No Man Can Tame (Page 36)

“Just kill the horse!” Lanky shouted to a grim-faced third, who drew his sword.

Veron took aim with the crossbow and shot the bolt twenty yards directly into Grim’s chest, making him stagger backward.

“Veron!” Aless shouted, repeatedly hitting Lanky, who struck Noc on the nose and dragged her away.

He closed in, grabbed Lanky by the coat, and threw him backward. Aless tumbled to the ground as Grim ripped the bolt from his own chest and slashed at him with the sword.

Lanky shot up to his feet, and Veron pulled the man to himself, catching Grim’s sword with Lanky’s gut.

“Behind you!” Aless shouted, laboring to her feet.

He snap-kicked Lanky’s back, sending both him and Grim to the ground as footsteps crunched from behind.

A blade slashed across his arm before he could dodge as Beard pressed his advantage. A cut—he ducked—a lunge, and he evaded, caught Beard’s sword-arm, and yanked him forward before burying his claws in Beard’s neck.

Blood sprayed his face when Aless screamed, and a set of arms constricted his neck. He clawed at the gauntleted hands, grabbed for the man’s head—

A sharp cry, and blood gushed over the side of his face.

The arms released, and he leaped away, spinning to face the man.

A body thudded to the ground.

Aless stood over Grim with wide, bulging eyes, gulping in breaths. The crossbow bolt was buried in Grim’s temple, his face stained with blood, his eyes frozen in death.

“I… I—” she stammered.

She’d killed a man.

She’d killed a man to help him.

“Are you hurt?” He grasped her upper arms, but her haunted gaze remained fixed on the dead man. “Aless,” he said, giving her a little shake. “Please, are you hurt?”

With a shiver, she looked up at him, wide eyes shining, lips parted, and covered her mouth with a hand before exhaling a huge breath. She began to fall, but he caught her, held her tight, rocked her gently.

“They were going to take me away,” she blurted, her voice breaking. “Veron, I was so—I thought that—”

“I know,” he whispered, stroking her back softly. This was where she belonged, safe in his arms. And never in his life, in centuries, in millennia, would he allow her to be taken. Ever. If she was in danger, he’d follow her to the end of the world, to the end of life itself. Because this was where he belonged, too. With her.

She’d looked so soft, so fragile, his human bride, but tonight she’d killed a man to save his life. The woman he’d married was tough—tougher than he’d ever imagined.

Her plan to leave him didn’t matter. The lie didn’t matter. Nothing else mattered but this, her, here. And she had to know how much he cared for her.

“Your Highness!” Riza bellowed from a distance, quieter voices and footsteps accompanying her.

Still holding Aless, he looked over his shoulder. Riza, Gavri, Zoran, and the rest of his kuvari paused in the clearing, splitting to check the perimeter.

“Dispose of these three,” he said to Riza.

She approached, glowering at the bodies. “Brotherhood?”

He nodded. “Scouts. They must be using a witch to try to force us out, then using scouts to pick over the area and find a way in.”

“When these don’t report in—” Riza began.

“Let’s make sure Nendra is prepared.”

Riza gestured to Danika and two other kuvari, who moved in on the bodies.

“Is Her Highness all right?” Gavri asked, taking a step forward with Zoran.

He glared at her.

“Veron,” Aless whispered, “it wasn’t her fault. I was just outside the stable and—”

“She should have been with you,” he shot back.

“But the collapse separated us. If not for Noc leading me outside, I’d be…” She lowered her gaze as Noc trotted up to them.

I’m never done thanking you, my friend.

Noc bobbed his head.

But now it fell to him to tell Nendra battle was at her doorstep, and Yelena’s harsh stance on the human and dark-elf alliance would only grow in popularity. “Come. Let’s help Queen Nendra prepare as much as we can. We’re together in this.”

He ushered Aless past Gavri and toward the tunnel while Zoran took Noc; he’d have to lead him by way of another entrance.

“Veron,” Aless whispered with a wince.

He slowed. “Are you all right? Are you hurt somewhere?” he asked, looking her over.

“It’s my…” She blushed.

He suppressed a grin. He’d seen Yelena throw her onto her bottom. “I know just the thing for that.”

A long soak in Dun Mozg’s hot springs would soothe that ache… although he wanted—really wanted—to see to that himself.

Low, deep Stone Singing came from the Gate, singers asking the stone to remain stable.

Two kuvari rushed ahead of them into the tunnel, then called the all-clear. He and Aless crept through, squeezing through the tightness, back into the heart of Dun Mozg. Nendra’s kuvari were already there, along with the Stone Singers, stavbali who built, and an inzenyra who designed.

“Veron,” Aless began again, “I think we should send a message to my father.”

He stopped, watching the rest of his kuvari exiting the tunnel.

“He won’t want to risk this peace, not after all it cost him publicly to achieve it. And if a threat to my life isn’t compelling enough, he can always be counted on to defend his pride,” she added quietly.

“But your father isn’t a direct ally of Dun Mozg,” he replied. Would King Macario risk his soldiers and his reputation without a formal alliance between Silen and Dun Mozg?

Aless nodded. “You said dark-elves travel between queendoms by way of the tunnels.”

“I did.”

“What if we send a message to your mother, too, and most of our cargo to Nozva Rozkveta by way of the tunnels,” she said, “and then we travel light, by land, with our forces and lead the Brotherhood away from Dun Mozg?”

He crossed his arms, pacing before the paddock. If they stayed here and the Brotherhood laid siege, it could sour the people’s view on the human and dark-elf alliance, but it might also risk terms between Dun Mozg and Nozva Rozkveta.

But if they did what Aless suggested, if they could stay ahead of the Brotherhood, it would mean leading the enemy to a prepared Nozva Rozkveta with—ideally—King Macario’s army flanking. Strategically advantageous. And it would mean preserving favorable views of both the alliance with the humans and between Dun Mozg and Nozva Rozkveta.

And Mati would never want him to bring their problems to an ally’s doorstep if it could be avoided. She’d back this plan.

“I like it,” he said to her at last, and she rubbed her hands together—blood-stained hands. “I’ll brief Riza and have her work out the details with Nendra. We’ll set out before the rising call.” He approached Riza at the tunnel entrance to do just that.

“What about you?” Aless called after him, following in his wake. “Us?”

He turned back to her, took her shoulders gently. Her large, dark eyes gazed up at his. She was brilliant, clever, brave. But tonight, she was completely and utterly his to care for, in every way she needed for as long as she needed, until she felt safe again.

“You were attacked tonight. I won’t leave your side.”

“I… I need to know…” She took a deep breath. “Have you forgiven me?”

Yes, he wanted to say instantly. He’d felt it as clear as a lifespring, only moments earlier.

She’d gone into this marriage under duress and had hidden that from him from the moment he’d met her in Bellanzole, and that… had been aggravating. Thinking they’d been allies, friends even—perhaps something more, when she’d been forced into this and planning to leave all the while. Would she have even said goodbye? Or would it have been easier to just leave with a smile on her face?

But it had been aggravating. Had. They’d spoken about it, and she’d made an effort time and again to prove her commitment. Sometimes to the point of recklessness, like tonight in the ring.

And although she’d hidden the circumstances from him, when he thought of it now, he had no resentment in his heart toward her. None whatsoever. It hadn’t been a betrayal, malicious and sharpened to hurt. She’d been a scared human, sacrificing herself in marriage to a person she’d never met, from a culture she’d known nothing about—or worse, had been misinformed about. If she’d been weak, despite all that, she would have resigned herself to it.

But that wasn’t the woman he’d married. His Aless was strong. When someone told her there was no way out, she made her own. She hadn’t resolved to be with him because her father had told her to; she’d made up her own mind, and for that, he adored her even more. There was no betrayal in her affection now.

“Yes, I forgive you,” he answered.

Chapter 18

As Aless watched Veron speaking to Riza, everything else seemed to fade, to disappear. Colors blurred around her, sounds muffled to unintelligible vibrations, and her gaze wouldn’t be lured away from her husband, who passed on instructions—her instructions—in an important matter.