an open pasture, chasing each other like small children.

A distant cry brought her back to reality. Tardon tossed her to the side with a snarl of disgust, as if touching her in that way would burn his skin. “We must continue. Our fate will be decided by the time the sun reaches the top of the sky.”

Her stomach flopped at his words.

He pressed on with vigor. The muscles in her thighs burned. How long could they maintain this pace and still have strength to fight.

The bitter cold grew between them with each step toward their final destination. Still, she couldn’t understand his sudden change in attitude. They hadn’t returned to the castle, and the Elders couldn’t have altered their spell compelling him to love her. Why would he change his mind even under the spell? Perhaps the distance they’d traveled from the castle weakened the spell and he had realized he did not love her.

He flung tree limbs and logs out of their way. His muscles twitched and shone in the sun light. She longed to have them wrap around her again, to feel his touch on her skin.

He’d come so close to making love to her, but that was only a dream that could never be. Once the spell was lifted, he would despise her for the shame she’d brought upon him over the last few weeks. An Elite Warrior involved in hiding a person with Death Fever, being thrown in the dungeon, almost set on fire…even if he didn’t hate her when they returned, he would never want to see her again.

They reached a cool stream. Tardon pulled his shirt and vest from his body, then tossed water over his shoulders so it streamed down his back. Various scars etched his back like a battle map. Some of the marks she’d witnessed in the Pit. One or two were by her own hand.

He rotated his shoulders and stretched before turning to her. His piercing, copper eyes drove heat straight to her core. His chest, a solid mass of muscle, called for her to touch him. It had only been one moon ago that he’d pressed against her body, and she wanted him to make love to her. Did I make a mistake last night? The sad aching in her body told her she had. She should have pulled him into her and enjoyed their one night of passion.

One night for a lifetime of disgrace. He didn’t really want her—only the spell drove him to love her.

No. If he did not want her of his own free will, she did not wish to have him.

She cupped her hand and sipped from the cool stream. The crystal clear water held no taste of rotten eggs like the castle’s, and it caressed her mouth before sliding down her throat. She closed her eyes and savored each sip. Birds chirped overhead. She and Tardon had found paradise, but possessed no time to stay and savor it. She opened her eyes and noticed something carved into the side of a tree.

“What…” She waded over to the edge of the stream and brushed her fingers against the rough bark. “I remember this.” Her mind searched for the memory. Children playing…Father chopping wood…Mother cooking in the kitchen…her brother playing on the floor with wooden animals…catching her sister kissing a boy behind a tree. Happiness poured over every part of her.

Tardon placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “Arianna, what do you see?”

Tears welled in her eyes. “I lived here. We are near my childhood home.” She wanted to bury her face in his chest and weep for the loss of so many—but not now, not with him.

She marched up the hill to the old log home. When she neared the broken down structure she stood in silence, unable to move or speak. Memories of fresh baked apple pie and fried potatoes filled her. The smell of lemons haunted her, and she half-expected to find her sister squeezing them over a glass for her famous drink, one that defined the first warmth of spring and an afternoon of fun. Food she hadn’t remembered until a few moments before, and now it drew her home.

They followed an overgrown, winding road up to the house. The door stood ajar, and she pushed it open. It squealed and something scurried in the corner. She stepped into her family home. Her true family home, abandoned abruptly in the middle of the night. Flashes of a hasty departure drew her further into the living space.

Sun shone through the broken roof slats. She shuffled forward and kicked something. It rolled across the floor until the item hit the leg of a chair. She reached down to pick up Mardel’s ball from when he was only old enough to crawl. She choked back the sorrow threatening to consume her. Dirty, frayed hair ribbons, dishes on the table, Mother’s sewing on a chair…everything had been left behind.

She ran her finger down a ribbon. “My mother and sister used to braid these into my hair. We would make flower crowns by weaving the stems together.” A soft laugh escaped her lips. “My sister would pretend to march down the aisle to marry her one true love.”

Pigeons cooed from the other side of the wall.

Arianna pushed back the torn curtain that divided the two spaces. “This is the room I shared with my sister.” She sat on the edge of her childhood bed. Dust erupted in plumes of gray.

He scooped a small, filthy doll from the ground. “What is this?”

Her heart twisted when he placed the soft object in her arms. “My mother and sister made her for me.” She stroked the dirty brown string on top of the doll’s head. “The night we fled, I dropped her. I cried the entire way to the castle. My sister spent days searching for material to make a new one. On the third night, when we were assigned our family chambers, she gave me a duplicate to help me sleep.” Her mouth trembled and she pressed her lips together to calm them. “I—I told her it was not the same, and I did not want it. I was a fool and ungrateful.”

“You were a child.” Tardon knelt down and stroked her arms. “Everyone did what they could, but it was a dark time.”

Emotions flooded her. She had been torn from her home in the night only to lose her parents soon after. Her sister had struggled to find medicine when they were ill, which ultimately lead to her demise outside the castle walls, leaving Arianna to care for her brother alone.

Darkness threatened to suffocate her. Invisible pressure constricted her lungs with each breath.

Tardon took her hands in his. “Arianna, tell me. Tell me why you have turned to another. I know you love me. There is something else. I can help. Together we can overcome anything.”

His words cut through her soul. Her body shook with the memory of loving her family with all of her heart, only to be left with an empty black hole in her middle. She willed the thoughts from her mind, unable to face them.

The walls closed in around her. Only able to draw in staggered breaths, she pushed from the bed. Tears streamed down her face as she ran from her home. No more loss. Her heart and soul would smash into a million pieces if she had to endure another loved one being ripped from her life.

She ran, taking herself far away from Tardon’s words and the memories threatening to cripple her permanently. Her legs burned as she climbed a hill; her stomach bubbled, and she swallowed back the burn in her throat.

At the top of the hill, she collapsed and inhaled pine-scented, cold air. Tardon struggled up the steep incline behind her. She had no idea how fast and far she’d climbed. Even now, the sun rose directly over the mountain peak. A reminder of what still remained ahead. If she didn’t pull herself together, they’d never make it back to the ring of fire before the last ray of sun disappeared into the night sky, sealing their fate.

Arianna tried to stand, but her legs gave out from fatigue. She removed the water bag, drank some, and assessed the area around her. The cool water trickled down and soothed her raw throat.

Brown tree trunks darted up from solid gray ground. No dirt, just solid rock. Bumps rose on her damp skin. The temperature had dropped with the altitude.

Tardon popped over the last ledge and collapsed by her side. “You have the stamina and strength of a beast yourself. I believe we may have a chance with you by my side.” He gave a forced smile, but she knew he observed the rising sun.

He brushed hair from her eyes. “Someday, you will have a home. A husband and children. We will find a way.” He let go of her hair and took the water bag. “I mean you will find a way, with Saldor.”

Arianna stiffened at the knowledge it would never be that way for her.

She pulled away and led him to the path up the mountain. “It is not much further.” Her legs still shook beneath her. “We will be at the Tree of Life soon.” The dark oval of an opening appeared in the rock face ahead. “There, the cave Saldor told me about. The Tree of Life rests at the other end.”

“So does the Outer Realm.” Tardon scrubbed his face. “We have not met with much resistance, but, once we exit the cavern, all that will change. This is where the fight begins.”

They dropped the bedroll and supplies by a tree, then Arianna continued into the opening without a word. A chill zinged down her back and cool darkness surrounded her. Light shone not too far ahead, indicating the entrance to the Outer Realm. The place where they would face the largest number of Cursed ever.

Steps echoed in the small space. She ran her hand along the slimy walls. As they neared the entrance, her heart sped up. This would be either the end of their mission or the end of their lives.

The sun dipped below the mountain peak on the other side of the valley. A sign of their certain failure. She turned to Tardon. This would be the last time she’d lay eyes on his massive frame and boyish grin. “You have the best chance to make it back to the castle. If I fall, do not stop for me. I will end my own life if I must.”

“No.” His eyes pleaded. “Do not speak of such things—”

“Promise me.”

“No, I will not—”

“You will.” She flung her arms around his neck and pushed him against the wall. Here was her last chance to indulge in his heady scent and earthy taste. He wrapped his arms around her waist and pulled her against his hard body.

Streams of tears ran down their faces. They both knew this was good-bye.

Chapter Nineteen

 

Tardon brushed the tears from Arianna’s cheeks. She pulled away and straightened her posture. He rested his head back against the cave wall and scrutinized her warrior persona. She drew her sword and stepped to the edge of the cave.

She loved him. Nobody produced such passion in the face of death unless they longed to be with someone. If they made it out of this mission alive, he swore by the warrior’s oath, he’d discover what plagued her. And then nothing would stop him from winning her back.

However, first, he had to focus on the mission. The horizon showed a setting sun, no more time to dwell. No more distractions, or it would mean their death. He dug deep for his soulless warrior self, whose only purpose in life was to slaughter his enemy.

Yet he wasn’t the same warrior who’d fought in a Pit or within the castle walls. He gasped in fear at the world in front of him. The valley between the mountains housed the darkest evil anyone could imagine. How would they recognize the Tree of Life among the tall, intertwined black limbs that clawed overhead, waiting for their approach?

A bird landed on a thick, curved branch. It squawked with the sound of death.

Tardon’s skin crawled at the ear piercing noise, until it took off into the cloudy sky. The land around them housed unnatural creatures.

He grasped his amulet of protection and held it to his lips. “May the Elders guide and protect us through this dark and strange land.”

Shadows crept around in the distance. Arianna gestured to the center of the valley, and he followed. The Tree of Life would be protected in the heart of this land.

Gray moss hung and scratched at his head as if the trees taunted him before the branches speared him dead. He concentrated on controlling his breath, and focused on his surroundings to find a defensive position. After a long moment, though, he found none that would work.

A snake slithered across the path in front of them and Arianna shuddered.

Orange eyes appeared above and he lifted his sword. His throat convulsed as thousands of orange orbs appeared in the leaves. Cursed creatures surrounded them in back, above, and to their sides. His chest tightened with fear, wishing to die by a sword or fall from a cliff rather than fall to the Curse. “Run!

She darted for the clearing on the path ahead, and he raced after her. Trees creaked and thunder rang from behind where a legion of leather-skinned feet pounded the ground in pursuit of them.

Branches lashed at his skin. They ran ahead through the thick brush then halted.

The twisted, small tree sat only a few hundred paces away. In those few hundred paces stood several dozen Cursed. His gut constricted with the inevitable truth, they would not make it out alive.

The Cursed drooled and scampered about, their jaws hyper-extended to expose razor sharp fangs. These creatures were more hideous than the ones who’d stormed the castle. A higher rank of inhuman deformity. Tardon’s soul ached at the sight. They would have to fight as they’d never fought before. “We must draw the others out of the woods. This will clear the path for our return,” Tardon ordered. “Go to the right of the tree. We will circle and I will cover while you retrieve the sap.”

She shuffled to the right. “Why do they not advance? It is as if they mock us, dancing about in some hideous ritual before they move in to the slaughter.”

His bones chilled at their taunting. He clutched his blade so tight his knuckles cracked.

Arianna shuffled forward, knife in one hand, sword in the other.

The creatures slithered back as they approached.

“Why do they not fight?” Her voice dripped with impatience.

Tardon’s warrior senses heightened as the monsters moved into a circular formation. “It is a trap, and we ran into it like animals to the slaughter.”

 

***

 

New plan,” Arianna shouted back at him. “If they are waiting to surround us, we let them. We retrieve the sap while they maneuver around. Then we fight like beasts to free ourselves.”

Sadness threatened to test her resolve. Now, faced with death, she wanted to live, but would sacrifice herself to save Tardon. He would be able to save her brother, and she would never have to face life without him. An honorable death would be better than returning to the castle, alone.

She clung to her thoughts and ran for the tree, leaving Tardon fifty paces behind, and plunged her dagger into the thin, gray bark. Ear-piercing shrieks echoed from every bird, animal and creature of the valley. The ground rumbled below. Tree roots burst from the dirt and raced outward over the land.

Covering her ears, she looked back at Tardon still fifty paces away. His eyes squinted and his knuckles pressed to his forehead. Dozens of creatures scurried between them.

More figures moved in. Surrounded in an instant, she realized her grave error. Together they stood a chance. Now, separated, her impulsiveness had sealed their fate.

Tardon bolted to her but a line of Cursed separated them. A war cry rang out as the mist thickened. One creature hobbled up to her. Claws snapped out from an elongated bony hand. A gold bracelet dangled from its wrist. A single gold band with flowers etched into the surface. Her sister’s bracelet.

Shock froze her. My dream. Her dream from the amulet in the castle had warned her of what waited for her in the Outer Realm. Her insides twisted with sorrow.

No, impossible. This had to be a trick played by the Cursed One. “Marlena?” she whispered.

The creature hissed.

Arianna snapped her head up. She jabbed but the creature ducked. The blade continued its momentum and she flew forward to the ground.

Claws pierced her skin and scraped down her back. Flesh ripped from her bone. Icy pain exploded.

A grave chill bombarded the inner depths of every bone. Thick liquid oozed down her back.

Cursed be damned, she’d fallen to the evil tricks of the Outer Realm. Distraction meant death. Only one thing remained as an option now. She swallowed hard, determined to face death with honor.

“Tardon!” She yelled, unable to locate him in the mist. “Slay me!”

No answer came from the darkness.

The creatures abandoned their pursuit of her and turned in the direction she had last seen Tardon. They’d done their damage.

She raised her right sleeve to reveal her ashen skin, now covered in puss-filled boils and scabs. The poison worked at an excessive rate. Most fell within a few heavy steps.

With her right arm rendered useless from the torn flesh and poison, she grasped her sword with her left. She sliced through the air and decapitated one of the monsters who stood in her way. Stepping toward the tree, she sliced through a torso, and thick, hot mucus sprayed onto her face. She spat the sour, brownish-green fluid from her mouth and continued forward.

Two more jumped on her back, knocking the wind from her lungs. Steadfast in her quest, she slaughtered them and stabbed a third in the eye. A guttural cry erupted around her.

She pulled a small pouch from her pocket and collected sap. The sweet substance dripped in small velvet droplets into the bottom of the pouch.

The clink of Tardon’s sword in battle suddenly reached her ears. An inkling of hope seeped into her soul at the thought that Tardon still lived. “Tardon!” She sealed the pouch and placed it safely inside her pocket.

“Tardon!” She pushed against the hilt of her sword to stand. No answer came. She shuffled forward, dragging her now useless leg that matched her arm.

Tardon emerged from the fog, fighting three creatures at once. He fell to the ground screaming. He shook and cried out. “The light!”

She stumbled, and her shoulder slammed against the ground, her head rolling back. Saliva dripped from putrid gums onto her face. No hope remained. Unable to move any further, her only choice would be to fall on her sword.

She raised her sword one last time. Sea green eyes glared back at her. It had been seasons, but she knew those eyes—her sister’s eyes.

It had to be the poison. Even if the creature were her sister, Arianna would not let her suffer any longer. Filled with emotions of terror and love, she decided to use her last bit of strength to end her sister’s suffering.

The sword fell to the ground, her left arm consumed with stings like a million spiders gnawing on her skin at once. Unable to move, Arianna watched the ghost of Marlena slink closer. The creature reached up and snapped the string from around Arianna’s neck.

The amulet fell to the ground. An intense, head-splitting light flooded in around her, paralyzing her with poison and grief. Ribs cracked and the muscles in her jaw snapped. Her gums throbbed before razors sliced through and fangs jutted out in front of her incisors. Acid invaded her mouth and nose.

She couldn’t scream.

She couldn’t move.

She could only fall to the horrific curse.

The world swirled in shades of amber. Smells of lemons battled sour weeds.

No air entered her undead lungs. Will I live for eternity as a monster? Will Tardon be by my side?

Darkness consumed the light. She’d failed not only her kingdom but everyone she loved.

The darkness faded, and outlines of people appeared: Tardon at her side on the ground, her sister standing above, and many villagers milling around who long ago vanished into the forbidden land—all clustered around her. The fog lifted, revealing a place rich with green and vivid colors erupting from the Tree of Life stained with the carnage of battle.

“Marlena?” Her sister’s delicate features appeared, no longer covered in ghoulish gray wrinkles and protruding brow bone. “No, it cannot be.”

Marlena smiled with compassion. “But it is, Sister.”

 

***

 

Tardon managed to push to his knees only to fall again. The transformation had drained his energy, and he collapsed by Arianna’s side. Staring around at this new world, he possessed no words to describe its beauty. “Arianna, do you…see this?”

“You must be Tardon,” a calm voice spoke. “We did not believe we stood a chance against you.”

He cupped his hands over his eyes to make out the slender figure towering over them. She stepped in front of the sun and her eyes were mirror images of Arianna’s, except green. He glanced back and forth between the two women.

“We are sisters. I am Marlena.” She outstretched a hand for a warrior greeting, but he couldn’t move.

“I see you are confused.” She smiled ruefully and turned to the others milling about. “See to the wounded. Tonight we celebrate, for we are rejoined by my sister and the great warrior Tardon.”

They knew of his reputation? How?

Cheers sounded and Marlena offered her hand to Arianna. “Come, my sister. We have much to discuss.”

Arianna didn’t move.

Tardon touched Arianna’s arm to make sure she was real. Her soft skin encouraged him to believe Marlena’s words. Yet it was not possible.

“All will be revealed. I give you my word as a Gremdon.”

Arianna shook beneath his touch. “Gremdon? Our eyes deceive us. We are all monsters.”

“No, dear sister. We are not the monsters. Please, follow me and I will show you how we live outside the castle walls.” Marlena said in a loving and encouraging tone.

Arianna spoke truth for his eyes must be deceived. Blue water, green trees, dots of other colors in open grassland. Everything from his grandfather’s book, although tainted by the groaning wounded men. The one’s he’d slashed with his own blade. His hands shook, it wasn’t true. “This place is a trick. A lie created by the Curse.”

“No. The lie is created by the Elders. The lie is the amulet.” Marlena spoke in a harsh tone.

How can this be true? Overwhelmed with the magic of it all, he followed Marlena in hopes of learning more of the strange land.

Arianna’s wide eyes looked to him for answers. Tears streamed down her face.

We do not have much choice. “Let us follow and discover if this is a trick or the truth.” He pulled Arianna from the ground and held her shaking body close. Energy seeped back into his muscles. “We will still end our lives if we discover any treachery.” He retrieved both swords, handed Arianna hers, and sheathed his.

They followed Marlena down a green hillside toward a large body of water.

The realm shone bright with vibrant colors. White and yellow sparkles danced on the lake’s surface. Brown buildings scattered around the lakeside sat just on the edge of the trees.

Marlena gestured to people working along the water’s edge washing clothes and retrieving buckets of water. “Over the seasons it has become an honor among our people to die by your hand. You have been named the fiercest warrior in both realms. That is why we let you pass into our valley. We watched you through the forest and guided you here. No one stood a chance against you. Of course, most of us were just peasants and children when we escaped the castle.” Marlena’s smile grew wide. “But now we have you.” She smacked him on the back.

Arianna shot a strange glance at Marlena but continued walking.

A small, furry gray creature hopped into a pale, green bush. Tardon paused, mesmerized by the small animal.

“It is a rabbit. We have many strange things here.”

Laughter rang from a nearby wooden structure. Tardon broke away and investigated the high-pitched giggles. Happiness soared through him at the sight of small people running about. Playing, dancing, arguing. “Children?”

“Yes, we have children, homes, and families.”

He turned to Arianna. His heart soared beyond the stars—a dream come true. “Marriage? This is allowed here?”

“Yes, Tardon.” Marlena’s mouth crooked into a hopeful smile.

Tardon imagined Arianna’s belly ripe with a child. Lying in bed at night by a warm fire, stroking her swollen abdomen, feeling his son kick. Things spoken of in his book weren’t lies. They were things that had once been.

“I see we may have more marriage and babies in the near future.” Marlena’s husky laugh brought warmth to his insides. Never had he witnessed such happiness around him. Marlena opened a door and summoned them inside. “Come, we will drink, and talk, and I will explain.”

Howls from wounded men called his attention. His heart lurched at the sight of all the wounds he had inflicted on the innocent. “Those men. If this is true, I caused their suffering.”

“No, you brought them hope.” Marlena grasped his arm and pulled him inside. Arianna already rested in a chair, holding a lemon in her shaking hands.

“Sit.” Marlena fetched some wooden cups and poured warm water into them. Spices floated on top, the smell of ginger root and cloves coated his tongue before he even took a sip.

Marlena ran a finger along the rim and looked into her cup as if she were lost in the dark liquid. “Long ago animals fled our lands, soon after storms annihilated our crops. We were starving. Strangers came to our land, helped us, and the animals returned. The strangers helped grow new crops and saved us from extinction.”

Marlena paused and sipped her beverage with eyes closed. “A season later, bizarre things occurred. We called upon these saviors again. The rulers had no means to discover the source of several strange deaths in the outer kingdom, so they invited the cloaked men to the castle. These men offered to help and instructed everyone to wear amulets of protection they created.” She held one of the amulets up by its leather strap.

“Of course, magic was forbidden, but these wise, old men said it was nothing more than a substance created by nature to protect its people. Many refused to wear it, fearful of defying the law against magic. Over several moons, anyone who did not possess an amulet fell to a strange creature believed to live in the darkest shadows of the woods. The cloaked men became more powerful in the castle. The rulers named them ‘The Elders’ and gave them equal status to enforce laws to protect people. The Elders made it mandatory that all inhabitants wear an amulet. Every home was raided until each person wore the shiny gold and amber amulet around their neck. For awhile the attacks stopped.” Marlena sighed.

Tardon noticed Arianna’s eyes fixed on her sister’s mouth.

“At the end of harvest season the outermost homes were attacked and few survived. The ones that did spoke of hideous gray-skinned creatures with fangs larger than a lion. In fear of their lives, they agreed to move from their family homes. The Elders stated that the creatures grew stronger and all those in the outer kingdom would need to move into the castle until the next harvest. The Elders sent new guards called Enforcers to homes in the middle of the night. These new brand of guards were like nothing we had seen. Monsters in their own right.”

“Yes, but too dumb to be warriors,” Tardon spat.

Marlena chuckled. “Yes, all muscle, no brains—but effective.”

Arianna held her cup to her mouth and her nostrils flared. Her eyes closed, and she sat in silence as her sister continued. She looked lost, confused, perhaps tortured. What was she thinking?

“The best tradesmen, farmers, and merchants were able to purchase family chambers in the castle. Two harvest seasons passed and people grew restless, and the Elders could no longer control the masses even with the new Enforcers. They agreed to allow any grown adults to leave the castle and investigate their homes. The rulers accompanied them, as did a handful of Elders.”

His parents, they had gone on the journey with the Elders that day. Flashes of their departure caused his gut to clench tight.

Marlena’s forehead scrunched. “Of course, the Elders were delayed and followed a few thousand passes behind. Beasts outside the castle walls attacked and none survived.” Marlena’s lip curled. “Except the Elders.”

“My parents and yours were both lost,” Tardon choked out. His mother’s smile warmed his heart before she left with a promise to return, and his father’s massive arms wrapped around his shoulders, squishing him in a tight hug for the last time. The last memories of his parents, before they were lost forever, caused sadness to darken his soul.

Marlena’s eyes glistened with tears. “Yes. After that, little resistance remained in the castle. With few remaining adults, they raised the eldest to fight in honor of their parents and in the name of their kingdom. A few questioned the authority and were conveniently sent on missions, never to return.”

Arianna’s eyes shot to Marlena. “Yet you lived and never returned to free your sister or brother.”

Marlena’s shoulders hunched. “Arianna, I have tried. Many times.” Her voice sounded low and husky. “We have lost hundreds of good men and women to the hands of the Elders’ warriors.”

Tardon’s stomach churned. Memories of his sword slashing from chin to groin. Screams of what he believed were merciful killings. Bile rose in his throat and he shot up from the table. Anger rioted with pain—such unimaginable crimes against his brothers.

“Tardon.” Marlena followed and placed her reassuring palm on his shoulder. “The acts you preformed under the Elders’ possession were not your fault. The amulet made you see us as enemies. We all believed these Elders to be our saviors. You fought to protect the ones you love.” She placed her hand over Arianna’s. “Little did we know they were the ones who Cursed the land in the first place with their black magic.”

“We must return.” Arianna stood. “I will not abandon my brother as you abandoned us.”

Marlena moved toward Arianna, her lips pressed together and her eye twitching. “I did not abandon you, Sister. I spent my life trying to free you.” A little girl with long brown ringlets shoved the door open and bounced into the room. She flung her arms around Marlena. “Mommy, Daddy sent me for lunch.”

“Yes, I see you have done nothing but work to free your family,” Arianna hissed.

There was too much left unsaid between sisters. I should leave them to talk in private. The little girl turned her angelic face up to Tardon, and he offered her his hand. “I will take the food. It will give me a chance to see the land.” He bent over. “Will you show me where to find your Pa?”

The little girl snuggled closer to her mother. “It is all right, dear. He is one of us now.” The little girl blinked big, blue eyes with long, dark lashes at him. She took his hand. “Follow me. I am Anna,” she said, her voice cheerful and light.

Marlena handed him a wooden box stocked with meat, fruit and vegetables. Sweet and spicy scents mixed into an inviting aroma.

Smells from childhood when they were free to work their own land brought warmth to his mind and body. He would someday share these with his own sons and daughters. The possibility of a family with Arianna made his body feel light as he set the box on the table and took Arianna’s hands in his. “We can have everything we ever dreamed of. Marriage, children.” His mouth tightened into a grin he would no longer stifle. “There is no reason for you to worry now. Whatever the Elders held over you no longer matters.” He longed to pull her to him, kiss her with the passion he had been forced to stifle on their journey. To take her out to a private corner and make love to her, but first, he wanted to marry her. “You two talk. I will return soon. Then we will have our life together.”

Arianna’s gaze remained fixed. Was it her misplaced hatred of her sister, or was something still holding her from his arms?

Chapter Twenty

 

A mirror reflection of herself sat before her, same shaped eyes, thin nose, and long lashes. Only their hair differed and her eyes were green. Marlena’s was the color of fallen leaves after harvest season, rich with gold, rust and brown.

Arianna’s mind turned in a ball of confusion. How do I even remember the color of such things? It had been an eternity since she’d lived outside the castle during harvest season.

The child who clung to her mother now bounced out the door, Tardon’s massive hand swallowed the little girl’s until only her tiny fingers curved around the top. Arianna’s lips trembled at the sight. A beautiful baby niece?

Her belly warmed with the idea of a child. She stroked her stomach and dreamed of what her daughter would look like. Same eyes, everyone in her family had the large eyes and long eyelashes. Whether they were blue, green, or somewhere in between, they would be hers.

“Arianna, I know how you must feel. I promise—”

“No, you do not know how I feel.” Arianna wanted to make Marlena suffer for the seasons she left her abandoned and alone. “I was left to care for our brother when I was still a child myself. Fighting for food, fighting to hang onto our family chamber. What if I had gone to the inner courts and worked as a—”

“No, please, do not say it.” Marlena clasped her hand and pulled her down onto the dining chair next to her. Their knees brushed. “Every day I would close my eyes and pray for your health and well-being. I never stopped focusing on you. Not even when I had Anna.”

“Anna?” Her throat tightened. “You named her after me?”

“Yes, I never let you go in my heart. We were inseparable in childhood. When Momma and Papa were murdered I cared for you and Mardel. I questioned the wisdom of the Elders when you fell ill and they sent me out for medicine. Kerdin rescued me from the castle.”

“Kerdin? I do not recall that name.”

“Kerdin escaped a fate similar to ours from another castle on the other side of the river.”

“Where is this Kerdin now? What other kingdoms?”

“He lives here with me and Anna. Kerdin is my husband.”

Arianna’s chest constricted. Husband? Yes, certainly, she had a child, but a husband, too? Of course, they went together. A family, a real family of her own. Something Arianna would never have. At least, not with the one she wanted.

“There are many other kingdoms. We are a safe place for those who roam the land. We always have a fight at first because they believe us Cursed until we remove their amulets. Unfortunately, not an easy task at times. We have sacrificed so many people in an attempt to free others.”

Arianna cringed at her words. If Marlena spoke the truth, Arianna had murdered many innocent people.

Marlena lifted her cup from the table and sipped.

Arianna lifted hers and sniffed the lemon and honey. Many seasons had passed since she’d tasted her sister’s drink, the one that soothed aches and sore throats and always made your insides warm. She drank and the smooth honey coated her throat.

Marlena smiled. “You remember?”

“Yes, I never forgot your scent.”

“My scent?” She laughed.

“Yes, just like Mardel smells like…” Arianna could not continue under the weight of emotions that plagued her at the memory of her brother left behind in the castle, dying.

“He will be all right. Give us time, we will find a way to free him from the castle.”

Arianna choked down tears. “No, I will not wait. I will not abandon him. He will die soon. Death fever has taken many. Now, Mardel is going t—to…” Sobs convulsed her body and Marlena wrapped her arms around her. The same arms that used to hold her at night when the monsters threatened to come.

“M—Marlena, we must help him.” She swiped at her tears and swallowed down the drink as it rose back into her mouth.

“We will find a way. But for now—”

“No, I will not wait. I am going back.” Arianna pushed from Marlena’s arms.

“Arianna, you cannot go alone. Our people are not trained to storm the castle walls. We tried that before and many died. I won’t sacrifice my people with little chance of success.”

“We need a plan, something to get us inside,” Arianna said, hopeful.

“Yes, that is why we attacked several moons ago. One of ours infiltrated the castle and went to the inner courts. We believed he would have many remove their amulets and join our fight, but when we arrived she was nowhere to be found.”

Her blood ran cold. “I have information about the fate of your man. Earlier in the day of Mardel’s illness, bells rang, summoning the warriors. We raced to defend the castle walls but instead…” Arianna tightened her grip on Marlena’s hands. “Instead we discovered a grueling display of the Elders’ powers. A man’s arms and legs were tied to four Enforcers.” Arianna swallowed hard. “They ripped him apart.”

Marlena cried out.

Arianna stroked her hair. “Why do the Elders do this? Why do they keep us under their spell?”

Marlena took a deep breath. “They need us to feed their power. We do not understand exactly how it works. Once we overrun one of the castles we hope to discover the truth.”

“Good, let us free our people and we will find the answers we seek.”

“We cannot. Too many are wounded, including my husband. Without the proper training they would perish.” Marlena rubbed her forehead and spoke with an air of frustration.

“I will train them.”

“You?” Marlena’s eyebrows rose.

Arianna drew herself up to full stature. “Am I not a warrior?”

“Yes, of course, but that will take time.”

“No, I can train a handful, and we will go by next sunrise.”

Marlena shook her head. “Arianna, be reasonable. I cannot send more of my people to their death. I will not do it.”

“Tardon and I will go alone then. You said it: he is the fiercest warrior in all the kingdoms.”

“Just give it some time. If we plan and train our people we will have a chance.”

“No, I go now.” She bolted from the chair and raced from the small, cozy house. It was Marlena’s home, not hers. Maybe someday, if she could free her people, she could have a family.

Tardon leaned against a tree by the water, his masculine frame dwarfing the slender trunk.

She marched up to him. “You must help free our people. We will go when the next sun rises.” She spun on her heels to leave.

“No, I will not go.” Tardon spoke in a stern voice. “I wish to experience more of this place. Learn about these people and the life we could have.”

She turned back to him, her blood boiling with disgust. “You would abandon your people, too?”

“No, but I will not risk you.” Tardon stepped up and brushed his knuckles down her cheek. Tingles followed the trail.

“If you do not help, I will go alone. With you by my side, I stand a chance at returning to this land. To the family you speak of.”

Tardon’s jaw twitched, and he closed his eyes. She held her breath in hopes his honor as a warrior had not changed, despite the lie behind the code.

He lifted her hands to his mouth, grazing each finger with a kiss. She tightened her lips to keep a moan from escaping.

Tardon glanced into her eyes. “I will help you, if you agree to marry me.”

She stifled an overwhelming ‘yes’. No way could she marry a man only to be rejected when they returned to the castle. Even here, she’d probably be banned from bonding with another forever. It had been the way of her people for as long as she could remember, one mate for life. Not that she’d ever want anyone besides Tardon.

Wind blew subtle fragrances of lilac and rose, scents from her lost childhood. Even with her sister alive, so many others had fallen. Her heart felt weighted in her chest at realization she’d killed so many. “I cannot.” Arianna drew her hands from his grasp and placed them against coarse bark of another tree.

Tardon placed a palm against the tree. Hair on his arm tickled her ear. “Whatever the Elders hold over you, they cannot hurt you here.”

Yes, but when they returned to save Mardel they would take him from her with their witchcraft. But, if she stayed here, Tardon would remain in love with her. They would marry and have a house full of children, and he’d never realize his love only existed because of a spell from the Elders.

No. She wouldn’t repeat her sister’s betrayal. Mardel needed her.

“Arianna, I know you love me or I would not pressure you to marry me. There is something you refuse to share. I will be a good husband, a provider, but most of all, your equal.”

Her ribs squeezed so tight she thought it would puncture her heart. “You will not help on the quest to free your people unless I marry you?”

“No, I will not,” Tardon choked.

“I—I cannot marry you unless I save my brother first. I will not abandon him like my sister abandoned us.” Arianna turned and looked off at a tree swaying in the wind, unable to look at him any longer.

Tardon dipped his head to meet her eyes. “I will save your brother. You have my word as a warrior.”

He had that look of warrior determination. There would be no way to change his mind. “I will marry you,” Arianna whispered.

Tardon swept her into his arms and held her tight. Her body warmed at his touch, and she lost herself in his embrace. Then she remembered the truth and a sting of disappointment shot through her body.

“Come, we must tell the others.” His copper-colored eyes shone bright as his eyebrows rose; his full lips pulled high, revealing boyish dimples.

She clutched her chest when he pulled her toward the others. If only this were true happiness and not just feelings manifested by black magic. With the fresh air and sunshine she’d pull him into an open field and show him how much she loved him.

But they would never be together. Never make love under the shining sun or stars.

“Marlena, we have news!” Tardon yelled as they approached the wooden house.

Anna raced over to them, jumping up and down, clapping her dainty hands. “Did she say yes?”

Marlena appeared in the doorway of her home. “What is it?”

“Momma, Momma, Arianna said yes! Tardon will be in our family.”

Pushing a stray hair from her eyes, Marlena stepped from the doorway then hugged Tardon. “Welcome to our family and our kingdom, both in one day.”

Marlena turned to Arianna, and her smile faded. Arianna knew her expression betrayed her.

“Anna, go fetch water,” Marlena ordered.

“We shall marry tonight!”

Tardon’s words made Arianna’s blood run cold. “What? No, we must make our plan to storm the castle. Free my brother.”

“First, we marry.” His voice boomed with happiness.

“I—I cannot.” Her throat closed. Unable to speak or breathe, she stumbled away from him. “Y—you p—promised to help free my brother.”

He approached but she shuffled away from him. Arianna cast a pleading look at Marlena. “Sister, tell him, there is not much time. We must save Mardel.”

“Arianna, calm yourself. There is time.” Marlena spoke with a sympathetic tone.

“Why must you always betray me?” Venom of fear fueled Arianna’s tongue. “You abandoned me once, you owe me this.”

Marlena’s fingers shook as she reached out for her. “I only want to protect you now that you have come home.”

Arianna stepped from Marlena’s reach. “Home? This is not my home. My home is with Mardel, back at the castle. Once I return, none of this matters.” Tears ran down her cheeks. She swallowed salty gulps of air. “You may have a life here but I do not.”

“Arianna, tell me what you keep from me.” Tardon’s eyes darted between Arianna and her sister. “Arianna—”

“You do not love me!” Frustration and fear caused the words to burst from her lips.

The bridge of Tardon’s nose creased and his eyebrows rose. “You know I love you.”

No.” She sucked in a staggered breath. “You only believe you do. Th—the Elders…they used black magic and made you l—love me.” Grief at the end her words would bring to their love stole the strength from her legs, and her knees hit the soft ground as she buried her face in her hands.

 

***

 

Tardon’s heart began to beat again. Of course, the Elders would tell her these things, but how could he possibly convince her of the truth now?

Marlena crouched by Arianna’s side. “Arianna, the Elders are evil creatures with great powers. I know you fear them—”

“I do not fear them.” Arianna wiped her tears. “I fear no one.”

His body warmed at her words. Arianna was the most courageous person he knew. Yet only now did he realize her fear. It was never physical fear, she would go against the best and never flinch, but her heart she guarded. I should have known. She’d lost more than most in the castle. A woman bred to protect, destined never to fall in love.

Marlena stroked her hair. “I believe you to be a brave warrior. Many have borne witness to your skills. It is not that. I beg you to hear me. The Elders have no power here. Once the amulet is removed their spells fail. If Tardon loves you now, he truly loves you.”

“But the Elders made a mistake, he was to love another.”

“Another?” Tardon would never love another.

Arianna’s swollen eyes broke his heart. “The Elders cast a spell the night Mardel fell ill. You were to fall in love with the woman sent to your chamber. A vision of your heart’s desire.”

Tardon grinned, then laughed.

“You find this humorous?” Arianna narrowed her eyes. “I am telling you your love is not real.”

“It is and I can prove it.” Tardon dropped to his knees and yanked her to face him. “You are right. I saw my heart’s desire that night. I saw you.”

“No, I was an interruption and the spell—”

“Shut up, woman,” he said with a playful tone. “The woman sent to my room that I almost, well, you know, I did not see her as she pulled me close to her. I saw you.” He pressed his lips against hers, and his body warmed at the contact. When he pulled away, he whispered. “All I have ever wanted is you.”

“You speak the truth?” Her lips trembled.

“Yes, I speak the truth. Now, silly woman, will you marry me?”

“I—” She looked to her sister.

“Unless it is you who do not love me.” His pulse raced at the thought of her rejection.

“It is not that…”

“What is it?” He grasped her too tight. She winced and he loosened his grip to stare into her eyes.

“How can I be happy while my brother suffers? I will not abandon him.”

“You have my oath as a warrior, I will not stop until your brother is freed. I have a plan to free everyone in the castle.” Tardon kissed Arianna’s hand then glanced up at Marlena. “Please, call a meeting for the men and women of Gremdon. We will overtake the castle and free our people by the end of the harvest season.”

Marlena smiled in acknowledgment.

“But first, invite everyone in the kingdom to witness our marriage.”

Arianna trembled against him when he pulled her into his arms and stood. In the next moment, though, she embraced him with loving arms, and he knew she believed in him.

Anna ran out from some nearby bushes jumping up and down. “I will run to tell everyone, Momma!”

“You were not supposed to be listening.” Marlena wagged her finger at Anna.

“Yes, but I am the fastest runner and I can shout loud.” Anna’s hair bounced when she took off running toward the great river. Would his own daughter be so happy and full of life? He could not wait to hold his own child in his arms some day.

Marlena offered her hand to Arianna. “Come, Sister, we have to get you ready for your wedding.” Arianna held her palm to her chest and took a deep breath.

A rush of excitement made Tardon feel alive and free. He leaned in and whispered, “And we will finally be together as a man and woman should.”

Arianna blushed.

He could not help but smile at her innocence. His heart raced at visions of her bare skin rubbing against his. Tonight he would finally be one with Arianna.

Chapter Twenty-One

 

Leaves rustled in the wind overhead. Arianna blinked at the shining light that broke through the canopy.

Could this really happen? Her body hummed with the possibility of a real family and a home outside the castle walls where they would work and play in the sunshine.

Tardon held her face in his hands. “I need to make preparations for where we can stay during this moon. After we marry I will build our home, with an extra room for Mardel.” Tardon stood and helped her up. “Trust me.”

“I do.” The notion of fully trusting another scared yet exhilarated her. He’d pledged to welcome Mardel into his home. They’d be a family, the three of them.

“Go and prepare yourself, for you have a long night ahead of you.” Tardon’s mischievous smile warmed a place deep in her heart where a chill had forever existed. His finger feathered across her lips. “Until tonight. Tomorrow, I will share my plan and gather those of Gremdon willing to fight for our people’s freedom.” He left with promises of a bright future.

Dare she hope for so much?

Marlena clapped her hands. “Girls, gather flowers, we must fix Arianna’s hair for her wedding. I believe I still have my dress, too.”

Arianna followed Marlena into the house and discovered a bath waiting for her. A frenzy of activity ensued as people gathered outside with boisterous laughter and conversation. She quickly washed and wrapped herself in a large piece of cloth and returned to the kitchen.

She sat listening to the happiness of the others, and she recalled her own childhood full of laughter when her parents were alive. For a moment, a shadow cast itself over her soul.

“Arianna, do you wish to be with Tardon?” Marlena’s eyebrows rose in question.

“Yes, yes, of course. That is not it. I only wish Momma and Papa were here. And Mardel.”

Marlena’s eyes glistened and she grabbed her hand. “I know how you feel. While the day of my wedding was joyous, it was also sorrowful because I wanted you by my side. But I am pleased now to share your day.”

She cleared her throat. No more tears. It was her wedding.

Marlena began to gently comb her hair. “Tardon will be a good husband. He is strong and a mighty warrior, but he was kind to my Anna. He will make a good father.”

Nervous energy kept Arianna from sitting still. “Marlena, um, your wedding night, did it—”

“Nothing to fear, Sister. I believe you will find much pleasure with Tardon. He will make a great lover.”

She wrung her hands. “Yes, but the first time—”

“The first time can be…well, a little uncomfortable, but only for a moment.”

Uncomfortable? Nothing Tardon ever did was uncomfortable. Her mind raced with ideas of what the evening would bring. “How do I know what to do? What if I do not please him?”

“You worry over nothing. Trust me, the man will find pleasure. The way he looks at you, there will not be a problem. Everything else, he will teach you in time.”

Her breath quickened at the thought of what he would teach her. His rough yet tender hands had surprised her more than once.

Marlena held up a white dress to Arianna’s chest. “This should fit you. Let us try it.”

Arianna dropped the cloth and pulled on the white dress.

The material flowed with whimsical movement. Small blue and pale pink flowers were sewn into the dress. Marlena cinched the laces and tied a bow in the back.

Arianna sat back down while Marlena braided ribbons and flowers into her hair.

The touch of her sister calmed her soul.

Anna came bouncing in. “The men wait for you.”

Her stomach flipped at the child’s words. She clutched her belly and listened to the people outside.

Marlena pressed her palm to Arianna’s shoulder. “Do not worry. This is your day. Enjoy and be happy. I have an idea this may be the first day you have truly been happy for many seasons.”

They approached the door, and the giggles of several children filtered in. Her sister took her hand and led her outside.

Tardon stood with a bundle of wildflowers in his hands. “For my bride.” He wore a tan shirt with a large cloth sash around his middle that displayed his small waist and broad shoulders. The lighter shade of brown of his shirt made his copper eyes gleam.

Arianna felt heat rise to her cheeks as she surveyed the crowd. So many unfamiliar faces.

Tardon handed her the flowers. “You look beautiful.”

“Thank you.”

“Arianna, I want you to meet my husband Kerdin.” A large-framed man resting against a long stick offered Arianna his hand.

“It is a pleasure to meet you. I have heard your name every day since I met your sister. Many men have risked their lives in hopes of freeing you. We are pleased you are home.”

Every day? Her sister had risked so much to free her. I have been hateful and disloyal.

Worse, she’d killed so many good and kind people. Her people. The guilt almost crippled her. “Marlena, I—I am sorry. I did not—”

Marlena squeezed her hands. “No, you did not, so do not focus on such things. Now isn’t the time to discuss these painful events. Instead, it is time for you to marry. Momma and Papa would love your choice.”

Arianna smiled and hugged her.

A man stepped forward. “May we begin the ceremony?”

“Yes, of course.” Arianna moved to Tardon’s side.

“Greetings, Arianna and Tardon. We have witnesses who wish to be a part of this union. Tardon, do you remember the name of your father and grandfather? We understand many have forgotten since the Elders forbid family names.”

“Yes, it is Mandelack.”

“The name on the book,” she whispered.

He squeezed her hand. “Yes.”

“Warrior Tardon Mandelack, I am Verdean.” Deep crevices formed around Verdean’s eyes when he smiled. This man was older than Saldor, and his shoulders slumped with age. “I was once a warrior, and now I help in other ways. It is a pleasure to meet such accomplished warriors. We welcome you to our kingdom, Brother.”

The men exchanged a greeting while Verdean lowered his head slightly in respect to Arianna. No man had ever addressed her as if she were a lady who worked as a shopkeeper.

She smoothed wrinkles down the front of her dress and realized she looked like a lady, not a warrior.

Verdean walked toward the tree line. “If you would take Arianna’s arm, please.”

Tardon offered his hand and followed Verdean to a white cloth that rested under fresh flowers strung from branches.

Tardon leaned in and whispered, “That dress flatters you.”

She felt her face flush again. What was wrong with her? Never had she been so weak. Maybe she would lose her ability to fight after being with a man. A question she should have asked before now. No, it was another part of the Elders’ deceit. Nothing they said would hold true. She refused to be manipulated by their lies any longer.

Tardon gestured to the lake on the other side of the trees. “You look more beautiful than anything in this kingdom.”

Verdean clasped his hands together and a gold ribbon dangled from his grip.

Her heart hammered loudly, Verdean’s words sounded muffled. “Tardon, do you wish to bond with Arianna for the remainder of your days? Will you stay at her side through the many trials you will face?”

Tardon clutched her hands and smiled. “And into the next.”

“Arianna, do you wish to be subject to your husband?” Arianna’s gaze shot to him. Marlena cleared her throat and Tardon chuckled.

“What if Arianna states the same as I?” Tardon offered.

Everyone held their breath waiting for Arianna’s response. Vardean cleared his throat, his lips curved on each end. “Yes, I believe that will be better, my apologies.”

She swallowed hard. “I will respect and love Tardon and will remain by his side no matter what life brings our way.”

Verdean wrapped the gold ribbon around their arms. “This is a sign of your bond, never to be broken by another.”

“I promise on my honor as a warrior,” Tardon tightened his grasp on her arm.

“I too promise on my honor as a warrior,” Arianna squeezed him back.

“Then go forth and find love with each other.”

Tardon’s grin continued into a half-moon shining in the night.

Her stomach jumped as if one of the white tailed rabbits in the field hopped inside of her belly.

“Congratulations.” Marlena’s tears dampened her cheek as they embraced. “Here, take this with you.” She pressed a small sack into Arianna’s palm. “Tonics for you and Tardon to enjoy in the lake.”

Arianna accepted the small sack and hoped she’d figure out what her sister meant later.

“I look forward to helping build your home and plow your fields,” Kerdin told Tardon. He faced Arianna, smiling hugely. “And I cannot wait for you to make up for the many seasons lost with your sister.” His eyes grazed Marlena, pausing at her lips.

Arianna’s mouth turned dry. Words escaped her. How did a lifetime of pain and sorrow change in a day? Was she in a dream back in her family chamber?

Marlena smiled reassuringly. “Have faith, dear sister. It takes time, but you will adjust and believe you deserve this happiness.”

“We must go but will return at first light. Thank you for the use of the home by the river,” Tardon spoke to several men, each of them built for hard work yet all varied in height.

“I will set eyes on you again when the sun appears in the horizon,” Arianna managed to say to Marlena.

They followed the river around a footpath. The tonic bottles clanked together in the small bag with each step. The tense silence stretched her nerves to the breaking point.

For days, she’d fought her urges to be with him. Now, her body didn’t tingle in the way she’d enjoyed before.

Their hands slid back and forth, and she pulled away to wipe her sweaty palm.

Tardon slowed his pace. “Do you wish to rest? It has been a long journey. We could take a swim before the sun dips below the horizon and the air turns cool.”

Stop? They needed to go to the house and be together as man and wife. “I—I thought you would require—I mean that we would…”

Tardon stopped and faced her. “There is no need to worry. It is me.”

Arianna’s stomach fluttered. “I am not worried. I thought—”

Tardon smiled. “Yes, I know. You are scared of nothing.”

“You are making fun of me?” She did not like being teased, especially when she did not feel in control of the situation.

“No, Arianna. I am glad there is no place to put a sword in that dress. All I am saying is that I love you. We have all night together. There is no rush. I plan to enjoy you.”

She stiffened under his touch, afraid to move or say something wrong. It had been a full moon cycle since she’d experienced his touch and she ached for it, yet was nervous.

“That is not what I mean.” He took a deep breath. “I want to spend time with you while no one watches. This will be our first night without the amulets around our necks. Our first night to hold each other and not worry about Enforcers and beasts, and, if you are ready, we will be together.” He rubbed his hands down her arms and kissed her cheek.

Her body warmed under his touch. “It is our wedding night—”

“Shh, just enjoy being with me.” He let go and walked ahead to the lake. “Come, I prepared a spot for us. We should eat and enjoy the last moments of the sun.”

Arianna followed to a large cloth spread on some grass. A blanket sat to the side and a box of food in the middle. There were several fire rings around and a small shelter. She smiled and relaxed at the sight.

“I thought we might stay here instead of inside the walls of a cabin. We have spent most of our lives trapped behind walls, but if you would like we could—”

“No, it is perfect.” She sauntered to him and pressed her lips to his. Fresh berries and salt mixed together when he kissed back. Is this real? He traced her spine from her waist to the back of her hair and deepened the kiss as evidence this was real. His crisp, pine wood scent drew her closer.

She dropped her bag. The clank of bottles startled them. They both stood in a fighting stance. Warrior blood still coursed through their veins. After a moment, they both relaxed and chuckled.

“Your sister gave you bathing tonics. Do you wish to take a swim? The sun is setting. We can wrap ourselves in blankets by the fire when we return. Kerdin said it does not get as cold here at night.”

“A swim would be nice.”

“Then we will swim.” Tardon walked around and brushed her hair from her neck and trailed kisses down her shoulder. He tugged on one of the ties and the dress slacked from her body.

She took in a long breath and closed her eyes. This world even sounded different. Birds chirped from a nearby tree instead of squawking. Water swished in the lake instead of pouring from a bucket.

She opened her eyes. Tardon stood in front of her. The material of her dress swayed in the breeze now that it wasn’t bound tight around her. He pulled her bottom lip down with his thumb and nibbled it.

She pulled on the tie around his waist and it fell to the ground. Lips still pressed together, she raked her hands under the material of his shirt and guided it over his shoulders.

Their lips released. She lifted the shirt over his head and dropped it down onto the cloth beneath them. He reached down to her outer thighs, gathering material in his hands. The touch of his fingers raking up her skin as he pulled the dress higher made her heart beat quicken. Her skin burned in his trail for more. Pushing her hips against his, he grabbed her butt and pulled her in. Moans escaped from both of them.

“I love you,” Tardon rasped. He stepped back, lifted the dress over her head, and tossed it aside.

Her nipples pebbled from the cool breeze.

“You are more than a man dare dream of having.” Strong hands cupped her right breast and he thumbed her hard nipple.

She gasped.

He grinned then took her nipple in his mouth and rolled it with his tongue. Wetness pooled between her legs. “I love you,” she cried out.

He lowered his breeches. Her body trembled at the sight. Never had she gazed upon a man in such a way. She’d seen men parade about around the pit, but this was different. Her eyes fixed on the manhood that twitched between his legs. How would something of that size fit inside her?

Her heart pounded as he moved closer. Skin to skin they stood in the open air. He pressed his hand to her chest. “Your heart feels as if it will leap from your chest.”

“I believe it may,” Arianna managed through quick breaths. Excitement and fear fought for control.

He kissed her again.

She waited for him to lower her to the ground and enter her, but he didn’t move. He stared into her eyes. “Come, let us swim.”

“I—”

“Not yet. I wish to enjoy you all night. Besides, I haven’t been able to swim outside in a long time.” He reached down and retrieved the two bottles of tonic from the pouch. “Also…I wish to memorize every curve of your body.”

Tardon swaggered to the water in all his nakedness without a care of who saw. At his boldness, her excitement won out and she followed.

The water around her ankles was similar to the air in temperature. As she submerged further into its depths, a wave of cool water made her shudder.

Tardon held the bottles in one hand and leaned her back. A flood of moisture ran through her hair and he lifted her up. He poured liquid into his hand and recapped the bottle. The floral scents made her relax. He placed the bottles in her hands then massaged her scalp and her body relaxed beneath his touch.

He leaned her backwards again and kissed her neck while he worked his fingers through her hair.

The water tasted fresh and clean, as if newly fallen from the sky.

He poured more tonic into his hand, and this time freesia danced in the air around her. The silky liquid slid down her shoulders and he rubbed it onto her arms, and continued all over the top of her body. She sighed.

Tardon reached below the water, down her stomach, between her legs and she pushed against his hands but he continued down and up her thighs, teasing her. She poured some tonic over his head and down his body.

The warrior mark glistened in the moonlight and she traced the dark lines with her fingertips. She followed one of the points down and ran her hand over the defined muscles of his stomach. The water rippled around his waist, and she plunged her hand below. Growls encouraged her when she wrapped her fingers around him.

His hands ran back up her thigh and he caressed and massaged where she throbbed with desire, but he did not enter her. She pressed harder against his hand but still he did not penetrate her folds.

“I want you.” Arianna rasped.

He nibbled her ear. Shudders rang through her body. Her hips moved in hopes of him entering her. He remained hard against her, stroking her heated region to near madness with each thrust of his hips.

He pulled her back up to face him. “Not yet.”

Did he mean to torture her until the first rays appeared in the horizon?

 

***

 

Tardon unwrapped her legs and dunked under the water, washing the remaining tonic from his body. The coolness helped reduce his burning desire. If they continued, he wouldn’t last long enough to please her. It had been too long for him to hold out.

He lifted Arianna into his arms and carried her to shore. With each breath, he smelled her flower scent mixed with crisp mountain air. Never had he felt so free.

She shivered, and he lowered her to the ground and covered her with a second blanket. A glow caught his attention through the trees. Kerdin had kept his word and left a torch for their fire. A perfect opportunity to calm down. “Stay here. I will return.” He made his way to the small fire pit in a clearing and retrieved a thick stick resting on the side of the rocks.

He was still warm with longing, he stood, listening to the sounds of nature.

Never had he wanted to please a woman more than Arianna. She deserved a full wedding night; he wouldn’t disappoint her. Retrieving the torch, he concentrated on calming the burning of his skin. Then he spotted her pert nipple outlined beneath thin material, and his manhood jumped back to attention.

Her eyebrows rose and she lifted the blanket to invite him. “This time, I hope you will not deny me.”

Pale skin glowed in the fire light. Her chest rose and fell with each exerted breath. Stretched out on her side, she traced a finger from her collarbone down her stomach and rested it on the ground next to a small patch of hair.

He moistened his lips in anticipation. No, he would save such pleasure for another time. Tonight he did not want to frighten her.

He tossed the torch into the fire pit and the flames roared to life. He snuggled in beside her and traced the line she had just made. Fire crackled and sparks rose to the sky. The sun dipped below the horizon and the creatures of the night chirped and croaked around them. He leaned down and kissed the scar that remained from the night he pierced her skin with his own blade. The memory choked him.

She cupped his face in her hands “What is it?”

“Nothing.”

“Tell me, please.”

He traced the line near her shoulder. “The mark…it is the one I—”

“Yes, but it was a flesh wound only and healed quickly because of the serum. A lovers spat. I am sure we will have more.” She gave him a mischievous grin.

Never. I will never harm you again. I will spend the rest of my days pleasing you.”

He reached for the box of food. At the aroma of fresh bread and red berries, his stomach growled.

“I guess you wish to eat.” She snickered.

“Yes. The food here is so rich with flavor.” He opened the bottle of honey and drizzled some across her chest. Her eyebrows furrowed. A far off howl caught her attention for a second, then his tongue rasped along the line of honey. Her head leaned back. He drew circles around red pebbles of flesh. Moans sounded in his ear, urging him on. He moved down her belly and back up, clutching the hard, round nubs in his teeth. She gasped and sat up.

“My turn?” She rolled him over. With a red berry in her mouth she straddled him.

She leaned over and soft wisps of auburn hair tickled his cheeks. He pushed her tresses behind her ears and she kissed him. Sweet earthy flavors coated his mouth. She rocked on top of him. Long, slow pulses brought her up and down until her folds rested around his throbbing shaft. He shuddered beneath her and feared he would release if she moved again.

With swift determination, he pushed the box out of the way and rotated on top of her.

He reached between her legs and discovered her wetness. Explosions of heat raced through him.

She grasped his hand between her legs and pushed his fingers inside. Her cries rang out and she arched her back. She let go, rocking with the motion of his hand.

He sighed, then her hand wrapped around his hardness. He ached for release.

With a third finger he stretched and massaged inside and out of her several times until her juices flowed, coating her, readying her for him. He slid over her, kissed her throat, and worked his way down. She raked her nails up and around his back, leaving marks that fed his pleasure.

With a gentle sway, he teased her folds. Her hands shot down to his ass. She clutched him and thrust her hips at him. Hard. Beyond anything he had experienced. He reached down and guided himself into her. He pushed slowly against a band of resistance until she urged him on more. Nails dug into his back. He suckled her breasts until she moaned and shook beneath him.

“Please, Tardon, now. I want you.”

Finally, they would have their moment. She loved him. He saw it in her eyes. The way her body throbbed against his proved the passion between them. No one would ever take her away from him again. He gazed into her eyes. Black, dilated pupils stared back.

She tightened around him, begging him to fully enter her. He lifted his hips and pressed against her. The slow movements drove him crazy. Fear of hurting her kept him sane.

She arched, her hips swiveled, and she pushed further. “Ah.” She stiffened under him.

“Are you—”

“Please. I want you, Tardon. Now.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

Arianna shivered with desire at Tardon’s urgency. She wrapped her legs around his middle and tilted her hips to match his thrusts. His golden-brown eyes shone in the firelight. Yellow flecks danced around the black center. He plunged inside of her. A sting radiated deep to her core. She drew in a quick breath, and he froze. Their eyes locked with the promise of forever. The discomfort faded and his manhood pulsed.

Her legs relaxed. He slid out and back in with the slow precision of a well-trained warrior. Sweat beaded on his chest as he continued rocking back and forth. His Hands roamed up and down her body. His fullness rubbed and drew her closer to him. Waves of heat raced out from her center. He thrust in and out, faster and faster. With each move, her body tightened, coiled inside, demanding release. The warrior in her feared the waves of pleasure, never having experienced such a loss of control. Yet, as a woman, she welcomed the coming release with abandon.

Her insides vibrated with each stroke. Intense spasms ripped through every muscle of her body.

Tardon arched and cried out.

Jets of warmth filled her and set her body ablaze. Her toes curled. Her body shook with spasms. Every muscle quivered and jerked. The massive tremors faded, replaced by small aftershocks pulsating from her core.

Sweat licked at her skin when his body fell silent and pressed against her chest. Their bodies were one. For the first time since the Elders arrived, she felt peace and love; she felt protected. Tears dripped down her cheeks. He moved to her side, kissing each droplet of water on her face.

Arianna brushed Tardon’s hair from his eyes. “I have never experienced true happiness until today. Did I…compare well to the others?” Her heart fluttered with concern.

“Never compare yourself to the Elders’ gifts. They were tools to sate a warrior’s appetite, nothing more.” He ran a finger down her cheek to her jaw. “You are the only one in my heart and my future.”

She relaxed and melted into him. Warm and loving arms wrapped around her. The fire crackled and the water lapped against the shore, lulling her to sleep, her heart, mind, body, and soul full of love.

 

***

 

The morning rays brought him to attention, and Tardon pressed against his new bride. Arianna’s eyes fluttered open and she bit her bottom lip, driving him crazy with desire. He captured it in his mouth and parted her lips with his tongue. Would she be ready again so soon?

Her fingers trailed down to his groin. Yes, it would be a full morning.

“Tardon! Tardon! Warriors approach,” a male voice echoed through the trees.

Both shot up. Arianna clutched the blanket tight below her chin. No, they needed more time together. If they ignored them…

“Tardon, they threaten our village. We must fight.”

The people did not possess skills or training to win battles. They’d lost too many against the two of them in the last few days.

Tardon and Arianna’s newfound paradise would be threatened if he did not fight. “We will come.” His mind focused on his plan to storm the castle. “This news is promising. If we can bring more warriors to our side, we will have greater numbers against the Elders. Have a better chance at rescuing Mardel.”

Arianna jerked the white dress over her head. “We must go, now.”

He grunted at the sight of her body once again covered. The smell of smoldering ash in the fire circles reminded him of the last siege. They would have to be more cautious, deceptive. Stay focused and ready for anything.

Arianna pulled the ties and her plump breasts swelled above the material. Even after having her several times last night, his desire had not waned. Instead, his passion had grown, fueled by knowledge of how she moved and groaned beneath him. He cursed, tossed the blanket aside, and yanked on his breeches.

She grabbed the bags of tonic and Tardon followed while wrapping a long sash around his waist.

The winding path led straight back to Marlena and Kerdin’s home.

Many were gathered around a long table. The short, stocky fisherman, Verdean, Kerdin, Marlena, and several others, engaged in a heated discussion.

“We must attack before they reach our homes and children,” the fisherman shouted.

Marlena shooed the children away and sat down on a long wooden bench. “No, we must let them travel through the passage to Gremdon, as we did with Tardon and Arianna. It is the only way to ensure the Elders do not see their fate.”

A tall, thin man with a scar down his face approached with sword in hand. “The Elders cannot see beyond the castle walls.”

“We are not certain.” Marlena helped Kerdin sit down and rested his wooden stick against the table.

“Tardon, what do you believe to be the best strategy?” Kerdin asked.

Arianna walked over to her sister and whispered in her ear. Marlena pointed to the house and she went inside.

“Tardon?” Kerdin tried to stand but fell back. Marlena, at his side, scolded him.

“The best attack is one your opponent does not see approach.” Tardon kept his eyes on the door to the cabin.

Only a few moments had passed and Arianna’s absence made him uneasy. Somehow, a deeper connection bound them together, as if their souls had been entwined during their union. He glanced at the door then forced thoughts of Arianna to the side to focus on the battle at hand.

Smells of husky herbs drew his attention. A large animal sizzled over a fire, run through with a stick. His stomach gurgled at the aroma.

Marlena stood and gestured for him to sit by Kerdin.

“We must disguise ourselves from the Elders,” Tardon continued.

“This is madness. How can we disguise ourselves from the creatures that enslaved us, made us believe in a world that did not exist?” The thin man’s scar scrunched with his snarl.

“Berkaven, allow Tardon to finish,” Kerdin ordered.

“There is a way to storm the castle without the Elders knowing.”

Arianna emerged from the house, dressed again as a warrior, tying a gauntlet onto her arm, sword already sheathed at her side and dagger tucked in her boot. She glowed even in the face of evil. Something had changed in her during their wedding night, just as he had changed.

Berkaven paced around the table, hands clasped behind his back. “We wait, breathless for your powerful warrior wisdom.”

Marlena shot him a glare.

“Marlena, did you save the amulets we wore?” Tardon asked.

Arianna shuddered, her eyes twitching at the mention of the amulet. How would he convince her to wear it again?

“Yes.” Marlena’s eyebrows rose at his question.

“I will need them if my plan will work. The only way to infiltrate the castle is to be invited in. We will take what they require, but will use the opportunity to free others.”

Berkaven turned to Verdean and the fisherman. “He is insane. You cannot place the amulets back on, or you will be controlled by the Elders.”

Verdean let out a sigh. “I agree with Berkaven.”

“You are wrong. The Elders do not control us. They force us to see, smell, and hear things, but they do not have possession of our bodies. Marlena, you said it yourself. I chose Arianna, not the woman they sent me. Try as they might, they could not force Arianna from my heart.”

Arianna shifted her eyes wide. “I would view my sister as a monster again.”

“Yes.” Tardon walked over and took her hands in his. “But you will know it is only an illusion.”

She glanced at her sister. “But they have forced our bodies. They’ve held us captive with their invisible force.”

“Yes, but only when they’ve been in the same room. Have they ever controlled you when they were out of sight?” Tardon asked.

Arianna’s brows furrowed. “No.”

“As long as they know nothing of what has happened on this side of the cave, we will succeed. These warriors will be a test. If it works, so too will my plan to infiltrate the castle.” Tardon moved around and studied the faces staring at him. Most showed fear. Fear not of his plan, but of the Elders’ warriors approaching their homes. They needed to know that victory was possible.

“We believe the Elders cannot see beyond the cave. If they could, warriors would have been waiting on the other side of the mountain where they would have the strategic advantage, or they would have stormed our village long ago.” Verdean offered.

“I believe the same. How many warriors approach, and where are they now?” Tardon asked.

“Two. Wandering the hillside.” Verdean paused. “They call for Arianna.”

“Why not Tardon?” Arianna asked.

“We are unsure.” Kerdin grasped his wounded leg. Marlena ran to his side. “Do not fuss over me.”

Tardon pressed his knuckles to the table. “I will go alone to lure them back to the valley. Those who do not want to wear an amulet must remain out of sight. Once I maneuver close enough, I will snatch the amulets from their necks.”

“I will go with you. They call out for me. My sister will remain behind so I will not be distracted.” Arianna spoke sternly with no fear in her words.

“No, I will use you to lure them here. If they have been sent by the Elders to retrieve you they may insist you go with them before entering the valley. They will not question following me into any cave if it is to save you. If they specifically search for Arianna, the Elders must have ordered them not to return without you.”

“But I still do not understand why they seek me and not you?” Arianna came to his side and wrapped her arms around his waist. His body warmed in her embrace.

“Our fate will show us soon. These warriors could help us in our quest to free those still enslaved.”

“They approach!” A young man barely old enough to grow hair on his face raced toward them. He panted and grasped the edge of the table. “There is not much time. They are only a few thousand paces from the cave.”

“Marlena, the amulets,” Tardon ordered.

She ran into her home and returned with two amulets, then handed them to Tardon. “Protect my sister.”

“I will.”

Kerdin pushed from his bench. “Call our people to the center of the valley. Tardon, you have from the cave entrance at the mountain pass until the outskirts of town to succeed.”

“Take the children to the other side of the lake and hide them,” he ordered Verdean.

Kerdin stared at the fisherman. “If Tardon fails, we will flank them from all sides. Make sure you do not harm Tardon in the battle. He is too valuable to our path for freedom.” Kerdin turned to another man. “Berkaven, organize your men. Follow Tardon’s orders. No one must be seen before the warriors have reached the center of the valley. Do not advance unless Tardon gives the order.”

Tardon grasped the hilt of his sword. These people needed training or they would all die. Too many had been lost in their futile attempts to take the castle. It remained to be seen how many possessed the skill to fight. “I will not let them reach you, even if I must cut them down myself.”

Arianna let go of him and shot a nervous glare. “They are innocent, as we were.”

Tardon grasped her arms. “If they break through the line all will be lost, including the rescue of your brother. Like you, I do not wish to murder a fellow warrior, but I will do what must be done.”

“I understand, I will be waiting with the others—”

“No, you will be lying wounded in the woods half way between the cave and the center of the valley.”

Arianna’s eyebrows rose. “What do you mean?”

“I will explain on the way.”

Anna bounced up with a basket full of red berries. “Momma, I have these for a pie.”

Marlena smiled at her. “We will make it together later. Go, follow Verdean to the lake—”

“No, not again.” Anna stomped her foot and shrieked. “More warriors come?”

Tardon rested a hand on her head. “Yes, child. But do not worry, I will protect you.”

Anna lunged into him and wrapped her arms tight. “Thank you.” She bounced off toward the lake, but not before he grabbed the berries.

“I am sorry about your promise to Anna about the pie, but I need these berries.” He grasped Arianna’s hand and raced to the center valley, leaving the men still organizing back at the village. He would have to stall the warriors.

Tardon found the perfect spot between the valley and the cave for Arianna. “We must smash these berries and rub them on you. From a distance they will appear to be blood. I will convince the warriors you are wounded.”

Arianna lay on the ground and smashed berries to her neck. Tardon smeared some against her chest.

He handed her the amulet. “We will close our eyes and place them on at the same time.”

They both took a deep breath and closed their eyes. Tardon tied the leather around his neck and hoped it would work. He opened his eyes and Arianna’s bright eyes shown back at him. He smeared more berries on her soft, delicious skin.

“If the warriors did not approach so quickly…” Arianna arched her eyebrows and gave a wicked grin.

“Hmm, you mean to torture me. The minute this ends I will have you again.” The unseen pull between them did not release even in the midst of danger. The excitement of battle fueled their desire. Warriors to the core.

“Keep your dagger at your side,” he told her. “If something goes wrong, you may need it. Wait for a warrior to bend down over you, then snatch the amulet from his neck. I will grab the other one at the same moment. This will ensure they do not kill us or each other.”

Tardon pressed his lips to hers. Flashes of what would come later if they survived forced him to go. The only way to return to Arianna’s arms would be to finish this. He turned on his heels and set off to find the warriors. Several paces before the cave he thrust his sword into the ground behind a tree and marched into the shadowed archway. His breath quickened with the anticipation of battle.

Musty, damp air sent a chill to his bones, and hair prickled the back of his neck when he exited the other side.

He stood on the sloping rock and listened. The birds squawked, beasts roared, and sticks crunched nearby. Warrior or beast? He rubbed his sticky hands against his vest and licked the remaining stains from his fingers. Instead of sweet earthy flavors, the berries tasted dull and sour.

Down the side of the rocks, a bush rustled in the tree line. Tardon slid down and approached the woods with caution. His body stiffened at the sight of two warriors, one with red hair. Kendar.

This had to work or he would have to kill the only person he had left in his life besides Arianna. The young man had pushed him into accepting his feelings for Arianna, and for that Tardon would save his life.

He yanked his dagger from his boot and, teeth snapped together to stifle his need to cry out, he slit his left shoulder and right thigh. Only a flesh wound. He tossed the dagger into some nearby brush and charged into the woods. “Kendar!”

Both warriors raised their swords. Had he made a grave mistake? Perhaps the amulet no longer worked after being removed. Damn, he should have tested his theory before running off.

He stumbled back.

“Tardon?” Kendar lowered his sword and approached.

Tardon unclenched his fists and clutched his leg. Kendar offered his hand in a warrior’s greeting.

“Thank the Elders! You must help,” Tardon panted.

Kendar released his arm. “What has happened? Where is Arianna?”

“We must hurry. She is wounded.”

“Where?” Another man stood eye to eye with Tardon. He would be a formidable opponent in a fight, but it wouldn’t come to that.

“She rests up there.” Tardon gestured to the direction of the cave. “I dragged her to cover and came to find a better weapon than a small dagger. My sword remains in the torso of a Cursed One.”

The large warrior stepped forward. “Your wounds are superficial.”

“We both escaped the Curse. They threw stones and we fell down a ravine. That allowed us to escape, but Arianna suffered graver injuries. Follow me, I will not waste any more time explaining. We must fight to save a fellow warrior.” Tardon turned and stumbled up the hill, still holding his leg.

The large warrior, his eyes full of suspicion, hadn’t greeted him. Tardon had seen him in the Pit only shortly before his departure; the man fought well, but hadn’t earned his Elite position.

The Elders must have promised him the status of Elite Warrior if he completed this mission. The same promise they always made before they sent people out to their death.

Kendar caught up. “How far?”

“Only a few hundred paces beyond that cave. Give me a weapon.” He ordered his well-trained replacement.

“You are wounded. I will fight.”

This one would not part with his sword. Even if Tardon ordered him as an Elite Warrior, this man would challenge him. The warrior’s eyes blazed with the hunger for battle. For once, a fight was not what Tardon sought.

Kendar reached into his boot and handed him a dagger.

“This will do for now.” Tardon left an open challenge for later if needed. An Elite Warrior would not accept defiance from another of lower rank.

“For now we retrieve Arianna. Follow close behind.” Tardon hobbled up the steep slope and entered the cave. Anticipation stung his skin. Kendar needed to be the one to bend over Arianna. Tardon would handle the brute behind him.

Kendar shuddered. “The creatures wait beyond the cover. Can we get Arianna and escape without incident?”

“We will fight. End this now.” A deep voice barked from behind.

Kendar turned on him. “The Elders gave specific orders. We return with Arianna. She is the priority.”

Tardon’s skin seared with concern. Why did they want Arianna? Kendar’s words stifled the eagerness in the warrior behind him. Tardon did not want to give the man cause to fight. No matter what, Arianna and Kendar could not be injured.

The tip of a blade pushed against Tardon’s back. “But they said nothing about Tardon’s return.”

Tardon swung around, dagger in hand. This warrior challenged him to the death because of a promise made by the Elders, no doubt: Tardon’s life for this man to gain Elite status.

There would be no way to get close enough to pull the amulet from his neck. One of them would not survive.

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

Footfalls echoed through the overgrown branches that blackened the sun. Arianna clutched the dagger by her side and forced herself to remain still. Which warriors were sent?

Names and faces ran through her mind but so many had fallen. One face haunted her…Saldor. Could she kill him if she had to? The man had cared for her when she lay ill, took her in when she could not be at Tardon’s side. Helped them despite his grief.

Tardon believed Saldor betrayed them at every turn, accused him of reporting to the Elders. That would mean he caused Arianna to be imprisoned in the dungeon. Still, she did not wish to kill him without knowing the truth.

“Arianna.” A familiar voice yelled. She concentrated on maintaining the appearance of unconsciousness. “Arianna, it is Kendar. Tardon’s servant.”

Arianna’s eyes fluttered open. She had to move quickly before he discovered their treachery with the berries. “Kendar?” she whispered.

He leaned closer.

“I—I…”

Kendar touched her shoulder and pulled his hand away. He sniffed his fingers. She grabbed his hair and pulled him down, slicing the amulet from his neck. He howled and fell to the ground.

“Light! It burns!” Kendar contorted on the ground beside her. She shot up. Tardon stood with a sword at his throat. She bolted from the ground and ripped the amulet from her own neck.

Despite the searing pain in her head, she screamed and waved her arms to distract the other warrior. He dropped his guard long enough for Tardon to reach his dagger and stab it into the man’s shoulder. The sword thudded against the ground.

Kendar continued to scream from behind. The warrior shoved Tardon back. The warrior’s hairy hand reached up and pulled the knife from his shoulder. Dark eyes narrowed before he charged straight at her for the kill. Five steps…four steps…each pound of his feet sent vibrations up her legs. Three steps…two…he froze a step away from her.

She blinked, still holding her dagger at the ready. Only a hissing noise escaped his lips, and he fell to the ground. She jumped out of the way before his body slammed into the dirt path. Tardon stood behind, red-faced with bloodied sword in one hand and the amulet in the other. “I had no choice. He would have killed you.”

“I know.”

“W—what happened?” Kendar sat up. Arianna and Tardon raced to his side.

“Everything is fine. We have much to explain,” Arianna reassured him.

Kendar pinched the bridge of his nose. “I—I do not understand.”

“You are safe.” Tardon placed his hand on Kendar’s shoulder. “We are safe here. Wait a moment.” Tardon ambled to the center of the valley a few hundred paces ahead and shouted. “All is well. One warrior survived, the other fell to my sword.”

Kendar shuffled away from her and glanced back at his fallen comrade. “Y—you killed him?”

“Tardon had no choice.”

Tardon returned with others behind him. “These are former friends and family from the castle.”

“They survived the Cursed?” Kendar’s head shot back and forth.

“They are the Cursed. That is what the Elders wish you to believe.”

Kendar squinted while he searched each of their faces. A thin young man with flaming orange hair raced to his side. “Brother?”

“Yes, I will explain everything. We are pleased you finally found us.”

Kendar disappeared into the crowd. The villagers patted Tardon on the back before returning to the village.

“I will take care of the warrior.” Tardon brushed Arianna’s hair from her eyes. “I will meet you at our spot from last night. We can give Kendar the morning to process what his brother tells him. Then we will discuss my plan.”

Arianna swiped at the sticky substance on her chest and scowled. “I will go clean this off. Meet you there.” She sighed with relief from the success of the morning. The amulets allowed them to get close to the warriors without suspicion. Once they spoke with Kendar, they would be able to rescue her brother. Why had the Elders wanted her but not Tardon? Something wasn’t right.

Arianna passed the outskirts of the village and stood hidden in the trees. Children played and parents sat around tables drinking and talking. Marlena brought food from her kitchen, placed it on the table, and sat.

The golden rock in her hand seemed harmless, yet carried great power. If she was to fight without distraction she’d have to face the Cursed before they left. She slipped the leather strap around her neck and took a deep breath before she opened her eyes.

Gray creatures drooled and tore apart their food. Distant howling caused Arianna to cover her ears. The foul smell of musty decay wafted in the breeze. She retched but didn’t move. “It is not real. She is my sister.”

She repeated this until her body relaxed and she focused on bits and pieces of the people she knew to be living, little distinguishable marks on the monsters: her sister’s bracelet, Kendar’s freckles. She’d focus on those things.

She made her way to the lake.

As she came upon the water, the sounds and smells of the creatures vanished and she splashed water over herself.

“It is done.” Tardon approached from behind and stood at their make shift shelter. He gestured to his amulet around his neck. “I saw you and thought it wise to wear mine.”

Her skin tingled at the sound of his voice. It pulsed under her Amulet and down her arms. She reached up to yank it from her body, but something deep inside her soul forced her hand back to her side. Light shot from the small stone and her legs moved forward, almost without her control. An invisible force reached deep inside her body and pulled her to Tardon.

Tardon flung his vest onto the ground. His breeches sat precariously on his hips, threatening to fall from his body.

Long cords of muscle ran from his glistening chest down to a line of hair. She strolled up to him. The amulet pushed heat through her chest and shot through her limbs, sending her body ablaze with need. “We did it. In one more sun, we will be a family, and our people will be free. Nothing can stop us now.”

Tardon’s amulet danced in the sunlight. Arianna traced the line of hair down his belly and found his erect manhood. It grew in her hand. Excited, she reached behind his neck to pull his lips to her mouth. She stroked and massaged his manhood, and enjoyed how it responded.

Groans drifted from his mouth and echoed in her head. She throbbed where he would enter her, as if her heart fell and beat with vigor below. She let go and raked her hands up and down his defined stomach.

He yanked her ties too hard and they broke. He ripped her warrior vest from her body. Primal urgency took over. She wanted him and would not allow him to tease her this time. He pushed her against a tree and lifted her legs around him.

The thought of them together in spite of the rules of the Elders drove her mad with desire. No Enforcer to stop us now. Damn the Elders to the underworld. She was a warrior and a woman and nothing would stop her from having what she wanted.

 

***

 

Tardon couldn’t restrain himself. Need and want drove him over the edge and he entered her. Her tightness stoked him to the point of insanity. Amber light shot from his amulet. The taste of berries and honey lingered in his mouth. His soul soared from his body and connected in a new way with the light. Arianna’s light.

One long spasm jumped from muscle to muscle until each fiber convulsed as one. He fell on her. Skin stuck to skin. She trembled beneath him. He moved off of her and stroked her face. Tardon struggled to understand his feelings of remorse when he had been physically fulfilled, yet his heart felt empty.

“W—what was that?” Arianna stammered.

“I am also confused. We blurred the lines between our bodies.”

“Like we became one.”

“Yes,” Tardon whispered. “The passion—”

“As if I would die if I did not have you.” Arianna rested her head on his chest. “The amulet. I saw the light from before.”

“You have seen this before?”

“Yes.” Arianna sat up and stared at him. “A few times, have you not?”

“No, never.”

“When I was ill I saw my sister as a woman, not a monster. Visions, feelings, smells, tastes from outside of the room I was in. It started when the amulet cracked from the Enforcer’s attack. Somehow it must affect the magic.”

The amulet released its stronghold over his movement and Tardon yanked it from his neck. “I do not wish to have magic between us.”

Arianna tensed and pulled hers off quickly. “You should warn me. If not, you will see me as one of those—”

Light erupted and she held her head as it throbbed, but not with the intensity that took them to their knees the first time they’d removed their amulets.

Tardon took her soft face in his hands. “I will always know it is you.”

Arianna frowned at the ripped clothing scattered about.

Tardon gathered their clothes. Arianna pulled her skirt back down to her knees.

“We should find Kendar and explain our plan. We will set out before the sun rises. By the next moon, our people will be free and the amulets destroyed.”

A strange feeling plagued him. He shoved a shaking leg into his breeches. Arianna worked on the ties of her vest, her body still rosy from their love.

He knotted the broken tie and cinched her up. Part of him wanted to pull her into his arms and hold her forever, but Kendar had information they needed. Before Tardon allowed her to go with him, he would discover why the Elders wanted her. Ordering Arianna to stay behind would not be easy. She wanted this fight more than he did. But he would not, could not, lose her. He choked down the cry that threatened to escape and pulled her close.

She stepped back and stared into his eyes. “You are troubled.”

“We need to speak with Kendar.”

They walked back to her sister’s house. The village had gathered in celebration of Kendar’s freedom. They needed a victory to restore the confidence they had lost before attempting to infiltrate the castle.

Beklavan slapped him on the shoulder. “Brilliant plan, Tardon. You live up to your reputation. Let us celebrate.”

Tardon released Arianna’s hand, but his eyes followed her. Only a few paces apart, but he didn’t like the distance.

“This is so difficult to believe.” Kendar rubbed his forehead. “My brother alive and living free.”

“There is much to understand, but you must focus. I will ask even more of you now.” He moved to Arianna’s side and gestured for her to sit beside him.

“You must tell us why the Elders sent you to find Arianna.”

“I do not know.” Kendar rubbed his head harder and left red marks connecting his freckles. “When the chaos settled they sent for me and stated Arianna had to return to the castle or great darkness would come.”

“They did not explain.”

Kendar’s nose crinkled. “Would I ask?”

“Understood.” A twitch in Tardon’s heart gave warning, but to what?

He took a deep breath for courage to continue. None of the battles he’d fought before would compare to the fight Arianna would give him. The Elders themselves would be able to hear her fury even without their powers.

“Kendar and I will return to the castle and infiltrate the warriors. We will work together as quickly as possible to remove amulets until we have enough on our side.”

Arianna’s eyebrows rose. “You and Kendar? What am I to do?”

“You need to remain here and protect the—”

What? Are you mad?” Arianna’s shoulders stiffened. “I will not be left behind.”

“Arianna, my love, how can you go if we do not understand the Elders’ dark purpose for you?”

“You need me.”

“Kendar and I can—”

“She is right.” Kendar shifted nervously. “The Elders gave orders that the gate is not to open unless it is for Arianna. No one will be allowed back into the castle unless Arianna is at their side.”

“Then we will sneak through the underground—”

“It has been sealed. There is no way to reach the inside of the castle through the tunnel now.”

Tardon’s blood boiled with hatred. “Cursed Elders!” He slammed his fists down on the table. “They have evil intentions for Arianna, but what?”

“It does not matter.” Arianna stroked his arm, and calming warmth settled over him. “We have a plan. One they do not know exists.”

“Tell us the specifics of your plan, Tardon,” Marlena said.

“Kendar, myself, and Arianna—” Tardon gritted his teeth and Arianna ran her nails back and forth on his neck, sending pleasant tingles up his scalp and down his back. “We will exit the cave with Arianna wounded. Since we are unable to determine when or how they can see us, we will continue the deception on the journey between the cave and castle. This will also account for the time we have been in this region.”

“Clever,” Verdean commented.

“We wear our Amulets the entire way. It would be wise if we spotted you on occasion inside the forest. Otherwise, the Elders may become suspicious. But, once we reach the fields near the castle, remain out of sight.”

Marlena moved to her sister’s side. “The three of you will enter alone?”

“Yes, if anyone else tries to enter with us it will cause suspicion. Once inside we will work on removing the warrior amulets. After we have enough on our side we will open the gate.”

Kendar said, “There is a movement inside the castle. Several Apprentices investigated and two people were burned. Rumors keep circling about a rebellion in the inner court. I even heard whispers about some removing their amulets.” His eyes grew wide. “One of us should go to the inner court. The area is overcrowded and the Elders have spoken of sending some out for food once the gates open. The numbers could be in our favor if we can convince them to join the fight.”

Tardon rubbed his temples. Another of the Elders’ tricks, perhaps? No. It made sense that the inner courts were overcrowded. Many had fallen from the Elders’ grace. “Kendar, you will infiltrate the inner court. Arianna and I will—”

“One problem.” Kendar shifted in his chair. “Arianna will not be able to get near any warriors. They stripped her of the title. Upon her return, she will work for a merchant.”

“What?” Arianna’s voice cracked.

“No. Arianna will stay with me.” Tardon’s muscles tightened with the idea of separating from her.

“Tardon, I am a warrior despite what the Elders say. I will succeed. You must trust—”

“I trust you. I do not trust the Elders.” Tardon’s mind searched for other answers. Another way, but it would take two to handle the warriors. However, if a rebellion truly existed then the possibility of success had increased. One of them would be able to sneak into the inner courts unnoticed better than two. “I still do not like this.”

She squeezed his hand. “I will succeed. Trust me.” Yellow sparkled in her blue eyes.

“We must get to the circle of fires by nightfall. Remember to keep your distance, yet allow us to see you,” Tardon addressed all the people of Gremdon.

“The syrup from the tree.” Marlena handed him the pouch. “I believe this is what is used in the amulets. It has healing powers to us, but, combined with their magic, it must cause the hallucinations and control of those who wear them.”

“They will not have it for long. We will conquer them before it can be used for their evil.”

Kerdin offered his arm. “Tardon, we thank you. You do not have family in the castle, yet you risk your own life to help.”

“You are wrong. I have Mardel, my brother.” Tardon gave Arianna a reassuring smile. “And he will be free soon.”

He parted from the people who had touched his once solid warrior heart. The edges melted at the sight of Marlena and Arianna’s goodbyes. If his plan failed, many would die, or worse, be re-enslaved for the evil purposes of the Elders.

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

Arianna and Tardon closed their eyes and tied the amulets around their necks. Trees creaked overhead in an eerie warning. The familiar cold attacked deep into her aching bones and the taste of soured fruit, which she’d almost forgotten, coated her tongue.

They proceeded out of the cave. She held tight to Tardon. Not just to display her injuries in case the Elders watched, but also because she refused to part from him—not even a few paces.

Gray creatures slithered in the distance. Hair rose on her arms and she lifted her dagger, more from warrior instinct than for show, but she couldn’t help scanning the leather-skinned arms for the golden bracelet. A sign her sister stood close by. For once, Arianna wanted to feel safe. The Elders had a plan for her, new ways to torture and punish. Were they aware of her marriage to Tardon? No. That happened on the other side of the cave. The others had discovered they could not see beyond the outer cave walls.

It took half a day, but they entered the ring of fire without incident. They played their roles well. The sense of eyes watching their every move kept her in character. Darkness brought restlessness, but Tardon held her while Kendar tended the fires. Did they hide their bond well enough?

Blurs of colors swirled when she shut her eyes. Cloaked men chained her to the dungeon wall. Rats scurried up and down her legs, nibbling at her skirt and boots. A long, hideous arm stretched from under black cloth and reached for her. Ominous laughter echoed in the bleak cell. “No! Do not touch me!”

Tardon shook her awake, and she fell into his arms panting. Sweat dripped down her back. Kendar ran to her side but Tardon shooed him away.

“It will be over soon,” Tardon whispered.

His eyes showed his tortured soul. Something had changed inside her. She had to reach in and find the warrior that had melted away, the defiant child that beat everyone and conquered any who challenged her. Tardon needed the old Arianna, the brave Elite Warrior. She swallowed down the sting in her throat and grabbed her dagger.

“I see the first ray of light. Let us break camp and continue,” she said, stiff muscles protesting, but she didn’t waver. If she needed to crumple, it would have to be after the success of their mission.

Deep inside, she’d seen her worst nightmare. She had to face it, to overcome her fear of the dungeon and chains.

Kendar led the way back to the open field. Beasts roared in the distance, but the immediate path appeared clear. They reached the edge of the forest. Tall grass swayed in the wind. Many animals hid in its thick cover.

Each move had to be timed perfectly. The Elders had to be distracted by an attack if they were going to succeed.

Tardon unsheathed his sword to signal the others to advance.

Kendar stepped into the cover. “Run! We’re out-numbered.”

Orange eyes blazed from behind the trees and Arianna readied for the attack until she remembered they were friends.

Kendar and Tardon, with Arianna clasped to his side, wadded through the thick brush. She still dragged one leg in mock injury. The others closed in and they had to pick up the pace or end up fighting each other.

She limped across the field. Weeds slashed at her face. The solid, massive gray castle wall warned of their impending imprisonment.

Growls of animals sounded closer. She searched for her sister and the others. Apprehension seized her muscles, and her calf tightened into a large knot.

They broke free of the cover and into the open field. Tardon hauled her to the castle doors.

Kendar pounded on the wood and iron gate, but nothing happened. If the Elders were so eager, why didn’t they have the doors open, waiting for them? Something was wrong.

Their Cursed, gray-skinned friends slithered from the grass into the open field, only a few hundred steps from where they stood. Tardon hadn’t accounted for this. If the creatures drew too close they’d have to fight, or the Elders would suspect treason. Arianna’s mind reeled with strategic plans; none would work without sacrificing her friends or their one chance at freeing Mardel and their people

Gray outlined the field. High-pitched squeals pierced her head. She cupped her ears with her hands. “Open the gates,” she screamed, but her pleas drowned in the sounds of her deformed friends and family.

Tardon took an attack stance at her side. Her sister’s bracelet reflected the muted sunlight. They had to fight. Another of the Elders’ deranged tests.

A golden mane broke through the dense brush with a resounding roar. The others turned and the beast jumped into the center of their line. “No!”

Arianna bolted to where her sister stood a moment before. Dagger raised, she jumped on the lion’s back and plunged the blade into its side. The beast bucked and snarled. She clung to its mane, and thrust the knife into its neck.

It fell to the side and trapped her leg under its bulk. Tardon speared his sword at one of the Cursed slithering close to her. A show for the Elders. He played his part well. Most of the Cursed retreated at the sight of the animal.

Pain shot up her thigh and she cried out. Kendar pulled her from under the beast, then Tardon drove his sword through the animal’s heart. One last whimper and the cat’s head thumped to the ground.

The castle doors creaked open from behind. Arianna shuffled to the building, gripping her throbbing leg. No need to fake injury now. Tardon slung her over his shoulder and charged into the castle. The doors slammed shut from behind.

An Apprentice stood in the archway, arms folded. “You have completed your mission. Follow me.”

“Arianna requires medical attention. We will help her to the healer then bring the sap to the Elders.”

“No. You will bring it now.”

“I succeeded in the mission and will have the honor of delivering the gift to the Elders.” Kendar grabbed the bag and followed the Apprentice before Tardon had a chance to argue.

Arianna’s heart sank when he disappeared into the dark corridor. The plan had already changed. Tardon would be forced to handle the warriors alone.

Arianna and Tardon’s footsteps echoed in the silent streets until they came upon the merchants busy at their shops. She blinked at the rising sun behind the clouds and knew their time grew short. If timed correctly, the others would attack the castle once the sun passed the high mark of the sky.

Narrow halls smelling of waste and damp earth led to the healer who once proclaimed to be a friend of her sister. If he spoke the truth, he’d be crucial to entering the inner court without alarming the Elders.

Tardon pounded on the door.

The healer’s eyebrow rose in question when he opened it. “How may I assist you, Tardon?”

“Arianna has been injured. Care for her. I must go to the Elders.” Tardon plunked her down on a stool and left the room.

The door shut behind him. She rubbed her sweaty palms down the side of her rough leather skirt. Bottles lined rows of shelves. The healer worked over a flame, stirring a wood stick around in a bowl. Pine tree scent filled the room. It gave the feeling of standing in the middle of a forest instead of a dark room in the center of a castle.

“What ails you, my child?”

“It is my leg.” Arianna rubbed her aching thigh. Bubbles popped at the surface of the concoction and he removed it from the flame.

Arianna pulled a small sack from her belt. “The medicine for my brother. You required sap from the tree of life.”

“Yes, there are many ill. Most have been moved to the inner court to contain the outbreak.”

Could it be that easy? Arianna wrung her hands. “I have what you seek. Let us go to my family chamber for my brother, then to the inner court.”

The healer turned away and stirred the cooling mixture. “There is no need to stop at your chamber.”

Sweat ran down her back. A wave of anxiety raced through her chest, leaving a dull burn in its wake. “H—he is—”

“No, he lives. Moved to the inner courts I am afraid.”

The burn sizzled and waned but her desire to see her brother remained strong. “Let us make haste.”

“I should call for someone to assist you.”

“No,” she barked at him. “I only need something to lean on.”

He retrieved a long stick with a U-shape at the top. “Here, it goes under your arm.”

She leaned on the solid wood and hobbled out the door. Her hands, slick with sweat, slipped and she fell against the wall. The healer offered his hand, but the old man wouldn’t be able to bear her weight on the steps. She clung to the iron railing and descended the outer court stairs. Wind whipped through the square and up the narrow walkway.

Three steps down, the tower bells clanged in alarm. Arianna’s chest constricted in fear. They needed to hurry. The others would be slaughtered. No, she wouldn’t lose her sister, not now.

She pushed through the pain and maneuvered down the stairs and through the square. Merchant doors slammed shut in anticipation of an attack. If only they knew, they’d turn their make-shift weapons on the ones who were truly evil.

Smoke suffocated her in a blanket of gray when they rounded the last corner to the inner court. Fires stoked, ready for another anticipated punishment. Soured berries rose up and she swallowed them back down. She palmed the nearby wall to steady herself, heat caressed her face like one of the roaring animals licking its prey before it devours.

She steadied her shaking hands and glanced at the healer. His eyes squinted, reading her every move.

“Let us continue, quickly.” The urgency of his words spooked her. He led her by the arm under a pointed archway.

She’d never been deep into the inner court. Only women of the night, the sick, or the maimed lived down there.

Groans sounded from behind cracked, crumbled walls. Dark doorways lined both sides, some covered with a cloth, others exposed to the hall. The healer stopped at the third doorway. An old, brown cloth, riddled with holes, hung lifeless in the stagnant air.

She covered her mouth and nose with her free hand at the smell of festering wounds and vomit.

“There are many here in need.”

“My brother, we help him fir—.” Arianna choked.

“Yes, of course. This way.” The healer maneuvered through a hole in a back wall and continued through another chamber. A burned-out section divided an outer wall and a new chamber. She sucked in ash and thrust her tongue out, raking it back against her teeth.

The narrow opening into the new chamber forced her to turn to the side. She lifted her crutch up over the rocky threshold. “This is taking too long. Where is he? Do you lead me to a trap?”

The healer stepped through another doorway and waved her in. “Here.”

Mardel stood with sword in hand, slicing through the air, eyes open wide. “Sister, you live?”

“Mardel?” Arianna blinked, sure it was treachery. The amulet deceived her.

“Sister, it is me.”

She scanned his wrinkled, torn clothes. No amulet around his neck. Arianna fell to her knees. Intense pain shot through her hip and up her back. She grabbed her thigh and fell over next to Mardel.

He knelt by her side and took her hands in his.

“Your amulet?”

“Yes, sister. Many of us have removed them. It is what I tried to tell you before you left, but they would not let me.”

“I do not understand. You do not wear the amulet, yet I have mine, how do you—”

“The magic does not work here. That is why the inner court is forbidden and why I am well. The healer brought me here and removed my amulet.” Mardel clutched her hands. “I discovered inhabitants that did not wear amulets and followed them. When I discovered this place I ran. I thought my eyes deceived me. They tried to stop me but I ran to the fires, screaming like a madman. Someone grabbed me and yanked my amulet off. I saw the truth.” Mardel’s hands shook under hers. “But that is when one of the Enforcers discovered us. The man who took the amulet from around my neck ran. The Enforcer chased him. He did not make it.” Mardel choked back tears. “They tore him apart.”

A skeletal woman stooped inside. “They are invading the castle.” Her voice was distorted and husky like a man’s.

The healer looked between them. “There is not much time.”

Arianna looked around. “I need a sword.”

“Follow me.” A small smile creased the healer’s face.

Mardel fingered her amulet. “It would be best if you removed this first.”

Arianna untied and pulled it from her neck. Golden light saturated her vision. A sting raced through from her eyes to the back of her head, but this time the pain seeped away after a few burdened steps.

A hundred or more eyes stared when she ducked below the low archway. The narrow street was packed full of people. None wore amulets. “The rumors are true.” Arianna’s heart soared above the castle towers. Each person held a makeshift weapon. Ready to fight and die.

“I must help Tardon. Mardel, stay here.”

“No, Sister. You may be the warrior, but I am one of these people. I will stand and fight to free every man and woman.”

Arianna wanted to drag him back inside the chamber and tie him up. Make him stay. To protect him, but it was time to let him go. He was of age, sixteen harvest seasons, a man ready to make his own decisions. “Go and fight. Remain in the shadows until—”

“Arianna, I have been trained by the best.”

Arianna squinted at him.

“I studied you.”

All the times she’d tried to keep him from the Pit or the inner court only to end up here facing the two things she never wanted for him. It didn’t matter if she tried to protect him. His destiny called him, as hers called to her. “Be careful. I wish you to meet my husband when this is over.”

“Husband?” Mardel tried to catch her but she’d moved from his reach.

“I will explain later. You will have to live to learn the truth, dear brother.” Arianna hobbled through the crowd and headed for the Pit. She rounded several corners, passing the fires. Her vest clung to her chest with sweat.

War cries rose from the outer wall. Was she too late? She slid into a passage. Her walking stick clanked against the ground and echoed into the darkness. A shadowy figure emerged from the archway ahead.

Steps sounded from behind. She spun around to face silver eyes piercing through a black mask.

An Enforcer in his true, depraved appearance. She stumbled back. Silver-white lines extended from under the mask and darted out in every direction. Sparkles glistened in the dim torch light. He flexed his arm, causing the lines to move.

Screeches summoned her to turn. Long nails raked down the side of a wall. Vosdak stepped into the light and removed his hood.

She gasped.

“You have done well.” Skin ashen and transparent, the same silver eyes as the Enforcer’s stared back at her, but red circles pulsed in the center. With each motion of the red spheres, her belly quaked and burned.

She shuffled back, but hit a brick wall. No, the Enforcer. She lifted her walking stick and slammed it into his chest. It clanked and sent vibrations up her arm. The Enforcer wasn’t real. Somehow, the Elder made her see what he wanted.

“This is only a vision.”

“No, child, this is the truth. You have served us well. You are the key to restoring our powers. Now that we have you, we will be powerful once more.” Vosdak snarled and spoke to the Enforcer through blackened, chip teeth. “Take her to the dungeon. Prepare her.”

Dungeon? No. If they needed something from her that would preserve their sick way of life, there was only one thing she could do. With one swift movement, she grabbed her dagger from her boot and thrust it to her heart.

The tip of the blade punctured her skin but stopped. Blood dripped down her vest. Vosdak’s black magic had secured her arm. “You are much too valuable. We need you alive. For now.” He turned to the Enforcer. “Dispose of Tardon and Mardel. They have served their purpose.”

“No!” Arianna fought against the power, but the invisible force pulled the knife from her chest and forced her to bow before Vosdak. Her insides turned out when he extended long gnarled fingers, each knuckle twisted and swollen. He bent them into a fist and the air rushed from her lungs and out her mouth.

He kept her still on her knees as he approached and placed his hand on her skull. Long nails scratched against her scalp. “Do not worry. I have a special plan for you and Tardon.” The nails pierced her scalp and she screamed. Tears rolled down her cheeks. Images flashed through her mind. Father slung a blade at an Enforcer. Mother screamed from behind. The Enforcer stopped the blade with his bare hands, tore it from her father’s grasp. Turned and slashed her mother from stern to belly.

Arianna’s own skin felt as if it had ripped open. The Enforcer turned and sliced her father’s neck. Gurgles sounded from Arianna’s throat. The taste of blood filled her mouth. She sucked and gasped, drowning in her father’s blood.

Light and darkness collided with hope. Darkness won.

 

***

 

Tardon tensed at the sight of the trainer preparing the Pit. Smells of sweat and blood brought him back to the days before his exodus from the castle. Fresh air and the cool taste of lake water still tingled on his taste buds.

The trainer wiped red stains from the end of an anvil and Tardon approached from behind. He ran his finger down the coarse mortar used to secure the rocks on the mouth of the pit.

The trainer placed the anvil down next to a spiked flail. Tardon inched around a column with a light step. A scar ran from shoulder to finger on the trainer’s left arm. It was an injury that ended his Elite Warrior status. Something this man desired to regain but which the Elders forbid. Tardon stepped closer to rip the amulet from his neck and grant the trainer his only wish.

Tardon held his breath and took the final step.

“You require something, Tardon?”

Heat raced down Tardon’s body.

“I am maimed not deaf. What is it that you require?”

Words would not justify removing the amulet. He needed to work fast before someone entered the Pit to warn of the attack. The trainer held a sword in his hand. Tardon did not wish to spill his blood, yet what choice would he have but to fight him?

“The Elders warned me you would come.”

Tardon cringed at the mention of the Elders. He clutched the hilt of his sword. “What do you speak of?”

“No need for that, Tardon,” Saldor spoke from behind.

Tardon drew his sword and faced Saldor. “What does he speak of? Why are you here?”

Saldor snarled. “You mean why am I in the pit instead of fighting the Cursed Ones you brought to overthrow the castle?”

“Are you mad? I would never—”

Saldor strutted around him, hand on his sheathed sword. “You challenge the Elders at every turn. Now you bring enemies to our door so you can play hero, win the people’s hearts and claim victory.”

“You speak madness. I would never risk the safety of our people for my own gain.” Tardon’s chest constricted at the thought of his friends sacrificing their lives to fight for freedom.

Saldor snarled, “You are consumed with your own needs. Elite warrior, gifts from the Elders, now Arianna. You have corrupted her and caused her fall.”

“What fall? What of Arianna? If you—”

“Saved her. The Elders would burn you both if it were not for me. Now only you will burn. The Elders granted Arianna’s life to me.”

Fury stung his insides, and he swung his sword high, intent on slicing Saldor’s head from his body.

A sword met his in midair. The trainer smirked at him. “And they say I am unable to fight.”

“Leave us,” Saldor ordered.

“But, sir—”

“I said leave us. Inform the Elders Tardon is secure. They may proceed.” Saldor drew his sword and pressed it to Tardon’s neck. The trainer lowered his and fled the room.

“Proceed with what? What do you speak of?” Tardon lowered his sword. He needed answers. “I know not what the Elders have promised, but it is a lie. They manipulate and twist the truth for their own purposes. If you do not tell me of the Elders’ plan you seal Arianna’s doom.”

Saldor’s nostrils flared. “I saved Arianna. They granted me custody, or she would have remained in the dungeon for life.”

“Dungeon?”

“Yes, what did you think, Tardon? They told me how you seduced her. She is ruined in the eyes of the people. Cursed to the fires.” Saldor’s face turned crimson and he pressed the point of his sword into Tardon’s neck. “I had to give up everything to save her. My honor, my status.”

“Is that all you care about?” Tardon stepped back against the wall behind him. “You cannot claim her as a thing.”

“I have no choice because of your untamed desire.”

“You cannot claim another man’s wife.”

Saldor lunged forward, Tardon slid to the side, and the blade pierced the wood beam. “Wife? Marriage is forbidden.”

“Yes, in this kingdom, but outside the walls marriage and children are a way of life.”

Saldor’s upper lip curled into a snarl. “The Elders are right. You speak madness and must pay for your crimes.”

“You are only angry because she chose me.”

“Yes, but now she will be with me.” Saldor’s eyes narrowed.

“Saldor, listen to me. The others are not Cursed; it is a spell cast by the Elders. The amulet of protection is a deception designed to enslave our people. Remember when you received your amulet and when the strange creatures appeared?”

“Saldor! We will take him now.” An Apprentice appeared only a few paces away. Tardon grabbed Saldor’s amulet. It singed his skin.

The Apprentice glared and raised his hand. Tardon, unable to release the amulet, screamed. The smell of burnt skin reminded him of what was to come.

The amulet sparked in a myriad display of bright yellow and brown rays. A burst of light exploded, and he flew back against the wood beam. His head clunked against the iron brace. Warm liquid dripped down the back of his head.

“Saldor, you must…” Tardon’s lips sealed shut. The Apprentice waved a hand and an Enforcer entered.

“I told you I would bring him to the dungeon,” Saldor spat.

“You question me?” The Apprentice turned on Saldor.

“No. I thought—”

The Apprentice’s nostrils flared. “Do not think.”

The Enforcer grabbed Tardon’s arm and threw him over his shoulder.

Distracted, the Apprentice eased his control enough for Tardon to mumble a few words.

“There is a chance the one you loved lives outside these walls—” Tardon’s lips sealed shut.

 

***

 

Arianna awoke to the familiar smell of death. Her eyes fluttered open. The amulet hung from her neck again.

A cloaked figure stood over her. The final chain snapped shut from above. The Enforcer doubled over, his enormous frame squashed between the wood roof and stone floor.

The Elder’s eyes glowed bright and sinister in the dark light.

“We finally have what we need.” The Elder addressed another standing outside the iron door. “Tell the others we proceed.”

Screams echoed from outside the tower walls. Her friends and family fought to free all in the kingdom.

“What of the attack on the castle?” The cloaked man in the hall inquired.

“Let them kill each other. None of them matter now.”

“No!” Arianna yanked at the chains.

The Elder looked down at her with an evil grin. “We will not allow you to harm yourself. You are too valuable.”

What sinister plan did they have for her? The thought of their black magic caressing her body and soul made her shiver with disgust. “Throw me to the fires and be done with it.”

The Elder knelt down with the help of the Enforcer.

“Why do you wish to live in such conditions?” Arianna trembled, her voice cracked. “Free my people and go back to the dirt where you belong.”

“We do not wish to live in these bodies. That is why we must keep you safe.”

Horror flooded her. “I will not let you use me for magic.”

The Elder removed his hood and revealed a dented, hairless head. No eyebrows, only deep wrinkles touched his eyes from his forehead.

He placed a clawed hand on her stomach. A disturbance echoed from outside the hall.

“Good, he is here.”

The Elder jerked his large head back and she swore it would topple from his thin, blue-veined neck.

Another Enforcer entered the hall with Tardon over his shoulder, and tossed him to the ground. The smack of his back against the stone floor echoed through the cell. Their plan had failed. They’d be tortured and everyone fighting outside would perish, lost to the will of mad creatures hungry only for power.

“You both should know how Arianna has played such a vital role in restoring our powers and has given us renewed bodies.” He laughed with a sound deeper and stronger than should come from such an emaciated frame.

Arianna kept her eyes fixed on Tardon even as she addressed the Elders. “I brought the sap to you.”

“The sap will help us control the people, yes. But it is the blood that will renew us.”

“Blood?” Tardon rasped

“My blood?” Arianna asked. “How?”

The Elder ran his long claws across her abdomen. “Not your blood, your baby’s.”

Something inside her stomach rolled.

“She is…?” Tardon whispered.

“Yes, you have done well, Tardon.”

Tardon’s muscles flexed against the magic, but he remained on the ground.

Panic mixed with terror, and Arianna struggled to free herself.

“We cannot have you hurting yourself. Not after all the trouble you have caused us.” The Elder gave a derisive smile. “We thought the amulet would never drive you into Tardon’s bed. You were resistant, draining much of our power, but in the end, we won.”

The Elder ripped open the bottom of her vest and pressed his palm to her bare skin. An invisible, icy hand reached inside and clutched her spine. Bitter cold raced through each limb and her body constricted. Smells of a winter day full of damp air and burning leaves invaded her nose and her eyes turned to frozen balls. Nothing moved.

The Elder dug his nails into her abdomen. Claws punctured her skin. She grunted, but no tears or cries of pain escaped.

“No!” Tardon yelled.

The Elder crinkled his forehead in concentration. Three pricks at her skin and something long and pointed like a needle pushed through muscle. Intense pain radiated around the point of entrance.

The Elders forced her to watch her nightmare become reality. Something in her belly would be forced out. Her baby. A baby she didn’t even know existed but somehow a little hint of warmth remained deep inside. The warmth that she felt when Tardon and she shared their love.

“The baby is well.” The Elder hissed back to the one in the hall. The needles receded from her core and retracted into the Elder’s hand. “We have enough magic to speed the development of the child a few weeks. It will be enough. We only need a heartbeat.”

The Elder slunk back and the Enforcer helped him up. “We must prepare for the ritual.” The Apprentice ordered the Enforcer, “bring her to the tower before the sun goes down.”

“You said she was mine.” Saldor stood in the doorway.

Mine? As if a possession he would own. Tardon had failed to win the warriors over. Now she’d be forced to live a lie again.

Horrific cat-like howls sounded from the other side of the wall.

“Yes, Saldor, and she shall be. Once we are done with her,” the Apprentice spoke. The Elder’s black robe swooshed from the cell and blended with the darkness in the hall.

“What—”

“No questions. Obey or she burns in the fire with him.” The Apprentice ordered then turned to the Enforcer. “Chain Tardon in the cell with her. Let them suffer at the sight of each other.”

The Apprentice disappeared and the Enforcer slammed his fist into Tardon’s face then pulled him to the chains. She cringed at the sight of blood trickling from the corner of Tardon’s eye.

A cuff clanked shut around Tardon’s wrist and Arianna’s head ached at the sound. His other wrist hung limp. “No. Please, Saldor, help us.”

Saldor stared down. The two lines on his forehead etched deeper, and his brows grew tight between his eyes.

Tardon grabbed the other chain. Flung it around the Enforcer. The links rattled together and it pulled tight around the thick neck.

“You will kill Arianna too with this madness. Accept your fate, Tardon.”

“She is already dead.” Tardon struggled to hold on. The dumb brute couldn’t move due to the tight space, giving Tardon a remote chance to overpower him.

“Saldor, listen to me, please.” She pulled against the chains, but they would not give. “The Elders will rip this baby from my stomach and let me bleed to death. Remember in your chamber when we lay in bed together?”

Tardon roared and thrashed about as if her words fueled his fire of hatred.

“I spoke of visions. Told you of the amulet and how I saw things from the past and things that had not happened.”

“Yes, I remember, but—”

“I have seen this. The vision I had while chained to this wall. You comforted me in this very cell. That vision is about to happen.”

Saldor shook his head. “No, Arianna, they are only dreams.”

“I promise you. The truth is outside these walls—”

“He has poisoned your mind—” Saldor shouted.

Arianna longed to make him see the truth and feel the happiness of life as she had. “No, I have seen it with my own eyes. My sister lives, your beloved may also live. There are others—”

The Enforcer broke loose and slammed Tardon against the wall. Enormous, hairy knuckles reached down and pulled a dagger from his waist.

Saldor grasped Arianna and shook her. “The Elders do not need you alive.” The Enforcer drove his arm toward her heart. Arianna cringed and closed her eyes, waiting for a fate she’d once wished for.

A stale breeze crossed her face and she opened her eyes. The Enforcer’s head rolled from his neck and hung to the side. Long strands popped then the body fell, the head rested by her side, still attached in two places.

Silver blood splattered over her face and chest, its sour taste so intense she spit and clucked her tongue, trying to rid her mouth of the flavor.

“Saldor.” Tardon crawled to her side, one arm still cuffed to the wall, and pulled at her chains.

Saldor fell to his knees. “Cursed be the Elders, what have I done?”

“Saldor, listen to me.” Arianna took a deep breath and gagged at the overwhelming stench of day old eggs left in the sun.

“No, lies, too many lies,” Saldor’s voice wavered.

“Tardon, remove my amulet.” Arianna needed to make him see the truth or they would all be lost forever. She would not let that happen.

His eyebrows shot up. “But he will—”

“He will not harm me. Saldor, look at me. Do I have a scratch on me, anywhere that would indicate a change into a Cursed creature?”

“No, none have penetrated the inner walls.”

She nodded at Tardon, and he removed her amulet. A dull sting ached behind her eyes.

Saldor scurried backwards. “You—”

Tardon reached over and caressed her face. Was she still human? No. Saldor’s expression indicated her change.

“She is not a hideous creature. It is magic, designed to control us. Remove your amulet and you will see.” Tardon pleaded, his voice strained with desperation.

“No, I cannot.” Saldor’s eyes were wide and his voice was laced with fear.

“He speaks the truth.” Kendar and three warriors appeared behind him. “Saldor, you know I am but a humble servant. A boy who joined the warriors to fight for the good of his people. This is for the good of the people.”

Kendar, Tardon, and the other warriors yanked their amulets off.

Saldor shuffled away from the cell door and held his sword in front of him. “Get back.” He stumbled over Arianna into where Tardon’s chain would reach. Tardon jumped on top of him. The others pinned his legs and arms to the ground.

Kendar ripped the amulet from his neck. Saldor screamed and covered his eyes. His body twitched and contorted.

“You succeeded where I failed. You are a true warrior.” Tardon held Kendar’s shoulder in a gesture of gratitude.

“The others.” Arianna yanked at the chains but fell back against the wall.

Tardon knelt down on his knees by her side. His strong hand caressed her middle. His gentle strokes sent bumps up her arms.

Tardon’s eyes gleamed with excitement. “Is it true, are you with child?”

“I believe it is true. The vision.” Arianna’s mind searched for the answer to all of this. “Somehow I know these things. Since the crack in the amulet there have been many things I have seen.”

Saldor wiped his mouth and opened his eyes. “Y—you are both—”

“Yes, it is what we have tried to tell you. Ignorant, pretentious warrior. And you speak of my conceit?” Tardon smiled and offered Saldor a hand.

Kendar searched Saldor’s vest. “Here.” He handed the keys to Tardon.

Tardon unlocked the cuffs and she fell into his arms. Something she never thought she’d feel again.

Kendar stood. “The war wages in the town center. The others have broken free of the wall and now the inhabitants of the inner court are flanking from the back, while the people of Gremdon are maintaining position in the front.”

“Warriors are grouping from the left and right in an attempt to remove amulets from hidden shop keepers and merchants.” Kendar walked to the cell door. “We must join the inner court fight.”

“No. We must infiltrate the tower. It is the only way to end this.” Tardon helped her up. “They could still find a way to use magic against us and enslave our people again.”

“They need my baby. The Elder said their powers had weakened. With the blood of our baby, they will be strong again.”

Tardon grasped her shoulders and forced her to look at him. “You must flee the castle.”

“No, I will not abandon my people, my brother.”

“You must, you are the key to everything.” Tardon pulled her close and pressed his lips against hers. He touched her stomach once more. “For our baby, please.”

Her belly fluttered like small creatures danced inside. A reminder of what she carried. She ran a hand over her abdomen. “I will go. For the sake of our people.”

Her warrior side begged to stay and fight, but something inside had changed. A new desire to live. “Tardon, please, come with me,” she begged.

He only shook his head and kissed her cheek. “I love you. No matter my fate, I live on inside of you. My one true gift, I created a life instead of taking it.”

She wanted to scream and cry, beg him to stay by her side. Yet she had to let him go.

They each had their own battle, their own path to take, even if it wasn’t the same destiny.

“I love you,” Arianna whispered before he pulled away and joined the other men in the hall.

“Kendar, escort her to the wall.”

She couldn’t look at Tardon. Her legs would betray her and run after him. Every inch of her body screamed not to let him go, but it was the fate of her people. Everyone’s future rested in her child.

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

Tardon and the men marched through the passages to the outer wall. The fight raged with fury below. They had to end this soon, or both sides would suffer great losses.

He bolted two stairs at a time with his sword at the ready. Saldor still appeared somewhat in a fog, but the man was a trained warrior. He would perform in battle.

They reached the tower doors, but they were latched shut. The men drove their shoulders into the door and it cracked but didn’t give.

“Another entrance exists. Follow me.” Saldor rounded the tower to a small door hidden in an alcove. He pulled a key from his vest.

Tardon held his breath. The lock clicked and the door opened. Not a sound rang from inside. Their footsteps tapped against the stone floor, the echo so sharp in the silence it sliced through bone.

This would not be a place Tardon wished to die. No. A fight out in the open air would be fine, but this…

The stale, rank stench of old men entombed for decades made him hold his wrist to his nose until his stomach settled.

A father. If he made it through this he would have a family. No more killing. Only working his land, making love, and raising children for seasons to come.

His hand squeezed the rough, leather covered hilt of his sword. He followed Saldor into the shadows. The faint screams of his people faded behind them.

Saldor, Tardon, and the three other warriors entered the main hall and stopped. No Enforcer with silver eyes charged them, no Apprentice or Elder waved hands, freezing them to the wall.

They’d rushed in without a plan. How would they fight against magic?

A faint sigh drew Tardon’s attention. He followed the whistling rasp to a dark alcove.

An Enforcer lay slumped on the ground, eyes open, mouth hanging wide. Tardon thrust his blade at the creature’s chest but the body did not flinch.

“Saldor,” Tardon called.

Saldor jabbed his sword into the Enforcer’s side. Thick, grayish-silver liquid oozed from his skin. One of Saldor’s eyebrows cocked high on his head. “He is dead.”

“Over here.” Tardon followed the warrior’s voice to the other side of the great hall. Three more Enforcer bodies piled dead on the floor.

One of his warriors squatted beside the bodies. “No marks etched in their skin. Have they been poisoned?”

Saldor hunched over and sniffed. “No, there is no odor.”

Tardon pivoted on his heels. His hair rose on the back of his neck. “Something is wrong.”

“Yes, but what?” Saldor stabbed another with the same result.

Tardon walked over to the thrones and sat down in Vosdak’s oversized wooden chair. “Deception.” Tardon raked his sword against the ground. The vibration shook his hand. “They wished us to come here. Why? And why would they murder their own?”

Saldor paced around. The other three stood over the body.

One warrior looked up at Tardon. “They lay sprawled on the floor as if they fell asleep. No battle of any kind.”

“As if they lost all will to move.” Saldor’s nostrils flared.

“The Elders are losing their power. They need…” Tardon bolted from the chair and pushed by Saldor. “Arianna.”

“If this is true, they are desperate.” Saldor charged after him.

“You three, make sure these monsters do not wake. Cast them into the fires they have so often tossed our people into.”

The three obediently nodded, their smiles indicating they would take pleasure in this task.

Tardon reached the front doors, pulled the large wooden beam from the holders, and shoved them open.

With Saldor by his side, they surveyed the castle courts. The fighting continued, blood ran through the cobblestone streets. Tardon’s stomach tightened. He prayed Marlena made it for Arianna’s sake.

“There!” Saldor pointed to Kendar hanging mid-air against a wall.

Tardon pushed Saldor from his path, but Saldor clutched his arm. “We must be cautious. I do not see Arianna.”

Tardon ripped free of his hands and bounded down the outer wall to the other side. Kendar’s blank stare sent a chill down Tardon’s spine. Lifeless, yet he breathed.

“Kendar, where is Arianna?” Saldor asked.

Only strands of red hair moved in the wind.

“Kendar!” Tardon shook him. His body slumped down from the wall into Tardon’s hands.

The boy’s eyelids fluttered and he shook his head. As if the first morning ray popped through the clouds, he jolted upright. “Tardon!” He dug his nails into Tardon’s shoulder. “You must hurry. He will gut her when the sun dips below the castle wall.”

The muted light had already sunk below the gray barrier. Tardon’s stomach hitched and he glanced frantically around, but found no sign of her.

Where?” Tardon pulled free and paced up and down the wall. “Where did he take her?”

“The tower.”

“No. We just—”

“Look!” Saldor hollered as his feet already beat against the pavement back toward the tower.

Tardon followed his stare, and his throat seized with grief. Arianna dangled in the air atop the castle over the center court. If they reached the Elder he would let her go. If they didn’t, he would cut her open and take their baby.

Tardon’s thighs twitched beneath him, but he did not move. His mind refused to accept the fate that hung in the sky above.

Tardon.” Kendar pushed him forward.

His mind no longer ruled; his warrior instinct took over.

They raced up the spiral steps. The warriors already followed Saldor when he reached the inside of the tower. Tardon smashed open the door to the tower roof. Wind whipped as if the earth had grown angry with the Elders. A pile of silver goo ran from under a black cloak on the ground.

Other cloaks left a trail to one that still stood. “Vosdak.”

Arianna dangled hundreds of paces over the center square.

Tardon charged.

Vosdak extended one arm. A wall of solid air blocked Tardon’s path. Arianna slipped, but Vosdak recovered.

If he lost concentration, Arianna would certainly perish.

Vosdak turned his gaunt face toward Tardon. “Order your friends from this tower, or I will drop her.” His silver tongue slithered over his lips.

The sun drooped and only the top half remained. Tardon sucked in a quick breath, and the frigid air sliced down his throat.

The barrier broke and Tardon shuffled around him. “You killed the others to save yourself?”

“Yes,” he hissed. The Elder’s nails sprung from his hand, long blades with sharp ends. They glistened as he rotated his hand and moved away.

“You needed their energy. Our bodies were not enough to keep you alive until the sun set.”

Only a golden sliver remained in view.

Saldor moved around the Elder’s other side.

Vosdak flung Saldor across the roof with one hand and gripped the other to his chest. Arianna’s body floated to the edge of the black cloak. Her eyes were open and full of tears. If Tardon got his hands on Vosdak he’d gut him like the animal he was.

“Why our baby? Was there no one in the castle sufficient to sacrifice?”

“All you pathetic souls were too corrupt. Not pure enough for the ritual. We needed blood from before life. Yet none of you were strong enough to conceive within the castle walls.” The Elder lifted his clawed hand and encircled her body with his arm.

The sun dipped lower. Only moments until Vosdak could perform his spell and Tardon would lose Arianna forever.

“Why did you try to burn us at the stake? If you needed a baby, why did you interrupt us the first night in the castle?”

“You only toyed with her. Even if you had sex, you would not have succeeded in providing a fetus within the castle walls. It was not until your plea to save Arianna that we realized how valuable you both were. And the more we forbid you the more you wanted her.”

Only an orange sliver remained on the horizon.

Tardon dove for Arianna.

Vosdak froze him mid-air. “You believe you can overpower me? A dumb warrior?”

Arianna blinked. She smiled and mouthed, “I love you.”

Unable to respond, he tried to show her the same with his eyes.

Saldor jumped to his feet. Vosdak flung him back again.

Tardon broke free and managed a few steps, but Vosdak stopped him.

Vosdak laughed. “Accept your fate.”

Arianna flung her head back and knocked Vosdak in the face. The black cloak flew in the air as he stumbled back. Silver blood dripped from the deep gash across his nose.

Freed, Tardon staggered forward, warrior lust stung his eyes, but this was Arianna’s kill. She grabbed Vosdak’s arm, pointed his claws toward his heart, and thrust it into his chest. “Accept yours.”

Tardon plunged his knife into the Elder’s stomach. Silver sprayed into Arianna’s face. He jerked her back and they collapsed into each other’s arms. The blood trickled down in silver lines, followed by thick black mucus.

Vosdak opened his mouth but only blood gurgled to the surface. His face bubbled and half slid down his neck. Arianna buried her head in Tardon’s chest and panted.

He stroked her soft tresses, relieved to have her in his arms once more. At last, they were free.

The wind shifted and he buried his nose in her hair. The inviting scent of mint over-powered the rotting flesh at his feet.

Another pool of empty dark cloth now rested on the stone floor where Vosdak once stood.

Screams sounded from below. They both darted to the edge of the tower. Dozens of guards fell to the ground covering their eyes. It was the Curse ending at last, their people being freed from magical enslavement.

Tardon cupped Arianna’s blood and tear-streaked face in his hands.

She rubbed her belly. His insides warmed at the sight.

“We are a real family,” she whispered.

Tardon placed his hands over hers. “A real family.”

 

***

 

Tardon’s strong arms wrapped around her. In spite of the dropping temperatures, her bones didn’t ache. She rose to her knees and pressed her chapped lips to his forehead. He squatted and kissed her belly.

Saldor stirred from behind and rubbed his head.

“Rest, Saldor. All is well, my brother.”

Tardon’s words and compassionate tone made Arianna smile. The once fierce warrior who needed no one now welcomed friends and family into his heart.

“What of the others?” Saldor asked.

“The fighting has ended.” Arianna looked out over her people. Darkness shrouded the castle. The sounds of battle ceased. Torches erupted to light, dotting the darkness below. “We must go and help those in need. My sister and brother—”

Marlena shot out from the dark stairway, scanned the rooftop, then raced to Arianna’s side and hugged her. “We are fine, dear sister.”

“Careful.” Tardon remained by her side with his arm wrapped around her.

“Are you hurt?” Marlena asked.

“No. Mardel?” Arianna held her breath.

“He tends to the wounded. He will make a great healer one day.”

Arianna closed her eyes and took a deep, cleansing breath.

“You well?” Tardon asked.

“Yes.” Her heart soared when she looked into his eyes.

“How many did we lose?” Tardon asked.

Marlena’s spark of happiness faded. “Many. But our people are free now, thanks to both of you.”

Tardon’s dimples appeared.

“What are you hiding?” Marlena demanded.

Tardon’s smile grew wider. “Arianna is with child.”

“I thought you…um…you could not—” Marlena shook her head, her voice sounded higher than normal, full of bewilderment.

“I never experienced a man before I married Tardon, but I know I am with child.”

“How?” Marlena’s forehead creased.

“A vision, and the Elders confirmed it. H—he wanted…” she stammered, unable to finish.

“Shh…our baby is safe.” Tardon squeezed her against his chest and kissed the top of her head.

Saldor cleared his throat. “I will go offer my assistance to Mardel.” His shoulders slumped.

Arianna pulled free of Tardon’s embrace. “What is it, Saldor? You do not seem pleased?” She reached out for him. “Please, do not hate me for choosing Tardon, he is my destiny, the one I am meant to be with, but you are my friend. My dearest friend.”

“I am happy for you both. Arianna, I never wanted you in that way. I wanted more to protect you, the way I should have protected Marseha.” Saldor spoke with the softness yet authority of an older brother.

“That name.” Marlena waved her hand about. “I have heard it before.”

Saldor hissed in a hesitant breath. “Where? How?”

“I believe from Mildof. We must find him and ask. He is from another village.”

“There are others?” Saldor asked.

“Yes, many. But each kingdom is controlled by these wicked creatures.” Marlena gestured to the dark piles strewn around the ground.

“There is hope she lives?” Excitement lit his face, hope etched in the lines of his forehead.

“Yes, Saldor.”

“Was this Mildof among the ones fighting today?”

“Yes,” Marlena said, brows crimping in sympathy.

Saldor ran his hand through his hair.

Tardon released Arianna. “Come, brother, we will find him.”

Marlena helped Arianna down the stairs. Her leg still throbbed as they followed Tardon and Saldor.

When they reached the center court, the carnage was devastating. Bodies lay in massive pools of blood.

“What will happen to the ones who cannot work?” Arianna’s insides shivered with the thought of returning them to the inner court.

Marlena glanced at her. “Everyone will work. Some may have to sit and make clothes, or wash dishes. Others will fish. We must each do our part, but if someone cannot, then they will be cared for.”

People milled about, confusion etched on their faces.

Arianna maneuvered on top of the platform that once served as a place to sentence inhabitants to death. Her fingers traced the spiral lines of a long rope. It still dangled from a wooden beam. A reminder of what had been.

“People of Gremdon. We are free. The dark days of the Elders have ended.” Arianna cradled her middle. “A new way of life will begin. Those of you injured will be cared for. You have all fought well and deserve your freedom.”

She motioned Tardon to join her.

He hopped onto the platform. His arm wrapped around her waist. “Some may choose to remain in the castle. We will need a panel to help maintain order, but some will want to leave with us.”

“You will all leave? Abandoning us?” A scrawny old lady bellowed from the back.

“No.” Mardel emerged from the crowd and walked to the podium. “I will remain and care for the wounded along with any healers who survived.”

Joy collided with remorse at the sight of Mardel and his promise.

Tardon tightened his hold and murmured, “He will be fine.”

Arianna rallied herself before she could speak again. “Do not be frightened. Life exists beyond these walls. A grand, free, and beautiful world exists beyond the fields,” Arianna said, then met Tardon’s gaze and smiled. “Our old way of life before the Elders has returned. There will be marriage and babies in every man and woman’s future.”

“Marriage?”

“Babies?”

“Yes, Arianna and I were married outside by a great lake. The people of Gremdon welcomed us with open arms, as they will welcome you. It is time for us to move on. To live instead of serve. It is a time for peace. Time for family.”

Marlena stepped up. “Kerdin and I are counselors to our people in Gremdon. If you wish, we will stay long enough to help form a set of counselors. Each person will have a say.”

A man gripped an open wound on his leg. “Even inner court peasants?”

Tardon stood there, his spine straight, his chest out. “There are no inner court peasants here. Only my brothers and sisters who fought for freedom. My equals.”

Mardel took command of the people and ordered them about. His voice had deepened in the last few weeks. Somehow, he’d become a man when she wasn’t looking. Pride surged through her as she observed his work. Even the warriors followed his orders. The boy had become a great leader.

Arianna helped Tardon and the others sort out places for everyone to stay the night. Music rang through the castle streets; the celebrations ran well into the night.

The time for sorrow had ended, and a great new age of light and laughter had begun.

Epilogue

 

Arianna swung her blade around and lost her balance. One of the new trainees caught her before she hit the ground.

Tardon bolted to her side, alarmed at her toppling over. “Woman, do you not understand your limitations? You are ripe with child.”

She rolled her eyes. “Man, I may be with child but I can still sling my dagger at anyone who dares defy me in battle.” Arianna rubbed her back and grimaced. “However, I think I will retire to our home.”

Tardon smiled at her. “I will be there by the time the sun dips below the shining waters.”

Arianna waddled away through the trees. His heart sang at the sight. It had only been eight months since the great day of freedom, but already things had become routine. A great gift of daily life with family and friends.

“Sir, when will Saldor wage his war against the next castle?” A young man with anxious eyes asked.

“Soon. There are many things we still need to discover before the attack.” Tardon gathered weapons and stored them in the small building Kerdin had created.

He and Kerdin had become dear friends while building his and Arianna’s home between visits to the castle.

“The magic of the Elders had grown weak, or we might never have won,” Tardon explained. “We do not possess knowledge of how the next kingdom fares. If those Elders remain strong we must be cunning in our attack. Weapons will do no good against magic.”

“Has Mardel constructed a new plan?” another warrior in training asked. “I hear he works with the healers to create a potion to counteract the Elders’ magic.”

Many young men from the castle had joined Tardon’s training center by the lake. They wanted to fight for the freedom of their world. He’d agreed to help prepare others for the next battle, but told Saldor he would not return to the castle.

“Mardel has proven to be wise and a great leader, but he does not wish to cross the line of magic. The potion you speak of will merely distort their vision. If they can’t see our approach it will give us an advantage. But I fear even with such a tool we will still need a more devious plan.” Tardon stroked his chin and paced. “If we were able to send a spy and retrieve information from the inside we would be better prepared for a fight.”

“Will you join us when we fight?” a young man asked.

“No, I will train but I will not leave my home, my wife, or my children. I must go. The day grows late and I fear my wife grows tired. Farewell until the morrow.”

Tardon left the new recruits and found Arianna rocking in her favorite chair on the front porch. “Husband, you arrive before dark.”

“Yes, love. I can’t stay apart from you too long.” Tardon bent over and kissed her forehead. He knelt by her side and stroked her belly. “Does he trouble you?”

“No, he’s strong.” Arianna chuckled. “Definitely a son of the Great Tardon. Yet a pleasure to have him prepare for battle before he is born.”

“I will fetch some food and drink for you. Rest.”

“No, Tardon, I should not eat this evening.” Arianna spoke in a distant tone as if she hid something.

“Why? You need your strength. You eat for two.”

“Yes, but Marlena will be here soon. She warned not to eat the night the baby arrives.” The corner of her mouth rose in a playful smile.

Tardon’s heart beat fast and furious. “You…we—how—”

Marlena walked up the path with a hearty laugh. “I see you told him.” Her belly bounced, only a few more days until she brought her new one into the world. Many had married and sired children in the last several months—merchants with inner court peasants, warriors with servants—everyone had become equal.

Tardon grasped Arianna’s hand. “What can I do?”

“Go, be with the men. This is woman’s work,” Marlena spoke in a stern voice.

His eyes narrowed. “I will not leave Arianna. Nothing will ever keep me from her again.”

Marlena sighed. “I figured as much.”

Kerdin approached, his crutch no longer at his side. “I have brought you ale and a few men to keep you occupied. These things take time.”

Arianna cried out and grasped her belly.

Tardon’s insides flopped around as his stomach battled his lungs. Her face turned crimson with agony.

He knelt at her side. “Arianna, what can I do?”

“When the wave of pain stops, help me get her to the bed inside.” Marlena entered the house and stoked the fire. “I will need water from the lake.”

Panting, Arianna finally said, “I will be fine. Marlena has prepared me for what is to come.”

“Come, I will help you to bed.” Tardon lifted her from the chair and barked at an approaching villager, “Fetch some water from the lake, quickly.”

Marlena smiled. “Tardon, you must calm yourself. These things take time. She—”

Arianna screamed and dug her nails into his hand. He winced under her grip.

The wave passed. She drew in air and blew it out with great speed.

“Arianna, how long have you had pains?” Marlena asked.

“Since the sun rose,” she said through gritted teeth.

Marlena remained calm but rolled her eyes. “I should have known a warrior would not stay in bed and wait. Well, Tardon, you will have a baby soon.” She motioned for Kerdin to help get Arianna in the bed.

Tardon’s legs shook under him. Her whimpers haunted his soul. Never had she cried out in pain. Not once in the Pit or real battle. He paced around the bed. “She suffers, should we send for a healer?”

Marlena shooed Kerdin out the door and turned on Tardon.

“I will not leave her.”

“Fine, stand at her side and talk to her, keep her calm.”

He stroked her brow with a damp cloth. How could giving life be painful and horrible?

“The baby arrives. Arianna, I need you to push.”

She clamped her teeth together with a loud clank and bore down on the bed. Tardon longed to make the pain stop.

“I see the head,” Marlena announced.

Tardon struggled to stay conscious.

Arianna panted again.

He pressed his lips to her sweat-beaded forehead. “You are doing well. I love you.”

Blood ran everywhere. His head felt light.

“Tardon, you do not appear well.”

His eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed toward the wall.

“Tardon!” Arianna called out, and he shook his head. She grabbed his hand and her jaw twitched. She fell back onto the bed. A baby cried.

“Sister, you have done well.” Marlena took the baby and wrapped it in cloth. “Here, meet your beautiful and healthy son.”

Tardon clutched the precious, small hand poking out of the cloth.

He choked back tears. In only a season, he’d fallen in love, been freed to live outside the castle walls, married Arianna, and started a family. Dreams could not be more amazing. Still, many others didn’t have this because their loved ones were trapped behind the walls, Cursed by the Elders’ wicked spells.

Some of his people couldn’t move on without finding their lost loved ones from decades ago. Saldor would not rest until he found his Marseha.

Now, looking down at his son, Tardon understood why. He would have broken through the castle walls with his bare hands to rescue Arianna. With the joy of a wife and a newborn son, he knew the greatest gifts in life came from the ones you love.

He took his son into his arms. Never had such joy taken hold of him. The tiny fingers wrapped around his heart and would never let go. “I love you, Arianna, and I am so proud of you. Because of you, I have a family.”

He sat at her side and they cradled their baby between them. Arianna reached for her son, her face glistening as she smiled with true happiness and love—the smile he had so longed to see and would treasure for all of their remaining days. Together.

 

THE END

 

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For more information please visit http://www.ciaraknight.com.

 

 

Other works by Ciara Knight:

In reading order:

Winter in Sweetwater County

Spring in Sweetwater County

Summer in Sweetwater County

Fall in Sweetwater County

Christmas in Sweetwater County

Valentines in Sweetwater County

Fourth of July in Sweetwater County

Thanksgiving in Sweetwater County (Coming November 2015)

 

Battle for Souls Series

Rise From Darkness

Fall From Grace

Ascension of Evil

 

The Neumarian Chronicles

Weighted

Escapement

Pendulum

Balance

 

The Shrouded Kingdoms

The Curse of Gremdon

The Secrets of Dargon

The Runes of Bramon (Coming late 2016)

 

A Prospectors Novel

Fools Rush


The Curse of Gremdon

In a world where marriage is forbidden, sex is only granted to male warriors, and the outer realm is full of murderous creatures, Arianna fights to protect the life of her only living relative, her brother. Tardon, an elite warrior, is granted anything he desires by the Elders, but finds little joy in the voluptuous women presented to him. Born for the bloodlust found only in battle, complicated emotions emerge when he discovers his equal in the alluring warrior, Arianna. Charged by the Elders with saving the castle from attack, Tardon and Arianna risk the curse when they traverse the vast outer realm to retrieve serum from the Tree of Life. If successful, the Elders have promised Tardon the right to marry and Arianna the cure for her brother's death fever. Will their love carry them through or will the discovery of a great deception be their ultimate demise?

  • Author: Ciara Knight
  • Published: 2016-01-08 02:50:17
  • Words: 88228
The Curse of Gremdon The Curse of Gremdon