Stefan of Caeli
Stefan of Caeli
Set in Stone
Set in Stone
Rhys prepares to rescue Stefan
Rhys crouched at the shadowed edge of the thinning forest and stared up at the imposing castle carved into the rock near the apex of the mountain. A single path led from the forest up to the curtain wall and iron gates that barred entrance to the kingdom he believed to be Caeli.
Twilight descended as he studied the terrain. He sensed a few deer as they passed through the trees and the occasional bird, but little else.
Rhys frowned. Once he left the shelter of the trees, he would be in the open until the time he reached the gate. There were no large boulders or rocks to cover behind in case of attack. No trees to shield him from arrows. As a warrior, he hated stepping into the open when potential danger lay near. As a mage, he had an advantage the average human did not.
Sending his senses seeking out, he probed the surrounding area for magic. He felt nothing other than the power of nature. The energy of the plants, animals, and sky that wove his world together and maintained order. Unfortunately, he couldn’t search out magic at much of a distance without revealing himself. It would have to do.
Rhys backed further into the trees, away from any who might keep a well-trained eye on the forest. Before he could approach the kingdom of Caeli, he must send word to Nikolai and Raina. If he were to meet the same fate as Stefan, he would leave a map to find him. It was the only hope he had in case the worst should happen.
Meus and Omen munched on grass out of sight of the main path. Neither horse paid him any heed as he approached. Rhys opened the leather saddlebag strapped to Meus and retrieved a few pieces of parchment, some wax, a quill, and the stub of a candle. He found a rock with a bit of a flat side and knelt next to it. He lit the candle and set it upon the rock to provide enough illumination to work by. Calling upon his magic, he fed it into the quill and began his first letter.
To Nikolai, he wrote of the mountain pass and the way to locate them should he and Stefan both disappear. He described the dangers of the town of Sarkany and the tavern, along with the discovery of Omen.
The next missive was to his sister, Raina. Rhys grinned as he tweaked the magic, using a spell specifically for his sister. He’d been practicing this particular spell, hoping for just such an opportunity. How he loved to tease her.
With a chuckle and a murmured incantation, Rhys cast the spell. When Raina received the letter, it would read itself to her using Darius’s voice. He only wished he could be there to see her face.
His heart warmed. Raina was the only family he had now and he wanted only her happiness. She’d been mortified when Rhys revealed he knew what was in her heart. But how could she keep such a secret from him when he knew her every facial expression? They’d had only each other for so long. He’d known the moment she realized that she loved King Darius. One day, his king would have to see the gem before him. Indeed, Rhys often wondered if Raina wasn’t the reason the king had shown no interest in marrying yet.
He brushed his thumb over the parchment and began to write. He instructed Raina to alert Darius to what he knew of Stefan’s disappearance and where to locate them if needed.
Rhys paused, reluctant to scrawl the next words of his letter. Drawing on his resolve, he told her about the ward in the forest. In the time since he’d left the ward, he’d seen no one, but knew better than to cling to false hope. Raynard would send someone for him. For her safety, he ordered Raina to stay within the shielded walls of Elandra. He would take what shelter he could within Caeli.
He signed the letter, knowing that his safety would be short-lived. He couldn’t stay in Caeli forever. Eventually, he would have to face Raynard. Rhys didn’t need to see the future to know the verity of it.
Sealing both letters with a daub of wax, he held them aloft, one in each hand, and envisioned each recipient. Silver light sparked on his fingertips and lit up the parchment pages. Both letters dissolved in a shower of silver sparks.
The last piece of parchment was the most important. Adjusting his magic a final time, he wrote a missive to the royal family of Caeli. The spell wove around the quill, changing his script into that of Nikolai’s. It provided Rhys with permission to petition the king or queen of sovereignty on behalf of King Nikolai of Semar, who sought his only brother.
Once finished, Rhys daubed wax onto the parchment and held his hand over it. His magic stirred, leaving Nikolai’s royal seal imprinted neatly into the wax. This alone would get him past the gates. He only hoped that once inside Caeli, that he could find Stefan with little incident.
Rhys removed his vest and slipped a clean tunic over his head. One that covered the intricate tattoos that scrolled down his arms and labeled him a mage. He didn’t have the gift to disguise his white hair and silver eyes, but hoped that the missive would be stronger than the guards’ suspicions of his heritage. Slipping his leather vest back into place, he tied the laces and tucked the missive within. He could delay no longer. Snuffing the candle, he tucked it and the wax away. He mounted Meus and tied Omen’s reins to his saddle, then led the horses out of the trees and onto the path.
Raina receives Rhys's message
“Don’t forget the false hedgehog.”
Raina sighed and set the small blade aside from where she’d been chopping the false hedgehog, a small white mushroom, into pieces for her spell. “Zeph…”
“You forgot the last three times. I am simply trying to remind you.”
She wrinkled her nose, making a face at him. As a mostly, non-corporeal entity, Zeph couldn’t see her. Being blind, she couldn’t see his reaction anyway. The action made her feel better all the same. “I am preparing it now.”
Her shoulders sagged. “I am worried for Bastien. He’s not been the same since he returned from Aquina to attend King Lorcan’s midsummer celebration.”
“You said you couldn’t sense danger, only fate surrounding the celebration.”
“True.” Yet she couldn’t shake the sense that something wasn’t right. Bastien seemed more aloof than normal.
Like her king, Darius, she hadn’t trust Lorcan. Not that she’d met him. But the whispers coming from the kingdom of Aquina didn’t sound positive. And when Bastien returned with the tale of King Varic’s return to the throne, it seemed they’d been right to question Lorcan’s motives.
Raina turned away from her chopping board and counted the few steps that took her to the worktable. She stirred the mushroom bits into the dry mixture of herbs within the small cauldron. “I’ve added the false hedgehog. What is the next step?”
Zeph was quiet. She frowned and turned her head toward where she’d last heard his throaty voice. They’d been friends for years and normally, she couldn’t quiet him. His friendship was invaluable. Not only did he read the spells from her books to her, but he listened when she needed to talk and laughed with her over his pranks. He loved to move items around her worktable just to get a rise from her. Nothing that would make her trip or find harm, mind you. Just enough to remind her that she belonged in this world. That not having sight didn’t make her less than the people around her.
“Raina… it is not Bastien you worry over. Have you spoken with Darius?”
Heat flooded her cheeks and she was grateful that he couldn’t see her. “Not since a few days past when the guards from Aquina came. Why do you ask?”
“You know to what I refer.”
She cleared her throat and tucked a stray hair up into the haphazard bun at the base of her neck. It dropped down her back again.
“You must tell him,” Zeph pressed.
“To what end?” she said, spinning around to face his direction. “He could never…”
Her words trailed off as the pungent smell of magic permeated the air. A moment later, the soft pop and thud of a message appearing and dropping onto her worktable filled the room.
“Your brother writes,” Zeph said.
Raina snorted. She didn’t need Zeph to tell her that. Her brother was the only one who sent messages in such a way. “Will you read---“
“I think there is no need---“
The sound of parchment opening met her ears. Moments later, a silky, decadent voice filled the air.
Raina’s heart dropped to her toes and bounced back with a pounding flutter that nearly brought her to her knees. She swore as heat flooded her cheeks for the second time in just minutes. “Does everyone know?” she demanded to no one. “If he wasn’t my brother, I’d turn him into a toad and feed him to a wild animal.”
“Start over,” she commanded Rhys’s missive. Unfortunately, she’d missed the beginning of the message in her embarrassment over Rhys’s joke.
“Yes,” Zeph purred, sounding closer. “Raina would hear the words again and again.”
She swore anew, wishing she could whack him with her staff. Sadly, it would pass right through his form.
The letter instructed her to give Darius a message and hinted at some danger that King Nikolai’s brother, Prince Stefan, may have found.
“He could have sent the missive directly to Darius,” she said when the message finished reading aloud in Darius’s husky voice.
“Ah, but if I know Rhys, part of his ploy was to put you in Darius’s path,” Zeph said. “He may have wanted to keep the other portion from Darius. It is not good to alert a king that you perhaps bring trouble to his gates.”
Raina bit her lip, wishing she were more than a mage, and a Nemesi at that. And that Darius was less than a king. Maybe then… No, there was no future for them. She tucked the wish away where it didn’t pain her and took up her staff. She must find Darius to share Rhys’s news.
“Shall I burn the missive?” Zeph asked.
Raina gripped her staff and shook her head. “If you were corporeal, you would have permanent bruises on your shins.”
He laughed. “I take that as a no, my lady Raina.”
She smiled despite herself. Zeph knew she wouldn’t part with the letter. Not when she could now hear Darius’s seductive voice any time she wanted. She had Rhys to thank for that. Tucking the fallen strand of hair back into her bun yet again, she opened her chamber door and sought out the man who owned her heart.
Thomas and Jeffrey visit Gregore, Prologue
February 1860, England
"Sir." Someone tapped his shoulder. "Sir, some gentlemen are here to see you."
Gregore Trenowyth peeled an eye open to find the wavering, blurry face of his manservant, Reginald, standing over him. He stretched and opened the other eye. Blinking didn’t seem to make Reginald’s face any clearer. "What is it?" Gregore asked. He reached for the half empty glass of bourbon and chased the sleep away with its contents.
"Mr. Kingston and Mr. Whetmore are here to see you, Sir. They say it is most urgent." Reginald’s stoic voice grated.
Gregore looked at the prone form laying on the bed before him. His father had barely moved since drifting off into blissful sleep. Gregore returned his attention to Reginald. "What is the hour, old man?" He unfolded himself out of the chair by his father's bedside, stretching limbs too long in the same position.
"Just after noon,” Reginald said with a scowl.
"Hmmm." He'd been in that chair since the afternoon, yesterday. No wonder his body ached and his valet frowned. He scrubbed a hand over his face, patted down unruly hair and tried to look awake. "Show me to them then. Let's get this over with."
Leaving his coat over the back of the chair, Gregore followed the man out of the chamber and into the hall. At nearly sixty years of age, Reginald still walked tall, if a bit slow. Gregore could hardly find fault in that. Reginald had served him and his ailing father since before Gregore had memories to call his own. And with Gregore’s father so near to death, he welcomed the loyalty and patience the old man exuded.
“Will you keep an eye on him while I see to my guests?” Gregore asked. He needn’t have. He knew the answer.
“Of course, my Lord.”
Gregore nodded and descended the stairs. Excited voices rose from the foyer below. How long had it been since he’d seen his friends? A fortnight? How long since they had spent real time together? A year?
A squeaky step beneath Gregore’s foot caught the attention of his friends. Both stopped short and looked at him in shock. Gregore cocked an eyebrow in question.
"I thought you said that you had come to care for your father, not the other way around," Jeffrey Kingston said.
Gregore scowled. Kingston didn't even flinch. Jeffrey was one of a few men who stood eye level with him. Solidly built from years of work on his family's aging estate made him a man that most wouldn't trifle with. Gregore wasn't most men. Thomas Whetmore was shorter and stockier than both, with a mane of light brown hair and blue eyes. A dimple in his left cheek assured that every woman from here to London was his with just a smile. Jeffrey and Gregore never stood a chance with Thomas around.
"What he means is, you look like hell mate," Thomas added, quite cheerfully.
Gregore would have thrown them both out right then if it weren't for the laughter in their eyes. He was genuinely glad to see them, even if they did make sport of him at every opportunity. He speared Thomas with his scowl, just to be fair. "And the two of you are at your Sunday best?"
Both men snickered.
"If you gentlemen are done with your insults, perhaps you would care to attend lunch in the dining room?" Reginald said from behind them.
Gregore smiled at his friends. "What is the afternoon without insults between friends?"
"Indeed," Jeffrey laughed, clapping Gregore on the back. "Let's go see what cook has for us. Then we must talk business."
Tara takes Gregore to Maddy's cabin
Tara merged onto the highway and forced her fingers to loosen their death grip on the steering wheel. Gregore silently observed her with his glittering blue eyes. Tension crackled between them as a pulsing, living being that roared into life at her question. She knew he didn’t want to give up his secrets. People never did. Five years as a cop had taught her that.
Aunt Maddy may have a certain magic but Tara could work her own magic in an interrogation room. Time to put those skills to use here. She took a deep breath to release more of the tightness in her body. She stretched each arm and all ten fingers, then rubbed at the stiffness in her neck. Gregore’s fingers joined hers, easing away the muscle strain with his firm touch.
“I want to help you,” she said, not really knowing where the words came from. “But I have to know where you’re coming from. “But I have to know where you’re coming from.” She paused to lock eyes with him, then turned her attention back to the road. “I need to know the truth.”
Gregore continued his gentle massage. He was quiet so long that she began to think he wouldn’t answer at all. Still, she waited. People always talked to fill the silence. In this day and age of constant noise, people couldn’t seem to be content in quiet. But did that same rule apply to the man next to her? She didn’t know. Tara stole another glance at him.
They were over half way to the cabin when Gregore spoke.
“I had to find that book, Tara. I’ve spent the last hundred years tracking down every relative, each offspring of that gypsy tribe. Every branch of a wandering group of people who have circled the globe. My search led me at last here. To you and Aunt Maddy. Since she was the eldest, I went to her first.”
“Wait, are you saying that Aunt Maddy and I are descendants of the people who cursed you?”
He gave a single nod.
Tara pondered that new bit of information and slowed to turn onto the mountain road leading to the cabin. It was more of a deer trail, she thought, as the mini bumped over potholes. A man searching for the key to his salvation coming to the end of his search after a hundred years, would have to be desperate. Tara stopped the car in front of the cabin and shut off the engine.
“Why didn’t you just try to kill us and take the book?” she whispered.
She met his gaze and was immediately swallowed by the longing in his eyes. Companionship, need and hunger swirled in those midnight blue depths. His hand on the back of her neck tightened and he drew her to him. His kiss claimed her as no other she’d ever experienced. His lips parted hers, seeking her tongue to tangle with his own. Heat and passion ignited in her body and she leaned into him, wrapping her arms around his neck to pull him close in the small space of the car.
Each masterful stroke heightened her senses. Her breasts pressed against his chest, the thickness of their clothes and jacket separating them. Where he fierce need to throw herself at him came from, she wasn’t sure. And didn’t care. There was no room for more thought. Just his mouth on hers. His tongue coaxing hers into a rumba of fierce passion.
Gregore cupped her face in his hands, his thumbs softly stroking her cheeks. It felt as if he savored her. He tasted like sweet honey and Tara wanted more. His hand stroked down the smooth line of her neck, settling at the juncture to her shoulder. She slid one hand up into the thick richness of his hair, curling the dark locks around her fingers to tug him closer.
He gently broke the kiss but stayed in the close breath of space o her lips. “You taste like heaven,” he whispered.
Tara leaned in, brushing her lips once more over his, then settled back into her seat. The gear shift had pressed into her thigh, giving her a slight pain now that her blood wasn’t concentrating elsewhere.
Gregore rubbed at the fogged-up windshield, making a hole large enough to peer into the darkness. Just ahead, the small log cabin lay nestled in the trees. Moonlight glinted off the snow-covered roof in small patches.
Tara had to lean over to see it. The side windows and her side of the windshield didn’t fare any better from their heated kiss. She laughed, feeling like a teenager. “Let’s go before we make an attempt at the backseat.”
She could swear she heard him say he’d be willing to try as she climbed out of the car. She hadn’t been serious about the backseat, but something about being that intimate with the sexy man beside her made her heart pound. In a bed at least. The car was just a concussion waiting to happen.
Tara shook herself mentally. She hadn’t had a relationship in years and she couldn’t start now. Not even with the sexiest man to walk the planet in one hundred fifty year. Or was that for one hundred fifty years?
Grabbing up the lantern, she headed for the cabin. “Get a grip, O’Reilly,” she muttered to herself and then wished her brain didn’t supply a whole list of things for her to get a grip on. At the front door, she thrust the key in the lock and glared at him.
He cocked an eyebrow in question.
“Every woman you meet turns into a swooning teenager, don’t they?” She clicked on the camping lantern and stepped over the threshold.
“Only the special ones,” he said.
Tara could swear she heard a teasing note in his voice, but when she looked, his face was unreadable. No doubt about it. She had misspoken. Not a teenager. A sex-crazed female who would launch herself at him with the least probable cause.
“All right buddy. Step away from the pheromone treatments. Nothing more to see here.” His rough laughter brought a smile to her face. She suspected that he didn’t laugh enough.
Gregore closed the door and set down the bag of food she’d had in the car since her apartment lit up like a bonfire. At least they’d be useful out here.
He helped her find the circuit breaker and in a couple of minutes she was able to turn on the lamp in the sitting room in front of the fireplace. There was a kitchen with a small table to the left of the door, a sofa in front of the fireplace to the right and a double bed against the wall on an antique frame straight ahead. Beside it was an old armoire. A door leading off to the right led to the bathroom with a claw foot tub, shower head, toilet and sink. A single cabin meant only for the occasional respite. Certainly not meant for winter use. The room was freezing.
Gregore inspected the fireplace and tested the chute. Seeming to find all in order, he said, “I’ll go find some wood.”
Tara nodded. “There’s a small wood shed out behind the cabin.”
When he was gone, she went to the armoire and removed sheets, pillows, and several blankets. She almost had the bed made when he returned with an armload of dry wood and kindling.
“There used to be a woodshed behind the cabin,” he said, setting the wood onto the grate. “Now there is a large wood pile in a slight resemblance to a woodshed. Covered in snow of course. The dry stuff was underneath what used to be the walls.”
Tara spread the second blanket over the bed. “Thank you. I’ll mention it to Aunt Maddy.”
He had a blaze going with the skill of an Eagle Scout. Tara joined him and held her cold fingers out to the warmth.
Gregore cleared his throat. “I’ll sleep on the couch.”
She nodded and told him to take a pillow for himself. He smiled and went to get another blanket from the armoire. How was it that things didn’t ever seem to be awkward between them? Her last two boyfriends, which were before she’d become a cop, had been nothing like this. And her instincts, though screaming of danger, were talking about something altogether different than what she was used to.
The man was dangerous with a capital-friggin-D!