DAINON PACED up and down the stone-flagged hallway that led to the royal chamber, his mind in turmoil. When the king’s messenger had arrived at the barracks, demanding his presence immediately, Dainon had been at a loss. He’d wondered briefly if it was a mistake before leaving his chores and hastening to the palace.

Why should the King wish to see me? Dainon was no one special, merely a warrior in the Kandoran army. Waiting in the quiet hallway only served to exacerbate his nerves.

Behind him, the vast, aged, wooden door to the royal chamber creaked open. “His Majesty will see you now, Dainon.”

He gave a brief nod to Sefarr, chief adviser to the king, and strode into the chamber, his gait firm, back straight, chin lifted high, his momentary knots of unease pushed aside, replaced by the demands of duty. The doors creaked shut behind him.

King Rohar stood by the window at the end of the long throne room, gazing out, his brow furrowed. He turned his head briefly at Dainon’s approach and gave him a single nod of recognition before gesturing to a chair placed before the throne.

For a moment Dainon faltered. Since when does a warrior sit in the presence of the king?

Then he noticed they were the only two in the room. No advisers, no warriors. Dainon’s unease returned, his stomach churning. He fought back his shiver at the unusual nature of the meeting.

The king apparently caught his apprehension. He turned to regard Dainon, his young face prematurely lined, his formerly bright eyes dulled. “Yes, Dainon, sit. I would speak with you.”

Dainon did as instructed, his back still straight.

The king walked slowly across to the throne and sat, his movements heavy with weariness. He pulled his robes around him and clasped his hands in his lap before meeting Dainon’s gaze. “Doubtless you are wondering why I sent for you.”

“Yes, Sire.” Dainon had served as a warrior since his eighteenth year, but he had no status within the army, save for acting as a trainer for the new recruits.

King Rohar’s deep blue eyes did not break contact with his. “I need your help,” he said simply.

Dainon pushed out his chest and lifted his chin higher. “Tell me what you require, Your Majesty.” His voice came out strong.

The king regarded him in silence before nodding. “Yes, you are the one for this mission.” It was almost as if he was saying the words aloud to convince himself.

Dainon’s mind seized on the one word that carried such import: mission. “What would you have me do, Sire?” Why would he choose me?

“You have dwelt in Kandor all your life. You have lived, as I have, through the darkest point in its history, so I will speak plainly. It would not surprise you if I were to say the kingdom is in dire straits.”

The king’s utterance was no surprise at all. The epidemic that had laid waste to a third of Kandor’s inhabitants had left the kingdom struggling, even sixteen years later. Dainon’s chest tightened as grief stabbed at his heart with its habitual barbs, but he breathed deeply and focused on his king.

“A sad but accurate statement, Sire.”

The king nodded slowly. “Since I became King, it has been my desire to see Kandor thrive once more. With this purpose in mind, I wish you to go to Teruna.”

Dainon stiffened at the unexpected request. “Teruna, Sire?” That kingdom lay three days’ travel to the east of Kandor, and the two lands had once been in conflict. Dainon had never seen Teruna, but like many Kandorans, he had heard the tales brought by those who had.

King Rohar’s gaze grew more intent. “Surely you have heard the rumors? The stories that abound of how Teruna is flourishing, its Seruani emerging in great numbers and with more powers and gifts than ever before?”

“I have heard the tales, yes.” Everyone had. It seemed each day brought more news of the neighboring kingdom, though how much was fact was unknown. Dainon had wondered on several occasions whether the tall stories were apocryphal.

“This, then, is your mission. You are to travel to Teruna and learn the truth. If all we hear is true, then perhaps our neighbors might be in a position to grant us aid.”

“Your Majesty….” Dainon hesitated, unsure of how to phrase his question in such a way so as not to overstep the mark.

The king smiled, his expression lightening. “Speak, Dainon. I chose you because of all my warriors, I trust you. I have watched you, how you act with integrity and honor. The captain of the royal guard speaks highly of you. He says your instincts are good.” He paused, his expression growing more serious. “I have need of those instincts, so feel free to say what is on your heart.”

“Sire, why not visit King Tanish? Surely you would be able to judge for yourself.” It seemed strange to send a warrior. Surely so important a mission calls for a diplomatic visit.

King Rohar pushed out a heavy sigh. “There is too much history between our two kingdoms. Let us not forget my uncle would have forged ahead with his plans to overthrow Teruna had he not been taken from us in the first wave of the plague. And it may be that the Terunans cannot help us. Given all that I have said, I admit it may be unrealistic to assume they would even countenance such a thing. Therefore, I need you to go there ahead of me.”

“Am I to be a spy, then?” The thought did not sit well with Dainon, and his unease must have been palpable.

King Rohar shook his head, his expression grave. “No, nothing so clandestine. Visit the kingdom, find out what you can, but do not hide your origins if people should ask. They do not need to know that I have sent you, however. When you return to me with your report, I shall decide what steps need to be taken, if any.”

“If half of what we hear is true, surely Teruna will help Kandor. They are a peaceable people by all accounts.” Dainon had heard nothing to make him think Teruna would react aggressively. King Tanish was close to his own age, if what he’d heard was true, and it was said that he was a wise ruler.

There were other stories shared about Teruna’s king, however, that were far more… fantastical.

King Rohar’s deep voice pulled Dainon from his recollections.

“They are also a people whose former ruler once led them into battle when Kandor threatened them in the past. They may be peaceful now, but I doubt old hostilities could have been forgiven and forgotten so soon.” The king pierced Dainon with a direct glance. “Do you accept this mission?”

Dainon rose to his feet and stood at attention. “I do, Your Majesty. I will serve you faithfully in all things.” He knelt on the cold stone, his head bowed, pride swelling within him that the king should have chosen him. “When would you have me leave, Sire? And how long must I spend in Teruna?”

“You shall leave immediately,” the king informed him. “As for how long, I leave that in your capable hands. When you judge that you have enough information to help inform my decision, then you may return.” King Rohar rose from his throne and crossed the floor to lay his hand on Dainon’s head. “I send you out with my blessing. Learn all you can and then return to us, my faithful warrior. Return to your home.”

Dainon swallowed, his throat tight. He had lost his home sixteen years ago.

When the king stepped back, Dainon rose to his feet and dipped his chin toward his chest. “Your Majesty.” He left the chamber, head still held high. When the doors closed behind him once more, he relaxed. He walked along the hallway, nodding in passing to the royal warriors who guarded the palace. Not that Kandor had need of such a thing. Those days were past, the army merely a tradition to be upheld and maintained. Kandor had nothing to fear from invaders.

It had already lost its most precious possessions.

He walked over to the balcony that overlooked the city, his mind not seeing the day-to-day bustle of Kandor’s inhabitants going about their lives. Instead he saw the funeral processions of years ago, so many of them, winding their way in silence toward the hills where Kandor interned its dead. Sixteen years had passed, and yet Dainon remembered with startling, painful clarity that day when he’d followed the slow progress of the carriage that had borne his Tarisa, his beautiful Merron, to their final resting place.

Will the ache ever truly fade?

Dainon thought not. How could one ever get over the loss of a soul mate?

 

 

HIS SADDLE bags were packed, his sword in its sheath, and his supplies for the journey laid across his mare Tarrea’s broad back. Dainon had no way of knowing how long he would be away from Kandor, but years of training had enabled him to pack the essentials. The skills he had acquired as a new recruit, however, were fast becoming a thing of the past. There remained but a few warriors who had survived the plague. Dainon knew all too well how they were regarded by the younger members of the Kandoran army, who had never known battle and were dismissive of Dainon’s rigorous training methods.

He was not deaf to their grumblings. Their duties consisted of guarding the royal palace, maintaining order within the city walls, and patrolling Kandor’s borders. Since no threat to the kingdom’s safety existed, and skirmishes were virtually nonexistent, nothing taxed their skills or provided them with the excitement they’d craved upon choosing a life in the military. Certainly nothing like the life Dainon had known when he’d become a young warrior. He could recall being in his early twenties, the air alive with the anticipation of war when King Ceros had taken the throne, determined to vanquish any and all who stood in his way.

Dainon pushed away his memories. Such reflection could wait.

He had a mission.

“Ready to begin an adventure, girl?” he murmured, stroking Tarrea’s mane. She whinnied and pressed her nose against his chest. Tarrea had been his quiet joy since the days when he’d broken her in. Dainon made sure she was treated with the utmost care, ridden lightly and only by him. Not that she was a girl anymore.

He stroked down her neck, his touch gentle. “You’re getting to be an old lady, aren’t you?” He knew the span of a horse’s life. Tarrea would not be his for much longer, and the thought made his heart quake. She had been in the army as long as he had. There was always a tightening around his heart when he remembered Tarisa bringing their little boy to the barracks’ stables. Merron had been three the first time he’d laid a tentative hand on Tarrea’s flanks, and she had been so gentle and still around him.

Dainon fought the painful memory, pushing it down hard. The years might have passed since he’d lost his beautiful Merron, but time had not diminished the ability of that memory to pierce him with its sharpness. Besides, he knew the memories would return to haunt his thoughts in the middle of the night when he’d awaken alone in his bed.

Nights were always the worst.

He stroked Tarrea’s warm nose and gazed into liquid brown eyes. “Time to go, my beauty.”

In the early morning light and with no fanfare, Dainon left the barracks that had been his home since Tarisa and Merron were taken from him. He had not lived in the years that had passed since then, merely existed. Nothing had filled the hole left by Tarisa’s death; he had never once imagined that something could. When the epidemic had passed, there had been those who suggested it was his duty to take a new wife while he was still in his late twenties, to aid Kandor in its efforts to repopulate. He had chosen not to do so, however, preferring instead to bury himself in his military obligations. As a member of the old guard, Dainon had taken it upon himself to train the new recruits, but the heart of the army had died along with the thousands of Kandorans claimed by the fever.

Dainon kept the pace steady, determined not to tire Tarrea beyond what he felt she could endure. By the end of the afternoon, he had left the city behind him and was riding toward the mountains. The day was a perfect blend of warm temperature, subtle breezes, the call of birds high in the sky above him, and a clear path to follow. When he came closer to the mountain pass through which he had to travel to reach the farthest borders of Kandor, he stopped for the night. After ensuring Tarrea was comfortable, he threw a blanket on the ground and lay on his back, gazing up into the starry heavens. Beside him a small fire crackled, its noise a welcome, almost cozy intrusion.

His mission intrigued him. The stories concerning Teruna had begun to circulate a few years before the plague had struck. Tall tales that spoke of magical, mystical happenings that could not possibly be true. But as the years had passed, more tales found their way to Kandor. Dainon was proud to have been chosen, but the opportunity to finally learn the truth was an even greater incentive. A far more subtle one was the chance to break free of the cycle in which he found himself ensnared. His grief was always present, a thick cloak through which little penetrated, but for the first time since their deaths, Dainon ached to feel the warmth of the sun on his skin, to bare his body to the elements.

Can it be that I am ready to cast off grief? His memories of Tarisa and Merron were both comforting and torturous. He clung to them, his greatest fear that in putting them aside, he would somehow lose his precious recollections, that their faces would grow dim in his head. I cannot lose her. She was my life, my soul. There will never be another like her.

He closed his eyes to the brilliance above his head and sank into a dreamless sleep.

Morning brought peace, albeit accompanied by a stiffness in his limbs. Dainon fed Tarrea and ate some of the fruit he’d brought. Once they were back on the path, the mountain range rose up before him, gray and forbidding, its peaks topped with snow, glowing pink in the light of the rising sun. The pass was wide enough for a carriage to travel through easily. It was a route Dainon knew well, having spent many a tour of duty patrolling between the city and the border. He trotted through the familiar pass, its dark granite walls climbing steeply, the air cool where little sunlight penetrated. When he emerged into the warmth once more, the full rays of the sun falling over the land before him, Dainon’s heart quaked. For the first time in his life, he was about to leave the only place he’d ever known, the land where he’d been born. He was bound for a kingdom where, if the tales were to be believed, magic existed.

Once upon a time, Dainon had believed in magic. Had he not felt that buzz of… something when he’d first touched Tarisa’s hand? Some innate sense that had told him she was the missing piece of his life, the other half of his soul? But losing her had robbed him of his beliefs.

He was forty-four. He was too old to believe in magic.

 

 

DAINON’S PROGRESS was slow, but he was in no hurry. He traveled by day, pausing to rest and eat, and at night he slept on the ground, a small fire burning beside him, a rough blanket beneath him, and the stars sprinkled across the black night sky, too numerous to count. When he reached a river, he bathed in its cold waters and refilled his water bags. Five days of travel past Kandor’s boundaries brought Dainon to the sea, and the ocean took his breath away.

He’d come over the crest of a hill and there it was before him, spread out as far as the eye could see. The size of it, the vast expanse of sky across the horizon, the way its hue was reflected in the rolling waves, an ever-changing, constantly moving carpet of color and light…. Dainon had read of such things, but his first encounter with the sea left him in awe. The lakes where men fished in Kandor were tiny in comparison, and although Dainon had learned to swim in their waters, he yearned to dive beneath these huge, tumbling waves and feel them lift him up, support him. He wanted to sink below the surface and discover the mysteries hidden in its depths.

Dainon leaned over and patted Tarrea’s neck. “Shall we ride along the shore, girl? Kick up some sand?” She had earned a rest, as they’d been traveling since daybreak at a steady pace. He descended the hillside at a slow trot and followed the crooked path down through a rocky outcrop to the beach, its outer edges mainly shingle but giving way to white sand where the waves crashed in, all froth and lace. They trotted along the shoreline, the sound of the incoming tide loud after the quiet of his journey.

What brought him to a halt was the view of a saddled black horse tethered to a rock roughly half Dainon’s height. Five days without a single person crossing his path and his ears yearned for another’s voice, but there was no one in sight. Dainon scanned the beach, searching for some sign. He came to a stop and climbed down from Tarrea’s back before reaching for the food bag to hang over her ears. “Have a rest, girl.” He tethered her reins securely around another craggy boulder and left her to eat.

Dainon walked over the soft sand that firmed where the tide had washed over it. The air was salty and fresh, coming off the sea in cool wafts that made his skin tingle and revived his senses. He longed to take off his sandals and dip his hot feet into the cool water. Then he remembered that time was his own. He could do whatever he wanted.

He perched on a rock and removed the heavy leather sandals, dropping them to the ground. The breeze over his heated flesh was very pleasant. Dainon stood on the cool, damp sand and let out a sigh of contentment.

“It feels good, does it not?”

He jerked up his head and stared at the figure emerging from the waves. The young man was tall and lean, with bronze skin and toned muscles. He was perhaps in his early twenties, with light brown hair and blue eyes, the hint of a scruffy beard along his jaw, and the merest hint of hair on his chest. Water dripped off him, what remained beading on his glowing tanned skin.

Dainon caught his breath, shaken by his body’s reaction to the nude figure. Dainon had grown up in the company of warriors and was accustomed to nudity, but for some reason, the sight of all that toned olive flesh disconcerted him. The young man’s torso rippled with muscle, with a clearly defined vee where it dipped to his groin. His hips were slim, leading to toned thighs, and his penis, long even when flaccid, was the same warm color as his skin. It spoke of time spent nude in the sun, and the thought sent a shiver sliding down Dainon’s spine, though he had no idea why. He brushed aside his unaccustomed discomfort and rose. “After a long journey, it feels wonderful.”

The young man came to a halt before him, apparently unperturbed about being naked in his presence. “Have you traveled far?” he asked in a clear, rich voice.

“About five days on horseback,” Dainon replied.

The young man’s eyes lit up. “Where have you journeyed from?”

Mindful of his king’s instructions, Dainon replied truthfully. “From Kandor.”

Cool blue eyes regarded him with interest, but then the stranger tilted his head. “You appear weary. May I offer you some hospitality? My home is not far from here, and I can promise you plentiful food and a comfortable bed for the night.” Before Dainon could reply, he plowed on. “Please, do not refuse me. It would be no trouble, and I have been brought up to show kindness to strangers. Indeed, if my fathers knew I had not made such an offer, they would be ashamed of me.”

Fathers?

Perhaps Dainon was more tired than he had realized. And he couldn’t deny the idea of sleeping in a bed was extremely appealing. It had been many years since he’d spent more than one night on the hard ground, and he yearned for the softness of a mattress.

“Your offer is a welcome one,” he admitted, “and I would be a fool to turn you down.”

The young man’s face lit up, his eyes bright. “Excellent! Then perhaps I should introduce myself. I am Arrio, and I dwell in the city of Teruna. My home is only an hour or so from here. Shall we ride together?” He glanced down at his body. “Although I should probably dress first.” His mischievous smile was a delight.

Dainon extended his hand. “I am Dainon of Kandor.”

Slim, cool fingers wrapped around Dainon’s. Seconds later, the jolt that shot up his spine, lighting every nerve ending, froze him into stillness.

By all that is holy.

Dainon stared at their conjoined hands, his brain struggling to process what his body was telling him. Only once before had he experienced such a phenomenon, and in such different circumstances that he was left shaken to the core.

“What…?” He sought the words, but they remained tantalizingly out of reach.

“Is something wrong?” Arrio’s brow furrowed. “You are pale, almost as if you are on the verge of collapse.” He put his arm around Dainon and eased him into a sitting position on a nearby boulder. When he broke contact to move to his horse and grab the cream robe that lay across the stallion’s back, the sensations ceased abruptly.

Dainon found his voice. “Who… who are you?” It was on the tip of his tongue to ask what the young man was. Surely there was something… magical about him, some unearthly force that clung to him in an attempt to unseat Dainon’s reason. It would be the only explanation for what he had experienced.

I have felt such… power before. And the memory of it was as sharp as if it had been yesterday.

When I first felt the touch of my Tarisa’s hand in mine, and knew her for what she was—my soul mate.

The question appeared in the forefront of his mind before he could stop it. Then who are you, Arrio, that you should have such an effect on me?