Yet man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.
After dinner Sambeth sat quietly in the library by herself. The interrogation was finally over. She and Rija had answered question after question about the Sacrifice in the forest, what Sambeth was doing there, how they escaped from both Proximus and Altor and finally, many questions about the shimerith.
In the end Sambeth pushed her meal back only half eaten, her face pale and strained.
“All I want is to get as far away from Arca as possible,” she said faintly, “I cannot answer anymore.”
The note in her voice made everyone stop talking at once.
Noesh himself, waving the others back, escorted them to the library and left them there to finish their meal alone. When he returned to fetch them Sambeth was still eating. She told Rija to go and now she was, for at least a short time, delightfully alone.
Well, not quite by herself. The giant hound, Agnor, rested at her feet. A peace stole over her, wrapping her up in a delicious sort of comfort. She sighed deeply then laughed softly when Agnor lifted a sleepy, startled head. He gazed at her, one ear folded back.
She reached out to fondle back the funny ear and stared meditatively into the crackling fire. It burned low and her arms felt cool but she wasn’t cold. She felt safe. She concentrated hard examining within herself. Yes, for the first time in years she could sit quietly alone and, in spite of the ugly scene between Lord Noesh and that Queen Norea earlier, she felt unafraid.
She sighed deeply again. It was a wonderful, elusive feeling. She didn’t want it to go. Her thoughts wandered back over the incredible day. She smiled wryly to herself. The fact that she was alive with hope for a future was staggering. She thought of the Earthborn, Altor, wondering what he was thinking and doing right now?
He would be furious. She shuddered as the horrible thought wormed its way into her mind; if the rumours were true then that monster was her half-brother.
She bit her lip, her eyes gradually focussing on the hands that she held clenched in her lap. She sighed yet again and told herself to relax. She wanted that peaceful, safe feeling back.
Her thoughts turned to Rija. She didn’t know if she had saved Rija in the spirit of heroism or for her own survival but now she would do whatever she could to keep her from falling into Altor’s hands. Rija…she neither wished to be a dead Sacrifice nor the object of an Earthborn’s Fixation.
The Earthborn men were well known for their obsessive attraction for certain fully human women. They were also insanely jealous and hyper controlling. Any male looking at an Earthborn’s woman, whether real or imagined, would be swiftly and lethally dealt with.
Silently she thanked whatever powers there were, her lucky stars perhaps, for bringing her to the right place at the right time to help Rija in her hour of greatest need.
A log on the fire collapsed and the orange, blue tinged flames leapt higher. Still Sambeth sat wrapped in her own thoughts. Agnor slumbered on.
A noise at the door brought her back to the present with a heart-pounding jolt. Agnor lifted his head as the door opened. He was clearly familiar with the newcomer but Sambeth noticed that, although he dropped his head back down on his paws, his eyes remained watchful. She sucked in a startled breath. It was not Rija who stepped through the door.
It was the one who stood over Rija earlier. Rian, one of Queen Norea’s henchmen.
He strode in confidently and stood with his back to the fire surveying the room. He was not surprised to see her.
“She said you’d be here,” his voice was sandpaper deep.
He looked around significantly.
“All alone, lady? Not even your black-haired friend to keep you company?”
Sambeth let out a slow breath. Why was he here? Who had told him she was here in the library? That hostile son of Noesh? The one they called Ajalon?
“My friend will join me soon as will the brothers,” her voice was steady over the lie.
“Do you need something?” she asked pointedly, rising to her feet.
He waved her back down, “Sit, sit. I have been looking for you.”
She was startled, “For me!”
“Yes,” he replied and stood looking at her silently with burning eyes.
She twisted her fingers in her lap, wondering what she should do. She sat back down longing again for her knife. Rian moved a step closer to her chair, too close. He was standing over her.
“My queen will find a way to give that devil, Proximus, what he wants,” he said, “the princess for his son, Altor, but what will they do with you, a girl friendless and alone?”
He watched her parted lips and his eyes dropped to her chest rising and falling as she fought to retain a calm exterior. His own breathing quickened.
Still she said nothing.
His hand lifted. A swathe of her hair draped across it, gleaming in the firelight.
“Yet you have your own beauty. Not in the vivid Arcan style certainly but to waste it on the killing appetites of Proximus…” he shook his head.
Who was this Rian?
Sambeth’s only encounter with him had been during the time his queen flung down a challenge to Noesh. The queen had tried to remove herself and Rija. For the life of her she couldn’t work out if he was here to make another attempt or to offer her something else.
He’s here to kidnap me, she thought, and yet he wars within himself.
His hand snapped out, taking hers in an iron grip. She froze.
“My queen has sent me to take you, lady,” he looked down at her face and his tongue wetted his lips, “I could help you instead if you come with me.”
She looked up at him, her eyes deep pools of silence.
“Noesh’s pathetic brood will not be able to protect you.”
His eyes glittered and he looked every inch of what he was; a hard, dangerous man.
She leaned back in her chair trying to pull her hand away. Instead of loosening it Rian moved in closer. His shoulders were wider than the chair itself blocking any escape.
Now Sambeth felt really alarmed.
“Let me go,” she struggled pushing at the arms framing her, “what do you want with me? Are you going to take me to Queen Norea or kidnap me yourself?”
“I am loyal to my queen,” he said finally. He gazed at her face and traced a finger across her lips, “Such a shame to waste you on a Fallen One. I will try to persuade her to give you to me instead.”
In a mixture of outrage and fear, she pushed back at him trying to stand up.
“Let me go!” she cried again.
He held her wrists behind her, holding her up against him. A sudden low growl rumbled behind him. Sambeth had forgotten Agnor. Hope clawed through her terror. The massive dog was poised to leap, bristles up and fire in his eyes.
Before any of them could move, the door swung open and Rija stepped in, Amis behind her.
“Thank you for showing me the way, Amis, she’s in here–”
Rija broke off as she took in the scene before her; Sambeth, her face white, struggling in the possessive grip of a powerful man, holding her way too intimately.
Amis closed the door with a quiet thud and stood leaning against it. He looked from Sambeth’s slight form to the broad power of Rian’s and something in his face changed.
“What is this?”
He spoke quietly but his face was dark.
“I think you know what our instructions are, Prince Amis.”
He retained his grip on Sambeth, clasping one arm possessively around her, the other still pinning her wrists behind her back. Amis stepped forward looking at him with a frown. He snapped his fingers at Agnor and patted the side of his leg. Sambeth saw Agnor sniff toward Amis. He laid his hackles down but he stayed where he was and remained alert, watching Rian.
“No, Rian,” Amis’s voice was low yet emphatic, “you should go to Queen Norea and make sure you have understood correctly.”
Rian’s face twisted in a mocking sneer.
“I think, Amis, you are the one who has not understood. Both women are here and you want me to leave? You want the queen to believe you retrieved them alone.”
With a muted exclamation Amis went to the door and flung it open.
“Leave, Rian. Leave now! I will speak to my mother myself.”
He stalked back toward Rian, menace written all over him.
Rian hesitated, still holding Sambeth in his arms. It seemed as if he would refuse to obey his queen’s only son. Through the open doorway, Sem and his brothers, Ajalon and Jaffith, appeared. They were deep in discussion but stopped abruptly as they took in the scene before them. Sambeth, with heightened colour, began again her futile struggle to free herself from Rian.
Sem strode forward.
“Rian, what are you doing? Let her go!”
Rian released her abruptly and stood back, scowling. He was outnumbered now even if Amis could be counted on.
“Mind your own business, Sem,” he growled, “this is between the lady and me.”
“A misunderstanding,” Amis said smoothly, “Rian was just leaving.”
Rian looked at Amis with a hard stare.
“Sometimes, I wonder whose side you’re on,” he uttered and swept out of the room.
With customary frankness Ajalon said, “Well, Amis, I can see whose business you’re minding and it certainly isn’t your own.”
Amis’s tanned cheek reddened but he said nothing.
Not knowing when to let up Ajalon continued, “You allowed our guest to be held against her will. Shame, cousin! My father won’t like to hear of this.”
By now Amis’s face was black, a mixture of shame and impotent fury. He could say nothing without making the case against Rian worse and in so doing, revealing the full extent of his mother’s machinations. There was nothing he could say in his own defence.
“He wasn’t at fault,” Rija spoke firmly, “he and I found that man accosting Sambeth. Amis ordered Rian to let her go and to leave. Rian was proving reluctant.”
Sambeth was crimson with embarrassment and faint with relief. She was only half registering the by-play of words. The horrors of her encounter left her alternating between hot flushes of shame and icy cold washes of fear.
Ajalon raised his eyebrows in disbelief. He turned to Amis, “I think you should go too and don’t you be reluctant to leave.”
“I won’t,” Amis snarled.
With a great effort he held his temper at bay. He paused beside Sambeth and he looked steadily into her eyes.
“I hope you’re alright,” he held her gaze until she nodded slightly, “I’ll make sure he doesn’t bother you again.”
Sambeth stared at him, lost for words.
“Th…Thank you,” she ventured unable to hold her voice steady.
She and Rija had been here mere hours and already they had witnessed hostility between the two clans and now trouble between Amis and one of Queen Norea’s men. Fear clawed at her heart. Surely Noesh, the lord of Tetrahin, would force her to leave now.
Ajalon walked to the door and held it, gesturing to Amis peremptorily. Amis straightened.
“I will say goodbye, cousins. I leave tomorrow for Arca.”
Ajalon gave him a mocking salute but Sem stepped forward.
“You don’t have to go, Amis,” he said softly, “stay with us.”
Amis looked at him and for a moment his expression lightened but the mocking face of Ajalon appeared over Sem’s shoulder.
Amis shook himself.
“Why would I?” he snapped and strode out.
Ajalon shut the door behind Amis with a firm click and turned.
“Phew! Old Amis has outdone himself tonight.”
“I don’t think that was well done,” Rija stood with folded arms, “why did you treat him so rudely? All he did was try to help Sambeth.”
Ajalon looked at her with a significant eye, “She was a bit abrupt with him earlier herself”
Sambeth looked startled, not understanding his meaning. He raised an eyebrow.
“I saw you extricate yourself in one smooth move.”
Colour stole into her cheeks. Her mother had taught her a secret defence, a way of hand to hand fighting to be used in dire straits, to protect life and limb. She shouldn’t have used that move to shake off Amis earlier. She had panicked. And then, when she needed it against Rian, he’d held her immobile.
Sem frowned at her, “Amis was holding you when Queen Norea tried it on earlier?”
Something within her was reluctant to tell him but she eventually nodded. Sem said nothing more but his face wore a troubled look.
Sambeth lifted both hands to her face forcing back her distress and took a deep breath, “I think there was more to this. That man, Rian, he mentioned instructions. I guess from Queen Norea.”
She looked around at each one of them and settled on Rija.
“She intends to take us by any means necessary, Rija, and sell us to Proximus.”
“Amis wouldn’t do it,” Sem said flatly. He turned burning eyes to Ajalon, “although you make it impossible for him to choose our side, brother.”
“I don’t think she would seriously snatch them right here in Tetrahin,” Ajalon said slowly. He was deep in thought, “however, things have changed. Her people have grown much bigger and stronger in recent years. Our aunt isn’t the same person she used to be.”
“And neither is Amis,” it was Jaffith, speaking for the first time. His quiet face was set, “I don’t trust him. The sooner he and all the people of Bashan are out of Tetrahin, the better.”
Ajalon nodded tapping a fingernail on his teeth.
Jaffith spoke again, looking at his brothers in turn, “We need to speak to our father. Aj, Sem, let’s get these ladies back to their chamber.”
“It doesn’t have a lock!” Sambeth protested, “Rija won’t be safe there.”
“Neither of you are safe,” Sem said, “I will leave Agnor with you. He’ll sleep across the door. No one will get in. We must go and speak with our father.”
He ushered Sambeth and Rija out, his brothers bringing up the rear. For the first time Sambeth noticed that they too had swords strapped to their waists and knives thrust into their belts. They must have changed after the episode with Queen Norea.
She twitched a silken length of the sky-blue gown and hoped her outdoor clothing had been replaced. For a brief time she believed that Tetrahin was a safe place but it seemed that trouble had followed her in. She must keep alert here just as much as in her childhood home. This ridiculous dress made her feel even more vulnerable.
At the door of the chamber they all halted. Sem went in and searched their rooms.
The faces of the brothers were stern. Agnor followed Sambeth and Rija in.
“On guard, Agnor,” Sem commanded.
The hound flung up his head and lifted his ears, every nerve ending on alert and every muscle tense. With a bound he was off sniffing around the chamber, returning to sit at the door.
The last thing Sambeth saw before closing the door was the serious faces of the three brothers and Sem’s eyes staring into hers with a warning.
“Don’t answer any knock. Don’t open the door until you hear one of us.”
She nodded quickly and pushed the door shut.
“Quick, Rija. Let’s block the door ourselves.”
Sambeth leaped over to the couch and began pushing the heavy item toward the door. Rija came and pushed beside her.
The brothers tramped through the corridors at high speed.
“We must be alert ourselves,” Jaffith said, “watch the shadows.”
Although the main rooms were well lit, the corridors had a flaming torch set high on the wall at regular intervals. The shadows in between hung deep and impenetrable.
Ajalon paused to wrench a torch off the wall.
“Good job, Sem, bringing those two here,” his voice was scathing.
“And what would you have done,” Sem replied unabashed, “left them alone in the forest? Left them to drown in the lagoon? You’re so brave, Ajalon.”
Ajalon made an angry sound, “They’ve been here one evening and look at the trouble–“
“They’ve just flushed it out a little sooner than otherwise,” Sem cut him short, “at least now our parents will listen to our cautions about Norea. I knew it was no accident that she compromised Tetrahin’s location so flagrantly.”
“What will happen now?” Jaffith asked, “We all must either trust Norea’s family loyalty or prepare for Proximus.”
“Sshhh,” Sem replied, “the walls have ears. Save it for our father. He must be told. Norea maybe planning to kill us all in our sleep. I’m going to find Amis before he leaves for Arca.”
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