Chapter One

Crack.

The sound of his fist connecting with her jaw sounded loudly in the room, and even louder in her skull. It would be a miracle if her jaw was not broken this time. Tears flooded her eyes, threatening to spill over and she tried to blink rapidly to clear them. Stars still swam in her vision, but she knew better than to get up from the hard, dirt floor. He was hitting harder.

"Worthless. Can't do one thing right!" He was yelling now, shaking an unsteady finger at her, his brown eyes glazed. "Your own parents didn't want you, and look now. They're dead! It's just you and me, girly! You'd best not be messing up anymore." He sat, or fell rather, into the rickety wooden chair that had already been repaired more times than she could count. He muttered some more incoherent gibberish before promptly falling asleep, letting out such an incredible snore that she was sure he'd wake himself up. Fortunately he slept on.

She gingerly picked herself up off of the floor, wincing as she forced her stiff legs to bear her weight. She waited a moment, standing as still as she could, trying to regain her balance as the blood quickly rushed to her throbbing head and aching jaw. She carefully made her way past her sleeping uncle, leaving the half full cup of ale with the accompanying puddle beside it.

Her uncle made her nervous already, but when he'd ordered her to pour him more ale when he was already deep into his cups. She'd spilt some of the precious liquid and had paid for it. The man had two extremes. When he wasn't impaired he was quiet, brooding and he always ignored her, his burden. Her parents were long dead, hampered with an unwanted child. So they ran off, getting themselves robbed and killed, leaving their only child with her father's younger brother to raise. Or so that's what she'd been told.

But every once in a while, she seemed to have flashes of two people, a man and a woman whose individual features were not so very different from her own. A man with jet black hair, thick and curly, falling over his forehead, gazing down at her. A woman laughing. The images began to lose focus over time. Now, on the rare occasion that she had them, a thick haze would cover them, obscuring all but the outline.

She made her way outside; she had less of a chance of disturbing him here. She returned to the laundry she'd been tending to before he'd come home. She grabbed a shirt that used to be white, but with time and the dirt that clung to the fabric no matter how diligently she scrubbed, had turned it to a dingy gray. She thrust it vigorously in the water, sending up a splash over the sides of the barrel, the droplets darkening the dirt below.

She'd long thought about leaving, but had no place to go. And if she was caught… She didn't want to dwell on that thought. She was already old enough to bear children but had no suitors. If it continued on like this, she'd be a spinster, helping to raise children who were not her own.

She was also old enough to work, but her uncle wouldn't allow it, saying that she wasn't needed anywhere outside her own home, that it wasn't proper. She thought he really meant to keep her from earning any money so she could leave.

Her black hair fell over her shoulder as she bent over, wisps clinging to her wet skin. It hung thick and heavy, the pieces turning into a full wave midway down, then finally curling at the ends. She swatted the hair away, throwing it behind her before reaching down again. She actually liked her hair, even if it was untamable at times. She tried to comb through it as best as she could with her fingers, but the locks always seemed to puff out, wrapping strands around others until they were mass tendrils instead of strands. Most days she left it alone, instead rushing to finish everything before her uncle returned. The days she didn't she was met with his heavy hand. Those days seemed to become more frequent, as was the time he spent in his cups. She shivered involuntarily despite the heat of the day and the beads of sweat that had gathered on her brow.

"Get in here!"

She jumped at the angry voice.

"What have I told you about working outside?!" He was beside her now, grabbing her arms, roughly twisting in an effort to drag her back into the house.

She stammered. "You-You never said anything about- " The back of his hand connected with her face and she yelped. She could taste the blood in her mouth. His hand raised again and she flinched, shutting her eyes tightly after seeing his hand coming down to strike her again.

The blow never came.

She opened her eyes slowly, taking in the scene.

"What do you think you're doing?" A calm voice asked, staring straight at her uncle. The man's voice seemed to penetrate his drunken haze and the shorter man's face went white. Immediately she was released and she staggered back, almost tripping over the barrel.

The unknown man was still holding her uncle's arm. His grip tightened and her uncle winced, his mouth moved rapidly, trying to get his words out fast enough. "She's my niece, my charge. Her parents threw her off when she was a babe. She was worthless to them-"

"And worthless to you, evidently. Elsewise, you would not be treating her thus.

The smaller man's lips worked to defend himself but found he could say nothing. Fear was quickly seeping into the man's eyes, and his skin had now taken on a ruddy tinge.

She took this moment to examine the unknown male and his entourage. He was dressed finely, but not overtly so to hamper his movement. The afternoon breeze gently ruffled his black hair. His tanned hands were still chained around her uncle, holding him, locked in place. His stony eyes bore into him.

Behind the man stood two very fine horses behind a group of men. One horse was without his rider, while the other carried a beautiful woman, her honey red hair pulled back in an elaborate style. Her green eyes flickered to her and the woman smiled warmly at her before turning her gaze back to the male who had yet to release her uncle.

"Silas," the woman said.

The man called Silas turned to look at her, never releasing the man within his grasp. Wordlessly the two looked at each other before Silas said, "Merrick." Another man was instantly by his side and Silas released him into the man called Merrick's hands. "Your name?" Silas asked as Merrick forced him into a kneeling position.

"Cas, sire." He meant to look down at the dirt he was now sitting in, but Merrick, none too gently, grabbed his dirty hair, holding his head up for Silas to peer down into.

"Look at me." He waited until the man's brown eyes met his. "She is your niece no longer. She is now under my protection. She will be cared for as she should've been cared for at the beginning." Silas's eyes flickered to hers. "Do you wish his death?"

Her eyes widened and she shook her head instantly. It was true he had a pitiful existence, but an existence he still had. She'd also never wished for his death. Never wished for anyone's death.

Silas turned back to Cas, "She has spared your life this day, but should an occurrence repeat, family or no, I will not hesitate to complete my judgement. Do you understand?"

Cas's eyes were huge, fear mixed with his intense gratitude. He turned his brown eyes to her, and she could read them clearly. It made her extremely uncomfortable, and she had to look away.

Silas nodded to Merrick and the man went to her side, Cas was still on the ground, not daring to even move after the miracle that had just taken place.

Another one of the men came to her, leading a horse beside him. The large animal drew up next to her and she flinched. She'd never been near one before, only admired from afar. The horse leaned his nose closer to her and she was about to take a step back but Merrick stopped her. "Don't move. Horses can sense your feelings and emotions. He's just curious." She held perfectly still, feeling the velvet muzzle rubbing against the closed hand that lay at her side. Once he didn't find anything of interest on her person, his head drooped to nuzzle the dirt and sparse, dead grass. She released the breath that she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Merrick laughed beside her and the sound startled her. He moved beside the horse, offering her his hand. "If I may be permitted?"

Realizing he wanted to put her on the horse she panicked slightly. "Oh, no, I've never ridden one!"

He laughed again. "I know that. There's nothing to fear. I have complete control of him. I'm sorry I don't have a side saddle, but astride is much easier, if not appropriate." He muttered the last word so low she almost missed it. She finally nodded, allowing him to lift and settle her. He kept his touch light and didn't comment on her stiffness, tense and uncomfortable by the contact.

True to his word he had complete control over the horse and the small group moved on. As they moved she studied the blond man leading her. He was ready with his laugh and smile, trying to put her at ease and she was grateful for that at least. But there was still one thing that niggled her.

"Merrick?"

He turned, smiling up at her, his midnight blue eyes twinkling. "Yes?"

"Who… Who are they?" She shook her head. "I mean, the one called Silas, he is allowed to disband families and cast judgements."

Merrick's smile faltered. "You truly do not know? He is King Silas Drakken and his wife, Queen Emma Drakken of Tannenbray."

The king and queen? She felt sick to her stomach. But of course it made sense. She was embarrassed. And she was on one of their horses, being escorted and she looked like this?

Her hair matted and dirty, her dress tattered and barely full enough to cover her ankles as she sat on the chestnut horse, and Lord only knows what her face looked like!

She was drawn from her frantic thoughts when the queen slowed to ride beside her.

"Your majesty!"

The beautiful woman smiled a little. "Please call me Emma if you like. My friends call me Illia. You may if you wish. I'd like to call you my friend." The girl's brows knitted together in confusion. Why should the queen be so informal, so forward with her? After a moment the queen spoke again. "May I have your name so that I may call you by it?"

"Tali. Tali Orin."


Welcome to the last installment of the Niat Liare trilogy. I'm so excited to go on this adventure with you. If you have not read A Mermaid's Hunter and A Mermaid's Mate this story won't make as much sense (as well as spoilers.) I do believe this could be read as a stand alone (but where's the fun in that?) The other books are on my profile so check them out if you're new to my writing. If you're coming from the previous books, welcome back!

If you have thoughts, questions, predications or criticisms, leave it in a review! I love to read them! Happy reading!

-Rae