Having all managed to catch a few hours sleep they saddled the now rested horses and headed toward Therin once more. Approaching the Plains of Therin there was evidence that a large army had camped nearby with food scraps and animal droppings marring the usually fresh, green grass. They pushed their horses harder in an attempt to beat the army to their destination, Castle Therin.
Aidan rode out front, Raef and Elyssia in the middle and Tarienne and Daien brought up the rear. Tarienne glanced over at Daien her face obviously betraying her concern because Daien spoke into her thoughts.
We’ll make it, Sweetheart. Remember how much I love you.
A small smile curved her lips.
How could I forget? I love you too, my warrior.
They turned their focus back to their flight but Tarienne couldn’t deny the nagging fear nipping at the edges of her awareness.
Several miles from Therin it became obvious that they were being tracked. They urged their exhausted horses on, their hooves flying across the green grass of the plain. Thundering along the horses shoes flicked up the small stones that littered the well worn path turning them into tiny projectiles.
A small flicker of relief coursed through Tarienne when the castle came into sight but it fled when their pursuers merged together forming a solid wall of man and beast behind them. Tarienne’s pulse quickened with fear as she urged Lacey forward as fast as her small legs could carry them.
Aidan spared a glance backward, yelling.
“Faster, they’re gaining on us.”
Tucking his head low he pushed his stallion as fast as it could carry him. When he was close enough that the guards would recognise his cape and armour he straightened in his saddle and shouted.
“OPEN THE GATES.”
Frustration flooded him when there was no response. This was his stronghold and as King they needed to listen to him. For what seemed like forever nothing happened. Standing in his saddle as he hurtled along he bellowing.
“BY ORDER OF YOUR KING, OPEN THE DAMN GATES.”
They were so close now that if the gates weren’t opened they would be trapped between them and the thundering wave of their pursuers. Just when they thought all was lost, the heavy, iron gates creaked slowly upwards lifting just enough so they could duck through laying low on their horses. Aidan let out the breath he’d been holding and hurtled under the gate, clinging to his stallion’s neck.
The moment they were all through Aidan leapt off his horse shouting.
“CLOSE THEM, CLOSE THEM NOW.”
The guards responded to their King’s order without hesitation, however, a handful of the pursuing horsemen breached the gates before they closed. Aidan drew his sword, a resounding metallic ring resonating around the courtyard and lunged forward. Tarienne and Daien fought back to back spinning and diving in what looked like a choreographed display. They were so attuned to each other they had become a deadly team. Elyssia stayed mounted on her horse her bow drawn tight. Tarienne heard the whoosh of an arrow and a thud. One of their attackers fell dead in front of her, an arrow in his chest. Elyssia deftly nocked another arrow felling a tall, thick warrior dressed in what looked like black rags. There was a thwank and the man’s eyes went wide as he dropped to the ground dead her arrow buried deep in his back. Aidan nodded to her in acknowledgment.
Raef, looking fearsome as he fought jumping, rolling and slashing despatched the last of their assailants lopping off his head. His chest heaving Raef let the tip of his sword drop to the ground his eyes casting around the grisly site.
They were all covered with splashes of blood and breathing hard, when Aidan stepped forward, despair on his face.
“The people, I’m too late!”
Tarienne moved toward him.
Just then Orien rounded the corner at a run skidding to a halt in front of Aidan his face splitting into a huge grin.
“Sire, it is you!”
Orien dropped to one knee.
“Sire, we have the people inside the castle walls. They started coming in a few days ago with reports of wolf packs killing and maiming. The Elves brought them in, despatching any wolves they found. We brought in as much food as we could manage.”
Aidan’s eyes brightened.
“Everyone is here? Well done, Orien, well done! Please get up.”
Tarienne suspected that she was the only one who saw the moisture gather in Aidan’s eyes.
“Yes, Sire. Thank you.”
Orien stood, clapping Daien on the back.
“Welcome home, my friend.”
Daien clasped Orien’s hand in a two handed grip grinning at his friend.
“It’s good to be home.”
Turning back to Aidan Orien briefly explained.
“Wolf sightings have become more frequent in the last two weeks and there have been some dark, ugly looking beasts roaming the countryside, some on horseback, some on foot. The people have been afraid but now you have returned, Sire it will raise their spirits.”
Aidan nodded pulling off his gloves tucking them in his saddle bag.
“I must call a gathering to reassure the people. Orien, could you arrange for the horses to be cared for, please? We have ridden hard for many days and they deserve special care.”
“Of course, Sire.”
Orien called some guards to assist with the horses. Aidan strode off to clean up, in preparation for addressing the people of Therin, his mind racing with what he needed to do.
Tarienne met Daien’s gaze.
” ...and the King has returned.”
Daien nodded thoughtfully.
“I wonder if that’s the last we’ll see of ‘just Aidan’?”
“I sincerely hope not.”
Raef and Elyssia slipped off to the guest room next to Tarienne’s chambers. They hadn’t seen Aidan since they arrived but assumed he was resting too. Tarienne and Daien headed to Tarienne’s chambers to get some much needed sleep. Snuggling together in her bed they’d been through too much to have any concern about how them sleeping in the same bed appeared to others. They quickly fell into a deep, exhaustion fuelled sleep.
Aidan couldn’t sleep. He was busy ensuring that everyone was housed and distributing food from the castle stores when he heard shouting outside. Racing to the gates he found Arivaelle panting hard sliding off her mare. Aidan rushed to her worry darting through him stealing his breath. Arivaelle flew into his arms and he held her close until her breathing evened.
“Rivi, what’s wrong? I thought you were with Tere?”
“I was. They needed a messenger to let you know they’re close. Authion, Kyre and father didn’t want me there when the battle begins. They cloaked me in a spell of invisibility so that I didn’t alert Rantec’s army to our presence. The spell only lasts a short while so I had to ride like the wind. I think I scared your guards when I suddenly appeared at the gates.”
Aidan grinned hugging her hard before leading her to his chamber. Kissing her passionately he ordered a bath and some food then told her to rest while he dealt with arrangements for the villagers who had left their homes for the safety of the castle.
After bathing and nibbling at the food Aidan had ordered brought to his chambers Arivaelle flopped on the bed wondering what the maid had thought about her being in the King’s room. Honestly she was too tired to care. Clothed in the one clean dress she’d brought with her she scooted up and placed her head on the pillow surprised that his clean fresh masculine scent was still detectable. Smiling she closed her eyes and drifted into a deliciously restful sleep.
That’s how Aidan found her several hours later, fully dressed laying with her legs dangling over the edge of the bed sound asleep. He gently lifted her feet sliding her body around so she that was safely in the middle and removed her boots. Covering her with a blanket he slipped off his own boots and jacket and lay down beside her looping his arm loosely over her body. Inhaling the sweet scent of her hair he smiled happily and slipped into a deep sleep.
When Aidan awoke the next morning Arivaelle was still asleep. Stroking her hair gently he rolled her onto her back leaning over to gaze at her. His heart thumped wildly. Her eyes fluttered open and an excruciatingly beautiful smile lit her face as her eyes met his. Aidan groaned and couldn’t resist dipping down to her soft, full lips for a kiss. She was deliciously warm and sleepy and Aidan groaned again not wanting to break the contact. He lifted himself off the bed but Arivaelle grabbed his arm and unbalanced him. Aidan fell back onto the bed beside her, laughing.
Arivaelle quickly moved to straddle him so he couldn’t leave, her tousled hair sweeping across his face and chest as she leaned forward. She kissed him. A long, loving kiss and whispered.
“Please don’t go, not yet.”
Aidan’s arms snaked around her pulling her to him. Flipping her over so she was beneath him his heart drummed against his ribs and he wanted desperately to make love to her. His body ached with desire his arousal straining against his now tight trousers.
Supporting himself on his elbows Aidan gazed down at her then leaned forward and began to nibble at her luscious lower lip. She wiggled beneath him and Aidan gritted his teeth fighting for control. It almost brought him undone when she whispered huskily against his lips.
“Aidan, make love with me.”
Aidan stopped breathing for a moment. Closing his eyes he tried to formulate the words that would explain his feelings.
“Rivi, not like this. I want you so much but I want to show you how much I l...”
He paused, an inner debate taking place.
“Arivaelle, I love you and I want to show you how much, but I want to spend all night showing you. Do you understand?”
Arivaelle’s eyes glistened with tears.
His eyes locked onto hers. Her voice barely audible, Aidan had to lower his head close to hear.
“I love you too, Aidan, more than I would have believed possible in the short time since we first met.”
Aidan’s eyes searched hers and his face lit with a huge smile. His heart soared. Plunging down for a long, sensual kiss leaving them both breathless, he couldn’t believe that his wish for a love as wonderful as Tarienne and Daien’s had come true. Stretching himself out on the full length of her his body hard with desire he peppered her face with kisses until she giggled.
“I really should go but I’ll be back as soon as I can. I promise. Why don’t you go visit with Tarienne and Raef they’ll be surprised to see you?”
Slipping her arms around his neck she pulled him down for a light kiss but when she ran her tongue over his lips he couldn’t help tasting her with another long, wet kiss. Arivaelle pushed at his chest.
“You’d better go.”
She pouted playfully. Aidan lifted himself off the bed gazing longingly down at her. She laughed.
Aidan sat on the edge of the bed and pulled on his boots. Grabbing his jacket he blew her a kiss and left. Now he understood Tarienne and Daien’s need to be together, to touch and kiss. Aidan sighed as he made his way to the Great Hall.
Returning to Arivaelle as soon as he’d finished checking on preparations for the impending battle he found that Arivaelle had bathed again just before he tapped on the door. She flung herself into his arms the moment he entered. Aidan was overjoyed at the reception and allowed himself time with her kissing, hugging and caressing before they left to meet with Raef, Tarienne and Daien in the guest room. There were gasps of surprise and a great deal of hugging when Arivaelle entered on Aidan’s arm.
Elyssia and Raef were sitting on the bed their thighs touching their fingers laced together. Aidan’s eyes drifted across the bed the sheets the tangled evidence of their earlier, rather noisy, love making. He knew Rivi had noticed too. Aidan eyes locked with hers. His body responded to the need he could see there. Her breathing quickened causing her breasts to rise and fall seductively.
Aidan shifted his stance his leather trousers suddenly tight and uncomfortable. Arivaelle’s lips were slightly parted and Aidan almost groaned aloud when her tongue flicked out to moisten them. He satisfied himself with hauling her to his side, the contact would have to be enough for now. Instead of appeasing his desire the contact with her warm, soft body and the delicious sweet scent of her escalated it.
Aidan forced his attention back to the others. Daien was sitting on the lounge chair with Tarienne in front of him his legs either side of her. His hands rested on her shoulders, his thumb absently caressing her neck. Daien raised his eyebrows a knowing little smirk on his face as though he knew exactly how Aidan was feeling.
Aidan cleared his throat to gather everyone’s attention and to help himself focus through his barely controlled desire.
“Raef, I assume you contacted Tere as we discussed?”
“They’d only just left Darewood when I let them know what had happened so they turned back to gather our army and will contact us when they’re in position.”
“Good, Rivi says they’re close so it shouldn’t be long before they’re ready.”
Aidan paced around the room, thinking.
“Until they contact us I’m posting double guards around the walls and archers in the towers. We’ll prepare the army for battle and ensure everyone has food and accommodation. There’s not a great deal more we can do. Daien, could you assist Orien in readying the army please? I’ll brief them all tomorrow. Right now I’m starving. Let’s head down to the kitchen.”
There was a chorus of agreement. They made their way to the kitchen together and ate heartily of the roast meats and sweet cakes. Laughing and chatting they briefly allowed themselves to forget the impending battle. After they’d eaten their fill Daien excused himself to find Orien. Raef and Aidan headed off to check the armoury and discuss the battle plan. The three women disappeared into Tarienne’s room to discuss their role in all this. Tarienne loved having Elyssia and Arivaelle at Therin and wished they could stay though she knew that was unlikely, except perhaps for Rivi.
They pulled their chairs together and talked about their men for awhile though Arivaelle was reluctant to tell them much. They all agreed that Tarienne would participate in the fighting, Elyssia would stay back in the castle ready to assist with the wounded while Arivaelle would position herself outside the castle walls on horseback with the archers. Tarienne knew that Aidan and Daien wouldn’t be happy about their decision but this was not negotiable. Tarienne needed to be close to Aidan and Daien especially throughout the battle. Elyssia was a better archer than Arivaelle but was unused to battle conditions. They’d agreed that Arivaelle would stay close to the castle so that she could assist with the wounded as the battle progressed.
When Raef, Daien and Aidan returned the women told them of their plans. All three, pinned their men with determined glares daring them to argue. The men raised their hands in silent defeat knowing there was little chance of convincing the ladies otherwise once their minds were made up.
Tarienne almost chuckled at their easy capitulation but knew Daien would discuss the plans with her later to ensure she wouldn’t put herself in any unnecessary danger.
Gods she wished this was over.
Her focus slid to Daien. His face was creased in a small frown as he held her gaze. The opportunity to ask what was wrong was postponed as Daien left to help Orien prepare the army.
Three days after they arrived back at Therin, Raef heard from Authion and Tere. Raef let them know of the battle plans and informed him that they were in position.On the fourth day, they were battle ready. Mounted soldiers on restless horses filled the streets. The villagers crammed the pavements to cheer them on as they clattered down the narrow paths. The red and maroon banner of Therin flew proudly in the wind. Aidan led the cavalcade his appearance both fierce and regal. He was flanked by Daien, Orien, Raef and Enrith.
Tarienne rode a little further back on Lacey acquiescing, after a huge argument with Aidan. He felt that if she was determined to fight in this battle she would at least be a little safer further back amongst the soldiers. She knew she was safer at Daien’s back than anywhere else but did not want to argue any more on the eve of the battle. Daien swivelled in his saddle to search for her amongst the riders. Locating her he smiled his heart stopping smile, his voice penetrating her thoughts.
I love you, Ren, stay safe, my Warrior Princess.
Tarienne held his gaze.
I love you too, my Melar, my Lover. Never forget I will hold you in my heart always. Stay safe, my handsome, Druid warrior.
Daien turned, urging his horse up close to Aidan’s stallion, in readiness for the battle ahead.
She and Daien had also argued over her insistence on participating in the battle. She understood that Daien feared for her but she could not ignore the prophecy. He knew that she needed to do this, but had confided in her that he had a bad feeling that someone close to them would die. He feared that it would be her. Tears had filled his eyes and the argument was over instantly replaced by ardent and feverish love making. She couldn’t help smiling as she remembered.
When they exited the gates they formed into two straight lines behind Aidan. Aidan reined his horse up and down the line, finally stopping in the middle. Standing in his saddle he addressed his army.
“Today we go to battle for Therin to ensure its inhabitants can live safely and in peace. Do this not for me but for the families of Therin, for your own families, for yourself and ride with honour.”
The army cheered, raised their weapons high and shouted.
Aidan smiled, allowing his gaze to sweep along the lines of soldiers pausing momentarily as his eyes met with his elite King’s guards, then Raef and Tarienne.
Tarienne’s eyes widened as Aidan’s voice softly entered her mind, his eyes meeting hers.
“Stay safe, Dear heart.”
“And you ...my brother.”
Aidan paused. Tarienne could feel his emotions swirling through their mind connection. Aidan nodded almost imperceptibly holding her gaze for a moment longer then turned his stallion to face the forest and wait.
An army of wolves, beasts and men soon emerged from the thickest part of the forest forming a semi circle facing the castle. Aidan did not flinch as they continued to pour out from between the trees. Therin’s army was badly outnumbered but they knew that Authion and Tere were approaching quickly with the Fae army waiting for the signal to attack Rantec’s unsuspecting army from behind. The grunts and growls of the creatures carried across the open space between the two armies. Aidan breathed deeply, steadying himself. His focus on the gathering forces.
Signalling for everyone to move slowly forward his hand raised telling them to await his signal before attacking. Elves on horseback their arrows nocked in readiness lined the outside of the castle walls, Arivaelle with them. Without warning the wolves began to howl and snarl. They launched themselves toward Therin’s army.
Aidan signalled the attack his heart thudding like a war drum. The horses leapt forward thundering toward their foes. Tarienne urged Lacey ahead so she was behind Daien’s stallion. Swords drawn and held high the men shouted their battle cries plunging into the approaching wolf pack. Aidan held his sword high signalling the archers.
Tarienne heard the whoosh of arrows as they hurtled over her head, hitting their targets with deadly accuracy. Beasts and wolves dropped bellowing and yelping. The archers moved forward as Aidan’s army advanced so they could continue to fire without injury to their own.
Tarienne’s short sword slashed and spun in her hand slicing at the wolves as they leapt snapping and snarling, attempting to unseat their enemies. She could hear the screams of terrified horses, the howls of dying wolves and the grunts and bellows of the disfigured beasts as they lumbered between the horses swinging their maces, ripping open both armour and skin. Her heart beat hard against her ribs. A frisson of fear rippled down her spine. Straightening in her saddle she fought on pushing the panic aside and keeping Aidan, Daien and Raef in sight as best she could.
At the centre of the battlefield riding became impossible. Tarienne whispered in Lacey’s ear.
“Back to the castle, Dear heart.”
Leaping off Lacey’s back she landed beside Daien. He stepped in front of her while she gained her balance and drew her sword. Daien’s sword twirled skilfully in his hand while he moved with a deadly grace slicing his way through the enemy.
Tarienne swung her sword hard upward when she caught sight of a mace hurtling toward her head. She managed to deflect it but the force of the blow ripped her sword out of her hand twisting her arm painfully. Tarienne grimaced but without hesitation drew her twin knives and began fighting at Daien’s back. Aidan lifted her sword off the ground near his feet and calling her name tossed it to her. Tarienne caught the hilt sheathed the blade quickly and spun in one smooth movement launching a sideways kick at a wolf about to attack Raef.
Caught unawares the chocolate brown wolf flew sideways yelping as it smacked hard into a nearby tree trunk. Tarienne braced ready for the wolf to launch itself back at her. When it didn’t she looked more closely noticing a long, sharp branch protruding through its ribs and a pool of blood growing beneath it. Despite the bloody battle around her Tarienne shuddered and turned her attention back to a particularly ugly beast lumbering toward her.
Half man, half oxen the creature had one eye larger than the other and drool dripping out the side of its too large mouth. It stood at around seven feet tall and Tarienne knew that she was no match for it physically. Swiftly taking aim she launched one of her knives. The creature’s face went slack as the knife lodged itself between its eyes. Teetering on its huge hoof-like feet it crashed to the ground face first, driving the knife further into its brain.
Tarienne heaved the beast onto its back retrieving her knife. She had no time to wipe its blood off on the grass before several enormous men all with black hair and beards and clad in animal skins barrelled toward Daien, Raef and Aidan. Without conscious thought Tarienne pulled her second knife from her belt launching them both simultaneously. They left her hands with such force that two of the men dropped without a word one with a knife in his eye the other her knife protruding from his throat. He gurgled shock registering on his face as he died in an ever increasing puddle of his own blood.
Tarienne pulled her sword from its sheath and resumed ducking and weaving around Daien. Before long a horn blared the arrival of Authion and the Fae army. Her heart lifted a little however the fighting only increased in intensity and she found herself being swept away from Daien. Fear pierced her heart as the battle forced her further away from Aidan, Daien and Raef. Tarienne could do nothing but focus on her next quarry. She was bruised, bleeding and filthy not to mention, exhausted already. She prayed that the others were safe and fought on switching from her sword, to the knives she’d managed to retrieve when her arm became tired.
The fighting continued long into the night. Raef and Daien managed to keep Aidan in sight, briefly catching site of Kyre cutting a bloody corridor through the beasts. Once both Authion and Tere appeared at their side but the fighting quickly dragged them away. Raef worried for Tarienne. He had not seen her for hours but settled his worry a little by probing for their sibling bond as he knocked a huge beast to the ground, plunging his sword into its chest. There it was, shining like a beacon between them. Refocusing on an enormous, hairy man hurtling surprisingly fast toward him, Raef sidestepped. His attacker tripped, Raef sliced at the man’s head spinning his body, increasing the momentum of his blade. The head rolled away, a macabre site even in the unrelenting bloodshed of the fierce battle. Raef hauled in a deep breath and noted Tere shifting into his wolf form in a shower of gold then sprinting determinedly to their right, to, or at what Raef could not see.
Tarienne had lost sight of her brothers as well as Aidan and Daien and she could do nothing about it at that moment. Surrounded by three men approaching, leering, thinking she was any easy mark, she moved warily readying herself for their attack. Snapping her knives into her fists she turned within the circle having picked out the weakest link.
Just as she tensed to attack Tere appeared in his wolf form launching himself at two of the men, tearing their throats out before they realised what had happened. The third, briefly distracted by the death of his companions underestimated Tarienne as a threat. Seizing the opportunity she spun close and slashed high cutting his throat and opening up his chest on the downward stroke.
Dropping the tip of her sword to the ground Tarienne sucked in a deep breath. Panting, his muzzle bloodied, Tere leaned against her legs as she patted the fur between his ears.
“Thank you, Tere, my friend.”
Briefly, he looked up into her eyes, a wolfish grin on his face then dashed back into the fray. Tarienne wiped the perspiration from her face and staggered a little exhaustion setting in. Sucking in a few steadying breaths she strode toward where she’d last seen Aidan and Daien. Peering through the seething mass of armed and bloody soldiers as they fought, their weapons clanging, Tarienne thought she spotted Daien. Her momentary distraction almost cost her life when a beast approached from behind swinging it’s mace toward her head. She caught the sound reflexively ducking at the last second. However one of the spikes caught the side of her face.
Falling hard Tarienne’s head smashed into a sharp rock protruding from the trampled grass. Fighting to stay conscious her vision blurred and nausea cramped her stomach. When a huge black wolf with ice blue eyes approached her she managed to call out.
Pain knifed through her head as Tere nuzzled her face. Then she knew nothing but blackness.