KEEPER

Chapter One

Sharp grit and stone dug into Amalia’s flesh as a rough hand pushed her to her knees. Her friends grunted their dissent at her side, their hands bound securely at their backs. They’d made it as far as the foot of the mountain pass before the men had ambushed them from the forest. Escaping from their tyrannical lord had given them a glimpse of freedom, and as the scant handful of the renegades wilted before their mysterious captors, Lia contemplated their fates and shuddered.

There was no question Lord Thaddai had learned of his missing servants and was furious, but the swiftness of this capture seemed beyond even Thaddai’s capability.

Even now from where she knelt she could make out the beginning of the path that would have led them through the mountains. They were so Gods-be-damned close!

Lia ground her teeth as she scoured the faces of the men responsible for their capture. She didn’t recognize any, which was curious. She knew the sight of Thaddai’s guards well.

“Lia,” Kolin admonished at her side, “don’t.”

She ignored him, eyes scanning the handful of men winding between the people she regarded as family. Her eyes settled upon a tall and solidly built man surrounded by several mercenaries. She’d found the leader. It was difficult to make out his features from where he stood, but she distinguished a strong profile. He had bronzed skin and dark blond hair that was short at the back and sides but long enough on top to fall to his eyes.

“Do you recognize him?” Lia whispered to Kolin and Marnie at her sides.

Her friends returned stunted shakes of their heads. Had Thaddai hired mercenaries to track them down? It seemed rash considering the bulk of their group was elderly or still in childhood. Lia knew he had been fond of Marnie, but none of them expected he would go so far as to have them tracked down.

Sensing inspection, the leader shifted, his eyes meeting hers with a subtle turn of his head. Lia flinched at his startlingly handsome features. He pulsed with a quiet intensity that was intriguing yet terrifying. His head cocked to the side as she held his gaze, and her stomach fluttered with uncertainty. She did not recognize him, though the way he carried himself told her this man undoubtedly believed himself worthy of recognition.

With a nod he left his men and walked toward her, eyes unflinching. Lia shifted back on her knees. Scarlet embellishment on the edges of his cloak flashed in her vision as he neared, adornment she had not noticed from afar. Her stomach lurched. Scarlet meant one thing – the Royal. She forced herself to blink the stinging from her dry, anguished eyes as her heart battered her breastbone.

He stopped before her and measured her silent rebellion. He was ridiculously striking with chiseled cheekbones and a full mouth. Dark blond pieces of hair fell along a strong brow, but the aestheticism of his appearance was inhibited by the calculation behind his cobalt eyes.

“Stand,” he demanded.

Lia swallowed her instinctive scowl and motioned as well as she could to her bound arms at her back. His eyes shone with a searing cold glint, but she gritted her teeth and refused to cower. Kolin shifted once more at her side. His nostrils flared a warning as he pleaded silently. Lia curbed her temper, then shuffled herself to a position where she could rise to her feet.

“What is your name?”

Lia’s answer was defiant silence. He responded with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes.

“I am Ilyas,” he stated.

Ilyas.

She blinked at the scarlet trim of his cloak and the pieces fell together.

Ilyas san Merin.

The Royal’s Right Hand and assassin, one of the most dangerous men in the world, was the man responsible for their capture.

“I see you know me,” he spoke with little inflection.

“I know of you,” she croaked through dry lips, “enough to know that my name makes no difference in the fate for which you have predestined me.”

A soft breeze swept along Lia’s skin, as if the gods were caressing her with misguided reassurance.

“It seems Lord Thaddai has misplaced several of his servants,” he began.

“How unfortunate for him.”

“Rumors of a revolt,” he continued with a tick of mirth tugging at his lips. “People missing along with relics.”

Relics? Lia quickly steadied her reaction.

“You don’t seem the type to play search dog for the likes of Thaddai,” she replied.

“True.” He made no attempt to hide his brief amusement. “This is where you try to convince me you’re not the escaped servants.”

“We are not servants,” she answered. “Servants work for wages. We were slaves, indentured through false crimes and corruption.”

Ilyas surveyed the group of Tribals herded around her.

“Choose three to return to Thaddai.” His eyes cut back to her. “The rest shall be set free.”

“…what?” Lia blinked.

“Make your decision.”

“Y-you can’t be serious!”

“Do I seem the type to jest?”

His play on her earlier words sent a wave of nausea rollicking in her gut. He was no more likely to jest about imprisonment than he was to play search dog.

“Would you prefer I choose?” He stepped close enough for his breath to skim her cheek. “Or perhaps I should take you all? I imagine Thaddai will be less than forgiving.”

Images of lascivious torture bled into her thoughts.

“No,” she whispered.

“Your time has begun.”

“You’re sending us back to certain death!”

He stared unmoving at her exasperation.

“You cannot do this! We are human beings! Not…chattel!” Her hands shook with indignation.

“Tick tick, greika.”

His tone caressed the tribal word for “grey” with a smooth resonance that momentarily startled her. Her pale grey eyes were her most distinguishing feature. They had now earned her a moniker from the most dangerous man in the world.

She swallowed the bile rising in her throat and turned to look at the people around her. Lia saw in their faces that they had heard Ilyas’ pronouncement.

She must choose.

The eyes of several older men and women scarred from hard labor stared back amid a scattering of teens and children. Every one of them had a reason for escape. To send any back would be a death sentence.

“I’ll go,” Kolin chimed, and she spun around.

“Kolin?” She breathed in question.

“I’ll go,” he repeated.

At his side, Marnie raised her chin. “I’ll go.”

Lia turned to her friend, shocked to hear the declaration. Of all of them, Marnie had suffered the most at Thaddai’s hands.

“That’s two,” Ilyas tolled. “Who will be the third?”

Lia looked to Kolin, the closest and dearest friend she’d ever had. He knew her reason for escaping. He understood her desperation. He offered a resigned smile that threatened to shatter her heart into a thousand pieces. He would forgive her if she left him, but she would never forgive herself.

“I’ll be the third,” she rasped.

Ilyas signaled to his men, and with quick precision the trackers began herding the remaining Tribesmen into a group.

“You said you would set the rest free,” Lia hissed.

“For their safety they will be released in a more remote area,” he answered and met her sharp glare. “No harm will come to them.”

More of Ilyas’ men came forward to get Kolin and Marnie to their feet. The three were escorted into the woods where the shadow of a caravan waited. Their prison transport was a wooden cart with heavy linen drapes and barred walls.

The clatter of the sliding gate startled Lia from her thoughts. Ilyas nodded to his men to hustle them inside.

“One and two,” he motioned to Marnie and Kolin.

Lia focused on her breathing as she watched her friends being herded into the prison.

“And three,” he said, an irritating taunt lacing his tone.

“Amalia,” she muttered. “My name is Amalia. Do you remember the names of all those you’ve murdered?”

Something flickered behind his eyes, but his gaze quickly slid back behind a mask of indifference before Lia could guess at its meaning. Ilyas closed and locked the gate, then turned to bark orders to his men.

“We travel without interruption.” He paused for a moment seeming to amuse himself with this next thought as he turned to his new prisoners. “Know that any chance of escape will be at your peril.”

Lia ground her teeth as she watched him turn his back and walk away. It was tempting to wallow, but she vowed to remain stoic, if not for herself then for her friends. Marnie flashed a halfhearted smile in her direction, and Lia met it with one of her own.

“I am so sorry,” Lia whispered to them both.

Kolin and Marnie stilled for a moment, their expressions wracked with conflicting emotions.

The sudden lurch and rumble of the cart’s wheels stole any of their responses. The bars dug into her back as she propped against them. Her arms ached from being bound, and her stomach gurgled angrily with anxiety.

“What do you think he’ll do to us?” Marnie quietly questioned.

Of whom she spoke, Ilyas or Thaddai, Lia was uncertain.

“I don’t want to think about it,” Kolin murmured.

“I heard rumors,” Marnie continued, “rumors about magic.”

“Marnie,” Kolin warned.

“What rumors?” Lia coerced.

Marnie blinked regretfully as she deliberated her next words.

“Thaddai…” She began but stilled.

Lia’s expression softened at her friend’s tone. She’d often been the one to tend to Marnie after Thaddai’s attentions left her bruised and battered.

“He was obsessed with magic,” she continued.

“Most Lords are,” Kolin murmured.

“Thaddai was convinced he had found a way to use magic to overthrow the Royal.”

“How?” Lia whispered.

“I don’t know. All I know is that he had managed to get ahold of some sort of book.”

Thaddai owned a massive library of books and artifacts, a trove of knowledge and history that drew many from far and wide.

“He’d still need a Keeper,” Lia murmured. “He could have all the magic books and trinkets in the world, but they’re useless without a Keeper.”

It wasn’t that long ago that the Royal rose to power because of her Keepers, people who were rarely seen and kept under strict guard. They were a rare commodity nearly hunted to extinction out of fear and greed, for a Keeper was the link between the magic and a magician. Magic was not inherently bestowed to a magician, but instead channeled by a Keeper, a person trained in the art of runes and the history of magic. Keepers were the pool and Magicians were the siphon, and when a Keeper was bound to a Magician it was a partnership for life.

Amalia had inklings about her nature from a very young age. Stolen moments with unguarded texts in Thaddai’s library had been her saving grace. In her quest for knowledge, she realized the horrific fate that awaited her if her secret were revealed. She would be bound to another against her will and forced to be at their beck and call for the rest of her life. If Thaddai were ever to find out what she was, he would rape her and enslave her in an instant.

It was why she escaped in the first place, to find a cloistered hideaway where she could live in unencumbered peace. But now…now…she was headed back into the belly of the beast.

She had a sudden urge to laugh. Her future had always retained a bleak outlook. This was just a hitch in the plan. She would handle this and whatever followed. She would.

Mind resolved, her tense limbs relaxed amid the lull of the cart. Kolin and Marnie murmured softly to themselves, and Lia allowed her thoughts to drift away to dreams of what-could-have-been. Finally, exhaustion claimed her and she fell into a dead slumber.