Click on image to enlarge.
by Mary Calmes
Category: Erotica/Gay-Lesbian Erotica/Romance
Description: After saving his younger brother's child, Daemon Shar is cursed by a witch and runs far from home, a stray who will seemingly never be anything more. But destiny is hard to outrun, even for a man who is now more cat than man beneath his robes and cowl. A chance battlefield meeting between he and Ehron, a foreign lord, gives him purpose amidst the darkness of his accursed life. Soon Daemon finds that his true nature cannot be corrupted no matter the form he inhabits. As Ehron's consul, Daemon plots and plans to shape his new lord's future so that he may leave it blessed when he runs away yet again. But he never counted on his soul hungering for Ehron's brother Gareth or for his past to catch him by the tail at last.
eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: April 2011
44 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [225 KB]
Reading time: 147-206 min.
They had been riding for days when they were finally rewarded with a view of Castle Iju. It was far worse than either of them could have ever imagined, both riders pulling their horses up hard, stopping on the crest of the first hill, awestruck and horrified at the same time.
"Guardians of Yuan defend us," Ostyn Tan gasped as he stared out across the valley and took in the crimson-washed sky. He turned and looked at his friend and servant; wincing as he saw the visible pain and dread etched on the face of the only man he would willingly give his life for, Valian. Returning his gaze to the sight before him, he took a deep breath to steady himself. They had seen the smoke every day as they closed in on the site and had lied to themselves and prayed for a blessing, but now, seeing it, there was no question of enduring hope. All was lost.
From where they were, it looked as though the entire hill that the castle sat upon was burning. Every segment of the tower that they could see was engulfed in flames. Smoke rose in billowing clouds of debris and dust, and ash fell like black rain on the clashing armies. There would be no escape for the inhabitants of the besieged stronghold, and Valian shivered with fear even as he urged his mount forward, descending into the valley. They rode hard toward the inferno without hesitation, each knowing that they alone were the only hope for the child and his mother, for they were the only ones that had heard the order of execution given.
Valian chose a route that took him around the left side of what remained of the thick outer stone wall and into the first of many courtyards. Skillfully, he guided his horse through the maze of carnage and gore only to be faced with a barricade of slaughtered oxen. He felt his mount tense for the leap and felt himself rise up out of the saddle and then separate from it entirely. Instinctively, he curled himself into a ball as he was thrown into the press of bodies. Several men broke his fall when he hit the ground, and he heard them curse him as they got to their feet, pushing and shoving to get free. Winded, he rolled to his side and was stumbled over and stepped on several times before he could move. Struggling to his feet, he turned to his left and saw the flash of metal out of the corner of his eye a moment before he recognized it as a sword. It stopped inches from his face, met there by another sword, the scrape of steel on steel sending up sparks in front of his eyes. Bumped roughly backward, he steadied himself fast, finding his balance. Drawing his sword quickly, he saw Ostyn Tan slice first through the middle of the man that had just tried to attack him and then up in a blur of speed. Blood came from the warrior in a streaming geyser as Ostyn stood still as a statue over him, tense and ready.
"Come!" Valian screamed at him over the din, grabbing his friend's shoulder, pulling at him to follow.
He pointed to the wall separating the inner bailey from the outer, and he and Ostyn shared a look of understanding. Side by side, they hacked their way through faceless men to reach first the courtyard and then the tower itself. When they arrived at the ground floor they ducked inside a hole made by a battering ram in the stone slab. There were fewer men there, as no one would willingly run into an inferno of falling plaster and collapsing wood. The framework was buckling in sections, and he and Ostyn ran around crushed and still-burning bodies as they made their ascent through the castle.
Up and up they climbed, hoping the stairs they ran over would still support their combined weight. Leaping over rubble, maneuvering through tight passageways created by falling debris, and climbing over dead and dying men, they moved as quickly as possible, needing to reach the top floor. They sailed across gaps in the wooden floors without thought to falling hundreds of feet to their death.
On the third level of the tower, they raced up the stairs only to find themselves looking down at where they had just been. Forward momentum nearly pushed them both over, but they recovered in time, regaining their balance with much effort, finding it hard to simply come to a dead stop after rushing up so fast and so far. They were faced with nothing, no beams to run across and no way of moving over the yawning expanse of air. Rooms that had been there were no more. Valian looked around fast, hoping for something, anything to aid them.
"Tan!" he yelled suddenly, grabbing Ostyn hard, pointing him to what he saw.
They crashed through a narrow window opening leading out onto one of the many wood-shingled roofs of the castle that extended out from each layered floor. Ostyn followed blindly, joining Valian for the run across that which collapsed under their feet. There was only one place to reach for safety, for a handhold, and they both saw it at the same time. It was a hurling leap, and a scream tore from both their throats as they launched themselves toward the broad overhang of the upper story, sailing through the smoky night sky.
The roof fell away beneath them as they hung there, suspended in mid-air, dangling from the edge, both panting. When Valian turned and looked at his friend, a bittersweet smile filled his eyes.
"Only you would follow me into such as this."
Ice-blue eyes sparkled with pleasure. "I would follow you ever."
And Valian knew that, even as he let out a deep breath and nodded. "Come, we must hurry."
Ever dutiful, Ostyn began pulling himself up just as Valian was, moving up onto the overhang. They whispered prayers together, hoping that they would not plunge to their deaths. Hoping the shingles on the upper roof were still solid and holding together. Ostyn followed Valian as he had always done; there was not a time he could remember being without him. The man was the constant in his life. Only him.
They slipped back inside the tower through another window opening and stepped lightly onto the small beam that touched the stairs leading to the upper story. Arms outstretched for balance, they sprinted over the scaffolding brace, arriving at the foot of the last set of stairs. The quarters of the lord of the castle were reached in a heartbeat, as they took those last steps in a blur of movement. Once there, Valian looked around a moment to get his bearings and saw the door at the far end of a hallway surrounded by twelve heavily armed men. When they were halfway there, a woman in black armor emerged from the darkness of the room to the left, and they came to a dead stop.
"Ravel!" he roared at her. "Step aside!"
"You forget your place, Valian," the woman yelled back. "Leave me to my duty!"
"I cannot." Valian exhaled, almost sadly, his breath shaky, advancing slowly toward her, Ostyn walking warily at his side.
The men came from the shadows, swarming around them, crowding him and his servant together, pushing them back-to-back to face them. They attacked fast and furiously, but Valian and Ostyn were of one mind, one body, fluid, effortless grace of movement and precision. They mirrored one another in perfect symmetry, and seeing them, Ravel knew she had only moments to carry out her task.
Kicking in the door, Ravel, the champion of the Ko-Tai, the Emperor of Narsyk, looked across the room at the woman cowering in the far corner holding a sleeping infant in her arms.
"No," Tonteen Siu whispered at the approaching woman, the unharc. "You cannot mean to take him."
"I was not told to take him, lady," Ravel said solemnly, continuing forward, drawing her blade from the scabbard at her side. "I was told to kill him, as well you know. I am the unharc, the sword of the Ko-Tai, I am only sent to bring an end to life."
"Wh- why...? What have we done to the Ko-Tai?" she asked, her voice cracking as she trembled, tears streaming down her cheeks as she clutched her son tightly to her chest.
"You know well what your mate has done. He leads the rebels, he challenges his brother for the throne, and now your blood will answer for those crimes."
Tonteen Siu hugged her four-month-old son against her hard, and as she did, her breasts began to leak with milk. Ravel rushed toward her, sword raised. Tonteen looked as though she were accepting her death, her fate, and so when she lifted her head at the last moment and ran, Ravel was taken off guard. The death stroke caught her across the abdomen instead of severing her head from her body. Tonteen staggered forward and fell to her knees. The movement let her see out into the hall where Valian stood.
"Save my son!" she screamed, rolling onto her side, trying in vain to crawl away from the woman ordered to murder both her and her child.
Valian turned sharply at the sound and, ducking beneath a slicing arc of steel, charged into the room. There was no thought to leaving his servant behind to do battle with five men. He could not think of him, and in fact his mind went blank but for a single thought--that he must save Tonteen and her son.
Ravel was faster and closer. She drove the steel point of her sword down into the woman bleeding to death on the floor, through her back, through her right breast, down until it hit the wooden floor beneath her. Still Tonteen stretched out her hands to Valian, cradling her crying son, her milk and blood pumping from her body in a spreading pool. Valian saw the pleading eyes and leaped, diving toward his nephew held in the hands of his dying mother. Ravel pulled out the sword and blood came with it, covering Tonteen's back and hair, coursing down her sides. Still she held up her son. Ravel walked in front of her and reached down for the child as Tonteen heaved an anguished cry.
The hand never reached the baby. Valian plowed into the middle of Ravel's back with his shoulder, slamming her hard to the side, driving her down head first into the floor, knocking her unconscious. Valian was thrown halfway across the room but came scurrying back fast on all fours to Tonteen. He took the baby and cradled him against his chest as he looked down at the infant's mother.
Eyes met eyes for what seemed a lifetime but lasted no more than a moment.
"Jaron," Tonteen breathed.
"Jaron," Valian nodded, assuring her. "Aye."
Tonteen Siu had enough strength left to lower her head and tell Valian she loved him before she died. Valian heard a scream from the hall and scrambled to his feet as Ostyn flew into the room. His eyes flicked from Tonteen to Ravel and then came to rest on his beloved lord.
"How shall we flee?" Valian asked Ostyn, taking a deep, quivering breath as he put Ioan's head upon his shoulder, the infant pressed against the side of his neck as he patted his back gently.
He knew Valian was in shock, saw his slight tremble, and knew too if he comforted him now Valian would cease being able to breathe. He needed the man like this, clear-headed and ready to move.
"The way we came," Ostyn answered matter-of-factly, leaning down and pulling free the silver talisman that Tonteen wore around her neck. It glittered in his hand, and he stuffed it into the top of the shirt he wore under his iron-plate armor. He stalked across the room and picked up Ravel's sword from the floor beside her. He placed it in his scabbard but kept his sword drawn.
"Come," he said gruffly to Valian, motioning him to follow. "We have to run before she wakes."
"I'm already awake, you fools!"
They both turned to the woman who floated up from the floor, horrified at her display of power, watching, spellbound, as she lifted her hand toward Valian.
"So we finally see your true nature revealed, witch." Valian spat at her. "I always suspected this truth."
"You think you've won? You think saving this one child changes anything?"
"To his father it will," Valian informed her, backing away slowly.
The growl that came out of her throat was full of anger and frustration. "Always you thwart my plans, Valian; always you come between me and my just reward."
"There is reward in killing?" He asked, trying to distract her with his words, continuing to move back, fluidly, gracefully, making no noise to startle the child in his arms and make him cry out.
"There is reward from the Ko-Tai for carrying out his orders!"
Valian knew what the woman really craved, the love she hoped to receive if she was his brother's perfect weapon. He knew too that she vented her frustration at being denied the heart of the emperor on her victims.
"You have followed me to places no other man could." She glanced at Ostyn. "You and your wretched servant."
He was almost to the door.
"You are more cat than man, Valian. Perhaps your true nature should be revealed as well."
His dark amber eyes glinted gold in the fading light.
"What say you?"
He was silent and still even as it felt as though a hot wind blew over him, the hair on the back of his neck standing up.
"What have you done?"
Her sinister smile flashed only for a moment. "And to add to your pain, I will take your man from you forever."
She flew forward in a blur of speed, but even as fast as she was moving, she was no match for Ostyn Tan. She thought, as did everyone at court, that Valian was the swordsman and Ostyn simply his servant, a man without training. The truth was that Ostyn Tan was much more proficient with a weapon than Valian would ever be.
Ostyn shifted his stance as Ravel came at him and as steel rang against steel, he drove her back deep into the cavernous room. A wall of fire exploded between them, and the floor fell away. Neither man checked to see if she had fallen to her death; they didn't stop running to look. And there was always the hope that she had been consumed in the fire, her ashes mixing with those of the countless, faceless multitudes.
* * * *
Jaron Siu walked slowly through the tall grass toward the shrine. He had come, as instructed, alone but for his closest advisor, Trajan Naru. Both men were wary even as the gentle breeze caressed their skin and hair as they moved, feather-light and warm. It was a peaceful spot, with tall leafy trees and, beyond those, a verdant meadow awash in colorful wildflowers that filled the air with traces of exotic perfume. It was so quiet, so undisturbed. No one would ever find it unless directed to the place as he had been. Without warning, a form stepped out from the tree line.
Jaron felt the strong callused hand of his friend grab his shoulder to stop him. "Look well, Traj," he snapped at him, shrugging the hand off roughly. "Mark the cloak, see the crest... 'tis Val you seek to shield me from."
Trajan let out a deep breath behind him and raised his hand in greeting. He had always liked Valian, the brother of the man he served, for he truly loved Jaron even when it was hard.
Jaron moved faster, trampling the long grass under his feet. When Ostyn suddenly appeared behind Valian, he stopped, seeing the bundle in the man's arms. He had not known until that moment why he had been called to the secluded spot in the woods outside of Ebi. He and the rebel leaders had been camped there when the news had come to him that the troops of the Ko-Tai had taken that which he had been assured could not be taken: Castle Iju.
Jaron had left his wife and infant son in the safety of the castle when he had ridden to the front line of the battle of Vohke because he had been assured that the castle was impenetrable. The truth was that against a physical siege, the fortifications would hold. Against betrayal, the castle was vulnerable. Jaron had found his army riddled with traitors to the emperor's cause, and Iju had been overrun. It was an ancient story repeated time and time again in Narsyk. Your friend could turn out to be your enemy. Alliances changed with the wind. In a bloody civil war fought for political control, no one could be trusted. The reports had come that no one had emerged alive from the castle. Fires still burned, and those of his followers that had not lost their lives to the flames or the smoke had been executed in the hundreds. Jaron had been naive and shortsighted, and he had paid with the lives of his wife and son. Or so he had thought.
He ran to them, and Valian stepped aside as Ostyn held Ioan out to his father. Jaron snatched his son from his brother's servant and hugged him tight against his chest. Hot tears filled his eyes, and as he raised his eyes to Valian, they slipped down his cheeks.
In answer, Ostyn drew the talisman that Jaron had given his wife from his robe and held it out to him. Jaron turned to Valian without taking it.
"But for her strength and bravery," Valian began gently, his voice soft, "there would be no son for you to hold here in your arms."
Jaron nodded quickly. Valian had answered his question as he had meant it. Not was Tonteen alive--he wanted to know how she had died. The Ko-Tai had sent the unharc to assassinate his family; it was a miracle that his son had survived. There had been no hope held in his heart that his wife was still among the living. Ravel was a legend in Narsyk even though she was so very young. She was the bringer of death, the embodiment of the wrath of the Ko-Tai.
Valian lifted his head and took a deep breath of the sweet summer air, and as he did, Ostyn put a light hand on his shoulder and squeezed it. He sighed before turning to look at his servant. The ice-blue eyes held all the warning that was needed. They had to return to court before they were missed. Little did the servant know that the master was not going back.
"You should away," Jaron spoke the words he was thinking.
Valian looked at his brother, knowing that emotions raged inside the man, the pain of losing the only woman he had ever loved and the joy at having his son restored to him. Valian could not imagine such emptiness and such fullness both at the same time. "We gave him goat milk for the short time he was ours. He seemed to like it."
Jaron nodded. "I need to find him a nurse, but I'm sure I will have my pick. There are many left wailing in the night from the deaths of their sons and daughters. The emperor's army takes both old and young."
"As does yours," he reminded him.
"He killed my wife!" Jaron railed at his brother, raw emotion surging through him.
"And you killed his," Valian reminded him, his breath shaky. "When your men attacked the temple in Rais... Drea was there alone but for her son Noor."
Jaron's eyes clouded, and for a flickering moment there was sympathy there. "I sent my men to kill him, not his family."
"And instead they found your brother's wife and son alone and unprotected." Valian's voice, the way it dropped off, quavered slightly, made the younger man shiver. "She was young and beautiful....There was nothing left for Arterus to place in the crypt."
"Is that why you saved my son?" Jaron snarled at him. "Because you saved his? I heard how you slaughtered my men, how they were all found without their heads!"
"I saved your son because I could." Valian took a settling breath. "If I could have saved Tonteen, I would have. If I could have saved Drea, I would have.... As it was, she hid her son and led the men away. I arrived when they found him and so interrupted his flight to the grave. It seems I am the guardian of sons but not their mothers. I had wished to be both."
Jaron's breath hitched painfully. "I never meant for that atrocity to occur. Drea was--I knew her. I would have killed those men myself if you had not."
"No one ever intends the casualties of war," Valian said as he bowed low.
Jaron mirrored the bow, lingering in the respectful position longer than he. As he straightened, looking for his brother's eyes, the warmth he knew he would find, counted on, craved, it was then that he noticed that Valian had not pushed back the cowl to reveal his face. It was odd that he had not, strange that his sibling allowed his face to remain obscured.
"Why do you hide yourself from me? Were you burned in the fire?"
He shook his head. "Not burned."
Valian shook his head. "Ravel was--is--as we always suspected."
Jaron frowned, taking a step forward, reaching for the cowl, wanting to whip it back and look on the golden eyes and dark curly brown hair he had known since they were both children.
Even though he was the son of a concubine and Arterus and Valian were the sons of the empress, the Ko-Tan, they had all grown up together in the palace. The fact that Valian had always treated him as an equal, had loved him and hated him in equal measure as only a sibling could, was how Jaron knew he could trust him with his life. Conversely, his relationship with Arterus, the firstborn, had always been that of master and servant. Arterus had been molded to be emperor, to take their father Novo's place when he died, and he never let Jaron forget it.
"Let me see your face," Jaron demanded, moving forward.
Valian evaded the grasp easily, twisting fast, contorting beyond his brother's reach as though he were boneless.
"Stop," he ordered, but it came out as more of a plea. "Just listen, I need something of you."
Jaron froze, the truth hitting him. "We always said she was a witch. Ravel, the unharc, you're telling me we were right?"
"Aye, we were."
His eyes got huge. "So you're saying that she what--has cast some sort spell over you."
"Aye, a spell, of a kind."
"Let me see!"
"You need not see, but you would do well to grant me the favor I ask."
"Anything. Well you know this. Only name your desire."
He cleared his throat. "You leave for Caruvia on the tide, do you not?"
"I do, there to regroup, hire men. I will avenge my wife and kinsmen, Valian. Do not think to sway me from my present
"Your fight, yours with Arterus for the throne, is no longer my concern," he told him. "I tried to bridge your strife but now I am done. I cannot remain here in Narsyk."
"Why not? If you say you will not return to court, then say you will with me to Caruvia."
He shook his head. "I cannot. I cannot betray Arterus anymore than I could you. I love you and he in equal measure, and so wished for my family to be one but now," he sighed, "now my influence is taken from me and so I must flee."
He shrugged. "Across the channel, east to Crosas or south to Rieyn, but please, brother, I would you take Ostyn to Holt Skaarn, as he is--"
"Are you mad?" Ostyn whispered harshly under his breath, still, even in his fury, concerned for the infant, of waking him. "I would not leave your side for--"
"I forbid it," Valian said firmly, turning to glance at his servant. "I will not have you squander your life or the mind the gods gave you to simply walk at my side and be a man of no consequence. Your course was set for the academy this winter, and it is there that you will go. That is my command to you."
"I will not leave you. You cannot force my hand."
"We shall see," Valian said, and with that Ostyn felt a tiny pinprick on the back of his hand.
He had enough time to turn to Valian, call him a son of a whore, before he collapsed at his feet in the lush grass.
"You will take him to Holt Skaarn," Valian told his brother, tossing the quill of the hurong bird away, "to the academy there."
Jaron grunted. "Your mother... she taught you well her art of healing and poison."
"Aye, she did," Valian agreed, bending down to one knee, his hand on the pulse beating at the base of his friend's neck.
"She was so different, so frightening compared to mine."
"Your mother lived in light, mine is darkness, and our father enjoyed having yours on his arm and mine plotting the ruin of rivals. He loved and adored them both."
"Indeed," Jaron agreed.
Valian's grunted softly. "I loved your mother as well; she was a jewel, full of warmth and kindness and was gone, as was mine, far too soon."
"Aye," he agreed, sucking in a breath. "You linger there on your knees, are you concerned for your servant? Were you afraid you killed him?"
"No," Valian snapped at his brother. "I am well versed in the poisoning arts, as you know. I simply wanted to know how long I could stay and speak to you before he woke." His head tipped up to his brother. "And well you know this man is my friend, so much more than servant."
"You need not rail at me, simply instruct me as to your desire."
"I would have you keep him under lock and key to give me the time I need for my scent to grow cold."
"He'll come looking for you the moment I release him."
Valian shook his head. "He won't. He's not daft, and his logic will prevail once the time for tracking is gone. When you reach the academy, he will be resigned to his fate."
Jaron was not as certain as his brother.
"I leave him in your care. If you rise in power, I would the same for him. If I were to remain, fortune would shine on him. I would that not change."
"He has been loyal to me. He will be the same to you now that I have chosen his path for him. Keep him close."
"I swear it will be done."
Valian rose in front of his brother. "Even though he will bear me only hatred from this day forward, I will know I have done what was best for him."
"Is it best for you, Val, to be without your servant?"
"His destiny and mine are no longer tangled." He sighed deeply, flexing his fingers in the long, black leather gloves. "He is free; make it known at the academy."
Jaron nodded. "I have coin for him, fear not."
"That is a blessing, and I thank you."
He looked down at his child. "It is you who are the blessing, brother, not I."
Valian took a step back.
"Truly," Jaron stopped him with his words alone. "I would you come with me," his tone, his eyes, were supplicating, hopeful.
Valian shook his head. "I cannot, for the reasons already stated, as well as for more that I would not have you know."
"Ravel will kill you for this," he said sadly, clutching his son tighter against his chest.
"She has failed the Ko-Tai," Valian said, his voice somber and low. "Ravel has her own life to care for."
"Yes." He nodded, hoping that vengeance would be his and not simply the disappointment of his brother, the emperor, the Ko-Tai.
Jaron took a step back from Valian, and with his advisor, Trajan Naru, bowed low, showing his brother all the respect and honor and love he felt. When he straightened up, Valian was gone. Only Tonteen's silver talisman was left hanging on the small stone shrine to Hatsu, the goddess of peace. Jaron bid Trajan pick Ostyn up as he himself went down on one knee and began to pray as his son slept quietly in his arms.