Three years later…
The last ranks of Thiel’s orchards fell behind. Asha set her jaw and stared straight ahead. She would see them again. Someday. She’d see Ama and Papi again, and the warm brown stone of her home rising above the orchards, hear the bright shout of the River Firell as it tumbled and tousled its way down from the mountains.
Tears ached at the back of her throat, but she swallowed them down. Weeping at the beginning of her betrothal journey would scarcely be auspicious.
“Oh, Ash,” Miranna said, breathless. “Do you believe we’re finally on our way?”
Asha glanced at her cousin. Miranna swept a few windblown strands of hair off her face and craned in the saddle to better see the road ahead. At least someone was excited.
“I thought the day would never arrive!” Miranna said.
“It came more quickly than I dreamed,” Asha said. “Far too quickly,” she muttered under her breath.
Elan, riding on Asha’s other side, gave a slight shake of the head. Of the two of them, Asha was closest to Elan. Elan often seemed more like a much older sister than simply one of her ladies. Asha loved her dry wit and good sense, knew she could count on her clear vision and honesty.
“Your mother and father never knew each other before they married,” Elan said. “Yet look how happy they are.”
Asha turned. “Really? Ama never told me that.”
Elan nodded in her placid way. “The marriage was meant to seal the connection with her family for their trade ties in Abrushan.” Her brows kinked. “If all had remained as it once was, Thiel would’ve been as rich as Conn. Richer.”
As it had once been. “I remember the trade caravans, when I was little,” Asha said. “All the horses and people and wagons, the smells and the noise. And then the great hall full of lights, the long tables covered with food. I’d hide underneath and watch the traders. I remember a northerner bending down to look at me one time. I was afraid of his huge, bristly beard and big fur hat.”
Miranna listened, bemused. “I don’t remember any of that. Only the harvest time festivals.”
“You were too young,” Asha said. “The Drakhari came to the mountains when I was…oh, I don’t know. Seven or eight, I suppose.”
“No more trade caravans through the mountains after that,” Elan said.
After that, Thiel had only grown poorer and more isolated, the trade all going south to places like Hannon and Conn. A far, far longer route, but one safe from Drakhari raids.
Asha’s horse took advantage of her distraction, snatching a mouthful of grass from beside the road. Asha gave her a disapproving cluck and a nudge with her heels. The mare turned a laughing eye on her, shook her mane and stepped out again.
Miranna reached over and squeezed her hand. “You’re so lucky! What do you think it’ll be like, living in Conn?”
Asha let her cousin’s enthusiasm wash over her, tried to take it in. “Ama told me the Conns live in a great house with a fountain in the courtyard and balconies in the windows. Barges with sails of yellow and red ply the river that runs at its feet.”
“And you’ll have beautiful dresses and gold bands for your hair and jewels for your wrists.” Miranna slid her a sly look. “I saw what was in that chest the envoy brought.”
“Dresses and jewels,” Asha said without enthusiasm. “My new husband is what I’m worried about.”
Miranna made an unladylike noise. “Why on earth are you worried about that? You’ll scarcely see him after the wedding, I’ll wager. I’ve heard rich families are like that. After the heir is made, husbands go about their lives, and ladies go about theirs.”
Asha bit back a reply.
“Mira, you’re not helping,” Elan said.
“What’s wrong with that?” Miranna said. “If it was me, I’d be perfectly happy.”
“Asha’s priorities might be rather different,” Elan said.
Asha’s priorities had been, before a month ago, to find a man who loved her as much as Papi loved Ama and spend her life with him. Not to be given like a trade token to some faceless family for reasons she didn’t like to think about.
Hoofbeats came from behind. Asha’s brother Shen and his men came clattering up in a haze of dust. Shen pulled up his mount beside Asha. The other men rode ahead.
He put a gloved hand to her cheek. “How are you, little sister?”
She put on a smile but didn’t reply.
He nodded, unsmiling. “I know,” he said quietly. “I’ll miss you too.”
Shen was the one who understood her best. He was the one who answered what she asked, who let her try what wished. He’d taught her to ride and shoot a bow and use the staff. He’d even taken her out to the old bonfire meadow under the cliffs and shown her how to fight.
Men can be despicable creatures, Ash, he’d told her. If you ever have to protect yourself, don’t hesitate. Fight dirty. Fight to win. Fight to get away and make sure he can’t come after you.
“Shen,” Miranna said, excited and oblivious. “Do you think we’ll see Drakhari on the journey?”
“Oh, no!” Elan said. “The demon men of the mountains will sweep down and murder us all! Brrr!” She gave an exaggerated shudder.
Asha shared a wry look with Shen. Mira was only seventeen, three years younger than Asha, and held many foolish notions. To be fair, Asha, at a similar age, had held similar foolish notions involving highwaymen and river pirates. And yes, grey-haired, silver-eyed Drakhari. But she’d been wise enough—or shy enough—that she’d never shared them with anyone.
“Drakhari keep to their mountains, Mira,” Shen lied. “The only thing out in our wilds are common, boring robbers. Dirty men with foul breath and ragged clothes and vile diseases, not at all romantic, I promise you. And they won’t attack a well-guarded train like ours.”
Asha didn’t let herself share another look with Shen. The Drakhari, after all, were the reason she was travelling to a home she’d never seen, to wed a man she didn’t know. Their attacks so far had been limited to outlying farmsteads and such—but each attack was a little closer to the Thiel heartland. A little closer to home. And Shen had been the only one with the decency to tell her.
“Excuse me, Elan, Mira,” Asha said, “I’m going to ride with Shen a while.”
She reined her horse out of line and fell back to the wagons that carried her belongings and those of the ladies accompanying her in her exile. The creak of the wheels gave a little privacy. The other riders avoiding the wagon’s dust gave more.
She turned to her brother where he rode beside her. “Are we really safe, Shen? I’ve heard things—”
“Ash,” he said, frowning. “Would I let you make this journey if I didn’t think so? Would our father?”
“You were the one who told me the Drakhari are growing bolder.”
“Bold the way wolves are bold. They strike where they find weakness.” He gestured at the armed escort ahead and behind. “We aren’t weak.”
Asha pounced. “Then why am I suddenly bundled up and hurried off to marry the Conn son?”
Shen just sat with his mouth open. Finally, he closed it. He bunched the reins in his fist, scowling at the road ahead.
“All right,” he said, then again, “All right.”
“Well?” Asha said. “Are you going to tell me?”
“Give me a moment, will you?” he snapped.
Asha drew back.
Shen ran a hand through his hair, then reached out and squeezed her hand in apology. He took a long breath. “The Drakhari lord offered for you.”
“What?” she burst out. “Offered? As in marriage?” She just stammered for a moment. “How? In exchange for—for—for what?”
The sudden flurry over the last few months suddenly made sense. The grim looks on the faces of her mother and father and brothers. The closed doors and shouting, the frantic comings and goings of messengers.
Shen looked around to be sure no one was close enough to eavesdrop. “The Brown Rider only knows how he got through our patrols, but their messenger rode up to the gates with a broken spear held high. After he delivered his message, Father was ready to kill him, no matter what signs of peace the man held.”
She felt like she had when a colt had once thrown her and she landed flat on her back—the breath knocked out of her and dizzy. “And…”
“There is no ‘and’, Ash. Do you think Father would ever agree to such—” He caught himself, clearly swallowing a curse. “Such an abomination?”
“How do the Drakhari even know about me? How could they even speak to Papi?”
He gave her an odd look, as if those were the last questions he’d expect of her. “Presumably, after raiding us all these years, they learned.”
She put a hand to her head, tried to settle her darting thoughts back into some kind of order. “But Shen, what did Papi tell him? The Drakhari messenger?”
“Father delayed. Said he had to take the matter under consideration. The Drakhari will find our answer soon enough, when you marry Gire Conn. And by then, they won’t be able to do anything about it. Thiel might be a lonely target, thanks to them, but Thiel and Conn together are an altogether different beast.”
They rode in silence for a time.
Shen finally shook his head. “I don’t know why the Drakhari suddenly began to stalk us. Thiel is no longer a rich land.” Her brother cupped her cheek again, the fine leather of his glove soft against the road grit on her face. “Except for you. You’re our treasure. We don’t part with you lightly.”
But why do you have to part with me at all? the child in her wanted to say.
But she wasn’t a child anymore. She was a woman. And if this alliance with the Conns would protect her land and people from the depredations of the Drakhari…
Well, so be it.
† † †
The Conns’ train made Asha’s look like a child’s pony ride through the park. The guards wore glittering mail and helms with spikes and visors made to look like scowling gargoyle faces. Their mounts, powerful valley-bred horses that towered over the stocky mountain ponies Asha’s people rode, dripped with silver and silken saddle skirts. Asha hoped the jewels on their bridles were only cut glass. She didn’t want to think of the temptation to robbers they’d be otherwise.
She sat straight on her mare and held up her head. She would not be intimidated. After all, this alliance was valuable to the Conns, as well. Thiel was the buffer between the Drakhari’s mountains and the rich lands of the plains, as open and unprotected as a lady’s garden. If Thiel fell, the Drakhari would plunder unhindered.
The envoy who’d made the arrangements for the betrothal was a man named Paen, smooth and smiling and all concern.
“Princess Asha,” he said. “Was your journey well?”
Asha bit back the impulse to ask him not to call her ‘Princess.’ She was just Asha. No one used titles in Thiel.
“As well as a loving brother could make it.” She reached out and laid a hand on Shen’s arm.
He put his fingers over hers. Courage, that touch said.
“Good, good,” Paen said. “But you must be weary. Come. The Prince had a special carriage prepared for you.”
Asha followed Paen’s gesture. A small pavilion on wheels drawn by four huge, feather-fetlocked, silk-draped horses moved up through the lines of armored men. She watched it with dismay.
Mira, on her other side, gasped and clasped her hands to her chest.
She turned to Paen. “I thank you, but—” she began.
“You honor my sister,” Shen interrupted and took her hand. “Come, Asha. I’ll escort you.”
Her hand held in his, they rode past guard after guard to the carriage.
“Better get used to it,” Shen said in an undertone.
Everything seemed to happen much too quickly. Shen making a show of helping her down from her mare, liveried footmen arranging steps, Elan murmuring and clasping her hand to help her climb into the carriage. Shen holding her other hand much tighter than necessary, as if he feared she might bolt. He might be right. His face framed by silk draperies, a sharp pain in his eyes. Mira and the other two ladies accompanying her, Kiriei and Larenn, babbling with excitement and pulling her down into the cushions.
Asha struggled up again. She caught Shen just before he disappeared behind the draperies, threw her arms around his neck and hugged him as tight as she could.
“Ash, let go,” he whispered in her ear. “Let go, little sister. It’ll be fine. We’ll see each other again before you know it.”
She relaxed her grip and let him pull free. The draperies shut out the sight of him, and the soft cushions and the scent of lavender swallowed her.
† † †
Drakhar lay flat on his belly, peering down into the river valley below. Enclosed by the moutains’ foothills, the valley was narrow, only wide enough for the river, rushing over stones and under the boughs of trees, and the road that wound beside it. And on that road trailed horses and riders, wagons and oxen, slipping in and out of view beneath the trees. A breeze up the canyon face brought the faint whiff of horse, manure, and the oil used to tend swords and armor.
Today the hunting magic, rather than drawing him to Thiel, had brought him to the border with Conn. Drakhar had followed it, curious until he saw the train.
Now, he was furious.
“That’s a rich one,” Shakku said, on his belly beside Drakhar. “All that fine horseflesh. Wagons full of goods and food. And look at that wheeled tent.” He nodded toward the center of the train that snaked along the river like a bright garland. “A lovely bower for la-dies,” he said in a sing-song voice and grinned. “What do you think they do, so decked with silks and silver?”
“That, my friend,” Drakhar said, “is a wedding train.” He swept his hand up the road. “First it comes to meet a party from Thiel. The Thiels turn around and go back…” He gestured back toward the foothills. “The Conns do the same.” He waved in the direction of the plains. He watched the line crawl along the road. “It seems,” he said, “my offer to Thiel has been refused.” His voice came out surprisingly calm.
Shakku shot him a sideways look. “A rude refusal.”
“Perhaps I didn’t approach them as I should,” Drakhar said. “I should have come myself. With a large party of my best men.”
He slithered backward through the brushy pines that topped the ridge, Shakku right behind him. He stood, brushed needles from his hair and sleeves and leggings and started down the slope, into taller trees.
Drakhar caught the scent of his party first—horse, leather, oil, men—then glimpses of honed metal edges in the shadows. Even without the hunting magic to conceal them, their armor and weapons and clothing, black and steel grey and deepest brown, faded into the forest, and the men and horses waited as silently as the forest.
Shakku raised his brows. His pupils had widened with eagerness, all but swallowing the silver of his eyes. “Well? Do we meet them now?”
“Not now, I think. I want more men.”
The beginnings of an idea began to tickle at him. Something so bold, the lowlanders would never realize they were dealing with more than mountain raiders until it was too late.
Shakku gave a disappointed growl.
Drakhar clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t be downcast. With our lowland neighbors growing so friendly, we’ll be obliged to join them soon enough.”
The magic urged and tugged, as strong as it had been three years ago, on that cliff. This time, toward Conn.
Drakhar tilted his head, considering. “Perhaps we’ll come for the wedding. What do you say?”
Shakku grinned, as did the men within earshot. “We’ll polish our helms and oil our scabbards and mail. What a party it will be!”
Click here to read the next chapter of Ash Fall.