The Warlord's Secret

By Lizzy Ford

Edited by Christine LePorte

Cover art and design by Dafeenah

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Copyright 2011 by Lizzy Ford

Smashwords Edition

Cover art and design copyright 2011 by Dafeenah

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CHAPTER ONE

Excerpt from The Book of the Damned,

First Warlord of Tiyan

We found the demon when we took this land near the great cliffs. The local barbarians told us of its power, how it can heal a man from death and stop a storm from destroying a village. After so many years at war, I knew the demon alone could stop the wars that drove us from our home of Karyan across the sea to this barren strip of land along the cliffs.

I went after the creature, captured it, and forced it into many hosts. It killed them all - -or we did when they went mad. This morn, when we'd given up, the demon told us of the perfect host. Mayhap it was tired from our trials, or mayhap it was trying to deceive us. Its words, however, were true.

The demon is too strong for a boy under the age of five summers. Those of age to become pages were too old, for the beast twisted their impure hearts and made them attack us. It is evil and would destroy us if it could, but in a host who is pure, it can do no harm. Girls were too weak to hold the demon at all. Even the purest and strongest of them, to include my brother's daughter, went mad and were killed.

After several seasons and seventeen children, we discovered the right age for a host. This boy is between six and ten summers, when his body is strong enough to contain the beast and yet still pure. The boy we chose last season survived and can wield the demon's powers. We'll kill him when my heir, the second Tiyan ruler of my bloodline, reaches six summers in age. He will become the demon's host, and will use the demon's power to defeat our enemies. The demon will be passed to each heir of Tiyan.

As long as a male from my bloodline is the warlord of Tiyan, the kingdom will never fall to its enemies, and we will use the demon's magic for the good of all people. The demon says a female heir cannot hold it. If a female heir is ever born, she will fall to the demon's evil nature, and it will use her weakness to destroy my kingdom. The gods have long favored my line with male heirs - -we have never had this female warlord as an heir. To be sure of it, all females born into my line will be killed. I entrust this duty to none other than my brother, whose sons will forever guide the Warlords of Tiyan.

Tiyan, above all else.

***

"This is where the scouts were seen yesterday," Rissa, tenth Warlord of Tiyan, murmured as she calculated the distance between the city and her destination.

The village on the border of Tiyan and the neighboring kingdom was marked by a small black circle on the rough parchment map. The Western Cliffs - -which formed one of Tiyan's natural defenses - -were marked in yellow, and the violent ocean edging the cliffs in blue.

"No, it's not."

The clipped note in her chief advisor's voice reminded her of how little he approved of her recent decision to involve herself in war planning.

"Sirian, I'm certain this is where - -"

"No, Rissa. If I believed this route dangerous, I wouldn't send you this way," he replied.

Yes, he would.

She ignored the voice of the creature coiled restlessly within her.

"My last two journeys from Tiyan ended in bloodshed, Sirian," she said even more quietly. "I lost twelve men on my last visit to the villages."

"And I've told you more than once that you need not travel, but you insist," Sirian said. "You return safely. This is all that concerns me."

"Their deaths concern me."

Sirian edged closer, his wise gaze and silvering hair the only signs of aging on his otherwise lean frame.

"Rissa, this was your decision. Before the last full moon, you never desired to visit the villages, or even to venture outside our walls. If you left the war to me, as your father did, we - -"

"I must keep our alliances strong by delivering the water from the Springs! You know this!" she snapped.

"If you insist on traveling, you must accept the risk of bloodshed. I've chosen the safest route there is, but you're in danger no matter what route you choose. We're nearly at war!" he reminded her with a chilling smile that didn't reach his dark eyes. "If you insist on going, this is the route you must take."

She bit her lip, not wanting to make yet another scene in front of the waiting warriors.

"My dear, you've not been yourself lately," he added, softening. "Let me go in your place. I will take the magic waters to them and send word that the Warlord of Tiyan is confident in our triumph over the enemy."

His words sent a tremor of fear through her. The last time she entrusted the Springs to Sirian, they ended up in the hands of her enemies.

"It's my duty," she said. "I'm well."

We are well, the beast seconded.

She stared at the map for a long moment as the awakening demon shifted within her. Tendrils of coldness stretched from its home within her chest, testing her strength before subsiding into stillness once more. Rissa shuddered and released her breath.

"I'm well," she repeated.

But for how long?

"Then go!"

Traitor, the beast said.

Sirian's sharpness and ingenuity in battle had kept Tiyan safe for years. He'd never been affectionate, but he had never failed to support her father when he needed his most trusted advisor. And yet she long knew the demon to be right: Sirian was no ally of hers.

The demon's triumph sickened her. Her father ruled a full thirty summers before the demon spoke to him and drove him mad. At five years into her rule and mere days from war, was she already toppling down the path of madness?

She stepped into the cool night ahead of an occupied Sirian and threw her head back to see the half-moon.

"My queen, I ask again to accompany you," said a gruff, seasoned warrior, stepping away from the dark shapes of her awaiting men. "For once, I agree with that ass. You take too many chances."

"Hilden," she chided with genuine affection. "You've looked over me since I was too small to walk. You know how strong I am."

"I have no children of my own, my queen, but if I did, I'd hope to see them outlive me. I wish the same for you."

"I'll come back, Hilden, I promise."

He'd say no more - -he never did. Her most trusted friend and servant bowed and returned to the dark forms.

Her eyes fell to the awaiting guards, most of whom wouldn't survive the night.

"It'll get easier," Sirian said, pausing beside her. "Soon, you won't even remember them."

"You're so cold, Sirian."

"Only because I know the Spring water you carry is worth a hundred lives."

"How can anything be worth even one life?"

"If you thought it were not, you would not go."

"My queen, your horse is ready," Hilden called.

She strode to her horse, hands trembling as she took the reins. She rode away quickly, as angry at herself as she was at her closest advisor.

Despite the danger outside the walls, tension released her shoulders when she'd gone far enough to lose sight of the city's walls. The ocean air was fragrant and heavy, and moonlight pierced the forest canopy in patches. They traveled through the forest to the rocky cliffs, following a well-worn trail to the border of Tiyan and Nilian, her nearest ally.

She breathed a sigh as they entered Nilian territory, assured of her safety. This night's journey was simpler than the past few journeys, as no enemy territory stood between her kingdom and her ally.

The trail entered another dark thatch of forest, and she arrived soon at the agreed upon meeting place, a meadow marked with a single obelisk. A man in a hood awaited them.

One of her riders urged his horse into a canter and approached, while she halted her horse, disguised among the men. She rarely revealed her face outside the kingdom, as was decreed by the first ruler of Tiyan so long ago.

Too quickly, her rider barreled back and halted beside her.

"My lady, we must go!" he whispered.

"Not 'til we deliver the Spring waters."

"My queen, please! The ruler of Nilian didn't come. He sent a messenger with a warning: the king of Landis seized his family and half his kingdom and swears to destroy it all if Nilian sides with you!"

Her stomach sank. With her own people under threat, she knew the choice Nilian's ruler faced. That left her with two allies, neither of which was within half a day's ride.

"He said Landis planned to attack you this eve, and he sent his messenger ahead to warn you."

"Let's go," she said.

The messenger across the meadow waved and wheeled his horse. He was swallowed by the dark forest before she could return the wave. Her men turned back, newfound urgency in their movement as they pushed their horses into quick paces. Her own breath was loud in her ears, the sound of her horse's hooves drowning out everything else.

They reached the cliff before the first arrows fell. One of the men ahead of her went down with a cry, his horse squealing. He bounded to his feet as another paused beside him. She slowed her horse, fumbling for the magic waters at her hip.

"Go, my queen, go!" a guard shouted.

A bellow sounded in the forest behind them, and moonlight gleamed off of the tips of falling arrows and the raised swords of the men that followed them.

"Take this!" she said, and shoved the bladder at the downed man. "It'll heal you!"

"We're all dead men, my queen! Now, run!"

He shoved the bladder away and slapped the rump of her horse. Her horse bolted, and she ran.

***

Taran of Landis inched his way down the ancient tree, oblivious to the rough bark nipping at his moist skin. Nights near the ocean were humid and heavy despite the constant sea breeze, and he sucked in another deep breath, determined not to take even the heavy nights by the ocean for granted.

How did he survive fifteen years enslaved in the catacombs by a madman? He shivered at the taste of night-blooming flowers and the salty ocean on the cool breeze. The nights made him think fondly of his old friend, an ancient blind man who saved him from madness in the catacombs.

The sound of someone creeping through the brush made him pause in his descent to listen. His sight was poor enough that the moonlight hurt his eyes, but his other senses were strong after growing up beneath the ground.

"I know you're there, lying in a tree like one of the great cats you track."

He relaxed at the familiar voice and spotted the speaker.

"You're as quiet as a mad bear, Vara," he replied just as quietly.

"Peace, friend, I came to see if you're alive."

"I am," he said, and dropped the rest of the distance to the ground. "You always come after me."

Vara, the only man he might count as a friend if he dared count any, whirled, and moonlight caught his pale green eyes. The son of the ruler of the kingdom of Landis had men enough yet came himself to visit whenever Taran was away more than a few days.

"I probably always will," Vara replied. "Are you well?"

"Your father wishes me inside the walls. I've waited a sennight without finding a way to obey."

"My father ordered you into Tiyan?"

"He wants the water from the Springs, which he claims is magic."

Taran straightened the satchels strapped across his chest, his gaze returning to the walls of Tiyan. Every night, Tiyan warriors lit channels of fire around the field east of the walls using oil pans propped up by wooden stilts. The light did nothing to illuminate the traps and holes in the field, another of Tiyan's defenses against its enemies. No man could cross the meadow alive without knowing where the traps lay.

He'd never been as frustrated - -or interested - -in anywhere before. He'd never seen a kingdom with walls so strong a god must have built them.

Tiyan was a worthy enemy, perhaps the only one that could withstand Landis's armies. Was the tiny kingdom strong enough to help him seek his revenge against those who had imprisoned him beneath ground and killed his family?

"I'd heard of them as well," Vara said, following his gaze. "Is this all my father sends his best scout to do?"

"I do as I'm ordered, Vara."

Taran glanced at him, wishing him gone. Vara felt a kinship with him after freeing him from the catacombs. But Taran wanted no favors from any man, even one who may have been a good man, had he been the son of any other.

"Someday, I rule Landis," Vara said. "And you will be my most trusted warrior. Then you will take an oath to me."

"I take an oath to no man, Vara. All you've done for me won't change that."

Vara shifted, irritated with his words. The princeling knew as much, and Taran never hesitated to remind him: his loyalty lay to a dead family and a foreign land across the sea, from whence he'd come to this barbaric land.

"I'll leave you to puzzle over the walls," Vara said in a tight tone.

Taran watched him fade into the forest with a warrior's stealth. He'd felt a need to apologize the last two times he spoke to Vara, but never would.

Of everyone he'd known since coming to this land, Vara had been the only kind one, aside from the ancient warrior in the catacombs. Vara freed him, paid for his weapons. He shook his head.

There were no good men in Landis's barbaric armies, not even Vara!

The noises of the forest stilled suddenly, and he cocked his head to the side. The sound of men crashing through the forest grew near fast. He sought refuge in his tree on a branch overhanging the main trail.

The first form darted through trees and brush, shoving branches out of his path and stumbling. Moonlight glinted off pursuers' weapons as they crashed through the forest. The first reached the nearby stream and stumbled, falling to his knees in the center of its shallow waters.

Rather, she stumbled. The scent of pure woman sent a thrill through him, and he leaned forward. Yes, it was a woman's shape, her body clad in dark breeches and boots, her sleeveless tunic held in place beneath a leather belt. A long, dark braid swung wildly with her movement. Her breathing was labored, her rise from the fall characterized by clumsiness borne of fatigue.

He dropped to a limb closer to the ground.

Images of what Landis's men did to the women of an enemy flashed through his mind. He was a man of war and battle, but he had never been a man to prey on those unable to defend themselves. Caring for the ancient warrior in the catacombs, Jame, all those years taught him compassion otherwise denied him among the dead in those underground passageways.

She passed below him. He swung down, clenched her body between his thighs, and pulled her into the protection of the tree.

The woman fought him, and Taran struggled to stabilize himself, finally wrapping his arm around her neck and forcing her head against him. Her breathing was ragged and uneven, her trembling body slick with sweat. Her scent was distinctly female: rich, musky honey. Her legs dangled helplessly in the air, and he saw the glint of tears on her face.

She ceased squirming when her pursuers passed below them. No sooner had they gone than a hot, stinging sensation slid down one of his legs.

Startled, he loosened his grip as he tried to snatch her arm and nearly dropped her. The woman clenched his arm and slid towards the ground until she held only his wrist.

She looked, and her teal eyes seared into him. He felt the uncanny sensation that she understood his tormented existence. She let go, dropping into a heap on the ground then vaulting to her feet and running.

He hesitated before vaulting to the ground, unable to explain the quickening of his heart or the sense that the woman's teal gaze - the color of the eyes of Karyan nobility -reminded him of the home he hadn't thought of in years. The shouts of her pursuers prodded him, and he gave chase.

He heard their whereabouts just before she gave a strangled cry and collided with one of them. He tore into the center of the group, hacking down two men before the other six reacted. By the time he engaged the third, the woman was running once more. She eluded one man and slashed at another with a dagger before sprinting toward the field.

He fought hard and fast, disturbed by an image of the woman with the piercing eyes being snapped up by a trap in the field. He buried a dagger in the gullet of the remaining man and darted forward.

The glow of fire made him squint as they neared the field.

Ahead of him, the woman seemed to know the safe path through the hidden traps he'd discovered during his observation of the city walls. He pumped his arms hard, ignoring the cries of three men as they fell into pits or were snapped up by traps with iron teeth. Two more closed in on her, but she danced away, luring one into a trap and throwing the second off guard long enough to escape his outstretched grasp.

The guards on the fortress walls had bunched together to watch and draw poison-tipped arrows. Taran reached the lagging man and hacked him down, leapt over the body and one of the snapping traps, and continued.

"Heron!" the woman cried.

The men on the wall lowered their weapons at her shout, and the remaining pursuer tackled her. Taran saw the two struggling figures teeter dangerously close to the edge of a pit. Mustering his strength, he leapt, tearing the woman out of the attacker's grip and rolling several feet with her.

The attacker fell into the pit with an abruptly short scream.

Breathing hard, Taran eased off her. He ignored the senses warning him of the guards drawing near and instead smoothed dark hair from her face and listened for her breathing. She was alive but unconscious. The scent of blood drew his gaze to her forearm, where a long gash was visible in the moonlight.

A ribbon of black laced the thick rivulet of her blood.

"Step back!"

The first guard to reach them prodded him with a sword. He rose and displayed his empty hands.

"Don't touch her," Taran growled.

"Be calm, boy. She's one of ours."

The aging but burly and large man sheathed his weapons and knelt over the still form. He carefully hefted her limp body and held her against him like a child.

Another guard took each of his arms and cuffed him in rusty iron fetters. One of the guards studied a barbed dagger before placing all his weapons in a small sack. Battle lust made Taran eager for another fight, but he forced himself to calm, realizing he now had an entry into the heart of Tiyan.

They walked through a small door into the walls of Tiyan. The world beyond was nothing like his home, the inner city of Landis. In front of him, whitewashed dwellings lined wide cobbled streets and reflected brightly in the moonlight. The quiet city smelled of the ocean and the forest.

The guards escorted him to a large hold at the center of the city. Its front doors were propped open by large logs. They climbed a set of wide, sweeping stone stairs that led up to the building, past towering columns, and into an airy chamber without a ceiling. He took in the gilded sconces and carved statues until his sensitive eyes watered, and he closed his eyes to the torch light.

"Careful, Hilden," someone said as the man carrying the woman lowered her to the ground.

He sensed by scent and sound several more men in the shadows of the room. The murmuring of guards stopped, and he opened his eyes enough to peer through his eyelashes.

A man in his prime with silvered hair emerged from the darkness. His gait was confident, his stature commanding, his face hard and cold. He lifted his chin to the men holding Taran in place, and they released him. His clothes were made for his body, the kind of clothing only the wealthiest could afford.

"This is the creature that attacked one of ours?" The man's voice was low and cold.

He circled Taran in consideration. The hair on the back of Taran's neck rose in warning. What he did not see, he sensed. This man possessed the same dangerous edge as the warrior-king of Landis.

"I saved your woman," Taran said.

"What clan do you claim?"

"I am claimed by the Landis," Taran responded.

The man's air cooled even further, and the men in the chamber tensed.

"You're far from home. Scouting for your master's raid?"

"I'm but a wanderer seeking refuge," he said.

"I saw you attack her," Silver-hair said. "You may stay as long as you wish in our prison. It's several feet beneath the ground - -far enough for us to forget you quickly."

Taran shifted at the threat of the underground.

"Ask her," he said. "She will tell you I saved her."

"It is my decision," Silver-hair said, and motioned to the guards.

Taran tensed, the movement enough to snap one of the rusted fetters. He launched himself at the man, only to have four guards tackle him. They dragged him out of the chamber, down the stairs, and into the streets. They dropped him into a black hole, and he hit the hard ground with a grunt. He broke through his bonds and gave a roar of fury. The heavy, musty scent of earth was contained within a four-by-four-foot cell, not even large enough for him to lie down. Three walls were solid dirt and one was cool iron.

Taran roared again and beat on the walls. His bruised body shook, his frantic thoughts fed by his reeling senses. There were no sounds, no sights underground, no sensations aside from the scent of his own fear and the feeling of earth closing in around him.

He paced, shouted, and pounded the walls until his body was depleted of energy. He dug into the hard earth with his fingertips and sagged against one wall, panting.

He closed his eyes to the darkness, struggling against his crippling terror.

Jame, my friend, I need your strength!

Taran sought to remember the wise words of his friend. It had been too long since he recited them; five summers had passed since he was freed from the underground.

The moon is a fickle lover, like a beautiful woman…she gives her whole heart but once a month and leaves you before dawn…why fear you the night? No darkness lasts the ages, Taran…I do not care to remember the sound of a bird's cry, but I wish I remembered the taste of spiced ale.

He recalled too little of Jame's wisdom, but the disjointed words of his mentor soothed him nonetheless.

"No darkness lasts the ages."

He imagined Jame's creaky voice chanting it with him. Already he felt as if an age had passed since he was flung into the darkness.

Taran braced himself and opened his eyes. He concentrated hard on wiping the blood from the wound she caused before binding it with a strip of linen from his tunic. Grimly he wondered if the king of Tiyan intended for him to die slowly in the hole without food and water, a fate worthy of Memon, the warrior-king of Landis.

Memon viewed Tiyan as his next easy conquest, a meek kingdom that would fall without a fight. The poor and sickly viewed Tiyan as a kingdom of refuge, where magical waters prevented sickness and death to any who drank from them. The kind ruler of Tiyan welcomed those without food and shelter. Taran had heard of Tiyan's magic whispered by more than the people of Landis.

Both were wrong! Was there no truth to the widespread beliefs?

The grating iron door made him jump. Beyond the iron wall sliding away was a small portcullis, which stood between him and a small stone chamber with ensconced torches. She was there alone.

The scraping ceased, and her quickened breathing reached his ears. He lowered his hand and stared at her.

He had thought her fair in the moonlight, but in full light, he found her beautiful. Her large eyes were arresting, her delicate features feminine and flawless. His gaze drifted to her shaking arm, where blood dripped down her fingers to the floor. She followed his look and drew the injured arm behind her back. His eyes lingered on the small pool of blood on the white stone. The rich maroon hue was mixed with a ribbon of black.

"You come from Landis."

He met her gaze again but said nothing.

"Your king wishes to destroy Tiyan."

When he did not respond, she approached.

"I know you," she murmured. "How?"

He studied her. Her conviction was on her face, and he couldn't help feeling the same. His arm snaked through the gate. He gripped her throat.

"Release me," he growled, pulling her against the cage.

"You did not save me only to kill me now."

"Foolish woman! I will kill any who seeks to cage me beneath the earth! Release me. Now."

"If I…if I release you, you must swear not to tell your master of my city," she gasped.

"You are not in a position to barter."

"I cannot free you from here. You must release me in order to be free yourself!"

"I take no oath to you. Release me."

If she were a man, he would not hesitate to choke her breath from her until she agreed or died. Yet there was something in her haunted look and beautiful features that forbade him to harm her. He was reminded of the uncanny connection he felt upon their meeting in the forest.

He released her. The woman stepped back, one hand fluttering to her throat. She made no move toward the lever controlling the iron portcullis that would either free or condemn him.

"Does your sword have a price?"

"You seek to hire me now?" he asked.

Her nod was hesitant.

"I take an oath to none."

"I do not seek your oath, only your sword, for which you will be paid in gold."

"What would you have me do?"

"I need a guardian," she said. "And you fight with the courage of ten men."

"You have many men here. I have counted them all."

"But you will answer only to me, and only to my gold. I will not need you long."

Her words were ominous. He sensed a fear as deep as his fear of the underground, only he doubted a woman accustomed to the pure inner city of Tiyan ever experienced such fear or pain.

"Rissa?"

The familiar voice behind her jarred her. She paled and hurried to the lever.

The portcullis grated open. He squeezed through the opening and shielded his eyes, face-to-face with Rissa.

"If you try to escape, a dozen guards will cut you down before you reach the city wall. If you stay as my guardian, I will pay you what gold you ask for," she said in a hushed voice. "Quickly! Do you accept what I offer?"

He drew closer to her. She stepped away until the wall was at her back. Taran breathed deeply of the sweet honey musk that made heat skitter across his blood.

"Rissa!"

She pushed him away at the nearing voice. He twisted to face the man he took to be the king of Tiyan, closing his eyes against the torchlight.

"Rissa, what - -come, Rissa! Guards!"

"No!" she cried. "No, Sirian! He does not harm us!"

"Rissa, step away! He is a scout of Landis! If he escapes - -"

At the sound of steel on leather, Taran lowered himself into a crouch.

"Sirian, cease!" she ordered. "He's not a threat but a wanderer! What threat is a blind man to you?"

The tension was heavy enough to make Taran lower his stance further.

"Sirian, I'm not well," Rissa continued. "You distress me. This man stays."

"Rissa - -"

"I have decided."

Sirian sheathed his sword.

The woman ordered quietly, "Wanderer, come with us."

Taran trailed the two from the room, ignoring the hushed exchange of words. His anger subsided as he left the underground and entered the night. Sirian and Rissa led him back to the impressive hold at the center of the city and up a set of stairs to the second level and down a wide hallway. A quiet breeze traveled between massive wooden doors opened on both sides of the great hall. The round chamber was much like the streets: peaceful and clean.

Sirian opened one of the few closed doors, escorting Rissa. Taran stepped into a cavernous bedchamber lit by low burning hearths and scented by the white flowers sitting in each window. Rissa's quarters, he assumed as he shut the door.

More hushed fighting drew his attention. The woman's features were flushed, the man gesturing in Taran's general direction. Sensing her growing distress, Taran crossed to the door leading from the bedchamber into the hallway and opened it.

"Sirian."

The silver-haired man turned at Taran's low command. His look was one of frigid anger as he stormed out. Taran closed and barred the door, facing the woman in time to see her enter the bathing chamber and close the door. He heard the bar slide into place and strode toward it to beat on the door.

"Leave me be!" she ordered in a tired voice.

"Open the door!"

She tore it open, glaring up at him.

"I asked for a guardian, not a master! Leave me be!"

The air of the bathing chamber was rendered moist and heavy by the awaiting bath. A small window overlooking the city was too small to squeeze through, and he saw no weapons.

"Keep the door open. I cannot guard you if you hide from me."

She whirled away and paused in front of the bathing basin, a sigh robbing her frame of tension. He watched as she stripped off the tunic to reveal a muscular, firm back. The delicate shape of her slender neck and shoulders drew his eye.

"Please leave me alone," she said in a drained tone.

He pushed himself away from the door and took up a position near the bed, where he was able to see all entrances.

She remained in the bathing chamber until the hearth was nothing but embers. He made a comfortable nest on the floor, propped against several borrowed pillows. The woman finally emerged, pale and drawn but scrubbed clean. Long, dark hair hung loose and dripping around her shoulders. She wore a shift sheer enough for him to see the shading of her curves. He felt the familiar stirring of desire despite his exhaustion.

"You can sleep in the spare chamber," she told him. "There's a bed."

"I stay where I can see you."

"I told you, I don't need a master, only a guardian," she said as she dropped into bed.

"You have an odd way of thanking the man who saved your life," he stated in a low growl. "What if I am the threat Sirian believes me to be?"

"You would be doing me a favor if you were to act against me."

He rose and grabbed his dagger, tossing it in the air before lazily pushing the flat of the dagger to her neck.

"You were not so eager to die earlier," he said in a hard tone.

"They had much worse intentions than killing me," she countered.

"And I am different?"

"Yes, you are. You have had two chances to end my life and didn't."

She held his gaze in silent challenge a moment longer before dropping back and stretching out once more. She rolled until her back was to him.

Taran lowered his arm, twitching in irritation. Few men would turn their back to him, and normally, when there was a woman in bed, he was not on the floor.

He forced his blood to calm and tossed his dagger on the unappealing blanket before the hearth. He checked the door again and retreated to the bathing chamber. The scented bathing waters were still warm. He stripped out of his clothing and lowered himself in, relaxing.

He rarely experienced a warm bath in Landis. They were reserved for the most influential of the clan. He closed his eyes. The image accompanying him into a light doze was that of the beautiful woman sleeping in the bed nearby.

He roused himself, leery of becoming too comfortable in the home of his enemies. He dressed and explored the bedchamber, digging through her wardrobes and trunks. He replaced a stack of breeches into the trunk he pulled them from, only for a small book to fall out. He knelt and retrieved it.

The woman not only had a book - -it was in the tongue of the land where he was born! The wood covers were unusually cool to his touch, and a shiver went up his arm.

The Book of the Damned.

He began to read, stumbling over the words after years without reading his native tongue. The language was from his homeland of Karyan, a place he left when he was a child. His instincts warned him that something about the book and the women was…wrong. Darkness clung to the brittle pages, resisting even direct firelight.

He placed the unsettling book on a table and crossed the chamber, watching the book as if it might decide to walk away on its own.