Authors: Cherif Fortin,Lynn Sanders
Bran strode into the dimly lit hall, his squirming bundle an easy weight on his mighty shoulders. Several of his bondsmen were in the gloom of the hall, their blades drawn.
“Come,” Bran whispered hoarsely to one of them. “I have what I desire.”
They made quickly for the stairs, but came short as a naked blade emerged from the darkness.
The cloak-wrapped figure of King Morien stepped before them, his sword held high at the ready. He studied the men around him and when he spoke his voice was steady and strong.
“Sleep did not come tonight, so I paced the ramparts. Then I heard a cry. Now I find this mischief? What have you done here, Bran?” When only silence followed, he roared, “Answer me, boy!”
Bran slowly lowered Leanna to the floor.
“Destiny smiles upon me this night, it seems,” he said. “But what’s this you’ve brought for me, Father? The point of your blade?” He drew his own sword in an instant, though his stance remained relaxed, nonchalant.
Morien stood tensely, watching the crowd of armed men. Then his eye caught the pool of blood that had spread beyond the door of Leanna’s chamber.
“Whom have you killed this night?” he shouted. “And you dare to draw steel against your king?”
“Oh, I dare much more than that,” the prince responded icily. He made a short, quick gesture toward his henchmen. “Seize him!”
As one, Bran’s men-at-arms rushed forward. The first reached the figure of the king sidelong, fouling his sword arm as it rose in defense. The desperate struggle lasted but a few tense moments before Morien was overwhelmed, his steel clattering uselessly to the stone floor.
“What treachery is this, Bran?” the king asked, his composure regained. “You go too far in this …”
“I do as I have always done. I do as I please.” Bran gripped the king’s jaw roughly in his hand, staring coldly into his father’s narrowed eyes. “And you would do well to change your tone. I am no longer your whelp to be spoken to thus.
“It would please you to know my designs?” Bran’s tone mocked his father. “Then I shall give you this last comfort.
“I have planned this moment with the mind of the true conqueror, for I look ahead for years where others look mere days. Lorccan came to me, his men piling furs
at my feet to win my favor, and I knew he could be controlled by his ambition.
“I made him king, first over his neighbors, then the whole of the Heldann Highlands. I supplied him with steel weapons and armor, schooled his men and horses. My hand guided him throughout, even as he swept out of his lands to lay flame and slaughter on Gallitain.
“But the cursed barbarian’s pride burns hotly in his breast such that he issued you a formal challenge. Had the dog bided his time, you would have learned his name at the point of his blade within these very walls.
“No matter, for the end shall be the same. My army is ready to march, and with the garrison gone from Brimhall, all resistance will be easily crushed. Once Lorccan has made but a memory of my dear brother, I shall send him along the coast until his hordes are too weak to oppose me. They will have served me well.”
Morien shook his head sadly. His tone was incredulous. “Betrayal? But why? In time, this would all have come to you.”
“Would it? I have no intention of ruling as you do, Father, feebly scraping this way and that to appease those beneath me. I would have that upstart Loriel in the south and Emric courting the nobles away from me. I would inherit civil war. Better to strike now at my enemies and take by force the whole of what is rightfully mine.”
The king paled in the face of his son’s ambition. His gaze went to Leanna, who lay bound against the wall.
Bran read the unspoken question in his father’s eyes. “Leanna will make a fitting queen for me when I sit on the throne of Wareham. She will be my final victory.”
“This is madness … madness,” the king muttered. Without warning he cried in alarm, “Guard! Gua—”
Bran clapped his hand over the king’s mouth, silencing him at once.
“It is fortunate you come to my sword now, Morien, instead of on the battlefield. Without your leadership to rally your troops, my triumph is assured. I bid you farewell, Father. Know that all you have amassed in your lifetime will, indeed, be mine and that your beloved Emric will soon join you in death.”
With a lightning-quick motion of his arm, Bran lashed out. His sword sank to the hilt in the mighty king’s chest.
A mix of surprise and sorrow passed over Morien’s face before he crumpled to the floor. Leanna’s muffled screams echoed from the walls.
“Take her,” ordered Bran as he wiped sweat from his face with a trembling hand. “We ride for Karvoie.”
He watched as his father’s lifeblood ebbed in a pool at his feet, until he heard the sound of armored men descending from the stair above. He fled for the yard below, unable to sheath his blade for the cursed shaking of his hands.
rince Emric studied the silhouette of Castle Gallitain in the distance. The fires of the Heldann watchmen were visible through the crenellations as heavy clouds began to obscure the midnight sky.
Emric and his men were near exhaustion, having ridden at a merciless pace for days through lands ravaged by fire and pillage. He ordered meals delayed until pickets were set and the camp secured against attack. He had learned long ago the value of attention to detail when on the battlefield.
Emric shrugged off his dusty cloak and tunic, seized a nearby bucket of water, and lifted it, sending the cool liquid splashing against his tired body. It did not soothe the fires raging within him.
He turned wearily into his tent and dropped onto the straw-filled mattress. Fatigued as he was, sleep still avoided him. Heavy thoughts of the morning plagued him, for he knew they must face an opponent who not only greatly outnumbered them but was better prepared and rested. He searched his mind over and over for some advantage but could find none. The wisest course was to avoid open combat as long as possible unless the enemy marched for the interior.
But Emric knew they would have to fight, for the Heldanners had no reason not to ride out at first light to crush him and his force like so many bothersome insects.
He yearned for the peace of sleep, to leave the heavy responsibilities behind, if only for a brief time, and to escape into Leanna’s warm embrace. At last, the prince slipped into the dark haven of his dreams and there he found her …
Leanna’s chamber was warm in the glow of candles and smelled faintly of sweet freesia. Emric heard her moan as she stretched back across her bed of soft, deep furs. Her hair spread across the velvet pillows, gleaming red in the dim light.
Reaching up, she tangled her fingers in his dark hair and guided him down to her waiting body.
Raising himself on one arm, he lowered his head to her breast and kissed the soft roundness. Her skin was like velvet and smelled of spring flowers. He pressed his face firmly against her breast, inhaling her fragrance. Arousal tightened wantonly in his belly. Shifting her legs apart, he stroked his hands up the length of her smooth ivory thighs.
Slowly, he let his mouth kiss its way down her body, over her belly, and down to the soft copper curls below. His fingers traced her delicately, parting the silken curls to reveal her. His tongue licked out teasingly.
Her cry of pleasure as his mouth caressed her told him how well he could please her.
Shifting back upward, he suckled at her breast while his fingers entered her. Gently, he moved his fingers back and forth until he saw his desire reflected in her eyes. Her head rolled from side to side on the pillow, and her hands tangled feverishly in his hair before they slid down his back, her nails sinking into his flesh.
“Please, my love …” she whispered. “Do not deny me.”
Her words and her breathless sighs excited him beyond measure. He felt her hand reach out to find him. Freeing him, she brazenly caressed him as her hungry lips sought his. No, he would not deny her.
The last vestiges of clothing were quickly cast aside. From the corner of his eye he caught the reflection of his crimson cloak on his armor and briefly shuddered, for it gleamed like newly shed blood. A small blue ribbon curled on the ground next to it.
He looked back to Leanna, who lay beneath him, her lovely body naked in the half light of the fire. She nestled into the furs, arms reaching for him, legs parting for him. He lowered his body, hard with desire to possess her.
She gasped when he entered her. Her arms twined round his neck and she opened her mouth for his tongue as she had opened her body to accept him. He joined their mouths as he had joined their bodies, tasting her sweetness.
He filled her and in return, the emptiness within him was also filled. He felt her body move beneath him, and his hunger for her was so overpowering he feared he would hurt her with his superior strength. He fought against the powerful instinct that took hold of him, the timeless urge of the male animal to conquer and consume.
She lay beneath him as delicate as a flower, her hands gripping his shoulders with surprising urgency. “Emric, my prince …” Her breath was ragged. “I want to feel all of you.”
“I must have you,” he moaned. His body tensed and arched, then he thrust into her again and again, holding nothing back. He was drowning in a torrent of desire.
“Leanna … oh, Leanna.” He murmured her name over and over, his mouth hot on her skin. His body set a pounding rhythm deep inside her. Both hands on her breasts, he caressed her nipples and she moaned with pleasure at the ardor of their loving.
He felt her tighten and pulse as she approached the brink of ecstasy. When he felt her climactic moment, he, too, exploded and then felt nothing but his own blinding release.
When the flood of sensations receded, he opened his eyes. A motion caught his attention and he looked to the nearby pile of clothing and stained armor, which now, strangely, had grown to include broken weapons. It glowed with reddish light and to Emric’s horror, blood began flowing from it.
Emric’s pulse pounded as a hopeless terror welled up inside him. The dream had become a nightmare.
A dark figure ran into the tent, the sounds of battle mounting from without. “They’re here, my lord!” the man shouted in a panic-stricken voice. “The Heldanners attack!” As he spoke the last words, he gasped and went down under a hail of arrows.
Emric clutched at his temples, unable to comprehend what was unfolding. The cloth of the tent ripped away, replaced by the fury of open battle. All around him men were dying, horses screaming as they charged, weapons clanging against armor.
He reached for Leanna, but found only the hilt of a bloodstained sword.