After surviving brutal torture and escaping from Lord Rykan’s dungeons, Major Sullyan is trapped in Andaryon, too injured to cross the Veils.
Slowly dying and determined to find some purpose in the shattered remains of her life, she travels to the Andaryan capitol to offer the Hierarch her sword and Artesan gifts in the fight against Rykan and his vast army.
Because women hold no power in Andaryon, Sullyan is met with prejudice, hostility, and suspicion.
Before she can seek vengeance on the field of battle, she must prove herself to the Hierarch’s generals.
Finding support from the unlikeliest sources, Sullyan sets a plan into motion to defeat Lord Rykan and end his bid for the throne.
The fate of two realms depends on her success, but her strength is fading fast and time is running out.
Branches whipped past Rienne’s face as she clung to the horse’s neck. The darkness and the wind of their speed were unremitting. Horse sweat slicked her fingers. Her arms and legs ached fiercely with the effort of staying on the galloping beast, and neither the wiry arms circling her waist nor the unfamiliar chest pressed into her back were helping. She wasn’t used to riding this fast and certainly not riding double.
A quick glance to her left showed Cal, his horse weaving its own hectic path through the trees. Taran should be just behind him, Robin and Bull even further back. At least she hoped they were there. She couldn’t hear them, couldn’t hear anything above the rasping breath of her horse and the rough slap of branches.
She felt rather than heard the pounding hoof beats as they jarred up through her thighs and into her protesting back.
Would this ride never end?
Her laboring horse kept trying to slow, but the thin man seated behind her repeatedly dug his heels into its lathered flanks. Rienne heard the poor beast grunt as it plunged on through the trees. She grimaced in sympathy. How much more could it take? Neither she nor the Count were heavy, but even the stoutest horse would struggle to maintain this pace while carrying two riders. Rienne didn’t like to think what might happen if it foundered.
How long had it been since she, Count Marik, and Robin had brought the gravely injured and unconscious Major Sullyan out of those dreadful dungeons? How long since they had fled Rykan’s palace and the patrols sent to hunt them? Rienne shuddered, trying not to think of Sullyan’s unresponsive face as Robin took her onto his horse. Marik had kicked their shared mount ahead of Robin, desperate to lead them far away from Rykan’s palace. As she passed him, Rienne saw tears glistening in Robin’s indigo eyes. Since then, she hadn’t had an opportunity to gauge the Major’s condition. Was she still alive or had she, as Rienne privately feared, already died? Her injuries were severe; this wild, panic-stricken flight through an unfamiliar forest might be one ordeal too many.
The lack of light forced them to use the main forest trails, but Rykan’s patrols had been coming and going over the previous weeks, as had Marik’s men, obeying the Duke’s call to arms. Rienne prayed that the tracks they were making would be lost among all the others. If they could get far enough away by dawn, surely they would be safe?
She shied at shadows, her heart lurching at each unusual shape that loomed through the trees. Marik seemed in mortal fear of his life and rode hunched behind her in silence. She could almost feel him listening for the sound of pursuit and guessed he was thinking about his fate should Rykan’s men catch them. Only once so far had Bull sensed someone close on their tail. He had urged them on to greater speed, and Rienne prayed hard that her horse would find the strength to endure.
Abruptly, she felt Marik’s body tense. She gasped as a dark shape arrowed toward her. She grabbed for the reins, trying to turn the horse’s head, but unaccountably, Marik fought her.
“Let go!” she yelled, driving an elbow into his ribs. He whooshed out a breath and let go the rein, but it was too late. A large hand had already clamped onto her horse’s cheek strap and was hauling on it, slowing the frightened beast.
“It’s me, Rienne! It’s alright, we can stop now.”
Bull’s deep bass voice, harsh with strain, calmed Rienne’s shuddering heart. She managed to turn her head and smile as he brought her lathered horse to a walk.
“Are we safe? Have we lost them?” She cursed the tremor in her voice.
Bull frowned. “For the moment. I haven’t sensed anyone behind us for a while. Taran and I have dropped the shield. We’re too tired to maintain it right now. We still need to be cautious, but I think we can give the horses a rest. Killing them won’t help us.”
He left her and dropped back, presumably to continue scanning the woods. Cal took his place, nudging his horse alongside hers.
“Share with me for a bit?”
Rienne nodded and awkwardly made the transition from her own mount to Cal’s. She ached in every bone and moving was both difficult and painful. Once she was sitting behind her lover, however, with her arms wrapped about his waist and her face buried in the back of his neck, she felt much better.
After a few minutes she recovered enough to look behind her. “Cal, slow up a bit more, please.”
Cal complied and they drew level with Robin’s plodding horse. Rienne glanced at the Captain, then at the limp form cradled in his arms. Sullyan lay unmoving, her head bowed against his chest.
Robin raised red-rimmed eyes and she realized he had been weeping.
She nudged Cal’s horse with her foot, edging it closer. “Let me see.” Reaching across, she drew down a corner of the velvet cloak the Major was wrapped in and put her hand to Sullyan’s neck above the silver collar, feeling for a pulse. Her fingers came away bloody. Robin’s eyes never left hers.
“It’s difficult to tell,” she murmured. “The movement of the horse interferes. But I think she’s still with us. She’s terribly cold.”
“I’m doing my best.”
Robin’s voice choked. Rienne was shocked by his anguish. “Oh, Robin, I know you are. If not for you, she’d still be in that cell and almost certainly dead by now. At least she’s among friends, even if ….” She couldn’t continue.
Robin closed his eyes. “That’s no comfort, Rienne.”
She felt an uncharacteristic surge of anger and dug her heels into Cal’s horse, urging it alongside Marik’s. “Count, have we come far enough to think about stopping yet? We’ve been riding for hours. Your help in this rescue will count for nothing unless I can assess the Major’s injuries and give her some treatment.”
“If we’re caught by Rykan’s men, no treatment in the world will save her,” Marik snapped. “We’ve a long way to go yet.”
Bull heard the remark and brought his own horse closer. “Do you have a destination in mind, then?”
“No,” snarled the Count, “I thought we’d just ride around in aimless circles until we disappear up our own backsides. What do you bloody take me for? Of course I have a destination in mind!”
Muttering curses, he kicked his horse so hard that it lumbered into a canter again, forcing the others to follow.
Rienne heard Cal’s murmur. “I wonder what’s eating him.”
She glared at him. “I imagine you’d be tetchy too if you lost everything you ever had!”
Wisely, Cal stayed silent.
A couple of hours later Marik drew rein, letting them all catch up. The horses were lathered, their heads hanging low. Their riders were in no better shape. Lack of sleep and too much adrenaline had taken a hefty toll. Rienne could just make out their faces in the false light of dawn that was stealing across the sky.
Marik stopped on the edge of a rise. Exhaustion had erased his foul mood. “We’ve come a little more north than west now. I’m not completely sure, but I think we’re about an hour away from an old drovers’ hut I know of, somewhere over that way.” He waved a hand vaguely to the left. “Has anyone sensed any patrols lately?”
Bull shook his head. Rienne glanced at Robin, but he didn’t respond, preoccupied with his own worries. Taran must have realized this, for he offered to link with Bull to search a wider area. After a few minutes, Bull reported, “The nearest people are a good few hours away, and they seem to be asleep. I think we’ve shaken them off.”
Marik nodded. “Right, let’s see if my memory serves me and I can find this hut. It isn’t much, but it should give us shelter and the opportunity for a fire and hot water.” He glanced at Rienne. “I take it that’s what you’ll want?”
She gave a small smile. “Among other things, Count.”
Rolling his eyes, he led them over the ridge.
By the time they finally found the drovers’ hut, it was full daylight. Rienne, still sitting behind Cal, saw a low building with two windows, snugly nestled against a hillside. Its sod-covered roof glittered with hoarfrost, but it looked in good repair. To one side was a small corral with a drinking pool for the horses. There was a lean-to barn attached to the wall of the hut. Rienne wondered whether there would be fodder for the exhausted animals. They carried a small amount of grain in their saddlebags, but what the horses really needed was a warm mash and some decent hay.
Bull rode cautiously up to the hut. There didn’t seem to be any recent tracks and the place appeared deserted. He swung down stiffly from his saddle and steadied himself against his horse. Then he passed his reins to the Count, pushed open the door, and disappeared inside.
A few moments later, he re-emerged. “All clear. There’s wood for a fire and it’s relatively clean and dry. It’s even stocked with some supplies.” He turned to the Captain. “Robin, give her to me and I’ll take her inside.”
He stopped short, making Rienne glance quickly at Robin. The Captain didn’t appear to have heard Bull. He was staring at the limp form cradled in his arms. Rienne felt herself go cold. There was horror in Robin’s dark eyes. Suddenly, he looked at her, his face white with shock. “Rienne, where’s all this blood come from?”
She kicked Cal’s tired horse closer and Robin showed her his arm where the Major’s body had been held against him. His sleeve was soaked with blood, as was the velvet of the Count’s cloak. Rienne could feel waves of anguish flowing from him. Reaching out, she drew back a fold of the ruined cloak. The slim, bruised legs beneath were covered in bright red blood.
The Captain gasped.
“Alright, Robin,” soothed Rienne, trying to stay calm though her panic was rising. She was very afraid she knew the cause of the bleeding. “It’s just possible that it’s … natural, you know?” Sure that it wasn’t, she had to offer him something.
“Oh!” Robin colored.
Rienne let the cloak fall. “Let’s get her inside, get a fire and some warm water going, and then we can see what we’re dealing with.”
Rienne felt half relieved, for the bleeding showed that Sullyan was still alive. However, losing more blood—even should it prove to be moon cycle blood—meant danger to the wounded Major. Hastily, Rienne slithered off the sweaty horse and stumbled after Bull.
Wood lay ready in the hut’s large fireplace. Bull kneeled before it to coax it into life, while Rienne took in the rude surroundings. A solid wooden table and a few stools occupied one end of the simple room, and a trestle bed with a few folded blankets stood against the wall at the other. There were shelves over the fireplace stacked with wooden bowls and plates, and piled in a heap at one end were battered pots and pans. Crocks of preserves and dried herbs sat there too. Hard-beaten earth served as a floor, and the two windows, one either side of the door, were grimy with dust. Yet the place smelled clean and dry, and when the first crackle of fire lit the gloomy interior, a measure of cheer came to the place.
Bull went back outside to help Robin while Rienne dragged the bed nearer the fire. She placed the folded blankets on the hearth to warm them. When Robin came in with Sullyan, she asked him to sit on the bed and hold the unconscious woman against him. The others stayed outside, presumably caring for the horses.
Bull appeared, carrying a large pail of fresh water drawn from the drinking pool in the paddock. Rienne asked him to boil some, both for washing and for sterilizing her medical kit. Wordlessly, he obeyed her.
She laid her medical bag on the bed and rummaged in it for clean cloths. Delicately, she pulled back the blood-sodden cloak, exposing the poor, battered body beneath. Robin averted his eyes, but she heard Bull’s gasp of shock. She grimaced. Of course, he hadn’t seen Sullyan in the cell and she knew she ought to have warned him. He would have to get over it, she had more pressing concerns.
Gently, she moved Sullyan’s left leg and bent the knee. Her uncontrolled gasp of outrage at the torn and abused flesh between the slim legs clearly told Robin all he needed to know.
“It’s not … natural … is it?” he whispered.
She stared up at his pinched, grey face, her horror matching his. She felt sick.
“Dear gods, Robin. No, it’s not.”