Dethan went among the men as soon as his face was passably healed so that no one would question the level of his scarring. It was only two hours before dawn and the men had prepared all the night through.
“Are we ready?” he asked Kyran once he found him.
“As ever we will be. So it’s still dawn, then? Because we are ready now if you wish it.”
Dethan thought about it a moment. “No. We go as planned. Are they ready at the wall?”
“Awaiting your word, General.”
“Good. Let me address the men, and then we will see what these Redoe are made of.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Yes, General,” Dethan stressed to Kyran. “I am no lord.”
“You will be once you claim your prize,” Kyran said, his smile almost impish. Dethan moved to cuff him, but Kyran ducked out of reach. “Come now, my lord. It is time you face facts. One night in her bed and you’ll be royal.”
“I can promise you this, Kyran. I will be no more royal then than I am now.”
Kyran chuckled. “If you say so, General. Go on. Speak to the men. Some are scared and can use the—What’s this, now?” Kyran had moved to the window and was looking out into the fairgrounds. The men had been milling about, loosely assembled, awaiting direction from Kyran and Dethan, but now they all seemed to be in a single press of bodies, all their attention rapt in one direction.
“What is it?” Dethan asked, coming to the window.
“I don’t know,” Kyran said.
“Let us go find out, then.”
Dethan pushed past Kyran and strode out of the room. He had armored himself of all but his breastplate, putting off bearing the weight of it against his still-raw skin until the last moment. As he went out into the brisk, dark air and headed for the gathering of his troops, a single voice could be heard in the vastness of the night.
“You do me great honor,” she said loudly, looking down on them from high on the dais, where she had been sitting at the time of his shivov fight. For so small a creature in the face of so many, she seemed strong and regal and powerful. “I have done little to deserve your loyalty, I know. All I am is the daughter of a king. You fight for your homes … your lands … and to protect me and mine. I do not forget that. I will never forget that. You men, you brave, strong men!” She raised her fist into the air, clenching it tightly. “You are my arm! You will swing my sword! You will fight back the beast at our gates!”
The men cheered her, a loud roar of approval.
“And there are none stronger and braver anywhere in this vast world of ours. I swear it!” There was another roar of approval. “For we have the fire of the eight hells in our bellies … and at our helm!” She pointed to Dethan, taking him by surprise. He had not realized she had taken note of him, that she could even see him from where she was standing. “There is your leader! Though not born from Hexis, he was belched from the hells themselves and sent among us to scorch the Redoe in their tents! To chase them back once and for all! To see they know never to darken our doorsteps again!”
The clamor of men turned into a chaos of noise, and Dethan could do nothing but marvel at her. It was just the sort of speech he would have made … only from her it was more powerful than he could ever have imagined. He had thought her courageous before, but now he thought she was simply stunning. She was still holding her hand out to him and the crowd of men parted between them, allowing him to come up to the dais, exactly as he had when he had first come to claim his reward from her. Only this time the prize was something he wanted far more than gold … far more than anything. Burning in the hells, he had imagined any number of things in his efforts to escape his torment, but never had he come close to envisioning something so perfect. So truly heavenly. If Xaxis had given birth to him, then surely Grimu, god of the heavens, had given birth to her.
“My queen commands me,” he said, his voice resonant and deep. He did not shout. He did not need to. The sea of men had grown quiet, waiting expectantly for her to give him her blessing. “And I willingly obey.”
“General Dethan … as they are my arm, let you be my hand, and together you shall crush the throat of the Redoe between our fingers!”
Enthusiastic cheers ripped through the crowd around him, bodies leaping up, weapons thrusting up into the air. Within a heartbeat they were chanting her name.
But Selinda had eyes only for him.
“I will be on the walls at dawn,” she said to him. “I will watch you win me.”
“Know this … Everything I do come the dawn is solely for that goal,” he said. “It has been all along.”
“I know. That was our agreement,” she said.
“No. This goes beyond that agreement,” he said, all the while knowing that he shouldn’t. “I do not wish to win you to gain a crown … though I will not pretend that is not my goal. But I could easily leave, get an army, defeat this city, and become ruler of it that way. I do not need you to do it. But I do need you. I do want to win you.”
As he spoke … as he watched … he saw tears well in her eyes. She nodded and the tears skipped down her cheeks.
“I understand. And I do not want you to win me just to rescue me from a horrible fate otherwise. I could just as easily opt out of my life altogether.”
“Do not say such things,” he said darkly, moving closer to her and pulling her down from the dais. He drew her close the instant her feet were on the ground. The roar of the crowd around them gave them a sort of privacy and they felt encapsulated within it. He reached to touch gloved fingers to her face, wishing they could be skin-to-skin. She had the softest skin imaginable and he longed to feel it. “You must fight, Selinda. If for some reason I do not come back to you, you must promise me to fight Grannish. Fight him or leave. Before you consider simply taking your life, consider that there are a dozen new lives awaiting you beyond these walls.
“But I know you and know you do not wish to abandon your people. Be strong for them, as you are being strong right now. Listen to them call your name. They love you, fight for you, and would do so at any moment. Ask them to overrun the fortress and string Grannish up for you, and they will. They are your arm … I am your hand … we will not let you down.”
“Please don’t,” she whispered, running her hand over his broad chest, smoothing his shirt. “Please come back to me.”
“I will. Do not be afraid.”
“I am not,” she lied, holding her chin up. “Now, where is your armor? Your breastplate?”
“Inside my headquarters,” he said with a chuckle. “Never fear. I am immortal but not stupid. I may not die from many blows, but they can take me down and the army with me. I will not let that happen. And I like my head firmly attached, so … my only choice is to win and come back to you.”
“Good.” She moved away from him, as hard as it was, and went to her horse. He helped her into the saddle, and she looked around at the incredible force of men Dethan had put together. “I will be on the wall. I will watch from there.”
“Be careful,” he warned her. “If they have archers, you are to get inside immediately.”
She encouraged her horse and rode away slowly, reaching to touch hands with the press of men who followed her progress away.
They loved her, Dethan thought, marveling over her. But then again, she was easy to love. She had done much to gain their devotion. She had conquered this city in a fashion previously alien to him. He had always used force … but she had used gentility and kindness. She had not sat on the power of her birthright alone. She had given to her people everything she could in spite of the limitations Grannish imposed upon her.
He had faith that she would find another way, should something happen to him. He did not want her to have to fight anymore, but if she had to she would.
“Tonkin, my arm—”
There was a scream that cut him off. Then another. The sound of whistling air and then solid thumps and clangs rose up all around him.
“Archers!” he shouted, knowing the sound all too well. The rain of arrows came faster and thicker. “Kyran! Get the men against the wall!” He looked up at the wall and saw city guardsmen falling, riddled with arrows, or fleeing away from them. “Tonkin, get Selinda inside! Remember, I am depending on you! Kyran, I want a contingent up on the wall immediately! I want to see what they are doing!”
Not that they could see much in the dark of night. But they would see what they could. The question was not so much what they were doing but why they were doing it. Why then? Why, after all these weeks of simply sitting out there, content to lay siege, did they just happen to attack … mere hours before Hexis was scheduled to do the same at dawn. Now the element of surprise had been lost and instead they were the ones taken by surprise.
The city was utter chaos within minutes. Civilians and soldiers both were running around in panic. The screams of women filled the air. Dethan rushed up the steps of the dais and shouted for the men’s attention until he had a large portion of it, the immediate crowd calming. He issued orders sharply, splitting his forces—into those who would wait against the wall and those who would be at the gate—and calling forth his archers. He then ran for the wall. He thundered up the stairs alongside a group of archers. By the time he came out into the open air of the wall the initial panic had come to a halt. He could hear Kyran’s voice and the voices of other commanders corralling the attention of the men below.
“Archers, make ready!” Dethan said, his voice booming out. The command was echoed up and down the wall, and the sound of fire catching was heard as the archers lit the ends of their arrows. The Redoe lived in tents made of fabric … fabric treated with wax to keep the rain out. Fire was their worst enemy, and Dethan was about to rain it down on them.
“Loose!” he shouted.
As a single entity, the archers closest to him released their arrows. The command echoed down the wall and one group of arrows after another went flying from the wall. It would have been better if they could have seen their targets, but that was not to be for another two hours.
“Ready again!” he shouted.
But before they could release, an answering wave of arrows came sailing over the wall. Before he could take cover, an arrow hit Dethan squarely in the left shoulder. He went down with the force of it and he cursed viciously from the pain. But he had suffered much worse, and he recovered quickly. The men could not see him wounded or perceive that he was out of the battle in any way. He grabbed the shaft of the arrow in his hand and with a mighty pull yanked the thing free of his flesh.
“Gods!” he hissed, taking the pain of it on his knees for a minute, throwing the arrow down. Then he was up on his feet and commanding his men once more. “Loose!”
There was a moment’s hesitation as the men absorbed the sight of him shrugging off his wounds. But then, immediately after, a volley of fiery arrows left the top of the wall.
The two forces traded arrows like that for the better part of half an hour. The Redoe tried to send flaming arrows back at them, but very few made it over the wall, proving that they had no experience in shooting them. Flaming arrows were heavier at the head and required adjusting for the weight of them.
As the flaming arrows of the Hexis forces hit their marks, the Redoe encampment began to burn. One tent after another caught fire and soon the entire encampment was ablaze enough to light it as clearly as if it were a room being lit by braziers. It revealed that the encampment had very few people in it, the forces of the Redoe sitting hidden somewhere in the dark. Since there was only farmland beyond the wall, that left little in the way of hiding places.
Kyran was readying troops at the gate, preparing to set them loose on the Redoe the moment Dethan commanded it.
That’s when Dethan realized where they were hiding.
“Kyran! Don’t open the gates! Make certain they are well locked!” he shouted down to him. “The Redoe are lying in wait along the walls! We wait until daylight, when we can see them!”
“Understood!” Kyran shouted back.
The Redoe were counting on darkness as well as surprise to be their advantages, and already they were half right. But now that the initial shock of the attack was over, the men had regrouped themselves and were ready for whatever would come next.
“Fire down along the wall!” Dethan shouted to the archers.
The archers lit arrows, moved to the edge of the wall, and fired. Screams and shouts rose up to them from below and the fire of the arrows lit up the Redoe troops. Immediately they began to fall back into the darkness.
“Shoot again! Follow them!”
And so it went, the archers shooting into darkness, until Dethan finally ordered them to stop, letting the Redoe fall back to their torched encampments.
Dethan cursed as he came down off the wall, his shoulder hurting and bleeding heavily. But his temper was high and it kept him from noticing.
The Redoe had known they were coming. Someone had forewarned them. He would bet his immortal soul that he knew exactly who it had been. But he had no time or luxury to pursue that just then. He found a page and had him help dress him in his breastplate.
He had been caught off guard once already; he would not let it happen again.
By the time daylight came, the forces of Hexis were itching for action. The trading of arrows had stopped long ago, Dethan conserving what was left of their ammunition for when they could see their targets. Meanwhile, he had ordered the cauldrons of hot wax fired up, the liquid ready to be dumped over the walls in case the Redoe came again and tried to scale them. They would have been ready for the initial attack had it gone off at dawn as they had planned, but … there was nothing they could do about the mistakes of the past. They were ready now. That would have to be enough.
Once dawn arrived, he ordered the gates unlocked and the men, more than ready, poured out of the portal the instant it was opened, with a roar of anger lifting from deep in the bellies of furious men. These men had been raped of their crops by the Redoe again and again, season after season, and they’d had their fill of it. Finally, today, they would be able to fight back. They would fight back from poverty and fight back from starvation.
The battle was tremendous. Dethan was in the thick of it with them and so was able to see, with surprise, that the supposedly native, simple Redoe were heavily armored against the Hexis forces. But the armor that protected them was not the advantage they had hoped it would be because it was clear they were not used to moving under the weight of it. The Hexis forces, while more exposed, were freer to move, faster on their feet, and could swing wide without encumbrance.
Dethan had no trouble moving under his armor. The god-made metal was feather-light. Each time a Redoe blade struck, it glanced off or bounced back. There wasn’t so much as a scratch to indicate the armor had been struck at all.
Dethan slammed his weapon into one man, pulled it out, and swung it into another. Both dropped dead to the ground as Dethan looked up at the walls of Hexis. True to her word, Selinda stood there. He could tell because she had dressed completely in scarlet red, a beacon to any man who went in search of her. They all knew their grandina was there to support them, that she was proud of them for fighting for their city. But Dethan also saw the danger of it. She made herself a target, easy to see and aim for. But he knew she would not care. He would have to have faith that Tonkin was watching over her, protecting her as best as he was able. Dethan focused on the battle at hand, finding himself somehow energized by the thought of her standing there. All exposed and in danger. The only way he could keep her safe was to kill … to destroy … to win. Dethan became a vicious machine of death, his sword flying in and out of bodies, his emotions for Selinda riding high within him. He should not let it. He should remain calm and focused … and yet he had never felt more focused in his life. She was the arm, he was the hand, and together they fought with vicious perfection.
The Redoe finally faltered around midday. The hot sun baked them in their armor, the relentless mud-farmer soldiers of Hexis throwing themselves into the battle with a fury the Redoe simply did not feel in return. The Redoe were not defending their home. The Redoe, in the end, had thought Hexis would be an easy conquest and were now discovering that was not the case.
They began to retreat.
Dethan raised the flag being held by the page near him and waved it furiously. He waited until he saw the same colored flag raised up on the wall, it too waving furiously.
And with a roar, over the hillside came a second force of Hexis soldiers, this one fully behind the Redoe … leaving them nowhere to run, sandwiched perfectly between the two. And with a new injection of fighting blood, it was clear the Redoe had no hope of victory.
It was clear even to the shocked eyes of the woman watching from the top of the walls. Seeing that unexpected troop of soldiers come over the rise to fight for Hexis had to be the most beautiful thing she had ever seen in her life. At first, upon seeing them from the wall, she had thought they were Redoe troops lying in wait. But it was quickly evident whose side they were on, as it became evident who was going to win the day. The war. By the end of the day the Redoe would be gone … for good.
Selinda turned and ran from the wall. She grabbed her waiting horse, Tonkin by her side every step of the way, helping her into her saddle and then mounting beside her. Together they rode madly for the fortress. Selinda raced through the stone corridors and into her father’s offices. To her relief, Grannish was not with him. She had feared Grannish would be watching over him, ready to strike him down the minute he heard the battle was being lost.
“Father! You must come with me! Your safety is at stake!” she said.
“Whatever for?” her father asked. “Have you not heard? The battle is all but won! We are victorious against the Redoe. There is nothing to fear now.”
“Father, I know you have never listened to a word I have said against him, but surely now you must see that Grannish is not the man you thought he was. He has failed you against the Redoe. Firru was his choice, his general. You can see now how useless he truly was.”
“Yes. A poor choice,” her father agreed. “But we all make mistakes.”
“Mistakes? Is that what you call it? We were nearly overrun by the Redoe! That is no small mistake! That is a crucial and dangerous flaw! Father, he is an evil, horrible man. Why can you not see him for what he is? And now that Dethan has won, now that he will claim me as his prize, Grannish will know his last chance at becoming grand will have slipped away. He will lash out and he will hurt this family.”
“Preposterous,” her father scoffed. “Grannish has never had anything but this family’s best interests in his heart. Now, I am tired of hearing about this! You are endlessly harping on this and I forbid you to speak of it any longer! I know you hate him, that you did not wish to marry him … Well, you have your wish. You will not be marrying him. I have given you your desire. Can you not be satisfied?”
“You have given it to me?” she echoed, completely aghast. “You gave me nothing! I fought for it! With my heart, my soul, and my body, I fought for it! You have been so blind! I am warning you, Father. Your life is at stake here. Come with me now until Dethan has returned and secured Grannish. Once he does so, we will be safe. Please. What can it hurt you to just come with me?”
“I will not come,” her father said dismissively, shaking his head. “You are being dramatic as usual and I am losing patience with you. Now go to your rooms and wait for word that the battle is won.”
“Father, please! Why is it so hard for you to believe me? Just once! Just this once will you not give me—”
“I said go!” her father thundered. “I have had enough of you!”
“And I have had enough of you!” she railed back. “You do not deserve to be grand! A ruler who lets others do the ruling for him should not rule! A man so blind he cannot see the evil under his own roof does not deserve the care of the people. You are supposed to be protecting them! Protecting me! Instead you offer us up like sacrifices just to keep your life comfortable. Very well. Remain blind. It is your life and you can throw it away if you wish. I will not risk mine or my brother’s!”
She turned hard on her heel and swept through the door …
… and crashed into Grannish.
He was just as startled by the contact as she was, but only for a moment. He reached out with iron hands and grabbed hold of her arms. Then he shoved her with all his strength until she was thrown back and sent sprawling across the floor. She fought off the shock of it, scrambling to get back onto her feet, but Grannish was there, and with a mighty kick he caught her in the side of her ribs and sent her flying against the far wall.
She crumpled to the floor, coughing and gasping for air, trying to force her now-bruised lung to work.
“Grannish! What is the meaning of this? Why would you do this?” her father demanded, moving hurriedly to her side. He turned his back on Grannish and bent to help her up. She couldn’t speak fast enough to warn him. All she could do was shout out, “Father!”
At least, she thought in that sharp second of time, her father had come to her. At least at the very end she knew he truly did care for her in some way.
And then Grannish drove a dagger through her father’s back, through his heart, and out past his ribs on the front side. Shock registered along with pain on her father’s face. It was only a second. Just one second between heartbeats, but she finally saw clarity in his eyes. Finally saw the veil of blindness lift from him.
But it was too late.
Her father fell forward onto her.
Grannish reached out to grab her father’s body and haul him off her. Still, she was stained with her sire’s blood and with the shock of his death. Grannish pulled her free and wrapped his hands around her throat, dragging her up to her feet and slamming her up against the wall.
But out of nowhere came Tonkin’s fist, crashing into Grannish’s jaw, knocking the other man back and allowing Selinda to crumple back down to the floor on her hands and knees, again gasping for breath.
“You! You answer to me!” Grannish spat at Tonkin, working his bruised jaw as he faced off with the page. “This fortress is surrounded by the city guard … the guard that works for me. The army, as we speak, is being locked outside the city walls. This fortress and this city are mine now! If you ever want to see your farm again—”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass about my farm,” Tonkin spat. “I never have. I work for General Dethan and always have. Everything I told you was a whole lot of nothing. Things you would have found out anyway. You think you have this fortress, but I promise you, you don’t. And I won’t let you at the grandina again.”
Tonkin stood between Selinda and Grannish, his fists up.
Then two fortress guards entered the room. Grannish turned to them and said, “Quickly. He means to hurt the grandina!”
“No!” Selinda rasped out. But the guard did not hear her. They charged poor Tonkin with weapons drawn. Tonkin bravely tried to fight them off, but he was outnumbered. He was fully engaged and there was nothing he could do to stop Grannish from grabbing Selinda by her hair and throat and dragging her from the room. She tried to fight him off, but as usual he was much too strong for her. He pulled her down the hall to his offices and threw her inside. There, she fell at the feet of a be-robed mem.
“Very well,” Grannish said to the old woman. “Here’s the bride. Marry us.”
“No! I will not marry you!” Selinda said. “You cannot force me!”
Grannish grabbed a dagger off his desk, unsheathed it, and held the point beneath her chin so closely it broke the skin.
“I can do whatever I like. And once we are wed the forces of this city will have no choice but to follow me.”
“I will be grand. They will have no choice but to protect their grand!”
“You will never be grand,” she spat at him. “I am granda now, Mem,” she said, addressing the woman whose robes marked her as being a mem for Xaxis. “I command this city now that my father is dead! Dead at this man’s hands! If you try to wed us, when General Dethan returns and retakes this fortress—which I promise you he will do—I will see to it you and your entire order are ejected from this city once and for all! But if you listen to me, if you obey your granda, then you will have a high standing in my regime.”
“You will have no regime,” Grannish spat. “Marry us!” he commanded of the mem.
The mem stood there a moment, seemingly indecisive. Then she turned and walked out of the room.
Selinda sighed with relief.
“Come back here! I will have you caught and your skin will be flayed from your body inch by inch!”
“She is gone,” Selinda said, her bearing proud, her tone strong. “Don’t you see? This city is tired of your tyranny. They belong to me now. Me and my child, the baby in my body conceived by this city’s true general! Your power is at an end!”
“Not if I kill your whole fucking family, it isn’t! It will leave only me, the conqueror, to rule! And I’m going to start by killing you, you disgusting little slut!”
Grannish lunged for her. She scrambled back from him, fighting her skirts every inch of the way. But eventually he caught her and held the dagger at her breast while choking off her air at her throat.
“I should have known you were fucking him. I saw the way you lusted after him. Flirting and throwing yourself at him. Flaunting this mangled face of yours. And that’s fine. If he likes to fuck a gnarled up husk of a bitch, that’s fine. But right now I’m going to squeeze the life out of you slowly, like I have been wanting to do for months,” he growled at her, spittle flying from his lips as his face mottled red.
He did as he promised, crushing her throat with his bare hand until she couldn’t breathe. Then he released just enough for her to catch a breath before doing it again. And again. And again. All the while he glared into her eyes.
No. She wouldn’t allow this! She refused to let this monster kill her and her child!
He will not win!
And with that fierce promise, an explosion of flame burst out of her. Grannish ignited instantly, his hair conflagrating and burning to a crisp, his clothes lighting up like dry tinder. He fell away from her and she cried out as her clothes caught fire. She rolled across the floor, extinguishing most of the fire, then scrambled to her feet. She whipped around to face Grannish, who was rolling across the floor, screaming at the top of his voice in a shrill pitch that cut through her … with satisfaction. Focusing on him, she called up her hatred toward him, and another burst of flame seared out of her and into him.
By the time she sent a third volley of fire at him he was barely flopping around on the floor. But she would not be content, would not be safe, she thought, until he was ashes. The stench of burning flesh barely penetrated her senses. She kept him burning until he was mere bone on the scorched stone floor.
Panting for breath, she stumbled away from him, giving him a wide berth even though there was no reason to fear him any longer. She rushed across the hallway to where Tonkin had been left fighting on her behalf.
He was wounded and on his knees, still trying to fight one guard back, the other lying wounded on the floor.
“Enough!” she shouted when the one remaining guard went to lunge for Tonkin once again.
The imperiousness of her tone drew him up short and he wheeled around to look at her.
“I am your granda and I command you to stop this very instant! The man you followed is dead … by my hand! If you do not wish to face the same fate, you will heed my command and you will stop!”
The soldier looked unsure for a moment, so she extended her arm and pointed to a chair in the corner of the room. She was exhausted and did not know if she could do any more, but she recalled all her feelings and frustrations of these past months and threw it out toward the chair.
The object exploded, splinters of wood spraying everywhere, each one burning as it fell to the floor.
The soldier dropped his weapons with a clatter and sank to his knees, his eyes wide with shock and fear.
Completely drained, Selinda could barely keep upright. But she had no choice. Dethan needed her. He had been locked outside of the city with the Redoe. She raced through the fortress, commanding the doors be opened, ruling Grannish’s men into submission with just the power of her voice and bearing. These men were good men. Men who had been beholden to Grannish out of fear or blackmail. All they needed to hear was that he was dead and she was granda, and they made way for her with total obedience.
Tonkin was with her the entire way, his arm hanging useless on the left side, but his right hand immediately there for her when she raised her foot toward the stirrup of her saddle. He hoisted her up and she took her seat. Looking down on him, she said, “Rest now, Tonkin. You have proven yourself a fine and loyal page. I will see to the care of your master until you are well.”
She reined her horse around and kicked him into a run. Her hair had come undone and now streamed like a black banner behind her. She rode up to the gates, shouting at the top of her lungs. “What news?! What news?!”
She dismounted with haste and ran for one of the wall towers, taking the stairs madly, breathing hard by the time she reached the top of the wall. She rushed to the edge of the wall and looked down on the battlefield. What she saw made her heart stop. The Redoe were all on their knees, kneeling before the power of her army. Walking the line of the prisoners, still blissfully unaware of how he had been locked out of the city, was Dethan. She was so relieved to see him that tears burned in her eyes. Before she could stop herself, she screamed his name.
And by some miracle, he heard her, looking up toward the wall, shielding his eyes from the bright afternoon sun. She waved to him with fierce strength, then rushed to the other side of the wall and shouted down.
“Open the city gates! Your granda commands you!”
News of the grand’s death had not even begun to circulate, so they hesitated several moments, moments in which she held her breath. Then one of the men echoed the command, and the powerful winches and chains began to move and the massive gates were opened. Selinda was already running down the tower steps again and hurrying through the crowd of pushing and cheering people. People were just beginning to understand that the Redoe had been captured and their city was free of the grip of danger.
Selinda ran out of the city, through a field littered with dead and dying men, and straight into Dethan’s surprised arms.
And then … then she began to cry.
“But how? How were you able to get all those men behind the Redoe?” Selinda asked him later.
They were lying on a pile of soft fur rugs, in front of a crackling fire. She was in his arms and wearing nothing but her shift. He was as naked as the day he’d been born. As they lay there her hand drifted over the dips and swells of his warm, muscular body. It seemed that through the last weeks of training he had grown more and more defined, sculpted into a fine male beauty full of power and strength, and every night he had healed into that definition. Lying naked she could see it all at once, a landscape of energy and muscle.
“Ah. Would you have me give away all my secrets?” he asked teasingly.
“Yes! Tell me,” she insisted.
“I smuggled them out … one by one, over the past few weeks. I picked them from the strongest and most skillful of men and had them camp out in the woods beyond the rise, behind the Redoe. It was risky. They could have been discovered at any time, but they managed to succeed and came in just when they were needed. And I think, after all those weeks of waiting, of being away from their homes, they were ready for it. They were ready to go home and go through the Redoe to get there.”
“Well, it was brilliant,” she told him, sliding her body onto his, pushing him down onto the rugs. She straddled his hips, rising up like a beautiful goddess of fire with the backdrop of the fireplace behind her.
“What, this again?” he asked with a humorous glint in his eyes and a grin on her lips. “You’ve used me twice already, woman.”
“And I’ll use you at least twice more. No, wait … I will not put limits on us. I think we will spend all the day tomorrow making love. I am granda and I command it to be so.”
“Is that so? Well, I have troops to see to and prisoners to manage. We have to decide what to do with the Redoe left living. There are many women and children, and what men are left are either wounded or strong bucks in need of taming. I have them chained together sitting in the fairgrounds under guard at the moment, but that cannot stand.”
“Well, I was thinking we ought to make them work to repair all the damage they have done to the city and the farms. Then, with so many of their men dead or wounded, we should simply banish them back to their desert territories, warning them never to return again or they will face much harsher retributions. If we threaten them with a more severe punishment in the future … say slavery … I would think that would be enough to keep them where they belong. It is very unlikely they will pose any kind of trouble in the future.”
“This is true.” He looked at her in surprise. “I would have thought you would seek a more bloodthirsty or punitive approach after so many years of being abused by them. I’m certain such a course will not be popular with many.”
“I am not out to make the popular choice … only the right one. Do not act so surprised that I would come up with a good solution,” she said with a pout as she ran her hands over the hard planes of his chest.
“I am not. Not at all. You were made to be granda,” he told her. “Unlike your father, you will be a ruler in touch with her people, in touch with the workings of her government. I know you will not let it slide into the hands of others. Your only flaw will be the gentle kindness of your heart.”
“I will make one exception as far as letting others rule for me, Dethan, and that is you. Oh,” she breathed, “I will need your help these coming months. My father was right. I do not know how the city is run on a daily basis. And with Grannish gone … Who knows what damage he has left behind?”
“I will be here,” he told her, his hand coming up, his fingers burrowing into her hair, and his palm cradling her cheek. She closed her eyes and pressed her lips to his palm with intensity. “But only for as long as it takes you to learn,” he felt the need to remind her. The words felt cold and harsh even to him, so he was not surprised when she jerked a little and her eyes flew open. She drew a breath and opened her mouth, fear racing across her features. “I will come back,” he told her hastily, hating to see her so wounded by his words. Hating the fact that she would be alone without him for months, maybe even years at a time. “But I have a promise to keep. A destiny to uphold. Weysa would never allow me the peace of a life in one city, safe here in your arms. And I must win her approval … so perhaps one day she might help me to free my brothers.”
“I know! I know the reasons why! I … I cannot bear it. I simply cannot bear the idea of … Dethan … I cannot do this without you.”
“Of course you can,” he soothed her. “You must and you will. You are stronger than you think you are. And after the way you handled Grannish … there is no one who would dare touch this city now. Already the city is abuzz with news of their ‘fire queen.’ It will spread even farther. Soon the entire continent will know that the mouth to the hells is guarded by a fierce queen of fire.”
He pulled her down to him, his mouth touching hers in the gentlest of kisses. He took a breath and touched his forehead to hers. Oh, how he wished he could tell her of all the emotions for her that had driven him in battle today. How he wished he had the right to tell her …
But he did not have that right. It would be unfair to give her emotions only to take them away again.
So instead he gave her this. Physical love. He put his hands on her thighs, sliding them under the shift, running them over her skin. His fingertips brushed her belly, tickled against her navel, then drifted upward.
“But for now you are my fire queen,” he said softly against her lips. “A fire you fill me with every time I touch you.”
She drew away slightly before he could claim her mouth in a kiss again. “And … you are not afraid of me? I … You burn and suffer every night … To be so close to fire … fire I cannot always control …”
“I am not afraid of you,” he assured her, drawing her to the heated kiss of his lips before breaking away and saying, “I have been burned by far worse than you. In fact, had I been given your fire as my curse, I would never have learned my lesson.”
That made her smile in spite of herself. Her hands moved over him again, her fingertips coasting over the flat coins of his nipples, her nails scraping over them until he hissed in a breath and began to grow hard between the press of their bodies.
“I don’t know why you insist on seeing me as strong. I do not see it,” she said, shaking her head and looking away from him.
“That is a lie,” he admonished her. “You have been nothing but strong today and you know it.”
“Today … but all the days before … when Grannish was beating me … I was—”
Selinda gasped as she was whipped hard around, suddenly beneath him, her back against the furs and her body trapped by his.
“When Grannish was what?” he said, his tone very dark and very dangerous. His green eyes were shadowed with a storm of emotions. Emotions she couldn’t begin to guess at, so she assumed he was angry with her.
“I-I-I didn’t want you to worry … That is, you needed to focus on other things and I was afraid—”
“So you let him beat you? Rather than tell me and let me deal with it, you suffered in silence? What if he had maimed you?” He gave her a fierce shake. “What if he had killed you? You knew he was capable of anything.”
“He would not have killed me. He needed me,” she reminded him. “However much he hated the idea of me, he knew the only path to the throne was through me.”
“So … all those times you did not come to me … were they because of these beatings?”
She didn’t dare lie to him, so she simply nodded. He cursed baldly, then cursed again and shook her once more. “You little fool. Brave, brave little fool. And you dare lay there and tell me you are not strong?”
His mouth came down on hers with a searing, volatile heat. He pressed into her, his emotions coloring his kisses from top to bottom. He was unhappy with her, but knowing he could have lost her at any moment all along, it completely undid him. He devoured her, his body tense and taut and growing harder for her by the second. Her hands were on him in earnest by then and he returned the favor. Their kisses became torrid, the energy between them nearly violent as he yanked her shift up and over her head, flinging it almost angrily away.
Now her delicate body was laid out before him. She had bruises on her skin from Grannish’s rough handling of her, and it only fueled his emotions of the moment. To think she had suffered even worse than this again and again … It was too much to bear.
He told her so with fierce kisses and ferocious caresses. He then left her mouth and made his way down her body with scraping teeth and a laving tongue. He bit at her nipples, each in turn, but not enough to hurt. If it were in his power, he would never see her hurt again.
He stroked his hands down the pale length of her thighs, rising up on his knees enough to see her but never leaving his perch between her legs. His erect staff lay intimately against her, the tip rubbing through her curls again and again until she grew so impassioned that she lifted her hips, seeking the hot feel of him. He found himself sliding through wet folds, his eagerness to have her multiplying exponentially at the feel of her.
He grunted softly, gritted his teeth behind the lips still tasting her fine, soft skin. If ever she knew how strongly she pulled at him, then maybe he would be lost. She would have total control over him. But as much as he wanted her, he could not let that happen.
He slid down her body, drawing his erection away from her, making her rumble out a sound of frustration. A frustration he would not allow to live for very long. He put his mouth on her in a fierce, fast swirling of his tongue. She moaned, her thighs clenching against his shoulders, her heels pressing into his back. She squirmed beneath him, her hips lifting rhythmically against his mouth until she was wet and panting and hot with the need to find release. But every time she came close he changed on her, either pulling back for a moment or drifting his kisses away from her clitoris and down closer to her vaginal opening. He thrust his tongue inside her and she cried out, writhed beneath him, begged him to give her release.
He did not. Not with his mouth. Instead he lurched up over her body and kissed her mouth as her drove himself deeply—oh so deeply—inside her. He ejected a sound of pleasure, a sound she echoed as her fingers and nails dug into his shoulders. He could come right then, just like that, within only an instant of feeling her around him.
He did not.
What he did do was move in and out of her with slow, long, aching thrusts. Feeling her wetness all over him, feeling the heat of her body and the muscles within clenching around him, it was more than a sane man could bear.
Selinda had made love with him more times than she could count, but there was something different this time. A quiet desperation … one that outshone even the hasty, desperate way they had made love before he had gone into battle. It compelled her to soften her hands against him, to stroke them through his hair as if she were comforting a child. All the while, she was swept up in a maelstrom of passion. The dichotomy of it was breathtaking. It left her overwhelmed with sensation and emotion.
She orgasmed forcefully, the pleasure thundering through her like a violent storm.
“Ah gods!” he cried out as she clenched around him with power and heat. He couldn’t restrain himself a moment longer. With a flurry of fierce thrusts inside her, he drove himself to his own release, his entire being ejaculating into her in a way that blinded him. Crippled him. Made him want to cry out for all that he could not have with her.
When he collapsed atop her he had wetness in his eyes and no breath left in his body. He gasped and burrowed his face against the furs until the telltale emotions were wiped away from his visage.
He could not love her. He would not. He had never loved a woman in all his life. Not either one of his wives … though he had become great friends with each of them. But never had he felt like this. This … this loss of control. This insane rush of emotions, which had no place in his life. Oh, he wished he were free to love her, but it just was not to be … so he must grit his teeth and move on with his tasks. He would see her safely ensconced in her rule within the city and then he would leave.
There was no other choice.
“Dethan,” she whispered breathlessly in his ear. “I am carrying your child.”