The king stepped quickly down the stairwell that branched into the hallway before the Great Hall. He didn't come down often, there were too many memories, and a monarch who showed weakness held little power. Only this time he was not visiting the royal prisoner; he had been summoned.
“I received your message,” Verath said.
The two guards at the locked doorway saluted at the king's approach, steadfast in their duty. One nodded to the other, clearly choosing who would speak.
“Yes, my Lord.” The guard's voice was respective if somewhat tentative. “We had no wish to disturb you, but this has been very odd. We didn't know what to make of it.”
“What is so odd?”
The guards exchanged glances. “The Queen, my Lord. She keeps singing. We can hear her through the door.”
“What of it?”
The guard's stance shifted as he mustered the nerve to speak. “She just keeps singing the same thing over and over.”
“I'm told that's not unusual for her. She is mad after all.”
The pauses and hesitation were beginning to rankle the king. If only the pair would simply bolster their courage and speak their minds. He was unlikely to behead them for bringing unpleasant news about the Queen. There was little about the Queen that wasn't unpleasant.
“She's been doing it without rest for the last two days and nights.”
Why that gave the king pause, he couldn't say; it struck a quiet sense of omen to his mind. Verath stepped forward, the Queen's voice a murmur through the thick entry. Warily, he touched the door, but when nothing happened, he pressed his ear to its surface. The sound was happy and excited. Verath could imagine his wayward mate dancing like a wood nymph in chains as her melodious voice carried a child's tune to her words.
“It's going to happen soon. It's coming this way. It's going to happen soon. It's coming this way...” Damhsaedroma sang over and over, endlessly repeating her giddy phrase. The disquiet in Verath's breast grew tighter; something was very wrong and he had no idea why.
“I'm sure it's nothing. Just another phase in her madness. Think nothing of it.”
With the Royal Hunters away and a large portion of the guard en route to aid Harridantha in their need for additional help to maintain security, the last thing Verath needed was difficulties in Garadur. It was in everyone's best interests to maintain a facade of calm unless something concrete was known.
“Would you like to enter the chamber, my Lord?”
Verath stared at the entrance to the Great Hall. What he wouldn't give to stride into the room and lay claim to his true mate once again; the longing for her vicious touch often came at him in waves. But she was gone. Damhsaedroma was always a rude and arrogant female, but her hatred and crimes twisted her. It frightened the king how much he craved her in spite of her insanity. Many nights he had woken from dreams of a loving mate where they shared their love and lives together.
But those were just dreams.
The temptation was strong this day. Instead of having the guard unlock the door, Verath swallowed down the growing swell of doom he felt, squared his shoulders and gave them the royal visage of the king that felt no fear and inspired his kingdom.
“No. Thank you.” Verath stepped away and headed for the stairwell. “I'm sure nothing will come of this, but stay vigilant. Inform me of any other unusual activity. That would be the best course of action.”
* * * *
Soft sounds of the townsfolk in the distance drifted through the window, but Rath barely paid any attention. Weeks had passed and his mind still mired itself over the loss of his mate. Rath had lost track of how many hours he spent trying to understand what happened. Maertagh and Sethus had given him their accounts – the queen's prophecy, Puppy's hesitation and tears, but there had to be more.
Why didn't he wait? Why did he run without giving Rath the chance to convince him to stay? Did he not really care? Was the prince somehow not worthy? Did his mate not really love him at all?
Rath stood abruptly and strode to his water basin, splashing his face to cleanse away the unwelcome thoughts. They had plagued him since he’d read the journal letter. He had started to become used to the murmur of his mate's feelings in the back of his mind, but today they were very potent and loud, an unfair reminder of his loss.
Drying his face, Rath took a deep breath. He was a warrior; he would survive. He was strong and powerful...and broken inside.
A knock on the door broke Rath's thoughts. As melancholy as he was, he had no interest in entertaining visitors, so he ignored the summons when the knock came again. Rath was almost shocked when the door opened slightly and the king peered inside.
“May I come in?” Verath's shoulders were relaxed and his voice lacked the usual force of the monarch. Even the question was hesitant.
“You are the king. I'm not sure why you bother to ask.” Rath admonished himself for his tone when the king winced slightly. Verath's poise was unassuming and apologetic and undeserving of his vitriol, but old habits were difficult to corral.
“I'm not here to fight with you, Rath. I came to see how you were faring.”
“What makes you think I'm unwell?”
Verath stepped inside and closed the door behind him; the simple leather robe dusted the floor while the long object wrapped in fabric bobbed while strapped to the king's back. “You've barely left your chambers since Puppy went home. I've spoken with Maertagh. I found it troublesome that I had to find out from the housekeeper that my only son had found his true mate. Is it true? Was Puppy really your mate?”
Eyes shifting away, Rath walked past the king and sat in the chair farthest away. The last thing he wanted was to discuss the subject even though his silence answered the question for him.
“Why didn't you tell me, Rath?”
“I think you've mistaken me for the son you keep confidences with.”
Verath visibly cringed. “I suppose I've earned that remark. If I had known I wouldn't have been so suspicious of him.”
“Of course you would. You're still the king.”
“You're probably right. How long have you known?”
Rath wanted to ignore his father but his manner was polite and genuine, unlike any previous conversation. It should have made him cautious, but instead was strangely endearing. The prince didn't know if it was his father's approach that called to him or that for the first time in a very long time, he found himself craving Verath's presence.
“I didn't know at first.” Rath's words were cautious. “I just couldn't resist him. We didn't realize it until after I shared my gift with him and made him stronger. It completed the bond.”
Verath dragged a chair closer to his son and sat opposite, placing the wrapped bundle on the floor. “Are you going after him?”
“I don't know how to find him or where he's gone. Sethus told me as much before I beat him senseless.”
“It seems our bloodline is cursed when it comes to true mates.”
Again, Rath had no idea what to say. This kind of paternal attention was foreign but he found himself not willing to ask the king to leave.
“I wish I'd known. It certainly explains your hostility while we traveled.” Verath sighed as he shook his head. “Newly joined mates should never be separated so soon. If I'd known I would never have had you come with me to Harridantha. All of this needless suffering might have been avoided.”
“You never cared before.”
Verath stood up suddenly, his jaw tight as he tried to maintain his rein on his frustration at Rath's response. “We may never have held a strong bond between us, Rath, but you're still my only child. I would never wish this kind of pain on you.”
Rath's head dipped down. Shame was never an emotion he attached to his interactions with the King; they were too busy being at odds in the past. Verath watched his son for long moments before he exhaled and settled himself back in the chair, his annoyance deflating into some kind of sadness.
“Your mother and I are such a mismatched pair. We've hated one another from the first day we laid eyes on each other. But I miss her. When I placed the runed blindfold over her eyes and lost her feelings, even as horrible as they were that day, I died inside. To this day I still crave her. I may have filled my bed with many over the centuries, but none will ever bring me happiness.”
The pain of Verath's words resonated for the prince. It brought the whispered question to his lips, laced with the fear of the answer. “What was it like when you lost her?”
“Like I was in my own personal hell. My heart ached and I wanted nothing more than to end my suffering but there were so many who needed me. I had my duty and I hid behind it.” The king's glossy eyes caught his son's. “You remind me so much of her, Rath. Your spirit, your will. You were just a child and I couldn't face the loss. It wasn't fair of me, but I couldn't fill myself with love for you because I was so lost with her absence. I used my role as king to hide and focus on my land and its people; after Damhsaedroma's crimes, Garadur was in chaos. It made me a good king, I think, but a sad excuse for a father. You were too young to understand and I was too broken to explain. It wasn't right. I hope some day you find a way to forgive me.”
How oddly sad that the damaged blessings of true mates would be the common ground that father and son could share. Rath had never heard anything remotely like an apology ever fall between the two of them. He sat unmoving, studying the king, not knowing what to say as Verath reached down to the package at his feet.
“I wanted you to have this.”
The long bundle was wrapped in a dusty tapestry fastened around the entire length with braided cord. Carefully, the knots came undone and the fabric parted, revealing an immaculate broad sword inside a finely crafted scabbard. The hilt was long, its grip bound in fine leather. Rath pulled the blade partially out, exposing the gleaming steel covered in runes. A familiar sensation came over his hand at its touch.
Verath nodded. “There are few things the blade can't cut.”
“I've never seen this in the armory.”
“I've kept it in my private collection all these years.”
Rath tested the sword's weight in his hand. Even in its sheath, he could feel it was perfectly balanced and in spite of its fearsome size he could easily wield it in one hand. “It's an excellent blade.”
“It was your uncle's. The male who should have been king.”
“I don't understand.” Rath's fingers glided over the royal bloodline markings on the scabbard that matched his own, telling the names of his forbearers.
“I was never intended to rule and quite frankly I never wanted to. My eldest brother Lakuus was the eldest and as far as I cared, he could have the role.”
“What was he like?”
Verath's body rose in his seat, pride glowing across his face. “Lakuus was a fearsome warrior who won many battles and came with barely restrained lusts for food, females, and spirits. The townsfolk were drawn to him and he commanded them with an ease most kings never see.”
The king's pride deflated. “In spite of his popularity, there were still dissenters. Some did not approve of his appetites. He clashed with the religious sects often and the royals feared he would rear a series of bastards with claims on the throne. One night Lakuus was poisoned by a courtesan who had been paid better.”
“A sad ending for a warrior.” Rath shook his head at the prospect.
“Very sad indeed. My father died in battle not long after. I believe his heart was broken at the loss of his eldest son. Afterwards, the son who didn't want the throne was suddenly thrust into it.”
“You are a good king.”
“It was my duty and I felt a need to honor my fallen family. It was the very least I could do. I was very close to Lakuus and this sword is all I have left of his memory. I held onto it all these centuries because I believe it will serve you well when your time is at hand.”
Rath held the sword close, its history an unfamiliar warmth that helped balance out this unusual intercourse that made him feel awkward. He simply had no idea how to respond; they were after all in uncharted regions. What Rath wouldn't give for a bottle of spirits. Or perhaps two bottles.
“You will be a great king someday, Rath.”
A soft snort came out of the prince. “I think you are the only one who believes that.”
“I find that all the greatest kings are those whose duty is forced upon them rather than those who seek out power. You are strong and honorable when you think before you act. The people fear you enough to quell any uprisings until you have the opportunity to show them how fair a ruler you will be.”
Rath's brow flattened, taken aback by his father's praise. Why after all this time? He looked down at the precious sword in his hand, his face twisting in confusion over the unprecedented level of generosity. Something was off; the king didn't speak like this with his son.
“Why are you doing all of this?”
Verath's shoulders went rigid, his head tilted slightly. “What do you mean?”
“You're making amends, giving gifts, speaking of my future as if you won't be part of it.” Rath's eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Why?”
Rath watched as the king stood rigid, his face showing a subtle war of debate. There was something he apparently wanted to share, but the habits of a lifetime were holding him back. Verath took a deep breath, his mouth opened slightly as if ready to speak.
The door flew open as a guard burst into the room. “My Lord, My Prince! The Prime Hunter has returned!”
Verath frowned at the interruption even as his brow arched in confusion. “I hardly see that as needing this kind of excitement.”
“He's being held at the gate by the guard. He refused to use the proper signal. That's the plan to not allow him to pass and to be at arms. An intruder alert.”
“Why would he do that?” The king stiffened visibly even as his voice remained calm.
The guard shook his head. “We're not certain. He brings two humans with him, sire. One we don't recognize–” His eyes shifted to Rath. “–and your pet.”
All eyes were now on the prince. His hand tightened on the scabbard even as the tension in his chest peaked. It couldn't be.
“Rath?” Verath whispered.
The prince leapt from his chair and scrambled to the window. Leaning out the opening, the stone sill risked crumbling under his grip as Rath's gaze spun to the keep's gate. The guard was gathered in a defensive formation blocking the entrance, weapons at the ready. Sethus appeared to be speaking to the wall of armed males to no avail. Behind Sethus stood a human male that he didn't recognize who seemed impatient but bore the countenance of nobility or power. Next to him, clad in a short sleeved tunic showing off his marked arms and relaxed leggings with large pockets running down each thigh, stood a smaller man with a dark strip of hair that Rath knew only too well.
“SHAWN!!” Rath cried.
The smaller man looked up, his view shifting as he traced the shout up to the open window; it was him! Even from this distance, the pair locked onto each other and a flood of excitement that was not his own flooded Rath's head and heart.
Rath bolted past Verath and the guard, out into the hallway, not even bothering to drop the sword.
Breath and pulse quickened as one as Rath raced through the keep, servants and the like wisely jumping aside to avoid the barreling colossus. Rath burst out the front door and his eyes began to sting at the sight of his mate. He bulled through the phalanx of guards and snatched Shawn off the ground.
The scent was so right, the taste of his mouth as their tongues slid alongside each other so perfect, it took all of the prince's control not to weep. Shawn's taut frame sent rushes through every part of Rath's body it came in contact with. A tidal wave of joy rebounded off his own joy and merged into one as both males tried to squeeze the breath out of each other.
“I'm so sorry, Rath. I never should have left.” Shawn's raspy whispers were for Rath's ears alone.
Gossamer kisses peppered Shawn's temple as Rath stroked his head. “I thought I'd never lay eyes on you again, my mate.”
“I thought I could save you, but when I realized it was wrong it was too late. I couldn't get back.” The regret in Shawn's heart and voice were no longer important. “I'll never be so stupid again.”
“It doesn't matter, Shawn. I've never been so happy to hold you. I may never let you go.”
All the anger and confusion of the last few weeks was gone. The questions of doubt that plagued the prince over Shawn's leaving were washed away with one embrace and fevered kiss. The power of their shared bond sang with their touch. With Shawn in his arms, Rath's world was flawless now.
Foreheads touching, Rath beamed at the sound of Shawn's bubbling voice. “Why are you carrying a sword?”
Rath laughed as he caught sight of his hand. “I hadn't realized I was still holding it.”
“What the fuck is this?”
Shawn's expression and feelings of joy bled into fear and suspense that could be felt through the body of the little man in his arms. Where was that acrid sensation coming from? Rath followed Shawn's eyes to the other human in their group before setting his mate down, using his larger body as a barrier between them.
“This would be Glarick, I presume,” the man said. Rath took offense at the voice filled with undisguised disdain.
Rath spoke over his shoulder to Shawn without losing sight of the other human. “Why would he think I was Sethus's dead page?”
The human scowled, his narrowed eyes shifting between Shawn and Sethus as tension filled his stance. Rath could feel the hostility that emanated from him. It set his protective instincts on edge when combined with Shawn's hand twisting the back of his tunic in a knot.
“It doesn't matter. Either way, I don't appreciate people touching my things,” the man said. The growl that rolled out of Rath was automatic. The man's presumption needed adjustment.
Rath could feel Shawn drawing strength from the touch of his skin. “I told you before, Kenrick. I never had an interest in you. Nothing's changed, no matter what you think happened in the bathroom the other night.”
“You touched my mate?”
Kenrick sneered at Rath. “My hard cock was all over him, you giant freak. For the first and certainly not the last time.”
The prince stepped forward until the grasp of his mate on his forearm interrupted him. “Rath, be careful. Kenrick's not human. He's a lot stronger than he looks.”
“You're damn right about that, Shawn. I knew something was off, but I still wanted a way back underground. I know that armory exists, you revealed that before. I can even smell the magic it gives off; the trail leads into that fortress. I want my power back. I'll be collecting what I came down here for and when I'm done, I'm taking you with me.”
The prince examined Kenrick with a calculating eye. How much stronger could he be? If not human, what was he?
Kenrick stepped close to Sethus, his petulant stare drilling into the goblin's eyes. “And you're quite the little actor, aren't you?” Kenrick's hand flashed out, snatching Sethus's sword out of its scabbard on his hip and running it through the goblin's midsection before pushing the gasping male to the ground.
“SETHUS!” Shawn screamed.
Before Rath could even react, Shawn darted forward to help his fallen friend. Snarling, Kenrick backhanded Shawn with such force his mate went skidding across the dirt to lay in a silent, unmoving heap away from them all.
The lion's roar that exploded from Rath was nearly deafening; his instant rage threatened to steal his sight. With a tight grasp, he snapped the sword outward, flipping the sheath aside before swinging forward, the blade slicing Kenrick's cheek. The older man touched his face, eyes awash in shock and fury at the sight of his own blood that ran down his jawline. Kenrick was clearly unaccustomed to bleeding. As far as Rath was concerned, it was only the beginning.
Weapons drawn, the guards began to advance, but Rath's bellow and outstretched hand stopped them. “STAND DOWN! HE'S MINE!! NO ONE STRIKES MY MATE!!”
With an angry grunt, Rath's sword hand slashed out, the keen blade humming through the air, biting a crimson line into Kenrick's shoulder. The surprise on the human's face made Rath smile; this filth put his hands on Shawn and would die for it.
Rath's breaths came out in ragged huffs as they circled each other. The fact that he was armed didn't matter one bit to the prince. He stared down the arrogant male that sneered back at him, the one who dared to take what was rightfully his. The bastard tried to soil his mate! Human or not, dismembering him would be a pleasure.
A practiced hand sliced out at Kenrick who dodged the blade, his movement faster than Rath anticipated. The human weaved inside his reach with a steady move before he punched Rath in the jaw so hard the half breed's head snapped back.
Lights swirled in his eyes and the world spun as Rath tried to center himself, he had never been struck so hard. Before his staggering foot could find solid ground, Kenrick stomped his boot into Rath's stomach, launching him backwards and stealing the air from his lungs. Stones and dirt kicked into the air from the impact several feet behind him.
Somehow Rath managed to hold onto the sword. His vision was blurred as Kenrick pounced, wrapping his hand around Rath's wrist gripping the blade. No matter how much he pulled he couldn't move his arm. How strong could Kenrick be? With a sudden jerk, Kenrick twisted the prince's forearm. Rath roared in agony as the bone audibly snapped, bent at an unnatural angle, releasing Lakuus's broadsword.
Time seemed to slow down as a spark of fear and the thought of never holding Shawn again rushed through the wounded prince. Kenrick lifted the sword over his head and impaled it through the center of Rath's alabaster chest, a sick gasp escaping as the bloodstained metal dug into the earth below him.
*** please note *** graphic violence may be present