Read Hers to Claim Online

Authors: Patricia A. Knight

Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Paranormal, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Paranormal & Urban, #Romantic, #Science Fiction

Hers to Claim

BOOK: Hers to Claim
12.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

 

Dear Reader,

 

Thank you all for your fascination with my world of Verdantia. It warms my heart to know there are others for whom the Second Tetriarch, et al, are living, breathing characters.

I have heard your desire to know how to pronounce characters’ names, terminology and places as the author would like them pronounced, and to that end, I have included a
Glossary Of Terms
in the back of this book. Yeah!

If there is a term or name that I have left out that you wish to have included simply drop me an email at
[email protected]
or contact me through my author pages on Goodreads: 
https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/7093656.Patricia_A_Knight
or Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/Patricia-A.-Knight/e/B00D7GFZH2/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0
and it will be included.

 

Warm regards,

 

Patricia

 

 

P.S. There is an Easter-egg in this story. Doral whispers something to Ari about Hel and Ramsey. If you would like to know what he said, click on the line in the book and it will take you to a page where you will be asked to subscribe to my confidential mailing list. The “Thank You” page for this list will have the link to the secret page on my website where you can find the answer. Woo-woo! For those of you who already subscribe to my mailing list, it will be in the Hers To Claim Release email that will go out August 15th.

Acknowledgements

 

Wow, where to begin? This was a hard year for me.
I ran into some of life’s little bumps in the road, health-wise. I doubt
Hers To Claim
would have been finished, even six months late, without the continued support, input and, at times, merciless nagging, of my wonderful critique partners. So to Marilyn, Elizabeth, Stephanie, Brenda, and Travis, my heartfelt thanks. I love y’all. You’re the best. There is some of each of you in my books.

Thanks to my wonderful publisher, Troll River Publications, who extended my deadline six months. As always, I’m so grateful to be one of “your” authors. It’s writing heaven. And, thank you to my fabulous editors, Tracy and Josephine.
I appreciate the fast turn-around and all those imaginative suggestions…even if I don’t use them…and all the commas…even if I don’t use them. LOL

And finally, to my sweetie, my “go-to-guy” for gut checks on the repartee between my two bickering alpha males and so much else.
As my heroine says, “I am yours, my prince—beyond time.” Hel was born in
your
brain. I hope I did him justice.

Prologue

 

Verdantia had no memory of
Her own creation nor how long She had existed. She had always been. For millennia, She hung suspended in vast space, a sentience aware only of eons of solitude. Her tendrils of golden life and intelligence extended into the impenetrable dark, into the terrible aloneness, always seeking another—until them— until Her sons and daughters arrived.

They were ephemeral, these organic creatures who appeared out of the vastness of space and walked Her surface. Their life spans were fragile and fleeting but brilliant as a flash-burning supernova. They spoke with Her and for the first time in Her eternal existence, She had a name, Verdantia, Senzienza, Mother. At l
ast, She was known by another. She delighted in their brief but wondrous interactions with Her energies. They brought Her great pleasure, Her family.

Her connection to Her sons and daughters ran soul-deep. She endowed each individual with vast powers
borne of Her innate energies. They became entrusted guardians of the sphere that housed Her sentience, Her soul. She loved them as a mother loves her own.

Her surface glowed with hundreds of thousands of their brilliant stars—until the time of terror—until the time of
great death. Now, when only a handful remained, She needed Her children as never before. The possibility She had foreseen in Her early days of innocence loomed with ominous portent. Drawn by the tendrils She cast ages ago in Her quest for another, an evil from the darkest reaches of the void had found Her.

Black corruption burrowed into Her with icy fingers of spreading darkness, desecrating and despoiling, but She
had no defense. She had given those powers to Her children in the days of their beginning. She could only hope those beloved few of Her sons and daughters that still walked Her surface would feel the ravening blackness and act—before the spreading darkness consumed Her completely.

 

Chapter One

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—its 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. I don’t understand why. We could always count on at least eight months, but 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 shoulders bowed 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
?” 

Bernard nodded.

Hel’s body tightened when he remembered the woman’s sweet, erotic surrender.
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.

Her gentle voice carried in the quiet of the courtyard.
“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 gen
tle eyes had shamed her husband and he’d turned away with a snarling, “Do as you will.”

Juli
an 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 t
he 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
shifted slightly but otherwise gave no sign he had heard. Anger born of impotence rose in Hel’s gut. He wished there was
something
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, s
ir,” 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 and the schooling 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 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, metal-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.

The only noise came from the papers fluttering down from overbalanced stacks on a trestle table
, flanking a throne-like upholstered chair elevated on a dais at the end of the hall. A group of half a dozen or so men and women clustered around a diminutive woman seated in the chair. Their conversation ceased and their heads raised as if they were a herd of
chital
at a waterhole alerting to a predator.

His keen senses absorbed the large chamber of polished stone floors and rugged walls before he took a second step into the audience chamber.
In a subtle display of riches, heavy beams of entire spice-wood trees supported and braced a roof rising at least thirty feet. Clerestory windows ranging the length of each long wall flooded the audience hall with natural light. As befitted the first noble house of Verdantia, the crimson DeHelios banner,
his
banner, with its rampant white stallion encircled by the rays of a sun, hung beside the purple and gold crowns of the currently ruling House Constante. Below them hung the banners of the thirty lesser noble Houses of Verdantia.

Unnatural silence descended as h
e strode aggressively down the center of the great hall. The mass of previous supplicants melted away in unconscious recognition of a superior force to allow him unfettered passage. He stopped a few feet from the steps to the dais. “I am Prince DeHelios of House DeHelios whose standard hangs by privilege of rank beside your own. House Constante will provide me a skilled healer, a
magistra
of level five or higher, and ten pecks of brite-weed. Time is of the essence. My people are dying.” In the eerie silence, 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 had led the forces that 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 blond man with far too much physical beauty for Hel’s taste 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 do you think you are?”

Menace laced t
he blond’s quiet voice. Unless Hel was mistaken, the man had palmed a throwing knife into his right hand, poised for a lethal strike. Interesting. 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 mock
ery. “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
stifled a bark of laughter.

“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 grief and tormented 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.”

A
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. Her warm brown gaze, alive with intelligence, locked with his for a tangible moment. A pulse of electricity ran down his spine and his instincts jumped to alert.
By the Mother, who are you?
Hel casually lifted his head, hoping to catch a further glimpse but she had retreated behind solid bodies. The women’s whispered conversation carried just enough to hear.

BOOK: Hers to Claim
12.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Shape Stealer by Lee Carroll
Amazing Grace by Lesley Crewe
Luscious Craving by Cameron Dean
The Wild Hog Murders by Bill Crider
season avatars 03 - chaos season by almazan, sandra ulbrich
Water Lily by Terri Farley
Doctor Who: Remembrance of the Daleks by Ben Aaronovitch, Nicholas Briggs, Terry Molloy