Blurb:

Mentally scarred from her years as prisoner to the off-world Haarb, Lady Sophillia Glorianna DeLorion, found healing, purpose and familial love with Verdantia’s desert-dwelling Oshtesh.

Then her beloved brother asks Sophi to leave her desert sanctuary, to exercise her unique genetic birthright and join with a hardened warrior in sexual rites that would return prosperity and comfort to the people of the war-ravaged planet. She resolves to try, but Sophi doubts she can be a fit sexual partner for any man – even one whose passionate green eyes make her remember what it is to desire.

Commander of the Queen’s Royal Guard, Eric DeStroia had grown up watching the corrosive, soul-killing effects of arranged, aristocratic marriage. He would rather remain alone than be joined to a woman he didn’t love – or who didn’t love him. 

In post-war Verdantia, any woman is a rarity. An aristocratic woman bearing a unique genetic marker complementing his is beyond price. So, when Segundo DeLorion of the Second Tetriarch suggests their joining, Eric reconsiders, consoling himself with visions of sheltering a wounded dove under his mighty arm. Instead, He discovers a fierce falcon that refuses to stoop to his lure.
 
In the aftermath of their resounding defeat, the Haarb leader, Krakoll, plotted a return to Verdantia to exact retribution. His yearsof painstaking plans bore fruit. The time is ripe for return and his first objective is the recapture of Lady Sophillia Glorianna DeLorion. She had been unreachable until she went to the Oshtesh. Now, only Eric DeStroia stands in his way.

 
 

Chapter Two

Sophi lay prone. The heat from sunbaked rock permeated her thighs and abdomen through her robes. A hot zephyr tickled fine blond hair across her face to stick in the perspiration dotting her upper lip. Her bow and quiver of arrows pressed into her spine. Tiny pieces of grit dug into her elbows as she steadied her spyglass. From her perch on the arid outcropping of stone, hundreds of feet above the wasteland floor, Sophi watched through the magnified lens as a column of riders drew closer. Four ‘rides’ of horse—a squadron of cavalry totaling thirty-two, with two men riding at the lead. She had been watching their approach for hours. Now they rode close enough to reveal the three crowns on pendants of a familiar purple and gold fluttering from their lances--the purple and gold of Verdantia’s ruling triumvirate, the Tetriarch.

They come for me. Inhaling the smells of heated earth, she released her breath in a smooth flow, calming her agitated heart. I am no longer Lady Sophillia DeLorion, captive slave of the Haarb. I am a woman of the Oshtesh, a warrior and desert hunter. Memories cannot hurt me. I am strong. I am resilient.

Verdantia’s empty wasteland drew her, beckoned her to lose herself in its lonely expanse. Where others saw death by thirst and heat, she knew a welcome solitude of severe beauty. The warm, moist breath of Brio, her gelding, wafted around her shoulders as he whuffled companionably between her shoulder blades. “They think to make me return to Sylvan Mintoth, Brio. Fine, they will have to brave the wastelands to find me.”

 Stowing her spyglass in her saddle pack, she shrugged her bow and quiver into a better position on her back and vaulted onto her horse. Turning Brio from the edge of the precipice, she urged him down the narrow, rocky trail leading to the Oshtesh village of Sh’r Un Kree. The wife of theOshtesh leader rose before her as if conjured out of sand zephyrs, her pristine white robes stirring in a slight eddy of air. Brio rocked back onto his haunches as Sophi checked him.

"Sophi." Mistress Lyre moved aside the fine veil concealing all but her exotically-slanted brown eyes.

"Mother Lyre." Sophi slid off her gelding and with loving respect, bowed her head.

"Do you escape to the desert, child?"

 “Yes, Mother Lyre.” Sophi stood a moment, eyes respectfully downcast, and then looked up at the woman who had offered her sanctuary and love for the past few years.

Warm eyes in a patrician face held her in a loving gaze. “Your brother sent you a message.” The woman pressed a rolled and sealed scroll into her hand. “I received his letter some time ago. I was to give you this before Commander DeStroia arrived. I have not seen you in days, so I sought you out before you vanished into the wastelands.” Her eyes sparkled with humor.

The heavy wax seal of the Segundo Signore of the Second Tetriarch broke with the pressure from her thumbs, and she unrolled the missive.

My beloved sister, 

Mistress Lyre tells me you left the camp housing single women and now live at ease in the mixed company of daily village life. She reports you sleep undisturbed through the night and you laugh again! For this alone, I must love her.

She holds you dear. She and the Primus have petitioned me for permission to adopt you as a daughter. I have asked her to wait.

We need you, beloved sister. Our mother planet needs you. Our bloodline must continue. Verdantia’s sentience is real, Sophi. She has spoken to me. The time has come to take your rightful place. The Haarb war decimated our genetic pool. The future of our planet rests on the children we bear you and I and the handful of others who remain.

I am sending a man to you—a good man. His name is Eric DeStroia. He commands the Queen’s Guard and I know him well. Please consider him, Sophi. The L’anziano want this joining but I will do nothing without your consent.

If you are willing, Commander DeStroia and an honor guard will escort you back to Sylvan Mintoth. He is aware the L’anziano want the joining of House DeStroia and House DeLorion. I have given him no specifics about you, only that your time as slave of the Haarb has made you reserved with men.

Please return with him. The trip is a lengthy one. You will have time to observe him. If you cannot tolerate the thought of him as a husband, you may go back to the Oshtesh and the desert which brings you peace. I only ask you try, Sophi. I will not allow the L’anziano to force you. Come back to us, Sophi. I miss you. 

Your loving brother,

Doral

She handed the parchment to Lyre. “My brother asks for my return to our capital.”

The older woman scanned the page. “Ah, child.” Lyre moved to embrace her and stroked Sophi’s hair away from her face. “My fledgling falcon. Talk with me as we walk back.” Mother Lyre smiled. “Your comfort with men grows as your fighting skills sharpen.”

“Yes, Mother Lyre. I am no longer helpless.”

A low burst of laughter escaped the elder. “That you are not! I will not even chastise you for the unseemly pride in your voice.”

“I beg your indulgence, Mother. When I remember the shrinking, broken creature who first entered your home, I cannot help a sense of accomplishment.” Sophi kicked a stone from her path, sending it skittering off into the air.

“You are greatly changed, Flight Leader DeLorion.”

 “Mother Lyre, my archers look at me and respect who I am. They do not see me as I was.”

The older woman hugged her and humor laced her voice. “Be gentle, my fierce falcon. Your transformation will astonish your brother.”

Sophi straightened. “You speak as if my return to Sylvan Mintoth is decided. Will you and the Primus send me away?”

“With great reluctance, yes. You must explore your birthright, child. So few pure bloodlines remain in our House of Lords. House DeLorion is one of only a handful to survive. The value of your genetic line to our way of life is too large to be quantified. Only those with your genetic markers can ‘speak’ with our sentient planet. Only those with your genetic markers can survive the massive energy She channels through our bodies during the sacraments of the Lesser and Great Rites.”

Sophi looked away, stricken. “House DeLorion’s genetics elevated my brother to the throne—Segundo Signore to the Second Tetriarch—but I have no desire to rule anyone. I want to stay with the Oshtesh, hunt with my women archers and be plain Flight Leader.”

Mother Lyre cast a considering look her way. “Go. See. Learn. If you return, we will welcome you back as a daughter of our people. But first, you must make this journey.”

Sadness at her sense of inexorable fate overwhelmed Sophi. “There is no escaping this future, is there? I don’t want to leave you. I am whole in this place.”

Mother Lyre reached out and gently placed her palm over Sophi’s heart. “We will always be here, wherever you go.”

 “I know you and my brother are right. This is my responsibility to our people and our planet. I will return to Sylvan Mintoth with Commander DeStroia.” Her throat choked closed, cutting off any further words. The older woman’s arm tightened around her waist and drew her close for a moment. Sophi laid her head on her surrogate mother’s shoulder and struggled against tears.

“While I am not the same person I was three years ago, I don’t know if I’m able to make any man a fit mate. I don’t know if I can do that.” Straightening, she sighed and walked beside Mother Lyre in silence. As the entrance to the village walls drew near, Mother Lyre stopped and faced Sophi.

“I know the fear you leave unspoken, Sophi. I have confidence in you, even if you do not. Your brave heart will overcome anything that stands in the way of what you truly desire. You merely have to want it enough.” The older woman smiled at her. “When the right man comes into your life, your fear will vanish like mist in the morning sun.”

But what if Commander Eric DeStroia is not the right man?

                                                                                                                              * * * 

 By order of Mother Lyre, Sophi bathed and dressed in her finest clothing. Her blond hair hung in soft waves to her waist over a sheer, finely woven white blouse. A short turquoise vest, heavy with embroidery and precious stones, barely covered her breasts. Its color enhanced her glorious blue eyes—made even larger by a dark outline of kohl. Sheer white pantaloons cuffed at her slender ankles softly outlined her long limbs. Finely worked leather sandals replaced her hide-skin boots. A heavy girdle of beaten gold links and tassels wrapped her slender hips and hung low onto her thighs, chiming musically as she moved.

Her appearance created its normal response. Men stopped in their tracks and rudely gaped. I loathe their appraising stares. She considered her face and form a liability. She had not labored to produce her beauty. Her appearance was not a skill she had mastered from days and months of unceasing repetition. It drew unwanted attention of sort she most feared.

Cool respite surrounded her as she entered the gathering hall. The thick, hollow tile walls tempered the blaze of sun and heat. A tall fountain playing in a central pool sent soft, cool droplets into the air. Columns of light speared into the large room from transparent panels high overhead.

The buzz of conversation halted abruptly at her presence, then regained volume. Sighing, longing for her sisters-in-arms who treated her with the respect she had earned, she crossed the hall to Primus G’hed and his wife. They spoke with a tall, well-built man dressed in worn battle leathers. He held himself with an air of quiet competence and command, as if at ease with his ability to meet any challenge. He could only be Commander Eric DeStroia. Mother Lyre, you did not tell me how handsome the commander is. With her height, Sophi normally looked men in the eye, but she needed to tilt her head upward to meet his green-eyed gaze. His closely cropped, russet hair was disordered, as if hands had been run through it repeatedly. He was in distinct need of a shave.

His green eyes flicked over her, appraised her, then returned to Primus G’hed. She straightened in surprise at his lack of reaction to her beauty.How nice. She moved to stand casually to the right of Mother Lyre.

“Commander Eric DeStroia.” Primus G’hed indicated Sophi. “Flight Leader Sophillia DeLorion.”

The commander bowed. “It is a privilege, Lady DeLorion. The Segundo failed to tell me of your status among the OshteshFlight Leader. It is a military designation?”

What a pleasant surprise. The first words out of his mouth are not about my appearance.

“Yes, Eric. Sophi leads an elite squad of women archers. We call them flights. Each flight has six archers and a leader.” Mother Lyre spoke proudly. “The flights choose their commanders. The title of Flight Leader is a singular honor.”

DeStroia shifted his attention back to her. “I regret I take you away from their comradeship, Lady DeLorion.”

Before Sophi could respond, Mother Lyre spoke again. “You won’t. Sophi’s flight rides with you to Sylvan Mintoth.” A small, knowing smile played across her lips. “It is my condition for her return. As only sister to Doral DeLorion, Segundo Signore of the Tetriarch, Lady Sophillia needs her own guard—those whose loyalty is only to her.”

At Sophi’s surprised utterance, Mother Lyre, stroked her cheek tenderly. “We thought it would comfort you to have your sisters around you. We send you away, but you take a small part of Sh’r Un Kree with you.” She laughed softly. “Truly, I don’t think we could have made them stay.”

Sophi let her eyes speak for her. The Primus and his wife smiled at each other in satisfaction.

An expression on Commander DeStroia’s handsome face came and went rapidly. Is that surprise or dismay? I envy his easy composure. Mine has been hard won.

The commander smiled pleasantly. “I welcome the addition of your flight, Lady DeLorion. Warriors with intimate knowledge of the desert wastelands are a valuable asset. I would like to start back tomorrow at dusk. We travel by night through the desert wastelands. Yesterday, since the distance left to travel was so short, we rode during daylight as we could complete the trip before the full heat of the day, but that is not my preference.”

Sophi returned his direct gaze. She found it shamefully easy to look at him and for the first time in recent memory felt stirrings of purely feminine response to this handsome man.

“I should attend my men and horses,” Eric said. “Tomorrow, then, Primus, Mistress, my Lady.” With a small bow, he took his leave.

Sophi turned to Mother Lyre and Primus G’hed. “I love you. I already miss you--and I will be back.”

                                                                                                                         * * * 
 At dusk the next day, Sophi’s flight filtered into Sh’r Un Kree from the surrounding hillsides.

As they gathered in the designated courtyard, she made a small adjustment to Brio’s bridle.

“Are these the legendary wasteland horses we lowlanders hear stories about?” Commander DeStroia’s deep voice caught her attention. I didn’t hear his approachTaught stealth by my brother, no doubt.

“Yes.” She followed his gaze as he examined her flight’s small, hardy mounts and the equally small, hardy women astride them. “Petrina—she has a fiery temper to match her red hair, but she is my right hand. The brunette beside her is Adonia, our medica. Her knowledge of herbs is indispensable and this is Rhea, our best tracker. Layna, Eudora and Maeve complete our flight. Their precision in hitting their targets is uncanny. We don’t look like much, but we will not burden you, Commander. We are quite self-sufficient.”

 “I never imagined otherwise, Lady DeLorion.”

She stiffened. “I do not use my courtesy title. I am no longer that person. I prefer ‘Flight Leader’.”

His eyes examined her but he nodded agreeably. “Flight Leader. We will leave upon the half-hour. Take position beside me at the front. Yourflight can muster behind you.”

“No. It is not our way. We will ride the ridges and shadowed places in twos and threes. We will be there but you will not see us.”

His eyes narrowed. “I don’t like it. I cannot protect you if I cannot see you.”

“I do not ask your permission, Commander. I am in far less danger with my flight than with you who lack experience in the desert wilds. I knew you were coming hours before you arrived. Sound carries great distances in the wastelands—and the dust! Your numbers hang a sign in the desert air, ‘attention—riders approach’.”

She swirled her robes away from her legs and vaulted onto her gelding. A whistled birdcall caught her archers’ attention. “We flank Commander DeStroia. Ride out.”

Sophi felt the Commander’s eyes on her as she and her flight faded into the desert night.

                                                                                                                      * * *
 
When Sophi and her women had faded from sight, Eric strode into the stable yard where his four rides of the Queen’s Royal Guard assembled, preparing for the order to mount. Frustration chewed on his temper. I was prepared for a shy, withdrawn woman, not this—Valkyrie. It is difficult to “escort” a woman when you don’t know where she is, when she doesn’t want or need an escort in the first place.

“Queen’s Guard! Prepare to mount! Mount!” he barked, swinging up onto his horse. “Rides! By twos. Form up!” Cavalrymen paired off and formed orderly lines, broken every eight riders by a colorful pennant bearing the insignia of their unit.

 “Queen’s Guard! At the walk! March!” Eric ordered.

As his horse’s long stride swung through the arches of the village wall, his second-in-command rode up to him.

“Commander?”

“Captain.”

“Do we leave without Lady DeLorion?”

“No.” Eric fumed in silence.

“Commander?”

“What!”

The man cleared his throat nervously. “Where is Lady DeLorion?”

“Good question, Captain Biron. If you see her, let me know.”

                                                                                                                             * * *
 
Sophi’s flight roamed as satellites to the cavalry squadron, orbiting unseen yet always present. Sophi and her second, Petrina, rode as a pair in the deepest shadows. They skirted the small rock outcroppings and blended invisibly with the stunted vegetation. The three-quarter moons’ cast deep shadows but sufficient light to make their way. The women ghosted, unseen and unheard, across the severe landscape. Sophi paused occasionally to make use of her night-glass, sweeping the horizons, always watching. The handsome commander at the head of the column of riders regularly drew her gaze. She studied his broad shoulders and long lines. His masculine face with its strong, squared jaw and elegant nose was unmistakable in profile, even from a distance. Her memory filled in the mobile, generous mouth and thickly-lashed green eyes. He sat his enormous black warhorse with easy grace, as if one with the creature, a centaur in form-fitting battle leathers. She wondered if he rode women with the same skill as he rode his horse.

“He pulls the eye, doesn’t he?” Petrina murmured, teasing Sophi about her preoccupation.

Sophi collapsed her night-glass and laughed softly. “Yes. I freely admit I enjoy looking at him.” He pulls more than just my eyes. He awakened desires in her she thought eradicated from her psyche.

The wiry redhead  nudged her own mount into a walk. “It is good to see you express interest in a man.”

Sophi shrugged. “I defy any woman with eyes in her head not to notice Commander DeStroia.”

“Yes, indeed,” chuckled Petrina. “Particularly when Segundo DeLorion and the L’anziano might mandate his joining with her.”

Sophi’s soft snort answered her dearest friend and second-in-command. “Yes. There is that.”
 

Excerpt One

By order of Mother Lyre, Sophi bathed and dressed in her finest clothing. Her blond hair hung in soft waves to her waist over a sheer, finely woven white blouse. A short turquoise vest, heavy with embroidery and precious stones, barely covered her breasts. Its color enhanced her glorious blue eyes—made even larger by a dark outline of kohl. Sheer white pantaloons cuffed at her slender ankles softly outlined her long limbs. Finely worked leather sandals replaced her hide-skin boots. A heavy girdle of beaten gold links and tassels wrapped her slender hips and hung low onto her thighs, chiming musically as she moved.

Her appearance created its normal response. Men stopped in their tracks and rudely gaped. I loathe their appraising stares. She considered her face and form a liability. She had not labored to produce her beauty. Her appearance was not a skill she had mastered from days and months of unceasing repetition. It drew unwanted attention of sort she most feared.

Cool respite surrounded her as she entered the gathering hall. The thick, hollow tile walls tempered the blaze of sun and heat. A tall fountain playing in a central pool sent soft, cool droplets into the air. Columns of light speared into the large room from transparent panels high overhead.

The buzz of conversation halted abruptly at her presence, then regained volume. Sighing, longing for her sisters-in-arms who treated her with the respect she had earned, she crossed the hall to Primus G’hed and his wife. They spoke with a tall, well-built man dressed in worn battle leathers. He held himself with an air of quiet competence and command, as if at ease with his ability to meet any challenge. He could only be Commander Eric DeStroia. Mother Lyre, you did not tell me how handsome the commander is. With her height, Sophi normally looked men in the eye, but she needed to tilt her head upward to meet his green-eyed gaze. His closely cropped, russet hair was disordered, as if hands had been run through it repeatedly. He was in distinct need of a shave.

His green eyes flicked over her, appraised her, then returned to Primus G’hed. She straightened in surprise at his lack of reaction to her beauty.How nice. She moved to stand casually to the right of Mother Lyre.

“Commander Eric DeStroia.” Primus G’hed indicated Sophi. “Flight Leader Sophillia DeLorion.”

The commander bowed. “It is a privilege, Lady DeLorion. The Segundo failed to tell me of your status among the OshteshFlight Leader. It is a military designation?”

What a pleasant surprise. The first words out of his mouth are not about my appearance.

“Yes, Eric. Sophi leads an elite squad of women archers. We call them flights. Each flight has six archers and a leader.” Mother Lyre spoke proudly. “The flights choose their commanders. The title of Flight Leader is a singular honor.”

DeStroia shifted his attention back to her. “I regret I take you away from their comradeship, Lady DeLorion.”

Before Sophi could respond, Mother Lyre spoke again. “You won’t. Sophi’s flight rides with you to Sylvan Mintoth.” A small, knowing smile played across her lips. “It is my condition for her return. As only sister to Doral DeLorion, Segundo Signore of the Tetriarch, Lady Sophillia needs her own guard—those whose loyalty is only to her.”

At Sophi’s surprised utterance, Mother Lyre, stroked her cheek tenderly. “We thought it would comfort you to have your sisters around you. We send you away, but you take a small part of Sh’r Un Kree with you.” She laughed softly. “Truly, I don’t think we could have made them stay.”

Sophi let her eyes speak for her. The Primus and his wife smiled at each other in satisfaction.

An expression on Commander DeStroia’s handsome face came and went rapidly. Is that surprise or dismay? I envy his easy composure. Mine has been hard won.

The commander smiled pleasantly. “I welcome the addition of your flight, Lady DeLorion. Warriors with intimate knowledge of the desert wastelands are a valuable asset. I would like to start back tomorrow at dusk. We travel by night through the desert wastelands. Yesterday, since the distance left to travel was so short, we rode during daylight as we could complete the trip before the full heat of the day, but that is not my preference.”

Sophi returned his direct gaze. She found it shamefully easy to look at him and for the first time in recent memory felt stirrings of purely feminine response to this handsome man.

“I should attend my men and horses,” Eric said. “Tomorrow, then, Primus, Mistress, my Lady.” With a small bow, he took his leave.

Sophi turned to Mother Lyre and Primus G’hed. “I love you. I already miss you--and I will be back.”