Lilia has been working for the Zel family for half a year, and she has enjoyed being the administrator of the design clan. When the clan is called upon to participate in an ancient ritual and the only clan member who is eligible is pregnant, Lilia has to step into the breach to run and hide for three days in order to retain the rights over thousands of acres of land.
The Almoss family has tried everything to get the Zels out of the competition, but finally, it comes down to calling up their eldest son from duty as a forest ranger half a world away and offering him a place with them once again.
When Lilia and Xeric collide, they are each looking out for their own interests, but when he offers her an option, she might be willing to oblige.
The day of the hunt was going to be bright and sunny. Currently, the sun had yet to make an appearance, but they were walking to the stones in the Zel family group, all ready for the proceedings.
As the current hosts, it was up to them to prepare the space. The servants had scrubbed the flat central stone and flowers were hanging from all the large standing stones.
In her mind, Lilia had always imagined that the stones were on a plain, but they were actually parked on a hilltop. There wasn’t going to be a quick run into the forest for her, she was going to have to slide down a hillside and bolt for the shelter of the trees.
Briel flipped a drape over the centre stone, and then, she placed a swath of white silk around Lilia’s neck. She would have to leave it behind when she started her run.
Her bag was packed and would be subjected to examination by the Almoss family, but she was sure that what she had packed would meet with their approval.
The first words of the day had to be spoken between the family heads in front of the official who would assure that it was done in Wralik tradition.
It called for a lot of hand gestures, but they upheld the tradition.
The first signs of the Almoss family were sounds and rustling in the trees below. When the men and women emerged, Lilia identified the first three as the matriarch and patriarch as well as their youngest son. When a huge purple Wralik appeared behind them and hiked up the hill with his people, Lilia was slightly less sure that she could evade him for three days.
The purples on Wralik were sent into the army and trained as rangers to protect the forests of Wralik. It was a job dictated by skin tone.
Briel grabbed her arm and stared at her in shock. She pointed down the hill and shook her head frantically.
Lilia gave her a soft smile and a shrug. They were in it now. There was no way out of this arrangement. Madame Zel had already looked into it.
Just to be on the safe side, Madame Zel had a fair-use contract drawn up for the forest fibres they needed in case Lilia was unable to avoid her pursuer.
Lilia settled the badge with the running deer on it between her breasts. When she checked out the opposition, it was the purple hulk who was wearing the corresponding hound badge around his neck.
The two families waited as the official hiked up the hill and joined them.
He caught his breath and finally said, “Once a decade, the Zel and the Almoss families gather for custodianship of the great forest. Today, they once again compete for that custodianship.”
He drew his breath. “Zel family, bring forth and identify the hart.”
Madame Zel put her hand on Lilia’s shoulder, and she walked her to the edge of the central stone. “I offer my daughter as the hart. Lilia Zel, my legal heir.”
The Almosses gasped and the younger son glared at Briel. The deep amethyst Almoss slowly smiled.
“Almoss family, bring forth and identify the hound.”
The matriarch of the Almoss family came forward with her hand on the arm of the huge man who didn’t look as if he could have been born of a normal Wralik.
“I offer my eldest son as the hound. Xerik Almoss, our legal heir.”
Lilia kept her face impassive, but that was news. Lemko Almoss always strutted around as if he was in charge of the family finances.
She looked up toward the man who would be hunting her through the woods, and his clear crystal-grey eyes were focused on her with scary intensity.