include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Fire's Daughter by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Fire’s Daughter



Fire Through Time



Wendy Tyler Ryan



This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


This book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, places and incidents are fictitious and the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.


Copyright © 2018 by Wendy Tyler Ryan

Published by Lemon Twist Press at Smashwords


ISBN: 978-0-9920930-6-8

Previous Version Published in 2011 with ISBN: 978-0-9869466-1-5


Cover Art by Catherine Nodet

Cover Design by Tyler Lambie


This book is available in print at most online retailers




Dedication


For my sons, Ryan and Tyler, for so much more than just lending me their names.

You are the light in my eyes that will never fade.


And, to Wayne, for understanding what I needed to see things through to the end.





CHAPTER ONE


Lord Bellvane sat upon his midnight steed looking down at the crudely wrapped package he held in his hands. The thin parchment was yellowed and tattered and simply held together with a woven braid of straw.

“The men and I thought you might find need of this, Sire.” General Braxus was having difficulty keeping a straight face. Even his bushy red beard could not hide the fact that he was forcibly pressing his lips together, stifling the laughter that was trying to push its way out.

“Ah, is this a wedding gift then?” He carefully unwrapped the package.

“Sort of, Sire.” The small group of men standing behind the general began to chuckle and he, in turn, could not hold his laughter any longer.

“So what has all of you going on about then? Is it a funny gift?” He unfolded a thick and flaxen-coloured wool blanket, a blanket that had clearly seen much use and many washings. He furrowed his brow and held it up in front of him. “Surely you do not mean me to offer this rag to my betrothed?”

The laughter from the men grew louder.

“’Tis not for you to give to your bride, Sire,” the general was nearly doubled over at the waist and the laughter from the men grew louder still, “’tis for you to throw over her head.” Tears pooled in the man’s squinting eyes while he struggled to catch his breath as the rest of the men continued to vibrate with hearty laughter.

Lord Bellvane remained silent, staring blankly at the unusual gift. The laughter from the men began to taper off when he did not join them in the frivolity. When the silence was such that you could hear a nearby humming bird’s wings beating, he let them out of their misery and gave them the belly laugh they had been waiting for.

“Please forgive us, Sire.” The general walked over and stretched a hand up to him.

Lord Bellvane bent from his steed and accepted the man’s hand, grasping it firmly in his own. “Let us hope I have no need of this gift of yours. For if my intended is that ill-looking, I might just need another for my own head.”

They all laughed once more.

General Braxus motioned the men to silence, then turned to face his master.

Lord Bellvane watched the wrinkles fade from the corners of his friend’s eyes. They all knew the gravity of his mission and what it would mean for Liberon.

“Gods go with you. We shall pray for you.”

“Thank you, my friend. I will need your prayers.” He turned his steed around, leaving his men cheering after him.

He rode off to claim the bride he’d never seen, and in so doing, procure the insurance he needed against the coming threat.

It wasn’t that he hadn’t known battle. He’d fought for causes before, but not at home, not in Liberon. The neighbouring land of Pyria had not shown aggression to any peoples for as long as he could remember. Now, the threat of war hung heavy over the land. Liberon’s army was small and ill-prepared to fight a long battle. They needed strong allies. They needed the Apthians, and the only way to garner favour with the Apthians, was to align Liberon with the House of Kilgarn.

So he would ride, though dreading it. He would ride to claim a bride whose bloodline was worth more than silver.

* * *

Zehdra stood upon the moss-covered cliffs of Elbourn, her eyes fixed on the thundering tide below. Alone, with no concept of time or space, she swayed from side to side under the persistent push of the west wind.

The sky grew ever darker with each passing moment as the night and the storm moved in. She could feel the earth beneath her feet giving way from two days of unsparing rain and yet, made no effort to move back toward safer ground. The ocean crushed itself against the jagged rocks again and again. The sound rang in her ears like a thousand voices chanting, begging her to jump.

It wouldn’t be long now. Someone was sure to notice she was missing. They would come looking for her, she was sure of it, and they would find her.

Whether conscious or unconscious, she slid her feet backward through the slick, wet mud and away from the cliff’s edge. She shut her eyes tight and released the breath she had been holding. The wind danced with the tendrils of her drenched hair and she shivered under its chilly breath. Tears streamed into rivulets as they mingled with the rain on her cheeks and her quivering lips whispered a single word.

“Coward.”

Her tears came faster but so did the rain. The snarled black clouds showed themselves through the lightning-streaked sky as they opened up and poured themselves out over all of Elbourn and her Dominions. Every tree, flower, and blade of grass rejoiced at heaven’s gift and somewhere in the distance a katta bird sang. Yet, here in the middle of lady nature’s joy, stood Zehdra Kilgarn; a single seed of sorrow, wet, cold, and alone in her despair.

It wasn’t until she felt herself sinking well beyond her ankles that Zehdra’s eyes flew open. She looked down and realized that it had grown too dark to see precisely where she was standing. She felt the contour of the ground change beneath her when a large chunk of sod freed itself just inches from her toes and crashed into the sea some fifty feet below.

“For the love of everything in the heavens, what am I doing?” she yelled to no one. She clutched at her muddy robe to lift it away while desperately trying to pry herself loose.

With a little struggling, she managed to lift one foot out, but left a torn satin slipper submerged in the muck. She plunged her bare foot down into the mire again and tugged furiously with the other foot. It was useless. Before she could free her right foot the left sank to the ankle once again. Fear thundered its way into her chest while she pulled first with one foot then with the other, twisting her body this way and that way. The more she struggled the deeper she sank. Finally, in one all out effort, Zehdra summoned every muscle in her body, promptly lost her balance and fell backward onto the muddy ground.

The rain was pelting her face so hard that she could scarcely keep her eyes open. Somehow she managed to roll over onto her stomach but lacked the strength to support herself against the swallowing mud. She lay face down on the ground unmoving, exhausted and unable to breathe. She contemplated staying precisely where she was, after all, what difference would it possibly make now?

She thought of her father. She was all he had left and no matter what, she knew he loved her. But what would he say if he knew? What would he do if she told him she had inherited the very same power that had destroyed her mother?

Fear overtook her at last and she quickly raised her head and made an effort to wipe the mud from her eyes with an equally muddy hand. She struggled to get back up onto her elbows and lifted her face to the sky to let the rain wash it clean. It fell steady and hard and it hurt as it pounded down upon her.

“What have I done? By the gods, what have I done?”

Blinking away the rain from her eyes, she turned her gaze back toward the earth just as the lightning flashed, illuminating everything around her as if it were daylight. That’s when she saw them. There was no mistaking the glistening black riding boots not more than ten inches from her nose. Her heart pounded to a crashing halt and she closed her eyes and prayed they were playing tricks on her. How could they have found her so soon? The thought of having to explain her situation to anyone would not only be devastating, but very inconvenient.

She slowly opened her eyes once again and waited for the next flash of lightning. To her dismay the boots were indeed still there. She was not alone. Zehdra prayed again, this time that the owner of the boots was not a guard sent from the castle to find her. There would be no explanation good enough for her father after being discovered here and in such a state. She kept her face turned downward for fear of being recognized even in the dark of night.

“So then, you aren’t dead!” came a shout in the lull between thunder strikes.

She dared look up in the direction of the muffled voice. The hood of a long, dark cloak obscured any features that the lightning may have revealed to her.

“No!” she tried to shout back. “I am not dead!”

“I’m sorry, Lady, but I cannot hear you! It’s the tide!” The stranger motioned with his hand to the edge of the cliff. “It’s much too loud!”

Zehdra, weak from her battle with the mud, drew in a deep breath, looked up at the stranger and shouted with every bit of strength she had left in her. “Get me the hell out of here!”

Her effort proved more than adequate. The towering stranger bent and gathered her up with ease. Zehdra flew like a feather into his arms and at once she knew this could be no ordinary cropper.

“We must take shelter now! I’m afraid there’s quite a lengthy storm in the brew!”

Zehdra bobbed up and down in the man’s arms while he carried her effortlessly over the muddy field. She wanted to ask him where he was taking her but knew that it would be futile to try to make herself be heard over the deafening storm. In the revealing short bursts of lightning she could just make out the shape of an old and long abandoned cattle shed in the distance. Is this where he was taking her? She kept her face tucked in toward the stranger’s chest to shield herself from the rain.

The man strode through the mud with ease and in no time they were in front of the shed. He lifted his foot and gave the door a kick but it did not give way. He kicked once more but still the door resisted. “I’ll have to put you down!”

Zehdra searched for her footing on the soggy field and watched as the stranger stepped back a few paces before charging the door with his shoulder. This time it flew open under the force and together they hurried inside.

“You’ve broken the latch.” Zehdra’s hands flew into the air. “How will we keep it shut now?”

The stranger stood silent, waiting for the next lightning strike. “Over there.” He pointed to the corner of the shed where a rusty feed bin stood. “Help me push it in front of the door.”

Zehdra stumbled her way through the dark until she felt the rough and cracked bin beneath her hands. It was heavy and she was unable to budge it in her already weakened state.

“By the gods, girl, push! Put your back into it!”

Zehdra pushed, the stranger pulled, and finally between the two of them they managed to shove the bin in front of the door.

“Good work, wee-one.” The stranger gave Zehdra a slap on the back as if she were a mere field hand.

That did it. That really did it. Poor Zehdra could take no more. She slumped to the ground in a wet and tangled heap and began to cry outright, something she rarely did, at least not in front of others. “Why didn’t you just leave me in the mud!” she yelled up at him.

The stranger turned to face her. “Because you asked me to get you the hell out of it, or have you so soon forgotten?”

Zehdra slapped the straw-laden ground with her hands. “No. I haven’t forgotten.” She scarcely knew who she was any longer. The new power coursing through her was running rampant with her emotions, betraying her from the inside out. She took a deep breath and tried to quiet herself. She squinted to see in the dark but could not. All she could do was listen while the stranger trampled around the dark.

He mumbled something to himself, then returned with an old iron feed bucket and stuffed it full of straw. He pulled out a striker from his trouser pocket and started a fire. “Ah, light at last.”

“Who are you anyway with that damnable hood over your face? Do you have something to hide?”

“No,” the stranger said, pushing back the dripping hood, “I don’t have anything to hide. Do you?”

She looked up and readied her lips for a sharp comeback but promptly forgot how to form the simplest of words when she looked upon his face. Only then was she painfully aware of her wet and dirty condition. She sat speechless, mouth gaping while the thunder hammered in the sky.

Her hands found her wet and tangled hair and she tried to smooth it back from her face, then remembering his impudence said, “If I did have something to hide, I’m not certain I would confess it to you.”

He ignored her answer, as if he’d forgotten he ever asked it. “I think we should try to get some rest. We’re going to be here a good long while. You should sit closer to the fire before you catch your death.”

Zehdra could only sit in silence and stare at him. The stranger was over six-foot and his thick, long, soaking wet curls were as black as the cloak he wore. Even in the dim light of the small fire she could see that his eyes were pools of frozen ice, blue as any jewel she had ever seen.

“Look girl, you’re not—that is to say, you’re not uh—” The stranger touched a finger to the side of his head and gave it a couple of taps.

Realizing that this large oaf was questioning the state of her sanity, Zehdra collected herself off the ground and stood in front the man who towered over her slender, five-foot four-inch frame. Her wind-flushed cheeks hid the extent of the anger coursing its way through her, but her delicate hands were balled up into fists and her eyes shot fiery daggers up at him. “Is that your clumsy way of insinuating that I am of addle brain?”

“I was only checking, wee-one. I’ve had occasion to know a woman of… addle brain, as you call it, and I would not hold it up as a pleasant experience. In fact, it was the only time in my life I was truly ever afraid.”

“Well then, just calm your frazzled self down for there is nothing to fear here.” Her eyes narrowed. “And stop calling me that.”

“Stop calling you what?”

Zehdra pursed her lips to speak the irritating words. “Wee-one.”

The man smiled broadly at her with unusually white teeth and under different circumstances, Zehdra’s heart might have skipped a beat or two. There were no men such as he in Elbourn, she could vouch for that.

“Well you are, aren’t you?”

“What?”

“You are a wee-one, aren’t you?” He crossed his arms and straightened himself as tall as he could.

Reminding herself that she was offended, Zehdra replied, “I am of an average height for a woman. Only alongside a behemoth such as yourself do I appear small.” She turned her back to him and rubbed furiously at the mud on her face. “Do you have a name?” When there was no answer from him she turned round and caught him studying her. His eyes were fixed on her clinging, once yellow, silk robe. It was then she discovered that she may as well be standing there naked. The filmy wet garment left practically nothing to the imagination, even in the dim firelight. She quickly crossed her arms over her chest and took a quick glance around for something she could use as a weapon should she need one.

“I have no intentions of harming you, if that’s what you are thinking.”

“No, that is not at all what I was thinking,” she lied. “I was thinking that it was rude of you not to tell me your name when I asked it.”

“Gillam.”

“Gillam what?”

“Just Gillam,” he said smiling. “And what’s your name, wee…” He caught himself just in time before Zehdra could fly at him again. “What is your name, my Lady?”

“Zehdra.”

He raised an eyebrow at that and a faint smile crossed his face. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Lady Zehdra.” He bowed in front of her.

“Pish tosh, now you mock me, Sir.”

“Never, Lady, I am merely observant. Where I come from paupers seldom wear robes of silk. This leads me to believe you are, in fact, a Lady of some means. Unless, of course, you stole the robe for the occasion of throwing yourself upon the mud.”

Zehdra felt the blood rush to her cheeks once again and the fire in the iron bucket sputtered and jumped. She needed to calm down. She couldn’t let his prodding give her away. The last thing she wanted was for this stranger to notice her unusual kinship to the flame. “Worry yourself not either way, Sir. I am neither a thief nor a Lady of means for you to consider holding for ransom.”

“Ransom?” He mumbled the rest of the words under his breath. “I can’t imagine anyone actually giving offering for your return.”

Zehdra’s blood was beginning to boil and a hot ember jumped from the bucket and danced across the straw-laden floor. “Have I done something to offend you?”

“Not really.” Gillam squelched the dancing ember with his large boot and then gathered some straw to heap near the bucket. “You had better sit here,” he pointed to the mound he’d made, “close to the fire. You are soaked clean through.”

Reluctantly she took up his offer and sat with knees bent on the bed of straw. “Aren’t you going to sit by the fire as well?”

“That depends.”

She waited for clarification but he offered none. “It depends upon what?”

“Upon whether or not you are done getting angry with me. It seems every time you flare up, the fire does likewise. I’d hate to get myself burned or perhaps have the entire shed catch fire.”

Zehdra sat silent for a moment. He was indeed observant, perhaps too observant. “Fear not, neither I nor the fire will burn you, unless of course you should choose to fling yourself upon it.”

Gillam laughed, shaking out his cloak and throwing it over an old pitchfork to dry. Next, he reached for the laces on his doublet and began to untie them.

“What are you doing!” Zehdra scuttled herself back several feet away from him, sending bits of straw flying into the air.

“What?” Gillam followed her fearful stare to the laces in his hands. “Lady, if I meant you what you think I mean you, it would not be my doublet that I’d bother to remove.” He took the damp garment off and made himself comfortable by the fire.

At that moment Zehdra wished she had leapt from the cliff she had clung to just a short time ago. He was right. No one would want her in this condition, and it wasn’t just the dirty hair and muddy robe. She had frightened away many a would-be suitor with her sharp tongue and her refusal to play the docile fawn. Few men in all of Elbourn dared try to court her except the ones whose affections she did not care for. She remembered why she had gone to the cliffs and once again began to cry.

“More tears, Lady. What have I done now?”

“Nothing, Sir.” Zehdra kept her eyes fixed on the fire. “You’ve done nothing.”

“May I ask what you were doing so close to the edge of the cliffs on a miserable night like this?”

“What do you think I was doing?”

Gillam spoke without a moment’s hesitation. “You were going to throw yourself into the sea of course, scorned by some young suitor I should guess.”

Her head flew up and she glowered at him for coming so close to the truth.

“You mean I am right? And here I thought I was only making fun.” He stretched out on his side and leaned on an arm. “You really did mean to throw yourself from the edge, didn’t you?”

“And what if I did?” Tears stung her wind-burned cheeks.

“What event would be so terrible that would make a Lady such as yourself consider such a dark and desperate thing?”

“An even darker thing. Something I very much doubt you would understand.” She sniffed and swiped away her tears.

“I’ve been known to understand many things, Lady.”

“Do you understand anything of love?”

Gillam was silent.

“I thought not. I knew you wouldn’t understand.”

“You haven’t exactly given me a chance to—”

“All right, you win. My father is a man of some import and you were right, I am no pauper, and as the daughter of such a man.” She drew in a breath. “I am expected to marry within my station and so therein lies the dilemma.”

Gillam scratched at the stubble on his chin. “I’m afraid that explanation is as clear as the mud on your face.”

Zehdra threw her hands up into the air before letting them crash to the ground. “I’m to marry a stranger, some wealthy landowner from the north. Someone I don’t even know, have never met, and most importantly, do not love. Is that plain enough for you?”

“You feel there can be no pairing without love, then?” he asked while tossing another wad of straw into the bucket.

“Of course there can be a pairing without love, but I will have none of it. I will not be forced to spend eternity with some old, fat, slobbering pig.”

“No need to shout at me, Lady, it was not I who doomed you to this fate. Do you know for certain that this fellow you speak of is a… slobbering pig, did you say? Mayhap he is young, virile and by all means of handsome demeanour.” He grinned and flicked at the curls by his jaw.

Zehdra rubbed her hair between her hands to aid in the drying. “How many young, handsome and wealthy landowners do you know, Sir?”

“Ah, point taken, my Lady, point taken. I have to admit, usually by the time such men have acquired their wealth they have also acquired the luxuries that come with it, and indeed, excesses of food and drink can add to a man’s middle.” Gillam rolled over and spread out on his back. “Still I suppose there is a chance of it.” He yawned and his voice trailed. “At any rate, would young and handsome be an assurance of love?”

At first Zehdra paid no attention to his question and when she looked up to finally answer him, saw that he was fast asleep. “Just as well.” She went on drying her hair while the storm outside continued to rage.

She was talked out and exhausted, happy not to have to answer any more annoying questions. What did he need to know of her anyway? She sat quietly in front of the flickering fire but could not resist staring at him stretched out on his back just a short distance from her. She hadn’t noticed before, but now with the firelight on his face, she saw the faint hint of a scar that ran from his right temple to the bottom of his jaw. She dared lean closer for a better look and promptly decided it did no harm to his features. In fact, the thought of how he might have come to receive it sent a wave of unfamiliar shivers down her spine.

Without his doublet, Gillam’s shirt was thin enough to reveal the contours of a muscular chest. She found herself studying him, surveying the landscape of his body. Her eyes were drawn to the ornate silver buckle at the top of his dark and muddy trousers, then further still beyond the buckle to places where a proper lady should not look. She felt feverishly warm and drew herself back from the flames, but alas, it was not the fire fuelling what she felt inside. “Who are you?” She whispered.


The storm had finally run its course just as the sun pierced its way up through the horizon. The light poked through the little window of the shed and straight into Zehdra’s eyes. She swatted at it with her hand as if it were an annoying insect. She opened her eyes and tried to get up but every muscle in her body ached from the night before. Gillam was still fast asleep so she decided to lay back and enjoy the sheer and utter calm.

In the clear and bright light of morning Zehdra suddenly felt very foolish. She had behaved like a spoiled child. She had run from her responsibilities like a coward. Who was she? There was no question there were forces she could not explain playing with her emotions and sense of reason, but what was she going to do about it? What could she do about it?

She had just closed her eyes again when the silence of the morning came to an abrupt halt with the sound of horses’ hooves beating their way through the mud.

Gillam stirred from his bed of straw and Zehdra bolted up from the ground without giving a second thought to her painful muscles. Her eyes searched the shed for someplace to hide, anyplace at all.

Gillam yawned and watched as she darted around the shed from corner to corner like a trapped mouse. “What are you doing, woman?”

“Horses. Can you not hear the horses?”

Before he could answer there was persistent pounding at the door. Whoever was on the other side meant to enter the shed at any cost. The huge feed bin bounced backward a few inches, then a few inches more.

“I had better help them.” He walked toward the bin and shouted, “If you’ll stand clear I’ll open the door!”

The pounding subsided and Zehdra watched him struggle to push the feed bin aside. The door flew open and in charged four uniformed men armed with ryka spears. The first man through the door thrust his spear toward Gillam’s throat, stopping just a hair’s width away.

“Do not move,” commanded the man in crimson.


CHAPTER TWO


“Stop it!” Zehdra cried. “Leave him alone at once!”

The man withdrew his spear and nodded his head at Zehdra. He and the men in the doorway were Royal Guards.

Gillam turned to Zehdra and smiled. “You are the Lady Kilgarn.”

Before she could reply, the guard who had pointed his spear at Gillam’s throat stepped forward.

“Are you all right, my Lady? Has this brute harmed you in any way?”

Gilliam turned on his heels at the remark and opened his mouth to protest but it was Zehdra who spoke first.

“I assure you, Captain Rendall, this man is no brute. The truth of the matter is,” she took a deep breath, “He saved my life.”

Captain Rendall stepped before Gillam and lowered his head. “I am sorry, my Lord, it is my duty to protect the Princess. I beg your forgiveness for my rash assumption.”

“Apology accepted,” Gillam said, turning his attention back to Zehdra. He lowered himself down on one knee and bowed his head before speaking. “My Lady.”

Zehdra felt her cheeks flush and she narrowed her eyes at him. Although still virtually a stranger, she understood his wit well enough to know he was mocking her. To him she was just a wet and tangled girl, that much she had read in his eyes.

The captain stepped closer, showing perhaps a little more concern for the Princess than was appropriate for his station. “My Lady, your clothes. Are you hurt? We’ve been searching for hours.”

“There was no need to worry, Captain. I couldn’t sleep and I decided I needed some air. I got caught in the downpour near the cliffs during the storm and this man happened along at the most opportune moment.”

“You… needed air, Lady? In your bed clothes?” The guard appeared less than satisfied with her explanation.

“You question the motives of your Princess, Captain?” Gillam asked.

Rendall seemed flustered and he stammered for words like a smitten suitor. “Forgive me, Lady, I only meant—”

Zehdra decided to let the man loose from his dangling rope. “That is quite all right, Captain Rendall, your concern is noted.”

Gillam must have sensed Zehdra’s discomfort standing in front of the castle guards so scantily clad. He retrieved his cloak from the other end of the shed where he’d hung it to dry, then walked over and placed it around her shoulders. “Here, Lady, to keep you warm on your ride back to the castle.”

“You’re very kind.” There was a wild dance going on in the pit of her stomach as she felt the warmth of his hands graze the back of her neck when he slipped the cloak around her. “I’ll see that it is returned to you.”

She followed the guards toward the door but turned once more to Gillam. “How silly of me. How will I find you?—that is to say—how will my guards know where to return your cloak?”

Gillam flashed her a wide smile. “That’s okay, wee-one. I know where to find you.”

Zehdra did her best to pretend to be annoyed at hearing him call her that again, then whirled around quickly to hide the smile she knew she had to let out.

Gillam watched the Princess and her Royal Guardsmen mount their horses and ride off into the distance. He would definitely be retrieving his cloak. “Count on it, wee-one.”

When he could see the riders no longer, he turned his gaze toward the sky, staring this way and that, squinting into the bright morning sun. “There you are my old friend. Have you found my steed?” Gillam held out his arm to welcome the approaching bird. It shrieked as it settled on his leather wristband. “Good man, Hawk, good man.”

After stroking the bird in appreciation, he looked out across the field. There was his steed, hoofing his way through the mud toward him.

The poor creature had been frightened to death in the storm and it had been all Gillam could do to control him. When he had dismounted to go to Zehdra’s aid, a crack of thunder had driven the animal off at a frenzied pace.

He stroked the bird once again. “I knew you’d find him, old friend. You’ve never let me down. And you,” he said, acknowledging the approaching animal, “one more stunt like that and I’ll have to change your name from Thunder to Snowflake.”

The steed simply snorted, shaking its head up and down.

Gillam reached under the bedroll tied to the back of his mount and pulled out a flaxen-coloured blanket. He looked at it a moment before speaking to his horse. “I do not think I’ll be needing this.” He tossed the blanket into the shed and it landed on the ground, nearly disappearing beneath the straw. “Come on then, we have some Royal business to attend to.”

* * *

“Have you gone completely mad! You needed to take the air! In your bedclothes! Out at the cliff’s edge no less!” King Morland of Kilgarn clenched his fists so tight that his nails dug into the palms of his hands.

Zehdra stood silent while her father continued raving at her.

“Please tell me that you were possessed, or, or… at the very least tell me that you hit your head and wandered out of the castle in a daze,” his voice grew louder with each word and his rotund body shook as he paced the chamber floor like a caged beast, “but please do not try and tell me that you were in your right mind!”

Zehdra was well past tired after having had only a few hours’ sleep and as much as she loved her father, she was in no mood for one of his tirades.

“So sorry to disappoint you, my Lord, but of course I was in my right mind. Why is it that suddenly everyone thinks I am crazy? Sometimes I think I am the only one around here who is truly sane.”

“How dare you speak to me that way after the embarrassment you caused us.”

“Embarrassment! What embarrassment?” Zehdra flashed her emerald eyes at her father and marched defiantly toward him. “For what reason should you feel embarrassment?” Her hands flew to her hips. “Pardon me, Father, but I did not know you are swayed by the opinion of Captain Rendall and likewise for the opinions of his men.”

King Morland caught himself and clumsily recanted his statement while playing nervously with the gold tassel on his tunic. “Forget embarrassment. You had me worried sick you know.”

“If you were worried sick about me you would not make me do this thing.” Zehdra could not let the opportunity go by.

“Oh, not this again.” The King turned from his daughter and placed his hands on his head as if to suppress some terrible aching pain.

“Yes, this again. Why must I marry a stranger? What is his war and his trouble to us?”

The King was silent.

“At least do me the courtesy of telling me why this arrangement is so all powerfully important.”

The King ignored his daughter and gathered up several parchment scrolls from the wooden table in the great hall. “Stop looking at me like that.” He refused to make eye contact with her, but felt her emerald eyes burning a hole through him just the same. He hated upsetting her, he hated what he was asking her to do but he knew she was strong—headstrong sometimes—but strong of will also. He knew he could count on her to do her duty as future ruler of Elbourn.

“Father, look at me, please.” She reached to take his arm.

He looked up into her eyes and spoke softly. “You do not know what war is like. You have never seen it in all your seasons. The joining of the bloodlines of Kilgarn and Bellvane will make a powerful union. Liberon has always supported Elbourn and we, in turn, must help them now.”

It was Zehdra’s turn for silence and the King decided to take advantage of it. “If Liberon falls, the enemy could be at our door next and I could not bear it, Zehdra. I could not bear it for Elbourn and her Dominions and I could not bear what it might mean… for you.”

She released her hold on him and walked to the open window, staring out onto the lush green courtyard in silence.

“I do wish you’d tell me what you are thinking, Daughter.”

She turned and smiled, letting a giggle escape her lips. “I was just thinking how nice it would be to have had a sister so that she might be the one to marry Lord Bellvane.”

“Well, then, on that note I do have a bit of news you may like.”

Zehdra’s eyebrows raised. “What, Father, a sister I do not know about?”

“Stop it now, will you dear. Things have changed somewhat.”

“What things?”

King Morland pressed his scrolls into one hand and motioned his daughter to join him with the other. “The wedding has been postponed.”

“What?” Zehdra’s face lit like the mid afternoon sun. She ran to her father, picked up his hand and kissed it.

“Now wait, wait. You did hear me, didn’t you? I said postponed, not cancelled. It seems Lord Bellvane is… too busy with other matters that have caused him to make a delay.”

“I heard you father. I heard you well enough.”

The King just shook his head and watched his daughter dash her way out of the hall.

“What wonderful news,” she said to a bewildered servant in the corridor. “I now have more time to devise a plan of liberation.”

The startled servant stood wide-eyed as she watched her mistress twirl her way down the corridor and out onto the circular terrace.

“I see you are in better spirits this afternoon and you look… very well indeed.”

Zehdra spun on her heels to see Gillam grinning at her. Were her eyes deceiving her? “You?”

“Were you expecting someone else? An old, fat, slobbering pig perhaps?”

There he was, mocking her again.

“What? Your betrothed has not yet shown his face?”

“No, he has not.” Zehdra found it hard not to stare. Away from the dark and the dirt, Gillam was even more appealing than her mind had let her remember. Her eyes found her toes, fearful of letting him see even the tiniest spark of interest in them. “In fact, with any luck, I may not have to meet him for quite some time.”

“Well, his loss then. You clean up rather well.” His words were an understatement. Gillam, too, had misjudged the beauty of the sobbing, wet and dirty girl he had rescued the night before. Her bright red and gold streaked hair flowed over her narrow shoulders like the rays of the sun, and her eyes, those same eyes that shot daggers at him by the firelight, shone like rain-kissed jewels in the morning dew. Traded in also, the dirty and drenched robe, and in its place, a deep yellow garment made from thin layers of the finest silk ever spun.

Zehdra looked up at him. She was about to do something she almost never did and she felt a sizeable lump forming at the back of her throat.

“Are you all right, Lady?”

She swallowed the lump and stared straight up at him. “I wish to apologize for the way I behaved last night. I was horrid and you were kind. You didn’t have to help me. You could have left me there in the mud. After all, I wasn’t your concern.”

Gillam stepped closer, his penetrating blue eyes searching her face. “Now what kind of a man would I be if I left a young woman to suffocate in the mud?”

She countered his action by stepping back with each advancing step he made. “At any rate, I wish to thank you. I’m certain that my father will see fit to reward you.”

“As it happens, Lady, your father has already rewarded me and handsomely at that.”

“Oh?”

Before he could explain further, King Morland found the two of them on the terrace.

“Ah, there you are. Zehdra, I forgot to tell you that Lord—uh—Gillam here, will be joining my advisory council so he will be staying with us for a time. I trust you will show him the respect of an honoured guest.”

“Advisory council?” Zehdra’s eyes darted from one man to the other. “But you’ve only just met—”

“Now, now Daughter, trust me to make a wise decision once in a while, won’t you? Gillam here has excellent references.”

“When we met last night I was on my way here to seek your father’s employ. We have been corresponding with one another for a time now.”

Something told her that Gillam was saving the King from her curiosity. “Really? Father, you never mentioned anything of this to me before.”

“Well excuse the King for not counselling with his daughter before making a decision of state. Run along now dear, won’t you? Gillam and I have important affairs to discuss.”

“Well then, gentlemen, I leave you to it.” How dare he dismiss her like he would a precocious child, especially in front of a guest.

Gillam reached for her hand and she offered it graciously. His lips merely skimmed over the surface of her skin but the warmth of his breath and the softness of his lips were enough to make the blood rise to her cheeks and the butterflies in her stomach take flight.

“Good day, my Lady.”

“Good day to you, Sir.” She pulled her hand out from under his and turned to leave.

Gillam waited until she had left the terrace before turning to the King. “I want to thank you for your discretion, King Morland and for… well, for being so understanding.”

“There, there,” the King replied, clearing his throat and twisting the tails of his golden tassel once again. “It is you whom I should be thanking Lord—”

Gillam quickly raised a finger to his lips.

“Ah, quite right, quite right. My lips are sealed… Gillam.”


CHAPTER THREE


Elbourn was beautiful in the rainy season. Despite the occasional sudden and torrential downpour, Elbourn, for the most part, had a tremendous amount of sunshine. She was the crowning jewel in all the Dominions.

Her cliffs to the east sparkled with flecks of gold. Her emerald, rolling hills were green and fertile. Her thick, lush forests were abundant with wildlife and vast varieties of edible berries.

The line of Kilgarn had been respected for generations and her father had been right, Zehdra had never known war in her land. Life was good and life was quiet, but sometimes too quiet for her liking. Ever since she was a child she had found ways of amusing herself. Most of the time in ways her father did not approve. Today was no exception. If he knew where she was going, he would send out his guard to bring her back.

It was worth the risk. Her late night escapade out at the cliffs was proof she was spinning out of control and she didn’t like it one bit. Her emotions were sitting on top of her skin, her inherited power, clawing at her from the inside to get out. She needed help. She needed her friend.

Zehdra stepped lightly down the old stone path through the thicket just beyond the north wall of the castle. She had changed into the kind of attire her father detested, a simple cotton robe with a twisted rope and tassel tied at the waist. She caught a glimpse of a big red katta bird hopping from limb to limb among the treetops. It saddened her that a creature with such a beautiful song only sang on the gloomiest of days or in the pouring rain, and she wondered what issue it had with the sun.

Some distance through the forest, long after the winding path had ended, Zehdra came to a sprawling wanyan tree. She was almost there. She stooped to pick a few wild flowers before emerging onto a neatly kept clearing at the far end of which stood a simple and weatherworn cottage. She hunched over and began to creep her way toward the arched doorway. When she was certain she had made no sound, she raised her hand to knock.

A soft voice bade her enter before she had even finished making a fist.

“Come in, child, no need to stand on formality.”

Zehdra opened the creaking door and entered the humble home of her trusted confidant.

“I knew you were coming.”

Zehdra dropped her shoulders and let out a sigh. Once again she had failed to fool Myella. “Yes, it seems you always know when I am coming.”

Aside from being Zehdra’s only real friend, Myella was what was known as a seer. She’d lived in the woods as long as Zehdra could remember. She was drawn to her in ways she did not comprehend, but then the reasons did not matter. Myella always had her best interests at heart and Zehdra felt safe in her company. After the death of her mother, when Zehdra was only ten seasons, Myella had been the one to comfort her and she continued to be the surrogate mother who saw Zehdra through the difficult times of her life.

Myella sat beside a small hearth brewing something in a small clay pot. Zehdra caught a whiff of the heavenly aroma and a smile came instantly to her lips.

“Go to the cupboard and fetch two cups, child. It’s nearly ready.”

She was more than happy to obey. Orangeberry tea was by far her favourite drink. She quickly snatched two tarnished silver cups from the little cupboard in the corner and then hurried back to the hearth and held them out in front of her. She watched while the fragrant, steaming liquid was poured into the vessels. She closed her eyes and stuck out her nose, savouring the wafting perfume.

“Drink it while it’s hot.” The old woman replaced the boiling pot on its hanger and took one of the modest cups for herself.

Zehdra took a cautious sip. “It’s heavenly, Myella, positively heavenly.” She breathed in the steam once more. “I haven’t had it in so very long.”

“Because you have not been round to see me for so very long,” the old woman scolded with a crooked finger.

Zehdra was silent.

“What’s wrong, child?”

“Because I do not come by you assume there is something wrong?” It was near impossible to lie to Myella, but Zehdra would occasionally try just the same.

“Pish tosh, child, who do you think you are talking to?”

“All right.” No matter how many times she tried, Zehdra could never fool Myella, not once, but it never stopped her from trying. She was just glad that Myella loved her no matter what. “It’s Father. We are not seeing eye to eye just now.”

Myella just stared at her long and hard while sipping on her tea. Zehdra pretended not to notice.

“It’s begun… hasn’t it?”

Zehdra choked and coughed a little of the hot liquid back out. After catching her breath she looked away from Myella before answering, as if hiding the expression on her face could ever change the truth of it. “What’s begun?”

“You know full well what. Come here, my dear child.” She patted the cushioned seat next to her. “Come tell me all.”

Reluctantly, Zehdra did as she was asked. She was fated to have this conversation from the day she was born. She looked into Myella’s dull and faded blue eyes. “I’ve been afraid to come to you, and even more afraid to hear the truth.”

“I was wondering when it would happen.” Myella took the cup of tea away from Zehdra, then took both her hands and held them fast. “You have seen twenty seasons, it had to happen sooner or later. Does anyone else know?”

“No, though there was a close call last night. I met someone. It’s a rather long and tedious story but I don’t think the stranger suspected anything. It’s just that I was so… so—” The colour rushed to her face.

“Tell me what happened with this… man stranger.”

“I did not say the stranger was a man.”

“You did not have to, child.” Myella smiled and a twinkle lit her eye.

“I went for… a walk last night out by the cliffs and was caught in the storm. This stranger appeared out of nowhere. He saved me, I suppose. Saved my life. He made a fire for us to keep warm by and… and… well, he just made me so angry that a small ember flew from the fire bucket and scattered itself across the floor. It was hardly anything, hardly anything at all, but I knew just the same. In my heart of hearts I knew it was true, for it was not the first time.” She hung her head and fought the urge to cry.

“There, there, it’s not so bad as all that. We’ve always known it was coming.”

“But I so hoped I might be different.” Her head flew up and tears pooled in the corners of her eyes. “I thought perhaps it might all end with me, that I wouldn’t have to go through what my mother went through.”

“Zehdra, listen to me, your mother did not accept her gift. She fought it with every fibre of her being until it destroyed her. I will not let that happen to you.”

Zehdra looked away, hiding the tears that forced their way down her cheeks.

Myella gently reached for Zehdra’s face with her leathery hands to pull her close. “You, my child, are born of fire. You are a Fire Mistress just as your mother was and as was her mother before her. I will teach you how to control it. I will teach you so you see it for the gift it was meant to be, not the curse you think it.”

More than anything, Zehdra wanted to believe Myella. She wanted to believe that everything would be all right. “But my mother—”

“Your mother saw it as a curse and it was her undoing, and believe me when I say your father was no help. By the gods I will not let anything happen to you, I swear it, Zehdra. I swear it by the gods and on my soul and on the trust of the ones who bestowed the gift.”

* * *

“Just how dire is the situation, Lord Bellvane?” King Morland asked.

“Dire, but not yet hopeless. As war has not been officially declared, I will hope that the Pyrians may yet come to their senses.”

“And allies?”

“The people of Apthia are reluctant to join us and thus far we have not heard from the Delgaar.” Gillam rose from his chair and started to pace. “The Apthians do not have the greatest admiration for their Liberon brothers. Our blood feuds go back ages to the time of Malgar and Rodrick.”

“Ah yes,” the King rubbed one hand over his protruding belly and pulled at his white moustache with the other. “Malgar and Rodrick—something about a woman, wasn’t it? Just the same, that is ancient history is it not? Why can’t the Apthians let bygones be bygones? What is it with men who are never content with their lot in life?”

“My sentiments exactly, my Lord. Unfortunately, I do not think the Apthians share our views.”

“Do come and sit, won’t you, I tire watching you.” He motioned for Gillam to join him at a large and ornately carved table in the middle of the library. “Have another drink, it will calm your nerves.” He lifted the silver pitcher and poured two goblets of dark ale.

Gillam took a chair and flipped it around, straddling it. “I wish the ale could do much more than calm my nerves.” He drank the contents of the goblet in a single gulp, sending the amber liquid over the edges to trickle down the dark stubble on his chin. He replaced the goblet on the table with a bang and wiped the wet away from his lips with the sleeve of his shirt.

“If your land is certain to fall siege to the Pyrians, then I do not understand, Gillam. Why are we postponing the wedding? Why are we keeping your identity from my daughter?”

“I know it seems strange to you, my Lord, but I have come to see that I must hold out as long as I can.”

“But you said yourself that the joining of our two bloodlines could turn the tide of things. We have a long and lustrous reputation for being fair and just. That alone has given us much authority by way of trade with the Apthians. I fully agree with you that it would not be in their best interests to begin a war with the Kilgarns of Elbourn. They would fare far better in joining us against the Pyrians.”

“Yes my Lord, just hours ago I was ready to marry the Lady Zehdra but now… now I am not.”

The King jumped from his chair, nearly knocking it over, and this time it was he who paced nervously back and forth across the floor. “I knew it.” His fists began to clench and he shook them wildly at the air. “I just knew it. What did she do to you? It was her tongue, wasn’t it? She can be a wilful and devious child and—”

“No, my Lord, please. ‘Tis true it was something she said, but not at all what you may be thinking.”

“I do not understand.” The King stopped his pacing and walked back to the table, reaching for his goblet of ale.

“My Lord… your daughter opened my eyes.”

“What’s that?” Foaming liquid shot from his mouth, scattering across the width of the table.

“I said, your daughter opened my eyes. She made me see that an arranged marriage has disaster written all about it.”

“Nonsense, it has been thus for as long as I can remember. Arranged marriages are a frequent way of life, especially so in Royal families.”

“Are they? Should they be?”

“Gillam, I am sorry, I do not know where you are headed with this. You would risk out and out war in your land for the sake of an arranged marriage? Is that not why you have come to us?”

“Maybe I should be risking war for the sake of letting your daughter make her own choice. Let us take the case of Malgar and Rodrick. These were two brothers—two Liberon brothers of the Bellvane line who loved the same woman. Malgar was promised to the Lady Bethony in an attempt to join two bloodlines. The Lady Bethony had never laid eyes upon Malgar and when she did, for whatever reason, could not love him. Instead, it was Rodrick who received her affections in secret until the lady gave birth to a son—Rodrick’s son.”

“I don’t have to tell you how it split the ruling family apart. Rodrick and his brother’s wife left Liberon for the Apthian valley and we have been at odds with one another ever since. I now know that I cannot precipitate the very thing that destroyed my family in the first place. I don’t know what came over me. I hadn’t even given it a thought until I met your daughter in the rain. She has no wish to marry a man she does not love, and now, I have no wish to marry a woman who does not want me.”

“Then my question is the same. Why not just come right out and tell Zehdra who you are? Tell her the wedding is off.”

“Because I still need a wife from the line of Kilgarn and… now I am almost glad of it.” He took a long drink. “I have known all manner of women,” another drink, “women who would wash my feet, bathe me, and lay with me when I told them to,” he paused to scratch at the top of his head, “but something tells me I have met my match in your Zehdra. When she stood there in the dark, wet and caked with mud, tearing a strip off my hide this way and that way… I knew it. And though her eyes shot red-hot pokers at me there was more behind them than anger. Call it passion, call it fire, I don’t know.”

King Morland slumped into a chair and shook his head. “I do not understand”

“But for the sake of my people I dreaded coming here. Loathsome was the thought of having to be paired with a snivelling, grovelling and privileged Royal Princess. You’re daughter, my Lord, is quite obviously none of that.”

“No, no, she is most certainly not that. But I fear she is more wild than womanly, more headstrong than timid. So much so I fear no man could ever tame her.”

“By the gods, I hope not, for it is only her heart I would ever dare to tame, not her spirit. That would be a crime of the highest order.”

“Then where do we go from here?”

Gillam paused and looked into his goblet of ale to find some manner of answer floating upon the liquid. “We continue as we are. We tell Zehdra nothing. I think you and I both know that she will never want what is forcibly thrust upon her, even if she does in truth want it. For now we will let her think I am nothing more than your counsel, ‘tis not a complete lie. She will love me of her own accord and then perhaps the Apthians and Liberons will be one again under the houses of Bellvane and Kilgarn.”

“How can you be certain that my daughter will love you? Not only that, but do you have that long to wait?”

Gillam flashed the King a smile. He had seen the way Zehdra stared at him when she thought he wasn’t looking and he’d felt her pulse quicken when he’d taken her hand to kiss it. “I am not certain of anything, my Lord, but she is intrigued and that is a start.”

* * *

“Tell me more of this man stranger.” Myella took a honey cake from her cupboard and offered it to Zehdra.

“No thank you. I’m afraid I haven’t an appetite right now.” She plopped down hard on a straight-backed willow chair and it creaked beneath her. “And as for the stranger… there is simply nothing to tell.”

“So, he was that handsome was he?” Myella put the cake away and waited for Zehdra’s outburst.


Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-28 show above.)