Radiance (Wraith Kings #1)(6) by Grace Draven

He shrugged.  “I’ll live.”

“After that vile meal we all choked down for you, don’t bet on it, cousin.”

Brishen hid a smile.  Anhuset was closer to him than his sibling had ever been.  She was also his lieutenant and second-in-command of his troop.  Deadly in combat and fiercely loyal to him, her death threats were empty one.  He remained wary though.  She’d have no compunction trying to beat him bloody if he annoyed her too much.

“My wife wishes to leave now,” he said.

His eyes widened as the courtyard exploded into a frenzy of activity and several enthusiastic toasts to the new hercegesé.  Ildiko had scored her first victory with her Kai family, and she wasn’t even here to witness it.

They were loaded, saddled and on the road as the moon began its descent toward the dawn.  Normally he rode at the head of his contingent, but this journey was different.  With Ildiko’s dower wagon along, they’d have to travel the main road through bandit country.  Brishen’s first duty was to protect his wife, and he rode beside her, surrounded by two dozen armed Kai.  He was armored himself and bristling with weaponry.  Ildiko hadn’t balked when he helped her buckle on one of Anhuset’s breastplates.

“Is it so dangerous then?”  She chewed on her lip and stared down at the armor encasing her torso.

Brishen adjusted the buckles and checked the seams at the shoulders to make sure she was comfortable.  “It can be.  It’s a heavily traveled trade road with caravans ripe for the picking.”  He handed her the traveling cloak her maids had set aside earlier.  “Don’t worry, Ildiko.  They’ll think twice about attacking us.  We’re not tinkers, and we’re heavily armed.  It’s not only the Gauri who know of the Kai fighting skills.”

She’d been awkward in the armor and shy around his kinsmen.  They had averted their eyes when she first approached them but bowed low and offered their congratulations to her, along with a salute of loyalty.

Owl hoots accompanied the creak of wagon wheels and the clop of horse hooves, along with the rustle of night creatures that hunted in the forest bordering both sides of the trade road.  Ildiko’s eyes were closed, and she began to cant in the saddle, sliding toward Brishen.  He nudged his horse against hers.

“Ildiko, wake up.”

She opened her eyes, the ever-changing pupils expanded to swallow the blue irises.  “Is it morning?” she asked in a slurred voice.

Brishen slid further back on the saddle pad, slipped his arms around Ildiko and lifted her from her saddle.  He plopped her in front of him.  “Not morning yet, but you’re about to fall off your horse.  If you won’t sleep in the wagon, you can ride with me.”

She nodded and nestled into the cove of his arms, metal armor clanking between them.

The Kai prince held her against him, learning her warmth and her scent.  The feel of her was no different from the Kai women he’d embraced.  She was just as warm, her oddly colored skin just as smooth, her hair equally soft.  With her asleep, he could tilt his head and gaze at her profile without the distraction of her eyes.

He’d observed the noblemen of the Gauri court as their gazes followed Ildiko during the wedding ceremony.  While Brishen didn’t find her beautiful, it was obvious to him the Gauri men did.  Still, he didn’t regret this union.  Ildiko was unique and witty, and he enjoyed her company.  It was a promising start.

Brishen settled her closer to him.  He stiffened suddenly in the saddle at a whisper of sound.  “Shields!” he bellowed and shoved a startled Ildiko toward his mount’s neck.

CHAPTER FIVE

Ildiko woke abruptly to a mouthful of horse’s mane and the weight of Brishen’s body smashing hers to the saddle.  The air around her hung thick and dark, and it took her a moment to realize she sheltered with Brishen beneath the dome of his shield.  Something struck the metal with a hammering ring.  Brishen rocked sideways, his arm and shoulder flexing against her side as he absorbed the impact of the blow.

Ildiko clutched the pommel as the animal shied and pranced beneath her.   Another hammer blow struck the shield.  She gasped as she was suddenly swung to the ground and just as quickly encircled by an armored wall of Kai soldiers.  Their armor glinted dull and their eyes shone bright in the dying moon’s fading light.

She yelped as a hand pushed her to the ground.   “Stay down, Your Highness!” a female voice commanded.

Ildiko didn’t protest as a chorus of twangs broke from the trees, followed by a volley of black splinters that arced into the lightening sky before falling toward them.  She crouched, covering her head with her arms.  Metal rang on metal as arrow points struck shield faces.

They were under attack, and what very little she could see from her lowered position behind the barricade of Kai protectors, they were pinned in place, unable to flee or even engage the enemies who sheltered in the trees.

That soon changed.  Horse’s hooves echoed from the forest depths.  They were joined by battle cries and screams of pain.

The road where they stood exploded into chaos.  Men dressed for secrecy and ambush bolted into the open, pursued by newly arrived Kai cavalry in support of their brothers and sisters.  The shield circle around Ildiko broke.  She was jerked to her feet and came face to face with one of the Kai women she’d seen at the wedding.  Brishen had introduced her as his cousin Anhuset.  Those nacreous eyes stared at her unblinking.  “Follow me, Highness.  Step lively.”

Ildiko recognized the voice—and its authority—and sprinted alongside the woman until they reached the supply wagon.

Anhuset tugged her down.  “Under the wagon, Highness.  Stay out of sight and don’t move.”

She didn’t give Ildiko a chance to argue but bodily shoved her beneath the wagon frame.  Ildiko dropped to her stomach.  From her flattened vantage point, she saw mostly running feet.  The Kai woman stayed close and was soon joined by three more of her compatriots.

Ildiko searched for Brishen in the melee as their party, no longer outnumbered, clashed with their attackers.  She glimpsed him fighting back to back with another Kai warrior.  They faced a group of bandits.  Brishen’s partner fought with sword and shield.  Brishen, however, fought as no Gauri nobleman ever would.

He wielded a small bearded axe in one hand and a hunting knife in the other.  The knife’s blunt side was  braced against the line of his forearm, the sharpened edge faced out.  Brishen moved as all his kind did, quick and nimble as a cat.  He slashed and stabbed with the knife, cut and cleaved with the axe, using the beard to hook his opponent off his feet.

Ildiko prayed for his safety, for all their safety.  She abruptly lost sight of him as a wave of bandits rushed her guardians.  Anhuset answered with an eerie war cry.  She and her companions leapt at their attackers.  Ildiko huddled behind one of the wagon wheels and peered between the spokes.

She wanted to help, but she knew nothing of combat and was already a hindrance to those who would guard her.  Except for her eating knife tucked into her belt pouch, she was weaponless.  The best she could do was follow Anhuset’s instructions: stay out of sight and out of the way.

Her heart pounded in her ribs, and she tasted the bitter flavor of fear on her tongue.  She gasped when something grabbed her ankle and yanked.  Ildiko clutched the spokes and stared over her shoulder.  She screamed at the sight of a bandit, filthy, bedraggled and splashed with blood, clawing his way up her skirts.

She kicked at him, managing to clip him in the chin.  He jerked back with a howl before lunging at her a second time.  Ildiko scuttled on her backside and elbows from the wagon’s compromised shelter.

She stumbled to her feet and found herself standing in the middle of the battle.  Her Kai protectors fought and wrestled with the enemy, unaware Ildiko’s hiding spot had been discovered.  She lifted her hem, prepared to run, though she had no idea which way she’d go.  The bandit who had attacked her made the decision for her when he rounded the wagon and stalked her, waving a knife and sporting a leer that promised a gruesome death.

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