Which world is his? The loneliness he knows or where love resides?
A spiritual quest throws Bard, naked and alone, from his world to the desert Sahara. Each grueling step through the shifting sands only add to his questions and confusion. What did the Seven Guardians mean for him to learn in this strange place? How would he find a way home?
Keeping her personal hopes tucked away, Kaelea retreats into researching fey texts, searching for a clue–for anything to protect her clan from an ever-present evil. The appearance of a stranger at the oasis is an unwelcome interruption. But her instant fascination with the man is even more distracting.
Evil’s power returns and the lust for revenge tears Bard from Kae. The blending of the beliefs and magicks of three cultures force a battle in the World Between Worlds.
Hotter than the desert sun, attraction blazes between Bard and Kaelea, but personal concerns and that ancient evil force them apart. Alone, and together, they discover answers, and their soulfire. But will it be enough to keep Bard in Kaelea’s worlds and at her side?
Enjoy Chapter One
His breechclout and leggings lay folded beneath a scrubby bush.
He had cleansed his body in the icy, snow-melt waters of the stream.
The circle of power had been cleared and outlined with colored stones laid out in a precise pattern. The worn, tattered blanket—the only earthly item allowed within the dream circle—was spread north to south to follow the path of the sun. Used by the fathers of his fathers, the blanket carried the essence of every quest that had come before, and soon, would guide him to dream worlds, as it also bound him to the earth while his spirit sought answers.
Taking a swallow of water from a hollowed gourd, he rinsed his mouth and spat the tepid liquid on the dry ground. He turned in place to acknowledge the cardinal points, ending to the south where the first rays of sunlight sparkled across the flat horizon. He took two deep breaths, stepped into the circle and sat cross-legged on the blanket.
Slowing his breathing, he silently chanted to the sun, asking the Seven Guardians for passage.
William Bard Stonefeather, last of his line, faced the unknown and awaited his destiny.
Kaelea slipped into the tiny pantry when she heard voices approaching the kitchen. Tired of the celebration, and aching to return to the quiet of her scholarly investigations, she needed a little alone time before she faced the family gathering again.
Not that she begrudged her sister or her niece the joy of their joint announcements. The increase of the family with the coming births brought the family together for the happiest of celebrations, and she would welcome each child with love. But the growing family crowded her need for solitude.
Kae frowned as she carefully shut the narrow door, cocooning herself in dim light and the aroma of fresh herbs. The questions that had haunted her for days assaulted her in the silence. She hadn’t known about Nanceen’s pregnancy. As twins they had shared feelings and often knew how each other felt in extreme situations.
Nanceen had known when she had broken her arm a few years ago. How had she not recognized the flutter of life she now accepted as a faint communication from her twin’s unborn child? But she had missed the flow of Nanceen’s happiness filling her. Perhaps she did shut herself away from others to much.
Leaning against the door, Kae hoped the intruders would leave soon so she could force herself from her self—imposed pantry exile and rejoin the family in time for the presentation of gifts. A tiny grin tickled her lips. She didn’t want to miss that part of the celebration.
The voices, a man and a woman, sounded close to the door. Kae held her breath. Don’t open the door. Their voices carried loud enough for her to hear without straining, and Kae tried to block out the discussion on the other side of the door. Eavesdropping was not something she approved of, accidental or not.
“So, Carrie, what is it you need to tell Nightshade? You’re not thinking about coming back to work, are you?”
Kae bit back a chuckle. Carrie, recently married into the family, had a rather sordid past—to some minds—as an exotic dancer. Kae hoped Nightshade’s teasing question wasn’t hitting the truth. Bryce would never be able to deal with other men ogling his wife’s body.
Kae didn’t blame him a bit.
A tiny bite of jealousy made her wince and she held back a deep sigh. She was deliriously happy for all those in her family who had found mates. It just wasn’t in the stars for her to leave her solitary life. Trying to convince herself, she shrugged. She was happy as she was.
“No. Nothing like that. I wish it was something so easy.” The pain in Carrie’s muffled voice drew Kae’s attention and she realized her curiosity wouldn’t let her ignore the conversation—she would be an eavesdropper.
“Nightshade, I’m pregnant.”
The rustling sounds had to be the exuberant man enveloping Carrie in a hug. Her grin grew wide. Another child. The family was really growing.
“Carrie, honey, that’s wonderful. How does Bryce feel?”
“I haven’t told him yet.”
“Carrie. Shame on you, girlfriend. He should be the first to know.” Nightshade laughed. “Well, maybe the second—after you. This is wonderful.” A long pause stretched heavily before he continued. “Isn’t it?”
The silence drew out again until Kae reached to turn the knob and announce her presence, if only to end the uncomfortable waiting.
Undecided, she nibbled on her bent knuckle. Something was wrong. Terribly wrong.
“I’m twelve weeks pregnant, Nightshade.”
“Three months. That’s…”
As she imagined Nightshade doing, Kae mentally counted on her fingers.
He cleared his throat. “That’s…”
“We’ve only been together about five weeks, Nightshade. What am I going to do?”
“The rape? Oh, honey.”
“That’s not the problem. I can deal with that. I think, for the most part, I have. And you know, I personally could never have an abortion.”
“Carrie, Bryce is such a loving man, I can’t believe he would condemn a child—or you—because of how the child was created. You know his past, how he was abandoned.”
Kae nodded. Nightshade was correct. Bryce would love the child without reserve. As would the rest of the Zeroun clan. Carrie had nothing to worry about.
“I know. But, Nightshade… the rapist… he’s trying to destroy the family. He’s the one who kidnapped Tommy. He’s tried to ruin Jaye’s business. Who knows what else he’s done, or may be planning even now.”
“This child’s father is the evil faerie who wants… wants…”
Carrie’s voice broke and her soft sobs tore at Kae’s heart. She pressed her palms to her cheeks. Not Feidhlim. Carrie carried a child fathered by the faerie who had tried to kill her brother and tried to send her and Nanceen into separate pasts. Oh, God.
“Carrie?” Nightshade’s voice dropped to a low vibrating pitch, commanding attention. “Listen to me, honey. You have to tell Bryce. Now. I know this family. There’ll be some anger, but it won’t be at you. There’ll be shock, but eventually everyone will stand behind you. Carrie, look at me. Carrie.”
Kae blessed Nightshade’s presence and his knowledge of her family. Correct in his estimations, Kae knew he would help Carrie, and once she told Bryce, a fierce circle of protection would form around her.
Kae sighed and closed her eyes. Part of her, some part she really hated to recognize, ached to leave the solitary life she’d recently chosen for herself. In the past she had been so gregarious, always ready for adventure and sensual delights. Why had that changed? Why couldn’t she find what she was looking for? She didn’t even know what she was looking for? She didn’t know, only that whatever it was lay beyond her reach.
“Carrie. We’ll get through this, you’ll see.”
“I’ll have to believe in your confidence, Nightshade. I don’t have any of my own.” Dejection and hopelessness thrummed through Carrie’s softly spoken words.
“Honey, let’s get you to a bathroom so you can wash away those tears. I’ll find Bryce—”
“No! Not during the party. I’ll tell him tonight. I promise.”
The conversation moved away and Kae took a deep breath. Eavesdropping always turned out to be a bad thing. You always found out something you didn’t want to know. Carrie needed to tell Bryce—and the family—about her pregnancy so they could protect her. Kae dreaded to think what might happen if Feidhlim discovered he had fathered a child, and a cold shudder traveled the length of her spine.
If Carrie didn’t say something soon, she’d have to face Bryce’s wife and admit what she’d overheard.
Pressing her ear to the crack around the door, Kae held her breath and listened. Only the distant sounds of the celebration drifted to her, so she cautiously opened the door, peered around the kitchen and stepped from the pantry.
Nanceen’s voice rose above the chatter from the living room. “Where’s Kae?”
“Coming,” she called. Squaring her shoulders and forcing her unwelcome knowledge to a place where she could think about it later, Kae pasted a smile on her face and hurried to rejoin the family celebration.
The silence of the surrounding desert filled Kaelea’s ears when she stepped from the portal into an oasis garden. Tall palms whispered as a gentle breeze stirred the long branches. A tiny waterfall, little more than a trickle, dripped over a path of smooth, golden stone to the surface of a deep, dark blue pool.
She hurried from the pool to an outcropping of smooth stones hidden by tall dunes. She paused before the entrance to the underground library; the iron gate rusted and twisted as if crushed by a giant’s hand. Kae took a long, deep breath of the hot, dry air and a fraction of the tension tightening her shoulders eased.
The rest of the family celebration had gone by in a blur. She’d watched Carrie, but except for a haunted dimness to her eyes, the woman gave no indication of the pain she carried inside her along with the new life. As soon as she had been able, Kae said her farewells and escaped back to the ancient Fey library. There might be something here to help in the coming battle. Feidhlim would stop at nothing to destroy her brother and her family. And now…
A new worry assailed her. What if the new babe carried the father’s evil? The age old battle of nature verses nurture remained unsolved. Kae paused before crossing the threshold into the library.
Nurture would prevail in Carrie’s case. It had to.
Tiny sand dunes shaded the corners of the shallow stone steps leading down to the library proper. No matter how the caretakers tried to keep the steps clean, somehow sand slipped past both the magic and the brooms. Luckily the ancient magic still kept the sand from the fragile books and scrolls hidden so long ago by the fey archivists of Alexandria. The recent discovery of the library hidden in the deepest desert seemed to have only marginally disturbed the protective spells.
Kae returned to the broad table where she’d spread the texts and parchments for her current project. She’d nearly completed reconstructing the history of Korin’s fairy folk and the ancient split with the gentry. The history would be part of her gift to Nanceen’s child—a complete heritage.
A small stack of scrolls lay to one side. The discovery of part of Iain’s faerie heritage had been a pleasant surprise. So perhaps Lara’s new child could also boast a complete family tree.
Kae sat and reached for a quill. She grinned at the archaic writing instrument. Using a computer might speed her compilation of research, but somehow it didn’t seem right. So she used a writing instrument of ages past to record those ages anew. After dipping the tip in a tiny pot of ink, she held the long feather over a sheet of newly made parchment.
What about the third baby, Carrie’s child? Tracing Feidhlim’s line as well would now be of infinite importance. Perhaps there would be a clue to—what? The nature of a child barely formed?
Or perhaps why the babe’s sire chose the path of evil.
Sighing, Kae lay the quill aside without making any notations, braced her elbow against the table and rested her forehead against one palm. If fear held Carrie’s tongue, how long should she wait before she brought the situation to light herself? This secret should not be hidden from her family.
The stroke of warm hands across her shoulders momentarily tightened her muscles further until the soft touch increased in pressure, paused and returned to knead the muscles at the base of her neck. “You are very tense, my love.”
The lilting, musical cadence of the voice delighted her ear.
“Did you not enjoy your family’s celebration?” The low tones, modulated to seduce, merely made her smile. Kae lay her palm over the hand that rested just under her ear.
“It was a wonderful gathering. I was just thinking about how much I need to do before the babies are born.”
The lean body behind her shifted and her friend pulled out a chair and slouched next to her. She glanced sideways and he straightened, reached for her hand, and stroked her fingers. “Would that you would allow me to give to you such a child.”
Kae chuckled and snatched back her hand. “Gowthaman,” she chided.
Elegantly shrugging his shoulders, he gave her a grin bright against his coffee-colored skin. She marveled at the slight angle of a broken tooth. Few Faerie would let such an injury mar their appearance. Along with the golden hoop high on one ear, he had a rakish, wild appearance. As if knowing the effect of his appearance, Gowthaman’s grin broadened and his dark brows lifted over chocolate brown eyes.
“You should not think so hard, my love.” He stroked one of his fingers under her eye. “You are tired, I can see it in your eyes. Come to bed and I shall sing to you of desire—”
Kae grasped his finger and shook it lightly before releasing the digit. “Stop that. I like you, Gowthaman, I really do.”
He sighed dramatically, so reminding her of Nightshade she had to bite back a grin. “I understand, my love. But, how can I not hope my presence at your side may change your delightful mind so you shall see me as more than a friend.”
His voice sang light and teasing, but a strange glint shone in the depths of his eyes. She’d seen the look before, in the days when she, too, took pleasure for pleasure’s sake. Now, the thought of a casual relationship, no matter how willing and attractive the partner, made a painful lump settle heavily in her stomach. She wanted more, and until she discovered what that more was, she would remain alone. It wasn’t a big deal.
“You never give up, do you?”
“I do not.” He stroked her cheek with a curled finger then leaned back in his chair. “One day, perhaps, I shall discover the key to your heart, my love.”
“I wish you wouldn’t call me that.”
Gowthaman bowed his head. “As you wish it to be, so shall it be, sweet one.”
“Not that either. Call me Kae—or don’t say anything to me at all.”
He dipped his head again in reluctant acknowledgement. “As you wish. Now, Kae, you must rest. I do not tease when I say you are tired. Your eyes express much to me.”
“I’m not so—”
“Ah, but you are, my… Kae. The eyes, they do not lie. Go, I will not permit you to return to the library until tomorrow.”
Kae narrowed her eyes and glared at Gowthaman. “What right—”
Innocence mixed with determination filled his expression. “By the right granted to the Guardian of the Fey Library of Alexandria.” He rested his palm flat against his chest. “The honor granted to me.”
“I understand you have much to study here, and much to discover. But, if you are fatigued, you may miss the smallest of important clues in your search for history.”
“I suppose you’re right.” To her horror, Kae yawned, eliciting a grin and soft chuckle from Gowthaman.
“See? Now go. If you do not wish to sleep, at least relax at the oasis. The cool waters may refresh you.” At her frown, he smiled softly. “There are none about. All have returned to their homes but for the two of us. Set personal wards if you wish, but I give you my word, I shall not disturb your peace.”
“That does sound wonderful, but there are so many documents…”
“That shall remain where they lay until the morrow. How long have these scrolls and texts lain in waiting for you? A single night will not matter. Do not make me ward the library. I do not wish to forbid you anything.”
Kae laughed at Gowthaman’s forlorn expression and leaned to plant a quick kiss on his cheek. His almond-shaped eyes grew wide and a shudder coursed through his body, but he remained still and tipped his head to one side.
“So, you think to turn me from my purpose, by distracting me with promises you don’t intend to keep? It shall not work, my sweet Kaelea. Not this time.”
“All right, I’m going.” Kae rose and scanned the crowded tabletop. There was too much she didn’t know.
Gowthaman stood beside her, gently grasped her shoulders, and turned her from the table. He marched behind her to the steps and gave a careful shove to keep her moving. She climbed three steps then turned.
Gowthaman chuckled and moved his long, graceful fingers in an intricate pattern. “It is not that I do not trust you, Kae.”
Testing his magic, Kae stepped down and encountered an invisible wall that oozed around her hand. She pushed and whispered a short phrase. The warding remained intact. When she glanced at Gowthaman, he stood with his hands resting at his hips, a tilted, half smile upon his face.
“The ward against your entering remains until the sun rises, Kaelea. As I shall remain here and not disturb your relaxation.” He bowed slightly. “I wish you the peace of the night, the pleasure of dreams, the rest of the weary, the power of my love.” Before he straightened, Gowthaman lifted his hand in apology, then peered at her from under his long, dark eyelashes.
Kae shook her finger at him, but grinned before turning to climb the remaining steps to the iron gate.
The painful jerking of his muscles on his return to full consciousness sprawled Bard face down on the hot sand. He groaned and, without lifting his head, gathered a handful of the burning grains and threw them to one side. The temptation to yield to frustration nearly tore a forbidden curse from his lips. Unwilling to sully the sacredness of his power circle with words, he pounded a fist against the ground.
He’d asked the Seven Guardians for passage, for a vision, an answer, even a question. He’d received nothing but the agony of a body held too long motionless and a mouth full of sand. Lifting his head slightly, he spit the dry grains from his mouth and licked his lips, trying to pull moisture to his mouth to ease the painful cracks. How long had he remained frozen in supplication?
With another groan, he flopped to his back and shielded his eyes against the glaring sun. Intense heat burned his tanned body so he tugged a corner of the blanket to cover the paler skin of his groin. A frown tugged his lips down and he opened his eyes behind the protection of his arm.
The sun, even the air was too hot. Even high in the desert mountains, the sun did not shine so fiercely. He lifted his arm slightly. The brightness surrounding him was different; the faint colors he was accustomed to had disappeared, replaced by a stark white glare.
His vision, then? Had the Guardians truly granted him…?
Bard sat with a jerk, blinked, and tried to see clearly through the intense glare. Instead of the scrub brush covered place of visions, bounded by the stream and the higher mountains, the entire world was now sand. White—gold and rising in dunes like waves upon an angry sea. A shimmer of heat rose from the earth, a visible tremor in the air disrupting his vision.
A hot breeze caressed his bare skin, leaving behind a gritty residue he couldn’t brush away. The powdery substance coated his tongue, filled his nostrils, and brought tears to his eyes. Bard struggled to his feet and wrapped the tattered blanket about his waist. There were some places it was better the strange sand did not infiltrate. A blast of the sandy air blinded him and he turned from the sun. With the wind at his back, the swirl of sharp, miniscule particles lessened, and after long moments of blinking behind the palm of his hand, he was able to peer about and study his surroundings.
This was like no vision he’d imagined, either in his own earlier seekings, or in the tales of the quests of his forefathers. Even when he’d been an active participant in those visions, there had always been a barrier, a veil that kept him apart from the world he looked upon. Unless the heat shimmer served that purpose now, there was no veil. Bard reached to the edge of where he imagined his power circle ended and met no resistance.
No confining force surrounded him.
What had the Guardians done to him? A rise of panic started just below his heart. Where in the name of the Seven was he? He scrubbed one hand over his face and winced at the scraping of minute particles against his skin. First, he needed shelter from the sand, else he would have no skin remaining upon his body. His dry chuckle rasped in his throat, scratching as the sand scratched his skin, reminding him of the need for water.
The shade of his hand was enough to allow him to squint into the distance. Nothing but sand rising and falling until reaching the blurred line of the horizon. Behind him was also sand. He turned to the side. More glittering dunes. Blowing out a long breath along with a prayer the Guardians grant him direction, Bard turned to face the final horizon.
His shoulders slumped and he gnawed on his dry lower lip. Sand.
Nothing but waves of sand. He spread his arms in supplication, straightened his spine, and threw his head back to stare into a sky so filled with heat the color was nearly leeched away.
Standing silent, frozen in supplication, Bard waited for a sign from the Guardians.
His arms shook from holding the unnatural position. His eyes burned from staring into the bright, cloudless sky. His thoughts turned inward to find—doubt.
Had the Guardians sent him to a place where they had no control, where he could not reach them? What was to be his fate? Was his destiny the end of his line here in some forsaken place—alone—unmourned—easily forgotten? Despair filled him and his arms lowered a fraction.
A soft sound, the slither of sand against sand halted his failure.
Something near him moved. With tense, short jerks, Bard lowered his arms and looked down. A creature, no larger than the giant biting flies of his homeland, burst from beneath the sand and scurried over his foot. The dry press of tiny, sharp nailed feet tickled and he bit back a chuckle. The creature, a rodent, paused in the shade cast by his body and carefully preened its large ears and miniscule pointed snout. Entranced by the dainty actions, Bard relaxed and watched and, for a brief moment, forgot the strangeness of his situation.
With a rumble rising through the soles of his feet, the dune shifted. The crest slid down around his ankles, startling the creature into a frightened dash across the moving sands.
Swinging his arms to maintain balance as the dune shifted, Bard slipped and slid into a valley nestled between three tall, windswept dunes.
Landing heavily on his back, he slid a few more feet before coming to rest. He winced as he moved, sand covered places where it definitely shouldn’t. He stood and shook, then brushed at his lower body with sandy hands. The clear sky mocked him as he rolled his eyes at the foolishness of trying to displace grit with sand.
Tiny prickles circled his foot. Before he kicked the irritant away, he looked down. The small rodent stood on its hind legs, pawing at his ankle. Once it gained his attention, the creature scurried away, weaving a zigzag path over the motionless sand.
About to dismiss the creature’s antics as insignificant, Bard jerked his gaze back to the shallow trail left through the sand. He stared and blinked twice. The path. The rodent scurried, leaped, and darted, leaving an odd pattern across the smooth sandy surface.
Bard shook his head in amazement. The father of his father’s father created the same design after a vision, and commissioned the woman who was to become his wife to weave it into a blanket. It was that blanket, or rather the dream of the weaving, that first led the old one to his life path. That blanket, aged and worn, now covered his loins. Bard sank to his knees and pressed his palms to the sand.
“My thanks.” The words rumbled from his dry throat. The Guardians granted him the way. He had no idea where that way would lead, but he would follow.
When he looked up, the small guide had disappeared, but even though the wind whistled between the dunes, no sand covered the zigzag path. The way before him remained clear, as clear as the intent of the Guardians. He would follow the winding path through the sand.
Confident now, he wrapped the blanket tightly about his hips and tied the ends in a thick knot.
The hot sand burned through the tough soles of his feet as he tried to keep his strides long, loose, and easy on the shifting dunes. His gaze alternated between the distant horizon and the rambling path he followed. He stopped once to turn and look behind him. Even as he watched, sand shifted to cover the creature’s path and fill his footsteps. If he desired to return the way he came, he would soon become lost in the repetitive dunes and featureless landscape.
Bard nodded once and his confidence grew. He turned back to the path, clear in the golden—white sands. He nodded again and tried to draw moisture to his parched mouth. Hopefully the guide’s path would lead him to water, for without the life-giving moisture, death would soon claim him. Chasing the debilitating thought from his mind, Bard cleared his throat and began a low chant, perfect in rhythm for pacing the sands, a chant to remind him of the unquestionable power of the Guardians. Water would be provided when the need was the greatest. In that great need, in the wisdom of the Guardians, he would find answers.
His steps faltered. Where in the five hells was he?