Summer solstice ~ Breckenride
The drinking started early that day, and Liam Alloway, a better horseman than most, had trouble keeping to his saddle as the wedding party rode out of the town gates accompanied by much fanfare, flowers, and raucous shouting. It seemed the whole population of Breckenride—invited to the wedding or not—had turned out to see the groom’s band of friends off on their journey to deliver gifts to the bride’s family in Denmerro. The actual event would take place two days hence. Plenty of time for more feasting, drinking, and hopefully, lovemaking.
Denmerro was a large market town on the other side of the mountains to the west, still in the land of Lacknor but far enough away to provide relief from the smothering closeness of Liam’s hometown. Breckenride was the capital of Lacknor, where the lord’s castle loomed over the tight huddle of timbered houses and shops that lined the Kyntire River, but it remained small and quaint, protected in its mountain valley. A fair town, pleasant and friendly, but hard on a young person whose dreams of love did not fit the expectations of his kinsmen and neighbors.
Liam searched the crowd for his mother, Emma. The stout blonde woman with large green eyes that mirrored Liam’s stood at the end of the bridge. He waited until her gaze met his, and then he blew her a kiss. She waved back at him with one finger, meaning, Be careful
. The youngest of nine, Liam knew he held a special place in his mother’s heart as she did in his, and that it hurt her to see him leave on any journey, be it over the mountain pass or to farms in the upper valley.
There was some slight reason to be concerned, as the gifts the wedding party carried would offer sore temptation to brigands in the woods. But Liam wasn’t worried. The party was escorted by the sheriff’s only son, Deputy Axel Blackwood.
Emboldened by too much celebratory wine, Liam dropped back to where Axel brought up the rear. A near comically serious expression darkened Axel’s handsome face. This was his first solo job as deputy, and obviously he took his duty to guard the drunken lot of knaves very much to heart. The groom was his cousin Hough. They’d all grown up together in Breckenride. Went to school, learned to ride and hunt and swim.
Ah, the swimming.
Liam let his gaze sweep over Axel, tall and strong in the saddle, black hair blown rakishly across his stormy gray eyes by the breeze off the river. Liam adjusted in the saddle and held tight to the pommel so he wouldn’t slide off while still in view of the waving crowd, distracted as he was by memories of Axel’s nude figure in the swimming hole nearby. Axel had broad shoulders, a slim waist, and an ass that…well, that featured prominently in Liam’s increasingly lusty dreams.
Liam had been in love with Axel since he first had an inkling of what love might be. He’d set his heart and mind on Axel long before it dawned on him that men did not live together that way. He’d lived in sweet agony since his hero worship had grown into lust several seasons ago. This trip would be the first real opportunity they had to be together, to be alone in a crowded town of strangers.
Axel avoided looking at him, already peering into the forest that loomed ahead. Liam contented himself with riding by Axel’s side in silence. He knew the sweat beads gathering at Axel’s temples weren’t all about the pressures of his new job. The promise of finally doing something about the passion they both felt but had never expressed gave Liam a painful erection that he dearly hoped wouldn’t last the entire ride over the pass. He wondered if Axel was as swollen down there as he was, and that was a mistake.
He took a long drink from his water bag and sighed.
Axel cast a sideways look at him and scowled. “Why don’t you ride on ahead, Alloway, and keep my cousin from falling off his horse?”
“Not wanting my company, Blackwood?” Liam teased, though a pinprick of doubt made his stomach knot. Axel wouldn’t succumb to fear, would he? Ever since they’d found out about this trip, he’d been staring at Liam like he was starving and Liam was a succulent leg of lamb. Before that, really, but they knew. They both knew this was their chance. Didn’t they?
Axel looked over his shoulder. The bridge, the gate, and the crowd had disappeared as the party rode around the first bend in the road. The castle was still visible, banners streaming in the sunlight, and his gaze lingered on it a moment. A tiny smile crept across his face, and he said, “I look forward to keeping your company tonight.”
Even though it was what Liam had expected and hoped for, his skin burned from toes to ear tips. He looked straight ahead. Their companions had drawn ahead a bit, and paid Axel and Liam no mind. Irrational panic crept up to his heart and made it beat as fast as an army charging into battle. He peeked from under his lashes at Axel and saw the man’s smile had grown to wicked proportions.
Then it vanished, and Axel cleared his throat. “We’ve got a day’s full ride through woods full of brigands and threeves
. I need your eyes, Liam. You’re one of the few of this motley lot who isn’t swaying like a daisy.”
Liam instinctively sat up straighter and blinked away his swooning fantasies. “Threeves? They wouldn’t dare attack such a large party of humans, would they?”
“They’d dare anything. Father—the sheriff—has word of increased sightings in the mountains to the east. That’s why I’m alone on this assignment. With Lord and Lady Lacknor returning from Thorburn tomorrow, all the lawmen are busy securing the eastern highway.”
“You can count on my sword, Deputy. I hope I can count on yours.” Liam’s cheeks burned even hotter as he realized the unintended flirtation behind his words. “I don’t know about Hough, though,” he said hastily. “We might have to strap him to a donkey along with the chairs before long.”
Axel chuckled and then went back to dour deputy mode. Even grim, he was so attractive the mere sight of him quickened Liam's pulse. Axel had protected him since before he could remember, like an ever-present, comforting figure more real than Liam’s own brothers, more concerned than his own father. Though only a year older, Axel had always appeared to Liam as strong and invincible compared to Liam’s slight and entirely vincible sprite-like self. That was his mother’s word, sprite
. Fortunately he’d outgrown that stage and was now average height and as strong as any man his size, though he’d never be as powerful as Axel.
While it was fun to compare bodies, Liam realized he’d better take Axel at his word. He nodded and spurred his horse forward, enjoying the feel of Axel’s desire burning into his back.
They rode for hours, sun and horses climbing, growing hotter. The forest thickened and released its tangy pitch scent. Axel asserted his authority and confiscated what remained of the wine. Liam developed a headache as dappled sun mixed and danced with the deep shadows cast by the trees. He kept his overindulged friends propped up and their mounts on the correct trail, occasionally dropping back to flirt with Axel, but mostly keeping his mind on business.
Threeves were no laughing matter. All his life Liam had heard the horror stories about the wicked forest people, more animal than man, who used to rule the land before humans came and drove them deep into their murky groves. They practiced black magic older than the standing stones along the coast, older than the witches who still lived here and there, older than threeves themselves, some said.
Liam shivered. Though he’d only seen them once, he remembered many tales of threeve trickery. They weren’t known for their combat skills or bravery, but rather sorcery and mental confusions.
The trickery, when it came, chilled Liam’s bones, although he didn’t recognize it right away. In the most isolated grove of the winding mountain path, in a gorge where the creek passed between cliffs, the sky turned black as if from a thunderstorm. As the men muttered with displeasure and pulled up their hoods, threeves attacked. They fell out of the sky and burst from the ground.
Liam and three others gathered to protect the donkeys carrying the gifts while other men formed tight circles all along the line of horses and donkeys. They weren’t so drunk they couldn’t react to this sudden onslaught, and they struck down as many threeves as came close to their swords. Axel shouted instructions from the back, and it seemed the threeves stood no chance. Rain splashed Liam’s face, and he wiped it away, searching the undulating light and shadow for their attackers.
A ripple of black magic as visible as the motion of wind in the trees rushed over them. Gnarled trees came alive, and the ground buckled and dipped. A donkey carrying two cleverly carved chairs bolted up the path in terror. Liam spurred his horse into a gallop, breaking away from the safety of the group.
He wouldn’t let an expensive loss destroy Axel’s chances at becoming constable, nor would he let scoundrel threeves ruin his friend’s wedding. A few quick strides, and his horse caught up to the frightened donkey. As he reached for its halter, a threeve plummeted from an overhanging branch and crashed into him, knocking him from his horse.
Though small, the threeve was built like a brick, and the force of the blow struck all the air from Liam’s lungs. He rolled away from the kicking hooves of the donkey, struggling to breathe. Axel charged past on his horse and wheeled around, only to come face-to-face with the ax-wielding threeve.
Threeves were twisted and knotted creatures, all muscle and no heart. Axel couldn’t get past the one between them. Liam clambered to his knees to help but found he couldn’t stand or even lift his arms. The pain of rough bark scraping his skin finally drew his focus away from Axel and to his own predicament.
Roots from a nearby tree had snaked into the road and wrapped around his wrists, his waist, his ankles. Threeves appeared in droves and fought back his friends who tried to help him, Axel in the forefront. The deputy was killing threeves almost as fast as they appeared, but not fast enough. Liam struggled in vain as the tree tightened its grip and dragged him into the thick undergrowth.
The ground opened beneath him, and he sank into it, followed by a rain of threeves. He was so paralyzed with fear he didn’t try to scream or cry out. Axel downed his man and charged, but at that moment, a surge of roots, mud, and rocks rose like an ocean wave and closed over Liam, blocking out the world as he knew it, smothering him in blackness.
The last thing he heard was Axel’s voice calling out, “Liam!”