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"I'm off to bed." Bela gave her mama, an attractive woman who was almost as tall as she, a kiss on the cheek.
Bela's progress was stalled by a warm hand on her arm. She did not pull away, but stopped to look directly at her mother. "You look beautiful in a dress," Gayene said, "with your hair down and your face clean." Her eyes flitted briefly but with evident displeasure to the sword Bela carried. "You should pretend to be a lady more often."
Then they both smiled. Differences aside, there was an abundance of love in the Haythorne family.
When Bela heard the approaching riders, who moved at a much slower pace than she had, she said a quick good night to her mother and hurried toward home. She did not look back. She would not give Tearlach Merin the pleasure. Oh, she felt like such a girl, with her heart pounding and her hands trembling, all on account of a man. The crystal grip of her sword vibrated, and she held on tight. "No need to worry about him, Kitty," Bela said softly. "He won't be here long."
Did Kitty vibrate because she wanted to take Merin's head? Did she long for battle in this time of peace?
The Turi village was laid out like a wheel, with the town square at the center, essential businesses around that square, and houses extending from that center like the spokes of a wheel. Beyond the houses were farms, small and large, and a couple of ranches. Even farther to the west ran the River Hysey, and to the east lay the gem-filled mountains where so many of the Turi males worked, where some even chose to live.
The Haythorne house was one of the finest in town, which was natural since Valeron Haythorne was chieftain. Still, the building, which was made of wood and stone, was simple. The long, single story house was clean, large, well built, and plain. There were st.u.r.dy furnis.h.i.+ngs and a few adornments, but for the most part it was a functional home. The Turis were not a frivolous people.
Bela's room was located at the rear of a short hallway. As the only daughter she had always had the luxury of her own bedchamber. Her father was Turi chieftain, and that meant she was all but a princess. Still, she did not fill her room with fripperies. There was no lace, no frills. The only concession to her femininity was a wooden rack built onto the wall where she stored her small selection of jewelry and headbands. Though she would not admit it aloud for fear of sounding frivolous, she liked the sparkle of the gems found in the mountains nearby, she liked the glitter of gold and the sheen of silver.
Bela placed Kitty upon another rack, one which had been built just for that purpose. Like the few feminine adornments Bela possessed, Kitty sparkled. The special crystal from the mountains nearby was alive in a way that was difficult to explain.
Sometimes Kitty spoke to her. Not in a voice that could be heard with the ears, but with a whisper in the soul. For weeks on end Kitty would be silent, and then she would begin to speak again, spreading wonder into Bela's life. Bela reached out and touched her fingertips to the crystal grip. Even though Kitty's existence had been known of for less than three years, she was already legend among the Turis. Every warrior wanted her, and some wondered aloud why Bela Haythorne, a mere woman, possessed such a gift. Many thought that her father had allowed her to keep it, a special gift for a spoiled daughter. What they didn't know, what very few understood, was that Bela had not chosen Kitty.
Kitty, a sword which was as alive as any person Bela knew, had chosen her. The village seer, a grumpy old man named Rafal Fiers, said that one day Kitty would choose another. But not today.
Bela heard the front door open and close several times. She heard raised voices that held a tenor of excitement. Kitty's grip shone bright, as if she were excited, too. Could a sword feel exhilaration? Could it crave and want and feel? Kitty could, Bela knew it.
Her bedchamber door opened swiftly, without the courtesy of a knock.
"The main room," her mother said briskly. "Hurry."
Bela left Kitty upon her rack and followed her mother from the chamber. She should've expected what she found in the main room of her family home, but she had not. The sight took her breath away.
General Merin, better lit here than he had been when she'd seen him on the road, was on his knees, head down, hands tied behind his back. She could not see his face for the fall of dark curls which were surely the envy of many a vain woman. Tyman stood behind the general, the tip of his sword at Merin's neck.
"Stop!" Bela cried.
Her brother lifted his head but not his sword. "We know what he did to you, Bela. He was foolish enough to come back here, and he will pay the price. As soon as he delivers his message to Papa, the general is going to die."
Merin tried to lift his head, but Tyman forced it back down with a tap of his blade.
"You don't understand," Bela began. There went her heart again, pounding too hard and too fast. Why was she alarmed? Maybe it would be best if Merin was dead. Hadn't she just threatened to take his head herself?
But not like this, and not for something that wasn't his fault.
"I do not need to understand!" Clyn bellowed. "He took a husband's rights, and then he rode away and did not look back."
"It was my fault," Bela said, the words hurting a little. She hated to admit that anything was her fault. "I insisted. .."
"You were seventeen!" Tyman shouted. "He was a grown man who should've known better."
Even from this distance, Bela heard Kitty's urgent whisper as clearly as if the words were being shouted. Tell all.
Bela took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Her mother tried to calm her boys. They would not kill Merin right away, not until her father arrived and the message which had brought him here was delivered. There had to be another way. How could she tell her family what had really happened that night? It was mortifying.
"Fine," Bela snapped. "Since it appears that you must know, I drugged the general until he was nonsensical, told him I was twenty years of age and a widow looking for physical comfort, and then I took off all my clothes and his and . . ."
"You didn't," Clyn said in a low voice which was much more frightening than his roar.
"I did," Bela said, lifting her chin in defiance.
"She did," Merin echoed.
"Why?" her mother wailed. "Belavalari, how incredibly imprudent!"
Bela sighed. Tyman still hadn't moved his sword into a less threatening position. "I couldn't do anything!" she said with evident annoyance. "Papa and you two said I was a maid who could not put myself in danger, that I could not fight or ride or wear the trousers you outgrew." She rolled her eyes. "You all wanted me to become something I was not, to wear dresses and be coy with suitable boys who might become husbands. I lied to General Merin so he would take my bothersome virginity and I would no longer be a maid."
"That is nonsense," Tyman said. His sword s.h.i.+fted slightly to the side.
Bela looked her brother in the eye. "Is it? I don't think it's nonsense at all. In fact, I believe my plan worked quite well. Merin left, so I was not saddled with a man I did not want, and once you knew what had happened, you two felt so guilty for not protecting me more diligently that you allowed me to do whatever I wanted. By the time your guilt faded, it was too late to turn back." Her trick had been childish, she could see that now, but it had worked.
Tyman's expression hardened. "You do share some blame, in that case, but the fact is, the general took your virginity and did not marry you. For that alone he deserves to die."
Bela pursed her lips. She had hoped it would not come to this, but she couldn't let them kill Merin under false pretenses. If anyone killed him, it would be her. "That's not entirely true."
"You said he took a husband's rights!"
Bela shuddered. That was a memory she could not forget no matter how she tried. "He did. He also married me, before the act was done, if you must know all the details."
Tyman's sword dropped away, and Merin lifted his head and looked at her. On his knees, bound, angrier than she had ever seen any man. He was still pretty, far prettier than her, but in this light she could see the years that had pa.s.sed written on his face. A crease here, a toughness there.
"I did not marry you," he said tightly.
Idiot man. Such lies would lead to his death, if he were not careful.
Bela remembered that night much too clearly, and there was no denying it now. "According to Turi custom, we are very much married, General." It was the perfect marriage, in her mind, even though she had managed to keep her wedded state a secret until now. Merin was an absent spouse and she had her freedom. If her parents ever insisted that she needed to marry, if they ever tired of waiting for her to choose a mate and tried to force one upon her, she could inform them that she already had a husband. The marriage could be undone if there were no children, but not without both husband and wife present and partic.i.p.ating in a ceremony not quite as simple as the marriage.
Her plan had been perfect. Until now.
There was stunned silence in the room, and her mother had gone so pale Bela was afraid the older woman might faint. Bela looked down at Merin, who seemed more angry than afraid. His eyes were so dark they looked more black than brown, so deep they seemed to be a bottomless pool of vitriol. She stared into them for a long moment before saying, "Welcome home, husband."
Berkley Sensation t.i.tles by Linda Winstead Jones.
THE SUN WITCH.
THE MOON WITCH.
THE STAR WITCH.
PRINCE OF MAGIC.
PRINCE OF FIRE.
PRINCE OF SWORDS.