Authors: Kathryne Kennedy
Tags: #Fiction, #Man-Woman Relationships, #Paranormal Romance Stories, #Blacksmiths, #General, #Romance, #Fantasy, #Supernatural, #Historical, #Bodyguards, #Epic, #Elves
Copyright © 2011 by Kathryne Kennedy
Cover and internal design © 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover illustration by Anne Cain
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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The link between the world of man and Elfhame had sundered long ago, the elven people and their magic fading to legend. Tall beings of extraordinary beauty, the fae preferred a world of peace. But seven elves—considered mad by their own people—longed for power and war. They stole sacred magical scepters, created their dragon-steeds, and opened the gate to the realm of man again and flew through.
Each elf carved a sovereign land within England, replacing the baronies that had so recently been formed by William the Conqueror. They acquired willing and unwilling slaves to serve in their palaces and till their lands. And fight their wars. Like mythical gods they set armies of humans against each other, battling for the right to win the king, who’d become nothing more than a trophy. They bred with their human slaves, producing children to become champions of their war games.
The elven lords maintained a unified pact, using the scepters in a united will to place a barrier around England, with only a few guarded borders open to commerce. Elven magic provided unique goods and the world turned a blind eye to the plight of the people, persuaded by greed to leave England to its own, as long as the elven did not seek to expand their rule into neighboring lands.
But many of the English people formed a secret rebellion to fight their oppressors. Some of the elven’s children considered themselves human despite their foreign blood and joined the cause. And over the centuries these half-breeds became their only hope.
Devon, England, 1734
Giles Beaumont heard the sound of battle coming from beyond the rocks in the direction of the village at the same moment Cecily emerged from the waves of the English Channel. His magically cursed sword flew from its scabbard, smacked the palm of his hand, and it took every ounce of Giles’s considerable strength to shove it back into the leather sheath. As much as his blade longed to be finally used, the years of training to protect the young woman held firm and he ran away from the village to the beach.
He’d removed his stockings and half jackboots after the first hour of waiting for Cecily, and now his toes dug through the hot sand while broken seashells stabbed his heels. But the elven blood that ran through his veins allowed him to reach the tide line soon enough, his feet now slapping on wet sand, the spray of the crashing waves cooling his face, the ocean breeze billowing open his half-buttoned shirt with even more welcome relief.
He kept his gaze fixed on naught but her.
Cecily Sutton, half-breed daughter of the Imperial Lord Breden, elven lord of the sovereignty of Dewhame, did not look like a direct descendant of the elven royal line. At least, not at the moment. She had one arm wrapped around the fin of a dolphin, the creature propelling her through the water at wicked speed. Her black hair gleamed in the sunlight, her luscious mouth hung wide open with laughter, and she’d half-closed her eyes against the spray of flight.
A wild magical woman, indeed. A mysterious creature whom he’d been assigned to protect since she was nine years old—and Giles himself only fifteen—in hopes that she would be of use to the Rebellion some day. But a daughter of those cold, reserved elven lords? No, she did not fit that mold.
She swam by herself the rest of the way to the shore, with a wave and a last caress for her dolphin-steed. Her magical affinity for the water made her look one with it, her swimming near effortless as she crossed the final distance to the beach. Giles waited for her, waves lapping about his ankles, watching as her eyes grew round with surprise when she recognized him. With her large inhuman eyes, he could not deny her birthright to the elven lord. They glittered in the sunshine, twin jewels of blue, with a crystalline depth that bespoke the enormous power the young woman could summon.
Although she’d managed to keep that power well hidden through the years.
“What are you doing here?” she said, her gaze flicking away from him to stare at her abandoned clothing on the beach. Cecily kept her body hidden in the water, but the motion of the waves occasionally revealed the swell of her breasts. Giles made sure his gaze stayed fixed on her face, but despite his efforts to appear unaffected by her nudity, the warmth of a flush crept over his cheeks.
For he’d been ordered to protect her but keep his distance. Thomas had warned him that the girl was destined to marry a great lord. And in more subtle terms, that Giles would never be good enough for her. So by necessity he had spied upon her from a distance for years. Many times he had damned her for her magical affinity to water, for scarcely a day went by without her sneaking off to this private cove where she stripped and flung herself into the ocean. Perforce he’d watched her body develop from skinny youth into the full curvature of womanhood.
Now her curves rivaled those of any woman he’d bedded; indeed, once she’d matured, he would often dream of those perfect features while he made love to one girl after another.
Many times he had fancied himself in love with one of the village maidens. For a time he would feel relieved that he had been able to put the forbidden girl from his thoughts. But thoughts of Cecily would always intrude yet again. He would find himself comparing those vivid blue eyes, that heart-shaped brow, the lilt of her laughter, with every girl he met. And would find himself dreaming of her once again, chiding himself for a fool.
“There’s something wrong in the village,” he managed to say. “I want you to stay hidden in the water until I return.”
As usual, she avoided looking into his eyes, her gaze fixed somewhere around his nose. “How did you know I’d be here? How did you manage to climb the rocks? No one knows about my secret place—” A more urgent question suddenly halted her flow of indignation. “Has Thomas returned?”
He shook his head. “No, but I fear that your father may have something to do with it.”
“With what? What is happening?”
“I’m not sure, and I don’t have time for this. Just stay here!”
Giles spun, raced back to his hiding place, struggling damp skin into woolen hose, sandy cloth into leather boots. He pulled his sword from the scabbard, the greedy thing ringing with delight, eager for the taste of the blood Giles had denied it for so many years.
A thrill went through him from hilt to hand and he fought it with a clench of his muscles. “You devil,” he murmured. “If I could have gotten rid of you, I would have. Father’s gift or no.”
The sword answered him with a tug in the direction of the village, where the sounds of battle had grown louder. Giles took one last glance over his shoulder…
The little hoyden had ignored him. Cecily stood next to her clothing, her net with her day’s catch abandoned in shallow water, flopping fish and scuttling crabs quickly making their way back to ocean. Giles would have cursed if he’d had the wits to, but the sight of her bending over to pick up her chemise near knocked the power of speech completely from his head.
He sprinted back to the water, his sword resisting him all the way. Giles should have known she wouldn’t listen to him. She treated him like all the villagers did, as if he had nothing between his muscled shoulders but his fine elven features. He had carefully cultivated that impression of course, assuming the quiet manner of a humble blacksmith, in spite of how much he despised the role. But Cecily’s attitude had surpassed his assumed disguise. After the night she offered herself to him and he gallantly refused her, she’d avoided him with a disdain that bordered on contempt.
By the time he reached her side Cecily had pulled on her chemise, struggled into her stays. Her fingers fastened up the front-lacing stays most working women wore, and she pulled on her jacket and skirt without benefit of her quilted petticoat.
Giles found it easier to speak once she’d covered that glorious body. “I told you to stay in the water.”
She did not answer, pulling on stockings and shoes.
Not for the first time, he mentally cursed the task of having to protect this young woman. “I cannot keep you safe while fighting.”
She straightened, her eyes widening at that. “Why would you care—what in heaven’s name is wrong with your sword?”
The damned blade kept twisting his arm around, pointing at the village like a dog scenting a hare. Giles’s boots began to slide across the sand, little furrows left in his wake. “It smells blood—”
She flew past him in a blur of black hair and linsey-woolsey skirts. Giles blinked then followed. He’d forgotten she shared the speed elven blood could provide; indeed, it ran even stronger through her veins than his. But his eager sword aided his flight and he managed to catch up with her at the top of the rise. He threw an arm about her waist, managed to drag her and his sword behind an outcropping of rock.
Despite years of watching over her, he had never dared touch her before and the shock of it took him by surprise. A thrill ran through him and for a moment he could only stare speechlessly at her.
Before he lost himself completely in the crystal blue of her eyes, she lowered her gaze. “Let me go.”
“Not until you promise me you’ll stay here.”
The sound of gunfire drifted up to their perch and Giles fought against more than just his sword arm to seek out the source.
“I do not know why you have this sudden concern for me, sir, but I assure you—”
“How many more will die while you argue with me?”
Her mouth snapped shut, those eyes sparkling with uncanny brilliance. “I will stay.”
“This time you will promise.”
“I promise. Now go!”
Giles leaped to his feet, racing down the other side of the rise toward the village. He kept his attention on the scene before him, praying he judged her rightly, that the lady would keep her word, for he knew her life held more value than a village of peasants, and leaving her alone to fend for herself went against everything he’d been sworn to do. But the villagers had become his friends, and in good conscience he could not forsake them.
Smoke curled up from beyond the trees. The sound of steel ringing against steel grew louder until the way opened up before him, revealing the village clearing. Soldiers wearing the blue livery of the Imperial Lord fought against peasants in their coarse wool clothing. But Giles had made sure every man had a blade from his forge, and despite their ragged appearance, the villagers’ weapons had a quality that surpassed the common soldiers’. They held their own.
The devil-blade sang in his hand and plunged him into the fray.
For the next few moments Giles could do naught but concentrate on keeping the hilt in his fist. One blue uniform went down, then another, warm blood splattering his face, gore dripping down the front of his chest. Giles had always longed for battle but he did not relish death like his sword did. It thirstily sought out one enemy after another until nothing but dead bodies surrounded him.
Fortunately, the villagers stayed clear of his blade.
It appeared that most of the soldiers had discharged their muskets and probably hadn’t the time to reload them before the villagers fell upon them, because no shots rang out as they had earlier. But the back of his neck suddenly itched. Giles turned to meet the furious glare of a uniformed man across the clearing. The soldier raised his gun and took aim at Giles—the village blacksmith who had taken down so many of his fellows.
He heard Old Man Hugh cry out a warning, saw the fisherman lunge for the soldier, but the shot rang out before his friend could reach the musket. And time slowed. With a curse Giles wrested control of his sword, which had now drunk enough blood to allow such impudence, and thrust the weapon in front of him, catching the edge of the bullet with the slightly wider bottom of the blade, diverting it away from him.
If Giles had ever doubted the enchantment of his sword, the lack of any nick in the steel now confirmed it. He did not credit his blade for saving his life—his elven blood gave him more than a handsome face and pointed ears. His strength and speed rivaled that of a mere projectile.
Hugh plunged his blade into the soldier who had fired his musket. The officer didn’t even appear to notice at first, his ruddy face frozen in sheer incredulity at Giles.
But fall he did, joining the rest of his fellows. Giles regained his breath while he wiped his blade on the uniform of the last enemy, and returned Hugh’s sad smile of victory.
A sudden quiet descended on the once-pretty little village, broken only by the crackling of burning thatch, the sobs of grieving women. Dead bodies defiled the town fountain, had turned the water a sickly pinkish hue. Giles winced at the number of villagers who lay alongside the soldiers that littered the clearing, but many more of them still stood. They had won. Blood-spattered and weary, the fighters gathered together around Giles, slapping each other’s backs. Celebrating the fact that they still lived.
But Giles suddenly hushed them, his pointed ears cocked toward a faint rumble of sound. Soon the few other villagers who possessed a bit of elven blood—and therefore a keener sense of hearing—joined him in quieting the rest.
Up the road that led inland came a cloud of dust, the pounding of hooves. Giles did not need to see their uniforms to know more soldiers were coming. Hugh gave him a look of surprise while several of the younger men cursed in dismay. He knew what they were thinking. For years upon years Imperial Lord Breden of Dewhame had left this village alone. While other towns had lost their young men to the raising of Breden’s new army, they had been left in peace to farm, raise families, and grow old.
“Why have they suddenly come for us?” asked William the shepherd.
Giles already knew the answer to that. Thomas had been gone too long. The Rebellion’s most skilled spy had crafted a spell about the village to hide it, and the enchantment must have faded in his prolonged absence. Although the villagers had benefited from it, Thomas had cast it to protect his adopted daughter, to hide her from her true father, Breden, the Imperial Lord of Dewhame. And Giles could not speak of it. “What started this skirmish? You know what happens to villages that refuse the draft—have you become so arrogant, then?”
“Damn it, Giles!” sputtered William, his freckled face near purple. “Ye know I’ve been longing to join the wars, as stupid as they be! ’Tis the only way a lad can gain some glory, leastways.” Several of the younger men grunted in agreement. “We woulda’ gone with ’em with nary a fuss, but they took it upon their brutish hides to feel up the skirts of our women. Are ye thinking we shoulda’ let them?”
“No, you did right,” replied Giles, knowing the soldiers had gotten much more than they’d bargained for. Most villages had already been stripped of their fighting men for the wars; only children or old men were usually left to protect their families. “But I’m thinking that when the rest of the troops get here, we allow Old Hugh to explain what happened to avoid more bloodshed—”