The Challenge

 

 

The ChallengeFriend against friend, lover against lover, ally against ally. Conflict is coming … Nine months have passed since Brynne Sullyan helped forge an alliance between the realms of Albia and Andaryon. A fragile peace reigns as both sides recover from the events of the previous year. Then mysterious raiders strike Andaryon villages. Attempts are made on the life of Albia’s High King. As Sullyan scrambles to find those responsible, unseen enemies threaten to pull apart everything she has worked for, including her marriage. The alliance begins to crumble, and Sullyan finds herself caught between two monarchs: the king she’s sworn allegiance to, and the man she loves as a father. To betray either one would break her heart, but if conflict is inevitable, she must make a choice …


Chapter One.


 Taran Elijah stood in the warmth of the evening sun, contemplating the building before him. High King Elias’s new Artesan College was finally finished. The Adept sighed in contentment as he watched the setting sun gild the soft gray stone of the College walls.

He still found it hard to believe that a mere fifteen months ago he had been a directionless drifter, desperately seeking the unobtainable. Yet here he was, a founding member of what would hopefully become the foremost center of learning for every Albian Artesan. He knew his good fortune was due to one very special person.

As if summoned by his thought, he heard her musical murmur. “Do you still find it as incredible as I do, Taran?”

He had not heard her come up behind him. The feather-light touch on his arm made him smile, although the contact was fleeting. She knew that the slightest brush of her hand could set his senses tingling with reactions he could barely control, and she would never deliberately cause him distress.

He turned to look at her and the sight made his heart leap, as always.

Since wedding her soul mate, Robin Tamsen, nine months ago, Brynne Sullyan had grown in both presence and beauty. Now that she was back to full fitness after her ordeals in Andaryon and with Rykan’s Staff, she exuded a glowing vitality. As usual, her wealth of tawny hair was braided around her head. Her soft, cream-colored shirt was tucked loosely into her combat leathers, and her sword rode at her right hip. Her battle-honors, triple-thunderflash rank insignia, and King’s Envoy shooting star glittered over her left breast, catching the sun’s last rays. The fire opal at the open neck of her shirt spat red sparks in time with her heartbeat.

Taran’s breath caught in his throat and he knew she could sense his desire. She had told him it wouldn’t be easy, working so closely together, and she was right. Yet he would bear the pain of knowing she could never be his and take what she could give him: her friendship, her loyalty, and her training. He could bear much for that.

He smiled down at her—her head only reached the level of his shoulder—and replied, “I could never have dreamed things would turn out like this. I only wish my father had lived to see it. It was his dream too, you know, a recognized training center where Artesans could learn in safety. Had it existed when he was alive, I would have been spared a lot of pain and anguish.”

She flashed him a knowing glance.

“Ah, but Taran, without that pain and anguish we might never have met. Think what we would have missed.”

He grinned.

“True. But I still wish my father had swallowed his pride and told me about his visit here all those years ago. If he had only been able to admit he had asked for help, things might have turned out quite differently.”

She gave a small shrug. “We could ponder the ‘what if’s’ all night, my friend. Things have turned out well enough and I for one am happy to accept them. Now, will you help me check that the College is ready for the King’s visit next week? The General will have my hide if Elias finds fault with our preparations.”

Taran feigned outrage. “He wouldn’t dare!”

Sullyan laughed, not bothering to ask whether he meant the King or the General.

Taran followed her into the single story College and they began checking the rooms, enjoying the smell of fresh plaster and new paint, taking in the quiet air of contemplation and study they already seemed to exude. Sullyan hoped that more and more people would get to hear of the College as the King’s endorsement of Artesans became more widely known. Maybe then Albians would begin to send their gifted children to the College for training instead of ignoring or suppressing their talents.

“Check the rest of the study rooms, will you, Taran? I want to test the spellsilver in the healer suite. Let me know if you catch any hint of my psyche while I am there.”

The College infirmary had been specially designed for housing Artesans. While it was rare for Artesans to be injured in the course of their training, in an environment where students of all ages and levels of experience would be thrown together, accidents were bound to happen. With this in mind, Sullyan had specified that spellsilver should be incorporated into the walls of the healer suite. This should ensure that any inadvertent substrate surges would be contained, protecting the other students.

Taran nodded as she left him, and he continued checking the rooms, finally pausing in the one devoted to the understanding of Fire. This was his current area of study. As Artesan Adept he had mastery over Earth and Water, but if he wanted to raise his status to Adept-elite, he had to learn to influence Fire.

A year ago, he had watched Robin pass his test of Fire to become a Master Artesan. Having felt Robin’s strength that day, Taran hadn’t believed he would ever wield that much power himself.

Under Sullyan’s careful teaching and Robin’s guidance, however, he was growing in skill and confidence. He was reaching a point where he felt that mastery over Fire might not actually be beyond him. The technique of creating a Firefield was his next goal.

 

 

 

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Leaving Taran to his musing, Sullyan passed the empty study rooms and moved toward the rear of the building. She trod silently, as was her custom, and so the thin young man standing just inside the healer suite didn’t hear her approach. As she stepped through the doorway he seemed to be contemplating the walls, deep in thought.

She frowned. One hand touched the hilt of her sword as she said, “Captain Parren, what are you doing here?”

He spun round. The color drained from his face, making the long scar down his right cheek stand out starkly. Never a handsome man, the scar gave him a rakish air that gained him no favor with the ladies. It was one of many grievances he harbored against Sullyan, and she knew he yearned to exact revenge.

He recovered his composure and replied stiffly. “I was merely indulging my curiosity, Colonel. I was not aware of any restrictions regarding entry.”

He managed to look her in the eye as he spoke, although she could sense his courage wavering under the flatness of her stare. She felt him trying to overcome this fear, but it was too deeply rooted, went back too far. The fact that she knew this inflamed his hatred even more.

She regarded him silently before asking, “And have you satisfied your curiosity, Captain? Do you have any questions?”

He flushed. He had clearly not intended to be discovered, thinking himself safe at this hour. Something sly surfaced in his eyes and her heart leaped, wondering if he was going to attack her. But then it faded and he backed down. “I have no questions, Colonel. I wish you good fortune in this new venture and I hope all goes well with the King’s visit. Now, if you will excuse me, I have duties to attend.”

He gave the obligatory salute and stalked past her, nearly colliding with Taran in the doorway as he left. The Adept stared after him before giving Sullyan a quizzical look. “What did he want?”

Her eyes narrowed. “A good question, my friend. Who can say with that one?” Her gaze fell on him. “He will bear watching. I fear his dissatisfaction and hatred are growing, especially after being passed over for promotion last summer.”

“From what I heard he only has himself to blame for that,” the Adept replied. “But why does he hate you and Robin so much?”

Her eyes flickered. “Parren is ruled by ambition and envy, Taran. His animosity is rooted deep in the past and is not something I wish to discuss. Now, will you go outside and close the door and tell me if you can sense any contact through the spellsilver?”

Summarily dismissed, Taran obeyed, but she knew his curiosity had been piqued.

 

 

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