When Ro said Riella wasn't the woman her mother would have raised, he lied. When he told her she was the last of Fion's Daughters, he didn't know he was wrong. This is the saga that started it all.
Ro Ti fights to bring peace to Kegin. The Lengar have wiped Fion's Children from the face of the world, leaving Deliya a queen without a kingdom.
Juvia is dishonored, abandoned in the heat of the battle, and captured by the Lengar. It is a gift! Their prince is a man who doesn't know her dishonor...or care.
Raised a Lengar slave, Voria has ceased to dream of more. Now, she stands accused of crimes against the Lengar, and only Juleron can clear her name.
A princess in disguise plays schente for her father's most trusted general. Tol's only change of escaping Ro's wrath is convincing Riella to give him more than the night.
Four women... Four loves that will change the face of Kegin, in the midst of the war to end all wars.
CONTENT ADVISORY: This is a re-release title.
"I did not realize anyone lived in this region," Donic commented in confusion. Ro's advisor-general lowered his oculars and shaded his eyes against the mid-day glare. "Do you think they are refugees from the Lengar outposts over the mountains?"
Ro Ti shook his head. "Unlikely." He scanned his own oculars over the farm nestled deep in the valley. "Refugees would travel much further from their former masters." He lowered his hand, considering the unexpected discovery their scouts had reported, smoke in an area believed unpopulated. "No, they are not Lengar. This land has been farmed for at least a decade, by my guess. The Lengar were nowhere near here then."
Donic nodded; he didn't need to ask where the Lengar were a decade ago. They had been busy slaughtering Fion's priestesses, their mates and children.
Ro needed no reminder of the hopeless feeling of being unable to honor his vow to protect those who needed him. It still haunted him. It had been senseless and selfish; if his grandfather had helped Fion's Children early in the wars, they would have ended long ago. Now the Lengar had entrenched themselves in the highly-defensible lands once held by Fion's Children, exploiting the very topography that allowed Mother Leiana to hold off Jurel as long as she had. He sighed. And, if he didn't act quickly, Jurel would extend his borders further into Magden land by taking this lush valley, slaughtering these farmers as his show of force.
"What do you wish to do?" Donic asked.
Ro stored the oculars in the case at his hip, shifting the hand-sized pouch further back on his belt to avoid hitting his Cuisses on it in battle. "Lengar troops will descend on this valley in force within the hour. If even a quarter are amassed so far, we cannot afford to wait them out. We must get the inhabitants to safety."
"These people likely have no love for you, Majesty. Worse, the Lengar will not hesitate to attack if they spy you in the open."
"I swore a vow. The same vow my father swore and his father before him." Unlike Sol Ti, I keep my vows. "Those people are innocents. Love for me or no, they need my help and protection. The Lengar will slaughter them for no crime but residing within my borders. I cannot allow that."
"Let someone else go. Let me," Donic requested, nearly begged of him. "Without you--"
Ro silenced his most trusted general with a severe look. "I will go myself. My people will know my dedication to them."
Donic bowed. "As you wish, my King." His jaw was clenched, as it always was when he called Ro "my king." Raised as an older servant-brother in Kor's household, responsible for the safety of the young royals, trained at battle alongside Ro, always at his back in love or war--it troubled Donic deeply that his king was no longer a child to be swept away from danger.
Ro settled his helm on his head and slapped the visor down.
Donic was right in many ways. These farmers would likely not thank him for his help. Still, Ro Ti would not cower in the wood while others chanced a battle. He could not appear weak.
He set out, smiling behind the visor as Donic waved up a squad of men to protect him and took his usual position at Ro's back. Donic lived to see the end to hostilities--perhaps the unification of the races into a Keen Republic, and his younger sister's husband was not a strong enough tactician and soldier to take Ro's place in the war to achieve it.
Donic also lived to see Ro produce heirs to lead the fight after Ro went to the soul's reward. He sobered at that. His life was not fit for a woman. It would be cruel to subject her to his constant absences as he fought back Lengar's incursions into Magden. Still, whether he wanted to commit to a contract or not, a king had a duty to produce heirs--if he ever found the time to court a woman.
Ro pulled his war-buck to a stop a few footfalls from the door to the small house, looking around the deserted space warily. There was no sign of people, no smoke or movement, though a tunic and trousers hung on a drying rack, waving lightly in the breeze.
Donic drew up beside him, his buck's prancing echoing the general's tension. "It is a trap," he decided. "We should withdraw." Donic saw traps in every encounter.
A shiver of awareness raced up Ro's spine. "No. They are in hiding. They watch us even now."
"I do not believe so. They wish to be left in peace. It is a shame that I cannot oblige them."
He dismounted and strode toward the house, waving for Donic to stay put and tucking his helm under his arm. If these people feared him, approaching in numbers would only make them more fearful. "We wish you no harm," he called out. "You are in danger here."
He pushed the door open, sure that he would find the inhabitants within rather than hiding in one of the outbuildings. It was small--little more than a shack--but solidly built. It appeared deserted, but Ro's instincts belied that. They were here. He stepped inside and searched for any possible hiding place with his typical scrutiny.
The blade nestled to his throat silently and without warning, announcing the willingness of the owner to kill him if he posed a threat. The warrior had planned his move perfectly. The soldiers outside knew nothing of the threat to their king; and to protect this unknown adversary, Ro would keep it that way as long as the threat remained simply a threat.
He smiled at the gall of his adversary. "I mean you no harm," he repeated.
"Then leave my home."
The voice that whispered to him was strong and determined but young, lacking a mature man's deep rumbling. Ro sobered. Was a boy the ablest warrior these people had? It was likely. The house could not be home to more than three, and that would be crowded.
"I cannot. Warriors descend on this valley. There will be a battle before the sun sinks from its zenith. You cannot stay here."
"Why should I believe you? Perhaps I should send you to your lying Lord in his Underworld."
Ro frowned, confusion overriding his fury at being assumed one of those Len-be-damned--"You do not recognize my armor or weapons?" he asked. How isolated were these children that they could not identify the trappings of their king? The crimson armor and the seals on the hilts of his dagger and sword clearly announced who Ro was. Had they no elders to instruct them? "You fear me, because you believe I am one of Jurel's troops?"
"I fear no one," the boy growled. "Who--" The blade shifted against Ro's throat, and there was a slight rustling of movement behind him. "If you are not, who are you to invade my home this way?"
Ro started to turn, and the blade pressed deeper in response. He stilled, cursing under his breath. "You do not know the Magden?"
"I know them," his captor spat. "Spineless coward. Leave this place. Your kind is not welcome here."
"Spineless?" Ro ground out fiercely, ignoring the bite of the blade. "What madness have you been taught?"
"Perhaps Magden soldiers prefer to forget the less admirable and glorious tomes in their history, but others do not. Where were the Magden when the Lengar attacked Fion's Children? When Fion's High Priestess stooped to beg for Magden aid? Have you forgotten, Magden? You were hiding in your stone forts."
The boy is not Magden--or he has been taught to hate his own race. That realization made his head spin.
Ro felt his face heat as the rest of the message filtered in. His grandfather's decision had been shameful; his father's bid to rectify the situation too late.
"Are you Lengar?" he demanded quietly. If these people fled Jurel's cruelty, Ro would show them mercy and shelter them from their own, but that would be difficult. The Magden soldiers outside would not support this move.
It is a sacred trust, he reminded himself. These people are innocents, even if they escaped the enemy, especially if they fled the enemy. He sent up a prayer that they were Magden who had disassociated themselves from their race in anger at Sol Ti's decision not to aid Fion's Children. That would make protecting them easier--at least as far as dealing with his men was concerned.
The boy growled in displeasure. "Animals. You dare compare me to those animals? I would cut my heart from my body had I been born to those butchers. Tell me, Magden, when did you fight? When the Lengar turned their weapons on you? At least the Lengar are not cowards, whatever else they will be damned for."
Ro grasped the wrist that held the blade, roaring out his fury as he turned on the boy-man. His helm skittered across the floor, unheeded as he stared down at his foe.
His opponent was armored, a strange sort of armor unlike any that he had seen before--or had he? No. Not exactly, but he had seen something similar--perhaps when he was a child. He examined it quickly.
It was made of metal mesh covered in thick hottel-hide leather scales, the tan leather painted in blocks of choc and green for forest battle. It was light but strong, allowing the wearer speed and agility; but it was not designed for heavy battle, as if the wearer expected to either reach glory quickly or die in battle at the same pace. The helm was ornately etched and painted like the armor, with a full-face visor of at least two layers of the mesh set in a metal grid work. It was a stunning design.
Though young and not heavily muscled, the boy stood as high as Ro's cheek. He was fast but not skilled as a fighter, as if he'd had little practice. His intended blow, launched in the split second that Ro paused to make his assessment, never landed.
Ro ducked the jab aimed at his head and back-fisted the boy solidly into the stone wall. The youngster sank to the floor with a grunt of pain and the rustle of metal mesh. His hand slid from the dagger, and Ro snatched the hilt as he fell, mindful that the blade might be poisoned. It seemed unlikely, but a good soldier never took foolish chances.
Donic shot through the doorway with a battle cry, his sword drawn. He took in Ro standing over the downed boy, his expression a mixture of concern and anger.
Ro squatted and dragged the helm from his opponent's head then dropped to his knees in shock, the helm clattering across the stones.
Golden hair--hastily piled into the helm as we approached, no doubt--tumbled in long waves around pink, sun-touched cheeks. Leaf green eyes, wide in fear, narrowed as the truth crashed over Ro. Lush, full lips of deep red thinned to a line above a narrow chin marred by a deep scar.
The woman lunged at him, taking advantage of his shock to grasp at her dagger, still clutched in his now-numb fingers.
Donic struck her straight-arm, forcing her back to the wall. His blade settled at her throat. "Be still, witch," he growled.
"Do not harm her, Donic," Ro whispered.
She was one of Fion's Children--one of the high priestess' class, if he was recalling the ornamentation and design of her armor correctly. He had last seen that armor at the fall of Gidlore. How long ago that was! Had it really been seven years? The inhabitants of this house were, it seemed, the last of an extinct race, and this was their young protector. It was her sacred duty to see to their safety above all else.
The woman raised her chin in challenge. "An intelligent move for a Magden," she commented coldly.
Donic pressed his blade to her chin, forcing her to look to him. "Show respect, woman."
She didn't flinch. "If you injure me, geela, my mother will show you no mercy."
Ro motioned Donic to silence, his heart pounding. She didn't know the fate of her people; that much was clear.
"Who is your mother, Priestess?" he asked formally.
"She is Mother Leiana, fool. Surely, you recognize my armor and seal as her own."
Ro glanced at the dagger in his hand, touching the seal of Fion with shaking fingers. Leiana had been the last High Priestess of Fion's Children. For all that her people were a pure church state, this woman had been akin to a princess. Now she was a queen--a queen without a people to lead and without knowledge of either situation.
A soldier rushed in the door, bowing clumsily. "The enemy approaches," he panted.
Ro nodded. "Where are the others, Princess?"
* * * *
Deliya met the dark choc eyes of the great redheaded oaf. "I am not one of your useless, pampered princesses. I am a priestess of Fion's Children and daughter of the high priestess, Mother Leiana, the Mother's Source and Keeper of the Word."
His face darkened, and a muscle twitched in his jaw. "Where are the others?" he repeated more slowly, as if she were a dimwitted child and not a warrior.
She hesitated. Perhaps, it was better not to tell him. If the Magden believed she had others waiting to help her, he might not mistreat her. Still, Mother Fion frowned on untruths. "Where you will never touch them," she whispered. I did not lie, Mother Fion. He cannot harm those in your arms.
"We have no time for games, Priestess. The Lengar approach. They will slaughter you and all you protect."
"Am I to trust a Magden? Your kind has never come to the aid of Fion's Children in the past."
"That was a mistake in my grandfather's day," he growled. "Kor Ti tried to set it right."
"Not that I have seen," she spat. If the Magden were truly aiding her mother's troops, surely Leiana would have sent for her by now.
"Majesty," the soldier pleaded.
"In a moment," he thundered, seemingly furious at either the young soldier or herself.
Deliya swallowed painfully against the blade at her throat. So, this beast was king of the Magden. He was too young to be Kor; the king must have had a very short reign for his son to succeed so soon. Perhaps, that was why they chose to fight. Perhaps, Jurin and Jurel killed Kor and spurred them to action.
The red one sighed, closing his eyes and reining in his emotions. He motioned the man at her throat away. Donic, she reminded herself. His name is Donic. She breathed a sigh of relief. The Magden would leave her to her own devices, as Magden had always left Fion's Children.
The king grasped Deliya's helm and handed it to her then pulled her to her feet, face to face with him. "Burn it," he ordered his man, his eyes locked on hers. "Burn the crops and buildings. Burn anything that will burn."
She gripped his arm. "No," she gasped. "You cannot do this."
"Where are the others?" he asked calmly.
"There are none. My guards...The others are all dead--more than a year," Deliya admitted, grimacing that she had given the Magden that victory.
"Then why should I not burn this place?"
It is my home, her mind argued fiercely. But, it wasn't even that. It was a bit of Magden land that she had stolen and made her own; and the Lengar would destroy it when they came, if he spoke the truth. "My seed and herbs. Please. Your people do not cultivate the healing plants. I cannot leave them."
His eyes softened and filled with emotion. "We will take as much as we can. You have my vow. Where are these things?"
Deliya pushed from his hands and rushed to the storeroom, pointing to the twenty sacks of seed then loaded her dried herbs and oils in two large packs. She did it quickly, without the usual care she showed for the task. There would be time to order them properly later. When she turned back, she was surprised to see they had taken all.
The red one lifted the packs from her shoulders. "Is there anything else?"
She shook her head, acutely aware of his proximity. It had been a long time since someone had stood so close to her, at least four years. "No. Nothing of value," she managed.
He pulled her toward the door, his step purposeful.
The Lengar troops must be close. Deliya turned her face to the wind then broke from him and took the torch from one of his soldiers, lighting fire to the field behind her home. She nodded her thanks and handed the torch back.
"The wind will take it east," their king bellowed. "Light the last field as we ride."
"No," Deliya ordered. "Leave it."
The soldier with the torch looked to her in surprise then to the king.
"Why?" he demanded. "The Lengar troops--"
Deliya laughed heartily. "It is called gola berry. It tastes sweet, but it is a vicious poison, a poison the Lengar will not be able to treat."
A young soldier cursed solidly, dropping a handful of the dark pink berries.
She shook her head in exasperation. "How many did you eat?" Foolish child.
"S--six, I believe," he stammered.
"I will brew a tea for you when we are safe. It will not taste as sweet as the berries did, but it will save your life."
He knelt to one knee and kissed her hand. "Thank you, Priestess."
The king lifted Deliya to his war-buck, setting her astride the forward hump with a fierce look at his men. He mounted behind her and took up the reins, urging the buck to a loping run.
"My animals," she reminded him, annoyed that he treated her like a child before his troops.
"They are tethered to mounts in the rear of the column. You will have your buck when we stop."
"Why are you treating me like a helpless child?" she demanded quietly.
"My men will not dare approach you after this. I assume that would be your choice."
"It would," she admitted.
He paused at the top of the hill, allowing Deliya one last look at the only home she'd had for the last ten years. She blinked back tears, her eyes on the field of gola berry. Her mother would know Deliya lived by that sign. Leiana would never stop looking for her.
Donic pulled up beside them. "The fires have blocked the Lengar, Ro," he stated in obvious amusement.
Deliya squinted through the smoke to the troops milling across the valley. The fires had reached the Felgren. She calculated the number of Lengar that would become ill from the acidic fumes, nodding her approval.
The king wrapped an arm around her waist.
"Ro," she breathed. His name was Ro Ti.
"Yes," he assured her. "What name may I call you, Priestess?"