Radiance – Chapter 21

And we are near the end stretch.  One more chapter and an epilogue to go.  Usual caveats:  Typos and grammatical, as well as stylistic glitches, abound.  Editors haven’t seen it.  They’d probably club me with a hardback Strunk and White if they did.  So this is the bed hair version.  You’ve been warned.

I’m behind on everything for Christmas preparations, and the BIG DAY is only a couple of days away.  I would like to get the remainder of RADIANCE finished prior to New Year’s Eve, but don’t hold me to that.

Thank you all for reading!  If I don’t post again before X-mas day, I wish those of you who celebrate it like I do, a very Merry Christmas.  Hope Santa is good to you this year.  And now, on with the show.

Best,

Grace

RADIANCE

by Grace Draven

Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven

All rights reserved

  Chapter 21

 

The trees did their best to claw Ildiko and Anhuset from the saddle, their outstretched limbs whipping and scratching as Anhuset’s gelding galloped hard into the dark forest. Ildiko, wedged between Anhuset and the saddle pommel stared blindly into the blackness, its edges feathered away by a distant glow that teased the corner of her eye.

Brishen.

Her last glimpse of him had been a wavering view of his back as he plunged into the chaos of frightened horses, blind Kai and a hail of arrows. She’d struggled in Anhuset’s hold to break free, to run back to her husband, to do something other than flee. The Kai woman’s unyielding grip proved unbreakable. Ildiko had been a breath away from vomiting after the violent pitching she suffered while thrown across her captor’s shoulder. Her vision spun when she was upended and slung into the saddle of the still galloping horse.

A metallic glimmer caught her eye—moonlight on steel. Anhuset thrust the handle of a dagger into her hand.

“Take this,” she ordered in a grim voice that warned against argument. “Stab anything that moves.”

Ildiko barely had her fingers around the handle when a rippling shadow shot out of the dark from her left side and rushed the horse. It emitted a screeching cry, one echoed by Ildiko. Grasping hands tore at her skirts, her leg while the horse neighed and danced sideways.

She did exactly as Anhuset instructed, plunging the dagger toward the figure hanging off the saddle. An agonized scream, the give of flesh as the dagger sank deep and the warm wash of blood coating her hand were her rewards.

Their attacker fell away only to be replaced by another and another who swarmed out the underbrush like insects from a disturbed mound. Anhuset’s mount joined in the fight, kicking and rearing. One attacker slammed into a nearby tree and curled into the fetal position, clutching his belly.

Anhuset shoved the reins into Ildiko’s hands. “Guide the horse!”

Ildiko grabbed the reins, lost the dagger and kicked the gelding hard in the sides. He leapt into a gallop, dragging someone beside him. Behind Ildiko, Anhuset twisted one way and then the other, her arms stretched out on either side, swords in hand as she swung at their attackers. She slammed hard into Ildiko’s back with a grunt once, twice but held her seat to slash their way free.

They plunged through the wood, Ildiko as blind as a Kai at noon and praying she hadn’t turned them around and rode straight for the ravine and a fast descent to their death. Escaping the last raider, they rounded a copse of trees and into a clearing.

Wide open and awash in silver moonlight, the clearing left them more exposed. Ildiko turned the gelding back toward the tree line. They couldn’t go back the way they came, but if they hugged the border that traveled an eastern path, the low-hanging branches of some of the trees would shield them. She had, at least, led them away from the ravine instead of toward it.    

Her companion was ominously silent behind her. Ildiko glanced over her shoulder. “Anhuset?”

The other woman answered with a slow exhalation and promptly slid out of the saddle, taking a startled Ildiko with her. The both hit the ground, Ildiko’s fall partially cushioned by Anhuset’s arm. The exhausted horse tossed his head and pranced to the side before trotting a small distance away, reins dragging behind him.

Ildiko stumbled to her feet and gasped.

Anhuset lay on her side, facing Ildiko. An arrow shaft protruded from her left shoulder, another just above her left hip. She inhaled and exhaled slow breaths, and her gold-coin eyes were dull.

Ildiko crouched before her, bloodied hands drifting over, but not touching the places where the arrows had embedded themselves in armor and flesh. “Anhuset! Why didn’t you say something?”

The woman tried to shrug but only managed a twitch of one shoulder. “Because there was nothing to say. I think the arrows are dipped in marseret sap.” Her voice was as dull as her eyes, the words oozing off a thickened tongue.

Ildiko closed her eyes. If the arrowheads were dipped in marseret as Anhuset predicted, she’d be numb from her shoulders to her feet in moments, unable to move. Even if she weren’t dead weight from the poison, she was far too heavy for Ildiko to lift and hoist onto the horse. They were doomed, stranded here while whatever surviving raiders lurked in the woods caught up to them.

A gust of hot air, thick with the green scent of grass, flooded her neck and the side of her face. She opened her eyes to find Anhuset’s horse had ambled back to them, one liquid-dark eye trained on her as if to ask how long they planned to sit there. Ildiko might have laughed if she didn’t so badly want to scream.

Anhuset’s head lolled. “I can’t feel my arms or legs.”

A dog’s triumphant howl followed her declaration and sent Ildiko’s heart drumming in her chest. “Oh gods, more magefinders.”

“Run.” Anhuset’s eyes gave a slow owl’s blink. “They’re scenting me, not you. Take the horse. Run,” she repeated.

Ildiko sprang to her feet. “I’m not leaving you here.” The glimmer of moonlit steel caught her eye, and she found the two sabers Anhuset had wielded against their attackers during the wild ride through the woods. They lay in the grass, one behind Anhuset, the other near her outstretched fingers. Blood, made black in silver light, streaked the blades.

Ildiko retrieved the one closest to her, surprised by its overall lightness in her hand and the weighted tilt toward the tip of the blade.

“Stupid human woman.” Anhuset’s words slurred together. “You’ll die if you stay.”  

“Silence.” Ildiko scowled but kept her eyes trained on the stretch of tree line from where the canine sounds originated. “Obviously the sap doesn’t work on your disrespectful tongue.”

Stupid or not, she had no intention of abandoning a helpless Anhuset on the cold ground to be savaged by a pack of magefinders. The sword no longer felt light in her grasp, and she gripped it with both hands.

Her stomach plummeted to her feet when the first magefinder shot out of the tree line, a fur-clad lightning bolt built of long legs, glistening fangs and eyes as yellow and fierce as any Kai’s, but far more bestial. It was followed by another and then a third, and they loped across the clearing, their bays muted to snarls as they closed the distance between them and Ildiko.

“Bend your knees and swing as hard as you can.” Anhuset’s voice sounded far away in Ildiko’s ears, but she did as the other bid and braced herself. Her lungs felt starved for air though she breathed harder than an exhausted horse. Rivulets of sweat streamed down her sides under her clothes and made her hands slippery on the sword grip. She forced herself not to flinch and close her eyes when the first dog leapt at her.

She screamed and swung just as a blurred dark line flew past her vision, followed by a meaty thunk. The dog’s legs snapped together in midstride before it hit the ground and skidded to a stop, an arrow sunk deep in its neck. Another whine of air teased her ear before the second dog met a similar fate.

Ildiko pivoted in time to see a horse and armored rider gallop past her to take down the third hound with a sword.

“Highness, are you all right?”

Still clutching the sword, Ildiko turned toward the familiar voice. “Serovek?”

He strode toward her, lightly armored and carrying a bow. He’d been the one to kill two of the dogs, his soldier the third. His gaze assessed her for injuries, and he nodded once, as if in approval, at the sight of her clutching one of Anhuset’s swords.

A half dozen more mounted Beladine warriors emerged from the trees across the clearing, one leading a riderless horse. Anhuset’s own mount whickered a greeting as they surrounded Ildiko and the fallen Kai woman.

Serovek knelt before Anhuset who watched him with narrowed eyes gone from glowing gold to muddy yellow. He glanced at Ildiko. “We tried to reach you at the bridge. Too late. We killed the two handlers following the dogs, but expect more dogs, more sell-swords.” He motioned to one of his men who dismounted and handed him an axe similar in size to the one she’d seen Brishen carry.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

He removed the blade guard. “We’ll travel easier if I can cut down the arrow shafts sticking out of her ladyship here.”

Poisoned and immobilized, Anhuset still managed enough movement to curl her fingers and take a weak swipe at Serovek. One claw caught a fold in his breeches near the knee and neatly split it open. “Don’t touch me, pig,” she mumbled.

Serovek sighed, and quicker than Ildiko could blink, snapped his knuckles against Anhuset’s chin. Her head jerked before her eyes closed, and she went completely limp.

Ildiko gasped. “She’ll kill you for that when she wakes up.”

Serovek winked and took a flat rock one of his soldiers handed to him, along with a folded blanket. “No she won’t. I’ll tell her you did it.”

He braced the blanket, with the stone on top, against her back. Ildiko flinched when he brought the ax down on the bone shaft, shortening it to the length of a small spoon handle. Quick, efficient, and steady, he did the same with the arrow at her hip. The unconscious Anhuset twitched a little.

Serovek stroked her silver hair with a big hand. “Easy, my beauty. I’m done.” He looked to Ildiko. “Can you control her mount?”

“Yes.” The shock of facing certain, brutal death only to be rescued by the sudden appearance of Serovek and his men, left her lightheaded and unable to utter more than monosyllabic responses.

If the Beladine lord noticed, he didn’t remark on it. “Good. Anhuset will ride with me.” He scooped the Kai woman into his arms, his features darkening as he slowly lifted her. He staggered and exhaled a harsh breath. “Damn Kai,” he said in a strained voice. “Heavier than a sack of wet bricks.”

His reaction to lifting Anhuset confirmed what Ildiko guessed. There was no possible way she could have moved her wounded companion or gotten her back on her horse.

Serovek made his way to the one horse with no rider. Bigger than the others, it snorted in protest and laid back its ears as its master mounted with his burden. Their party gathered supplies. One of the Beladine soldiers retrieved Anhuset’s second sword where it lay in the grass and gently pried the other from Ildiko’s stiff fingers. “Do you need help onto the gelding, Your Highness?”

She shook her head. She wasn’t much good with blades, but she could at least swing into a saddle by herself.

Serovek eyed her as she rode up next to him. “Whose blood stains your hands? It isn’t Anhuset’s, and I see no wound on you.”

“We were attacked in the woods. I stabbed one of them when he tried to pull me off the horse.”

A flicker of amusement softened Serovek’s somber face. “Soft Gauri noblewomen with hidden savagery.” He kneed his horse forward. “I should visit Pricid one day.”

Ildiko trotted next to him. “Where are we going?” Free from the forest’s labyrinthine darkness, she had regained her sense of direction. They were riding away from Saggara and help.

Serovek pointed to an unseen path somewhere within the trees. “There’s a hidden sanctuary not far from here, an old temple bound by magic to confuse the dogs. We’ll stay there for now. I sent messengers to Saggara. If my guess is right, we’ll have my men and more of the Kai here by tomorrow.” He gently adjusted the sleeping Anhuset in his arms. “Did you see what happened to the herceges?”

It was impossible to speak around the sudden knot of tears lodged in her throat. Ildiko swallowed several times before answering. “No. He was in the thick of the fighting when I last saw him, and that was only a glimpse.” For all she knew, the Kai would arrive, with one bearing the news that he or she carried Brishen’s mortem light within them. The grim thought made it hard to breathe.

“Don’t lose heart, Ildiko.” Serovek abandoned his formality in an effort to comfort her. “They won’t kill him. Not yet at least.”

His words did nothing to lessen her fear for Brishen.

The ruins Serovek led them to butted up against a gentle slope surrounded by trees. Ildiko didn’t possessed a drop of magery, but even she sensed the presence of power here. The Beladine mounts balked at riding closer. Accustomed to the thrum and whisper of magic that every Kai possessed, no matter how weak, Anhuset’s gelding picked his way among the stones, unconcerned. The other horses soon followed.

Serovek motioned to the other riders, complicated hand signals that confused Ildiko but were a language understood by his soldiers. Some dismounted and melted into the shadows that ringed the temple’s perimeter. Others gathered up the horses and led them further into the ruin’s sanctuary. In the far distance a familiar howl rode the moonlight. Ildiko shuddered. Not again.

Ildiko followed Serovek who carried his unconscious burden through the low doorway of a small shrine room. The blackness inside hung thick enough to pour from a bottle, and the skitter and squeak of disturbed rats played on her ears. She leapt aside at the suspicious slither of something gliding along the floor near her foot.

“No light yet, Ildiko.” Serovek’s deep voice was more vibration than sound. “We wait.”

They stood in the suffocating silence, listening the rustle of leaves stirred up by running feet crackled nearby. Long sniffs and quiet growls joined them. Nothing moved within the temple. Even the horses were still.

Ildiko clenched her teeth together and tried not to breathe. Her heartbeat drummed so loud in her head, she was certain their pursuers could hear her.

“Anything?” a voice called out in the Common tongue.

Another answered. “Fresh tracks, but it’s a big party and the hooves are shod with shoes stamped with High Salure’s seal.”

“Patrol then. They won’t be too friendly if they come across us. Let’s go.”

“Don’t you want to search the temple?”

Ildiko felt Serovek tense even more beside her, and his soft breaths stopped altogether.

“Why bother? Look at the dogs. They’re just whining and sniffing about. Probably smelling badger or deer scat. The girl is riding with a Kai. If they were here, we’d know it by now. We’ll keep going. I’m not too keen to cross a patrol anyway.”

“I’m not keen on crossing the Kai. You saw what she did in the clearing. Took down all three hounds.”

“Just means you need to be on your guard. Let’s go.”

The minutes of silence stretched into an eternity of stillness until a night bird’s call sounded outside.

“They’re gone.” Serovek spoke in conversational volume. Shuffling noises accompanied his statement. “Outside, Highness, where we can see our hands in front of our faces.”

The moonlight seemed like the noonday sun after her time in the shrine’s sepulchral darkness. Ildiko blinked and caught sight of Serovek as he crouched to lay Anhuset gently on the ground. The Kai woman lay ominously still, but her chest rose and fell in easy rhythm, and Ildiko exhaled a relieved sigh.

Serovek rose. “Stay with her,” he said. “I need to get supplies from my horse.” He paused to give instructions to the two soldiers who stood guard nearby before disappearing into the foliage surrounding the temple grounds.

When he returned, he carried a small satchel, a blanket and a flask. He dropped down next to Ildiko who was stroking Anhuset’s hair from her face. He fished inside the satchel and retrieved an oddly shaped utensil. Diamond-shaped with a shallow lip folded inward on all sides, it vaguely resembled a spoon, though Ildiko couldn’t figure out how such a design might adequately hold porridge and would never contain broth.

“What is that?” she asked.

Serovek took the knife belted at his side and cut away the laces on Anhuset’s hauberk. “An arrow spoon. If our luck holds, I won’t have to use it.” He didn’t expound further and cut away the armored plates surrounding the shortened arrow shaft sticking out of Anhuset’s shoulder.

He cut through the quilted gambeson next and the clothing underneath. He set the knife aside. “I’m going to lift her up. I need you to peel away the armor and clothes. Quick but gentle. Can you do it?”

She nodded, and the two set to work. Anhuset rested still in Serovek’s embrace while Ildiko eased the hauberk, gambeson and shirt off her shoulders and away from the arrow shaft. Serovek eased the Kai woman to a reclining position and bent for a closer look at the shoulder wound. I think it’s a bodkin tip. I won’t know until I cut into her.” Ildiko blanched, and Serovek’s responding smile lacked all humor. “It’s a mercy she’s suffering through marseret poisoning. I’ll have to work fast before it wears off.”

He cut away Anhuset’s trousers while Ildiko removed her boots. Naked in the cold air, her gray skin pebbled, and she shivered lightly. Ildiko covered her legs with the blanket for warmth and added her own cloak for protection.

Serovek doused the blade with the contents from the bottle he’d brought back with him. Smoke rose in tendrils from the blade. He glanced at Ildiko whose eyes had rounded at the sight. “Peleta’s Tears. Good for drinking and keeps wounds from poisoning.”

“You drink that?” She’d heard of Peleta’s Tears. Named after the goddess of dragons, it laid low any who dared to taste its brew. Surely something that made metal smoke wasn’t safe to imbibe.

“Sometimes. When I want to forget.” Serovek positioned himself so that Anhuset lay between his knees, her chest press against one of his thighs while he braced her back with the other. He trickled more of the drink onto the wound. Ildiko flinched, right along with the unconscious Anhuset. While the drink might smoke metal, it didn’t burn the skin.

Serovek’s legs flexed against his patient as he made incisions with the knife and widened the wound. Ildiko poured Peleta’s Tears over his bloodied fingers as he felt for the arrowhead. Anhuset didn’t move, but a small moan escaped her lips.

Serovek’s shoulders sagged in obvious relief. “Bodkin,” he said. “Not broadhead. Bad enough but easier to remove.”

Blood ran in thin rills down Anhuset’s back, staining Serovek’s breeches as he worked. The arrow shaft fell away from the tip but not before he managed to extract the bodkin from the wound.

Ildiko gave up her overskirt to use as bandages. Serovek packed the wound with moss he pulled from his satchel and bound it with strips cut from the skirt. They repeated the process on Anhuset’s hip. By the time they were done, her clawed fingers had begun to flex and relax against her palm and dawn gilded the edges of the eastern facing trees with pink light.

“Will she be all right?” Ildiko tucked the blanket and cloak more closely around Anhuset. The shivering had stopped, but her breathing had turned more erratic.

Serovek stood and wipe away the perspiration on his brow with his forearm. “I think so. Kai are hard to kill.”

“Have you killed them?”

His mouth quirked. “A few. We have our raiders; they have theirs. Your husband and I deal with both. It’s just a matter of who gets to them first.” He took a seat next to Ildiko, grabbed the bottle of Peleta’s tears and tipped it to his lips. The first swallow made him gasp and shake like a wet dog but didn’t stop him from taking a second swallow. He offered the bottle to Ildiko who shook her head, preferring not to torture her already queasy stomach even more. Serovek passed her flask of water instead so she could rinse the blood from her hands.

“Why didn’t the dogs sniff us out?” she asked.

Serovek placed the bottle of spirits between them and draped his arms over his knees. His gaze drifted to Anhuset’s face and stayed. “They did, but their task was to hunt Kai, not humans. The sorcery lingering here confused them and made Anhuset hard to detect.”

“Didn’t their handlers know that such a thing might happen?”

He shrugged. “Only if they were familiar with this land or a Kai. This temple sits inside my borders, but it’s Kai-built and once Kai-worshipped. Brishen told me about it a couple of years ago while we shared a bottle of Tears between us and commiserated on the vagaries of volatile mistresses.” He winked at Ildiko.

Ildiko tried to smile at the idea of the two men crying on each other’s shoulder over women, but her lips refused to obey. She couldn’t get the image out of her mind of Brishen’s set features when he thrust her at Anhuset and shouted for them to ride for the bridge. She’d seen death in that glowing gaze—his death.          

She blinked to fight back the tears that suddenly blurred her vision. “How did you find me and Anhuset?”

Serovek tipped the bottle again before answering. “A rumor about the ambush reached High Salure. By the time I dispatched a rider to Saggara to warn the herceges, you were already at Halmatus township. We set out to meet you but were too late.”

It did no good to dwell on what-ifs, but Ildiko couldn’t help but wonder how their fate might have differed if they had waited one more day before leaving Saggara. “I wonder if this is the same pack that attacked us on the trade road after Brishen and I were married.”

“Probably not. That attempt failed. Whoever is moving the pieces on this board doesn’t want to fail twice. They’ve supplied this party with mage hounds—an expensive weapon and far outside the means of even the most successful raiders. I suspect half this group isn’t even Beladine, so they’re bringing in sell-swords with no allegiance except to the sacks of coins paid to them.”

Ildiko recalled the brief exchange between Brishen and Anhuset when the night’s darkness had exploded into blinding flashes of light. “They have a battle mage with them as well.”

Serovek scowled. “That will be a problem when we retrieve your husband.”

When they retrieved him, not if. His matter of fact reply gave her hope despite its dire prediction regarding the mage. “Do you really think Brishen’s still alive?” She held on to hope that he was. Her husband was a formidable fighter, but who knew how many raiders they faced or the sorcery used against him and the other Kai by the mage.  

Serovek held up one of the two arrowheads he’d extracted from Anhuset. Coated in dried blood, its dagger-like point bounced a stray beam of anemic sunlight off its tip. “These are marseret-tipped bodkins. If they wanted to kill Brishen—and you—right away, they would have used broadheads. The bodkins pierce armor and bring down horses, but a man shot with one can survive longer than if he were shot with a broadhead. Had it been the second, Anhuset would have bled out before she’d even fallen from her horse.”

He tossed the arrowhead aside. “I have no doubt that Brishen is alive and a prisoner. Your escape put a knot in their plans. They were in a better position to force either the Kai or the Gauri to renegotiate or break their alliance in order to save you. They only have one of you now, but that’s enough to begin negotiations for his life with the Kai royal house of Khaskhem.”

Ildiko almost burst into tears at that. Her hand trembled as she reached for Serovek’s bottle of Peleta’s Tears. The drink set fire to her tongue and throat and sent the tears pouring down her cheeks. Serovek snatched the bottle out of her hand and hid it behind his back.

She wiped her streaming eyes and gave a bitter laugh. “Then he’s dead already. Neither of us is of any real worth to our families. The Kai throne is secured by Brishen’s older brother and more sons than you can count on one hand. Brishen is a spare without value. Secmis will turn her back on him, and her husband will follow her lead.

Serovek looked beyond her into the ever-brightening tree line. “I’ve never met her and hope not to, but rumors abound. It’s hard to believe that the Shadow Queen of Haradis birthed such a man as Brishen Khaskhem.”

“It’s hard to believe anything with a soul came out of that womb.” In that moment Ildiko hated Secmis more than any person she’d ever known.  

“Whoever in Belawat is paying these sell-swords doesn’t know there’s no love lost between them. So we have time. Not much. A few days only but enough to find their hiding place and rescue your husband.”

Ildiko twisted her tunic in her hands. “What can I do? Surely, there’s something I can do.” She hated the helplessness, the lack of martial skills. Common sense dictated that no one could have foreseen such circumstances for her, but the knowledge offered little comfort.

Serovek gained his feet and helped her rise as well. “There is, but I want Anhuset’s opinion first. The effects of the marseret should fade, and she’ll awaken soon.”

“What about her wounds?”

He had kind eyes. A soft brown the color of roasted chestnut with flecks of gold radiating from the edges of the pupils, his eyes smiled as much as his mouth. He was a good man, a brave one, and his attraction to Anhuset was palpable. “You should know by now the toughness of a Kai. Those wounds won’t slow her down anymore than flea bites would.” He patted Ildiko on the arm. “I’ll bring you extra blankets. You can rest beside her.”

“I can’t sleep.” There was no possible way she could sleep, not with Brishen out there somewhere, a hostage of Beladine mercenaries.

“Try,” Serovek said. “I need you alert and sharp later.”  

She did as he requested and rolled into the blankets he gave her. She was asleep as soon as her eyes closed. It seemed like only a handful of moments before the sound of voices arguing in bast-Kai awakened her. Ildiko rubbed her scratchy eyes and squinted at the couple glaring at each other not far from where she lay alone. Anhuset, wrapped in a blanket tied at her good shoulder, was awake and arguing fiercely with Serovek.

“It’s a sound idea,” he said and crossed his arms.

Anhuset mimicked his actions, her features drawn into a scowl. “Until someone skewers her or puts a bolt in her.”

“I saw her handle your horse. She’s an adept rider. She can do this. If you want this to work, she needs to do this.”

“Brishen sacrificed himself to save her. We risk making that sacrifice for naught.”

Serovek blew out a frustrated breath. “Stop being so eager to kill him off. He isn’t dead!” His body tensed as a furious Anhuset rounded on him, fangs bared.

Ildiko threw off her blankets and leapt to her feet. “Please,” she said. The two forgot their fight and turned to her. “I’ll do whatever you ask of me. Anything. I’m sorry I’m not a warrior. I wish I were.”

Serovek gazed at her with an implacable face. “We don’t need another warrior, Highness. We need bait.”

 

*****

 

The sun had burned away the last of the lingering morning fog. Ildiko reclined against one of the temple walls and tried not to gnaw her fingernails down to the quick with worry. Instead, she worked to repair the laces on Anhuset’s gambeson and watched as the Kai woman paced back and forth with a hitched gait, her lips drawn back against her teeth as she glared at Serovek.

“This is taking too long,” she snapped.

Seated cross-legged near Ildiko, he didn’t bother to look up from his task of sharpening a knife on the whetting stone he held. “It’s taking as long as it needs to,” he said calmly. “You might as well sit down before you wear a path in the stones.”

No sooner had he finished the sentence than Anhuset went still, listening. “Horses,” she said after a moment.  

The scrape of blade on stone halted as Serovek joined her. “But no dogs,” he said. A bird’s whistle carried through the trees, and Serovek answered back with a similar whistle. He stood and sheathed the knife at his waist. “We’ve company, and it’s friendly.”

The temple ruin was soon filled with both Beladine and hooded Kai warriors and their horses. They split into two groups, the Kai to gather around Anhuset and Ildiko, the Beladine around Serovek. One of the Beladine bowed before Serovek.

“We think we know where the raiders are hiding. A honeycomb of caves no more than a league north of here.”

Serovek’s lip curled, contempt souring his words. “They’re moving farther into my territory, thinking it safe.”

One of the Kai addressed both Anhuset and Ildiko. “We recovered our dead on the other side of the ravine. Two fallen. The raiders fought only long to capture the herceges and flee.”

Ildiko’s shoulders sagged. She glanced at Serovek. “You were right.”

He nodded. “Right now he’s more valuable alive than dead. Now we just need to discover how many we’ll face when we rescue him.”

The soldier who gave the raiders whereabouts spoke up again. “We’ve captured one of them.” He gestured with a nod over his shoulder when Serovek’s eyebrows rose. “We broke up a raid on a lower holt just within our borders. They massacred the family steading there and stole the sheep and grain. We killed all but one and hanged them from the trees as a warning.”

Ildiko closed her eyes. So much killing and over two people who were never supposed to matter.

The crowd parted as a Kai shoved a human to his knees before Serovek. An impromptu circle formed, caging in their captive. Filthy, lice-infested and splattered with blood, the man glared at Serovek before spying Ildiko who recoiled at the lascivious, black-tooth smile he gave her.

One of the Beladine grabbed his arm and shoved the dirty sleeve past his elbow, revealing a patterned marking tattooed in blue and green ink on his arm. “Clansman out of the Serpent’s Teeth,” the soldier said.

Serovek crouched before his prisoner. His voice was mild, almost friendly. All the hairs on Ildiko’s nape rose in warning. “You’ve traveled a long way to butcher farmers for their grain and a few sheep. How many of you are hiding in the caves?”

The man’s eyes slid away. “I don’t know about any caves. We was just stealing because we were hungry.”

“So the four of you made off with an entire herd of sheep and a full wagon of grain? You have big stomachs.”

“Why do you care?” The raider thrust his shoulders back and his chin forward. His bloodshot eyes glittered. “They’s just farmers.”

Serovek’s mild tone didn’t change. “Because they were farmers under my protection, and now they’re dead. I’ll ask again. How many of you rats are hiding in those caves?”

The man clamped his lips together and refused to say anything more. He fell back on his haunches with a gasp when Anhuset lunged at him, claws curled.

“He’ll talk for me,” she snarled in bast-Kai.

Serovek checked her advance with one arm. “Patience,” he said in the same tongue. “Here, I am the law, and he’s broken it by murdering and stealing within my territory.”

He turned to the captured raider and switched back to Common tongue. “You’re far from home, and I know there are no Kai from where you hail, so let me enlighten you.” The circle of Kai and Beladine tightened around them. Ildiko was unable to dredge up a drop of sympathy for the suddenly pale prisoner. Serovek smiled a small, cold smile. “A long time ago the Kai hunted humans for food. If you refuse to talk, I’m going to feed you to them. From what I know, they aren’t concerned about whether or not their meal is alive or dead when they start eating.”

Were Ildiko not used to the toothsome Kai after months of living amongst them, she would have fled in terror at the sight of so many fanged grins that flashed at the raider after Serovek’s threat.

The man whimpered and promptly lost control of his bladder. The pungent odor of urine saturated the air. Words tumbled out of his mouth, so fast and stuttering that Serovek had to make him repeat himself several times over. By the time the interrogation ended, they all knew the number of enemies hiding in the caves, how many magefinders remained and which cave held Brishen.

Serovek stood and motioned with one hand. The raider was jerked to his feet. Ildiko gasped as the Beladine lord moved with breathtaking speed. A flash of hands, the brittle snap of bone and the dead raider dropped in a heap to the floor. In the time it took for Ildiko to inhale a breath, Serovek had killed the raider with one swift, practice motioned. She swayed and clutched Anhuset’s arm, overtaken by dizziness and a distinct buzzing in her ears.

The Kai woman pressed a supporting hand to her back and leaned to whisper in her ear. “Strength, hercegese. Brishen needs you.”

The words worked a magic no sorcerer could mimic. The dizziness evaporated, and Ildiko’s back stiffened. She refused to look at the still body crumpled at Serovek’s feet, but she no longer wanted to faint.

The charming, jocular man she’d first met at High Salure and danced with at Saggara was gone. The ruthless Beladine marcher lord stood in his place, judge and executioner of any who committed crimes within his borders. He nudged the dead man with his foot. “Take him back to the holt and hang him in the trees with the others. If they haven’t soiled their clothes too badly, strip them. We need their garb.”

Ildiko trusted whatever plan he had in mind, but thought of wearing a dead man’s clothes made her skin crawl. “What will we do now?”

The wolfish smile he gave her made her glad they were on the same side of this particular conflict. “Play raider,” he said. “And you don’t even need to ride a horse.”

 

*****

 

“Are the knots too tight?” Anhuset tugged on the strips of cloth that bound Ildiko’s hands together.

Ildiko shook her head. “No. I can twist out of them quickly if necessary.”

They stood within the concealment of heavy underbrush and the overcast shadow of rocky outcropping. Within the shelter of the forest, Kai and Beladine waited together as Ildiko prepared to act as the bait Serovek needed.

Her clothes were ripped and filthy, her hair a wild mat of tangles, her face smudged with dirt and streaks of dried blood. Anhuset strengthened the look by shredding random spots of Ildiko’s tunic. “I still don’t think this is the best idea.”

Ildiko shrugged. “I think Lord Pangion is right. If we want to be sure of entering the right cave, I’m the best thing to draw them out.”

“Brishen will never forgive me if you die under my watch.” Anhuset tied one of her daggers to the sash encircling Ildiko’s waist.

The Kai woman’s skin was clammy under Ildiko’s fingertips, hints of fever in the darkened flush on her cheekbones. “I think he would forgive you anything, sha-Anhuset,” she said softly. She smiled into Anhuset’s yellow eyes. “Besides, I have no intention of dying today.”

The other woman stared at her in silence for several moments. “I once thought you weak. I was wrong.” She finished strapping the dagger in place. “Are you afraid?”

Ildiko nodded. “Terrified.”

“Good. You’ll stay alert that way.”

Serovek joined them, accompanied by one of his men dressed in the clothes of one of the dead mercenaries. “Ready?”

Ildiko exhaled a shaky breath. “As much as I can be.”

Their plan was simple. They’d ascertain the captive raider hadn’t lied about his information by luring some of his compatriots out of the caves. Serovek’s man, acting as one of them, would lead her before them in full view, the captive Gauri woman they so eagerly sought. That was all they needed from her. A Beladine soldier would pair up with a Kai—one to fight in the light, one in the dark, neither helpless as long as the other covered their backs. They’d rush the caves, fight their way in and back out again, hopefully with a living Brishen in tow.

Twilight engulfed the sky by the time a stumbling, weeping Ildiko followed her captor as he jerked her by a lead rope across the clearing toward the caves. Her stomach did somersaults under her ribs, and she peered through the screen of her ragged hair at the cave openings that seemed to watch them from eyeless sockets.

She stubbed her toe against a jut of rocks hidden within ankle-high wisps of yellow grass and fell to her knees. The soldier leading her slackened the line. “Highness?” he whispered.

“Pull the rope,” she whispered back. “Call me names.” If they heard his earlier question, the masquerade was finished.

The soldier yanked hard on the rope, dragging her across the ground. She yelped as gravel abraded the exposed skin of her side and the rope welted her wrists. “Get up, bitch,” he snapped at her. “I don’t have all night.”

She stumbled to her feet, weaving drunkenly at the end of her tether. A flutter of movement caught her eye. Two figures emerged from one of the smaller cave openings, cautious in their approach, until her “captor” waved and raised the rope. “I caught her,” he called out in a triumphant voice. Exultant whoops answered, and the two figures became a pair of bedraggled raiders who raced toward him.

Their celebration was short-lived. The ambush they’d earlier set upon the Kai was turned on them. Beladine and Kai warriors swarmed from the forest and rushed the cave opening. Ildiko caught only glimpses of Serovek and Anhuset as they plunged into the cave’s darkness before a Kai warrior lifted her off her feet and fled with her into the forest.

This time she didn’t struggle as she had with Anhuset. Instead, she waited amidst a circle of tense, heavily armed guards and watched the cave with eyes that watered because she was too afraid to blink.

Light flashes illuminated the darkness in brief bursts. The ring of metal on metal mingled with shouts and cries of pain. Her heart paused in its thunderous beating when the noise died, and all she heard were the soft hoots of howls and the rustle of rodents hiding in the leaves.

It was full dark, and the moon planished the landscape in silver armor. Ildiko laced her fingers together and prayed to gods she hoped would be merciful this night. Her prayer was answered when Serovek’s and Anhuset’s warriors spilled out of the cave. She cried out, feet flying across the brittle grass toward the war party.

Anhuset emerged from their midst to catch Ildiko about the waist and spin her around. “We have him, Highness,” she said in a tight voice.  

Ildiko’s features dug into the woman’s arms. “Where is he?”

“Ildiko, he’s been tortured.”

Her knees gave, and she sagged in Anhuset’s arms. Shock quickly gave way to rage. “I want to see him. Now,” she said in a flat voice.

Anhuset nodded and guided her through the flow of soldiers until they reached a small knot gathered near the cave entrance. Serovek stood when he caught sight of her. He blocked her path and her view.

“Do you have a strong stomach?” he asked. He looked even more severe than when he’d snapped the raider’s neck. Blood dripped off the sword he held, and his dark eyes glittered hard as diamonds in the moonlight.

“Get out of my way, Lord Pangion,” she snapped. He stepped aside, and she brushed past him to fall to her knees beside the prone figure in the grass.

Brishen lay before her, quiet and still. At least she thought it was him. A scream swelled in her chest, roiled into her throat and seeped through her clenched teeth, an inhuman cry of anguish.

Anhuset hadn’t lied, but she didn’t expound either. Brishen’s face, elegant, regal, and sublime by Kai standards, was swollen beyond recognition, mottled with bruises and cuts and washed in blood. It streaked his cheeks in cracked black ribbons that ran from his hairline to his chin. His mouth had been split multiple times, the high bridge of his nose crooked and swelled to twice its width. His right eye had swollen shut, and where his left eye should have been, only a sunken eyelid over an empty socket remained.

She clapped a hand over her mouth but refused to close her eyes. Bruises covered every part of his body she could see, and her gaze froze on his hands. They hadn’t stopped with his eye. Ildiko traced a delicate line over the back of his left hand. The lethal claws that could split a man from gullet to navel yet tease her skin with the lightest touch, were ripped out, leaving behind only bloody, mangled nail beds.

Ildiko stroked a trembling hand just above his head, afraid to touch him, afraid his beaten, brutalized body would disintegrate before her eyes. She didn’t know what she wanted to do more—scream her anguish or shriek her rage. “My poor love,” she whispered. “Why?”

Serovek spoke behind her. “We think the leader got away. We slaughtered all but a half dozen who say they can tell us who hired them in exchange for mercy. What do you wish to do, Highness?”

Ildiko stared at Brishen, at the shallow rise and fall of his chest as he breathed gurgling breaths. He stank of blood and agony. The wind lifted a strand of his hair, and she caught it between two fingers. It stuck to her skin, sticky with gore. She didn’t care who hired animals to unleash their savagery.

“Kill them,” she said in a dull voice. “Kill them all. Leave none of them alive.”

 

*****

 

When they returned to Saggara, she sequestered herself in Brishen’s chamber and didn’t leave for four days. She bathed there, ate there, and dressed there. Except for brief dozing spells, she didn’t sleep there.

The small troop of healers who tended her husband came and went, each time assuring her that time, rest, and regular doses of marseret tisane would see him through his ordeal. Ildiko found it ironic that the poison sap used to bring Anhuset low served a more merciful purpose in staving off Brishen’s pain.

He slept peacefully, his bandaged hands resting across his stomach. More bandages covered the arrow wounds in his shoulder and legs. Ildiko sat for hours in a chair next to the bed, content to watch him. The swelling had slowly receded, and the blood and dirt were gone. His right eyelid twitched as he slept. The left she couldn’t see. White cloth swathed that side of his face, hiding the deep cut that ran from below his lower lashes to the top curve of his cheekbone, testament to the brutality used when his captors cut out his eye.

Delirium didn’t plague him, and he drank the tisanes the healers coaxed on him without waking. Ildiko read to him sometimes and ventured a song or two before her voice warbled too much to continue. Anhuset often visited, updating him on the fortress’s daily activities as if he sat before her, awake and demanding a status.

She didn’t stay long. Ildiko always knew when Anhuset was about to bolt from the chamber.   Her hands flexed on her sword pommel as if she wanted nothing more than to kill Brishen’s torturers a second time. Ildiko knew exactly how she felt.

“You’ll send for me as soon as he wakes?” The same question each time before Anhuset escaped.

“Of course,” Ildiko promised each time she asked.  

No longer afraid to touch him, she caressed the unbandaged side of Brishen’s face. “This should never have happened, Brishen.” The inevitable, annoying tears threatened, and she blinked hard to force them back. “We were unimportant, you and I. We weren’t supposed to mean anything to anyone.”

A slow, deep sigh escaped his lips, and his right eyelid opened, revealing a glowing, lamplight gaze. Brishen’s voice was hoarse from disuse but still clear. “Woman of day,” he said slowly. “You mean everything to me.”

No amount of blinking this time held back Ildiko’s tears. They streamed down her cheeks to drip off her chin and onto Brishen’s shoulder. “Prince of night,” she said in a watery voice. “You’ve come back to me.”

 

~!~!~!~!~!~

Radiance 21 – excerpt only

I’m hard into this chapter.  It’s long, with a lot going on.  I’d hoped to have it up yesterday, but after mapping out the dialogue, I realized there was no way I’d have it completed that quick.  Maybe by late Saturday or early Sunday, but don’t hold me to it.  I’m on 3rd-party deadline with this story now instead of my own, so I’ll be balling the jack right up until X-mas to get it finished. 

Concerning the choice of title for Radiance 2:  my editors decided which of the two titles they liked best (Tenebrae or Cimmerian Shade) and decided on Cimmerian Shade.  I’ve already made a note of those who voted for that title and will contact you to verify e-mail information.  Thank you all so much for participating.  Your feedback and commentary was invaluable and helped me determine that while I liked both titles, in the end, neither was quite right for the Radiance 2 title.  Kitkat’s suggestion for Penumbra was popular; my editors and I both liked that one.  However, I’ve gone with a different one entirely after discovering it while researching another item.  It “fits” the theme and tone of the story perfectly while acting as a springboard for titles on future related works.  I won’t say what it is now (mostly because I don’t want to lose the option of changing my mind at the last minute) but will note it in the back matter of RADIANCE once it’s published. 

Because Radiance 21 is an involved chapter (I’ve been hitting hard from the moment I posted chapter 20) and still a couple of days out until upload, I’ll leave you with this excerpt:

RADIANCE

by Grace Draven

Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven

All rights reserved

Chapter 21 – excerpt

Ildiko crouched before her, bloodied hands drifting over, but not touching the places where the arrows had embedded themselves in armor and flesh. “Anhuset! Why didn’t you say something?”

The woman tried to shrug but only managed a twitch of one shoulder. “Because there was nothing to say. I think the arrows are dipped in marseret sap.” Her voice was as dull as her eyes, the words oozing off a thickened tongue.

Ildiko closed her eyes. If the arrowheads were dipped in marsaret as Anhuset predicted, she’d be numb from her shoulders to her feet in moments, unable to move. Even if she weren’t dead weight from the poison, she was far too heavy for Ildiko to lift and hoist onto the horse. They were doomed, stranded here while whatever surviving raiders lurked in the woods caught up to them.

A gust of hot air, thick with the green scent of grass, flooded her neck and the side of her face. She opened her eyes to find Anhuset’s horse had ambled back to them, one liquid-dark eye trained on her as if to ask how long they planned to sit there. Ildiko might have laughed if she didn’t so badly want to scream.

Anhuset’s head lolled. “I can’t feel my arms or legs.”

A dog’s triumphant howl followed her declaration and sent Ildiko’s heart drumming in her chest. “Oh gods, more magefinders.”

“Run.” Anhuset’s eyes gave a slow owl’s blink. “They’re scenting me, not you. Take the horse. Run,” she repeated.

Ildiko sprang to her feet. “I’m not leaving you here.” The glimmer of moonlit steel caught her eye, and she found the two sabers Anhuset had wielded against their attackers during the wild ride through the woods. They lay in the grass, one behind Anhuset, the other near her outstretched fingers. Blood, made black in silver light, streaked the blades.

Ildiko retrieved the one closest to her, surprised by its overall lightness in her hand and the weighted tilt toward the tip of the blade.

“Stupid human woman.” Anhuset’s words slurred together. “You’ll die if you stay.”  

“Silence.” Ildiko scowled but kept her eyes trained on the stretch of tree line from where the canine sounds originated. “Obviously the sap doesn’t work on your disrespectful tongue.”

Stupid or not, she had no intention of abandoning a helpless Anhuset on the cold ground to be savaged by a pack of magefinders. The sword no longer felt light in her grasp, and she gripped it with both hands.

Her stomach plummeted to her feet when the first magefinder shot out of the tree line, a fur-clad lightning bolt built of long legs, glistening fangs and eyes as yellow and fierce as any Kai’s, but far more bestial. It was followed by another and then a third, and they loped across the clearing, their bays muted to snarls as they closed the distance between them and Ildiko.

———————————————————————-

The Light Within

Karina at Nocturnal Book Reviews asked if I was interested in participating in a Christmas themed event taking place on her blog.  I said “Sure!”  She asked if I could contribute something either Christmasy or based on something based on a similar winter festival.  THE LIGHT WITHIN is my contribution.  It’s currently available as a free-read on Nocturnal Book Reviews and is also available, formatted for e-readers and with a cover, at Amazon and Smashwords for .99 cents.

This is a very short work and a quick read.  I originally intended to just keep it exclusively at Karina’s blog; however, I felt a second option available for easier upload to e-readers and more under my control as far as how long it stays in a particular spot would be good for readers.  In addition, the .99 cents charge was a last minute decision.  One of my younger siblings is dealing with an uexpected medical emergency that has had a catastrophic impact on the financial health of their household.  All royalties from this story will go to them to help them through a rough patch.  That being said, I didn’t want to hold a story hostage, so if you see it for free on a blog and then for a price at vendor’s site – that’s why.

From the Book Description for THE LIGHT WITHIN:

A bonus short story featuring Silhara and Martise from MASTER OF CROWS.

In THE LIGHT WITHIN, Silhara of Neith, now known as “the god-smiter,” travels as the guest of honor to the winter festival of his father’s people.

The crow mage who destroyed one god must ignite sacred fires in honor of another.  Yet the winter festival only reminds Silhara that the brightest light within him isn’t the fire of a deity but the devotion of one woman.

A tale of hope and celebration.

TLW is approximately 3,700 words and takes place after the events in MoC.  It is NOT the sequel to MoC.  That is THE BRUSH OF BLACK WINGS, which I’ll be hitting hard and heavy starting February 2015.

Smashwords | Amazon

Best,

Grace

RADIANCE – chapter 20

Moving right along.  Below is Chapter 20 of RADIANCE.  Usual caveats apply.  This is a rough draft with only a brief once-over with Word’s spell and grammar check.  My editors haven’t seen it.  Expect typos, grammatical glitches, etc.  Basically, this is the bed-hair version.

Many thanks for reading!

RADIANCE

by Grace Draven

Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven

All rights reserved

 

Chapter 20

 

One day, Brishen hoped he might take Ildiko somewhere without a quarter of his regiment accompanying them. Caution, however, dictated that they have an escort. The attack made on their company on the great trade as they rode from Pricid to Haradis combined with Serovek’s earlier warnings meant he and Ildiko went nowhere alone outside Saggara.

He had reduced their escort to thirty of his more experienced fighters. Unlike the journey to High Salure, they rode deep into Kai territory and traveled at night. Unfriendly territory and unfriendly time for any group of sell-swords who might think of attacking. The advantages belonged to the Kai.

Brishen glanced at his wife as she rode beside him. She held a confident seat in the saddle, even with the challenge of navigating the hilly paths that led to Halmatus township in the dark. She wore her heavier cloak for the cold nights, but her head was bare. The red hair, which he at first thought garish but now beautiful, shimmered multiple shades of gray under the moonlight. She’d kept her hood down at his insistence.

You don’t need this,” he told her earlier as they readied to mount and ride out of Saggara. He pushed back the hood, exposing her braided hair and pale features. He’d spent the last hour before sundown studying her face as she slept next to him. Had he truly ever thought her ugly?

Ildiko tucked a few strands of hair that had come loose from her braid behind her ears. “There will be a lot of stares and talk.”

 Brishen took her hand to lightly trace the lines of her palm with one nail. “Let them talk; let them stare. It matters not. Besides, you are the hercegese, wife of Saggara’s herceges. You hide from no one.”

 They crossed a bridge spanning a narrow ravine. Far below, a lazy river wound like a black ribbon to disappear around a bend of sheer rock. A waterfall’s dull roar sounded nearby, background resonance to the creak of wood under horse hooves as their party rode single file over the bridge.

 They arrived in Halmatus shortly before midnight. Built in a sheltered dale, the town glimmered like a nest of fireflies under a tree canopy. Pleased to discover that he’d inadvertently chosen the weekly market night to visit the town, Brishen escorted Ildiko through the narrow streets lined with temporary stalls filled with various wares and food offered by Kai farmers and merchants.

 Their presence drew a curious crowd, and the stares and talk Ildiko predicted were heavy on his shoulders and thick in his ears. Ildiko paid no attention, and instead engaged the various vendors in nearly flawless bast-Kai.

Only once did she hint of her awareness of the town’s singular focus on her. She stepped away from the protection of Brishen’s silhouette so that she was in full view of the crowd. Her closed-lip smile gave away her intent.

“Ildiko,” Brishen warned and stepped in front of her just as her eyes slid toward each other and met on either side of her nose. They slid back in place just as quickly, making Brishen twitch and the Kai soldiers closest to them exclaim under their breaths.

 Ildiko sighed. “You’ve ruined a perfectly good opportunity to provide gossip for years to come.”

 “And saved a few people from being trampled by those trying to get away from you.” He nudged her toward the next stall. “Try not to start a panic, wife.”

 The low sound of her laughter teased his ears and recalled a moment hours earlier when she’d laughed the same way while torturing him with soft kisses planted down the center of his back. His nostrils flared, and he shoved the memory away before his breeches grew uncomfortable and he began searching for a semi-private spot where he might swive his wife. She was shredding his ability to think sensibly with her sorcery.

They found the jewel-smith’s shop at the end of one of the lanes. Unlike his fellow townsmen, the merchant never revealed shock or surprise at Ildiko’s appearance. He inspected the necklace and broken clasp she presented to him and promised the repair was simple enough. A price and delivery date was agreed upon. A shrewd business man, he offered to show her more of his work. Brishen fled outside to wait by the door.

 When Ildiko emerged from the shop, he tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. “Am I a pauper now?”

 She gave him an arch look. “I doubt it. I bought one thing.”

 He surveyed her person, noting neither bauble on her neck nor package in her hand. “What is it?”

 Ildiko lifted her chin. “You’ll see it when they deliver it with my necklace.”

Word of the herceges’s visit traveled fast through Halmatus, and the town’s mayor was quick to issue an invitation to dine. Anhuset abandoned Brishen and Ildiko to their fate with a salute and a grin. “You’ll find the rest of us at the Crooked Shank tavern where the ale is thick and the company better.”

Her words proved prophetic. The food at the mayor’s home was fair; the company tiresome and ridiculous. Brishen liked the man well enough. His wife was another matter. Despite Ildiko’s best efforts to put her at ease, the woman couldn’t stop staring round-eyed at her.   Too busy gawking to mind what she was doing, she nearly poured wine into Ildiko’s lap twice.

 Brishen breathed a sigh of relief when it was over and they made their escape. Ildiko looked no worse the wear for their trouble. “They didn’t serve scarpatine,” she said. “I consider it a successful meal.”

 “Do you want to visit the tavern? I think Anhuset is right about the food and company.”

 Ildiko shook her head. “No. I’ll cause too much of a stir. Let our escort enjoy themselves. You can give me a tour of the town, and I’ll have you to myself for once.”

 He happily acquiesced to her wishes. Halmatus was small, surrounded by thick woodland. At its outskirts, Brishen paused and took advantage of the brief privacy afforded them. He tilted Ildiko’s face up to his with a gentle thumb under her chin. Her skin glowed lustrous as a pearl in the moonlight.

 “Kiss me,” he commanded softly. “I’ve craved the touch of your mouth ever since we left Saggara.”

It didn’t matter to him if all of Halmatus heard his satisfied groans as she made love to him with her lips and the fine caress of her hands. They couldn’t quit this place or get home soon enough to satisfy him. His human wife had become a fire in his blood and spirit, as hot and bright as her red hair.

“We leave them alone for what? Two hours? And now we’re chasing after them like nannies after toddlers.” Anhuset’s waspish tones carried over the whispering lullaby of trees rustling in the breeze.

 Ildiko’s lips drifted over his in a fading kiss. “I think we’re in trouble,” she murmured.

“Fan out and find them,” Anhuset ordered. “Knock on every door if you have to.”

Brishen growled, annoyed and yet pleased by his cousin’s vigilance. He set Ildiko from him and took her hand. “Come. We’ll need to reveal ourselves before she puts the entire town in an uproar.”

 Anhuset’s scowl forewarned Brishen he was in for a tongue-lashing. He halted whatever admonishment hovered on her lips. “Thought is often wiser than speech, sha-Anhuset,” he said in his coldest, loftiest tones. “Lest we forget who rules here and who does not.”

Her lips thinned to a tight line, but she bowed, along with the rest of their escort. “Are you ready to depart, Your Highness?” she asked in an equally frigid voice. He nodded, and she sent the soldiers off to gather the horses and meet in the town square.

When it was just he, Ildiko and Anhuset, the last rounded on him. “Are you trying to worry me into an early death?” she snapped.

 “Stop henpecking me,” he snapped back. “I have a wife for that, and even she doesn’t do it.”

 Muffled laughter sounded next to him. Ildiko stared at them both with watery eyes and a hand clapped over her mouth. She lowered her hand and compressed her lips in an obvious effort to contain her mirth. She was only partially successful. “Sorry,” she managed to gasp out between giggles.

 Anhuset didn’t share in her amusement. Her expression darkened before she bowed a second time. “I will see you both in the town square.”

 Brishen remained unsure if that was a promise or a threat.

 “You can trust us to be there, Anhuset,” Ildiko called to her.

 “We’ll see,” the other woman said shortly. She strode away, back stiff with outrage.

 “She loves you, you know.” Ildiko glanced at Brishen. “She would do anything you asked of her.”

Brishen nodded. Ildiko told him nothing he didn’t already know. “We’re bound to each other by blood and secrets. She’s the child of my father’s sister and the only true sibling I’ve ever had.” He met Ildiko’s gentle gaze and sighed. “She’s also older than me with an unfortunate tendency to either mother me or order me about if I allow it.”

 The mayor, his goggle-eyed wife and a bevy of councilmen were in the square to see them off. Brishen and Ildiko bid polite goodbye and promised another visit soon. The moon had begun her journey toward the horizon by the time they rode the paths that led them back to Saggara.

 The ravine and its bridge came into view. Their party had started out from Halmatus in high spirits with much small talk and joking exchanged. The atmosphere slowly changed, their group growing quieter, tenser. The trickle of unease that made the spot between Brishen’s shoulder blades tingle became an icy stream that froze the length of his spine. He edged his horse closer to Ildiko. Anhuset did the same on Ildiko’s other side.

Brishen caught his cousin’s eye and spoke softly, using a pidgin Kai spoken by the lakeside dyers and understood by very few who weren’t Kai. “Do you feel that?”

Anhuset nodded. “We’re being watched.”

 They all felt it, a distinct scrutiny edged with malice. All around him, hands eased toward swords and shifted shields into protective position. The horses picked up on their riders’ unease, snorting and prancing their agitation as they rode toward the bridge.

Ildiko’s eyes flicked first to Anhuset, then to Brishen. Worry lines furrowed her forehead. “What’s wrong?” she asked softly.

Brishen signaled behind her, and two of his men closed the space behind her horse, creating a shield wall of man, metal and steed. It was likely too late to disguise her now. She stood out among them like a beacon, but better late than not at all.

 “Ildiko,” he said in his most casual tone. “Raise your hood as if you’re just keeping the wind off your hair and do exactly as I tell you when I tell you.”

 What little color flowed under her pale skin, leached away to a pallor grayed by fear. She did as he instructed, making a show of fussing with her braids before pulling the hood up until her features were hidden.

 Brishen loosened the leather guard covering the blade of the hand axe he wore at his hip. The air around them hung thick with tension—an unnatural silence broken only by the steady clop of horse hooves.

 An unearthly scream shattered the stillness, followed by a bright flash of light that sent the Kai horses into a rearing, bucking panic. Brishen bellowed a curse at the sudden light blindness and turned his face into his hood. His mount slammed into Ildiko’s mare.

“Down, Ildiko!” he bellowed at her, shoving her face toward the mare’s withers, just as thin buffet of cold air shot a breath away from his face. A thunk sounded, followed by a heavy groan and the creak of a saddle.

They were targets on the horses, and Ildiko cried out when Brishen dragged her off the saddle with him to hit the ground amidst the chaos of rearing equine bodies. They were partially shielded from the pulsing flare of light that left him and fellow Kai virtually sightless.

Anhuset barreled into him, sword drawn. Her lips were drawn back from her fangs in a grimace. “Beladine!” she shouted just as a volley of arrows rained over them from the trees. “The arrow fletches are Beladine.”

 A chorus of howls rang from the shadows. Ildiko tried her best to crawl straight up Brishen’s side. He clutched her to him, crouched low among the milling horses. Magefinders. The scum had unleashed mage hounds.

 He pried Ildiko off of him and thrust her toward Anhuset. “Take her and get across the bridge. Now!” The arrow volleys were simply the first phase. If he didn’t get her out of here now, she’d die.

 Ildiko clutched at him, her strange eyes huge and dark with terror. “No, Brishen!”

 Anhuset didn’t hesitate, wrapped her arm around Ildiko and slung her over her shoulder. She nodded once, her own expression as fearful as Ildiko’s and full of rage. “Stay alive,” she ordered before sprinting away with a struggling Ildiko.

Brishen caught Anhuset’s horse, looped the reins over the saddle horn and slapped the animal on the flanks. It shot out of the mayhem towards its mistress. Riderless and seemingly out of control, it darted toward Anhuset unscathed by arrow fire. The Kai woman altered her path to run parallel, and he lost sight of her for just a moment. Silver hair and red mingled in the shadows as Anhuset leapt atop her mount’s back, dropped Ildiko in front of her and kicked the horse into a dead run.

 They were past the first hurdle, but the bridge ran long and arrows flew fast. More cries echoed from the forest, this time led by the trumpet of a horn. Brishen drew hard on the sleeping magic bequeathed to him by his sire and all those who came before him. It rolled through him, pooling into his hands. Somewhere a battle mage lurked among the trees, casting light spells to render the Kai blind.

He uttered an ancient word, one spoken by Kai sorcerers who built its spell from the power of shadow and Kai reverence for all things born of the night. A blast of darkness shot from Brishen’s fingers and snuffed out the light flares. Cries of dismay and surprise mingled with shouts of triumph.

Brishen forced down the wave of weakness that threatened to buckle his knees. He could finally see. He shouted to his men. “To the trees! Kill their mage! Kill their dogs!”

A Beladine attacker burst out of the underbrush toward him, swinging a short-handled scythe. Trained for war as all his kin were, Brishen met the attack with knife and axe. The two men slammed into each other, Brishen’s heavier weight throwing his opponent backwards. Brishen slashed his throat and was sprinting through the trees before the spray of blood even touched him.

All around him Kai battled Beladine in bloody skirmishes. He cleaved the skull of an archer and hobbled a swordsman before decapitating him with one swing of the axe. He leapt over the head as it rolled under his feet.

Battle rage course through his veins in a hot river, even as he methodically cut a bloody swathe through the ranks of mercenaries bursting out of the brush and dropping from the trees. And then someone shouted, and their message sent his heart jumping to his throat.

“The Gauri bitch! She’s crossing the bridge!”

Brishen tore through the forest, bolting out of the tree line in time to see an archer take aim at the fleeing horse and its two riders as they raced toward the other side of the ravine. Every sound around him faded to silence, every movement narrowed to the archer’s flexing shoulder as he drew the bowstring.

The prince of Saggara didn’t pray to gods but to the bloodied axe held. “Be true, “he whispered and flung the weapon as hard he could.

The archer slammed forward—the axe blade buried between his shoulders—and teetered on the ravine’s edge before pitching into the abyss.  

Brishen sprinted toward the bridge just as a dozen Beladine riders galloped onto the bridge. Oh gods, no! He was fast, but he’d never catch them. He could outrun a human but not a horse.”

 “Your Highness, what do you need?” Two of his Kai, bathed red with blood, raced to his side. A pack of Beladine attackers pursued them.

 “Hold them off as long as you can,” he shouted. The magic would get him killed, but he had no choice. If he didn’t use it, Anhuset’s pursuers would catch her. She’d kill half before they took her down, but she’d still die and so would Ildiko.

He set his hands on the bridge’s first plank. More words of power, these a sizzling wash of pain that threatened to peel his skin back from his bones. He waited, precious seconds until Anhuset’s horse touched the ground on the other side of the ravine. He closed his eyes, drowning in relief and the blazing agony that poured down his arms. He unleashed the last part of the spell.

A rolling tide of flame engulfed the bridge, consuming it with a ravenous hunger and engulfing screaming horses and their horrified riders.  

Brishen staggered to his feet only to be thrown sideways. He and his attacker wrestled across the ground. Weakened and slowed by the ravages of spellwork, Brishen struggled to free himself from the grip of a Beladine sell-sword twice his size. The man slammed his hand against a protruding rock. Brishen’s fingers went numb, and he lost the grip on his knife. His enemy grinned in triumph.

Brishen grinned back before lunging up and sinking his fangs into the man’s neck. A gurgling scream set his ear to ringing, and the sour tastes of unwashed human sweat and blood filled his mouth. He jerked his head, tore out flesh with his teeth and half drowned as a gout of hot blood splashed his face and neck.

He spat out the hunk of meat and shove the dead mercenary off him.   Half blinded once more, this time by blood instead of light, he gained his feet. The Kai who’d come to help him fought hard but were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. Brishen took up his dead opponent’s sword and ran toward them, no longer fleet and sure-footed. A menacing growl was his only warning before a whirlwind of dusty brown fur shot toward him.

He spun at the last moment, sword blade slicing upward. A canine yelp, and a dead magefinder landed at his feet.

The same voice that alerted others of Ildiko’s and Anhuset’s escape shouted again. Enraged. Desperate.

“Bring him down! Bring that Kai bastard down!”

He heard the warning hisses of air, but his body refused to obey his mind’s screaming commands to get out of the way. The first arrow took him in the right shoulder, the second in the upper left thigh, and the third in the right thigh. Brishen crashed to his knees but remained upright. His vision blurred and he swayed under the weight of a thrown net.

The side of a club was the last thing he saw before the inside of his skull exploded. Merciful darkness engulfed him, and in this blackness he could not see.   

~!~!~!~!~!~ 

 

COVER REVEAL – Radiance

My artist for the RADIANCE project has completed the book’s cover.  Be still my heart, I think it is magnificent.  We have one tiny tweak in the typography to make, and it’s done.  However, it’s more than ready to go for a cover reveal.  So, without further ado, here is the cover for RADIANCE – illustrated by the fabulous and hugely talented Isis Sousa:

Illustration Copyright 2014 by Isis Sousa.  All Rights Reserved.

 

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RADIANCE – Chapter 19

For once I made the deadline I set. :) Thanks very much for your patience. Things are still busy here at Casa Draven (as always), but I’ve already started on Chapter 20 and might actually have that one done by this time next week. ~keeps fingers crossed~  As with all previous chapters, this is a rough draft.  My editors haven’t seen it, and there are bound to be grammar glitches and typos sprinkled throughout that will be corrected and revised later.

And now, on with the show:

RADIANCE
by Grace Draven
Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven
All rights reserved

Chapter 19

Standing this close to him, Ildiko was struck by Serovek’s impressive size. He was a big man–a little taller than Brishen–with massive shoulders and long, muscular legs. He looked as if he could crush anvils with his bare hands. She wondered if his gregarious personality lent even more to the sense of physical power he exuded.

He’d come to Saggara with a small entourage of Beladine soldiers. Their sparse numbers signaled a gesture of peace and trust in Brishen that this dinner would be as safe and friendly as the one the Kai attended at High Salure.

The Beladine guests mingled with Kai officers and councilmen of the Kai villages and townships under Saggara’s protection. Ildiko admired the ease in which the two groups socialized, so different from her wedding where Gauri and Kai almost drew swords on each other. Such actions seemed counterintuitive to the realities at hand: The Kai were allied with the Gauri through trade while hostilities with the Beladine brewed hotter every day. Serovek and those under his command were unique in the political fray. Ildiko wondered how long his friendship with Brishen would last after a declaration of war or accusation of treason. She hoped neither came to pass.

“You are a fine hostess, Your Highness, and your cooks in danger of abduction to High Salure.” Serovek inclined his head to where servants cleared the remains of the earlier dinner from the tables. In one corner, a quintet of Kai musicians strummed instruments, the haunting melodies accompanying the din of several conversations. “I especially enjoyed the scarpatine pie.”

Ildiko shuddered. Her hope to never again see or eat the Kai’s most beloved and revolting delicacy had been in vain. When Brishen informed her that the dish was one of Serovek’s favorites, she resigned herself to another culinary battle with her food and put the scarpatine on the menu. She ordered roasted potatoes as well, much to the head cook’s disgust.

When servants brought out the food and set it on the table, Brishen leaned close and whispered in her ear. “Revenge, wife?”

“Hardly,” she replied, keeping a wary eye on the pie closest to her. The golden top crust, with its sprinkle of sparkling salt, pitched in a lazy undulation. “But I’m starving, and I have no intention of filling up on that abomination.”

Their guest of honor didn’t share their dislike of either food. As deft as any Kai, Serovek made short work of the scarpatine and its whipping tail, cleaved open the shell with his knife and took a generous bite of the steaming gray meat.

Ildiko’s stomach heaved. She forgot her nausea when Serovek complimented her. “An excellent choice to pair the scarpatine with the potato, Your Highness. They are better together than apart.”

Beside her, Brishen choked into his goblet. He wiped his mouth with his sanap. “What a waste of good scarpatine,” he muttered under his breath.

What a waste of a nice potato, she thought. However, the more she thought on Serovek’s remark, the more her amusement grew.

“And what has you smiling so brightly?” Brishen stared at her, his lambent eyes glowing nearly white in the hall’s torchlight.

She glanced at Serovek, happily cleaning his plate and shooting the occasional glance at Anhuset nearby. Brishen’s cousin refused to meet his gaze, but Ildiko had caught the woman watching the Beladine lord more than a few times during dinner.

“That’s us, you know,” she said.

“What is us?”

“The scarpatine and the potato. Better together than alone. At least I think so.”

One of Brishen’s eyebrows slid upward. “I thought we were hag and dead eel. I think I like those comparisons more.” He shoved his barely-touched potato to the edge of his plate with his knife tip, upper lip curled in revulsion to reveal a gleaming white fang.

Ildiko laughed and stabbed a piece of the potato off his plate. She popped it into her mouth and chewed with gusto, eager to blunt the taste of scarpatine still lingering on her tongue.

The crowd broke into conversational groups after dinner, and Ildiko soon found herself on the opposite side of the hall from Brishen, in conversation with Serovek.

The lines at the corners of the lord’s eyes fanned and deepened when he smiled at her. “Will you favor me with a dance, Your Highness? The Kai think humans are clumsy creatures. Shall we prove them wrong?”

Ildiko glanced at Brishen who stood conversing with a mayor of one of the nearby Kai villages. He didn’t look directly at her, but she sensed the weight of his gaze. Gauri society dictated that a woman either ask her father or her husband permission to dance with another man. Kai society did not. To the Kai, it was perfectly acceptable for Ildiko to accept Serovek’s invitation without Brishen’s approval. Still, she hesitated.

Serovek’s chuckle returned her attention to him. He nodded toward Brishen. “Were we both Kai, I don’t think he’d care. If I were Kai, he wouldn’t care. But we’re both human, and that presents something very different. I desire a dance with you, but I’d also like to leave Saggara alive.”

Ildiko clinked her goblet against his in silent agreement. She had no idea how one might read the more subtle hints of jealousy in a Kai, but there was a certain rigidity in Brishen’s stance that reminded her of an owl watching prey from the branches of a tree. “As I’m still learning Kai protocol, I think I’ll ask my husband what the proper response is to such an invitation.”

His grin transformed Serovek’s already handsome face into an even more striking visage. Ildiko tried not to gape. “I await your answer, madam.”

Ildiko left him to seek out Brishen. He was no longer where she first saw him, and she kept to the outer perimeters of the room, searching for broad shoulders garbed in indigo silk and a long, black braid. She jumped when his voice suddenly sounded behind her.

“I’m told Serovek is known as the Stallion in the Beladine court.” A muscled arm slid around Ildiko’s waist, and she leaned back against Brishen’s chest. He rubbed his nose along the curve of her ear. “He’s an exceptional horseman, but I doubt the title was bestowed on him because of his skills in the saddle.”

She grinned. His cheek was cool and smooth pressed to hers. “I suspect, my husband, that is exactly why he was given the title.”

His low laughter rumbled in her ear. A clawed hand outlined the curve of her waist before settling at her hip. “You stalk this hall with purpose, Ildiko. What do you seek?”

“Serovek has requested a dance with me. I know the Kai don’t follow the Gauri customs, but he thought it best I ask you first.”

She felt it then, a stiffening in his body as he pressed against her. It faded as soon as it appeared, but Brishen’s voice had lost its sensual warmth and turned clipped.

“He has a finely honed sense of survival. It makes him a good warrior. Do you wish to dance with him?”

Ildiko turned in his embrace so she could face him. She stroked his arm and smiled into his eyes. “I wish to dance with you, but I think it only hospitable as one of his hosts if I dance one dance with him.” She winked. “Or you could dance with him.”

Brishen snorted, and his features softened. “There is hospitable, and then there’s ridiculous.” He brushed his mouth across her forehead. “You don’t need my leave to dance with another, wife. But I reserve the right to steal you away at any time.”

Beladine and Kai guests paired off as the musicians segued into the beginnings of a more high-spirited tune. Ildiko wove through the crowd and found Serovek where she left him. He watched her approach with a slight smile.

“Will I live another day?” he asked.

She handed him her goblet so he could set it on the table behind him. “That depends. If you trample my feet, I’ll kill you.” Her grin matched his laughter. “You’ll forgive me, of course, if I trample yours. I’m not familiar with Kai dances. Until recently, I didn’t even know they danced.”

Serovek grasped her offered hand and led her toward the center of the hall. “They are exceptional dancers. Think about it. Strong, fast, and nimble, they are made for it. And you may recognize many of their tunes. The Gauri and the Beladine have taken a few as theirs over the centuries.”

They waited amidst a throng of other couples who had paused after the first tune ended and before the next one began. Ildiko glimpsed Brishen across the hall, watching them. When the second tune started, she grinned at Serovek. “You’re right! I know this song.”

He lifted her hand, bowed and swept her into a loose embrace. “Your Highness, it is my honor.”

They fell into familiar steps. Serovek had spoken true when he said the Gauri—and the Beladine as well—had borrowed a few things from the Kai. She had learned to dance to this particular song when she was very young. It was a popular dance at the Gauri court and one of her favorites.

Serovek’s familiarity with the dance was obvious. He guided her smoothly through the steps, graceful as any Kai, especially for a man of his stature. Her feet were in no danger of being crushed, and Ildiko smiled her pleasure at her partner’s adept moves. It would have been perfect if she danced with Brishen instead of Serovek.

The dance soon came to an end, and Serovek surrendered her to a Kai officer who bowed low and requested a dance. It was followed by another with a Kai town councilman and one after that with one of Serovek’s Beladine soldiers.

She was flushed, winded and thirstier than a willow tree by a dry lake bed when Brishen sought her out, carrying a much welcomed goblet of wine. Ildiko took the goblet with heartfelt thanks and drained it in three swallows.

Brishen blinked and offered his goblet. “Would you like mine?”

Ildiko shook her head. “No. You’ve rescued me. I thought my tongue would stick to the roof of my mouth if I didn’t stop dancing soon and find something to drink.” She handed her goblet to a passing servant.

“Are you enjoying yourself?” He downed his drink and sent the cup off with the servant.

“I am.” Ildiko reached out to play with one of the lacings on his tunic. “Though I’d have much more fun if you paused a moment from all your political machinations and plans to dance with me. Just one dance, husband. It isn’t much to ask.” She winked at him. He had promised to claim her from any of her dance partners but so far had refrained, choosing instead to circulate through the hall, talking with both Beladine and Kai guests, including Serovek when that lord wasn’t dancing himself.

Brishen grasped her hand and brought it to his mouth for a soft kiss. The caress sent tingles from the tips of her fingers to her toes and set a hot pool of desire swirling inside her. She hadn’t chosen this husband of hers, nor had he chosen her, but fate or kind gods had brought them together, made them friends and then lovers. While her Gauri peers might shudder at the idea of a Kai mate and give thanks they weren’t her, Ildiko considered herself the most fortunate of women.

Her expression must have revealed something of her thoughts. Brishen tilted his head, a puzzled furrow appearing between his eyebrows. “What is it?”

“I want to dance with you now,” she said in a low voice only he could hear. “But I want to make to love to you more.” Her cheeks burned hot at her own blunt declaration and the reaction it caused.

Brishen’s spine snapped straight, and his eyes paled to the light of a summer sun at noon. Her fingers went briefly numb at the sudden grip he closed on her hand. His lips flattened against his teeth; nostrils flared, and the skin drew tight across his cheekbones. He said nothing, but Ildiko suddenly found herself jogging to keep up as he pulled her across the hall toward the stairwell leading to Saggara’s private wing.

“Brishen, wait.” she whispered, caught between panic and laughter. The weight of several curious gazes rested on her shoulders, no doubt wondering why the Prince of Saggara suddenly decided to whisk his wife out of the hall.

She stumbled into him when he halted abruptly and turned. He caught her in his arms and helped her regain her balance. His eyes still glowed white-hot, and his breathing paced shallow from his nostrils. His voice, by contrast, was cool and uninflected. “Are you trying to kill me, Ildiko?”

Were they not standing in the middle of the hall with a crowd of people watching, she’d twine her arms around his neck and kiss him senseless. Brishen’s parted lips revealed the tips of his fangs. Carefully senseless, she corrected.

She settled for squeezing his hand and offering an apologetic smile. “Killing you is the farthest thing from my mind, and were we alone, I’d race you to the stairs.” His claws were dark against her knuckles, lethal as spear points knapped from obsidian. “But we aren’t alone, and we are the hosts. We’re obligated to stay.”

Torchlight caught his eyes in a different pattern as his gaze flickered from her face to the crowd behind her and back again. “And who will stop us if we leave?”

No one would. In Haradis, Brishen was the unessential spare prince. At Saggara, he was king and subject to no one. Still, Ildiko didn’t relish the gossip such an act would incite. She traced the line of his knuckles with her free hand.

“I don’t regret my words, only their timing,” she said. “Dawn isn’t far off. Dance with me until then, and you can bid your guests good riddance.”

His lids closed for a moment, black lashes thick against his cheeks. When he opened them again, his eyes were once again their lamplight yellow. “As you wish, but it will be another day of no sleep, wife,” he warned in a voice no longer cool but sensual. He kissed her hand for a second time, leaving a damp line as his tongue stroked across her fingers.

Ildiko gasped, her knees going weak at the caress. She exhaled a shuddering breath. “I’ll hold you to that promise, husband.”

He claimed her for the rest of the night, either dancing with her or keeping her by his side when others drew him away to discuss the various issues of the townships and villages under Saggara’s guardianship.

The evening stretched toward dawn, and the wine flowed fast and generous. Servants escorted some of the more inebriated guests to spare rooms prepared in a ground floor wing near the kitchens. Brishen offered Serovek one of the chambers on the second floor, along the same hallways as his and Ildiko’s chambers.

Serovek refused and slapped Brishen on the back. His dark eyes were glassy with drink, but he remained steady on his feet, and Ildiko suspected anyone foolish enough to think him vulnerable to attack would find themselves suffering or dead for making such a mistake.

“A generous offer, my friend, but I’m for home.” He grinned, and Ildiko was once again struck by the charm of his features. “And unlike you Kai, I enjoy the feel of the sun on my face when I ride.” He gestured toward Anhuset who stood among her compatriots, tugging ceaselessly at her finery and scowling. “I will, however, accept an escort to your gate.”

The Kai might not be able to read human expression any better than Ildiko could read theirs, but Serovek’s interest in Anhuset was plain to her. He caught her knowing look and winked in return. Brishen stiffened beside her.

Thanks for Saggara’s hospitality, wishes for a safe journey and promises of mutual aid if needed were exchanged before Serovek and his party left, escorted by a sour-faced Anhuset sporting a tell-tale dusting of color on her high cheekbones.

They watched him leave. Brishen slowly pivoted to survey his nearly empty hall. The sun-flare returned to his eyes when he settled his stare on Ildiko. Her breath caught in her throat. “And now I can say good riddance.”

This time it was she who yanked him to the stairs and raced down the corridor. His door banged open against the wall and just as quickly slammed back on its frame. Brishen slid the bolt home and turned in time for Ildiko to shove him against its expanse.

She was desperate to touch him, feel the solid strength of muscle beneath her hands, the smooth expanse of gray skin. The fire that had smoldered inside her since his aborted attempt to seduce her before they went downstairs to greet their guests flared to an inferno. She caught his braid in one hand and used it to pull his head down to her.

The gleam of fangs, white as young ivory, didn’t deter her from kissing him—hard. He groaned and offered his tongue. She took him deep, tasting sweet wine and the honey harvested from the wild hives built in the thistle-strangled orange grove.

Brishen hoisted her in his arms, hands cupping her buttocks. His breath sounded harsh in her ear as she nibbled his neck and caught his earlobe in between her teeth. Another groan was her reward. “So eager, wife?” he said between pants.

“How can you tell?” she whispered to the sweet space behind his ear. She rocked against him, seeking the erection that proclaimed his desire for her was as great as hers for him. His fingers flexed, claws piercing layers of cloth. Ildiko gasped from the pleasure-pain.

He froze. “Forgive…”

“Nothing to forgive.” She tore at the lacings on his tunic, loosening some and knotting the others. Her mewl of frustration drew a chuckle from him.

“This is when claws come in handy, wife.”

He made short work of the tunic, splitting it down the center with one swipe of his hand to reveal a sculpted chest that made Ildiko breathe an admiring “oooh.” He didn’t stop there, and soon their finery hung off them in sliced ribbons.

Brishen’s chest was hot against her breasts, the room’s air chilly on her back. He’d rucked up her long tunic to her waist and shoved her silk trousers below her hips. His own clothing was equally twisted and shoved aside.

Ildiko arched her back and gasped Brishen’s name when he thrust inside her. Every muscle clenched, eliciting a low growl from him as he clutched her hips, braced himself against the door, and set a hard pace.

“My gods, Ildiko,” he managed to gasp out between thrusts. “You’re a hearth fire. Were you like this downstairs?”

She wondered vaguely how he could possibly remain coherent. She was reduced to mewls and moans. “Yes,” she said. “Needed you. Need you now.”

She punctuated her demand by scoring the corded tendons of his neck with her teeth. Brishen’s knees buckled, and he nearly dropped her. Had he done the same to her, he would have laid open her jugular. Her teeth, though, were no danger to him. She wasn’t Kai and heartily glad of it.

He employed the trick he discovered when they first lay together, angling his pelvis so that every thrust rubbed in just the right way. She climaxed in his arms, uncaring that her guttural cries likely carried down the corridors and all the way out to the redoubt’s defenses. Two more deep thrusts and Brishen joined her, his own moans low, almost bestial.

They sagged against the door, Ildiko boneless in Brishen’s grasp. He rested his forehead on her shoulder, breath hot as it gusted across her breasts. He finally straightened and staggered to the bed, careful not to trip or lose his hold on her.

Their clothes landed in a heap on the floor, and it was only moments before she welcomed him once more into the sanctuary of her body as well as her heart. Afterwards, they lay together, pressed skin to skin from shoulder to ankle.

Brishen picked a broken strand of beads out of her hair and tossed them to the floor. “Your hair—”

“Is a mess,” she finished for him.

“A spectacular mess,” he said. “Your maid has her work cut out for her later.”

Ildiko took no offense. If being loved like this by her husband meant a ruined coif, well, there were some things worth sacrificing. She pulled the edge of one of the sheets toward her and paused at the sight of the jagged rents. Brishen’s eyebrows climbed at her frown.

“You have to stop destroying the bed linens.”

He shrugged, blithely unremorseful. “Only when you stop destroying me.”

They exchanged slow kisses and caresses until the morning sun seeped through the partially open shutters and bathed the bed in pools of pink-tinged radiance. Brishen made to untangle himself from Ildiko to rise and close the shutters.

She stopped him with a hand on his hip. “Wait. I’d like to see you in the dawn.” He’d had the advantage of twilight’s gloom and the full dark of night to see her—naked, vulnerable, undeniably human. It was only fair that she see him. Naked, never vulnerable, undeniably Kai.

Brishen paused to stare at her for a moment before relaxing into the mattress and rolling on his back. He covered his eyes with his forearm. “As you wish, wife.”

Ildiko peeled the sheets away from where they gathered at his shins. He was completely bare to her, bathed in the rosy glow of the rising day.

Beautifully made, lithe and powerful, he reminded her a little of a cat—all sleek muscle beneath skin as gray and smooth as the dolphins’ that rode the bow wave of the Gauri merchant ships sailling into harbor.

“I am no friend to the sun, Ildiko.” His voice was tense, his body as well as he stretched out on the bed.

“That’s unfortunate,” she said softly. “It’s certainly a friend to you.” She traced a line of muscle from his knee to his inner thigh, felt him shiver under her palm. Sunlight filled the room, and she took mercy on him, leaving the bed long enough to close the shutters and pitch the chamber into its usual candlelit-shadows.

Brishen enfolded her in his arms as soon as she returned and rolled her beneath him. Even with most of his weight on his elbows, he pressed her into the mattress, heavy on her. “And what do you think of your dead eel in the daylight?”

Ildiko brushed a feathery strand of his hair away from his eyes. “He pleases me greatly. The handsomest of eels.” His high cheekbones angled sharply under her palms. “So says this hag.”

“Who is most beautiful in the darkness.” Brishen kissed her then, lingering on her mouth for several moments before bestowing more of the fluttering caresses along the edge of her hairline and over the bridge of her nose.  He whispered something else against her cheek.

Caught up in the languorous sensations, Ildiko almost missed what he said. She blinked. “Pardon?”

Brishen tucked his head down to nuzzle her cleavage before answering. “If you’re up to it, we will journey from here to Halmatus township tonight. Remember the jewelry smith I told you about?” She nodded. “He will repair your necklace, and you can see more of my lands than just Saggara and the lake.”

Excitement took hold. She’d been at Saggara for months now, consumed with her duties as its new mistress and the all the adjustments living in a Kai household entailed. The short visit to the dye houses on the lake shore had only whetted her curiosity regarding the Kai kingdom and its people. She was eager to learn more. “Is it far?”

“Two hours by horseback through hilly terrain.”

Not far at all. She almost said yes but hesitated, remembering all that Brishen had told her of his conversation with Serovek when they returned from High Salure. “Is it safe?”

His brow stitched into a frown. “You have my shield and protection, Ildiko.”

She smoothed away the lines marring his skin with her thumb. “I’m not just thinking of me.”

He turned his face into her hand and kissed her palm. “I know. You’ve witnessed the Kai in battle. We’re formidable enough, and we protect ourselves and our own.”

That was an understatement. Hard, heavy bones, fangs, claws, and a superior agility, the Kai were uniquely suited for battle.

“You don’t have to go if that is your wish,” he continued at her prolonged silence.

She started. “No! I want to go!” Ildiko had left all that was familiar to her to accompany a stranger who wasn’t even human into an alien kingdom where she became the outsider, the stranger. She had learned, thrived and found both love and friendship. No filthy pack of lawless mercenaries would make her a prisoner in her new home.

Brishen glided a hand down her arm before trekking a path over her collarbones and down to cup a breast. His hips rocked gently on hers, and she spread her thighs so he settled more firmly into the cradle of her body. “It will still be a long journey with the return trip. You should sleep.”

Ildiko looped her arms around his neck and caressed the rope of hair hanging down his back. She gave Brishen a mock scowl. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Now kiss me. We’re wasting good daylight.”

Their laughter soon changed to sighs and whispered encouragements spoken against skin sheened in perspiration. Ildiko embraced her lover, her husband, her best friend, and counted herself a most blessed wife.

~!~!~!~!~

Thank you for reading!

Best,

Grace

Radiance – status update and excerpt

I hope everyone who celebrated Thanksgiving had a great holiday. If you’re like me, you’re girding your loins for Christmas.

RADIANCE Chapter 19 is still on track to go live on the blog tomorrow (mid to late afternoon CST). Here’s a brief excerpt from the chapter:

RADIANCE
by Grace Draven
Copyright 2014 by Grace Draven
All rights reserved
————————————-
Ildiko shuddered. Her hope to never see or eat the Kai’s most beloved and
revolting delicacy had been in vain. When Brishen informed her that the
dish was one of Serovek’s favorites, she resigned herself to another
culinary battle with her food and put the scarpatine on the menu. She
ordered roasted potatoes as well, much to the head cook’s disgust.

When servants brought out the food and set it on the table, Brishen leaned
close and whispered in her ear. “Revenge, wife?”

“Hardly,” she replied, keeping a wary eye on the pie closest to her. The
golden top crust, with its sprinkle of sparkling salt, pitched in a lazy
undulation. “But I’m starving, and I have no intention of filling up on
that abomination.”

Their guest of honor didn’t share their dislike of either food. As deft as
any Kai, he made short work of the scarpatine and its whipping tail, cleaved
open the shell with his knife and took a generous bite of the steaming gray
meat.

Ildiko’s stomach heaved. She forgot her nausea when Serovek complimented
her. “An excellent choice to pair the scarpatine with the potato, Your
Highness. They are better together than apart.”

Beside her, Brishen choked into his goblet. He wiped his mouth with his
sanap. “What a waste of good scarpatine,” he muttered under his breath.

What a waste of a potato, she thought. However, the more she thought on
Serovek’s remark, the more her amusement grew.

“And what has you smiling so brightly?” Brishen stared at her, his lambent
eyes glowing nearly white in the hall’s torchlight.

She glanced at Serovek, happily cleaning his plate and shooting the
occasional glance at Anhuset nearby. Brishen’s cousin refused to meet his
gaze, but Ildiko had caught the woman watching the Beladine lord more than a
few times during dinner.

“That’s us, you know,” she said.

“What is us?”

“The scarpatine and the potato. Better together than alone. At least I
think so.”

One of Brishen’s eyebrows slid upward. “I thought we were hag and dead eel.
I think I like those comparisons more.” He shoved his barely-touched potato
to the edge of his plate with his knife tip, upper lip curled in revulsion
to reveal a gleaming white fang.
———————————-

Best,

Grace

THE LIGHT WITHIN and other news

Work on the next chapter of RADIANCE is moving apace. It’s been nice getting back to this story.

I did take a quick detour one day to draft a very short story titled THE LIGHT WITHIN. I was invited to participate in a Christmas themed event on the review blog Nocturnal Book Reviews. THE LIGHT WITHIN is my contribution and I believe is scheduled to be posted sometime during the middle of this month. I’ll post a link and more information as soon as it goes live.

I had fun with this very short story (less than 4k words) because Silhara and Martise of MASTER OF CROWS are my principal characters in this tale, and I enjoyed revisiting them for a brief time. If you liked this couple and would like another glimpse of them, I hope you’ll visit the Nocturnal Book Reviews blog when the story goes up for a look-see. This is the graphic for THE LIGHT WITHIN:

The Light Within - smaller

Best regards,

Grace

ALL THE STARS LOOK DOWN – now available

I had the chance to work with the author Elizabeth Hunter, whose books I love and whose writing I admire, on a writing project for Christmas.  She and I teamed up previously in the anthology DARKLY DREAMING.  I wanted to do so again with original work that focused on a holiday theme.  Lucky for me, Elizabeth agreed, and we got to work on our respective stories (she finished hers way before I completed mine because she’s awesomely efficient like that).

Because the stories are themed based on a holiday, we had a pretty tight deadline for getting them finished and out there for folks.  As such, it was one of two reasons why I put RADIANCE on hold (I’m back on that horse now).

ALL THE STARS LOOK DOWN is a duo of Christmas stories, with Elizabeth delving once more into her amazing Elemental Mysteries series.  My contribution, SUNDAY’S CHILD, is a stand-alone–a contemporary fantasy romance which is a little bit of a departure from what I usually write.  I enjoyed writing the story.  It’s a nod to my autistic son–my beloved puzzle piece–and the joy he bring to my family.

I hope you enjoy the tales.

AMAZON

SMASHWORDS

Best wishes to you and yours this holiday season.

Grace

 

Quick contest – CONTEST IS CLOSED

I’m running a quick contest. I need to decide which title I like best for the book that will follow RADIANCE. I am down to two candidates, and would truly appreciate your input as to which you like best (because I like them both equally). Both titles are the antithesis to RADIANCE and a reflection of the future book’s overall tone.

The first is CIMMERIAN SHADE: darkness
The second is TENEBRAE: gloom

Leave a comment as to which title you like. At the end of the contest, I’ll decide which title to pick. If that’s the title you chose, I’ll send you a digital copy of RADIANCE (the cleaned-up, edited, published version with nifty cover) once it goes official on the various vendor sites (Amazon, Smashwords, B&N).