Authors: Charlotte Boyett-Compo
"As you can see, Milord," she told him in a light voice, "I need no help. I thank you for your offer, but I must decline. No one saddles my mare except me. She won’t allow it." Noticing the pallor bleaching his deep tan, she felt a wave of remorse sweep through her. She gently placed her free hand on the hard, tense muscles of his rigid back. "You have nothing to fear from me, Milord. I think I’ve proven that rather adequately." She patted his back as though he were a precocious child.
Letting out a breath he didn’t even know he held, his eyes slid sideways to hers. He stared into the frank green depths, locking his gaze with hers, and knew she meant what she said. The blade’s pressure eased from his flesh. He could have strangled her, until her lips quivered with amusement before she broke eye contact.
"You should be more careful, Milord." She slid the blade into the sheath at her thigh. "You have to watch your back at every turn this day and age."
His demeanor turned dark with fury at her cavalier attitude. "Do you know who the gods-be-damned hell I am?"
"Does it matter?" she asked as she adjusted the saddle on her mare. She put her hand on the young man’s arm and gently pushed him aside, stepping around him. She bent over the dead innkeeper and withdrew her other dagger, wiping the man’s blood on his apron before sheathing the dagger in the top of her right boot. She stood and took her mare’s bridle from a peg.
He watched her every move as she hooked the bridle over the mare’s head and buckled it. He said nothing until she began to lead the mare out of the stable.
"Wait!" he shouted. He covered the distance between them, put out his hand to touch her again, to force her to stop, but brought back his hand. He wasn’t so sure touching her was wise. "There’s safety in numbers," he said in a voice he knew wasn’t at all normal.
"Do you wish me to travel with you to the capitol, Milord?"
"How’d you know I was going to the capitol?"
"Where else would you be going?"
Conar’s hands itched to throttle her. Instead, he pointed a finger and snapped, "You wait there!" Spinning on his heel, he stomped back into the stable and saddled his horse with one eye cocked on the girl standing demurely in the stable yard. His stallion snickered softly, a warning, it seemed, to him.
"I know she’s going to be trouble, ’Yearner," he growled as he led the big black horse into the bright sunlight.
"Are you always so slow to make ready, Milord?" she asked, having overheard his nasty comment to his horse.
He watched her swing expertly into the saddle, adjust the crossbow she had looped over the pommel. She pushed the quiver of quarrels slung over her mare’s rump away from her leg for easier riding. She sat her mare like a seasoned soldier and stared down at him with cool patience.
Grinding his teeth to stop a nasty retort, he took a deep breath, held it a moment as he met her challenge and then let it out slowly, releasing it as he did the uncharitable thoughts he was entertaining. He cocked one tawny brow. "Are you going to be an utter nuisance if I let you go with me?"
"Are you going to be in need of saving every time I turn around?"
He stiffened with his hand on the pommel. "I don’t think you know who the hell I am!"
"And I told you it didn’t matter," she shot back. "You’re just a man."
"Who the hell do you think you are, talking to me like that?" he demanded, his eyes glittering with rage.
"Just Liza." She cocked her head to one side and grinned. "And you are Prince Conar Aleksandro McGregor."
Already annoyed at himself for having lowered his guard enough for the silly chit to place a dagger to his throat, he bit his tongue to keep a furious bellow from escaping. He couldn’t, however, keep the angry tone from filtering through his words. "And just how the hell do you know that?"
She shrugged one dainty shoulder. "Who the hell else would you be?" she asked, mocking his tone. "The Elite Guards who came to your aid wore the personal insignia of the Prince Regent of Serenia. Your attitude, not to mention your churlishness and massive ego, supplied me with your true identity, Milord."
"Churlishness?" he sputtered. He glared at her. "How dare you…"
"I know you think it your due for all your loyal subjects to protect you, life and limb, if they can, but I, Milord, am no subject, loyal or otherwise, of yours!" She crossed her hands over the pommel of her saddle and arched her left brow. "Do we ride together or separate? It makes not a single whit of difference to me!"
He desperately wanted to slap the smirk from her face. Swinging himself heavily into his saddle—something his steed did not appreciate and let him know by sidestepping none too gently—he glared at her as he yanked on the reins to still his recalcitrant beast. "You think you can keep up with me, girl?" His tone said he intended to see that she didn’t.
"You think that bag of bones of yours can lead a goodly pace?" she quipped, leaning down in her saddle to take a closer look at his horse.
"Seayearner can outrun any horse in the Seven Kingdoms!"
"Seayearner? An unusual name for a stallion, don’t you think?" She clucked her tongue and pulled lightly on the reins, turning her horse’s head.
"I’m going to regret this!" he breathed, thinking she hadn’t heard.
"No doubt you will, Milord!" She kicked her mare into a gallop. "No doubt you will," wafted back to him over her shoulder.
Conar sat for a moment and watched the horse and rider moving away from him at a brisk canter.
"Okay," he told his steed. With a lethal grimace of malice on his handsome features, he put his boot heels to his stallion’s flanks and laughed. "Let’s see what they’re made of, boy!"
The black horse sprang forward with an arch of its magnificent hindquarters and steed and master galloped out of the stable yard and after the mare and her mistress.
Conar wouldn’t have admitted it even under penalty of torture or death that he lagged deliberately behind so the girl could catch up with him. He simply told himself it was too hot and that his stallion should be kept to a slow trot. He wasn’t even aware of the wicked grin that lit his face as soon as he’d heard her mare’s hooves closing in behind him. He didn’t glance her way as she drew rein beside him and slowed the mare’s pace to his steed’s.
They traveled close to three miles in a silence that had begun to weigh heavily on Conar. Not accustomed to females who could hold their tongue, her silence was strange and irritating and it bothered him immensely. He looked at her and could tell she was making a supreme effort to ignore him. She didn’t seem at all eager to open the conversation and he was annoyed he had to do so himself.
"Just where is it that you’re going?" he finally asked.
Her relieved breath told him she’d been waiting for an opening. Liza turned toward him. "To Boreas."
"And just what is it you intend to do there?"
Her hair was midnight black, as shining as a raven’s wing and just as soft looking. It flowed down her back in one long untidy braid with tendrils of escaping hair that teased her temples and neck. The forest-green eyes were clear and bright, sparkling with health and vitality. Long, thick eyelashes swept over those green depths and fanned the smooth ivory of her cheeks. The fullness of her lower lip was a deep coral and he wondered fleetingly if the tips of her breasts were the same shade of dusky color. She was slim with a tiny waist he knew he could span with his hands; her hips flared out beneath the fabric of her breeches and her legs, long and tapered in the snug fit of corduroy, appeared strong and capable. She was taller than most of the women of his acquaintance and her complexion a darker shade of ivory. He decided she must have grown up on a farm, for she was far too healthy looking to have lived in a city.
She was young; thirteen, fourteen, at the most, he thought. There were already definitive curves under her silk tunic top. Staring at the peaks under the material, he nodded. She was fifteen and not a day over, he corrected.
Liza felt his close scrutiny and it pleased her immensely. She winked at him to let him know she had been aware of his appraisal and she felt a giddy moment of triumph when he hastily looked away, a pink blush of guilt suffusing his firm cheeks.
"I asked," he snapped, "what you intended doing there."
"I go to seek my destiny."
He snorted. "To snare and marry some rich merchant, no doubt," he scoffed, all too aware of the heat in his face.
"Oh, I think not, Milord." She laughed abd craned her neck to look into his face. "Not a merchant, anyway."
Conar snorted again. "A nobleman, then? Think you can find one with your dagger tip, Mam’selle?"
"I found you, didn’t I?" she quipped and let her eyes linger on his neck to remind him. "I can take care of myself, Milord."
He shook his head. "I would think you’d need a parent or guardian looking after your interests. If not that, then a chaperone…or nanny." He turned a vicious grin. "Or even a master."
Liza slid her hand to the leather sheath strapped to her thigh. Caressing the ebony-handled blade, her look was frank and direct. "I have no need for chaperones nor guardians, and I am beyond the age for nannies. And no man is my master! Nor shall one ever be!"
"How old are you?"
"Older than you think."
Conar studied her. With all the arrogance of his position in life, and his budding manhood, he now decided she was sixteen and not a day over.
"And where the hell do you come from anyway? I know you are not from Serenia!"
"My destiny did not lie in my own homeland. I think I shall find it in Boreas, though."
"What kind of destiny, Mam’selle? Marriage? Work?" He narrowed his eyes. "Annoying the hell out of people?"
"I am rather good at that, aren’t I?"
"Professionally so," he said, refusing to smile at her. He shifted in the saddle and a thought flew through his mind, making him grin. He turned an innocent look to his traveling companion. "Perhaps you are going to try out for one of the palace guard positions they announced last week."
"I had not heard the guard was hiring. But I do have the abilities for such a position." Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his mouth drop in stunned surprise. "I am most proficient with weapons, Milord. My talents might be wasted with the Serenian Guard. If I were to audition for a place in the guard, it would be on your own Elite staff, though."
His snort startled both horses; they sidestepped away from one another. Both riders calmed their horses with gentle pats.
"You’re being silly," he snapped.
"You don’t think I have the cunning and swiftness or timing and skill to be one of your Elite Guard?" she asked, referring to the hand-picked warriors who guarded, or tried to guard, him. She pulled on her mare’s reins, halting the little gray, and sat looking at him. "Did I not save your life, Milord?"
Conar reined in his steed as well. "The men who protect me are hardened men; lethal men; men whose lives are devoted to me. Only the finest and deadliest of warriors are even considered worthy to audition for the Elite. Those who win their spurs are extremely capable men; but most important of all, they are men!"
"You have a problem with me trying out for your Elite, Milord?" she asked in innocence.
"Oh, I have no problem with it at all." He grinned. "But my men might."
"You remember the tall guard from the stable?" At her nod, he continued. "His name is Rayle Loure. He’s Captain of my Elite. Go see him when you get to Boreas." He had to look away to keep from letting her see the extent of his maliciousness.
"I didn’t find him all that mean." She thought back to the red-haired fellow. "Ugly, maybe, but not mean."
He guffawed. "He’s as mean as he is ugly, little girl." He leaned toward her. "I once saw him break a man in half with his bare hands."
"Oh? And why did he do that?" She wasn’t at all sure that was physically possible.
"I was being threatened. Rayle is very conscientious where my welfare is concerned; as are all my men."
"I don’t believe he’d be inclined to harm anyone unless provoked."
"You don’t know him."
"I wouldn’t want to show up the others who come to the try outs."
"As if you could!" he scoffed and nudged his stallion with his booted heels. "You’re a silly chit to even contemplate trying out for the guard."
If anyone knew her abilities with crossbow, dagger and javelin, it was she, Liza decided. Her confidence was all that was needed in a fight, fair or not. Not that she would ever think of trying out for an armed guard position in any Kingdom. No matter how well-trained she was or how proficient she was with her weapons, she knew her sex would prohibit her from being taken seriously.
But Conar McGregor’s condescending attitude annoyed her and made her reckless.
"I just might teach your men a thing or two!" she shouted after him, setting her horse to a trot. "Is that what worries you, Milord?"
Conar shook his head as the girl came abreast. He glanced at her and one brow shot up. "You’re baiting me, aren’t you?" He was amazed that he liked her tactics.
Liza grinned. "I was always taught that you beard the lion in his den."
"This lion bites, Mam’selle," he warned. He was unaware of the gentle smile on his handsome face.
"So does this she-panther, Milord." She winked.
He laughed as his eyes traveled over her. "This should be an interesting trip, little one."
They entered the edge of a forest speckled with high firs and thick undergrowth. The path slowly began to ascend to higher land that formed the foothills of the Serenian mountain range.
Rolling fields, lush with springtime beauty, spread ahead of them. Purple and reds, deep blues and deeper greens, rose in peaks and ebbs against the early afternoon sky. Off to the west, a white patch of cloud was forming, lazily heading their way. Somewhere to the left of them, unseen, was a meandering brook, for they could hear the tumble of water.
Liza watched her riding companion edge his steed beneath a heavy archway of trees that shot off from the main path. She shook her head in exasperation. The least he could have done, she thought, was tell her they were not going to follow the well-traveled road.