A New Male/Male Fantasy Romance by Award-Winning Author Shawna Reppert!
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The Scathlan elf Kieran journeys through mortal lands in search of new songs and tales to renew his people’s dying culture. His most cherished, most impossible hope is to rediscover the powers of bards from legend in order to wake the queen, in a stupor since the end of the war between his own people and the Leas elves.
Kieran accidentally wanders into Leas lands, and a fall from his horse leaves him injured and at the mercy of his enemies.
He discovers that the Leas are not entirely as he believed them to be. He develops a friendship with the Leas healer-prince, and the two work together to recreate an ancient technique for melding bardic and healing magic, a technique he secretly hopes will wake his queen.
As friendship deepens into love, will they find a way to heal the rift between Leas and Scathlan, or will the old enmity destroy them?
Kieran had made a serious mistake; his stomach churned sourly with the realization. Wind blew as cruelly as the breath of the ice-dragon in the Ballad of Barran, driving white, wet flakes against his face, his hair, his already-sodden clothes. Despite the bitter cold, sweat darkened his mare’s gray coat in streaks. He patted her shoulder in apology and urged her on. The only slim hope they both had for surviving the night lay in moving forward.
He had only himself to blame if he died out here, but his poor horse had not taken part in that decision.
Kieran was surrounded by snow and gray rock and the occasional bare, gray tree thrashing against a slate sky that darkened with encroaching night. He could see no sign of habitation, no shelter to speak of.
Maybe over the next rise.
He had though the path he followed was a bridle path or at least a peddler’s track, but now he wondered if it had just been a deer trail. It had risen, and dipped, and risen again, but here, clear of the thick forest, he could no longer deny he overall ascended the mountain. Did mortals dwell in higher altitudes? The ones he’d encountered before all seemed to prefer to farm the fertile valleys.
His hands ached with cold, and he wondered how long it would take for them to warm up enough to play, should he find some place to exchange a few songs for food and a roof to sleep under. The cobwebby tightness he felt in his chest did not bode well for his singing voice. Nor did the congestion that made his head feel twice its normal size.
What was all this cold and damp doing to his harp? It nestled in its protective case, carefully wrapped in oilskin, but still the weather couldn’t be doing it any good.
The harp had been his father’s, as had the sword at his side. He was rather more skilled with the former than the latter, though he could take care of himself well enough.
He thought fondly of the warm, cozy village inn where he’d slept last night, of the orange glow of the fire in the huge hearth. His stomach rumbled, remembering the savory stew the innkeeper had been pleased to serve him in exchange for songs and stories to entertain his guests.
That inn was nearly a day’s ride behind him. Yes, he could have asked them the distance to the next town, asked for advice as to the road ahead. But he’d been having far too much fun playing the mysterious, all-knowing elven bard, coming from nowhere to nowhere on a whim.
A poor legacy he had become for the great bard his father had been if he ended up dead on the road like some beggar, and all a result of his pride and folly. Doubtless few he’d left behind would be surprised at his end. Likely they’d just shake their heads. Crazy Kieran. Talented, but impulsive. Entirely too foolhardy.
Some, at least, might miss him. Brona would. Surely more would miss his music.
The mare lost her footing in the snow just as the path dipped. She slid for a few dangerous lengths before regaining her balance. She snorted in alarm. Kieran murmured to her soothingly.
The snow had started well after noon. By that time, he had gone hours without seeing an inn or even a farmhouse, and decided his best chances lay in pressing ahead, though all he could see was endless forest. Then even the trees became sparser, smaller, and bent, stretching away from the fierceness of the prevailing winds. Stark, black rock rose up through the snow drifts like the teeth of the mountain. The sun sank low, and the air grew colder still.
Kieran shivered convulsively. He could no longer feel his hands.
Fortune had favored him for weeks into his sojourn. The mortals were kinder and more generous than he’d expected, eager for music and in awe of his strangeness. A bard was a rarity, an elven bard something out of legend. That they recognized him at all, and that they were surprised at his dark hair, set whispers of caution running through his mind, but he ignored them. He’d shared songs and stories, gathered material to be worked into new tales and ballads. He represented an old tradition, and one nearly dead now. Kieran’s father had been the last elven bard to honor it, in his own youth, centuries before.
At least, his father had been the last Scathlan elf to follow the tradition. Kieran knew nothing of the Leas elves, nor did he care to know, so long as they stayed far away from him.
By setting out in the world his own people had long abandoned, he risked encountering his people’s enemies—the Leas elves had been responsible for his father’s death and, indirectly, his mother’s, as well as his stillborn brother’s. Ironically, mere cold and snow proved a bigger threat.
Reckless, old Cyrna would say. Reckless and irresponsible.
She’d said it often enough in the years she’d put into raising him to his majority. He’d given his old nursemaid plenty of opportunities.
The mare raised her head, alert, ears pricked hard forward. Kieran’s hearing, far keener than a mortal’s, didn’t quite match that of his elven horse. A few moments later, he heard what had caught her attention.
Thunder of hooves, belling of hounds, and voices calling back and forth. He turned his mare toward the sound. She picked up the pace of her own accord, breaking into a trot.
Closer still, and he could make out the words. Could he be mad from the cold? That sounded like his own tongue which he had not heard spoken for nearly a month.
His own tongue, yes, but the accent was wrong. His people, and yet not his people.
He reined the mare in. She pinned her ears and pawed but obeyed the command. The coming night meant certain death unless he found shelter and warmth. The Leas he was less sure of. They were still elves, after all. He was alone, and a bard, and a stranger in need. Even the meanest mortal crofter would not refuse him a place at the hearth under such circumstances.
He remembered the stench of blood and the moans of the wounded and dying, before the healer’s aide found him and shooed him from the infirmary. His four-year-old mind had struggled to grasp that other elves had done these terrible things. Not animals, not even mortal men, but elves. Leas. He’d had nightmares about Leas, fueled by what little he’d heard of them. Like his people, and yet unlike. Pale-haired, with mouths twisted in awful cruelty.
He had never met one face to face, though they were distant kin to his kind. He felt a morbid curiosity about those who had been responsible for the destruction of his family and his queen.
The sounds of the hunt came closer, and Kieran realized he had been sitting frozen, like a rabbit in the hypnotic stare of a fox. He shook himself. Maybe he was not the bard his father was, after all, but he was all the hope his people had, whether they acknowledged it or no. He’d be damned before he yielded meekly to the foe.
Kieran turned his mare, ignoring her rumble of protest. He urged her to a gallop. She refused. He clapped his heels into her sides as though she were a mortal’s nag. She bucked in shock, then lunged forward.
The shouts behind him changed in tone. He had been spotted.
The mare labored in the deep snow drifts, skidded, floundered, and pitched to her knees. His cold-stiffened limbs reacted too slowly. He tumbled over her head, landing on his back. His father’s harp broke beneath him with a sickening crunch that echoed forever against uncaring rocks.
The mare struggled to her feet, but the dark shapes of tall, powerful horses were coming upon him, close enough now that he could see the fair hair of the riders escaping from under their hoods. Not enough time to remount, and too many of them to fight.
The horses pulled up in a semi-circle around him, blowing clouds of steam with each breath. Several of the riders dismounted. All wore swords, and all moved as though they knew how to use them. All were pale and eerie beings out of his nightmares.
Kieran spared a moment’s regret for the music that would die with him and for the home he would never see again. If this were the end, he hoped it would be quick and clean.
Alban shook his head at the sweat-streaked coat of the stranger’s mare. Irresponsible. He handed his reins to his squire, then turned his attention to the fallen rider who had just become his problem, at least until he could get the fool to his father’s hall.
Why had the man tried to flee? Yes, he was trespassing, but the Leas and the mortals were on good terms. The worst the interloper would face was a lecture from Alban’s father before he was returned safely home. No other shelter lay within half a day’s ride, and with night and the storm closing fast, being taken in by the Leas offered his only chance at survival. What was the man doing here in the first place, so far from any mortal settlement?
Best get the horse and the fool to shelter and sort it out later. He approached the stranger with a hand out to help him to his feet—and froze.
He registered features just as fine and angular as his own—elf!—and hair black as the heart of all darkness—Scathlan!
Alban had never expected see one in the flesh, though the war between their peoples had shadowed his life since before his birth.
Scathlan. Cold. Proud. Ruthless. Elves, yes, but elves bloodthirsty enough to slaughter their own cousins over a small slight of honor.
If the Scathlan had had their way, he would have never been born. The love that had brought him into being had also birthed the bitterest war in the long history of elvenkind.
Footsteps crunched in the snow. Alban turned to face Eamon, his swordmaster and hunting companion. Eamon knew far more of the Scathlan than did Alban. He had known them before the war, when there had been peace between their peoples and civil, if stiff, relations between them. He had fought them in the war, and still bore a nasty scar from a Scathlan arrow in his thigh that had left him with a limp in cold weather.
Eamon had twice his years and had been his mentor since he was a child. Still, he deferred to Alban here because Alban was the lord’s son, even though Alban wished he would take the decision from his hands. Alban couldn’t show hesitance or weakness by conferring in front of the enemy. The Scathlan was yet another responsibility on his shoulders, and none of his choosing.
Maybe the Scathlan was a spy or perhaps an advanced scout. He didn’t look dangerous. To be honest, he looked scared, and cold, and miserable.
Looks could deceive.
Everyone—the Scathlan, his own companions—were waiting for him to take charge of the situation. As King Toryn’s son, he had responsibilities. He drew himself up.
“What are you doing on Leas land?” Alban asked in his coldest voice.
The stranger gave a sharp laugh. “Believe me, if I had known this was Leas land, I would have stayed far, far away.”
“I don’t. Believe you, that is. I know how far your dwellings lie from here. How could you possibly end up here by accident?”
The stranger glared at him with eyes as black as a crow’s. “By following my nose.”
“To what purpose?”
The Scathlan’s smile showed false, his shrug insolent. “Only to chase songs from inn to inn, like a lark flitting from tree to tree.”
“Liar.” Alban stalked toward the Scathlan whose very presence threatened the peace and the lives of his people.
The stranger tried to rise and flee. He floundered, and his scream rent the darkening sky. The Scathlan must have injured himself in the fall and been too numb with cold and the shock of the fall to feel it until he tried to stand.
Alban pushed pity aside, pushed aside the healer’s instincts that were part of the Leas royal birthright. This was a Scathlan elf who would kill Alban if he could.
The Scathlan scrambled backward, dragging one leg and revealing the remains of a harp that must have broken beneath him when he fell.
Alban knew a little about harps; his mother played and had even studied under an itinerant Scathlan bard before the war. From what he could see of the pieces that spilled from the smashed case, the instrument had once been a fine travel harp.
The Scathlan wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword. Alban wondered if he even knew how to use it. He wore no armor, and wasn’t even properly dressed for mountain weather in this season. He looked like nothing more than the wandering musician he claimed to be.
Alban couldn’t kill the Scathlan in cold blood, not for merely trespassing. Leaving him here, injured and with the snow falling and night setting in, would condemn him to a slower death. Though every instinct screamed against bringing a Scathlan into his father’s hall, he had no other choice.
The wind blew harder. Alban pulled his fur-lined cloak closer about him. He wanted to get out of the cold and get the stranger to shelter. It would be easier if the stranger cooperated. Alban’s approach, to this point, had not been particularly conducive to encouraging cooperation.
He took a deep breath, concentrating on his empathy for the stranger’s misery and setting aside his antipathy for the stranger’s race.
He forced a smile and approached the Scathlan. “What is your name?”
“What business is it of yours?”
“I could say it is my business, as you are trespassing on our lands.” Matching the stranger’s hostility wouldn’t help; Alban took a calming breath. “But let’s set that aside for the moment. You’ve gotten yourself into a bad spot, Scathlan. Even an elf can’t survive a night on the mountain this time of year, and I take it you’re injured, besides.”
“Whatever you want from me, you’ll not get it. I’d rather die.”
For certain, the Scathlan had a bard’s flair for the dramatic. “I can’t imagine wanting anything from your kind. But tempting as it may be, I can’t let even a Scathlan elf freeze to death. My name is Alban, since you didn’t ask, and I am prince of the Leas. You will be a guest in my father’s hall.”
“Guest? Prisoner, rather. At least speak the truth.”
Alban’s tenuous hold on his temper started to slip. “Believe me or don’t, it makes no difference to me. But I can’t leave you here to die, and there is no other option. If there were a mortal village anywhere near, I’d be only too happy to dump you at the inn with enough coin to cover a bed and meals.”
The wind gusted, blowing snow into his face. He shivered. Past time to end this conversation and return to the warmth of his father’s hall.
Alban took a step toward the stranger, reaching out to help him to his feet.
The stranger crawled backward, struggled to his knees, and awkwardly drew his sword.
Alban stopped, more in astonishment than fear. The Scathlan had courage. Not much sense, but courage to spare.