Authors: Lizzie Lynn Lee
Tags: #Romance, #menage, #Paranormal, #Shape Shifter
We chatted as we picked ramentha. I couldn’t resist sampling one as I filled up my basket. Ashanie laughed when she saw me doing that. She commented about my claimers and something else, I wasn’t really paying attention. Ramentha was the most delicious fruit I had ever tasted in life.
I was wondering whether I should have another one when I heard the ear-splitting shrieks. Ashanie and I traded gazes.
“What was that?” Ashanie paused.
“It’s coming from up there.” I looked at the sky and was startled. There was a giant eagle soaring in the sky. The beast lurched toward us.
“Merciful goddess, run!” Ashanie grabbed my hand.
We made a beeline towards the gate. Before we could reach it, something grabbed my arms and I was airborne in a heartbeat.
The eagle flapped its enormous wings and spirited me away from Aesterneum.
It was almost dark when the giant eagle dropped me in the middle of a clearing, right in front of my brother Erodan’s scowling face. I sprawled on the ground. My arms were hurt and deeply bruised from the eagle’s talons. Beside my brother stood the Jakael hunters with matching scowls.
The eagle soared away, leaving me alone in front of the people who wished me dead. I quickly stood. Panic rushed within me.
Erodan’s face flashed with disgust as he examined my appearance. I was clothed in the Khimerian fashion; the savage people my kin always looked down on.
His nostrils flared. “Look at what you have become. Running away from your honor-bound duty and consorting with the beasts. Whore.”
He backhanded me. My cheek stung from the blow. I willed myself not to cry. “I don’t want to die,” I said in a shaky voice. “I didn’t know the duke and I didn’t love him.”
“A Drorknar doesn’t run from duty. A Drorknar upholds his honor beyond everything else. You have tainted our clan with your insolence.”
“Please,” I sobbed. “Don’t force me into the duke’s pyre. I want to live.”
Erodan hit me again. I fell on the ground.
My brother gestured to the hunters, barking orders. “Tie up this whore. We shall ride home at once.”
We rode for a day and a night before we entered the stronghold of Thiebes, the duke’s homeland. The servants, guards, and staff of the castle gathered in the courtyard when we arrived. They regarded me with dark glares as I dismounted from the horse. Here I was, the traitor. I ran away from my duty as my lord husband lay dead waiting for the pyre. My sin was unforgivable.
Among the spectators was Duke Gavin’s family. Erodan bowed his head and addressed them. “Lords and ladies, from the bottom of my heart, I sincerely ask your forgiveness for what my sister has made you suffer. Nonetheless, she is here and the long-delayed pyre can commence so we are able to send Duke Gavin into Paradise.”
The sea of people parted as Erodan dragged me into the mourning chamber. With a glare of hatred, he slammed the door on me.
I coiled on the floor, looking at my surroundings. Cold stone walls. Cold floors. All windows were shut.
Weeks ago, I came to this place as a bride. I didn’t know Duke Gavin, but people said he was a nice and honorable person. Later, I found out he was old enough to be my father. Nevertheless, I accepted my fate without a protest. The duke was an influential person. And my clan would benefit from this alliance. Four days after my arrival, I was a widow. The guards escorted me into this mourning chamber to be burned on the pyre with my husband.
I was so scared to be burned alive, I ran.
And now, I was back here again, waiting for my demise. I thought of my little hut in Aesterneum. I thought of Ronen and Callarn. The prospect of not being able to see them again devastated me. I had grown to love them. Would they miss me?
The door opened and my maid Neney entered. I saw Erodan had placed two guards to watch me. It seemed he didn’t want to risk me fleeing again.
“Lady Elyra.” Neney bowed. “Look at you. Are you all right?”
Neney studied my face. “Did he hit you?”
“He’s an ass.”
Neney looked at me with tear-filled eyes. “You didn’t deserve this. The wedding. The funeral. It’s all a sham.”
“It’s my fate. There’s nothing you could do. What brings you here?”
“Lord Erodan wanted you to be fitted for the funeral procession. Hence this gown.” Neney nodded at the clothes she was carrying.
“My lady…” Neney’s voice lowered into a whisper. “There will be a wedding for Lord Erodan and Lady Aine after the pyre.”
“Wedding?” I frowned. My brother was about to wed Duke Gavin’s youngest sister? He just met her when he delivered me to the duke. Had love sparked while I was on the run?
“Lord Erodan will resume Duke Gavin’s position after the wedding. Do you not find this strange?”
“What do you mean?”
“Your husband drops dead on the eve of your wedding night. You’re about to be sacrificed with him. And conveniently, your brother will wed the duke’s sister and take over the reign. People talk, my lady.” Neney’s eyes rounded.
Then it dawned on me. This whole wedding arrangement was nothing but Erodan’s machination. My brother was a very ambitious man. There were talks when our father took ill and died all of a sudden. Some said Erodan was behind it. He coveted power. I didn’t believe the rumor until now.
I felt foolish. He had deceived me and taken advantage of me. Was Duke Gavin’s death orchestrated by him? The healer said that Duke Gavin had a weak heart. He had died from natural causes.
My gaze strayed to the door a few feet away; the separate chamber where they lay Duke Gavin on his deathbed.
Neney took my hands and squeezed them. “I will say no more, my lady. There might be ears within these walls. My heart weeps for you. You’re too young to die. You don’t deserve this.”
I schooled a brave smile. “It’s my fate, Neney. Cry no more.”
She left me alone with the white gown; —the gown I must wear in the funeral procession. In the dark, I lamented my soon-to-be demise.
The door of the mourning chamber opened at early dawn. I saw the sunlight creeping between the cracks of the window. Four priests came in. One of them bowed.
“Your Ladyship, we have to ready you for the procession.”
So here it was; the day had finally arrived.
Some servants came and prepared my bath. After I was cleaned from yesterday’s grime and dust, they helped me dress and arranged my hair. The priests blessed me with myrrh and aromatic oils. Afterwards, I was given a fancy breakfast. I had no desire to eat. My thoughts wandered to Ronen and Callarn. Did they know I was missing? Did Ashanie tell everyone about me being snatched by a giant eagle? I felt foolish to have believed that I would be safe in Aesterneum. My brother’s treachery knew no bounds.
Well, at least, Erodan and his hunters didn’t hurt the good Khimerian people.
The notion made me feel slightly better.
The priests and their acolytes herded me onto the castle grounds when the mid-morning bell chimed from the tower. My brother and Duke Gavin’s family stood stoically as the priest instructed me to get into the coffin. I hesitated. From the corner of my eyes, I saw Erodan’s hand hover on the hilt of his sword. Somehow, I had a feeling he would cut me down if I refused to get in. I squashed away the hopelessness from my heart. No one would come to my aid. Might as well get this over with.
I climbed into the large coffin. It was designed to fit two people. They had already laid my dead husband in it. He had been embalmed and preserved with great care so I didn’t catch a whiff of death from his body. He looked as if he was taking a long slumber. Duke Gavin was buried in full armor regalia. He clutched his sword to his chest.
I lay down next to him. An acolyte gave me a bouquet of lilies. And then they closed the lid.
For a moment, I panicked. The dark was all-confining. And there was a corpse next to me. The air inside the coffin suddenly thinned. My chest constricted. I counted to ten to calm myself. In the process, I squashed the stems of the lily with my fingers.
The coffin was moved. To the pyre, I assumed. I could hear muffled chantings from outside the coffin. I could also hear something hit the coffin. No. Something was stacked on top of the coffin. Wood, I supposed. It took a long time for them to stack the wood. The chants got louder. Then, I felt it.
The funeral pyre.
The heat grew to an intolerable level. I squirmed and thrashed. My instincts took over and I pounded the lid begging for them to release me. I couldn’t breathe. The air inside the coffin burned away. I was choked by the nauseating stench of flesh charred in the fire. Scared out of my wits, I gasped and screamed until my throat was raw. Tears ran down my cheeks.
I sweated from head to toe. The fire started to scald my flesh. I became weak and lightheaded. There was no more fresh air to sustain me. Darkness crept into my consciousness. I drifted into the gates of death.
I coughed and coughed. A pair of strong arms shook my body. Somebody called my name. I heard people shout and the clash of swords. Men screamed in agony. I opened my eyes, but the thick smoke made them hurt. Smoke got into my lungs making it hard to breathe. Somebody had pulled me from the burning pyre. Searing heat caught my hair and burned my scalp. I collapsed. Everything went dark.
When I opened my eyes, I thought the afterlife was so calm and green. I expected to see Duke Gavin, but instead I saw Lord Veredi. He had me immersed in water where the cold soothed me.
“Elyra, wake up,” he said.
I wanted to, but it was hard to keep my eyes open. I was so tired, I was ready to doze off again. Seconds later, the alluring slumberland claimed me again.
The first thing I saw when I stirred awake was Ronen and Callarn next to my bed. Lord Veredi and Ashanie were behind them. They were all smiling.
“Are you with us now, Elyra?” Lord Veredi asked. Ronen and Callarn moved aside to give way to their lord.
“Yes,” I said quietly. My throat still felt raw. “I’m not…dead?”
“Silly wench.” Lord Veredi shook his head. “We saved you just in time. Barely. You were hurt from the pyre.”
“What about my brother?”
Lord Veredi traded gazes with Ronen. “He’s dead. Ronen killed him.”
“Oh.” I waited for some sort of sympathy to slip into me hearing about Erodan’s demise, but none came. He was my brother after all. But he tried to kill me for his own gain. I couldn’t forgive him for that. “And the hunters?”
“Rest assured that no one will harm you from now on. We have taken care of the problems.”
I took me long seconds to digest what Lord Veredi meant. No more Jakael hunters. Had he and his warriors killed them all? All of a sudden, I wanted to cry. Not because of the hunters’ demise. I was touched that Lord Veredi and his warriors had done much for me. Since my father’s death, I had no one who stood for me against Erodan’s abuse. These people, the Khimerian, had taken me from my sorrowful plight and given me sanctuary. They even went to extra lengths to save me from my evil brother. I didn’t know how I was to repay their kindness.
I scrambled up to sit, but I found I was very weak. And my head felt funny. Lord Veredi helped me. I groped my head and discovered that my hair was gone.
“You were burned quite badly. We had to keep you in Lembanyu for three days straight. Worry not, you will heal and your hair will grow back.”
“I’m bald,” I mumbled.
“You are still beautiful,” Callarn said. “The most beautiful maiden I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
Somehow, what he said made me smile. “You mean it?”
Ronen winked. “Of course we do.”
My heart lightened. I had just discovered what unconditional love was.
It took me almost a month to heal from my burns. Every day I soaked in the Lembanyu spring to speed the healing. And Lord Veredi, besides a fierce warrior, was also a great healer. He concocted special salves for my burned skin and to grow my hair. After four weeks, my new hair almost reached my jawline.
Every day, Ronen and Callarn tended me with unexpected patience I hadn’t seen from any warrior I had met. They took me for a walk to restore my strength. They hunted game for me to eat. They cared for me. They spoiled me.
When I was fully healed, I had come to the decision to accept their claim. There was no more Erodan hunting me and the threat hanging above my head was gone. I was truly free. Thanks to my warriors and Lord Veredi, I could live my life the way I wanted it to be.
I went to Lord Veredi and told him my wish. Lord Veredi accepted my decision with delight. He told me to sit while he ordered a young foal to fetch my claimers.
Ronen and Callarn were surprised when they found me with Lord Veredi.
“Lads, sit down. I’m bearing good news,” Veredi said.