Raef’s warning slid into Tarienne’s thoughts, the sudden intrusion causing her to jump and yank on her mare’s reins. Riders, hold! Tarienne’s gaze sought her brother, noting the tension stiffening his body. Raef’s hand rested on his sword, not the Fae weapon gifted to him by their father, but one locally made, by a master sword smith. A weapon befitting the consummate warrior that was her brother, powerful and deadly. They were on their way to Castle Therin and it would not do to reveal their Fae heritage to its King, a man who loathed magic and those who wielded it.
Tarienne peered between the thick trunks of the elm trees providing their cover, the grey-brown, fissured bark, a stark contrast to the vibrant green leaves and buds of reddish-pink tasselled flowers heralding the beginning of Spring in the Kingdom of Therin.. Her mount Lacey, shifted restlessly beneath her. Hooves thundered across the grassy plain ahead, telling Tarienne that there was more than one rider.
The whoosh of an arrow, the shrill squeal of a pig followed by shouting, indicated that the riders were hunting wild boar. A curse rent the air and the boar crashed through the undergrowth not more than twenty feet away. Raef’s stallion did not flinch but Tarienne’s mount, Lacey, let out a startled neigh. Tarienne quickly leaned forward, whispering close to Lacey’s ear, calming her. The mare instantly settled but her ears continued to twitch, listening nervously.
The shouting stopped and male voices carried in the stillness.
“Sire, the boar was wounded.”
The deep voice, laced with concern, caught Tarienne’s interest and she strained to see its owner. A flash of maroon and gold moved across her line of vision but she couldn’t see his face. Raef’s voice in her mind diverted her attention.
Sire? Could this be the King that we seek?
Moments later, they knew the answer to Raef’s question. The voice of a young man holding authority but displaying an unexpected air of relaxed friendliness toward his men answered. Definitely not the King, who they knew to be older. Perhaps this was the Prince?
“I’ll not be a moment, Daien. I just want to check the boar’s tracks. Orien, did you see where my arrow hit the animal?”
“No, Sire, it reached the undergrowth before I could glimpse its injury.”
“There’s a great deal of blood, perhaps the creature has gone somewhere to die.”
The man that they assumed was the Prince, disappeared from view.
Raef urged his stallion quietly forward a few steps and Lacey followed. Stopping in a small clearing that afforded a better view but maintained their secrecy they watched through the swaying branches. Three men garbed in maroon and gold capes moved around close to the forest’s edge. Two were mounted on their stallions, the other, the Prince Tarienne assumed was crouched on the ground over what must have been the boar’s tracks. His hair was short, blonde and unruly. When he stood, Tarienne realised he was taller than she had first thought, around six feet, lean, but muscled in the right places. She guessed him to be around twenty years old, his black breeches were tailored and his leather boots, polished and obviously expensive. The jewelled sword hanging at his side spoke of his privileged life.
He’d started toward his mount when a noise to Tarienne’s left drew her attention. The boar! It hurtled through the bracken toward the Prince bellowing it’s fury. Tarienne started Lacey forward, fear for the Prince constricting her throat. It did not matter that she didn’t know him, she liked the way he treated his men and felt certain that he was a good man. Raef’s hand shot out and grabbed Lacey’s reins, halting them both. He shook his head, indicating that they shouldn’t interfere. Tarienne scowled at her brother, knowing he was right but unable to bear what would happen next.
Turning her attention back to the scene playing out in front of her, she watched as realisation of his peril hardened the Prince’s expression. He straightened, drawing his sword. She couldn’t let this happen. Tarienne had begun gathering her magic to halt the boar’s trajectory when her gaze jumped to the one called Daien leaping from his mount.
The boar crashed into the open as Daien darted in front of the Prince, his sword raised. Tarienne gasped as the creature lowered its deadly tusks, an unearthly shriek filling the air. Daien’s stance was wide, his face pulled into a mask of concentration as he timed the killing strike of his blade. His sword plunged through the boar’s head, however before it died the creature flicked it’s head sideways, ripping open Daien’s thigh. He crumpled to the ground, a grunt of pain the only indication of his critical injury.
Unable to stop herself, Tarienne cried out, jumping to the ground. Raef attempted to stop her, but she was too quick. Something elemental pulled her to the warrior.
Help me Raef, we can’t let him die. I don’t know why, but I need to do this. Maybe he’s part of the prophecy too?
Raef sighed but dropped from his stallion running after her, leading both horses. Tarienne cursed her long gown as she hurried through the rough, scratchy undergrowth that relentlessly tugged and ripped at her hem and soft, impractical silk shoes.
Sliding to a halt at the edge of the plain Tarienne eyed the bloody scene. The Prince’s eyes snapped up from where he was crouched over his guard as she and Raef entered the clearing. Both he and his companion leapt to their feet drawing their swords as they moved defensively in front of Daien.
Tarienne drew in a deep breath. The Prince has again gone up in her estimation with his willingness to protect his knight.
“We saw what happened. We can help him.”
Her eyes drifted down to Daien. His face was drawn and pale, his eyes closed. His lifeblood poured onto the grass, spreading in an ever increasing, bright red circle. His breathing already shallow and rapid. Turning her gaze back to the Prince she witnessed the moment he made his decision. He sheathed his sword and stepped aside, dropping to his knees beside Daien his forehead crinkled with concern.
Tarienne yanked her satchel of herbs from Lacey’s saddle bag and kneeled beside Daien on the cool, damp grass now slick with his blood. Withdrawing a clean cloth, she packed the wound and leaned her weight into it to stem the bleeding. Daien groaned. She saw his jaw clench in pain. Wishing it wasn’t necessary to inflict more pain on this brave man, Tarienne leaned closer, speaking in a soothing voice.
“Forgive me, but we must stop the bleeding.”
Aidan watched her intently, his expression one of deep concern.
“I can do that. Give me something to do that will help, please.”
Tarienne blinked in surprise. A Prince that cares about his men. Maybe fulfilling the prophecy will be easier than we expected.
“Forgive me Milord, I do not know your name.”
His tone impatient, “It’s Aidan. Tell me what to do to help. Please.”
His azure eyes held hers and Tarienne smiled briefly, his genuine concern touching her heart.
“You need to put as much pressure as you can on the wound, to stop the bleeding. I’ll prepare a herbal tea to help the pain and hasten the healing.”
Aidan took his place kneeling over Daien and leaned into the wound, talking quietly to him.
Tarienne withdrew speaking to the third man, “Can you build a fire please, so I can steep the water ...?”
“Orien. My name’s Orien,he supplied, genuine concern creasing his brow. “Can you save him?”
“Thank you, Orien. I believe so, we’ve started his treatment quickly. I am Tarienne. My brother, Raef, will help you.”
Orien nodded, glancing at Aidan. Raef raised his eyebrows at her but began collecting wood with Orien, talking with him in the calming voice that he used on her when she was upset.
Tarienne moved up beside Aidan showing him the herbs as she placed them in a linen bag, explaining the purpose of each. Aidan asked a few questions to clarify their effect and seemed satisfied by the time she was ready to drop them into the water Raef had already brought to the boil. Tarienne motioned to Aidan to lift his hands from Daien’s wound and was pleased to see that the bleeding had slowed. Aidan dropped back onto his heels watching as she cleansed around the deep gash inspecting the damage caused by the boar’s tusk.
“It will require some stitches but should heal well if he doesn’t get an infection.”
Aidan nodded. “Can we move him when you’ve finished? I’d like to get him back to Therin.”
“He’ll need a few hours rest before you move him so that the bleeding does not start again. He has lost a great deal of blood.”
Tarienne began packing and bandaging Daien’s wound noting that his bare thigh was muscled with a light smattering of dark hair. The gash was high, close to his groin and Tarienne didn’t manage to stop her eyes straying to the bulge between his legs. Her eyes slid to Daien’s face. He was incredibly handsome, even with his face drawn in pain. A shadow of a beard darkened his face and his rich, wavy brown hair hung limp, dampened by the beads of perspiration induced by the incredible pain he must be suffering.
As Tarienne worked, she silently chanted a spell of healing. Raef squatted beside her, placing his hand on her shoulder.
“How is he?”
The tingle of Raef’s magic infused her, strengthening her own and simultaneously reassuring her.Tarienne smiled gratefully at him. Raef had always been so patient and calm with her, even when she knew she was being bossy and impatient.
“A little better I think.”
Having finished bandaging the deep wound, her hands shaking slightly she shifted so that she could slide Daien’s head gently into her lap. Dampening his forehead with a clean cloth she worked a spell through her mind to bring Daien to consciousness so he could drink some of the pain-killing tea.
Daien’s eyes flicked open, confusion crinkling his brow for a brief moment. Glancing around, he focused on Aidan and Orien and attempted to sit up. A hiss slid from his lips as he tried to move his injured leg. Tarienne brushed her fingers across his forehead.
“Shh, it is too soon to move yet. Drink this herbal tea, it will take away some of the pain.”
Daien tipped his head backward to see whose lap he was laying in. His chocolate brown eyes widened and the most gorgeous smile Tarienne had ever seen, lit his face. Sucking in a sharp breath, her heart thudded so loudly she was certain he could hear it. She’d thought him handsome before, but when he smiled he was breathtakingly gorgeous. Breathing steadily to calm herself she offered him the warm tea. She helped him lift up a little and he managed to drink most of the brew before falling back into her lap. Daien gifted her with another smile that sent her pulse racing before dozing off again.
Aidan placed his warm hand on her arm seeking her gaze.
“Thank you. If you hadn’t been here, we might have lost him. He’s one of my father’s guards and a dear friend. We were hunting for the Spring festival.”
He glanced at the boar that Orien and Raef were cleaning and cutting up. Aidan still hadn’t mentioned that he was the Prince of Therin.Tarienne smiled at him.
“We were on our way to meet your father. You are the Crown Prince of Therin, are you not?”
Raef’s warning growl penetrate her mind. Tarienne!
Aidan’s eyes jumped to hers. Gone was the man concerned for his friend, in his place was the Prince. His air of authority snapped back into place.
“I am. What business do you have in Therin?”
Raef quickly moved to join them to placate the now suspicious Prince.
“Forgive my sister, Sire. This is exactly why we are travelling to Therin, to ask your father if he might allow her to stay with you to learn the ways of a lady at court.”
Raef pinned Tarienne with a glare warning her to hold her tongue. Aidan stood, eyeing them both.
“Ah yes, he mentioned your missive.” The knowledge seeming to take the edge off his attitude. “When Daien is well enough to move, you can accompany us back to Therin and perhaps the lady can continue her obviously good care of our King’s Guard?”
Raef glared at Tarienne and she decided it best to follow her brother’s lead on this. lowering her eyes, she dropped a small curtsy.
“I would be honoured to continue your warrior’s care, Sire.”
Aidan shifted uncomfortably. “Please, call me Aidan.”
Lifting her eyes to meet Aidan’s she smiled sweetly at the Prince. His flashes of kindness and insecurity, in between his displays of authority, were quite charming. She promised herself that she’d work hard at being friends with him.
“Thank you, Aidan. I can do that, if you’ll also use my given name, Tarienne.”
Aidan nodded and smiled, his blonde hair, vivid blue eyes and classically handsome face reminding Tarienne of Elven royalty, but there was no way that a magic hating King would sire a child with an Elven princess. Was there?
When Daien was well enough to travel several hours later, he was still not strong enough to ride his own stallion. Aidan would not allow anyone else to take him on their steeds so Raef and Orien helped him up in front of Aidan. Orien rode ahead, leading Daien’s horse, Raef followed at the rear and Tarienne stayed beside Aidan, maintaining a watchful eye on Daien.
It wasn’t long before the imposing grey and black stone of Castle Therin, carved into the side of Mount Avalon loomed before them. The cold, stark effect of the fortress was softened only by the clusters of tiny cottages nestled at its base in the vibrant green, rolling hills surrounding it. The first Lily of the Valley of Spring nodded their tiny white, fragrant heads along the side of the well worn gravel path. Tarienne was fascinated by the contrast, and couldn’t hold back a smile as she drew in a deep breath of the sweet scent.
When the gates of Castle Therin opened, a handful of men, wearing the same cloaks as Orien, Daien and Aidan rushed forward carefully lowering Daien from Aidan’s stallion and carrying him between them. Aidan led Tarienne and Raef to the infirmary to settle Daien and left them to inform his father of their arrival and the events of the hunt. He promised to return quickly and show them to the guest rooms, where they could bathe and rest. He left Orien with them to assist with anything they needed and Tarienne suspected, to keep an eye on them.
Daien was sleeping comfortably when Aidan returned to show them to the guest rooms where baths were already drawn and a light meal awaited. Their belongings had been retrieved from their saddles and awaited them beside the huge, four poster beds. Aidan left them to rest letting them know that he’d return for them in a few hours to meet with the King prior to the evening meal. Raef hugged Tarienne briefly and disappeared into his room leaving her to bathe.
Anxious to remove the grime and blood she stripped as quickly as the cumbersome dress would allow and letting it drop to the ground at her feet, stepped into the steaming water. Sighing, she sank beneath the water to rinse the travel dust from her hair. She lathered her hair and body, rinsed the suds away, then relaxed in the water until it grew cool. Drying herself with the soft cloth left beside the bath, she tucked it around her body, then dug in her pack for a clean dress suitable to wear to meet the King. She chose a deep green one that she knew enhanced the green of her eyes, slipped into it and combed her long, deep red hair, thinking on the events of the day. She was not looking forward to meeting the King expecially given his renowned hatred of all things magical.
Pulled from her reverie by a knock at the door, she padded on bare feet to open it. Raef looked clean and refreshed as he stepped into the room. He sat on the bed as she returned to combing her hair.
“Feeling better, Sweetling?”
“Yes, much. Raef, I must check on Daien before we meet the King.”
Struggling with a knot in her long hair, she swore colourfully. Raef chuckled as he moved up behind her taking the brush from her hands and running it through her hair in a gentle, practiced way.
“That’s no way for a lady to talk, little sister.” Twisting around she punched Raef playfully in the arm, then sobered. “I am going to miss you so much, Raef. Can’t you stay here with me for awhile?”
His dark blue eyes softened.
“You know I can’t, Sweetling. But I won’t be far away and we can converse across the distance to Ferngrove through our Fae mindspeak.”
Tarienne’s eyes misted with tears. “I know. I’m just being foolish.”
Raef hugged her tightly then returned to brushing her waist length hair in silence.
By the time Aidan arrived to collect them Tarienne looked every inch a lady of the court. He eyed her appreciatively smiling as he offered his arm. Raef strolled beside them, the eyes of every woman they passed roving over Tarienne’s strikingly handsome, warrior brother. Tarienne grinned, knowing Raef disliked the attention. She was about to ask about Daien when Aidan spoke.
“I thought we’d visit Daien after dinner, if that pleases you?”
“Thank you, Aidan. I’d like to check on his wound and possibly stitch it before it begins to heal too much.”
Aidan nodded and they swept into the great hall where the evening meal was being served.
Tarienne curtsied low and Raef dropped to one knee, his head bowed as the King approached.
Stopping in front of Tarienne, the King’s gaze ran over her but no smile welcomed her. She shivered, dropping her eyes in deference, but lifted them again to follow his progress toward her brother. Aidan formally introduced them as King Eldian assessed them both, his eyes steely grey and cold, making Tarienne want to fidget.
“I thank you both for assisting my son and his hunting party this afternoon. Aidan has told me of your care for my King’s Guardsman, Daien. He shall be rewarded well for protecting his Prince. Aidan also tells me that you are willing to continue tending Daien’s wound.“King Eldian turned his piercing gaze on Raef. “I hadn’t previously decided whether to accept your sister as a guest at Castle Therin, but now I have evidence of her honour, I am content to have her stay and learn the ways of a lady at court.”
Raef nodded. “Thank you, Sire. We very much appreciate your agreement in this. May I ask that I be allowed to visit occasionally and that she be allowed to visit my modest holdings at Ferngrove when time allows?”
Eldian clapped Raef on the back, but the smile he gave him did not reach his eyes. “Of course, but she’ll be busy. There are many tasks that she will undertake as the Lady of the Castle. It has been many years since we’ve had a woman around to take care of the tasks that a high born woman should be responsible for.”
Tarienne opened her mouth to respond, snapping it shut again when Raef shot her a quelling glare. She growled into Raef’s thoughts, the sweet smile on her face belying her anger. This better be necessary for the fulfilment of the prophecy. The King has just commissioned a new housemaid.
She felt, rather than heard, Raef’s silent chuckle. Spotting the twinkle of laughter in his eyes, she barely suppressed the urge to punch his arm again.
After the meal, which tasted like ash in Tarienne’s mouth after the King’s announcement, they visited Daien in the infirmary. The fire in the hearth had been stoked to chase the chill of the evening from the otherwise stark room. Daien’s colour had returned a little and he looked a little better. The smile that lit his face when she entered cheered Tarienne up significantly.
“May I check your wound, Daien?”
“Of course, Milady.” His deep, rich voice washed over her, sending her pulse racing.
Her hands shook as she removed the bandage and he hissed quietly when she accidentally bumped his groin. Her eyes shot to his and she felt her cheeks flame.
“My apologies.” Her voice wavered and her heart hammered. Damn.
Careful to avoid his manly parts, she pulled the last of the bandage away. The wound looked clean and was ready to be stitched. Meeting Daien’s eyes, she pulled in a deep breath.
“It’s time the wound was stitched. It looks clean and the bleeding has almost stopped.”
Daien nodded his consent.
Aidan left to organise some boiling water on Tarienne’s request and Raef went to retrieve her satchel of herbs from her chamber. Alone with Daien, shivers of awareness ran along Tarienne’s spine. She busied herself examining the wound. Without warning, Daien’s warm, calloused hand covered hers. His heat curled around her.
I want to thank you for saving my life today.”
Tingles shot up Tarienne’s arm at his touch and Daien yanked his hand away as if similarly affected, an odd look passing across his face. Gathering her self control to her like a protective blanket, Tarienne smiled sweetly.
“You are most welcome.”
Daien frowned then relaxed back on the bed watching Tarienne intently, a tiny, mischievous smirk curving the corners of his mouth. His languorous perusal made Tarienne nervous, so she moved away picking through the small vials on the infirmary shelf in an attempt to calm the spiralling awareness Daien had awakened within her.
When Aidan and Raef returned Tarienne focused on brewing a sedative tea that would dull the pain and relax Daien so she could stitch the wound. She sanitised the needle and thread in some boiling water steeped with calendula leaves as a mild antiseptic to cleanse it and promote healing. When Daien’s eyelids drooped, Tarienne pulled in a deep, calming breath, placed an apron she’d found around her middle so she didn’t ruin her best gown and began stitching.
Reciting a healing spell through her thoughts as she worked Tarienne startled a little when Daien’s eyes snapped open and he sent her a curious look. His eyes searched hers, his forehead creasing into a tiny frown. Did he sense her use of magic? His frown transformed into a cheeky smile when she held his gaze and he relaxed back onto the bed quickly falling asleep again. Tarienne’s pounding heart eased assuming she must be mistaken about Daien sensing her magic and continued working on closing the long gash..
Unable to stop herself admiring Daien’s hard, muscled thigh, she took great care to ensure the wound was neat and wouldn’t leave much of a scar even though she knew men wore scars as marks of honour. Daien grimaced a few times but the tea finally sent him into a deep sleep.
Pleased with the final result, Tarienne washed down the wound with the now cooling calendula tea that she’d set to steep and rebandaged Daien’s swollen and bruised leg. Sitting beside Daien for longer than she needed to, fussing with the bandage, she hoped that he’d open his eyes and bestow another of his devastating smiles on her. Alas, her herbal potion had been strong enough to ensure that he slept for some time. Aidan and Raef escorted her back to her chamber, where she quickly undressed falling into an exhaustion fuelled sleep.
The rising sun streaming through the window onto the bed woke Tarienne early. Slipping her soft green dressing gown over her shoulders, she secured it at the waist and padded to the window, curious to see the hustle and bustle of life at Therin. The glorious scent of freshly baked bread wafted in the air as she watched people bustle about the markets, purchasing fresh foods and wares. Her stomach rumbled loudly reminding her that she hadn’t eaten much last night. Dropping her dressing gown to the floor, she warmed last night’s bath water with a quiet spell and climbed in. She washed quickly and dried herself on the cloth she’d used last night.
Wandering over naked to rake through her belongings, she realised that she’d have to purchase some night gowns or have the seamstress make her some as she doubted that sleeping naked was acceptable here. Tarienne dressed in a deep maroon dress with a square cut neckline that didn’t reveal too much of her bosom. Sighing deeply, she brushed her hair and swirled it up on top of her head, allowing some of her curls to tumble freely down her back. Pleased with her appearance, she wandered out of her chamber down the long, stone corridor, trying to remember the way to the dining hall.
Finding herself at the stairs leading to the courtyard, she caught sight of Aidan speaking to several men all of whom were wearing the maroon and gold colours of Therin. She watched their interaction admiring the easy way Aidan had with his people. Aidan turned as if sensing her presence and strode over, greeting her with a huge grin as he took her hand, bowing and placing a kiss.on the back of it in a grand gesture.
“I trust you slept well?”
Tarienne smiled back at him, his grin infectious. “Yes, I did, thank you. I was looking for the dining hall, but couldn’t remember it’s location.”
Aidan chuckled. “Therin can be difficult to find your way around until you grow accustomed to its halls and corridors. I have not broken my fast yet. I’ll show you the way.”
Offering his arm,Tarienne slipped hers through it, resting her hand on his muscled forearm noting that she didn’t feel the same prickle of awareness as when she touched Daien. As they made their way to the dining hall, Tarienne became aware of the unhappy stares of some of the ladies. Lifting her chin defiantly she chatted and laughed with Aidan as they traversed the long, stone corridor to the dining hall.
Raef joined them shortly after their arrival and they ate their fill of the delicious sliced cold pork and sweet, berry pastries set out on the heavy wooden tables. Chatting as if they’d known each other for much longer than one day Aidan asked them about their home at Ferngrove. Raef and Tarienne answered his questions carefully, cautious not to reveal anything of their true heritage or the fact that they’d only lived at Ferngrove for six months. If Aidan learned that they were Fae and born in the forests of Darewood, they’d be imprisoned in the dungeon or banished and unable to fulfil their purpose. The prophecy that had brought them to Therin to protect Aidan until, ironically, he could return the balance of magic to the kingdom, hung over their heads. They had no idea how it would resolve, but were sworn to keep Aidan safe until it did. At least for now, the balance of magic was stable, but they had no idea how long that would last given the news of fell creatures and evil deeds from their Fae scouts.
After breakfast, they made their way to the infirmary, to find Daien propped up eating a sweet pastry.
Aidan grinned. “You look much better. I thought we’d lost you to that damned boar, Daien.”
“I am feeling much better, thank you, Sire. It seems that I am indebted to the lady whose name I do not yet know.” Daien’s eyes followed Tarienne as she bustled to his side, anxious to check his wound.
Aidan chuckled, moving forward to make the formal introductions. “This is Lady Tarienne and her brother Raef, without whom we would have been ill prepared for the treatment of your wound.”
Daien sobered a little. “I thank you again, Milady. I owe you a debt of gratitude.”
“You are welcome and you owe me nothing.” Tarienne didn’t mean to sound snappy, but as soon as she began unwrapping the bandage, her hands started to tremble again. She was frustrated by her reaction to Daien. When Daien shifted his leg in an attempt to aid her access to the bandage, a grunt of pain rumbled through him. Tarienne reacted instinctively, grabbing his leg to support its weight. Daien’s eyes snapped to hers and she heard a tiny hiss slip from his lips. She held his gaze for a moment and was only distantly aware of the others in the room. Tearing her eyes away from his, she asked Aidan if he could arrange some boiling water so that she could make some more pain killing tea.
The remainder of the cold calendula tea sat on the table where she’d left it last night. Tucking a pillow under Daien’s leg to support it, she rose, retrieving the tea to cleanse his wound again. Pleased with how well the skin was healing around the stitches she’d so carefully woven through his torn skin she began gently dabbing the antiseptic brew onto them.
Daien watched as she cleansed and rebandaged his wound, his heart almost leaping out of his chest each time she accidentally brushed his groin. He was certain she was aware of his arousal burgeoning beneath the thin blanket. Dropping his hands into his lap, he prayed that no-one would notice. His body ached and he knew it wasn’t entirely due to the injuries inflicted by the boar. He needed to get his reaction to this stunningly beautiful redhead with the deep green, beguiling eyes, under control. She was a lady, out of his reach. An audible sigh escaped and he couldn’t help but smile at the curious look that Lady Tarienne sent him as she tied the ends of the bandage off. He promised himself he’d visit the tavern when he was well enough, there were plenty of attractive women there willing to lay with a King’s Guard. Not that he indulged as often as everyone thought. He allowed himself another glance at Tarienne. Suddenly the thought of a tavern wench beneath him wasn’t as appealing as it used to be.
Three years later
Tarienne was disturbed from stitching her tapestry by Daien knocking unexpectedly on her chamber door. She’d been pleased but surprised to see him. Her body had warmed involuntarily, her heart thumping against her ribs. Her reaction to his presence hadn’t changed in the three years she’d been in residence at Therin. She sighed. Daien had seemed uncomfortable when he passed on the message that she’d been summoned to the throne room for an audience with the King.
For a brief moment, icy shards of fear skittered down her spine. The heavily decorated corridors of the inner citadel they whisked along closed in around her crushing the breath from her lungs. She scrambled for a reason for the formal summons. Could the King have discovered her Fae heritage? Her heart pounding, Tarienne smoothed the front of her dress, her hands trembling.
Attempting to calm herself, Tarienne allowed herself a glance at Daien, striding along beside her. Despite her inner turmoil she smiled. Heart achingly handsome and known as a bit of a rogue, Daien worked hard at behaving today marching purposefully alongside her, his expression stern, almost. His presence calmed her and a modicum of rational thought returned. If King Eldian had discovered her magical abilities she’d surely either be in irons being dragged to the throne room, or in the depths of the castle dungeons.
She had been using magic for some time now, to heal villagers who came to her because they had heard of her talent with medicinal herbs. She’d been careful, they’d all thought it was the herbal remedies that helped them and that was partially true. She couldn’t turn them away, was drawn to help the simple people who were so grateful, so kind to her.
Only yesterday she had visited a family of seven in a tiny cottage on the outskirts of the city. They were distraught and desperate because the father was bedridden with what Tarienne suspected was pneumonia. She had made a tea from Elecampane root, Coltsfoot and Juniper to help clear his lungs and reduce the fever. She’d sponged his upper body and administered the tea, all-the-while working a silent wellness incantation. She’d instructed the family on administering the tea regularly and to sponge him down often until the fever broke. He’d been sleeping peacefully by the time she’d left. It was such a simple use of the immense magical power that she held, it would be ironic to be punished for it.
Breathing deeply to settle her churning stomach, Tarienne touched Daien’s arm to draw his attention, she couldn’t resist tempting his resolve.
“Not going to the tavern today, Daien?”
“The tavern, Milady ...?” Daien raised a questioning eyebrow as he turned to her, slowing his pace a little. “It’s out of bounds while I’m on duty!”
In contradiction to his solemn declaration, his face lit in a smile fit to melt the heart of any maiden. Tarienne sucked in a sharp breath. Daien added so only she could hear, “This afternoon as long as no-one catches me.” Then quickly schooled his features into the same serious look as before.
Tarienne chuckled, chiding him, a teasing tone lacing her voice. Sighing quietly, she wished things could be different. Daien warmed her heart so. She’d felt a connection between them since she’d first met Daien three years earlier however Daien had never shown any real interest beyond propriety. At times she’d been convinced that he cared for her, when she felt him so close in a crowd that the heat of his skin warmed her. At others, she was certain that he made himself scarce when she entered a room.
She’d watched Daien practice his swordsmanship and hand to hand combat with Aidan and the other guards, he was a strong and formidable warrior. She’d seen his bravery, honour and loyalty, witnessed his sweet nature when he’d comforted a child who’d fallen in the street and carried the small boy back to his parents. His deliciously expressive, chocolate brown eyes twinkled when he laughed, which he did often and it didn’t hurt that his lean, muscled body was honed to perfection. Her heart fluttered and a tiny flame of warmth trickled through her. Sighing again, she steeled herself for the meeting with the King.
Stepping into the throne room Tarienne pulled in another calming breath, missing Daien’s warmth the moment he stepped away awaiting the King’s orders.
“Thank you, Daien.”
King Eldian swung around to acknowledge her, dismissing Daien with a wave of his hand. Eldian halted no more than an arm’s length from Tarienne. His piercing grey-blue eyes assessed her for a moment. Forcing herself not to fidget under the King’s scrutiny, she waited.
Tarienne squeezed her hands tightly together to stop them from shaking. “Sire, you wished to speak with me?”
Powerfully built, the King dwarfed many men. His age ravaged, once handsome features and his slightly greying hair afforded him a distinguished appearance. His eyes held intelligence, promised intimidation. Eldian commanded respect, yet he also instilled fear in his people, showing a measure of fairness only where human folk were concerned. His major fault was his stubborn refusal to acknowledge the existence of magic or magical beings. Anyone thought to be practising a form of magic in the Kingdom of Therin would at the very least be banished to a harsh life with no support of family or friends, into the wilds, where vicious thieves, murderers and vile creatures lived.
Tarienne was fortunate, she would still have a home in her birthplace of Darewood or with Raef at Ferngrove. For Tarienne it would mean that she could not protect Aidan so he could fulfil the prophecy written long ago. This would in turn mean the demise of magic in the light. The Kingdom would be consumed by dark magic and the evil that wielded it. For an intelligent and courageous man who was a brilliant battle strategist, Tarienne could not comprehend King Eldian’s emotion driven response to magic. A frisson of anger chased away some of Tarienne’s worry. Many others, including Aidan, did not agree with this harsh decree. No-one however, herself included, would ever openly question the King’s ruling on any matter, especially this.
Tarienne lowered herself demurely into the ornate chair beside the throne as she had many times before, awaiting the King’s words.
“Dear, Tarienne I’ve noticed you spending a great deal more time with Aidan of late. This pleases me greatly.”
Tarienne let out the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. Relief flooded her at the unexpected direction of the discussion and she smiled.
“Yes, Sire, we are enjoying each other’s company more in recent weeks.”
Not a lie, just not the whole truth.
She and Aidan were feigning romantic involvement to prevent King Eldian from parading a long line of eligible women as potential brides for Aidan. Against tradition, Aidan wished to marry for love instead of duty.
Tarienne had discovered Aidan’s soft side quite soon after she moved to Castle Therin. They’d become close friends, sometimes confidantes. A few months ago it had become apparent that King Eldian was determined to find a suitable bride to rule at Aidan’s side and produce an heir to the throne to ensure continuation the royal lineage. Aidan had begged Tarienne to help. She loved him like a brother so she’d agreed but they both knew that the ruse couldn’t continue indefinitely. Her attention returned to the King’s words.
“Well, know this, my dear, seeing you together, pleases me greatly. I have despaired of Aidan ever seriously courting anyone let alone a most suitable choice like yourself. My time as King draws nigh. Soon Aidan will rule this kingdom. He’ll need a strong woman of royal breeding, to rule at his side.”
If only the King knew her true heritage he would not think her suitable. She felt guilty for deceiving the King and fearful that now he had acknowledged the match he’d force them into a wedding and they would be trapped. She must find Aidan quickly to discuss this new development.
“Thank you, Sire, have you also spoken with Aidan on this matter?”
“I will, on the hunt this afternoon.”
“Very well, Sire.” Quickly changing the subject, Tarienne added, “It is almost time for lunch, would you care to accompany me to the dining hall, My lord?”
Eldian nodded, a conspiratorial smile playing across his lips. “We’ll collect Aidan on the way.” He offered his arm and she looped hers through it as they headed for Prince Aidan’s chambers.
“Aidan,” the King called as he entered the Prince’s room without knocking, “It’s time for lunch.”
Aidan looked up from the sword he meticulously polished, a smile transforming his already handsome face. Tarienne admired that he always cleaned his own weapons. As the future King, he lacked the self absorption and class snobbery evident in Eldian.
“Father, Milady, I didn’t realise the time. I have not long returned from training with Orien and Daien.”
Tarienne’s pulse skipped at the mention of Daien, her chest tightened and the familiar, yet disconcerting tingle raced through her making her legs wobble.Shifting her stance she carefully schooled her expression into a joyful smile at being with Aidan. Eldian released her arm allowing her to scoot over to Aidan’s side, threading her arm through his. The King smiled indulgently and any happiness Tarienne had felt slipped away as they made their way along the long, cold corridor.
A delicious lunch of beef pies and apple pastries was served in the informal eating area beside the enormous kitchen. Aidan, Tarienne and Eldian chatted companionably about the upcoming Spring festival, the impending changes to the weather as the season of growth took hold and how delicious the food was. Therin was fortunate to have a very talented cook managing the kitchen staff and a full larder thanks to the skills of Aidan and his hunting parties and the rich soil tilled by the experienced fam folk on the outskirts of Therin. When the conversation turned to the afternoon’s impending hunt Tarienne asked the King if he would mind excusing her to continue the sewing she was doing for the Spring festival decorations.
Returning to her chambers Tarienne busied herself with her needlework, something she hoped she might eventually have the courage to gift to Daien. Her pulse fluttered at the thought of Daien, his lean, muscular frame, his confident swagger, his heart-stopping smile. How could she let Daien see that she cared for him now? Daien would never do anything to hurt Aidan, they were more than a Prince and his guard, they were friends. Their friendship was built on trust and the knowledge that each man had the other’s back when needed. What a mess everything was becoming. Sighing, Tarienne turned her attention back to her sewing, however, thoughts of Daien, his ready smile, his toned body, his thoughtful nature, continued to distract her.
After returning from the hunt, Aidan freshened up, changed his clothing and made his way down the long, chilly corridor to Tarienne’s chambers. Knocking, he called out to let her know who it was.
“Come in, Aidan.” She smiled as Aidan entered the room. He had taken the time to bathe and change his clothing despite his pressing need to talk to her about his father’s comments. Tarienne liked that cleanliness was important to him. He always smelled fresh and clean unlike some of the other courtiers who covered their lack of hygiene with heavy scents.
Aidan flopped melodramatically into the chair beside her, almost knocking her sewing from her hands. Tarienne calmly gathered the needlework in her lap, focusing on the next stitch.
“How was the hunt?” She lifted her eyes to meet Aidan’s.
“We brought down a stag, several deer and a boar. The kitchen stores will be full for some time. My father mentioned his happiness at our spending more time together.” Aidan raised an eyebrow, lowering his voice conspiratorially. “So our plan is working just as we hoped. Though I truly dislike lieing to him.”
“Now that he has acknowledged our interest, my concern is that he’ll expect a betrothal and wedding quite soon. What can we do Aidan?” Little frissons of panic darted across Tarienne’s chest, tightening it uncomfortably.
“Do not worry, Tarienne. I will tell him that we are taking it slowly.”
Tarienne interrupted him frustrated that Aidan didn’t seem to be taking the situation seriously enough. “But AIdan, in time he’ll expect a wedding. What then?”
“Then you will have provided me with some time to hopefully find someone. If not, I’ll tell him we’ve decided that we aren’t as suited as we first believed and I’ll be back to entertaining every eligible maiden of suitable lineage in the area!” Aidan sighed.
Tarienne chuckled at that thought, though she knew how frustrated Aidan had become at the constant stream of high born females his father had invited to Therin.
Aidan raised his eyebrows mischieviously, a cheeky grin spreading across his face.
“So, until then, to make our feelings appear real, perhaps we could share a kiss now and then?”
“Aidan, you may be the most handsome and eligible bachelor in the Kingdom but you are more like a brother to me and I’m doing this to save you from your fathers matchmaking.” Despite sounding stern, Tarienne smiled.
Aidan preened a little, a huge grin splitting his face. “You think I’m handsome?”
Tarienne rolled her eyes, chuckling. “That’s all you heard from what I said?”
Like Eldian, Aidan stood around six feet tall but his sunny, thoughtful disposition was so unlike his father. It was his charisma, good looks and the natural compassion that set the ladies hearts aflutter. Aidan did however take his responsibilities seriously. He trained hard, honing his lean body, building his strength and endurance to ensure his readiness when the battle for Therin finally erupted as they all knew it would. Aidan’s focus was to be the best swordsman and future King that he could to defend the Kingdom, to lead by example. He was actually quite shy and not conceited about his looks. Well, most of the time.Tarienne held back an unladylike snort.
Aidan’s short, unruly blonde hair, clear, blue eyes and angelic face had always reminded Tarienne of Elven royalty. Combine this with a smile that could set a woman’s heart racing and Aidan was indeed very easy on the eye. She truly loved him, but like a brother, not like she suspected he wanted her to and not like the King wnated her to. Tarienne appreciated Aidan’s handsome face and his toned body. He did not, however stir her heart as Daien did.
Daien’s rich, deep voice, reminded Tarienne of rich warm chocolate. Her insides melted when Daien spoke. His dark, brown eyes twinkled with mischief, in a ruggedly handsome face that often struggled to contain a grin. In contrast his fighting skills were unmatched, his unusual style unhurried almost relaxed. Her reaction to Daien disconcerted her. When the King’s Guards trained the site of Daien, shirtless, his muscles rippling, took her breath away. However Daien generally treated her no differently than any other member of the royal household. A little sigh escaped Tarienne’s lips. She couldn’t make Daien aware of her feelings for him, given their ruse for Aidan’s father. She and Aidan had agreed not to tell anyone, not even Daien. She forced her attention back to Aidan.
He watched her intently. A tiny frown of concern wrinkled Aidan’s forehead as his eyes sought hers.
“You know I appreciate what you’re doing, right?”
Aidan grasped the fingers of Tarienne’s free hand gently urging her up. Allowing him to lift her she dropped her needlework carefully on the arm of the chair with her other hand. Aidan leaned in, kissing her lightly on the cheek.
“Will you come for a walk with me?”
The innocent expression he pasted on his face, caused a chuckle to bubble up within her. She acquiesced to his insistent tug on her hand.
“Where are we going?”
“Around the grounds to check on the festival preparations and to the practice yard to speak with Orien about setting up the jousting tournament.”
Tarienne frowned, quickly brightening at the prospect of bumping into Daien. Their hands clasped maintaining the deception that they were in love, Aidan and Tarienne moved around the courtyard. Tarienne enjoyed the familiar contact of Aidan’s warm hand holding hers. It gave her comfort, accompanied by a sense of caring not apparent in the usual austerity of royal life.
Arrangements for the Spring festival were well underway. The delicious aroma of food cooking in preparation for the beginning of the weeklong Spring festival reached Tarienne’s nostrils. Her mouth watered at the delectable scents of roast meats and sugary treats wafting around her as they walked through the cobblestone streets. Aidan chatted briefly with the merchants bustling around their stand, all eager to talk to their Prince. Tarienne watched, smiling at Aidan as he showed genuine interest in each and every one. The people loved Aidan, she wished that he was King, things would be so different she mused. Be careful what you wish for.
The bustle of the courtyard left behind, Aidan and Tarienne approached the practice yard. The unmistakable ring of swords clashing filled the air. The King’s Guards were training. Tarienne’s pulse raced at the prospect of seeing Daien. When they rounded the corner the King rested casually on the rough wooden rail that separated the viewing stand from the training arena, observing the practice session. Eldian’s eyes slid down to their joined hands. He beamed. Tarienne suppressed a sigh, shifting her attention to the practice arena.
Tarienne’s gaze landed on the two men training and she couldn’t tear her eyes away. Well, from one in particular. The dust rose from the sun dried soil that served as the base of the arena as the two men jumped and slid around. Their focus was solely on each other waiting for their opponents’ next move. Their blades viciously sharp, the dance would be deadly were they not allies. One mistake and either man could be badly injured. Orien and Daien fought on unaware of their audience. Daien’s shirtless body glistened with perspiration. His sculpted muscles flexed and rippled as he blocked and parried Orien’s blows.
Tarienne’s heart clenched, her pulse thundering an erratic tempo. Gasping quietly she fought the urge to lift her hand to her chest chewed on her bottom lip instead in an attempt to control her reaction to the delicious site of a half naked Daien. Gods, what a gorgeous man. Tarienne breathed deeply reclaiming some much needed air. Fortunately the King did not hear her gasp or he would be swift to anger. He was not a forgiving man. Aidan however, did hear. Aidan’s eyebrows lifted as his gaze followed hers to the swordsmen. He grinned, knowing how she felt about Daien having prised the information from her during one of their long soul bearing conversations. Tarienne dug him in the ribs with her elbow, sending a quelling look his way.
Aidan let out a quiet, “Ooof,” rubbing at the spot where she’d jabbed him. However, his smirk stayed annoyingly in place.
Struggling to prevent her eyes from straying back to Daien, lest the King should see, Tarienne swallowed hard. With great effort she forced her focus back to King Eldian.
Plastering a smile on her face, she politely enquired, “Sire, did you enjoy the hunt today?”
Eldian turned toward her, his dark brown, leather jerkin a stark contrast to the crisp white of the shirt tucked into his black, leather trousers. His eyes lit,his passion for hunting obvious.
“Yes, very much Lady Tarienne. We captured a large stag for the feast tomorrow. The chase was exhilarating and the stag a worthy adversary.” Glancing between them, he smirked. “I see Aidan couldn’t wait to get back to you. I’ll leave you to enjoy each other’s company.”
Frustration welled inside Tarienne. Why had she ever d to this? Aidan lifted Tarienne’s hand to his lips, dropping a feather light kiss on her knuckles. Gazing into her eyes he leaned in closer for his father’s benefit. Eldian disappeared toward the inner citadel. Aidan sighed heavily, stepping back. Their hands still twined together he lead Tarienne down the steps to the practice yard.
Aidan cared very much for Tarienne and truly wanted to see her happy. He knew that his father loved him but that he also struggled with showing his emotions or any physical affection. A legacy of being the King, Aidan supposed. He knew that his father had done his best to raise him on his own. Aidan hoped that when he had children he would be a loving and patient father as well as a good King.
Aidan had unexpectedly found himself craving the sisterly affection that Tarienne bestowed upon him. If he was honest with himself that was why he’d suggested that they pretend to love each other. He could see now that it was selfish to expect Tarienne to continue with their ruse given how Daien and Tarienne felt about each other. He chuckled quietly, the irony that neither knew how the other felt not lost on him. Sobering he desperately hoped that someone would look at him one day, as Tarienne looked at Daien, as if he were the most special and desired person in the world.
Sighing again, Aidan led Tarienne to the edge of the practice yard absently caressing the back of her hand with his thumb. Realising what he was doing he stopped abruptly,sliding her a sideways glance. Mayhap it was time to tell his father that he wished to marry for love and let Tarienne have her chance with Daien?
Aidan had watched Daien’s eyes smoulder with desire for Tarienne. Daien hadn’t confessed outright that he had feelings for her however Aidan assumed he’d maintained his distance out of respect for their situation, their ruse for the King. God knows Aidan had pried and prodded enough during their companionable chats attempting to find out. It was fortunate that Daien didn’t have a quick temper. He’d just evaded the questions and laughing, changed the topic.
Aidan had discovered, however, that Daien felt he was unworthy of Tarienne. The King would feel the same, he would never allow Tarienne to consort with a guard, King’s Guard or not. Aidan decided that he could at least give Daien and Tarienne a legitimate excuse to spend some time together. Pleased with himself, Aidan grinned.
Tarienne’s eyes lowered as they approached the two guards who were finalising their match. Lifting her gaze slightly she stole a brief glance at Daien while he and Orien spoke with Aidan. Daien’s gaze flicked to their clasped hands and Tarienne had an undeniable urge to untangle her fingers from Aidan’s. She fidgeted, wishing Aidan would let her hand go. They had no need to continue their fiction now the King could not see them. Tarienne’s unrest drew Aidan’s attention. He turned toward her dropping her hand as though he’d read her mind.
“I have quite a lot to discuss with Orien regarding the jousting match, mayhap Daien can accompany you back to your chambers?”
Tarienne shot Aidan a surprised look. Aidan grinned.“You don’t mind do you, Daien?”
“Of course not, Sire.” Daien’s rich voice curled around Tarienne like an intimate caress.
Without further comment, Daien slipped his soft grey shirt over his head allowing the wrinkled edges to hang loosely over his black training pants. Raising his eyebrows he offered Tarienne his arm. Warmth crept up her neck as she linked her arm with Daien’s inadvertently brushing the heated skin of his side. Aidan chuckled and her cheeks flamed with embarrassment. Throwing a confused look at Aidan Tarienne glided away with Daien as gracefully as she could praying that Daien couldn’t feel her trembling or hear her heart thumping against her ribs.
Daien smelled like the outdoors, musky and deliciously masculine. His body radiated a tantalising warmth. Tarienne thought she might faint from the onslaught of emotion swirling through her and involuntarily swayed into him. Her body heated, her chest tightened and she struggled to breathe evenly. Clearing her throat, she desperately hoped that a conversation might settle the butterflies fluttering wildly in her stomach.
“Did you enjoy your training session, Daien?” Her voice had a huskier quality than usual.
“Always, My Lady. Orien and I are teaching each other our special techniques and honing our abilities in the process. It helps us stay in condition.”
Did Daien’s gaze just drift to her lips? His closeness and the timbre of his voice sent liquid heat spiralling through her. Desire pooled low in her belly and her breasts felt full and tight against the soft material of her bodice.
Losing herself in the sensations coursing through her she responded in the moment. “Mmmm, I noticed.” Realising her boldness and horrified at her lack of control, she felt heat creep up her neck again. She quickly added, “I ... noticed that you all appear to be using each others’ signature moves, though none appear to be able to execute yours quite so well as you.”
She forced a smile. Would he notice? Mortification filled her. Even more so, when a grin briefly played across Daien’s lips. When she finally dared to look at Daien again, his expression held only polite interest. Had she been mistkaken?
When they reached the door to her chamber it was all too soon. Tarienne wanted desperately to spend more time touching him, enjoying his warmth. Holding back a sigh when Daien untangled her armtaking her hand in his, his touch exquisitely gentle. Her heart thundered when he held her gaze. Moving ever so slightly closer a moment of indecision flitted across his face. Tarienne fervently hoped that he was considering a kiss.
Holding onto her hand a little longer than entirely appropriate Daien leaned in, close enough that his warm breath caressed her cheek.
“Thank you, My Lady.”
Tarienne frowned, throwing him a questioning look.
Daien whispered, “For noticing my condition ...”
Tarienne gasped audibly. He had heard her. Laughing heartily Daien bowed and strode quickly away. A retort on her lips Tarienne huffed crossly glaring at Daien’s disappearing form. Slowly, a smile curved the corners of her mouth. Tarienne entered her chamber, shaking her head and chuckling quietly to herself. What a rogue! Tarienne found it impossible to stay angry with him, especially when her body still hummed with the memory of his touch.
Daien hurried down the hall, his pulse racing, his trousers tighter than they had been earlier. He was grateful that his shirt was long enough to cover the bulge at the front of his pants. He berated himself. She’s a Lady, not some tavern wench and under the King’s care to boot. A mere guard cannot consort with a Lady of the Court. The problem was each time he touched Tarienne it became more difficult to maintain his prized control.
Daien headed toward the stables, his black stallion nickering at his approach. Taking a moment to run his hands down the horse’s muzzle Daien hauled in a deep breath, then hefted the saddle onto the black’s broad back. He tightened the straps around the horse’s girth and leapt up. Needing to get out of the castle walls he nudged the stallion into a slow trot until they emerged through the heavy castle gates.
Urging his mount into a run Daien bent low over the steed’s neck. They thundered across the open plain toward the lake exhilaration pumping through Daien’s veins.His pulse raced and his breathing accelerated. Finally they slowed entering the edge of the forest. Although Daien could travel through these woods blindfolded he would never risk injuring his mount on a stray tussock or catching its hoof in a rabbit hole. The lake appeared to his right, glistening, invitingly blue, beckoning for him to dive beneath its smooth surface, to cool his overheated blood.
Barely waiting for the stallion to stop Daien slid from its back. Loosely draping the reins around a sapling he began stripping leaving a trail of clothes leading toward the lake’s edge. Striding into the water its biting chill eased the ache in his loins almost immediately. Hauling in a deep breath Daien dove beneath the surface pulling through the inky depths. He burst up into the warm sunshine, raking his fingers through his dripping hair to clear it from his eyes. His feet touching the muddy bottom the water lapped around his waist. Now, if only the lake could cool the heated thoughts created by the mental image of Tarienne naked and wrapped around him. Daien swore.
Ducking beneath the surface he swam until he thought his lungs might burst. He’d swam here before with Aidan, training for the battle they knew would erupt soon but it was never like this. His thoughts wandered again and he wondered if Tarienne enjoyed swimming. His body responded to that thought. Swearing again he pulled through the water until his arms, chest and body ached.
When the sky began to darken, Daien dragged himself out of the water and dressed not bothering to dry himself. Jumping into the saddle he turned his stallion back to Castle Therin, Tarienne’s silky, red hair, compelling green eyes and a body that could send a man up in flames, consuming his thoughts. Thoughts that had turned toward the possibility of making Tarienne his. Unbidden his body filled with a possessive fire he’d not previously experienced. Leaning low, he kicked his horse into a dead run and didn’t slow until the castle came into view.