Wydawca: Donna Maree Hanson Kategoria: Fantastyka i sci-fi Język: angielski Rok wydania: 2017

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Opis ebooka Oathbound - Donna Maree Hanson

Follows Argenterra- Silverlands Book OneOathboundWe have some time before the Ancient Evil can reach into Argenterra. We are not the Ungiven Land yet…Sophy lies trapped within Rufus’s jewelled prison. Because she is protected by her oathbond to Oakheart, Rufus cannot touch her, but her crystal form is draining Argenterra of the given. Oakheart has to leave Sophy behind because he is bound by his promise to return Gillcress to Princess Aria at Valley Keep.The weakening of the given has repercussions: oaths are fading and darkness has festered in Prince Dellbright’s heart. Oakheart fears for Aria and Gillcress, but he must return to the Lower Warrens and free Sophy—and before the jewel she is trapped within drains the given completely from the land. Accompanied by an adept and the forest folk, he sets out to rescue her. The order from Crystal Mountain Retreat is, if Sophy cannot be freed, she must be destroyed…

Opinie o ebooku Oathbound - Donna Maree Hanson

Fragment ebooka Oathbound - Donna Maree Hanson

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Table of contents

About Oathbound

Copyright Information

Dedication

Map

Contents

Chapter One

To the Valley

Chapter Two

The Bitter Keep

Chapter Three

The Heart of the Matter

Chapter Four

A Touch of Wisdom

Chapter Five

Quest Bound

Chapter Six

The Caves of Suval

Chapter Seven

A Breath of Heart and a Touch of Soul

Chapter Eight

A Foe is a Fickle Friend

Chapter Nine

A Flaw Unravels

Chapter Ten

Bittersweet

Chapter Eleven

The Taste of Crystal Fire

Chapter Twelve

Hanal of Puri

Chapter Thirteen

Futile Pursuit

Chapter Fourteen

A Coldcloth Tale

Chapter Fifteen

What Tests an Oath

Chapter Sixteen

Through to Panal's Pass

Chapter Seventeen

Bitter Drink, Poisoned Cup

Chapter Eighteen

A Helping Hand

Chapter Nineteen

An Oath's Resonance

Chapter Twenty

The Wasteland Within

Chapter Twenty-one

A Parting of the Ways

Chapter Twenty-two

N'Brell's Chasm

Chapter Twenty-three

Glassy Mountain Retreat

Chapter Twenty-four

Where the Spirit Dwells

Chapter Twenty-five

The Jewel Within

Chapter Twenty-six

A Bond Sealed

Chapter Twenty-seven

Souls Entwine

Chapter Twenty-eight

Signs and Portents

Chapter Twenty-nine

The Crystal Gate

Epilogue

Preview of Ungiven Land, The Silverlands Book Three

Acknowledgements

About Donna Maree Hanson

Oathbound

The Silverlands Book Two

By

Donna Maree Hanson

About Oathbound

Oathbound follows book one, Argenterra.

Argenterra

Every one hundred years a woman comes to Argenterra through the Crystal Tree Woods. This time two women came…

While on a ghost tour in Castle Crioch, Sophy and her best friend and foster sister, Aria, are sucked into the world of Argenterra, where they encounter a strange Crystal Tree. Two leaves fall from it, one of which Aria catches and the other mysteriously delves into Sophy’s chest.

Met by Dellbright, the prince of Valley Keep, and Oakheart, the high king’s ambassador, the girls learn they are expected. Aria has beauty and talent with the given, the land’s native magic. She finds a home and a husband in Prince Dellbright and is revered as the legendary Gift of Crystal Tree Woods.

Sophy is out of place, as anything made with the given makes her ill.

Sophy accompanies Oakheart to the capital to find out why the crystal leaf is in her chest. A sinister force is tracking her—trying to snatch her away or kill her. Only Oakheart suspects her importance: she is the talisman that can cause great harm to the world of Argenterra if she falls into the wrong hands.

Oathbound

We have some time before the Ancient Evil can reach into Argenterra. We are not the Ungiven Land yet…

Sophy lies trapped within Rufus’s jewelled prison. Because she is protected by her oathbond to Oakheart, Rufus cannot touch her, but her crystal form is draining Argenterra of the given. Oakheart has to leave Sophy behind because he is bound by his promise to return Gillcress to Princess Aria at Valley Keep.

The weakening of the given has repercussions: oaths are fading and darkness has festered in Prince Dellbright’s heart. Oakheart fears for Aria and Gillcress, but he must return to the Lower Warrens and free Sophy—and before the jewel she is trapped within drains the given completely from the land. Accompanied by an adept and the forest folk, he sets out to rescue her. The order from Crystal Mountain Retreat is, if Sophy cannot be freed, she must be destroyed…

The Silverlands Series

In a land where oaths can’t be broken be careful what promises you make.

To break the binding oath is to risk the very magic of Argenterra.

Vorn and the First Comers fleeing death and destruction came to Argenterra through the Crystal Gate. On arrival, they made a binding oath to not kill—and in return the land gave them the given, a native magic . For over a thousand years they have prospered but now the Ancient Evil seeks Vorn’s descendants and reaches a hand into the land.

Oaths are bound with the given and every promise must be kept or the land’s magic will compel completion of the oath or prevent its breaking. Only a murder can sunder the binding oath, which would make the given fade. In his later years, Vorn prophesied that a time would come when the land would be ungiven. That time is near.

Copyright Information

First published by Aust Specuatlive Fiction (Donna Maree Hanson) in 2017.

Copyright © Donna Maree Hanson 2017.

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved. This publication (or any part of it) may not be reproduced or transmitted, copied, stored, distributed or otherwise made available by any person or entity (including Google, Amazon or similar organisations), in any form (electronic, digital, optical, mechanical) or by any means (photocopying, recording, scanning or otherwise) without prior written permission from the author.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry : (ebook)

Creator: Hanson, Donna Maree, author.

Title: Oathbound / Donna Maree Hanson ; Kaaren Sutcliffe, editor ;

Les Petersen, cover artist.

ISBN: 9780975721780 (ebook)

Series: Hanson, Donna Maree. Silverlands ; bk. 2.

Subjects: Fantasy fiction, Australian.

Best friends--Fiction.

Imaginary places--Fiction.

Other Creators/Contributors:

Sutcliffe, Kaaren, editor.

Petersen,, Les.

Print on Demand format ISBN: 978-0-9757217-7-3

Ebook format ISBN: 978-0-9757217-8-0

Edited by Kaaren Sutcliffe.

Cover design by Les Petersen.

To report a typographical error, please email donnamareehanson@gmail.com

Dedication

To Taamati, Shireen (Beans) and Erana. I am proud of you all. Please keep on pursuing your dreams.

Map

Contents

About Oathbound

Dedication

Chapter One

To the Valley

Chapter Two

The Bitter Keep

Chapter Three

The Heart of the Matter

Chapter Four

A Touch of Wisdom

Chapter Five

Quest Bound

Chapter Six

The Caves of Suval

Chapter Seven

A Breath of Heart and a Touch of Soul

Chapter Eight

A Foe is a Fickle Friend

Chapter Nine

A Flaw Unravels

Chapter Ten

Bittersweet

Chapter Eleven

The Taste of Crystal Fire

Chapter Twelve

Hanal of Puri

Chapter Thirteen

Futile Pursuit

Chapter Fourteen

A Coldcloth Tale

Chapter Fifteen

What Tests an Oath

Chapter Sixteen

Through to Panal’s Pass

Chapter Seventeen

Bitter Drink, Poisoned Cup

Chapter Eighteen

A Helping Hand

Chapter Nineteen

An Oath’s Resonance

Chapter Twenty

The Wasteland Within

Chapter Twenty-one

A Parting of the Ways

Chapter Twenty-two

N’Brell’s Chasm

Chapter Twenty-three

Glassy Mountain Retreat

Chapter Twenty-four

Where the Spirit Dwells

Chapter Twenty-five

The Jewel Within

Chapter Twenty-six

A Bond Sealed

Chapter Twenty-seven

Souls Entwine

Chapter Twenty-eight

Signs and Portents

Chapter Twenty-nine

The Crystal Gate

Epilogue

Preview of book three, Ungiven Land

Chapter One

The Deadlands

Acknowledgements

About Donna Maree Hanson

Chapter One

To the Valley

The sound of baby Gillcress’s hungry wail pierced the haze of Oakheart’s dream, bringing him to wakefulness. He heard Lillia stir as she went to tend the child, whispering soft words that calmed his shrilling demands for food. Oakheart breathed deeply, trying to ignore how Gilly’s cries sounded like heartbreak and abandonment, the very feelings that churned within him as he lay there, hoping for a moment of oblivious sleep. Horror ebbed from his mind as the tendrils of the dream receded like the fading aftertaste of too much wine.

Camped in a wooded hollow as they fled from the warrens back towards Valley Keep, they huddled against the cold and the threat of pursuit. Sentries periodically whistled an ‘all is well’. Oakheart counted the signals and relaxed the tension in his neck and arms. Wearily, he opened his eyes, and groaned as the recollection of events came flooding in with uncalled-for clarity. They had saved Aria’s and Dellbright’s son, Gillcress, but he had lost Sophy, his oathbound bride, to Rufus and his dark enchantment. He grimaced at how he had let Sophy spring the trap set by Rufus—baby Gilly in exchange for herself.

Oakheart tried to understand what the being Rufus had done to Sophy. The leaf from the Crystal Tree had been growing within her, that much he had witnessed. But a total transformation? How had Rufus bound her in that crystal shape? What effect did it have on her—and on Argenterra? While he did not know the full of it, deep in his gut he knew it portended ill. Something was very wrong, not only with Sophy but also with Argenterra.

Knuckling sleep from his eyes, he squinted at the sky, still dark with night’s cloak. Lifting his head, he saw faint wisps of dawn creeping up the horizon. Still an hour or so short of daylight, not enough time to go back to sleep before they had to pack up and leave again.

A yawn seized him and he stretched out his aching limbs. By the given, he was tired. Even after many nights, he was not accustomed to the repeated nocturnal waking of the babe. Lillia was constantly feeding him and the little boy’s body was now well-rounded and his cheeks chubby and pink. That the child was safe and thriving was all the comfort he had for the moment. Again, his mind was brought back to the scene in Rufus’s cave, the churning noise of the warren beasts as they clawed the stone floor and ground their teeth together in anticipation of blood. His blood.

Within that memory was Sophy, tall and proud, willing herself forwards into the trap prepared for her. Oakheart had detected the power of the golden ring as it twisted and bound Sophy. Her metamorphosis dragged at his senses. Being oathbound allowed him to feel her edges hardening as she was wrenched and bent into that unnatural state. Even now, they were tethered by their oathbond that remained alive and strong between them, fixed in blood and deed. He sighed. It kept him going, knowing that she lived still within that gem.

“That child has a lusty appetite,” Fern commented, his words muffled by his blankets. Oakheart heard his friend shuffle and turn on his side. In the dim starlight, Fern was a dark mound. “Are you sure he is not your close kin for he eats as much as you do?”

Oakheart chuckled quietly, glad that Fern’s light banter helped dispel his morose thoughts. His cousin, Fern, was a fine warrior and natural commander and had saved them from certain death, arriving with help just in time as they were surrounded by Rufus’s screavers and beasts. Now that Rufus had Sophy, he wanted Oakheart dead.

“No, not so close in blood as his appetite would lead you to believe. I wonder how Lillia bears it,” Oakheart said, and then placed his hands behind his head to stare at the deep, purple sky and watch the stars fade.

“Oh, but she does not bear it well. She nearly knifed me yesterday when I commented on how well she looked.”

Oakheart smiled in the dark and shook his head. Fern would never change. His mouth caused angst wherever he went, unless of course there was a pretty maid to be lured away for a cuddle or a kiss.

A frown of annoyance marred his features when he remembered how Fern’s acid tongue had flayed poor Sophy, for days, even weeks, on end. In fact, Fern pointing out all of Sophy’s faults had only led Oakheart to think well of her and to focus on her good points.

A sound of scratching interrupted his musing. Oakheart’s hand closed upon his dagger, and he listened intently. The scrabbling noise grew louder and a man-shaped shadow rose up and then hunkered next to him. Oakheart tensed.

“Oakheart?” Mellow whispered urgently.

Oakheart tried to slow his heart rate; it was only Lillia’s mate. “What it is it? The child?” Oakheart hissed, flinging off his blanket and fearing some threat to his charge.

Mellow’s shadow rose, a dark shape blocking out the stars. “No, fear not. The child is hale. It is of Lillia I come to speak.”

“Lillia?” Oakheart braced himself and repressed a groan. He had been expecting Mellow’s entreaty for some time.

Mellow leant in closer and lowered his voice. “Yes. She has served you well, excellency…” As he hesitated, Oakheart could hear Mellow breathing. “Is it not time to free her from her duty when the child is returned to the valley?”

Oakheart closed his eyes for a second, opened them and tried to look Lillia’s husband in the eye. It was difficult. Mellow’s eyes appeared like dark holes in his head. Daylight spread thin fingers into the sky but the forest man was cloaked in grey gloom. Oakheart softened his voice. “Mellow, good friend, your mate has served me well. But she does not do my bidding. I cannot influence her where you cannot.”

Mellow’s breath grated in his throat. “But she is with child…”

Oakheart let the air sigh out of him. He knew about the pregnancy because Sophy had whispered it to him as he held her in the night. The memory of his oathbound came tantalising and pure. Her soft flesh pressed against his and the burning warmth of her love. “And…”

Mellow edged closer and spoke urgently in Oakheart’s ear, keeping his voice low so he could not be overhead. “She cannot continue to feed the babe and fight off attacks and keep her…our…unborn child. Surely you see it. Daily she weakens.”

Oakheart reached for Mellow’s hand, now grasped tight to Oakheart’s blanket, and squeezed it companionably. “My heart goes out to you both. Soon we will be in the valley. The task of feeding Gilly will pass from her. There you must decide what path you will take. Lillia would be affronted if I tried to dictate her duty. She would not even listen to Sophy…”

He thought he heard Mellow sniff and then noticed him wipe his arm across his face. “I cannot shake her from this path. Never has she been so stubborn. She will not even speak about the matter with me.”

Fern chose that moment to speak from his bed. “Best you disarm her before you try…”

Oakheart rolled his eyes as Mellow swung round, still crouched. “Be still…” Mellow hissed. “I will knife you myself if you speak against her. She is the mother of my children, a warrior in her heart, the love of my life since we were children. We drank from the same breasts. We climbed our first tree together. We dived from Fell Falls to the pools below, our first feat of daring. Our breath and our life are in the Gilton Forest.”

Pausing to draw in a breath, Mellow faced Oakheart again. “How do I get her to return? What sway does your oathbound wife have on her?” Mellow’s voice was plaintive.

Oakheart did sympathise, but there was nothing he could do. He had tried on many occasions to dissuade Lillia, to send her home. Making an enemy of the forest maiden was not wise, and nor did he want to for she was dear to him. She would become a bitter foe if he persisted or stood between her and her desire to serve. He could not help but be glad of her aid.

He ran his hand through his hair. “I cannot answer for her, my friend. You must bare your heart to Lillia…only she can tell you what you wish to know. Lillia is a forest maiden, a warrior; that much you have always understood. I know Sophy touched her heart somehow…since they first met she warmed to her.”

Mellow’s inarticulate expression of defeat sounded in the quiet of the night.

“Very well…I will make the attempt at Valley Keep, even though every day I am away from Gilton Forest I feel less of a man and more like a ghost. I do not feel whole without the spirit of the trees, or the smell of the damp earth, or my tree home surrounding me. I miss the sounds of the children…I miss her.”

Oakheart sighed. “Aye…I understand your need. Your help on this quest has been valuable. If it is any comfort to you, your presence has made Lillia happier.”

Mellow slunk away, disturbing the loose soil and rocks with his feet as he headed back to his blankets. Oakheart did not think his words had comforted the man. Biting his lip, he realised that he understood Mellow’s situation all too well. Sophy, too, was headstrong and independent.

***

Next morning, after cresting a slight hill, Oakheart pulled his mount to a halt next to Fern. His friend had sent scouts out and was peering into the distance, his face creased with concern.

“What is it?” Oakheart asked.

The wood was open, thinning to haphazard groupings of trees. A few hillocks in the distance could hide an ambush. He recalled that there were a few farmsteads in the area, though they were isolated from each other and the main road linking Silverdale and the valley. If they rode hard, they could reach Valley Keep by moonrise. An uneasiness crawled up his spine. Something did not seem right. Mist lay in shallow depressions in the fields, clinging to trees and floating above a small pond.

Ahead, the exposed grassland appeared white with frost. Unease, like a knife’s edge, dug into his gut. Oakheart’s breath curled in the air as he exhaled. Steam rose from the flanks of Fern’s horse. His disquiet grew in the still morning atmosphere. Oakheart’s eyes slid sideways as the guards nocked arrows. Expectation filled the air.

The sound of distant hoof beats thumping the ground alerted him to the lone scout riding hard towards them. Clods of damp earth flew up behind the rider, churned by the horse’s hooves. His men bristled with tension as they waited for the rider to draw closer. A few horses shook their heads, jingling bridles and bits. Fern signalled for four men to angle around to the right and another four to the left. His gaze never left the approaching scout.

Without looking behind him Fern spoke. “Lillia, take the child to the rocky outcrop behind us. Make your position defensible.” Fern spared Oakheart a quick glance. “You best stay by me for the present. But be ready.”

“Of course.” Oakheart watched as Lillia slid from her saddle and scurried to where there was a cleft between two boulders. She crouched and backed into the gap with Gilly fast asleep in her arms. Mellow took the horse behind the outcrop and returned with an armful of branches. After disguising the horse’s hoof prints, he also backed into the cleft, sheltering Lillia and the child with his body and holding the branches in front of him to disguise their presence. His dark and angry gaze peered out, knife at the ready. The other forest folk, Illart and Raven, crouched in the shadows on either side of the outcrop, ready to provide protection.

Oakheart could not believe danger lurked so close to the valley. For many years he had travelled along these trails free from harm. Dellbright talked of the occasional skirmish with Puri raiders, but they were not fraught with danger and evil. Surely whatever surrounded them was sourced in Rufus and his hate.

The scout rode up, his red face clenched with worry and fright. He was young and his brown hair flew about, loose from its tie. “I found a farmstead burnt-out. There were no signs of inhabitants, dead or alive. Something stalks these parts, though. I heard it, saw traces. I came to give warning as soon as I could.”

Fern chewed his lip as his grey eyes surveyed the ground ahead. Another scout hove into view, galloping from the opposite direction. Behind him followed a riderless horse with what looked to be a body draped over the saddle. Another look and Oakheart saw the leading rein. A whispering spread through the men. Oakheart waited, his heart beating a rapid time while the scout drew nearer.

When the scout rode up on his foam-flecked mount, Fern leapt from his horse and rushed to him. Oakheart eased himself out of the saddle, all his senses on alert. Fern grasped the rein of the second horse. By the clothes, the body appeared to be a dead farmer. The scout held the reins while Fern jerked the body free of the ties binding it to the horse and eased it to the ground.

Oakheart’s gaze roamed about the countryside warily. He eyed the mist, which seemed to move and shape by itself. It distracted him.

“Oakheart, look at this,” Fern called from beside the body.

Shaking off his disquiet, Oakheart strode to where Fern was leaning over the body. Oakheart crouched and took in the farmer’s blood-stained clothes and the face stretched by death. The stench of wrong emanating from the body almost knocked him over. Murder; another death taken in hate and anger. Oakheart kept his expression bland but knew he had failed. His jaw clenched. He did not like what he was seeing or feeling. All these happenings spoke of dire portents, he thought as his heart iced over.

“There is a dagger.” Fern pulled it out, with the sound of a squelch, and held it up to the light. He stared at the handle, rotating it slowly in his bloody fingers. “Look, ’tis a Puri blade.”

Oakheart’s attention flew to the hilt. The dark handle was etched with silver swirls. It was a familiar pattern and definitely of Puri manufacture. “Yes,” he said, taking it into his own hand. He examined the pattern closely. “Nasheen’s markings.” He stared at it, not believing the evidence of his own eyes. Nasheen was a Puri troublemaker, leader of a relatively small tribe. Oakheart knew him from his travels through the wastelands. He thought he understood Nasheen and his ways. This knife seemed out of place, not only in Argenterra but also in the back of some innocent farmer.

Fern stared at him expectantly and Oakheart met his unspoken query.

“Puri do not kill like this, nor would they leave a dagger behind. It is too precious an item. They steal goods and people. ’Tis not their way to…take life like this. They are bound by the binding oath as are we. I have met Nasheen many times…trickery, theft, maybe, but I cannot believe him capable of cold-blooded murder.”

Oakheart near spat the word—murder. It was a word to scare children, an unknown bogey man that lurked in the legends of old, the time before Vorn brought them to this land. A time of war and death and suffering. A time of the Ancient Evil.

To take a life was to break the binding oath. Oakheart’s heart sank at the thought of it. He did not want to accept that the time Vorn feared was nigh upon them. He did not want Argenterra to lose the given. It was part of them, part of who they were. This had to be Rufus’s doing. Did that evil, alien creature’s deeds undo the oath? That was Oakheart’s single vestige of hope. That Rufus was not oathbound and therefore his actions did not harm the relationship with the land.

The sparkle in Fern’s eyes died quickly. “Yes, but they do say the Puri know how to bend an oath.” Fern glowered at the body, shaking his head. “Mostly to do with taking wives though.”

“Perhaps. But there is no reason to harm in this way, risking the oath and all that means. I cannot credit it.” Oakheart inspected the body closely, searching for evidence that would reveal the truth as to why this poor farmer had been killed. The man was not that long dead. A sense of alarm troubled Oakheart. Convinced that he saw movement out of the corner of his eye, he leapt up. Alert and tense, he moved to a fighting crouch. Surely that slight alteration in the shadows signalled movement.

Fern also bolted upright. Wiping his hands on his breeches, his head swivelled left and right. “The mist moves stealthily. Strange…”

The mist! Oakheart understood—the mist had crept furtively, oozing from branch to branch while their attention was on the remains of the farmer. Fear jabbed into his belly. There was purpose in its stealth.

Movement and a grunt beside him surprised Oakheart and the knife was ripped from his hand. He looked down at the crouching corpse, waving the knife like a serpent’s head. Fern’s throaty yell brought the others, who circled warily. The dead thing lunged for Oakheart. He kept his gaze riveted on the hand that clenched the deadly blade, circling out and away. The eyes flashed red in the dead farmer’s face. Wrong rippled from the walking corpse like rotting effluent. Rufus!

His men were hesitant, uncertain. Oakheart caught a glimpse of the fear and revulsion in their faces. Such an unnatural act was beyond their ken. Perhaps it was better, no one underfoot to hamper his defence.

Oakheart backed away, all his senses riveted to the animated corpse. The blade thrust forwards again. He sucked in his breath, and stomach, away from the tip of the blade. Too close! Sweat dripped into his eyes. His breath was short and painful in his throat. Fear. He was afraid of this thing, afraid of death and all that it meant. Afraid of failing Sophy. If only he had an extra second or two to pull his own knife free. How did one kill something that was already dead?

The eyes hungered for him, for his death. To look at them for any length of time was to lose one’s soul. Another cut severed the air to his right as he bounded left. The farmer’s face grimaced in a sickly parody of a smile. Rufus’s control was not complete. The automaton was clumsy and it had lost the element of surprise. Oakheart sensed there was a chance to evade it, maybe destroy it.

A yell from behind distracted him. Oakheart rotated to see the guard, Duen, smothered by mist. “Ware, Fern. The mist is…” He saw Fern move to assist Duen as he turned his attention back to the corpse.

The knife swished close to his thigh. He winced as the blade found flesh. Oakheart darted backwards, his cut spraying blood onto the dirt. The corpse did not follow. Finally, enough distance to retrieve his own dagger from his boot. Grasping it, he circled the corpse, all the while his mind raging: How do you fight the dead? The thought that Rufus inhabited this body, that it danced to his tune, made Oakheart shiver. The binding oath must truly be broken for a travesty like this to assail him. Or Rufus was more powerful than any of them, including the most learned of the adepts, had ever estimated.

Oakheart circled. When the corpse lunged, Oakheart kicked the dagger free from its grip. Unperturbed, the corpse advanced with bare hands outstretched, fingers clawed ready to grasp him. Oakheart threw his knife and caught the body in the chest. It faltered for a heartbeat, only to step more purposefully towards him.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lillia approach. He began to think of the child she protected when he saw she held his sword. He angled towards her, hand held ready for the toss. The corpse hissed and threw itself forwards. The sword flew in the air, arcing towards him. Oakheart stepped back and reached up. In one movement, he caught the hilt, which settled like an old friend into his palm, and swung the blade, still full of momentum, to sever the head from the corpse. The head landed with a wet thunk and rolled, mouth stretched in a feral grin and the eyes smoking holes. The headless body took a few faltering steps and fell jerkily to the ground. Oakheart, filled with revulsion and what he hoped was not hate, staggered over and thrust the sword through the corpse’s back into its heart, anchoring it to the ground.

The mist dissolved with a drawn-out sibilant hiss. Rufus’s presence fled, but the sense of unease and defilement remained. The stench of the corpse mired their resting place. Oakheart pulled a kerchief from his pocket and held it to his nose. His eyes met Lillia’s. The forest maiden staggered from the stench, her hand clasped tightly over her face. He nodded his thanks to her.

Fern stepped up and kicked the corpse, spilling more gore. His face was pale. “We should bury it,” he said, his grey eyes now storm-dark. “If it will not defile the soil of Argenterra.”

Oakheart nodded, too weary to disagree and too ready to weep. “Yes, bury it. ’Tis not the farmer’s fault that his body was thus corrupted. But hurry, I do not think I can bear to remain here any longer.” Gilly cried and squirmed in Mellow’s embrace. “’Tis not good for the babe to be so exposed to Rufus’s influence.”

Mellow succeeded in soothing the child, a sight that seemed contrary to the man’s general air of anger and command. Yet, that was the way of the forest folk. Fern signalled to three guards and, after standing stunned for a few moments, they grabbed small shovels from their packs and began to dig a grave. Soon they had dug a sizeable hole. In their eagerness and relief, they worked hard. They too did not wish to linger.

The corpse fascinated Oakheart. He backed away, his heart still beating wildly with the realisation of how close the encounter had been. The next time he might not be so fortunate. He shared a look with Lillia and nodded to Mellow. His heart was heavy as he walked away to distance himself from the stench, from the memory of that unnatural thing.

Lillia found somewhere to sit and began to suckle the babe with Mellow standing over her, eyes alert to any threat. Sunlight bathed them clean and pure, transforming the clearing, making it superficially look like Argenterra again. As he watched, Oakheart could see normalcy returning. The men joked. Duen, the guard that had nearly been smothered by the mist, looked pale but there was a smile there. Oakheart sighed. He wondered if it was resilience in the face of adversity or just blindness to the situation. It seemed so strange to experience what they had and then to move on with things as if it had never happened.

Leaning on a rock, he bound his leg wound and watched the burial proceedings only to turn his mind again to what he feared most. That the time of prophecy was at hand and if that were so, worse was yet to come—Vorn’s dark vision and a future so desolate that he could not bear to dwell upon it.

Chapter Two

The Bitter Keep

As they rounded a curve in the road, past a long stretch of woods, Oakheart caught sight of Valley Keep’s white spires, the tips burnished red by the setting sun. His heart lifted; soon the child would be safe and his promise would be fulfilled.

Although tired, when the rest of the party saw the pristine valley and its keep, they put on a final burst of speed, hoping to reach its confines before night fell. The pall of fear that had hung over them since Rufus’s assault sloughed off as the wind caressed their cloaks and the walls of the valley rose up to embrace them.

Passing through the small town that served the keep, Oakheart saw the pinched and frightened faces of the inhabitants peering out at them from half-shuttered windows and closing doors. None raised a hand in greeting or would meet his eye.

Where were the laughing children waving and calling out their greetings? It was not yet full night but even the young ones were hidden away as if frightened of the shadowed spaces between the buildings. Surely Rufus’s influence had not spread this far and so quickly. Shaking his head, he cast away that thought. Perhaps it was his own morose thinking that led him down that train of thought.

When they entered the bailey none of the usual ostlers and stable hands came to assist them with the horses and unloading. That dark nervous feeling that had begun in the village crept up anew. When Willow did not emerge to greet them, nor Dellbright, he clenched his reins.

Fear, that unseen predator, made his heart skip a beat. His sense of unease was overwhelming. Never had he thought he would hesitate to enter Valley Keep. He signalled to some of the men to dismount and take their horses. All remained quiet. Perhaps there was some other reason for this lack of reception. A feast? Sickness?

Oakheart eased his clenched jaw and surveyed the bailey as he dismounted. Fern threw him a concerned look as he jumped down and headed to the stables. Fern paused. With his back to Oakheart, he shrugged and then tied his reins to a pole while giving orders for his second to see to the horses and men. Fern then came to stand beside Oakheart, his hand on the pommel of his axe. “I will wait with you,” he said with a nod and a look that brooked no argument.

Lillia’s worried glance darted from shadowed corner to shadowed corner as Mellow helped her and the babe dismount. Oakheart could say nothing to ease their concern as he took Gilly into his arms. He dared not voice his troubled thoughts. The babe smiled at him, the smattering of ginger curls now long and framing his face. Oakheart smiled back and smoothed the hair from the babe’s little white brow. The bonny child cheered him. Gilly laughed and reached his little hands up to Oakheart. The tang of soap teased his nostrils as he held the freshly bathed child, in contrast with his own sweat and dirt gained from weeks in the saddle. Oakheart thought he would never be able to scrape his chin clean of the beard again. He was becoming rather accustomed to it.

With a grin, he anticipated the joy the return of this child would bring to his parents and indeed the whole of the valley. Still no one had come to offer greetings so he nodded to the others to follow him and headed for the door.

There was no one in the vestibule. On entering the great hall, Oakheart’s step faltered. The corners of the once bright room were unlit, leaving a dull gloom to linger over its fine walls and floor. Shafts of late evening light entered from one unshuttered window, revealing air thick with dust motes. He stepped further in and all about was evidence of leftover meals and smears of dirt. As the light faded, the gloom grew.

The stale smell was an insult to his senses and the hallowed memory of this place. The whole building felt subdued, quivering in revulsion at its own defilement. Anger began to burn in his blood but then his eyes widened when they fell upon Dellbright sitting in a raised chair. His cousin was changed, his posture sagging and desolate. Willow, hollow-eyed, stood next to him, mouth fixed in a stern line, with his white robes now stained with grey smears. Oakheart inhaled the air filled with tension and fear.

Oakheart instinctively relied on his ambassador skills and experience. He hid his disquiet behind a neutral facial expression and filled his voice with charm.

“Dellbright, I bring you greetings,” Oakheart said to his cousin, keeping his gaze riveted. Young Gilly had dropped off to sleep peacefully cradled against Oakheart’s chest, a smile on his chubby face. The thought of what the child was returning to squeezed the blood from Oakheart’s veins. This was not the moment of joy he had thought it was going to be.

Dellbright raised dull, brown eyes, no hint of welcome in them. “Have you brought my son?” Dellbright said, his voice barely above a whisper. Dark smudges smeared the skin under his eyes and dulled cheeks. Then his eyes widened when they landed upon his son in Oakheart’s arms. “Gilly!” Dellbright was thinner, face haggard, with blotchy skin around his neck, but that was nothing to the sneering expression on his face.

Oakheart held the child closer to his chest. “Yes, he is well. But what of you and your people?” Oakheart looked around, seeing no one else in the room. “Please tell me, cousin, what ails you? What has happened here? Where is Princess Aria?”

“Give him to me,” Dellbright demanded, rising out of his seat, his shrill voice echoing and amplifying in the hall. Balanced on the arm of his chair, he wavered. Willow dropped back, almost cringing from his master. Dellbright did not take a step towards him, which Oakheart thought was even stranger. Why would he not race over to embrace the child? Why was Willow so afraid? Where was the joy, the welcome? What had happened here?

This scene was more unnerving and strange than encountering an animated corpse wielding a knife.

Oakheart’s sense of disquiet grew as he drew himself to his full height and placed his feet slightly apart. Fern stiffened too, taking his cue from Oakheart. “I made a vow to place him in the hands of his mother. Is Aria not here to take him from me?”

Dellbright’s expression soured and grew wary. Resentment seemed to make his sneer worse, curling his lips evilly. His eyes darted left and right until after a heartbeat he nodded to Willow, who then scurried out. “A vow, you say?”

The dark eyes of the prince were once again on Oakheart and the child he carried. Dellbright’s expression lightened when he lifted a thoughtful eyebrow, a hint of a smile on his lips, but then it vanished. Cunning was not something Oakheart had associated with his cousin until that moment. “Do you speak of a vow to that ungrateful wretch, Sophy, or to her friend, Aria?”

Oakheart frowned. Something pulsed within Dellbright and it was not something light. He shared a sideways look with Fern. Already his offsider was assessing the situation, discreetly sending his men to surreptitiously secure the hall. “Aria did request a vow from Sophy and Sophy in turn requested one from me. She sacrificed her freedom, risked her life, to win the child back from Rufus’s hand. Even now her life hangs in the balance.”

Dellbright sat back and rested on the edge of his seat, eyebrow raised condescendingly. “Oh? Not dead then, as she should be for all she has wrought?”

Dellbright’s callous manner made Oakheart flinch. “Do not speak of Sophy in that way. She has brought no ill on you and yours.” His neck muscles tightened as he bit down on the words he wanted to say. After all that Sophy had done, to be slighted in such as way wounded him deeply.

“No ill?” Dellbright lifted his face and yowled to the ceiling, like some beast badly wounded in a hunt. Oakheart tensed and Lillia flinched while Mellow brooded, brows lowering over his dark eyes. Fern’s mouth was a straight line as he watched as the prince lurched out of his seat, with fists clenched and his eyes flashing. “My mother is dead.” He forced the words out through clenched teeth. “Her blood seeps into the very fabric of this keep and you say Sophy has brought no ill?”

Oakheart projected an air of calm, even though his cousin’s behaviour and words provoked him. “Aye, I do say it. She is my oathbound wife. Best you keep your poisoned words to yourself. Sophy had no part in what happened here, although I am heart sore to hear of your sorrow.”

Dellbright straightened and his gaze ranged over Fern, Lillia and the rest of the gathered men to once again centre on Oakheart. “Do you tell me that you wed her without my permission?”

“I do. We were to seek your permission ’ere we formalised our vows, but our mission to rescue your son took priority.” Oakheart kept his gaze on Dellbright, trying to assess what had befallen him. Surely grief alone could not account for this change in his cousin. Could Rufus reach this far into the heart of pure men?

“Do you tell me that that evil dame is to be the next high queen? That she has married you, the high prince? What a cunning wench she is.”

Oakheart’s jaw clenched. “Sophy does not know what the oathbonding entails. Aria thought it best to keep the knowledge of my lineage from her.”

Dellbright’s mirthless laugh echoed around the hall. “It cannot be so,” Dellbright said at last, though he looked near hysterical “Someone has told her. She has ensnared you and will be the end of us all. Worry not, for I would strangle the life out of her before that comes into play.”

“I believe she was still ignorant of it. Nevertheless—”

Princess Aria came bursting through the double doors. Straightaway he saw something was not right with her also, although she was not laced through with inner rot, as her husband appeared to be. She was thin, her clothes hung off her body and her flesh was flaccid. Her eyes were sunken with hurt and sadness.

“Princess?” He began to walk towards her when her eyes alighted on the child in his arms.

“Gilly!” She rushed forwards. The tremulous smile overshadowed the evidence of hurt in her face. Tears fell down her cheeks as she touched the baby’s face, his hair.

Oakheart eased the sleeping child into his mother’s arms and rested his hand on the child’s head. The pressure of his oath eased as it was fulfilled. Now I am free. ’Tis done.

Aria’s tear-laden eyes stared up at him. “Oh, thank you, Oakheart. Good friend.” She wept as she held the child, tears dropping on her son’s cheek. Gilly stirred, wriggling free of his blanket.

Aria appeared to be soothed by holding her child, easing the tension lines around her mouth. Her breathing calmed, and she looked around the room taking in the travel-stained array of people in the hall. Her brows furrowed. “Where’s Sophy?”

Before he could answer, Dellbright bellowed, “Give the child to me.” Dellbright’s look was thunderous as he swooped on her.

Aria flinched, instinctively hugging the child closer, and stepped back. “No, please. Let me hold him.”

Her husband continued to stalk her. “You will not taint it with your weakness,” Dellbright sneered at his wife. “Give him to me.”

Oakheart was hard-pressed to believe his own ears and eyes. What had happened to his once besotted cousin? Incredulous, he watched as a change came over Aria. Instead of rebuking her husband for such an unwarranted comment, she seemed to freeze as if he had struck her. Aria, eyes downcast, stepped closer to Dellbright and handed over Gilly. The look of pain on her face gripped Oakheart’s stomach.

With his lips twisted in spite, Dellbright took the child from her and without a backward glance marched back over to his dais and seated himself.

Oakheart heard Aria’s sharp intake of breath. He turned to see sadness etched into her beautiful face as her green eyes, red-rimmed from weeping, tracked her husband while he walked away from her. Hesitantly, Aria’s glance passed over Oakheart’s and what he saw in that look froze his innards.

Dellbright stared at Gilly in rapture and then his face twisted in pain as a sob escaped him. Clutching the child close he wept the words, “My son. I never thought to see you again.”

Oakheart narrowed his eyes. Everyone else was quiet. Oakheart could see Aria shake with repressed sobs. A certain light in her eyes while she watched Dellbright gave Oakheart pause. Was it hope or hate that tainted her gaze?

Dellbright shook once and regained his composure. The dark eyes he anchored on Oakheart were part misery and part something else. It was like a hollow opening where no light escaped. “I thank you, cousin. What can I do to repay you?”

Oakheart stepped forwards, sensing some normalcy in Dellbright’s thanks. “I seek your aid, even though I see that all is not well in the valley. Though I have brought back your son, a high price was paid. I seek your aid to return to the Lower Warrens to rescue Sophy from Rufus.”

Aria came to stand beside Oakheart, adding her support. “Yes…please help her.”

Dellbright did not acknowledge his wife. Cheeks crimson, he said, “You dare ask me aid to free her when all she has done is create havoc? She is the Ancient Evil incarnate. Can you not see it?”

“No!” Aria shouted. “She is not. Your grief distorts your thinking. You said if she rescued your son, you would forgive her anything. Where is that forgiveness now? She gave herself to free him. We must aid her in turn.”

“Shut your mouth, Aria. Dare you speak to me? You, who were in league with her to bring about this happening. You brought that thing, that ungiven female, into our midst and nothing but treachery and death walk in her wake. I see how you work. You sent Rae off to the Puri and now they attack us. This time with a vengeance do they visit us. Your friend, your creature has even beguiled my cousin and set herself up to rule by his side. As high queen she will heap evil on us all. There is no end to the ways in which she can subvert the land.

“I would stand by and watch Sophy carved open and bled dry, like she did to my mother. Nay, I would order it done. Better still, I would do it myself and watch the life drain from her eyes.” Dellbright turned to glare at Oakheart with an expression as near to loathing that he had ever seen on anyone.

Chilled, Oakheart squeezed his fist. Dellbright was not himself. To speak such about Sophy was absurd. It was not possible that Dellbright could do this thing, let alone utter the words.

“Dellbright?”

Dellbright’s dark eyes glittered as they settled on him. “Cousin, you have sworn your oath mistakenly, as I have. You will see in time what misery she will bring you. I can spare you nothing—all I have I need to defend Valley Keep and my people. Already we are less than we once were.”

Oakheart nodded, realising that it was futile at this time to ask for anything. With a swallow, he held back the dismay in his chest. He must tread carefully. “My heart is saddened by your words, but more so by what I see in your heart. You speak truth when you say that you are less than you were. It breaks my heart to witness what I have seen this day. How can I aid you?”

Dellbright paled, the anger appearing to bleed away with Oakheart’s words. Perhaps his cousin was at once himself again, but that thought was quickly dismissed. Anger blazed out of Dellbright’s eyes, his mouth becoming a grim line as he clutched the babe to him. Gilly cried a protest but Dellbright was deaf to it.

“Bring back my mother…undo the deeds that have been done. Send these so-called Gifts of the Crystal Tree Woods back to whence they came.” He headed for the door, stopping to spit on Aria. The princess casually stepped back, escaping the globule. Dellbright stopped and regarded Oakheart. “Only then will I be happy.”

Willow slunk after Dellbright, head down. His cousin spoke before he left without looking at them. “Willow, see to their needs and fetch me a wet nurse for the child.” Dellbright left the hall, the door shutting quickly behind him. Gilly wailed as he was taken away.

Silence fell as the last of Dellbright’s words died and the sounds of Gilly’s distress could no longer be heard. For the first time in his life, Oakheart had no words to counter what had just been said.

Aria rushed to the door to follow Gilly but met doors shut tight. Dellbright must have ordered the guards to hold them closed. She hung her head, shoulders hunched with weeping, and leant her head against the carved wood. “Gilly,” she moaned. “My Gilly!”

***

Dellbright held the child to his breast, not able to articulate what he felt. He had expected never to see the child again. It went against everything, all the possibilities that had churned through his mind since the day the babe had been taken. He knew then that Sophy had been the cause of it all. Even before that fateful night, he had known it through the months of Aria’s pregnancy, how she always came between him and his wife. Even when absent she had a hold on Aria. Despite his efforts to separate them, Aria kept defying him. Now rage seized him. Sophy had managed to bed Oakheart. Impossible. Such a bonding could not be allowed—he would find a way to end it. The binding oath was already broken so what was one more death? It would do no more damage. Sophy would die at his hand. He pictured his hands around her neck, squeezing, squeezing until her face was purple and her eyes bulged, and then he would drop her lifeless to the ground and laugh. Yes, he would laugh.

In the months during Aria’s pregnancy, Aurore had tried to soothe him, but he had paid her no mind. What did she know of friendship? She had no friends. Her life was an empty shell, with nothing but him to fill the dark, empty spaces of her life. It was her fault his father had left them. Stale, frigid woman she was, never letting his father near her. He may have been young, but even then he knew his father’s sadness, the empty bed he slept in. If Aurore had been more of a woman, she would not have let Mara, that whore, steal Daken away from the valley, away from him.

Dellbright hated the very thought of his father. That man had left him. Left him! How could a father do such a thing to a deserving child? Now that Aurore was dead, Gillcress was his only kin. Aria, the betraying wife, was his possession. Did not that voice in the dark tell him so? Yes, he remembered rightly. Aria was to be punished for her crimes. She was unworthy as a wife ― weak, manipulative and evil. It was she who had allowed his son to be taken. The voice told him of the faked nightmares and of how they had worked together, she and Sophy, to break the binding oath, right here in the keep. Those outlanders schemed of the deepest and bitterest betrayal.

At first, it had not occurred to him until he had gone to that room where Aurore was killed. Kneeling in the blood stains, he had sensed something. While he wept that voice came and insinuated itself into his heart and mind, twisting the threads of suspicion, ripening them with the fruit of anger.

Right now, Dellbright hated everything and everyone. He revelled in that feeling, soared with it. Gillcress cried out and squirmed in his grip. “Except you, my son. I could never hate you.”

Aria needed to suffer. Only then would he be happy again. Laughter and joy would fill him up. He had never thought Oakheart would betray him and speak so disrespectfully. Well, he could do without Silverdale too. He could do without Oakheart in his life. They had not come to his aid when the Puri raided his lands. He was better off without them. Much better. Condescending they always were.

Noise at the door made him swing around. Willow entered with a young woman. A wet nurse, he supposed, from the fullness of her breasts. He watched as Gillcress was fed, bathed and changed. The child did not need Aria. He fed hungrily from the wet nurse’s breasts, caring not who was at the other end of them.

Watching over the child in its crib, Dellbright waited until he slept, then stroked the fine head of red curls. His lips twisted. The hair was like hers, not his. The child was cursed with outlander blood. His breathing quickened and he stepped back from the child. Would her blood overshadow his? Would his son become a weapon to destroy them all?

Panic flamed across his senses. His thoughts scurried. Was it right to love the child, one so tainted with bad blood? Then the thought came to him that the hair would darken with age and as the child grew he would become more like him, more like the Prince of Valley Keep. Then he sighed as his fear seeped deeper inside of him.

Chapter Three

The Heart of the Matter

Oakheart ached to go to Aria as she stood there with her forehead resting on the door that had been shut with such finality. Willow returned through the door to the kitchens, snaring his attention.

Willow did not bother to bow as was his usual custom. “I am afraid that I can only offer you accommodation in the barracks. The rooms above stairs are not in use since…” he grimaced, “the unfortunate event.”

“Very well,” Oakheart said. “Fern, see to it. I wish to have a private moment with the princess.”

Fern nodded, but his eyes lingered on Aria’s face. The man’s expression of bewildered admiration worried him, but he could not entertain any further complications at this moment.

“Come, show us the way,” Fern said and gestured for Willow to precede him. Aria stepped back. Fern bowed elegantly to her and then stood behind the chamberlain. Willow called out a command and the doors opened, and closed swiftly once he passed through with Fern close behind.

Again Aria tried to leave the room but the doors were shut against her. She stood there staring at them.

“My lady?” Oakheart called to her softly. He thought at first she had not heard him because she did not respond. After a few more moments, she pushed away from the doors.

The sound of approaching footsteps prevented her speaking. Dela, Willow’s wife, entered from the kitchen, accompanied by a maid, who brought food and laid it on the tables. It was wine, bread and cheese, nothing hot to fill and warm their stomachs; a lean and miserable welcome. The urge to weep too came upon Oakheart when he thought of what he had witnessed this day.

Lillia, ramrod straight, stayed by his side. Mellow lingered behind them like a dark shadow. With a distracted wipe of her face with a hand, Aria turned and walked towards the table. “Come and eat something,” Aria said, leading them to sit. Somehow, even with all that she had obviously suffered, she had the poise to act with care.

“Princess…” Oakheart began.

Her sad, red-rimmed eyes met his and lowered. “Best you not call me by that title. Dellbright has taken it from me.” Her face, though pale, held strength. Her lips trembled.

Lillia reached out and held Aria’s hand, stroking it soothingly. Aria smiled wanly and squeezed the forest maiden’s hand in return. “Please sit. It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing. More than I expected he would allow.”

Oakheart placed his hand on her shoulder. “He cannot take away your grace. You were meant to be a princess from the day you were born.” His fingers brushed against her tear-stained cheek.

Aria lifted her hand to pat his and sighed. “You were always a good friend to me, Oakheart. But what happened to Sophy? How do you plan to get her back?”

Oakheart let out a pent-up breath. He could hardly look at her. He had failed both of them, but then again it was Sophy’s oath to Aria that was responsible for their predicament. “Even if I travelled to the Lower Warrens, I could not help her. I do not know how to free her from Rufus’s snare. I must seek help from the adepts for she is transformed.”

Aria’s eyes widened and she sat down heavily and wrung her hands.

“Transformed? Into what?” She did not look him in the eye, but instead focussed on her hands, clenching and unclenching.

Oakheart sat next to her. “’Tis hard to believe or explain. When we reached Rufus’s abode, she bargained for the child and bound me with oaths beforehand to prevent me from aiding her. Somehow she was changed into a gem, as large as she was, but cut and faceted. The crystal pulses dark blue with her life force. It all happened so quickly…”

“Are you sure?” Aria asked, as she poured him some wine. “How do you know she’s alive?”

“I feel our oathbond. I sense that she is alive.”

Aria turned to him and put her trembling hands over his. “Oh thank god for that. There’s more, tell me.” Now her bright green eyes didn’t leave his face. He knew in his heart that she understood his feelings for her friend.

“Well…either she is the jewel or she is trapped within, frozen but alive. How to free her is the problem. It is beyond my knowledge and I feel so helpless...”

Aria sucked in a breath and her eyes never left his face. Oakheart made a shape of a circle with his hands. “Rufus had constructed a ring of gold for her to enter into…like this, and when she did she was enclosed by blue flame and when it dissipated a crystal was in her place.”

Aria covered her face with her hands. “Oh god, no.” She rocked back and forth. When Oakheart patted her head, she looked up. ‘”Are you absolutely sure she is not dead?” Aria’s voice was hoarse.

Oakheart clasped her hand and squeezed. “Yes. She lives. For now.”

“Truly?” Her face held some disbelief, then for the first time he saw a ghost of a smile around her lips. “How did you accomplish an oathbond with Sophy? I thought…”

He shrugged and shared a look with Lillia. “’Tis a long story. But she is my oathbound wife and…”

Aria’s face became horror stricken. “And Dellbright will never permit it. He has come to hate her, and me, too. What is to be done?”

Oakheart thought she was near to hysteria. He patted her back, soothed her with sure, firm strokes, and she calmed. “He has refused his consent, made threats on Sophy’s life. He is not himself. Dellbright’s words and actions mean we no longer need formal permission from him. Instead, I will petition the high king. Fear not, for all will be well.”

“But Sophy…She’s so independent…I…” Her brows furrowed. “Did you tell her about being the high king’s heir?”

Oakheart shrugged, not quite able to explain his heart or his motives easily. “No. I believe she still does not know. Lillia has not told her. But that is beside the point.” He let out a sigh. “It was expedient to bind her to me. I would not shame her and our relationship had progressed beyond friendship.” His face heated and he drew a stray hair away from his eyes. “This may sound coarse but bedding her was the only way to have peace between us. And I must admit that to keep her safe, keeping her close to me was the only way.”

“Aye to that,” Lillia added, joining them at the table, spearing some cheese with her dagger. “Their feuding drove us all mad. He loves her though he admits it not. It is all oaths to him, so Sophy told me. For him to trick her as he did it must be from the heart.”

“You tricked her?” Aria said, a flush stealing up her neck. Then she looked at him, narrowing her eyelids. “Oakheart?”

He lowered his gaze, unable to hide his shame. “Lillia, you put a different slant on happenings than I would, though in essence you are right. Sophy always fascinated me from the first, but I was not free to…ah well.” Oakheart drew in a breath. “As heir I have duties and as a prince I must make alliances. Veld is stubborn and holds onto old grievances. I could not convince him to make a politically astute alliance, bound with a marriage to Hanal’s sister.”

Lillia frowned. “Then you would have married Lyant?”

Oakheart gritted his teeth and then nodded. “If Veld would have permitted it. But he would not. For that I was sent away when first you arrived in Silverdale. In order to avoid bringing attention to Sophy, you were also ignored until Hanal had departed. Forgive my father, Lillia. He meant no disrespect to you or the queen.”

Aria’s face was furrowed. “But if you couldn’t marry this Lyant, how could you bind Sophy to you without his consent?”

Lillia’s blue eyes flashed with sudden insight. “Veld consented, did he not?”

Oakheart shrugged. “In essence, yes. Veld saw advantages to the match as Sophy was one of the Gifts of Crystal Tree Woods. I was undecided, confused. At the Lake of Reflections, I saw Sophy, the real Sophy that only that lake can reveal. I realised many things but sifting through those realisations took time…and Sophy was difficult.

“You see, I was hidden from Sophy’s eyes also. At the Lake of Reflections she saw my true face. It scared her, I believe. It brought home to her all the enchantments and danger that had surrounded her since her arrival. It was hard to believe that I, too, was hidden from her eyes. Then I began to think about why. Why could Sophy not see me as I am, as others see me?”

“Why was that, do you think?” Aria asked.

“By disguising us from each other, we did not fall for one another as perhaps we might have done at the first…”

Lillia leant forwards. “If Sophy and you had not been enchanted you would have. I am sure of it.” She shrugged. “Who knows what would have happened had you been united from the start?”

“Yes,” Oakheart agreed. “I realised I was meant for her, from the very beginning—as much as I dislike so-called fate or destiny, I knew then that Rufus had tried to keep us apart. It was part of his plan, part of what the Ancient Evil designed for Argenterra. Now we see the outcome. Sophy in that crystal form is draining the given from the land, weakening it, weakening us.”

Aria nodded. “He has caused us all great harm.”

He squeezed her hand gently, and she continued. “It has a certain kind of logic, but I can’t understand how Sophy would marry anyone.” Aria held Lillia’s and Oakheart’s gaze in turn. “The Sophy I knew would not trust marriage. Her mother left her for a lover. Abandoned her. Before that, Sophy had seen how destructive a marriage can get when her father and mother were together. It affected her deeply.”

Oakheart lowered his head, unable to meet her eye. “Sophy did not understand the import of the vow when she gave it. She did soon after…she says that she loves me, so perhaps that exonerates me a little. Yet it shames me that I did not tell her…”

“About being Veld’s son and heir?” Aria asked.

“Yes, I let her believe I was only his ambassador.”

“She has no idea that she will be the high queen when you inherit the throne? How she will hate the thought of it.” Aria covered her mouth and then after a few calming breaths dropped her hands to her lap. “Well, I’m sure she won’t mind…much,” Aria said doubtfully, though her expression appeared preoccupied. “Was she happy to be wed to you, Oakheart? I mean really…”

“Aye, she was,” Lillia answered. “She loves him. Many times she did show it through the risk of her life. It is no fault of hers that she is cursed.”

“Cursed? She isn’t cursed. She’s just different.” Aria glowered at the forest maiden and stood up from the table. “How I hate it when people say that. Sophy is...interesting…and loyal…”

Lillia sat back. “But she was cursed. First with her looks, the accidents and then the loss of her child.”

Aria paled. “Sophy was pregnant?” Her hand pressed to her abdomen, perhaps in sympathy.

Oakheart lowered his head. Lillia spoke when he did not respond. “Aye, that she was, but it was a strange business. It was like a hand took that child from her.”

A tear trickled down Aria’s cheek. “Poor Sophy.”

There was a pause and Oakheart took the moment to change the subject. “Aria, what has happened here? The keep feels strange as if the pulse of life is…” Oakheart struggled for the word, “out of tune with the surroundings. And Dellbright has changed so much. There is more to this situation than has been told so far.”

Haunted emerald eyes stared directly at him. Fear and hurt lurked in their depths. “If you have finished eating I will show you, Oakheart. For only then will you see…”