Excerpt from The Book of the Damned,
Ninth Warlord of Tiyan
The demon must die with me. I have decided this. I killed my cousin when he tried to act against my daughter so long ago and replaced him with a man I trust with all I have. He will guide her when I am gone. I forbade her from learning to read, so she never learned of the demon.
I feel my madness coming. The demon has its eye on my Rissa. I know if I am too weak to destroy it, it will kill them both when it tries to take her, for no female is meant to be the Warlord of Tiyan.
In the end, Tiyan will survive, even if my line dies with my daughter.
Tiyan, above all else.
"Forgive me," he whispered as she fell.
Taran lowered the bow, ignoring the stunned look on the faces of the wall guards on either side of him. He felt each arrow as if it punctured his body instead of hers. Each shot made him doubt more what he did, until his hands shook as the last arrow flew.
She would die before the moon rose. If he was wrong, he'd killed her. If he was right, he'd saved her. In either case, he'd just caused her pain he'd never want to feel.
He was madder than she was to think killing someone would save them!
He returned the bow to the nearest guard. Vara would do as he asked and saw the ends off the poison-tipped arrows, claim she'd fallen ill, and hide her body in the wagon until it was time to act. Memon's arrogance allowed him to enter the meadow without his men. He'd entered the city with the men he brought - -his personal guard - -and left only Vara with the queen.
Taran strode away, turmoil making his gut clench. He looked in the direction of the Springs, unable to see them but calmed to know they were there. Hilden awaited him.
"Is everyone in place for this evening?"
"Yes. You would wait to seal him in the city?" Hilden asked.
"You must trust me. Take this to Vara, now."
He handed the warrior a bladder of the woman's blood, the last one from the wardrobe. Hilden's frown deepened, but he accepted it and hurried away, sensing the urgency.
Taran wiped the sweat from his brow and blew out a breath.
He'd meant what he said. He didn't want Tiyan without her. She looked better than when he'd last seen her. He wondered if the demon had taken her as it had Memon, who looked well but whose skin was cold as death.
He didn't dare cross the divide between them, not when he'd known he was about to kill her. Even so, he couldn't help the longing he felt when he'd seen her, vulnerable, defeated, alone.
He smiled, enjoying the shocked look on her face when he'd told her he loved her. For once, the warlord of Tiyan didn't have the upper hand! The vision of her dropping beneath his arrows replaced it, and he clenched his jaw.
He struck off toward the hold at the center of the city, where Memon would be. No matter what he felt, he couldn't hesitate to execute his plan.
"It's as beautiful as the stories." Memon's voice greeted him as he entered the hold.
He lifted the eye-band, unsettled at seeing the possessed king in Tiyan's throne. Tiyan warriors looked on in quiet anger while Memon's warriors explored the chamber in fascination.
"The old ones say this chamber was built ages before man. Its walls are carved from the cliffs," Memon continued. "Sacred ground of the gods."
"The gods have long since forgotten any of us," Taran answered, glancing around the round chamber.
Memon chuckled and rose, approaching.
"You've given me the greatest honor any man ever has," he said.
Taran gazed into the inky black eyes, ignoring the urge to look as the creature slithered beneath the skin on Memon's neck. The warrior-king patted his shoulder and turned to look over the chamber again.
"What will you do with Tiyan?" Taran asked.
"Make it the seat of my kingdom."
You'll destroy it as you did Landis!
"And me? Will I have some position of honor in your armies?" he forced himself to ask.
"Whatever position you desire, my loyal Taran. You can rule Landis in my place, if it please you."
Vara froze mid-step as he entered. Taran glanced at him.
"You honor me, my king," he murmured.
"What of me, Father?" Vara demanded. "What shall I rule?"
"Taran is more of a son than you've ever been. What have you ever brought me?"
Vara flushed. Taran gave him a warning look, and the man took his place with his father's guard, silent.
"Show me my home, Taran," Memon ordered, starting up the stairs.
"As you wish, my king," he responded with another look at Vara.
He trailed Memon up the stairs and down the main corridor, watching as Memon paused to take in ancient tapestries and evaluate gilded ornaments.
"I noticed Sirian isn't here," Memon said. "Where is he?"
"In the dungeon."
"He has his own plans for Tiyan."
Memon faced him, and Taran met the dark gaze.
"Still, he's been loyal to me," Memon said.
"Sirian is loyal to no man, my king. Of few things I am certain, and this is one."
"Why do you say so?"
"He wants Tiyan for himself."
"And you didn't?"
"My king, I've given you the city, haven't I?"
"I want him freed. I will decide for myself where his loyalty is."
Taran bit his tongue, wanting more than anything to refuse.
"As you desire, my king," he said instead. "He'll attend you at the feast this evening."
"Vara, take my new mate to the slave's chamber and have her bathed. I want her ready for this eve," Memon ordered. "Place four guards with her, lest she or one of her people try to free her. When the moon is at its highest, see that she's brought to me in the great hall for the ceremony."
"Yes, Father," came the tight response.
"At last, Tiyan, you're mine," Memon said softly, pausing to look out a window into the wide, silent streets of the city.
Taran followed his gaze. The people of Tiyan were gathered on the north side of the city, near the forest. If his plan failed, he'd send the remaining members of the army with the people north, until they met Dierdirien's armies.
If he failed, the most they could hope for was mercy in another kingdom.
Memon inspected the hold and the city until late afternoon, when the scent of roasting meat wafted from the massive kitchens behind the hold through the city. Taran trailed him and his personal guard, answering questions dutifully.
He grew more uneasy as the afternoon progressed. Whether due to his anger or his concern for Rissa, Vara didn't return. More Landis warriors rode through the gates to explore the city. Vara didn't send word, and only pages ran between their group and the main hold or Memon's armies. Even Hilden was gone.
With the sun close to the horizon, Memon finally returned to the hold. Taran left him for the dungeon, only to find Sirian was already gone.
Cursing, he went to the wall overlooking the meadow and spotted Vara atop his horse, awaiting his signal at the edge of the forest. Relieved, he snatched a torch and waved it thrice, until Vara wheeled and disappeared into the forest.
He ached to know how Rissa was but feared even sending a page, lest Memon's men grow suspicious. Instead, he returned to the bedchamber and breathed deeply, calmed by her scent.
The messenger's voice was muffled by the door. He swung it open, and the youth bowed.
"Memon requires your attendance in the great hall."
Leery of the madman's summons, he followed the page to the round chamber. Servants scurried to prepare it for the feast while Memon sat atop his throne, Sirian before him.
Taran's gait slowed as he approached, dread sinking into his stomach. Sirian appeared gaunt from his stay in the dungeon but otherwise clean and well-dressed.
"My king," he said with a bow, ignoring the silver-haired man.
"My two trusted advisors, neither of whom trusts the other," Memon said, entertained. "Both of you have proven your loyalty. Tiyan wouldn't be mine without you."
"'Tis my honor, my king," Sirian said with a pretty bow.
"Tonight, I take the warlord of Tiyan as my mate. Her blood joined with mine will make the other kingdoms fall at my feet!"
"You will be great indeed, my king," Sirian agreed.
Taran said nothing. Sirian's knowledge of what happened when two demons possessed one host was not one he would dare share.
But Sirian was free, which meant whatever his plan was, he would soon have a chance to act. Hilden appeared among the servants, and Taran waved him over.
"My king, Vara sends word: the water isn't working," Hilden whispered.
Rissa was dying too fast.
"What of Dierdirien's warriors?"
"Soon, but not yet."
Taran cursed and glanced around, catching sight of Sirian.
"Keep an eye on Sirian. I don't know what he's plotting, but he's dangerous. When the time comes, strike him down," he instructed. "I must see Vara."
Hilden bowed, and Taran turned to Memon.
"My king, I must attend to the preparations."
Memon waved him away, and Sirian inched closer to the king with a small smile. Despite his foreboding, he left the chamber and sent word for Vara to meet him at the main gate.
He paced until the sun dipped below the horizon. Vara came, blood on his clothing. His green eyes flashed as he flung himself from the horse.
"Whatever it is you wait for, you cannot wait much longer!" he hissed.
"We don't have the warriors - -"
"Taran, she'll die before the last of the light fades from the sky!"
Taran was silent, struck by the words. He looked around, torn. If his plan failed…
"The southern wall is still too weak. We need more men and more time!" he said finally. "Memon's armies will know as soon as the gate lowers!"
"You forget, I command them in the absence of my father and his most trusted warriors."
"Are they with him here?"
"They're with the armies. I'll send them forward for the feast."
"Do it, and bring her to the dungeon!"
Vara nodded and vaulted atop his horse, wheeling it to face him.
"You can expect a signal soon, brother," he said. He slapped his horse on the rump and bolted.
Taran watched him and rubbed the back of his neck, squinting at the lightened sky near the sunset. Thus far, few things were going as planned!
He waited until Vara disappeared into the forest before turning.
Sirian stood behind him, trailed by Hilden.
"Have you considered my offer?" Sirian asked.
"The one to save her life."
"I don't need you, Sirian. When this is done, you'll be dead!"
He stalked away with a look at Hilden, whose hand rested on the hilt of his sword. Taran returned to the great hall. Torches blazed, and rich food began to appear on long tables. Memon presided over all before him, at times as still as the statues lining the halls and at times barking orders for more wine or shouting at servants who placed food wrong on the tables.
Avoiding the possessed king, Taran took his place directing the great hall's activities. Sirian didn't return, but Hilden rushed in soon after darkness overtook the skies. The old warrior was sweating, the glow of battle lust in his gaze.
"My king, he saw Vara bring - -"
"Did you kill him?"
"He's in the dungeon."
Taran glanced at Memon, who was frozen once again as he communicated silently with the demon.
"Stay here," he said.
Hilden nodded, his eyes darting around the chamber before settling on the throne. Anger crossed his features.
"Soon, Hilden, I swear it," Taran said with a reassuring squeeze of the warrior's arm.
Hilden nodded brusquely.
He left through the servant's door and rushed through the hold to the dungeon. He paused in the doorway to allow a familiar shudder to pass before stepping into the brightly lit antechamber. The cell holding Sirian was closed.
"The more I think, the worse your plan," Vara grunted from the opened cell.
Taran crossed the chamber, fearful of what he'd see.
Rissa lay pale and unconscious on the earthen floor, her clothing and hair matted with blood. The demon rippled her skin, pacing frantically. The bladder of her blood lay empty beside her body. Her breathing was ragged.
His chest tightened as he looked upon her battered body. Vara carefully tied a rope beneath her arms and cinched it tight enough to wring blood from the wet clothing. Taran flinched, hands clenching and unclenching as he tried not to reach out to her, to grab her and run to the Springs.
"Are you certain this will work?" Vara asked as he straightened.
"I'm not certain of anything," Taran replied.
Except she must live.
He knelt beside her and touched her face. Her body was warm, unlike Memon's, her face contorted in pain even in sleep. The demon lunged upwards at him, and he withdrew, horrified.
Tiyan, above all else.
How the warlords ever thought this creature would save them…
"Aye, we are," Vara agreed.
"Then we are in the right kingdom!" he snapped, and stood.
"We need to act soon," the green-eyed prince urged again.
They emerged from the dungeon and returned to the banquet hall, where a messenger stood beside Memon. Taran's sharp gaze fell to Hilden, who was frowning.
No one was supposed to move in or out of the city once Memon's advisors entered. By the dusty clothing and sweating messenger, he was newly arrived.
Memon looked up, and Taran forced himself to approach.
He signaled to Hilden, who disappeared. Vara pretended not to notice the look Memon gave him and remained at the door before he, too, left.
Taran bowed. Memon waved the messenger away.
"The warlord of Tiyan is gone," Memon said, rising. "We will feast on the morrow. Tonight, we ride to the forest to find her."
Taran followed his quick pace toward the door, watching as the advisors rose from their seats at the tables to join their master.
He needed to keep Memon in the city!
"My king, maybe Sirian knows where she is."
"You think he's betrayed me?"
"He's not here, and as I warned you, he's not loyal to you."
"Where is he?"
"He knows the city better than anyone. He could hide right here then close the gates when you rode out."
Memon studied him with a frown. Taran kept his gaze steady, his heart pounding. The demon peered out at him, as if trying to judge whether or not he lied.
"At times, I doubt either of you are loyal to me."
The words made his gut twist.
"Before the end of the night, there will be a test for you to prove your loyalty."
"As you desire, my king," he said with a low bow.
"For now, we must find Sirian. Send me men who know this city as well as he does."
Taran escaped before the madman changed his mind. He motioned to several of the older servants and gave them instructions to help Memon's party search the city.
Hilden reappeared with a nod. Taran watched Memon's men depart the great hall, leaving him alone with two of his personal guard. Memon seated himself at a table and began to eat.
"Does the food please you, my king?" he asked, standing like an obedient servant beside the madman.
"It does," Memon said through a full mouth. "Sit."
Taran obeyed but didn't eat, his eyes darting around the great hall.
"I remember sending you to the catacombs."
His gaze snapped to the madman.
"You were but a child. You must have been very strong to survive all those years."
"Yes, my king," he said in a hushed tone. "I learned to survive where no one else can."
"I've thrown many a man down the catacombs, and none have ever returned. How did you eat? What did you drink?"
Taran cleared his throat before saying through gritted teeth, "There are animals and plants that dwell only in darkness, and an underwater river that almost drowned me when I found it."
"The plants were grown from the remains of my forefathers?"
"I don't know, my king. He never told me, and I never asked."
Taran bit his tongue, wishing he'd paid more attention to his words and less to the memories.
"An old man who'd been there for many years."
"So there was another survivor."
"Yes, my king."
"Did this old man tell you how he wronged me?"
"No, my king."
"I remember your people. I don't remember what made me take mercy on you and none of them."
"Vara," he whispered.
"Ah, yes, Vara. He was a lonely child, about your age. Old enough to defy me every chance he had. He amused me. He pulled you out of the catacombs as well."
"My king, if I may ask, why did you kill all those who came with me from across the sea?"
Memon was quiet for a moment, as if consulting the demon or his own memories. Taran waited on edge, fury and sorrow fresh within him. The man before him had taken everything from him once; he wouldn't let him do it again!
"They refused to obey me," the madman said at last. "It was wise of me to send you to the catacombs instead of kill you. Look at all you've done for me!"
Taran ducked his head to prevent demon or madman from seeing the hatred in his eyes. He had hoped there was more to Memon's reasoning, and realized bitterly there never could be with a man like this one!
"If it please you, my king, I will send messengers to your advisors for word on Sirian."
Taran fled. He waited until he reached the street outside and let loose a roar of emotion. His body ached with repressed memories and disgust. He planted his hands on his hips and looked upward, cursing the gods in silence.
"My boy, you need to keep your thoughts straight," Hilden warned gently. "Don't be distracted by him or even your own past."
"It's not so easy, old man," he grated.
"No, it's not, but you're strong, and the lives of those you care about depend upon you."
He wiped his face, calmed by the reminder. The moon peered over the walls of the city, and he squinted toward it.
"The gates are closed, and I sent warriors after the advisors. They'll be contained or killed if they fight," Hilden said. "Now it's up to you and Vara."
"And you, my friend. I depend upon you as much as Vara."
"I'm honored, my king."
Taran smiled tightly as the grizzled warrior bowed, recalling how much had changed since he first lay eyes on the man. It felt like long ago he'd entered Tiyan at Memon's orders, never knowing where he'd end up. With a quick look around, he breathed another calming breath and then ran to the hold.
"My king!" he bellowed, bursting into the chamber. "My king, we've found Sirian with the warlord, as I warned you! We threw them in the dungeon. She's badly injured - -she'll soon be dead!"
Memon snapped into action, moving across the chamber with inhuman speed.
"Where is she?" the demon demanded through his voice.
"Come, I'll take you to her!"
Taran tore out of the great hall, followed closely by the madman, whose agitated demon swam visibly beneath his skin.
Hilden caught up to them as they reached the dungeon, where Vara was opening the iron door to the cell containing Sirian.
"Traitor!" Memon snarled.
A black flash of magic flew from him to Sirian, and the silver-haired man smashed into the back wall. He dropped and grabbed the back of his skull, where blood poured free.
"My king!" he gasped. "Don't listen to them! I've done nothing to harm you, ever!"
Memon ignored him, darting into the cell where the unconscious Rissa lay. Taran's skin crawled with the charge of magic in the confined chamber, and he watched Memon bend over Rissa.
The demon's hand pierced Memon's, and olive skin gave way to black talons.
Vara and Hilden were silent, as stricken as he was as the demon freed itself from Memon's body enough to reach for Rissa.
"My king, if you join with her, you will die!" Sirian shouted.
Taran's attention snapped to the man, and he withdrew the bow at this back. Sirian staggered to his feet, holding his head.
"Listen to me, my king! It is part of the legend!"
The demon within Rissa was panicked, rippling her skin as it fled as far from Memon as possible.
"Traitor!" Taran shouted at Sirian. "My king, I told you of his lies! He wants Tiyan for his own!"
Vara hurried to close the iron door while Hilden rushed to the cell holding Memon.
Memon slashed Rissa's arm with his demon's talons, and the demon within her rippled her body as it moved to avoid the madman. Memon tossed his head back, roaring in the demon's inhuman voice,
"Come. To. Me!"
Taran drew the bow back and released the arrow, watching it pierce the unconscious woman's chest. Her body seized, then fell limp. According to the Book of the Damned, the demon would never release her while alive. If its host died, it would be forced out. The demon within her let out a screech loud enough for the three men to cover their ears while Memon roared again.
"Come. To. Me!"
Talons pierced Rissa's stomach as Memon plunged his hand into her body, withdrawing a black creature the size of its arm that pulsed and writhed. He dropped the unconscious warlord and shoved the black creature into his mouth.
"Now!" Taran shouted.
Vara pulled her body towards him until she cleared the cell then lifted her. He dropped the portcullis and shoved the lever to turn the iron gate. Memon, obsessed with the writhing creature, unhinged his jaw and swallowed it slowly, his eyes closed.
Taran snatched Rissa's bloodied body and backpedaled. Darkness swept through the chamber as Memon finished off the demon. The iron gate closed and then buckled as the furious demon beat against it.
"Get out!" Hilden shouted, shoving them toward the door.
Heart racing, Taran went. They slammed and barred the door behind them. The creature trapped within roared loud enough to shake the door.
"Taran, Vara, to the Springs!" Hilden barked, all but tearing the bow from Taran's shoulder. The warrior drew an arrow and aimed at the door while the others escaped.
Her broken body clenched in his arms, Taran staggered up the stairs and raced through the hold, shouting at people who got in his way. The world slowed around him as her blood streamed down his body.
He didn't think he'd make it. He ran, the fury of his footsteps drowned out by ragged breathing. He thought of nothing but saving her, of looking again into her teal eyes.
Gods, he would live an age with her scorn if it meant she were alive!
He stumbled, his body straining beneath her weight and his speed. The moon was too bright for his eyes, and the cold ocean breeze burned his lungs.
At last, he arrived. He climbed into the low, wide fountain. Cold water slowed his feet and sent shivers through him. Four steps in, the stone bottom dropped out from under him, and he all but dropped her into the depths of the Springs. He snatched her before she went under and dragged her back to the shallow waters, carefully maneuvering her upper body onto the small boulder Hilden had placed earlier. Her body remained submerged while her head and shoulders were free.
"Move…move it!" he shouted to the two guards, motioning to the barrel.
They were slow to respond, and he sloshed free, wrestling the barrel to the Springs. Yanking off the top, he pushed it over with a yell, until the contents turned the clear waters black in the moonlight.
Vara reached him, panting.
"Is it working?" he demanded.
"I don't know," Taran replied, buckled over.
"I brought the two men I trust most. They'll protect her, as long as it takes."
"Have them send word if anything happens ," he ordered.
"We can't stay, brother! I must…make it to the armies," Vara said.
"I go to the walls."
With reluctance, Taran trotted away in the direction of the walls. He paused once to give a long look over his shoulder at the still body propped in the Springs. Fear made his insides cold. Vara snatched a horse and raced through a doorway in the eastern wall toward the glowing forest.
Taran left. He waited until he was free of the meadow before raising two torches above his head. Shadows rose from the pits littering the meadow as men spilled out of hiding into the meadow. The gates of Tiyan opened enough for some of the men to dash through the hold from the north, south, and east.
He watched as fights broke out throughout the city. Fires ignited near the south gate as his men attacked groups of Memon's advisors and the warriors that had been invited into the hold for the feast.
Memon's allies attacked from the south. Taran signaled the archers first, then watched as Tiyan's warriors melted from the meadow to the south side of the city. Battle erupted to the north, and the hidden Dierdirien warriors erupted from the forest to challenge Memon's allies.
To the east, all was quiet. Taran's gaze went as often there as it did toward the Springs, but none of Landis's men challenged Vara to join the battle.
The battles inside and outside the walls raged throughout the night, quieting only at dawn, when sunlight illuminated the destruction.
The forest to the north was afire, the dead strewn around the north and south walls. Inside the city, Tiyan's men had wiped out all followers of Memon and begun to stack the bodies near the cliff. At long last, Vara appeared from the forest, barreling toward the city.
Dismayed by the amount of fallen bodies wearing Tiyan's colors, Taran overlooked the messenger from the north the first time until he'd reached the walls.
Vara met him as he left the top of the wall.
"Dierdirien sent a messenger! They defeated the armies fleeing north," Vara said. "My army is on its way home!"
"Invite Dierdirien in, brother. I go to the Springs."
"You haven't gone?"
Taran held his gaze, and Vara nodded in deference before wheeling the horse toward the northern wall.
Afraid of what he'd find, Taran strode to the center of the city. The adrenaline from the night still hummed in his blood., Blood had turned the waters maroon.
The two guards and Rissa's body were gone.
His heart dropped to his feet, and he felt sick. He knelt beside the bloody Springs, resting his head against the cool stone. His stomach lurched, but he forced himself to calm. For a long moment, he lost track of time, instead lost in his thoughts.
He didn't want Tiyan without her.
Hilden's gruff voice was gentle.
"I'm all right, Hilden," he managed. "Where is she?"
Hilden glanced at the bloody waters of the Springs.
"I had them take her away."
"Is she alive?" he asked quickly.
"The Springs healed her wounds, but she did not awaken from death. Vara's men took her away to protect her from the fighting," Hilden explained. "My king, you need to see this."
Taran tied the band around his eyes, as much to protect them from the sun as hide the tears in his eyes. If she lived, Hilden wouldn't look as grim as he did. He followed Hilden silently through the hold to the dungeon, drawing his sword as they neared the door.
Hilden pushed the door open.
Both cell doors had exploded off the cells and lay crumpled across the room. Memon's lifeless body was wedged between the bars of one cell.
The other was empty.
"Sirian," he breathed.
"I looked everywhere. He's gone."
Taran stood over Memon's body, his gaze taking in the blood splattered in both cells.
"The demons, too," Hilden said in a hushed tone. "Forgive me, my king. They escaped."
"But to where?" Taran asked, looking around.
"I don't know."
Vara's voice jarred them both.
"The prince of Dierdirien himself has come! Quickly, brother!"
Taran looked around again.
"Hilden, I want this chamber sealed forever, its contents burned," he ordered.
"Aye, my king," Hilden agreed in a hushed tone.
His gaze dropped to his blood-soaked clothing and then lingered where her body had been. For all his careful planning, he'd killed what mattered most. Seeing the look on his face, the grizzled warrior's voice grew fatherly.
"Meet Dierdirien then go to your chamber and rest."
Silent, he trailed Hilden out of the dungeon and barred the door.
The great hall was filled with Tiyan warriors, Vara's men, and Dierdirien's warriors. Most crowded around banquet tables still laden with foods from the night.
Hilden led him across the hall to a smaller group of men. Vara spoke off to the side with a warrior-like man in plain clothing of earthy colors. His blond hair was braided down his back, his grey eyes deep set. The silver lined clothing marked him a man of rank, and he wore a round pendant with the seal of Dierdirien: two mountains and a stream. Taran quickly assessed he was the prince despite his subdued appearance.
Vara motioned him over. He forced himself to go.
"Taran, Warlord of Tiyan. Jaylon, Prince of Dierdirien," Vara said.
"An honor to support our long-time ally," Jaylon said with a bow. "I was pained to hear of Rissa's death. Be assured we have always been and will always be an ally of Tiyan."
The mention of Rissa's death disturbed him. He felt himself sink into his thoughts but forced himself to respond.
"I am honored and grateful. You saved Tiyan."
At his flat tone, the prince glanced at Vara.
"Rissa was his mate," Vara explained. "There are few warriors as strong as she was."
"This I know to be true," Jaylon agreed. "I had hoped to meet her, but I am proud to meet her mate."
Taran didn't respond. He felt the pressure of the underground again, as if the world was closing in on him. Vara studied him.
"We enter a new era of peace," Jaylon said with some satisfaction. "I will not be offended if you choose to spend the day in mourning, my friend. Vara will take care of me, I'm certain."
Though he knew he should stay and perform his role as warlord, no part of him was willing. Jaylon bowed to him again, and Vara took the Dierdirien prince's arm, leading him away.
Taran watched them for a long moment before reminding himself of his surroundings. Wearied, saddened, he retreated to his bedchamber.
Her eyelids were heavy, her body even heavier. She groaned, comfortable in her familiar bed yet aching all over. Her chamber smelled of jasmine, her scrubbed body of flower musk. Dawn drenched the chamber in soft yellow.
Fresh bread sat on the table near her bed, its scent making her stomach demand to be sated.
She didn't remember falling asleep here! She remembered…
Taran in the meadow…arrows…red and black dancing across her eyelids…drowning…Hilden pulling her from the Springs…
She snapped up in bed and ran her hands frantically over her body. She'd been dead! Violent scars marred her torso and arms. She shuddered, grateful she didn't remember what happened, or why she awoke in a bath of her own blood in the Springs.
Plagued by the ill-formed memories, she looked at the scars lining her arms before stretching for the knife beside the bread. It slipped from her grip and scratched her as it tumbled.
Maroon bubbled from her finger. The black ribbon of the demon was gone.
Her eyes blurred but she forced tears away, tossing off the blankets. Her first step drove her to her knees. Mesmerized, she stared at the blood dripping down her palm and rubbed her chest.
The demon was gone! Her chest was neither frozen nor heavy from the demon, her blood no longer tainted by black!
He will find a way to save you.
Her heart swelled with hope and happiness.
For the first time since the demon had claimed her at ten summers, she was alive!
She blinked away tears and forced herself to her feet. Too weak to go far, she settled on the edge of the bed with some frustration.
Her gaze fell to the book on the mantle above the hearth. Its covers were loose, the pages within protruding at odd angles.
Fury filled her as she recalled her father gifting her the book, not long before she killed him.
You're too weak for Tiyan. So be it. This book will do what you cannot and break our curse.
And yet the curse he'd feared was broken!
She rose and staggered to the hearth, sagging to the floor again with the book clenched in her hands. In his last years, he'd cared more for the book than for her!
Opening it, she found the wooden covers rough and the symbols foreign. Darkness clung to the book, as if its pages contained traces of the demon itself.
She'd always resented it, suspecting it held the information she needed to defeat the curse. This day, it looked old and worn, like a tunic worn one summer too many. Whatever secrets it held, they were as weak as the pages that turned to dust at the corners.
She wondered what she'd ever feared or loathed about the harmless, ill-made book. She looked from it to the fire, then tossed it. The flames swallowed it.
"I planned to do the same."
She turned at his voice, blood quickening.
The new warlord of Tiyan stood tall and strong. He closed the door and crossed to her, kneeling in front of her. Her heart hammered in her ears, her eyes watering once more.
"You saved Tiyan," she whispered.
"I cared only for you."
He reached for her with a grubby hand, looked at it, and dropped it. She cupped his face with her hands. The glow at the back of his gaze matched the feeling in her breast, and she touched her lips to his. He rested his forehead against hers, and they breathed the same air.
"You saved me, my Taran."
"Nay, my queen, you saved me," he replied hoarsely. "I had nothing, and you gave me everything."
Her emotions soared even higher at his words, until her tears overflowed. She fluttered butterfly kisses across his face, thrilled at the heat and strength of his body so near hers. Disregarding his dirty clothing and skin, he snatched her in a bear hug.
She half laughed, half sobbed in response. There was nowhere else she ever wanted to be! She breathed him in, comforted by the scent of his strength.
"I love you, Taran," she said. "But you can't have Tiyan."
"Tiyan is mine, and so are you, my queen!" he exclaimed. "I've learned your secrets well enough not to fall for your tricks again!"
"Very well," she said. "Tiyan is ours."
"Foolish woman! Today, an age of peace begins."
He squeezed her harder, and she opened her eyes, watching the forsaken book burn. Dark memories lingered like smoke after a fire.
She raised her bloodied hand.
The demon was gone from Tiyan forever.
Tiyan and Taran, above all else.