Scornfully rejected by her desert lover and uncertain of her place in the world, Adonia travels an arduous road fraught with peril to the fabled mountain-city of Nyth Uchel. She wishes to heal their sick and dying, but in the arms of Hel—their highborn prince—Adonia discovers where she longs to belong.
Noble born, a descendant of the greatest kings their planet has known, Hel willingly bears the burden of his dying city and its people on his massive shoulders—alone. But forced to watch helplessly as a dark evil attacks the very soil under his feet, he crushes his pride to summon help. He is staggered to discover the answer to saving his city and perhaps all Verdantia might lie behind a heavy fall of chocolate hair and shy brown eyes.
As their entire planet faces encroaching black death, Hel and Adonia, two seemingly disparate individuals, forge a partnership of love and sacrifice that alters their future forever.
The nails in the worn heels of Prince DeHelios’ boots clicked against the stone as Hel climbed the stairs, and then softened to a rhythmic thud as he strode the carpeted hall to the small corner of the castle still maintained as a residence. He looked neither left nor right and ignored the signs of prosperity dimmed—room after room empty and dark, rooms where laughter and love once abided. He stared sightlessly past the shrouded portraits of his long-dead ancestors, the first kings and queens of Verdantia, now ghostly rectangles adorning a poorly lit hall. A melancholy sorrow pierced his heart when he passed the empty nursery—it’s fleeting pain as biting as the cold outside, but he shrugged it off with a grim discipline.
“Thank the Goddess, you are back.” A stooped, elderly man accosted Hel as he entered a cozy chamber where a fire radiated warmth and candles lifted the gloom. Heavy tapestry curtains covered the floor-to-ceiling windows and prevented any draft. From the bookcases lining the walls crammed full of leather-bound tomes, the room had served as a library or office in an earlier time. Now, the pale bodies on low pallets arranged about the room testified to another use—a sickroom.
“Bernard, give me a moment.” Hel shrugged his steward off and nodded at an older woman attending one of those ill. “Sara, how is Rolly?”
She shook her head. “He won’t last the night, my lord.”
Hel disguised his pain at the news. The man was a friend. “I’ll come sit with him. Give me a moment.” He turned to Bernard. “I got your message. I came directly.” Hel pulled one of the squat, upholstered stools close to the fire and sat holding his hands out to the warmth. The icicles in his heavy black beard dripped onto the floor as they began to thaw. Bernard hovered over him radiating anxiety.
“We must have a skilled medicus and more brite-weed. I am unlearned in the healing arts, my lord—all of us are. We do our best, but…” The elderly man closed his eyes and seemed to shrink. “We lost Edgar today—another good man who was hale and hearty two months ago. The perimeter you set last month on the western border has failed. We will have no wheat fields come spring if the blight cannot be pushed back.”
As if the burden of feeding and housing his people was not sufficient, an unfamiliar, insidious blight, a black sickness, seemed to affect both the animate and inanimate on his mountain. One by one, his people had succumbed to a disturbing affliction that sucked their vigor, their anima, until they surrendered any attempt to live and just faded into death. The same contagion that afflicted his people drained the life from his land. The blight attacked the very soil under their feet, rendering it putrid, barren, unable to sustain life.
Hel sighed and hunched closer to the fire. His felt his shoulders bow as if every word from Bernard’s mouth added yet another weighty burden to their width.
His steward’s voice faltered but his recount of the latest catastrophes continued. “Julian Goodman asked for the makings for brite-weed tea today. He said his wife was sickening. I told him to come back later. I couldn’t risk the panic should he learn we had none.”
At the old man’s words, Hel straightened and raised his eyes to Bernard. “Tessa? Tessa is fading?”
Hel’s body tightened when he remembered the sweet, erotic surrender of the woman. Ah, Tessa.
Together, they had performed the sexual rites to clean Nyth Uchel of an ugly remnant of the Haarb wars, soul wraiths—though Hel preferred the term ‘leeches’. Warm, giving Tessa—he could not let such a gentle soul die. His thoughts went to that day in the windswept courtyard when he had requested a partner for the rites and Tessa had answered, over her husband’s vocal protests.
“Julian, please reconsider. Lady Athena is dead and our lord has no one else. I have enough aristocratic blood to be of use to him. It will save all of us. It is just the temporary use of my body.”
Her gentle eyes had shamed her husband and he’d turned away with a snarling, “Do as you will.”
Julian avoided Hel from that day forward. With regret, Hel considered he had made a lifetime enemy of the man; but Tessa, sweet, sweet Tessa had been a revelation, such a contrast to his dead wife who was cold even in life.
Hel felt a presence at his back and the woman tending the sick room quietly addressed him. “My lord, you best come now. I don’t think he has long.”
Hel rose and moved between the ill to a chair pulled beside the pallet where Rolly lay covered with blankets. Vivid, suppurating sores covered his scalp and face and his flesh hung slackly as if melted onto his skull.
“Rolly.” Hel sat, then bent over his former gamekeeper and spoke his name gently. “Rolly, it’s DeHelios. I’m here with you.”
The man moaned and moved slightly but otherwise gave no sign he had heard. Anger born of impotence rose in Hel’s gut. He wished there wassomething he could do for the man. Of course, he wished many things and thought again of Tessa and all those whose lives depended on him.
Breath rattled in Rolly’s lungs, and then he fell silent. His chest no longer rose and fell. Hel listened intently and watched for any sign of life.
“I think he’s gone, sir,” Sara said.
The effort not to scream or pound his fist through a wall left him rigid. When he was certain he could control himself, Hel stood and faced Bernard. “My damnable pride, my refusal to ask the Tetriarch for help has brought us to this. We need the radiance of our sigil tower to blaze forth once again and kill this dark contagion. For that, I need a magistra. Tessa was an incomplete substitute for my wife. A tender, willing heart cannot replace the genetics that make a magistra a true conduit for power. I have wasted precious time that might have brought an end to this nightmare.”
“My lord, the corruption beset us on multiple fronts. You made the best decision at the time. You couldn’t have known the blight would spread with such speed and devastation.”
Bernard’s words didn’t lift his sense of guilt. “Tell the people I have gone to the new capital, Sylvan Mintoth. I will return with a magistra, a healer and more brite-weed. I will beg for charity on my knees if I must.”
After a long week of arduous, perilous travel, Hel had finally reached his destination. In a surge of force, he stiff-armed the immense double doors to Queen Fleur Constante’s audience hall. Boom! The thick, brass-strapped doors flew open and rebounded against the walls of chiseled stone. The resonating crash silenced the hum of voices and pulled all eyes to him. Hel could only imagine what the assembled citizens and nobles saw—a massive figure, his features obscured by a furred cap and the floor-length, grey/white pelts of an ice-bear, striding aggressively into the middle of their elegant hall.
In seconds, his keen senses absorbed the large chamber of polished stone floors and rugged walls. High overhead, heavy beams of entire trees spanned the space and supported a roof rising at least thirty feet. Clerestory windows ranged the length of each long wall and flooded the audience hall with natural light. Banners of the thirty-two Verdantian noble houses hung from the walls. As befitted the first noble house of Verdantia, the crimson DeHelios banner, his banner, with its rampant white stallion surrounded by the rays of a sun, hung beside the purple and gold crowns of the currently ruling House Constante.
At the far end, a raised wooden dais held a large upholstered chair flanked on one side with a trestle table mounded with documents. Some had fallen in disarray to the floor. A group of half a dozen or so men and women clustered in conversation with a diminutive woman seated in the chair. She must be the upstart, the Constante female. All eyes flew to him. Unnatural silence descended.
“I am Prince DeHelios of the standard that hangs by privilege of rank beside your own.” He pointed at his banner, offset from theirs. “House Constante will provide me a skilled healer, a magistra of at least level five and ten pecks of brite-weed. Time is of the essence. My people are dying.” His resounding baritone carried his demands to the furthest parts of the audience hall.
Immediately, three men—and a woman dressed in battle leathers—stepped in front of the upholstered chair and screened the queen’s person from him, a living barricade. Their hands rested on the pommels of their swords. Assorted palace guards hastened to encircle the queen in a ring of bristling weaponry.
Hel snorted. “I have not forgotten all civilized behavior. I come unarmed.”
A man dressed with austere elegance in close-fitting black leather stepped forward. “I am High Lord Ari DeTano, Primo Signore of the Second Tetriarch, and Consort to Queen Constante. You may address your concerns to me.” His bearing and commanding voice conveyed the expectation of obedience.
Hel casually examined the High Lord of Verdantia. So, this man defeated the Haarb. “I heard the Constante queen had taken two lovers. My words are for our monarch, not the men who warm her bed.”
DeTano stiffened and his cool gaze became arctic.
A tall, blond man of almost ethereal beauty moved to stand beside the High Lord. “I am Visconte Doral DeLorion and Segundo Signore of the Second Tetriarch—the other lover. Who in the seven hells are you.”
The blond’s quiet voice held menace. If Hel wasn’t mistaken, the man had palmed a throwing knife into his right hand, poised for a lethal strike. Hel suspected either man would prove formidable in combat, but something about the slender blond suggested the killing edge of a well-honed razor. He must be DeTano’s assassin.
A third male crossed his arms over his chest and with a low rumble of laughter, relaxed his stance. “DeHelios. Ha! The last time I saw you, you sprawled unconscious in a shrub leaving a lovely piece of horseflesh in need of an owner.”
Hel studied the speaker. He knew that laconic drawl—but its owner was a criminal with no love for Verdantian nobility. What was this man doing here? “Ramsey DeKieran, you nefarious thief! You owe me the price of that fine horse. You fell on me from a tree, you coward. I never had a chance.”
Ramsey snorted. “Still an egotistical ass. You should be grateful I took only the horse. Your head is still nicely attached.” He caught the eyes of the other two men. “Gentlemen, that tower of smelly fur is ‘Hel’. You may know him by a different name. The Haarb called him bás dtost—the silent death.” Ramsey rolled his eyes.
Hel raised his lip in a snarl at Ramsey’s mockery. “Such illustrious company, DeKieran. Your status in the world seems to have risen—but then it could hardly have fallen lower.”
Ramsey grunted. “Unlikely, eh? You may address me as Lord DeKieran, Fifteenth Earl of House DeKieran, and the striking redhead preparing to unman you from ten feet away is my wife, Lieutenant Colonel Steffania Rickard of the Queen’s Blue Daggers. Be careful with your words, Hel. My vixen is wicked with a throwing knife and takes insults to me personally.”
Hel arched an eyebrow in surprise and nodded at the glorious redhead measuring him with amused golden eyes. “Ma’am, my condolences on your marriage. I assume you had no choice.”
The stunning mercenary hid a cough turned laughter behind a closed fist
“So the bás dtost was real. I was never certain,” the blond assassin murmured to High Lord DeTano.
Hel swung his regard to the queen’s second lover and snorted. “I’m real enough.”
“I thought you dead on that pile of ice you call a mountain,” said Ramsey.
Hel paused before answering. Many nights, alone with his memories, haunted by dreams, he thought death might be a kindness but he refused to take the easy way out. “A few of us still fight to survive.”
The soft feminine voice caught Hel’s ear. Behind the men blocking his access to the queen, Hel noticed movement. A tall, handsome woman, a brunette with strong, angular features cocked her head as if listening then bent down out of sight. Now who was that regal creature? The women’s whispered conversation carried just enough to hear.
“Adonia, with your height what do you see? Describe it.”
“A rather large man, Your Majesty, at least, I think there is a man underneath the ice-bear pelts. A black beard and mustache obscure his face and his hair hangs in ratted clumps down his back. The only thing I can tell with certainty is that he is a hulking lump with gray eyes and desperately in need of a barber.”
Hel laughed inwardly. Yes, “hulking lump in desperate need of a barber” probably described him well.
He heard a sigh and a creak from the upholstered chair then the lilt of a melodious voice. “Ari, Doral, Lord Ramsey, please move aside so I may speak with, ah…DeHelios.”
With obvious reluctance, the High Lord and his assassin made an opening. Ramsey stayed where he was, arms crossed, but turned to allow Hel room to pass.
Hel climbed the steps of the dais toward a delicately beautiful blond woman, a mere pittance in the upholstered chair. Her weight barely dented the cushions and the addition of a padded step stool prevented her legs from dangling. She arranged her arms across an advanced pregnancy as if somehow she would shield her unborn babe from danger. Pain at the thought she would consider him a threat to her child softened his aggressive stance. His steps paused a foot or so from her, and he gentled his manner.
“Your Majesty is with child.”
Clear blue eyes held his and her smile radiated joy. “Yes. It will be our fourth.” She pushed up on the arms of her chair and shifted to another hip. “And she cannot come soon enough. I find the waiting a little…burdensome.”
“My wife complained of the same. Four children? You are truly blessed, Ma’am. I wish you a trouble-free birth and a healthy babe.” While gruff, he softened his tone and finished with a respectful bow. He had issues with a Constante ruler on the Verdantian throne, but the utmost respect for motherhood.
“Thank you.” She studied him for a long moment. “House DeHelios—the first kings and queens of Verdantia. Hmm. Your House and the mountain city, Nyth Uchel, are something out of fable. All Verdantia grieved the loss of Nyth Uchel and the radiant Torre Bianca. We thought your line dead in the Haarb massacres and Nyth Uchel razed. I am truly glad to know we are in error. What brings you down from your mountain, Sir?”
“Ma’am, it is a dire and complicated story. I suggest my tale is best discussed somewhere more comfortable for you.”
The queen moved her gaze to the two men who had identified themselves as her consorts and stood protectively at either side of her. “Ari? Doral?”
High Lord DeTano nodded. “The children will be running riot in our apartments but my office should be comfortable enough. I would like DeKieran and Steffania to join us—and Medica Corvus—attend the queen, please.” His eyes caught the tall woman who stood behind the queen’s chair and the brunette nodded.
“All right.” Queen Constante wrestled her ungainly body to a stand. “Shall we?”
Hel stepped back and held out his arm to assist her down the steps but the beautiful blond man moved forward and swept the slight figure of the queen into his arms. The two exchanged a look of such love that Hel felt he intruded on an intimacy and he immediately turned away. The young queen must have seen his discomfort. She reached out and touched his arm and Hel turned back to her.
“Prince DeHelios, my Segundo dislikes seeing me ‘waddle like a duck’ and finds it too painful to watch my slow, ponderous steps. He says it is necessary to carry me and I must confess—I rather like it.” Her playful grin pulled an answering quirk of lips from Hel and an arched brow from Doral.
“My preference, my Queen, is that you forgo walking at all and stay in bed these last two weeks, but I am just a poor male whose wishes you blithely disregard.” Doral descended the steps and carried his queen out of the audience hall followed by High Lord DeTano, Lord Ramsey and his wife, Steffania, and the woman called Adonia. Hel trailed all of them but clearly heard the queen’s gentle gurgle of laughter.
“I just like the feel of your arms around me, my love.”
Hel found it difficult to continue his dismissal of this sweet-natured, loving young queen as “that Constante woman.” Perhaps he should have come down from his isolated mountain sooner. He acknowledged with bitter honesty that he envied Ari DeTano and Doral DeLorion. They possessed what he yearned for—a warm, passionate woman to love and bear him children. He’d even settle for what he’d had before—a marriage of cold respect if the nursery held children once more.
Light and warmth, the delectable smells of baking bread and savory meats and the lift of happy voices wafted through the palace halls. Hel contrasted the inviting interior with the silent, cold gloom of Nyth Uchel. He promised himself, again, that he would labor until the city and his home reclaimed their former majesty and pulsed with vibrancy and life—even if it took the rest of his life to accomplish it.