Lorien vows to do whatever it takes to serve Reshor and protect her pregnant sister, Andrixine, the Sword Bearer. Even if it means making a loveless political marriage. She learns that the game of politics and courtly manners is a harsher duty than swordplay and battle. Then Ambassador Lord Arand of Eretia comes to Reshor to make politically astute marriages to protect his kingdom against Sendorland. He has been ordered to win Lorien for his queen’s grandson.
Arand and Lorien discover they have much in common and their resolve to put duty ahead of their own dreams soon becomes a torment. Arand has a gift for healing and music, but has denied both for the sake of following family tradition and serving the throne as an ambassador.
When enemies inside Reshor conspire with Sendorland to steal first Lorien’s brothers and then Andrixine’s newborn sons, Lorien and Arand find themselves in the middle of danger, but exactly the right place to avert total disaster. They wonder if all their sacrifices mean anything when they are both so miserable. Doesn’t Yomnian want his servants to be happy?
“THIS IS IT,” Andrixine whispered.
“I’m scared.” Lorien tried to smile, tried to force a laugh, but the sound caught in her throat. “I wish I had taken warrior training, like you.”
“If you were a warrior, you’d be riding with me to Snowy Mount, not to Cereston to serve in the court.”
“You have a different battle to fight, Lori,” Kalsan said, riding up to join the sisters. “Yomnian gave you the gifts to be Sword’s Voice just at the time we need you most.”
They sat their horses where the Bantilli Trail met the King’s Highway. Andrixine, Kalsan, most of Jultar’s Oathbound and half the Sword Sisters from the Faxinor Chapter House would ride west, to Snowy Mount. Lorien would ride east with Brenden and Marfil as her bodyguards and Cynden, a Faxinor maidservant, to attend her.
The official story was that Andrixine was making the scholar’s retreat her winter headquarters, to patrol the mountains dividing Reshor from Sendorland. The truth: she would use the seclusion and isolation of winter in the mountains to hide her pregnancy from the world. When the news spread that the Sword Bearer was pregnant, Reshor’s enemies would rejoice and attack, and Reshor’s allies would panic. Andrixine’s family and counselors believed the timing was perfect and could only have come from Yomnian’s hand. She would give birth in the spring and be ready for duty before their enemies could muster to attack.
Lorien, the quintessential lady, with her sense for fashion and fascination with politics, would go to Cereston and distract the court and Reshor’s nobles. She wore the title of Sword’s Voice to speak with her sister’s authority and represent her before all the nobles and ambassadors in Reshor’s capital. Her task was to make sure no one would suspect Andrixine’s pregnancy until after the child was born.
The gap between Lorien and her older sister had never felt wider than it did today with a chill wind blowing across the rolling plain. The first crimson streaks of sunset painted the west with warmth and brilliant life, while rumbling, slate-colored clouds cast shadows to the east. Andrixine sat her horse easily with the wind tugging the hood of her cloak down, ruffling her shoulder-length brown hair. The silver and blue cord binding her warrior braids seemed to glow with the same light that touched the Spirit Sword when it gave her visions.
Lorien thought Andrixine looked warm and comfortable and eager to press on to face danger and duty. Muffled and nearly smothered in a long, thick traveling dress and a cloak, Lorien shivered and feared the tiniest gust would knock her off the sidesaddle. Would she be warmer if she adopted trousers and rode astride like her sister? She wished she could crop her golden curls short for easier handling. She wished she had taken up swordcraft. She wished her archery were better, so she could opt to join the Sword Sisters’ flank of archers. But she couldn’t. Her skills lay in heraldry, court language and politics, in knowing the proper form of address and curtsey for each rank, the latest dances and ballads, and in knowing how to discern truth from scandal in the gossip trickling across the country. Or so she hoped. Studying the events of their country after the fact might not be the adequate preparation everyone assured her it was.
A warbling from overhead turned into a trilling sound, and two shadows descended from the sky to land on Lorien’s shoulders. She sighed and exchanged grimaces with Andrixine—just as two more shadows landed on her sister’s shoulders. They had sat still long enough that their chaldo had decided to come down to roost.
Chaldo were messenger birds, used by King Rafnar, the Sword Sisters, and bands of Oathbound warriors for communication. The birds were a special breed, raised by holy renunciates in the Macani Range on the southwestern mountain border of Reshor. Smaller than pigeons, they had white belly feathers and gray-blue coloring on their backs. They were raptors, with claws and cruel beaks, a lilting song, three times the endurance of eagles and twice the speed of carrier pigeons. Legend said they came to Holy Nereena in a vision. Fledglings imprinted on specific people and were able to find them anywhere.
Andrixine had used chaldo all summer to communicate with her sub-commanders and with the king. In the last four weeks since learning of her pregnancy, she had trained her chaldo to bond with Lorien, so the sisters would have fast, reliable, utterly secure communication. As Sword’s Voice, Lorien needed the ability to communicate with her sister quickly, with no chance of a messenger being attacked or their messages read by unfriendly eyes or even replaced with lies.
If necessary, the chaldo would protect her. Lorien tried not to think of that eventuality. She had another day of riding to reach Cereston, and, so far, no one but the king knew she was coming. What were the chances someone would attack her on the way to Cereston? Two Oathbound warriors protected her, and she would live in the Sword Sister Chapter House in Cereston. She would be perfectly safe.
So why did she feel increasingly sick to her stomach with every hour she drew closer to the capital?
“I think this is our clue to leave,” Andrixine said. She shrugged, and the two chaldo lifted into the air with soft flutters of their wings. Lorien’s chaldo followed suit. She held out her arms and reached across the gap between their horses. “Don’t hate me, Lori,” she whispered as the sisters hugged, “but I’m glad it’s you and not me facing those fancy-dressed farmers and snake-minded poets.”
“Hate you?” Lorien sputtered, feeling better already. “If not for you, I’d never see the coast, much less be invited to the palace. Unless I married someone’s heir-son and had to be presented in court.”
“Think about breaking hearts and dazzling those idiots who don’t know which end of a sword to use,” Kalsan offered. “We’re depending on you to confuse everyone until the baby is riding his own horse.”
Andrixine groaned and rolled her eyes, but the smile she shared with her husband sent a pointed twist of envy through Lorien’s heart. When would she find someone who could make her laugh, who seemed to know what she was thinking, who watched her with such adoration, and whom she could adore? She envied her sister, even with all the problems awaiting her. Lorien thought she had prepared herself to make a politically astute marriage and be satisfied with that, instead of the soul-binding love her parents and sister had found. Why couldn’t she hold onto that resolve? Was there something deeply flawed within her?
“See if you can smooth Lord Treyfas’s feathers,” Andrixine said.
“He should be smoothing yours,” Lorien retorted. “The nerve of him, insulting you just because you wore trousers into the palace, and then calling Kalsan a simpering toady because he attended you. And then getting angry when he found out who you were, as if you set a trap to force him to embarrass himself!”
“Those in the wrong are more likely to create noise and fuss and claim injury than those they wronged.” Andrixine shrugged. “Don’t ask me why that is, I don’t understand it myself. Ask Brother Klee. Remember, always go to him, or Commander Caleen. They’ll watch out for you as if you were their own blood. Queen Sandia is looking forward to making you the darling of the court. She’s ordered dozens of dresses, and she’s planning a massive welcoming festival for you.”
“And we’d better get going,” Kalsan interrupted, as the chaldo came in again to perch.
The sisters hugged again, and Lorien reluctantly released her sister and stayed still when the majority of their traveling party turned west down the King’s Highway. She waved and held back her tears until the chill wind brought great droplets of rain and Andrixine’s band had dwindled to a small dark spot on the plain.
“It’ll be all right, Lori,” Brenden said. The Oathbound warrior winked at her and swatted her horse’s neck, to get the silver-gray mare to turn and start walking. His green eyes glimmered in his dusky face, and the scarlet cords in his warrior braids glimmered in the deepening twilight of the oncoming storm.
“If we can find shelter before we’re half-drowned,” Cynden said with a snort that could have been either cynicism or amusement. She wrinkled up her nose at the two warriors, who exchanged grins over her cinnamon-colored head.
“The Sword Bearer wouldn’t have entrusted her sister to us or to you if she didn’t think us capable,” Marfil said.
“Besides,” Lorien couldn’t help saying, “I have a map, and there’s a wayhouse just over that far hill.” She smirked at the two warriors, who had revealed a penchant for teasing the diminutive, sharp-tongued maidservant.
Her maid sighed in exasperation, but Lorien noticed that Cynden didn’t hold onto her aggrieved look very long. Brenden seemed exceptionally talented at bringing out smiles and laughter. It might be interesting to watch a romance blossom between the two.
Lorien’s spirits drooped at that thought, and she tried to concentrate on urging her horse into a gallop, so they could reach the wayhouse ahead of the worst of the rain. Still, she couldn’t seem to stop the recurring complaint.
Those born of noble blood had to think of more than love and companionship when they married. None of the suitors who besieged Faxinor in the last year had appealed to her. Maybe she had grown cynical, suspecting everyone of seeing only her rich dowry, her place as Andrixine’s heir-apparent, or the access she could provide them to the Sword Bearer. Lorien told herself yet again to give up any hope of a love match, to serve Andrixine and Reshor by marrying for political alliance, and be happy in it.
No matter how much it hurt, she would be happy in it.
About The Author
On the road to publication, Michelle fell into fandom in college (she is a recovering Trekker, and adores “Warehouse 13” and “Stargate SG-1”), and has 40+ stories in various SF and fantasy universes. She has a BA in theater/English from Northwestern College and a MA focused on film and writing from Regent University. She has published 50+ books and novellas with multiple small presses, in science fiction and fantasy, YA, and sub-genres of romance. She has been a finalist in the EPIC Awards competition often since 2004, winning with Lorien in 2006 and The Meruk Episodes, I-V, in 2010. Her training includes the Institute for Children’s Literature; proofreading at an advertising agency; and working at a community newspaper. She freelance edits for a living, but only enough to give her time to write.
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