Despite the recent loss of his parents, Ash Woodhart is content living with his siblings, deep in the southern countryside of his family’s domain. Ren, an aloof boy with no home and no family, is an intrusion forced on Ash by his eldest brother. Ash dislikes Ren on sight, but as the years pass and the two come to understand each other, his feelings for Ren gradually morph into something more. However, Ren shows no sign of reciprocating those feelings—and as Ash’s recklessness leads him into danger, the truth may come too late.
“Breathe. Remember, your emotions should aid but never control you, or you will lose control of your Gift in turn. You must direct your feelings, not only your will, if you wish to master it.”
Ash sighed, weary of hearing the same thing yet again. Still, he attempted to curb his growing exasperation and tried once more to send a gust of wind through the air to blow the stubbornly motionless scrap of parchment off the chair that stood facing him.
Nothing. The air was still, and he was all too relieved when his lesson was interrupted by a knock at the door.
“Mara. My apologies for the intrusion.” Lelande—usually a stickler for manners—still had his riding cloak on. Ash peered at him curiously.
“Not at all, my lord. We were nearly finished for the morning—but who is this?”
Lelande stepped to the side, motioning to a figure standing behind him whom Ash had failed to notice until now.
“Ash, Mara, this is Ren.”
Ash’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. Sure enough, Lelande cleared his throat and glanced toward him.
“He is to be Ash’s new…companion, starting from today. Ren, this is Mara, who has been a part of our household for many years as our instructor and resident herbalist. And this is my youngest brother, Ash.”
Ash ignored the introduction. “You mean he’s to be my bodyguard.” He barely spared a look for the pale blank-faced boy standing mutely at Lelande’s side, glaring instead at his brother with all the withering scorn a ten-year-old boy could muster.
Lelande turned to Mara. “Perhaps you could excuse us for the moment. I think I had best speak with my brother alone.”
“Of course.” Mara smiled and patted Ash on the shoulder before leaving the room, closing the door behind her.
An awkward silence followed before Lelande continued as though there had been no break in the conversation between them. “I judged companion to be the better term, as the former seemed so much to your disliking.”
“I don’t need a bodyguard. Or a so-called companion.” Ash was adamant.
“So you say. But as it was either that or confine you to your chambers, posting a guard at your door day and night, I thought this to be the kinder option—for both our sakes. Now, pray, stop being rude and introduce yourself properly.”
Ash let the silence drag out a moment, just to make it perfectly clear he still thought no better of Lelande’s decision than he had several days ago, before finally looking at Ren again. “Ash Woodhart,” he said, still glaring.
“Well met, my lord.”
Ren’s tone was deferential, his expression bland. Ash looked him over and was not impressed—mostly because if his brother was going to force a bodyguard on him no matter his objections, he had at least expected someone more bodyguard-like.
He had envisioned somebody large and intimidating, a man heavily muscled and bristling with weapons, perhaps even with a great prickly beard like the famed mercenaries he had heard of from far to the east. Yet this boy—and he was, unmistakably, a boy—stood several inches shorter than Ash himself. To add insult to injury, even if there had been a single weapon in sight, Ash doubted Ren would have known how to wield it. Everything about him was neat, nondescript and entirely non-threatening, from his plain dark riding clothes to his cropped brown hair with not a strand out of place. Even his eyes were closer to gray than blue.
Ash already knew he was going to dislike him.
“I thought you said bodyguard, not playmate.” He turned his glare back to Lelande. “No offense to little Ren here, but I’m pretty sure I’d be the one getting him out of trouble.”
“Would you have preferred to be followed about by a full-grown warrior rather than someone closer to you in age?” Lelande’s tone was mild in the face of Ash’s obvious disdain. “At the very least, I’ll rest better knowing you won’t be clambering about the mountainside alone from now on.” His gaze lingered over Ash’s tangled hair before moving pointedly down to his arms, bare below the elbow, taking in the dozen fresh scuffs and scratches amid the two dozen old ones. “Incidentally, you might keep in mind that little Ren here is a full two summers older than you, and in many matters far more experienced. Indeed, I believe you could learn much from him.”
Ash scowled and rolled the sleeves of his shirt back down—a habit for which he was frequently being reprimanded. He was constantly being told it was not befitting for a gentleman to push up his sleeves—not even when it was very hot outside. “I can take care of myself just fine. Just because my Gift—”
Lelande held up a hand, forestalling his brother’s protest. “Rest assured, your Gift has nothing to do with it. This is not a punishment, Ash. I am simply thinking of your safety.”
That his last words were probably true did nothing to assuage Ash’s temper. “So I’m to be followed around for the rest of my life then?” The thought of having his personal space permanently invaded by anyone, least of all this whey-faced boy, was intolerable.
“You’ll have your privacy. Ren is to have his own bedchamber, and much of his time will be occupied in training with the men while you take your lessons. But in every other way, Ren is to be treated as a member of this family. You will accept his presence and allow him to accompany you wherever you may go outside this house. In this, you have no choice. After you come of age, I may rethink the matter.” Lelande stared levelly at him. “Trouble finds you, Ash, even when you’re not seeking it out, and your well-being is more important to me than your pride. So for my sake, if not for your own…please?”