Another thrilling story by the international best-selling author of “Mark of the Successor”!
Fin depends on her companions to keep her safe…and out of chains. As one of the Amari, the only race that can harness magic, she longs for a normal life. One where she didn’t have to constantly look over her shoulder, and she could fall in love.
Alaric fell hard for Fin from the moment he laid his eyes on her three years ago. He swore an oath to keep her safe, even if it meant his life. But he knew that any relationship he could hope to have with her would be on her terms.
When a king offers them the chance at a normal life, Fin’s cautious. And rightly so, as there are others who think she’s the one to lead the Amari from a life of slavery.
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SNEAK PEEK! SNEAK PEEK! SNEAK PEEK!
The sound of the arrow piercing the wild boar’s carcass seemed loud in the early morning silence. Fin lowered her bow. “Well, at least I hit it that time”.
“Your aim’s getting better. It may not convince a trained archer, but most won’t question your role with us. That should make things easier for you.” Alaric kept his voice low.
She reached over her shoulder and extracted another arrow from her quiver. Nocking it into place, she slowly drew back the string. “Easy hasn’t been part of my vocabulary for a very long time.” She let the string go, wincing as the string bit into her arm. “And fooling most of the people isn’t good enough.” Fin rubbed at her stinging skin as she watched the arrow fly. It landed in the ground at least a yard away from the boar.
“Come on, let’s go pick them up and try again.” Alaric motioned for her to follow him.
They kept their voices low as they passed the small tents where their companions slept. No sense in waking them up before dawn, not unless something showed up. The last few days had been tough on all of them. After the way they’d left Lorien, Fin still kept her ears open. She didn’t like the feeling of being chased. But it was better than being chained.
“Fin, relax. If anyone made out what you are in town, they’d have caught up to us by now.”
She shook her head, the red braid dancing down her back. “You know I can’t. The only reason I’m still free is because I don’t relax. If I relax, this happens.” She looked at him.
Fin watched as Alaric’s face turned momentarily to amazement as she flashed the true color of her eyes at him. The normal green was gone, replaced by the metallic gold that marked her as one of the Amari. She sighed.
“It’s beautiful, you know. They’re beautiful. It’s a shame you have to hide them. Even around us.” Alaric’s voice was barely above a whisper.
“Yeah, well, hiding them has kept me out of chains for twenty years. It’s a habit now.” Fin bent down and picked up her arrow. “I read somewhere once there used to be thousands of us. Walking the streets, not hiding. I haven’t met another Amari for over ten years, not one who didn’t belong to someone.” A wistful tone crept into her voice.
Alaric’s hand on her shoulder made her look up. “You don’t have to hide around me. No one should be treated like that, ever. And I won’t let that happen to you.”
The look he gave her sent chills down her spine. Of all her companions, he was the one she talked to the most. Put all her trust in. Emile, Trystian, and Gwen were all there to protect her, hide her, and she knew it. But there was something about Alaric that told her his interest went even farther.
His focus changed to something behind her. She made sure her eyes were hidden again. That was the first bit of magic she learned how to do. It was the only thing that had kept her free for so long.
“In the camp!” A male voice called out from the surrounding brush. “We’re cold tonight. Can we share your fire?”
Fin hurriedly gathered the last of her arrows, then darted back to wake the others. Alaric’s voice carried across the small area. “Depends. Are you friend or foe? We don’t take kindly to those who would share our fire and try to rob us blind.”
Fin rushed into the first tent, shaking Gwen awake. A single finger to her lips was all the warning the dark haired woman needed. Slipping back out, Fin could see three men emerging from the forest not far from Alaric’s tall form. No armor, no uniform, but something wasn’t right about how they walked.
“Would we ask first if we were foes? Why not just rob you? Why give your pet time to warn the others?” Fin stiffened at the word the man used to describe her. Pet. That’s what a chained Amari was called. She dove into the second tent. Emile caught her within his embrace. “Shh. There’s no guarantee they know.”
Trystian was up as well, strapping his sword belt on. “Stay close. We’ll keep you safe.” The tall, bearded man reassured her before leading the way out of the tent.
“What pet? There’s none here. If that’s what you seek, you’re in the wrong place.” Alaric’s voice was even. It was always better to talk their way out of a conflict.
The first tendrils of light from the approaching dawn gave her enough to see what she feared. All three of the men approaching Alaric had chains dangling from their belts.
“Ah, that’s fine. Charlie here–” the leader jerked his head back towards one of his companions, “–he likes to pretend he can smell ‘em. Says they smell bad on account of being corrupted by that magic of theirs.” He kicked at the dead boar Fin and Alaric had used for target practice. “Seems to me this is what he was smelling.”
“Fire’s that way.” Alaric gestured towards the rest of them. Fin tried not to grip her bow too tightly. The others stood near enough to prevent anyone from reaching her, but far enough away to pull out their weapons if it became necessary.
“Much obliged,” the leader remarked as he motioned the others to follow. Fin watched the strangers approach, Alaric trailing close behind. Something wasn’t right about them. It went beyond the shackles.
Alaric raised his chin, calling out “We have guests.”
That’s when it happened.
The lead bounty hunter threw his fist back hard, knocking Alaric to the ground. Fin fumbled with her quiver, sending out the silent healing energy to her friend. Around her, the other three drew their weapons and prepared to meet the charging foes.
By the time she got an arrow nocked, they were too close. Fin retreated a few feet, watching the fighting closely. Her bow was ready, but she needed to get a clear shot.
Close combat always unnerved her. The stench of blood turned her stomach. Gwen was holding her own against the one named Charlie, and winning handily. When the first body dropped, Fin relaxed just a little. There weren’t many out there who could beat Trystian or Emile in one-on-one combat, because the two men didn’t believe in mercy. Just an expedient death.
An arrow buzzed past her ear, the fletching scratching her cheek. Spinning on her heels, she watched it sail past the man charging at her. He leaped to tackle her as she tried to raise her bow. Instinct kicked in, and she did the only thing she could think of to stop him.
She willed his heart to stop beating.
An anguished wail tore from her throat. Pain forced her to her knees and caused her to drop her bow. The body of her would-be assailant fell with a heavy thud in front of her. Fin grasped at her left arm, desperate to breathe through the searing agony rippling down her bicep. She’d killed him. Justified or not, she’d taken a life.
“Fin? Are you okay?” Alaric’s voice broke through the shock. She opened her eyes.
He knelt in front of her. A single hand gently brushed her hair from her face. Concern for her was clearly visible in his brown eyes.
“I…I killed him.” She could barely whisper the words.
Captain Roberts watched the fight unfold. The fools. That had to be the dumbest set of bounty hunters he’d ever seen. The one remaining hidden was fairly good, but still clumsy. No wonder it’d taken them three days to catch up with the Amari and her friends.
When she killed the one, he knew it was time to move. He signaled to one of the men behind him. “Get everyone mounted, move around to surround them. But don’t come out until my signal.” He turned to the man to his right. “James, come with me. I might need your help convincing her to come quietly. We’ll go in on foot.” He nodded once, assured that his men would do as he ordered without hesitation. They always did.
Roberts looked back towards the makeshift campsite. Three of them were moving to pack up gear. The Amari still remained on the ground, the archer comforting her. She favored her left arm.
“The scar will be deep for that,” James remarked in a low voice. “The physical pain will not cease for days.”
“What about the rest of it?” Roberts asked.
James turned to face him. The metallic gaze of his always amazed Roberts. No matter how often he’d seen it. “The mark on her soul will remain. We do not forget any death we cause, no matter how justified.”
He nodded in understanding. “Keep your eyes hidden for now. When we need them to know what you are, we’ll reveal it.” With that, he stepped out of the edge of the woods and into the dawn-drenched clearing.
He didn’t announce himself. He just walked. They would see him, or he and James would stop close enough they didn’t have to scream and alert anyone else lurking in the woods.
The other woman saw them first. She slapped the arm of the two helping her pack up camp. Swords came out quickly. They were well trained. Roberts could appreciate that. All three moved to take positions to defend the Amari. The archer was helping her to stand. He and James were close enough now to see her face clearly. Pain marred the pale skin. She was not well.
“That’s close enough, soldier.” The bearded man spoke, his accent giving away his identity. That helped Roberts immensely. He had names, but not descriptions, of the Amari’s companions. “We do not need assistance from you. The corpses are those of some ruffians who set on us. We just defended ourselves. Go keep the King’s Peace elsewhere.”
Roberts spread his hands wide, keeping his sword in its sheath. “Have no worries, Trystian. We saw the fight and know who started it. We’re not here to arrest you, just deliver an invitation.”
Suspicion crossed the faces of the ones he could see. “I don’t blame you for your caution. There are many out there who would send better men than the ones you dispatched in hopes to find your companion. And chain her. My liege is not one of those. He would help her, offer her sanctuary.” He walked a few more steps, staying just out of sword range. “Not all feel the Amari are dangerous unless leashed. I can show you the proof of that.” He looked at James and nodded.
The reaction was what he hoped for. The one he thought was Emile glanced back and whispered something to the archer. Roberts still wasn’t certain he had the names right between those two.
“What is it you want from us? We only wish to be left alone, travel in peace.” The archer spoke, cinching his identity. Alaric, the Islander.
“We only offer sanctuary while you’re in my King’s lands. We will not prevent you from leaving. He knew you roamed near and would take counsel with you. Give you the chance to rest, recover. Meet more of your kind.”
“How do you know what I am?” The voice of the woman rose up from behind the group. They parted, giving Roberts the first real look at her. Her shirt was ripped and bloodstained, her red hair escaping from a single braid and framing her tired, pained face. She did not hide her eyes from him.
James dropped to his knee in front of Roberts. “We know because we would not give up hope, Your Highness. Please, let us help you. Trust is not easy among us, but I would give my life up willingly if we deceive you in this. King Christoph is friend of the Amari, not foe. Let me prove it to you.”
Roberts was taken aback. James had told him nothing of her being royal. From the looks of her companions, they were as stunned as he was.
“And if we refuse?”
Roberts raised his arm, waving his fingers once. The rest of his men, all seventy-five, slowly emerged from the forest. Ringing them with a mounted force. “I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to insist. His Majesty is most anxious to talk with you.”
* * * *
He didn’t try to engage them in conversation. They took only two horses. Alaric rode behind the Amari, while Gwen took the other horse. The other two walked, hands on the reins of their companions’ horses. The expressions on their faces made it obvious that they didn’t trust him, especially after he called out his troops. Roberts sighed. He really didn’t want to do that, but the King had been adamant. Find them, find her, and bring her back to the safety of the castle. Lorien was at the very border of the kingdoms, and tensions were high between the countries. Roberts had pushed his men hard to try and get here before King Lor sent out his own troops to find her. Another league, though, and they’d be far enough into Caerlynn where he could relax. Even Lor wouldn’t cross the border that far.
“Except that we did, Captain, and he could see that as a violation of the treaty.” James’ voice was low.
“Treaty or not, we had orders. Though a little more information from you would’ve been nice! What possessed you to not mention she was the last member of the Royal Family?”
James shrugged, “I wasn’t sure she was, not until I saw her. From the look on her face, she has no idea herself. The story has been told so many times, you wonder how much is true and how much has been added by a bard.”
“I want to hear this story, sir. I don’t know it.” Fin’s voice sounded from behind them. Roberts turned in his saddle, glancing back at her. Her voice wasn’t as unsteady as before. The pain was still marring her features, but it was less pronounced than it had been when they first mounted up. She wore more of a mask now, of her own creating. He nodded to James, the two moving far enough apart to give her horse space to join them.
“It doesn’t surprise me, Your Highness, that you–” Raising her right hand, Fin cut him off.
“Don’t call me that. It’s not my title to claim, nor yours to bestow. I want the story, not the truth as you see it.”
James nodded. “As you wish. Twenty-two years ago, the Amari still had a home, and a ruler. It wasn’t much of one. It was more a series of caves in the Eastern Mountains. But we did what we could to remain undetected. When we could, we’d try to free any of our kind who had been chained. That was our ultimate downfall.” He paused. “A group went to rescue one such slave. And they did. But she betrayed us all. She told her master how to find us. When the bounty hunters came, she even used her magic against those of us who fought. In the end, everyone who had lived free under the mountain was dead or in chains. Everyone but one small girl.”
He looked right at Fin. “The youngest daughter of the King, Serafina by name, was scooped up by her nurse and she carried the toddler to the underground river. She placed the girl into a small basket and used her own magic to propel the craft quickly downriver. When the hunters found the woman, she claimed she drowned the child rather than hand her over to a life of servitude. There are some who believe that, one day, the child will return and lead us to freedom.”
Roberts swore to himself. From the tone of James’ voice, he believed every word of the story. Christoph was a just King, unlike his father. Sheltering the Amari was one thing. Helping with an open rebellion? That wasn’t something Roberts thought he’d be able to stomach.
“Interesting story, but that doesn’t tell me why you think I’m this lost child. The name’s common. I doubt I’m the only one within the Amari whose ever been saddled with it.” There was an edge to her voice that alarmed Robert. Casually, he listened closely to the exchange between her and James.
The look on James’ face changed as he looked at her. Was that adoration? Infatuation? Idolatry? Damn! He’d talk with the man later, when they stopped for the night. The last thing he needed was for him to get besotted by a pretty face that might be royalty.
“A few things. The child had red hair, the only one in the royal family for the last three generations. It’s common enough among humans, yes. But among the Amari the trait is very recessive and hardly comes to pass. Your age is right. She would be twenty-five now, and you are close to the same age.” He hesitated.
‘Don’t stop now. You’re spinning quite a tale.” Alaric spoke up. Roberts glanced at the Islander who sat behind Fin on the horse. His face had hardened, his posture more guarded. The arm encircling her waist tightened. James was treading on thin ice with the man. The intelligence he’d been given didn’t mention any romantic leanings, but it hadn’t talked about her being potential royalty either.
James turned his attention to Alaric. “We Amari can sense things. Things that humans cannot. We know when someone is lying, or if they are destined for greatness. Once she is back with her own kind, she will learn how to do this herself.” The emphasis on those two words was enough for Roberts. This stopped. Now.
“James!” he snapped. “Ride ahead. The waystation’s not far from here. Give them warning of our approach. Arrange for rooms for our guests and have something hot waiting for us to eat.”
“One room’s all we’ll need.” Trystian spoke. “We’re used to sleeping in rotation. No need for more than the one. We aren’t going anywhere.”
Rather than argue, Roberts nodded in agreement. One room would be easier for his men to watch than five anyway. At least, he hoped it would be.
Once James had ridden out of earshot, Roberts spoke up again. “I apologize for his behavior, my lady. James is a bit reactionary. Above all, he would see his people have their own lands again. He thinks it would be better for the Amari to live apart from the rest of the world. My king does not agree. He feels we should live peacefully side by side.”
“There aren’t many who would agree with his views.” Fin’s voice, though calm, was still guarded.
“That’s the truth. His father didn’t, that’s for certain. Two weeks after he died, though, Christoph personally unchained each Amari his father had collected during his lifetime. He gave them the option of going out into the world or staying there under his protection. Any that stayed would be expected to do a job, but not their magic.”
“Magic is banned, then?”
“No. It’s more that he doesn’t command them to do it. All the jobs they were given required manual labor. Anything from helping around the keep to blacksmithing to farming. A few were asked to join his small council. James was the only one to volunteer to help scout for more Amari, though. He’s a good man.”
Alaric’s head bent nearer to the woman’s ear and he whispered something that Roberts couldn’t hear. She found it funny, though, as her face brightened slightly and she giggled.
Rather than ask, Roberts turned his focus back to the road ahead. A warm meal was going to do him wonders tonight.
Born in the late 60′s, KateMarie has lived most of her life in the Pacific NW. While she’s always been creative, she didn’t turn towards writing until 2008. She found a love for the craft. With the encouragement of her husband and two daughters, she started submitting her work to publishers. When she’s not taking care of her family, KateMarie enjoys attending events for the Society for Creative Anachronism. The SCA has allowed her to combine both a creative nature and love of history. She currently resides with her family and two cats in what she likes to refer to as “Seattle Suburbia”.
You can find KateMarie at the following sites:
Her blog: http://www.katemariecollins.wordpress.com