Book 3 of The Golden Key Chronicles
For two years Prince Caedmon suffered in the dungeons of Seviere’s keep, leaving him with more than just lash marks lacing his back. He now retains the secret behind the key, and is the only one who understands its grim connection to his beloved Rowena.
Torn between telling her the truth and risking their future, he agrees to join her perilous quest. But their enemies to the north are not the only menace determined to see them fail and, to prove his love, he must conquer the demons of his past.
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Rowena sprang to her feet. Someone was coming. And based upon the thundering hoof beats and thrashing branches tearing through the forest behind her, whoever it was cared little for masking their approach.
Dammit. All night and late into the next evening she’d ridden as if the devil himself had pursued her. She’d purposely stayed off the roads, traveling the old tracks instead, and even stopped several times to set false trails. Not until Helios approached the western horizon and she’d discovered this small clearing inside a copse of thick evergreens had she happily made camp. Her body ached with exhaustion, but her fatigue was a small price in return for the confidence that she’d finally put enough distance between her and the realm of Austiere. Surrounded on all sides by dense trees, the hidden location ensured the smoke from her fire would remain concealed. No one would be able to get close without providing plenty of warning.
The dull pummel of incoming hooves increased and she gritted her teeth, kicked some dirt over her small well-made fire and rushed for the nearest fir. A flick of her hand and Dart took wing, disappearing into the forest just above where she’d used a small wire wicket to tether Belial. Whoever was coming had better have their affairs in order. They were about to be on a first-name basis with the nine.
The bark prickled and dug into her palms as she swung hands to feet up the branches, ascending to mid-tree height before she crouched on a sturdy branch on the balls of her feet.
Exhibiting all the grace of an enraged bull, a hooded rider crashed into her camp. The horse’s dancing halt disrupted her bedroll, flinging dirt all over her plated dinner. Jerk. The intruder had to be male, what with this presumed sense of entitlement, thinking nothing of ruining her perfectly arranged camp, soiling her property. She eased two sliver blades from the sides of her leather pants and fisted the slender handles in her grip.
Hello, stranger. Care to dance?
In a fluid movement which contradicted his initial appearance, the rider leapt off his horse and knelt before her sputtering fire. The sides of his cloak billowed past his shoulders. Thick muscle pulled his leather pants taut around his thighs. And those arms… the black vambraces…the leather cords encircling his biceps.
She slumped. Well, for the sweet love of Helios. Exactly how far did she have to travel to get away from the man?
Prince Caedmon pinched a bit of ash between his thumb and first two fingers, rubbed them together and lifted them to his nose. Rowena squinted past the branches as he rounded the fire and approached her saddlebags. He squatted to rifle the contents, his back facing her, his hood hiding his profile from view. She scowled. Most likely, his intent was to drag her kicking and screaming back to the castle. But she wasn’t about to sit idly by while he got his grubby mitts all over her supplies.
She sheathed her blades and swung silently to the ground. Motions steady and even, carefully shifting her weight, she reclaimed her knives as she side-stepped twigs and piles of dusty leaves. For all her caution, her concerns were unwarranted. The big ox was so preoccupied with searching her belongings, she could’ve easily stomped all over the place without distracting him.
A soundless bounce on the tips of her boots and she pounced, knees straddling his wide back, crossed blades pressed along the thin skin under his jaw. “I’m officially pissed off,” she hissed in his ear. “And if you plan to see tomorrow, you’ll do exactly as I say.”
The next instant she was flying backward through the air. Her teeth clattered on impact and her blades scattered as she landed on her rump in the dirt. She shook her head to regain her bearings.
How in the hell had he dislodged her so quickly? And which hurt worse? Her bruised ass or her pride? She quickly scrambled to her feet.
Tendons flexed and every muscle in his arms bulged as Prince Caedmon tore the cloak off his shoulders and chucked the garment aside. A silver chime hummed through the air as he unsheathed his sword from the scabbard at his back and fisted the hilt at his side. Anger smoldered in the depths of his chocolate-brown eyes, but if that fierce glare was meant to make her shriek and scamper into the woods, the man and his stubborn male pride had another think coming.
She notched up her chin and met him scowl for scowl. Not for one second would she let him intimidate her. No constructs governed the ways of the forest. Out here, survival was the only decree, and if risking injury was the price for her freedom, she was happy to end this test of wills come what may.
“It’s time you learned a thing or two, my love.”
Ha! Could he be any more condescending? On a click and whirr, her wrist blades snapped home and she hugged her chest, widening her legs into her warrior’s stance. “Too bad Denmar’s not here to save your ass. It’s high time we settle our differences once and for all.”