Are they each other’s downfall? Or salvation?
Athadia is a Healer, possibly the last of her dwindling race. Vaun is the warrior who rescues her—then refuses to let her go. She knows by his first touch he is a Latent, a half-blood and potential mate, but he’s also her mortal enemy. She needs to escape—hopefully with his unborn child in her womb.
Athadia keeps Vaun’s soldiers alive on their perilous journey back to Kerfdom, but once there, Vaun is ordered by his brother, the King, to kill her. Keeping her is viewed as treason, but she offers him a type of healing that has eluded him all his life. It can’t be love, though. Athadia is forbidden to take a life mate.
As conspiracies are revealed and war threatens, can they unite their people against a common foe? Or will she cause Vaun to be revealed as one of her own, ensuring they’re both killed and all hope of a future lost?
"Tell me about your parents. You share your father with your brother the king, yes? But who was your mother?"
— Athadia, who wants to convince Vaun he is a Healer like herself
I started The Healer when my children were small. I was frustrated by how little I was managing to write as I worked part-time, ran my daughter to school and soccer and my son to preschool and swimming lessons. I decided I had to go old-school, scribbling in a notebook before I went to bed.
Vaun leapt off a cliff and into that notebook the moment I cracked it. At first I wasn’t sure if he was a Scottish Highlander or a Viking, or something else entirely. While he fought to free Athadia from her captors, Athadia started healing anyone who touched her–almost uncontrollably. I realized I had more than a historical romance on my hands.
I scribbled scenes into that notebook for about a year. In that time, I had some interest in Hustled To The Altar and we moved not just houses but towns. Finishing The Healer got pushed back many times, but the first autumn in our new home I decided to complete it for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month).
First, I spent October doing 30 Days Of World Building, exercises by Stephanie Bryant. I drew a map and wrote like the wind. I finished the first draft somewhere around a hundred and twenty thousand words. What a feeling!
I had an agent at the time. She read it, offered some feedback, I rewrote, added all that hotsy-totsy stuff with the villain and villainess. Other stuff came up in our lives, some really difficult, and The Healer got pushed onto the back burner again.
In late 2011, about the time I was seeing interest from Mills and Boon in London, I saw that a friend was writing for a company called Champagne Books. I asked her about them, sent a query, got a request and it was sitting with their editors when I sold to Mills and Boon. Champagne offered me a contract five weeks later. (I’ve since got it back and self-published it.)
I love, love, love this book. It’s an epic story so I’m not surprised it was an epic journey to reach publication. I want the whole world to read it and love it, but I know it calls to a special type of reader, one who wants to settle in for the long haul. If you like historical romance, if you like intrigue and double-crosses and grand tales of love that is meant to be, but must defeat great odds to get there, then give The Healer a try. Athadia will make you cry and Vaun will conquer your heart.
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Following the scent of wood smoke, Vaun crept forward on his belly and peered down the rocky slope into the basin below.
More Shotes. Pox. He was starving his men, leading them into unknown territory to avoid detection by enemy patrols, and still he continued to stumble upon so-called law keepers. They were treaty-breaking liars, and the southern Kerfs were beyond careless to overlook these transgressions. How the Shotes even survived the badlands this time of year, Vaun couldn’t fathom. They should have withdrawn to their settlements on Meor’s Arm months ago.
Vaun studied the small camp. The Shotes had likely chosen the craggy bowl because it offered shelter against the late winter wind but it was incredibly vulnerable to attack, even for a party of more than a dozen. Fuel was scarce so their fire was small. The broad-faced men, with short swords tucked in the belts of their rust-stained robes, stamped their feet and clapped hands to shoulders.
They survived, but no more comfortably than Vaun’s own men. None displayed the alert caution of a trained soldier either and they had a woman with them, crouched near the fire feeding dried meat into a bubbling pot.
He studied fine-boned hands golden as a fading sun on a ripened field. Definitely not a boy. There was nothing robust about her. Her hood obscured her face, but tendrils of hair curled against the framing edge. The rest of the robe overwhelmed her, leaving an impression of fragility in the way she huddled near the fire.
Protectiveness stirred in him. Heartless curs. Women belonged out here even less than men.
At least her presence told him they were only traders—not that traders were known to be any more civilized than law keepers. They killed each other over insults and would murder Kerf soldiers for an engraved armband and a story to tell.
Chador nudged Vaun with his elbow.
Vaun motioned for patience, knowing what his second-in-command wanted. Their men needed that hot stew. Warig’s bitter east wind, shrieking up from the plains and through these valleys, had drawn moans for days, but Vaun had information to protect along with three men who weren’t his. A raid would risk both.
He scanned the barren crags of the landscape, searching for game or edible vegetation. He saw only what they’d seen for a week: tufts of winter-dried shrubs clinging to red, jagged hills and streaks of black where loose slivers of ore had been uncovered by the Shotes.
They had little chance of navigating this harsh land and surviving to make it home, but Elden, Vaun’s brother and king of the Northern Kingdom, needed to know how deeply the Shotes had infiltrated the lands surrounding the Southern Kingdom. Soon greed would turn Shote attention to Kerfdom and all four kingdoms would be under attack. To reach his home and prepare for that, Vaun and his men needed those provisions.
But a raid would break the treaty. He couldn’t start a war when they were so grossly unprepared for one. He’d leave his men in position and approach himself, claim they were a hunting party wandered off course. The treaty gave these lands to Kerfs for winter hunting and Vaun’s men had been primed for days, but had seen nothing. The traders had played out the game along with the ore.
Scorn for the traders curdled his empty stomach, but he’d let them eat before he approached. A full belly might put them in a better mind to share.
He glanced back at his men. They tried vainly to tug their hardened vests tighter across their loose, plainweave shirts. He didn’t feel remorse for prolonging their discomfort. Too much was on the line and they were northerners, used to the cold.
Gunar, the southern colonel, was suffering too, but he didn’t try to sway Vaun. He didn’t even meet Vaun’s gaze, perhaps knowing he’d see only the flames of fury eating Vaun’s insides. Gunar’s provisions for their party had been grossly inadequate and he’d led them off course. Either he was unfit for duty or had deliberately hoped to keep Vaun from seeing the extent of Shote occupation. That too needed reporting to Elden.
Vaun suppressed his anger and resigned himself to a cold, bitter wait for food and answers. After twenty years of scouting and skirmishing in the king’s army, he’d learned to ignore physical discomfort and avoid politics when he could, but both were slapping him in the face this march.
The gusts remained brutal and a conflict delayed mealtime. Voices lifted. Vaun might have understood the dialect, an off-shoot of the formal Shote that had spawned his own language, if more than the tone had carried on the wind rushing in his ears.
He watched a Shote grab a stick out of the woman’s hand so he could poke add it to the fire. He offered her a large, metal spoon. She wouldn’t accept it and reached to retrieve the stick. The Shote grabbed her arm and wrapped her hand around the spoon.
She cried out and wilted, dropping the spoon and waiting beside the fire with the wary stillness of one who has been abused often. A slave.
As the trader drew back his arm in threat, Vaun’s vitals tightened with outrage.
The woman lifted a protective hand, the sleeve of her robe falling back to reveal a dark scrolling mark up her arm. Stunned, he could barely comprehend it. Shotes regarded tattooing as pagan. Their single god forbade it.
She’s one of us.
Beside Vaun, Chador stiffened, obviously making the same connection and equally infuriated at one more example of a treaty promise broken by the Shotes.
Vaun fingered his sword hilt but didn’t want to engage twelve, thirteen, no fifteen Shotes. Scanning the area, he picked out two sentries he hadn’t seen earlier. They guarded the slope further along, obscured by a boulder. The Shote lookouts were indifferent, useless men who failed to notice they were being observed, but it still added up to too many against nine Kerf.
Frustrated, Vaun brought his attention back to the woman, trying to decipher whether her deep coloring was tan or grime. Which Kerf kingdom did she belong to? Not that her origin mattered. If she was tattooed, she was Kerf. If she was Kerf, she would be retrieved.
Vaun glanced back. His men must have read the shock and tension in their leader. They were tense and ready, flushing with battle heat.
He restrained them with a signal while he considered how best to avoid a bloodbath. It was one thing to risk his own men, quite another to risk the lives of Gunar’s under-trained diplomats. For a Kerf, however, all men would fight. And if she happened to belong to one of the families wavering between Shote and Kerf loyalty, her return would draw her people closer to Vaun’s. Yes, they needed to free her, but after nightfall. He and Chador would do it. A raid it would be, but a stealthy one.
Below, the Shotes shuffled over the loose red stones, creating flat beds, coming to the woman for their meal and making remarks in lewd tones.
She didn’t react. Beneath the smudges of dirt she appeared young in years yet old in experience. Expressionless, but alert. Handing out food to the last of them, she sidled toward a lightning-shaped fissure in the red wall.
Two Shotes abandoned their meal and followed, their predatory swagger making their intention obvious. The woman tried to evade but one caught her around the waist.
Terc’s blood. Vaun counted again the men they faced, unhappy with the odds but knowing they were no longer waiting for nightfall. He had never in his life stood by and watched a rape.
While one Shote pressed the wriggling woman to the ground, Vaun stood. He spared a heartbeat to ensure all the Shotes were absorbed in watching their own then lifted his arm in the signal. Fight! No prisoners! Fight!
A scream from a sentry pulled the Shote’s attention from his assault on her.
Finally. Elation burst in Athadia. Her people had come for her. She’d been searching the horizon, waiting and waiting, but now they were here and she’d be free.
She struggled to squirm away from the man climbing off her, digging her fingernails into loose rocks and scrambling for the escape she’d been plotting since her capture, but the Shote yanked her back and onto her feet against him. She wailed in furious protest while his energy bombarded her senses with his physical messages: slamming heartbeats and fight-ready muscle tension. The Shote was as scared as he ought to be. Alvians were terrifying warriors when roused to fight.
Her wild gaze swung to the attackers, anxious to see familiar faces. Alarm struck. These were not Alvians. Not even rival traders.
Shock stilled her from trying to free herself. She was like a grass doll, her entire body shaking loosely as the Shote wielded her like a shield.
She had only ever heard of Kerfs, never seen one, but she was certain that was what plummeted down the rocky slope above her, his long hair bound in thick plaits, his garments fitted, his weapon a wide, flat sword.
Her heart thumped in a terrified beat, then her view of the Kerf disappeared as robed backs clustered around her. The thick scent of unwashed Shotes enclosed her while the high pitch of war cries tightened the hair on the nape of her neck. Panic stung her veins and she tried to struggle free but too many hands reached to clasp onto her.
As the men clawed to grasp her wrists, her arms, her hair, the internal storm became paralyzing. Racing heartbeats and unbalanced exchange of air, tense muscles and blooms of stark pain battered at her, making demands she was compelled by her vows to fulfill but found she couldn’t. Not adequately. There were too many men.
She tried anyway, anxious that her gift might be failing her. She drew her taxed mental energy inward as she was jostled and stretched, tried to focus on each point of contact, but the signals changed too rapidly. She couldn’t isolate the flashes of pain. Sweating grips loosened and slid away amid bellows and grunts. The scent of hot, fresh blood told her she was failing and despite loathing all Shotes, despair rose up to choke her.
She shouldn’t care that she couldn’t heal them. This could be her chance to escape. If she broke her vow against fighting, she might ensure it, but her commitment to heal was too deeply ingrained and breaking her vow would weaken her power when she needed it to buffer her against the empathic pain crashing into her.
Another Shote fell away, mortally wounded. She cried out, feeling it as if her skin peeled from her body.
Through the hooded heads, she saw the monstrous Kerf closing in. Sweat beaded his brow while spatters of blood ran into the creases of his strained expression.
This was why her people dared not venture into Kerf lands. He attacked with crazed strength against impossible odds, slashing through Shotes with vicious ease. But the traders made it easy for him. Proper soldiers would have fanned out to surround their attacker rather than bunching together in a large, easy target.
Athadia shrank from another screaming death then another. Each burned and sucked at her gift. Discipline was futile. She stayed sane by holding her ability tight against her core, ensuring her own survival while the Shotes threatened to tear her limbs from her body, pulling her hands to their injuries.
Fools. She didn’t need to touch the cuts. Their will pulled her power through their hold on her arms, uncontrolled and basic, but doing the job.
Another jerk damaged ligaments in her neck. She blindly gathered energy there, relieving the pain, repairing the damage. Holding herself apart. She hated battles but endured this one in hopes the Shotes would triumph yet be reduced. Shotes enslaved and exploited her kind. Kerfs killed them. With only a few injured Shotes watching her, she would have her chance to escape.
Or they might bind her and retreat to the settlements, in which case she would lose all the ground she had gained. No, she had suffered too much to come this far. She wouldn’t let those sacrifices be in vain.
Making herself limp, she tried to slide from the dwindling Shotes’ grips. They only screamed and jerked her to her feet, near separating her shoulder from its socket. The jolt of pain took her breath before she controlled it. Finding her center with far more effort than it should require, she held off the urgent signals storming her consciousness.
Her move had turned the fight in the big Kerf’s favor. He took advantage, pressing forward with a resolve that gleamed through the dust caking his face. For one gasping breath she met his green gaze and saw his intent. He meant to take her.
Overwhelmed by terror, Athadia threw her power into the remaining Shotes just as the Kerf struck. She knew the mistake immediately and tried to catch back the impulse but she was unbalanced, too anxious to save the Shote so he could defeat the Kerf. Instinct and the power of her vows took over, stealing the necessary discipline. Her skill became a cruelty as she healed the man wrongly.
The Shote clutched at his belly, trying to gather back that which had escaped and finding no opening.
A new kind of horror overcame her. It wasn’t easy to undo such a thing. She needed help, others of her kind. Dropping to her knees, she tried to reach out to the man, to ease his pain at least, but one Shote still held her. He dragged her across the sharp rocks, retreating from the powerful Kerf.
She was barely aware of the continued battle over her head, too caught by the injured Shote’s writhing. He suffered from her mistake. She had a duty to help him.
The biting grip of the last Shote released. She started to crawl forward as the Shote who’d held her landed on the ground beside her, the wound at his neck beyond any Alvian’s ability to repair.
The massive Kerf took two long strides and ended the hysterical bawling of the Shote she had left suffering, leaving a silence that buffeted her like a strong wind.
The Kerf lowered his sword, his chest heaving while bright stains blossomed on the sleeves of his shirt and the legs of his dun colored breeches.
Still on her knees, Athadia swayed in exhaustion. She had been in many battles, but had never grown used to them. Butchery always scarred her psyche and she could still hear the vibration of life forces, abruptly released, dissipating in the air. Perhaps if this Kerf wished to free hers, she would let him. Perhaps he wouldn’t give her a choice.
Them. There were several she realized as she heard voices speak an unfamiliar language and sensed movement behind her. That’s how he’d prevailed.
The big Kerf asked her something.
She frowned, attempting to translate. Was that his word for tribe? Kerfs had been Shotes many generations ago and she’d been living with Shotes long enough to understand their language as effortlessly as her own. Not that she would ever reveal her knowledge by speaking to a Shote. She would break her Healing Vow first.
Another man sent a question her way. A different dialect, perhaps. He showed her his tattooed arm and motioned.
She lifted her arm, letting the sleeve of the too-big Shote robe drop, showing him her bare arm, decorated with a streak of charcoal. Earlier, a Shote had prodded her with the glowing end of a stick from the fire. She’d healed the burn but the tip had left a black mark from her wrist halfway to her elbow. She absently wiped at it, smudging it.
A sharp voiced discussion ensued.
The big one spoke to her once more, this time in High Shote and with an aggression in his tone that made her muscles tense in defensive readiness.
“You’re not Kerf?” he demanded. “What then? Shote?”
She feigned ignorance. It was her experience that if captors knew she spoke their language, they tortured her into doing so, demanding maps to ore she couldn’t provide.
The men all looked to the big one for direction. He issued a terse order and the men dispersed, but he continued to stare at her until a call from one of his soldiers made him stalk away.
Jagged stones turned under her as Athadia found her feet and surveyed the camp. One or two Shotes might have escaped but the rest were dead, along with two men in Kerf clothing. The remaining Kerfs nursed bloody cuts but either didn’t understand her ability or didn’t wish for her assistance because they didn’t make an appeal to her. Perhaps they were too absorbed in seizing Shote robes and weaponry, too anxious to gobble Shote rations, to care how much blood they lost.
Kerfs were as crude as she’d always been taught. Ruthless. Brutal. Base.
Her opportunity for freedom had arrived. She bolted.
Vaun paced the broken camp, willing to wait for the food while he counted the dead and came to terms with the fact he’d made a terrible mistake. The woman wasn’t Kerf. She didn’t understand his language, didn’t wear tattoos, and didn’t seem grateful for her rescue. He’d killed all these Shotes, possibly started a war, for naught.
Vaun counted, then counted again. Nay, they hadn’t killed all the Shotes. Three had escaped. He’d definitely started a war. Pox.
Catching a darting motion out of the corner of his eye, he saw the woman aimed for the gap between the mountainside and the wall of tumbled boulders. She almost made it before he called out to Chador.
Chador dropped a sack and caught her. She screeched in frustrated denial then fought, but not properly. She squirmed for freedom like a tempered waddler.
Vaun let Chador deal with her while he said his prayers over Handek and Janus—Elden’s would-be southern allies, now dead. As if this situation weren’t bad enough. The hope of repairing weak relations between the two kingdoms disappeared as Gunar took the men’s armbands for their families, his acceptance of Vaun’s sympathies grim and wordless.
Vaun stopped himself from placing the blame on Gunar’s shoulders where it belonged. He could point fingers later, if they survived to see Elden.
First they would bury the men, even the Shotes. He hadn’t intended the raid to turn out this way. He wasn’t certain how it had. High emotion on the heels of a long march, he supposed. And he thought they were freeing a Kerf.
But the woman wasn’t Kerf and didn’t respond to Shote words, so what was she?
He halted over the Shote he’d disemboweled and yet hadn’t. The entrails were there, but the gash gone. How—?
Chador’s shout of alarm sent Vaun’s hand to his sword, but Chador only struggled with the captive. He released her to stare at his forearm and bent to wipe it on his breeches.
She made to run again but halted as Bezek stepped in front of her.
Chador looked to Vaun with an expression of baffled fright. “It’s gone.”
“Your armband? It’s on the other side, friend.” Battle fatigue, Vaun thought, relaxing his grip on his sword. “Drink something. Eat.”
“No, the cut,” Chador said, still panicked. “Look, the bloodstains are here, but…” He rubbed. “There’s not even a scar.”
The statement silenced all the men. They looked from Chador, to the woman, to Vaun. Apprehension crackled on the air.
“Is she one of those Alvian soul-stealers?” Chador asked in a whisper.
She was terrified was what she was, but Vaun sensed eerie fear in his men, too. He felt it as a contagion in himself as he recollected his history lessons—bloody tales of the First Settlement Wars. Battles against primitives who healed with touch but also banded together to slaughter indiscriminately.
“Those are legends,” he said, not as filled with certainty as he wanted to be. “Stories exaggerated by time.” He looked to the ridge of the vulnerable bowl in which they stood.
The woman attempted to sidle past Bezek. Another of Vaun’s men moved to block her and she paused, her gaze growing more anxious as the rest encircled her.
Could she be one of those unnatural Alvian creatures?
Behind the woman, one of Vaun’s soldiers made an abrupt move.
With a small cry, she whirled. As the fabric of her swirling robe settled, Vaun saw his man held a hunting knife. The point gleamed red.
Athadia dodged the next blade that jabbed at her thigh and blocked a third with her forearm, feeling the cut streak deep. If she hadn’t been so taxed, she might have found her center and accompanying discipline, but the men closed in, stealing her concentration. She tripped over the hem of her oversized robe trying to escape another swipe and curled as she fell, protecting herself. A stab nipped into her side anyway.
A male bellow sounded and the sickening thud of a blow followed. She cringed, waiting for boots and pain, but nothing struck her. The sounds of fighting continued though, with cries of protest.
Working up the nerve to peek past her bent elbow, she saw the leader of these Kerfs using his fists to break up the mob, forcing the men back from her. One man babbled hysterically and pointed his sword tip at her, as though he wanted to skewer her to the ground. The big Kerf cuffed him.
Distantly, Athadia heard his fury in his sharp words, but turned herself inward, not bothering to attempt translation as she searched within herself, found shreds of calm and balance, mentally spoke her vows and repaired herself. When she became aware of silence, thick with hostility, she tentatively uncurled. Most of the men looked abashed. Some glared with mistrust. The leader wore an expression of angry remorse.
If she begged for freedom, he might grant it. Longing washed over her for The Circle, the closest thing to a haven her people had left. If she could rest and heal, consult with the Elders, she might try again to fulfill her purpose. If only it hadn’t been so long since she’d spoken. She wasn’t sure she could make herself understood. Perhaps if she just walked away. Surely the Kerf would comprehend that.
He reached to help her rise.
Hesitantly, she let him close his hand around her arm.
Alvian energy burst in her cells, buckling her knees as she tried to stand. She used both hands to catch at him and he steadied her while his own feet staggered, his expression shocked.
Like weak sunlight expanding through a break in the clouds, his gift washed over her, pale and lacking intensity because he was only a Latent, not a full-blooded Alvian. He emanated signals of exhaustion and taxed muscles and seeping battle wounds—a deep need for healing, but he was a glimmer of everything she longed for.
Her energy reached insistently for greater contact, craving Alvian healing. He’s Kerf, her mind insisted, but vows and a fundamental recognition prevailed. She let her body tip forward until she collapsed against him.
Lightheadedness made Vaun sway as he absorbed her slight weight, nearly knocked off balance by this feather of a woman. His blood heated in one mighty, restorative pulse. At the same time, melancholy homesickness rippled through him. He thought of his mother for the first time in years and experienced a sudden longing to hold his youngest son before Mekel grew too big to be lifted willingly like the older boys.
The strange, out of place thoughts were disconcerting. He dismissed them. Of course he wanted to see his sons and his brother. He wanted to ensure his village, nay his entire country, was safe. He wanted to report and devise a strategy to keep their kingdom protected. He wanted to be home.
“You’re claiming her?” Gunar asked with shock.
Vaun realized his arms had closed around her. He hadn’t held a woman outside a bed since his wife had died, but he tightened his hold as he surveyed the frightened, hostile faces of his men.
“She could have knowledge of Shote armies,” he said, searching for logic behind his purely instinctive compulsion to draw her tight against him. “Information on their weaponry and intentions. And look at her. She’s just a harmless woman.” Near unconscious judging by the limp weight of her. Badly injured, perhaps? A slit in her sleeve showed a wet line of blood on her upper arm. Vaun smeared it, leaving an outline where the welled blood had been but the injury was gone. The hair on the back of his neck lifted.
Harmless, yet unable to be harmed.
He attempted to set her away but she clung like a barbed cone from a fedick tree.
“You’re fine now,” he told her, speaking in Kerf since it didn’t seem to matter what language he used. He could only hope she heard the reassurance in his tone. “They’ll not hurt you again. Hear me?” He tried again to step back but she dug in with her fingers, bunching the woven kavrin beneath the hardened leather of his vest, keeping her eyes shut and her body tight to his.
The heat of her disturbed him, penetrating to the very core of him. Was she fevered? He tilted his head to see her face in the fading light.
Several men leaned to see as well.
“Don’t stand gawking,” Vaun ordered. “Find a map. We can’t stay here.”
The men snapped into motion, but cast wary looks behind them while he tried to find the heart to push her away when she was light and soft and offered relief from a chill that had plagued him more deeply than he’d realized. He became aware of womanly curves and a scent as feminine and fresh as lake water.
A desire to seek privacy danced through him, but he ruthlessly clamped down on it. She was foreign. And holding her gave him an odd sensation, as though something rang within him. It was similar to the way his sword vibrated after a mighty clash, yet not so violent. A leaf trembling from the heat of a high-summer sun. It was troubling, whatever it was, and thankfully halted when he forced her backward a step and released her.
She blinked sleepy eyes, revealing a near-bliss that bore resemblance to the way a woman looked after attentive lovemaking. She said something in her own language, her tone husky and intimate, just as Bezek arrived with a ration sack.
Bezek hesitated, making his offering with a lowered gaze. “I didn’t mean to intrude,” he murmured.
Instantly irritated, Vaun accepted the sack and offered it to the woman.
She ignored it and tried to lean into him again.
“No,” he said. “Enough dawdling. You eat. I need a map.”
With a frown, she spoke in her language, tone lifting in question. The words were musical and— He shook his head. He was losing his wits if he thought there was anything familiar about the way she spoke.
“I’m busy,” he told her and walked away to empty another sack.
“Why doesn’t she eat? What does she know about the food that we don’t?” one of the men asked. “She prepared it, didn’t she?”
Vaun sighed. “Nothing is wrong with the food. All of you eat that stew while it’s warm. You need your strength. We’re weeks from home yet.” He squatted to rifle through the tools and implements he’d dumped.
“Will we go ahead, Vaun, or…?” Chador glanced up from stoking the fire to eye the woman.
She had followed Vaun across the camp and now reached a tentative, questing hand to his shoulder.
He brushed her away, understanding Chador’s concern—that more of her kind roamed these hills. Before Vaun’s father’s time, Alvian attacks had kept the Shotes from settling these lower plains and encroaching on Kerfdom. Those battles were unheard of these days. That’s why Vaun had thought taking the eastern route home would be safe. Apparently it was still thick with Shotes and Alvians, though.
He scowled at the surrounding peaks cloaked in snow. The sky was purpling, threatening a cold, clear night. Frost scented the air. If they survived until morning, they faced steep valleys and rough terrain followed by more nights like this one. He hoped they wouldn’t see anyone else, but, “I’ll know better when I find a map.” He rose to dump another sack.
The woman refused to leave him alone, worming her hand into the crook of his elbow and exerting a strange pressure with her fingertips that left his forearm oversensitive, as though scorched by too much sun. He imagined she clung because she feared the rest of the men, but he wasn’t in a frame of mind to coddle.
“Here. Sit,” he ordered, pointing to a spot beside Chador. Collecting the stew ladle from the ground, he made to hand it to her but the object stalled him. Its coating gleamed like sunlight off water but prickled his palm like a handful of thorny canes.
She refused to take it, but clasped his wrist, turning his hand to examine his grip on the spoon, asking a question in her musical lilt as she did.
“Vaun! A map!” Bezek called.
Finally. Vaun abandoned ladle and woman, moving to accept the tanned skin from Bezek.
The picture was a more detailed drawing of the southern plains than Vaun had ever seen, perhaps a prize worth this battle after all. On the other hand, it was as vague northward, beyond the inside reaches of Meor’s Arm, as his own people’s. He crouched near the fire’s light and set stones across the skin to keep the gusting wind from lifting the hide.
The woman lowered to kneel beside him, setting a hand on his thigh.
“Do you know where we are?” he asked in Kerf.
He shifted so she no longer touched him then suffered the strange disgruntlement that cloaked him each time he pushed her away. As much as the odd heat of her touch bothered him, the absence bothered him more. Perhaps it was simply that his body recognized what her touch provided. Already his wounds had closed and he felt revived enough to travel beyond this darkening camp to a place less likely to suffer a counterattack by the escaped Shotes.
His men were still injured and weary, however, and couldn’t go on unless she healed them. After their attack on her, Vaun couldn’t imagine she’d welcome a request for help so she was beginning to look like a liability. Perhaps he should have let her run.
But where would she go? Not where she placed her fingertip on the map, along the shore of the inland waterway. That’s where the Shote traders retreated in the fall. They had settlements there and that was likely where she and other Alvian slaves were bought and sold along with ore. She couldn’t go there.
She said something as she traced a path northwest across riverbeds that would break up soon. Her language was odd, musical and soft, delivered in a clear, feminine tone that was also somber. He wondered if she was telling him how many traders traveled those streams, wishing to mine at the first hint of spring. Many, he was sure, so that was not a healthy place for her either.
Her fingertip found the mountain range that currently stood between his men and their home. The map labeled the western side of the range with many Kerf landmarks along with all the passable routes through them, even the ones only navigable in mid-summer.
The Shote knowledge of Kerf terrain was a concern, as would be any interest she showed his homeland, but she ignored it and halted her finger in the thickest section of the pointed mountain symbols.
If she was telling him where they were, they were not nearly as far north as Vaun had hoped, but had come too far to go back. They crouched in the bleakest, roughest stretch of territory, yet she had tried to escape here. Where had she thought to go? The plains? They were barely marked. If no Shote had explored to map it, it wasn’t livable. Not for an ordinary man, anyway. Perhaps an extraordinary woman could survive there.
Vaun considered that. Considered the fact her presence among the Shote traders had kept them alive in these mountains during an impossible season. If he released her, how would his own men survive to the end of this trek?
He tried to reject the barely formed answer by searching for an alternative within the map. It indicated a valley further north where fruit might be found, but nothing would even be in blossom this time of year. Then there were markings for salt bogs and pockets of black ore. He might not even see fresh water for a time.
She leaned over the map, a hand folding around one of the loose rocks while she brushed dirt off the blank, northeast corner of the map. She paused to tuck her knotted hair behind her ear revealing a dirty yet unblemished profile of regal lines and graceful femininity. Pointing, she asked a question in her odd language.
Vaun kept his gaze on her. He’d never seen a woman of such exotic looks. Her skin held the color of a lightly roasted nut despite the lack of summer sun. Her curling hair wasn’t completely black either. It reflected the firelight in orange glints. Viewing her as a prize was wrong, but he experienced a visceral delight that he had discovered her, this curious woman with her strange magic.
As he held her gaze, she sat back on her heels, solemn and hesitant. She said something else, the foreign syllables heavy with remorse and reached out, palm up.
“You have to quit distracting me,” he reprimanded, but she was remarkable and unique. He longed for time to study and admire her properly. He wanted to possess her, he admitted to himself, as he folded his hand over hers in what he intended to be a touch of muted but final refusal.
The strange heat of her life force leapt into him. Vague sexual interest tightened to acute carnal desire.
With a harsh gasp she yanked back her hand, pulling away from him as though he’d assaulted her when she had been the one to offer her hand. He had only tried to reject the contact.
“Keep your distance then,” he told her, embarrassed that she had sensed his lust but also because she was repulsed by a reaction he hadn’t wanted, expected, or controlled. Women had no place on a march, this woman on this march especially. It was cursed by the gods.
Rubbing sweat and dirt from his eyes, he opened them to find Chador beside him, offering a bowl of stew. Vaun edged over, inviting Chador to crouch between him and the woman.
He lowered to study the map’s glyphs, saying, “The Shotes believe more ore will be found on this side of our pass.”
“That’s how I read it. It explains why rumors persist they wish to conquer our lands and control our pass—to reach the ore fields they can’t exploit otherwise. Our king needs this information.”
Chador nodded. His grim gaze lifted to the woman.
“Aye.” Vaun watched her cradle the hand he’d touched. “And we need her.”
He didn’t know he carried Alvian blood. He couldn’t, otherwise, he wouldn’t have allowed his desire to flood her that way.
Astounded, Athadia stayed on the ground while the man the others called ‘Vaun’ stood to fold the map and tuck it in the small of his back.
As he gathered his men and issued orders, she wondered about his parentage. He hadn’t recognized her identity and lineage when she’d spoken, although she’d spoken so poorly it had been an embarrassment. Silence had been her expression of grief and—well, she would speak more clearly in time and he should still respect protocol. He’d almost broken taboo when all she’d asked was to share energy. Such defiance and ignorance baffled her. Alvians took education of offspring very seriously, even Latent or Null children. He should know how to discipline his gift and should possess a sense of responsibility toward restoring hers.
She became aware of the men looking down on her. Vaun pointed to where a soldier held a piece of torn Shote robe over his thigh. It dripped with blood. He spoke in his own language, but Athadia knew what he wanted.
“You do it,” she challenged in Shote, hearing the slur of disuse on her tongue.
The men stilled with surprise, sending sharp looks toward Vaun. She didn’t know if they understood her, but he seemed to.
“Are you Shote?” He crouched to eye level, intent. “Or Alvian?”
“Alvian.” She glanced up at the men who’d attacked her then back to the man who’d saved her. With care and equal intensity, she asked, “What are you?”
“Kerf.” His frown said, ‘what else?’ “We have to move. Stitches will take too long. You heal them.”
He had no awareness of his talent and, given the way the men had reacted to discovering hers, she doubted now was the time to reveal their leader’s heritage.
“Hurry,” he said in Shote. “They could come back, maybe with a patrol.”
Athadia tensed. It was true. Traders never let go of ore easily and even in her drained state, she would accomplish the healing faster than Null bandaging. However, one glance at the soldier’s body language told her she couldn’t touch him.
“He doesn’t want my help,” she told Vaun.
“He does,” he said. “They all do.” He said something in his own language.
The men shifted. Two reached for totems on leather cords around their necks and all wore expressions of repugnance, but they would obey orders and accept her help.
The last thing Athadia wished to be was slave to a Kerf, but she was slave to her vow and had an obligation to all Alvians, even Latents. If Vaun asked this of her, she had to respect his request.
Reaching out, she found her gift difficult to control in her weakened state with the pressure to avoid Shote traders returning. She ached for contact with her own kind but touching all the men soon revealed Vaun was the only one with Alvian traits and he remained oblivious and distant.
He led the march from the Shote camp as she finished, giving her no opportunity to speak to him or slip away as he rotated her through the ranks to keep the men on their feet. They covered a lot of ground, climbing steep slopes and narrow, frozen streams. Athadia was familiar with easing the complaints produced by such a march: hunger and dehydration, frost biting through boots at toes. Her bare feet didn’t feel the ice-hardened ground, but the healing required intense concentration. She was the offspring of two powerful healers, one of the most gifted among her people, but like a body working without nourishment, her ability grew thin and less effective. She kept thinking of Vaun. Kerf. Enemy. Ignorant and undisciplined. But one of her own. Able to renew her.
He paid her little regard as he led them north while the moon stayed high, never bearing east toward The Circle. Finally he found a site he deemed secure. The landscape was black on black as the moon set. He ordered the men to rest and the soldiers settled in pairs near a small fire, their backs to each other, appropriated Shote robes draped over them.
In the flickering light, Athadia watched as she had every night since beginning her travels with the Shotes. If the Null men were in a state of reasonable health and not requiring immediate healing, her vows would not oblige her to stay with them. As for Vaun, she owed him her help if he asked, but he didn’t and he offered none despite her need. She edged toward the shadows.
“No.” He pointed to his feet and said, “Sleep where I can keep an eye on you.”
She didn’t want to sleep. She wanted healing. She searched the dark for a distant glimmer of flame. If her brethren spotted this fire, they’d come to investigate. The urge to race into the dark void and call for them nearly overwhelmed her. Couldn’t they hear her heart calling out to them?
“Tell me your name.” Yellow light danced over Vaun’s still expression, showing every harsh plane and rough angle. He had settled on the ground with his back against a flat rock, apparently willing to remain awake to ensure she stayed put.
“Athadia.” Alsoomse Naday Petan. First Clan Primary.
Or perhaps not. Her son may have taken over the duty, not excusing her from responsibility but lifting some of its weight. If he had survived. If not…she fought a smothering fear. No, she would only worry about becoming strong enough to make the journey to The Circle. She would face the rest once she reached it.
“Uh-thay-dee-ya,” Vaun repeated in his blunt accent. “I know you want to return to your own people. So do I. I can’t let you go until we reach the northern pass.”
The pass? Anguish brought her gaze back to his as her sense of duty splintered. Aid one Latent? Or return to serving hundreds?
“Be easy,” he coaxed, remaining in a relaxed pose with his forearms braced on his upraised knees. His gaze swept the shadows beyond the fire. “If we meet your people, I’ll give you up to prevent a fight. You’re my assurance of a safe passage as well as survival.” His gaze came back to hers. “Which means you have value. I’ll protect you from Shotes and other predators. It’s a reasonable trade. So rest.”
It was reasonable and she would at least find word of her son at the holy place in the north if she didn’t learn anything before then, but… She lowered to the cold, soft ground, flexing her fingers into the loose sand beside her calves. “Will you—”
She wanted to ask him to heal her but hesitated, facing the kind of dilemma that made the demands of her title so challenging. On the one hand, she had a directive to guide and teach, on the other, to nurture and protect. Vaun seemed comfortable in his Null world, thriving in a way her Null daughter never had in the Alvian one. He would gain little and lose much if he learned of his heritage.
“Will I?” he prompted.
She shook her head, thoughts of her daughter making heartache rise. Grief threatened and in her weary state, it would reduce her to less than useless. She forced her mind to the rest of her people. Her title. She would have to breed again, now that she was free. Even if her son had taken over the leadership role, rejuvenating the Alvian race was her sacred duty.
The scope of responsibility she’d been conceived to assume had always intimidated her. It petrified her now as it occurred to her Vaun was a potential mate. Here was an opportunity to resume her function. Sexual energy wouldn’t have leapt between them if they were too close in ancestry to breed, but her Null daughter had been disappointment enough for her people, ripping Athadia from position and duty. A Latent-fathered child would be equally unacceptable.
No, she reasoned. She needn’t assume her reproductive role just yet, but she still faced the predicament of how to ask for the healing she needed. Crawling into Vaun’s arms might invite the untamed reaction he had revealed earlier: blood running like quicksilver beneath the surface of his skin, muscles pulled to taut readiness, lungs constricting his breath to ragged gusts. It was shocking and wrong.
Yet…beguiling. Against her will, the memory caused her temperature to elevate. She glanced self-consciously at him, and he captured her gaze the way a carnivorous animal pinned prey, eyes glinting with craving.
He wasn’t supposed to do that. When Alvians mated, they worked out the terms of conception first, then a man allowed his arousal to become apparent, but only enough to accomplish the transfer of seed. He never encouraged a woman to sexual hunger.
Vaun’s brow went up and he spoke with male desire thickening his voice. “Will I change my mind?” he guessed. “No, but you may try to persuade me if you like.”
Behind her, Athadia heard the rustle of a body shifting. She escaped Vaun’s stare to see a soldier come up on his elbow. The others didn’t seem to understand Shote, but something in Vaun’s tone must have registered with the man. His gaze skimmed over her with crude assessment, much the way Shote traders had looked at her in their brothels.
She had all but forgotten the rest of the men. Perhaps her wishes where mating was concerned had no bearing. Her extremities grew cold and bile filled her stomach.
Swinging her attention back to Vaun, she searched his now grim expression for his intention but couldn’t decipher it because her eyes were filling with tears of frustration. Forget asking him to heal her. He wasn’t even Alvian enough to recognize she needed healing so badly because she’d been battling the effects of repetitive rape. He should have sensed her fatigued energy and wished to rebalance it, not—
He said something in his own language, a gruff curse, and reached for her.
She stiffened as his hands closed around her upper arms, but he had reined in his unfettered desire. Arousal still simmered in his cells, but he was disciplining it. Her energy leapt to attach to his. She followed his will, stifling his hunger while he gathered her into his chest.
Tilting up her chin, he spoke with the gravity of an Alvian taking vows. “I need you to heal us while we travel north. That’s all.”
She didn’t relax from the words so much as from the promise of succor in his muscled arms. Her body surrendered, her head sliding until he caught it in the cup of his hand. “Will you give me your word you won’t run?” he asked. “So we can rest?”
She only shivered in gratitude. Surrounded by his size and scent, she let her energy pour into the warm currents and eddies of his then drew their combined energy back into her before she eased it back to him. As she found the rhythm, their heartbeats slowed to a matching pace. Their breaths harmonized and they slept.
Vaun woke to an unpleasant peeling sensation on his front, as if his skin was pulling away with the removal of a bandage adhered to a wound. He opened his eyes to find Athadia trying to ease herself from his embrace and reflexively tightened his hold. “Where are you going?”
He glanced at the slumbering men, the dead fire, the fading stars. They’d only slept a few hours, but he felt ready to march for hours. He was thirsty too, though.
Relaxing his hold, Vaun winced at the chill as Athadia moved away. Odd. The cold didn’t usually bother him, certainly not to the point where he would consider dragging a woman back into his arms when he had men’s lives on the line.
Motioning her to wait, he shook Chador awake. “Ready the men. I want to move.”
Chador sat up while Vaun followed Athadia to the stream below the slope of the bank that edged the camp. They cracked ice that curled in jagged teeth over boulders and drank deeply. Then Athadia harvested algae, letting it hang in black strings from her fingers as she offered it.
“To eat?” he asked, askance. “No.”
“It tastes better stewed, but it’s nourishing.” she said, eating it herself.
Since she hadn’t touched the Shote food, he waited patiently while she ate her fill, watching her gather small pebbles and arrange them into a marker while she did.
“For your people?” he asked, debating the danger of Alvians tracking them versus Athadia’s need to rejoin her people. “Do you have a family to return to? A husband?”
“Family, yes.” In the climbing light he thought he saw sorrow flicker over her face. Stark doubt was disciplined into a mask of determination to hope before she looked up with inquiry. “Husband? That means life-mate?” She shook her head then asked with interest, “You?”
“No,” he said, relieved there’d been no transgression last night, holding another man’s wife. “I have sons, but my wife is gone.”
As she nodded thoughtfully and turned to wash her hands and face, he told himself he had simply wanted to ensure she didn’t escape last night and offer reassurance she was in no danger from the other men. But the men wouldn’t touch her and he could have tied her up to keep her from running. No, his motive for holding her hadn’t been so innocent. He wanted her, this unusual woman. The desire to steal a kiss now, without his men nearby to witness it, engulfed him.
But he only had to recollect the dread in her eyes when she had thought he’d make her whore for their entire party and he found the will to restrain himself. Besides, they were merely fellow travelers. She had people to return to. Parents, it sounded like, who deserved to know she lived.
Nevertheless, as she led him back to camp, he hung back and kicked over her marker. He’d already lost men. The challenge of this march motivated him to keep her as long as possible.
Back in camp, however, that fool Gunar questioned her use even as he sat with his boot off, his sole gray and pocked with running blisters. Obviously he had dodged Vaun’s order last night for all the men to present for healing as necessary.
He looked at Athadia and jerked his head toward Gunar.
“No,” Gunar said with a stubborn scowl in her direction.
Athadia held up splayed hands, saying in Shote, “I can’t help him if he refuses.”
Vaun set his hands on his hips, regarding Gunar. “You refuse my orders?”
It was a transgression grave enough for the rest of the men to slow their movements, quieting so they could hear without appearing to.
“I refuse to be disloyal to my Ducetta. Isolda would not approve of my consorting with the instrument of her brother’s death.” He aimed a filthy look at Athadia.
Anger and culpability were twisting Gunar’s view of the situation. Vaun saw it and knew this ripple was only the first of the swamping waves of repercussions that would eventually roll from this folly of a march. However, he had a party of men to hold together and bring home safely. He wouldn’t let Gunar jeopardize that.
“You won’t survive if you don’t accept healing and I assure you, if you die from refusing the orders of a Kerf general, your loyalty will forever remain in question.”
Gunar snorted, and his mouth twisted in a sneer behind his stubbled beard. “My dying would work in your favor, wouldn’t it, General? Then your actions wouldn’t be questioned at all.” He cast a contemptuous look around the group of northerners, plainly dismissing them as Vaun’s co-conspirators.
The men shifted, glancing between Gunar and Vaun, no longer pretending they weren’t listening, anxious to see how he would react to Gunar’s insults.
“I shall answer to my king for my actions,” Vaun said. “Whether I also answer for using my sword to silence a seditionist is up to you.”