The Stones of Kaldaar (Song of the Swords Book One)
An excerpt from Chapter 7
Her backside rebelled when she pulled herself into the saddle. She was fairly certain she had blisters in places that weren’t polite to mention.
“How much longer do you think we’ll be riding?” She adjusted her position, finding little relief.
“At least a sennight.” Rhoane said before clucking his stallion to join the others.
A week. She groaned and kicked her mare forward. With all of its power, she didn’t understand why the people of Aelinae employed primitive resources. The least they could do was invent comfortable saddles.
As they moved through the meadow, her stomach growled, and she put a hand over her abdomen. When Faelara gave her a concerned look, Rhoane held back his stallion to hand her a pouch containing dried bread and cheese, along with meat from their meal the previous night.
Growing discontent settled in Taryn’s thoughts. She didn’t like depending on Rhoane, or anyone, for food, for shelter, for anything. Fields and grasslands sprawled in every direction, an unfamiliar landscape with unknown horrors. Until she knew her way around Aelinae, she would be exactly that—dependent on him or one of the others for her survival. The depressing thought weighed heavily on her.
Faelara moved beside her, saying in her gentle voice, “Do you see those trees over there?” She pointed in the distance. “That’s the southernmost border of the Narthvier. And over there,” she indicated to their left, “is the Spine of Ohlin. Those mountains stretch all the way from the Summer Seas to the Temple of Ardyn in the far north.”
At the sound of the familiar name, Taryn shot Rhoane a glance. “Is that where we’re going, to the temple?”
“No, darling,” Faelara looked away from the mountains toward the north, “we’re headed to Ravenwood, the country home of Duke Anje. He sent an urgent message, so we’re going to offer assistance.”
“Is that what you do? Wander around helping people?”
“It does seem that we travel much more than I’d like. The world is a curious place lately, and we go where we’re needed. Today, that just happens to be a day’s ride north.” Faelara reached over to pat Taryn’s leg. “This will give you a chance to see some of the countryside. When we get to Ravenwood, you’ll meet Hayden, Duke Anje’s son and heir. Very pleasant boy and your age.”
“Which age is that?” Taryn mumbled, distracted by the shadow that had tormented her for most of the previous day. She’d hoped it was a fluke, but its presence once again set her on edge. Each time she tried to look for it, the shadow would dissipate, but if she kept her focus straight ahead, she was able to keep the blot in her peripheral vision. Whoever or whatever it was, it was keeping pace with them but at a discreet distance.
Faelara gave her a strange look. “The only one you are.”
“Which is thirty-five in a few weeks?”
“Yes, that’s right. You and Hayden were born two days apart.”
Taryn studied her riding companion. Faelara wore a deep-green riding jacket with matching hat and split skirt that allowed her to sit astride her horse. Taryn admired how graceful she looked upon her mare and shuddered at how she must appear to the regal woman. Dirt smeared, disheveled, disoriented. Never before had she given a thought to how she looked to others, but being near the elegant woman made her self-conscious. Grimacing at the state of her hands, she picked at a cuticle, tearing the skin.
Faelara took her hand in her own. “Let’s see if we can’t get you more familiar with your surroundings. Make you feel more at home.”
The tone of her voice, and slight upturn to her lips, suggested she knew where Taryn had been all those years, but she dared not confirm her suspicions. Rhoane had warned her to keep her past hidden and that’s what she would do.
She listened with quiet intensity as Faelara explained the topography of the land they traveled. They rode through meadows of thick grasses and past fields gone fallow, the pace faster than the day before as Rhoane had promised. Every so often Rhoane would range ahead to scan the area or Baehlon would hang back to ride behind them, but neither seemed to see the shadow. After a while, she stopped looking for the flicker at the edge of her vision.
With every rut or mud-filled road they crossed, more knots formed in her shoulders and backside. Her knees were numb from gripping Cynda, and she was certain she’d forever lost all feeling in her hands from clutching the reins too tightly. They stopped briefly for a midday meal and to rest the horses but were back in the saddle much too soon. Myrddin pushed them faster as the afternoon wore on. When dark tendrils stretched across the road and the sun’s rays slanted beyond the trees through dusk, Baehlon turned them down a tree lined drive. Too weary to see straight, Taryn barely registered their location until Faelara touched her shoulder.
“Ravenwood,” she whispered.
Taryn jerked in her saddle and straightened her posture, her exhaustion a nagging memory. Ravenwood meant a bed. Possibly a shower. Definitely a break from the pounding of riding.
She followed Fae’s outstretched hand and whistled low in her throat. “That’s a bloody castle.”
“Whatever.” Taryn took in the turreted corners and delicate battlements. Though built for show, it still managed to appear imposing perched upon a hill. The group made their way up the gravel road, past landscaped borders and decorative hedges.
Too busy admiring the scenery, Taryn didn’t notice Myrddin had slowed, his hand outstretched in a silent signal to the others, until she was even with his horse. He placed a finger to his lips, his glare boring into her.
Rhoane and Baehlon drew their swords.
Nervous energy rippled over her in waves, making her palms moist, her throat dry.
Instinctively, Taryn moved closer to Faelara. Gravel crunched with each hoof their horses placed on the ground. Myrddin reined in his gelding, and the others followed, quietly dismounting. Within several yards of the manor, Taryn paused in her step.
The front door stood wide-open, without a soul in sight.
Taryn tapped Faelara’s arm, but the woman shook her head and motioned to the manor. Streaks of ShantiMari circled everyone except Baehlon and Taryn, which did not instill her with confidence.
Myrddin felt around the doorway and then stepped into the house. The men moved from room to room looking for signs of life or a struggle, finding neither. With each new room, Taryn’s heart thumped harder, threatening to burst from her chest.
They moved up the stairs to the first landing, and Myrddin motioned for her to stay with Faelara while the men crept up and down the hallways, checking each room. Halfway up the next flight of stairs, Taryn’s pendant burned against her skin. She stifled a gasp, causing Rhoane to look back. When she pointed to her cynfar, his eyes narrowed for a moment, and then he continued up the stairs, saying nothing. They stopped on the upper landing, where, again, the men crept down the hall.
Taryn moved away from Faelara to follow Rhoane. When he stepped from an empty room and nearly collided with her, he frowned, but she put a finger to her lips, motioning for him to follow.
At the last door, Taryn stopped. “In here.”
Rhoane flinched when he touched the wood. He waited until the others joined them before slowly opening the door. Taryn was last to enter the dimly lit bedchamber. Furniture crowded the large room, and in the center rested a huge four-poster bed with heavy curtains tied to the posts. Beside the bed, a man sat hunched, the sound of his soft cries filling the space. Faelara and Myrddin went to him while Baehlon and Rhoane continued to check the perimeter. A fetid odor like the scent of pork left out overlong assaulted her senses.
Help me, a voice whispered.
Taryn spun around to see who had spoken, but no one was near. She stepped around a chair and covered her mouth to keep from crying out at the ghastly sight before her. Atop the bed, uncovered but clothed, lay a young man. A glowing sword hung suspended above his heart.
The stench increased the closer she moved to the bed. It infiltrated her nostrils, her throat, her mind until she felt as if maggots crawled through her thoughts. Bile burned from her belly to her tongue. She gagged, dizzy all of a sudden.
No time. Please, the voice begged.
“Who are you?” she whispered aloud to the empty air.
Bed. Help. Now. Desperation choked the voice.
Lavender strands of ShantiMari enclosed the man’s body, with the thinnest of threads holding the sword aloft. Even as she watched, the sword moved a fraction closer to piercing his shirt. “Oh my God.”
His anguish permeated her mind to her very core. She swallowed down the bile and took a deep, calming breath. “What do you want from me?”
Sword, the voice rasped. There was no pain in his tone, just a sense of panic and fear.
She had to do something before the sword broke free. Rhoane prowled the opposite side of the room, his focus away from her.
“Hang on.” Before she could change her mind, she sprinted toward the bed. When she’d nearly reached it, she jumped as high as she could, kicking out. A cacophony roared through her mind when her foot connected with the metal. Shards of ShantiMari tangled around her leg, and a burning sensation shot up from her heel. Rhoane stepped out of the way a split second before she crashed to the floor, the sword landing with a heavy clang beside her.
Time slowed as the ringing continued. Vomit roiled in her gut. Images, flashes of light and dark, tore at her thoughts. Shouts and cries echoed in her mind. Julieta’s screams. Kaldaar’s banishment. Rykoto’s laughter as he raped Julieta.
Rhoane was speaking to her, helping her up. She stared at his face, focused on that one reality. A gasp from the bed pulled her attention back to the young man and the threads of ShantiMari tightening around him. He couldn’t breathe. She moved without thought and grabbed the sword that lay at her feet.
When she touched the handle, a shock ran up her arm. Not like the one in her leg, which felt as though it were on fire, but a soothing feeling, as if the handle welcomed her touch. The voices stopped. Her mind cleared. Her stomach calmed. Gripping the hilt with both hands, she raised the sword and brought it down over the man, slicing the lavender cords.
“Taryn, no!” Faelara cried out. Amber streaks of Mari shot toward her, but they were blocked by Rhoane’s Shanti.
“Hold, Faelara.” Rhoane’s voice was like iron. “She will not harm him.”
Taryn ignored the strange tingling of her skin as she cut the threads. When they were too small for the sword, she tossed it aside and broke apart the remaining bits with her fingers, digging through them until the man inhaled and his chest heaved with the rush of air.
The stink of death lingered. “Open the windows,” Taryn commanded. Baehlon moved with silent swiftness, opening first one and then all of the windows, letting in the last of the sun’s rays and fresh, pure air.
After a few minutes of coughing and sputtering, the man took several deep breaths. Taryn stepped back, allowing Faelara to fuss over him. Myrddin’s scowl was her last sight before everything went black.
Rocker of sparkly tiaras, friend of dragons, and lover of all things sexy, Tameri Etherton leaves a trail of glitter in her wake as she creates and conquers new worlds and the villains who inhabit them. When not masquerading as a mom and writer, rumor has it she travels to far off places, drinking tea and finding inspiration for her kickass heroines—and the rogues who steal their hearts—with her own Prince Charming by her side.