The Song and the Sorceress
by Kim Vandervort
The new fantasy novel by Kim
Vandervort.

Journey with nineteen-year-old Ki’leah
Alrhiane Del’Sivahr, who flees an
isolated life as High Princess of Si’vad
to run away with her lover, the Palace
Bard.  When he fails to meet her on the
road, fate sweeps Ki’leah into an
alliance with a band of men and women
known as the Fey-Velahr, a select
company sworn to destroy Lyarra, the
dormant sorceress—one of the
legendary Rahar, thought to have
been eradicated from Sildehna
centuries earlier—before she wakes to
seek a devastating claim to the
Northern Kingdom.  

Despite her doubts and inadequacies,
Ki’leah soon discovers that she is
necessary to their mission.  For she
alone possesses information, carefully
guarded within the lore of her royal
ancestors, that will unlock the final key
to Lyarra’s whereabouts.  But Ki’leah
must rush to solve the riddle, for
another also journeys deep into the
mountains of Norr—not to destroy
Lyarra, but to wake her. . . .
Cover art (c) MarjoleinART |
Fabinus08,  Asiavasmun, Julia Kharlamova,  Sgc,  
Reno12, Dreamstime.com |
Hadley Rille Books
Book specifications:
Title: The Song and the Sorceress
Author: Kim Vandervort
Publisher and imprint: Hadley Rille Books
Number of pages: 360
Dimensions: 6" by 9"
Hardcover ISBN: 978-0-9785148-1-5
Trade paperback ISBN: 978-0-9819243-8-0
Cover price: HC $28.95, TPB $15.95
Release date: August 15, 2009
"This coming-of-age epic maintains its
dramatic tension from the first
scene...Vandervort's dynamic
characters, surprising story turns, and
unabashed romance will leave readers
eager to follow the continued
adventures of this sword-wielding
princess."
-
Booklist

"VERDICT For fantasy readers who like
strong-willed and determined heroines."
-
Library Journal
Kindle Version
(order direct from the publisher below)
Map of Sildehna Copyright (c) Ginger Prewitt

    THE DRUM OF HOOVES BROKE THE NIGHT.  At a curve in the
    road, the lone rider jerked her horse to a halt and edged toward the
    forest.

    "Where are you?" Ki'leah whispered, glancing back down the road.  
    She was late; he should have been there already, waiting.

    She slipped her hand into the pocket of her breeches and wrapped
    her fingers around Daelen's note, comforted to find it still there.  
    Midnight.  The road east.  I will be there, he had written in his neat,
    sloping hand.  She pictured him seated at the narrow, ink-stained
    desk in his quarters, sleeves rolled to the elbows and his black hair
    curling over the back of his collar.  The tension in her shoulders
    eased.  He would come.  He had promised.

    But where was he?  She shifted in the saddle, gathering her cloak
    around her.  Daelen was never late.  He was detained, that was all.  
    She thrust aside grim images of Daelen thrown from his horse in his
    haste to reach her, of the Guards taking him prisoner and dragging
    him, shamed and broken-hearted, through the city streets.  No.  He
    was too smart, too swift.  

    "He will come," she said aloud.

    The leaves littering the road stirred and took flight.  Branches
    cracked and swayed.  Ki'leah pulled her hood forward, trying to shut
    out both the chill and her growing apprehension.  Perhaps she had
    ridden too far; turning, she nudged her horse back the way she had
    come, all the way back to where the main road from the city had
    forked east and west.  

    In retrospect, the road east had not made for a good meeting place,
    but their options had been limited.  Setting up a rendezvous with her
    lover too near the palace would have been disastrous, and she knew
    of no place inside the royal city of Khaeil Andarrah where she could
    avoid recognition.  The road had proved the best of many bad
    options.  Even so, the Palace Guards were sure to ride out as soon as
    her ladies-in-waiting reported her missing.  She had half-expected
    Si'vad's elite military order to have caught up with her before now.  
    And if they did. . . .

    She shuddered and pulled her horse up short at the thought.  She
    dared ride no closer to the city.  Perhaps he had gone farther on? She
    swerved her mount away and retraced her path down the road.  

    Ki'leah paced from the eastern fork to as far as she dared go alone
    until she lost all sense of direction, jumping at the slightest noise,
    praying that the Guards would not catch up to her before Daelen
    found her.  But there was no sign of her lover.  No travelers at all
    along that long stretch of road.  Only I am fool enough to travel the
    roads tonight, she thought bitterly.  Not even Daelen had braved this
    storm.   

    The thought struck her like a blow.  She shook her head, fighting
    against the truth she could not accept.  As much as she wanted—
    nay, needed—to believe some serious misfortune had delayed
    Daelen's arrival, the reality was that she had trusted him to meet her
    in the dead of night in what threatened to be a fierce storm, and he
    had not come.  

    Grief churned into anger.  She swept tears away with the heel of her
    hand and crushed his note in her palm, its presence no longer a
    comfort.  Was it a lie?  A trick?  Had he sent his reply, then alerted
    the Guards to her plan?  To what end?  After all, Daelen had
    encouraged her to rebel against the marriage her parents had
    arranged.  Daelen had professed his words of love and fanned her
    hopes.  

    Now Daelen had abandoned her on the road.  

    She pulled the note out of her pocket and held it up to the shrouded
    moonlight.  

    I will be there, he had written.  The ink bled, staining the page,
    blurring the letters into meaningless black.  Weeping, she recounted
    stolen kisses, ink-stained hands rough against her skin, seductive
    laughter warm in her ear, the steady beat of a true heart matching
    hers.  

    No more.

    She would wait no longer.  She held up the ruined parchment and let
    the wind take it.  

    Lightning knifed the sky and thunder cracked, startling her.  The
    storm broke in a wall of rain that sheeted down, roiling the road into
    a sticky morass of black mud.  

    He had not come.  So be it.  As her last hope fled, cold fear settled
    in.  She was lost, abandoned with no knowledge of the world outside
    of the royal city, and she could not go back.  

    Ki'leah struggled with the most important decision she had ever had
    to make.  She could continue on the road, seeking safety in speed, or
    head into the forest and its unknown dangers, perhaps finding a dry
    place to weather the storm and elude the Guards.  With luck, she
    might even stumble upon the hidden forest city of Cel'velahd; word
    of her flight would not yet have reached Lord Erich, and he would
    not dare refuse sanctuary to the king's only daughter and heir.  

    As a roll of thunder receded, Ki'leah caught the drumbeats of horses
    on the road.  Not Daelen.  Too many for that.  Without a second
    thought, she yanked the reins and made for the woods.

    A short distance in, the forest thickened.  Towering trees muted the
    storm, but even they could not shield her from the water that
    streamed from every branch, pooled into the underbrush, and soaked
    through her thin cloak and commoner's clothes.  Fighting panic, she
    guided her horse through the tangled branches, praying that the
    storm and darkness would cover her tracks well enough to
    compensate for her lack of speed.    

    "Easy," she crooned, smoothing her hand along the neck of her timid
    mount.  "It is naught but the storm."    

    Her horse stopped abruptly, flicking his ears forward.  She bent
    close, soothing him with a calm she did not feel, but the horse would
    not budge.

    Then she heard them.  Voices, mingling so well with the sounds of
    the storm that she had mistaken them for the rush of wind.

    Bandits.

    She reached for her dagger.  

    "Show yourselves!" she shouted, hoping she sounded braver than she
    felt.  

    Her breath came in ragged gasps as she edged the skittish horse
    forward.  Branches cracked and snapped on every side, whether
    under the weight of water or man she could not tell.  The rain and
    wind blinded her.  Lightning flashed, illuminating the faces of men
    crouched directly ahead.  Ki'leah's horse reared; she screamed and
    tumbled into darkness.    

    *      *      *

    Ki'leah awoke with a start, her head pounding.  She touched a newly-
    stitched gash over her left ear, her breath escaping in a soft hiss as
    the cut throbbed.  Fighting panic, she sat up on the straw mattress
    and struggled to recall how she had ended up here, in a tiny wooden
    room with only one door and an inadequate window, through which
    the afternoon sun slanted onto the tidy planks of a clean-swept floor.  
    She remembered waiting for Daelen on the road, the storm, and
    falling, then nothing.

    Was she guest, or prisoner?  A glance around the sparsely-appointed
    room offered no answers.  A plain wood chest, a table and two
    chairs, and her bed were the only furnishings, but the room felt
    comfortable enough—and dry.  

    She started as the door creaked open and a heavy step announced a
    visitor.  Ki'leah sighed with relief when she recognized the tall man
    who ducked through the door frame.  Although they had never met,
    she had seen Lord Erich of Cel'velahd at court on business with her
    father.  An attractive man, his isolation in the secretive forest city of
    Cel'velahd lent him more than his share of mystery and female
    attention.  

    His hair reminded her of Daelen's, thick, black, and long enough to
    nestle at the nape of his neck, while his noble features and careworn
    brow marked him as a man who bore the weight of responsibility and
    good judgment.  His plain clothing fitted to his broad shoulders and
    lean frame.  His deep grey eyes were his most remarkable feature, as
    difficult to look into as they were to look away from.  

    "Princess Ki'leah."  He bowed.  "Your presence in Cel'velahd is an
    unexpected honor."  His expression, though polite, implied
    otherwise.  

    "Lord Erich."  Wincing as the effort tugged at her wound, she set her
    back against the wall.  "I assure you, I had no intention of coming
    here."  Not entirely the truth.  Cel'velahd owed fealty to the crown in
    times of war; nothing more.  She was well aware that Lord Erich
    was the only man in her own country who could successfully shelter
    her from the wrath of her father.  

    "You took a nasty fall.  You are fortunate my scouts found you."  

    "‘Fortunate?'" she repeated, touching her bandage for emphasis.  
    "They frightened my horse so badly I am ‘fortunate' to have
    survived."  She paused, slipping the pieces into place.  "They were
    searching for me?"

    "They watch all those who cross our borders."  Erich dragged a
    chair to her bedside and sat down.  "Why was the High Princess of
    Si'vad wandering the forest during such a storm?"  

    Ki'leah searched for a plausible answer.  She settled upon the truth.

    "I was to be married off in less than a fortnight to the King of
    Sahtamor.  Last night, I fled.  I had hoped. . ." she stopped short of
    telling him about Daelen.  "I got lost," she finished.  "You know the
    rest.  But I have betrayed my family, my country.  I cannot go back."

    Ki'leah considered her next move.  The Palace Guards would have
    lost her trail on the road by now, and even if they suspected she had
    headed into the wood, they would not dare cross Lord Erich's
    borders without his leave.  Perhaps she need not run, at least not
    right away.  If there was a chance of sanctuary. . . .

    "The people of Cel'velahd wish no quarrel with the king."

    She cast him a mutinous look.  "My father need not know I am here."

    "You cannot stay, Princess.  You may rest here until you are well
    enough to be on your way, then I will have my men escort you home
    and we will trouble each other no more."

    Her shoulders dropped.  Had she expected a warm welcome?  A life
    of exile and reliance upon Lord Erich's hospitality and secrecy to the
    end of her days?  

    "Very well."  For now, she added silently.  

    Erich nodded and rose.  "There is water here for washing.  When
    you are ready to eat, come to the door.  Someone will guide you
    from there."  

    "Wait—"  Being left alone suddenly terrified her.  "No need to trouble
    your people further.  I will come now."  Refusing his assistance, she
    stood, grimacing as the world lurched before settling back to
    normal.  Stupid horse, she thought, wishing she had stolen her
    father's fearless warhorse instead of taking her own pampered bay.  
    For the first time in her life, she wished she had chosen usefulness
    over appearance.  

    She straightened her shoulders and turned to the bowl and pitcher.

    "I will wait outside."  Erich closed the door behind him to afford her
    a few moments' privacy.

    The water helped.  Her clothes, which had been soaked through,
    were stiff and uncomfortable, but at least she felt less grimy.  

    This is not how I had planned this day, she thought, fighting back
    tears.  She had imagined waking in Daelen's arms, not filthy in the
    Forest City with nary a friend in the world.  A hope that Daelen yet
    searched for and would find her whispered.  She shoved it aside.  
    Either the Guards had taken him, or he had abandoned her to the
    night and the storm.  If he had not come before, he would not do so
    now.

    Lifting her chin, she strode through the door, only to be thrust back
    by Erich's outstretched arm.  

    "Careful."  

    She questioned him with a look, then gazed out from a flat, wooden
    balcony nestled high in the trees, part of an elaborate system of
    platforms, walks and stairways linking countless small houses, all
    built into and around the massive trunks and branches of trees.  Each
    construction was unique, as the structures were designed around the
    natural irregularities of the trees.  Some houses were long and
    rectangular, some square and small; still others were made up of
    many-angled walls.  All appeared well-crafted and sturdy.  In many
    cases, houses were built onto several branches at different levels.  
    Across the elaborate bridges, stairs, and platforms moved people
    dressed in shades of brown and green, carrying on the business of
    ordinary life in their extraordinary setting.  

    Ki'leah swayed with a touch of vertigo and was thankful that Erich
    had prevented her from charging forward.  Otherwise, her plans for
    a new life would have been short-lived.  She turned to tell him so, but
    he had already started the steep walk down.  

    "Where are we going?" Ki'leah asked breathlessly, working to catch
    up.  Though she was tall for a woman, he was at least a head taller
    with a stride to match.

    "You are fortunate to have arrived on a feasting-day," he shouted
    back, by now a good distance ahead of her.  "Nothing compared to
    what you are used to, I expect, but my people will welcome you, all
    the same."

    Ki'leah brushed at her ruined breeches and tucked in her rumpled
    shirt in a futile attempt to make herself presentable.  After running a
    quick hand through her tangled hair, she declared it a total loss.  
    Despite her bedraggled appearance, she was eager to see what a
    feasting-day in this legendary city entailed.

    They made their way down the steep spiraling paths through the
    trees until at last they arrived in a wide open square edged with
    several long wooden tables.  In the center stood a fire pit where two
    giant boars roasted.  Several men and women tended these or made
    other preparations nearby.  Men, women and children bustled about,
    cheerful that the rain had stopped and eager for the evening's
    festivities to begin.

    The people of Cel'velahd constituted quite a disparate group.  Many
    women wore long woolen skirts and vests, with brightly colored
    ribbons that sashed their waists and fluttered in their hair to mark this
    day as extraordinary.  Other women dressed like men in breeches,
    wide-sleeved shirts, and vests, with swords at their hip or quivers of
    arrows on their back.  Children of every age dashed about.  Ki'leah
    watched them all, conscious of her status as a stranger.  They
    returned her scrutiny with interest.  She flushed as some of the
    younger women took stock of her ruined clothes and dirty hair and
    twittered to one another behind their hands.  A few of the men
    coughed, too gentlemanly to mock a woman.  Others watched her
    with a mixture of sympathy, envy, curiosity, and admiration, for
    even bedraggled, Ki'leah was a striking woman.  She briefly
    wondered if any of them recognized her, then dismissed the idea.  
    Unless these men and women had ventured to the palace, which she
    doubted, they would have had no occasion
    to see her.  Ki'leah rarely traveled as far as Khaeil Andarrah, and then
    she had done so dressed and retinued as befitted her royal status, not
    garbed in filthy commoner's clothes.

    Despite their dubious welcome, Ki'leah felt drawn to these people, so
    different from her, to whom merriment came so easily.  

    Erich led her to a serving table near the fire pit, where a line had
    formed.  He guided Ki'leah directly to the front.  With a murmur of
    thanks, she took the plate Erich handed her and followed him to one
    of the long tables, where she hesitated.

    "We have no head table here, Princess," Erich said in a low voice,
    mistaking her pause for disdain.  "Eating with the common folk will
    have to do."  

    Ki'leah flushed.  "If I had wanted to eat at the head table tonight, I
    would not be here.  That life is behind me now."  

    "Perhaps."  

    She opened her mouth to offer him a tart reply, but he had turned to
    speak with two huntsmen who had been awaiting an opportunity to
    approach.  They spoke in urgent tones too low to betray their
    conversation.  At length one of his companions nodded in her
    direction.  Remembering Ki'leah, Erich returned to her side.  

    "Please, eat."  He motioned for her to take a seat at the table.  "There
    is a matter I must attend, but I will return shortly."

    "Of course," she replied with a stiff smile.  

    He left with his men.  You are no longer royalty, Ki'leah reminded
    herself, striving not to feel offended—or afraid.  

    She set her plate on the table and sat down.  Gradually the seats
    around her filled until Ki'leah found herself packed elbow to hip with
    complete strangers.  She examined her plate of food and resisted the
    urge to gag at its mushy appearance and unidentifiable smell.  The
    bread off to the side she recognized, but she balked at the whitish-
    grey lump that lurked in the center of the dish.  She examined it more
    closely to discern its nature.  Plant or animal?  Was it safe to eat?  

    Nothing in her nineteen years of cultured culinary experiences had
    prepared her for this.  Never had she seen something so thick, pasty
    and disgusting attempt to pass itself off as food.  She turned to the
    larger grey lump nearer the middle of the dish.  Possibly meat of
    some kind.  Bits of the boar roasting over the fire pit, she decided.  A
    creamy white sauce flooded the plate.  She screwed up her courage
    and poked the sauce with her forefinger.  Nothing moved.  She
    braced herself and jammed the finger in her mouth.  

    Perhaps because she had been so apprehensive of the taste, she was
    pleased to discover that the food was not half bad.  Suddenly very
    hungry, she turned her full attention to the business of eating.  She
    reached automatically for utensils and discovered with a shock that
    there were none.  She glanced at the other tables—no utensils there
    either.  She looked to her table mates, and discovered with horror
    that they ate with their hands and pocket knives.  

    Ki'leah did not realize she had been staring until the burly man to her
    left addressed her.  

    "Hullo, Miss.  I've not seen you 'round.  Name's Bork."  He grinned,
    exposing three missing teeth.  He had bushy dark hair that straggled
    well past his shoulders, shaggy eyebrows that met in the middle, and
    a wild beard that tumbled down his chest and ended perilously close
    to his plate.  Her stomach lurched at the sight of a few flecks of food
    trapped in it.  Despite his daunting appearance, his eyes were
    friendly.  

    Ki'leah smiled diplomatically.  "I am—" she paused.  It was a bad idea
    to reveal her true identity.  "I am Ki."  It was a safe alias.  Ki was, in
    addition to a royal prefix, a common feminine name among the
    peasantry.  

    This fact was not lost on her new friend, who leaned closer and
    whispered conspiratorially, "Right.  Lots of the lasses here are."  He
    sat upright and clapped her on the back.  "Welcome!  Now eat up!  
    You'll be needin' your strength for the dancin'."  With that, he turned
    back to his own lumpy food and seemed to forget altogether that
    Ki'leah existed.  

    With a thin smile she returned to her meal and the problem of how to
    eat it.  She did not own a pocket knife and her dagger had been
    taken, so stabbing the meat was out of the question.  She dared not
    pick it up with both hands; the mere idea violated years of instruction
    to the contrary.  Again she glanced at the men and women around
    her, who seemed unconcerned with etiquette in general.  They ate
    and laughed, enjoying the company of their tablemates, caring not
    whether food dripped onto their clothes, landed in their beards, or
    even—to her horror—flicked onto the frocks of others.  

    Her stomach loudly reminded her that she had not eaten since the
    night before.  Bravely she seized the piece of meat in both hands and
    took a bite.  One led to another and she quickly finished, which led to
    a new dilemma.  Her hands were sticky, and no wiping cloths were
    available.  Liberated from the restraints of court etiquette, she wiped
    her hands on her breeches and smiled.  Such a small thing would
    have scandalized the court.  For the first time since her flight from
    the Palace, she felt free.

    The feeling lasted only until she spotted a pretty blonde woman
    carrying a washing bowl and drying cloth down the line of men and
    women at the table.  Ki'leah glanced down at her only pair of
    breeches, now stained, and her face warmed with shame.  All the
    same she washed gratefully when her turn came, ignoring the fact
    that the sheer number of people seated on the bench had taken its toll
    on the cleanliness of the water.  

    Close on the heels of the washing girl came serving men and women
    with large steins of Sivan Ale.  Deafening cheers greeted the servers'
    arrival.  When a mug was set before her, Ki'leah peered suspiciously
    at the drink.  She had heard of Siva.  The "poison of the peasantry,"
    her mother called it.  However, that was not enough to stop Ki'leah
    from trying the drink.  A little like golden mud, she decided,
    wrinkling her nose as she braved a sip.  It tasted much better than
    she had expected; the Siva was smooth on the tongue and warmed
    her from throat to toes.

    When the meal ended Ki'leah rose, mug in hand, to locate the only
    person she knew.  With a sinking heart, she realized that she had not
    paid attention to where Lord Erich had gone.  To complicate matters
    further, the men, women and children of Cel'velahd had begun to rise
    and mill around.  At the far side of the clearing, people hastily cleared
    scraps and pots from a permanent raised platform to make way for
    four musicians to set up their instruments.  Others threw more wood
    on the fire pit until a bonfire flared, chasing a few squealing children
    out of reach and making shadows of the figures farthest from the
    light.

    She had little chance of finding Erich now, so Ki'leah drained her
    mug and edged away from the festivities.  

    "More Siva?" a passing serving girl asked brightly.

    Ki'leah held out her mug and managed a weak smile of thanks before
    the girl moved on.

    A long swallow later, Ki'leah felt a little better, if still out of place.  
    She suspected there were better ways to pass the time than waiting
    for Erich to find her.  The musicians struck up a lively tune and the
    dancing began, but they were not court dances and she did not know
    the steps.  She could not join in the conversations around her;
    although these people were her subjects, she knew nothing of their
    lives, worries, or interests.  Her parents had seen to that.  Where is
    Erich? she wondered with a flare of irritation.

    She felt keenly her separation from these people.  The differences
    that divided her from them were too great.  The nagging feeling that
    she did not—could not—fit in swelled to certainty, and she wanted
    nothing more than to escape, to ride hard away without looking back.

    But they had her horse.  And her few belongings.  There was also the
    matter of where exactly she would run to.  She would not recognize
    the way out of the clearing, never mind the stables or the road.  

    "Siva, miss?"

    With a heavy sigh, she held her mug out for another fill.

     *      *      *

    "Enough, Jahven!" Ki'leah laughed, reeling away from the circle of
    dancers for the tables lining the clearing.  Thankful for the steady
    hand at her elbow, she flashed her attractive blond partner a smile.  "I
    fear I have no talent for this dance.  I may have to sit out the next set
    or your feet will suffer a dire fate indeed!"

    Jahven chuckled.  "My feet have earned their just reward, my lady.  I
    am a poor teacher."  

    He led her to an empty bench and settled beside her.  With shouts of
    greeting, their new neighbors pressed mugs of Siva into their hands.  

    "Tomorrow!" called out the man to Ki'leah's left, holding up his mug
    in toast.

    "Aye, tomorrow!" echoed the men and women crowding the table as
    they toasted and drank deeply.

    Ki'leah and Jahven followed suit, although both the custom and the
    purpose eluded her.  She had assumed, from the frequent toasts, that
    the evening's festivities were held in honor of her impending nuptials
    to the King of Sahtamor.  However, what "tomorrow" had to do with
    an event set to take place almost a fortnight hence remained a
    mystery.

    "What happens tomorrow?" she asked in a low voice when the others
    had resumed their conversations.

    Jahven's look of surprise quickly blurred into comprehension.  "I
    forgot—you are not from our city.  Lord Erich and a chosen few
    leave at dawn for a journey of great significance to us, perhaps even
    to all of Si'vad.  It is customary to feast the travelers well before they
    go."

    Ki'leah flushed hot at her error.  Of course they would not feast a
    wedding that had not yet taken place.  "Where are they going?"

    He shrugged.  "That is known to only a few."

    She frowned.  "Does the Lord of Cel'velahd commonly leave his city
    unattended for such journeys to unknown destinations?"

    "I leave my city in capable hands, my lady," a familiar voice assured
    her.  

    Flustered, she turned.  There stood Lord Erich, a look of amusement
    in his grey eyes.  Her flush deepened.

    The men and women around her noticed him.  Another, more
    vigorous round of toasts ensued.  When the "Tomorrows" and "To
    Lord Erichs" ceased, Ki'leah replied quietly, "Of course, my lord.  I
    only meant—"

    "No matter."  He dismissed her explanation with a wave.  "My
    thanks, Jahven, for keeping our guest company this evening."

    "It was my honor," Jahven replied, bringing Ki'leah's fingers to his
    lips.  

    Ki'leah smiled.  "I am certain your feet do not agree."

    Jahven laughed.  "An honor, my lady," he repeated firmly, then
    departed, leaving Ki'leah to Erich's company.

    "Well?" Erich prompted.  When she made no move to rise, he offered
    a hand.  She accepted gratefully; the vigorous dancing and too many
    mugs of Siva had left her a little dizzy.  He led her away from the
    table just in time to avoid another round of toasts.  They started
    across the clearing, weaving their way between groups of men and
    women clustered together in boisterous conversation and loud cheers.

    "I owe you an apology, Princess.  I meant to dine with you, but
    urgent matters took me away from the feasting for longer than I had
    anticipated."  He paused and glanced at her with undisguised
    amusement.  "Apparently you have fared well enough without me,
    although I suspect our supply of Siva is a little the worse for it."

    "Your people are good at keeping their mugs full and their toasts
    frequent.  I cannot imagine there is enough Siva in all of Si'vad to last
    this one night."

    "Never fear," he countered, smiling.  "We have enough Siva even for
    you, Princess."

    "My heart is eased."  

    Erich's laugh both surprised and pleased her.  He seemed more
    relaxed than he had earlier.  A small thread of hope stirred within
    her.  Perhaps she could make a life here.  And then another, bolder
    thought occurred to her.  She steadied her hold on his arm and
    prepared to take charge of her own fate.

    "Lord Erich, what is the occasion for this important journey of
    yours?"

    His smile faded; her heart sank.  She did not dare hope that he would
    give her an honest answer.  Her disappointment only grew as they
    walked on in silence.

    But again he surprised her.  Just inside the cover of trees encircling
    the clearing, he stopped.  "How much do you know of the politics of
    your land, Princess?"

    "Nothing," she answered bitterly.  The fact that she knew nothing of
    Si'vad, its people, and the countries that surrounded it had been
    another factor in her decision to leave her royal life behind.  "My
    parents have kept me sufficiently ignorant of anything that might
    actually be of use."

    He sighed heavily and raked a hand through his hair.  "That has been
    a matter of great concern to us of late," he muttered under his breath.

    "Us?"

    "Never mind."  He brushed aside the question with an impatient
    wave.  "What you wish to know—need to know—is this: a threat
    against the crown grows to the southwest, somewhere in Norr.  I
    and a few of my people leave at dawn to seek out and destroy this
    threat before it threatens our borders."

    Ki'leah was skeptical.  If something presented a grave danger to
    Si'vad, surely she would have heard rumor of it.  "What sort of threat
    is this that the people of Cel'velahd ride out when the Palace Guards
    do not?"

    Erich hesitated.  "The king has done what he must to aid our quest,
    but this matter is best handled in secrecy, not open warfare."  He
    gripped her elbow in an attempt to guide her forward.  "Come
    Princess, you must rest—"

    "Take me with you."  The suddenness of her request stunned them
    both.  When Erich did not immediately reply, she rushed on.  "Take
    me.  I have fled the palace and abdicated my responsibility as High
    Princess and heir to the throne.  The Palace Guards will ride across
    Si'vad in their attempt to drag me home and force me into marriage
    with the barbarian King of Sahtamor.  I have no place to hide where
    they will not wreak their wrath upon my protectors."

    She met his gaze and held it.  "If I am with you, I can travel far from
    here.  I will go where they dare not look.  Let me travel even as far
    as the borderlands and I will trouble you no further, only take me
    with you tomorrow."  She swallowed hard against the tears welling
    in her eyes.  She thought of Daelen and her heart ached.  "Please,"
    she finished in a whisper.

    He was silent a long time, considering her request.  "Whether you
    would forfeit your own life to live free of your birthright is up to
    you, but I cannot allow you to risk yourself in service of my quest.  
    Nor can I risk the lives of my people to protect you."

    "I would ask nothing more of you and your people than you would
    do for each other."

    "All the same, I will not stand before the king and explain why his
    daughter will never become Queen in his stead."  

    "I have already made that choice," she replied firmly.  "Even if I were
    to return home, my father would no longer recognize me as heir.  I
    am no longer High Princess, Lord Erich.  I am only Ki'leah.  Just let
    me ride with you for a little while, until I find a new life for myself."

    Her final plea lingered in the air between them.  She studied him.  
    What lay beneath his firm veneer of authority and determination?  
    What was he thinking?  Would he take seriously her impulsive
    decision to travel with him?  Should he?  After all, he knew no more
    of her than she of him.

    "What life, Ki'leah?" he murmured at last.

    She glanced away; a flush crept up her neck and colored her
    cheeks.  What life?  His question held no trace of malice or mockery,
    and yet the truth of it stung.  What life, indeed?  The sounds of
    laughter, music, and jovial toasts intruded upon her thoughts, serving
    as a fresh reminder that she, though once destined to be their Queen,
    would always remain an outsider to her people.  What life?

    "My own," she replied quietly.  Straightening her shoulders, she
    added with more strength than she felt, "My own life, patterned by
    my own design and woven with my own choices and mistakes."

    "You would trade your life of privilege and the responsibility of your
    birthright, everything you know, for only this?"  

    "I would."  No sooner had she said the words than she knew them to
    be true.  She would trade everything for the opportunity to live free
    from the bonds of tradition and the burden of her inheritance.  
    Everything.

    "Regardless of my decision, you will not return home?"

    "No."

    Erich nodded slowly.  He offered her his arm.

    "Come, Ki'leah.  The hour grows late.  I would be remiss in my
    duties as host if I did not see you to your quarters."

    She glanced at his arm, but did not take it.  "You have not answered
    my question."

    "I know," he replied simply, and waited.

    They stood locked in this silent tableau, he with arm offered and she
    with her arms crossed tightly over her chest, until at last, with a
    small noise of frustration, she gave in and slipped her hand into the
    crook of his elbow.  He chuckled softly.  

    They did not speak again until he had led her up through the maze of
    lighted catwalks and bridges to the little room where she had
    awakened that morning.  At the door, he tilted her chin to face him.

    "I will consider your request, Princess, although I warn you that the
    life you are so eager to leave behind has not prepared you well for the
    life you would face in the borderlands.  You may find the world
    outside the palace walls far less attractive from this side of them."

    The gravity of his tone sent a shiver of fear down her spine, but she
    was determined.

    "I cannot undo what I have done."

    He nodded curtly and released her.  "So be it.  You shall have my
    decision in the morning.  Until then, sleep well, Princess."

    With a smooth bow, he left her.  She watched until he blended into
    the darkness of the forest.  Then, hands shaking, she closed the door
    and sank against it, already fearing his answer.  

    Patterned by my own design.  Alone in her room, the words came
    back, mocking her resolve.  Already her fate rested not in her hands,
    but in another's.  But not for long, she promised as she lay down on
    the straw mattress.  She would make her own way in the world,
    with or without Erich's assistance.
~ Chapter One ~
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