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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.
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EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT from Hers To Claim by Patricia Knight:
Adonia Corvus shook off the peculiar agitation that had engulfed her body when she locked eyes with Prince DeHelios and followed Ari, Doral and Fleur through the halls toward Ari’s office. She pulled her soft wrap closer around her bony shoulders with a convulsive shiver. Until almost two years ago, she had known nothing but the searing heat of the Oshtesh wastelands. Even the temperate climate of Sylvan Mintoth chilled her tall, spare, twenty-eight year old body.
Doral murmured something to his queen and she flashed a glance toward Adonia.
“Adonia, are you cold, again? The trees still hold their leaves. It is a warm fall day. However did you survive last winter?” Queen Constante laughed at her healer’s answering shudder and grimace. “You have been at the High Enclave for over a year. Your blood must have thickened a little.”
“It seems not, Ma’am.” Adonia schooled the tartness out of her voice. With two attentive lovers, Fleur would never know the coldness of isolation or lack the warmth of human contact. Adonia’s eyes shifted enviously to the ice-bear pelts wrapping Prince DeHelios and she sighed inwardly. I could put those heavy furs to good use. Drawn by some inexorable attraction, her eyes tracked upward and the same hyper-awareness as in the audience hall sparked through her as she met his gaze. By the Goddess! The man winked at me. She hurried to stay even with Fleur.
“I had a high compliment about you, today,” Fleur teased, craning her neck to meet Adonia’s gaze.
“Yes, from the Senior Medicus of the High Enclave.”
“The senior medicus?”
“Yes. Elder Beckton said he’d never before had a student with such a voracious capacity for learning. He told me you’d flown through the basic and intermediate material on applying healing magicks and were well into the advanced uses.” Fleur smiled as her head bobbed in time with Doral’s steps.
“He’s a good teacher.” Adonia’s voice fell to almost a whisper. “It is my heart’s desire to be able to apply the magicks in my healing, but I cannot use the diaman crystals. My learning is all theoretical.”
“You are an exceptional medica—even without the magicks,” Fleur maintained stoutly.
Yes, but if not for my common blood, I could do so much more. Adonia dropped her gaze to the floor and shrugged. “Thank you, Ma’am. I do what I can.”
She counted everyday spent with the medicae of the High Enclave a blessing. Her skill with the healing arts had increased tenfold as she gorged her mind on the practical knowledge in the High Enclave’s great library.
Practical knowledge did nothing to assuage her obsessive fascination with the magickal rites—the sexual rites the highborn with their prized genetics used to energize diaman crystals to power their working of the healing magicks. But, that knowledge was of dubious use to her. Elder Beckton had shaken his head in apology. “Only the highborn need learn this. You waste your time with those books.”
Her innermost yearning could never be realized. She resigned herself to be an onlooker, never a participant. She lacked the inherited talents bred into the noble houses for over five hundred years. Probably not a bad thing. The Great Rite is said to be arduous—dangerous to a woman’s sanity. I’d likely wind up like that poor insane creature whose cries filter through the hall near my rooms. A tendril of fear snaked up her spine. Still…I wonder…
“Your practical skills serve well, Adonia, and I am grateful that Eric and Sophi were willing to part with you.” Doral’s low voice brought a flush to her face. She hadn’t realized the Segundo took note of her existence. I should know by now that nothing associated with our queen goes unnoticed by Ari or Doral.
Her close friendship with the Fleur exposed her to the indelible bond between the Tetriarch. At times, she had to turn away beset by want, overwhelmed by the love that flowed between the three. I have love to give a man. But two years ago, she’d buried those desires deep and had thrown herself into her studies. She gave her love to her patients. It was too painful to do otherwise.
As the group settled itself into the comfortable leather furnishings of Ari’s office, Adonia shook off her troublesome thoughts and composed herself to listen. A pungent smell stung her nostrils. She turned her head, sniffing, lifting her chin to follow the smell—and came eye to eye with the hulk that proclaimed himself DeHelios. She dropped her head and turned away at his observant grin.
“I’ve had no time for the luxury of a bath, Lady. I expect I’m rather ripe.”
“More like something long dead and rotting.” she muttered under her breath.
The hulk leaned over and whispered, “It must be the bear pelts you smell, Lady. Every part of me is alive.”
He’d heard her! Adonia shot him a sharp glance then faced forward. Did her flirt with her? Surely not. Unthinkable. She snuck a peek out of the corner of her eye. By Her light. The grin had vanished but his eyes still laughed at her above a face obscured by curly black hair. She fidgeted with the two-headed phoenix charm on the chain around her neck and concentrated her attention on Ari.
“State your business, Prince DeHelios. You said something about a magistra, a healer and brite-weed.”
DeHelios stood and shrugged off his heavy outwear before he addressed the room, turning in a semi-circle as he spoke their names. “High Lord DeTano, Your Majesty, Visconte DeLorion, Lord Ramsey, Lieutenant Colonel…”
“Oh, by Her stars, Sir. Let’s not stand on ceremony.” Queen Constante interrupted DeHelios with a smile. “I am Fleur.” Her arm gestured to her right and then to her left. “Ari and Doral. Ramsey and Steffania. My medica, Adonia. And you are?”
“Yes, yes, but your first name is?” Silence settled into the room. “Sir?” said the queen.
“Your mother named you Hel?”
“Just call me “Hel.” DeHelios folded his arms and scowled.
With a rueful shake of her head, Fleur conceded. “All right, just Hel. Continue.”
The man gathered his thoughts for a moment then frowned. “I suppose it all began with the Haarb invasion of Nyth Uchel and the massacre of House DeHelios. Their armies took the city completely by surprise.”
“I understand the Haarb attacked you early in the war. Most Verdantians were unaware we had been invaded,” said Doral.
“Yes. And our estates are more isolated than most.” Hel gazed off at some unseen horizon. “My younger brother and I had gone down our mountain to track and verify the rumor of war and invasion. We returned to discover that war and invasion had come to us.” Hel walked to a window and looked out. Every eye followed him. “The Haarb looted the city and massacred the living. In the weeks that followed, survivors filtered back into Nyth Uchel but at the time of our return, all we saw was death.
“For the first time in our history, Torre Bianca stood dark against the sky, her diamantorre shattered. Nyth Uchel and the city below lay in ruins. Partially consumed bodies lay everywhere, the wolves and other scavengers so glutted they had eaten only the choicest parts.” Hel tapped on the stone sill while he spoke. “My brother and I buried my entire family—my older brother, his wife and their three children, my mother, my father, my wife and,” Hel paused and took a deep breath, “my six-year old son and two-year old daughter.”
Adonia ached at the heartbreak poorly concealed in his flat voice. With a tiny, almost inaudible moan, Fleur slipped her hand into Ari’s. Her other reached up and found Doral’s resting on the back of her chair.
Hel turned to face the room, his arms loosely crossed, his hip cocked on the window casement. He gazed unseeing at the floor. “In the years that followed, I haunted the Haarb patrols that trespassed onto my mountain and made them pay.”
Doral spoke into the pause. “Very early in the war, I heard tales of the bás dtost of Nyth Uchel—the ‘silent death’—of Haarb soldiers gutted and left hanging from trees by their intestines. We were never sure if it was a superstitious tale or fact. That was you.”
Hel’s eyes held Doral’s and Adonia didn’t think she’d ever seen a face so bleak.
“Yes. That was me. I thought that death befitting for it was what they had done to me. Their screams were poor compensation for my loss.”
“Another lull settled into the room until Hel gave a sigh and a shrug. “Finally, the Haarb stopped coming and the news of their defeat reached even the isolation of Nyth Uchel. I returned to my shattered city, my people, and we tried to rebuild.”
“It was during that time that I noticed…” Hel frowned and gave a puzzled shake of his head. “…dead zones in the forest surrounding Nyth Uchel—pockets of death where nothing lived, no animal, no green growth. A foul blight polluted the soil. Since that time, the areas of blight have expanded unchecked and one now threatens the western border of Nyth Uchel. This unnatural contagion kills the soil and all that grows in it and it is slowly killing my people. I don’t know how it spreads, but the foulness attacks a person’s soul, their spirit, their anima, feeding on their life force until the afflicted simply lose the desire to live. My people call it fading.”
“Is there a cure for this fading? Is there some way to impede the blight?” The gentle voice of Fleur broke into his pause.
“Brite-weed administered early and often can sometimes stop death, but it is an uncertain cure. Energized diaman crystals halt the spread of the contagion on the ground—confine it. We established a diaman perimeter around Nyth Uchel, but the contagion continually threatens. My warden tells me the blight has penetrated the western border.”
Hel paused, closed his eyes and his head fell back. Adonia could see the fatigue that worry and hardship had inflicted in the way he half-sat, half-stood, propped on the window casement, a man at the end of his resources.
The desire to help this beleaguered soul who had taken so much upon himself grew inside Adonia. This descendent of kings had stripped himself of all pride to obtain assistance for those dependent on him. She knew something about losing one’s pride. “You must care deeply for your people.”
Hel frowned at her. “I am DeHelios.” His statement implied an obvious answer to an unnecessary question and she felt the hot flush of embarrassment. With a slow exhale, Hel continued. “Our quarries labored night and day to replace Torre Bianca’s shattered diamantorre. We heard of DeTano’s defeat of the Haarb and then watched brilliance light the horizons as Verdantia’s sigil towers regained life.
Now, I lack only a magistra to partner me in the Great Rite and the White Tower will once more blaze in Verdantia’s night sky. I am hopeful, once re-vitalized, Torre Bianca’s energy will combat the evil menacing Nyth Uchel.”
Ari cleared his throat. “Would that we could help you, but the ugly truth is we have no magistras—not of sufficient age to perform the Great Rite. Other than our queen and Sophi, Doral’s sister, our oldest magistra is thirteen years of age. She lacks a decade to be of use to you.” Ari nodded at Hel’s appalled exclamation. “Yes. The Haarb repeated the massacre inflicted on Nyth Uchel throughout all of Verdantia. They learned of the crucial role our magistras played in our magicks and they targeted them. The Haarb’s elimination of all our magickal practitioners was horrifically thorough. Our noble houses number a mere handful.”
“But, how did all the sigil towers…?” Hel faltered to a stop.
“We are a true Tetriarch,” Fleur said. “Just as with your ancestors, Primo Federago, Segundo Agentio and Prima Isolde, the First Tetriarch, Mother Verdantia has gifted the three of us with the ability to empower all the sigil towers on the face of Verdantia when we make love.”
Comprehension dawned across Hel’s face and he scanned the room, his eyes setting first on Fleur, then Ari and finally, Doral.
“How did you think the towers were empowered?” Doral asked, his voice benign.
Adonia sat bolt upright and paid close attention. She’d heard that tone from Doral before and it usually preceded something lethal. Ramsey and Steffania in their positions near the door had straightened also.
“I thought it done in the conventional manner, a magistra and magister performed the Great Rite. I never considered the much-heralded Second Tetriarch a true triad. How could you be? You aren’t of the DeHelios bloodline.” Hel’s eyes swung to Fleur and unease furrowed his brow. “I…thought our Constante queen hot-blooded, desirous of variety…perhaps, one lover insufficient for her...” His voice trailed off.
He extended a hand toward Fleur but a low growl from Doral cut off what Hel might have said next.
The High Lord of Verdantia’s eyes held heat and his clipped words threw down a challenge. “The Senzienza called to us. There was no mistaking Her message. Once the three of us came together, there was no mistaking the authenticity of the Second Tetriarch.”
“Stop it. Both of you. He didn’t know. He meant no insult.” Fleur’s eyes lifted to hold Hel’s with a slight frown. “You didn’t, did you? Mean to insult me?”
Adonia could have hugged the young woman. Fleur’s sweet nature defused a potentially lethal confrontation between three proud men.
Hel straightened and stood stiffly. “Your Majesty, I—.”
He never completed his thought as Fleur’s hands shooed him into silence. “Never mind. It’s not important. Tell us how we can help you and Nyth Uchel.”
Hel bridged his temple with his hand and rubbed. “I, ah, I need to sit down,” and proceeded to collapse into the chair next to Adonia. “So…no magistra. My problem is more ominous than I thought.” He dropped his face into his hands and Adonia wanted to put a hand out to comfort him—but didn’t. She didn’t know if this proud man would accept it or embarrass her again by shrugging it off.
Hel exhaled heavily, sat up and faced Ari. “As soon as the Haarb retreated from Verdantia, we rebuilt the shattered diamantorre. If you re-energized all of the sigil towers on Verdantia, then Torre Bianca should be lit like a star in the night sky.
Ari pursed his mouth in thought. “We have always regretted the absence of Torre Bianca’s light in the eastern skies. Our planetary shield is weak in one quarter of the western hemisphere without her. We assumed white tower destroyed. We meant to send a party to explore why she remained dark, but…”
Hel nodded. “We are not easy to reach, particularly during winter.”
“Your damned mountain is impossible during winter. A man on foot, perhaps, but not a work party,” Doral murmured.
Ari grunted an agreement. “Since the coronation of our queen, the Tetriarch has performed the Great Rite at least once a month—barring those months when our queen’s pregnancies excluded her. Torre Bianca should be as a star dropped from heaven. There is some other malignancy at work.”
Hel sagged in the chair, his devastation apparent. He scrubbed his face with his hands for a moment and then stood, pacing to the window. “I still have need of a healer and brite-weed.”
Adonia spoke before thinking. “I will go with him. I would like to see the fabled Nyth Uchel and the celebrated Torre Bianca. I would like to help in whatever way I can.” She rose from her chair and stepped toward Fleur. “You have many skilled medicae to attend you, Ma’am. While not as advanced as some, I am a skilled healer and I’m used to hardship. I have studied with all the medicae at the High Enclave. From the sounds of conditions, I’d give ninety percent of them a week, or less, before they retreated to Sylvan Mintoth—if they even finished the journey to Nyth Uchel.”
“Are you sure, Adonia? It will be arduous and quite possibly dangerous.” Fleur's delicate brow knit with concern.
Adonia met Fleur’s eyes. She would miss the young queen. Other than Sophi DeStroia, her former flight leader, this was her only woman friend—well, actually, her only friend in Sylvan Mintoth—but this opportunity was unprecedented. “My Queen, I was medica and First Arrow of Falcon Flight. I am a skilled archer and highly trained in mounted combat. We of the desert-dwelling Oshtesh fought in the last Haarb battle of Vergaza alongside several of those in this chamber. I have known the hard life of the arid wastelands and have traveled the long road from Sh’r Un Kree to Sylvan Mintoth. I am not afraid of the danger or the hardship. If Prince DeHelios will have me, I want to go.” Adonia felt the weight of Hel’s perusal and turned to face him. After a long, anxious moment watching him silently evaluate her, he lifted his chin and brought it down decisively.
“Yes. I will have you.”
The peculiar, slow twist Hel gave to his words made Adonia wonder if he intended another meaning, but she shook the thought away as ridiculous. He couldn’t want her that way. Klaran’s damning words rang in her memory as clearly as if her lover had spoken them yesterday instead of almost two years ago.
“What is it you don’t understand? I’m done with you. You got me into service with Ducca DeStroia and out of Sh’r Un Kree—for that, I thank you. But, did you seriously expect me to stay with you when I had a choice? There is nothing womanly about you. From your body to your soul you are a hard creature.” Her former intended’s furiously hurled words had stripped her soul bare and the lush-figured, doe-eyed beauty who had replaced Adonia in his arms had loosed the killing shot. “No man wants between the legs of a gawky, stick figure reeking of some vile concoction.”
Adonia had fled to Sylvan Mintoth under the guise of advancing her medical knowledge. The compassion in Eric and Sophi DeStroia’s eyes when they released her from their service had been the ultimate humiliation. She’d run like a whipped dog.
“Lord Ramsey, I would like you to go with Adonia.” Fleur glanced across the room to Ramsey DeKieran and Adonia disguised a laugh with a cough when he abruptly straightened after a hard poke from his wife. While the rest of the party sat in the comfortable sofas and chairs around Ari’s office, DeKieran and his new wife had remained lounging, side-by-side, against the wall by the door. Adonia had caught the intense stares and occasional murmurs Ram and Steffania had exchanged throughout the past hour. From the blush that crept up Steffania’s cheeks when Ramsey fingered her exquisite choker of beaten gold, Adonia doubted that either had heard much of what had transpired in the last few minutes.
“Huh? What? Um, pardon me, Ma’am. I didn’t catch what you said.”
From the mischief in Fleur’s eyes, Adonia revised her assumption. Perhaps she was not the only one to catch their interchange of heated looks and whispers. “I wish you to accompany Adonia to Nyth Uchel and stay until she is ready to return. She will need an escort home and I don’t want her dependent upon Prince DeHelios or his people to provide one.”
Fleur’s gaze returned to Hel. “No disrespect intended but should Adonia wish to leave at any time, I want her free to do so.” The queen’s gaze then found Adonia. “And Adonia, while you are most capable, you will travel through country with unknown dangers. It will ease my heart to know you have a strong blade at your side.”
“So, Lord Ramsey? Will you go?”
“To Nyth Uchel?” Ram blinked several times. “With him?”
Hel looked affronted. Doral laughed softly and then murmured something to Ari and a grin split the High Lord’s solemn face. Adonia would give anything to know what Doral had said.
Steffania whispered something to Lord DeKieran and he performed a sketchy bow. “Ah, if you ask it, Ma’am.” An expression of disgust flashed across Ramsey’s face and with hands on hips, he turned to Hel. “I suppose you want your horse back.”
~ ~ ~
Adonia could see the stars dotting the night sky through the windows of the sitting area in her room. Diaman crystal globes illuminated the spacious accommodations and a bronze brazier filled with glowing crystals radiated heat enough to warm an area twice its size. A small leather duffle sat in one of the chairs. It had taken little time to pack her few possessions—a medica’s robe and two changes of clothing, a hairbrush and some ties to bind her hair. Her medicines took far longer, and she knelt on the floor as, for a third time, she ran through the inventory of medicines and herbs she intended to take. A sharp rap on her door jerked her upright. Who? At this advanced hour? Had someone fallen sick? She opened the door and drew back in surprise.
“High Lord! Come in, come in.”
Ari entered with a bundle of plush black fur in his arms and stopped in the middle of her room. “We want you to have this.” He held up the fur and the glorious item unfurled. Its silky hairs reflected the light in a thousand blue-black sparkling glitters and Adonia exclaimed in wonder.
“Mynx! By the Mother, I have never seen an entire garment of it.” Ari held out a full-length coat of the exotic alien fur. “Sir! This fur is brought from off-world. One tiny pelt is impossibly expensive—to have an entire coat! It is far too valuable. I cannot take this.”
Ari crossed behind her and placed the coat on her shoulders. The gossamer fur waved from just the passage of her breath across it.
“Put it on. Let me see if it will fit.”
Adonia reluctantly put her arms into the sleeves and allowed Ari to snug the coat up to her neck and fasten the clips that held it closed—then he stood back and observed her. “Good. It is not too long. The shoulders are big, but that will allow for extra layers underneath.”
She laughed at the four inches extending beyond her fingertips. “I suppose I could cuff them.” Adonia held her hands to her face and nestled her nose and cheeks into the thick, black pile. She luxuriated in its extraordinary softness and then raised her face with a sigh. “Sir, I cannot accept this. This is a garment for heads of state—or those with enough money to buy planets. While I appreciate the queen’s generosity, I cannot take it.”
“It’s not from the queen.” The High Lord smiled and his expression softened to one of pleasure. “I gave it as a gift to Doral. Since he is going nowhere for many months, he wants you to have it. He says you suffer from the cold more than most.” Ari laughed at her expression. “The things he notices amaze me, also. If nothing else, consider it a gift of thanks for your tender care of our queen. She values your friendship. Because of her position, it is hard for her to have true friends. She counts you among the few.” Adonia dropped her gaze and looked away uncertain what to do. Ari snorted in mock irritation. “If you won’t take it, you will have to return it to Doral. I don’t dare tell him I failed in his errand.” Ari leaned over and whispered, “He’s a scary man. I fear to cross him.”
Recognizing a blatant lie—Doral was a ‘scary man,’ but Ari crossed him with impunity all the time—Adonia addressed him with skeptical eyes. Of their own volition, her palms stroked the silky fur and her fingers sank into its thick pelt. In this garment, she felt distinguished, like royalty, and it would be so warm. Nothing she owned approached it on any level. With a heavy sigh, wishing she weren’t so weak, she surrendered to the temptation. “Thank Segundo DeLorion for me. Tell him that I’ll borrow it and return it when I come back.”
The High Lord’s smile left his face and he studied her in silence for a long moment. “If you come back. DeHelios needs a wife and from the way he looks at you, I shouldn’t be surprised if he intends to keep you.”
Adonia’s eyes widened. “He is highborn, a prince of the first noble House of Verdantia. I’m common—an ordinary Oshtesh woman from the desert. He would never consider me for a wife.”
The High Lord’s eyes lingered on her. He wore the strangest smile on his handsome face. “Do you really regard yourself as common?” But before Adonia could summon the courage to ask him what that cryptic comment meant, he bowed, wished her, “Safe journey,” and left.
As she stroked the luxurious fur, Adonia considered his remark. She’d always taken comfort from the thought she was a common desert woman. She’d never questioned the rightness of her way of life with the Oshtesh until her encounter with Doral’s sister, Sophi, and her now-husband, Eric DeStroia. After the cataclysmic events surrounding the battle of Vergaza, Adonia had realized prejudice and ignorance warped much of what she’d been taught growing up.
The small religious sect her parents belonged to had indoctrinated Adonia with a scornful contempt for the aristocracy but in a matter of months, she’d shed their influence and opened her mind to a different way of thinking. She’d been wrong about many things. The realization had hurt, but she’d swallowed her pride, owned up to her prejudices and set about changing how she thought and behaved. Throughout her internal upheaval, she’d clung to one certainty—Klaran cared for her. She had a place. She was Klaran’s betrothed, his future wife.
It had taken Klaran mere moments to obliterate her self-worth and years later, she still bled from the gaping wound. Klaran’s words had done more than strip her of any sense she was desirable. His betrayal had obliterated her identity, her confidence in where she belonged in the world. When he’d rejected her, nothing remained of her previous life and she’d no sense of her place in a new one. Maybe she would know where she belonged at the end of this journey. Nyth Uchel’s healer? Yes. She could take pride in being Nyth Uchel’s healer.
About the Author:
Patricia A. Knight is the pen name for an eternal romantic who lives in Dallas, Texas with her horses, dogs and the best man on the face of the earth – oh yeah, and the most enormous bullfrogs you will ever see. Word to the wise: don’t swim in the pool after dark.
I love to hear from my readers and can be reached at Troll River Publishing or My Website. Or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out my “Hot Hunk of the Day” and latest releases, contests and other fun stuff on my Facebook Page.