"Here we are,"
Jaenyth sighed. "Greenvale."
"Thank Ariel. I'm beat," said Belden. He stretched in the saddle and groaned as his back creaked.
"Getting old on me, Mirtala?" "I'm not old. My back still hurts, and it's your fault."
"My fault?" she asked in a wounded tone. "Why is it my fault?"
"I knew Silverwing would have to fly Glori down. eve been training him for months. But nobody told me I'd have to chase you all over field and hill and valley."
"I thought it would be more fun that way. At least you caught me."
He smiled at her. "Well, it was fun. I wonder what those poor farmers thought."
"I don't know. Come on, race you to the gates." She leaned low ova the neck of her horse and urged him into a gallop. Glori chirped a challenge at Silverwing and sped toward the towers, a bright streak of gold in the afternoon sunlight.
Greenvale Castle stood in the center of a nearly round meadow surrounded by a ring of oaken forest. Willows trailed lacy green fingers across the mirrorlike surface of the lake beside the castle. The meadow was dotted with daisies and small yellow flowers. A group of deer bounded for the safety of the woods, startled by the sudden appearance of the pair of horses.
The castle was made up of four towers of varying heights and diameters, grouped together in a rough L-shape and joined by a white-roofed stone building. Ivy crawled up the walls. On the top of one of the towers was a bronze weathervane in the shape of an eagle, and the faded remains of the Maran family banner flapped from a pole atop another tower. No smoke curled from the many chimneys, no voices hailed the riders as they approached.
Jaenyth raced for the gates, hearing Belden close behind her. His horse pulled up alongside hers, but she fought to keep her lead. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Belden move. He was...No, he wouldn't dare-
He did. Flipping from the saddle in one of his characteristic acrobatic maneuvers, he caught her around the waist on his way past and dragged her off her horse. She shrieked briefly as they both plunged into the lake. Though it was summer, the water was quite chilly as it soaked instantly through her leathers.
"Eee-yah!" exclaimed Belden, thrashing to the surface. "Cold! By the stars, that's cold!" His long brown hair was plastered to his head and a water lily was draped over one shoulder.
"No, really?" Jaenyth managed as she treaded water, teeth chattering. "I wouldn't have noticed." She cupped her hands and splashed him in the face, catching him with his mouth open.
"You'll pay for that, elf-girl," he grinned, swimming purposefully towards her. She dove, splashing him again as she kicked for shore. Glori and Silverwing chirped cheerfully as they wheeled overhead. Jaenyth turned to look for Belden, but he grabbed her ankle and hauled her under again. She flung her arms and legs around him and kissed him until they nearly drowned.
Somehow, they made their way to the grassy bank and collapsed, laughing. The wind was even colder than the water had been, but the sun warmed them quickly. The two drakes settled beside them, twining their necks together. Silverwing scolded Belden, who sat up long enough to shake the water from his hair, spraying both drakes. Glori squeaked in dismay, which set Jaenyth to giggling. She had time to reflect that she giggled much more since she became an elf than she ever had as a human, then Belden jumped on her and went for the backs of her knees, where she had always been extremely ticklish. She yelped and tried to roll away, but he sat on her.
"Belden! No! Stop it, I'm warning you." She laughed crazily as he found a particularly sensitive spot.
"What if I don't?" he said, grabbing the other leg.
"You asked for it," she said, and expertly kicked him back into the lake.
Though the castle was empty of people, it remained well-stocked with supplies. Jaenyth rummaged in the kitchens while Belden built a roaring fire in one of the nicest guest bedrooms.
"What did you and Harry do to the east tower?" she asked, coming into the room with a huge platter heaped with food. Silverwing perked up immediately and flashed her what he thought was a winning smile.
"East tower?" asked Belden, chucking a pillow at Silverwing.
"It's a bloodbath. Parts of Overlord soldiers all up and down the stairs."
"Oh, yeah. We ran into a lithe resistance trying to rescue your cousin Lorilee from a Claani priest and his flunkies. I guess we should have cleaned the place up. There," he said, sitting back on his heels and looking at the fire. "That should do nicely."
"Perfect. The nights get cold this far north. Now, why don't you get out of those damp things before you catch cold? Though I do love the way the wet leather clings to your ass."
She flipped her tousled curls back and gunned impishly. "What? It's a nice ass, and you should be proud of it." She patted the ass in question. "Take off your clothes."
Belden gave a good impression of someone trying to look shocked. "A bit forward, aren't you?"
She pulled him against her and kissed him forcefully, running her hands freely over his body. "That's right. And you absolutely love it." She stepped back and pushed him toward the bed. "Now get yourself under those furs and open the wine. I'll be right back."
"Where are you going?"
She opened her pack. "That granddaughter of yours gave me a little present. Not exactly the sort of thing I would have chosen myself, but we might as well give it a try." She waved a bundle of satin and lace at him.
"Hurry up," he said, reaching for the laces of his jerking.
Jaenyth giggled again and went into the adjoining bathroom. She stripped off her damp riding clothes and toweled off. She brushed her hair until it was nearly dry, the chestnut curls hanging almost to her shoulders. The sun had left her hair gleaming with gold and copper highlights. She examined her elves features in the mirror, still amazed at her transformation.
When she finished dressing, she looked in the mirror again and was even more amazed. The camisole was a deep turquoise satin, trimmed in black lace. It emphasized her bosom dramatically. The matching garter belt was fastened to sheer black stockings. The satin panties were also trimmed in black lace. Elbow length black lace gloves and a turquoise satin choker completed the outfit.
"Bright Lady," Jaenyth said, staring at herself. It was certainly not something she would have bought, but now that she had it on, she had to admit that Onyx was right. It looked stunning.
She opened the door and stood framed in the doorway.
Belden was sitting in the wide bed, a bearskin coverlet pulled halfway up his chest. He turned his head as the door open, and froze as if he'd been turned to stone. His eyes darkened in appreciation. "Oh, Jaenyth."
"Do you like it?" She crossed the room and stood at the edge of the bed, hands on her hips, shoulders back.
He opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He swallowed and tried again. "Yes. Yes, I like it very much. You're beautiful."
She slid under the covers and they embraced. Satin and lace whispered against skin. With knowing fingers and gentle kisses, they explored each other, finding the secret places that brought such pleasure. It was as if they had been designed for each other, Jaenyth Thought as Belden slowly undressed her. In a way, they had been. Ariel had given Them new forms that went together perfectly.
They kissed and caressed until the fire in the fireplace burned low and the fire in their bodies burned high. Jaenyth rose up, swinging one long leg over Belden. She reached down and guided him. She moaned softy as she settled down atop him and felt him fill her completely. They moved together again and again, the pace smooth and sure.
From elsewhere in the castle came a sudden echoing bang, as of the great doors being flung open. A man's voice called out, "Hello! Anyone home?"
Jaenyth gasped. "Who's that?" She started to get up.
Belden made some sound, probably meaning that he didn't care if it was the Emperor himself. He gripped her waist and rolled over, pinning her. She wrapped her legs around him, realizing that she didn't care if it was the Emperor either. They had more important doings to do right now. She raised her hips to meet his rapid thrusts, biting his shoulder as They finished together in a blaze of passion.
They lay for a few moments without speaking, breathing hard. Finally, Belden rose and kissed her forehead. "Now we see who's here," he said, nibbling on her ear.
"Mmm," Jaenyth replied, stretching lazily. "Maybe they'll go away."
"Come on," Belden said, swatting her rump. "It could be trouble, you know."
She climbed out of bed and pulled on a deerskin tunic, leggings, and boots. Belden, already dressed, tossed her swordbelt to her.
They headed downstairs cautiously, elves ears alert for signs of the intruder. Belden paused, then nodded in the direction of Lord Sebastian's study. Jaenyth strode boldly to the door and opened it. She was still the Countess of Greenvale, by birthright if no longer in name.
The study was a mess. Dried blood was splashed all over the deep brown carpet. A semisolid puddle of sludge pooled around the robes of a C'laani priest. The crumpled body of a platinum-haired half-elf lay near the fireplace. Jaenyth vowed silently to have the whole castle cleaned before the new moon. She couldn't leave her home in this condition.
The intruder stood in the center of the study, looking at the bodies in a kind of morbid fascination. He was a young man, fairly tall and well-built, wearing rust-colored velvet trousers, leather boots, and a maroon velvet doublet over a shirt of cream-colored silk. A dark brown cape with a cream lining was slung over one shoulder. A fancy rapier and matching knife hung at his waist. His hair was a rich golden blond, wavy, pulled back in a shoulder-length ponytail and tied with a strip of red leather. He wore sideburns and a small moustache. His face was handsome, the features sensual and aristocratic. He had dark eyes, mysterious dark eyes that widened in surprise as the door opened.
The elves and the young man stared at each other. There was something familiar about him, but Jaenyth couldn't quite identify it. She didn't think she'd met him before, but he reminded her of someone.
"Pardon me," he said, "I didn't know anyone else was here." His voice was low and almost sultry, the rhythm of speech familiar. He moved with the lazy, insolent ease of a panther.
Belden drew in a sharp breath and squeezed Jaenyth's hand. She glanced at him, puzzled.
"I was looking for Madelynne Maran," the young man continued. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you."
"Madelynne doesn't live here anymore," Jaenyth said. "Perhaps I can help you. I'm her sister."
The young man had stepped forward and extended a hand, as if to introduce himself. At ha words, he faltered and pulled his hand back halfway. "You're Jaenyth?" Surprise and a touch of alarm filled his voice.
"Yes. Don't let the elves features fool you; I was gifted with this form by Ariel." She smiled reassuringly at him, but he only drew back farther. "Who are you?"
"Then you must be Belden," he said, ignoring her question. "I seem to have come at a bad time. Excuse me."
"Wait," said Jaenyth. "Are you a friend of Maddie's?"
"I know who you are," said Belden. His voice was ice-cold. He slowly drew his sword, which flared with silver light.
"And I know you. You killed my father," the young man said.
Jaenyth stomped her foot and glared at her beloved. "Will you knock off the melodrama and tell me what the hell is going on?"
"Hell is right," he replied grimly. The flames dancing along Arelon's blade reflected in his eyes. A silver star blazed on his brow.
The young man turned to Jaenyth and smiled. "I know we've never met," he said, laughter bubbling just below the surface of his words, "but don't you recognize me, Aunt Jaenyth?"
She actually felt herself go pale. "Madelynne's son," she whispered. She could see it now. The blond hair, sensual features, the patterns of speech and movement, were all Madelynne's. The eyes were Flagg's, shadowed and filled with dark glee.
"Allow me to introduce myself. Warren Flagg Maran, Count of Greenvale, at your service." He swept her a mocking bow.
"He sounds like Harry," Belden muttered in elves, advancing a step.
"Why, thank you, Sir Kaylaros," Warren responded, also in elves. "I will take that as a compliment."
"Not Count of Greenvale. It is bad enough that you wear my father's name, but you will never hold this castle," Jaenyth said, horror and dread replaced with anger.
"Pax, Auntie. I'm just looking for my dear mother. I thought she might have come here. I don't want the castle. Yet."
"Say the word, Jaenyth, and he's on his way to meet his father." Belden stood tense, in a combat-ready pose that Jaenyth had come to recognize. She knew he was only holding back because of her sense of family loyalties. And this intruder, demon or not, was still Madelynne's son. The son of her sister, the sister who had betrayed her and tried to kill those she loved. The sister that had killed their father. The sister who gave herself willingly to the Dark Queen.
"Do it," she said.
Belden moved like the wind. His first blow struck almost before his foe realized it was coming. Arelon slashed open his scalp but rebounded off bone. There was a blinding flash and a billow of smoke that sent Belden and Jaenyth reeling back. Thin black blood spilled down Warren's face. He howled in anger and pain, and his howl was the cry of a demon.
Through the haze of smoke, Jaenyth saw his form change. Seams ripped as his shoulders broadened and arms lengthened. Claws ripped through the ends of his fingers; He howled again and raised his hands to his twisted, tortured face. His eyes glowed yellow. Jaenyth darted in and thrust her sword at the demon shape. The point pierced the furry hide. A clawed fist swung and connected, knocking her against the wall. Ribs cracked. He loomed over her, a creature of nightmare, somewhere between man and demon. She stabbed him again, though the movement caused her ribs to grind together. He reached for her with one misshapen paw.
Silver fire flared behind the demon shape. From her angle, she saw Arelon rise and descend in a swift, deadly arc. Warren shrieked in inhuman agony as the shining blade ripped across his back.
He whirled to face Belden. "Not this time, elflord," he said in a deep, grating voice. "Not this time!" The air around him shimmered, like air over a fire, and he was gone.
Jaenyth groaned. Belden dropped to his knees beside her, concern etched deeply in his face. She reached up and touched his cheek.
"Are you badly hurt?" he asked.
"Not bad," she said, poking cautiously at her wounded side. "You?"
"No. He got away, though, damn him. I hate it when they disappear like that."
"Belden," Jaenyth said, suddenly thoughtful. "He was looking for Maddie. What could have happened to her?"
They looked at one another in silence. Finally Jaenyth shook her head. Sister dear had long since proven that she was an expert at taking care of herself.
"Well, at least we learned one thing. I always knew Madelynne would have bratty kids."