From one of the original masters of romance, New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Bertrice Small invites you back to the magical, sensual world of Hetar.
The time of peace is over. After the murder of her husband, Larahalf faerie, half humanmust leave the home she has made in the Outlands and follow the destiny that has long called her. Using her brilliant sword and even sharper mind, Lara must journey toward the coast, seeking alliances to protect the future of her land. But when treachery binds her once more in chains, the green-eyed beauty is taken far beyond the world she knows. Only there will she discover that destiny has a mind of its ownand that true passion knows no boundaries.
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A man had run from the hall crying the terrible news. Lara walked on. The children! She had to get to her children. Dillon, at four, was old enough to know what had happened to his father. The Fiacre would keep his memories of his sire alive. But her year-old daughter, Anoush, would not even remember Vartan. What in the name of the Celestial Actuary had possessed Adon to commit this terrible act? She struggled to remember everything that had happened just a short while ago.
Liam, Vartan's cousin and best friend, ran up to her. "What has happened?" he asked her, his gaze going to Andraste's bloody blade.
"Adon killed Vartan," Lara managed to answer him. "He walked up to him, smiling, his wretched wife at his side. And then without warning or provocation he plunged a dagger into Vartan's heart. I suspect the tip was poisoned, for Vartan died instantly. When Adon declared himself Lord of the Fiacre, I slew them both where they stood. I must get to the children, Liam! Dillon must not learn of his father's murder from anyone but me. And youyou must now take the lordship of the Fiacre."
"That is the Fiacre elders' decision," Liam answered her. His father had been given the lordship when Vartan's father had died many years back. When his father had gone to the Celestial Actuary to settle his debts the elders had offered the lordship to him, but he had refused it in favor of his cousin, Vartan. Liam had not wanted the responsibility of the clan, but he knew now there was no choice.
"You are the logical choice," Lara said, and then she hurried on. Her children would be with Liam's wife, Noss. Dillon was best friends with their son, Tearlach. Entering her friend's house she called to her. "Noss! Where are you?"
Noss, heavy with her second child, appeared. She smiled. "Have you come for Dillon? Sit with me a while, and have some frine. The boys are having such a good time." Then her eyes grew wide at the sight of Andraste. "What has happened?" She had not seen the sword bloodied since the great Winter War, when she and Lara had fought with their men to take back the lands of the Piaras and the Tormod clans that had been illegally confiscated by the Hetarians. Noss saw how pale Lara was, and she now led her to a seat.
"Adon murdered Vartan," Lara said, and then explained to Noss exactly what had happened.
Noss's hand flew to her mouth to still her cry of horror. How could this have happened? And to Lara? Lara had always been so fortunate, and so filled with magic. Murder did not happen to people like that. "You do not weep," Noss finally said.
"Ethne weeps for me," Lara said, raising the crystal up to show Noss. The crystal was dripping tears. "I have no time to weep. I had only a brief time in which to slay Adon and his foolish wife before he would have attacked me and my children. And soon I must leave the Fiacre," Lara said softly.
"It is time?" Noss whispered.
Lara nodded. "It is time. I am glad I followed my mother's advice and gave Vartan children. But now I must tell Dillon that his father is dead, and his mother is leaving. Will you and Liam raise my little ones, Noss? This new journey I am about to undertake is not yours. You have found a home, a husband and a good life among the Fiacre. This is your destiny. Mine still awaits me, though I know not what it will be."
"Of course we will take Dillon and Anoush, but do you not want Bera to have them?" Noss ventured. "She is their grandmother."
"And they must never forget that," Lara replied. "But Bera will have to take her other grandson as Elin's family is dead, and I will not have Vartan's children raised with his murderer's son. Cam may be only two and a half, but he is already a sly and spoiled little boy. Bera will have her hands full with him. Dillon caught him pinching Anoush at the Gathering last autumn. My daughter was black-and-blue all over her tiny arms from that little monster."
"Anoush was just a little baby last autumn," Noss said indignantly.
"Yes, and when Dillon saw what Cam was doing he ran to his father. But Elin would not allow Cam to be punished. She said Cam was innocent, and that it was Dillon who had hurt his sister out of jealously. That her son was just looking at the baby."
"Dillon adores Anoush, and has since her birth," Noss cried.
Lara nodded. "Yes, I know. But Cam has no one but Bera, and her heart is too good. She saw Adon as a fool, but little else. It was a mistake." She sipped at the frine in the cup Noss had given her. "Will you fetch my son now? I must tell him the news."
Noss nodded, but then she said, "The elders will choose Liam to take the lordship, won't they?"
"Yes, they will," Lara answered. "He is the right choice."
Noss sighed. "He never wanted it, you know."
"I know," Lara agreed, "but now he must accept the responsibility as his father accepted it when Vartan's father died years ago. Liam is a strong man, and his marriage to you has settled him. He is ready. And so are you, dearest Noss."
Noss arose. "I will fetch Dillon," she said, and hurried off.
Lara sat silently. Instinctively she reached for the crystal about her neck. It had been a long time since she had sought Ethne's advice. What am I to do? she asked silently. The crystal was still wet with Ethne's tears.
You know what you must do, Ethne answered her softly. You have already begun to prepare yourself, and the Fiacre, for your departure.
I could have lived the rest of my life in contentment here, Lara told her guardian crystal.
It is not your destiny. The queen told you that you would have but a few years. Five of them have now passed. You are strong. You are ready. And it is time. The flame in the crystal flickered. I have wept your tears, Lara, that you not be weakened. But you must weep for Vartan, too. He has brought out the best in your human nature, my child.
"Mama." Dillon stood by her side. He was his father's image in miniature. "Noss said you would speak with me?"
Lara felt the first tears for Vartan begin to slip down her cheeks.
"Mama! What is the matter?" the little boy asked.
And she told him as her tears poured forth, clasping him to her breasts as he grew pale with the realization of what she was saying. Her hand absently stroked the dark hair on his small head. And they wept together, mother and son.
Finally Dillon's sobs slowed, and looking into his mother's beautiful face he said, "I will kill Adon! I will avenge my father, Mama!"
"Adon is already dead, and his wicked wife as well," Lara told her son. "See!" She drew her sword forth, and showed him. "This is their blood that An-draste wears."
"What will happen now, Mama?" Dillon asked her.
"The elders will chose a new lord, Dillon, for that is our way. I believe they will choose your father's cousin, Liam," Lara told her son.
"You are going away," Dillon said quietly.
At first Lara was startled by the adult tone in her child's voice, but Dillon had been intuitive since his birth. "Yes, soon," she replied. She would not lie to him.
"This house is not fit for the Lord of the Fiacre," he remarked. "Liam and Noss must have the hall, Mama. This place will suit grandmother and me. Anoush is too small to have a voice in this decision." He sounded so like his father that Lara almost began to weep again.
"Yes, this will be a good home for your grandmother," Lara agreed. "But you and Anoush will not live with her. You will remain in the hall with Liam, Noss, and Tearlach, my son. Your cousin, Cam, has also been orphaned by this tragedy. His mother had no family left. Bera will want to raise him, but I will not have you or Anoush living in the same house as the son of Adon and Elin. You will accept Liam as your lord. He will stand in your father's stead. And Noss will care for you as I would. She owes me a great debt, though I would not remind her of it. I do not have to for she knows it in her heart. And you, my son, and your sister will treat her with the same respect that you would show me. You will honor her and you will obey her commands."
"I will, Mama, and I will see that Anoush does, too," he promised. Then the small boy in Dillon said, "You are not going right away, Mama, are you?" His anxious face looked up at her.
She smoothed his soft hair beneath her hand. "No, not right away," she promised. "Now go and find Tearlach, my son, and ask Noss to join me."
The little boy ran off to do her bidding. Lara reached for her goblet of frine, but Noss was quickly there, and stayed her hand.
"We need wine," the younger woman said, uncorking a decanter, and pouring a fresh goblet of the strong red brew. "Here, I will join you." She filled a second goblet. "Dillon seems all right."
"We cried together," Lara replied. "He knows I'm leaving."
"You told him?" Noss was surprised.
"No," Lara answered with a small smile. "He just knew. Don't discourage his instincts while he is with you, Noss. I know such things tend to unsettle your nerves, but you must let whatever powers Dillon has grow and thrive."
"I will," Noss promised nervously.
Liam entered the house, and came to join the two women. "I could not remain in the hall," he said. "Bera's keening would awaken a statue. The word is spreading. I've dispatched messengers to all the Fiacre villages. The elders will gather in three days' time to choose the new Lord of the Fiacre."
"It must be sooner," Lara said. "The clan lords will know as soon as our own people. A new head of the Outlands High Council must be chosen as well."
"I'll take the lordship of this clan, though reluctantly," Liam responded, "but I am not the man to lead the Outlands. That you cannot ask of me."
"Vartan was the one man the others trusted, and admired," Lara spoke thoughtfully. "He was strong, and he had my counsel. Roan of the Aghy is ambitious and will seek the post, but he is too hot tempered. The best man would be Rendor of the Felan. He has a cool head, and I can advise him without his wife, Rahil, becoming jealous."
"You will go to the Felan then?" Liam asked her.
"Only on my way to the Coastal Kingdom in Hetar," Lara replied. "I sense that is where I am meant to be at this time."
He nodded. Then he asked, "Did you know what would happen to Vartan?"
"No!" Lara paled, surprised and shocked by Liam's query. "Why would you ask me such a thing? I would have given my life for Vartan as he would have for me."
"Did you love him?" Liam pursued.
"I should not have given him children otherwise, Liam. Faerie women, even half-faerie women, only bear offspring for the men they love," Lara said quietly. "When the war ended my mother advised me to stop trying so hard to live up to my faerie nature, and follow my heart. She said I had time. Yes, I loved Vartan. Not as much as he loved me, I know. But I did love him."
"Forgive me, Lara," Liam said, and bowed his head in apology to her.